Patriots 35, Ravens 31
The weekend opened with an offensive slugfest, with the Patriots’ pass-heavy attack—a minuscule 14 rushing yards for the game, offset by 50 pass attempts—outlasting the Ravens’ more balanced approach. Ultimately it boiled down to Baltimore stalling in the red zone and settling for a field goal, answered by a New England touchdown drive and sealed with a second interception for the Patriots secondary.
Extra points: For the most part all the heavy hitters delivered as expected. Tom Brady (33-50-367-3-1, plus a rushing TD) fed Rob Gronkowski (7-108-1) and Brandon LaFell (5-62-1), with a surprise guest appearance from Danny Amendola (5-81-2) as he siphoned off looks from Julian Edelman (8-74)—though Edelman did throw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Amendola. Those hoping for a sneaky contribution from Tim Wright couldn’t have been happy with his zero targets—usurped by Michael Hoomanawanui (4-43). The dozen Patriots’ backfield touches were divided equally between Shane Vereen (1-6 rushing, 4-39 receiving), Brandon Bolden (3-7 rushing, 1-11 receiving), and LeGarrette Blount (3-1 rushing); if that doesn’t scare you off of any Patriots’ backs next fantasy draft day, nothing will.
If this was the Baltimore swan song for Justin Forsett, he went out with a bang: 24-129 rushing, 2-17-1 receiving as he out-touched all other Ravens’ backs combined 26-8. Joe Flacco also restated his case to be included among the upper crust of quarterbacks with 26-45-292-4, but his two late interceptions not only snapped a stretch of 166 playoff passes without a pick but will also mean the last impression of Flacco fantasy owners will take into the offseason is a negative one rather than the four TDs. Flacco certainly spread the wealth, completing passes to 10 different receivers—half of them targeted at least as frequently as Steve Smith (3-44-1 on four targets). If Torrey Smith (3-62) does leave via free agency, the Ravens may take a committee approach to filling the void with Marlon Brown (5-39, 8 targets), Kamar Aikin (1-19-1, 2 targets), and Michael Campanaro (4-39 on four targets plus one ill-advised reverse for no yards). With Gary Kubiak indicating he intends to return as the Ravens’ OC, that bodes well for Baltimore’s tight ends; they were targeted a dozen times in this game, led by 11 for free agent-to-be Owen Daniels (4-41-1).
Seahawks 31, Panthers 17
Like their previous meetings, the Panthers kept this one close… for a while. In the fourth quarter the Seahawks tightened the screws and fittingly the defense sealed the deal with a 90-yard interception return to reach their final total.
Extra points: Seattle usually relies on their ground game, but Marshawn Lynch (14-59, 3-6 receiving) was only a light contributor and Russell Wilson (15-22-268-3, 7-22 rushing) didn’t bring his usual to the table either. Instead, Wilson passed efficiently and beefed up the stat lines of Jermaine Kearse (3-129-1), Luke Willson (4-68-1) and Doug Baldwin (3-38-1). The only bad news for the Seahawks offense was losing promising rookie receiver Paul Richardson to a torn ACL, an injury that could cost him the early portion of the 2015 season as well.
The stat line for Cam Newton (23-36-246-2-2, 11-37 rushing) isn’t bad, but he fumbled twice (losing one) in addition to the two picks—mistakes you can’t make against a defense like Seattle’s. Sprinkled amongst the hiccups were a pair of touchdown tosses to Kelvin Benjamin (7-75-2), who capped a sterling rookie season by posting the first multi-TD game by a receiver against the Seahawks; his 75 yards was also the fifth-most Seattle allowed to an opposing wideout. Greg Olsen (4-58) was a bit disappointing given what the Seahawks had been allowing to tight ends this season, but he was still far and away the Panthers’ number two target. Jonathan Stewart (13-70, 1-4 receiving) was solid as the feature back, but carries from three other backs serve as a reminder that Carolina loves to fracture their backfield workload.
Packers 26, Cowboys 21
Must have been difficult for the officials to decide which perennial call-getter to favor here, or which banged-up quarterback to send into Seattle for the NFC title game. Ultimately the zebras leaned on the Calvin Johnson rule to wipe out an apparent go-ahead touchdown and Green Bay advanced in temperatures significantly balmier than the oft-referenced Ice Bowl from almost half a century ago.
Extra points: The announcers made it sound as if Aaron Rodgers (24-36-316-3) was hobbling across water on his one good leg; while it wasn’t quite that level of miracle Rodgers— his trademark pocket mobility absent due to a calf injury—overcame some early inaccuracies to make killer throws at clutch moments. Jordy Nelson (2-22) was almost non-existent but Randall Cobb (8-116) stated his case to stay in Green Bay while rookie Davante Adams (7-117-1) demonstrated he’s ready to step into a bigger role if necessary. Fantasy owners would like to see Green Bay consolidate their tight end productivity into one guy; this week it was split between Andrew Quarless (4-31-1) and Richard Rodgers (1-13-1). Oh yeah, the Packers can also run the ball as well, though Eddie Lacy (19-101, 1-10 receiving) was plagued by the twin terrors of an asthma attack that kept him off the field for a quarter and a quarterback who prefers to pad his touchdown totals at the stripe rather than reward Lacy with goal line carries.
No surprise the Cowboys leaned on DeMarco Murray (25-123-1, 1-5 receiving), as it was their modus operandi all season long. The question on fantasy owners’ minds is, will Dallas bring the free agent-to-be back in 2015, via franchise tag or new contract? And if Jerry Jones spends the money on Murray, what about Dez Bryant? His 3-38 stat line would like a whole lot prettier at 4-70-1, had his apparent fourth-quarter touchdown not been overturned. Expect a whole lot of debate about what is and isn’t a catch this offseason—maybe even among the NFL officials riding around on Jerry’s party bus. With the running game doing the heavy lifting again, Tony Romo (1l5-19-191-2) and the passing game took a back seat. And with Bryant quiet, Jason Witten (6-71) paced the Dallas passing game with minor contributions from Cole Beasley (3-38) and Terrance Williams (1-38-1).
Colts 24, Broncos 13
Call it what you will—out with the old, in with the new, passing of the torch, changing of the guard—but there was a clear shift in the upper reaches of the quarterback charts, highlighted by Indianapolis providing the only road win of the divisional round. For a game expected to be a shootout this one was decidedly defensive and largely devoid of big fantasy helpers.
Extra points: While there’s no question where the focal point of Indy’s offense lies, suffice it to say they wouldn’t be where they are without the contributions of Dan Herron (23-63-1, 8-32 receiving). Whether he returns to the Colts and in what role will be a key offseason question, for both the Indy franchise and fantasy owners alike. Now back to that focal point: Andrew Luck (27-43-265-2-2, 2-21 rushing) continues to stake his claim at the apex of the quarterback rankings. This week it wasn’t so much monster numbers as it was his outperforming the guy across the field from him—you know, the guy who held Luck’s job prior to Andrew’s arrival. Luck checked down frequently, with 16 of his 27 completions going to backs and tight ends. Among the receivers TY Hilton (4-72) led the wideouts, with assists from Donte Moncrief (2-32) and Hakeem Nicks (2-24-1)—and notably, no Reggie Wayne. Indy’s twin tight ends have become a trio: Coby Fleener (3-49) handled the yardage, Dwayne Allen (4-30-1) found the end zone, and Jack Doyle (3-14) took a bite out of both.
Is this the end for Peyton Manning (26-46-211-1)? He had extremely limited success throwing down the field, though at least some of the blame should go to Demaryius Thomas (5-59-1) for a couple of blatant drops. Julius Thomas (6-53) was healthy enough to return to his regularly scheduled duties, but numbers were subdued across the board—including Emmanuel Sanders (7-46). Even CJ Anderson (18-80, 6-29 receiving) failed to reach expected productivity levels, sending the Broncos into the offseason with myriad questions whose answers could dramatically alter the fantasy landscape next season. Does Manning return? If so (or not), does Denver bring back either Thomas—or both? Is Wes Welker (1-20) done in Denver? And who’s the running back: Anderson, Ronnie Hillman (2-8), Montee Ball, or someone else? And oh yeah, does Adam Gase return to coordinate or do the Broncos need to learn a new offense this offseason? Plenty to pay attention to in Denver.