NRL Semifinal - Parramatta vs North Queensland (Saturday 7:40pm AEST)
At different stages last Saturday night, many pundits would have been thinking the unthinkable. Could Parramatta stun the all-conquering Melbourne at AAMI Park and secure a direct passage to a preliminary final? Unfortunately for the Eels, the Storm were able to sneak over the line, and now they must rebound against a resurgent North Queensland at ANZ Stadium. The betting suggests that Parramatta will atone as they are the $1.32 favourites against the Cowboys ($3.50).
Despite winning 11 of their last 13 games in the home-and-away season and finishing inside the top four, question marks still lingered over the Eels as their only real wins of note were against an Origin-depleted Storm side and Brisbane on two occasions. Even though the wins against the Broncos were dominant, particularly the 52-34 triumph at Suncorp Stadium in Round 25, Parramatta weren't expected to trouble Melbourne; winners of seven straight before their qualifying final.
After holding a 10-4 half-time advantage, a lack of finals knowledge was telling for Parramatta as the minor premiers Melbourne, behind the experienced trio of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, were able to regain the initiative quickly in the second half to lead 18-10, and then hold on 18-16 thanks to their strong defence.
Fullback Bevan French will still be unavailable for the Eels with a hamstring injury, but Will Smith played his best game in that position last Saturday night, so the level of concern has diminished. Semi Radradra and Kirisome Auva'a both scored last week and will be at their bruising best, and halfback Mitchell Moses continues to grow in stature since his mid-season move from Wests Tigers.
While the Eels are in the finals for the first time since 2009, North Queensland are accustomed to playing in September, and they experienced one of their best finals wins last Sunday afternoon in a 15-14 extra-time thriller against Cronulla at Allianz Stadium. The Cowboys have had to show plenty of heart since the loss of Johnathan Thurston mid-season, and that was evident after fighting back from 8-0 and 14-6 deficits.
Michael Morgan's drop goal at the end of the first period of extra-time propelled the Cowboys into this semi-final against Parramatta, but they wouldn't have been within striking distance without the performance of Jason Taumalolo who ran for 256 metres, laid 37 tackles and scored the converted try that resulted in the Eels' lead being cut to 14-12.
The grittiness shown by North Queensland to eliminate the reigning premiers was tremendous, but it was just their second victory in seven matches, and they will encounter a Parramatta side who have enjoyed an extra day's preparation, notwithstanding the extra-time the Cowboys played.
North Queensland have won their last five contests at ANZ Stadium dating back to 2014, but Thurston was in the side in four of those victories, and Parramatta have been impressive at the venue this season going 11-3. After a taste of finals heartbreak last week, Parramatta should take advantage of North Queensland's weariness after last Sunday's nail-biter.
Best of the rest (Placed in Time Order)
AFL Semifinal - Geelong vs Sydney (Friday 7:50pm AEST)
After the opening week of the finals, questions are always asked about the qualifying final losers and whether they can avoid the dreaded 'straight sets' exit. Twelve months ago, Sydney suffered a 36-point loss to GWS and faced a red-hot Adelaide in a semi-final. Sydney answered their doubters seven nights later and were victorious by six goals. Now, the tables have turned and it's the red-hot Swans who are the raging hot favourites at $1.35 against Geelong ($3.30) - who are aiming to silence their critics - at the MCG.
From 2000 to 2013, only two sides - Port Adelaide in 2001 and West Coast in 2007 - were knocked out of the finals with consecutive defeats. It's been a different story in the last three seasons though. In 2014, Geelong and Fremantle were both sent packing by elimination final winners, Sydney were bundled out with back-to-back losses in 2015, and Hawthorn's dream of four straight premierships was extinguished after losing to the Cats and Western Bulldogs in the opening fortnight of last year's finals.
For Geelong to avoid becoming the fifth team in four years to exit the finals in 'straight sets', they must improve markedly on their 51-point qualifying final loss to Richmond at the MCG last Friday night. At times, it appeared as though many Cats players suffered from the 'deer in the headlights' scenario as the Tigers pressure caused a number of errors, whether it was attempting to clear the ball from defence, breaking away with a clearance, or entering the forward line with precision instead of hoping for the best.
Geelong's defeat to Richmond was eerily similar to last year's preliminary final, when the Cats faced the Swans. With a grand final spot up for grabs, Sydney blew Geelong out of the water with a seven-goal to nil first quarter, effectively deciding the contest in 30 minutes. The Cats looked jittery that evening, and it appeared as though a number of Geelong players had not recovered from that finals experience when they took the field last Friday night.
Sydney appear perfectly poised to deliver the knockout punch to Geelong's premiership hopes. The Swans did what most pundits expected in brushing aside Essendon by 65 points at the SCG last Saturday night; their fifth successive victory and 12th win in their last 13 matches. The midfield, led by Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker, dominated their Bombers counterparts, and Lance Franklin was at his formidable best in the second quarter with his four goals part of a 10-goal second quarter Swans rampage.
Aside from Sydney's outstanding form since their 0-6 start, they have an impressive recent record against Geelong. The Swans have won three straight against the Cats and five of six, and those wins include last year's preliminary final and the 46-point victory in Round 20 this season at Simonds Stadium. Geelong are a seasoned finals team and will undoubtedly improve on last week's effort, and the 51-point loss to Richmond was only their second defeat (out of seven) by more than 40 points this season. Despite this, the Swans appear too dominant.
NRL Semifinal - Brisbane vs Penrith (Friday 7:55pm AEST)
It appeared as though Brisbane had recovered from an awful start against the Sydney Roosters last Friday night and were set to book a direct passage into a grand final qualifier in the first of four sensational finals in the opening week. Latrell Mitchell and his Roosters teammates had other ideas, and now the Broncos must regroup, which they are favoured to do at $1.45 against Penrith ($2.85) in their semi-final at Suncorp Stadium.
Brisbane went into their qualifying final without a key member in Darius Boyd due to a hamstring injury, and his absence was magnified as the Broncos started poorly, trailing 14-0 early. Benji Marshall's kicking game helped to wrestle back the initiative for Brisbane, and the deficit was reduced to 14-6 after 40 minutes. By the time Corey Oates crossed for the second time on the night, the Broncos were ahead 22-18 and eyeing a remarkable comeback until Latrell Mitchell's converted try gave the Roosters the 24-22 advantage.
Brisbane will be without Boyd once again, but the history of qualifying final losers in the semifinals is favourable. Since the NRL reverted to their current finals format in 2012, eight of the 10 teams that lost in the first week of the finals won the following game, and in the last two seasons, no team has been knocked out in 'straight sets'.
One team who seemed to be approaching the finals in great touch were Penrith after they notched a seventh-straight victory in Round 24 against the Raiders in the nation's capital. In the last two rounds of the home-and-away season, that hot form unravelled as the Panthers fell at home to St George Illawarra (16-14) and Manly at Brookvale Oval (28-12). The unavailability of Matt Moylan was also questioned late, but we now know that the Penrith captain is dealing with personal issues.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that the Panthers struggled against the Sea Eagles in Round 26, as they were able to overturn their horrible showing at 'Brookie' into a 22-10 triumph at Allianz Stadium seven nights later in a hotly disputed elimination final. Manly fans, players, and coach Trent Barrett are probably still seething after a myriad of controversial refereeing decisions, but credit must be given to Penrith and their players, who would have been itching to avenge their final round performance against the same opponents they encountered the week before.
The battle between halfbacks Benji Marshall and Nathan Cleary will be pivotal in deciding which side travels to Melbourne for a preliminary final against the Storm. Brisbane benefited greatly from Marshall's experience to claw back from a seemingly hopeless position against the Roosters, while Cleary's influence for Penrith, despite being a teenager, continues to belie his age.
Brisbane were victorious 32-18 when these teams met in Round 9 this season, and it was the seventh loss in the first nine games for Penrith. Since then, the Panthers have responded well behind Cleary's outstanding second half of the season, but Suncorp Stadium could be the deciding factor in determining the winner. Brisbane are 10-3 at home in 2017, while Penrith has one win at Suncorp Stadium since 2011.
AFL Semifinal - GWS v West Coast (Saturday 7:25pm AEST)
At the start of the year, Greater Western Sydney were the hot tip for the 2017 premiership after getting within one kick of the eventual premiers, the Western Bulldogs, in their preliminary final last season. The Giants had been steadily improving each year since their debut season in 2012, stockpiled the best young talent available in multiple drafts, much to the chagrin of rival clubs, and finally tasted the bitterness of finals heartbreak.
Through a combination of injuries and the burden of expectation, GWS have not been able to consistently show the form that saw them rated so highly before the home-and-away season commenced, and now they must win to stay alive in the race for the 2017 flag. Even though they have experienced hiccups this season, GWS are $1.45 favourites to defeat West Coast ($2.85) at Spotless Stadium.
GWS cost themselves a chance of hosting a qualifying final after falling to Geelong by 44 points at Simonds Stadium in the final round, and the extra week off heading into their qualifying final against Adelaide didn't seem to help. The Giants looked tentative and confused throughout the first half and only managed to kick one goal; resulting in a 44-point half-time deficit that was too much to overcome in an eventual 36-point loss. The performance was a far cry from 12 months earlier, when they manhandled Sydney at ANZ Stadium and secured direct qualification into a preliminary final.
The loss to Adelaide further emphasised an alarming trend for GWS against the top teams in 2017. The Giants have lost both matches against the Crows, had one draw and one loss versus Geelong, and fell to Sydney and Richmond in consecutive weeks in the second half of the season. Now, they face a rejuvenated West Coast without key forward Jeremy Cameron and ruckman Shane Mumford due to season-ending injuries.
The Eagles barely made it into the finals with their final round home win over Adelaide, and they gave their supporters further heart palpitations in their elimination final. After a blistering first quarter, the Eagles were slowly reeled in by Port Adelaide before scores were locked together after four quarters. In extra-time, it was the Power who burst out to a 13-point lead before two Josh Kennedy goals closed the gap, and then Luke Shuey showed nerves of steel to kick the winner after the siren.
West Coast did celebrate after Shuey's goal as if they had won their way through to a grand final, which would look troubling if the Eagles were a young side. However, they are an experienced outfit behind the likes of Matt Priddis, Kennedy, Shuey and Sam Mitchell, so they shouldn't be dwelling on last Saturday night's success for too long.
Despite the victory over Port Adelaide, there were doubts about the Power's record against finalists, and West Coast will be playing interstate for the second straight week - something that doesn't occur in the home-and-away season - after requiring extra-time to eliminate the Power. GWS are not at full strength, but they have defeated the Eagles twice this season, and will be determined to avenge their listless qualifying final performance.
NFL Week 2 - Oakland Raiders vs New York Jets (Monday 6:05am AEST)
It would be extremely foolish to stake a forthright opinion after one week of the 2017 season, but a couple of scenarios did play out as expected last week. The Oakland Raiders showed that they will be a worthy challenger for the AFC Championship, and the New York Jets might be lucky to win four games. Those thoughts would explain why the Raiders are $1.10 favourites to defeat the Jets ($7) at the Oakland Coliseum.
Derek Carr must have been slightly apprehensive in his return from a broken right fibula suffered in Week 16 last season. If the Oakland quarterback had any doubts over his surgery, they weren't obvious as he threw for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the Raiders' 26-16 victory away to the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Carr received good support from the running game as Marshawn Lynch, the former Seattle Seahawk who retired after the 2015 season, carried the ball 18 times for 76 yards. Carr's favourite targets at wide receiver also ensured the quarterback's return from injury was successful with Michael Crabtree catching six passes for 83 yards and Amari Cooper snagging five catches - one of them a touchdown - for 62 yards. Defensive end Khalil Mack had two tackles for a loss and anchored a defence that allowed only three field goals after the first quarter.
While the Raiders were celebrating in the Music City of America, the Jets were stinking it up in Buffalo against the Bills. Not much is expected from the Jets this season, and they didn't show many signs of optimism in a 21-12 loss against their AFC East rivals.
Josh McCown had 26 completions, but only threw for 187 yards. He was intercepted twice, and was also picked off on a two-point conversion which would have levelled the scores at 14-all late in the third quarter. The Bills' defence stifled the New York Jets' running game, with Bilal Powell and Matt Forte combining for 38 yards on 13 carries. If the Jets have any chance of upsetting the Raiders, they must get better production from their running backs, or Mack and the Oakland defence will be swarming in their endeavours to force McCown into bad decisions.
Oakland won their last five games at home in 2016, while the Jets struggled away from MetLife Stadium last year, going 3-5. Those three victories were against Buffalo, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, who combined for 10 total wins last season. The Raiders believe they can represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII, so they should easily account for the disappointing New York Jets.
NFL Week 2 - Denver Broncos vs Dallas Cowboys (Monday 6:25am AEST)
Two of the premier franchises in the NFL showed that they will be in playoff contention this season after opening week victories at home. Even though the Denver Broncos will be at Mile High again this week, they are the $2.05 outsiders against the Dallas Cowboys ($1.78) in their clash at Sports Authority Field.
For most of their Monday night encounter against the Los Angeles (still getting used to writing that) Chargers, the Broncos were in command, leading 24-7 in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Trevor Siemian was showing poise not usually seen in a second-year starter, running back C.J. Anderson's 20 carries for 81 yards ensured that Denver weren't relying on the passing game, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was under duress for three and a half quarters.
Then suddenly, Siemian threw an interception, back-up running back Jamaal Charles fumbled, and the Broncos were clinging to a 24-21 lead. Denver were able to preserve that advantage thanks to Younghoe Koo's 44-yard field goal being blocked by Shelby Harris with one second remaining on the clock. The Broncos cannot afford any degree of complacency against Dallas, who had the best regular season record in the NFC last year.
The Cowboys suffered three losses in the 2016 regular season, and two of those were against the New York Giants. In the first Sunday night game of this season, the Cowboys avoided another defeat to their NFC East rival, smothering the Giants in a 19-3 victory. Odell Beckham Jr's absence with an ankle injury robbed Eli Manning of his best receiving threat, and the Cowboys' defence seized, sacking the two-time Super Bowl winner three times and intercepting one of his 38 passes.
After superb rookie seasons, the Cowboys will be hoping that quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott don't suffer a sophomore slump. The duo looked as good as last year, with Prescott throwing for 268 yards and a touchdown, and Elliott carrying the ball 24 times for 104 yards just days after finding out that his six-game suspension over a domestic violence issue had been postponed.
The Broncos and Cowboys are in different conferences, so they clash once every four years. Despite the infrequency of their contests, Denver has won the last five meetings against Dallas since 1998, including an epic 51-48 victory away to the Cowboys in Week 5 of the 2013 season where Peyton Manning threw five touchdowns for the Broncos, and Tony Romo had four touchdown passes for the Cowboys.
I don't expect Trevor Siemian and Dak Prescott to combine for nine touchdown passes in this affair, and with both teams strong on defence, the Broncos appear value as a home underdog.