Between the Packers losing, the Colts winning, the Ravens, Giants, and Texans laying an egg, and the Chiefs, Chargers, and Eagles still being alive for their respective division titles ... all on the same day ... the NFL was at its unpredictable best in Week 15. (I'm not sure fantasy owners who faced Seattle defense or Calvin Johnson would agree, but I digress.) While it's easy to write off these outcomes as an anomaly, there's information to be learned each Sunday, so here's my take.
Every year, Joe Public assumes the teams that need to win for playoff purposes will win, but every year, dogs (particularly home dogs) have their day. Rest assured, degenerate gamblers - this will remain true for Weeks 16 and 17.
Everyone who said the Colts weren't playing for anything on Sunday was sorely mistaken. Yes, teams mail it in early sometimes (I'm looking at you, Tampa), but no NFL player wants to be part of a team that goes 0-16. Remember this in future seasons - if a team gets to 0-11 or 0-12, it's time to start pounding the money line. The 4-9 teams might not care, but the winless ones do. (Kindly spare me the comments about the 0-16 Lions - that's like saying plane flights aren't safe by pointing to the one plane that crashes.)
Nobody could have realized it at the time, but Caleb Hanie's respectable showing in the NFC Championship Game last year was the worst thing that could have happened to the Bears. Chicago lost that game anyway, yet Hanie's decent outing supported the belief among Bears coaches that he could be a capable backup. Instead, Hanie has single-handedly torpedoed the Bears 2011 season. In a way, Cutler's injury has done to the Bears precisely what Peyton Manning's injury did to the Colts - turned them from Super Bowl contender to irrelevant.
I tried like heck to place a futures bet on the Chargers and Eagles much of this season (Dalton will tell you how much I've annoyed him with this in 2011), so for anyone who looks at their sudden resurgence, recent long-shot payoffs from the St. Louis Cardinals and Packers, and thinks a wager should have been made, you need to realize ... it's not that easy. The Chargers were only 25:1 after Week 11, and that was after five straight losses and a 4-6 record. (Try as I might, I couldn't pull the trigger at just 25:1.) I suppose the time to buy San Diego was after Week 12, but at 4-7, that was easier said than done. Meanwhile, the Eagles only became a value (200:1) after they get their eighth loss; up until then, their line was like that of the playoff teams (trust me, I looked). Anyway, what's interesting about these teams now, particularly since I've talked about them in the same breath much of the season, is that their playoff chances may be mutually exclusive, an oddity since they're in different conferences. To illustrate, the Chargers can only win the AFC West if the Bills beat the Broncos this weekend, which isn't happening, so the Chargers realistic hopes rest on the Wild Card. The Jets are currently 8-6 and would hold a tiebreaker over the Chargers for the sixth seed, so San Diego needs the Jets to lose out, which means the Giants must beat the Jets this weekend. But the Eagles division hopes rest on the Jets beating the Giants this weekend. So the playoff fates of the Eagles and Chargers, two enigmas in 2011 who suddenly look like they have Super Bowl upside, rest largely on the Jets/Giants game in the Meadowlands this weekend. Under the circumstances, if you think there's a 2010 Packers in this year's NFL field, now is the time to bet on both the Chargers and the Eagles, then watch Jets/Giants to see what happens.
Can anyone in today's NFL play defense? I thought the Ravens defense was the AFC's best, but after getting killed in a game they really needed to win - there's a huge difference between the 1 seed and the 5 - it's hard to feel that way anymore. In my eyes, Baltimore looked like the Ravens teams from years back that always got killed by Peyton Manning in the playoffs - a bully against mediocre teams but can be shredded via the pass. Most surprising about their Week 15 collapse was that the Chargers offensive line, by all accounts, is decimated, yet the Ravens barely touched Philip Rivers. Anyway, at this point, which NFL defense would you trust? I can see the 49ers, but they come wrapped in a big bow named Alex Smith.
Speaking of big bows, I want to take a Lexus for a test drive on Christmas morning, put a big red bow on it, park it in the driveway of some rich, snooty snob (preferably a banker, but I digress), honk the horn, allow excitement to set in, then drive off. At least that way those damn commercials would have served some purpose.
Check out the last nine games of Ryan Mathews and Philip Rivers, side by side, by comparing Weeks 7-11 (five games) versus Weeks 12-15 (the past four games):
- Mathews Weeks 7-11: 45 carries, 167 yards, 3.71 YPC, zero TDs
- Rivers Weeks 7-11: 9 TDs, 10 INTs.
- Mathews Weeks 12-15: 81 carries, 453 yards, , 5.59 YPC, 3 TDs
- Rivers Weeks 12-15: 8 TDs, zero INTs.
As Mathews has gotten healthy and played better, Rivers has righted himself, and, not coincidentally, after going 0-5 in Weeks 7-11, the Chargers have gone 3-1 in the past four games (with the only loss coming in overtime).
Reggie Bush has played six seasons in the NFL and, before Week 15, had never exceeded 22 carries in a game. On Sunday, in his 74th career game, Bush took his 25th carry for a 76-yard touchdown. Apparently Bush is just one of those RBs who needs 25 carries to really get going. Seriously, I realize the pathetic Bills defense had a lot to do with it, but this makes you wonder how a second overall draft pick - who's a running back, mind you - could go 74 career games before getting 25 carries.
Rumor has it that Jermichael Finley is going around Wisconsin singing Christmas carols. His tune of choice? "All I want for Christmas is a new pair of hands." Seriously, if you'd have told me before the year that Finley would stay healthy and Aaron Rodgers would be the MVP, I'd have thought for sure that Finley would have stats like those of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Suffice it to say Finley's 2011 has been a major disappointment.
Not to be outdone by Finley, Brandon Marshall dropped another pass in the end zone this week. If I were his coach, I'd have him spend the offseason catching balls while standing in the end zone of Dolphins stadium. I know it sounds cheesy, but Marshall has dropped so many balls in the end zone this year his problem must be mental, not physical. Perhaps an offseason of catching passes in the end zone would rid him of the problem and cement him as a top 15 fantasy WR in 2012.
If you survived Eli Manning's brutal Week 15, dust yourself off and get your head in the game, as you've got a tough decision to make ... do you start Manning, who's been your horse all year despite last week's clunker, against a Jets defense that's been tough all season against opposing QBs, or do you dig into waivers for someone like Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton or Mark Sanchez? I've put a lot of thought into this, being in this situation myself in the RW Staff League (particularly since I lost the Staff League title game a couple of years ago by benching Rivers for a waiver-wire guy based on matchups). My conclusion is below.
I've had DirecTV and the Sunday Ticket since I've been old enough to live on my own, yet, until Sunday, I had no idea it was possible to watch all the games simultaneously (on Channel 702) and to choose which game had the audio. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 4:00 games this way - 4 games at once, on a 60-inch HD TV, changing audio to the game where something was happening. If you haven't tried this, it's a must.
This week's illustration of the incredible seasons being enjoyed by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees ... Tony Romo has 3,895 yards, 29 TDs, 9 INTs, 8.1 YPA, and his team is in first place, yet he's not going to get a sniff of the MVP trophy.
Why does Mike Munchak have to let his Titans fall behind before putting his best quarterback on the field? I suspect Munchak wanted Matt Hasselbeck to be his starter if the Titans were playing in the Wild Card Round (perhaps remembering what Hasselbeck did for the Seahawks in beating the Saints last year), but it's clear at this point that Jake Locker is the better player. Since Locker is also the future of the franchise, this decision seems like a no-brainer in my book.
Let's put aside for the moment how badly the Broncos botched the Kyle Orton situation (starting him to begin the year, delaying Tim Tebow's development, then cutting him and getting nothing in return). Watching Orton beat the Packers with a terrific stat line is proof positive the NFL trade deadline needs to be extended. Seriously, wouldn't it have been far better for the league if Orton had been traded to a contender (e.g. the Bears) rather than cut and picked up by the worst team to place a waiver claim? The NFL should want its better teams to improve for a playoff run, and this is a great illustration of how the NFL failed in that regard in 2011.
Ten years ago, you never could have convinced me that a rookie WR could perform well, then become irrelevant, yet we've seen that twice in recent years - Eddie Royal with Denver (980 yards and 5 TDs as a rookie in 2008 and virtually nothing since) and, more recently, Mike Williams in Tampa. Even more than the defense collapsing, the regression of Josh Freeman and Mike Williams is why Raheem Morris must be fired.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I went to the Jets/Giants game nearly every preseason. My dad always brought binoculars not to watch the game, but to watch the fights that would erupt in the stands between fans of the competing teams. If that's how it was in the preseason, I can only imagine what the atmosphere will be like this weekend, with both teams "fighting" for the playoffs.
Apparently, Seneca Wallace is an upgrade over Colt McCoy, in much the same way that almost any blackjack hand is better than a hard 15 against a face.
As a Bills fan, I'm excited C.J. Spiller could post those stats against the Dolphins run defense (third in yards allowed, second in rushing TDs allowed), particularly with just 12 carries. I won't talk about the defense or QB play, though.
Many football analysts opined the turning point in the Broncos/Patriots game was Tebow's second quarter fumble, which precipitated the Patriots TD that made the score 24-16. I'd argue the turning point was earlier, when John Fox opted to kick a field goal on 4th and 1 deep in the Patriots end, up 13-6. Against the Patriots, you have to know that you're not going to win with field goals, and at that point, the Broncos were dominating the line of scrimmage, having rushed for an incredible 167 yards in the first quarter. There may have never been a more appropriate time to go for it - you're doing whatever you want running, you have a running QB, and you're an underdog. But the Broncos kicked a FG, then didn't score again until they were down 34-16. Scott Pianowski said on the Live Blog he wished Josh McDaniels were still coaching the Broncos instead of the ultra-conservative Fox, and, if only for that game, I couldn't have agreed more. I'm not sure the NFL needs more guys like McDaniels, but it certainly needs fewer guys like Fox.
Speaking of coaching snafus, why on earth did Hue Jackson kick a PAT to go up 27-14 midway through the fourth quarter rather than go for two and a 28-14 lead? The difference between 12 and 13 points at that stage of the game was almost zero (as there was very little chance the Lions would get two FGs and a TD in the time remaining), but the difference between 13 and 14 points was significant (as, if the Lions were to score two TDs, the second PAT would give them the win). The fact that the Lions scored two TDs and won 28-27 speaks to the magnitude of Jackson's decision, which might go down as the worst of 2011.
Here are my suggested waiver claims for Week 16:
Rex Grossman, QB, Redskins: Choose a stat for pass defense and the Vikings (Grossman's Week 16 opponent) are beyond awful. QB Rating? 110.8. To put that in perspective, it's higher than the 2011 QB ratings of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and every other QB in the NFL besides Aaron Rodgers (and it has taken a ridiculous, historic season from Rodgers to get above 110.8). Hence, it's fair to say the 2011 Vikings have made every QB they've faced look better than Drew Brees, who, by the way, is about to set the single-season passing yardage mark which has stood for 27 years. Passing TDs allowed? 31 for the year, last in the NFL (with no other team having allowed more than 27). Passing yards? 260/game, surpassed only by the Patriots and Packers (and that's only because those teams, unlike the Vikings, are always ahead, so their opponents are always throwing). Worried about interceptions (not an unfair concern with Rex Grossman)? The Vikings have just 6 all season, last in the NFL. I reserve the right to change my mind during the week, but right now, I have Grossman slotted in my lineup in the RW Staff League over Eli Manning.
Mark Sanchez, QB, Jets: The Giants and Jets are as enigmatic as anyone, so nothing would surprise me this weekend - a 13-10 final, a 34-31 score, or anything in between. Don't get me wrong - I don't like Sanchez at all - but the Giants terrible secondary makes Sanchez worth discussing. I think I'd play him before Orton, below, but not before Grossman or Manning.
Kyle Orton, QB, Chiefs: The Raiders aren't as bad as the Vikings at pass defense - nobody is - but they've allowed at least 34 points in three straight losses and just gave up four passing TDs to Matthew Stafford. The Chiefs are still a run-oriented team, but Orton is out there if you're hurting. I'd start Orton over Carson Palmer but not Manning.
Lance Ball, RB, Broncos: The Bills have lost 7 straight, and five of them weren't competitive. Their defense over that stretch has been atrocious - at least 27 points allowed in six of those games, and Reggie Bush just had the best game of his six-year career last week. You may be concerned the Bills have been equally inept against the pass, but the Broncos love to play close to the vest, so I expect a ton of running from them this week. (By ton, I mean I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see single-game NFL records set.) Willis McGahee will be licking his chops to face his former team (presuming his injured hamstring lets him), but he won't get all the carries. Even if McGahee plays, expect Ball to get a dozen or so carries, maybe more, particularly if the weather is bad in Buffalo. For some context, I'd play Ball over Ben Tate and BenJarvus Green-Ellis without much hesitation. In fact, it would take some guts, but I'd think long and hard about playing Ball over Marshawn Lynch, whose 10-game scoring streak is likely to end this week against a 49ers team that hasn't allowed a rushing TD all season, and that's even if McGahee plays. If McGahee is inactive, Ball is virtually a must-start in all formats.
Jeremiah Johnson, RB, Broncos: If Willis McGahee is inactive, Johnson will get carries and will be relevant for the same reasons as Lance Ball.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers: I realize these guys are gone in most leagues. But check your shallow league or your salary cap league - these guys are terrific plays against a Bucs defense which started its offseason a few weeks ago and has allowed an NFL-high 20 rushing TDs (only four other NFL teams are above 14).
Jackie Battle, RB, Chiefs: The Chiefs look like they have some life on offense with Kyle Orton at quarterback, and they face a Raiders run defense that I've been picking on for much of the season (5.1 YPC, 14 TDs allowed).
Kahlil Bell, RB, Bears: Bell has 24 carries and 10 receptions the last two games, including a receiving touchdown last week. If you're of the mindset that the Packers will bounce back this week, as I am, then Bell's ability out of the backfield is notable - he should get plenty of checkdown opportunities again this week. It's hard to get too excited about Bell on a bad offense with Marion Barber also in the fold, but I'd probably prefer Bell to, say, Peyton Hillis (at Ravens).
Chris Ivory, RB, Saints: Contrary to popular belief, the Saints do have running backs on their team. The problem is that Sean Payton calls plays like he wants Drew Brees to break the single-season passing yardage mark and win the 2011 MVP. Anyway, the good news is that Ivory has 31 carries the past two weeks with Mark Ingram sidelined and the Saints play at home this week, where they always score a lot of points. The bad news is, like I said, Peyton doesn't call many running plays, even in goal line situations.
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Redskins: See Grossman. Plus, Gaffney has been the Redskins most reliable target in recent weeks, surpassing the production of Santana Moss even after he returned from injury.
Darius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders: If you think DHB's Week 15 stats (8 catches, 155 yards, TD) came out of nowhere, they sort of did - until you realize he's had at least 8 targets each of the past four games. I have to mention Heyward-Bey given the production and targets, but I'm not thrilled with the matchup this week against the Chiefs.
Broncos D/ST: I said I wouldn't discuss the Bills QB play but, alas, I must. Fyan Fitzpatrick doesn't take sacks, but he's a turnover machine, up to 19 INTs for the season. I expect Denver to bounce back this week, and the defense is as good a bet as any besides Green Bay (home against Caleb Hanie's Bears) for a return TD.
Texans D/ST: Now that the Colts have won a game, I fully expect them to revert back into "we don't give a crap" mode, and the hangover should be more pronounced than usual on a short week. The Texans, meanwhile, should be motivated for this game, particularly since the Ravens and Steelers losses leave them in position for a first-round bye. Obviously I'd prefer it if the Texans were at home, but I'd rather play the Texans than the Jets, that's for sure.