Ah, the age-old debate: In these critical fantasy weeks, where does your heart most lie, with your fantasy team or your real-life team?
Welcome to my Week 15 nightmare.
Longtime readers are probably aware where I stand on the topic; you can tilt the scale all the way toward the "real-life team" (then go ahead and kick it two notches further). That was the reality I faced this week, with both of my most important fantasy teams being led by Michael Vick, and Vick going up against my real-life rooting interest, the New York Giants. Do you root for Vick to propel you into the fantasy championships at your real-life team's expense, or for your NFL team to win a critical game with playoff implications, at the expense of ending your fantasy season?
Sure, there's that simple, familiar reply: "Root for your real-life team to win, but that 'other guy' to get oodles of stats in a 41-38 victory."
Unfortunately, those who watched know that's not the way things turned out. The Giants did cause Vick headaches for more than a half of football, limiting him to 23 yards rushing and 33 yards passing with zero touchdowns and one interception before halftime, their defensive line constantly putting him under duress. At the time, it looked as though fantasy owners relying on Vick would be closing the books on 2010, his point total at the time paling in comparison to Rex Grossman's.
After the half it was a whole different ballgame. Vick tallied 209 yards, three scores and zero interceptions through the air and 107 yards and a score on the ground in the second half alone, and led his Philadelphia Eagles on an improbable 28-point run with under eight minutes to play in the game for the upset road victory. As ESPN Stats & Information points out, Vick rallied big-time when the Giants used five or more defensive backs; he threw for two touchdowns and averaged 10.8 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter in those spots, compared with zero touchdowns (plus the interception) and a 4.1 yards-per-attempt average the first three quarters. You could just hear Vick now: "Fierce Giants pass rush? Bah!" It helped rally him atop the fantasy leaderboard with 38 points, 12 more than the aforementioned Grossman, and gave his Eagles the NFC East's lead by a game.
Still, frustrating as it was as a fan, it was huge in fantasy; it resulted in a pair of victories in my aforementioned two leagues and certainly should've helped many of the 82.8 percent of ESPN owners who started him to win their matchups, too. Vick continued his one-man wrecking crew of a fantasy season, revitalized talk of an MVP crown and gave his owners plenty of confidence as they steamroll toward their league's championship matchups. Up next: the Minnesota Vikings, then the Dallas Cowboys, both at home. You don't have to look much further than Aaron Rodgers' Week 11 for a demonstration of what an elite quarterback can do against the Vikings' secondary, or really any matchup from the past month -- such as Grossman's this week -- to detail the Cowboys' defensive deficiencies.
It also greatly enhances Vick's prospects of a first-round fantasy selection in 2011 drafts, now that he's the proud owner of a 49-point game (best by any individual quarterback since at least 1950), a 38-point game (this one), a 32-point game and six others of 20 or more. Vick's contract status, as well as top wideout DeSean Jackson's, bears watching during the offseason, but let's assume for a moment that both will be back, primarily because there's no reason the team wouldn't want to retain them. The Eagles' max-protect scheme remains something the team should successfully extend into next year, and while Vick might be hard-pressed to maintain a per-game pace that would result in 4,007 yards and 29 touchdowns passing and 892 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing in a full 16-game season, he's certainly capable of at least 3,000-25 and 800-10 the way this offense is constructed. That's still easily a top-five fantasy quarterback, a prime candidate for No. 1 overall and a dominant force for our purposes.
I can't say I'd pick Vick with the No. 1 overall pick next year, and chances are I might not want him before the fifth pick even in the best offseason circumstances, but there's little doubt he's a worthy mid-first-rounder looking ahead to 2011.
It's Vick, obviously, but how about an "honorable mention?"
Ray Rice earns that honor. In a year that most will classify as a disappointment considering his draft-day price tag, he saved easily his most productive performance for one of the season's most critical weeks. With backups Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain both battling minor ailments entering the week, the Baltimore Ravens nevertheless decided upon a run-heavy game plan and dished out a season-high 31 carries to Rice, with which he also set season highs with 153 rushing yards and 233 yards from scrimmage. He was a beast both as a runner and receiver, constantly breaking tackles and showing the burst he had during his breakout 2009. It's ideal timing for Rice's owners and maybe it'll mean similar hefty workloads for him in the season's final two weeks. Considering the Ravens are in a dogfight for the AFC North title and a possible No. 2 seed, such a strategy would make lots of sense.
Just your friendly holiday wishes (and reminder) …
Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone, and remember that in addition to a Thursday game in Week 16 (Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers), there's also a Saturday (Christmas night) game on the schedule: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals. So before you sit down for that Christmas dinner, make sure you set your lineup for those two teams as well.
Week 15 observations
• Let's get to the Rex Grossman game, referred to above, because it has tremendous implications during the Week 16 waiver period. He's sure to be one of the week's top pickups as a result of his 322-yard, four-touchdown (albeit two-interception) unraveling of the Cowboys' defense, but don't for a second think that this should be attributed 100 percent to Grossman's skills and zero to the matchup. Yes, Grossman vastly outperformed veteran Donovan McNabb, who didn't throw for more than two touchdowns in any of his 13 Washington Redskins starts and only once all year had two more touchdowns than interceptions in a game (Week 14's 2-to-0), and that probably guarantees him another start in Week 16. But no, I don't think it says a lot about Grossman himself; I think it's more damning of the Cowboys. That said, he absolutely should be a top waiver target. Why? The Redskins' next opponent is the Jacksonville Jaguars, a comparably horrendous pass defense to that of the Cowboys, so the "matchups" factor is every bit the same. It sounds crazy, but if you're in a world of hurt at quarterback -- heads up, Kyle Orton and Aaron Rodgers owners -- you shouldn't be afraid to give Grossman a shot.
• So apparently Matt Cassel's healthy return to the lineup won't inspire Dwayne Bowe to return to his former top-10 fantasy wide receiver self. Here's a concern about the Kansas City Chiefs' passing game: Cassel returned from his appendectomy as the conservative, screens-and-dump-offs, 25-attempts-per-game passer he was before Bowe's midseason explosion, and the Chiefs ran the football 42 times. Maybe part of it was an attempt to protect the fresh-off-injury Cassel, but it's not the kind of development we want to see in a fantasy-playoff week. Considering the Chiefs' next two matchups (TEN, OAK) look favorable for their running game, it's smart to project conservatively for Cassel-Bowe.
• Expect Donald Brown to also rank among Week 16's hottest waiver claims, though his 64.7 ESPN ownership percentage hints that a lot of people were overrating him already. His 129-yard, one-touchdown day against the Jaguars offers hope on two fronts: It probably cements his top-of-the-depth chart status heading into a favorable Week 16 matchup versus the Oakland Raiders, and it showed us the kind of tackle-breaking ability we hadn't seen from him in weeks past. In other words, you have yourself a possible flex-play fill-in -- assuming Brown is declared a starter, of course -- but at the same time, remember that it was also largely a product of the favorable matchup against the paper-thin Jaguars run defense.
• Touching on Tim Tebow, who made the highlight reel for becoming the third player -- and first rookie -- to throw a touchdown pass of at least 30 yards and run for a score of at least 40 yards in a single game (his first NFL start at that), his feats underscore exactly the kind of fantasy player he should be expected to be: Boom or bust. We've already seen in past instances Tebow's scrambling ability, as it was actually his fourth rushing score of the season, and certainly having big-play wideouts such as Brandon Lloyd, Eddie Royal and Demaryius Thomas (when healthy) at his disposal will make him a threat for a long passing score every now and then. The bottom line, however, is that Tebow is a rookie facing a steep learning curve in an offense that's now leaning toward the run. There'll be a temptation for some fantasy owners to gamble upon his favorable-on-paper Week 16 versus the Houston Texans, but to that I'd reply, what if he throws only 20-25 passes? There's two-quarterback league potential, but in a critical fantasy week I'd be happier gambling my championship chances on Grossman.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Arian Foster (ankle): He left Sunday's game early in the fourth quarter, and Texans coach Gary Kubiak told the team's official website after the game that it was due to an ankle injury. Foster's status is unknown, and if his 17-touch, 61-total-yard performance didn't knock his owners out of the fantasy playoffs already, his health will need to be tracked throughout the practice week. Derrick Ward took over for Foster and would get the bulk of the rushing work in Week 16 if Foster's injury is serious; Ward warrants a handcuff pickup this week, considering the Texans' remaining schedule is quite favorable (@DEN, JAC).
• Terrell Owens (knee): After missing multiple practices this past week because of a knee injury, Owens was active for Week 15 but didn't start -- Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson started ahead of both him and Chad Ochocinco -- and he lasted just one possession before aggravating the injury and getting carted off the field. Following the game, the Cincinnati Bengals' Twitter site reported that Owens is out for the season with a torn left meniscus, and while surgery was not immediately announced, the site did note that Owens plans to play in 2011. Still, speaking to his keeper-league owners, Owens is 37 years old, might be coming off a significant operation and will be seeking a new contract during the offseason; his value takes an obvious hit. As for the impact on the Bengals' offense, Ochocinco has a chance to reclaim the leading-man role and Caldwell, Simpson and Jordan Shipley will get expanded opportunities, but at the same time, it's important to remember how much Carson Palmer's recent poor performance has sapped the team's statistical potential. In the past three weeks combined, Palmer has completed just 58.3 percent of his pass attempts, averaged 187.3 passing yards per game and thrown for three touchdowns compared with five interceptions.
• Austin Collie (concussion): Unlike Owens, Collie gave his fantasy owners plenty of production -- eight catches on 10 targets for 87 yards and two touchdowns -- before getting hurt, but his injury was the most painful to watch of anyone's this week. He suffered another concussion while being hit going for a pass over the middle, and as the Indianapolis Star reports, he has now suffered two concussions with one recurrence and is probably done for the season. If so, Collie's season had a lot of positives -- eight touchdowns in nine games and three of 20-plus points in standard ESPN leagues -- but also the big negative of making him a health risk heading into 2011. He has missed five games already with concussions and could see that number rise to seven regular-season games, plus any potential postseason games. Blair White would finish out the year as the Indianapolis Colts' slot receiver if Collie indeed sits, making him a sleeper No. 3 fantasy wide receiver.
• Knowshon Moreno (side/ribs): He left during the first half because of an apparent injury to his side or ribs, according to the Denver Broncos' official Twitter site, and was declared out for the game during the half, as he was spotted on the sidelines without pads after halftime. Moreno finished with four carries for 5 yards plus a 1-yard reception, which might have sunk many of his fantasy owners' playoff hopes. If he didn't, however, his status bears watching this week, as he has two more above-average matchups at home against the Texans and San Diego Chargers to finish the season. Lance Ball did the bulk of the rushing work in Moreno's absence but failed to impress; he ran 15 times for 20 yards. Ball might be involved in some sort of time-share with Correll Buckhalter (6 carries, 3 yards) if Moreno is unable to play in Week 16.