BALTIMORE RAVENS 30, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 24
The Ravens went old school to beat the defending champ, with a heavy—as in nearly two-to-one ratio—dose of the running game. Ray Rice (31-153-1) spearheaded the charge, but he didn’t limit his work to the ground; he added 5-80-1 as a receiver to account for almost two-thirds of the team’s yardage. Of the remaining third, only Willis McGahee (7-53) and rookie tight end Ed Dickson (2-33-1) were notable.
Drew Brees (29-46-267-3-1) did what he always does, spreading the ball amongst eight receivers and putting up helpful fantasy numbers. But without an assist from the ground game, the Saints’ offense wasn’t able to overcome Baltimore’s edge in time of possession. At least Brees found a new red zone target, connecting twice with rookie Jimmy Graham (5-29-2). After climbing the ladder to make a couple of impressive grabs, the athletic tight end is bound to be the future recipient of plenty of Brees jump ball tosses.
FANTASY IMPACT: If Chris Ivory is looking for some evidence to support his claim for more carries and even the starting running back job next year, look no further than how much the Saints struggled in his absence. With Ivory inactive the trio of Pierre Thomas (6-20, 1-0), Julius Jones (4-11), and Reggie Bush (4-(-4), 7-36) averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per touch. Hopefully Rice’s fantasy owners were still around in their playoffs to enjoy the performance they’ve been waiting for all season. You’d like to think the success it led to—a win over the reigning Super Bowl champs—would encourage a similar workload in the future; the question is, how high a draft pick are you willing to risk on that belief next fall?
CAROLINA PANTHERS 19, ARIZONA CARDINALS 12
It was no surprise that Jonathan Stewart (27-137, 1-2) dominated the hapless Arizona run defense. Nor was it a surprise that three of four trips into the red zone ended with a field goal rather than a touchdown. It was, however, more than a little surprising that Jimmy Clausen (13-19-141-1) looked competent, completing 68 percent of his passes.
The good news was that John Skelton (17-33-196-0-1) found Larry Fitzgerald (9-125) and kept going back to him, accounting for more than half his completions and almost two-thirds of his yardage. The bad news was just about everything else associated with the Arizona offense, which didn’t cross midfield until just before halftime and after starting with the ball on Carolina’s side of the 50 before being moved back on a penalty didn’t return to that side of the field until midway through the fourth quarter. Oh, and their only touchdown came when Tim Hightower (6-16, 3-12) fumbled into the end zone and Steve Breaston (2-42) recovered it.
FANTASY IMPACT: Hightower’s showing against a shaky Carolina run defense was a hugh disappointment, though somewhat understandable since Arizona played from behind from the outset. Chris Wells (8-11) did nothing to stake any sort of claim to either more carries the rest of the way or the starting job in 2011. With John Fox likely gone at the end of the year, players are auditioning for roles in the next iteration of Carolina football. Stewart looks safe, but a receiving corps that couldn’t get a single player over three catches or 33 yards could be subject to a gutting. It may be too early to give up on rookie Brandon LaFell (3-33), but Steve Smith (2-22) can’t be happy with his future prospects.
CINCINNATI BENGALS 19, CLEVELAND BROWNS 17
The Bengals spotted Cleveland a touchdown, but despite the early deficit they never wavered from their plan to run the ball right down the Brownies’ throats. As a result Cedric Benson (31-150-1) posted a big-time fantasy helper, but the Terrell Owens-less passing game was virtually non-existent; Carson Palmer (14-23-209) only lightly used Chad Ochocinco (2-36), opting instead to go to Andre Caldwell (4-89).
Wasn’t Peyton Hillis (14-59, 2-23) supposed to be the best back in this game? Even with Colt McCoy (19-25-243-2) having one of the better statistical games of his career, Cleveland’s ground game fell victim to the Bengals’ game plan: Cincy held the ball 16 minutes longer than the Browns and ran 25 more offensive snaps.
FANTASY IMPACT: With McCoy continuing to show a skill set that should secure his claim on the starting job going forward, it’s time to identify his favorite targets. He still loves him some tight end, with Ben Watson (7-92) pacing the team in catches and yardage and Robert Royal (2-29-1) scoring the Browns’ first touchdown. Also interesting to note that Brian Robiskie (5-82-1) and not Mohamad Massaquoi (1-11) was McCoy’s favorite downfield target. Speaking of looking towards next season, after putting up with the diva receivers all year Palmer turned his attention to Cincy’s future at the position: in addition to Caldwell’s team-leading numbers, Jerome Simpson (2-30), Jordan Shipley (2-14), and even Quan Cosby (1-11) were involved in the receiver rotation.
DALLAS COWBOYS 33, WASHINGTON REDSKINS 30
It was all Dallas early as the Cowboys moved the ball at will, taking each of their first eight drives inside the Redskins’ 25 yard line—though only three of the eight ended with a touchdown. The ground game was working behind Felix Jones (12-70, 2-47) and Tashard Choice (15-53-1, 4-31), and Jon Kitna (25-37-305-2) had the passing game humming along as well. Settling for field goals nearly cost the Cowboys in the end, but a late David Buehler field goal saved the day.
Who saw this coming? Rex Grossman, whose last multiple-TD outing came roughly four years ago, directed a furious Redskins comeback with 322 yards and four TD passes as Washington very nearly stunned the Cowboys in Dallas. Of course, Rex being Rex he also threw two picks and lost a fumble, but in between the turnovers he went long to Anthony Armstrong (5-100), hit Santana Moss (8-72-2) for a pair of scores, and still found a way to include Chris Cooley (5-62-1 plus a two-point conversion).
FANTASY IMPACT: Ryan Torain (11-53) was somewhat disappointing on the ground, but his 5-48-1 as a receiver salvaged fantasy value. It also hints at his being a three-down back next season... if you can stomach the roller coaster ride that is owning a Mike Shanahan running back in a fantasy league. Sans both Dez Bryant and Roy Williams, you would have thought Miles Austin (3-38-1) would have been a bigger part of the game plan. Instead, Jason Witten (10-140-1) was the primary target, with Sam Hurd (4-35) actually leading outside receivers in catches.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 34, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 24
Indy has a running game? For at least one day they did as Donald Brown (14-129-1) busted off a couple of long runs to give Peyton Manning an assist in keeping Indy’s division title hopes alive. Manning (29-39-229-2) was his usual sterling self, thoroughly enjoying the all-too-brief return of Austin Collie (8-87-2), who left after scoring twice but suffering yet another concussion. Notable by his absence among the receiving leaders was Reggie Wayne (5-34), who typically owns the Jaguars but found himself looking up at Collie, Pierre Garçon (5-44), and Jacob Tamme (7-34) in the box score.
Maybe after the season we’ll learn that Maurice Jones-Drew (15-46, 2-22) was more injured than he let on. But until then we’re left to wonder why the Jaguars’ primary offensive weapon touched the ball only five times in the second half of a game in which Jacksonville could have clinched the AFC South. While MoJo was putting up his worst game ever against the Colts, understudy Rashad Jennings (3-13, 7-64) was more productive and David Garrard (24-38-294-2-1) directed a passing game that relocated Mike Sims-Walker (4-42-2) and continued to make Marcedes Lewis (6-63) a fantasy factor.
FANTASY IMPACT: Jennings’ strong play down the stretch might be earning him touches next season, especially with Jones-Drew spending much of this year nicked up. Something to keep in mind when thinking about handcuffs and planning out your first round in 2011. Collie’s third concussion in the past two months might have him reconsidering his chosen profession—which in turn would have Manning looking for a new go-to guy. Collie was targeted 10 times before leaving late in the first half. Blair White (1-16) doesn’t appear to be capable of filling Collie’s shoes, and if Collie’s cobwebs don’t clear look for Indy to pursue his replacement—and Wayne’s eventual heir—in the draft.
BUFFALO BILLS 17, MIAMI DOLPHINS 14
Though his season has had some cold streaks, it certainly looks as if Ryan Fitzpatrick (16-26-223-2-1) is Buffalo’s semi-long term solution at quarterback. And while we’ve been aware of Stevie Johnson (6-69-1) as one of his favorite targets, we might need to come around on undrafted rookie David Nelson (3-61-1) as well. He’s been popping up on Fitz’s radar even prior to Lee Evans’ season-ending injury.
At home, against the Bills, with a shot at the playoffs on the line... and all the Miami ground machine can come up with is 10-39-1 from Ronnie Brown and 7-19 from Ricky Williams? The ineffective Dolphins running game accounted for just 19 carries, while Chad Henne threw 45 times for 276 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. At least he went heavily to his go-to guys, with Brandon Marshall (11-106-1) finally delivering the kind of game the Dolphins were looking for when they acquired him and Davonne Bess (9-78) rekindling thoughts of his being a viable PPR helper going forward.
FANTASY IMPACT: And you thought Brown cost himself money last year with an injury shorting a successful season. At this juncture he’s become filler on his own team, and Williams isn’t much better. Might Miami be a player in the DeAngelo Williams sweepstakes this offseason? The Bills took their back of the future back in April, and while C.J. Spiller (9-16, 2-21) flashed a couple moves he was still mostly unproductive. Not that Fred Jackson (15-36) had much more success, with a long gain of seven yards. Behind what’s left of the Buffalo line, however, it’s tough to expect decent numbers.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 38, NEW YORK GIANTS 31
Philly slept until halftime, hit snooze in the third quarter, then proceeded to roll up 35 second-half points—28 in the final seven and a half minutes—in what was quickly labeled “Miracle in the New Meadowlands”. And while DeSean Jackson’s (3-52) punt return as time expired proved to be the difference, Philly wouldn’t have been in the game if not for a superlative effort from Michael Vick: 21-35-242-3 passing, 10-130-1 on the ground. With Jackson kept under wraps until the final play, Vick turned to Jeremy Maclin (7-59-2) and even rediscovered tight end Brent Celek (2-72-1) with a 65-yard TD that ignited the rally.
When Eli Manning (23-39-289-4-1) threw his fourth TD midway through the fourth quarter, it looked like the Giants had this one in the bag. Mario Manningham (8-113-2) shrugged off a leg injury—he was noticeably limping back to the huddle at times—to pace the receiving corps, with assists from Hakeem Nicks (6-63-1) and Kevin Boss (3-59-1). However, the ground game was relatively pedestrian with neither Ahmad Bradshaw (19-66, 2-14) nor Brandon Jacobs (12-34) mustering a gain longer than 11 yards.
FANTASY IMPACT: Manningham’s showing erases memories of the frustrations he’s caused Eli with his inconsistent route-running; if Smith’s return from knee surgery lingers into training camp, Manningham will have at minimum early-season fantasy value. You’ll be tempted to rank LeSean McCoy (10-64, 4-13) among the top backs next year; let this game serve as your reminder to keep those expectations in check. How many of those 130 scramble yards would have been checkdown passes to McCoy if not for Vick’s rushing abilities? How about that four-yard touchdown run? McCoy isn’t the top option in his own backfield; worse, the guy who is is the guy calling the plays.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 27, SAINT LOUIS RAMS 13
Eleven days after an appendectomy, most people would still be sitting on their couch asking someone else to bring them their slippers; Matt Cassel (15-29-184-1-1) is clearly not most people. With his team’s grasp on the AFC West slipping away, Cassel sucked it up and made enough throws to keep the Rams’ defense honest—and open things up for KC’s ground game. As per usual, Jamaal Charles (11-126-1, 3-27) was the most productive despite Thomas Jones (22-62-1, 1-16) getting the larger workload; at least both found the end zone.
The Rams capped their first two drives with field goals, then didn’t cross midfield again until midway to the fourth quarter; in fact, they only mustered three first downs during that span. Steven Jackson (19-67-1, 5-37) scored St. Louis’ lone touchdown and was the only fantasy-relevant stat producer for the home team unless Danny Amendola’s 7-60 plus 192 return yards helped in your league’s scoring system.
FANTASY IMPACT: Sam Bradford’s (21-43-181-0-2) afternoon ended with interceptions on the Rams’ final two drives, and his stat line wasn’t overly impressive. Didn’t help that Brandon Gibson (3-29) failed his latest audition to be Bradford’s go-to guy. Maybe next year when Michael Hoomanawanui returns to the lineup he can build on the 4-47 Bradford directed at fill-in tight end Daniel Fells. Despite Cassel’s return, neither Dwayne Bowe (2-53) nor Chris Chambers (3-42) could muster much fantasy help. More proof that Cassel was checking down: of his remaining 10 completions, nine went to running backs and tight ends—and the other went to “wide receiver” Dexter McCluster.
DETROIT LIONS 23, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 20 (OT)
The road monkey is off the Lions’ backs thanks to a flurry of offense that saw them rip off 121 yards in their final two drives, first to tie the game in regulation and later to win it in overtime. The big game from Calvin Johnson (10-152) was hardly a surprise, though Nate Burleson (4-28-1) stole his touchdown. Where the Lions did something unusual was in the running game as Maurice Morris (15-109-1, 3-10) took advantage of the Bucs’ sieve-like run defense to carve out a solid fantasy effort. With no turnovers and an efficient game from Drew Stanton (23-37-252-1), the Lions had their road win.
The Bucs took seven of eight drives into Detroit territory and strung together at least two first downs on every drive except one, but their final two drives—both of which took them inside the Lions’ 15-yard line—ended in field goals, opening the door for a Detroit comeback. Tampa Bay had its cracks, including three shots from the two and in and an apparent touchdown to Kellen Winslow (4-46) nullified by offensive pass interference. Strangely, despite a solid 15-110-1 from LeGarrette Blount he didn’t touch the ball on any of the Bucs’ nine red zone snaps.
FANTASY IMPACT: Josh Freeman (21-32-251-1) continues to hover on the fringe of fantasy respectability. He’s got Mike Williams (6-96-1), he’s got Arrelious Benn (3-34), and if the Bucs can find a goal line guy—or give Blount another shot—they’ll be a pretty complete offense. That Morris has looked respectable with more carries late in Detroit’s season bodes well for Jahvid Best (6-12); once the first-round pick gets some time off to heal his troublesome toes it’ll be him putting up those numbers behind an underrated Lions’ offensive line. However, look for Detroit to bring Morris or Kevin Smith or another RB back to make sure they don’t overwork the fragile Best.
TENNESSEE TITANS 31, HOUSTON TEXANS 17
The Titans capitalized on tremendous field position—average start: their own 45-yard line—to take three first-quarter drives into the end zone. The first two saw Kerry Collins (14-24-237-2) take advantage of Houston’s porous secondary; the third featured Tennessee’s more conventional approach, a Chris Johnson (24-130-1) touchdown. While Kenny Britt (6-128) was far and away the apple of Collins’ eye, the touchdowns went to the Titans’ other wideouts: Nate Washington (2-20-1) and Justin Gage (1-1-1).
By the time the Texans got their first first down they were behind by 21 points, so they abandon the run; that meant Arian Foster (11-15, 6-46) had to rely on his receiving skills to salvage fantasy value. On the other hand, the early deficit put last year’s top-ranked passing game on the clock; 54 attempts later, Matt Schaub (35-54-325-2-1) had posted the numbers most expected from him on a regular basis this season.
FANTASY IMPACT: With 54 attempts you know a few had to go somewhere other than Andre Johnson (6-58-1), but it was notable that Kevin Walter (7-79-1) and Jacoby Jones (7-50) both stepped up after being dormant for much of the season. Tight ends were in play as well, though for fantasy purposes it would have been better had Owen Daniels (4-45) and Joel Dreessen (4-36) pooled their numbers under one umbrella. While CJ’s game was solid, he missed out on another score after taking a breather following a 42-yard burst inside the Houston ten; one play later, Javon Ringer (4-19-1) vultured his TD.
ATLANTA FALCONS 34, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 18
You wanna talk ball control? Three of Atlanta’s first four drives lasted 13 plays or longer; all ended in points, and all kept the ball out of the hands of the Seahawks. Michael Turner (25-82) was the sled dog who did the heavy lifting, but he ceded touches at the wrong time as Jason Snelling (4-6, 4-15-1) scored Atlanta’s first TD. Matt Ryan (20-35-174-3-1) did the rest, with old reliable Roddy White (7-65-1) leading the way.
After marching 80 yards on their opening series, capped by a Marshawn Lynch (12-60-1, 1-17) touchdown, the Seahawks mustered all of 14 yards the rest of the half. That put Matt Hasselbeck (10-17-71-0-2) in a must-throw position, which he did until Seattle opted to test-drive Charlie Whitehurst (8-16-83, 3-10-1 rushing). Between the duo they threw heavily at Mike Williams (8-66); no other Seahawk had more than two catches.
FANTASY IMPACT: If Whitehurst is Seattle’s quarterback of the future, the future isn’t particularly bright. Whitehurst called his own number on both the touchdown and the two-point conversion, in part because he could only complete half his passes and averaged a meager 5.2 yards per attempt. Michael Jenkins (3-48-1) forced his way into Atlanta’s tight inner circle of fantasy producers, likely at the expense of Tony Gonzalez (4-26). While he hasn’t topped 50 yards in a month, Jenkins has scored in two of the last three games. However, he’s only a fantasy helper if you’re willing to trust a guy who hasn’t topped three catches since Week 11.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 39, DENVER BRONCOS 23
The Raiders ran the ball effectively from every position: Jacoby Ford (3-47 receiving, 1-71-1 rushing) scored on Oakland’s first play from scrimmage, Jason Campbell (15-26-238-1-2, 5-41 rushing) averaged eight yards a carry, and the tandem of Darren McFadden (20-119, 4-39) and Michael Bush (12-24-2) pounded the nails in the Broncos’ coffin. Even Oakland’s top receiver was a running back, as fullback Marcel Reece (3-9 rushing, 2-79-1) turned a dump off into a 73-yard touchdown for the Raiders’ longest play.
For a brief moment it looked like maybe, just maybe, Tim Tebow (8-16-138-1, 8-78-1 rushing) brought a little of that college magic with him. He kept the Broncos in the game into the fourth quarter, but with Knowshon Moreno (4-5, 1-1) knocked out of the game with a side injury he got zero help from a running game forced to turn to Lance Ball (15-20) and Correll Buckhalter (6-3, 1-17 receiving).
FANTASY IMPACT: While Tebow looked to run more frequently than he probably should, he wasn’t against throwing down the field; his 33-yard touchdown to Brandon Lloyd (4-79-1) was a well-thrown ball to the corner of the end zone, putting the ball in a spot where his receiver could make a play. Add in the bonus rushing potential and there’s a chance Tebow could be a fantasy factor sooner rather than later. Despite McFadden’s earlier successes, this game might provide the blueprint for Oakland’s ground game going forward: McFadden as the yardage guy (158 combo yards), Bush as the goal line guy despite his two-yards-per-carry average. It’s something to at least be taken into consideration at your 2011 draft or auction.
NEW YORK JETS 22, PITTSBURGH STEELERS 17
Offensively, the Jets didn’t bring much to the table. A Brad Smith kickoff return gave them an early lead, and a beautiful naked bootleg by Mark Sanchez (19-29-170, 3-15-1) produced Gang Green’s only offensive touchdown. The bulk of Sanchez’s throws went outside, with Braylon Edwards (8-100) outperforming ex-Steeler Santono Holmes (6-40) in his revenge game.
The Steelers produced a 100-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall, 17-100-1) against the vaunted Jets defense and a 100-yard receiver (Mike Wallace, 7-102) against Darrelle Revis and the Gang Green secondary; they also didn’t turn the ball over despite a pair of Ben Roethlisberger (23-44-264-1, 2-25 rushing) fumbles. But after taking their first five drives into Jets territory the Steelers cobbled together just 23 yards of offense until a final furious drive ended at the New York 10.
FANTASY IMPACT: Emmanuel Sanders (7-78) took a bite out of Pittsburgh’s passing game, most likely from Hines Ward’s (2-34) numbers. It was the most productive stat line of Sanders’ career as he threatens to do to Ward and Wallace what Wallace did to Ward and Holmes last year. Remember when it actually mattered who got the carries in the Jets’ backfield? LaDainian Tomlinson (11-49, 1-6) and Shonn Greene (12-40, 1-5) are still splitting them, but neither is doing enough with them to warrant fantasy attention.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 31, GREEN BAY PACKERS 27
The Patriots seemed to sleepwalk through this game, and the box score supports that belief: Tom Brady (15-24-163-2) posted a subdued statline, with Aaron Hernandez (4-31-2) the only receiver to turn those numbers into something useful. The ground game was no better, due in part to just 16 attempts total, though BenJarvus Green-Ellis (6-38-1, 2-12) extended his home scoring streak to six games.
With a backup quarterback, on the road, the Packers did the unimaginable: they dominated time of possession 40 minutes to 20 and ran 80 offensive plays to New England’s 43. And yet despite all those plays only two Packers produced more than 50 yards of offense: Brandon Jackson nearly topped the century mark with 22-99 rushing and added 1-3 receiving, while James Jones turned a blown coverage into 5-95-1 on the strength of a 66-yard touchdown.
FANTASY IMPACT: For a little more than 59 minutes Matt Flynn (24-37-251-3-1) looked calm, cool, and collected in directing the Packers’ methodical offense into the teeth of Bill Belichick’s defense. Sure, he came unglued in the final seconds but he served notice that should Aaron Rodgers’ concussion symptoms linger the Green Bay offense is in good hands. No team has scored more tight end touchdowns than the Patriots, who added two to that total with Hernandez on the business end of both of Brady’s scoring strikes Sunday night. That makes 10 TE TDs in the last eight games for New England, but it’s worth noting that neither Hernandez nor Rob Gronkowski (1-25) has scored in back-to-back games. Pencil Gronk in for a score in Week 16?