Breakfast Table: Breakfast of Champions

From: Scott Pianowski
To: Mark Stopa
Sent: Wed, Jan 15, 2014 5:11 pm
Subject: Breakfast of Champions

We didn't get much action during the Divisional Round, but maybe they were just paying it forward. The Final Four is buzz-worthy and headline-friendly. Brady-Manning is the best rivalry of our generation (any sport), and the Seahawks and Niners have the best team rivalry in the NFL right now.

I loathe the ring-driven narrative of NFL life, but it is what it is. There's a significant amount of legacy riding with Brady and Manning over the next three weeks. If Peyton gets to a second title, the stat tailwind could push him to the Greatest of All Time label. But if he retires with just one ring, that's a light bag.

Brady's career is a little silly in the rear-view mirror, of course. His overlord days came after the titles, not that there's any shame in the two losses to the Giants. But if he never wins that fourth title, if he takes all those swings and never connects again, that's going to be held against him, too.

Most of the logical signs point to the Broncos (look at the receivers and try not to laugh), but I'll admit the fan in me is looking for a New England angle. Belichick over Fox, that's convenient (though Manning might overrule Fox in a key offensive spot). The Pats had a terrific game plan in the first meeting, but obviously Denver will adjust - and Aqib Talib hasn't been healthy for several weeks.

If you were starting a team from scratch, would you take Colin Kaepernick over Russell Wilson? How many current head coaches would you take over Jim Harbaugh? Do we make too much of Seattle's home field edge?

I guess it's obvious which game I'm more focused on. You win again, geography. Stop in both cities and let's get it going - Breakfast of Champions is served.

From: Mark Stopa
To: Scott Pianowski
Sent: Thurs, Jan 16, 2014 9:32 pm
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions

49ers/Seahawks is an awesome matchup, but you owe no apologies for focusing on the AFC. It's not just Peyton/Brady XV; we might be watching the informal crowning of the G.O.A.T. If Peyton wins this week and adds a second ring to his five MVPs, it would be hard to deny him that title, right? But if Brady wins and takes home a fourth ring, we'd have to put him above Peyton and every other QB, wouldn't we? It's crazy, after decades of NFL football, that the next three games may give us the G.O.A.T. yet we're not even sure who it will be.

Watching DEN/SD this past Sunday, I found myself trying to get inside Bill Belichick's head. (Remember, the Pats had already won by the time the Broncos played, so Belichick was watching DEN/SD on TV with the rest of us.) The Chargers conservative game-plan failed miserably, yet they nearly forced overtime when the lopsided score required they throw every down. That might suggest an aggressive approach is the right answer for New England, but the Pats have won in recent weeks with a run-oriented attack. Plus, they might not have the personnel to open things up with Gronk hurt. So how does Belichick play this? Does he go conservative, shorten the game, and try to win 24-20? Or does he open things up and try to score 30-plus points but risk Peyton turning it into a blowout? As a Pats fan, which approach would you prefer?

I'm not sure what the right answer is here, but I'm confident Belichick does. In fact, that might be the thing I'm most confident in this week. That doesn't mean NE will win, of course, but I love giving the far superior coach an extra day of prep. (I'll always credit Belichick's game-plan with extra prep as the reason the Giants won Super Bowl XXV.) Are you with me here? How much does it help that Belichick got to watch Denver on TV, win in hand, and start game-planning a day early?

One obvious NE angle is weather. The worse the weather, the better it is for the Pats, right?

If this is the last Peyton/Brady matchup, it's appropriate it happened on the same day as the next great QB rivalry. Choosing between Kaepernick and Wilson feels like splitting hairs, but gun to head, I like Wilson's floor. Kaep strikes me as a little immature and more likely to get into off-field problems, while Wilson has nearly the same raw talent but a squeaky-clean character and great intangibles. How do you compare the two? Which team's fan base is better off for the next decade?

Other than home field, what angles do you see for SEA/SF? Am I crazy to think the refs are a big X factor? They're in a no-win situation, really. If they let the players play, the game could turn into an MMA match. But nobody wants to see a flag-fest, either.

Everyone loves Harbaugh, but where is Pete Carroll on your coaching ranks? Do you trust Carroll to open up the 'Hawks offense on Sunday? That has to be the plan against this Niners defense, right?

I'm sure I'm missing lots of other angles. Give me more, and share your picks.

From: Scott Pianowski
To: Mark Stopa
Sent: Thu, Jan 16, 2014 11:01 pm
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions

It's nice to have a personal stake, a welcome change to the neutral way I watch most of the NFL (at least, I try to do that). I'll be wearing the Pat Patriot shirt on the weekend. Mind you, a New England loss probably won't sting me (only Arsenal defeats do that now) - I was satiated from the three championships. And if the Pats lose, it will be fun to see a very watchable Denver team in the Super Bowl. But obviously I'm pulling for Brady to cement the legacy further.

And you never know when Brady and Manning will be done opposing each other, so we have to savor every one. Enjoy Every Sandwich. They're obviously matched up on next year's schedule, assuming Manning doesn't do an Elway and walk away after a title. You never know when the last time is.

I hear you on San Diego's game plan, though the wind might have played into it. It was frustrating to see an underdog afraid to take a full swing until it was just about too late. Maybe the last Chargers win worked against San Diego here - and obviously the Ryan Mathews injury didn't help.

I'm not concerned about the Patriots scoring in Denver; the problem will be stopping the Broncos offense. New England jammed the Denver wideouts in the first meeting and got under Manning's feet, confused him - it was one of his worst professional games ever. But it's hard to know where Talib's health and ability are right now, and Manning obviously will go to school on everything New England did. I'd like Belichick's ambush chances better if this were the first meeting.

I don't think the extra prep time is that advantagous to Belichick here. Remember, he had to respect a possible San Diego win on Sunday. New England also has the traveling burden. Obviously we'll all take Belichick 100 times out of 100 over John Freaking Fox, but Manning offsets some of that advantage.

At least we know Belichick will go down swinging. Aggressive game theory will be in play. Belichick would never admit it, but he knows he's the underdog here. And the underplayed angle here might be Brady up against a defense he's seen (and solved) once - and now without Von Miller to make his life miserable, I expect New England to move the ball fairly easily. But then I look at the disparity of the skill players and I get depressed again. Broncos 31, Patriots 30.

My Belichick love letter to the side, we have to accept one thing about coaching - it's usually damn hard to evaluate as an outsider. We're not in the locker room, we don't always know who's the genius behind the scheme at play. It seems like athletes enjoy playing for Pete Carroll, but I really don't know how much of Seattle's success is Carroll and how much his assistants (or, heck, falling into Russell Wilson - not to mention a ton of late-round talent. Okay, a lot of that luck is the residue of design).

I have to shade Seattle because I think the Seahawks have the slightly better defense, and I'm more confident in its ability to rattle Kaepernick than San Francisco rattling Wilson. And if there's one home field advantage that still matters in 2014, it's Seattle's. I can't wait to watch San Francisco's wideouts against Seattle's secondary - high energy, high attitude, physical from the first step off the bus. Is there a prop on Anquan Boldin getting ejected? Seahawks 24, Niners 20.

I'll probably think of a dozen fresh angles after I hit send. So it goes.

From: Mark Stopa
To: Scott Pianowski
Sent: Fri, Jan 17, 2014 9:36 pm
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions

It feels too simple to say the Broncos will win because of the talent disparity at receiver. Belichick sees that disparity, so won't he find a way to minimize the impact there? With Denver fielding a virtual Pro Bowl team on offense, is that possible?

The set-up here reminds me of Super Bowl XXV. Against a heavily-favored Bills team with three Hall of Famers on offense (four when Andre Reed makes it), Belichick's Giants (technically, he was coordinator under Parcells, but it was Belichick's game-plan) gave Thurman Thomas all the running room Buffalo wanted. Thomas was the best player on the field that day, but the Giants defense kept everything in front of them, stayed close and won in the end.

We saw New England deploy a similar script against Denver in Week 12. The Pats played nickle throughout, and Denver kept running - their 47 runs against a six-man box were 14 more than any team in any game in the last six years. (No wonder Moreno looked so good in that game.) So that's going to be the game-plan here - beg Denver to run.

Unlike Jim Kelly in that Super Bowl (who admitted, years later, that he wasn't patient enough with the run in his no-huddle offense), Peyton won't force deep balls into defenses playing the pass. We've seen it many times over the years; Peyton will keep handing off to Moreno and Montee Ball, content to take what the Pats give him. (I can see Mike Salfino ranting on Twitter already, lamenting how Peyton keeps handing off instead of "taking what he wants"). So we're not going to see big plays out of the Denver passing game; they'll be more ball-control than usual, like last week.

Can Denver win that way? They didn't in Week 12, but Peyton was oddly terrible that day. An anomaly, really. Plus, the Broncos offensive line is rated No. 1 by PFF, so they can run (even though we don't think of them as a physical team). But if the Broncos aren't getting big plays, the key will be whether they convert those third and fours in the red zone. Like we saw last week, that's hard to do consistently, particularly for a team that isn't used to playing that way. And on the other side of the ball, Denver losing Chris Harris is a big blow for an already-depleted defense. In fact, Denver is bottom-five at covering slot receivers, which is just what the Patriots use. Pats, 30-26.

I see Niners/Seahawks a little like Niners/Panthers last week. Sure, Seattle is at home and has more talent than Carolina did. But like Carolina, Seattle's passing game leaves a bit to be desired, particularly with Percy Harvin inactive. As I look at the Niners, I can't find a weakness. They're the type of team we'll look at on Monday and say "they hit their stride at the right time and even playing three games on the road, they were the NFC's best team all along." Kind of like the 2010 Packers, really - that's why Vegas had San Fran at just 7:1 even with three road games to get to the Super Bowl. 49ers, 23-14.

My worry about SF/SEA is that the refs will impact the outcome. With these teams, it's not hard to envision a flag for hitting a "defenseless receiver" keeping a key drive alive. And with an over/under below 40, any such call will be enormous. The potential for a controversy here is high; I just hope the best team wins.

Regardless, we're in store for a great Super Bowl. As you said in Staff Picks, bully for us.

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