SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 36, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 32
It’s why you play the games. Because if you said Alex Smith (24-42-299-3 plus 1-28-1 rushing) would outduel Drew Brees in a shootout, everyone would think you’re crazy. Because if you said the 49ers would score17 fourth-quarter points, including two touchdowns in the final 2:11, no one would believe you. Because when Vernon Davis (7-180-2), who had been a fantasy disappointment all year, came off the field after clinging to the game-winning catch despite a wicked hit from Roman Harper and was openly crying… well, aside from the heartbreak Saints fans must have felt football just doesn’t get much better. Especially if you wound up with Smith or Davis on your playoff fantasy team.
Screw the running game: Drew Brees (40-63-462-4-2) threw on more than 80 percent of his team’s offensive snaps and very nearly won the game—twice—with fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Jimmy Graham (5-103-2) was his usual beast, but Marques Colston (9-136-1) stepped up and made a case for the Saints to re-sign him this offseason. And Darren Sproles (15-119-1, 3-3 rushing) was targeted 19 times, in essence becoming the New Orleans ground game which was otherwise impotent.
FANTASY IMPACT: Sproles was a PPR hero, but that’s hardly news. What needs to be determined is who—if anyone—will step up as a ball-carrier. Pierre Thomas (1-6, 1-5 receiving) fumbled and left the game with a concussion, leaving Chris Ivory (9-23) to handle the bulk of the carries. Maybe a healthy Mark Ingram consolidates these carries? That was the hope heading into 2011, and it never materialized. While Colston was building his free agency resume, Robert Meachem (3-18) was quiet, meaning last week’s drop is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Davis’ monster game came with Delanie Walker sidelined; more importantly, it’s finally what we expected from Davis and Jim Harbaugh’s tight end-friendly offense. Michael Crabtree (4-25-1) was also targeted 10 times, but this was clearly Davis’ show. However, look at the full season of work before overpaying for VD in 2012. Also nice to see Frank Gore (13-89, 7-38 receiving) get some work in the passing game. He’s still ceding touches to Kendall Hunter (6-23, 1-13 receiving), and it’s difficult to see that trend reversing next year.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 45, DENVER BRONCOS 10
Don’t make Tom Brady (26-34-363-6) angry; unless you own him in your fantasy playoff league, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Clearly fed up by his role as co-star in the Tim Tebow media circus, Brady started fast and had five TDs by halftime—three of them to Rob Gronkowski (10-145-3), who accounted for a third of Brady’s targets. The rest of Brady’s bounty was spread amongst Wes Welker (6-55-1), Deion Branch (3-85-1), and Aaron Hernandez (4-55-1, 5-61), who also led the team in rushing. Year of the tight end, indeed.
The Broncos’ run game worked, with Willis McGahee (17-76-1) and Lance Ball (13-44) hammering out 120 yards between them. However, that’s not exactly the way to rally from a four-touchdown deficit and Tim Tebow (9-26-136, 5-13 rushing) had little success throwing the ball against a Patriots’ secondary that had been blown up all year long. Despite spending eight targets on Eddie Royal (2-25), Tebow once again managed to consolidate the bulk of his production with Demaryius Thomas (6-93 on 10 targets).
FANTASY IMPACT: While the Broncos seem set on going forward with Tebow as their quarterback, fantasy owners have to remain skeptical. For every two passing/one rushing TD game there will be outings where Denver is taken out of its comfort level and forced to throw—with results like this weekends, which netted Tebow single-digit fantasy points. Where will that inconsistency land him on the fantasy draft board? Speaking of the draft board, the case for Gronkowski as a first rounder becomes more compelling by the week. In TE-mandatory leagues Gronk will give you a distinct advantage over every other team in the league—though occasionally Jimmy Graham might be in his neighborhood. Moreover, he rarely fails to chart. First round? Second? No way will Gronk last past the third, right? And don’t overlook Hernandez, who puts up elite-level TE numbers in Gronkowski’s shadow; he could wind up being the better value on draft day—even if Gronk lives up to first-round billing. Hey, it’s not like the Patriots are going to become a running team with BenJarvus Green Ellis (13-28) as their primary ball-carrier.
BALTIMORE RAVENS 20, HOUSTON TEXANS 13
Give the Texans’ defense some credit; after allowing the Ravens to score 17 points due to three short-field drives they forced Baltimore to punt seven times in nine drives and denied the Ravens on fourth-and-goal from the one. Ray Rice (21-60, 4-20) didn’t touch the ball enough until late in the game, though he was held in check throughout the game; he had one 20-yard catch, and his next-longest play of the day was a mere nine yards. Joe Flacco (14-27-176-2) tallied the two early touchdowns but was sacked five times as the Houston defense went toe-to-toe with the home team.
In a word, the Houston offensive line was awesome. They opened holes for Arian Foster (27-132-1, 5-22) to gouge the vaunted Ravens defense, and they protected T.J. Yates (17-35-184-0-3 without being sacked all day) well enough for him to throw 15 times at Andre Johnson (8-111). Alas, they couldn’t prevent the rookie from making three incredibly poor decisions that resulted in interceptions and ultimately cost Houston their shot at pulling off the upset.
FANTASY IMPACT: Any questions about Foster being the top pick in 2012? Didn’t think so. The Texans didn’t bother with Ben Tate, feeding Foster and reaping the benefits. Sure, Tate will take his 10 touches a game next year; that still leaves plenty of opportunity for Foster to rack up big numbers behind the best offensive line in the NFL. As for Johnson, he doesn’t need any help either. Imagine his numbers with Matt Schaub back at the helm… assuming both pitcher and catcher can stay healthy. Anquan Boldin (4-73-1 on eight targets) was pretty much the entirety of the downfield passing game as Jonathan Joseph took Torrey Smith (1-9 on four targets) out of the equation and tight ends Ed Dickson (1-14) and Dennis Pitta (2-29) split eight targets without much impact. After spending draft picks on wideouts and tight ends each of the past two drafts, do the Ravens go back to free agency to give Boldin help? Or do they just keep feeding him and hope Smith and fellow rook Tandon Doss develop? Or does Cam Cameron finally give Rice a feature-back workload?
NEW YORK GIANTS 37, GREEN BAY PACKERS 20
The Giants punted only twice, but for a while it appeared that settling for three red zone field goals and having another short attempt blocked might open the door wide enough for a Green Bay comeback. However, a two-play lightning strike just before halftime put New York in the driver’s seat, and after that it seemed as if every time Eli Manning (21-33-330-3-1) needed a third down completion he’d find Hakeem Nicks (7-165-2) or Victor Cruz (5-74) for the necessary yardage. Brandon Jacobs (9-22-1) put the final nail in the coffin with a 14-yard run late in the fourth quarter and the Giants escaped with the upset.
Aaron Rodgers (26-46-264-2-1 plus 7-66 rushing) wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t the precision machine that steamrolled the league during the first 16 weeks. Point to the rust of a three-week layoff if you will, but Rodgers received little help from receivers other than Donald Driver (3-45-1). Drops aren’t an official stat and aren’t listed in the gamebook, but the FOX telecast conservatively put the number at seven; five of them may have come from Jermichael Finley (4-37 on nine targets) alone. In all nine Packers caught passes and 11 were targeted, but only Driver and John Kuhn (1-2 rushing, 1-8-1 receiving) found the end zone.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Packers received a surprisingly strong contribution from their ground game—and not just with Rodgers scampering away from pressure (four sacks) for frequent first downs. Ryan Grant (8-33, 3-17 receiving) was effective early, though a fumble proved costly, and James Starks (6-43, 4-24) produced late. It would be nice from a fantasy perspective to see Green Bay consolidate the touches with one back, perhaps selected from a talent-rich draft class this April. The Giants also have backfield questions, though aside from his one late TD run Jacobs did little to warrant a return to Big Blue in 2012. Ahmad Bradshaw (12-63, 3-21) was effective but lightly used; he may have a new running mate next season. Curious also to see how the Giants divvy up tight end duties going forward; Jake Ballard (1-17) was targeted eight times but Travis Beckum (2-22) put his two looks to better use.