NEW YORK JETS 24, CINCINNATI BENGALS 14
The Jets have a blueprint, and they followed it to perfection on Saturday. Mark Sanchez threw only 15 passes, completing 12 for 182 yards and a touchdown; more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over once. As young quarterbacks tend to do, he favored his tight end with Dustin Keller (3-99-1) doing most of the damage; Jerricho Cotchery (6-67) also chipped in while Braylon Edwards (2-15) had a touchdown pass hit him in the hands only to drop harmlessly to the turf. Look familiar, Cleveland fans? The other half of the blueprint saw a two-headed ground game, only here it was rookie Shonn Greene (21-135-1) doing the heavy lifting and Thomas Jones (15-34-1) playing a contributing role.
Cincy had a blueprint as well, but they didn’t follow it quite as well. They had the ground game down, with Cedric Benson (21-169-1) proving once again he can get it done against good defenses. But with Darrelle Revis taking Chad Ochocinco (2-28) out of the mix the passing game was unable to fill in the gaps. Laveranues Coles (6-48-1) picked up some of the slack, but his fumble on the opening drive cost the Bengals points and took away a chance for Cincy to put an early boot to the Jets’ throat. Carson Palmer (18-36-146-1-1) was under duress most of the afternoon, and aside from forcing the ball to Ochocinco he didn’t have a backup plan.
FANTASY IMPACT: Coles’ numbers notwithstanding, the absence of another option alongside Ochocinco stood out for the Bengals. Andre Caldwell (2-25) went down with an injury, and while Quan Cosby (3-26) was an adequate fill-in the Bengals miss the field-stretching of the late Chris Henry. The Jets’ switch from Jones to Greene as the go-to back might provide a taste of what the 2010 regular season has to offer. Jones is due a large roster bonus this offseason, and while he still has something left in the tank it’s clear Greene is more than capable of filling his shoes.
DALLAS COWBOYS 34, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 14
A balanced Dallas attack is an incredibly dangerous Dallas attack. Despite 33 carries and 194 yards from the running game, there was still plenty left over for Tony Romo to rack up 244 yards and two scores. Surprisingly, it was Roy Williams (5-59) and not Jason Witten (4-27) playing the role of primary wingman to Miles Austin (7-82-1). Also surprising was Felix Jones getting 16 carries, which he turned into 148 yards and a touchdown.
Eventually the Eagles are going to need some sort of ground game to keep defenses honest; a combined 10 attempts (for 43 yards) from LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver—with Brian Westbrook not getting a single carry and only touching the ball once on a reception—isn’t going to cut it. A big game from rookie Jeremy Maclin (7-146-1) also might prevent defenses from rolling so much coverage towards DeSean Jackson (3-14-1) next year.
FANTASY IMPACT: There are certainly pieces in place in Philadelphia, but it appears Westbrook won’t be one of them. The Eagles will need to show more confidence in McCoy (5-24, 1-9) as a ballcarrier to prevent them from being so one-dimensional; otherwise defenses will be able to really tee off on Donovan McNabb (19-37-230-1-1). After last week’s successful outing against the Eagles it seemed the Cowboys were ready to give Marion Barber (3-4) the larger share of the workload; obviously, it didn’t work out that way. Maybe it was Barber’s problematic knee, or maybe the Cowboys are auditioning a two-headed backfield (Tashard Choice carried 14 times for 42 yards and a TD to complement Jones) and MB3 is the odd man out. In any event, a three-back RBBC is a fantasy nightmare, especially when the feature role is a moving target. Perhaps the offseason will shed some clarity.
BALTIMORE RAVENS 33, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 14
After toying with a pass-heavy attack in the preseason and even early in the regular season, the Ravens went back to basics in the first round of the playoffs, churning out 229 rushing yards and four RB TDs as they raced to a 24-point lead and put the screws to the Patriots. Ray Rice (22-159-2) led the way, but Willis McGahee (20-62-1) took almost as many carries and Le’Ron McClain (4-8-1) swiped a goal line touchdown as well. Joe Flacco threw just ten passes, completing four, and no receiver caught more than one ball; now that’s old school Ravens.
You can’t blame it all on the absence of Wes Welker; after all, replacement Julian Edelman (6-44-2) scored both Patriots touchdowns. But Tom Brady completed just 23 of 42 passes for a mere 154 yards, fumbling once and throwing three picks in digging a hole New England couldn’t climb out of. Between the Baltimore pass rush and solid coverage downfield the Pats lacked the deep ball; a 24-yard completion to Edelman was the team’s longest play, and Randy Moss (5-48) couldn’t get any deeper than 19 yards. Down 24 points by the start of the second quarter, the Pats never got a running game going and third-down back Kevin Faulk (14-52, 6-37) received more touches than the rest of the committee combined.
FANTASY IMPACT: If Welker really is that key to the New England offense, they’d better start working on a Plan B in a big hurry because there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready for the start of the season. Granted, not every team brings the heat like Baltimore, but for a pass-centric offense like New England to muster but 154 yards—with no receiver topping 50—suggests some changes need to be made. Finding a way to motivate Moss might be a good start. Rice’s big numbers are reassuring for those pegging him as a top-five fantasy back next season, but the fact remains: McGahee and McClain siphoned 26 touches and two scores. Rice owners would love to see McGahee in a different jersey next year, limiting the potential for their guy to lose too many significant touches.
ARIZONA CARDINALS 51, GREEN BAY PACKERS 45
It was defense-optional in Arizona for the Wild Card weekend finale, though ironically it was a defensive touchdown that ended the game in overtime. To get there, however, Kurt Warner needed to fire five touchdown passes and roll up 379 yards on remarkably accurate 29-of-33 passing. No Anquan Boldin? No problem; Steve Breaston (7-125-1) and Early Doucet (6-77-2) exploited matchups against members of the Green Bay secondary not named Charles Woodson while Larry Fitzgerald won the marquee matchup with six grabs for 82 yards and two more scores. The Cards even managed to mix in a little running, with Chris Wells (14-91) picking up the yardage and Tim Hightower (7-19-1, 3-21) handling the short-yardage and third-down work.
The Packers certainly went down swinging, climbing out of a 17-0 deficit behind 422 yards and four passing scores plus a rushing TD from Aaron Rodgers. Arizona had no answer for Jermichael Finley, who caught six balls for 159 yards; they also struggled to locate Greg Jennings (8-130-1) and let secondary targets James Jones (3-50-1), Spencer Havner (2-16-1), and Jordy Nelson (1-10-1) all find the end zone. Playing from behind limited the running game to just 17 attempts from running backs, paced by Ryan Grant’s 11-65.
FANTASY IMPACT: Rodgers had already played his way into the fantasy elite, though this game may push him past the likes of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning on draft day next year. But the real impact may be with Finley, who proved absolutely uncoverable and should find himself among the top five fantasy TEs heading into 2010. The possibility of Arizona dealing Boldin in the offseason would only serve to bump Breaston and Doucet up draft boards—especially if the Cards continue to use the bunch formation that allowed receivers to run free in the secondary and Warner to have his pick of targets. Of course, should Warner follow through on his rumored retirement and leave this offense in the hands of Matt Leinart, all bets are off.