DALLAS COWBOYS 24, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 17
Somebody lied to the Cowboys; they played like they were at home in November. For starters, they ran the ball both frequently (32 attempts for their trio of backs) and effectively. Marion Barber led the way with 62 yards and two scores on 17 carries, while Felix Jones chipped in 58 yards on 14 carries. Tony Romo (22-34-312-1) put up big numbers, once again relying on Miles Austin (7-139-1) with a dabble of Jason Witten (5-44). Seven other Cowboys caught passes, though none topped 40 yards.
The dream is over, but don’t pin it all on Drew Brees; while his 29-for-45 with a pick wasn’t pretty, he did throw for 298 yards and a touchdown as well. The real culprit was a nonexistent ground game; Pierre Thomas carried just six times for 20 yards and Reggie Bush touched the ball just three times, though he produced 46 yards. Worse, Mike Bell (4-8-1) returned to thoroughly screw up any fantasy rhyme or reason to the backfield. Lance Moore (1-7-1) did the same to the receiving corps, scoring the only touchdown amongst a group headed by Marques Colston (5-86) and replacement tight end David Thomas (8-77).
FANTASY IMPACT: The Saints haven’t quite clinched home field just yet despite the Vikings’ loss Sunday night, but their margin of error certainly increased. That’s unfortunate from a fantasy perspective because, with Bell and Moore back in the mix and Thomas playing well for the injured Jeremy Shockey, you now have eight Saints competing for fantasy points—and little reason to play their regulars extensively. The New Orleans offense is good, but not that good. As a team the Cowboys shrugged off, at least for a week, the demons of Decembers past—but Romo has had no such demons, with 953 yards and six touchdowns against no interceptions thus far this month. That’s helped Austin stay relevant, but it appears as if Witten and Roy Williams (1-14) are going to be much more difficult plays the rest of the way.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 17, BUFFALO BILLS 10
To the surprise of no one, the New England game plan appeared to be all about getting Randy Moss involved early. Five of Tom Brady’s first eight pass attempts were directed at Moss, resulting in Brady’s first three completions (and four of his first five). For the game Moss (5-70-1) accounted for nearly half of Brady’s 11 completions and the majority of his 115 yards. Why so little passing? Because the Bills are awful against the run, so Laurence Maroney carried 23 times for 81 yards and a touchdown.
The Bills also got very little out of the passing game, but that’s because they have Ryan Fitzpatrick (17-25-178-1) at quarterback. And he had no luck getting the ball to Terrell Owens (2-20), with Lee Evans (3-35-1) stealing his touchdown and Josh Reed (4-63) stealing everything else. The running game, while split roughly two-thirds/one-third between Fred Jackson (15-80) and Marshawn Lynch (8-25) was reasonably effective.
FANTASY IMPACT: With the Bills playing out the string, it will be interesting to watch the distribution of touches in the backfield. Jackson added four receptions for 32 yards to his workload, and if Perry Fewell returns to Buffalo next year it may be with Jackson as the primary ball-carrier. While the continued ineffectiveness of Sammy Morris (4-13) appears to have cost him touches, Fred Taylor practices a little more every week and could soon take a bite out of Maroney’s workload.
CLEVELAND BROWNS 41, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 34
Thanks, Eric Mangini. Thanks for foisting Jamal Lewis on us for much of the year, then giving Chris Jennings 20 carries last week to the point that we thought he might be your go-to running back. That’s how in all but the most desperate of circumstances the third-biggest rushing game in NFL history was left on fantasy benches. Jerome Harrison carried 34 times for 286 yards—very nearly matching the 301 rushing yards on the year he entered the game with—and three touchdowns, helping no fantasy teams at all. Because of Harrison’s success the passing game helmed by Brady Quinn (10-17-66-0-2) was non-existent. Oh, and Jennings? Seven carries for 18 yards as an afterthought.
The antithesis of the Browns’ situation, Kansas City kicked Larry Johnson to the curb and after a brief one-week audition handed the starting job to Jamaal Charles. The results have been pure fantasy gold: after today’s 25-154-1 (plus two catches for 16 yards) Charles has scored touchdowns in six straight games, with three 100-yard rushing efforts, and has become that rare midseason running back pickup who becomes a consistent fantasy contributor. But this week it wasn’t just Charles filling fantasy scoresheets; Matt Cassel (22-40-331-2) had his best game of the year. Dwayne Bowe (4-56) was back in the mix, but it was Chris Chambers (5-114-1) doing the heavy lifting.
FANTASY IMPACT: A couple years back the Chiefs drafted Brad Cottam in hopes he’d be the heir to Tony Gonzalez as the team’s tight end. Those are mighty big shoes, but Cottam’s 4-62 on Sunday might just indicate he’s ready to tackle the job. Maybe the reason the Browns give up so many points is that they’re just trying to get the ball into the hands of their most explosive offensive weapon—return man Josh Cribbs. Last week the Browns used him as a Wildcat quarterback, and there is talk the team might convert him into a full-time running back; in the meantime, Cribbs will have to settle for the NFL kickoff return record after bringing two back for scores against the Chiefs.
ATLANTA FALCONS 10, NEW YORK JETS 7
Matt Ryan (16-34-152-1) returned for a full game, but Michael Turner lasted just one play before aggravating his injured ankle; the result was a mere 238 yards of offense for the Falcons against a stout Jets defense. Jason Snelling (16-59 on the ground, 3-5 as a receiver) and Jerious Norwood (9-22, 2-47) attempted to fill the void left by Turner and accounted for well over half the team’s yardage. But with Roddy White (4-33) blanketed by Darrelle Revis, Ryan found Tony Gonzalez (3-33-1) for the game winning touchdown. And in a game with so little offense, that’s all it took.
Maybe the Jets were better off with Mark Sanchez on the sidelines? Despite winds and cold and an Atlanta run defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league, the Jets threw 32 passes and ran the ball 28 times. Sanchez’s passes resulted in 226 yards and a long touchdown to Braylon Edwards early, but three interceptions consistently killed Jets’ drives. Not that Thomas Jones (19-52) or Shonn Greene (8-30) were particularly effective, but at least neither turned the ball over.
FANTASY IMPACT: After a big debut, Sanchez has been... well, a rookie quarterback, unfairly burdened by the aberrational successes of Ryan and Joe Flacco last year. There are still growing pains, and the Jets have the running game and defense for Sanchez to lean on through those pains. However, he can’t keep turning the ball over. And nowhere in the above is the phrase “fantasy helper” mentioned, because with that recipe he doesn’t project to be one any time soon. Half of White’s yardage came on a deflected ball as he was essentially erased from the game plan by Revis, only adding to the Jets’ shutdown corner’s legend. Be advised that Revis wraps the season with games against Reggie Wayne and Terrell Owens. White, on the other hand, will have some time to reconnect with Ryan and salvage his fantasy season—if teams survived his meager Week 15 output.
HOUSTON TEXANS 16, ST. LOUIS RAMS 13
The Texans have Matt Schaub (28-40-367-1) and Andre Johnson (9-196) going for them, which was barely enough to overcome Gary Kubiak’s insistence on shuffling his backs. Arian Foster, whom Kubiak said following last week’s effort would be “showcased”, lasted all of two carries; then he fumbled, and we were treated to the three yards per carry stylings of Ryan Moats (13-46). With former goal line back Chris Brown (3-2) also ignored, the Texans stumbled to three field goals and a touchdown in four red zone trips; that’s how you keep a one-win team in the game.
On the bright side, Keith Null (18-27-173-1-1) wasn’t nearly as bad as last week, though by completing passes to nine different Rams he rendered the entire passing game useless for fantasy purposes. And in St. Louis that leaves the offense to Steven Jackson (20-82 on the ground, 4-41 to lead the team in receiving), who is starting to show the strain of carrying that load.
FANTASY IMPACT: Really, the only show in St. Louis is Jackson. And while 123 yards from scrimmage is nice, his fantasy owners had grown accustomed to the weekly touchdown. Plus, with the back and the illness and the Rams going nowhere, at some point he may just say it’s not worth it and take the rest of the season off. It’s something of which his fantasy owners are most certainly aware. Word out of Houston is that the Texans are playing for Kubiak’s job. If that’s the case fantasy owners might be pulling for the opposition; the Mike Shanahan disciple hosed those looking for something out of Foster against the Rams this week by going back to Moats after Foster’s fumble. And those who have been holding Brown waiting for goal line opportunities have been treated to six touches in two weeks. And next week it could all change again. What happens when the talented Steve Slaton returns to the mix next year? On behalf of fantasy owners everywhere, allow me to say: AAAAAAAARGH!
TENNESSEE TITANS 27, MIAMI DOLPHINS 24
Chris Johnson led the Titans in both rushing (29-104) and receiving (2-55) to remain on pace for the NFL record in yards from scrimmage, but overall that’s a pretty mundane outing. Fortunately for the Titans and their playoff hopes Vince Young came to the rescue, completing 14 of 27 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns. But it wasn’t rookie Kenny Britt (2-32) extending his three-game scoring streak; instead Justin Gage (2-43-2) and Nate Washington (1-32-1) were models of efficiency.
The Dolphins got Ricky Williams (19-80-1) over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, but like the Titans it was a surprising passing game doing the heavy lifting. Chad Henne (29-46-349-1-3) involved nine different receivers in the Miami passing game; Brian Hartline (2-96) led a group of six Dolphins who had at least 36 yards, including lone touchdown scorer Anthony Fasano (4-36-1).
FANTASY IMPACT: Since Ronnie Brown’s injury, it hasn’t just been Williams enjoying success. Fewer Wildcat snaps mean more opportunities for Henne, who is starting to look like a legit NFL quarterback. Whether the Dolphins can develop a consistent receiver or two that can be trusted on a week-to-week basis, however, is another matter. The Titans continue to feed the twin monsters of their playoff push and Johnson’s run towards history, primarily by giving Johnson the ball. It’s working for the team, and it’s definitely working for Johnson’s fantasy owners.
ARIZONA CARDINALS 31, DETROIT LIONS 24
It should have been easier for the Cardinals, but a 100-yard interception return got the Lions on the board and gave them hope, and it took a late surge by Chris Wells (17-110-1) to quell the uprising. Kurt Warner’s numbers—23-for-37, 233 yards, two TDs and the aforementioned pick—were good, but much more was expected against Detroit. The same can be said for Anquan Boldin (6-72-1) and Larry Fitzgerald (4-36-1), who scored but barely combined for triple digit yardage.
Don’t let the scoreboard fool you; the Lions’ offense was abysmal. Utterly average back Maurice Morris (17-126-1) broke off a 64-yard touchdown run which accounted for more than half of his total, and that was the extent of Detroit’s attack. No receiver had more than Calvin Johnson’s 35 yards, two quarterbacks—Drew Stanton (10-19-72-0-1) replaced the ineffective Daunte Culpepper (6-12-64-0-1)—combined for just 136 yards, and aside from the long run the Lions averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
FANTASY IMPACT: What can the Lions take from these remaining games? Matthew Stafford remains out, and there’s little point in risking him now; Kevin Smith is done for the year; and unlike last season Detroit’s hodge-podge of bad quarterbacks can’t seem to find Megatron. You could cross your fingers and hope lightning strikes again in the form of Morris finding a hole and a disinterested defense... but are you willing to risk a fantasy championship on him? The Cards need to get their swagger back, so don’t expect Warner, Fitz, and Boldin to be taking any significant time off. In the meantime, however, they’ll continue to use Wells in their burgeoning ground game—just in time for fantasy titles to be decided.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 20, DENVER BRONCOS 19
Three Oakland quarterbacks—including the NFL return of J.P. Losman—combined for just 115 yards, but ultimately the much-maligned JaMarcus Russell completed five of 11 passes for 47 yards and a game-winning touchdown to Chaz Schilens (5-37-1). That was the complement to Oakland’s running game, which dusted off Michael Bush for 18 carries, 133 yards, and a touchdown. And the chances of any of the above being in a fantasy lineup playing a meaningful game this week is somewhere between slim and you gotta be kidding me.
This was supposed to be a cakewalk for Knowshon Moreno, who would get all the carries at home against a lousy Oakland run defense. However, somebody forgot to tell the Raiders, who held Moreno to 42 yards on 19 carries. That left Kyle Orton to test the Oakland secondary, and he largely passed with 278 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Marshall (7-73-1) was the top pass-catcher yet again, with a little help from Brandon Stokley (2-67) and Tony Scheffler (2-48).
FANTASY IMPACT: What can you say? Moreno had a cupcake defense teed up and he whiffed mightily. His long carry on the day was eight yards, and he only marginally salvaged fantasy value with 39 receiving yards on three catches. Rookie wall or no, this was an underperformance of epic proportions that will likely sour Moreno owners knocked out of their playoffs for years to come. As for the Raiders, they actually lose by winning. Fantasy-wise, Bush and Darren McFadden (12-74) re-muddy the backfield mix; in the real NFL, Russell’s heroics not only cost Oakland draft position (as if they’d know what to do with it anyway) but also leave open the possibility, at least with Al Davis, that Russell might actually be a competent quarterback
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 27, CINCINNATI BENGALS 24
The Chargers keep rolling, and they keep transitioning from a run-first team dependent on LaDainian Tomlinson to a pass-first team carried by Philip Rivers. The former chipped in 59 yards on 16 carries and another 58 as a receiver; the latter threw for 308 yards and three scores, then moved the team into position for a game-winning field goal. While LT and Malcolm Floyd (4-63) made contributions, the heavy lifting was done by the usual suspects: Vincent Jackson (5-108-2) and Antonio Gates (4-33-1).
A clearly emotional Bengals team put up a valiant fight in San Diego as Carson Palmer harked back to his glory days as something more than a game manager, throwing 40 times for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Not surprisingly Chad Ochocinco (3-79-1) was heavily involved, but Cincy also received surprise contributions from Laveranues Coles (4-48-1) and tight end J.P. Foschi (7-82). Somebody had to pick up the slack, because the ground game struggled behind Cedric Benson’s 15-53 performance.
FANTASY IMPACT: Aside from the Steelers game, which he left with an injury, this is the first time in nearly three months Benson has let his fantasy owners down. Worse, Larry Johnson (4-35) was effective in limited carries—which may lead to more, especially next week when the Bengals host LJ’s former team. Tomlinson’s five-game scoring streak came to a screeching halt, and it was only through a 36-yard catch-and-run that LT contributed meaningful yardage. With the Bolts in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s second seed and Tomlinson coming off two straight seasons of playoff injuries, it’ll be tough to bank on any sort of helpful fantasy contribution from Tomlinson the next couple of weeks; then again, Tomlinson’s fantasy owners have likely grown accustomed to that by now.
BALTIMORE RAVENS 31, CHICAGO BEARS 7
Joe Flacco hasn’t done squat in two months, but the Bears’ secondary was so inviting that he couldn’t help but complete 21 of 29 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns. That was great news for Derrick Mason (6-87-1) and his fantasy owners, but not so great for those banking on another big game for Ray Rice. Despite a lead that was in double digits for most of the game, Baltimore threw two more times than they ran; worse, at least for Rice owners, was that Rice was pulled after 16-87 on the ground and 5-17 as a receiver, with Willis McGahee (4-9) and Le’Ron McClain (3-6) and Troy Smith (six carries for 17 yards in addition to 10 passing yards on four attempts) handling mop-up duties. Baltimore’s other receiving stars on the afternoon were Todd Heap (5-56-2), who hasn’t been fantasy-relevant since a Week 2 touchdown, and Demetrius Williams (4-71-1), who hasn’t been fantasy-relevant since Week 8 of last year.
The Ravens played a particularly cruel trick on Jay Cutler, wearing their alternate black uniforms; like he even had a chance, completing 10 of 27 passes to teammates and three to the Ravens before being pulled after just 94 yards. Chicago’s only touchdown came on an Earl Bennett punt return, and unless Matt Forte’s 69 yards from scrimmage or Bennett’s 50 receiving yards helped your fantasy squad there was nothing to see here.
FANTASY IMPACT: The “Forte as fantasy bust” angle has been beaten to death, but the latest nail in the coffin may have been Khalil Bell (6-30) not only averaging five yards a carry but also receiving goal line work while the game was still reasonably close. Perhaps Forte is finding it difficult to run with a fork sticking out of him. The reward for any Rice owner who survived his underuse this week is a trip to Pittsburgh in Week 16. At least he produced 155 yards from scrimmage in that tilt, with McGahee and McClain combining for just 11 touches.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 24, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 7
Josh Freeman didn’t fold in the red zone, and while a Bucs win may have cost them draft position it also gives hope for the future. Freeman completed 16 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a pair of scores, with just one interception. He received plenty of help from his backs; Derrick Ward carried 19 times for 67 yards and caught a six-yard touchdown pass, while Carnell Williams added 66 yards on 12 carries and also hauled in a 22-yard scoring strike. The backfield help was necessary, as Tampa Bay wideouts combined for just eight catches and 94 yards against one of the league’s softer secondaries.
Here’s Exhibit A why fantasy owners can’t trust Matt Hasselbeck: a home date with a one-win team and Hass throws four picks? Sure, his 256 yards and one touchdown helped a little, but the INTs killed four of Seattle’s last six drives. When he wasn’t throwing to the Bucs, Hasselbeck was adding John Carlson (7-86-1) back into the offense and reconnecting with T.J. Houshmandzadeh (7-73) as well.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Seahawks have run the ball well at home, and the Bucs have been overly friendly to opposing ground games. Also, it’s tough to intercept a hand-off. Nonetheless, Seattle split 21 carries between Julius Jones (12-65) and Justin Forsett (9-55) while having Hasselbeck throw 46 passes. Yeah, that makes sense. In addition to hitting his backs, Freeman leaned heavily on Kellen Winslow. Questionable with a knee injury, Winslow answered the bell with six catches for 93 yards to provide another outlet for the young quarterback.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 27, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 13
Michael Vick (2-2) left this game early with a thigh injury, leaving Donovan McNabb and the passing game to shoulder the load. McNabb completed 21 of 36 throws for 306 yards and a touchdown, adding an eight-yard TD run as well. The usual suspects—DeSean Jackson (6-140-1) and Brent Celek (4-73) handled the bulk of the catches, with only Jason Avant (3-44) topping 18 yards among the remainder of the Philly pass-catchers. And while LeSean McCoy (9-48) scored a touchdown it was Leonard Weaver (17-52) who received the majority of the carries.
The Niners can’t seem to make up their minds; are they a running team, which Frank Gore’s 16-107 might suggest, or are they a passing team as evidenced by Alex Smith’s 37 attempts? The former was much more effective; the latter resulted in 177 yards and three INTs. Philly did a tremendous job of taking away Smith’s top two targets, limiting Vernon Davis to 43 yards on three catches and holding Michael Crabtree to 26 yards on four. That left Josh Morgan (7-61-1) to pick up the slack.
FANTASY IMPACT: While Mike Singletary will want to use the final two games of 2009 to understand what he has in Smith, it’s clear he won’t shy away from the running game. That’s good news for Gore, with two dates against bottom-feeding run defenses (Detroit and St. Louis) left on the docket. The Eagles make no illusions about running the football, and while McCoy has done a decent job in relief of Brian Westbrook, the reality of the situation is that Westbrook might return over the next two weeks and Weaver is biting into McCoy’s touches. Philly simply doesn’t run the ball enough to provide fantasy stats for multiple rushers, and all Westy will do is stick one more fork in a pie already split too many ways. It's also worth noting that with Vick hurt the Eagles were back to stalling out in the red zone—good news if you're looking for a little something extra from David Akers.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 37, GREEN BAY PACKERS 36
When was the last time the Steelers didn’t trust their defense? That’s how Mike Tomlin explained his team attempting an onside kick up with his team up two points and just under four minutes left. Turned out to be the right call; after Green Bay marched the short field to score, Ben Roethlisberger (29-46-503-3) capped his record-setting day with a game-winning touchdown to Mike Wallace. While Wallace (2-79-2) wasn’t the top receiver on the day—both Hines Ward (7-126) and Heath Miller (7-118) had bigger totals—he set the tone with a 60-yard score to open the game and the 19-yard game-winner to close it.
Aaron Rodgers (26-48-383-3) did his best to hang with Big Ben, and he added a rushing score to his bottom line as well. Four Green Bay receivers topped 70 yards, led by Greg Jennings (5-118-1) and Donald Driver (3-76). Tight end Jermichael Finley (9-74-1) was heavily involved once again, while tertiary targets Jordy Nelson (4-71) and James Jones (2-36-1) achieved fantasy relevancy as well.
FANTASY IMPACT: In a game featuring two of the top five run defenses it’s no surprise the split was 886 through the air and a combined 125 on the ground between the two teams. Ryan Grant salvaged his fantasy day with a 24-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run; without that, he would have been left with a seven-carry, 13-yard dog of a performance. On the other side of the field Rashard Mendenhall was a lot more effective, and not just because he had a touchdown as part of his 11-38-1 day on the ground; he also added six catches for 73 yards. And the usual pass-catching back, Mewelde Moore, contributed a touchdown on three catches and 25 yards as well.
CAROLINA PANTHERS 26, MINNESOTA VIKINGS 7
You figured the Panthers would have to throw quite a bit against the Vikings; after all, they brought a high-powered offense and a run-stuffing defense to town. But you didn’t figure Matt Moore (21-33-299-3) would actually be effective. Moore followed the tried and true recipe of Carolina quarterbacks before him, with nearly half of his completions and over half his yardage going to Steve Smith (9-157-1). The only other Panther with remarkable yardage was reserve tight end Gary Barnidge, and all 55 of his yards came on one catch. And once the passing game opened things up, Jonathan Stewart hammered away on the ground. Stepping up his workload when DeAngelo Williams left with an ankle injury, Stewart snapped the Vikings’ 36-game string of not allowing a 100-yard rusher by picking up 109 yards on 25 carries. Stewart also scored Carolina’s final two touchdowns, one on the ground and once through the air.
One night after the Saints opened the door for Minnesota to steal home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Vikings slammed it shut on their own thumb. Adrian Peterson (12-35-1) was ineffective early, though his receiving totals received a late bump with a 63-yard catch and run. Brett Favre spent much of the evening under duress, throwing for 224 yards and a pick. He had little success getting the downfield receivers involved—Sidney Rice (4-69) was the only receiver besides Peterson with more than 25 yards—and when he did hit Visanthe Shiancoe (3-24) in the hands in the end zone, Shiancoe dropped the ball.
FANTASY IMPACT: The Vikings have laid two eggs on Sunday nights—which certainly doesn’t bode well for any Super Bowl hopes they might have. More importantly, in two of their last three games they haven’t been able to run the ball effectively—and Favre has been unable to take advantage of defenses focused on stopping Peterson. On the bright side, the Vikings now have to keep playing their regulars to hang on to a first-round bye—and a date with the Bears looms. Carolina got a surprising performance from Moore, one which gives hope for Smith’s fantasy owners the rest of the way—maybe even going forward, if that’s the plan at quarterback. And sans Williams Stewart demonstrated why he was a first-round pick with a gut-check game against a formidable defense. So maybe the Panthers won’t be starting from scratch this offseason—and more importantly, indications are Smith and Stewart are poised to deliver big fantasy performances down the stretch.