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Breakfast Table: Field Turf of Dreams

Scott Pianowski
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Cup, you got this shot (USAT)

For the last decade or so, Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski have been putting together an email exchange centered around (but not limited to) the NFL. You might enjoy listening to them haggle. You might prefer a swift kick into the stomach. The Table isn't for everyone; we hope some of you enjoy it.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Wed, Jan 2, 2013 at 3:52 AM
Subject: something wild breakfast
To: Michael Salfino

So here we are, the playoffs. I'm excited for the tournament as a whole, but the Wild Card slate doesn't seem that interesting to me.

You'll really have to sell me on the AFC matchups, given that I can't imagine anyone other than Denver or New England representing the conference. Heck, if the Broncos and Patriots don't meet in two weeks, I'll feel a bit cheated. Who can crash that party? What in-action AFC team from this week intrigues you the most?

The NFC games are better this week, I guess. I have a hard time picking the Seattle-Washington game for a variety of reasons, and I was mildly surprised to see the Seahawks favored on the road. The winner there would have a good chance against the Falcons next week yes?

I put the Seattle-Washington winner automatically into Atlanta because I can't imagine Minnesota winning at Green Bay. I know, the Vikings just beat the Packers (in one of the better games of 2012). Yes, Adrian Peterson is a physical freak not of this earth. But the list of star running backs who don't go deep into the playoffs is ridiculous (Campbell, Dickerson, Sanders, Tomlinson and OJ never got to a Super Bowl). Great quarterbacks who never played on the big stage? You've got Dan Fouts, Warren Moon . . . and really that's about it. (Was Bernie Kosar great? I know, he got that ring on Dallas's bench. Randall Cunningham?).

And I dare Christian Ponder (the ignored part of last week's upset) to play that well two weeks in a row, especially now that it's a road game.

Peterson's narrative is going to sweep the MVP award, something I don't agree with. Let's have a look at your mythical ballot, should you be so inclined, and please dive into the playoff previews, macro and micro. Wild Card Breakfast is served.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 1:20 AM
Subject: Re: something wild breakfast
To: scott pianowski

Something Wild is a controversial movie. I like it as a light romantic comedy and after Ray Liotta goes completely psycho, too. But it's as bifurcated as the Texans' 2012 season, I know.

I don't care if the AFC teams get swallowed up in five seconds next week like Quint in Jaws. I want good games this week. I think we'll get them.

The Colts are bad. There's going to be a lot of Massey-Peabody this week because it's on my brain with the Wall Street Journal's Playoff Dossiers now complete. But by the M-P metrics, the Colts graded below the league average 10 weeks this year! The Vikings did it nine times, including eight in a row. The Falcons -- a No. 1 seed -- did it seven times (going 5-2 in those games) -- but more on them next week. Can you tell I don't want to talk about the Colts? Someone here in NY said this was the one national game this week because of all the interest Andrew Luck draws. I'm not interested in Andrew Luck very much at all. I mean, he's the third best rookie QB in the playoffs by a mile and Colin Kaepernick is a rookie basically too and he's better than Luck as well. Luck is going to throw the ball downfield like he always does. Maybe the passes connect like last week on third and 23. But probably they don't with at least a couple finding a home in Ed Reed's arms. You know I'm torn here though because the Ravens aren't close to championship caliber. Yeah, those Ravens fans will argue otherwise in the comments. But where is this team strong? In what facet? Which unit? There's no there there in Baltimore.

I kind of like the Bengals-Texans game. The Texans really are like the movie that goes off the rails in the final 40 minutes. Loved your completely awesome Top Five lists on Yahoo! So how about Top Five movies that were great until.... No Way Out comes to mind. The Green Mile. Castaway (actually the quarter of the movie before the island and the quarter after he escapes -- spoiler alert). This will be controversial -- but the second-half of Office Space drags and, of course, so does Idiocracy after such a promising beginning. And I hate the crazy sex sadists that Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames stumble upon in the otherwise great Pulp Fiction, too. The Texans looked like they were that rare dominant team on both sides of the ball in this era of salary-cap induced parity. But they had no second act, it seems. Can they survive the Bengals? Probably, I'm not a believer in Cincy. They don't pass the ball well enough. Houston's play success rate on defense was best in the league but they're the new Ryan's Jets in breaking but not bending. You need the big strike against them. But if Houston doubles A.J. Green, who is going to gash them? And J.J. Watt, it should be noted, is maybe having the best year ever for a defensive lineman.

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OJ in the 70s (SI Vault)

I like the idea of the Vikings-Packers rematch. But the Vikings don't have much of a chance in this game in Green Bay. As you noted, what big running back ever wins even a playoff game? Yeah, AP busted one on 2nd and 27 last week, but that's not going to happen much. Stuff the elite passing game and you have to do it all over again -- the one stop means very little. The Vikings pass offense was 31st in YPA and some are using that as a pretext for making AP the MVP. We went there last week and still agree. He's not. And this was not the best running back season ever unless you give really big bonus points for injury. O.J. in 1973 rushed for 49 percent of the Bills total yards. AP rushed for 39% of the Vikings total yards. We don't need to talk about the quarterbacks with that stat, but for the record Joe Ferguson averaged 4.1 yards per attempt -- third worst, somehow. But the Packers win because they will win the passing game, as usual. Green Bay was No. 1 in QB rating differential, which has nothing to do with M-P but is a stat I like because it works. The Vikings were 24th -- one of two teams in negative territory to make the playoffs (Colts, of course). They beat the Vikings on neutral field maybe one time in 10. And of course this game is not on a neutral field.

The Seahawks-Redskins scrum is the matchup of the weekend for me. These are two dangerous teams. The Redskins according to M-P finished the year with seven straight games above league average, second to only the Broncos' 13. The Seahawks were the league's best team in Week 16 against the Niners, not chopped liver. (What do people have against chopped liver?) Seattle, says M-P, had the league's best passing offense adjusted for quality of opponent. The Redskins defense is susceptible there. But I think the Seahawks are going to run right to the Super Bowl. They're excellent running and passing, have a top five defense in all the key metrics and even add late-season momentum, too, for those who believe in that and the Loch Ness Monster. You know I love RGIII and my man FroMo (Alfred Morris). But Washington just drew the wrong team this year.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 4:48 PM
Subject: The Wild, the Innocent & the RG Shuffle
To: Michael Salfino

Here's my challenge to anyone: find something important the 2012 Colts do better than the 2012 Ravens. I can't find anything. The Ravens have better passing efficiency stats and rushing efficiency stats. Baltimore's defense is better against the run and the pass (again, we're looking at per-play stuff here, not misleading gross yards). The Ravens had better special-teams play, too. For the most part, the Colts were good at protecting their home turf (meaningless now) and good at playing well in high-leverage situations. Is the latter item repeatable or predictive? I think it's foolish to buy in. Baltimore 31, Indianapolis 20.

I want to like the Bengals. I want to give them a good chance this week. Geno Atkins is this year's breakout defensive lineman; he's where J.J. Watt was a year ago, on the cusp of nationwide acclaim. The pass defense has improved. I don't know how anyone covers A.J. Green for a full game. I just wish I felt a little more confident in Andy Dalton.

But other than Watt and to a lesser extent Andre Johnson, I don't see anything scary about the Texans. The injuries at linebacker have really hurt this defense. The secondary fell apart over the last two weeks. Arian Foster is a tremendous man, but he's been ordinary all year (ditto for the offensive line); again, the key is to look at efficiency, not volume. The Bengals will stay in this game and I give them a reasonable chance to win it. Cincinnati 24, Houston 23.

Kevin Costner had a nice run for a while. Over a five-movie stretch, we saw The Untouchables, No Way Out (which I probably like more than you do), Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and the underrated Revenge. But Dances With Wolves was a complete miss for me (I know many disagree), and Costner's resources and ego turned into a combustible mess in the 1990s. Early peak, frustrating second act.

Saying anything against Adrian Peterson these days is an act of treason. But Minnesota's chances of winning in Green Bay come down to how well Christian Ponder plays. His 120.2 rating in Week 17 was largely ignored because of Peterson's crystalized moment. Teams can win with recycled parts at running back (see Knowshon Moreno in Denver or Green Bay's wheel of fortune), but it doesn't work at quarterback. Caleb Hanie, anyone? Curtis Painter, anyone? I'm expecting a Green Bay blowout.

Barry Sanders played in one playoff victory, by the way. One. O.J. Simpson saw one playoff game in his career. One lousy game. The Chiefs in the Priest Holmes era played in one playoff game. The Chargers were one-and-done in four of Tomlinson's five playoff years (LT did go deep one year in New York).

Maybe it sounds like I'm cherry picking, but find me the star QBs who fill the other side of the argument. You won't find many. Fouts is the only great example (and even he saw two AFC Championship Games). Marino only made one Super Bowl, of course, though he went multiple rounds in the playoffs seven times. Get a superstar QB, you set up your franchise. Get a superstar running back, you . . . well, you still need a quarterback.

I would have made the Seattle-Washington line a pick. I also would have put it on Saturday night, but maybe the league didn't want to screw Fox again (stealing RG3 in back-to-back weeks). Here's a vote that the Seahawks pull it out, since their defense is a lot better (and it's good on all three levels) and Griffin doesn't look completely healthy to me. Seattle also gets points for being remarkably consistent in 2012 - you never see a bad game from this team. Washington gets the edge on the coaching sidelines, and DC is a legitimate home-field push again. Seahawks 26, Redskins 24.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Jan 3, 2013 at 11:39 PM
Subject: Something Wild to Ponder
To: scott pianowski

I will second everything you said about the Colts and Ravens and the score, too. But let's note that Luck's one real strength is play action passing. He has a 106.5 rating on those throws (through Week 16 because I did it for all teams and too many Week 17 games were exhibitions). But the Colts only called play action 16.5% of the time. That difference between his PA rating and non-PA rating is 35.7 points. That's second only to another rookie QB, Ryan Tannehill (122.2 on PA to 54.3 without). And of course that's because both the Colts and Dolphins have such strong running games (23rd and 20th in yards per rush through Week 16). Oh, right, how you run has NOTHING TO DO with play action success. Rather, it's the strength of the fake. Big shocker there. Still I get lectured by fellow scribes who "played the game" like I was some schoolyard stiff. "Back in '82, I could throw a football clear over that mountain...."

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Breakout star (USAT)

Atkins was a good name to bring up. Love the old-school defensive tackles getting sacks. Reminds me of the Klecko Clan at Shea, even though Joe got his sacks at end and nose tackle, too. Joe, by the way, should be in the Hall of Fame, no doubt. I mean, if we're talking about peak performance he was arguably the best defensive player in the AFC at his All-Pro best. Atkins has the third most sacks for a DT since 2000 (La'Roi Glover and Warren Sapp with 17 and 16.5, respectively, in 2000). But Watt over Atkins and Texans over the Bengals. Maybe I'm biased because I'm pulling for the Texans so I can write a Watt piece for the Journal next week. Texans 24, Bengals 23.

I think Bull Durham loses steam the last hour, too. Revenge I never heard of. Dances with Wolves was sort of a chick flick with Indians, right? Or was it with Wolves? Dances with Werewolves isn't even a movie I'd see.

Here's how the Vikings can beat the Packers -- get Christian Ponder out of there for stretches at least and put in Joe Webb in the Pistol with Peterson. Run the Packers to death with huge, gashing plays. Then roll up Webb into the pocket off the play action and have him take long downfield strikes. Try to get 300 rushing yards. The Packers are bottom third against league-average running games. You lose nothing by taking Ponder out. Why can't this work? Webb by the way ran a 4.43 40 at the combine. So why can't he be the poor man's RGIII? Will never happen though. It's the loud loss we always talk about, the kind of losses coaches are to afraid to risk even when they're about guaranteed to lose anyway. But if it was Madden, how would you play this game? Or Strat? Conventionally, Packers 38, Vikings 14.

The Falcons are at the top of my "teams I want to see beat in the postseason list," ahead of even the Patriots. At least I know the Patriots actually are really good. The Falcons should be a five or six seed. The Seahawks should be a No. 1 or No. 2. Seattle 28, Redskins 17, setting Atlanta up for the guaranteed quick exit in the Divisional Round. (I have little doubt the Redskins would beat Matt Ryan and company, too.) Oh, Russell Wilson and that great Seattle running game -- next to last among qualifying passers at 12.7 rating points worse on play action. Maybe some regression there is to be expected given the high overall rate. But still, there is no correlation between running well and having a good play action game up and down my list. So shut up with that, fans and especially announcers and analysts.

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