It may have been Week 15 in the NFL, but the number of the week was three. Three shutouts (including two by bottom-three defenses). Three rushing touchdowns for Russell Wilson, who has made the 2012 Rookie of the Year award a three-man competition. Three touchdown connections between Aaron Rodgers and James Jones. Three teams atop the NFC East standings. And the number of teams with a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl? Well, that's more than three. But since Kevin Payne asked me on Twitter (@MarkStopa), I'll go ahead and answer - my top three teams right now are SF, Den, and NE. I realize the NFC is the superior conference, as the 49ers proved again on Sunday night (remember, GB destroyed HOU, ATL beat DEN, SEA beat NE ... we've seen the NFC's superiority all year long), but the AFC's best teams have an easier path to the Super Bowl. Of course, I'd need more than those three to let you take the field.
I'm not sold on the Texans, but what a great week to be a Houston fan. Not only did they sew up the division and all but clinch a first round bye, but they'll have the easiest path to the Super Bowl by a country mile if things stay as they currently are. A lot can change in the next few weeks, I suppose, but right now they're looking at a bye, then the NFL's equivalent of a second playoff bye (the winner of Ravens/Colts, at home), before getting the winner of Denver/NE at home. If they're 80% to win that first game and 50% to win the second, that puts their chances of being in the Super Bowl around 40%. That's at least 5-10% higher than I'd put anyone else right now.
In a slightly less scientific thought process on who will win the Super Bowl, I got a new computer at work about six months ago. Purely on her own, my secretary decided to make the password "Peyton1," misspelling my daughter's name, Payton. So I've been typing "Peyton1" into my computer each day for the past six months. Here I am, a fantasy football and NFL analyst, constantly speculating about who will win the Super Bowl, and I type "Peyton1" every day. Coincidence? Before you answer, I liked Denver at 25:1 several weeks ago but missed out on placing a bet. That comes on the heels of liking Green Bay in 2010 at 30:1 and the Giants in 2011 at 22:1 yet missing out on bets for both (Dalton bet the former without cutting me in, a sin I remind him about regularly, and Liss of all people talked me out of the latter, which just defies explanation). Suffice it to say I've become convinced the Super Bowl winner is determined solely to torture me, assuring the gambling gods can laugh at my missed opportunities. Missing out on Denver at 25:1 fits that story quite well. As if that's not enough, this year's Super Bowl is in New Orleans, Peyton's hometown. Peyton1, my missed bet at 25:1, and Peyton's hometown. Coincidences? Only if you think the NFL is not designed purely for my own, personal amusement/torture.
Okay, back to serious analysis. Is anyone good in the AFC North? I'm not surprised by the Ravens collapse (the Ravens backers sure have been quiet in the comments lately!), but who'd have thought the Steelers would be just 7-7 in a weak AFC? Or that the Cowboys would look clutch in the fourth quarter two straight weeks? There's no other way to put it - Dez Bryant is defining his career. Heck, Tony Romo might be, too. If only we knew how this NFC East script were written. The Redskins and Cowboys square off in Week 17, so likely only one can dance. Who are you rooting for, good (RGIII) or evil (Jerry's World)? Well, I know who you want to win (unless you're in Dallas or certifiably insane), but who are you betting on?
If you knew before the season that James Jones would have 12 TD catches, how many touchdowns would you have predicted for Aaron Rodgers? 45? 50? 60? It's pretty insane Jones has 12 touchdowns yet Rodgers has just 29 (that's 17 combined to everyone besides Jones). It's equally nuts that Jones, who has never been mistaken for a Pro Bowl caliber NFL receiver, has a 12-TD season on his resume when the following receivers, who are either in the Hall of Fame or probably will be, do not: Michael Irvin, Andre Johnson, Lynn Swann, Art Monk, Charlie Joiner, Andre Reed, and James Lofton. Speaking of the Pro Bowl, Jones can't and won't get a sniff of Hawaii, not with Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, Vincent Jackson, Randall Cobb, Victor Cruz, Roddy White, and probably Michael Crabtree all more deserving. Yes, Jones has 12 TDs with two games left and there are at least eight other receivers in his own conference who every rational analyst would put in the Pro Bowl before him. So what do we take from Jones' 12 TDs going forward? Upside is always higher for skill players with elite quarterbacks, and middling receivers can become fantasy relevant in the right setup.
About the only good thing the Giants did on Sunday was the touching message Victor Cruz left on his shoes for Jack Pinto, the six-year old Giants fan who died in the Newport shootings. Let's hope the NFL created a small distraction for the victims' families, as, if it did, then nothing else from Week 15 really mattered.
Is it just me, or are the Packers not playing nearly as well as their 10-4 record suggests? I'm starting to view Green Bay the same way I saw the Falcons a few weeks ago. Even if Green Bay beats the Titans and Vikings the next two weeks, I'll probably be picking against them if they face the 49ers, Seahawks, or, yes, the suddenly quasi-legitimate Falcons in the playoffs. Not only would I be surprised if the Packers win the Super Bowl, there are numerous teams I'd take before them (SF, Den, NE, SEA, HOU, probably ATL and NYG, and maybe even Pitt).
The best way to summarize the Bears right now is with two questions: (1) What did Alshon Jeffery ever do to the NFL's officials? (2) Do you remember when Jay Cutler used to be good?
In just one week, Rob Gronkowski went from a luxury item for an already loaded offense to an absolute necessity if the Pats have serious plans on beating whatever big, bad bully emerges from the NFC in the Super Bowl.
If you're the Redskins front office, what do you do with Kirk Cousins? Sure, you can keep him as a backup for years to come. But if a quarterback-hungry team offers a first-round draft pick this offseason, don't you have to trade him? Or what if it's a high second rounder? Just as fantasy owners like to "lock in" their profits by trading high, shouldn't Washington do the same?
I wish Frank Reich could pose with McKayla Maroney for a "not impressed" photo. That way, when there's a big comeback in an NFL game (and the obligatory but appropriate mention of the greatest comeback of all time, led by Frank Reich's Bills in the 1993 Wild Card), as we saw on Sunday night, the TV network can promptly show Reich not being impressed by the second-rate comeback.
It's pretty insane that Calvin Johnson is going to set the all-time, single-season receiving yardage record yet has just five touchdowns. I suppose getting tackled at the one yard line *six* times will do that. For any other receiver, getting tackled at the one that frequently might make him overlooked, a "buy low" for the future, but somehow I doubt that's possible here. So let's just go ahead and start our 2013 fantasy cheatsheets right now: 1. Adrian Peterson 2. Calvin Johnson. Frankly, I can already see a significant disparity between those two picks and the rest of the league. So plan ahead now - auctions in 2013, not drafts. Oh, and Rotowire, you can go ahead and print the magazine cover for the football preview edition with Adrian Peterson on it, with a small photo of Calvin in the corner, perhaps with a caption "who should you draft third?"
If we could have collectively chosen one NFL team not to have existed in 2012, is there any doubt it would be San Diego? Ryan Mathews' season began and ended with a broken clavicle, with a bunch of crappy games sandwiched in between; we'd have all been better if his first broken clavicle was a torn ACL instead. (There has to be a clever phrase for his season starting and ending with a broken clavicle with several crappy games in between ... Crap sandwich? Clavicle sandwich with extra crap? Someone more clever than me, say it in the comments.) Philip Rivers' stock plunged further and faster than the 2008 Dow Jones. Antonio Gates looked like he belonged on the couch next to me, not an NFL football field. Danario Alexander misled us into thinking he was trustworthy, only to deliver a bagel in the most important week of our fantasy season. Robert Meachem literally stole about $500 million from the Chargers (ok, maybe not that much, but close). Personally, I'm 124-81 (60%) picking games ATS that don't involve San Diego, but 4-10 (28%) on Chargers games. Somebody, please, get in Marty McFly's car, go back to the 2012 preseason, and just nuke this team. Thanks.
Apparently, Pete Carroll thinks playoff seeding is based on BCS votes, as there's little other explanation for Seattle running a fake punt up 47-17 in the fourth quarter. Isn't it enough torture for the Bills to know they're, well, the Bills ... and that Toronto doesn't want them to come back? (OK, I made up that last part, but you'd have believed me if I didn't clarify.)
If you lost in the fantasy playoffs, remember - making the playoffs takes a lot of skill, winning once you get there takes a lot of luck. That's what I tell myself, anyway, and I say it often enough that I sort of believe it.
I was watching Lions/Cardinals (stupid, I know) and the broadcasters said there were 25 NFL teams that wish Matthew Stafford was their starting quarterback. Really? Did the NFL gain 10 teams over the weekend and I missed it? Stafford has 17 TDs vs. 15 INTs and a YPA of just 6.8. Those are crummy numbers by any measure, but they're particularly bad when you take into account that Stafford throws to the NFL's best receiver since Randy Moss in his prime. Let's put it this way ... if the Lions cut Stafford today, I'd rather the Bills gamble on a random, second-round quarterback from the Big Ten than claim Stafford.
For the four or five of you who watched Jets/Titans on Monday night, did you also get the feeling that Jon Gruden would have rather gotten a root canal than have to broadcast that game? I was rooting for the Jets, having picked them ATS, and as I found myself rooting for the Jets offense, I felt like I did when I used to buy scratch-off lottery tickets. You know, the kind you buy at gas stations for a buck? You're hoping to win, but it feels stupid to hope because you know you're going to be disappointed, and on the rare occasions when you win (i.e. the Jets score a touchdown), it feels like a total fluke that is impossible to duplicate.
I was moderately surprised when the Lions benched Kevin Smith in favor of Mikel Leshoure after Week 2. Smith has always looked kind of spry when healthy; his issue has been staying on the field. Well, in nearly a full season as the starter, Leshoure has just 3.8 YPC and not a single carry over 20 yards. I'm not sure Smith would have done better, but it sure doesn't seem like Leshoure is a starting-caliber running back in the NFL.
Here are my waiver wire claims for Week 16. Quite honestly, nobody excites me terribly much (except maybe Gronkowski, who's owned in most formats), so hopefully you're not stuck relying on any of these guys with a fantasy title on the line. As always, if there's anyone you're wondering about, feel free to discuss in the comments.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams: The Bucs, Bradford's Week 16 opponent, have allowed an NFL-worst 27 passing touchdowns. Tampa is quite good at rush defense, too, so you have to think that if the Rams score, it will be through the air. The Rams offense is a whole lot better with Danny Amendola healthy, as he seemed to be last week (6-58-1). I can see 250 yards and 2 TDs this week for Bradford.
Nick Foles, QB, Eagles: Like the Bucs, the Redskins are last in the NFL with 27 passing touchdowns allowed. The Eagles have been a sieve on defense in recent weeks, so you have to think Foles will be throwing from behind against Washington much of the second half. Like Bradford, 250 yards and 2 TDs seems reasonable.
DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, RB, Panthers: Carolina is much better than their 5-9 record reflects, as seven of the losses were by six points or fewer. In fact, the Panthers are an eight point favorite this week against the Raiders. No Panthers running back is in the circle of trust, but this is the situation in which you want to start a running back - at home, as a favorite, against a bad team.
Beanie Wells, RB, Cardinals: The vaunted Bears defense has disappeared just as quickly as the fantasy relevance of LaRod Stephens-Howling. Plus, all five of Wells rushing touchdowns this year have come at home, the site of this week's tilt against Chicago. I'd rather play Wells this week than Mikel Leshoure.
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots: It can be miserable trying to figure out the Patriots running back rotations. After Sunday night, though, I think I have it figured out. Stevan Ridley is the starter and the preferred running option. Danny Woodhead is the choice when the Patriots are in passing situations, as they were against the 49ers. Vereen spells Ridley in games where the Patriots are ahead and, hence, running a lot. It would take guts (or, perhaps, desperation) to use Vereen with a fantasy title on the line, but against the hapless Jaguars, Vereen is as good a bet as anyone on waivers to score a touchdown.
Donnie Avery, WR, Colts: I see very little difference between Avery (44 catches for 716 yards) and T.Y. Hilton (55 catches for 743 yards), but Hilton is owned in 71% of Yahoo! leagues because he has six touchdowns, whereas Avery is owned in just 29% since he has just three. The Colts face the Chiefs this week, so you have to think Andrew Luck will return to his touchdown-throwing ways. After all, the Chiefs are last in the NFL in YPA at 8.2 and QB rating at 101.1. Expecting a big play from Avery seems like a decent bet as far as waiver claims go.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears: Jeffery had a touchdown in Week 14, and though he was shut out last week, he was really close to a decent fantasy day. Someone is going to emerge as a second wideout opposite Brandon Marshall eventually, and it sure seems Jeffery will be that guy.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: Gronkowski practiced last Friday and was listed as questionable this past Sunday. He didn't play, obviously, and I wouldn't expect any forthright information from New England any time soon. However, if Gronk was cut in your league and not claimed, it's worth stashing him and seeing what happens as the week unfolds. You might wind up pleasantly surprised if Gronk is activated for this week. I particularly like this concept if you're one of those unfortunate souls who plays in Week 17.
Jets D/ST: Did you see Philip Rivers drop the ball, not once, but twice last week? Or how about his foot-first slide when the nearest defender was a full seven yards away? It's like Rivers realized that if the Chargers make another December run that it might inexplicably save Norv Turner's job again, so he said "screw it, I'm tanking." The Jets are somehow still alive for the playoffs and face the Chargers this week. Criticize the Jets offense all you want, but the defense has been playing well.
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