Last Week: 9-7
Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-2)
Friday 2.20pm NZT
We’re almost there, folks. Three more weeks of the National Football League for 2018 and then we’re into the playoffs. Before we get there however we’ve got some very important details to finalise, like playoff seedings and sacked coaches, and these things take time to materialise… well, not the sacked coaches. They all get sacked on the first Monday after the regular season ends. Except for Mike McCarthy who couldn’t even last that long. And also Jon Gruden because, like, they’ve gone way too far down that track to turn back now.
Imagine wandering into a scary forest, exactly like something from out of a storybook. It’s late and it’s dark and the moon’s light can only penetrate the dense forest enough to offer an eerie glow upon the landscape. Every step crunches horribly upon the scattered gravel and debris of the land. You flinch each time your foot hits the ground because you can hear those noises in the distance, you know that there’s something out there listening and watching. Perhaps they’re friendly spirits. Perhaps they’re demons. You shiver with the freezing cold breeze that seems to tickle you from no direction in particular. You’d turn around and run but you don’t know where the path is anymore, for all you know you’d be running further and further away from the exit. A wolf howls in the distance and you can hardly breathe. Was that a noise behind you? You spin around but there’s nothing there. Again you hear that terrifying crunch and scurry. It’s to your right this time but it’s gone before you can turn to look. You swear you can hear a cackling laughter in the distance but you tell yourself it’s only an owl. Only an owl. Smashing your eyelids down you try to believe that it’s just a dream but it isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmarish reality and you only wish you could remember how you ended up in this hellscape to begin with.
That, my friend, is the Oakland Raiders and Jon Gruden. Who won last week, by the way.
Wait, why am I writing about Jon Gruden? This is the Chargers vs Chiefs game.
This is a not so sneakily enormous contest. There’s a divisional title and probably a first round bye on the line when these two meet. We’ve got two MVP candidates. We’ve got two Super Bowl candidates. We’ve got a rematch of a week one clash which ended 38-28 to the Chiefs, our first glimpse of what was to come from them. Not so much the Chargers, who started 1-2 and are 9-1 since. Other than a one-point loss to Denver thought they’ve only been beaten by the Chiefs and Rams so not much to complain about there. This is going to be a stunner of a game.
Also, this is why Patrick Mahomes is incredible in one single replay example. This is all you need to see to understand the player that he is going to be in this league for the next ten years…
On fourth down. With the game on the line. Against one of the best defences in the sport.
Wildcard’s Pick: Chargers by 3
Houston Texans (9-4) at New York Jets (4-9)
Sunday 10.30am NZT
Why are there two Sunday games this week? That doesn’t feel like a thing that normally happens outside of the playoffs. Whatever, it’s a way to pass the time. And good on the Jets for bouncing back and getting the win over Buffalo last week… but now it’s time for the Texans to bounce back. There is nothing the New Yorkers can do to stop DeAndre Hopkins. Nothing at all. Nothing at all. Nothing at all.
Wildcard’s Pick: Texans by 17
Cleveland Browns (5-7-1) at Denver Broncos (6-7)
Sunday 2.20pm NZT
I really don’t know what happened last week. Somehow I scraped through with nine correct picks but that was a weird one, alright. Weirdest of all was that the eleven teams with four or fewer wins going into last week went 7-4 and the only reason they had four losses is because three of them lost to teams from the seven side of things and you can’t both win, obviously. Just the Jaguars letting the side down by losing to the Titans. Cleveland beat Carolina for one thing. Denver lost to San Francisco. You had the Giants, Packers, Raiders, Jets and Lions all winning too. Absolute madness.
So what’s there to make of a Broncos team that just lost to the Niners and might’ve blown their playoff hopes along with it? Buggered if I can come up with much. A bad second quarter was too much to come back from, especially when they seemed strangely incapable of guarding George Kittle. They Broncs came back from a 3-6 start to keep their playoff hopes in their own hands. Only to lose to a team that had two wins from twelve games. They should bounce back and win this one. They should win again in Oakland after that. But with five AFC teams on seven wins at the moment and only two of them gonna make the playoffs that means they’ll need to beat the Chargers in week 17 to have any chance and even then they’re screwed if, like, the Ravens or Colts sweep the remaining schedule.
The best thing that’s happened to Baker Mayfield’s career is Freddie Kitchens taking over as offensive coordinator with the Browns. No more Hue Jackson was also a boost. But Kitchens is doing great things for the dude, who has been the least pressured quarterback in the league since hFK took over and even when he does get pressured he knows where his out options are, completing at 13/15 for 176 yards and 2 TDs when pressured in that time. Bloody superb, that. But somehow I get the feeling that streak might come to a screeching halt when Von Miller and Bradley Chubb roll out the welcome mat in Colorado.
The Cleveland Browns are technically still capable of making the playoffs. They’re only two wins off the Steelers in the AFC North and those jokers are stumbling hard.
Wildcard’s Pick: Broncos by 7
Arizona Cardinals (3-10) at Atlanta Falcons (4-9)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Turns out the Falcons weren’t able to overcome that crappy defence. Matt Ryan has a passer rating this season of 108.3. He’s completing at over 70% with 28 TDs and 6 INTs and already has 4076 yards, with a 310 or so average over the last three games good enough to take him over 5k. Julio Jones has been incredible. And they’ve still lost five games in a row.
When you give up 838 rushing yards in five games then that’s probably what’s going to happen. When you combine that with 10 turnovers then you never really had a chance. The Cardinals aren’t up to much so I’d be surprised if the Falcons didn’t finally win a game but, damn, what a season it’s been. Started off doing nothing in the red zone against Philly and ended up doing nothing on defence the whole rest of the way.
Gotta throw it up for Larry Fitzgerald though. Goddamn he’s a legend of this sport.
Wildcard’s Pick: Falcons by 5
Oakland Raiders (3-10) at Cincinnati Bengals (5-8)
Monday 7.00am NZT
I just wanted to put that vid in, the song’s been stuck in my head all day. What an absolute jam.
Week 15 of the Jon Gruden Experience:
Wildcard’s Pick: Raiders by 3
Minnesota Vikings (6-6-1) at Miami Dolphins (7-6)
Monday 7.00am NZT
What’s better than an NFL team chucking out rugby passes? Nothing. They should all be doing this every week, it’s so completely effective when defenders all closer their eyes, lower their heads and charge as their idea of tackling. That’s another way rugby should inform NFL. The tackling techniques are atrocious in American because all they wanna do is hit as hard as possible. I think that’s definitely creeping into the sport though, it has to if they want to do something about the concussion rates, however the ol’ hook and ladder (whatever the hell that means) plays will probably remain hidden for miraculous moments like this because special awareness of teammates is not a skill most of these athletes have.
This was crazy though. Rob Gronkowski was in there for the hail mary pass and ended up costing his team the win as he got waxed down the sideline. Too slow, my man. Bill Belichick overthought that one and the Patriots will have to wait for this week to clinch their playoff spot instead (the bigger issue is whether that home field is vulnerable… probably not though – just gotta outrun the Texans over the last three weeks). Big swing all the same. Keeps Miami in the race. Makes this game a borderline loser leaves town match. Ryan Tannehill against Kirk Cousins. Good fun.
Although perhaps that QB battle ain’t what it sounds like. Tannehill has been absolutely superb since coming back from injury. Three games with a combined 69.1% completion rate, 606 yards, 8 TDs and 1 INT for a passer rating of 129.9. That’s absolute quality with the season on the line. Can’t ask for much more.
Meanwhile Cousins, with his season in similar jeopardy, has put up deceptively decent numbers but without being able to put points on the board. Completing nicely, sure. But short completions are a waste if you’re not sustaining drives. He completed 33 passes against New England two weeks back for just 201 yards. A fine showing against Green Bay steadied the ship but consecutive losses to likely playoff teams (NE and SEA) have probably sunk then. The fact that there’s only marginal difference in his numbers between wins and losses suggests he’s not having enough of an impact on this team. Not yet anyway, they paid him long term so yeah.
Kirk Cousins is 0-7 in Monday Night Football games.
Kirk Cousins is 1-5 in Thursday Night Football games.
Kirk Cousins is 3-8 in afternoon games and 5-13 in night games.
Kirk Cousins is 4-24 against teams with a winning record.
Not sure those are the signs of a guy who performs when it matters most.
Wildcard’s Pick: Dolphins by 6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8) at Baltimore Ravens (7-6)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Sanity has prevailed, as we all knew it had to.
Baltimore hasn’t been this much fun since McNulty’s wake.
Wildcard’s Pick: Ravens by 14
Dallas Cowboys (8-5) at Indianapolis Colts (7-6)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Amari Cooper with Oakland (6 games):
22 receptions, 280 yards, 1 touchdown
Amari Cooper with Dallas (6 games):
40 receptions, 642 yards, 6 touchdowns
The man has single-handedly (I mean, he’s got two hands, but figure of speech) reinvigorated Dak Prescott’s season, Scott Linehan’s offence, Jason Garrett’s coaching career, Jerry Jones’ blood pressure and my Dallas Cowboys fandom. Coop went 1-5 in terms of wins and losses with the Raiders and the Cowboys have been 5-1 since he arrived. Five wins in a row. Cooper’s presence is pretty massive when he’s scoring twice with 217 receiving yards in a must-win divisional contest but that presence is felt all around him even when he doesn’t get the ball. No coincidence that Dak and Zeke are stepping it up big time with Cooper there.
Certainly this game could go either way. We’ve got two teams of a pretty similar standard and a similar trajectory, each hitting form at the right time, and no surprises that the key to this one is how well Andrew Luck goes against what’s emerged as a brilliant Dallas defence. I’m confident Zeke will get his yards here, Dallas will run down the clock with long offensive possessions (which usually end in field goals)… so Lucky’s gotta be throwing touchdowns to win this. Which is the usual recipe since in the last seven weeks the six times he’s thrown multiple scores are his six wins. The one time he went 0 TD on the box score was the one time he lost – kept scoreless by Jacksonville. Should be a belter of a game but after Dallas all but booked their playoffs spot last week I think Indy need it more.
Funky aspect to watch here, we’ve got two of the absolute frontrunners for defensive rookie of the year in Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch. Two outstanding linebackers, two dudes who have been enormous catalysts in turning their team’s fortunes around. Gotta watch how that head to head goes (even if they don’t actually get to go head to head).
Indy Star: “Leonard leads the entire NFL with 135 tackles, leads all rookies with four forced fumbles and ranks second among rookies with seven sacks, along with an interception and four passes defended. Vander Esch, for his part, ranks seventh in the NFL with 108 tackles, has broken up seven passes and picked off two more.”
Wildcard’s Pick: Colts by 3
Detroit Lions (5-8) at Buffalo Bills (4-9)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Wildcard’s Pick: Lions by 4
Green Bay Packers (5-7-1) at Chicago Bears (9-4)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Look at that. Look at that number. I remember when Tom Brady set that record several years back, when Brady was at his absolute peak, and it felt like one of those records that might not be broken for twenty years if ever. That obviously wasn’t accounting for Aaron Rodgers, who has done this for a team that’s already lost seven games. They’re not dominating games like the 2011 Patriots did – a team that went to the Super Bowl remember (only to lose to the NY Giants in that stupid-ass game. Mario Manningham… what ever happened to him? Heck, what ever happened to old Eli Manning while we’re at it? Fun fact – the Giants beat the Patriots in preseason, the regular season and the Super Bowl in 2011). And yet despite the dysfunction here’s Aaron Rodgers going pickless (that just autocorrected to pickles, lol) for the best part of a full season. Like, Russell Wilson has only thrown 346 pass attempts all season to date.
Last time these two played it was a modern classic as Aaron Rodgers was stretchered off only to return and lead a big comeback for victory on one leg. The Bears have gotten better and better from then though. They just shut down the Rams. They shut them down, bro. Jared Goff had four interceptions. Todd Gurley gained 28 yards on 11 rushes. The Rams had 214 yards of offence in total. They were 3/12 on third down and twice lost it on fourth. Goff fumbled one too but it was recovered. The Bears are a rare team who can do that to the Rams, and that was a big wakeup for LAR that their offence isn’t infallible. Goff had three picks in the last seven games and four in this one, that’s funny. It also officially ends his MVP candidacy, which is now probably a three-man race between Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes.
Can the Bears repeat the dose against the Packers? Sure they can. Why not?
Wildcard’s Pick: Bears by 3
Washington R*dskins (6-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Another dumb one. The Washington Pro Football Team isn’t winning another game this season. Nothing Washington is associated with seems up to much good these days.
Wildcard’s Pick: Jags by 5
Tennessee Titans (7-6) at New York Giants (5-8)
Monday 7.00am NZT
Saquon Barkley is the Offensive Rookie of the Year. It’s him or it’s Baker Mayfield and Barkley has been way more consistent. I’ve mentioned before that Barkley can be rocks or diamonds with each run, plugged a bunch of times before padding the stats with a huge play. But he always has those huge plays each game. Shout out to Phillip Lindsay, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb too. But Saquon’s been better than all of them. For example…
It’s been fun watching the Giants be spoilers and win a few games lately. They straight up annihilated the R*dskins so bad last week that Josh Johnson got into the game. But the Titans need this win. They’re back on the road which is where five of their six defeats have come but it’s just too hard to pick the team with no playoff hopes over the desperate team that needs to win out. I withhold the right to be completely wrong though, this is a nervous pick for me.
Wildcard’s Pick: Titans by 3
Seattle Seahawks (8-5) at San Francisco 49ers (3-10)
Monday 10.05am NZT
Is… is Nick Mullens good, then? Two wins from five games suggests… he’s better than CJ Beathard at least. But it seems that Kyle Shanahan doesn’t believe that.
Kyle Shanahan: “It starts coming out of how they were in college, the ceiling and who you think has the most ability. Then, it goes to practice each day. Some of the throws and the plays that people make. That’s where C.J. was ahead of him and beat him out. Nick got his opportunity because of injury.”
Hmm… Mullens has thrown for 746 passing yards in his last two games, the most any San Francisco quarterback has managed since Steve Young in 1995. If he tops 300 against the Seahawks then that’ll be three games in a row above that mark, which no SF49 QB has done since Jeff Garcia in 2000. Granted I’m not an NFL head coach but I kinda think that since if I was I’d be judged on results in games then I’d want to prioritise the quarterback who plays better in games, rather than the one who looks better in training. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’re both scrapping for backup to Jimmy G.
For reference though…
Nick Mullens in 2018:
5 GS | 63.8% COMP | 1479 YDS | 9 TD | 6 INT | 8.0 AY/A | 93.5 RATE
CJ Beathard in 2018:
5 GS | 60.4% COMP | 1252 YDS | 8 TD | 7 INT | 6.5 AY/A | 81.8 RATE
And also how about a little Jimmy Garoppolo in 2018:
3 GS | 59.6% COMP | 718 YDS | 5 TD | 3 INT | 7.7 AY/A | 90.0 RATE
Four wins in a row for the Seahawks, who are looking good for those playoffs. How good? Better jump on the ol’ Playoff Machine and see…
Righto. I had to give the Lions a win over the Vikings to keep Kirk Cousins out of the playoffs and, damn, that put Aaron Rodgers in instead. While Baltimore and Miami both miss out in the other conference. That doesn’t seem fair to me. Also: Patriots = way more vulnerable than people are admitting.
Wildcard’s Pick: Seahawks by 9
New England Patriots (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5-1)
Monday 10.25am NZT
Wildcard’s Pick: Steelers by 3
Los Angeles Rams (11-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-7)
Monday 2.20pm NZT
Well that ain’t no bloody good. Wentz is unlikely to play this game which means a dose of Nick Foles. Not really feeling that run of clutch season form from Foles this time around though. The Cowboys are one win away from clinching the division title and 9-7 probably won’t get the Eagles a wildcard spot… they’re done. Funny how when teams take season-defining losses there often seems to be that injury news which comes out the next week. Doesn’t surprise me that Wentz has been playing hurt, in fact it explains a bit. Still had a solid season though, just wasn’t on that MVP level again.
The Eagles are actually still quite a useful defence against the run game, which doesn’t do Todd Gurley’s record attempts any good – especially not after the Bears shut him down last week for 28 yards on 11 carries with no scores. Second time in three weeks and the second time all season that he’s been kept scoreless, following the shootout with the Chiefs. But the main reason the Eagles are good against the run is that teams don’t run against them. They don’t need to – second fewest rush attempts against them – when that secondary is barely good enough for Canadian football at the moment. They’re getting torched through the air so if Jared Goff wants a rebound game, here’s his chance.
Wildcard’s Pick: Rams by 9
New Orleans Saints (11-2) at Carolina Panthers (6-7)
Tuesday 2.15pm NZT
Woah boy that got sweaty for a moment. After getting stuck against the Cowboys the New Orleans offence could at least come away saying, no worries, one week, they Cowboys are quality on defence, we’re still the Saints, we’re still out there doing it better than anyone. But then midway through the third quarter against the Buccs they were chilled out down 14-3 and it was scary. Over a span of 15 possessions they scored 10 points, made 287 yards and had 3 turnovers.
Aaaand then they scored three straight touchdowns and a field goal before kneeling that sucker out for a 28-14 win. There’s still a bit of a concern about that, the Saints offence giving up turnovers and looking vulnerable, but they came out of it just as easy as they slipped into it so glass half full if you want. Alvin Kamara said it was only a matter of getting their swag back, and they did. More of a worry is that Brees doesn’t seem to have a secondary receiver to rely upon besides Michael Thomas. He’s been dishing TDs to any old joker to walk in off the street which covers for that hole nicely, although this lot does have Brandon Marshall on the roster and he’s yet to make his debut.
If only the Panthers could fix things that quickly. Instead they’ve incredibly lost five games in a row. They can still make the playoffs but they play the Saints twice in the last three weeks (and the Falcons in between) so let’s just say it’s unlikely. In the last five games they have nine offensive turnovers. They’ve also given up more than 300 yards of offence in all of them and at least 20 points too. At most 52 points, man that was a killer. That hiding at the hands of the Steelers changed the course of the NFL – somehow both those teams have sucked since then.
Here are some damning numbers for a defence that has Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, Dontari Poe, Julius Peppers, Kawann Short and the rest of them:
Over the last five weeks, only the Bengals have conceded more points (160) than the Carolina Panthers (152). Second worst in scoring defence. Mate.
Over the last five weeks the Panthers are fourth worst in defensive yards allowed per play (6.36), only beaten in their depression by Seattle, Philadelphia and Miami.
Over the last five weeks the Panthers are seventh worst in defensive yards allowed, with Philly, Washington, Seattle, Cincinnati, NYG and Oakland the teams that are worse and only one of those teams is much good at the moment and they have an MVP calibre quarterback.
By the way, the Saints winning last week books their place in the playoffs. They’ve won the division already, with three weeks to spare. Better throw it up for the Saints and their unofficial anthem…
Carolina, where you at? Lemme get a handclap.
Wildcard’s Pick: Saints by 9
The Wildcard is a staff writer for The Niche Cache. Choppa Style, Chop Chop, Choppa Style. Choppa Style, Chop Chop.
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