NFL 2017: The UK Games

The NFL has today announced the 4 games from the 2017 season that will be played in the UK. A roaring success over the years, this will be the most games played in the UK as part of the International Series so far, with games being played at Wembley in Weeks 3 & 4 and Twickenham in Weeks 7 & 8.

With this in mind, here is a quick look at the games that UK fans can choose to see next year. The beauty of the NFL is that the league is always trying to keep a level playing field for all 32 franchises, so a team’s fortunes can completely change from one season to the next. For this reason, a game that this year looks completely unappealing could very easily be a potential game of the season this time next year.

So without further ado, let’s have a look at the UK’s upcoming fixtures (2016 records correct as of the end of Week 14):

Week 3/4 – New Orleans Saints (5-8) @ Miami Dolphins (8-5)

At first glance, this is my pick for the best game of the 4. They may not be having the best of seasons in 2016, but with future Hall of Fame Quarterback Drew Brees playing, there is always a good chance of victory on the day. The link between him and speedy Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks can lead to a touchdown from anywhere on the field and will keep fans excited whenever the New Orleans offense is on the field.

2016 has seen Miami quietly put together a very good season. One of the most impressive young Head Coaches, Adam Gase has done a great job taking the Dolphins offense to the next level, helped greatly by some breakout performances from Running Back Jay Ajayi. Being a London-born player, I can already see the UK media putting heavy focus on the Jay Train in the build-up to this game.

If this game comes down to a shootout between the two offenses, fans are in for a real treat!

Week 3/4 – Baltimore Ravens (7-6) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11)

We always knew that the Jags would be returning to the UK again this year. With talk of a future UK-based franchise continuing, the Jags remain the favourites to make a permanent base here. Unfortunately my dark horses for the AFC South Division title this year have not performed as would be expected for a team with the quality of players they have. Could 2017 finally be the year that everything comes together for them? As a fan of the divisional rival Tennessee Titans, I went to the Jags’ Wembley game against the Bills the other year hoping for a Bills win, but by the end I was cheering as loud as anyone when they got the winning touchdown. If they can get things right in 2017 this could be a great team to watch live, if not then at least we still get to watch the ROAR of the Jaguars again.

While Jacksonville may currently be trying to decide if Blake Bortles is the right man under center for 2017, the Ravens know they have their man in Joe Flacco. Though he may not always be the most reliable,  Flacco has arguably one of the strongest arms of any NFL QB, which seems to be helping WR Mike Wallace get back to his best form. With top quality players like Terrell ‘T-Sizzle’ Suggs and Eric Weddle on defense, this is a team that could – and probably should – be pushing for the playoffs each year.

If both teams play to their potential, then this could be a fantastic game. If one team is struggling though, this could easily turn into a horribly one-sided game.

Minnesota Vikings (7-6) @ Cleveland Browns (0-13)

NFL bosses must have known how fond us Brits are for an underdog when picking the Cleveland Browns. While they are not helped by being in a division where at least 2 teams will frequently be fighting for a playoff berth, it is safe to say that Cleveland have a long way to go before they can consider a playoff run. While there are a couple of high quality players in the roster – Terrelle Pryor, Joe Haden and Jamie Collins being the most notable – there are a lot of holes that need filling. Above everything, Cleveland need to find a franchise QB, arguably the most important player in professional sport!

To think that the Vikings currently hold a winning record having lost their starting Quarterback and star RB Adrian Peterson, also with sub-par play from the offensive line, just shows how good this team could be. Teddy Bridgewater was being considered as a franchise QB before this season, but could be in a battle for the starting spot if Sam Bradford remains on the roster next season. The Vikings were the last team to lose their unbeaten start in 2016 and could theoretically be even stronger next year, but keeping Peterson healthy or finding a quality backup to him is vital.

At first glance, this looks like the least enticing of the 4 games. The big draw for this game will be a chance to see Adrian Peterson in the flesh, a treat for any NFL fan.

Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1) @ Los Angeles Rams (4-9)

Coming into this season, the Cardinals were widely tipped as a potential Super Bowl contender, now they are fighting to finish the season with a winning record. After a disappointing season, there is a good chance that Arizona will be moving on from Carson Palmer at QB, but any replacement will have a good arsenal of weapons, most noticeably RB David Johnson, who could have been a candidate for league MVP had the team been more successful this year. With a secondary that contains Patrick Peterson and ‘The Honey Badger’ Tyrann Mathieu, this is a team that can be exciting to watch on offense, defense and special teams.

A poor first season back in LA has seen the Rams fire Head Coach Jeff Fisher, so expect a very different team at Twickenham compared to what we’ve seen this season. They have some good players on offense – Recievers Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin, RB Todd Gurley – but need much better play from their Quarterback moving forward. It’s been a tough season for 2016 number 1 draft pick Jared Goff, having played 2nd fiddle to Case Keenum for the 1st 9 games and not greatly impressing since. Hopefully with another offseason under his belt, 2017 will be a much more productive season for him. The strength of the team at the moment is their defensive line, led by Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn. With the right person at the helm, the Rams could be one of the most improved teams in 2017.

It’s very easy to suggest that this is a matter of how many points Arizona win by, but at this point we just don’t know what to expect from the 2017 Rams. The good news here is that being a Divisional game, there will be an extra incentive for LA to get a result.

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A Welcome Bonus?

This week it was announced that Bonus Points will be added to the 6 Nations competition as of 2017. The biggest shake-up to the tournament in years, the announcement has certainly divided opinion in the rugby world. Having spoken to 4 of my close friends, I have found myself feeling very much positive about the change, but only half of them have agreed with me.

Moving forward, the points on offer in the 6 Nations will be:

  • Win – 4 points
  • Draw – 2 points
  • Loss –  0 points
  • Scoring 4+ tries – 1 bonus point
  • Lose by fewer than 7 points – 1 bonus point
  • Win all 5 games (the Grand Slam) – 3 bonus points

While it may not impact the standings every year (the 2016 table looks the same under both point systems), here are my thoughts on what this change means to the competition:

Attack! Attack! Attack!

While the last couple of 6 Nations tournaments have had thrilling final weekends, the rest of the tournament has not regularly reached even close to the same level of excitement. Admittedly, February and March are not always the best months for playing expansive rugby from your own 22, but hopefully the new bonus points will encourage more attacking play. Teams are clearly able to score tries, they just need the incentive to do so throughout the tournament.

It frequently comes up in conversation how different the quality of rugby appears to be when you see teams from the Rugby Championship (maybe excluding South Africa at the moment) executing stunning attacks involving everyone on the field. The skill set seems to put more of an emphasis on playing rugby rather than physically dominating your opposite number. It can be highlighted by the decision of the Welsh coaching staff to repeatedly pick Dan Lydiate, arguably a great defensive player and relentless tackler but not much of a factor in attack, in favour of Justin Tipuric, who frequently impresses with his ball-playing abilities in open play.

Hopefully the addition of bonus points will lead to teams being more willing to go for the try, leading not just to the selection of talented attacking players, but also to a change of mindsets to encourage more penalties to be kicked to the corner rather than at goal. It will hopefully also encourage teams to continue playing for the full 80 minutes in the hopes of getting something from the game, reducing the number of games where the final 20 minutes feel like 2 teams going through the motions. Surely this can only be good for the fans…

Protecting the Grand Slam

The idea of introducing bonus points to the 6 Nations is not a new thing. Whenever it has been mooted previously, I have liked the idea behind it, but been worried about the possibility of a team winning the Grand Slam but losing the tournament to a team who has lost a game but earned more bonus points. Luckily, someone had their thinking cap on and included an extra 3 bonus points for beating all the opposition.

I’ve done the maths here (maybe with the help of a calculator) and calculated that the minimum number of points that can be earned in a Grand Slam campaign (5 wins, no 4 try BPs, 3BPs for the GS) is 23. The maximum number of points a team with 4 wins and a loss can manage (4 wins, 5 BPs for 4 tries, 1 BP for losing by fewer than 7) is 22.

The ultimate prize of the Grand Slam has been protected by the people at the top, which was surely the biggest worry whenever bonus points were considered previously. Players are used to this points system from their domestic leagues and the World Cup. With the caveat of the extra points for a Grand Slam, doesn’t it make sense to make this points system universal in the top league?

What next?

The change to the points system will be in effect for the U20’s 6 Nations as well as both the men’s and women’s 6 Nations tournaments in 2017, with plans to review it after the tournament. I am a bit surprised that it will be reviewed after just one season, but hope that it is given a real chance and not ditched if the effect is limited in the first year. It may take fans a bit of time to get used to it, but I have faith that it will be well received for the most part if given a chance.

This could possibly be the biggest shake-up to the tournament since the inclusion of Italy, but I am sure that it won’t be so long until the next one. The performance of Georgia in recent seasons has rightly led to many calling for them to be brought into the tournament, either through an expansion or the introduction of promotion and relegation. I am very much in favour of expansion, but definitely feel that whatever the decision is, it needs to be sooner rather than later. This Autumn has shown that the quality of International Rugby in Europe is at a high point right now, it needs to be given every chance to flourish, and what better way than to have regular games between Tier 1 teams and Tier 2/3 teams.

What will happen next? Only time will tell…