2016 NFL season preview

2016 NFL season preview

 

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The 2016 NFL campaign kicks off in the early hours of Friday as American Football fans gear up for another bone-crunching season.

All 32 teams will be aiming to make it to Superbowl LI in Houston on February 7th, with Denver Broncos looking to retain their crown.

Popularity of the sport has grown massively in the UK and British fans have been rewarded with three international series matches to be held in London – two at Wembley and one at Twickenham.

The NFL will also break new ground by holding the first-ever Monday Night Football (MNF) game outside of the US when Houston Texans take on Oakland Raiders in Mexico City during Week 11.

So, whether you’ve been following NFL for years, are a rookie or only just realising what a great sport American Football is, let’s run through the basics.

How the game works

Each team has an offensive and defensive unit. The defence will aim to sack, or tackle, the quarterback of the opposition or intercept his pass.

Teams in offensive plays are given a 10-yard target and must cross that 10-yard line in four plays or less, eventually working their way down to the end zone where they can score a touchdown, earning six points.

Kickers can then add an extra point to the score with a conversion, or instead may opt for a two-point conversion where they must run the ball over the line in the same manner as a touchdown.

The two-point tactic is often used if the scores are tied or to put the defending team eight points behind with little time remaining.

Field goals, worth three points, are often used at the fourth play, or fourth down, when scoring a touchdown is deemed unlikely.

NFL matches are split into 15-minute quarters and if there is a tie at the end of an hour’s play the match goes into overtime.

Overtime can be ended immediately if a touchdown is scored in the first possession, but if not it can only be ended by an unanswered score.

How the conferences work

The 32 franchises are split evenly into two conferences – the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC).

Each team plays 16 games over the 17-week regular season, which includes a bye weekend for each franchise.

At the end of the regular season, the top teams in each of the eight divisions – North, South, East and West in the AFC and NFC, qualify for the play-offs alongside the two next best in each conference.

In a knockout format the teams contest each round until they reach the conference final. The winners of the AFC and NFC conference finals go through to the Superbowl.

Off-season player moves and contracts

Superbowl 50 Most Valuable Player (MVP) Von Miller was rewarded for his display against the Carolina Panthers with a six-year $114.5m contract, remaining at the Denver Broncos.

The money for his deal was freed up by the retirement of legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, who was earning $21.5m per year.

Denver also lost another high-profile quarterback as Brock Osweiler rejected a $64m contract in favour of joining Houston Texans on a four-year $72m contract, with a guaranteed $37m in the first two years.

Those figures are eclipsed by the renewal of quarterback Andrew Luck’s contract at Indianapolis Colts, where he will earn a record $140m over six seasons.

Luck enjoyed a stellar 2014 season with 40 touchdown passes but his 2015 form, where he threw 12 interceptions against just 15 touchdowns, was not enough to deter Colts owner John Irsay from offering the deal.

Who are the favourites?

It’s nearly impossible to predict the winner of the Superbowl in five months’ time and the bookermakers are finding it equally hard to do so.

There is little to choose between the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers with the majority of bookies offering 8/1 for each franchise.

Fan favourites the Pittsburgh Steelers are placed at 11/1 while Kansas City Chiefs have assembled their most talented roster in recent years and are rated at 22/1 as dark horses.

Reigning NFL champions Denver Broncos cannot be written off either and are also placed at a tantalising 22/1 to retain their crown.

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Who are the best and worst football pundits?

In the UK, we have four television channels that regularly screen live football matches or highlights – and each of them has a mixture of good and bad pundits.

One question remains though. Who are they? Let’s take a look.

The Good

5. Mick McCarthy, ex-BBC

The entertaining Yorkshireman has a no-nonsense attitude on screen and on the sidelines. Currently manager of Ipswich Town, McCarthy started off the season with a stint on Match of the Day 2, to acclaim from the footballing world.

His accessible knowledge of the game was fascinatingly displayed with some incisive and to-the-point analysis. The fact that he gets player’s names correct, and does not bore people to sleep, also helps.

4. Pat Nevin, 5Live & ITV4

The likeable Scot is mostly heard on our radio stations, but occasionally he is afforded a place on our TV screens – somewhere he should be more regularly.

Nevin’s accurate analysis, particularly in the Europa League, and his neutral take on games, provide viewers with a balanced and informative reading of the beautiful game.

3. Lee Dixon, ITV

A surprise selection perhaps, Dixon is noted for his fair and accurate punditry. Being a Manchester City fan and a former Arsenal right-back, Dixon manages to assess fixtures in an unbiased manner.

With his excellent analysis of defensive situations, and an affable on-screen personality, Dixon gets a place in my top three pundits.

2. Kevin Keegan, ESPN

Also a controversial choice on face value, Keegan has established himself as ESPN’s lead pundit.

Despite his challenging opinions, Keegan has a habit of spotting things other pundits miss.

This makes him a more accurate pundit and this, together with his knowledge of the game and engaging personality, makes him a good watch.

1. Gary Neville, Sky Sports

Said to have taken punditry to a new level, Neville is enjoying an unprecedented level of respect amongst the footballing community for his detailed and insightful analysis.

In his element on Sky’s Monday Night Football, Neville has a touchscreen TV at his disposal, and he uses it to maximum effect by offering viewers a state-of-the-art insight into the mechanics of a football match.

Having also taken his punditry into the commentary position alongside Martin Tyler, Neville is arguably the UK’s stand-out football expert.

The Bad

5. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

It’s hard to like Lawro. If his shirts are horrendous, his punditry is even worse.

Lawrenson’s chummy relationship with Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer on MOTD is another bug-bear, and he offers little originality or decisiveness – on his predictions column on the BBC Sport website he invariably predicts 1-1 whenever the top Premier League teams clash.

The ex-Liverpool defender also turns his hand to commentary for major tournaments – frustratingly so. His sense of humour (call me hypocritical) is annoying, and he never seems to fail in making matches less appealing. Worth his place in the worst five.

4. Steve Claridge, BBC

Perhaps the most boring of all pundits on TV, Claridge has the ability to do little else but annoy. His knowledge of league football on the Football League Show is hardly inspiring, and can sometimes detract from the generally exciting matches on show.

Also a radio pundit on 5Live, Claridge is just as underwhelming, often stating the obvious and hiding behind the lead commentator.

3. Gareth Southgate, ITV

Having been out of the managerial hotseat for almost three-and-a-half years, Southgate has been filling a punditry position on ITV while he continues to look for a new job.

That job can’t come quick enough, with Southgate being one of the drabbest pundits around.

His ability to emulate Claridge and state the obvious is accentuated by his lack of insight.

Southgate is also culpable of forgetting player’s names and is sometimes picked on by his more assertive colleagues – notably Roy Keane.

2. Robbie Savage, BBC & 5Live

Aside from his irritating on-screen demeanour, Savage’s opinionated punditry is often inaccurate.

His biggest flaw though, is picking up on something and referring to it in unwavering fashion throughout the match – particularly on 5Live.

This is evidenced by his recent barrage of criticism towards Rafael da Silva in the Champions League last week, accusing the Brazilian of not trying hard enough to contain Cristiano Ronaldo – the fact is, who can?

It was widely held in the national papers on Thursday that Rafael actually had a decent game, unbeknownst to Savage.

This fascination with such observations leaves his punditry with a serious case of ‘tunnel vision’ – one which we could all do without.

1. Martin Keown, BBC & ESPN

Easily the worst pundit on our screens.

The former Arsenal defender had a formidable reputation on the pitch, and is now building one in the studio for all the wrong reasons.

Guilty of making embarrassing gaffes, mispronouncing names and using laughable cliches, Keown’s dour punditry is now being exposed.

Always frowning and fond of making a blind-alley point to round off a discussion, Keown should count himself lucky that both ESPN and the BBC see him as indispensable.