Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Challenge Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille and a victory that could help them qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.

rugby Challenge Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Castres, Worcester, Dragons, Enisei-STM

Let’s be honest, this looks like an easy group for Castres. Worcester will likely be fighting against relegation from the Premiership, the Dragons seem to struggle every year and Enisei are always going to struggle to compete in the competition until they get to play weekly against high-level opposition. If Worcester do choose to put in the effort with this competition, they do have the chance of winning home and away against Dragons and Enisei, which could give them a shot of a best runner-up spot.

Pool 2

Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne

If we don’t see 2 teams from this pool qualify for the knockouts, then I’ll be shocked! Bayonne and Irish are both here by virtue of being promoted into the Top 14 and Premiership respectively, so will likely focus on consolidating their league position. The Scarlets had a poor season but if they can get their squad back in fighting shape with no adverse effects from the World Cup, then I think they have every chance of topping the group given Toulon are losing a number of influential players. If Irish’s new stars can quickly gel and they put some effort into qualifying for the knockouts, then I think they have every chance of pushing Toulon down to 3rd.

Pool 3

Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux, Agen

Given the strength of the Top 14, I can’t see Bordeaux or Agen putting too much stake in this competition given they both finished in the bottom 5 last season. Wasps has a poor season and have lost some stars this summer, but they have also brought in some quality replacements and will also have Jimmy Gopperth back from injury, while Lima Sopoaga will hopefully do better this year with a season of playing in the Premiership under his belt. Meanwhile, I expect further success from Edinburgh, provided the aftermath of the World Cup does not impact them too much. If these 2 play in the final week, it would not surprise me if the winner takes the pool.

Pool 4

Stade Francais, Bristol, Zebre, Brive

Like Bayonne, I don’t expect Brive to put any real focus into this competition as they will be looking to stay in the Top 14 following their recent promotion from Pro D2. Zebre showed some promise last season in the Pro 14, but I worry that they may struggle in the aftermath of the World Cup. Bristol and Stade Francais look the clear favourites in this group and if either of them can beat the other away from home, then I would expect to see them finish top.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Pau, Calvisano

Leicester had a torrid season but expect to see them improve this year and challenge for at least a best runner-up spot. Calvisano are a great example of the success Italy are beginning to have since Conor O’Shea came in to sort everything from the bottom up, but I think they will be lucky to get anything other than potential bonus points in this pool. Cardiff are on the up and have signed some dangerous wingers, but Gareth Anscombe will be a loss and they need to hope that Jarrod Evans continues to grow as he has been if they want to progress. Pau look to be the strongest in this pool, especially with Ben Smith, Luke Witelock and Dominiko Waqaniburotu joining, but I don’t expect Leicester and Cardiff to make it easy for them.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Castres, Scarlets, Wasps, Stade Francais, Pau

Best runners-up: Edinburgh, Bristol, Toulon

Who do you think will make the knockouts? If you enjoyed this, you can also find my thoughts on the Champions Cup pools here.

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.

rugby Champions Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton

Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.

Pool 2

Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale

Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.

Pool 3

Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath

Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.

Pool 4

Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys

Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.

Pool 5

Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse

Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster

Who do you think will make the knockouts?

April 2019 in the Premier League

April 2019 in the Premier League

The Premier League took another big step towards the end of its season in April with the confirmation that Fulham would be joining Huddersfield in being relegated to the Championship following their 4-1 loss at Watford.

Spurs played their first league game at their new stadium (the imaginatively-named  Tottenham Hotspur Stadium), a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace, with Son Heung-Min scoring the first league goal at the new stadium. Lucas Moura wrote his name in Spurs history 10 days later by scoring the first league hat-trick at the stadium (against Huddersfield) and Michail Antonio became the first player to score an away goal there in the league with the only goal of a loss to West Ham.


Play on!

After a poor start to the season, Burnley’s escape from relegation continued with a huge 1-3 win at Bournemouth. The third and final Burnley goal was for too easy for the Clarets, as the entire Bournemouth team appeared to stop to appeal for a throw in (replays showed the ball stayed in play), allowing Chris Wood to be the first to a cross in and tee up Ashley Barnes.

I have never understood why players at the top level so frequently stop playing to appeal for a decision. One of the first things I remember being taught when I started playing rugby was to play to the whistle! It can be hard enough for a defence to keep up with an attacking team if they get in behind, giving them an extra advantage by coming to a complete halt while appealing makes it far too easy for an attacker.

With VAR coming in next season, it will be interesting to see if players continue to appeal at the time or if they begin to play on and then appeal if the goal is scored.


Under pressure

April was not a good month for David de Gea, with a number of costly errors both in the league and against Barcelona.

In their 2-1 win over West Ham, Felipe Anderson’s equaliser came about after the Spaniard rolled the ball out but put it between 2 players. Something similar happened a couple of weeks later in the 4-0 loss at Everton as he rolled the ball out to Diogo Dalot at a moment when he was not expecting or looking for the ball, while he also conceded a long-range effort from Gylfi Sigurðsson. Both goals in Machester City’s 0-2 win at Old Trafford were arguably due to de Gea errors too. Arguably the most high profile in the league, though, was a costly fumble of a long-range strike from Antonio Rüdiger, which led to the ball dropping at the feet of Marcos Alonso for an equaliser, the 1-1 final score putting a huge dent in United’s top 4 hopes (by time of writing, a draw with Huddersfield has left it mathematically impossible for United to qualify for the Champions League).

While he has clearly gone through a bad spell at the end of this season, the amount of people jumping to criticise him is crazy when you consider just how many times he has saved United over the years and also how poor the defence has been in front of him, not to mention the rest of his teammates for much of the season! Paul Pogba can choose to put in the effort for maybe half of the season and get away with it, yet due to de Gea’s position in goal, a couple of errors cause an uproar. It’s a lonely position and I feel for him.

I was so happy to see Ole Gunnar Solskjær come out in support of him as he recognises that de Gea is still one of the best shot-stoppers in the world and I’m hoping that the love and support he has received from so many around the team will make him want to stay at the club despite the lack of Champions League football next season.

It would have been interesting to see if Sergio Romero would have been given the start against Huddersfield had a knee injury not ruled him out, but with just 1 game remaining and nothing at stake, it makes sense to me now to keep de Gea in the XI to see out the season.


Just rewards

While the season may not yet be over, the PFA Men’s Player of the Year and PFA Young Men’s Player of the Year have been announced as Virgil van Dijk and Raheem Sterling respectively.

Personally, I find it odd that the award is given before the season itself is over, as the success of the player’s team could have a huge impact on who deserves the award. That said, I am really happy with this year’s winners despite the league results.

I have not been a big fan of Sterling in the past as he would not back up his club performances for England, but now he is putting in the performances for both club and country I am really starting to appreciate just how good a player he has become. In a team of stars, he has been the star for them this season, with 17 goals and 10 assists in 32 games. That said, take Sterling out and I think it has a minimal impact on City’s season as they have such an incredible set of attacking talent.

Van Dijk would have got my vote as if you take him out of the Liverpool back line, I can’t see the Reds doing anywhere near as well this season. Having played in every league match this season, he has lost just 1 match and kept 19 clean sheets. Liverpool have conceded a league-best 22 goals (level with Manchester City, who have played a game less at time of writing) and while Alisson has certainly helped steady things at the back, I feel that the introduction of the Dutchman has been key to their improvement, while also adding 4 goals this season – the most he has scored in a Premier League campaign.


Final prediction

So with Manchester City v Leicester City and just 1 round of games remaining at time of writing, the top 4 is guaranteed barring a Spurs loss, Arsenal win and an overall 8-goal swing in goal difference. So for this piece, I am going to focus on the top 2.

At time of writing, Liverpool have a 2-point lead but City have a game in hand over their title rivals and I will be shocked if they don’t beat Leicester at the Etihad. The final round of matches sees Liverpool at home to Wolves and City travelling to Brighton, and I honestly can’t see either team dropping points there, which means Liverpool finish on an impressive 97 points, but come up just short against City’s 98.


 

NFL Bold Predictions: How Did We Do?

NFL Bold Predictions: How Did We Do?

Back in September and with the NFL regular season about to get underway, 3 friends and I decided to put our necks on the line and show our knowledge of the NFL by predicting the 8 Divisional Champions and the teams that would make it to the Super Bowl.

Now that the regular season is over and the playoffs are underway, it’s time to see how we did on our predictions…

Teams who made it into the playoffs are marked with a *

NFC North

How it ended: Bears*, Vikings, Packers, Lions

The shock addition of Khalil Mack took the Bears’ defense to another level, while the offense was able to do enough to get the victories and win the division. The Vikings fell back this year despite a great start to the season from Adam Thielen and you can’t help but wonder if spending big money on Kirk Cousins was the right decision. An early Aaron Rodgers injury stopped him from performing to the level we expect and with him not at 100%, the team’s deficiencies were all too clear, while the Lions were anything but the king of the jungle.

Our predictions: Me – Vikings, Rob – Vikings, Matt – Bears, Ed – Vikings

Not a great start for 3 of us who were all expecting the Vikings to push on with a franchise QB at the helm, but Matt’s trust in Trubisky paid off for him.

NFC East

How it ended: Cowboys*, Eagles*, Redskins, Giants

In a division that was struggling for quality, the Redskins looked on course to crawl into the playoffs until an injury to Alex Smith derailed their season. The Cowboys got it together down the stretch with an improving defense and an offense that looked much more dangerous once Amari Cooper was added. The Eagles struggled initially with Nick Foles under center but did not drastically improve when Carson Wentz returned from injury and eventually turned back to Foles to scrape into the final Wildcard spot at the Vikings’ expense. The Giants stuck with Eli Manning but it is hard to imagine them doing so for much longer as a 1-5 record against their divisional opponents killed any chance of the playoffs.

Our predictions: Me – Eagles, Rob – Eagles, Matt – Eagles, Ed – Eagles

All of us fell into the Minnesota trap of expecting a franchise QB to lead one of last season’s strongest teams to the playoffs, though Matt’s pick may have also been driven by his Eagles bias.

NFC South

How it ended: Saints*, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers

The Bucs spent most of the season switching between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick in an attempt to get a string of wins together, with generally poor results. The Panthers started 6-2 before a run of 7 defeats ruined their season, while the Falcons lost to all 4 teams from the AFC North to put them out of playoff contention despite a 4-2 record against their divisional rivals. The Saints ran riot this season with the attacking trifecta of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Micheal Thomas almost impossible to stop.

Our predictions: Me – Saints, Rob – Saints, Matt – Saints, Ed – Saints

The first time that all 4 of us were all correct, the balance that New Orleans had in their offense was too strong to ignore and we all had enough faith in their defense to hold strong enough to concede less than the offense scored.

NFC West

How it ended: Rams*, Seahawks *, 49ers, Cardinals

The 49ers’ season was over before it had barely begun after losing Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 3 after having already lost RB Jerick McKinnon before the season even started – with Pierre Garçon also missing half the season, it’s impressive that they even got to 4 wins! The Cardinals season was a disaster as they finished 3-13 with a franchise-worst 1-7 home record. The Seahawks were meant to be in a rebuilding phase but recovered from an 0-2 start to make double-digit wins earn a wildcard spot, while the Rams burst out the gate to be the early leaders, only for a 35-45 loss in a shootout at the Superdome and 2 disappointing losses in December to strip them of 1st seed in the NFC.

Our predictions: Me – Rams, Rob – Rams, Matt – Rams, Ed – Rams

No shocks here with so many teams coming into this season part-way through a rebuild, whereas the Ram’s additions suggested that they are very much in win-now mode.

AFC North

How it ended: Ravens*, Steelers, Browns, Bengals

The Browns are competitive again! With young stars Baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, and with Hue Jackson and Todd Haley fired after Week 8, the Browns put together an impressive run that hints at things to come, while a narrow loss to the Ravens in Week 17 clinched Baltimore the spot in the playoffs at the expense of Pittsburgh. The Ravens also had a midseason change of fortunes after Lamar Jackson was given the nod at QB, while the Steelers were left without Le’Veon Bell – who sat out the entire season – and may be set to lose Antonio Brown after relations appeared to sour during the season. The Bengals started well, getting to 5-3, but only managed 1 win in the second half of the season, with Tyler Eifert, Andy Dalton and A. J. Green all missing significant time.

Our predictions: Me – Steelers, Rob – Ravens, Matt – Steelers, Ed – Steelers

Rob can feel smug here as the Ravens defense saw him be the only person to correctly guess this division’s champion, though I’m sure more of us would have made that pick if we’d realised Bell would sit out the entire season and not just a portion of it.

AFC East

How it ended: Patriots*, Dolphins, Bills, Jets

A 3-0 start soon went wrong for the Dolphins, who promptly lost 7-38 at Gillette Stadium and only picked up 4 more wins all season – though they did manage a remarkable walk-off victory against New England at home. 4-12 was the best that the Jets could do this season but there are positive signs for the development of Sam Darnold. The Bills managed shock victories over the Vikings and Titans when they were both looking strong, but were unable to get enough consistency. The Patriots 2-1 start and poor performances got some people wondering if their dominance was over, but despite maybe not looking as strong as in some seasons, they still finished 11-5 to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Our predictions: Me – Patriots, Rob – Patriots, Matt – Patriots, Ed – Patriots

Given that the Patriots have won the AFC East in 15 of the previous 17 seasons, is it any shock that we all went for them here?

AFC South

How it ended: Texans*, Colts*, Titans, Jaguars

The Jaguars defense couldn’t live up to last season’s performances and Blake Bortles was back to being Blake Bortles. The Titans’ season was ended in Week 1 in hindsight, with Delanie Walker picking up and injury that saw him out for the season and Mariota also going down with an injury that he struggled with on and off the season. Despite this, they kept going and were only denied a playoff appearance with a loss in a winner-takes-all match against the Colts who recovered from a 5-1 start to finish 10-6. The Texans also had a poor start, going 0-3, but a 4-0 divisional record helped them on their way to 11-5 and the top spot in the AFC South.

Our predictions: Me – Texans, Rob – Jaguars, Matt – Texans, Ed – Texans

With questions around a number of these teams, Houston appeared the safe choice assuming everyone could stay fit. I imagine Rob is regretting picking the Jags about now…

AFC West

How it ended: Chiefs*, Chargers*, Broncos, Raiders

The Raiders were a shambles, trading away 2 of their best players in WR Amari Cooper and OLB Khalil Mack. Case Keenum was unable to replicate his form from last season with the Vikings. The Chiefs ran out to 9-1 as Patrick Mahomes wowed fans and pundits alike with his play, however they did lose a couple of matches following the release of Kareem Hunt for off-field issues. Despite a late win in a shootout at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chargers’ loss to Denver in Week 11 saw them finish the season as the 5th seed in the AFC despite having a 12-4 record that only the Chiefs could match – the Chiefs earning the 1st seed by virtue of their record in the division.

Our predictions: Me – Chiefs, Rob – Chiefs, Matt – Chargers, Ed – Chargers

How fitting that in the closest of divisions, this was also the one with the greatest variety in the predicted winner (2:2 rather than 3:1). For this to have come down to record in division games shows just how hard a decision this was to make.

The Final Tally

In what was a very close affair, Rob, Matt and I all finished on 5/8 correct, but Ed finished on 4/8

Super Bowl Prediction

  • Me: Vikings v Patriots
  • Rob: Jaguars v Saints
  • Matt: Eagles v Texans
  • Ed: Chargers v Packers

So it’s safe to say that these predictions were awful! Of the 4 of us, only Matt managed to predict a match-up that included 2 teams to qualify for the playoffs, however even that came to a quick end as the Texans are now out after losing to the Colts in the Wildcard Round.

Now the only question left to answer is if any of us will even have 1 of our selected teams make it to the big game…

NFL Bold Predictions

NFL Bold Predictions

Football is back! The 2018 NFL season kicked off this weekend and in honour of it, I decided to have a look at each Division in the league and try to predict the winner. Obviously it would have been great to get this out before the season started but I only had the inspiration at the last minute and then life got in the way, slowing things down, but I had all the predictions down before the matches started so still felt it was worth putting out.

Now for those who don’t know, I’m a Tennessee Titans fan and as last season was their first playoff appearance since I started cheering for them I’m obviously not the best judge of success, so I decided to get in a few friends to help me:

  • Rob is an old friend from uni, who I got to know through the 3 years. While at uni, he got into American football and began to play for the university’s team, Tarannau. He is (unfortunately) a Jaguars fan
  • Matt is a former work colleague who was actually one of the people who supported me as I initially set up this site. He was the one person at work I could actually have a conversation with about the NFL and not see their eyes glaze over. You can find his blog here. He is an Eagles fan and thinks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles are gods among men
  • Ed is an old friend from school who I recently got back in contact with via social media through a shared love of all things sporty and geeky. He is currently a Patriots fan, but feels dirty to admit it

Now when I set these lads the challenge, I got immediate responses from Rob and Matt but Ed actually took a few days to think about it and came back to me not just with his picks but mini essay’s for each division – in fact it would have probably made a better post than all my rubbish! So as we go through I thought I would throw in some of Ed’s pearls of wisdom too.


NFC North

The Bears will be better with Khalil Mack on defense and Mitch Trubisky entering his second year with an improved receiver corps, however I feel they are maybe 1 year away from competing in this division. The Lions will always be in with a shot as long at Matthew Stafford is throwing big numbers, but again I don’t feel they have the overall quality to make the top 2. The Packers have a great chance to win the division if Aaron Rodgers can stay fit, especially with Jimmy Graham now in Green Bay, however if A-Rod goes down they could easily end up bottom of the standings. For me, the division belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, who will combine one of the best defences in the league with an offense that should go to the next level with Kirk Cousins under center.

Rob’s pick: Vikings           Matt’s pick: Bears            Ed’s pick: Vikings

Ed says: “This is close between the Vikings and the Packers, but the Vikings should be able to build on a good season last year with a top WR corps and Defense now with a solid QB under centre in Kirk Cousins. A fit again packers should push them close in this division and will make the playoffs even without the Rodgers Nelson connection. Excited to see the Bears play this season with Trubisky under pressure to perform and a huge pickup in Khalil Mack – still a side in growth”

NFC East

With OBJ back and Saquon Barkley in the backfield, the Giants should do better than last year, but I do not feel their O-Line will be able to give Eli Manning the time he needs. The Redskins will do well with a strong team, but may be hampered by Alex Smith’s more limited short passing game. The Cowboys’ success depends heavily on Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone I can see them struggling in 2018. The clear favourite here is the Philadelphia Eagles, who may go through a sophomore slump but should still have enough to win the division having strengthened a roster that won the Super Bowl last season, they just need to hope Carson Wentz can get back to the same level when he returns from injury.

Rob’s pick: Eagles             Matt’s pick: Eagles           Ed’s pick: Eagles

NFC South

The Bucs have too many questions at quarterback to compete in arguably one of the tightest divisions in the competition. The Panthers need to hope that the good Cam Newton shows up and players like Greg Olsen can stay fit, but will probably be looking at a wildcard spot as opposed to winning the division. The Falcons have the potential, especially offensively, to win the division but do not usually perform to the level they need to for enough of the season. I give this division to the New Orleans Saints, who will always be able to stay in the game with Drew Brees at QB and a running game that includes Alvin Kamara and (once back from suspension) Mark Ingram Jr.

Rob’s pick: Saints             Matt’s pick: Saints           Ed’s pick: Saints

NFC West

The 49ers may have gone undefeated with Jimmy Garoppolo starting last season but I don’t expect that to last long, especially with Jerick McKinnon now out for the season. The Legion of Boom is gone in Seattle and while Russell Wilson will always keep them in the hunt, I think their questionable O-line will cost them even a wildcard spot. The Cardinals need to hope David Johnson and Sam Bradford can both stay healthy if they are to have any chance of making the playoffs. The LA Rams get the nod here as they have strengthened their defense with Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. This is a team in win-now mode and that’s exactly what I expect them to do this season.

Rob’s pick: Rams              Matt’s pick: Rams            Ed’s pick: Rams

Ed says: “A division that has been turned on its head within two years. Big offseason moves by the Rams look like they are heading for a Superbowl or Bust kind of season this year, no disagreement about their strength all over the field and they should easily win this division. Tough call between the 49ers and the Cardinals but if Jimmy G finds the form he left off on, the 49ers should just grasp the final playoff position in a tight, tight race. Without Russell Wilson the Seahawks would be 0-16!”

AFC North

The Browns are the Browns and there was nothing I saw on Hard Knocks that will make me think they can be genuine contenders, I do expect them to get a few wins though. The Bengals need to hope Andy Dalton have one of his rare above-average years but I don’t see them making it to .500. The Ravens are another team that need to see the best from their QB Joe Flacco, but even if they do I don’t think there is enough talent through the roster to get more than a wildcard spot. Clear favourites here are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their defense may not be the best but can cope in a relatively easy division, while Ben Roethlisberger will love flinging the ball around to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster while James Conner (and Leveon Bell if/when he comes back) will cause havoc on the ground and out of the backfield.

Rob’s pick: Ravens           Matt’s pick: Steelers       Ed’s pick: Steelers

AFC East

The Bills may regret moving on from Tyrod Taylor as Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen fight for the starting job. The Jets showed promise last year but I think they will be happy with an 8-8 season. The Dolphins need Ryan Tannehill to not just stay healthy but also to have one of his best seasons ever. Of course the only team that I could pick here was the New England Patriots. They may have lost some big names (Malcolm Butler, Danny Amendola & Brandin Cooks) and be without the suspended Julian Edelman for the first few games, but it is impossible to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick winning the division, especially if Gronk can stay healthy.

Rob’s pick: Patriots          Matt’s pick: Patriots        Ed’s pick: Patriots

AFC South

The Colts are pinning their season on the health of Andrew Luck, who has not played since the 2016 season, and I don’t think even a top form Luck can make up for the deficiencies in this roster. As much as it pains me to say it, I think the Titans will miss out on a wildcard spot this season as they begin life under Mike Vrabel. The Jags defense is immense but I don’t see how thay can have success with Blake Bortles at QB, especially now his top 3 receivers from last year are gone. Providing the majority of their top players can stay healthy, I would expect the Houston Texans to win the division as they also have a strong defense. There may currently be questions over how Deshaun Watson does returning from an ACL injury, but with Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins on the roster he has better targets than Bortles.

Rob’s pick: Jaguars          Matt’s pick: Texans         Ed’s pick: Texans

Ed says: “Very tough to call between the Jags and the Texans but if they can stay healthy in Houston there is a real buzz around this team on offense, with some absolute stars on D with Watt, Clowney and the addition of the Honey Badger, and I think they’ll make the playoffs. The Jags have the outstanding defense in the league without doubt but Blake Bortles just holds them back here…”

AFC West

Denver has the pass rush and the WR corps to win, but they are relying on Case Keenum replicating last year’s Vikings form, which is by no means a guarantee. The Raiders have some quality on offense but their defense has just taken a huge step back with the loss of Khalil Mack. I expect the Chargers to make the playoffs as they have a dangerous offense containing Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and the ageless Antonio Gates, while Joey Bosa will always be looking for a way to get to the opposition QB. However I think the Chargers reach the playoffs via a wildcard spot and the top spot goes to the Kansas City Chiefs. Though they lost Marcus Peters, they will be getting Eric Berry back, while moving on from Alex Smith and trusting Patrick Mahomes could see the offense go to a new level as he opens up the field with Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt.

Rob’s pick: Chiefs             Matt’s pick: Chargers     Ed’s pick: Chargers

Ed says: “I just cannot see the Raiders mounting a serious challenge in this division without Khalil Mack. The Broncos could do something if we see last years Case but for me this division is between the Chiefs and Chargers, and that very much hangs on how prolific Mahomes is going to be. The chargers are best set up here with a strong Defense and talent at skill positions”

So there you have it, our selections for every divisional winner. I was surprise just how all of our picks lined up considering we all picked separately, with only 1 pick even having a 50/50 split and many being unanimous. When I first started asking the lads for picks, Rob was the first to come back to me and also threw a little extra prediction in there that I loved, so I decided to get this from everyone else too:

Super Bowl LIII will be…

  • Me – Vikings v Patriots
  • Rob – Jaguars v Saints
  • Matt – Eagles v Texans
  • Ed – Chargers v Packers

Interestingly, though we were all very similar in our picks for who tops the division, we all have different franchises having success in the postseason, with Ed being brave enough to pick the Packers as NFC Champions after making their way in through a wildcard spot!

What do you think of our selections? Do you think we’re close or completely wrong? Let me know in the comments below. It will be fun to see how close we got come the end of the season!