Breakfast Table: Wild Card Weekend

Two guys talking about football, long form. You might enjoy it. You might prefer to be mauled by polar bears. The choice is up to you.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Jan 2, 2014 at 2:36 PM
Subject: wild card breakfast
To: Mark Stopa

Simple assignment this week - analyze four playoff games. No talk of the Broncos, Seahawks, Patriots and Panthers - that's next week's assignment.

The Colts beat the Chiefs 15 seconds ago - how much does that matter? I already have a sneaking suspicion we're going to be on opposite sides of this game.

Are the Saints as simple as home/road analysis, or is that pattern a bunch of rubbish?

I don't know anyone who thinks the Chargers will beat the Bengals. Are we falling for fool's gold with Andy Dalton and Friends, or can Cincinnati make a run?

I found the Niners-Packers game the most difficult to analyze, so I'm glad you're going first.

Okay ... go first.

From: mark stopa
Date: Thu, Jan 2, 2014 at 4:01 PM
Subject: Re: wild card breakfast
To: scott pianowski

The Bengals fascinate me. Weeks ago, I wrote off a Dalton-led squad as a Super Bowl contender, particularly when they lost Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for the year. But didn't we all bury the 2012 Ravens prematurely after they lost a couple of key defenders? Can the 2013 Bengals be the 2012 Ravens? Cincy does have the AFC's best defense, right? Why does nobody trust Andy Dalton (third in the NFL in touchdown passes, behind only Peyton and Brees)? Does Dalton's playoff experience matter (as opposed to someone like Nick Foles)? I saw the Bengals Super Bowl line at 20:1 - is there any return/overlay you like more?

Cincy's home/road splits look like the Saints - 8-0 at home (even 8-0 ATS - just the fifth team in the last 25 years to do that); 3-5 on the road. Andy Dalton had a 20:9 TD:INT ratio and 98.4 QB Rating at home; just 13:11 and 80.8 on the road. In San Diego, maybe, but short of Philip Rivers being perfect, I don't see a formula for the Chargers going into Cincinnati and winning. Am I missing something? Bengals 37-20.

It feels weird to emphasize Cincy's home/road splits and pick the Saints, but that's what I'm doing. Something about Nick Foles' Week 17 performance rubbed me the wrong way. The Cowboys defense is terrible, so why didn't Foles rip them apart? It was Kyle Orton and a bottom three defense... why wasn't that game a blowout?

Before Week 17, Foles was quoted as saying the biggest game of his career was a high school state championship. I thought his inexperience on the big stage showed. Foles looked nervous. Unsure of himself. Slow in the pocket. Now we expect him to beat Sean Payton and Drew Brees in the playoffs? With that Eagles defense? Yikes.

What makes me most nervous about Philly is their health. Virtually every other team has been riddled with injuries, yet the Eagles enter this game with the same team that started Week 1. (Well, Vick is on the bench, but that's by choice). Look at, say, the Patriots by comparison. That type of continuity is hard to bet against, particularly for a good offensive line. But give me experience over home/road splits and health. Saints 27, Eagles 23.

The Chiefs have been on cruise control since Week 15. Their Week 16 loss to Indy was like a preseason game - they knew this matchup was coming, so they had no reason to show the Colts their playbook. Plus, Indy has been overrated for two years now. Look at their resume since Reggie Wayne got hurt - some bad, blowout losses (even at home to the Rams), and wins only against doormats. I know you like Andrew Luck, but who do you trust to help him on offense? KC has eight Pro Bowlers, and their superior talent will show this week. Chiefs 31-20.

I suspect we see GB/SF the same way. I love Rodgers and the Packers offense as much as anyone, especially at home, and Colin Kaepernick has struggled much of the year. That said, the Niners have a huge edge on defense, and Kaepernick has looked better since Michael Crabtree came back. Plus, it's Mike McCarthy vs. Jim Harbaugh - a huge edge for SF in what could be a close game.

I don't have a clear vision here. I want to say this will go like the last two matchups did (both in last year's playoffs and Week 1 this year, when SF looked unstoppable on offense and won), but how much do those outcomes matter? Gun to head, I'd bet the Niners to win, but I can't lay three points with Rodgers at home. How do you see this one? Does Carlos Rogers' injury matter? It's interesting that Vegas has the Niners around 7:1 to win it all (above the Panthers, who have the bye), while the Packers are 20:1. Is San Fran really that much better than Green Bay? What does Vegas see here that I don't?

From: scott pianowski
Date: Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 3:53 PM
Subject: Re: wild card breakfast
To: Mark Stopa

Cincinnati is the only team I feel very confident of winning this week, and they're potentially a bad matchup for the Patriots, too. I could see the other three games going in any direction, though I'm not worried about the Saints making a deep run.

The Atkins-Hall injury angle feels overplayed to me. The NFL is a game of attrition. The Patriots have lost Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. Ryan Clady and Von Miller were huge losses for the Broncos. The Seahawks got nothing out of Percy Harvin all year (Sidney Rice, too). The Colts, good lord, the Colts: Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Ahmad Bradshaw, Pat Angerer, Vick Ballard were some of the key losses. The Colts lead the NFL in players used and offensive lineups used.

How can we give Kansas City a preseason pass for Week 16? The San Diego loss, sure, that was a preseason game - look at the sideline. But Alex Smith went the route in the Colts game. Jamaal Charles had 18 touches. Eric Berry and Tambi Hali were playing. Maybe the Chiefs will make adjustments, maybe they'll play better, maybe the Colts will play worse, but you can't tell me KC wasn't trying in Week 16.

It's easy to find ways to discredit Indy's opponents, but the Colts also beat San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City. The game at Cincinnati got out of hand but Luck still had four touchdown passes. The offense has been a lot sharper in the final month. Chris Liss suggested the metrics might be missing something with the Colts, and I agree. Indy 27, KC 24.

How sharp will Aaron Rodgers be? Last week was great, but the Chicago defense was a valet parking service. Does poor weather hurt a warm weather team like San Francisco? I'm picking Green Bay with no strong conviction. Pack by three.

The Saints need good weather in Philly. Chase Stuart unearthed this tremendous stat: in playoff games involving dome teams on the road, the domes are 3-22 if the weather slips under 35 degrees. Throw in the Brees home/road stuff and we have to pick the Eagles. Maybe Rob Ryan finds a way to mess up Nick Foles, but I stopped believing in Santa Claus a while ago. Iggles by 10.

From: Mark Stopa
Date: Fri, Jan 3, 2014 at 5:39 PM
Subject: Re: wild card breakfast
To: Scott Pianowski

You're going to make me channel my inner Salfino here, aren't you?

The 2012 Colts were overrated according to statistical models like Massey-Peabody and, unsurprisingly, were soundly beaten as soon as the playoffs started. I'm sure you could come up with examples where the metrics were off, I get it. I also admit that 2012 is ancient history (but so are the Colts big victories in 2013, as they were before those injuries you list). But if you think this year's metrics are again "missing something" with the Colts, you tell me. What's missing? Do you really believe Indy can consistently perform better than the sum of its parts say it should? Why? Isn't that like saying a team will consistently recover 75% of all fumbles? I get overachieving with, say, the 2013 Patriots, if you want to credit their Hall of Fame coach. But Indy? We're talking about a team that, per the metrics, is worse than the Lions!

We can (and have) debated the extent to which we should rely on statistical formulas like M-P. If you're not wedded to the metrics, that's fine - I'm not ready to eliminate human thoughts in favor of formulas, either. That said, when a model like M-P looks under the hood on Indy and sees an 8-8 type of team, I can't ignore it, not with that big of a sample and certainly not without a compelling reason. So rejoice, owners of Jamaal Charles in fantasy playoff drafts - you'll get two games of great stats from your stud RB. Score one for the statheads.

San Francisco might be a warm-weather city, but the 49ers aren't a warm-weather team. I'd take that defense to Iceland, Antarctica, or anywhere in between. Even the offense wants to be a smash-mouth, run-oriented squad - not a finesse team like the Saints.

The issue for the Niners is whether they should be running so often, particularly as Frank Gore approaches the cliff over which Steve Smith and Darren Sproles have already fallen. If San Fran opens up the offense, as it started to the last few weeks, Kaepernick's legs and the weapons in the passing game should give the Niners 30-plus points. When you envision a Green Bay victory, other than Rodgers going off, what do you see? For me, it's too much running Frank Gore into the line, letting Rodgers hang around in a one-score game.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Sat, Jan 4, 2014 at 1:36 PM
Subject: wild card breakfast
To: Mark Stopa

For what it's worth, Football Outsiders gives 10 estimated wins to the Chiefs and 9.5 to the Colts. Throw in home field and this is a pick-em, I suppose.

Jim Harbaugh seems to flip-flop with Colin Karpernick, unleashing him some weeks and keeping him corralled in others. This is a week to let him loose, no matter the weather.

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