We're three weeks through the NFL season and it's clear we're looking at a Bills-Lions Super Bowl. OK, maybe not, but the 3-0 starts of these downtrodden franchises (both of whom haven't made the playoffs since Y2K) is part of what makes the NFL great. In baseball, there are certain teams every year that you *know* aren't going to make the playoffs - just ask an Orioles or Pirates fan. The NFL is a diferent animal, where crummy teams from the year prior emerge out of nowhere to become contenders. The Lions' ascent isn't terribly surprising, given their young talent and hot finish in 2010, but the Bills had higher Super Bowl odds during the offseason than every NFL team except the Panthers, yet they're the AFC's last unbeaten team. How crazy has the Bills' season been? It had been 15 years since a team won two games in a season after trailing by 18 or more points, yet the Bills have done it two straight games - the first team ever to do so.
- After joking in the Breakfast Table that the key to winning in the NFL was kneeling (a dig at those analysts who insist that more rushing attempts cause more wins, not realizing teams run more after they already have the lead), it was ironic the Bills won this week partly because of kneeling. Yet that's what happened when Fred Jackson's TD was ruled down at the 1 after replay, causing Chan Gailey to channel his inner Bill Belichick to run down the clock until the last-second FG. I'm sure his fantasy owners disagreed, but it was a fortunate overrule, if you ask me, as with Tom Brady, two minutes, and two timeouts left, that game was otherwise headed for overtime.
- Brady had four INT's last week, as many as he had all of 2010. Two were of the batted-ball variety, so it's hard to read much into those. However, without Aaron Hernandez in the lineup, Brady only seemed to trust two guys - Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. An entire offense based around a tight end and a slot receiver works fine against mediocre defenses, but the Patriots need to expand their repetoire before they face better defenses like the Jets, especially since they've shown no ability to run the ball so far.
- Speaking of Hernandez, so long as he and Antonio Gates are out, fantasy's top tight end is a two-person battle between Rob Gronkowski and Jermichael Finley. Nobody else is in the conversation.
- Now that he's scoring goal-line TDs, Ryan Mathews is a top-six fantasy commodity. My list right now, in no particular order: Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Calvin Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Mathews, and Andre Johnson. (That's seven, but I couldn't omit Andre Johnson.) Even if you think Peterson belongs first on this list, there's a strong argument Mathews has a higher upside due to his environment (elite Chargers offense, and Norv Turner loves to run inside the ten, particularly with Antonio Gates injured).
- Every year, we see examples of how coaches grossly misjudge the talent of their own players. This year's most glaring example to date? Torrey Smith, who finally got a chance to start in Week 3 and exploded with three touchdowns. How can fantasy players have seen this coming when the Ravens own coaches didn't (as, if they had, they wouldn't have traded for Lee Evans, and it wouldn't have taken an injury to Evans for Smith to crack the lineup)?
- I'd like to see Darren McFadden and Mike Wallace in a race with Usain Bolt - but not on a track - on an NFL field, with full uniforms. Who do you think would win?
- Drew Brees' distribution of passes against the Texans is about what I expected with Marques Colston out: Lance Moore and Darren Sproles 9, Jimmy Graham and Robert Meachem 8, Devery Henderson 4. Going forward, I'd value these guys accordingly. Of course, if there was ever a week for Mark Ingram to break out, it's this week against the Jaguars.
- Matthew Stafford isn't the most durable guy to begin with, so the Lions lack of a running game is a bit troubling. If the Lions can't play differently than they did against the Vikings (five sacks, no rushing game at all), Stafford will get hurt soon and all of the good feelings in Detroit will go out the window. I'm not alarmed, but I'm concerned enough that I'd quietly see what I could get for Stafford in a trade right now.
- Chris Johnson has yet to record a 10 yard rush and has less than 100 yards on the season. One could argue Kenny Britt's injury will force the Titans to focus on improving their rushing attack, but it also means defenses won't have to devote as many defenders to the passing game, leaving fewer rushing lanes open. At this point, no matter how good Johnson is, we may have to accept that the Titans run blocking isn't very good. If I could get Ryan Mathews for Johnson, I'd do so.
- What's worse than Chris Wells saying he'd play and then being inactive? Knowshown Moreno, who was active but didn't see the field, undoubtedly causing some fantasy owners to get a "zero" for him. Both Wells and Moreno are too good to cut but pretty aggravating to own.
- Daniel Thomas: 23 carries, 95 yards, TD reception. Reggie Bush: 11 carries, 24 yards, 2 fumbles (one lost). Do we really need more analysis than this?
- In two of my three leagues, I have the second-highest point total in the league this week but am going to lose because I'm playing the guy with the highest. I realize that's part of head-to-head in fantasy football, but it's a good illustration why every fantasy league should have at least one playoff team determined strictly by total points scored. So much of a won-loss record in fantasy football is dependent on luck; point-scored should be part of the analysis. Plus, this keeps teams with a losing record interested for the entire year, as you can't catch up 5 wins in 3 weeks, but you can catch up 150 points. (In the Staff League a couple of years ago, the final playoff spot came down to the final play on the final Monday nighter before the playoffs because it was based on total points scored. Trust me, it's a fun and fair way to award a playoff slot.)
- Want more proof that running back is the NFL's most fungible position? Fred Jackson looks like a Pro Bowler right now, but it wasn't long ago that he couldn't see the field in favor of first-round pick Marshawn Lynch, who had a few mediocre seasons with the Bills before being traded to Seattle in 2010. Meanwhile, not having learned that first-round RBs aren't necessary, the Bills drafted C.J. Spiller in the first round in 2010, yet Spiller has barely played. As for Jackson, of course, he wasn't drafted and probably wouldn't be in the NFL if he didn't happen to graduate from Coe College, the same Division III school as former coach Marv Levy.
- A lot is being made of how the Bills' entire offense is filled with undrafted or seventh-round picks, but this is an anomaly, not a recipe for success in the NFL. To illustrate, look at a team like the Colts - they've whiffed on early-round picks in recent years and without Peyton Manning covering up these failures, the lack of talent on their team is showing. Even the Bills are an example of how early-round draft failures come back to haunt you. Their biggest weakness is the lack of an edge rusher, so imagine how much better they'd be if they chose Brian Orakpo (chosen 13th overall in 2009 and now a stud with the Redskins) instead of Aaron Maybin (taken two picks before Orakpo and now out of the league). Of course, many teams can make similar "what-ifs" about their flubbed draft choices - that's why it's incredibly rare to have a team draft as poorly as the Bills have and still field a good offense.
- The Eagles are getting universally panned for their 1-2 record, and justifiably so, especially with Mike Vick questionable for Week 4 with a bruised/broken hand. However, warning bells should be sounding just as loudly in Atlanta. The Falcons can't win on the road (the home-road splits over Matt Ryan's career are horrendous, especially considering the sample size) and are stuck in a division where two teams - the Saints and Bucs - seem headed towards winning records. For a team that was the top seed in 2010 and traded a lot to get Julio Jones and "win now," they're in some trouble.
- Not only am I unconcerned about Hakeem Nicks despite consecutive quiet games, I'd actively try to acquire him if I could. He won't have to face the Eagles corners every week, and the upcoming schedule (Cardinals, Seahawks, Bills) is appealing.
- In a lot of ways, the Colts played about as well as they can play against the Steelers, yet they still lost. It has to be terribly disheartening for Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and Tony Dungy. Wait, you mean Dungy isn't still coaching the Colts? I guess I forgot; you wouldn't have known it from the way he broadcasts. A little more objectivity, please.
- Ben Tate's stat lines have looked fine so far, but if I were a Tate owner, I'd be troubled at how the Texans struggled in the red zone against the Saints, having to settle for four field goals. That's not necessarily Tate's fault, but it creates a good excuse for Gary Kubiak to go back to Arian Foster when he's healthy (not that Kubiak needs an excuse after Foster's 2010).
- If you're looking to exploit one-week matchups, here are the NFL's worst defenses against the rush through three games, statistically speaking:
Jets - 4.8 YPC, 5 TDs
Raiders - 5.8 YPC, 3 TDs
Eagles - 4.9 YPC, 2 TDs
Rams - 5.4 YPC, 2 TDs
Chiefs - 5 TDs
Colts - 4 TDs, though just 3.3 YPC after a surprisingly strong showing against the Steelers.
And here are the NFL's worst defenses against the pass through Week 3:
Patriots - 370 yards/game, 9.0 YPA, 6 TDs
Packers - 359 yards/game, 8.7 YPA, 5 TDs
Dolphins - 311 yards/game, 8.3 YPA, 8 TDs
Vikings - 299 yards/game, 7.3 YPA, 5 TDs
Saints - 282 yards/game, 7.8 YPA, 7 TDs
Panthers - 9.7 YPA despite playing Blaine Gabbert in a monsoon).
What jumps off the page is how three of the league's best teams - Patriots, Packers, and Saints - have three of the league's worst pass defenses. Is this just a product of those teams getting a lead and their opponents having to throw a lot? Maybe, but that doesn't explain the ridiculous YPA. (For those of you who aren't YPA junkies, some perspective - Tom Brady's career YPA is 7.65, so one could argue the Patriots, Packers, and Saints are making every QB they face look better than Tom Brady). Some of this may be a sample size issue, as it's only been three games, the Saints have played the Packers and Texans, the Patriots played the Chargers and Bills, and the Packers played the Saints. But I'm a numbers geek and these numbers don't lie. It's time to take advantage of these matchups.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Titans: Hasselbeck has 5 passing TDs and over 300 yards/game so far this season, but I'm not about to start using him for fantasy purposes in standard leagues. I just don't see the Titans as having enough talent on offense for Hasselbeck to continue what he's been doing, especially with Kenny Britt's injury. Plus, at age 36, it's unlikely Hasselbeck has suddenly improved. Among the quarterbacks I'd rather own than Hasselbeck are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kevin Kolb, and Joe Flacco.
Vince Young and Mike Kafka, QB, Eagles: If Mike Vick doesn't play this week, somebody is going to start on a dynamic offense with perhaps the fastest skill position players in football (LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin). That said, there are too many questions here for me to go down this road unless I were really in a pinch.
Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings: With the Vikings 0-3 and Donovan McNabb playing poorly, you have to wonder how long the Vikings will wait before inserting their first-round pick from 2011 into the starting lineup. The Vikings have to realize they're not making the playoffs this year, especially with the Packers and Lions in their division. It's doubtful Ponder will be relevant for fantasy purposes this year, but Cam Newton has shown it's possible for a rookie QB to surprise everyone, so at least be aware of the possibility of a QB change in Minnesota.
Michael Bush, RB, Raiders: Bush was already a must-own handcuff for Darren McFadden owners before DMC's groin injury late in Week 3. It seems DMC's injury is minor, but on a suddenly explosive Raiders offense, this is a good reminder that Bush shouldn't be on waivers in most formats.
Willis McGahee, RB, Broncos: The running back situation in Denver is clear as mud. Knowshown Moreno is the young guy with more talent and a first-round pedigree, but he was drafted by the old regime, so who knows what loyalty, if any, John Fox has to him. Plus, Moreno is injured again. Meanwhile, Willis McGahee has played okay in two games as the starter. On the chance Moreno remains sidelined with injury, or McGahee keeps the job on merit, McGahee should be owned in all formats.
Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots: Ridley's stats in Week 3 were hardly impressive - 7 carries for 44 yards, 1 reception for 8 yards. Watching the game, however, it struck me that the Patriots turned to him to create a spark in the running game after Benjarvus Green-Ellis struggled (9 carries, 16 yards). There's potentially a lot of fantasy upside for a running back in a high-scoring Patriots offense, so it may be time to stash Ridley and see what happens.
Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers: Somebody is going to get carries if Frank Gore doesn't play this week due to an injured ankle. Last week, Hunter showed what to expect if he gets that chance - a crummy YPC but the potential for a goal-line TD on a subpar offense. Check Gore's status as the week unfolds.
Alfonso Smith, RB, Cardinals: With Chris Wells unexpectedly inactive for Week 3, and Ryan Williams already out for the year, Smith got a chance to be a feature back against the Seahawks. He hardly lit the world on fire (75 total yards, 3.2 YPC), but he was better than Chester Taylor (8 carries, 20 yards). Smith isn't good enough to stash on your roster if Wells is healthy, but for any game Wells doesn't suit up, it's at least worth seeing if Smith has a favorable matchup.
Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals: I hate recommendations like this - backups on bad teams. That said, Cedric Benson has been suspended for three games, and although he's appealed, a denial of his appeal could, in theory, come down at any time, making Scott a starting NFL running back for three games. Of course, there's some chance Benson will win his appeal, as he committed his transgression during the lockout, at a time he was a free agent (so the personal conduct policy arguably shouldn't apply). Anyway, at worst, keep Scott on your radar if/when Benson's appeal is denied.
Lance Moore, WR, Saints: I've discussed Moore a few times now, so his Week 3 breakout shouldn't surprise you, especially on the high-scoring Saints.
Sidney Rice, WR, Seahawks: I discussed Rice last week, as I buried everyone in Seattle except for him, and things couldn't have gone much better for Seattle's best player - 8 catches for 109 yards and, more importantly, proof that he can play through his shoulder injury. Rice's touchdown upside is limited on a bad Seattle offense, but the Seahawks will probably be throwing a lot this year, so expect many more games with 10(+) targets.
Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens: I buried Lee Evans, below, and I basically called John Harbaugh a moron in my intro, so my feelings about Smith are clear. My only concern is whether Smith's hamstring injury will prevent him from building on a breakout Week 3.
Nate Washington, WR, Titans: I've been slow to suggest Washington despite a good start because I didn't think the Titans offense was good enough to make any WR besides Kenny Britt relevant for fantasy purposes. Fortunately for Washington, that concern is now moot given Britt's knee injury. Among the WRs I'd cut if it meant owning Washington: any Bengals besides A.J. Green, all Rams, and Johnny Knox.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants: Cruz looks like he can be a viable fantasy starter when he starts for the Giants, but there's the rub. Mario Manningham will probably be back this week, and Hakeem Nicks is entrenched as the starter on the other side. As a result, despite his breakout performance against the Eagles, I don't see Cruz as anything besides an upside guy to stash on your bench in deeper formats. Follow Manningham's progress this week.
Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Lions: A subscriber asked last week about cutting Pettigrew. 11 catches later, I think Pettigrew answered that question with a clear-cut "no." That's the thing about good players on high-scoring offenses - you never know which weeks the matchups will unfold in a way that they explode. Pettigrew is better than teammate Tony Scheffler and belongs in the top ten among fantasy TEs (Finley, Gronkowski, Antonio Gates (if healthy), Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Owen Daniels, and Pettigrew).
Jason Hanson, K, Lions: The Lions are suddenly one of those high-scoring teams where you start the kicker and leave him in your lineup. Kicking indoors sure helps, too.
Saints D/ST: Blaine Gabbert in Week 4 ... need I say more?
Bucs D/ST: Curtis Painter or Kerry Collins - right now, it matters about as much as who the Red Sox put on the pitching mound; they all stink.
Dead to Me:
All Chiefs Except Dwayne Bowe: Dwayne Bowe is talented enough to remain relevant for fantasy purposes, especially with the Chiefs throwing every week while behind on the scoreboard. Other than Bowe, though, I see a wasteland in Kansas City. Dexter McCluster got 14 touches on Sunday (which are probably his limit given his size) and the Chiefs aren't good enough for those 14 touches to amount to much on a week-to-week basis. Nobody else in Kansas City is worth discussing.
Cardinals WRs besides Larry Fitzgerald: I was hopeful the Cardinals would be good enough, playing in a bad division, that Andre Roberts or Early Doucet would emerge. But Kevin Kolb spreads the ball around and simply isn't good enough to make that happen. Plus, a lot of receivers on other teams have played well in recent weeks. Add it all up and it's time to bury the Cardinals secondary options in the passing game.
Lee Evans, WR, Ravens: Evans isn't good enough, or established enough with his new team, to justify holding onto him through his injury, especially with Torrey Smith playing so well last week.