The tundra was pretty frozen at Lambeau Field on Sunday night. And temperatures dipped to freezing levels in Pittsburgh and Buffalo, as well. In fact, it was downright cold all over the northeast part of the country. For most, the fantasy playoffs either started in Week 14, or commence next week, and Sunday served as a reminder to check the weather reports from here on out. Cold weather is conducive to turnovers and an increased emphasis on the running game. In the fantasy postseason, you have to look for every conceivable advantage, including what Mother Nature is offering.
I managed to steer clear of the elements on Sunday. Here's what caught my attention from my cozy bar-room chair:
I don't know if it was the intended game plan, but Cincinnati sure seemed intent on leaning on Rudi Johnson this week at the cost of the passing game. Carson Palmer threw just 27 passes, only the third time this season he finished with fewer than 30 attempts. Cleveland looked geared up to stop the pass, and on Johnson's TD run, he was able to walk into the end zone from eight yards out the play after Palmer threw incomplete on first down. The threat of the passing game opened things up for Johnson, who has been as white hot as any back in the league – 30 carries, 169 yards and a TD on Sunday. In his past five games, he's averaging 111 rushing yards and has scored eight TDs. Johnson will likely contribute heavily to many fantasy league titles, as he faces run softies Detroit and Buffalo in the next two weeks.
I have to give it up to Thomas Jones. I expected that he'd be beat down by the Pittsburgh defense at Heinz Field. But Jones ran for 72 tough yards, and managed to find the end zone. If he can produce on the road in nasty weather while facing a surly Steelers squad, it's hard to imagine where he might disappoint. It certainly won't be in Week 15 against an Atlanta defense that has been one of the top three most generous defenses in fantasy to opposing running backs. If you have Jones, things are already looking good for next week.
We saw the upside of Jacksonville QB David Garrard this week against Indianapolis. After the Jaguars fell behind 26-3, Garrard led the team to two fourth quarter scores, running one in from five yards out and hitting WR Jimmy Smith on a one-yard TD toss. Garrard followed that up by rushing for a two-point conversion. From my memory, Garrard seems to be at his best when he's in hurry-up situations. He threw for 150 yards in the second half on Sunday, and he completed his final nine passes of the game.
The situation on Sunday called for Garrard to pass 35 times, but I doubt we'll see him throwing as often in the future. Garrard still faces three of the four worst defenses in fantasy at stopping opposing QBs in San Francisco, Houston and Tennessee. But those are games that Jacksonville should be able to control on the ground, be it by Greg Jones or Fred Taylor, which is the way head coach Jack Del Rio would prefer. So, while the schedule is a cake-walk, Garrard may not be allowed to satisfy his sweet tooth.
I frequent a local watering hole every Sunday to watch the games, and the place is overrun by Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota fans, for some reason. The Vikings fans always sit in the back room. This week, the Minnesota/St. Louis game was not being shown in the front room where I was sitting, but I could follow the action of the game simply by the eruption of cheers that would emanate from the back room. As it turned out, most of the cheers came immediately following a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception, of which there were five.
The Vikings scored on a Koren Robinson reverse early, a Michael Bennett seven-yard rushing TD shortly after halftime and a Ciatrick Fason one-yard plunge towards the end of the third quarter. For Robinson, he had just one catch for 15 yards, disappointing all those owners who expected him to abuse a St. Louis secondary that has been awful for most of the season. While Robinson did rush for a TD, he's probably not worth leaning on again this season. He faces Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago in the final three weeks, and each team is among the top 10 toughest in fantasy against opposing WRs.
Back to Fitzpatrick for a moment – what a forgettable Sunday this was for the Harvard rookie. Of his five INTs, two came in the Minnesota end zone. And twice the team turned the ball over after failing to convert a fourth down attempt inside the Vikings' 10-yard line. Fitzpatrick did manage to rush for a TD for the second straight week, but this guy is killing the numbers of the bigger stars around him. In Fitzpatrick's two starts, Steven Jackson has carried a combined 30 times for 91 yards and no TDs. He also has just two catches for 18 yards in that span – he had previously topped 40 receiving yards four times. In short, Jackson has been a non-factor under Fitzpatrick. Same goes for Kevin Curtis, who has just five catches in the time that Fitzpatrick has been behind center. In Week 12, he needed an overtime period to make his only catch of the game, albeit a 55-yard scoring catch. But he has just a combined four catches for 19 yards in the past two weeks. At this point, Torry Holt – 10 catches, 95 yards on Sunday – is the only Rams player worth gambling on heading into Week 15.
It was yet another impressive performance for Carnell Williams on Sunday. As a Cadillac owner, I still have a hard time putting his mid-season, injury-plagued slump behind me, probably because my fantasy team suffered right along with his lack of production. But, with his health restored, he's back to terrorizing opposing defenses like he did in the first three weeks of the season. With 112 rushing yards on Sunday (and two TDs), Williams has averaged 102 rushing yards and has scored three times in his past four games. His most recent performance was his most impressive, as it came on the road against Carolina's top-shelf run defense. In fact, in Week 10, a hobbled Williams could muster just 29 yards on 11 carries against this same Panthers unit. It's all systems go for the Cadillac down the stretch, as he closes with advantageous matchups against New England, Atlanta and New Orleans.
You won't find too many players in the league with better hands than Seattle's Joe Jurevicius. And when paired with a 6-foot-5 frame, the combination is lethal around the goal line. Jurevicius caught his eighth TD on Sunday, a pretty grab in traffic in the back of the end zone. He had a similar TD called back later in the game. Because Seattle has jumped out to huge leads the past two weeks, Jurevicius' looks have been limited as the Seahawks have emptied the bench in the second half of each game. In Week 15, the odds are good that he'll be able to nab another TD pass as he faces a Tennessee defense that has allowed a TD pass in every game this season, including a TD reception by Houston's Domanick Davis on Sunday.
Give rookie Cedric Houston a passing grade in his NFL starting debut on Sunday. He replaced an injured Curtis Martin and ran 28 times for 74 yards and a TD in 26-10 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders. Houston has decent size and strength, but he's a north-south runner that appears to lack the talent to be anything more than average. Still, with meaningless division games lined up – for all involved – against the sub-par run defenses of Miami, New England and Buffalo, Houston is likely to finish the season with another couple touchdowns and an average of roughly 60-80 rushing yards a week, if I had to guess. That's worth a bench spot in fantasy leagues, as you can never buy too much insurance for the playoffs.
While Houston stepped in for the Jets, Curtis Martin's ex-backup, LaMont Jordan, spent Sunday frustrated by his former team. With Marques Tuiasosopo behind center for the Raiders, many figured that Oakland would lean on Jordan, allowing Tuiasosopo to ease into things. But Jordan carried just 14 times for a mere 49 yards, and he failed to find the end zone for the fourth time in his past five games. Afterwards, Jordan expressed dismay at the switch from Kerry Collins to Tuiasosopo at QB. And he also seemed to be frustrated that he wasn't able to produce meaningfully against his former team. Said Jordan: "I'm very frustrated. I sat back and watched a rookie (Houston) get double the carries I had. Bringing in a new quarterback, you would think there would be more of an emphasis on the running game … We've got a long plane ride home with the same excuses that we say after every loss: defense plays well, we have a bunch of penalties and we didn't get the run game going. It's the same thing that's been said all year long." The performance and the comments were the last things that Jordan owners wanted to see heading into the heart of the fantasy playoffs.
It's not good news for Randy Moss owners in the aftermath of Tuiasosopo's '05 starting debut. Moss caught just two passes for 18 yards, and was targeted just seven times, one landing in the arms of shutdown corner Ty Law. Law certainly contributed to Moss' downer day, but I saw a couple ocassions where Moss was used as a decoy to clear out the safeties on deep routes so that other receivers could get open underneath. Tuiasosopo doesn't have a great long-ball arm, so this tactic could continue to be used going forward, especially since Moss still is far from 100 percent healthy. By not finding the end zone on Sunday, Moss tied his longest scoreless drought of his career (four games). He was shut out of the end zone in Week 3-7 of '02. The way things are looking, Moss is going to break this tie next week against Cleveland, a team that held Carson Palmer to just one TD pass on Sunday.
Julius Jones had three consecutive 20-plus carry games coming into Week 14, while backup Marion Barber had just a combined 26 carries during that span. The discrepancy in carries between the two helped alleviate fears among Jones' owners that the backfield had evolved into a platoon situation. Feeling like the green light was finally there's, many owners likely started Jones in Week 14, only to watch Barber garner 15 carries to Jones' 12. Admittedly, Barber was the better back on Sunday, doubling Jones' yardage total (82 to 41), and head coach Bill Parcells chose to ride the hot hand. This backfield situation is once again seriously convoluted. And Dallas will have tough road games at Washington and Carolina the next two weeks, meaning both of these backs shouldn't be counted upon going forward.
While we are on the subject of the Cowboys, I should point out that their defense allowed just one TD pass to Trent Green on Sunday. Green did throw for 304 yards, but finding the end zone through the air against the Cowboys has not been easy for opposing QBs. Dallas has allowed one TD pass or less in 10 straight games. And the unit has been limiting some impressive names in the process, including Donovan McNabb, Kerry Collins, Eli Manning (twice), Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Plummer and, most recently, Green. Mark Brunell owners should forget about starting the Washington QB in Week 15. Brunell is one of only two QBs ( Drew Brees is the other) to throw for multiple TDs against Dallas this season, but Dallas has been too strong against the pass these past 10 games, and Brunell has just five TD passes in his past seven games, including being shut out by a soft Arizona defense on Sunday.
I didn't watch a down of the Denver/Baltimore game, and I'm glad. As has been typically the case with Baltimore games of late, this contest was turnover-ridden, defensive affair. In other words, it was unwatchable. The Associated Press confirmed my suspicions by stating in the opening line of the game recap that, "The game tape probably belongs in the trash." But one noteworthy nugget jumped out at me from the box score … Jamal Lewis had nary a carry. Lewis did hurt his hand late in the week, but he was active and could have played. Has head coach Brian Billick finally tired of Lewis' 3.1 yards per carry? Perhaps. Taylor had just 59 yards on 20 carries on Sunday, but Denver has one of the best run defenses in the league, so Taylor's numbers can be forgiven. If Taylor is going to get 20-plus carries from here on out, he could be a viable No. 3 fantasy back. He has home dates against Green Bay and Minnesota in the next two weeks. And he closes at Cleveland in Week 17. None of those three teams keep opposing running backs up at night with worry.
I'll close with another plug for Samkon Gado. I've been riding his bandwagon the past few weeks, but after watching him roll over the Detroit Lions (64-yard TD run included), I have assumed the position behind driver's seat of this bandwagon. Even with tough matchups at Baltimore and home to Chicago the next two weeks, you'd have to have a pretty deep, star-studded backfield to even consider benching this guy.