Ravens 13, Titans 10
The Ravens didn't have much offense in this one, but they had just enough. They had Joe Flacco making a perfect pass to Derrick Mason 48 yards down the right sideline for their only touchdown. They had Flacco getting a little help from Mark Clayton to come down with a 37-yard completion on the other side of the field to set up a field goal. And they had Flacco taking a snap after the play clock hit zero and hitting Todd Heap over the middle to convert a third down on the game winning drive. One of the top ground games during the regular season mustered just 50 yards 30 carries, and Flacco's final line of 11-22-161-1 was hardly pretty. But when you have the Baltimore defense on your side... sometimes a little offense is all you need.
How important are turnovers? Consider that the Titans dropped 391 yards on the Ravensa season high against the Baltimore defense, nearly doubling the Ravens' outputand held the ball for more than eight minutes longer than their opponent. How could they lose? By turning the ball over three times inside the Baltimore 35-yard line, leaving at least a couple field goals on the tablewhich would have been the difference in the outcome. Tennessee desperately missed rookie Chris Johnson, who rolled up 100 yards from scrimmage on just a dozen first-half touches; Johnson, however, spent the second half wrapped in a parka with an ankle injury. In his stead LenDale White was solid, with 80 yards on 19 touches but a costly fumble just before halftime. Kerry Collins fared well, completing 26 of 42 passes for 281 yards, but an ill-advised interception off his back foot killed another Titans scoring opportunity. Justin Gage emerged as Collins' go-to guy with 10 catches for 135 yards, but he came up inches short on a critical third-down completion that might have let the Titans score seven instead of three. Lots of couldas, shouldas, and wouldas on the Titans' side of the ledger; just not enough points.
Fantasy Impact: If there were any thoughts that Johnson wasn't the lead dog in the Titans' backfield committee, his first-half performanceand second-half absenceanswered them. If he's able to answer questions about why he didn't answer the bell for the second half, he may see enough of the 2009 workload to play himself into the first round of fantasy drafts. Gage proved that he's a solid fantasy option as well, though his numbers may suffer if Tennessee goes back to Vince Young at quarterback next year. The Ravens have no such concerns regarding their signal-caller, but one has to wonder just how much more Mason has left in the tank. Clayton has flashed glimpses of talent this year; maybe he's ready to step to the fore in 2009?
Cardinals 33, Panthers 13
Raise your hand if you saw that coming. No Anquan Boldin, 2,000 miles from home, spotting the Panthers a 7-0 advantage less than four minutes into the game... and then the Cardinals got going and didn't let up until Carolina was trampled under foot. Larry Fitzgerald ignited the blaze by taking a couple balls away from multiple defenders and capping another catch by stretching along the sidelines to get inside the pilon. When the Panthers kept handing the ball back to Arizona, Kurt Warner kept making them pay with an efficient 21-32-220-2-1 performance. He received unexpected help from the ground game, as Edgerrin James (20-57-1) and Tim Hightower (17-76 plus a receiving touchdown) both found the end zone and helped Arizona nearly double Carolina's time of possession.
Raise your hand if you saw that coming. A dominant one-two ground game punch, Steve Smith against the most permissive secondary in the league, an opening march that culminated with a Jonathan Stewart touchdown run... and then Jake Delhomme got going and didn't stop throwing to the Cardinals until Carolina was 20 points down. It started well, with DeAngelo Williams (12-63) dominating early and Stewart (3-12-1) capping the drive. But a Delhomme fumble one play after Arizona got on the board led to the Cards' second score, and after marching Carolina inside the Arizona 15 he threw the first of his five picks and the rout was on. Smith didn't make his first catch until the final minute of the third quarter and three of Delhomme's interceptions came when he tried to force the ball into his go-to guy.
Fantasy Impact: Carolina found it tough to get their one-two punch going on the ground with only 15 carries... but in those 15 carries you saw why it will be extremely difficult to pull the trigger on Williams as a first-round pick. He took the ball inside the 10, at which point Stewart stole his touchdown. DeAngelo's strong finish might make it easier to gloss over Stewart's theft, but the fact remains: he's also a first-round pick and ideally suited for goal line work. At least the absence of Boldin for this game helped answer any lingering questions about who should be the first wideout off the board next yearassuming, of course, Warner returns to the Redbirds. And really, the way Fitz was going up to get the ball on Saturday, even Matt Leinart would be able to toss it in his general direction and get results.
Eagles 23, Giants 11
Typical Eagles performance: three receivers had four catches, two more had three, two more had two; only Desean Jackson had more than 50 yards, thanks largely to a 48-yard completion that set up Philly's final field goal. What was atypical was just 46 yards from scrimmage from Brian Westbrook and the Eagles still finding a way to win. Converting third downs (seven of 14) and taking advantage of a short field when the opportunity presented itself led certainly helped, as Philly's numbers were largely underwhelming. Donovan McNabb completed 22 of 40 passes for 217 yards, a score, and two picks; he added a rushing score and 16 yards on the ground. Maybe the key player was David Akers, who converted all three of his field goal attempts in the swirling Giants Stadium winds.
The Giants had more yards, more big plays, fewer penalties, held the ball longer... pretty much everything they needed to do to win. Oh, except for failing to convert in the red zone (settling for field goals on each of their three attempts) and on fourth down (coming up short on a fourth-and-one Eli Manning sneak and a fourth-and-two Brandon Jacobs dive. Aside form failing to pick up that key yard Jacobs was solid with 92 yards on 19 carries; backfield mate Derrick Ward contributed 70 yards on 17 touches. Kevin Boss was Manning's go-to receiver with three catches for 52 yards; no other Giant made it to the 40-yard mark as Eli finished 15-for-29 for 169 yards, no touchdowns, and two picks.
Fantasy Impact: How fitting is it that the Giants shot themselves in the foot in the red zone when it was painfully obvious they desperately needed a downfield go-to threat like Plaxico Burress would have given them? Domenik Hixon (2-37) isn't there yet and the other Giant receivers aren't of that ilkmaking for an interesting offseason decision regarding Big Blue's version of Barney Fife. Westbrook has been quiet this postseason, making one big play against the Vikings last week and none against the Giants. It's clear defenses are making him the focal point of their game planemphasizing Philly's need for a true No. 1 receiver to make opponents pay for that transgression. Jackson is a deep threat but his upside seems to be as a Lee Evans type; whether that's a complement or a shot depends on how you view Lee Evans.
Steelers 35, Chargers 24
Pittsburgh needed to find a way to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright in this game, and they found a pretty good solution: give Willie Parker 27 carries and let him run for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Parker's line may have even been better had Gary Russell and Carey Davis not received multiple goal line carries; at least Russell converted one into a touchdown. In all seven different Steelers received carries, including Byron Leftwich kneeling down at the end of the game and Ryan Clark being stuffed on a fake punt. But the ploy worked, limiting the Chargers to just one sack of Big Ben as he completed 17 of 26 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. Heath Miller got the scoreunsurprising given the way the Bolts have failed to defend tight ends this seasonand Hines Ward was his go-to guy yet again with four catches for 70 yards. And while Santonio Holmes two-catch, 25-yard stat line may look pedestrian, his 67-yard punt return touchdown opened the scoring for the Steelers.
A 41-yard bomb to Vincent Jackson four plays into the game appeared to be a positive omen for the Chargers. However, they followed up that score with four straight punts on drives that netted a total of 23 yards and didn't score again until a thwarted fake punt presented them with a short field. And then it got worse: the Bolts ran exactly one play in the third quarterand that was a Philip Rivers interception. That's too big a hole against the Steelers, and while San Diego managed 14 fourth-quarter points they were merely holding serve instead of making up ground. Interception aside Rivers was spot-on against a very good defense, compleitng 21 of 35 passes for 308 yards and three scores. Chris Chambers (4-72) and Antonio Gates (5-59) did the bulk of the work, with Jackson's long ball and a late 62-yard catch-and-run by Darren Sproles helped fill out Rivers' stat line.
Fantasy Impact: Maybe talk of Sproles taking over as the Chargers' every-down back were premature; his 5-91-1 receiving line was nice, but his 11-15 rushing line was not. However, if LaDainian Tomlinson's role in the Bolts' offense is to diminish in 2009 you can expect Rivers' stat line to be the largest beneficiary. The fact that Parker produced 146 and two in the playoffs certainly suggests he'll be worthy of consideration as a lower-end RB1 or very good RB2 next year; however, Russell and Davis getting touches in key situations strongly suggests that Rashard Mendenhall will return to a significant rolenamely, those carriesin 2009.