Breakfast Table: Slay the Favorite

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 9, 2013 at 11:57 AM
Subject: divisional breakfast
To: Michael Salfino

There aren't many letdown weeks in the NFL season, but the Wild Card round would qualify. The first three games were boring and sloppy, and the fourth game became one big morality play. I have no intention of looking back. I have nothing new to add on these topics: Andy Dalton, Purgatory QB; Adrian Peterson, Faux MVP; Indianapolis Colts, narrative over numbers. As for Robert Griffin, all I can say is "heal quickly, kid." We miss you already.

If you've got a post-script to those topics, it's welcome. Otherwise, let's go full speed ahead to the second round.

The Broncos and Patriots are both heavy favorites over teams they manhandled in the regular season, but rematches can be a tricky thing in the playoffs (yes, I remember the events of 1/16/11). Who's got the better chance of an upset? Will you feel cheated if we don't get Manning-Brady in the AFC Championship?

The NFC gives us tastier matchups this weekend, on paper anyway. Seattle is everyone's darling and no one seems to trust Atlanta, but there are countless examples of teams that couldn't win a big game ... until it did. John Elway couldn't do it. Ken Stabler couldn't do it. Aaron Rodgers couldn't do it. Eventually they all kicked the door down, emphatically. Is the time right for the Falcons to graduate, or is Seattle simply a better football team right now?

The Packers and Niners might be the best matchup from a chalkboard standpoint, but I'm still waiting for Green Bay's peak offense to show up. Although the Pack rolled over Minnesota, something's missing here. Can Green Bay's defense bridge the gap? Do you worry about Colin Kaepernick playing his first playoff game? This is someone who couldn't beat the Rams. Does the first Green Bay-San Francisco meeting have any relevance, or is it a folly to look back four months?

Divisional Breakfast is served.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 11:16 PM
Subject: Re: divisional breakfast
To: scott pianowski

We had a good Week 18 because nothing screwy happened. I had lunch with our pal Steve Moyer this week and he made the point that this hardly ever happens in the playoffs. There's usually at least one shocker. And I observed using the Massey-Peabody game numbers, which we've updated at, that we also had all the losers play terrible and worse than all the winners. Usually a team that plays below average manages to win and then I have to argue with people that they didn't deserve to despite contrary claims of how that team just knew "how to make the big plays at the right time."

I guess I don't feel as strongly about Dalton as you do. I also quibble with your purgatory point. I agree that if you don't have a great quarterback, you have almost an impossibly hard time being a great team. But there are worst things than being not great, for example, sucking. So having an average QB is not something that should just be tossed away. And I don't know even that Dalton is or will be average. But he's in that range. And maybe he gets a little better. Can he be a Phil Simms (not stylistically as much as quantitatively)? I can't say he can't be yet. So I'll hold that guy because half the teams in the league wish they had an average QB.

We cannot agree more about Peterson. I don't know what to say anymore about it. But I'm always flabbergasted by the people who I respect who strongly believe otherwise. I think there's an instinctive pull in football, especially the closer you get to players and coaches, toward physicality that's best expressed in running. So I think many people in the media end up looking for reasons to glorify that part of the game, which has steadily shrunk in relevance. I mean, I don't think that even the coaches deep down believe the crap they say. Okay, maybe Mr. Ground and Pound Rex Ryan does. (Woody Johnson says Rex and Jets fans share a "sophistication," WTF?) But come on, man, it's been a passing game for as long as we've been alive. No one is that dumb. (Okay, maybe Ryan is.) The Colts played exactly like we thought they would. Look at Cade and Rufus's game-by-game chart for them and see how it fits right into the puzzle.

I'm not going to moralize about RGIII's injury and what Mike Shanahan should have done. I tweeted during the game that he was pulling a Willis Reed in hitting the two early jumpers with the two TDs, but that the Seahawks just had to stick with their game plan because the Redskins had no Clyde Frazier to take over given that RGIII clearly looked done. Remember though that he had six carries for 63 yards and a TD against the Cowboys on December 30th, so I don't get all the interest in what Dr. Andrews said two weeks ago? Going forward, I have no idea what it means. Probably not much good. Even a Peterson-type of recovery pushes his running-as-good-as-new into at least October, right? Whose future would you want to have right now, RGIII's or Russell Wilson's?

And, man, is Wilson the poster boy for the Massey-Thaler Loser's Curse argument? Forget the salary and just think of the picks that Washington paid to draft RGIII versus just taking Wilson in the third round. Now they have a quarterback who is amazing in a pistol formation that it may not be feasible and/or wise for him to run anymore.

I'll set up the games now and make my picks in the closer. I can't see the Patriots or Broncos losing. The lines are pretty volatile but let's say that the AFC home teams are 9.5-point favorites. In the divisional playoffs, teams favored by that much or more are 22-6, straight up, according to Spreadapedia. But Peyton Manning and Tom Brady account for two of the three losses since 2000 in these situation. Brady, of course, lost to the Jets with the exact same line two years ago (back when I was still excited about Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan). And Peyton lost to a Philip Rivers with a torn ACL in the January following the 2007 season. So it's possible I guess. You can see maybe the Texans having the kind of day the Jets did in New England. Maybe J.J. Watt goes nuts, avenging how he was shut out in the Triple Crown of defensive lineman categories that I sort of invented in his honor in a Wall Street Journal "Count" this week.

Maybe in Denver there's some Ray Lewis effect. Maybe Joe Flacco just makes some unbelievable downfield throws instead of looking at times like he's switched from Madden Beginner to All Pro five minutes ago. Maybe Manning has a bad day. Nah, that last one is crazy.

Totally agree with Green Bay and San Francisco. That I think is the game of the week. I have no idea whatsoever who is going to win. I lean one way but feel like I can be talked out of it quickly. The Russell Wilsons, though, are about as big a favorite in my mind as the AFC home teams. And they are playing on the road. I think the 2.5 points are a gift. Really, the Seahawks should be favored (M-P has the game as Seattle minus-1.2. I think that's really light given how Seattle looks right now (but Cade always says, "Fade the hype.") Let's stipulate that the game should be a pick 'em. There have been seven home teams in divisional playoff history who have been pick 'em or getting points and those teams are 5-2 straight up. So there's your Falcons argument. The 49ers were in a similar situation against the Saints just last year and won.

From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 8:40 AM
Subject: hey 19
To: Michael Salfino

When I judge Week 18, it's not about results - it's about the quality of play. We were subjected to a lot of bad football. But things should be a lot better this week, especially with three elite teams coming back into play (Denver, New England, San Francisco).

I don't want to be too harsh on Atlanta - it's not like they're some 8-8 fraud. They're a 10-6 or 11-5 team in 13-3 clothing. The game with Seattle is close to a pick in my mind - but that affords the Falcons a decent chance to win.

The problem with the Daltons of the world is they block you from attacking the position like you should. Any team that doesn't have a potential front-door Pro Bowl quarterback at any juncture in time needs to be plotting at the position. The worst thing a team can do is get long-term invested with a Ryan Fitzpatrick type. Dalton's a step ahead of Fitzpatrick, sure, but I'll be shocked if he's ever one of the Top 5 at the position. And if that's a fair assessment, he becomes an invisible anchor of your franchise - you think you're set at the position but you're really not. Your upside is silently capped. The Texans left last week's game to be claimed, but Dalton couldn't make the throws.

I'll be surprised if either kingpin falls in the AFC, but Denver's in a much more secure spot. Baltimore's been exposed in this space many times, and the Ravens didn't even play that well last week against mediocre Indianapolis. Unless a week of rest has done something to Denver's sharpness, I can't see how Manning and Friends don't spring for an easy 30-plus. The Ravens defense has been living off the name brand for far too long. Broncos by 17.

A lot is going to be made of Ray Lewis's departure and obviously he's a walk-in Hall of Famer, but I've always felt he was mildly overrated all through the 2000s. A run-stopping linebacker was a wonderful thing back in the 70s and 80s, but it's not nearly as critical now. If the Ravens had to go back in time and settle for just one of Lewis or Ed Reed, the right pick is the defensive back.

I give Houston a shot at New England if Watt has a transcendent game. No quarterback likes interior pressure; I can still imagine the Cardinals getting under Brady's feet back in September (maybe they thought Miss Alabama was waiting for them in the pocket). But I don't have any faith in Kubiak or Schaub when push comes to shove, and the Patriots defense has been a lot better in the second half of the year. Belichick's had extra prep time and that still matters to me. Patriots 30, Texans 23.

Do the Seahawks get any tax for travel and schedule concerns? West Coast teams get a raw deal when they're asked to play a game at 10 AM body time. I also wonder if Seattle might be a little overconfident after last week's three-quarter shutdown of Washington; to me, that told me more about Washington's injuries and flaws than it did about Seattle's strengths. Then again, my heart can't pick against Russell Wilson. Atlanta's going to have problems defending the zone option (or Lynch on straight-up runs), and the Seahawks definitely have the better secondary. Rain 27, Peachtrees 24.

I've flipped the Packers-Niners pick all week. Maybe I'll flip it again after we pay the check. At the end of it all I want the better quarterback, and I'm not sure how the Niners pass rush will play if Justin Smith isn't right. And for all the sunshine thrown at San Francisco's offense, I'm underwhelmed by the pass catchers. Michael Crabtree has stepped up nicely but I wouldn't say he terrifies me. Vernon Davis is woefully underutilized and coming off a concussion. Randy Moss? That ship sailed a long time ago. Kaepernick probably makes one or two more mistakes than Rodgers does here, and that's the difference. Pack by 3.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 11:51 AM
Subject: Gone with the Wind
To: scott pianowski

Atlanta is closer to an 8-8 fraud than to an 11-5 team for sure. Look at their game logs by M-P. They played seven games where they scored below average in the key metrics. Those should be losses. M-P also has the Falcons as the 11th best team. The 7-9 Panthers were 12th. Now, Atlanta grades above average for sure. They are a playoff team. But they are not a true No. 1 conference seed by any stretch. On a neutral field, they would be underdogs to all three other remaining NFC teams and even those lines would be discounted because people are spellbound by the record. And we know that records only describes success, it doesn't necessarily predict it.

I see the Falcons having no success running the ball. The Chris Clemons injury that's gotten a little lost in the RGIII news is a bad one for Seattle. I stipulate that. It's going to cascade throughout the matchups and result in Ryan having more time to throw. Technically Bruce Irvin replaces him but Irvin was on the field on passing downs anyway. So they are down one elite rusher, never good. But this is still at least a top 10 defense and maybe better since we never really know about the backups until we see them play. I can't see a way that the Falcons offense generates more than 24 points. So what are the chances that Wilson beats that against a Falcons defense that was 22nd in yards allowed per pass play? I say very good. That's not even factoring in their new read-option infused running game that's also top shelf. Atlanta gets burned by Sherman again, with Richard running a Ryan pass back for a score to ice it. Seattle 31, Falcons 20.

Sticking with the NFC in the game of the week, I see 34-31. Who will win though? I'm with you, the Packers. I can't ever bet against Aaron Rodgers. It just feels wrong, not because I like the guy but just because he's so damn good. Do the 49ers and Kaepernick know how to win a shootout? They're going to have to, I predict. But I think that Rodgers will just keep too much pressure on and the lack of playmakers for San Francisco that you noted will prove decisive. And look at how inexperienced Kaepernick is and then consider how he's going to have to go toe-to-toe with maybe the greatest quarterback ever in his first playoff game. That's too much to ask.

Man, looking you soft-selling the Patriots. You really believe this is going to be a close game? I don't. I think Schaub was terrible last week throwing. Some of the passes were downright Tebow-ish. I've supported him more than you. But now I'm putting him in that "average" class. HIs play has taken a step back this year, when they've needed him to pick up his game and carry the offense more. If you're saying seven points on a backdoor cover, maybe. But substantively, this is a double-digit Patriots win easy. The Patriots are perfectly built to beat a blitzing team that likes to play man coverage because they have designed their team to beat Rex Ryan's defense. So Brady will be a monster. Patriots 38, Texans 24.

I actually give the Ravens a better chance than the Texans, while you see Denver in a rout. I think the team with the bye has to worry about being a little dull early, especially when they are as finesse-oriented on offense as Manning and company. That's the opportunity here for the Ravens. Maybe the blitzes work. Maybe Ray Rice makes a play or two early and/or Anquan Boldin or Torrey Smith. I even like Dennis Pitta. But if the first read isn't there for Flacco, he's in trouble still, even after all this time in the league. Maybe he gets to a second read. But then panic sets in and he sort of zones out. I see the Ravens early but the Mannings late after the defense locks down Flacco. Broncos 30, Ravens 24.

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