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FANTASY FOOTBALL IN-SEASON FEATURES

Sunday Game Recaps - Wildcard Week
John Tuvey
January 5, 2009
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Cardinals 30, Falcons 24

It was no surprise that Arizona's first two scores came on a long toss to Larry Fitzgerald and a long catch-and-run to Anquan Boldin. What was surprising was that the Cards ran the ball 24 times and used some key defensive plays to pull out a playoff win. Edgerrin James continued his return from the land of the abandon running back with 16 productive carries and 81 yards from scrimmage. Obviously, though, the story was Kurt Warner (19-32-271-2-1) and his primary targets Fitzgerald (6-101-1) and Boldin (2-72-1)—with an unexpected assist from tight end Stephen Spach, whose 3-34 included a key third-down conversion that allowed Arizona to run out the clock.

Matt Ryan didn't blink in the face of a double-digit road deficit, but ultimately a botched handoff and a largely ineffective Michael Turner—along with a pair of interceptions—was too much for the rookie to overcome. Not surprisingly Ryan leaned heavily on Roddy White (11-84-1) and a little less heavily on Michael Jenkins (5-51); the rest of the Atlanta receiving corps combined for 11 catches and 64 yards. Turner scored but couldn't bust a gain longer than 13 yards and averaged just 2.3 yards on his 18 carries. Maybe a little more Jerious Norwood was in order; the change-of-pace back produced 40 yards from scrimmage—just nine less than Turner—on only three touches.

Fantasy Impact: Turner and the Falcons still have some road issues—just four of his 18 touchdowns came outside the Georgia Dome—but the fact that he got on the board even in the face of the Arizona offensive onslaught lends credence to his perch among the top five picks heading into 2009. And you would expect Ryan to get better, improving the Atlanta offense as a whole as well. Boldin tweaked a hammy on his long TD, placing his status for next week in jeopardy and also reminding us as we look to 2009 why Fitzgerald is the safer fantasy pick. James' resurgence might be enough to convince him to wrap his contract (and likely his career) in the desert, though Tim Hightower once again stole the goal line look—setting this backfield up as a real potential headache in 2009.

Chargers 23, Colts 17

The Chargers wouldn't have needed to work overtime had they not turned the ball over twice in the Colts' end zone, despite not scoring for the first 29-plus minutes of the second half. With LaDainian Tomlinson lasting just five carries (worth 25 yards and a touchdown) before his groin injury relegated him to spectator, the Bolts turned to mighty mite Darren Sproles—who responded with 105 rushing yards on 23 carries, 45 receiving yards on five catches, and 178 return yards to boot. He also scored once in the first half and again in overtime to seal the win. Philip Rivers (20-36-217-0-1) was solid, even though Vincent Jackson was taken out of the game completely. Antonio Gates (8-87) was huge, especially on the game-tying drive, and Chris Chambers showed up with four grabs for 57 yards of his own. The Chargers were aided by a phenomal punting performance from Mike Scifres, who consistently gave Indy a long field to work with (average start: their own 15), resulting in good field position for San Diego (average start: their 35); in fact, all three of San Diego's scoring drives in regulation started on Indy's side of midfield.

For most of the game San Diego's defense matched wits with Peyton Manning, waiting until the play clock was under 10 before moving into their defensive formation in hopes of confusing the three-time MVP. It backfired in a big way when Manning snapped the ball early and hit Reggie Wayne on a 72-yard touchdown while Antonio Cromartie was still waiting for the defensive call to come in. But aside from that and the Chargers' inability to cover Anthony Gonzalez (6-97) for portions of the game, the Bolts defense harried Manning just enough to take him off his game. He still threw for 310 yards, but that wasn't enough to overcome the complete lack of a ground game; Joseph Addai produced 44 yards and a score on 16 attempts while Dominic Rhodes added just 12 yards on four touches. Dallas Clark caught seven balls but turned them into just 33 yards as the Colts simply found themselves with too much real estate to cover to get points out of otherwise productive drives.

Fantasy Impact: Marvin Harrison possesses a big cap number (in the $9 million neighborhood), which may be too much to pay for a possession receiver. Gonzalez has proved he's ready for prime time and Clark capably mans the slot, meaning the Manning-to-Marv passing tree may have sprouted its last blossoms. LT also looks like the years have taken their toll, and after watching Sproles and even Michael Bennett contribute to the Chargers' playoff win it isn't difficult to envision San Diego opening up the checkbook to keep Sproles around, even if it's just for one more year as MoJo to LT's Fred Taylor.

Ravens 27, Dolphins 9

How does a rookie quarterback go on the road in the playoffs and win? If you're Joe Flacco, you complete nine of 23 passes for 135 yards—and you hand off 26 times to Le'Ron McClain (19-75-1) and Willis McGahee (7-62) to produce 137 rushing yards and get four picks including a touchdown return from Ed Reed. Aside from a McClain fumble the Ravens' offense did what they had to do: ran the ball effectively and completed just enough passes—four of them to Derrick Mason, five to the rest of the team—to move the chains. When your defense is this good, and scoring touchdowns for you to boot, that's just about all you need.

The Dolphins haven't had a go-to guy all year, getting contributions up and down their roster. Sunday it was the same recipe: Patrick Cobbs (4-55) and Devone Bess (2-54) were the leading receivers, though Ronnie Brown (6-43-1), Ted Ginn (5-38) and Brandon London (4-38) also got in on the fun. Brown (12-19) and Ricky Williams (4-17) did nothing on the ground, forcing Chad Pennington to throw 38 passes. Brown made a great catch on one for a touchdown, but the Ravens picked Pennington four times and consistently thwarted the Dolphins—holding them to a field goal on their opening drive, picking them the next time they reached the red zone, and preventing them from any other ventures into Ravens territory until the fourth quarter.

Fantasy Impact: Depending on how you viewed Brown coming into the season, he was either a major disappointment (if you drafted him expecting the same Brown you got pre-injury in 2007) or a pleasant surprise (given that he was in a new system and ahead of the typical return schedule for major knee injuries). Williams is a free agent and may not be around to steal carries next season, and Brown's knee will be one year healthier; could he be back to 2007-level productivity even without Cam Cameron calling the plays? Speaking of Cameron, will the Ravens' running game recipe remain heavy doses of McClain up the middle with a dash of McGahee once the defense is suitably softened? McGahee was an inherited problem; Ray Rice was drafted by the current regime. A little clarity would be nice from a team that we can expect to be among the league leaders in rushing attempts again next season.

Eagles 26, Vikings 14

The Eagles certainly didn't make it look easy as Andy Reid and his former protege Brad Childress tried to underwhelm each other with unimaginative play-calling. Donovan McNabb (23-34-300-1-1) took advantage of Minnesota's unwillingness to defend the middle of the field, avoiding a Vikings pass rush that was consistently just a split-second late to hit Brent Celek (6-56) and Kevin Curtis (4-49) and Jason Avant (5-47) for first downs that set David Akers up for four field goals. An Asante Samuel pick six put Philly in the driver's seat, and Brian Westbrook—stymied for the first 50-plus minutes of the game—broke things open with a 71-yard screen pass that saw a convoy of Eagles escort Westy into the end zone; prior to that play, Westbrook had produced just 30 yards from scrimmage.

Minnesota's defense lived up to its end of the bargain, holding Philly to field goals until midway through the fourth quarter. And while Adrian Peterson found the going extremely difficult he did bust off a 40-yard touchdown run and added another score before halftime to keep the Vikings within striking distance. But aside from running mate Chester Taylor (84 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches), All Day and the defense received little help. Tarvaris Jackson blinked often in the face of Philly's blitzes, completing 15 of 35 passes for 164 yards—a number inflated by 25 meaningless dink-and-dunk yards in the final minute—and throwing his only touchdown to Eagles corner Asante Samuel. Aside from Taylor's five grabs no Viking receiver caught more than three balls and none reached the 40-yard mark.

Fantasy Impact: Peterson is a hoss, but when his team is down in the fourth quarter he's effectively taken out of the game. And Jackson has demonstrated he can't win a game in which the defense doesn't gift him a touchdown and the ground game doesn't spot him a lead. Better play-calling wouldn't hurt either—maybe roll your mobile quarterback away from the blitz rather than let him stand in the collapsing pocket like a deer in headlights—but since Childress handles those duties it's unlikely that facet will change. If the 2009 Vikings quarterback comes from the current roster, expect defenses to put 10 men in the box and make it even more difficult for Peterson to defend his rushing title. Philly fans likely had similar thoughts about the McNabb/Reid tandem as recently as a month ago, but at least he had the veteran presence to complete passes in the face of a pass rush. Expect similar heat in New York next week, though the Giants are likely to close that midfield gap McNabb exploited against the Vikings. And good luck identifying which of McNabb's eight receivers will be the go-to guy next week. In other words, business as usual in Philly.

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