Thursday, 18 September 2014

NFL Week 2 Review

Another week completed and another mixture of comebacks, upsets and massive performances in the NFL. However early it is, there are worrying signs for expected playoff contenders New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Francisco. The Patriots, Bears and Packers returned to form after disappointing performances in the opening weekend, and will hope to get some real form going in Week 3. And the likes of Jacksonville and Oakland are living up to the dismal pre-season expectations. 

Here are a few big match reviews, along with the rest of the scores (home team listed first):

San Diego Chargers 30-21 Seattle Seahawks
A big upset with the mighty Seahawks defense unable to shut down the Philip Rivers / Antonio Gates combination, which hooked up for 3 touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch was strangely underused and Russell Wilson couldn't quite get enough going to pull the Superbowl champions through. A glimmer of hope for the NFC West rivals Arizona (2-0) and San Francisco (1-1). 

Chicago Bears 28-20 San Francisco 49ers
Another surprising result, another hat-trick of touchdowns for the home team (this time Brandon Marshall) and another big comeback. The 49ers led 17-0 and 20-7 but fell apart in the 4th quarter, with Colin Kaepernick in particular putting in a dismal performance. Jay Cutler and the Bears have a strong offensive unit but any team hoping to make it to the latter stages of January will have to avoid such frailty.

Minnesota Vikings 7-30 New England Patriots
The Pats had suffered a surprise loss in Miami last week so a trip to Minnesota presented a genuine danger of falling 0-2 for the first time since 2001. The Vikings had thrashed the Rams away from home on the opening weekend but went into this fixture in turmoil with Adrian Peterson (the NFL's best running back) arrested for child abuse. The added pressure on quarterback Matt Cassell led to 4 interceptions and a thumping win for Tom Brady and his team.

Denver Broncos 24-17 Kansas City Chiefs
The new top-ranked team in the league (with the Seahawks slipping) would have expected to maul their AFC West rivals but in the end had to resist a late rally just to secure a one score win. Despite the absence of Jamaal Charles, Kansas City threatened the Broncos all the way to the death but just couldn't get it done.

Other notable matches included the Colts throwing away a golden position against a fearsome Eagles offense, the league's best defensive player, JJ Watt, scoring a touchdown on offense for Houston and a crushing win for the Redskins potentially signalling the beginning of the end for iconic but injured RG3

Here is a list of the remaining results:


Indianapolis Colts 27-30 Philadelphia Eagles
Buffalo Bills 29-10 Miami Dolphins
Carolina Panthers 24-7 Detroit Lions
Cincinnati Bengals 24-10 Atlanta Falcons
Cleveland Browns 26-24 New Orleans Saints
Green Bay Packers 31-24 New York Jets
New York Giants 14-25 Arizona Cardinals
Oakland Raiders 14-30 Houston Texans
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-19 St Louis Rams
Tennessee Titans 10-26 Dallas Cowboys
Washington Redskins 41-10 Jacksonville Jaguars
Baltimore Ravens 26-6 Pittsburgh Steelers


Heading into week 3, the last week before bye weeks begin (6 teams don't play a match in week 4), the big match ups are Broncos-Seahawks in a Superbowl rematch in Seattle, the Patriots likely to decimate the utterly dreadful Raiders and 0-2 Colts going to divisional rivals (and also 0-2) Jaguars, who are surely only a loss or two away from starting Blake Bortles.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

NFL Week 1 Summary

Could Megatron break his own
single season receiving yards record?
With Week 1 of the NFL 2014 season coming to an end, we can a have quick review of the opening round of fixtures. There were standout and expected performances from big names such as Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, AJ Green and Peyton Manning. The teams expected to challenge for the Superbowl generally looked strong, particularly the Seahawks and Broncos. And there were a lot of last year's troubles being seen again by the likes of the Tony Romo (Cowboys), Eli Manning (Giants) and Robert Griffin III (Redskins). A run down of some of the biggest games:

Rodgers didn't attempt a single pass
even remotely near Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks 36-16 Green Bay Packers
Last year's Superbowl champions made a massive statement, thumping a potential challenger for this year's title. Like Man City crushing Liverpool in the Premiership a couple of weeks ago it was very much a case of asserting who is boss. Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson as well as the defense looking even better than last year. Aaron Rodgers couldn't perform his magic on the toughest stage.

How Tom Brady spent most
of Sunday afternoon
Miami Dolphins 33-20 New England Patriots
Last year's AFC Championship finalists (like losing semi-finalists) New England hadn't lost an opening day fixture for 11 years until they were comprehensively beaten by divisional rivals Miami. Tom Brady looked a shadow of the superstar he has been and the Dolphins dominated in every aspect in the second half. 

Dallas Cowboys 17-28 San Francisco 49ers
There was a lot of optimism going into this season for Dallas, with a refocused Tony Romo at quarterback and wide receiver Dez Bryant ready for a truly great season. With the 49ers defense expected to struggle compared to the last few years the opening 15 minutes couldn't have been more of a surprise. Fumble returns, interceptions, incomplete passes, it all went wrong for the Cowboys and in reality the score could have been a lot worse. Bryant also had to go off for dehydration which scuppered any realistic chance of a comeback. 

Denver Broncos 31-24 Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a 24-0 lead with three touchdown passes to tight end Julius Thomas. With Andrew Luck throwing two interceptions before finding his groove in the second half, it was too little too late. The Colts were unable to take advantage of multiple chances to make a real game of it and showed the same frailties on the offensive line and rush defense as last year.

JJ Watt celebrating a sack on RG3
Other headlines included a couple of overtime wins for the Falcons (against the Saints led by Drew Brees) and the Bills (a surprise win at the Bears with Jay Cutler misfiring and Alshon Jeffrey going off injured). Last year the Kansas City Chiefs started with a 9-0 record but started this season with a tame loss at home to the pretty weak Titans. Robert Griffin III struggled again, although admittedly up against the mighty JJ Watt coming for him. It could have been worse as well if top draft pick Jadeveon Clowney hadn't gone off injured.

This coming week, look out for Broncos slaughtering the Chiefs, Rodgers finding his mojo at home to the Jets and the Colts Eagles game on Monday night racking up 70-80 points. 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The NFL is back

The last couple of years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of the NFL in the UK, particularly as a result of the Wembley games and decent media coverage (intentional pun for the serious followers). As the new season punts off this week, there are a whole range of stories to pique the curiosity of the even the most occasional fan. The first openly gay player was drafted but didn't make the final cut for St Louis Rams; the Seahawks are aiming to become the first team to retain the title since the '04-'05 Patriots; London's adopted team Jacksonville Jaguars have signed exciting prospect Blake Bortles and there are a record 3 matches at Wembley this year for the UK fanbase to follow.

My bet for this season's MVP
This Thursday night sees a blockbuster beginning to the 2014 NFL season with the reigning Superbowl champions Seattle hosting many people's outside pick for the title, the Green Bay Packers. Much like the championship game in February, this year's opener will be a clash of the best defense (Seattle) against one of the league's best offences. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the best player in the NFL and is back after missing a lot of last season due to injury. The match is also the first clash of these two since one of the most controversial moments in recent NFL history, the so-called Fail Mary, when the Seahawks won on a last minute touchdown which should have been disallowed.

The greatest team in the history of American Football, or indeed any sport, the Indianapolis Colts, start their season with a huge match up against the Broncos. Colts legend now in Denver, Peyton Manning, set records for passing yards and touchdowns last year, before defeat in the Superbowl and will be looking to go one better this time around. 
This time last year Indy were coming off their dramatic 2012 season and looking to build on Andrew Luck's rookie year. They ultimately lost to the Patriots in the playoffs (something Colts fans are familiar with) but did record impressive regular season victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos as well as beating the Chiefs in the second highest comeback victory in NFL history. With a stronger group of wide receivers there could be more success ahead but the reality is that weak options at running back mean that a Superbowl run is unlikely this time around.

For those who haven't got a clue when it comes to the gridiron, have a browse here. Some of the best players to look out for are Calvin 'Megatron' Johnson for Detroit Lions (Wide Receiver), Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks (Cornerback), Adrian Peterson for Minnesota Vikings (Running Back), JJ Watt for Houston Texans (Defensive End). As the season develops over the next 17 weeks we'll see who else can distinguish themselves, and ultimately who is going to be competing in Superbowl XLIX.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A Chance for Someone New?

With the US Open starting today, there has to be a chance of an outsider taking a debut Grand Slam title for the second time this year. None of the usual suspects are on top form and some of the next generation such as Raonic and Dimitrov are starting to turn potential into ability. Both reached maiden Slam semi finals at Wimbledon and in the near future that may well become victories. Flushing Meadows also has a tendency to be a productive tournament for players who only win one or two in their career. Rafter, Safin, Hewitt, Roddick, Del Potro and Murray all won their first major in New York and none have managed more than 2 in total.

Perhaps it's because it's later in the season and so there can be fitness issues affecting the field. The fatigue element may well have played a part in Federer failing to win since the last of his 5 consecutive titles in 2008, aged 27. He has won each of the other Slams since he last triumphed in New York, but not even reached the final here. The Swiss star's dominance coming to an end has brought about a season of the title changing hands each year. The last 6 years have produced 5 different winners (only Nadal x2) and no-one has defended their title from the previous year. That trend will continue again with this edition with Nadal's withdrawal due to injury.

Nadal's absence means that since his Grand Slam debut aged 17 at 2003 Wimbledon, he has been missed 7 majors, including one in each of the last 3 years. To compare, Federer's debut was at Roland Garros 1999, also aged 17. Since then he has never been absent, missing out only 1999 US Open main draw by losing in qualifying. Tomorrow he will appear in his 60th consecutive Grand Slam. Nadal will not overhaul Federer's record of GS titles, because his absence (and injury) record limits how many he has the chance to win. Rafa has actually only won 1 Slam outside of Roland Garros in the last 4 years and it's pretty unlikely he'll still be at the top of his game when he's 32.

Normally you'd think that Nadal's absence would mean the title is pretty much a guarantee for Murray or Djokovic. As it happens, both have been on a fairly feeble run of form, the Scot losing in the QFs of his last 3 tournaments, the Serb in the last 16 of his last 2. Of course they will rise to the big occasion but in the significantly tougher side of the draw, (Djokovic, Wawrinka, Tsonga, Murray, Raonic, Isner), it will take a mighty turn of form for either of them to be holding the trophy aloft in a fortnight. Federer has shown at Wimbledon that he is still in the hunt for the majors and with a relatively weak route to the final (Karlovic, Fognini, Dimitrov, Ferrer), he may well put the American drought behind him. That being said, his performance the last two years doesn't fill you with confidence if you're a Fed fan (2013 Last 16 loss to Robredo, 2012 QF loss to Berdych). For once, none of the major players look like safe bets.

Hence why it might just be the time for a breakthrough from someone new...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

India Collapse and England Emerge

Just under a month ago the Lords test had finished and as far a lot of people were concerned, so was Alastair Cook. Virtually every name in English cricket had been suggested as an alternative to the captain, Anderson looked like he could still get banned and India appeared to be a genuinely decent test match team.

My last post said we had to keep faith with Cook but it was influenced by the lack of alternatives and a general principle that it's best to stick by a captain. Look where we are now. Cook has proven himself both resilient and determined, gritting his teeth and demonstrating exceptional self-confidence. Under immense pressure from himself as well as the press, he stood up and was counted. Three 50s in the last four innings is an ideal way to head into a massive break from test cricket, although he'll be disappointed that he couldn't get a century, especially against an increasingly dispirited and weary Indian attack, lacking genuine test-match class. Which is perhaps a fair summary of the Indian squad in general...

The desperate batting displays have of course taken the headlines and will be the main focus of attention for India going forward but in truth their bowling needs serious work as well. Kumar had a great IPL and was the only bowler to be able to exploit the conditions consistently here. Although Ishant had one good session, he is pretty one-dimensional and bowls too many leave-able deliveries, only really threatening on a hard bouncy wicket or as a change-up from swing/seam bowling. Beyond these two, the likes of Binny, Pankaj and Shami offer so little sustained threat. Aaron is only young and Ashwin never had any runs to work with or a 4th innings target to defend. 

The batting was undeniably abysmal, and progressively worse but I feel like it was more of a mental weakness and collapse than a lack of talent. Pujara, Dhawan, Kohli and Rahane will still be the backbone of an Indian team which will grow and strengthen over the next few years. With a little more maturity and fortitude, a little less Twenty20-style approach, they will be challenging the best again before too long, if they can sort the bowling and bring in a few new names (watch out for Akshar Patel, Sandeep Sharma and Mohit Sharma).

As for England, the signs are of course positive. Turning round a potentially dreadful summer into an ultimately victorious one will give England a massive boost before the Ashes next summer. The issue with who opens alongside Cook remains, as does the reality that we are heavily reliant on Broad & Anderson in the bowling department. Moeen is a batsman with the potential to be a real class act and has demonstrated glimmers of becoming a quality spinner as well but both sides of his game need work to really develop into a high level all-rounder. Anyone who thinks he is a replacement for Swann needs to wait until Warner, Clarke and Watson have come to tea next year. The reality is that we've been flattered somewhat by our opponents collapsing in various ways, something I can't imagine Australia or South Africa ever really doing. 

With India's strength, the limited overs matches, coming up straight away, it is important for England to finish the job and keep the improvements coming.