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NFL: Final London Game of 2014

football

We are firmly ensconced in the home stretch of the 2014 NFL regular season. Entering week ten, every team has now played at half of their games.  The playoff race is heating up, and with a number of divisions in both conferences having at least two strong teams, it’s quite likely that a big win total will be needed to play January football,  even as a wild card. The very best teams are also trying to cling onto the number one seedings, which would guarantee them home field advantage. Things are getting intense now. Let’s look ahead to this week’s action, which includes the third London game of the year.

New York Giants at Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks have gotten back to winning football games. They are currently on a two game winning streak, having overcome the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders in recent weeks. Neither victory was by more than one score though, and those are not the amongst the strongest teams in the league this season. The Seahawks passing attack is ranked thirtieth in the league,  which is a big part of their offensive malaise. They are second in rushing, leaving Seattle with an offense that is totally off kilter.  Pete Carroll’s side like to run the ball, but they are not making the devastating play action passes that helped them succeed last year. Still, at 5-3, they are starting to build up some momentum, and that defense is playing tough once again.

The New York Giants’ post-season hopes were struck a crushing blow in their Monday Night Football loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The Giants were clear second bests in that game, and they have been third best in the NFC East all season. It is unlikely to bring them back to the promise land, barring a remarkable hot streak in their remaining fixtures. With that in mind, they could really do with a win here. How do they do it? Hard to see a way. Their middle of the road offense would need to kick it up a few gears for a start. Odell Beckham has started making big gains though, so that may well be Plan A in the home of the Twelfth Man.

Verdict: Seattle

San Francisco Forty-Niners at New Orleans Saints

These sides are both 4-4 coming into this game, yet the situational difference is stark. The New Orleans Saints top their division, having beaten the Carolina Panthers on the road last Thursday night. That has given them command of the NFC South, where no one else seems capable of stringing two wins together. The Saints are not having a peak year, but they are still plenty dangerous.  Mark Ingram has been running like a man possessed these last few weeks, finally living up to his promise with 272 yards in his last two outings. That opens things up for Drew Brees, who badly needs some breathing room. The defense has also gotten better, which has been a big factor in the Saints leaving their September blues behind them.

The San Francisco Forty-Niners are third in the NFC West, despite boasting the same record as the Saints. A miserable, stuttering loss to the St. Louis Rams last Monday night pushed the Niners back to .500 in the standings, falling further behind the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. Seattle has now overtaken them too, meaning we are in for some monstrous clashes between these three teams down the stretch.  San Francisco’s defense is carrying them at the moment, with the passing game in particular faltering. Colin Kaepernick is stuttering, with the clumsy ending against the Rams acting as exhibition A. They can’t rely on the old war horse Frank Gore to keep getting it done, so Kaepernick and his seemingly talented receiver core must produce.

Verdict: New Orleans

Miami Dolphins at Detroit Lions

In a year where certain traditional powers are faltering, it feels like there is a big chance for the Detroit Lions. The Lions lead the way in the NFC North, and field the NFL’s top defensive unit, whose dominance up front has seen them concede the fewest average points of any NFL team. Calvin Johnson is coming back into a wild attacking line up, where Golden Tate has thrived in his absence. Matt Stafford may be erratic, but if he can just get the ball to those two guys, the Lions will have a shot in every game. They are a top ten passing side, but are hampered by an inability to run the football. The Lions were in a similar position this time last year and blew it. How they finish the season will tell us all we need to know about this group.

The Miami Dolphins impressive batting down of the San Diego Chargers last weekend was a loud declaration of their intent to make the playoffs. A 37-0 win against a team with a winning record is about as impressive a feat as they could have managed. Ryan Tannehill’s play has improved inexorably since the London game, and although the deep balls are still not flying, the Miami offense is ticking over nicely. An ability to run the ball has been huge, and Lamar Miller’s re-emergence has been very timely. A big road win here would really set pulses racing.

Verdict: Detroit

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills have taken a big step this year. This youthful side has emerged from their recent shambolic persona to make a real stand in the AFC East. Sure, they had to bench the young quarterback EJ Manuel for the veteran Kyle Orton, but the likes of Sammy Watkins on offense and Marcell Dareus on defense have really brought something different to Buffalo. Their dynamism on both sides of the ball is clear to see, and they are a real contender for a wild card spot. The Bills currently hold the record for longest post-season drought, so January football would be warmly welcomed in upstate New York. A requirement for making the playoffs? Win home games against tough opposition. This weekend will be big in Buffalo’s season.

The Kansas City Chiefs have taken a dramatic upswing in recent weeks. They started the year very poorly, but have since risen to second in the AFC West on the back of big wins against the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers. Alex Smith has always been an underappreciated quarterback, and this year is all the more impressive because of his lack of receivers. But a very big piece in the Chiefs turnaround has been their outstanding pass defense, which is ranked as the NFL’s best.  They haven’t been great against the run, but if the Chiefs continue to dominate the time of possession and start forcing more turnovers, they will be a coaches dream. And probably a playoff team.

Verdict: Kansas City

Dallas Cowboys at Jacksonville Jaguars (London Game)

It has been a real tough year again for the Jacksonville Jaguars. There were signs last season that things were turning around for them, and then the slump hit them full pelt in the face at the start of the year. Their positives lie on the defense, with the pass rush in particular performing very well. Averaging three sacks a game in the NFL isn’t easy, and the Jags have gotten real pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Unfortunately for them, when a clean pass does come out, their bottom-three secondary can’t make plays. Blake Bortles is getting playing time, but is making a lot of turnovers as he adjusts to NFL life. Yet they have found some offensive weapons in the likes of Allen Robinson, Denard Robinson and Allen Hurns, and recently beat the Cleveland Browns. They are used to playing in London, which may be a big advantage.

The Dallas Cowboys fairy tale season is unravelling quickly. They are on a two game losing streak, have fallen behind the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East, and face the choice between a hobbled Tony Romo and a sub-par Brandon Weeden to start at quarterback in London. Expect DeMarco Murray to have the offensive effort be put squarely on his shoulders, but the Arizona Cardinals were able to keep him in check last weekend. Hard to expect the Jags to match that effort, but this could well be a very close and competitive game.

Verdict: Jacksonville

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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