This Week in: The NFL – Superbowl XLVII

This Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens will meet in the 47th Super Bowl, this year to be contested in the Superdome of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Here is a look at the two teams who will be contesting it, along with my prediction for who will win the Lombardi Trophy.

49ers legend Joe Montana - winner in all four of the Super Bowls he contested
49ers legend Joe Montana – winner in all four of the Super Bowls he contested

History

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were the first professional sports team to be based in San Francisco, with the franchise coming into existence in 1946, 11 years prior to baseball’s New York Giants moving to the West Coast.  Their most successful era came in the 1980s, when they had legendary quarterback Joe Montana under center, as they won Super Bowls in 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989.  After Montana had been traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993, his replacement, Steve Young, led the team to a 5th title in 1994 but since then, the franchise had not returned to the Super Bowl until this year.  San Francisco’s nickname of the 49ers is a reference to the California Gold Rush of 1849, which helped the city grow both economically and in population.

Baltimore Ravens: The city of Baltimore lost their first NFL franchise in 1983, as the Colts moved to Indianapolis after 30 years in Maryland, during which time they achieved one Super Bowl victory – in 1970 – with a team that featured one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Johnny Unitas.  Following the bolting of the Colts, the city went without football until 1996, when Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns franchise there, though upon their creation, the Ravens – named for the famous poem by one-time resident of Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe – were treated as an expansion team rather than a relocated one (and Cleveland got a new iteration of the Browns just three years later, so no fan base was left without a team).  In 2000, the Ravens made their only Super Bowl appearance against the New York Giants, with linebacker Ray Lewis – who has been with Baltimore since 1996 and will play his final game before retirement this Sunday – with the Most Valuable Player award in a 34-7 win.  Joe Flacco was drafted to be the new quarterback in 2008 and he was the first rookie to win a road playoff game and his total of six career victories in such contests is an NFL record.

Road to the Super Bowl

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers earned the NFC West title – and a first round bye in the playoffs – with an 11-4-1 record in the regular season, with the turning point of their year being the 24-24 tie against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10.  During that contest, they lost first choice QB Alex Smith to a concussion and his replacement, Colin Kaepernick, has not relinquished the starting job since he took over against the Bears the following week, leading the 49ers to a 32-7 victory over Chicago and five wins in their final seven games.  It was in their playoff matchup with the Packers that the value of Kaepernick over Smith became truly apparent, as he threw two touchdowns and ran for 181 yards and two scores – the best ever rushing performance by a quarterback in the postseason.  Two weeks ago in Atlanta against the top seeded Falcons, Kaepernick led San Francisco back from a 17-0 deficit to claim a 28-24 victory and a trip to New Orleans, where the 49ers have the opportunity to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for most ever Super Bowls, with what would be their sixth title.

Flacco has upped his game once again this postseason
Flacco has upped his game once again this postseason

Baltimore Ravens: Although several of their performances had not been impressive – notably the 9-6 and 16-13 victories over the Chiefs and Chargers respectively – Baltimore had a 9-2 record heading into Week 13 of the regular season and were in contention for a first round bye.  However, defeats in four of their final five games saw them slip to the number 4 seed and that dismal run of form made it seem unlikely they would be serious contenders in January.  Nevertheless, after a slow start against the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens took care of business in that matchup and then beat the top two teams in the AFC on the road, winning in Denver and New England.  The 28-13 defeat of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game was revenge for Baltimore, who had lost to the same opponents, at the same stage and in the same stadium last year.  During the postseason, Flacco has thrown for 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, while he also racked up a road victory for the fifth consecutive season, at least one in each of the years he has played in the NFL.

The Head Coaches

I am somewhat surprised that none of the major sports networks or websites have picked up on this story, but the head coaches of the two teams who will meet in the Super Bowl are actually brothers.  Unlike the Mannings, who timed their appearances in the NFL’s showpiece game for different years, the Harbaughs will now face off against each other for the first time since their infamous 1975 Christmas Day ABC’s Monday Night Football board game marathon that ended in a 98-91 victory for younger brother Jim Thanksgiving 2011, when John’s Ravens defeated Jim’s 49ers, 16-6. Continue reading

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This Week In: English Football – Cupsets Galore and Midweek Premiership Preview

Scott Rendell celebrates his winning goal for Luton against Norwich
Scott Rendell celebrates his winning goal for Luton against Norwich

For the first time in the Premiership era – which began in the 1992/3 season – a non-league side knocked out a top flight club in the FA Cup last]Saturday, as Luton Town won 1-0 away at Norwich City.  The Hatters – who have slumped all the way down to the Conference after their halcyon days of the late 1980s, when they were in the old Division One and won their only major trophy, the League Cup , in 1988 – were lucky not to concede a penalty in injury time when Lathaniel Rowe-Turner handled in his own area, but on the whole they full deserved their victory, which was earned through Scott Rendell’s strike in the 80th minute.  Luton’s “reward” for beating Norwich is a game against Millwall in the next round – a fixture that ended in an infamous riot at Kenilworth when the two teams met in the FA Cup sixth round back in 1985.  The Lions had earned their own progress by defeating Aston Villa 2-1 at the Den on Friday night – a result that was technically an upset, though it was hardly a shock given Villa’s poor recent performance – including being knocked out of the League Cup by Bradford City earlier in the week – and, despite Millwall being in the Championship, the gap between the two sides was only 12 places – fewer than the number between Manchester United and the side they beat 4-1 at the weekend, Fulham.

The lack of dominance by the Premiership teams in the FA Cup was particularly evident on Sunday, as three top flight sides took on opponents from the lower leagues and none of them led their respective matches at any point, with two of them ultimately exiting the competition.  Oldham provided the biggest upset of the day, as they outplayed a Liverpool side two divisions above them and won a five goal thriller at Boundary Park, 3-2.  Although Brendan Rodgers had rested some of his regular starters for the game, including Steven Gerrard, it was still an unlikely victory for Paul Dickov’s men, as they had managed just one point from their last eight league matches heading into this tie.  Chelsea did manage to keep alive their defence of the trophy as they earned a late 2-2 draw away at Brentford, though the shushing gesture that Fernando Torres made to the home supporters after his equaliser was completely unnecessary and showed how far he has dropped from being one of the most feared strikers in Europe, to taking issue with some good-natured abuse from fans of a League One club.

Tottenham Hotspur were not able to match their London rivals feat of getting away with a draw, as they lost 2-1 at Elland Roads against Leeds United – who completely deserved their victory and whose two goals were taken splendidly.  Spurs lined up without a striker in their starting eleven, as Jermain Defoe has been struggling with an injury and Emmanuel Adebayor is playing in the African Cup of Nations for Togo, but the entire team played without desire and they appeared to think they only needed to turn up in order to win the match.  From the first minute, Leeds were quicker to the ball and stronger in tackles – something you would expect from a team managed by Neil “Colin” Warnock – and several of the Tottenham players appeared unable to complete even a simple pass to a teammate, with Scott Parker and Steven Caulker being guilty of regularly giving away possession.  While much is made of Arsenal’s lack of trophies since 2005, Spurs have not won the FA Cup since 1991 and in those intervening 22 years, they have claimed only two League Cups, have never been in the title race and have not made it past the semi-final stage in any other competition.  Barring an unlikely victory in the Europa League this season – which has a strong lineup of clubs for the knockout stages this year – this barren spell will continue for Tottenham and the only aim we realistically have is finishing fourth to qualify for the Champions League – another trophy we will not win, but it will make more money for the club, which unfortunately is what modern football is all about.  While I recognise that it is only by being Europe’s premier club competition that a team can attract the best players and pay competitive wages, but merely finishing in the top four each year is not success in itself, yet that seems to be the sole focus of the board. Continue reading

This Week in: English Football – Spurs Hold United and the Hazard of Being a Ball Boy

Dempsey earns Spurs a snowy point against United
Dempsey earns Spurs a snowy point against United

Last Sunday’s encounter at White Hart Lane had all the hallmarks of being a typical match between Tottenham and Manchester United – which invariably end with a win for the Red Devils.  Spurs dominated the game, had far more attempts on goal (23 versus just 6 for United), yet found themselves behind at half-time after – ex-Arsenal player – Robin Van Persie was left unmarked in the box (twice actually during the move) and headed the away side in front.  On a snowy day in London, Tottenham tried to take advantage of Aaron Lennon’s pace on the right side of the field and the diminutive winger got the better of Patrice Evra, as he has done before in several meetings of the two teams, but Spurs could not draw themselves level.  Shortly after the interval, Clint Dempsey had a great opportunity to equalise, but shot straight at De Gea when he had just the keeper to beat from 8 yards out, but the American made up for that miss in injury time, as he converted a pass from Lennon to give Andre Villas-Boas’s men a point for which they were very good value.

In his post-match interview, Sir Alex Ferguson complained about a penalty that was not given when Wayne Rooney went down under a challenge by Steven Caulker, suggesting that at 2-0 the game would have been out of Tottenham’s reach and United would have held on for three points, but this missed two crucial points.  Firstly, Rooney was the one who created the contact and should actually have been booked for diving, which would have later resulted in him being sent off as he was cautioned for fouling Lennon.  Secondly, Manchester United have missed five of their last nine penalties, so merely being awarded another would not have guaranteed that they would extend their lead.   Tottenham deserved at least a draw from their performance and, although they missed out on the chance of beating United twice this season, they did avoid losing to them in a league campaign for the first time in 23 years.

Manchester City were able to close the gap between themselves and their neighbours to five points over the weekend, as they beat Fulham 2-0 at the Etihad, with both goals coming from David Silva.  Liverpool brought their Premiership goals scored tally up to 40 for the season, a quarter of which they have recorded in games against Norwich, as they followed up their earlier 5-2 success at Carrow Road with a 5-0 victory over the Canaries last Saturday.  In the two London derbies, Chelsea scored twice early on against Arsenal, then held on in the second half despite Theo Walcott’s strike for the visitors, to secure their first home win of 2013; and across in the East End, Joe Cole netted to claim a point for West Ham against Queens Park Rangers, who had opened the scoring through their new French striker, Loic Remy.  Despite a three game unbeaten run against Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham, QPR remain bottom of the table, four points adrift of Wigan, who lost 3-2 at home to Sunderland, and Reading, as the Royals came from behind to beat Newcastle at St. James’s Park, with both goals for the visitors coming from substitute, Adam Le Fondre. Continue reading

This Week in: English Football – Arsenal vs Chelsea and Spurs vs Man United

He just wanted a hug...
He just wanted a hug…

Last Sunday, Manchester City overcame Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates, though they were aided by facing ten men for the majority of the game, after Laurent Koscielny was sent off in the 9th minute for hauling down Edin Dzeko in the area.  The Bosnian saw his subsequent penalty saved, but he atoned for that miss with a strike in the 31st minute, which doubled the lead for the champions, as James Milner had lashed in from close range 10 minutes earlier.  Mancini’s side were themselves reduced to 10 men in the 75th minute when Vincent Kompany was dismissed for a reckless challenge on Jack Wilshere, but Arsenal were still unable to make a break through and they fell to their first home league defeat against City since 1975, leaving them six points adrift of the Champions League qualification places, though they do have a game in hand.

Manchester United maintained their seven point lead at the top of the Premiership over their neighbours, thanks to a 2-1 win over their old rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford.  The home team had taken the lead through a smart finish by Robin Van Persie, then the Dutchman provided the assist for United’s second with a 54th minute free-kick that Patrice Evra headed in, via a deflection from his teammate Nemanja Vidic.  Liverpool had brought new signing Daniel Sturridge on at half-time and the former Manchester City and Chelsea striker reduced the deficit three minutes after Vidic’s goal, but he missed a great chance late on to earn a point for his new club and United held on for their 9th win in their last 10 Premier League encounters.  During the week, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez admitted to diving, a revelation that is right up there in shock value alongside Lance Armstrong finally having the ball to admit he doped, or me confessing to being a Tottenham fan.

Talking of Spurs, they were held to a goalless draw by former manager, Harry Redknapp’s new club Queens Park Rangers, as he adopted the same defensive tactics that used to frustrate him when he was in charge at the Lane.  In a relatively low scoring weekend for the Premiership, the games between Everton and Swansea, and Norwich vs Newcastle, also both ended 0-0; while Chelsea bucked that trend by scoring four at the Britannia, including two for new signing Jon Walters…wait, no he still plays for Stoke and thus scored two own goals, then missed a penalty trying to find the new for his own team – not his best outing.  On Wednesday night, Chelsea had their rearranged fixture against Southampton – which had to be postponed due to their involvement in the Club World Cup in December – and they appeared to be heading for victory with a 2-0 half-time lead through goals by Demba Ba and Eden Hazard.  However, Southampton came back to earn a point with a 2-2 draw, leaving Rafa Benitez with just one win in his six domestic home games since taking over at Stamford Bridge and he was once again subjected to boos by the Chelsea fans. Continue reading

This Week in: The NFL – Championship Round

Colin Kaepernick after his first rushing touchdown against the Packers - if only the lad had more confidence
Colin Kaepernick after his first rushing touchdown against the Packers – if only the lad had more confidence

In last week’s Divisional Round, Colin Kaepernick – in just his 8th NFL start – set a record for rushing yards by a quarterback (181) in the postseason, as he led the 49ers to a 45-31 victory over the Packers in San Francisco.  Green Bay were unable to defend the zone-read option offense their opponents employed but, despite that, they still had an opportunity to build a resounding lead early on that could have sent the game in a completely different direction.  During the 49ers first drive, Kaepernick threw an interception that Sam Shields returned for a touchdown, then after the two teams had traded scores, the Packers forced San Francisco to punt the ball away at 14-7 down.  However, instead of having the chance to drive down the field and extend their lead, Green Bay allowed the score to be tied after Jeremy Ross fumbled the kick and C.J. Spillman recovered the ball for the home side, leading to Kaepernick’s first passing touchdown (of two) for the day.  On their next possession, the Packers once again turned the ball over, as Aaron Rodgers made an uncharacteristically sloppy pass that was intercepted, after which Kaepernick and San Francisco took over and ran away with the game.  While Rodgers did not have his most impressive outing, the 31 points that Green Bay registered (although 7 of those were in garbage time, when the result was beyond doubt) represents the third highest total an opponent has recorded against the 49ers this year and it was the lack of any coherent defense that led to the Packers exiting the playoffs at the Divisional Round stage for the second consecutive year.

The other NFC matchup saw the Atlanta Falcons advance thanks to another last-minute comeback, something they achieved despite having led 27-7 heading into the fourth quarter.  Seattle were kept off the board in the first half, despite having been deep in Atlanta territory on two occasions – the first of which led to a turnover on downs after a failed run attempt on 4th & 1; while the second came to an abrupt end as the clock ran out before the field goal unit could get setup following a sack on Russell Wilson.  The rookie QB led the Seahawks back into the game in the second half, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another, then a 1 yard run from Marshawn Lynch appeared to have completed the comeback for Seattle with just 31 seconds remaining.  Nevertheless, that was enough time for Matt Ryan to earn the first playoff win for the Falcons since they drafted him in 2008, as he completed two long passes to put his team in field goal range, then watched as Matt Bryant made the kick – following a failed attempt which had been nullified by a Seattle timeout – that sent Atlanta to the NFC Championship game.

Over in the AFC, Baltimore provided the upset of the postseason thus far, as they beat the top seeded Broncos in the second period of overtime.  The two teams had traded touchdowns throughout the game, both putting up 14 points in the first quarter, followed by 7 in each of the next three, though Denver will be disappointed that they were unable to maintain the 35-28 lead they held with less than a minute remaining, as Joe Flacco was able to find Jacoby Jones with a 70 yard TD pass over safety Rahim Moore’s head to tie the score.  The Broncos ran the final 30 seconds off the clock rather than attempt their own final minute drive – seemingly because the cold weather was inhibiting Peyton Manning’s ability to throw deep – and neither side could find a breakthrough in the first fifteen minutes of extra playing time, but when Manning threw an interception towards the end of that period, he gifted the Ravens great field position that they ultimately converted into the winning field goal.  Baltimore will now head to New England for the AFC Championship game for the second year in succession, as the Patriots took care of the Texans 41-28, with Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes en route to securing his 17th playoff victory as a starting quarterback, beating former 49ers QB, Joe Montana for most all time.  The only bad news for New England came in the form of another injury to Rob Gronkowski, with the tight end now ruled out for the remainder of the postseason with a broken arm. Continue reading

This Week in: The NFL – Divisional Round

An injury to Robert Griffin III scuppered the Redskins' chances of advancing
An injury to Robert Griffin III scuppered the Redskins’ chances of advancing

In last weekend’s NFC Wild Card round playoff matchups, the Seattle Seahawks overcame an early fourteen point deficit to defeat the Redskins, 24-14, in Washington.  They were helped enormously by an injury to the home team’s quarterback, Robert Griffin III, which badly hampered the rookie’s ability to move and thus severely limited their offense.  Despite the Redskins being unable to score again after the opening 15 minutes, Seattle did not take the lead until midway through the fourth-quarter, as both teams struggled to move downfield in the first part of the second half.  In the end, RG3’s troublesome knee – which had forced him to wear a brace for the last few weeks, as well as in this encounter – gave way and with it went the hopes of the Redskins, though if he can recover from this injury in time for next season, they can expect to qualify for the playoffs on a regular basis.  The Seahawks will now face the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round, as the Green Bay Packers took care of business at home against the Vikings, holding Adrian Peterson to 99 yards rushing and QB Joe Webb – who was a late replacement for Christian Ponder, due to an elbow problem – to 180 yards passing, more than a third of which came on a late touchdown drive when the result was already beyond doubt.  The number 3 seed Packers now face a trip to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night, with a place in the NFC Championship game at stake.

Over in the AFC, Indianapolis’ fairy tale season came to an end, as they fell 24-9 in Baltimore – a fixture that also represented the final home appearance for the Ravens’ Ray Lewis, who is due to retire at the end of their playoff run.  It had been a close fight in the first half, with the Colts trailing 10-6 heading into the break, but two touchdown passes from Joe Flacco ensured that Baltimore would advance to face Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos; while Indianapolis can look forward to building around rookie QB for many years to come, following an impressive first season.  In the other game in the AFC – and the least entertaining of the four that were played last weekend – the Texans beat the Bengals 19-13, which marks the second year in a row that Houston has knocked out Cincinnati, while they remain winless against all other opponents in the postseason.

Weekend Preview and Predictions

Last week, 2-2; Regular Season 135-120

4. Baltimore Ravens @ 1. Denver Broncos – Saturday 4:30pm ET

The Broncos won their last 11 games of the regular season, while the Ravens stumbled into the playoffs, so this matchup is widely expected to go to the home team, who have seasoned postseason veteran, Peyton Manning at the helm.  Further evidence for Denver’s advantage is that when the two sides met in Colorado in Week 15, the Broncos prevailed 34-17 – a result that actually flattered Baltimore.  However, the Ravens have had several starters return on defense and should have a better pass rush this time around, while Denver enjoyed the second easiest regular season schedule, suggesting their record may be somewhat flattering.  In both of the AFC Divisional Round fixtures, the home sides are heavily favoured to advance, setting up another showdown between Tom Brady and Manning, who sparred frequently during his time in Indianapolis, but I think Baltimore – perhaps because they were my Super Bowl pick prior to the start of the year – will upset that and win outright in Denver this Saturday.  The Pick – Baltimore +10 over Denver Continue reading

This Week In: English Football – Cup Roundup and Premiership Preview

Alex Lawless scores the goal the secures a win for non-league Luton Town against Wolves
Alex Lawless scores the goal the secures a win for non-league Luton Town against Wolves

Although last weekend saw only two Premiership clubs knocked out of the FA Cup, the third round stage has already produced some upsets, with a round of replays providing the potential for more.  The biggest shocks were at Macclesfield and Luton, where the two non-league home teams knocked out Cardiff and Wolves respectively, the latter of whom subsequently sacked their manager, Ståle Solbakken.  However, there was no fairy tale for Mansfield – who lost 2-1 to Liverpool, albeit somewhat controversially, as Luis Suarez had clearly handled the ball before scoring the visitor’s second goal – nor for Hastings United of the Isthmian Premier Division, who were beaten 3-1 by Middlesbrough.

The biggest top flight casualty was Newcastle, who produced a tepid display in their 2-0 defeat away to Brighton of the Championship, while the other Premiership side to have already exited – Southampton – were beaten by Chelsea, 5-1.  All of the other three encounters between teams currently at the top of the English league pyramid ended in draws: Manchester United forced a replay against West Ham thanks to Robin Van Persie’s stoppage time equaliser; Arsenal scored twice in two minutes to take the lead after they had been trailing in their game at Swansea, but the hosts forced the tie back to the Emirates with their own late strike; and Kieron Dyer found the net with virtually the last kick of the match to even things up for QPR against West Brom.  Five Premiership clubs were forced into another fixture by lower league opposition: Blackpool earned a 1-1 draw at Fulham; Sunderland had to battle back from 2-0 down away at Bolton to take the tie back to the north-east; Crystal Palace and Stoke ended goalless; and Wigan came from behind to remain in the competition as their home match against Bournemouth finished 1-1.  By contrast, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Everton, Reading, Manchester City or Norwich, had little trouble in all advanced to the fourth round – which will be contested over the final weekend of January. Continue reading

This Week in: The NFL – Wildcard Weekend

Tony Romo throws his 3rd interception against the Redskins
Tony Romo throws his 3rd interception against the Redskins

Week 17 Roundup

Only 9 of the 16 NFL fixtures in Week 17 had anything riding on them and two of those – the Giants 42-7 demolition of the Eagles, and the Bears’ 26-24 win in Detroit – were rendered irrelevant by Minnesota’s 37-34 victory over Green Bay, which clinched the 6th seed for the Vikings and eliminated New York and Chicago in spite of their successes.  The Packers loss opened up the 2 seed for either San Francisco or Seattle if either of them could win – which they both did, as the 49ers overcame the Cardinals 23-17 and the Seahawks ended up with a perfect home record, but had to settle for the 5 seed, as they beat the Rams 20-13.  The results earlier in the day meant that Sunday night’s matchup between the Cowboys and Redskins would give the victor the NFC East title, while the losers would be done for the year.  Washington prevailed, 28-18, with a big hand from Dallas QB, Tony Romo, who threw three interceptions, the last of which clinched the game for the Redskins.

In the AFC, Indianapolis won Chuck Pagano’s first game back after receiving treatment for leukemia – his cancer thankfully now in remission – and in the process ended the chances of Houston of gaining a first round bye.  The defeat for the Texans allowed Peyton Manning’s Broncos to claim the 1 seed, as they beat Kansas City 38-3 for their 11th victory in a row, and the Patriots grabbed the 2 seed with a 38-0 whitewash of the Dolphins in New England.  With all of the other playoff places and positions confirmed, the rest of the games were largely irrelevant – the Bengals defeated an understrength Ravens team in Cincinnati; the Jets lost in Buffalo; Tampa Bay inflicted Atlanta’s only home loss of the year, despite the Falcons not resting their starters having clinched top spot in the NFC; the Titans overcame the Jaguars; New Orleans had their first losing season since 2007 after falling at home to the Panthers; the Steelers beat the Browns; and the Chargers edged the Raiders.  The day after the regular season had ended, seven coaches were fired (including Andy Reid from the Eagles, Lovie Smith from the Bears and Norv Turner from the Chargers), while five General Managers also lost their jobs.  In contrast, the Saints signed Sean Payton to a long-term contract and will welcome him back next year after he was suspended for all of 2012 following the bounty scandal.

Weekend Preview and Predictions

Last week, 10-6; Regular Season, 135-120

6. Cincinnati Bengals @ 3. Houston Texans – Saturday 4:30pm ET

The Bengals have become the popular upset pick this week, as the Texans stumbled into the playoffs and missed out on a first round bye after they lost three of their final four games.  By contrast, Cincinnati won seven of their last eight, their only defeat being by a single point against the Cowboys in week 14, thus they appear to be the team with momentum heading into the postseason.  Nevertheless, the four losses that Houston did suffer this year were all against teams that made the playoffs – the Packers, Patriots, Colts and Vikings – and in this same matchup on Wildcard Weekend last season, the Texans overcame the Bengals 31-10, despite being forced to start their third string quarterback, T.J. Yates.  The AFC’s third seed also has the NFL’s premier defensive player of 2012 in JJ Watt, who recorded 20.5 sacks during the regular season and whose interception of Andy Dalton that he returned for a touchdown last year, swung the game in Houston’s favour.  If the Texans can contain wide receiver AJ Green, the Bengals will struggle to move down the field and I can see them making another early exit from the playoffs.  The pick: Houston -4.5 over Cincinnati Continue reading

This Week in: English Football – Man Utd and Spurs Win Christmas

Balotelli and Mancini grapple during training
Balotelli and Mancini grapple during training

All but two of the Premiership teams (Arsenal and West Ham had their Boxing Day fixture prematurely postponed for a strike that never happened) played four matches inside 12 days over the festive period and the two sides who gained the most points over the festive period were Tottenham and Manchester United, both of whom won three and drew one of their encounters.  The Red Devils maintained their seven point lead at the top of the table by beating West Brom and Wigan in the last week, with an aggregate score of 6-0; while Spurs came from behind at Sunderland on Saturday to win 2-1, then repeated the feat in their home game against Reading, prevailing 3-1 with goals from Michael Dawson, Emmanuel Adebayor and Clint Dempsey.  Tottenham have moved themselves up to third in the Premiership with those results, six points behind the reigning champions, Manchester City, who recovered from their Boxing Day loss at the Stadium of Light to earn a hard-fought 4-3 victory at Norwich, before taking care of business at home in a 3-0 win over Stoke.  However, there was drama on their training pitch today, as pictures show manager Roberto Mancini apparently grappling with his trouble-making striker, Mario Balotelli, with the pair having to be separated by other players.  With the transfer window now open once again, City will be happy to let the Italian forward move to another club, should anyone be willing to meet his wage demands.

On paper, Arsenal’s 7-3 defeat of Newcastle last weekend appears emphatic, but the home side took a long time to put the result beyond doubt, allowing Alan Pardew’s men to equalise on three occasions.  Nevertheless, Arsene Wenger will have been pleased with the clinical finishing his side displayed in the final 17 minutes – a period during which they scored four of their goals – but that momentum did not carry over into their fixture on New Year’s Day, when they were held to a draw by relegation strugglers Southampton, leaving the Gunners in sixth place, four points below the Champions League places.

Two of Newcastle’s goals at the Emirates were scored by Demba Ba, but it looks likely to have been the Senegalese striker’s last appearance for the club, as Chelsea have triggered a £7m release clause in his contract and are set to secure his services before the weekend.  With Ba absent from the squad on Wednesday, Newcastle lost 2-1 against Everton at St. James’s Park, a result that moved the Toffees back up to 5th in the table, after they had slipped a place following a home loss by the same scoreline against Chelsea the previous Sunday.  That victory at Goodison Park was the third in a row for Chelsea, but if new manager, Rafa Benitez, had hoped he might be starting to win over the club’s supporters, that notion quickly evaporated in midweek as the Blues lost at home to bottom-of-the-Premiership Queens Park Rangers, 1-0, with the strike coming from one of their former players, Shawn Wright-Phillips.  Those three points did not lift QPR – who had lost 3-0 at home to Liverpool at the weekend – off the foot of the table, but it did move them level with Reading who, before their defeat at White Hart Lane, had also gained their second win of the campaign last Saturday, as they overcame West Ham 1-0.   Continue reading