From One Football to Another (Part 5: AFC South & NFC East)

With four weeks of games in the record books, it feels an opportune moment to check in with some of the divisions we have yet to feature in From One Football to Another. So roll out your best Kris Akabusi AWOOOGA and settle in for Wesley “two scoops” of NFL divisional delving. This time up, the ‘League One’ of the NFL; the AFC South and the NFC East.

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AFC South
Tennessee Titans
The Titans are one of the teams in the NFL who really ‘know their own game’, and with Ryan Tannehill (QB) and Derrick Henry (RB), their play-action (passing off a designed run play) offence is very effective. However, their issue has been keeping the points off the board.
They are exciting to watch, often involved in high scoring matches, but they have to tighten the defence up. If ever a team in the NFL were Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, it’s the Titans. ‘We’re gonna score one more than you!’

Star Player – Derrick Henry.
There is genuinely no comparison for this running back. He is the best running back in the whole league, and week on week is a huge problem. Last season he broke 2,000 yards rushing (a phenomenal achievement) on his way to a whole host of records. His threat in the run game means Tennessee can set up for a running play which makes the defence have to play more tackling defenders; this frees up receivers in the passing game. It’s one of the best example’s in the league, and that’s all down to Henry and the threat he poses.

One to Watch – Julio Jones.
Seven of the last nine seasons, he has had over 1,000 receiving yards, and when fit, has been one of the premier pass-catchers in the whole league at Atlanta. Now he moves to Tennessee with a little to prove, aged 32. What he has to prove is essentially only fitness as his ability remains, and he could be a massive weapon to add to the Titans play-action passing game. It looks a good fit for both parties (providing he doesn’t mind not being the number 1 offensive option)—a little like Michael Owen when he moved to Newcastle in 2005. The toon picked up a top-level goal scorer; however, whether he can stay fit on a regular basis to have a maximum impact remains to be seen.

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Houston Texans
Scandal and dysfunction have surrounded this Texans organisation all off-season, but there has not been a bit on the field. In fact, the Texans have been a surprise package, playing above the laughing stock level expected by most. The bad news is QB Tyrod Taylor, who led them to a win against the Jags and a decent first half against the Browns, is now injured, and the pigskin is now entrusted to the less experienced hands of rookie QB Davis Mills. Mills’s mega neck is only comparable with that of Joe Hart, and he will need to get up to speed quickly if Houston is to continue their decent start, which feels unlikely. This played out to brutal effect at the weekend with a trouncing at the hands of Josh Allen and the Bills. Points on offence for the Texans…0

Star Player – Deshaun Watson

The main attraction in Houston is their phenomenal Quarterback; however, he is facing off the field allegations and is currently not involved. It has created a sideshow that new Head Coach David Culley seems to have successfully navigated so far, but being without their best player will hurt them long term. Like when Hong Kong Cantona or Nibbly loose-lipped Suarez were reprimanded, taking your best player out of the team will always create problems.

One to watch – Brandon Cooks

The only real hope of racking up points in the air looks to be Cooks, who, despite bouncing around a few different teams, has gone over 1000 yards receiving in five of the last six seasons and made the Super Bowl twice. He’s talented and probably a bit under-rated in a league full of serious Wide Receiving talent. Nevertheless, he looks set for another good season, and if anyone pops up to make a play for the Texans, it is likely to be him

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Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have made an inauspicious start to the season, but then signing the Darren Anderton of QB’s to replace an all-time great always looked like a risk. Carson Wentz is currently being held together with gaffa tape, and with reports that both ankles are sprained, his movement is significantly limited. The Colts were good last year and were a bit unlucky not to take care of Buffalo in the playoffs. By contrast, this season, even with Wentz’s swollen ankles, he is struggling to fill Phillip Rivers’ boots. They have had a tough start, but the recent loss to division rival Tennessee does make a playoff run all the less likely; for all that, this is a weak division.

Star Player – Deforest Buckner
Buckner was one of the stars of the San Francisco 49ers playoff run two years ago. However, due to salary cup limitations, he was allowed to be traded to the Colts for a first-round pick and a whopping new contract. He’s just an excellent player. Thirty-eight sacks in the last five seasons, coupled with a boatload of pressures and tackles, makes him one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He compares well to Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea, athletic, strong and a fierce competitor performing at the top of his game.
The main difference is that Buckner currently is the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the whole league ($84 million over four years), something Rudiger is not, despite being all too aware of his value as he holds out for a new deal.

One to watch – Rodrigo Blankenship

A kicker is rarely worth a significant shout out (unless, of course, it’s Justin Tucker); however, young Rodrigo – Hot Rod to his friends – appears to have strolled into an NFL franchise off the set of Superbad. To be fair to Mclovin, he had a decent rookie season last year, but it just warrants an internal chuckle when he’s congratulated on a successful FG by his fellow Colts. The only comp for him is Edgar Davids. Once you see him, you will know.

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Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars round off the worst division in football (as the NFC East breathes a collective sigh of relief). This was supposed to be the year their fortunes changed. New Coach Urban Meyer, bringing a biblical amount of College success, joining forces with number one overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence at QB. So what could possibly go wrong? It turns out basically everything so far. The Jags look poor, they have lost their first-round running back Travis Etienne to a season-long injury, and Lawrence has thrown seven interceptions in four games on their way to an 0-4 start. It will inevitably take time to gel, and Lawrence will surely improve, but it feels like Meyer would need papal powers to get the Jags competitive this season. Hmmm, Pope Urban does have a catchy ring to it. The Jaguars look like the disastrous 1993-94 Swindon Town, and it just remains to be seen whether Lawrence can be Jan Age Fjortoft to at least make their pain a little more bearable.

Star Player – James Robinson
Robinson was a star last season, having gone undrafted! It was a real rags to riches story, with Robinson becoming only the fourth undrafted Running Back to rush for over 1000 yards.
In all, he scored 10 TD’s and was a bright spark for a team that lost 15 games in a row last year (19 and counting now). The undrafted player feels very Jamie Vardy or Ian Wright, entering the league through the back door. James Robinson would be chuffed to bits if he ends up with the output of either of those two strikers.

One to watch – Trevor Lawrence
It has to be rookie QB Lawrence, who has gone from serial winner on one of the best rosters in College to perennial loser on one of the worst in the NFL. It’s a tough spot for the No.1 pick, but he has the right temperament to come through a demanding spell, and I expect him to improve as the season develops. Several of his interceptions so far have been while other options were open, and once his decision making sharpens up under the pressure of NFL defences, he will begin to show what he is all about. So far, he hasn’t lived up to the hype and is following Fernando Torres down the King’s Road, but I’m sure he can become more like Dennis Bergkamp; It takes a bit of time to adjust to the pace of the league, but when he does he will excel. If Lawrence has a career like Bergkamp, then Jags fans are in for a serious treat.

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NFC East
Dallas Cowboys
On this season’s evidence, the Cowboys look like the only team where the ‘League One’ tag feels harsh as they are looking every bit a Premier League contender. America’s team have their two key assets on offence fit and healthy, a plethora of wide receiving talent, an impressive supplementary running back and crucially a much better defence than last season. The addition of Defensive Co-ordinator Dan Quinn (Former Falcons Head Coach)looks to have shored things up in Dallas.

Furthermore, his impact on Trevon Diggs means we might have just found the most talented family on the planet; the Diggs family currently boast a top 5 WR in Stefon and defensive player of the month, Trevon, who has more interceptions than twenty-seven other teams! The Cowboys are one of the sports most recognisable names. If the Pats are Man United, I suppose the Cowboys are Liverpool, a history of success, a brutally loyal fan base, and a globally recognised club. Maybe Mike McCarthy is the Pennsylvanian Jurgen Klopp bringing the good times back to Dallas.

Star Player – Dak Prescott
Prescott’s injury last season completely derailed the Cowboys. However, the way he has started this season, coupled with the weak NFC East, means Dallas can be expecting a home playoff game come the offseason. Dak is becoming one of the most intelligent QB’s pre-snap (before the ball is spiked back to the QB). He reads the game so well, and week on week is racking up big points totals. It may feel a bit underwhelming to compare him to Jordan Henderson, but both have had to overcome injury to become the leader they are today. When Henderson was 28, he led Liverpool to a Champions League win and was one of the first names on the England team sheet that reached the World Cup Semi-Final. Now Dak reaches his peak, can he deliver similar success for the Dallas Cowboys?

One to watch – The Running Game
Things are just starting to click in the running game for Dallas, and that is down to three key figures; Zak Martin, Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. Martin is probably the best guard in all of football, and his return to the field has seen an upturn in the run game, creating holes to be exploited. Zeke is back fit and firing, which means explosive plays, and he is complemented by Pollard, who is lightening the load and looking a bit of a speedy weapon himself. A strong run game enhances their great strength at receiver, and if this triumvirate stays healthy, the Cowboys will continue to be very dangerous.

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Washington Football Team
After week four, the search party is still on the lookout for the 2020/21 defence, which caused so many issues for their opponents. They have gone from top five to bottom five, and it is hurting them. Add to the mix their starting QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick, has suffered a long term hip injury, and positives are hard to come by in the nation’s capital. However, the moxy and gusto of backup QB Taylor Heinicke might be the single uplifting factor on this team, who, despite not being at their best so far, is a creditable 2-2. Based in the Capital city, going through a rebrand, some exciting young players but struggling to get the performances, goodbye Washington Football Team…hello Crystal Palace.

Star Player – Terry Mclaurin
Ohio State Buckeye ‘Scary Terry’ looked all set for a real star-studded season with gunslinger Fitzpatrick at the controls. That injury may have slowed down his production, but as you can imagine, Heinicke is always looking to find his No1 receiver, and they combined for two TD’s at the weekend. 1,118 yards receiving last year, and he seems on course to fly past that this time around. Mclaurin is quick, skilful and on his day unplayable, just like Palace’s Wilfred Zaha (without the anger issues)

One to Watch – Taylor Heinicke
In December 2020, Heinicke was studying for a Masters degree in Mathematics. A few weeks later, he was facing Tom Brady in a playoff match. It would be an understatement to say it has been a wild ride for 28-year-old Heinicke, who is now playing on his 5th NFL team. However, he seems to have found a home in Washington, and his play this season certainly warrants some plaudits, exemplified by his off-script scrambles and throws to topple the Falcons at the weekend. It’s a joy to watch athletes like Heinicke succeed, flying in the face of convention and expectation. When DJ Campbell’s goals led Yeading to the Third Round of the FA cup in 2005, few could have expected him to play in a Championship playoff final and forge a career for three separate clubs in the Premier League. The sporting gods work in wonderful ways, and if you continue to chase the dream, who knows how long it will be until you wake up. Wakey wakey Taylor…Zzzzzzz

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Philadelphia Eagles
There are reasons to be positive and negative if you are an Eagles fan, and the whole team are personified by their QB Jalen Hurts; talented but inconsistent. An up and down start saw them soar over the Falcons in Week 1 and look miserly against the 49ers in Week 2, prompting hope for the defence, before conceding 40+ points two weeks in a row! The Eagles have a tough fixture list, and it feels like their real battleground is the last six weeks, where they play five divisional matches and the Jets.

Star Player – Fletcher Cox
In a team of inconsistent new blood, Cox is the team’s reliable veteran. Voted as one of the leagues best Defensive Tackles for the last Decade, this six-time pro bowler is always in the mixer with the big boys. On his day, he can be formidable, which he showed in 2017 as he helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl. When Yaya Toure arrived in Manchester, he brought power, presence and leadership to an already flourishing City team. Cox provides similar for the Eagles and is a constant amongst the recent changes in Philadelphia.

One to Watch – Jalen Reagor
Reagor got his career off to a difficult start on Draft Day through no fault of his own. He was picked one spot ahead of star rookie WR Justin Jefferson, and as Reagor struggled with injury and time on the field, Jefferson shredded opposition defences on his way to a record-breaking 1400 yard season. Philadelphia fans, green with envy at what might have been, may still have themselves a talent, though. He’s not a polished route runner like Jefferson, but he can stretch the field, and with Hurts looking to be aggressive, I can see Reagor making some big plays this year. He may be a bit boom or bust, but as the team gets more consistent, hopefully, Reagor can follow suit. Look at Demarai Gray’s career; once considered one of the country’s brightest prospects, Gray occasionally shone with some moments of brilliance at Leicester but ultimately was too inconsistent. Given more time to develop, he has returned to Everton and looks ready to fulfil his promise.

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New York Giants
Whenever I watch the G men, I think, “the Giants aren’t actually that bad, ” and then they take a terrible loss the next week. The big worry for the Giants is they could be 3-1 but are 1-3 and have some very tough matches in the coming weeks (Bucs, Rams, Chiefs and Cowboys in the next six weeks). If they don’t beat the Raiders and Panthers, they could be 1-9. Eek. The Giants have been decimated by injury this season, but having a potentially improved Daniel Jones and fit again Saquoun Barkley can give them hope. However, they have served up one of the highlights of the season so far; go and watch the Jabrill Peppers coin toss at the start of Overtime…it’s gold.

Star Player – Daniel Jones
I was a bit reluctant to say either Barkley (clearly a star but returning from a serious injury) or Jones (not clearly a star but on the upgrade) are the Giants star player. Still, Daniel Jones looks set to have an improved season and potentially rank a top 15 QB, which would be pretty decent for a team who may only rack up a handful of wins. He’s not flashy but is sneakily quick, and if he can continue to cut out the errant throws that lead to turnovers and improve his clear issue with fumbling the ball, he might yet be able to lead New York to some memorable victories. Jones just really, really reminds me of Gareth Barry. Not exciting but actually quite good, the type of player you notice more when he doesn’t play than when he does. Barry may feel an underwhelming comparison, but he made 680 club appearances, scored 57 goals and was capped 53 times by England. Yeah, actually, he was quite good.

One to watch – Kadarius Toney
Toney was so highly rated in the Draft that several teams were gutted when the Giants selected him 20th overall. Since that day, it’s been all-foam no beer from the Florida wideout, who has reportedly not been an easy player to have onboard the Joe Judge express. However, with injuries to WR Sterling Sheppard and Darius Slayton, it was time for Toney to get on the field against New Orleans, and he looks like he is going to be a fun watch. Nine targets and six catches for 78 yards; if he can clean up the off the field antics, he could be the asset they hoped he would be in the receiving corps. Toney may not be Le Sulk quite yet, certainly not in terms of production. He’s more like Peter Odemwingie at the moment, talented but hassles off of the pitch but if he emerges more in the Anelka mould, then hold on to your hats, NY; there could be a new Toney award winner on Broadway.

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