Breakfast Table: Mining for an Upset

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
To: Mark Stopa
Sent: Wed, Jan 8, 2014 5:41 pm

Subject: Best NFL Weekend of the Year

It's the last full week of the year, four games and two days in play. Let's try to enjoy it.

Recent history tells us to expect at least one upset in this round, which means the Broncos, Patriots or Seahawks are in trouble (let's excuse the other game from that discussion). Rank your upset potential in order, please.

I guess Andrew Luck has punched his greatness card, not that it's any great secret or surprise. Would he be your first pick in an NFL redraft? Who's more likely to trip up Luck this week, Bill Belichick or Pep Hamilton?

The Broncos and Seahawks both had recent home losses, which I maintain is a good thing. Taste your own blood, push towards self scouting. I also expect the Seahawks to roll this week, but that can wait until my reply.

Should the Niners even be favored? This looks like a Carolina setup to me.

You get the first run. Have a day.

From: Mark Stopa
To: Scott Pianowski
Sent: Wed, Jan 8, 2014 8:16 pm
Subject: Re: Best NFL Weekend of the Year

You're surprised the Panthers are an underdog? Really? I agree no outcome there would be an upset, but I strongly favor the Niners. The way you've ripped on Cam over the years, I can't believe you're buying in now. What do you like about Carolina in this spot? I see San Fran as roughly equal at QB and defense but better on offense and coaching. What am I missing? (Hurry, a friend of a friend is throwing down a sizeable bet on SF for me as we speak.)

As for the other three games, is there really any doubt the team most likely to pull an upset is Indy? Belichick won't stop Luck, not with that defense. Even Pep can't screw it up - if Indy falls short, it won't be because of the offense. Predicting an upset here, though, is as much about the Patriots as the Colts. Since 2008, New England is just 3-4 in the playoffs and the only wins were against Tim Tebow, Matt Schaub, and Joe Flacco by three (in the game Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yarder at the horn). Yikes. I readily admit my jealousy of how your Patriots make the playoffs every year, but don't the recent playoff failures make you nervous? Or is it more unsettling going into the playoffs with several studs on IR and Julian Edelman as your top offensive weapon?

You agree NE is most likely to fall, right? So instead of choosing an upset among those three, I want you to pick a sixth seed to win. It might sound nuts since both are more than a touchdown underdog, but look at the results of 6 seeds playing 1s since 2005:

Year No. 1 seed Result No. 6 seed Round
2005-06 Seattle L, 21-10 Pittsburgh Super Bowl
2005-06 Indianapolis L, 21-18 Pittsburgh Divisional
2005-06 Seattle W, 20-10 Washington Divisional
2008-09 Tennessee L, 13-10 Baltimore Divisional
2008-09 NY Giants L, 23-11 Philadelphia Divisional
2009-10 Indianapolis W, 20-3 Baltimore Divisional
2010-11 New England L, 28-21 NY Jets Divisional
2010-11 Atlanta L, 48-21 Green Bay Divisional

I had to print the chart to believe it - a 6-2 record. This reminds me of how you and Salfino were picking playoff teams in the preseason, noting half of the 2012 playoff teams would miss out this year. We can't ever envision it happening, but history shows us it always does. So, you tell me - which sixth seed will win this weekend? Does it matter that the Broncos are historically elite on offense while the Seahawks are, with far less fanfare, having a record-breaking defensive season (leading league in both passing defense and INTs)? What do you trust more at this time of year, great offense or great defense?

I'd be remiss to note the Patriots recent playoff history and not mention Peyton's 9-11 career playoff record (includes eight years where he made the playoffs and lost in his first game). Does that mean anything here? Or how about the Chargers turnaround on defense in the last month (shutting down Denver and Cincy on the road) compared to their season-long stats? How much weight do you give recent performance as opposed to the full season?

Are there any other angles you see this weekend?

From: Scott Pianowski
To: Mark Stopa
Sent: Fri, Jan 10, 2014 11:29 am
Subject: Re: Best NFL Weekend of the Year

I'm surprised that you're surprised at my Carolina-San Francisco statement. The Panthers are ranked higher in the only two power ratings I give any credence to (Massey Peabody, Football Outsiders), albeit it's a small edge. Carolina's obviously at home and rested. That's enough for me. It's still the most difficult game of the weekend to forecast. My coin has the Panthers by three, but I wouldn't wager the coin on it. (MP, incidentally, loves the Panthers.)

Ron Rivera might not be a great coach, but he's no longer a liability for one simple reason - he's now aggressive with fourth-down theory. So many teams leave points on the field by punting and kicking when they shouldn't, and if you wanted one quick-and-dirty way of separating the worthwhile game-theory coaches from the problematic ones, this is what you look at. Bill Belichick is going to do the right thing. Marvin Lewis is going to stick with 15 against a dealer King. Every Broncos fan should be petrified of John Fox (though Peyton Manning is the type of player who might overrule a coach in the heat of the moment).

Football Outsiders does a fascinating thing for their current DVOA - they eliminate Weeks 1-4 and limit the impact of Weeks 5-8. This contrasts to MP, I'm pretty sure. I'm curious to see where modern theory goes from here. Intuitively, the FO approach seems logical to me - but I don't have any math or graphs to back that up.

The Patriots might stop Luck more than you think. Frame it a different way: the Patriots might stop the Colts enough. With the exception of 2007, New England has ranked higher in points allowed than it has in yardage allowed during every season of the Belichick era (the ranks were even in 2007). Sure, you'll move it against this defense. How many points are you going to get from it?

Oh sure, Pep can screw it up. He's done it all season (with help from his organization). These are the guys who (take a list): treated T.Y. Hiton as if he had leprosy in September; traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson and continued to play him over the more versatile (and better) Donald Brown; forced a multiple-TE offense when it goes against what works best for Luck (in part because it often keeps guys like Hilton off the field). You win in spite of Hamilton, not because of him.

There's been bad fortune at play too, to be fair - the Colts lost their best running back, best wideout and best tight end along the way. But the biggest problem for Andrew Luck is the guys in charge of the game plan. Indianapolis should start every game with an imagined 14-0 deficit; that's when the proper offensive philosophy is more likely to emerge. Pats by six.

When you make the playoffs every year like Brady and Manning generally do, there will be ways to frame them in a bad light. Jim Kelly was only 9-8 in the playoffs. Dan Marino, 8-10. John Elway was 7-8 before the two glorious runs that ended his career. Manning has twice as many one-round exits as anyone else, but part of that is what you get from making the playoffs every damn year. (Joe Flacco beat everyone last year, remember. How come no one holds it against Colin Karpernick?)

Is there anything to be gained from a late and painful loss? And how do we apply it with rematches? Do the Saints get any advantage from the earlier beatdown in Seattle? Maybe this forces NO to address problems, make changes, be self-critical. Of course you could say the same type of thing about the Seahawks losing at home to Arizona in Week 16.

The Saints winning at Philly was a nice step for them, but the Eagles haven't had a major home-field advantage for years. Nick Foles wasn't ready for his closeup yet, but Russell Wilson's been around the block. Seattle's stadium is loud and intimidating (even in the Arizona loss, Carson Palmer was horrendous). Maybe the officials let them play downfield in the playoffs, but false starts always get called. Seahawks by 10.

I know this will contradict what I wrote in Staff Picks, but I give the Chargers the best chance of the three heavy dogs. San Diego has the personnel to play the best anti-Manning game - run the ball, shorten the game, limit possessions. McCoy's experience with Manning is an edge, too - we saw that in the Thursday upset.

Every top seed appreciates the bye - you work at home, you have one less game to win. But I think the time off is more potentially harmful to a finesse team like the Broncos (as opposed to a physical team, like Seattle). How quickly will Manning be back in form? Is Wes Welker a factor after several weeks away? Which San Diego defense do we factor into our handicapping, the full-season mess or the significantly-improved lot that showed up down the stretch?

This game comes down to the last possession. I want to pick the Chargers to be cute, but call it Denver by three. (Grab the points, of course. Inflated line.)

From: Mark Stopa
To: Scott Pianowski
Sent: Fri, Jan 10, 2014 10:51 pm
Subject: Re: Best NFL Weekend of the Year

My Bills haven't made the playoffs in 73 years (thanks partly to your Patriots), yet you have to pick on Jim Kelly? What's next, you stopping by my house to kick my dog?

It's interesting that you're going to the power rankings to defend the Panthers. You typically don't roll that way. Oddly, that makes me like the 49ers even more (as if you had a clear vision on the Panthers, you wouldn't resort to the power rankings). I do agree on Ron Rivera - what he's doing on fourth down is a big part of coaching - but San Fran is a notch above Carolina on offense with Crabtree back, and your silence there tells me you agree. Niners 24-13.

The Colts injuries are overplayed. Bradshaw, Ballard or Brown ... does it really matter? Sure, Reggie Wayne's injury matters, but he's not half the player Gronk is. Even Mayo, Vollmer and Wilfork are worse than the Colts other losses. (Dwayne Allen or Coby Fleener - is there really a difference? Yawn.) Indy's defense leaves plenty to be desired, but I'm not sure the Pats are equipped to exploit that right now. Prove me wrong, Brady. It's been a while since you've been the best player on the field in a playoff game. Colts 31-27.

I suppose you're right in saying the Chargers can run the ball and shorten the game. We watched them play that script to beat Denver and Cincy in the past month. But if you're a Broncos fan, isn't that the game-plan you'd want the Chargers to operate? A big underdog like San Diego needs to play aggressively. Bolts fans should be rooting for a surprise onside, a la Sean Payton against Manning in the Super Bowl, and for Philip Rivers to go no-huddle and involve Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green early, aiming to score 30-plus points. After letting Rivers throw just six passes in the first half last week, I doubt Mike McCoy plays it that way.

I'm a smidge nervous about the Chargers defensive play in the past month. We've all seen Wild Card teams get hot in December and stay hot through the Super Bowl, so maybe the Chargers improved in a way we can't articulate quite yet. But my gut says San Diego beating the Bengals was more about Andy Dalton playing poorly, while their beating the Broncos was catching Denver on a bad day (short week, no Welker). Denver runs out to a big lead as McCoy plays it too close to the vest, then holds on. Broncos 38-24.

I picked the Saints last week without a terribly good reason, and I'm not sure I have one this week, either. Maybe it's the recent history of 6s beating 1s. Maybe it's how the Saints were better than the Eagles on both lines last week - something we never associate with the Saints.

If I were confident the Seahawks would open up the offense, I'd probably pick a Seattle blowout. But this team has a way of going into a shell, relying on defense, and playing to win a one-score game. Yes, the Saints got killed in Seattle a few weeks ago, but how often do we see the script play out the same way the second time? This is the game that comes down to the final possession, and I give New Orleans a legit chance to win if Brees plays better than he usually plays on the road. Seahawks 23-20.

You're right about one thing - this is the best weekend of the year. Sunday night, when the NFL finish line is in sight, will be a huge letdown. Savor this weekend, friends - I know I will.

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