In a season in which several big-name quarterbacks stole the fantasy headlines -- Michael Vick, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, to name four -- it's understandable that one of the year's most promising breakthrough stories, to this point, was often overshadowed. In Week 16, however, it was Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman who was finally the superstar.
Though Freeman ranks second in standard ESPN scoring (31 points) to Rodgers (34) for the week so far, his five-passing-touchdown performance (matching his jersey number) against the Seattle Seahawks was a story certain to generate at least as much buzz.
For one thing, Freeman's efforts helped preserve his team's playoff hopes; the Buccaneers now cannot be eliminated from contention in advance of their difficult Week 17 assignment at the division-rival New Orleans Saints. Motivation will be high, and while the matchup is unfavorable against the Saints' fourth-ranked pass defense, consider that the Saints have allowed an average of 14.2 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks since the bye, significantly more than their 8.7-per-game average before it. Freeman has thrown for 17 touchdowns compared with only three interceptions in 10 games since these teams last met (Week 6), cementing his status as one of the best passers in the game.
But let's talk about Freeman's overall development in this, his sophomore season. First, there's that sparkling touchdown-to-interception ratio, which is actually 23 compared to six for the entire season (or 3.8-to-1). Then there are his averages: He has completed 60.3 percent of his passes this year (61.4 in his past nine games) and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt (7.8 in his past nine); those are significantly improved from his 54.5 and 6.4 numbers as a rookie.
And remember, Freeman has done all this despite largely working with -- outside of Kellen Winslow -- a young, inexperienced set of receivers including rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. He's getting tremendous reads, making crisp, accurate throws and, with his performance in his past three games, has shown that he's capable of elevating his numbers facing softer matchups. Again, Week 17 isn't a "soft" matchup, but Freeman needs to be termed an every-week fantasy consideration, and a standout choice against weaker defenses.
Carry that evaluation into 2011, and it's clear Freeman will have a stake in the top 10 at his position entering next season. Certainly he won't be picked ahead of the aforementioned Vick, Brady, Rodgers or Rivers, or Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, either, but after those six names are off the board, he's every bit as deserving of the No. 7 rank as any alternative.
It's Rodgers, partly because he was the week's leader in fantasy points (entering the Monday and Tuesday night games), but primarily because he returned from a concussion with the kind of performance his owners would demand in a fantasy championship week. Despite facing the New York Giants' defense in what was effectively a must-win game for either team, Rodgers was up to the challenge, setting season highs in passing yards (404), passing touchdowns (4, tied with his showing in Week 11) and fantasy points in standard leagues (34). He wore a special helmet designed to help minimize the risk of further concussions, but that didn't seem to hinder him at all, as he made crisp pass after crisp pass and ran -- albeit only twice -- with similar reckless abandon to before his most recent setback.
Some of Rodgers' owners might have been eliminated from contention due to his early Week 14 exit or Week 15 absence, but those still in the hunt can roll him with confidence in what's another must-win contest against the Chicago Bears in Week 17. Remember, Rodgers threw for 316 yards and a score and had 22 points in standard ESPN leagues in these teams' Week 3 meeting.
Postponement in Philadelphia
For those unaware, Sunday night's Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles game was postponed due to heavy snow in the Philadelphia area. The game will be played instead on Tuesday night, and will still count toward Week 16 fantasy matchups in ESPN leagues. Final results for this week will not be calculated until early Wednesday morning. In addition, if your league uses waivers, claims will be processed one day later than usual as a result of this postponement.
If there's one thing experienced fantasy owners know, it's that playoff implications have plenty of impact upon Week 17. Remember, teams that have already locked up playoff spots -- and especially specific seeds -- sometimes rest regulars, either for part or all of their regular-season finales. Here's the scoop this season:
Locked in, so beware ...
New England Patriots: They have clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed and, with it, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It'll be an interesting dilemma for coach Bill Belichick: Will he continue his tendency to play regulars through Week 17, or might Wes Welker's torn ACL in the 2009 regular-season finale convince him to lighten the load on Tom Brady, BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Welker?
Kansas City Chiefs: They've clinched the AFC West and either the No. 3 or 4 seed with it, and cannot earn a first-round bye. Perhaps they'll roll their starters out there in Week 17 to ensure the higher seed, but without much advantage to a victory, chances are some will rest before the wild-card round.
New York Jets: They clinched an AFC wild-card spot, and are probably the No. 6 seed (there's a slim prospect of the No. 5 seed -- which isn't really much different -- if they and the Baltimore Ravens win and the Pittsburgh Steelers lose in Week 17). Coach Rex Ryan was already saying following Sunday's game that he'll consider resting starters, including Mark Sanchez.
Teams with oodles of Week 17 motivation ...
Baltimore Ravens: Sure, they've clinched an AFC playoff spot and could settle for the No. 5 seed, but a win coupled with a Steelers loss would give them the AFC North, and with it, a first-round bye. Both teams are set to play at 1 p.m. ET.
Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts: Week 17 represents a rarity for the Colts, a must-win game in the regular-season finale. Usually this time of year, they're resting regulars. Instead, Peyton Manning & Co. host the Tennessee Titans in a game they must win ... otherwise the Jaguars can win their game at Houston and steal the AFC South title and the conference's No. 4 seed.
St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks: It's simple, these teams battle in Week 17 to decide the NFC West, which will earn the victor the NFC's No. 4 seed and a first-round home game. The game is in Seattle, at 8:20 p.m. ET.
Too soon to tell ...
The Chicago Bears have already clinched the NFC North title, and with it a home playoff game (meaning a top-four seed), and could clinch a first-round bye if the Philadelphia Eagles lose on Tuesday night. Shift them into the "beware" category if that happens. The Eagles, meanwhile, are guaranteed no worse than the No. 3 seed even if they lose on Tuesday, but if they do, there's zero motivation in their Week 17 contest. The result of the New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons Monday night game will have a lot to say about the NFC's No. 1 seed as well as its top wild-card spot, so until that result is known, it's more difficult to determine which NFC teams will already be locked in.
Week 16 observations
• It was a good week for tight ends. Nine different tight ends scored in double digits in standard ESPN leagues, the most since Week 3 (12), and we had our fifth 20-point performance by a tight end (Kellen Winslow, 21). Rob Gronkowski was the breakout star at the position: He caught four passes for 54 yards, two of them touchdown receptions, dominating in the red zone with Aaron Hernandez (hip) absent. Gronkowski now has nine touchdowns, the second-most ever by a rookie tight end.
• Second-year player Jared Cook was the other breakout among fantasy tight ends, as he caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown despite Bo Scaife's return to active status (Scaife was scratched in Week 15, primarily to accommodate Cook's expanded role). Cook has flashed great hands in his recent hot streak and has been tough to tackle, and he might continue to be targeted regularly in the team's regular-season finale at Indianapolis. If you're in a pinch -- understandable in this tough year for tight ends -- give him a look in Week 17.
• How about Zach Miller's return to top-shelf fantasy status? (That's the Oakland Raiders tight end, not the one on the Jaguars, incidentally.) Miller led the Raiders with 12 targets and nine catches, the second consecutive week he has led both categories, and has shown no hint of the plantar fascia injury that badly plagued him around midseason. Jason Campbell looks in his direction frequently, and that's not likely to change even against the Chiefs, one of the best teams at defending the position. Remember, the Chiefs might rest some of their regulars next week, so keep Miller in there regardless.
• Carson Palmer's four-touchdown Week 16 might be the headliner from the Cincinnati Bengals' upset victory over the San Diego Chargers, but give a lot of the credit for it to Jerome Simpson, who had a breakthrough game with six catches for 124 yards and two of the scores. Granted a chance to start with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco sidelined, Simpson exploded for catches of 59 (one of the scores), 21 and 15 yards, plenty to earn him a start in the regular-season finale and perhaps put him in consideration for a bigger role with the team in 2011. If you're hurting at wide receiver, he's worth a look against the Ravens' revolving door of a secondary next week.
• I must admit, Tim Tebow's performance surprised me, as his 29 pass attempts alone were at least five more than I could've anticipated. The matchup was stacked in his favor, certainly, but he sure impressed as a leading man, dominating both through the air (308 yards and a score, average of 10.6 yards per attempt) and on the ground (10 carries for 27 yards and a touchdown). He's already an established force as a runner, and at his current rate of progression as a passer, he might yet make a noticeable fantasy impact in 2011, his sophomore season.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Peyton Hillis (ribs): He told James Walker of ESPN's AFC North Blog that he injured his ribs early in Sunday's contest on a hit by Ravens safety Ed Reed, which at least helps explain Hillis' 40 total yards on 13 touches. Hillis said he expects to play in Week 17, but his health should be closely tracked, as it's another miserable matchup for him against the Steelers. If there's any chance he'll play at less than 100 percent, he might be a running back to avoid.
• Mike Tolbert (neck): He suffered what the Chargers announced was a neck injury when he was hit hard by Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson in the first quarter and had to be carted off the field on a stretcher. Tolbert was able to move his arms and legs after reaching the trainer's room but was unable to return to the game. Ryan Mathews took over the bulk of the rushing chores in Tolbert's absence, but the Chargers never tied or led the remainder of the game, resulting in a mere 12 carries total for the rookie. Mathews managed 55 yards and a touchdown, however, and would probably get the start if Tolbert is unavailable for the season finale.
• Knowshon Moreno (ribs): He didn't appear after halftime after his injured ribs, which had him questionable for Week 16, began acting up. Moreno finished with seven carries for 19 yards, and one catch for 22 yards, as Correll Buckhalter (11 carries for 42 yards and one touchdown) and Lance Ball (5 for 38) picked up extra work in the Denver Broncos' backfield. Considering the Broncos have little motivation remaining in Week 17 and will be playing a fellow team already eliminated from the postseason (Chargers), there's no reason to think they'll push Moreno if he's significantly less than 100 percent.
• Matt Hasselbeck (hip): He was injured on a 1-yard touchdown run on a quarterback rollout, immediately grabbing his back, but the Seahawks announced shortly afterward that the veteran quarterback had injured his hip. Charlie Whitehurst came on in relief, finishing the game 11-for-18 for 66 yards and no scores. The Seahawks will surely be rooting for Hasselbeck to make a swift recovery, facing a must-win Week 17 game, and you can be sure the quarterback will make every effort to play. Expect Whitehurst to start if the veteran can't.