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Breakfast Table: Breakfast of Champions

Michael Salfino

Michael Salfino writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Scott Pianowski

Scott Pianowski writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

From: Scott Pianowski
Date: Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 12:23 PM
Subject: Breakfast of Champions
To: Michael Salfino

I'd call it a fun and crazy weekend, but you know how the Mad Lib goes. In the NFL, every weekend is fun and crazy.

The Giants have been on my mind for most of the last two days. Here we go again with the 2007 blueprint, the rope-a-dope (Happy Birthday, champ) followed by the big finish. There was nothing fluky at all about the win in Green Bay; if you just came off the spaceship, you'd swear the Giants must be the 15-1 team, not the Packers.

But what do we make of teams that peak at the right time? Is it luck? Timing? Health? Is there anything you can do to control it? Was New York's loss to Washington in Week 15 a happy accident, a refocus moment at the right time? How do Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning fit this narrative?

And is it even a narrative worth discussing? Heck, 90 percent of post-game NFL talk is just backfitting bullshit. And if the Niners trounce the Giants, New York's momentum will be as relavent as dial-up Internet.

Or maybe we should flip it and point to the other side of the coin, the Packers. What could Green Bay have done differently before this week? Should they have played Aaron Rodgers in Week 17? Should they have practiced differently? Is there a downside to having home field and a bye in the playoffs - less sharpness, more pressure? Or, again, is this all noise, ready for the shredder? Maybe there's nothing you can do.

I have nothing much to say about the Broncos and Patriots - boys to men - but I would like to nod to the other departed. I'll miss New Orleans the most, I really thought that offense was unstoppable, and they were going to win the NFC. Where does that Niners-Saints game rank in playoff history? It reminded me a little of the Pats and Panthers in Super Bowl 36 - calm early, explosion late. It also had a similar feel to the Steelers-Cardinals in Super Bowl 43, though that was a much better game.

Of course I didn't see any of the Niners and Saints live, because of the hell that is DirecTV. (NFL Replay, you are my hero.)

Respect to the Texans, who would probably be the AFC's kingpins if not for the injuries to Matt Schaub, Mario Williams and Andre Johnson. Hey, people get hurt in tackle football. Even the quarterbacks, no matter that it's illegal to hit them.

Look back, look ahead. Let's pick winners, let's pick nits. Championship Breakfast is served.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 11:50 AM
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions
To: Scott Pianowski

Agree on the Giants win being very solid. But the big plays again - a Hail Mary that really was the key play in the game and the Nicks TD gave them a 3-1 edge on plays of 25-plus yards making them 16-2 over the opposition over the past four games, all wins. And that doesn't include 23- and 24-yard plays for the Giants (the Packers had only one over 20). For most of that game, the Giants struggled to move the football. They had three three-and-outs, and the first Nicks TD came on third and 11.

So what the NFC Championship game comes down to is whether you can predict the Giants are going to win the big-play battle again. And I stipulate that a lot of this has to do with their defense giving up only two in four games. Still, is this differential more random than skill? The evidence going back through NFL history says the odds are good that the big play advantage will dry up, though the Giants only need it for two more games.

If the offensive big plays are limited, the Giants still have their pass defense that's suddenly mighty and not for their pass rush, which has been okay but nothing special. Their coverage is the story behind allowing about 4.5 net yards per pass play the past four games and 4.82 to the Packers, who led the league at 8.3 for the regular season. I will wager that no net yards per pass play leader has gotten shut down to that degree in a postseason game, especially at home. So I expect a low scoring game on Sunday, more reminiscent of the 1990 game than the 2003 one (the shootout that ended with a non-call for pass interference on the botched field goal).

As I intimated last week, I think the big story for the Packers was the loss of their offensive coordinator due to the tragic drowning death of his son. Coaching is huge in football, and how can you possibly make up for that type of loss while also being distracted by your empathy and grief for a friend and colleague? It's impossible to quantify the impact, but perhaps the results speak to that.

I agree that Saints-Niners was a game for the ages. It reminded me of the Dolphins-Raiders in 1974, the Sea of Hands game. That had a similar back-and-forth quality to it. A lot of kids who were watching that game fell in love with football because of the drama and edge-of-your-seat excitement. Looking back on that day when I was 10, watching the game with my Uncle Joe in my grandmother's kitchen on a black-and-white TV, brings back a flood of memories. And it went beyond Cliff Branch getting off the ground without getting touched and racing for a long TD or Benny Malone's great run (at 8:35 on the link) down the right sideline or even that improbable Stabler-to-Davis, last-second score. It was the day that the game itself became front and center for me, beyond the rooting interest I had in my local team.

I don't know why you keep throwing Mario Williams in with the Texans injuries. Even Andre Johnson was no big deal. Schaub is the story, plus losing Leinart (I know, but who knows) and having to fall back to a rookie. They were the better team even without Schaub on Sunday but lost because of turnovers - and it wasn't the interceptions as much as the unconscionable fumbled punt. Without that, I think the Ravens fall into a rut and struggle to score even one touchdown. Letting punts bounce is a pet peeve of mine. These return men play so deep because they selfishly think of running into their return rather than putting themselves into a position to run up and catch a crappy kick. So they let the ball bounce 20 yards or worse.

But still, the Ravens I think are a little bit of a matchup problem for the Patriots. Maybe the tight ends will make a difference. I'm sure Brady has something planned for them and will see if they can execute. The Broncos, though, were too easy. Perhaps Brady and Co. pay for that on Sunday.

From: Scott Pianowski
Date: Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:37 PM
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions
To: Michael Salfino

Maybe my questions on peak didn't pique your interest, or maybe there's nothing there. I'm still curious about the subject. I also wonder if it's harder to be the lead dog in long-running athletic competitions, if it's disadvantageous to be the yellow jersey, if you're better off lying in the weeds. I've held a theory for a while that it's a slight negative to lead a golf tournament after the first day, since you bring on extra media responsibilities and other distractions when what you really want to do is take a few swings, get a good meal and go to bed (that last item means different things to different people on tour, I suppose).

I'll be very surprised if the Patriots don't win the AFC. The Baltimore win at Foxboro back in Jan. 2010 is getting a lot of play, but I don't see it. The New England offense is completely different today. Wes Welker (knee) didn't play that day, and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were still in college (I think they're better than Ben Watson and Chris Baker). Julian Edelman caught two touchdown passes, now he's a defensive back. Randy Moss is walking the earth, presumably.

You probably have to devote two people to Gronkowski; he's obviously too fast for the linebackers and too big for the defensive backs. Hernandez is a fun puzzle piece because you can move him all over the formation, but sometimes he leaves stuff on the field; he'll have occasional lapses with route running and concentration. I'd put a key defender on him but not sell out resources. You also have to let the Welker stuff happen (for all his skills, he's still a short-yardage guy, bubble screens and option routes).

I'd like to see the Pats use some hurry up in the first half, control the tempo, keep the Ravens from substituting. Brady's as good as anyone at the line of scrimmage, and this overall offense is very smart and cohesive. Baltimore won't outthink them; it's just a matter of executing what's there. And I also love what a Belichick staff (or maybe it's just him) brings for halftime adjustments. The Patriots have allowed 105 points over the last five weeks: 81 in the first half, 24 in the second. I don't think that's a coincidence. Patriots 34, Ravens 20.

Obviously Schaub was the biggest hit to the Texans, no one would disagree with you there, but when you lose your three best players (though I guess Johnathan Joseph is close to the trinity), you're getting screwed by Lady Luck. I don't think Leinart would have been much different than Yates; he's had time to learn and study, but pocket awareness doesn't develop on the bench and he can't throw deep. Maybe Johnson would be less of a hit if the other receivers were any good, but they're not. Owen Daniels played through a significant injury, too. (I don't consider Arian Foster one of the indispensable Texans because I like Ben Tate a lot too. Mind you, Foster is clearly better, and he should be the No. 1 roto pick next year. But we all know that fantasy and real football are vastly different exercises.)

I'm a broken record with Ken Stabler; he should be in the Hall of Fame (and maybe Clifford Branch, too). Diamond Dave Ferris agrees. Stabler's one Super Bowl title was 35 years ago; the anniversary just past. It's so odd to think of a Super Bowl being played in early January.

Your big play stats are interesting, but it's not clear to me where we draw the line. What's the longest play an offense can make where we still view it as a reliable and repeatable event? Why is 25 yards the cutoff? I'm not questioning it in a skeptical way, just wondering when high octane downshifts into Wheel of Fortune.

The Niners, of course, toppled the Saints with their share of big plays. San Francisco was 4-for-15 on third down (New York is 16-for-31 in the playoffs). So why can't the Giants beat the Niners with small bites and patient matriculation?

Bottom line, I know Eli Manning is better than Alex Smith. I know the Giants have better receivers. The Niners have a gigantic edge with the back two defensive lines (especially the linebackers), while the defensive lines are close to even. If San Francisco doesn't hound Manning into a turnover party, I have to favor the Giants.

It will be a shame if the track is messy for this game, but I'm not going to play weatherman. Giants 20, Niners 19.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 10:58 AM
Subject: Re: Breakfast of Champions
To: scott pianowski

Obviously you want to be playing your best football now. And the Giants did play their best game of the year against the Packers, according to Massey-Peabody. But I've always believed, and Massey-Peabody confirms it to a significant degree, that you are more the sum of your full-season performance than what you've done of late. So I think it's that range that the Giants will operate in on Sunday. Their turnaround in defending the pass, considering the sample of plays and the opponents, is very hard to explain, however. Are they capable of having a bad day in coverage or are they hot/transformed now? I don't think it's the latter, but I don't know so.

Everyone said the Patriots were unstoppable last year against the Jets, too, and then we were all shocked. New England was smacked around in consecutive weeks in the first half by Miami and Buffalo - hardly juggernauts. So, yeah, I give Baltimore a chance. If New England falls behind 17-0 in this game, they are in big trouble because the Ravens defense is so sound. Plus they can generate pressure with Suggs and, like all QBs, when you knock Brady around, he's a different guy. As for Gronkowski, put Ed Reed on him and play the game with one linebacker (not including Suggs). Make the Patriots run, which sucks all the Brady-fueled energy out of their offense.

For the season, the Patriots have allowed 10.4 points in the first half and 10.3 points in the second half. So unless Belichick just learned how to make halftime adjustments in the last five weeks, I do think that's a coincidence. This is not a good defense, but the Ravens are not a good offense, either. By the way, the Patriots are tied for the worst yards per play ranking (29th) of any team to advance to the championship game since the 2006 Colts, who beat the Patriots (then ranked 10th) in that game. Does defense win championships? The teams with the better yards allowed per play ranking are 13-9 since 2000 in championship games (5-5 since 2006). I'll take the points, but I hate picking the loser to cover, so Ravens 24, Patriots 20.

Big plays are defined that way by STATS - I don't know the yard amount that M-P or anyone else uses. But that's on the margins anyway. The point remains the same. And the Giants are more Lamonica than Stabler. They've hit 10-of-15 deep passes (16 air yards from scrimmage) in the playoffs, tied for the best rate since the NFL started tracking the stat in 2006. The Packers, in retrospect, were easy pickings given that they allowed 50 percent completions on these throws during the season. I wish I was on that last week. The Giants were 7-for-10 on Sunday. The Niners though allowed 33 percent during the regular season and three-for-nine to Brees. So I will be surprised if the Giants (who completed 41.5 percent of these throws in the regular season, not much better than average) have anything approaching that kind of game-changing success. But I do like their defense. So I see a low-scoring, field goal-driven game. It does feel to me like the Giants defense is better now than their season averages, and the Niners late-game heroics last week are also fairly called a fluke. The sloppy field after a week of rain (probably left uncovered) is going to be an issue for New York, slowing down both their pass rush and receivers and leaving too much on the backs of their terrible (32nd in yards per rush) running game. The Niners will take to the slow track. Niners 16, Giants 13. Remember, this is a Giants team that scored 10 points four weeks ago at home against Washington, when the big plays dried up.