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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019

The Redzone: NFL playoff push gathers pace

Last weekend went a long way towards determining who will reach the postseason this year but this weekend could all but seal it for some teams.

Houston Texans' Keshawn Martin (82) pushes off Chicago Bears' Kelvin Hayden last Sunday.
Houston Texans' Keshawn Martin (82) pushes off Chicago Bears' Kelvin Hayden last Sunday.
Image: Nam Y. Huh/AP/Press Association Images

LAST WEEKEND THE the Atlanta Falcons, the 15th team to start 8-0 since the NFL expanded to 16 regular season games in 1978, became the 15th team to fail to finish the season undefeated when they lost to the New Orleans Saints.

The Saints, who started the season 0-4, have now won four of their last five games to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Aside from Saints fans, last weekend was also great if you enjoy watching NFL highlights rather than the entire game. A total of 614 points were scored on Sunday, making it the second highest total ever on a Sunday featuring just 12 games. The record was 625 points on 25 October, 1987.

On the downside, four teams lost their starting quarterbacks last weekend as Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger all had to leave the field early with injury, the first three with concussion.

While that almost certainly means the penalty flags will fly if a defender so much as looks at a quarterback this weekend, it also adds to the tension in a couple of really key games in the battle for the playoffs.

Chicago Bears @ San Francisco 49ers

Two of the top five defences in the NFL will meet on Monday night but most attention will be focused on who is calling the plays for these two. While both are listed as doubtful, it seems much more likely that Alex Smith will play. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure the thoughts of Jason Campbell versus Colin Kaepernick will whet anyone’s appetite.

The loss of Cutler is huge for the Bears though. He may not get the protection he deserves from his offensive line but at least when he’s on the field the Bears pose a dual threat. With him gone, it’s difficult to see how the Bears run game can make any inroads into the 49ers defensive line, ranked third in the NFC.

If Smith plays, and it seems likely now that he will having been cleared for practise, the 49ers will probably look to protect him by relying heavily on their number one ranked rush attack (170.2 yards per game). However, given that Chicago rank fourth overall against the run, allowing just 92.3 yards per game, this could become one of those rare low-scoring, yet fascinating, NFL games.

Verdict: I give Jay Cutler almost as hard a time as his offensive line but, if he is out on Monday, the Bears become far too one-dimensional. 49ers by 5.

Indianapolis Colts @ New England Patriots

For the 10th year in a row, these two teams will meet. However, while Tom Brady and company are well used to facing down a number one overall pick across the trenches, it will be their first chance to see Andrew Luck in the flesh.

Luck has led the Colts to four consecutive victories and has passed for 2,631 yards and ten touchdowns. He’s also shown he is not afraid to call his own number with 159 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Indeed, his five scores are already a single season record for a Colts quarterback. Not bad for someone who is carrying the enormous weight of expectation Luck must bear.

The Patriots are the only team in the AFC East to boast a record better than .500 and could so easily be 9-0 with their three losses coming by a combined total of four points. However, they now find themselves in a four way battle for a top two seeding in the AFC playoff race and a win here is a must if they hope to avoid the wild card weekend.

Verdict: It’s very difficult to back against the Chuckstrong movement at the moment but the Patriots and Brady have found ways of defeating number one overall picks before and I think they’ll do so again this weekend. Patriots by 3+.

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Always a tasty game; for me this AFC North encounter has actually been enlivened by the crucial injuries suffered by both teams. The loss of any of Ray Lewis, Lardarius Webb or Ben Roethlisberger would make for interesting viewing anyway, if only to see how their teams adapted, but the loss of all of three makes this a must watch.

The Ravens are coming in to Heinz Field on the back of a franchise record 55 points against the hopeless Oakland Raiders. They scored through the air, on the ground, through special teams and on defence. If you’re a Ravens fan, you’re probably flying pretty high right now.

However, scoring on the Raiders and scoring on the number one overall defence in the NFL are two remarkably different propositions. Without Roethlisberger on offence, the Steelers will have to look to their run game even more than they have done in recent weeks against the Ravens 26th ranked run defence.

Verdict: The Steelers are 9-6 without Big Ben at quarterback but five of those six losses have come against the Ravens. It’ll be close but Ravens by 5 for me.

All fixtures and predictions:

  • Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills – Bills
  • Arizona Cardinals @ Atlanta Falcons – Falcons
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Carolina Panthers – Buccaneers
  • Cleveland Browns @ Dallas Cowboys – Cowboys
  • Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions – Packers
  • Jacksonville Jaguars @ Houston Texans – Texans
  • Cincinnati Bengals @ Kansas City Chiefs – Bengals
  • New York Jet @ St Louis Rams – Rams
  • Philadelphia Eagles @ Washington Redskins – Redskins
  • New Orleans Saints @ Oakland Raiders – Saints
  • San Diego Chargers @ Denver Broncos – Broncos

Open thread: What’s the best goal you’ve ever seen scored?

5 things we learned from last night’s Ireland-Greece game

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About the author:

Steven O'Rourke

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