#NFL, American Football, NFL, US Sports

Reaction to Kaepernick proves something is amiss

Last Saturday night, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er’s quarterback chose to take a seat, if you will, in protest against the oppression of black and other minority groups in American society. Kaepernick – who is biracial and was adopted and raised by white parents – outlined his position clearly stating “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.

Kaep Sitting

Kaepernick sat for the anthem drawing mixed responses.

He went on to further state that “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” While it is often risky for us, as outsiders, to cast judgment on American society the documented events of the last three years give weight to Kaepernick’s comments.

The problem it seems, based on the response in America is that Kaepernick had the temerity to disrespect the anthem and by some extension, the centuries-old respect for the military enshrined in ‘Old Glory’. Incidentally, the US anthem has often come in for criticism due its racist overtones, and like all anthems was a product of its time.

Star Spangled Banner

The Star Spangled Banner is a product of its time.

The national flag can mean many different things to many people. The recent 1916 commemorations here had some commentators examining the symbolism of the flag, and perhaps more importantly, how it is actually viewed by regular citizens. For some, the tricolour is sacred and a powerful national symbol and to others, who are no doubt proud to be Irish, the flag is merely a sporting banner.

Nevertheless, we are a neutral country and are not in a position to familiarise ourselves with the lengthy and complicated military history of the United States of America. The crux of the vitriol aimed at Kaepernick is that he disrespected the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces., something he has denied with absolute clarity. There’s no questioning the bravery required to step into a battlefield, but some of the Mom’s apple-pie horseshit that’s been spewed by NFL coaches and players is difficult to fathom.

When questioned on Kaepernick’s actions, Buffalo Bills’ head coach Rex Ryan’s opined that “the opportunity that we have to play a great game is through the men and women that serve our country.” Firstly, that reads as either an incredibly simplistic or sycophantic statement and frankly does not make sense. The NFL does not, to the best of our knowledge, function as a result of American military interventions on foreign soil.

Kaepernick had every right to express an opinion and while many NFL players acknowledged this right they have reacted most negatively to his actions. The overwhelming response has been that Kaepernick disrespected members of the US military when he refused to stand and face the flag. Surely this is somewhat hypocritical? You can say whatever you want but your actions can’t peacefully reflect your views?

On a micro level, Kaepernick’s stance is most interesting as they came in the week when NFL rosters are cut to 52 and, after a year of injuries and reported personality clashes, it does not appear to be smart move from either a career or commercial perspective.

Unlike NBA players, who responded both in word and deeds to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death, NFL pros are expected to keep their views to themselves. It would be unseemly to express any view that may be deemed controversial and therefore detrimental to the juggernaut controlled by a collective of aging white men. Assuredly, there are those who wish to speak in the NFL but players are uncertain as to how this might affect their career prospects.

Kaepernick further stated that “this is not something I am going to run by anybody” and that “if they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” A sceptic could say, with considerable substance, that Kaepernick’s football is going to be taken away from him anyway because he can’t even take the starting job in San Francisco from an also-ran like Blaine Gabbert. And not because of his stance on divisive issues in a simmering American society.

Some, like former NFL safety Marvin Harrison, have asked why Kaepernick never spoke when he was on a minimum contract and a relative nobody, but surely this is missing the point. Because of past deeds on the field, the 30-year-old is a household name in the United States and a voice that is more likely to be heard, if not listened to.

Too often, those in an elevated status in society choose to neatly sidestep any potentially divisive issues but Kaepernick has chosen to step outside the protective bubble and stand for something. The point is not really whether Colin Kaepernick was right to do what he did, more the fact that he showed the willingness to do so.

Surely, the public consciousness is skewed if the flag is taken to almost exclusively represent the U.S. armed forces and not the amassed principles and rights which the United States intends to uphold.

Donald Trump had his say, unsurprisingly, suggesting that “maybe he (Kaepernick) should find a country that works better for him”. Hardly a new departure for Trump but his views are typical of the those who disagree with Kaepernick’s actions. Rather than actually look at the wider problems in society, critics have focused on what they perceive to be the Nevada native’s lack of respect for the military.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump: Douchebag

In a country where guns are easier to purchase than booze, police officers clearly face a serious threat to their safety. In cities throughout the US, members of the police force are murdered every year. However, the videos we’ve all seen clearly point to an ailing system where police brutality towards minorities clearly exists. Although not according to the president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

Apparently, front office executives won’t touch Kaepernick now – though the Minnessota Vikings might have to consider him – so it seems that his personal and football reputation are now held in equally low regard. It should, of course, be mentioned that the 49ers would face unfounded criticisms if they cut Kaepernick, something they were already considering before last week for purely footballing reasons.

Some US army veterans have shown their support for Kaepernick, substantiating the view that his actions were not intended as an affront to the service men and women but as a socio-political statement.

Kaepernick’s actions may come to absolutely naught -though interestingly he was joined in protest last night by his teammate, Eric Reed, a guaranteed starter – but it is refreshing to see an individual in an elevated position in society challenge what they perceive to be social injustice. However, the subsequent reaction confirms the long-held belief that sportspeople should keep their actions to the field, their thoughts to themselves and leave the politicking to the grown-ups.

 

 

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NFL

NFL – Divisional Round Preview: Part 1

So, the war in Cincinnati has left some considerable battle wounds. After last week’s thuggery from Vontaze Burfict and the subsequent reaction of his teammate Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones, the Bengals, for so long lovable losers, have definitely climbed a few spots in the most hated team in the NFL.

Burfict caught Pittsburgh Steelers’, Antonio Brown, with a late, illegal hit which forced the NFL’s leading wide receiver to leave the game under the concussion protocol. The Bengals lost, thanks, almost exclusively to late penalties against Jones and Burfict.

In the aftermath of the game, Pacman Jones – he of the ‘makin’ it rain’ $14.7 million lawsuit – said Brown was over-exaggerating his injuries because obviously, a guy wants to leave the field in his team’s most important game of the season. However, if nothing else, Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones is a bastion of magnanimity and, he graciously offered that if Brown failed to clear concussion protocol for Sunday’s game in Denver, he would apologise.

Adam Jones

Adam Jones, on that fateful night, when he went O.T.T. ‘makin-it-rain’

Lo and behold, Brown hasn’t recovered sufficiently to play tomorrow and Jones, the venerable gentleman that he is, kept his word and apologised. No doubt, the apology will subside Brown’s anger.

This week sees the top seeds in the AFC and NFC enter the fray after their bye-week last week. Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers are the number one seeds in their respective so, in a perfect world that follows seedings perfectly, these sides will enjoy home advantage all the way to San Francisco in February. Which, is certainly an advantage but, as last week proved, when all four visiting sides won, home advantage isn’t everything. That said, the seeding system in the NFL is extremely flawed with a divisional winner often finishing with a worse record than the teams in the wildcard positions. Anyway, that’s another day’s discussion.

Still, there are plenty of examples of Superbowl winners doing it the tough way: the 2008 Giants were the supreme road-warriors, ultimately ruining the New England Patriots unbeaten season with the most ridiculous catch in NFL history. Then, in 2012, Tom Coughlin’s side once more took to the road and again took down the Patriots in the Superbowl. So, being on the road is obviously disadvantageous but it’s certainly not fatal to a side’s chance of claiming the Lombardi Trophy.

Which, leads us to the AFC, and our favourite team remaining in this year’s playoffs. (It’s not the Patriots)

New England Patriots -v- Kansas City Chiefs, 16th January (9:30 p.m.)

Kansas City Chiefs continue to roll. Last week’s demolition of the Houston Texans saw Andy Reid’s men register their 11th straight victory, comfortably the longest winning streak of the sides remaining in the playoffs. Still, the Chiefs are garnering very little respect.

 

TB and AS

Tonight is the night when Alex Smith (r) can finally claim a playoff victory over a true superstar, in Tom Brady (l)

 

Perhaps, people are still refusing to believe in the tandem of coach, Andy Reid and quarterback, Alex Smith. Reid spent 14 years in Philadelphia, taking the Eagles to the playoffs nine times. However, in the eyes of people who measure success on Superbowl victories, Reid was perceived as a failure in the playoffs. We’re inclined to think that keeping a team at the top table for more than a decade represents unquestioned success, but Philadelphia’s sports fans are notoriously demanding and Reid was told to pack his bags after the 2012 season.

We already spoke about Smith’s relocation to Kansas City in 2012 and so it was that the unlikely duo set out on making the Chiefs a legitimate playoff team once more. And, the last three months have shown that this team are for real. Despite losing star running-back to a season-ending ACL injury, the Chiefs have perfected a game based on excellent pass-rush, a dual-threat running game and in Smith, a quarterback who knows how to protect the ball. Still, they enter Foxborough this evening as five-point underdogs.

This favouritism is hard to credit, particularly when the status of Rob Gronkowski is up in the air. ‘Gronk’ is absolutely vital if the Patriots are to make a deep run into the playoffs. It’s hard to describe him, beyond a 6ft 6in, 19st freak, with exceptional hands and a tendency to make opposing defenders look like flailing children. In effect, he is an auxiliary wide-receiver, which at that size is plain unfair.

Gronk

Due to the carnage he causes on the field, Gronk can get away with outrageous photo shoots like this one.

However, it is reported that he got an injection in his knee on Thursday and even now, it’s unclear whether he’ll suit up. Returning from a broken foot tonight is Julian Edelman, Brady’s alternative to Gronkowski. At best, both will be banged up, while the worst-case scenario sees only one of Brady’s star catchers line up.

Brady is better than Alex Smith, of that there can be no question, but both show an equal regard for ball protection, the prevention of turnovers. That said, both men will be faced with exceptional pass rushes – K.C.’s Justin Houston will be a game time however – so the likelihood is that we’re going to see a lot of grinding three and four yard carries up the middle.

Brady does have that knack of making plays when it matters but his team has been extraordinarily vulnerable in recent weeks, losing four out of six, and the feeling is that Kansas City are playing at maximum efficiency at the moment.

Kansas City, a small sports market by U.S. standards, has already seen the Royals win the World Series in November. There hasn’t been this much excitement in Kansas since Dorothy Gale and her best buddy Toto got whipped off to Oz. OK, KC is in Missouri State but, anyway, we just get feeling that the Chiefs have grabbed that great intangible, momentum, and there is an unusual amount of uncertainty surrounding the Patriots.

 

US Map

Don’t forget y’all, Kansas City is in Missouri State, not Kansas. 

It won’t be pretty by any stretch but that’s just how the Kansas City Chiefs will want it.

 

Kansas City Chiefs by 3

 

Arizona Cardinals -v- Green Bay Packers, 17th January (1:00 a.m.)

We very stupidly fought with logic last week and went against Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. Just the night before we noted that Houston had one a shitty division and that the visiting Chiefs were a superior side. The Washington Redskins won an equally awful, NFC East, and yet we chose them as the home side over the playoff veteran, Green Bay Packers.

After a dismal opening quarter, Rodgers dragged his side back into the game with a late flurry before half-time. The Packers cruised from there but it would be remiss to heap all the praise on Rodgers as the Packers defence was immense for the final three-quarters of the game. However, we’re still wondering whether Washington was an average side, which ran amok over its divisional rivals, or whether Green Bay just made a statement last week.

The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Green Bay are badly hamstrung by Jordie Nelson’s absence and Eddie Lacy’s ridiculous lack of professionalism but they still have Rodgers and an underrated defence. Tonight, however, they head to the desert and a rematch with the team who gave them a good, old shellacking in Week 16, the Arizona Cardinals.

Arizona overcame the Seattle Seahawks to win the NFC West, and are one of the surprise packages of this year’s regular season. They did lose 36-6 at home to Seattle on the final day of the season but it would dangerous to read too much into the result of a meaningless game.

Led by a resurgent Carson Palmer – who only a few years back was slipping into laughing stock territory – and a superb defence, Bruce Arians side silenced their critics with a game plan that combined explosive offence with an unrelenting defensive unit. Palmer’s go-to guy, the legendary Larry Fitzgerald has been joined by John Brown and Michael Floyd, to form one of the most underrated receiving corps in the NFL.

 

LF

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald is the antithesis of the brash, loud-mouth NFL player.

 

Meanwhile, in the defensive backfield, the Cardinals possess one of the best ball-hogs in America, in Patrick Peterson. Peterson has risen to the lofty heights of Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, where opposing quarterbacks simply avoid throwing to his side of the field. It makes for a boring night for Peterson but, more importantly, decommissions the opposing team’s number one receiver for the night.

Admittedly, this current Arizona roster lacks playoff experience, and Rodgers was born for nights like this, but, whatever way you look at it, Arizona are a superior team. The Cardinals will be smarting from that home defeat to Seattle, while the Packers rarely get shamed by the same team twice.

ARodge

Asking Aaron Rodgers to pull his team through in the desert may be a bridge too far.

How fitting would it be to see a shootout in the desert from two of the game’s premier quarterbacks. History and intangibles say Green Bay but for us, the Cards are quite simply the better team, playing at home.

Arizona Cardinals by 4

 

S.U.S. Picks: Kansas City Chiefs to beat New England Patriots (2/1)

Green Bay Packers (+7.5) over Arizona Cardinals (5/6)

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American Football

NFL Wildcard Round Preview – Part 2

Houston, you have a problem. Your quarterback is awful, probably way worse than we had considered. Brian Hoyer, for whom you’d have to feel sorry for after last night’s abomination, gave one of the worst performances in NFL playoff history.

Hoyer averaged four – yes FOUR – yards per attempt and also threw four interceptions. On the other side, Alex Smith was extremely composed, making some lovely throws, while even having a 65-yard rush ruled out for an illegal block in the back.

K.C. absolutely owned the Texans last night. No team should be beaten up that badly in their own house but the result probably goes to show how depressingly bad the standard has been in the AFC South this season.

The Chiefs are a bit like vintage-era Munster – not the depressingly shite Munster that got humiliated against 14 men last night – in that they do all the basics really well. Though largely unheralded, they will prove a very tough out in this postseason. In fact, we’ll go all out and predict that Any Reid’s men will be suiting up in Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco on 7th February.  This could yet prove to be the greatest year in Kansas City sports history.

Meanwhile, hostilities were resumed between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in a sodden Paul Brown Stadium. This was old-school, grindhouse playoff football between two rivals who have a refreshing sense of loathing for one another.

The Steelers appeared to have the game wrapped up before Ben Roethlisberger’s departure in the fourth quarter. Then, with 1:50 remaining in the game, AJ McCarron hooked up with AJ Green for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown.

However, these are the Bengals and this is the playoffs. The Steelers picked up thirty yards in penalties as a result of Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones personal foul and this disgusting hit from the not particularly likeable, Vontaze Burfict. And, to be clear, Burfict has previous with both the Steelers and wide receivers in general, so there can be no doubt as to his intent.

Anyway, while he may have revelled in the fact that he concussed a blindsided Antonio Brown, the joke is completely on Burfict, as the Bengals yet again found a way to inspire themselves to a seemingly impossible defeat.

The Steelers will be sweating on ‘Big Ben’s’ fitness after falling heavily on his shoulder but unless his arm falls off during the week, expect the incredibly tough, Roethlisberger to suit up against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

The Steelers know that the journey to the Superbowl will have to be done entirely on the road. Don’t be surprised though if, in a fortnight’s time, the Chiefs and Steelers step to it in Kansas City to decide the AFC’s representative in Super Bowl 50.

The NFC takes centre stage tonight as two recent winners, the Seattle Seahawks (2014) and Green Bay Packers (2011) hit the road to the tundra region of Minnesota and Washington D.C., respectively. Incidentally, the Seahawks and Packers last year participated in one of the greatest playoff games of all time, which will unfortunately, be remembered for Mike McCarthy’s numbskull play-calling and Brandon Bostik, like John McClane, being the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ‘Hawks won in overtime but it will take a pair of road victories for both sides if they are to renew hostilities this winter.

First, to Minnesota……

Minnesota Vikings -v- Seattle Seahawks: 9th January, 2016 (18:05)

On the face of it, this game should be a foregone conclusion. Just last month, the Seahawks destroyed the Vikings in Minneapolis, 38-7. However, scratch below the surface and the outcome becomes considerably less clear.

Now, to be clear, the Seahawks are rightly favoured, given their success over the past three years, including their demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 48, and their current form. But for some ridiculous play-calling last year, Pete Carroll’s side would be in the hunt for a hat-trick of Super Bowl victories. So, really, we don’t need to make the case for a Seattle victory.

Since that hiding, the Vikings went on a five-game winning streak, culminating in a road victory in Green Bay and a first NFC North title since 2009.  The result of the sides earlier meeting can’t be ignored but, like anything else in life, football is fluid and things can change.

The Vikings were minus a number of their key defensive players last month – Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr and Linval Joseph –  and the significance of their return cannot be underestimated. With their defence fully intact, the Vikings are an entirely different proposition. And, while offence is what many people come to see, Super Bowl winners with porous defences are few and far between.

Minnesota’s offence relies heavily on running-back, Adrian Peterson, and with good reason. Peterson, in the general news last year for the wrong reason, is the NFL’s finest running-back. Even at 30, traditionally the beginning of a running back’s decline, Peterson led the league in rushing this season.

He did have his feet up last year on the back of Roger Goodell’s characteristically badly-handled investigation, but Peterson’s achievement is something to truly marvel at. Every team knows that the ball is going to ‘All-Day’ but when his dander is up, teams have great difficulty slowing him down. Except, interestingly enough, the Seahawks.

Seattle’s famed ‘Legion of Boom’ are known mostly for the damage they inflict in the secondary but, in tandem with their defensive line, they are exceptionally effective at slowing the rush. Peterson’s impact was completely negated earlier in the season so he clearly has considerable motivation. The best running back in the league, versus the best run defence? Something has to give.

Perhaps the greatest factor, and the one that has garnered all the media attention this week is the fact that the landscape in Minneapolis has, as is customary at this time of year, transformed into the ice planet, Hoth.

Taking wind chill into account, temperatures will drop as low as -23 degrees in tonight’s game. Now, Seattle are no strangers to trying conditions but the Pacific Northwest deals almost exclusively in rain, not arctic cold.

Hoth

The venue for tonight’s showdown between Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks.

Further, the Vikings will line up on the north sideline, which probably has you thinking, “wow, this is probably the lowest ebb of your useless information.” Please, bear with us. The north sideline has the benefit of sunshine until deep into the game. This can actually mean a difference of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, this may seem minimal but it surely gives the home side an advantage. The Seahawks can beat their chests all they want, but the majority of the team will never before have endured what awaits them tonight.

Seattle is further hampered by the fact that Marshawn Lynch, their incredibly explosive running back, has been ruled out by an ongoing abdominal issue. Still, while the ‘Hawks would unquestionably be boosted by Lynch’s presence, their superb run system means that they won’t suffer excessively by leaning on third-string, running-back – Thomas Rawls is also injured – Christine Michael.

The defences are very evenly matched and there may be very little to choose between either side’s run-game. Seattle do enjoy massive supremacy at quarterback, though, as Russell Wilson – a Super Bowl winner in his first season – comfortably trumps the home side’s second year, conductor, Teddy Bridgewater.

RW

Russell Wilson’s experience could prove vital tonight in getting Seattle over the line in a tricky road game.

And yet….. given the temperature, the Seahawks might as well be playing in South Georgia. In keeping with the weekend’s other games, this one’s going to be a low-scoring slog. The Vikings have already achieved their goal for the season so, in a specific sense, they have little to lose. Still, experience is king in the playoffs.

Seahawks by a field goal.

Washington Redskins -v- Green Bay Packers: 10th January 2016, 21:40

To the weekend’s final game, in the U.S. capital, where the Washington Racists entertain Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

If this game was played at start of the season, the Packers would have been eight point favourites. However, after a bizarrely topsy-turvy season, the hosts topped the NFC East, while the Packers found themselves in the unusual position of staring up at the Minnesota Vikings when the dust settled.

The bookies actually have Washington as marginal favourites, effectively making this game a coin toss. How did this happen? Well, the Redskins played in the unquestionably weak NFC East, while Aaron Rodgers lost his main target, superstar receiver, Jordy Nelson.

Nelson went down with an ACL injury during pre-season and ever since, Rodgers – arguably the best quarterback in the NFL – has struggled to find a go-to guy.

Their run game, which came on in leaps and bounds last season has been crippled by Eddie Lacy’s inability to stop eating. The second-year running back has shown glimpses of last year’s brilliant rookie season but has refused to approach anything resembling consistency.

Eddie Lacy 2015

Eddie Lacy in 2015

AND……..

EL 2016

Eddie Lacy now. See if you can spot the difference…..

 

With the RGIII disaster in the rear view, Washington have actually unearthed a half-decent quarterback in Kirk Cousins. Two year ago, it appeared that Cousins was on the brink of an imminent trade but the equal parts odd and sad deterioration of Griffin cast him into the starting role, almost by default.

Cousins thrived as the year progressed and it isn’t as if his coaching staff have tried to hide him. He has a legitimate end-zone target in Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson’s sprinter speed provides the ability to stretch defences and make game changing plays.

The defence has been quietly efficient all season, while a seemingly listless, Alfred Morris, at running back is slowly coming to life once more. Still, as last night’s cautionary tale in Houston proved, winning a weak division can often conceal a side’s deficiencies.

Green Bay’s deficiencies are clear. They have no reliable ten-catch, 100-yard receiver and Rodgers while a certainty to enter the Hall-of-Fame in Canton in the future, is having a down season, by his extraordinarily high standards.

Neither of these sides will be in the conversation come February and it’s difficult to take a good read on this game. Nonetheless, the home side has improved discernibly over the last two months, while the Packers look uncharacteristically toothless.

Cousins and Washington to sneak it in overtime.

S.U.S. Predictions

Minnesota Vikings + 4.0 (20/21)

Washington Redskins to beat Green Bay Packers (20/23)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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American Football

NFL Wildcard Preview – Part 1

It seems that this year’s NFL playoff have arrived more quickly than usual.  Ordinarily this is as a result of 17 weeks of thrilling football, in what by modern standards is a very short season. However, even the most ardent NFL fan would struggle to argue that this has been a good season.

The obsession with Deflategate carried into the first three weeks of the season and, as usual, the limelight shifted to the most over paid man in sport – apart from Winston Bogarde, of course –  Roger Goodell. Goodell reportedly earned €44.2 million in 2015, a reward for his incomparable, gross incompetence.

RG

Roger Goodell: At €44 million a year, this kind of arrogance and incompetence doesn’t come cheap.

 

We digress here but, for a bit of perspective here, the Deflategate witch-hunt, at 107 days, took longer than the following events: (courtesy of yourteamcheats.com)

  1. The complete Boston Marathon Bomber trial, including jury selection (93 days)
  2. The complete Aaron Hernandez murder trial (77 days)
  3. Christopher Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492 (70 days)
  4. Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940 (36 days)
  5. Apollo 11’s trip to and from the moon in 1969 (8 days)
  6. The English Patient (3 mind-numbing hours)

Interestingly, it has recently come to light that the most perfect man in football, Peyton Manning, has been the subject of an Al-Jazeera investigation which suggests that Manning may have been taking HGH. But, the extraordinarily subjective US media has completely ignored the story. Except in Boston, unsurprisingly!

Now at this stage, it is merely a swirling investigation but proper journalism demands that these claims be examined at length. Manning may be completely innocent, but it is not the right of biased commentators to simply sweep the claim under the carpet. You can be sure Tom Brady wouldn’t be afforded the same luxury.

Anyway, the playoffs – broken down here –  have arrived, and Week One means the Wildcard round. The regular season may have been instantly forgettable but this week promises perhaps the closest round of wildcard games in recent memory.

9th January 2016 – Houston Texans -v- Kansas City Chiefs (21:05)

Tonight’s game sees AFC South champions Houston Texans host Kansas City Chiefs, runners-up in the AFC West. The Texans’ JJ Watt is, without question, the most freakishly talented and destructive defensive player in the NFL. Watt has averaged 15 sacks a season since entering the league and while his stats are extremely impressive, metrics can’t take into account the sheer terror that he implants in opposing quarterbacks.

 

JJW

JJ Watt: One man wreckin’ crew

Watt forms part of an extremely impressive Houston defensive unit, which also includes linebacker, Brian Cushing, shutdown cornerback Jonathan Joseph, and, we have to include him because of his incredible name, Whitney Mercilus. It’s all about ground and pound in Houston.

The offense is marshalled by Brian Hoyer, a no-frills, journeyman quarterback. It would be remiss of us to describe Hoyer as anything other than solid. That said, he is fortunate enough to possess one of the most talented wide receivers in the league, in DeAndre Hopkins. Despite being hampered by a bog-standard, quarterback, Hopkins finished the season third in receiving yards this season, with 1521 yards.

Hopkins is without question the main threat but on the other side, Nate Washington offers a reasonable option in terms of a release valve. Star running back, Arian Foster has been lost for the season and that has really hampered the Texans running game.

On the other side are the Kansas City Chiefs, a side who, like the Texans rely on a dominant defense and a solid quarterback in Alex Smith. Smith has had a strange career to date. Picked first in the 2005 draft by the San Francisco 49ers – ahead of future hall-of-famer, Aaron Rodgers – Smith muddled through his first years in the Bay Area before the arrival of head coach, Jim Harbaugh, the NFL equivalent of Jose Mourinho.

Harbaugh tweaked Smith’s game, with the quarterback becoming the game-manager – talented quarterback who knows his limitations – for the 49ers. His greatest ever performance came in the 2011 playoffs when Smith led the ‘9ers to a dramatic victory over the highly fancied New Orleans Saints.

Harbaugh promptly dropped Smith the following season, replacing him with the second coming, Colin Kaepernick, the modern, prototype quarterback. Kaepernick is about to be cut by the atrocious 49ers, while Smith is once more in the playoffs. So, basically, Jim Harbaugh is a dickhead.

 

AS

Alex Smith, one of the good guys, needs to make some deep throws tonight.

Smith is unquestionably superior to Hoyer. In fact, the best compliment we could pay the former is to say that he is the NFL equivalent of Danny Murphy. However, he doesn’t make enough big plays and the Texans are virtually impenetrable on deep plays.

This game is extraordinarily hard to call as the sides are very equally matched in most departments. Neither team scores heavily so expect a grim, old-fashioned slobberknocker. The Texans have home court but the Chiefs are on an NFL-best, ten-game winning streak.

Toss of a coin, and with zero confidence, Chiefs by 3.

10th January 2016 – Cincinnati Bengals -v- Pittsburgh Steelers (1:05)

Since the death of the once-great Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh and Cincy’ has become the primary rivalry in the AFC North. The Bengals topped the division this year, with the Steelers securing the final wildcard spot after the New York Jets final day defeat.

The Steelers are NFL blue-bloods, having won six Superbowls – four in the 70s and two more recently – and until very recently held a complete stranglehold over the former laughing-stock, Bengals.

However, under head coach, Marvin Lewis, the Bengals have become a genuine force in the NFL. A genuine force during the regular season, that is. Cincinnati rips it up from September to December but, come playoff time they have been nothing short of atrocious with Lewis at the helm. Since 2009, he has led the side to the playoffs five times. In that time the Bengals are winless.

There are various reasons: inexperience, lack of composure and the ‘Red Rifle’, Andy Dalton. Now, Dalton is a fine, and admittedly ever-improving, quarterback but his performances in the playoffs have been less-than-zero. This year, however, a broken thumb means Dalton won’t start – at least this week – with the starting job going to second-year quarterback, AJ McCarron.

McCarron is good, not great, which can only be expected from a quarterback who, up until a few weeks ago probably thought he had as much chance of winning the starting job as lil’ Matt Saracen. Dalton has repeatedly failed in the sudden death games so while he’s clearly superior to McCarron on the basis of metrics, it’s hard to argue that his loss will be felt.

While we are being a little facetious it may the case that McCarron rises to the occasion on his home field tonight, as he has had a month to settle into not only his team’s system but the role of a QB1 in the NFL.

Further, in A.J. Green he has one of the greatest scoring threats in the NFL. Green can pull off some pretty amazing plays and if Pittsburgh goes for double-coverage, McCarron can look to red zone monster, Tyler Eifert and the back-up cast of Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones.

AJG

Bengals’ star wide-receiver, AJ Green, could well prove the difference maker against their divisional rival, Pittsburgh Steelers.

In addition, the Bengals have the enigmatic Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill – whose 2015 has admittedly been disappointing – in the backfield to keep the Steelers defence on its toes, in the trenches.

The Steelers, so long famed for their intimidating defence have become the NFL’s must-watch team. Veteran shot-caller Ben Roethlisberger, already with two Superbowl rings to his name, has the most frighteningly talented receiving corps in the league. Antonio Brown is the best wideout in the league, while Martavis Bryant is arguably the best deep-threat in the playoffs.

However, the Steelers have a serious problem in the engine room. La’Veon Bell, their starting running-back was ruled out for the season months ago, while, it has been revealed that his replacement, DeAngelo Williams will not play tonight. Step forward, Fitzgerald Toussaint, he of the 54 career rushing yards.

No rational person could suggest that Toussaint is going to deliver on his first career start, in the playoffs, on the road to Pittsburgh’s biggest rivals. Roethlisberger is a wizened, badass but there’s very little he can do to protect his young running-back.

NFL commentators like to say that you’ve got to establish the run first before you go to your passing game. If you don’t run the ball, you’ll face longer passing plays, while the defence will drop more players back to defend against the opposing quarterback. Basically, if the Steelers run game fails to materialise, their season will be over.

It would be ludicrous to write off ‘Big Ben’ and his cohort of playmakers but the Bengals are no slouches in defending the pass, and if they get on top early, in front of a raucous home crowd, the game could get away from the Steelers.

Big Ben

Despite being favourite, the Pittsburgh Steelers will need ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger to call on all his big game experience in Cincinnati tonight.

Bookmakers have the home side as three-point underdogs which is understandable, given their history and the fact that McCarron is under centre but we feel the Bengals are being denied the respect they deserve.

All going well, this one should get pretty fiery so, expect both quarterbacks to get plenty of attention. We’re going against conventional wisdom and with our gut on this one.

The long-suffering Bengals to end their playoff misery.

S.U.S. Picks: (i) Kansas City to beat Houston Texans (8/13)

                          (ii) Cincinnati Bengals +3 over Pittsburgh Steelers (4/5)

 

Part 2 of NFL Wildcard predictions tomorrow.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aaron Hernandez Trial

The Tragic and Destructive Downfall of Aaron Hernandez

At twenty-five, Aaron Hernandez has already seen his last days as a free man.

Even in a league as wild and sometimes surreal as the National Football League, the arrest and ultimate conviction of Aaron Hernandez for the murder of his close friend Odin Lloyd –for reasons that are still barely apparentcame as both a reality check and an unwanted surprise. While the verdict was not entirely unexpected, the rise and tragic fall of Hernandez should serve as a cautionary tale to those in positions of responsibility to step up and, while obviously not take responsibility for their players actions, at least try and help those characters who need saving from themselves. Not for one moment are we saying that the New England Patriots, Hernandez’ former employers, or the N.F.L. are in any way responsible for what could yet be turn out to be a series of violent crimes on the former tight end’s part. Still it’s hard to credit that Hernandez may have been involved in a life of violent crime – we’re not talking bar-room brawls here- while concurrently shining as a star throughout his entire career in the National Football League.

How did this all happen? How did a clearly troubled teenager morph gradually into a convicted murder under the presumptively watchful eye of, first the University of Florida, and then an N.F.L. franchise held in such high esteem? We can’t play moral judge or defamer here either but one can’t help but wonder how so many within these organisations failed to recognise that such a volatile, dangerous man was in their midst. For those who may be unaware – in addition to last week’s conviction in Massachusetts- Hernandez has been indicted, or formally charged, by a grand jury, for a double homicide shooting in the Boston neighbourhood of South End which took place in 2012. Not incidentally, the facts in that particular case also appear to be stacking up against the twenty-five-year-old Hernandez. Returning to the death of Odin Lloyd, the evidence before the court show that this was not some random act of violence or a crime of passion. Lead prosecutor William McCauley expertly utilised ballistic and forensic evidence which conveyed all the hallmarks of a gangland-style execution. Hernandez appears to be a quite simply, bad character but how could a sporting institution, particularly one such as the occasionally self-aggrandising New England Patriots, fail to even keep tabs on a man who they knew had previous off-field issues? Particularly when Hernandez’ home base of Hartford was little more than an hour from Foxborough, the home city to the New England Patriots.

Hernandez’ conviction comes at a time when players’ off-field activities seem to have hit an all-time low under the seemingly faux-caring eye of Roger Goodell, whose main goal seems to be making the already deep pockets of the thirty-two N.F.L. team owners fathomless. Goodell seems to take a pretty wide berth of player’s off-field activities – in his defence it is difficult to keep tabs when the competitors have roughly six months of down time each year- save for going for the jugular of those who commit that most savage sin of smoking weed. Last year, the Commissioner had to deal with the scandal surrounding Ray Rice viciously assaulting and knocking out his future wife in the lift of an Atlantic City casino. Next up was Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson facing charges of child abuse in his native state of Texas, a murky case with a murky outcome. Throw in domestic abuse charges rearing their head at an alarming rate and you can see why it might be in the interest of Goodell – who for the record earned $44.4 million last year – to focus as much of his attention on player welfare and behaviour, than on the burgeoning accounts of the sacred team owners. Goodell, to his credit though, must have been as shocked as the rest of America when Hernandez was arrested in connection with Odin Lloyd’s murder on 26th June 2013.

Hernandez life seems to have taken a downward spiral after the death of his father in 2006. The bond between father and son was, by all accounts, a deep and warm one but when father Dennis passed it seems his youngest son set off on a truly dark path. It goes without saying that people react to bereavement in markedly different manners, but if Hernandez had this –and there is no other word for this- malevolent streak in him, it is a shame that some dominant character somewhere in his life was not able to look past the outrageously talented athlete and see a highly troubled, aggressive youngster and try reaching out. Surely this man was not born a killer, so, how was he allowed slip down so many cracks before hitting absolute rock bottom?

Or are we being too lenient on Hernandez? Perhaps someone in his native Connecticut tried to help Hernandez. Or a college coach tried to steer him on the right path. Or maybe we’re just pushing out some dreamy nonsense about everybody having good in them when really we should be acknowledging that the protagonist alone should be held accountable for their actions. Still, we’re not buying the idea that a boy was born of Connecticut in 1989 with a killer’s blood already running through his veins. The extent of the New England Patriots hesitancy -financially driven of course- towards selecting Hernandez was in their decision to pick him in the fourth round of the annual college draft due to their reservations about Hernandez’ character. Teams don’t like when a first or second round pick becomes a ‘bust’ so Hernandez’ extra-curricular activities in Florida – at this point Hernandez had already tested positive for marijuana and far more seriously was alleged to have been involved in a double shooting in Gainesville, Florida- probably knocked him a rung or two down the ladder. Surely, by this time, if coach Bill Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft had serious concerns over the character and make-up of the then twenty-year-old one imagines they would have completely overlooked him. The reality is that right up until his arrest in 2013 Hernandez was a prized asset in his one-two tight end wrecking crew tandem with the ubiquitous Rob Gronkowski. He was just a year into a five-year $40 million contract.

Again let us be quite clear. The extremely well prepared prosecution case shows that it was Aaron Hernandez who drove with two friends, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace to the car park of an industrial estate and took Odin Lloyd’s life in a cold and detached manner, despatching bullets into the victim’s back. Rather disturbingly, CCTV footage has Hernandez and his accomplices enjoying smoothies by his swimming pool while the former plays with his infant daughter just hours after the killing. We just wonder how a man with so much potential and opportunity was able to transform into this animal. The murder of Odin Lloyd was tragic and- as with most murders in a country where many allege liberal gun laws do not contribute to a disturbing number of gun-related deaths- entirely avoidable. There are, of course, wider lessons to be learned from the grim tale of Aaron Hernandez but, given the circumstances, the nagging feeling that all of this could have been avoided will always remain.

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