Saturday, 7 January 2017

Wild Card Weekend !

Well, a whole regular season has gone by since the last O2W column and I figured now was as good a time as any to make the next entry. This past regular season has been one of the most unpredictable in recent history, and there have been no shortage of coaching casualties [none of the teams that made coaching changes, made the playoffs] and a new face in the playoff race emerged over in Oakland, and the usual suspects filled out the rest of the slots. Although who saw Rookie Dak Prescott guiding the Cowboys to an 11 game win streak which started in week two, or that last year’s SuperBowl competitors would fail to gain a playoff berth.

Game 1 – Oakland Raiders vs Houston Texans
Well, this is one way to make your playoff debut, but ill-timed injuries to both Starting and back up QB leave the team with the possibility to be one and done.  That said Houston gave up more points in the season than they managed to score so it won’t exactly be a cakewalk for them either [playoff games never are].
These two teams locked horns back in Mid-November, which saw the Raiders walk away with the victory on that occasion, as Derek Carr had a game winning 4th quarter as he rallied for two unanswered TDs. It should be noted however that the game was played in Mexico City which might have affected the effectiveness of some players with the altitude effects. Shortly, I’ll take a look at the 3 players from each side that could hold the keys to victory for their team but first its’ time to compare the two teams and how they ranked across the league.
Oakland managed to have the 6th best combined offence, they struggled on defence coming in at 26th, while their passing game was 13th and rushing game graced the top 10 at 6th. Houston, meanwhile struggled all year on offense coming in at 29th, but locked down other teams with the 1st ranked defensive line, their passing was a weak link on O at 29th and rushing kept them in contention at 8th overall.
For Oakland, Latavius Murray, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack could be the difference for Oakland winning this game.
Latavius Murray RB managed to gain nearly 800 yards from just shy of 200 attempts averaging 4.0 yards per carry and scoring 12 TDs on the ground. Murray also managed 33 pass receptions for 264 yards averaging 8.0 yards per completion although he failed to score a TD from a pass. Murray isn’t the best running back in the league, but he is very useful to Oakland’s scheme and can be effective against the Texans as they gave up close to 100 yards per game on the ground.
Amari Cooper WR was a favourite of QB Derek Carr [Broken Leg] and managed 83 receptions for 1153 yards at an average of nearly 14.0 yards per catch and he crossed the plain 5 times. Houston gave up 202 yards per game through the air and with such yardage available; Cooper will be able to gain separation to turn a down into a huge gain. Cooper also scored the Raiders’ lone score in their regular season finale defeat to outgoing champions Denver.
Khalil Mack DE is in his 3rd season now and was arguably the defensive leader on the field as he managed 73 combined tackles [19 assisted] for 11 sacks, 3 passes defended, and one pick six [week 12 vs Carolina].

For Houston, Lamar Miller, Nick Novak and Whitney Merciless could hold the teams hope to a W this weekend.
Lamar Miller RB carried 268 times resulting in 1073 total yards [4.0 yards per carry] scoring five times. Miller isn’t dynamic, but he keeps pressing forwards which always gives the rest of his offensive line to get the rest of the first down distance required, and with Oakland surrendering 118 yards per game to the rush, there could be plenty of holes for Miller to plug and keep the legs moving and plenty of first downs will be found.
Nick Novak K is pretty solid when it comes to Field Goals and this game has the potential to have a lot of 3rd down stops, ensuring extra chances for the kickers on both teams, but I feel Novak is more likely to clinch the game from midfield than Janikowski [Oakland] who might have that much gas left in the 38 year old legs.
Whitney Merciless, OLB has been quite without mercy on opposing QBs as he set a career 2nd best with 7.5 sacks from 53 combines tackles [17 assisted]. Merciless also swatted a ball down and forced a fumble. With JJ Watt unavailable for much of the season, Merciless stepped up his game to be trouble for opposing teams, and with Oakland’s starting, and back up QBs side-lined for this game, he could already be thinking of how many times he can rush the QB which should yield positive results.  
Over in the NFC sees The Giants travel to Lambeau to battle with the Packers on Sunday night.
The teams compare like this, as the Giants had the 25th offense, 10th defense, 17th passing game and their rush game ranked at 29th. The Packers managed the 8th overall offense, 22nd ranked defense, 7th ranked passing and their rushing was 20th.

The keys for the Giants to win lie with Victor Cruz, Rashad Jennings and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie.
Victor Cruz WR could extra benefit this weekend as the Pack allow just under 270 yards per game through the air, and although not the best Receiver on the staff, most certainly can find the biggest gains when the team needs them the most, as evidenced by his 15 yards per reception and he tallied 39 catches for 586 yards and scoring once. Cruz’ longest reception on the season was 48 yards . Cruz also was hyping up his team’s chances and stated that ‘The Patriots don’t want to face us’ which could only be possible in the SuperBowl. Could the stars be aligning for Giants-Patriots 3? Stay tuned over the next few weeks to find out.
Rashad Jennings RB , With the Packers shedding just 95 yards per game to the rush, there won’t be many opportunities for Jennings to really open the jets, but he will still be solid enough to keep the Pack guessing, which in turn should open more holes in and around scrimmage. Jennings carried for 593 yards from 181 carries at an average of 3.3 yards per carry, which doesn’t sound a lot, but eventually defences get tired with these kinds of play. Jennings also scored three times.
Dominque Rogers-Cromartie CB is just part of a dynamic defensive unit which could be stronger if Jason Pierre Paul is able to suit up, but DRC made 49 combined tackles [8 assisted] registering 1.0 sack, 21 pass defences, six INTs and forcing a fumble. 

For the Packers, look to Jordy Nelson, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Cristine Michael.
Jordy Nelson WR caught 97 passes for 1257 yards at an average of 13 ypc scoring 14 TDs. Nelson has been consistent the past few years, and has gone over 1200 yards in each of the previous 3 campaigns. If you give Nelson an inch, he’ll turn on the jets and make a huge gain. With the Giants giving up 250 passing yards per game, Nelson will need no second invitation to make charges downfield.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix FS It feels like he’s been around for a long time, but is only in his 3rd season. Dix managed 80 combined tackles [18 assisted] half a sack, 7 pass defences [batted balls] (career high) five INTs [career high] at an average of 15 yards per interception [75 yards]. When the gets to Eli Manning [i.e. offensive line, not the situation], Dix could have a huge afternoon in which he can grab stray passes, or makes plays to break up the pass attempts.
Christine Michael RB isn’t being targeted for his rushing attempts; he could have a huge role to play on special teams. Michael is a good change of pace kick returner, who averaged over 20 yards per return when he got to Green Bay carving out a potential new role for him, as well as occasional rushing plays. Michael could carve out a decent starting position after the Giants have scored to get them a good chance to score right back.

Also this weekend the Lions travel to Seattle, who are a much different team at home and in the other game of the weekend, the Dolphins tackle the Steelers in a highly anticipated battle and a much needed return to the playoffs for Miami, while the Lions perhaps hit form at the right time and have more momentum on their side, despite their failure to clinch the divisional crown.