HOUSTON TEXANS 31, CINCINNATI BENGALS 10
The Texans stuck to their game plan of running the football behind the league’s best run-blocking line and not putting T.J. Yates (11-20-159-1) in position to cost them the game. Yates got away with at least one bad throw, a near-pick by Chris Crocker, but finished that third-quarter drive with a 40-yard touchdown toss to Andre Johnson (5-90-1). A defensive score and a healthy dose of Arian Foster (24-153-2, 3-29 receiving) put the Texans comfortably in control.
The thought was that Cincinnati’s rookie quarterback was better equipped to win this game, but unlike his counterpart Andy Dalton (27-42-257-0-3) failed to hold up in the playoff crucible. Granted, he received little help from his running game after Cedric Benson (7-14-1, one catch for minus-two yards) opened the scoring and the Bengals put more than twice the offensive burden on Dalton. Though he targeted A.J. Green (5-47) a dozen times, Dalton spread the ball around to nine different receivers, six of them with at least two catches—but none with as much as 50 yards.
FANTASY IMPACT: With Benson a free agent, the Bengals could be heading a different direction at running back. Bernard Scott (6-11, 3-29 receiving) hasn’t demonstrated enough to be the answer, but Brian Leonard (3-34, 6-36 receiving) has the makings of a classic WCO fullback. If Jay Gruden remains in charge of the Cincy offense and the Bengals don’t bring in an obvious feature-back replacement for Benson, Leonard offers sneaky PPR upside. The Texans were a great play in one-and-done fantasy playoff leagues, with the prospect of a trip to Baltimore looming with a win; asking a third-string rookie QB to win a home playoff game is one thing, but a road game against the Ravens is another. That said, if there were any doubts about this team’s bright future—with a healthy Matt Schaub handing off to Foster and throwing to Johnson—the Wild Card win should have erased them.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 45, DETROIT LIONS 28
Usually when you turn the ball over on two of your first three drives in a playoff game you’re packing up for the offseason. But for the Saints it was merely a speed bump as they took every drive into Lions territory and roared out of halftime with five straight touchdown drives to salt the game away. Drew Brees (33-43-466-3) was at the epicenter, feeding usual targets Marques Colston (7-120) and Jimmy Graham (7-55-1) as well as… well, everybody else, from Robert Meachem (4-111-1) to Devery Henderson (2-64-1). And oh yeah the Saints mixed in 167 rushing yards as well behind Darren Sproles (10-51-2, 4-34 receiving), Pierre Thomas (8-66-1, 6-55 receiving), and Chris Ivory (13-47).
The Lions kept pace for a while behind another big effort from Matthew Stafford (28-43-380-3-2), but they blinked too many times (three punts, two picks) and even a monster game from Calvin Johnson (12-211-2) wasn’t enough. Blame the supporting cast; no other Lion accounted for more than 52 yards of offense.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Lions will look for defensive help and try to reassemble their running game in the offseason, but if there were any questions about Stafford stepping up into the elite level of fantasy quarterbacks his late-season surge should put them to rest. As for Megatron, is there any reason to think he doesn’t belong in the top half of redraft first-rounds? The Saints may look remarkably different next season, with Brees, Colston, and Meachem all pending free agents. You know Brees will be back, at minimum via the franchise tag, but he may be throwing to a different cast of receivers. Not that it’ll matter much; Brees can make anyone look good, and he’ll still have Graham at his disposal. The real fantasy frustration will be in the backfield, where a healthy Mark Ingram will only further muddy a situation that saw three backs get double-digit touches—in a game where Brees threw for nearly 500 yards.
NEW YORK GIANTS 24, ATLANTA FALCONS 2
It took more than a quarter for the Giants’ offense to kick in, and a safety on an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone to light the spark, but once they started clicking Big Blue pounded out five drives of 66 yards or more to grind the Falcons into submission.
While Eli Manning (23-32-277-3) was solid and Hakeem Nicks (6-115-2) spectacular, it was the two-headed ground game that truly salted away the victory. Neither Brandon Jacobs (14-92, 2-8) nor Ahmad Bradshaw (14-63, 5-22) scored, but they helmed a ground game that averaged better than five yards a carry and produced 172 rushing yards.
Michael Turner (15-41, 1-5) was ordinary, and Matt Ryan (24-41-199) couldn’t pick up the slack. Atlanta didn’t enter the red zone until the final two minutes of the game and turned the ball over on downs three times in New York territory. That's how you end up with two points in a playoff game.
FANTASY IMPACT: Roddy White (5-52) was targeted a dozen times, but it seemed to be Julio Jones (7-64) making what few plays the Falcons could muster. Turner appears to be running out of steam as a feature back; Atlanta could transition to more of a passing team with Jones and White on the outside, which could mean an increased role for Jacquizz Rodgers (4-18 receiving) in 2012. Nicks’ big outing should quell too much talk about Victor Cruz (2-28) taking over as the Giants’ WR1. He’ll do just fine as Nicks’ wingman, especially if Mario Manningham (4-68-1) departs via free agency. Both Jacobs and Bradshaw did their agents proud with strong showings that should boost their free agency stock this offseason.
DENVER BRONCOS 29, PITTSBURGH STEELERS 23 (OT)
Just when you thought you’d seen it all, Tim Tebow (10-21-316-2, 10-50-1 rushing) averages 31 yards per completion and throws a game-winning 80-yard touchdown in overtime. The bulk of Tebow’s throws, including the game winner, went to fellow first-rounder Demaryius Thomas (4-204-1), who averaged a healthy 51 yards per catch. All this against the Steelers’ top-ranked pass defense.
Ben Roethlisberger (22-40-289-1-1) was clearly hobbled and hounded by a Denver defense that sacked him five times, but he nonetheless spread the ball amongst six receivers and directed a late scoring drive to get the Steelers to overtime. Mike Wallace (3-26 plus 1-1-1 rushing) was targeted 10 times but generally shut down by Champ Bailey, leaving Emmanuel Sanders (6-81) and Antonio Brown (5-70) to do the heavy lifting in the passing game. The ground game was more than capably handled by Isaac Redman (17-121, 2-21 receiving), with the smattering of other rushing attempts spread amongst Roethlisberger, a couple wideouts, and John Clay (1-1).
FANTASY IMPACT: Sanders will force his way into the receiver rotation next season, most likely at the expense of Hines Ward (two targets, no catches) who may very well retire. And Redman’s strong showing certainly vaults him into consideration for a more extensive workload even if Rashard Mendenhall returns from his knee injury by the start of the 2012 season. With Tebow there can be no middle ground, but there needs to be. His 316 yards don’t make him the next Joe Montana; after all, the likes of Derek Anderson have put up big playoff numbers before. But his big-game productivity can no longer be discounted; he made sharp throws at key times, scrambled out of sacks when necessary and kept plays alive, and still brought significant rushing numbers to the table. Consider his fantasy productivity potential a poor man’s Cam Newton—though where he goes in your league’s draft will depend on how many haters and how many Tebowites populate your league.