It's a mad, mad world, this game of football.
Granted, that's not the first time this season I've said something to that effect; last week's "Instant Replay" included a section entitled "Fantasy world turned upside down," which discussed the often-unpredictable nature of the sport. After all, Week 13 represented one of the crazier weeks we'd seen. Then came Week 14. Consider this:
• The Detroit Lions snapped a 19-game losing streak within their division.
• The Washington Redskins seemingly got a "bonus" fifth down, behind by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, on which Donovan McNabb tossed a 6-yard score to Santana Moss. (We'd learn shortly afterward that Anthony Armstrong's 9-yard catch on first down was actually a 10-yarder for a first down, so Moss' touchdown catch was technically on fourth, not fifth, down.)
• Even odder: The Redskins promptly blew the game-tying extra point attempt when punter/holder Hunter Smith failed to catch a wet football.
• Place-kicker Jay Feely scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown -- the 34-year-old's first in his NFL career -- on a fake field goal attempt.
OK, OK, enough of the real-game oddities. What about those fantasy oddities, those performances destined to perplex us?
• Calvin Johnson, fantasy football's No. 3 scorer among wide receivers entering the week, managed but one reception on eight targets. Argh.
• Dwayne Bowe, who from Weeks 6-12 had four 100-yard games and 13 touchdowns and was the leading wide receiver in fantasy points entering the week, had a "fantasy doughnut" (zero points) for a second straight game. Arrrggh.
• Aaron Rodgers, the leading scorer among fantasy quarterbacks entering the week, not only was injured less than halfway through his game, he managed a terribly pedestrian stat line in his brief appearance against the Lions: 7-for-11 passing, 46 yards, no scores and one interception.
Rodgers suffered a concussion on an 18-yard scramble during the second quarter when he took two hard shots, one from Lions safety Amari Spievey and the other from linebacker Landon Johnson. The hit by Johnson is widely regarded as responsible for causing the injury. Rodgers' helmet bounced off the turf, and while he remained in the game for three more offensive snaps, he exited for backup Matt Flynn on the Green Bay Packers' next offensive series and was declared officially out for the game. Flynn extended the Packers' offensive struggles; he completed 15 of 26 passes for 177 yards, no scores and an interception, leading to an ugly 7-3 loss that might cost the team dearly in the NFC playoff picture.
Considering this is the second concussion this season for Rodgers -- the first occurred in the Week 5 game at Washington -- there's a chance his injury might upend the remainder of his owners' teams that weren't already bumped from the fantasy playoffs on Sunday. Rodgers will have to pass league-mandated tests in order to play, and Flynn will stand by as a much lower-upside alternative.
"I can't really measure the level of a concussion at this point," coach Mike McCarthy told the Associated Press. "He'll go through the normal protocol this week. I was just told that his head is clear and he has a headache."
It'd be a shame if Rodgers couldn't play in Week 15; the matchup at the New England Patriots would be a far more enjoyable one to watch with him under center, not to mention it represents his final "A" matchup of 2010. The Packers, after all, finish the regular season with matchups against the stingy New York Giants and Chicago Bears, both of them home games in which the weather could be a factor.
Let's dish out co-MVPs, because in a week in which little went according to the game plan, it's nice to know owners can count on two of fantasy's biggest stars, Michael Turner and the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, to lead the way. In a game against the 27th-ranked Carolina Panthers run defense, as well as one without primary backup Jason Snelling (hamstring), Turner ran 28 times for 112 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with the second most (standard ESPN) fantasy points among running backs (30). He continues to be an absolute beast; for the sixth time in his past seven games, he handled at least 23 carries, averaging 23.9 during that span. He also got the ball on five of the Atlanta Falcons' seven goal-to-go plays, and had four goal-line carries (within 5 yards of the end zone), three going for touchdowns. There's little reason to doubt his top-five-overall ability.
As for the Steelers' defense, it captured the No. 1 spot at the position in terms of fantasy points by taking advantage of a terribly erratic Carson Palmer. The Steelers picked off three of Palmer's passes (with Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley each taking their picks back for a touchdown), they sacked Palmer three times and they limited the reeling Cincinnati Bengals offense to seven points and 190 yards. The Steelers now get the similarly struggling New York Jets offense (Week 15), then polish off their season with favorable matchups versus the Panthers (Week 16) and at the Cleveland Browns (Week 17). Is there any doubt which defense should finish the 2010 campaign atop the fantasy leaderboard?
Week 14 observations
So how about some of those other crazy (maddening?) Week 14 developments:
• Ryan Torain, who was started in only 4.3 percent of ESPN leagues, tallied 121 yards in the first quarter of his return to the lineup (following a hamstring injury). That number is a season high, and in fact it's the most since Marshall Faulk in 2001, according to Rick Maese of the Washington Post. Though he cooled in the second half, Torain finished the day with 24 carries for 172 yards and two receptions for 10 yards, plenty to reestablish himself as the Redskins' unquestioned starting running back, as well as a significant part of the offensive game plan following several games in which the team leaned on the pass. The Redskins now hit the road for games at the Dallas Cowboys (Week 15) and Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 16), so the case can absolutely be made that he's a top-20 option at his position for either of those matchups.
• Terrell Owens suffered his worst statistical effort of the season, catching just one of his six targets for 22 yards. He now has 10 catches on 22 targets for 86 yards and a touchdown in his past three games combined, but it's worth pointing out that he wasn't the Bengals' team leader in targets in any of those. Owens' matchups might have something to do with it, but the greater barrier to his returning to top-10 wide receiver status is actually his quarterback, Carson Palmer. Considering the Bengals still have games against the San Diego Chargers (Week 16) and Baltimore Ravens (Week 17), Owens might be due for a somewhat quiet finish.
• Tom Brady can play through everything. Let's do a little comparison game, shall we? Keep in mind that the weather was also brutal for football in Pittsburgh, and despite a much softer matchup, Ben Roethlisberger was able to muster only 258 yards (on 21-for-33 passing) with no scores against the Bengals. If you watched the game, you know the weather was worse in Chicago, yet Brady shredded the Bears' stout Tampa 2 defense for 369 yards and two scores, marking his third consecutive 300-yard passing game and giving him 19 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions in his past eight games. It's exactly what Brady's owners want in these critical weeks of the fantasy season, and with the Patriots becoming the first team to clinch a playoff spot with their win Sunday, talk of him as the MVP favorite is sure to pick up steam in the coming days.
• Amazingly, Brady was not the leading scorer among quarterbacks in standard ESPN leagues; that honor belonged to Alex Smith. Wait, whaaaaa? You read that right. Smith, making his first start since Week 7, dominated the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks by completing 17 of 27 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. Let's not call this a trend, especially not with the Chargers due up as his next opponent in a road game, but it bodes well for his chances in two-quarterback leagues at the St. Louis Rams (Week 16) and Arizona Cardinals (Week 17). In addition, it's a huge plus for Brian Westbrook, who managed six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown in the receiving game, bringing to mind his days of dominant receiving numbers with the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith's "Checkdown Charlie" tendencies might actually benefit Westbrook's fantasy appeal more than his own. As such, keep Westbrook in mind as a weekly flex.
• How about the bounce-back performance by Darren McFadden these past two weeks? After being held quiet in back-to-back games coming out of the Week 10 bye, McFadden has exploded for 16 and 38 fantasy points, respectively, in standard ESPN leagues, the latter the top score of Week 14 thus far. He appears to have regained some of the explosiveness he lost when he initially returned from injury, and perhaps most importantly, he's doing a fine job in the receiving game, catching three passes in each of the past two weeks, taking his three for 86 yards and a touchdown this Sunday. McFadden's schedule remains a dream one for any running back, and if you have him, you have to like your championship chances.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Chris Ivory (hamstring): So the New Orleans Saints got Pierre Thomas back following a nine-game absence due to an ankle injury, then lost Ivory to a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Thomas' return game? Maybe it's not poor production clouding that Saints backfield after all; maybe it is simply bad luck. Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune speculates that Ivory might have been held out as a precaution after the rookie running back dealt with hamstring problems during his college days at Washington State. Ivory finished with 47 yards on seven carries, while Thomas had 12 carries for 39 yards and four catches for 29 yards. Now we enter the season's final three weeks with the Saints' backfield surrounded by as many questions as ever, and considering their Week 15 matchup is a dreadful one (at the Ravens), this is a backfield to avoid entirely. The Ivory/Thomas split bears watching for Weeks 16-17, but there's little reason to expect any major breakthroughs from either back.
• Lee Evans (ankle): He was knocked from Sunday's game while blocking downfield on tight end Jonathan Stupar's 35-yard reception late in the second quarter, and the Buffalo Bills' official website reports that he is out indefinitely with an ankle injury. "I know he's going to miss one or two (games)," coach Chan Gailey told the team website. "I don't know if he'll miss the rest of them or not." Evans' expected absence in Week 15 will be the first game he's missed due to injury in his seven-year NFL career, and it'll cost him a game at Miami, a city in which he has had his share of outstanding performances. Stupar finished second to Steve Johnson with three receptions, so perhaps the tight end will be more involved in the passing game as a result. Donald Jones and David Nelson figure to pick up more work, though none of the three is a recommended fantasy option. Johnson might also suffer; stellar Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis will probably be glued to Johnson much of next week.
• Beanie Wells (illness): He was pulled from Sunday's game in the fourth quarter with what the Cardinals described as a stomach illness, finishing the day with 16 yards on six carries. It's the fourth consecutive week he has been active yet utilized in a complementary role with mediocre results; he has totaled 92 yards on 22 carries (4.2 yard average) during that span. Tim Hightower, meanwhile, has matched or exceeded Wells' rushing attempts in each of those games, and had 18 carries for 148 yards and two touchdowns in Week 14. It's clear at this point that this backfield is primarily Hightower's, meaning when you're looking at that favorable Week 15 matchup at the Panthers, Hightower is the one you'll want.
• Shonn Greene (undisclosed): New York Newsday reports that Greene left Sunday's game with less than 10 minutes to play because of an undisclosed injury, so keep tabs on his status in the next couple of days. He and LaDainian Tomlinson divided up the carries fairly equally before he got hurt, but Tomlinson, who seems to have lost a step in recent games, might have to take on the bulk of the load against the Steelers next week if Greene is unable to go. It'd be smart to avoid either back if possible.