Instant Replay: Still magic in Warner
The Kurt Warner of old is back or he was at least for one Sunday.
The veteran quarterback completed 22 of 31 pass attempts for 261 yards and five touchdowns and no interceptions in a rout of the Chicago Bears. Remarkably, he did it without the services of Anquan Boldin, scratched from Sunday's game because of an ankle injury, while also making good use of both of his tight ends, Anthony Becht and Ben Patrick, who each had a touchdown reception.
Despite facing constant pressure from the Bears' defense, Warner had no problem locating his open receivers. As ESPN Stats & Information notes, Warner completed 63.2 percent of his pass attempts (including three of his touchdown passes) and averaged 7.8 yards per pass attempt when facing five or more pass-rushers in Week 9, a huge improvement from the 56.9 and 5.9 numbers he had in the first eight weeks of the season. Warner did it by looking Larry Fitzgerald's way early and often; he targeted Fitzgerald a team-high 14 times, nine of which (including both touchdown receptions) coming when the quarterback was facing added pressure.
But let's credit Fitzgerald for his efforts. He schooled Bears cornerback Charles Tillman until Tillman got hurt, after which point Zack Bowman was Fitzgerald's most common victim. Amazingly, the Bears didn't double-cover Fitzgerald despite the absence of Boldin, which certainly pleased his and Warner's fantasy owners.
Warner's fantasy owners might continue to smile. Looking ahead, his next four matchups are all favorable: Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings, which represented the Nos. 17, 5, 1 and 10 defenses in terms of fantasy points per game allowed to opposing quarterbacks entering Week 9. And then if we skip to Weeks 15 and 16, the Cardinals get the Detroit Lions and another Rams matchup, and those are the Nos. 2 and 5 teams in that category.
If it's not Warner, then how about DeAngelo Williams? We've talked all season about how a trip to New Orleans is a difficult task for any NFL team, let alone individual player, and the New Orleans Saints' offense is the type of unit that can quickly put its opponent in a huge hole on the scoreboard, taking the running game out of the equation. Not the case this week; the Panthers hung in there with the Saints all day, allowing Williams to dash for 149 yards and two scores. Sedrick Ellis' absence has hurt the Saints' run defense in a substantial way, as they've allowed 88 fantasy points combined to opposing running backs over the past four games.
• Greg Olsen: Though he caught three touchdown passes Sunday, Olsen is neither my top story nor my MVP because two of the scores came in the final quarter, when the Bears were down by 27 and throwing on practically every play. Still, it's a promising sign that Olsen thrived as Jay Cutler's go-to guy, drawing four targets in the fourth quarter alone, three in the red zone. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner wants Olsen to be a successful, productive part of this pass attack, and while games like this shouldn't cause you to get overzealous with your expectations, they're a primary reason I take Turner at his word.
• Beanie Wells: A seven-point fantasy day might not overwhelm most fantasy owners, and the fact that Tim Hightower (15) topped Wells (13) in terms of rushing attempts might lead people to think that this is still Hightower's gig first and foremost. But if you've been watching Wells perform the past three weeks, surely you recognize the level of explosiveness he has, and the makings of a star-caliber back in his prime. Combining his Weeks 7-9 numbers, he has 5.3 yards per carry plus a touchdown, and one can only hope he learns how to pick up a blitz soon so the Cardinals can hand him the starting gig and limit Hightower to role-player status.
• Mike Sims-Walker: He's baaaaaack. After being inactive in Week 5 for violating a team rule, then being held quiet by the Titans in Week 8, Sims-Walker exploded for another huge fantasy day Sunday, with 147 yards and a touchdown. Granted, he draws the stingy New York Jets in Week 10, and his fantasy potential from week to week hinges greatly upon the effectiveness of his quarterback, but since Week 2, Sims-Walker has nevertheless averaged 7.4 targets per game. That's more than enough for him to make an impact most weeks.
• Pierre Thomas: Remember when that Saints backfield seemed like the most difficult in the world to predict? No longer, apparently. Thomas led the team in rushing attempts (13) and had double-digit carries for the third time in the past four weeks. Perhaps more importantly, though, he's the one who got all three of the team's carries in the red zone, scoring a 10-yard touchdown, the team's only rushing score. Mike Bell seems locked into a clear backup's role lately, and Reggie Bush is in the midst of a miserable season, so Thomas should at least be a useful No. 2/flex option looking forward.
• Jamaal Charles: I worry a bit about this backfield, being that Kolby Smith was active for this game, leading the Chiefs to a maddening split of the rushing attempts in which Charles had six carries (plus three receptions), Smith four (plus one catch) and Dantrell Savage two (plus one catch). Also, there remains the possibility that Larry Johnson, suspended for two games, might be back in action as early as Week 11. Charles, despite his 5.2 yards-per-carry average this season (5.3 for his career), apparently isn't regarded as capable of being an every-down back by this team. He probably deserves an opportunity if Johnson's tenure in Kansas City is indeed over, but the idea of a Charles-Smith timeshare isn't unrealistic, unfortunately.
• Matt Ryan: I'm a Ryan fan, and I don't think many people out there doubt Ryan's skills in the long term, but in the short term he has been awfully shaky. He was picked off for the fifth consecutive week, and since the bye has averaged 227.2 passing yards with eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. What's worse, he faces the Carolina Panthers, who have one of the stiffest pass defenses in football, in Week 10, then battles a New York Giants defense that is fresh off its bye and might not represent as easy a matchup with an extra week's preparation time.
• Ryan Moats: So much for "The Great Ryan Moats, Hotshot Fantasy Pickup and Instant Fantasy Starter." Sure, he was the Texans' starter and primary running back on first and second downs Sunday, but Moats managed just 38 yards on 16 carries, a miserable 2.4 yards-per-carry average. Plus, he fumbled -- a common problem in the past for Steve Slaton -- at the goal line, then failed to convert two goal-line carries later in the game, stepping aside for Slaton, who easily scored in the fourth quarter to give his team the lead. It's anyone's guess how the Texans' backfield might shake out after the bye week, but Moats did nothing to back up his Week 9 outburst. I'm still a believer that Slaton will get another chance. Of course, that hardly means I'd trust either one as a fantasy starter.
• Johnny Knox: Sure, some of his recent struggles can be attributed to the diminished play of his quarterback, Jay Cutler, but if Knox was seemingly Cutler's preferred target in the season's early weeks, then it makes sense that his value would be closely tied to that of Cutler. Besides, Cutler's priorities seem to have shifted; he's looking more in the direction of Devin Hester and Greg Olsen these days, which has cut into Knox's number of targets.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Anquan Boldin (ankle): A last-minute scratch, Boldin expressed displeasure with his inactive status Sunday, according to ESPN.com's Mike Sando. Coach Ken Whisenhunt made the decision about 90 minutes before kickoff due to loose sod and overall poor field conditions at Soldier Field, factors that hardly make Boldin a long-term health concern. His reaction to his deactivation, however, might be another storyline to watch heading into Week 10.
• Clinton Portis (concussion): He left Sunday's game after taking a hard hit in the first quarter, leaving him with only four carries on his stat sheet. Portis might suffer the Brian Westbrook fate of being a game-time decision for the next couple of weeks, and if he's forced to sit out Week 10, Ladell Betts, who ran 15 times for 70 yards and a touchdown, would presumably take over as the starter.
• Chris Henry (forearm): He suffered a fractured left forearm, and according to the Cincinnati Bengals' official Web site, might require season-ending surgery to insert plates into his arm. The team's site compared the injury to the one suffered by safety Roy L. Williams last season, and if that indeed means Henry is done, then Andre Caldwell would take over as the team's No. 3 receiver.
• Austin Collie (head/neck): He was knocked from Sunday's game in the fourth quarter after catching two passes for 26 yards, further adding to the Indianapolis Colts' injury woes at wide receiver. With Anthony Gonzalez undergoing knee surgery this past Thursday, the Colts desperately need Collie back in time for Week 10. Dallas Clark can't possibly be expected to haul in 14 passes every week.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Chris Chambers: Not that I'm a huge fan of him, but he did catch three passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns, and it's clear the Kansas City Chiefs now regard him as a starter. The Chiefs have a pass-friendly offense, throwing 39 times today in a game in which they weren't substantially behind at any point. Opponents still seem focused on containing Dwayne Bowe, and that means Chambers might be open for a few useful matchup plays down the stretch, even if it's only as a No. 3/4 option.
• Rashad Jennings: Handcuffs matter in a lot of leagues, and it seems pretty clear at this point that if you're a Maurice Jones-Drew owner even remotely worried about your investment, Jennings is the guy to get. He broke off a 28-yard touchdown run on Sunday, and in his past five games has 17 carries for 95 yards (5.6 average). Plus, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has said recently he wants to keep Jones-Drew's workload in check while ramping up Jennings'.
• Josh Freeman: I know, I know, he's a rookie quarterback. But there are such things as two-quarterback leagues or leagues deep enough that Hail Mary style plays must be at least considered. Freeman might have completed only 45.2 percent of his pass attempts in his first career start, but he managed 205 yards and three scores in leading his team (plus its questionable set of receivers) to an upset victory over the Green Bay Packers. He had good chemistry with Kellen Winslow, and while he's a risky fantasy starter, it's worth pointing out that two of his next three games are against the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, who both rank in the league's bottom half against the pass.
• James Jones: A favorable matchup for sure, but Aaron Rodgers sure seems to like looking to his deep threats, and if Greg Jennings isn't open, Jones, the team's third receiver, is a more than adequate option. Grabbing a receiver such as Jones means taking more of a boom/bust shot depending upon the matchup -- like this one versus the soft Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary -- but that's not a bad chance to take in deeper formats. After all, it's not like the Dallas Cowboys (Week 10) or Lions (Week 12) have the kind of cornerbacks to contain a talent like Jones.
The matchups did the talking
• Derrick Mason (3 catches for 31 yards at Cincinnati): The Bengals sure did a fantastic job containing Mason in their two meetings this season; he was shut out entirely in their Week 5 battle. Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph bracketed Mason yet again, and despite the receiver's 13 targets, he was able to haul in only three passes. Just chalk it up to the matchup, because Mason has caught a touchdown pass in each of his past four non-Bengals matchups.
• Joe Flacco (195 passing yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions): Ditto Flacco, as the Bengals certainly had the Ravens' number this season. Flacco averaged 190.5 passing yards with one touchdown and four interceptions in his two games versus the Bengals; he has averaged 277.2 passing yards per game, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in his other six contests.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 10
• The bye weeks conclude with the Houston Texans and New York Giants taking the week off. The Giants sure need it; they've lost four in a row.
• "Thursday Night Football" begins, with the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Chicago Bears. Remember to make your lineup decisions regarding Jay Cutler, Matt Forte and Frank Gore before their 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff.
• Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off once again in primetime, as the Indianapolis Colts host the New England Patriots on "Sunday Night Football." These meetings have been very one-sided in recent seasons, but what might surprise you is that they haven't been so in the Patriots' favor. No, the Colts are winners of four of these teams' past five battles (postseason included), and Manning himself has averaged 295.0 passing yards with nine passing touchdowns, four interceptions and two rushing scores in those games.
• Steve Smith (Carolina) The Panthers' Smith had his most productive day in terms of receptions (8) and yards (131) versus the Falcons, his Week 10 opponent, back in the second week of the season. The Falcons are already down Brian Williams and have surrendered 96 fantasy points combined to opposing wide receivers the past four weeks, so Smith should have another rare good day. For the Falcons, Matt Ryan is the only opposing quarterback to have completed three touchdown passes in a game this season versus the Panthers, who entered Week 9 as the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL. No reason to sweat the sophomore's matchup.
• The Arizona Cardinals dominated the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6, winning 27-3, and now the two teams get a rematch in Arizona. Kurt Warner, Tim Hightower, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and the Cardinals' defense were all fantasy standouts in that Week 6 contest, and Warner in particular has averaged 317.8 passing yards with 10 touchdowns in his past four games versus the Seahawks.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
FANTASY TOP HEADLINES
- Harris: Super-deep sleepers to watch
- Karabell: Auction draft strategy guide
- Karabell: Arcia is worth a look
- Cockcroft: Late sleeper steals, saves guys