Roughead fairy tale born out of necessity

Jarryd Roughead’s return to footy was capped off by being named Hawthorn captain.

It was the feel good AFL story of the summer when Hawthorn announced that Jarryd Roughead, fresh off beating skin cancer, would take over from Luke Hodge as the club’s 36th captain.

From his public announcement that his dreaded cancer had returned and spread in the middle of last year, it was longshot that key forward would ever play again. However, since he joyfully returned to full health, his chances of returning to the Hawks side have become shorter and last week’s announcement certainly confirmed that.

Although it’s great news that Roughead will now captain Hawthorn, the news was somewhat surprising, considering he is still yet to return to the field for a senior game and hasn’t played a single game since the 2015 Grand Final.

Roughead is clearly well loved around the league and Is seemingly on the road to full strength and a return to the field, but it would have made sense for an alternative to be found, at least until the big man had played a decent year of footy in 2017.

The problem the Hawks have and where Roughead’s appointment makes sense is the genuine lack of alternative options.

There is a clear changing of the guard going on at Waverley Park as the premiership era draws towards a close. Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis were both traded in shock deals during the Trade Period, Hodge probably only has a year left, Shaun Burgoyne and Josh Gibson weren’t realistic choices again because of age and Cyril Rioli hasn’t shown any sort of leadership potential throughout his career.

So, the old guard have either moved on or are close to retirement, meaning the Hawks had to look at the mid-tier players, aged in the 24-28 range. Isaac Smith and Liam Shiels were to only two notable candidates around that mark and both must have been in the race as they were awarded vice-captaincy positions beneath Roughead.

The issue with Smith and Shiels is they certainly don’t scream leadership and haven’t had to take on any major roles since being drafted because of that older and more seasoned group leading the way throughout their careers.

This lack of quality leadership options in the “prime” of their careers has been born out of an even bigger issue at Hawthorn, their lack of any quality players in around that age bracket, hence why their Trade Period saga with Gold Coast for Jaeger O’Meara was so drawn out and protracted.

The fairly obvious reason for this dearth of talent is Hawthorn run of recent success which means they either haven’t had draft picks or haven’t prioritised the draft in their list build. Any club would love to not have to worry about the draft, however this is the reality for the Hawks now.

It’s why for the first time since around 2010, Hawthorn aren’t at the top of the list of premiership contenders and an argument can even be made that they are in danger of missing finals for the first time since 2010.

Roughead’s return was going to provide an emotional lift regardless of his standing in the team, but now as captain, the fan favourite will lead a Hawks side, battling father time in an attempt to extend their premiership run.

The Rodgers clock is ticking

Green Bay proved no match for Atlanta, losing 44-21.

On the surface, the NFC Championship game loomed as a battle between two powerful offences and a pair of fairly mediocre defences.

Digging deeper and it became apparent that Atlanta and Green Bay was a match between an almost historic offence against an historic quarterback and an average defence against something turning into a trainwreck.

If Green Bay was going to stand any chance in the Georgia Dome, it was going to require another miracle effort from Rodgers and having produced countless miracle efforts down the stretch and into the playoffs, the magic couldn’t have lasted forever.

Rodgers was fine yesterday, he just wasn’t incredible and against a Falcons powerhouse, Green Bay looked overmatched and out of their depth, bringing back memories from the first half of this season and the 2015 season, where without hall of fame play from Rodgers, the Packers drifted around the edges of the playoffs.

Outside of the quarterback position, Green Bay are an incomplete team, severely lacking the talent on defence to be a true Super Bowl contender. For the fifth time in six years, the Packers reached the divisional round or further without reaching the Super Bowl. This clearly suggests they have major deficiencies which show up every January.

Top of that list is clearly Green Bay’s defence and defensive coordinator Dom Capers was in the gun again yesterday from fans and pundits. Capers has overseen the Packers defence since 2009 and every year it seems to battle.

In fairness to Capers for the NFC title game, the secondary was already ravaged by injury and the loss of Micah Hyde, an important utility piece who played multiple positions in the secondary, was the final nail in coffin. There was already no Sam Shields.

Ladarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent in his rookie season, was already playing a larger role than previously envisioned and above his current ability. Man-on-man coverage against Julio Jones was always going to be a slaughter and Jones’ 180-yards and two-touchdowns failed to invalidate any predictions.

Outside of the hospital ward secondary, Green Bay’s front seven is aging and lacks any playmakers. Their pass rush failed to put any indent on Atlanta’s offensive machine, Clay Matthews has been non-existent all playoffs and Julius Peppers is reaching the end of the road.

It wasn’t a fair fight and the Falcons had their way all game, marching up and down the field via a variety of receiving threats and the combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield.

Atlanta displayed a truly great offence reaching peak performance and pre-game assumptions that Green Bay were a match proved to be unfounded.

Mason Crosby’s missed field goal on their opening drive was an ominous start and an Aaron Ripkowski fumble in the redzone on the next drive meant alarm bells were ringing, the Packers did not have the capability to reel in a two-score deficit, not against this Falcons team and by half time the game was over.

With Green Bay forced to play catch-up, it highlighted issues on offence that were simply masked in their playoff run by number 12. Their running game was non-existent and a one-dimensional offence took away any mystery, allowing the Falcons to zero-in on the passing game.

Eddie Lacy will return from injury next season, however his inconsistencies throughout his career brings in to question the level of improvement they can expect from Lacy over Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael.

Focusing on the passing game, Rodgers is constantly lauded for his ability to make any receiver great, which while a compliment for the QB, questions the ability of each receivers. Without Jordy Nelson last season, the Packers offence lacked speed and the ability to separate and these issues still remain. Rodgers ability to throw receivers open is unparalleled but it’s not sustainable. Those wild improvised plays are incredible, but Green Bay need to operate in a standard offence.

For all of Rodgers’ greatness, the era in Green Bay still only has one Super Bowl and a litany of heartbreak playoff losses. Their defence has been a constant battle throughout this entire period and the 2016 effort shows it still requires some extensive remodelling.

Surviving off ridiculousness from Aaron Rodgers is fun and exciting, but it cannot create legitimate playoff runs. He needs help, right now, while the magic is still there.

Kansas City’s regular season dominance means little without playoff success

Alex Smith led the Chiefs to another early playoff exist against Pittsburgh.

If you had compiled a list of all the factors that would lead to a Kansas City loss on Monday, most would have been ticked off.

An inability to stop Le’Veon Bell, an anaemic offence, the limitations of Alex Smith and of course, good old Andy Reid playoff clock management.

The two-point loss to Pittsburgh is another gut punch for an organisation which is starving for playoff success and an awful contrast to the regular season form of a franchise often considered underrated with the ability to rip off wins in the regular season.

The Chiefs are 23-9 over the past two regular seasons, winning a division title and making two trips to the playoffs. The net result of this supremacy? A single playoff win, over Brian Hoyer and a Houston side which fell apart at home.

On the surface and in the box score, you see a side which didn’t give up a touchdown, scoring two of their own, yet losing due to a playoff record six-field goals from Chris Boswell. There was also more unwanted history by becoming the first team to score two more touchdowns than their opponents and lose in the playoffs.

However, looking deeper, the loss is far more brutal. Kansas City left a litany of yards out on the field, wasted scoring chances and made some critical mistakes at important times which saw them knocked out again in a game where they were outplayed, yet was still very winnable.

Defensively the Chiefs followed their “bend but don’t break” mantra, allowing yards while still becoming incredible stingy in the redzone and despite a feeling that the Steelers always had the upper hand, they still never scored a touchdown.

Through the air they largely kept Ben Roethlisberger in check, even if they couldn’t force consistent pressure up front, limiting Big Ben to 224-yards and stymying Brown’s influence after a 52-yard bomb in the first quarter, while covered by Justin Houston, keeping him to 56-yards for the rest of the game and importantly keeping him out of the endzone.

The Chiefs lost the game on offence and Smith was one of the main culprits. There’s a clear ceiling on having Smith at quarterback, somewhere between the heights of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and the dregs of your Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick and every so often you see his limitations.

For all the hype of Kansas offensive playmakers, it’s really two players and the Steelers made it their mission to limit the impact of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Hill had little influence on offence, minus drawing the attention of linebackers to open up space for teammates. He didn’t have a single punt return and there were no vintage kick returns to light up Arrowhead Stadium. Kelce disappeared after the first quarter and had two brain fades, the first a 15-yard penalty on a ridiculous unnecessary roughness call and after the game, abusing the refs for calling Eric Fisher’s obvious hold. He always dropped a catchable touchdown pass, all combining for an ugly night from their star tight end.

Outside of that, they didn’t get enough from their run game, rushing for a total of 61-yards and Jeremy Maclin was the second-best receiver with 28-yards, although some of that is on Smith. Even the idea that your most explosive offensive players are a tight end and a return specialist, suggests you lack playmakers in key positions.

Back to Smith, he had a massive chance to score earlier on the final touchdown drive as he missed Maclin on a deep ball in the redzone, throwing to the wrong side, stopping a certain touchdown for the wideout and he also missed Hill when the speedy receiver had burned the Steelers secondary, only to see Smith scramble out of a clean pocket.

For all the effort from the Chiefs defence to keep it tight, it felt like a one-sided game and there was never a feeling that Smith was going to rise another level to legitimately make it a contest.

An event much more of a certainty than a Smith-led comeback was Reid’s famous playoff clock management rearing its ugly head again and of course it did on an eight-minute touchdown drive in the final quarter which left them almost no time to get the ball back after their failed two-point attempt.

The slow pace was made worse by stupidly wasting a timeout before a key fourth down play, when surely you would have two plays lined up on third down in case you didn’t initially convert.

The Chiefs’ march through the regular season under Andy Reid is often ignored, but they show a level of consistency and ability to just pull out close games which few teams can match. However, it all goes away in January, leaving opportunity and reason for Kansas City to be ignored.

And for all the hype of Arrowhead being a fortress rivalling even that of Seattle, the Chiefs have staggeringly won just two-playoff games at home since 1970. Two! They are also 0-4 when going into the playoffs as the number one seed.

Those stats obviously aren’t all to do with the current Andy Reid-led team; however, it does highlight an offseason ineptitude which continues to plague the AFC West side.

So now the inevitable questioning must commence about how far Kansas can go under the current regime and what does stability mean early in the year when it generates little at the end.

The league may not notice Kansas City’s consistency from September to December, but there’s no shying away from what continues to happen in January.

Divisional Round Preview: At least make it a challenge

Houston were shutout in New England in the regular season, a repeat of that is on the cards.

If there was one upside from a fairly mediocre wildcard weekend, aside from Aaron Rodgers’ domination and a second week of “Boatgate”, it was that only eight of the best teams remain, setting up a mouth-watering (or as Ray Lewis likes to say, “mouth got water”) divisional round featuring three dream match-ups.

On the NFC side of the playoff bracket, you could mix up the four remaining combatants in any combination and only get great games. Seattle didn’t really exceed expectations in their 26-6 win over Detroit, however at least they are peaking and the hint of a dangerous running game led by Thomas Rawls and a defence which is still formidable suggests they will at least make it tough for Atlanta.

Green Bay travelling to Jerryworld would be a suitable NFC Championship game with Rodgers’ playing at an all-time level and looming as a serious roadblock for the 13-3 Cowboys team that would definitely have preferred a meeting with New York, despite the fact that the Giants swept their division rivals in the regular season.

Kansas City hosting a white-hot Pittsburgh looms to be an intriguing matchup as Le’Veon Bell looks to follow up his impressive playoff debut, this time against a fiercer defensive unit in front of an opposing and raucous crowd at Arrowhead Stadium.

So three of the best possible match-ups fill this weekend, a good way to move on from the previous weekend of one-sided romps which included an overmatched Connor Cook, Matt Moore recovering from a concussion in the space of a few minutes and Odell Beckham putting a hole in a Lambeau Field locker room wall, his lone highlight after a poor game.

The one tiny issue with the second round of the playoffs is the obvious fact that there are four games this weekend. The fourth game of course features the Houston Texans, a team which to their credit did what they had to do and eliminated the Raiders behind a solid defensive showing and surprisingly competent quarterback play from Brock Osweiler.

Despite this, the Texans are really the only team that doesn’t belong in the final eight. They lucked out against the Raiders, with Derek Carr on the sidelines, watching on TV on the other side of the US. So well done for getting this far, but realistically they would have been the easy beats for whoever was lucky enough to host them and who gets that privilege on Sunday? Why who else but the New England Patriots.

It’s amazing how the universe decides each year, how can we make it even easier for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? They already have an uncompetitive division in which they’ve ruled for almost the entire 21st century, they already have the smartest coach in the league who despite being superior already, makes it his mission each and every week to embarrass the slew of mediocre coaches in the league. And they already have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, who has the means to access the best care and recovery methods to ensure he can play at a top level until he’s 65.

No, it’s not enough letting them sleepwalk through the regular season into a division title and usually a bye week, let’s make their playoff path as simple as possible. The Patriots go into Sunday’s game as almost unbackable favourites, it’s a mere certainly that they won’t only win, they’ll destroy Houston for another divisional round blowout.

Just look at the recent history of who New England has faced for a trip to the AFC Championship game. Last year they met a Chiefs team which was overmatched offensively to keep up with Patriots and even threw in some insane Andy Reid clock management, winning by a touchdown in game which was never that close. In the 2013 season, they waxed Indianapolis 43-22 after the Colts had come off a shootout with the Chiefs. In 2012 they faced their first meeting with Houston and won by 13, and in 2011 they were able to enjoy a match-up with Denver, led by Tim Tebow, right after the magic had disappeared, crushing the Broncos 45-10.

It makes sense though that in 2016 the Pats would get an “Advance straight to go” into the Championship game. After surviving the horrors of “Deflategate” in the opening month of the season, New England have had a ridiculously easy schedule for a Super Bowl contender and the added benefit of key injuries in the AFC making it even more of a cakewalk.

The Pats faced only four-playoff teams in the regular season for a total of five games and even that doesn’t tell the true story. Two of those games were divisional games against the Miami, the second of which coming against Matt Moore. They faced Houston, who as stated above, shouldn’t be in the playoffs at this point and even faced the Steelers with back-up Landry Jones as quarterback.

Their playoff path was made much easier once Carr went down, meaning they would avoid having to face both Kansas City and Pittsburgh in the playoffs and heck, even with Ryan Tannehill going down it meant their final game against the Dolphins, which netted them the top seed, became a non-event.

So hopefully we can move on past Deflategate when the Pats lead 35-7 in the third quarter and Osweiler is being roasted on Twitter and recognise how easy the Pats have it every year.

Here are the four games, while I’ll go and be sick.

Seattle @ Atlanta (-5)

The 2012 divisional round epic played out between the Falcons and the Seahawks has quietly been forgotten as truly memorable playoff classic. Russell Wilson sat on the verge of being a playoff hero in his rookie year, leading the visitors in a two-minute drill, with Marshawn Lynch scoring a touchdown with just 25 seconds to go. Matt Ryan quickly answered and moved the home team into field goal range in 17 seconds, where Matt Bryant did the rest, claiming victory for Atlanta. The teams don’t seem as evenly matched this time around with the Falcons having a superior offence to last time and Seattle a defence closer to average.

The Falcons are going to put up at least 30-points, they have done that in almost every game this season, so can the Seahawks match that? Their hope comes at the line of scrimmage, where in Week 6, Seattle overpowered the Falcons offensive line and put consistent pressure on Ryan. They also limited Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to 50-rushing yards on 17 carries. However, Ryan still threw for 335-yards and three touchdowns and that was in Seattle’s building.

Apart from Vic Beasley, the Seahawks won’t face a ferocious pass rush, so they will be able to keep Wilson upright, however they simply don’t have the weapons and are not playing well enough to top Atlanta.

Houston @ New England (-15)

See above, this will be a whitewash. A fun game to play while watching the Texans get blown out will be to count the number of JJ Watt sideline shots. The reported number last Sunday was 16, he’ll try to top that this week.

Green Bay (+4.5) @ Dallas

For the second playoff weekend, the Packers look set to be in the juiciest match-up of the four-game slate. If it lives up to expectation, their meeting with the Cowboys will be a good one. Rodgers and the Green Bay offence overcame a slow start at Lambeau and turned on the jets in a second half demolition of the Giants.

The star QB has returned to peak performance about a year-and-a-half of more mediocre form. A quick sidenote on that, there’s a lot of revisionist history going on regarding Rodgers and his struggles in the first half of the season, it’s almost as if it never happened because he’s playing so well now. There’s nothing wrong with criticising a player and an offence when they’re not performing, even if it is Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers.

For Dallas, they watched the Packers obliterate a Giants defence which is far superior to their own. The positive is their offence can work to control the clock and limit Green Bay possessions and Rodgers’ time on the field. The wildcard is Dak Prescott’s first playoff game, will he be nervous? Will he miss some throws early? And will he turn the ball over?

This is going to be tight and for all of Green Bay’s good work on this winning run, the Cowboys regular season dominance can’t be discounted or forgotten. Jerry Jones will be looking extra smug in his luxury box at the end of this one. #Dezcaughtit

Pittsburgh @ Kansas City (-1.5)

The closest match-up and the toughest game to call sets up an epic in Kansas City. Pittsburgh didn’t do their chances any harm in Miami seeing as that game was over midway through the first quarter. The Dolphins may have made it interesting on the scoreboard, but the Steelers were always a couple of gears above their opponents.

The unveiling of Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger as a trio on offence did not fail to disappoint. Bell smoked Miami for two touchdowns, Brown did the same and Roethlisberger completed his first 12 passes. The only lowlight was an injury to Big Ben which left him in a moonboot, however knowing his history; the moonboot was probably more for affect than anything.

Kansas City are at a level above Miami and it’s hard to see a scenario of the Chiefs getting blown away early. This is a big game for the Chiefs, it’s time they capitalised on two-seasons of regular season consistency and went deep into the playoffs. Their defence is comparable to last season where they fell at this hurdle; however the addition of Tyreek Hill on offence is the real wildcard. They’ve lacked a spark on offence in past seasons; however the rookie sensation can open up the field for Alex Smith, who has a patchy playoff record (2-3). Get it done Kansas City.

Wildcard Weekend Preview: Why can’t we have 12 decent playoff teams?

Jay Ajayi rushed for over 200-yards and two-scores against Pittsburgh in Week 6.
An up-and-down regular season, marred by lower TV ratings, a lack of power teams and patchy quarterback play is now over and we’ve reached the playoffs where most would have hoped 12, at least competent teams would have escaped the mire to provide some entertaining games in January.

That hasn’t quite happened, in fact not only did few fresh contenders emerge down the stretch, but Super Bowl calibre teams have become weaker, with injuries ravaging most of the AFC. It’s created a situation where the six playoff teams in the conference provide us with a quarterback list of Tom Brady, Alex Smith & Ben Roethlisberger (tick) and Connor Cook, Brock Osweiler and Matt More (cross).

From this motley crew of quarterbacks, it’s created two things, 1. A clear path for the Patriots to waltz into another Super Bowl and 2. A fairly lacklustre wildcard weekend slate.

It seems fitting that in this season so many teams would get knocked with major injuries or have lost all form by the time we entered the playoffs.

Houston have no business being division champions or playing in the postseason, Oakland’s hope died with Derek Carr’s broken leg, Detroit’s incredible run of early season luck appears to be over and Moore has replaced the injured Ryan Tannehill, weakening an already pedestrian offence. Throw in a Seattle team which hasn’t produced the form required to contend and it’s a mix of also-rans filling up half of the playoff spots.

There is some good news, Green Bay has backed up Aaron Rodgers’ proclamation from late November that they would run the table and are on a six-game winning streak. Atlanta’s offence is fully fit and absolutely firing, Kansas City look stronger than last year and New England & Dallas have emerged as legitimate number one seeds in any season, not just the weakened 2016 campaign.

The Houston, Oakland barnstormer to open the postseason looms as a non-event as we look forward to a far from memorable quarterback battle between a first-time starter and guy who was benched as recently as Week 15, after floundering as the Texans’ starting QB. Still, it’s not like this game will come without precedence and will even follow a recent tradition of stinkers on wildcard weekend. Here’s a short list of similarly lampooned games, like Cook vs Osweiler.

2015 season – Kansas City 30-0 Houston Texans

As bad as Osweiler has been this year, he has a very low bar to reach if he wants to top Houston’s previous playoff disaster. Who could forget the way the Texans were embarrassed in their own buildinf as the Chiefs broke a 23-year playoff win drought. Knile Davis kicked off the beatdown with a return touchdown on the opening kickoff and Brian Hoyer was sent running for the border after throwing four-interceptions.

2014 season – Arizona 16-27 Carolina

If Connor Cook debuting in a playoff game is a shock, then so was the Cardinals’ third string quarterback Ryan Lindley starting in Carolina two years ago. The career back up struggled throwing for just 82-yards and committing two turnovers as Arizona produced an historically bad offensive performance, picking up just eight first downs and gaining 78-net yards on offensive, a playoff record in futility. This all coming against a Carolina team which had finished 7-8-1, surging to win the putrid NFC South.

2012 season – Cincinnati 13-19 Houston

After so many one-and-done playoffs losses for the Bengals, it’s a little hard to remember Andy Dalton’s second attempt at ending Cincy’s playoff drought. Houston were the beneficiaries of a struggling Dalton who threw for just 127-yards, completing less than 50% of his passes.

2011 season – Cincinnati 10-21 Houston

Dalton’s first playoff effort was just as tough as he threw three interceptions and saw his team run over in Houston. The highlight of the game was JJ Watt’s 29-yard pick six and the rough outing was a taste of things to come for the Bengals in the playoffs.

So, as you ponder not waking up on Sunday morning for the AFC playoff clash, remember you’ve seen this all before. And now that we’re here, let’s preview the four games.

Oakland @ Houston (-3.5)

If someone had told you three weeks ago that the Raiders and Texans would meet in the wildcard round and the starting quarterbacks would be Cook and Osweiler, what would be more surprising? The fact that Oakland had lost their MVP calibre quarterback and had replaced him with a debutant, or that Osweiler would somehow start another game for the Texans? It’s a tough call, but certainly once Tom Savage took over for the AFC South champs to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat against Jacksonville, it would have been safe to assume Osweiler was done, at least for this season.

With the $72 million QB back in command of the offence, he actually walks into a decent situation as the Houston playoff narrative has been turned on its head. As the playoffs approached and the Texans loomed as a possible AFC South division champion, contenders for the fifth seed would have been licking their lips at the possibility of a very winnable playoff game. Now it’s the Texans who must sense a massive opportunity.

The Raiders look like a broken team which has succumbed to the fact that without Carr at quarterback, they simply cannot contend in the AFC. Cook faces a baptism of fire against a Texans defence which is strong all around and even better at home. After all that has happened, Osweiler may lead Houston to a playoff victory, good work NFL.

Detroit @ Seattle (-8)

At some point the Lions were going to have to pay for their incredible run of good karma and the final three-weeks of the regular season suggest their 9-4 wasn’t a true indication of the quality of this team. Their offence was stifled against the Giants, they were outmatched by a Dallas offence and simply couldn’t keep up with Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers at the top of his game.

The bright spot for Detroit is their wildcard opponents seem at least one level beneath those three NFC playoff teams and despite winning another NFC West crown, look to be a shadow of their former selves and just don’t seem to pose a threat in the NFC title race. Even with the return of Michael Bennett, the loss of Earl Thomas has been massive and while it’s clearly hurt them in the regular season already, they will truly feel the absence of Marshawn Lynch in January as their running game crawls behind a poor offensive line.

Even with their weaknesses, Seattle look to have the firepower to at least last one more week. Detroit’s own lack of a running game will mean Matt Stafford will need to be on fire and with a suspect middle finger still plaguing the QB, the Clink can celebrate another playoff win.

Miami @ Pittsburgh (-10.5)

Pre season expectations of a dominant Steelers offence haven’t been met by Mike Tomlin’s team and they’ve instead been plagued by inconsistency. Aside from their absolute stinkbomb against Philadelphia, the Steelers’ Week 6 thrashing at the hands of Miami was one of their worst performances of the season. Although unlike the wildcard game this was a road game, the Dolphins ran all over the Steelers D, with Jay Ajayi celebrating his breakout game with 204-rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Pittsburgh also battled away with an injured Roethlisberger who missed a series in the second quarter with a leg injury which came on an interception, completely swinging momentum. A hobbled Big Ben hurting their offence, it was the dominance Miami had over the Steelers’ D which was the biggest surprise.

However, it does look like you can’t take too much from that game. For the first time in a while, Pittsburgh’s offence is fully loaded in January and with Miami battling defensive injuries, particularly in the secondary, this looms as a blowout if Pittsburgh can click. Ajayi will be the key for Miami, they’ll need to lean on his rushing and control possession to stand any chance as they too head into their first postseason since 2008 with a backup quarterback.

New York Giants (+5) @ Green Bay

If there is one game to look forward to on wildcard weekend, it’s this one. A genuine battle between a high-flying offence and dominant defence looms at a frozen Lambeau Field. A fun subplot running through the season has been the thought of the Trilogy taking place in the Super Bowl as the Giants and Patriots both surged into the postseason. A fun omen would be if New York could repeat a feat they achieved in both Super Bowl years by beating the Packers in Green Bay.

Thankfully for Green Bay, Rodgers has returned to not being human and put on a masterclass in Detroit to steal the NFC North title and propel the Packers into another playoff run. Jordy Nelson is a top-five wide receiver again and Davante Adams has made a quantum leap. Their defence is still suspect, however outside of Odell Beckham, the Giants offence has been awful with Eli Manning being the main culprit.

Despite all that, the Giants defence is legit, their off-season overhaul has exceeded expectations and they have the ability on all three lines of defence to match Rodgers and company. It’s going to be Part III and Eli is coming for the Evil Empire once again.

Without Luck, what else does Indy have?

Ryan Grigson has felt the heat after back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

Black Monday passed with little fanfare in the NFL, most of the bloodletting having taken place the night before as Mike McCoy, Chip Kelly and Rex Ryan were all given their marching orders, while reigning Super Bowl winning head coach Gary Kubiak stepped down due to health concerns.

Alongside these departing head coaches, 49ers’ GM Trent Baalke was fired from Levi’s Stadium and it became publicly apparent that Doug Whaley has almost no power as GM in Buffalo.

Two names absent from these lists after another mediocre season in Indianapolis were Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson. The thought of change in Indy following their 8-8 finish came and went with barely a whimper, save a quote from Jim Irsay stating that he was “very unhappy” with his team’s performance during an interview in which he flagged possible organisational changes.

Irsay has every right to be unhappy, not just with this season, but the past two seasons of Pagano and Grigson’s tenure which has spluttered after bright beginnings in 2012 which produced three playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2014.

The AFC South has been jampacked with intriguing storylines this season, from Blake Bortles’ severe regression, the Tennessee revival behind Marcus Mariota and of course the complete flameout of Brock Osweiler in Houston. All of these stories wrapped into another bizarre battle for the division which ultimately fell the Texans’ way despite abysmal quarterback play.

The Colts fell completely under the radar and their .500 finish has been lost in the wash as pundits discuss how Houston are hosting a playoff game, decrying the fact that we have been robbed the chance of seeing Mariota lead their “exotic smashmouth” offence in January after a broken leg derailed the Titans season, sinking any playoff hopes in Week 16.

True is it a shame that Tennessee couldn’t usurp Houston for that 4th seed in the AFC, it’s also a shame that a team led by Andrew Luck throwing for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and a passer rating of 96.4 was beaten twice and finished a game behind a Houston team led by Brock Osweiler who couldn’t top 3,000 passing yards, threw half the number of touchdowns and who finished with a passer rating more than 20-points below Luck’s.

Luck played at a Pro Bowl level and should probably have replaced Ben Roethlisberger as the third AFC quarterback. When an organisation fails to win a mediocre division with QB play like that, it’s a serious indictment on the rest of the team and that’s where Grigson can be blamed.

Outside of QB, the Colts came into the season with a suspect offensive line, a lead back who had turned 33 with severe tread on the tyres, holes all over the front seven and a secondary which had turned into a mess through injury and an overall lack of quality.

The Colts paid for this lack of talent on defence, particularly early where they conceded 25-points or more in seven of their nine games before the bye and suffered close losses against Detroit, Jacksonville and inexplicable collapse against the Texans on Sunday night.

The Colts aren’t close to a Super Bowl contender and really didn’t deserve to make the playoffs in any normal division. However they’re in the AFC South and their situation is inexcusable with a gifted passer like Luck at quarterback.

Both Pagano and Grigson came under fire after the 2015 season, where they also finished 8-8. They had a fair excuse with the absence of Luck for long stretches of the season through injury and were both awarded contract extensions.

This year though, their offence was mainly healthy all season, only Dante Moncrief missed meaningful time. Luck missed just the one game against Pittsburgh, a game in which they were non-competitive.

Pagano has mainly escaped criticism for the past two seasons, with most of the blame being directed at Grigson. After initial success in 2012 via offensive weapons in the draft, the GM’s drafting has been patchy as he’s favoured skill position players, ignoring areas of need. Using another first round pick on a wide receiver in 2015 was the real headscratcher and Phillip Dorsett’s 2016 numbers of 33-catches for 528-yards and a miserly two-touchdowns certainly hasn’t vindicated the pick.

Outside of the quarterback position and the main group of receivers, the current Colts roster is comparable to when Pagano and Grigson took over, following a 2-14 season which anchored Indy as the worst team in the league.

The pair have been given considerable time to overhaul the team and yet still oversee a defence with massive holes and an offensive line which is improving, yet still struggles to protect their franchise QB.

Certainly, three straight playoff appearances rightfully brought them some time, however if you can’t build and coach a team capable of winning the current AFC South, how much leeway do you deserve?

Irsay has traditionally been patient with both head coaches and general managers. Pagano is the team’s third head coach since 2001 and the hiring of Grigson ended a 15-year association with a Polian as GM.

Now though, Irsay’s patience must be waning and change may be needed to revitalise a team which has been stuck in the middle of the league, outside of the playoffs.

Black Monday bypassed the Colts for another season, however change may be on the horizon as Indy needs to start capitalising on having a top-five quarterback in the prime of his career.