Just when we thought the playoff picture was becoming clear, Aaron Rodgers' injury ruined it all. Sure, the AFC has clarity. The Patriots, Colts, and Bengals will win their divisions, the Chiefs or Broncos will win the West with the other grabbing the fifth seed, and an AFC also-ran will make it to nine wins and take the sixth seed. The NFC, though, is suddenly the conference in flux. The Packers, Lions, Bears, and Panthers are all 5-3, the Saints and 49ers are 6-2 and the Seahawks are 7-1. That's seven playoff-caliber teams, but only five of them can go to the dance. Which two will stay home? Don't write your answer in pen - in 2013, the Year of the Injury, everything can change in an instant.
Geno Atkins' ACL tear won't make the front pages after Rodgers' injury, but it was a game-changer in the AFC. Cincy will win a weak AFC North, but with all of their injuries on defense, it's hard to see them doing much in the playoffs. Many analysts are saying the same about the Chiefs after another fortunate win (getting outgained more than two-to-one against the Bills fourth-string QB is pretty bad, and did you notice they got just one sack against Jason Campbell and Jeff Tuel the past two games?). Jamaal Charles is slowing down, too - is the workload getting to him, or is it just week-to-week variance? Kansas City reminds me a bit of the 2012 Colts and 2012 Ravens - the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, leaving statheads calling for a regression. We saw how that turned out for the Ravens, though.
Speaking of Baltimore, when's the last time you heard anyone use the phrase "defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens"? Or how about "Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco"? Baltimore's 120-million dollar quarterback has 10 TDs and 9 INTs - yuck. By comparison, Nick Foles has played essentially 16 quarters and has 13 TDs and 0 INTs.
Week 9 was said to be the hardest bye week in fantasy football history. Naturally, an unprecedented number of waiver wire players emerged from nowhere to become fantasy darlings. Foles. Riley Cooper. Aaron Dobson. Marlon Brown and Davone Bess each scored twice, even in a game with just 42 points. Chris Johnson and Zac Stacy entered Week 9 with zero rushing TDs yet had two each. If there was ever a perfect illustration of why you should always set a full lineup in fantasy, no matter how dire things may seem, it was this week.
Week 9 wasn't all good. Mike Shanahan vexed fantasy owners like only he can, taking away three short touchdowns from Alfred Morris in favor of a fullback whose name you need not learn. It's crazy how the fullback dive killed the Chargers, both because they couldn't stop it on defense and couldn't run it on offense. Needing a foot to win the game, San Diego ran Woodhead into the line and misfired on two timing throws. With all the offensive talent the Chargers have lost in recent years (Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles), it's strange that not having Mike Tolbert is why they lost to Washington. When Week 17 is over and the playoffs are set, we may look back at that two-minute sequence around 4:15 on Sunday where the Chargers couldn't score on first and goal from the one and the Jets stopped Drew Brees with the game on the line as what decided the AFC's sixth seed.
Watching Monday Night Football expecting to see Aaron Rodgers yet suffering through Seneca Wallace is like driving to meet Kate Upton for a date and having Roseanne Barr show up in her place. Is there a bigger downgrade in professional sports? Peyton to Osweiler, LeBron to his backup ... Rodgers is in the top 5 anyway. Get well, Aaron. For that matter, get well Gary Kubiak and John Fox. As for Seneca, nobody is surprised that he struggled throwing the ball, but wasn't it alarming how slow he looked? I thought Wallace was quick on his feet, but after repeatedly getting dragged down by a Bears defense that had been last in the NFL in sacks, I wonder why Wallace is even in the league, much less starting this week. If he can't run, what can he do?
Andy Dalton had four turnovers, no touchdowns, five sacks, and a game-losing safety in prime time on October 31, yet was the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month ... for October. Call me crazy, but the voting for that award was a tad premature. It's the NFL's version of a Halloween trick, I suppose.
It's more than a little twisted that Riley Cooper - he of the racist comments in the preseason - has gone 10-106-1 in the six games with Michael Vick at quarterback but 15-347-4 in the three games with Nick Foles under center. That's three solid games for Cooper with Foles, a trend that's significant since Foles isn't going anywhere. The fantasy setup is good for Cooper - wide-open offense, bad defense, good schedule in the awful NFC East, Lions, Vikings, and Bears in Weeks 14-16. I'd rather own Cooper than Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, and Golden Tate. Foles is a tougher call. Foles or Brady? Foles or Roethlisberger? I see no wrong answers here.
Jay Cutler is another quarterback who can help Aaron Rodgers owners. I love the Bears setup - good or great players throughout the offense, a terrible defense, and a favorable schedule. In fact, if you can pair Cutler and Foles, their schedules set up quite well to stream the two (h/t Andy Behrens).
Just one NFL team has yet to give up a 20-yard rush. Done guessing? It's the Raiders. Yes, the same Raiders who just got 49 hung on them by Foles. There's no sense avoiding papercuts in today's NFL when your opponent is attacking your neck with a chainsaw. Rex Ryan, I'm talking to you, too.
Jordy Nelson was my #3 receiver just last week. Now I'd trade him for Keenan Allen or T.Y. Hilton. Do you need to see Nelson struggle with Seneca to agree?
I've panned Greg Schiano as much as the next guy, but let's give credit where it's due. I loved the Bucs approach in the first half in Seattle - playing loose, taking chances. At minimum, it seemed Schiano hasn't lost the team, something Raheem Morris couldn't say as the Bucs collapsed down the stretch a few years ago. If the team were against Schiano, that's the perfect spot to lay down - west coast trip against a Super Bowl contender ... nobody have batted an eyelash if that game was 30-3. I like what Mike James and Timothy Wright are doing for our fake teams, too. It might not be much, but I see Tampa as significantly better than the Jaguars, perhaps as much as -7 ATS on a neutral field.
Why did it take the Rams so long to figure out Zac Stacy was their best back by a country mile? Particularly when Stacy got to run against that Rams defense all through training camp and the preseason, he had to have shown signs before now. Sadly, this isn't the first time NFL coaches have grossly misjudged their own talent.
The further we get from the Bill Cowher era in Pittsburgh, the better Cowher looks. The bloom is sure fading off of Mike Tomlin's rose as Cowher's players age and the Steelers struggle to replace them.
I hated how the Bears were playing eight men in the box against the Packers after Rodgers went out. Green Bay wasn't going to drive the ball downfield with Wallace under center, and crowding the line of scrimmage like that is what allows big runs. Sure enough, that's how Eddie Lacy started the second half, bursting through the line and racing untouched towards the end zone. Why is this so hard for coaches to understand? When you're in that spot, force the bad QB to sustain a long drive. Crowding the line not only exposes you to big runs, but it enables any NFL quarterback to beat you once over the top, something the Packers oddly didn't even try despite the coverage begging them to do so.
I'll award two free Rotowire subscriptions next week. Keep those questions coming on Twitter, @MarkStopa, hashtag #stopalawfirm.