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Breakfast Table: Misty Mountain Hop

Scott Pianowski
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Always gets the replay (USAT)

On a weekly basis during the football season, old friends Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski discuss (and argue about) football and a series of other random topics. You might enjoy the exchange. You might prefer to be mauled by polar bears. The choice is up to you.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Wed, Oct 2, 2013 at 3:03 AM
Subject: pinball breakfast
To: Michael Salfino

It might seem a little premature to start thinking historical context just four weeks into the season, but the Broncos pinball machine is forcing the issue. So play along with me here.

Could this be the best offense ever? The logical comp seems to be the 2007 Patriots (and maybe even the 2004 Colts, another Peyton Manning team), but I think history tends to forget the 2000 Rams - a juggernaut absolutely stomping teams until Kurt Warner got hurt in Week 8. For six games, that was the best unit I've ever seen.

(I'm not going back to the Bill Walsh 49ers or even the Steve Young inheritance - football was so different back then. It hardly resembles the same sport. This is not a knock on that dynasty in any way. Offense is so much easier now. Let's stick with apples to apples.)

Of course, the 2007 Patriots, 2004 Colts and 2000 Rams had something else in common - none of those teams won a title. I hate to be so binary about it, but the facts are the facts. The Colts were shut down in Foxboro, a game that basically change the defensive rulebook. The Rams never got their full mojo back and lost in the Wild Card round. Those offenses also had ebb and flow to the season - the Pats and Rams fell off in the second half, while the Colts had a modest start before firing on all cylinders. Maybe variance and regression eventually have a say in Denver.

What's most likely to derail the Broncos? Cold weather? Boredom? The Kansas City or Seattle defense? Is there a team that's willing to be physical with Manning, even if it looks like an Oakland Raiders highlight film from the mid-1970s?

Heck, how many touchdown passes would Manning throw if Sean Payton coached him? The Saints never hit the brake pedal. I'm sure half of New Orleans had a lump in its throat when Darren Sproles was pummeled to the turf late in Monday's blowout. But I know what you always say - coaches don't worry about injuries in blowout games. I don't understand it, but I don't call the plays.

So let's hear your Denver take, and then we can dive into the Week 5 slate. It's a delicious one, in part because four crummy teams (Steelers, Vikings, Bucs, Redskins) have the week off. We can't discuss all of them, so make a center cut and introduce the 3-4 that intrigue you most. Detroit-Green Bay, Seattle-Indianapolis, Denver-Dallas and Houston-San Francisco catch my eye, but I give you free reign to call an audible.

Big points will be needed to win most of these games; that's life in today's arcade. Pinball Breakfast is served.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Oct 2, 2013 at 3:48 PM
Subject: Re: pinball breakfast
To: scott pianowski

I'm going to go back that far. Why can't we? Why can we only go back in baseball? You know, I was watching a complete game tape of the Namath Jets, I forget what year, and the game does look very familiar other than the passes being shorter. There was nothing that made me say: What are they doing? But the Jets of that era were very modern with a hybrid tight end (Richard Caster) and a running back committee with both backs utilized heavily in the passing game. It's just that no one throws mostly deep passes anymore. Though Geno Smith is No. 1 in air yards per completion and, like Namath and most QBs of that era, paying the price in picks.

So I will go maybe 1984 49ers as best offense ever. You had Montana plus 2,465 yards rushing (4.6 yards per rush). But you did not have Rice yet. If only we could put Rice on that team. Or how about 1992 49ers with Steve Young and Rice and the Rickey Watters-led rushing attack with 2,315 yards (4.8 per carry), including Young's 537. Young running and throwing like that with those players was 100 percent hopeless for the defense. Young, Rice and Watters also would kick any trio's ass today.

Conversely, the Broncos can beat you really only one way, albeit with all those different receivers. They also need Manning to be protected (least pressured QB this year by a mile). Peyton also throws the fewest downfield passes (20-plus yards), so maybe you can squeeze the field on him, force him to go downfield and then get more time to hit him. That's what I would do. Of course, I have no idea exactly how to do it. There's no way the Broncos are going to play any better. The thing with the Broncos now, Rufus Peabody just told me backstage, is that they are regressing each week (like all teams, but the worst ones actually "progress," for lack of a better term). But Denver's wins improve their projection/power by about the same amount (evidence of some NFL momentum). So basically, their projection is staying the same but variance/volatility is getting increasingly higher.

But numbers aside, I think you make a good point about Denver peaking too early. It's a long season. You generally do not want to be playing this well now. I think just time is going to change the Broncos. The opponents have really good players and someone will figure out a way that slows them down a little and then teams will build on that. This is why you want to be pressing down the accelerator in December, generally. The Ravens did this to a large degree last year and they are far from an elite offense.

The Broncos are hitting the brake pedal? Have I missed that? They went full-Belichick against the poor Eagles on Sunday.

Coaches do not think about injuries ever because they have to live in denial. Like I always say, it's like the rest of us thinking about dying or about people we love dying. It seems reasonable that we would but that kind of thinking gets you institutionalized. When coaches put in backups, it's just to reward them with snaps. It's not really to prevent injuries. Plus, as we saw with Joe Staley, you don't have enough players to take out linemen and they can be your second or third most valuable players. Coaches also don't like to admit that certain players are more important than others (by choosing who to "protect"). I've had long talks about this with people who were very close to both Parcells and Belichick and so much of today's coaching tree comes from them.

I'll predict the games in my next reply. But some observations. Green Bay's defense is a nightmare. They cannot stop the pass. And they can't really be stopped either so this is fantasy football nirvana for QBs and receivers. The Packers are basically the new Saints.

Seattle is really concerning me. They want to play offense like it's 1978. I thought the surge with Wilson last year was going to get them away from this. And I figured the defense would regress some. But they really seem dogged in reigning everything in. There is clearly a lack of skill talent here. Wilson gets pressured at a higher rate than almost anyone. The Colts get another big test and they also have reigned in their offense and clearly want to be ground and pound and rely on their defense. They have yielded the fewest point per game to fantasy QBs, which obviously correlates to stopping the pass generally. How much better is Luck? His YPA is only marginally improved: 7.17 (15th). But his rating is much better because he's not forced to throw. Does that mean he's better or that his environment is just more rating friendly? Remember, I couldn't care less if Luck turns out to be Peyton Manning. We actually need more Mannings. So I'm never rooting against the guy. It's not personal, it's business.

Matt Schaub sure knows how to give a game away. It was nice to see him teammates and coaches have his back but, come on, you just cannot throw that pass there. Seattle was very unlikely to score another TD with no passing game and having to rely on miracle escapes by Wilson. Arian Foster is fine and Andre Johnson still looks like a go-to receiver in reality (though he's just allergic to the endzone). The defense is good. I think the Texans are a better team than the 49ers on paper right now but Schaub is Wiley E. Coyote in these big spots and it's crippling.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 4:20 AM
Subject: Re: pinball breakfast
To: Michael Salfino

I don't think protection matters as much to the experienced quarterback, the elite guys. One, they'll get rid of the ball quickly (did you see Brandon Weeden hold the ball tonight? Pathetic). Two, they're more likely to read blitz indicators presnap and adjust protections accordingly. So much brilliance of top-level quarterback play is stuff we never really see.

Sure, the Broncos are hitting the break pedal. Check out Manning's passes by quarter: 44-46-52-14. He ranks 33rd in the league in fourth-quarter passing attempts. Brady's super-aggressive 2007 season broke down this way: 152-167-122-132.

I don't know what teams can do about timing their peak. You hope to get to the playoffs healthy and hopefully make a run. No one saw the Ravens coming (and Joe Flacco going bonkers). Both the Eli Manning titles were surprising. But it's also hard to forget how ordinary Peyton Manning looked in the elements against Baltimore. The Broncos are a finesse team in a cold-weather, outdoor stadium. Weather might have three chances to affect them in the post-season.

Part of the problem with late-game subs: your roster is limited. It's not like a baseball team, where you overload the bullpen and can always toss a rag-arm out there if needed. No one has seven active running backs. But given the obvious limitations with a player like Sproles, I'd never overexpose him in a game that's already decided. He's the last guy I'd want touching the ball then.

I like how you linked these Packers with the previous Saints. I get that. It's such a shame, too, because Aaron Rodgers and the passing game is so beautiful. I still think Rodgers is likely the best player in the league and no worse than No. 2. But with that defense, how far can they really go? I don't trust Mike McCarthy in endgame situations, either. (Still, I have them beating Detroit by at least seven. Maybe I'm underestimating the Lions defense.)

Seattle's offensive line is not good and the receivers are probably below average until Percy Harvin gets back. The defense gives them a chance to win anywhere, but it's obviously not as good on the road. I'm not sure what to make of the Colts but they punched San Francisco in the mouth, then took care of business by whipping Jacksonville. The Colts want to play yesterday football, too - you know how I feel about the Trent Richardson deal. But this looks like a prime spot for the Seahawks to run out of escapes (they could have easily lost in Carolina, too). Colts by three.

I call Matt Schaub and Andy Dalton Purgatory Quarterbacks. They're good enough to get you to the playoffs but unlikely to take you anywhere deep. You're almost better off letting things bottom out, give yourself a chance at greatness in the draft. Unless you think you can find the next Russell Wilson in the third round, I guess.

Cincinnati's defense is going to give the Patriots problems. Coverage of the Vince Wilfork injury has bothered me - he's still a good player, but he's not a total-destruction player like he was in his prime. New England's skill guys seem to change every week. I don't trust Marvin Lewis to do the right thing in a tight spot, but if the Bengals get some guys back in the secondary, they should win this game.

Do we take the Titans seriously if they beat Kansas City? Is there anything worthwhile to say on the Giants and Eagles? In that rotten division, no one is out of it. What would you say to any fantasy owners tied to Big Blue?

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Fri, Oct 4, 2013 at 10:07 AM
Subject: Re: pinball breakfast
To: scott pianowski

That's a great stat with Manning, can't argue it.

I gave myself a break from the Bills and Browns. It's bad enough I have to watch the Jets and Giants.

The average high temperature in Denver in January is 43 degrees. That's hardly cold weather. Green Bay's average high is 24 degrees in January. That's cold. Plus Manning was okay in that game. "Ordinary" is too strong a word. He threw one really bad pass at the end; without that pick, his QB rating is about 100. Also, he's healthier now.

I guess predicting a win by the Packers over the Lions in Green Bay is safe since Detroit hasn't won there sine 1991. Mike Tomczak was the Packers' QB that day. They are 6-15-1 against the spread though, courtesy of the indispensable Spreadapedia.com. All trends eventually end. Green Bay's sack-adjusted YPA allowed is a pathetic, league-worst 8.2. Lions 31, Packers 27.

It's true about Seattle's escapes. They really should have lost both of those games. Both quarterbacks are unusually prolific, early-career winners. But I don't like any team that's plan is to slug it out with the Seahawks. Seattle 23, Indianapolis 16.

I think Schaub is much better than Dalton, but I can't really argue the point. Dalton is the game manager with an inability to lift the team. Schaub can play at a very high level against anyone but self destructs. They're actually polar opposites but the result ends up being the same. When are the Patriots' receivers coming back? They can get away with it here though. I don't have a solid sense of New England's defense. They grade well, but the opposition generally has been bad. Then, they throttle a good Falcons pass offense before nearly collapsing late. Patriots 24, Bengals 20.

The Titans will not beat Kansas City, who may have the best defense in football. The Chiefs are giving up touchdowns on seven percent of possessions. Chiefs 26, Titans 13.

Giants-Eagles will be one of the best game of the week, seriously. Eli Manning was cut in Friends and Family and I picked him up. I know we have an interception tax, but he'll work that out this week and be a top five QB and maybe No. 1. Giants 38, Eagles 35. I think David Wilson frustrates his owners again because they do not play him and he goes off. Hakeem Nicks looks like a ghost of his former self; it's make or break time for him.

We haven't talked about Denver-Dallas. I guess the implication is that Dallas has no chance. People are dreaming of a Week 12 undefeated matchup between the Broncos and Patriots in Foxboro. I don't think either team makes it. I really want to pick the Cowboys but you can't play Cover 2 against Peyton. He's seen it his whole career and will pick it apart. Not that there is any way to play Peyton right now. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant (please don't ignore him again, Tony) keep it nail-biting for Denver. Broncos 34, Cowboys 27.

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