- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Here are my team-by-team observations from the AFC and NFC championship games, with an eye on how the results and performances will play into your 2008 fantasy strategies:
San Diego: Chris Chambers led the Chargers with seven catches for 90 yards in the loss at New England. Philip Rivers constantly looked for Chambers in key situations, and Rivers clearly has become more comfortable with Chambers every week. Chambers has been known for making spectacular catches, but he has progressively become a much more dependable possession guy since coming over from Miami.
While the postseason spotlight has shined mostly on Eli Manning for turning a corner in his career, Rivers also showed some major signs of improvement during the playoffs. While the numbers show only four touchdowns and four interceptions in three playoff games, Rivers definitely made some progress that certainly is not reflected in the numbers. We saw improved game management and more good decisions under pressure. In the process, Rivers developed greater trust for Chambers and Vincent Jackson. Maybe more importantly, he demonstrated a supreme toughness by playing on his right knee just days after arthroscopic surgery was performed in order to get him through the game. With surgery to fix the torn ACL upcoming, we'll see if he can recover in time to be ready for the start of the 2008 season.
Chambers caught 16 passes in three playoff games, with two games of six receptions or more. During the playoffs, Rivers trusted Chambers more to use his strength and hands when he needed to keep the chains moving. In his seven-plus seasons with the Dolphins, Chambers was known for being occasionally spectacular and maddeningly inconsistent. With the Chargers, he is finally showing signs of being more reliable. Of course, Chambers never played with a quarterback as promising as Rivers in Miami, so his move to San Diego has become an obvious positive for him and his prospective 2008 owners.
Chambers still shows a lack of tenacity when things get very physical, and he is not the type of wide receiver who will fight for the ball. Yet he has undeniable talents and is still very capable of producing his best fantasy season ever with a full campaign in San Diego next year. Chambers is looking like a good No. 2 fantasy receiver for next season, with the promise of his being more reliable than ever before.
New England: Randy Moss has caught only two passes in two playoff games so far. Yet his next matchup is against the Giants, who he burned for two scores in the regular season finale, while finishing with six receptions for 100 yards.
Jacksonville and San Diego blanketed Moss in the AFC playoffs, and have been content to keep the big play away from Moss and Tom Brady even while Brady has simply eaten up defenses with important throws to other pass-catchers when it counts. The Giants will likely employ a similar strategy in the Super Bowl, because smothering Moss has prevented the Jaguars and Chargers from getting blown out of games and certainly played a part in Brady getting intercepted three times in the AFC Championship Game. When he was denied the home run ball by the Chargers, Brady had to work much harder to move the ball against a tough San Diego defense. The Giants would love to intercept Brady three times, because they have a lot of confidence that their offense can make New England pay for such mistakes, which have been mostly rare this season.
So be prepared for another possible down performance from Moss in the Super Bowl, which may lead to some reluctance to spend a very high draft choice on Moss next year. Before the playoffs started, Moss was looking like an easy 2008 mid first-rounder to some fantasy owners. Such players may be backing off that projection for now. I still say Moss will be worth a mid first-rounder in '08. I am sure the Patriots will devise more ways to get him the ball assuming he returns, and he is going to face many lesser defenses during the course of the regular season. Expect another great season from him in '08, even though he has been quiet the past two games.
As for the Patriots, anyone who thinks they have "fallen off" recently is misguided. Just because New England isn't blowing out opponents anymore doesn't make them any less impressive. Great teams win the close games, too, and find the resolve to pull games out when they are challenged in critical situations. I'm no Patriots fan, but it's tiring to hear the Pat-haters search for some angle to hope they will lose every time. I have heard stuff like "Brady's fingernails are dirty" 18 times. Let's just give credit where credit is due. Patriots fans who get upset when their team isn't winning by 30 need to calm down, too.
New York Giants: Eli Manning has yet to throw an interception during the postseason, and what is most impressive to me is his newfound steel confidence and increased focus in pressure situations. Such performances are clearly boosting his fantasy appeal for next season.
Manning has vaulted himself into the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks for next season with his recent run of quality performances that began with a four-touchdown effort against the Patriots in the regular season finale. Yet you still shouldn't assume he will be dependable during the full campaign next year. I will personally pick more proven guys like Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck first.
Manning has benefited from opposing defenses daring him to prove he can beat them during the playoffs. Opponents have clearly not feared Manning coming into the first three playoff games, as defensive game plans have apparently focused on containing the running game while putting Manning in situations where he used to get rattled often. Instead of making mistakes when it counts, though, Manning has made defenses pay instead.
Manning's run of success during the NFC playoffs will win him newfound respect from defensive coordinators next year, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to defensive game plans designed to contain him. While the arrow on Eli is definitely pointing up, I would draft a good veteran backup in 2008 who you can turn to for peace of mind if you draft Eli as your starter next year.
Green Bay: A week ago, I was saying that the Seahawks were obviously missing a regularly reliable possession receiver who could help them keep drives alive in big games. Fast forward to Green Bay on Sunday, and I saw the same thing.
The Packers had other issues that contributed to their loss, but fantasy leaguers should expect the savvy Green Bay brain trust to consider adding a veteran wideout who can make more key catches during the offseason. When it became clear the Pack weren't going to challenge the Giants downfield, they clearly lacked a, shall I say, Chambers-like guy to make the important short and midrange receptions.
If the Packers acquire an experienced wide receiver, he will obviously see increased fantasy appeal working with Favre. Drafting a rookie will be less consequential for keeper and dynasty purposes, as Favre could be playing in his final season in 2008. There obviously isn't a lot of upside for any young guy projected to work with his eventual replacement, likely to be Aaron Rodgers.
Donald Driver was inconsistent this past season and is certainly more suited for working downfield, while Greg Jennings also does his best work as a big-play guy. Jennings clearly surpassed Driver as the team's top receiving playmaker in 2007, and he can use a complement who is more of a possession guy, while Driver starts to operate in more of a secondary role in the passing game and his fantasy value drops in the process.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.
11hMichael C. Wright