BALTIMORE RAVENS 20, CLEVELAND BROWNS 14
The Ravens marched a total of 208 yards on 23 plays to score on each of their first three possessions, then took the rest of the day off: five punts, a turnover, and a field goal to make this game a whole lot closer than it should have been. As expected, Ray Rice did all the heavy lifting with 23-87 rushing and 3-48 receiving. Ricky Williams (10-45, 2-21 receiving) was the only other Raven to account for more than 40 yards of offense.
Peyton Hillis (24-112 rushing, two catches for no yards) shook off the Madden curse and a season of nagging injuries to carry what little offense the Browns had. They didn’t even make it a game until Joe Cribbs (2-28) returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown; then a late Evan Moore (5-35-1) touchdown made things uncomfortable for the Ravens.
FANTASY IMPACT: Hillis’ strong showing makes for interesting offseason fodder. Do the Browns bring him back? Does another club take a shot based on what they saw Saturday? The Browns aren’t exactly stocked with playmakers, though Moore and Greg Little (4-40) flashed a little something. A little. This is, after all, the team that, within a score, jumped offsides on the game clinching drive when Baltimore was lined up to go for a fourth-and-two and everybody in the stadium knew it was only to draw the offisde. The Ravens’ passing game sans Anquan Boldin leaned heavily on Torrey Smith (2-38) and Ed Dickson (2-14-1) as Joe Flacco (11-24-132-2-1) was largely ineffective. This in a home game, too. Those banking on Flacco emerging as a legit fantasy option this season are still waiting.
BUFFALO BILLS 40, DENVER BRONCOS 14
The Bills’ first four possessions ended in futility (two punts, two missed field goals), but they marched their next four drives inside the Denver 15 and even though they settled for field goals on four of them with a punt return and two defensive scores it was more than enough for the runaway win. Offensively it was all about C.J. Spiller (16-111-1, 2-27 receiving), who continues to put up numbers that should at least put him into the conversation for Buffalo’s lead back in 2012 even if Fred Jackson doesn’t opt out via free agency.
The running game was mostly effective, led by Willis McGahee (15-64), but when you’re turning the ball over and giving up more scores than you produce… well, this offense isn’t built to play that game. As a result, Tim Tebow (13-30-185-1-4, 10-34-1 rushing) was his own worst enemy and even favorite target Demaryius Thomas (4-76) took a hit.
FANTASY IMPACT: If Thomas’ numbers were acceptable then the Broncos’ passing game continued its trend of producing one and only one viable fantasy option with Tebow at the helm. Daniel Fells (2-22-1) got the touchdown, but that’s hardly reliable considering he was one of three Denver tight ends with a catch. Ryan Fitzpatrick (15-27-196) is looking less and less like a worthy investment, though the Buffalo receiving corps hasn’t been giving him much help—save, of course, for Stevie Johnson (4-92). For Fitz to live up to the deal and be a fantasy factor he’ll need the likes of David Nelson (3-41) to step up on a larger scale.
CAROLINA PANTHERS 48, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 16
The quarterback rushing touchdown record, that was to be expected. But Cam Newton (12-17-171-3 plus 6-65-1 rushing) snapping Peyton Manning’s rookie passing yardage record… didn’t see that one coming. A franchise-record 91-yard TD toss to Brandon LaFell (3-103-1) helped hurry along the process, though the big lead took Steve Smith (1-9) out of the game entirely. At least Newton shared the love with his backs, boosting both Jonathan Stewart (7-88 plus 1-11-1 receiving) and DeAngelo Williams (7-66-2, 2-18 receiving) to fantasy relevance for a change.
It was ugly any way you cut it as the Bucs’ offense continued to dash any and every hope raised by last season’s bust-out performances. LeGarrette Blount (2-11) was invisible, Mike Williams (4-39) barely registered, and as the architect of it all Josh Freeman (28-38-274-1-1) was barely above ordinary.
FANTASY IMPACT: How bad were the Buccaneers? Something called Mossis Madu (4-20 rushing, 4-42 receiving) trailed only Kellen Winslow (6-63) as the team’s most productive offensive player. The Panthers’ ground game was as effective as we all expected at the start of the season, though a combined 14 carries between Stewart and Williams makes it difficult to project consistent productivity—except against a Buccaneers run D that keeps failing to plug holes along the defensive line. Hey, at least you can count on them twice a year in 2012.
CINCINNATI BENGALS 23, ARIZONA CARDINALS 16
With A.J. Green (2-25 plus 2-25 rushing) a virtual no show despite a team-high eight targets, Andy Dalton (18-31-154-2) had to diversify. He got a hand on a great grab from Jermaine Gresham (5-56-1) and an assist from Jerome Simpson (5-42-1) on a highlight touchdown flip you’ve undoubtedly seen by now. That passes for a fantasy upgrade from Dalton, necessary since Cedric Benson (16-57, 1-8 receiving) and a surprisingly involved Bernard Scott (10-28) couldn’t get the ground game on track.
Why does John Skelton (23-44-297-2-3) love Larry Fitzgerald (6-105-1 on a team-high 11 targets)? Because he produces, like on his 30-yard TD catch and (mostly) run; also because he doesn’t fall down while running wide-open to turn a TD into an incompletion like Early Doucet (2-47) or down the ball with no time left on the clock like Andre Roberts (6-75). And Fitzgerald’s fantasy owners, in turn, like Skelton because he’s not afraid to throw into coverage and let Larry make plays.
FANTASY IMPACT: Beanie Wells (14-53 plus 1-8 receiving) will have decent looking numbers at the end of the season, including a 1000-yard campaign. But before you buy into him as a reliable fantasy entity, look back at how many 3.8 yards per carry outings like this one you have to suffer through to get fantasy help. Dalton-to-Green appear to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall, but considering the stiff competition they’ve been facing—not to mention Green’s shoulder injury—there’s plenty to build on for 2012. And 2011 ain’t done yet; they may get some additional work in the playoffs.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 16, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 13 (OT)
The Raiders have never been much for sustained drives, and this was no exception. They started three drives in Chiefs’ territory, turning two of them into field goals, and hit on a 61-yard TD pass from Carson Palmer (16-26-237-1-2) to Denarius Moore (4-94-1) for their regulation scoring; a 53-yard hookup between Palmer and Darius Heyward-Bey (4-70) set up the winning points in OT.
A second straight big-yardage game from Kyle Orton (21-36-300-1-2) should make for an interesting quarterback competition in KC next August. For now it makes Dwayne Bowe (6-80-1) fantasy relevant again; in fact, Bowe’s late TD and catch in the last minute to set up a potential game-winning field goal make a strong statement to any team—Chiefs included—looking to sign him this offseason. Tough to get a read on the Chiefs’ ground game, however, as for a change both Jackie Battle (14-56) and Thomas Jones (11-51) were reasonably effective and Dexter McCluster (3-15 rushing, 5-89 receiving) chipped in as well.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Chiefs may look remarkably different next year, with Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel back and Bowe a potential free agent. So how will bit parts like Steve Breaston (4-41) and Jon Baldwin (1-10) fit in? Few teams enter 2012 with as many questions. Oakland has questions, too, like will Michael Bush (23-70, 2-24 receiving) still be in silver and black? After starting strong he’s appeared to wear down, which could limit his market this offseason. The passing game, on the other hand, seems set with Palmer taking deep shots to Moore and DHB—though a health Jacoby Ford could force his way into the mix as well.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 27, MIAMI DOLPHINS 24
New England spotted Miami the first half, then turned Tom Brady (27-46-304-1 plus 9-17-2 rushing) loose—with a little help from Wes Welker (1-138 on 19 targets). Rob Gronkowski (7-78) was subdued (for him), and aside from a late surge from Stevan Ridley (13-64) no other Patriot mustered more than 40 yards of offense.
Miami held a 17-0 halftime lead and all of Twitter was abuzz with the freaky stat that New England was something like 36-3 over the last dozen Decembers and all three losses had been to the Dolphins. And then Miami mustered 22 third-quarter, turned the ball over when they finally crossed midfield, and didn’t put points on the board until after the two-minute warning. Individually the numbers were impressive, led by Reggie Bush (22-113, 2-26 receiving) and Brandon Marshall (7-156-1); collectively, the knockout blow just wasn’t delivered.
FANTASY IMPACT: So, is Matt Moore (17-33-294-3-1) a placeholder for a Miami draft pick? He’s proven to be a quality substitute at two stops now and salvaged many a fantasy team over the past month. The Patriots continue to play musical ground game, where Brady vultured scores and Ridley saw more carries than Danny Woodhead (4-20) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (3-10) combined. At least the passing game, helmed by Welker and Gronk, is somewhat reliable—though with a rotating cadre of tertiary targets ranging from Aaron Hernandez (4-36) to Deion Branch (3-37-1) to Chad Ochocinco (1-15).
NEW YORK GIANTS 29, NEW YORK JETS 14
Maybe now the Jets know who Victor Cruz (3-164-1) is after he went 99 yards for a touchdown and established a new Giants’ single season record for receiving yards. But the G-Men also needed a late surge from Ahmad Bradshaw (15-54-2, 1-8 receiving) to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Jets aren’t going to win many games when Mark Sanchez (30-59-258-1-2) has to throw almost 60 passes. Despite the copious aerials Dustin Keller (8-77 on 18 targets) was the only Jet to top 50 yards. That’s what happens when you punt nine times and have two 13-play drives that net you zero points.
FANTASY IMPACT: Despite a 12-minute advantage in time of possession and both Shonn Greene (14-58, 3-20 receiving) and LaDainian Tomlinson (5-29, 6-36 receiving) averaging better than four yards a carry, the Jets threw more than twice as much as they ran. So much for ground and pound. The Giants couldn’t sustain a drive, either, with nine punts and only one possession in which they strung together more than six plays. However, Cruz’s long TD just before halftime and a pair of late Bradshaw runs covered a nine-completion day for Eli Manning (9-27-225-1-1) and no receiver besides Cruz had more than one catch.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 27, SAINT LOUIS RAMS 0
The biggest surprise was perhaps that the Steelers actually let Charlie Batch (15-22-208-0-1) throw 22 times—especially when the ground game was averaging six yards a pop. Rashard Mendenhall (18-116-1, 1-35 receiving) led the charge but averted a monster fantasy game as Isaac Redman (8-35-1, 1-5) and John Clay (1-10-1) siphoned touchdowns.
The Rams trailed from the get-go, didn’t reach the red zone until the fourth quarter, and yet ran the ball 60 percent of the time. That’s good for Steven Jackson (24-103, 2-24 receiving), who was yet again the entirety of the St. Louis offense.
FANTASY IMPACT: The only other redeeming quality of the Rams’ offense on Saturday was a solid 9-42 change-of-pace performance from Carnell Williams. And that’s being kind. Batch took a few shots down the field, with 17 of his 22 passes directed at wideouts. Only Mike Wallace (4-82) produced more than 40 yards, however, and he had a potential touchdown wiped out on review; in retrospect, benching the Pittsburgh passing game sans Ben Roethlisberger was the smart move.
TENNESSEE TITANS 23, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 17
With yet another forgettable performance from Chris Johnson (15-56) threatening the Titans’ playoff hopes it was Matt Hasselbeck (24-40-350-1-2) to the rescue. With a big assist from tight end Jared Cook (8-169-1) and usual suspects Damian Williams (8-83) and Nate Washington (4-71), the passing game bailed out Johnson and the running game on an offense that crossed midfield on half its drives but didn’t score a touchdown after the 12:00 mark of the second quarter.
Maurice Jones-Drew (24-103-1, 6-21 receiving) continues to amaze. With almost no help from any other member of the offense—Jarett Dillard (5-61) was the only other Jag with more than 33 yards of offense—Jones-Drew keeps on plugging. Consistent and productive regardless of situation, MoJo is a fantasy hero.
FANTASY IMPACT: Blaine Gabbert (21-42-198-0-1) has yet to deliver on that first-round pick. Granted, his receiving corps is George Clooney, Mae West, and Harry Potter—or maybe Colin Cloherty, Chastin West, and Zach Potter. Oh, and kudos to the Jags for rewarding their best (only) player by denying him a shot at the team touchdown record, instead rewarding Greg Jones (1-1-1, 2-9 receiving) for… whatever it is he’s done. Speaking of rewards, when the Titans had a goal line opportunity it was Jamie Harper (4-6-1, 1-5 receiving) cashing in instead of Johnson. Now that actually makes sense.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 33, WASHINGTON REDSKINS 26
The Vikes had a 100-yard back, their young QB threw a couple touchdowns… everything was as it was supposed to be. Except the back was Toby Gerhart (11-109), who saw an increased role after Adrian Peterson (12-38-1, 2-14) went down with a gruesome knee injury. And the quarterback was Joe Webb (4-5-84-2 plus 5-34-1 rushing) filling in for a concussed Christian Ponder (8-13-68 plus 4-20 rushing). At least they agreed on Percy Harvin (5-65-1 plus 4-39 rushing) being the most targeted receiver.
Next up in Mike Shanahan’s rotating backfield: Evan Royster (19-132, 2-15 receiving), filling in for the injured and inactive Roy Helu. Ryan Torain (4-8, 2-4 receiving) lurked, but even Shanny couldn’t foist him upon an unsuspecting football world. And when Royster wasn’t running, Rex Grossman (26-41-284-2-1) was throwing—though he did manage to end the Vikings’ streak of passes without an interception at 298.
FANTASY IMPACT: Jabar Gaffney (6-77-1) had the game Santana Moss (4-46) was supposed to have; heck, even Donte’ Stallworth (5-59-1) had more production despite fewer targets. In all Grossman hit nine different receivers against a porous Minnesota secondary, but it wasn’t enough. In a game where the future of the Minnesota offense was clouded by the injuries to Peterson and Ponder, Kyle Rudolph (2-23-1) joined Gerhart and Webb as offering at least some relief in a three-win season. And all the reindeer loved him. Sorry, had to go there; how many times will Rudolph lead them on Christmas Eve?
DETROIT LIONS 38, SAN DIEGO 10
The Lions wasted no time in securing their first playoff berth this millennium, scoring on their first four drives to go up 24-0 at halftime. The fireworks came on the strength of Matthew Stafford (29-36-373-3) feeding three different Lions more than 80 yards; tight end Brandon Pettigrew (9-80-1) saw the most targets, but Calvin Johnson (4-102-1) and Nate Burleson (6-83) made the most of their looks.
With their playoff hopes on life support, the Chargers pulled the ol’ Norv Turner special and turtled up. Philip Rivers (28-53-299-1-2) steered the ship into the rocks, buoyed only by a solid performance from Malcom Floyd (6-95-1 on 13 targets). Vincent Jackson failed to win potential free-agent points with a 2-41 “effort” on seven targets.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Chargers had to abandon the ground game early on, scuttling a nice day for Ryan Mathews (11-58 plus 3-16 receiving). Worse, at least for Mathews’ fantasy prospects, was Mike Tolbert (4-9 plus 6-32 receiving) getting 10 targets in the passing game. Wonder what the Bolts’ new coach will do with all these pieces? The only area of offense the Lions need to upgrade is the ground game. Kevin Smith (14-49-1, 2-12 receiving) scored but was otherwise ineffective, in part because of a bum ankle. But health has always been his issue, and it’s not as if Jahvid Best or Mikel Leshoure are iron men themselves. But if that means more 300-yard games from Stafford, bring it on.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 20, DALLAS COWBOYS 7
The game turned meaningless once the Giants’ win went final, but that didn’t prevent the Eagles from taking it to the Cowboys—again. Michael Vick (18-32-293-2 plus 3-10 rushing) helmed the attack, finding Desean Jackson (5-90) frequently but Jeremy Maclin (5-72-1) and Brent Celek (2-52-1) with the money shots. Jason Avant (2-35) would have joined the touchdown parade, but he fumbled through the end zone on his potential score.
The Cowboys’ offense went south when Tony Romo (0-2) left after banging his throwing hand on a helmet, and only a meaningless pass from Stephen McGee (24-38-182-1) to Miles Austin (4-40-1) salvaged an otherwise forgettable day in Dallas.
FANTASY IMPACT: With Romo out, the passing game was thrown into chaos. At least Austin salvaged the touchdown; Dez Bryant (6-62) posted adequate numbers, but Jason Witten (4-24) and Laurent Robinson (1-5)—and their fantasy owners—weren’t so lucky. Fantasy owners who rode LeSean McCoy (13-35, 1-10 receiving) to their fantasy title game couldn’t be happy with his effort, which was dampened in part by a tweaked ankle. Either way, for a guy who scored in 13 of 14 games coming into the week, 45 yards and no score wasn’t much of a finishing move.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 19, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 17
When is a bad red zone offense a good thing? When your fantasy kicker is David Akers, who added four field goals to his 2011 total to establish a new NFL single-season record. Of course, Akers didn’t set himself up for those scores; a two-headed ground game featuring Frank Gore (23-83-1, 1-13 receiving) and Kendall Hunter (12-73, 1-11 receiving) did much of the work, with the occasional Alex Smith (14-26-179) pass mixed in.
In the battle of the irresistible force against the immovable object, Marshawn Lynch (21-107-1, 2-24 receiving) bested the previously unscored-upon San Francisco run defense after a blocked punt set the Seahawks up at the 4-yard line. Of course, Lynch was all the Seattle offense had going for it; Ricardo Lockette caught a 44-yard pass, but no other Seahawk topped 20 yards of offense.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Seahawks are, we think, starting to realize what Vikings fans have known for some time but the front office took too long to figure out: Tarvaris Jackson (15-28-163-1) shows flashes of competence but ultimately isn’t a winning NFL quarterback. However, Pete Carroll may be forced to endure him one more year while he positions his club to draft Matt Barkley. The Niners don’t have much at quarterback, either; at least Smith had the courtesy to complete nine of his 14 passes to the two receivers anywhere near fantasy teams: Michael Crabtree (5-85) and Vernon Davis (4-54).
GREEN BAY PACKERS 35, CHICAGO BEARS 21
After last week’s loss there was actually talk Aaron Rodgers (21-29-283-5 plus 4-18 rushing) might not be the league MVP. Five prime-time touchdowns later, you can put that talk to bed. A quick strike to Jermichael Finley (3-20-1) held up until just before halftime, at which point the Pack scored three quick touchdowns—two by James Jones (4-50-2)—to take control. By the time Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson (6-115-2) with his second score it was garbage time at Lambeau.
By the numbers Josh McCown (19-28-242-1-2) and Kahlil Bell (23-121 plus 4-38 receiving) weren’t that bad. And that’s what you call a silver lining.
FANTASY IMPACT: With McCown at the helm the Bears’ passing game had signs of life; Roy Williams (6-81) led the way, while Dane Sanzenbacher (4-51) and Earl Bennett (1-49) showed up as well. Tight end Kellen Davis (3-21-1) swooped in for the touchdown. Green Bay’s ground game was once again non-existant despite a solid 5.5 yards per carry from Ryan Grant (8-44, 2-34 receiving). Of course, when your quarterback is playing at the level Rodgers is playing, who needs a ground game?