NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 45, ARIZONA CARDINALS 14
Rust? What rust? The Saints answered Arizona’s early touchdown with three first-quarter tallies of their own, then responded to the Cardinals’ second score with two more TDs before halftime. It was an efficient game for Drew Brees, who got back in the saddle with 247 passing yards and three touchdowns. No one receiver stood out, with Marques Colston (6-83-1), Devery Henderson (4-80-1), and Jeremy Shockey (3-36-1) all chipping in; the ground game was similarly fractured, with Pierre Thomas (13-52) taking most of the carries and Lynell Hamilton (5-23-1) vulturing a touchdown. Most of the Saints’ highlights belonged to Reggie Bush (5-84-1, 4-24), who played like the guy New Orleans thought they were drafting second overall in 2006. That his 83-yard punt return touchdown barely cracked the top three on his individual highlight reel for the day speaks to how impressive his performance was; his juke and burst on a 46-yard touchdown run was positively jaw-dropping.
The Cardinals followed the blueprint for winning on the road by striking first; after that, however, it fell apart quickly. A Jerheme Urban fumble started the free fall, but it was the relentless pressure on Kurt Warner (17-26-205-0-1) that put the boot to Arizona’s collective throat. A vicious but clean hit on Warner after his pick led to a brief appearance from Matt Leinart (7-10-61), but by the time Warner returned after halftime the lead was insurmountable. Larry Fitzgerald (6-77) led a tepid showing by the Arizona receiving corps; after a 70-yard Tim Hightower (6-87-1, 3-27) TD run and the 28-yard completion to Urban that ended with a fumble—Arizona’s first two offensive snaps—the Cards didn’t have a play longer that 20 yards the rest of the game.
FANTASY IMPACT: The retirement talk surrounding Warner has begun, and the Cards got a taste of what Leinart might bring to the table if Kurt follows through on hanging up his cleats. Expect a significantly different Arizona offense, especially if Anquan Boldin is traded; it wouldn’t be the high-flying aerial circus we’ve grown accustomed to, but on the other hand it would likely lead to better stat lines for Chris Wells than five carries for seven yards and a touchdown. Another player who’ll be under the microscope in the offseason is Bush. Prior to his dazzling display on Saturday it was almost a foregone conclusion the Saints would cut him loose in the offseason; after his 216 all-purpose yards, it might not be impossible for New Orleans to fork over the $8 million Reggie will be due in 2010.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 20, BALTIMORE RAVENS 3
A 17-point win for the Colts isn’t surprising; that it came primarily on the strength of Indy’s defense, however, is. Peyton Manning (30-44-246-2-1) showed a little bit of rust, but he also stepped up and delivered with two scores in the last two minutes of the first half—first to Austin Collie (4-52-1) just before the two-minute warning, then on a gutsy across-the-middle throw to Reggie Wayne (8-63-1) with seven seconds (and no timeouts) left in the half. But perhaps the biggest contribution by an Indy receiver came from Pierre Garçon (5-34), who ran down Ed Reed after an interception and forced a fumble that Indy recovered—turning a potential Ravens rally into a minor field position hiccup.
The Ravens drove 87 yards on their opening possession and settled for a short field goal... and that was the sum of their offense on the day. In fact, Baltimore didn’t venture more than five yards past midfield until the final five minutes of the game, when their final two drives ended in interceptions. It wasn’t that they failed to generate offense—Ray Rice amassed 127 yards from scrimmage on 13-67 rushing and 9-60 receiving—but the Ravens’ first five drives started at their own 20 or worse, and just one of their first nine originated outside of their own 29. Ultimately Baltimore was forced to put too much of the game plan on Joe Flacco; his 20-35-189-0-2 wasn’t bad, but it’s certainly not how the Ravens win games.
FANTASY IMPACT: Derrick Mason (4-64) led Baltimore’s receivers, but you can add him to the list of veteran players contemplating retirement. The rest of the Ravens’ wideouts combined for two catches and 23 yards, so if Mason does call it a career there will be a huge void the team will need to fill—via the draft, or maybe a trade for Anquan Boldin or Brandon Marshall, because it doesn’t appear as if Kelley Washington (1-11), Demetrius Williams (1-12), or Mark Clayton (no catches, 1-8 rushing) are capable of doing so. Indy’s running backs contributed a total of 82 yards to the offensive effort; certainly Baltimore’s defense had something to do with that number, but with Mike Hart (6-11, 1-9) joining Joseph Addai (11-23, 2-14) and Donald Brown (6-10, 2-15) it means what little productivity there is could be split three ways next year. That, coupled with a strong receiving corps that will add Anthony Gonzalez back into the mix, does not bode well for the fantasy value of either Addai or Brown in 2010.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 34, DALLAS COWBOYS 3
The Vikings ran the ball 33 times, but it was Chester Taylor (4-23, 2-16 as a receiver) and Percy Harvin (3-23, 1-1 receiving) who were effective; Adrian Peterson (26-63) averaged less than two and a half yards per carry. With the running game not delivering, Minnesota had the luxury of turning to Brett Favre (15-24-234-4); all he did was deliver the first four-TD playoff game of his career, exorcising his own Cowboys’ playoff demons in the process. While seven different Vikings caught passes, all the heavy lifting was done by Sidney Rice, who scored three times on six catches covering 141 yards. A late scoring strike to Visanthe Shiancoe (1-11-1) upset Keith Brookings, who apparently didn’t get the memo that NFL games are now 60 minutes long.
Dallas took its first three drives into Minnesota territory, but came away with only three points to show for it. That put the Cowboys in the unenviable position of playing catch-up on the road against a fierce pass rush; the predictable conclusion was six sacks, three fumbles (two lost), and an interception for Tony Romo (22-35-198-0-1). Given the way the Vikings have defended (or not) tight ends, a big day for Jason Witten (10-98) was also to be expected; what was not expected was a secondary sans Antoine Winfield containing Miles Austin to four catches for 34 yards. A clearly hobbled Marion Barber (8-14) ceded the workload to Felix Jones (14-69, 3-22), but playing with a double-digit deficit made the Cowboys one-dimensional and took away Jones as much if not more effectively than the Minnesota defense.
FANTASY IMPACT: What will the Cowboys need to tweak to fix the league’s No. 2 offense after laying a playoff egg? Start with kicker, where Shaun Suisham looked like the kicker the Redskins kicked to the curb. Another receiver to take some of the pressure off Austin would be nice as well; Patrick Crayton contributed 17 yards on two catches, while Roy Williams had as many catches as Jerry Jones. A return to New Orleans—which you may have heard was the site of Favre’s Super Bowl win a decade ago—puts off retirement talk for at least another week. That means you can keep Rice in your top 10 fantasy receivers for 2010 for at least another week, because the two clearly go hand in hand. Consider that Minnesota’s other wideouts combined for four catches and 33 yards and you have to think that if Favre is back in purple next year then Rice has to rank among the elite fantasy wideouts.
NEW YORK JETS 17, SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 14
Winning games with defense and a smash mouth running game is old school, but it’s working for the Jets. With Thomas Jones (14-41) slightly nicked, Gang Green leaned once again on the rookie and Shonn Greene responded with 23 carries for 128 yards and a back-breaking 53-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. One hundred and seventy yards on the ground allowed the Jets to get away with just 23 passing attempts from Mark Sanchez, and while he was picked once and only threw for 100 yards his two-yard scoring strike to Dustin Keller (3-19-1) put the Jets ahead for good. As you might expect, there was little else of note on the offensive side of the ball for the visitors.
Despite the presence of Darrelle Revis, the Chargers got plenty from Vincent Jackson (7-111) and Antonio Gates (8-93); unfortunately for the home crowd, those two didn’t get much support. San Diego’s once-vaunted ground game was almost non-existant; while Darren Sproles averaged better than 10 yards per touch with three carries for 33 yards and three receptions for another 30, LaDainian Tomlinson may have ended his Chargers’ career with a whimper; he carried 12 times for 24 yards, caught three passes for a net zero yards, and didn’t have a play longer than five yards. Philip Rivers (27-40-298-1-2 plus a rushing score) moved his team into scoring position six times; twice the Bolts reached paydirt, once Rivers was picked, and three times Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding missed—matching his total number of misses for the entire 2009 regular season.
FANTASY IMPACT: The thought behind an LT bounceback this season was that Norv Turner was a run-first coach; however, with Tomlinson clearly not the back he used to be, Rivers has made this his team. Much like Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers jumped in Pittsburgh, fantasy owners can bank on Rivers shouldering the offensive load in San Diego next season. He’ll need to get more from a secondary target, with Malcolm Floyd (3-30) being the early sleeper candidate. The Jets may also be providing a taste of their 2010 recipe, with Jones taking a back seat while Greene has posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts in the playoffs. Jones would be a pretty expensive complementary piece of next year’s puzzle; it’s possible he and the injured Leon Washington will be competing for one salary slot on next year’s roster.