Instant Impressions: Week 15
Who were the biggest heroes and goats during a crucial fantasy playoff weekend?
• Disappointing performances among erstwhile fantasy studs abounded in Week 15. We saw Rob Gronkowski manage just four grabs for 53 yards (while Aaron Hernandez scored 19 fantasy points), Adrian Peterson get only 10 touches from scrimmage (while Toby Gerhart caught two TDs), and Eli Manning throw the New York Giants' season for a loop with 23-of-40 for 257 yards, 0 TDs and 3 picks. But my nominee for the day's worst culprit is Hakeem Nicks. Sure, he had five grabs for 73 yards, which certainly looks (and is) better, for example, than Percy Harvin's four touches for 7 yards. But Nicks committed what might've been the worst drop of this NFL season on a 54-yard bomb: He was streaking five yards behind the defense when Eli put it right on him, but somehow he dropped it. Nicks later dropped a short pass on the goal line; he also had a late TD catch called back on a David Diehl holding call. It's true that Victor Cruz's grabbing five balls for 44 yards hurts, too. But the opportunities were there for Nicks to dominate on behalf of his fantasy owners, and he shot himself in the foot. (Bad choice of metaphor for a Giants receiver?)
• Meanwhile Drew Brees (32-of-40 for 412 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs), LeSean McCoy (18 carries for 102 yards and 3 TDs) and Calvin Johnson (9 catches, 214 yards, 2 TDs) hoisted most of their fantasy teams on their backs and led them to the promised land: the Fantasy Finals.
• There should be no more doubt that Ryan Mathews is an every-week No. 1 fantasy rusher. Against a tough Baltimore Ravens defense, Mathews had 26 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns, and he chipped in with two grabs for another 19 yards. Mike Tolbert is still a factor (10 touches for 58 yards and a TD), but Mathews got a 1-yard score Sunday night (after Tolbert was stuffed at the goal line) and is matchup-proof now. The San Diego Chargers get a very winnable game against a so-so Detroit Lions defense in Week 16, and Mathews should be in all lineups.
• If backing Mathews was a good call of mine in Week 15, doubting C.J. Spiller was a horrible one. Spiller did nothing on the Buffalo Bills' first couple of possessions, but after a Reggie Bush fumble (more on him in a moment), Spiller took advantage with back-to-back carries of 18 and 24 yards that displayed everything the Bills hoped they were getting when they drafted him. Spiller subsequently didn't do much more in the rushing game, but he provided nine grabs and 76 yards receiving, plus scored again late in an admittedly fruitless attempt for a late comeback. The funny thing is that I hyped the Miami Dolphins D all week, and, having watched this game closely, I still think that was a pretty smart call. The Dolphins were all over Ryan Fitzpatrick in this game, sacking him thrice and hurrying him a bunch more, plus picking him off three times. But they softened up late with a big lead, and their excellent day dwindled to only six fantasy points. Sigh. And as for Bush? Man. He had 25 carries for 203 yards! Sure, the Bills are dreadful against the run, but still. Who are you, and what have you done with Reggie Bush?
• The Marion Barber era in Chicago didn't last long. The Chicago Bears didn't appear to be holding a grudge against Barber for his Denver exploits early on Sunday. On the team's first two series, Barber was the lead back, getting three carries for 6 yards. But the Bears gave their third offensive series to Kahlil Bell and evidently liked what they saw. Barber was given one more series late in the second quarter, but, for the day, Bell had 20 touches for 108 yards and a TD and Barber had 11 for 33 and toted the ball only twice in the second half. Let's not call this a total changing of the guard just yet: Chicago was trailing throughout and thus was in passing mode, and Bell is the receiving back with Matt Forte out. In addition, the Bears never had a goal-line chance, which is a spot where Barber almost certainly will get carries. Still, this is ugly. I'm not going to overreact and tell you to cut Barber and start Bell. But I am going to tell you this is a split job for which the balance of work will depend on game situations. It's probably best avoided altogether.
• In that same Seahawks/Bears game, Marshawn Lynch just kept rolling. I mentioned it was a terrible matchup for him, and it was: Lynch wound up with 42 yards on 20 carries. But he found himself in a target-rich environment twice, and converted from inside the Bears' 3 on two occasions for his 10th and 11th rushing TDs of the season. What can I say? There's no question that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
• Which Green Bay Packers wideout was going to benefit most from Greg Jennings' absence? Jordy Nelson? James Jones? Donald Driver? How about none of the above? It was an abysmal day for the Packers' offense. Jermichael Finley might have grabbed three passes for 83 yards, but he had a whopping 10 targets (the team high by double) and a few hellacious drops. Meanwhile, Nelson caught two of his four targets for 29 yards, Jones caught two of his four targets for 17 yards, and Driver had two catches for 7 yards on his four targets. (At least the workload was fair, right?) I did write a couple of weeks ago that I believed Aaron Rodgers had the worst remaining schedule of any QB and that the Kansas City Chiefs in particular were a terrible matchup. But I can't lie: There's no way I would've benched Rodgers or Nelson, nor could I have foreseen the Packers looking that inept offensively. The biggest implication of this Green Bay loss might in fact be for fantasy owners. Without a perfect season to play for, and with the Packers clinching the NFC's top seed if the San Francisco 49ers lose Monday night, there's a good chance you're going to see some subs play early in the Pack's final two contests.
• Another much-contested station -- the Giants RB position -- also gained no more clarity Sunday. Ahmad Bradshaw had 10 carries for 58 yards, and Brandon Jacobs had eight for 33. Bradshaw also scored an entirely meaningless TD with 33 seconds left and New York down 23-3. The Washington Redskins' D has been a negative matchup for opposing rushers the past month or so, but things don't get any easier for Bradshaw and/or Jacobs next week versus the New York Jets. I believe it's still impossible to consider either of these guys more than a flex, but Bradshaw was the more effective player Sunday after Jacobs had dominated in consecutive weeks.
• Here's hoping you long since gave up on the New England Patriots to do the expected thing with their running backs. Conventional wisdom proclaims that when the Patriots have a big lead, they pad their time of possession with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, right? Wrong. Versus the Denver Broncos on Sunday, BJGE had 10 carries for 17 yards and a garbage-time TD, while Stevan Ridley wound up with 11 carries for 65 clock-killing yards. Oh, and Danny Woodhead decided to make an appearance, to the tune of seven carries for 40 yards and a touchdown of his own. Yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and assume that not too many fantasy teams that have relied on the Law Firm are still alive.
• Most of us at ESPN Fantasy touted Rex Grossman as a smart fantasy play if you were muddling along with Carson Palmer or Fitzpatrick as your Matt Schaub replacement. After all, the Giants have been terrible against the pass, and Grossman has been serviceable. And the funny thing is, the Sexy One might have produced a horrible-looking seven fantasy points Sunday, but he actually played one of his best games. His two picks were on long shots deep into Giants territory; not optimal, but not killers, and basically glorified punts. He led a whole bunch of long drives (the Skins led time of possession 35:00-25:00) that led to field goals, completed 15 of 24 attempts and basically game-managed the whole thing to an easy win. All of which is absolutely no consolation to those of you who listened to us tell you Grossman was a good fantasy play. We're sorry about that.
• Tim Tebow also was hailed by us as a good play Sunday, and that turned out to be correct, but not for the reasons everyone believed. The Broncos' offensive game plan was kind of bizarre. Early on, Denver ran with aplomb, and, even after Willis McGahee had to leave with a bad hamstring (he had only seven carries but wound up with 70 yards), Lance Ball (13 touches, 105 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble) produced well. But the thing that was striking in the first quarter was how good Tebow looked throwing the ball: He was 4-of-5 for 51 yards, had hit Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for big gains, and was finding soft spots in that Patriots zone. But it felt as if the Broncos learned the wrong lessons from their early successes. Rather than stay balanced, they let Tebow throw it just five more times in the first three quarters. Against a soft Pats pass D, the Broncos had only 10 pass attempts in three quarters! Yes, I grant you, the real problem was back-to-back-to-back lost fumbles by Ball, Tebow and Quan Cosby. And Tebow wound up rushing for two touchdowns, so his fantasy day (26 points) turned out brilliantly. And Thomas (seven catches for 113 yards) also played as well as predicted, racking up his third terrific game in a row (and he's still owned in only one-third of ESPN fantasy leagues). But one got the sense that the Broncos left a lot more aerial stats on the field, especially given that they were losing in the second half.
• Joseph Addai started yet again, but Donald Brown was obviously the better player for the umpteenth time, including a game-clinching 80-yard TD run that had to be seen to be believed. No, you can't feel good about using Brown on Thursday night against an angry Houston Texans defense. But you shouldn't even be rostering Addai any longer.
• Caleb Hanie was awful again for the Bears (10-of-23 for 110 yards, 1 TD and 3 INTs), making Chicago fans pine for the glory days of Todd Collins. Hanie was yanked in the fourth quarter of his team's fourth straight loss, and one has to imagine he has seen his final start of the season. Josh McCown would be next man up for the Bears, and how scary is that? There are reports that Jay Cutler could be close to returning, but it seems likely that would be in Week 17 at best.
• Speaking of the Bears, Johnny Knox suffered a horrific-looking injury bending his entire torso over backward, and indeed he's out for the year with a back injury that will require surgery to stabilize a vertebra. His long-term prognosis is reportedly good, fortunately.
• A.J. Green caught six passes for 115 yards in a Cincinnati Bengals win over the St. Louis Rams, but he labored through the game's second half with a shoulder injury with an early diagnosis as a Grade 3 sprain. That's the severe kind. Green stayed in the game, though, and told reporters after the game that he's sure he can play with the injury. For the moment, I'm taking him at his word and won't assume he'll miss Week 16 against the Arizona Cardinals. But we'll have to stay tuned to health reports out of Cincinnati this week.
• Roy Helu disappointed his fantasy owners for the first time in a month Sunday with only 69 yards from scrimmage on 26 touches, and he was seen on the sideline getting his left leg worked on multiple times. Helu did hit the locker room at one point, but he returned to the game and got a bunch more touches thereafter, making you believe that the injury isn't severe enough to keep him out of action going forward. The Redskins have a very hospitable matchup against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16.
• Finally, how about a word of praise for Kyle Orton? Cynics will maintain that the Chiefs' terrific effort upsetting the Packers on Sunday was thanks to the motivation provided by the removal of fired tyrant/coach Todd Haley. But anyone who watched the game knows this was mostly about Orton. (I guess you can still give Haley's dismissal some credit, given that relying on Tyler Palko was a big part of Haley's job insecurity.) Orton went 23-of-31 for 299 yards. He's not likely to be a huge fantasy factor himself, but Orton rescues the rest of the Chiefs offense from total fantasy oblivion. Now, Dwayne Bowe revisited his past knuckleheaded self Sunday, apparently getting benched for the game's first series for violating team rules and winding up with only four grabs for 49 yards, and immortal Leonard Pope made the team's biggest receiving play. But Orton equals hope. There's every reason to believe Bowe should be a top-20 receiving threat in the season's final two weeks.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.
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