GREEN BAY PACKERS 21, CHICAGO BEARS 14
The red-hot Packers offense rolled over the Bears early on, behind sharp passing from Aaron Rodgers (17-30-244-0-2, 7-39-1 rushing) and an unexpected boost from the ground game. But after James Starks (22-74-1, 1-6 receiving) scored his first pro touchdown to give Green Bay a 14-0 league, the offense went belly up. Rodgers threw a pair of picks, and the Packers required a big assist from their defense to hold off a late Chicago rally.
Remember midseason when the Bears were an inept laughing stock in part because they were forced to go to the bullpen at quarterback? We got an unfortunate reprise of that dark period when Jay Cutler (6-14-80-0-1) exited with a mysterious knee injury, leaving Chicago’s title hopes in the hands of Todd Collins (0-4-0). Four incomplete passes later Lovie Smith pulled out third quarterback Caleb Hanie (13-20-153-1-2), who shocked the world by actually providing a spark of offense. A 32-yard completion to Johnny Knox (2-56) set up the Bears’ first TD, then Hanie hit B.J. Raji for a Packers score and Earl Bennett (3-45-1) to cut the lead to a touchdown. However, the miracle died in the final minute with Sam Shields’ second pick.
FANTASY IMPACT: Matt Forte (17-70, 10-90) carried the Chicago offense, especially when the Bears weren’t getting anything from their quarterback—which was much of the game. It’s the recipe that worked for Chicago the second half of the season, and it will likely be the recipe in 2011--especially if Cutler’s injury turns out to be something less serious, in which case his toughness will be called into question and Hanie might be given a chance to compete for the starting job. The Packers also appear to have their feature back, as Starks saw 20-plus carries for the third straight game. But while getting that first NFL touchdown was nice, he’s been more sled dog than greyhound: after gouging the Eagles for 5.3 yards per carry he averaged 2.9 ypc against the Falcons and Bears.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 24, NEW YORK JETS 19
Undaunted by the Jets’ vaunted run defense, the Steelers sent Rashard Mendenhall (27-121-1, 2-32) into the teeth of that defense and rolled up 100 rushing yards by halftime. By the time Ben Roethlisberger (10-19-133-0-2) ran in a score and the Steel Curtain produced a sack/strip/score of its own it looked like it would be Pittsburgh in a romp. But that was it for the Steelers’ offense, at least until Big Ben converted two key completions that allowed Pittsburgh to run out the clock and pack their bags for Dallas.
The Jets’ offense didn’t show up until just before halftime when their two-minute drill netted a field goal. Gang Green carried that roll into the second half when Mark Sanchez (20-33-233-2) hooked up with Santonio Holmes (2-61-1) for a 45-yard touchdown. With the ground game unable to find traction against the Steel Curtain—most notably in the red zone, where LaDainian Tomlinson (9-16) was stuffed at the stripe—Sanchez picked up the slack and hit Jerricho Cotchery (5-33-1) to pull within five before Pittsburgh ran out the clock.
FANTASY IMPACT: While Sanchez failed to set the NFL record for road playoff wins by a quarterback, he has demonstrated the ability to be more than a game manager who rides the coattails of his defense and ground game. Now the Jets need to bring back Holmes and Braylon Edwards (3-50) to make sure he has enough weapons. That’s not a problem for Roethlisberger; though no Steelers receiver topped 40 yards in this game and none caught more than two balls, Big Ben was able to work seven different pass-catchers into the mix against the Jets—including Heath Miller (2-38) and Aaron Brown (1-14) on the final game-clinching drive. Diversity is nice, but it does take a bite out of the fantasy production of starters Hines Ward (2-14) and Mike Wallace (1-6).