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Football Relativity 2011 Season Preview

Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron R...

Aaron Rodgers has plenty to celebrate. Image via Wikipedia

Each week during the season, we compare all 32 NFL teams using the Football Relativity tool, which puts the best teams at the 10 level and the worst teams at the 1 level. So before the season begins, we want to break down the upcoming season by discussing all 32 teams and their chances.

10 – Green Bay Packers – The Pack is back, and the defending champions get more toys to play with as key players like TE JerMichael Finley and RB Ryan Grant return from injured reserve. That should help the Pack, who barely snuck in the playoffs only to reel off an impressive run to a championship, have an easier berth into the postseason this year. QB Aaron Rodgers is ascending to the elite level, and there’s probably no better signal caller in the league right now. He has a deep group of wideouts led by Greg Jennings, who has become a true No. 1 wideout. And the offensive line, which was battered last year, has added first-rounders Derek Sherrod and Bryan Bulaga in the past two years, which should add to consistency by the end of the season. On defense, the Packers have an attacking style that stars Clay Matthews and relies on a beefy, talented line with B.J. Raji and company. And in Tramon Williams, veteran Charles Woodson, and the ascending Sam Shields, the Packers have one of the league’s best CB groups. No team in the NFL is more talented across the board, and it’s been years since a defending champion came back with as good a chance to repeat.

9 – Philadelphia Eagles – The splashy “Dream Team” added a ton of name players, but the team’s fate will rise and fall on the health of Michael Vick. If Vick can stay healthy, the Eagles will put up points with the best of them. RB LeSean McCoy and WR DeSean Jackson lead a class of playmakers that’s beyond compare. However, the offensive line is in major flux with four new starters, and that could become an issue. On defense, the Eagles add a ton of big-name players, led by CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but there’s no guarantee that things will gel quickly. The Eagles have so much talent that by the end of the year they’ll be a power, but the early-season adjustments could cost them home-field advantage and ultimately leadership of the NFC.

9 (con’t) – New England Patriots – The Pats have developed a recent history of excelling in the regular season and then falling apart in the postseason. But that troubling trend doesn’t change the fact that they’re a regular season power. Tom Brady had one of his best seasons in 2010, and while he no longer has Randy Moss, throwing to Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and others will still work well. The running game was pretty good last year as well, and adding rookies like Stevan Ridley should only help. And the Pats have done a good job of adding young offensive linemen to keep that unit from getting old all at once. On defense, the Pats added a bunch of veteran defensive linemen that will help them be more versatile and should help them create more pressure. Vince Wilfork still is the heart of that unit. And younger players like ILB Jerod Mayo and CB Devin McCourty have added to the defense as well. New England is still trying to get its safety situation situated, but that doesn’t feel like a fatal flaw. Who knows if the Patriots can fix their postseason problems in 2011. But rest assured that they’ll be in the playoffs once again.

9 (con’t) – Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have a ton of strengths and the same weakness that has lingered for years (although they’ve overcome it). The big strength is on defense, where Pittsburgh’s 3-4 remains one of the best attacking defenses in the league. That’s led by OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley, but it features other standouts like NT Casey Hampton, ILB Lawrence Timmons, and CB Ike Taylor. Pittsburgh does a great job of integrating younger players and knowing when to let veterans go, and that allows the defense to maintain a high level. On offense, the Steelers continue to move toward a major passing offense with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a receiving corps that features vet Hines Ward and young speedsters Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. The big issue is the offensive line, which has an elite young center in Maurkice Pouncey but a lack of premium talent elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped the Steelers before, but we keep waiting for the shoe to drop. Still, the Steelers are ready to make a run yet again.

8 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – No team in the NFL depends on youngsters more than the Bucs do, but Tampa Bay is blessed to have a ton of talented and productive youngsters who can lead the team to prominence. Foremost among them is QB Josh Freeman, who has the game and the mindset to be a superstar. His crew – RB LaGarrette Blount and WRs Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – will grow with him. Those baby Bucs got the offense going last year; this offseason, the team added youth on defense with rookies at defensive end in Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers and at middle linebacker in Mason Foster who will start or play key roles. CB Aqib Talib gets in trouble off the field, but on the field he’s an elite corner, and DT Gerald McCoy returns to the field after an injury halted his rookie season. The Bucs will only make the playoffs if their youngsters continue to develop, but we see that happening. Freeman and company are headed to the playoffs in 2011.

8 (con’t) – Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons are going for broke in 2011 after an offseason designed to add pieces that put them over the top. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones is supposed to add breakaway ability that will keep opponents from keying on Roddy White. If that happens, QB Matt Ryan will have his best group of targets ever. The offensive line kept two key free agents in Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, which should allow the running game of Michael Turner and company to continue to thrive. The defense added pass rusher Ray Edwards to pair with John Abraham. The Falcons also have terrific players entering their primes in MLB Curtis Lofton and CB Brent Grimes. Atlanta is loaded; the problem is that the NFC South is loaded as well. So winning the division is no sure thing, but a third playoff berth in four years should be.

8 (con’t) – Baltimore Ravens – A month ago, we were ready to write off the Ravens and predict them to miss the playoffs. But the Ravens have added some key veterans in WR Lee Evans, C Andre Gurode, and OT Bryant McKinnie who will help shore up trouble spots on offense. Those additions should allow QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, and WR Anquan Boldin to do their jobs without too much undue pressure. It’s time for Flacco to step up and lead a prolific offense, not just a decent one. On defense, the Ravens have premium players in DE Haloti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB Ray Lewis, and S Ed Reed, but they need better play from the players around them. The pass rush flagged last year, and cornerback is a question mark unless guys like Cary Williams and rookie Jimmy Smith step up. The Ravens have the talent to make a postseason run if they can get into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what we expect them to do.

8 (con’t) – San Diego Chargers – The Chargers were No. 1 in the league in offense and in defense last season, but the special teams were so horrific that it cost them games and ultimately a playoff berth. Even is San Diego fixes those units only a little bit, they’re going to be in the mix. The Bolts have an electric offense led by QB Philip Rivers, and this time around WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill will be around from Week One. If Antonio Gates stays healthy, the offense will be at full capacity. RB Ryan Mathews was a disappointment as a rookie, but Mike Tolbert was a nice surprise, and that duo will get the job done. On defense, the Chargers don’t have the superstars they once did, and losing ILB Kevin Burnett hurts, but there’s enough talent around to more than get the job done. The Chargers need to avoid a slow start and a special-teams implosion, but if they do they should cruise in the AFC West and threaten for the conference title.

7 – New Orleans Saints – The Saints defended their Super Bowl title with a wild-card berth and a disappointing playoff loss in Seattle last year. The offense, led by Drew Brees, was prolific, but it turned the ball over far too often. The running game will look different this year with Reggie Bush gone and rookie Mark Ingram in place, but the Saints still have a versatile group of backs and receivers that will give Brees options. On defense, the Saints rebuilt their defensive line, and they have a nice crew of young defensive backs led by free safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the linebacker crew is far from impressive, and the Saints have to prove they can stop opponents and not just create turnovers. New Orleans will be dangerous and could beat anyone in the league, but we are getting a sniff of inconsistency that will have the Saints falling to 9-7 and third place in the NFC South.

7 (con’t) – New York Jets – The Jets are a hard team to figure, because they barely sneak into the playoffs and then make a run once they get there. The high-profile postseason wins can mask some issues with the roster. On defense, the Jets didn’t create as much pressure last year, and additions like first-round pick Muhammad Wilkerson aren’t enough to fix that. The defense has really good players like ILB David Harris and CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but it will have to win by shutting down opponents instead of by creating a bunch of turnovers. Will Rex Ryan really want to play that style? On offense, QB Mark Sanchez shows up in big moments but isn’t consistent enough, and losing WRs Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Brad Smith (replaced by Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason) doesn’t help. Keeping Santonio Holmes was vital, because he can be a No. 1 wideout for Gang Green. The offensive line lost another veteran in the retired Damien Woody as well. It will be a hard slog for the Jets to get to the postseason, but based on their track record, we expect them to sneak in under the wire.

7 (con’t) – Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs are building something good in Kansas City, but last year’s division title doesn’t mean that they’re on the road toward the elite just yet. With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gone, K.C. needs QB Matt Cassel to continue his ascent. He had a fine season last year, as did WR Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs add WR Steve Breaston but lost emerging TE Tony Moeaki for the season. The running game will be strong with Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, and addition LeRon McClain, and the offensive line gets help from Jared Gaither. On defense, the Chiefs have a top-flight pass rusher in Tamba Hali, and rookie Justin Houston could emerge on the opposite side. And CBs Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers do a good job, while S Eric Berry had a strong rookie year. The Chiefs are building something, but they’re not as talented as the Chargers and will slip down the standings a bit this year.

6 – Chicago Bears – The Bears improbably claimed the NFC North title last year, although their rivals to the north beat them in the NFC title game. Still, it was a promising performance for a team that has talent as well as holes. QB Jay Cutler drew criticism for going on in the conference championship game with a knee injury, but he took a beating all year and still produced. His receiving corps isn’t great, but he has a top back in Matt Forte. The problem is the offensive line, which was awful in the first half of the season but a little better in the second half. On defense, the Bears got a great performance from Julius Peppers in his first year with the team, and his presence unleashed Israel Idonije on the other side. LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are veterans who still produce, as is CB Charles Tillman. The Bears’ window is closing on defense, because so many key players have been around a while, but it should be enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention in 2011. They won’t beat the Packers this year, but a 9-7 wild card is still on the table.

6 (con’t) – St. Louis Rams – Under head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams have done a good job of rebuilding from the lowest of lows earlier this decade. The centerpiece of that rebuilding process is QB Sam Bradford, who had a solid rookie season and showed the potential to be great. Bradford now gets to work with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who should be able to maximize Bradford’s talents. The Rams have depth but not stars at wide receiver, but youngsters like WRs Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks are emerging. As they do, proven RB Steven Jackson continues to pile up yards behind an offensive line that has gotten a lot better with additions like 2010 rookie OLT Rodger Saffold and 2011 signee OG Harvey Dahl. On defense, the Rams finally got a breakout season from DE Chris Long, and MLB James Laurinaitis has proven to be a productive force. The secondary lags a little behind, but if the Rams can create enough pressure it should be enough. The Rams aren’t great, but they’re better and deeper than any other team in the NFC West and should claim the division this year after falling just short in 2010.

6 (con’t) – Washington Redskins – The Redskins have done some good things this offseason, but all the momentum has been covered up by the quarterback conundrum between Rex Grossman and John Beck. Grossman is getting the call to start the season. He’ll have a running game based around Tim Hightower, who fits the offensive system head coach Mike Shanahan wants to play. The offensive line is not the typical Shanahan unit, however. On defense, the Redskins have added several key pieces and should be even better than last year’s surprisingly solid group. Even with the quarterback play, the Redskins are a sleeper playoff team.

6 (con’t) – Dallas Cowboys – Last year was a disaster for the Cowboys, who stumbled to such a terrible start that Wade Phillips got the boot. The team rebounded a bit under Jason Garrett, and now Garrett must prove that he can get the job done from day one. He’ll have Tony Romo this time around, as the quarterback returns from injury. With Romo, TE Jason Witten, and WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, the Cowboys are strong at the skill positions, but changes on of the offensive line could be a problem. On defense, the Cowboys bring in coordinator Rob Ryan and his aggressive ways. That should allow OLBs DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer to excel; the question is whether the secondary is strong enough to keep opponents at bay. The Cowboys won’t be a disaster, but there are enough questions that they’ll big in a dogfight to get past 8-8.

6 (con’t) – Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are flying (swimming?) under the radar as the season begins, but they are an interesting team. On offense, Reggie Bush adds a dynamic element to the offense, and Brandon Marshall seems to be getting off-field help that could help him produce on the field. None of that will matter, though, unless QB Chad Henne improves on his 2010 performance. Henne’s preseason performance was encouraging, but he’s at the prove-it point of his career. The offensive line has a standout in OLT Jake Long, but things over the rest of the line have been turned over. Relying on Henne and Bush is risky, but both have talent. On defense, the Dolphins are getting better and better. OLB Cameron Wake and NT Paul Soliai emerged as keystones last year, and free-agent signee ILB Kevin Burnett adds a new element beside Karlos Dansby. And as young CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith mature, the defense will be scary. The division is tough, but the Dolphins have a shot – if the Bush and Henne gambles pay off.

6 (con’t) – Jacksonville Jaguars – We covered the Jaguars in this season preview - and then the Jaguars cut QB David Garrard. Still, in an AFC South division that could be won at 9-7, we believe the Jaguars can edge out the Texans and Colts to win the division.

6 (con’t) – Houston Texans – The Texans have to believe their time is now. The Colts are in injury limbo, and the Texans made aggressive moves to upgrade the defense by adding CB Johnathan Joseph, S Danieal Manning, DE J.J. Watt, and OLB Brooks Reed. New coordinator Wade Phillips has had good results in the past, but his system doesn’t match his best player, Mario Williams. If Phillips can put Williams to best use, the defense will work, but we’ll have to see it to believe it. On offense, the Texans will still be prolific thanks to QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson, and RB Arian Foster. But if the season comes down to shootout after shootout, we see the Texans falling short too often. The conventional wisdom has the Texans making the playoffs finally, but we don’t see it.

5 – Detroit Lions – The Lions are on the way up. Now the question is whether the next move forward is a step or a leap. We lean toward the step side, picturing the Lions as an 8-8 team but not a playoff squad. There’s plenty to like in Detroit: DT Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc, QB Matthew Stafford throwing deep to WR Calvin Johnson, and the electric play of RB Jahvid Best. But the injury issues that Stafford and Best have had in the past – and that rookie DT Nick Fairley has now – have to bride enthusiasm a bit. So does the state of the secondary, which still needs upgrades at cornerback. The Lions have gone from awful to competitive under head coach Jim Schwartz, but it’s not time yet for them to break through.

5 (con’t) – New York Giants – No team has been hit harder by injuries this preseason than the Giants, who lost starters CB Terrell Thomas and LB Jonathan Goff, along with four key defensive backups, all for the season. That leaves a defense that has big-time pass rushers in Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul with big deficits behind the strong front line. On offense, QB Eli Manning must overcome his turnover problems from 2010. He did make a ton of big plays, many to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, but losing Steve Smith and Kevin Boss in free agency hurts. And the offensive line, such a constant during most of the Tom Coughlin era, is getting a complete overhaul. This feels like a step back year for the Giants. They could easily fall into fourth in the always tough NFC East.

5 (con’t) – Indianapolis Colts – This is the year that the Colts’ playoff streak finally ends – and not just because of QB Peyton Manning’s injury problems. Manning had covered over a variety of faults for the Colts – a sorry offensive line, average running backs, and injury-plagued wide receivers. So while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, and Austin Collie have talent, it’s hard to see the Colts taking full advantage, at least until Manning gets back to 100 percent. And on defense, while pass-rushing DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis can create havoc, they aren’t shut down players. It’s hard to see the Colts’ D holding up when the offense isn’t staking it to a lead. A fall is coming – the question is whether it will be a slip out of the playoffs or a massive collapse for the Colts. The horseshoe ain’t going to be lucky this year.

5 (con’t) – Oakland Raiders – The Raiders went through a lot of change this offseason, installing Hue Jackson as head coach and and losing high-profile CB Nnamdi Asomugha. But Oakland is still talented. The defense has impact players in OLB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Richard Seymour, and CB Stanford Routt, and that will keep them in games. And the running game led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush was shockingly strong last year. QB Jason Campbell lost one of his best targets in TE Zach Miller, and while Kevin Boss is a solid starter, he’s a downgrade. So is the loss of OG Robert Gallery on an offensive line that is big and strong but inexperienced. Oakland will need young receivers like Jacoby Ford to continue to emerge for Campbell, and it’s fair to expect some inconsistency there. The Raiders won’t fall apart, but they lost a bit too much to match last year’s 8-win total or AFC West sweep.

4 – Arizona Cardinals – The Cardinals were doomed in 2010 by horrific QB play, so paying a high price to add Kevin Kolb should make a big difference. Kolb is good enough to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the best wideouts in the league. Arizona will need someone, maybe TE addition Todd Heap or breakout WR candidate Andre Roberts, to emerge as enough of a threat to take some coverage away from Fitzgerald. The running game is a question mark because of trades and injuries, so Beanie Wells and Chester Taylor need to step up. That won’t be easy behind a mediocre offensive line. On defense, the Cards need FS Adrian Wilson to return to prominence as rookie CB Patrick Peterson and second-year ILB Daryl Washington emerge as forces. The Cards will be better, thanks mostly to the upgrade Kolb provides, but that won’t be enough for a playoff run.

4 (con’t) – Cleveland Browns – The Browns are in the midst of a rebuilding project, but the progress thus far has been pretty good. QB Colt McCoy may never be a Pro Bowler, but he should emerge as a solid starter in the West Coast style of offense GM Mike Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur will use. His group of receivers is young, but rookie WR Greg Little and TE Evan Moore could be major factors. The Browns are in good shape up front thanks to OT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack, and RB Peyton Hillis provides a physical running game. On defense, the Browns are quite young, but they had a great find in CB Joe Haden last year, and they hope fellow youngsters like DE Jabaal Sherad and SS T.J. Ward also develop into stars. The Browns probably need one more draft and free agency cycle to truly move into contender-dom, but they should make a run toward respectability this season.

3 – Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings are just over a year away from playing into overtime in the NFC championship game, but the decline has been steep. Now the Vikes have a beaten up offensive line, an aging defensive line, and a placeholder at quarterback. Donovan McNabb is a star when it comes to Q-rating, but his play on the field is no longer at that level. He’s just taking snaps until rookie Christian Ponder is ready. Neither quarterback will have great targets aside from Percy Harvin. At least Adrian Peterson remains one of the league’s elite running backs. But Peterson will struggle to keep this crew in games, not to mention ahead. On defense, DE Jared Allen’s play fell off last year, and DT Kevin Williams will miss the first two games of the year. Now the Vikings need to recenter their defense around LBs Chad Greenway and E.J. Henderson. Leslie Frazier is a good coach, but there’s a reason this team fell apart on Brad Childress last year. The window has closed.

3 (con’t) – Buffalo Bills – We covered the Bills in depth in this post.

3 (con’t) – Denver Broncos – The Broncos, under new head coach John Fox, should be more competitive than last year. QB Kyle Orton has proven to be effective if not always dynamic. He developed a terrific rapport with Brandon Lloyd last year, but can Lloyd repeat his breakout season without Josh McDaniels? He needs to, because the rest of the receiving corps is thin. At running back, Fox can use both Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. The offensive line has a premium left tackle in Ryan Clady but not much else. On defense, Elvis Dumervil returns, and rookie Von Miller comes to time, but neither player is a hand-in-glove fit for Fox’s 4-3. Defensive tackle is a trouble spot. In the secondary, vets S Brian Dawkins and CB Champ Bailey need to continue a solid level of play. The Broncos need a rebuild after the disastrous McDaniels draft results, and this year will show just how far they have to go.

2 – Carolina Panthers – We previewed the Panthers in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Seattle Seahawks – We previewed the Seahawks in depth in this post.

2 (con’t) – Cincinnati Bengals – It’s good news, bad news for the Bengals. They have some good young receivers in A.J. Green, Jordan Shipley, Jermaine Gresham, and Jerome Simpson. But the offensive line is no great shakes, especially with Bobbie Williams suspended for the first four games of the season, and it could cause trouble. Rookie QB Andy Dalton was good in college, but we don’t know if he has the skills to succeed at the NFL level – especially once defenses throw the kitchen sink at him. On defense, the Bengals lost CB Johnathan Joseph, but they still have Leon Hall, who’s an elite player at that position. But the pass rush doesn’t generate enough pressure, and the linebacker play has been up and down. If the defense can come together, the Bengals could approach 8-8, but we see 4-12 as a more likely outcome.

1 – San Francisco 49ers – The 49ers, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a few stars but lack talent in too many key areas. It starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith gets another chance despite a lack of results. Smith has a very good running back in Frank Gore and talented targets in WRs Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. And the offensive line, despite some high draft picks, struggled throughout the preseason. On defense, ILB Patrick Willis remains a superstar, but the talent around him is worse than last year, unless rookie OLB Aldon Smith is more ready to play than most expect. Harbaugh has a steep challenge in front of him, because the 49ers are among the league’s worst teams. They may steal some wins in the weak NFC West, but this franchise is at the bottom.

1 (con’t) – Tennessee Titans – The Titans are in major flux, and we don’t see many signs of hope, but at least they kept RB Chris Johnson in town. He’s joined by veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck, who will play until rookie Jake Locker is ready. The offensive line is still OK, and that should allow the running game to keep producing. And in WR Kenny Britt and TE Jared Cook, the Titans have talented receivers. But on defense, the Titans have lost a ton of key players, and aside from CB Cortland Finnegan and S Michael Griffin won’t be starting anyone you’d recognize. It’s hard to see the Titans shutting down many teams, even in the declining AFC South.

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Baltimore brings in Evans

Copy of Lee Evans

Lee Evans. Image via Wikipedia

The Ravens finally added a veteran wide receiver Friday by trading for Buffalo’s Lee Evans. In return, the Ravens gave the Bills a 2012 fourth-round pick. Below are some thoughts on the deal; we compare it to other trades this preseason in this post.

After cutting Derrick Mason, the Ravens lacked a veteran receiver to pair in the starting lineup across from Anquan Boldin. So instead of banking on rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss to be ready to go right away, the Ravens gave up a fourth-round pick to acquire Evans from the Bills. Evans, a former first-round pick, has played all but three games in his seven-year career, and he consistently averages more than 15 yards per catch. He remains a quality deep threat, which makes him a nice complement to Boldin. Evans wasn’t going to take the Bills over the top, and as Buffalo develops youngsters Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, and Marcus Easley, moving Evans and his salary makes sense. But in Baltimore, he’s an essential piece of the puzzle who can keep the passing game viable – something that was a big question before the trade happened. Kudos to the Ravens for recognizing a hole in their lineup and moving to address it.

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Baltimore says Bye, Bye Blackbirds

Derrick Mason

Derrick Mason was among the Ravens told they will be released. Image by Keith Allison via Flickr

As the lockout ended and the craziness began, the Baltimore Ravens made the first big moves by announcing that four veterans – WR Derrick Mason, TE Todd Heap, RB Willis McGahee, and NT Kelly Gregg – will be released. Below are some thoughts on the moves and the players’ futures.

For the Ravens, the moves save a bunch of money under the salary cap, while putting these veterans into a marked that glutted with players. That may allow them to bring back a couple of them – Mason and Gregg seem to be most logical – at cheaper prices. But if all four are gone for good, Gregg may be the biggest loss. The nose tackle started all 16 games last year, and he proved to be a solid player against the run who allowed DEs Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding more latitude to make plays. Now the onus is on second-year player Terrence Cody to emerge as a solid starter. Cody has talent, but his conditioning was a big question entering the league last year. That has to cause some concern after the offseason lockout. Gregg, meanwhile, could hook on as a solid nose tackle for another 3-4 team, and a contender like the Jets would be wise to add him.

Mason has been shocking productive for the Ravens, but being solid isn’t the same as being dynamic. The Ravens now turn to Anquan Boldin, last season’s big acquisition, as their unquestioned No. 1 receiver. Rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss now have a huge chance to jump into the lineup, but a lack of depth could force the Ravens to call Mason back and see if he’ll play for less. Regardless, Mason has enough left to be a starter somewhere.

Heap had a solid 10-year career as a former Ravens’ first-round pick, and last year was another solid season. But 2010 draft picks Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson both have great potential as receivers, so Heap’s high price tag was too much for the Ravens to bear. But Heap has enough left to hook on as a receiving tight end, especially if a contender needs help. For example, if Tony Gonzalez doesn’t re-sign with the Falcons, Heap would be a nice fallback option.

McGahee lost his starting job to Ray Rice a few years back, and he never was able to make the transition to being a short-yardage back or a fullback. McGahee’s future is the least promising of any of these vets, since older running backs whose performance is falling off usually don’t get back over the cliff.

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From T.O. to HOF?

 

Jerry Rice vs NY Giants cornerback (1995)

Should Terrell Owens make the Hall of Fame? And where does he rank among all-time receivers? This week’s news that T.O. suffered a torn ACL got us to thinking. We’ve already considered the way Owens’ career may have ended; now, let’s think about his place in history. (Hat tip to the Open Mic Daily guys for raising the questions and getting me thinking. UPDATE: Here’s the podcast of our conversation.)

We went to Pro Football Reference to look at the numbers. Going through the list, we considered 17 receivers from the top 20 in all-time receptions. (We left out No. 6 Tony Gonzalez, since he’s a tight end; No. 19 Larry Centers, since he was a fullback; and No. 20 Steve Largent, since he’s clearly from another era.) Of that group, only two are in the Hall of Fame – No. 1 Jerry Rice and No.  11 Art Monk. And Monk is the only guy on the list who played a significant portion of his career in the pre-Jerry Rice era (which began in 1985.)

Of these 17 receivers, we knocked out six – Monk, whose peak began before the era began, and five players who weren’t among the top 30 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns – Derrick Mason, Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith. We then added in four others – Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, and Andre Johnson, who don’t meet the numbers thresholds yet but should soon; and Michael Irvin, who has made the Hall of Fame.

So we set out to compare Owens to the other receivers of his era.

Hall of Fame level: Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter, Hines Ward, Michael Irvin, Marvin Harrison – We prefer Moss to Owens slightly, since Moss was the more dynamic threat, but both belong in the Hall. So does Carter, who may finally get over the hump now that Shannon Sharpe has gotten in to ease the receiver backlog. Ward has moved into the Hall of Fame level in the last few years as the leading receiver in the Steelers’ Super Bowl run; if Irvin is in, Ward should be in too. They’re equals. Harrison is an interesting case; his numbers say he’s in, but was he a really good player with a great quarterback, or a great player in his own right.

Current players: We’d also put Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson in this level at this point in their careers. They need to continue adding to their accomplishments, but they’re on track to get in. Reggie Wayne strikes us as a 50/50 case right now; could he eventually pass Harrison in line?

Just outside the HOF bubble: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Art Monk, Irving Fryar – Brown’s numbers are great, but he strikes us as a really good player who compiled great numbers. Bruce and Holt played in a WR-friendly system with the Rams; how could you choose between them for the Hall? Reed falls short, and we believe Monk should have as well. But if any of these players made the Hall of Fame, it wouldn’t be a travesty. We were shocked Fryar hit the numbers standards, but he did so just barely. He’s a level below the rest of the bubble guys.

Current players: Derrick Mason, Chad Ochocinco, Donald Driver, Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, and Santana Moss have gaudy numbers but fall below the bubble as well. We don’t see any of this group crossing the HOF threshold.

Just missed the numbers thresholds: Keenan McCardell, Jimmy Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Rod Smith – These guys were good but not great. They may be Hall of Fame finalists, but they won’t find their way in.

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Divisional Round Saturday Thoughts

Let’s reflect on two memorable Saturday divisional-round games.

Hines Ward celebrates his TD catch vs. the Ravens

Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 24
*The score didn’t reflect it, but this was just as much of a defensive struggle as any other game in the series. The difference was that turnovers both defenses forced set up touchdowns on short fields, instead of field goals. With 11 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and tons of hard hits, this was an epic reminder of the kind of football the Steelers and Ravens always play against each other.
* The two defensive stars were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison. Suggs was an unstoppable force with three sacks and two other tackles for loss, including the sack that caused Ben Roethlisberger’s fumble which Cory Redding picked up when no one else considered doing so and returned for a touchdown. Harrison had three sacks of his own, two more tackles for loss, and two passes defensed, showing again why he’s the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league.
*Redding’s touchdown was one of the most unusual plays you’ll ever see in a playoff game. While most players on both teams assumed the ball was the result of an incomplete pass, Redding realized he hadn’t heard a whistle and picked it up. He was in the end zone before everyone else, aside from two Ravens defensive backs, realized what was going on. Redding’s eureka moment gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead and a healthy dose of momentum they kept until the third quarter.
*Both running backs had crucial fumbles in this game. Rashard Mendenhall’s fumble in the first quarter set up Baltimore’s first touchdown, while Ray Rice’s fumble in the third quarter turned momentum and helped Pittsburgh get back in the game. We still like Rice better than Mendenhall, because Rice has far more elusiveness and ability to turn nothing into something. Mendenhall needs a hole blocked for him before he can get going and gain yards.
*The Ravens were supposed to have the receiver depth in this game, after adding Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason, but it was the Steelers who got good performances from the two rookies they added. Emmanuel Sanders had four key catches, while Antonio Brown’s 58-yard bomb late in the game set up the game-winning touchdown. With Sanders, Brown, and Mike Wallace (who was the focus of Baltimore’s defense in this game), the Steelers are set up nicely for the post-Hines Ward era, whenever it begins. Boldin and Houshmandzadeh, meanwhile, both had key drops as Baltimore tried to rally for a game-tying touchdown in the final two minutes. Somehow, despite those additions, Derrick Mason remained the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver this season.
*Joe Flacco is becoming a good quarterback, and he’s had good success on the road in the playoffs in his three-year career. But in this game Flacco made costly errors – an overthrown ball that turned into a Ryan Clark interception, setting up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown. Then Flacco fumbled a snap to set up a field goal. Flacco is 4-3 in the playoffs, which is still quite good for a young QB, but he’s not good enough to beat an elite team in the postseason yet.
*Two other names deserving mention in this game were Baltmore CB Chris Carr and Pittsburgh DE Ziggy Hood. Carr, whom the Ravens signed when he was primarily a kick returner in Tennessee, has become a sure-tackling corner for the Ravens. Hood, a former first-round pick, filled in beautifully for the injured Aaron Smith, notching a sack and another fumble for loss. Hood and Brett Keisel are top-quality 3-4 defensive ends, which should let Smith play more limited snaps when he returns.

Aaron Rodgers celebrates another score

Green Bay 48, Atlanta 21
*Aaron Rodgers is officially making the leap in these playoffs. His masterful 31-for-36 game for 366 yards and three touchdowns is an all-time classic, giving him two terrific playoff games in a row. The Falcons had no answer for Rodgers and his deep group of receivers. All four of his top receivers had at least four catches, led by eight from Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson.
*Tramon Williams starred again as well. After his game-clinching interception against the Eagles, Williams added two more picks against the Falcons, including one he returned for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first half that really started the Packers’ onslaught. Charles Woodson is terrific, but Williams gives Green Bay a second terrific cover man.
*Clay Matthews continued his strong play with two more sacks. He has become an elite outside rusher, a la DeMarcus Ware.
*The one bright spot for the Falcons was kick returner Eric Weems, who backed up his Pro Bowl selection with a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. That’s something to watch for the Packers next week, because the Bears with Devin Hester and the Seahawks with Leon Washington both have elite return men.

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Wild-card Sunday Thoughts

Let’s look back at Sunday’s wild-card games. (For a look at Saturday’s games, click here.)

Todd Heap of the Ravens vs. Eric Berry of the Chiefs

 

Ravens 30, Chiefs 7
*Ray Rice didn’t find a ton of room running the ball for the Ravens (17 carries, 56 yards), but he did a great job in the passing game, as usual, with five catches for 42 yards and a score. It seems like Rice needs two or three steps to get going, but once he does, he’s elusive and hard to corral. He’s the best offensive player the Ravens have. But Baltimore got great performances out of TE Todd Heap (a franchise postseason record 10 catches for 108 yards) and WR Anquan Boldin (five catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown), among others.
*Because the running game wasn’t thriving, the Ravens had to rely on Joe Flacco, and he did a good job getting the ball to receivers on crossing routes. The Ravens didn’t make a ton of throws outside, but Flacco killed the Chiefs on inside plays as he threw for 265 yards and two scores. Flacco has now made the playoffs in all three of his seasons and is 4-2 in the postseason despite not having a home playoff game yet.
*Matt Cassel only threw seven interceptions all season, but he threw three in this game, including two early ones that doomed the Chiefs. Cassel still has a bright future, but right now the Chiefs don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome these kinds of mistakes.
*Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles made a huge play for the Chiefs with a 41-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and his hustle play after a Cassel interception in the third quarter forced a fumble that Charles recovered. But Charles’ second-quarter fumble really stifled the Chiefs’ momentum when they had a 7-3 lead.
*Despite the loss, this might have been the day that Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali became a national star. After finishing second in the league this season with 14.5 sacks, Hali had two sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens, and a third-quarter pressure forced a field-goal attempt.
*Ray Lewis is already a star for the Ravens, and he showed why in the third quarter with a hit on Dexter McCluster that forced a fumble and led to a field goal. He also had a late sack. Lewis isn’t quite as active as he once was, but he’s still an asset and a physical force. So is Terrell Suggs, who had two sacks in the game and provides a consistent pass rush.
*Despite the loss, the Chiefs have a bright future, and it’s thanks in large part to their first-round picks. On defense, Hali, rookie S Eric Berry (four passes defensed), LB Derrick Johnson (huge stop in a first-quarter goal-line stand), and DE Glenn Dorsey all played well – all are former first-rounders. And on offense, OLT Branden Albert held up pretty well. The one first-rounder who went missing was WR Dwayne Bowe, who had a terrific year but didn’t make an impact at all in this game, going without a catch.

Packers 21, Eagles 18
*Aaron Rodgers had a terrific game – throwing for three touchdowns that should have been four had James Jones not dropped a beautiful deep throw just before the half – but the revelation for the Pack was rookie RB James Starks, who ran for 123 yards after recording just 101 in the regular season. Starks is a big, physical runner who got more from his chunks than Brandon Jackson ever could. (Give Jackson credit, though, for great patience that turned a screen pass into a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.)
*Michael Vick had a good but not great game for the Eagles. He threw for 292 yards, but aside from one chunk late in the game, he couldn’t get DeSean Jackson free for a big play. (Jackson was battling an injury.) Vick also threw a critical interception late in the game as he tried to bring the Eagles back. Vick ran for 33 yards, but Green Bay’s decision to spy on him with Charles Woodson kept the quarterback from breaking free very often. The Packers also sacked Vick three times, which was an accomplishment.
*One of the things that makes Green Bay so dangerous is its depth of receivers. Greg Jennings, the Pack’s best outside man, had just one catch, but Rodgers still threw for 180 yards and moved the team effectively. Rodgers’ willingness to spread the ball around definitely paid off in this game.

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Pick ‘Em – Wild-card round

As we get to the playoffs, we won’t just make our picks – we’ll engage in a little preja vu by talking about how we expect games to go and by predicting final scores for each playoff game. We also have a few bonus college picks below.

Pierre Garcon vs. the Jets in last year's AFC title game

New Orleans at Seattle - As the first losing team to enter the playoffs, the 7-9 Seahawks are massive underdogs against the Saints, and with good reason. Seattle’s offense is pretty punchless – only 14 passing touchdowns all year, and not much of a running game despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch at midseason. Seattle’s big win against San Diego was a direct result of two Leon Washington return touchdowns, and it was only at Chicago that Seattle’s offense showed enough punch to beat a good team. The fact that Matt Hasselbeck may miss the game only makes that worse, because it’s hard to imagine Charlie Whitehurst playing acceptably as he did last week. Defensively, the Seahawks have shown a propensity to fall apart, which is why each and every one of their losses was by two touchdowns or more. So Seattle comes by its losing record honestly, and it’s far easier to foresee them with another double-digit loss to New Orleans, despite having home field advantage and a vocal 12th man. The Saints aren’t the powerhouse they were last year, because Drew Brees has been a bit more turnover prone and the defense has been less prone to cause those key turnovers. But Brees and the Saints D are still very good. The big question mark for the Saints is the running game, especially now that both Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory are out for the playoffs. That lack of a running game may cost the Saints, but not in round one. Seattle’s 10th loss will fit its season-long pattern of big-time deficits. Pick: New Orleans 28, Seattle 10

N.Y. Jets at Indianapolis – The Colts looked incredibly fallible just a month ago, but as their running game got healthy with the return of Joseph Addai and Donald Brown and the renaissance of Dominic Rhodes, and as the defense got key LBs Gary Brackett and Clint Session back, the reports of the Colts’ demise now seem at least a bit premature. This is still not a classic Colts team – they’re missing too many players like Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Jerraud Powers, Melvin Bullitt, and of course Bob Sanders. But Peyton Manning still has dangerous weapons in Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, while Jacob Tamme and Blair White have become reliable performers. That should allow Manning to pick apart the Jets’ defense, which has not been nearly as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009. The Jets must blitz to create pressure, and few quarterbacks are better than Manning at picking apart the blitz. In that matchup, we favor the Colts. On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ offense has sputtered lately. While the Jets have a higher-flying passing game than last year thanks largely to Santonio Holmes, who has a terrific playoff pedigree, the running game behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene has been too ordinary. The Colts aren’t the biggest defense, but they are good enough to quell the 2010 version of the Jets’ running game. So the game will hinge on whether Mark Sanchez can make enough big passing plays to keep up with Manning. And while Sanchez has been OK in big spots in his young career, he can’t keep up with Manning in this matchup. The Colts won this matchup in last year’s playoffs, and this year the result will be similar. Pick: Indianapolis 30, N.Y. Jets 20

 

Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick

 

Baltimore at Kansas City – The Ravens are a dangerous team, because they have so many good pieces. Ray Rice is one of the league’s best running backs, both carrying and catching the ball, and he’s capable of carrying an offense by himself. But often, he doesn’t have to, because Joe Flacco finds veteran targets Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Todd Heap. And on defense, the Ravens can pressure the quarterback with Terrell Suggs, stop the run with Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis, and force turnovers with Ed Reed. But the Ravens have been vulnerable to the pass all season, and that’s where Sunday’s matchup gets interesting. The Chiefs have a surprisingly good passing game, thanks to stud wideout Dwayne Bowe and QB Matt Cassel, who made fewer critical errors than any quarterback not named Tom Brady this year. Our sense is that Bowe will burn the Ravens’ secondary for one or two big plays this week. If that happens early, the Chiefs can ride their running game with reliable Thomas Jones and the explosive Jamaal Charles to build on a lead. Defensively, the Chiefs have an elite rusher in Tamba Hali, and Brandon Flowers has emerged as a top-tier quarterback. The rest of the secondary, however, has shown holes at times, as has the run defense. The Chiefs also have a strong home-field advantage at Arrowhead Stadium, although Flacco has a surprising number of road playoff wins on his resume at this point in his fledgling career. Baltimore will score in this game, but we believe the Chiefs will get enough big plays from Bowe and Charles to outscore Baltimore and get their first playoff win in 17 years in an upset. Pick: Kansas City 28, Baltimore 24

Green Bay at Philadelphia - This strikes us as the most back-and-forth game of the weekend. The Eagles are incredibly explosive, thanks to QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, and WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They’re more likely than any of the other 12 playoff teams to produce an 80-yard offensive touchdown, and we could see one this week. But Philly’s defense has not been good of late. Picture the 31 points the Giants put up on Philly, and then imagine Aaron Rodgers picking apart a pass defense that has really struggled this year. The Eagles have traditionally been a high-pressure team, but their pass rush is not what it has been in the past. Trent Cole has 10 sacks, but only one other Eagle (Juqua Parker) has more than four. That should mean that Rodgers picks apart the Eagles’ D. While that’s the biggest problem for the Eagles, Green Bay’s biggest issue is its running game, which has been punchless since Ryan Grant’s Week One injury against these same Eagles. But even if the Eagles tee off on Rodgers, we don’t see them holding up against Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and company. On the other side, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the Green Bay defense should have more success against Vick and company. It might be a shootout, but Rodgers and the Pack will come out on top. Pick: Green Bay 27, Philadelphia 26

NCAA picks
Cotton Bowl: LSU -1.5 vs. Texas A&M
BCS Championship: Auburn -3 vs. Oregon

Last week: 8-4 college, 2-2 pro, 10-6 overall
Season: 54-62-2 college, 55-62-5 pro, 109-124-7

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Dolphins/Ravens thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week we focused on an AFC clash between streaks, as the Ravens put their home success on the line against the Dolphins’ road proficiency. Baltimore won out, putting together a solid and complete performance to take down the Dolphins 26-10.

Ed Reed gets an interception with an assist from Ray Lewis. Via espn.com

On-field perspective
*The Ravens’ home-field success makes the AFC race even more intriguing, especially with the Patriots losing. No team in the AFC has fewer than 2 losses, and if the Ravens can take home-field advantage in the playoffs from that group, they’re going to be a real threat to go to the Super Bowl, even in a loaded AFC. That’s a storyline to watch over the last half of the season.
*Joe Flacco had a nice game for Baltimore, throwing two touchdowns without an interception. According to a CBS graphic, that means that Flacco now has 14 TDs and no interceptions at home this season. That’s a bit lucky (more on that later), but there’s no doubt that Flacco has talent and can make plays. He just needs to learn to do so in all games, not just home games. The one negative strike against Flacco was that he took four sacks, at least two of which were because he held the ball too long when Miami’s coverage was good.
*Flacco had a big game here even though Anquan Boldin, his best receiver, had just two catches. Flacco used Ray Rice (97 yards) and Willis McGahee (32-yard touchdown) well out of the backfield, and Derrick Mason also made some fine plays. Flacco has the best skill-position group of his career this season, and that’s another reason the Ravens are dangerous.
*Chad Henne had three interceptions for the Dolphins, meanwhile, and those lost possessions killed the Dolphins. One of the picks, Lardarius Webb’s second quarter pick, was not entirely Henne’s fault, because Brian Hartline slipped out of his break and couldn’t make a play on the ball against Webb. By the way, Webb’s electric return after the interception showed why the Ravens use him as a punt returner.
*Hartline messed up on that second-quarter play, but he showed better speed than I expected on other plays. He finished with four catches for 85 yards to lead Miami.
*Rice was magnificent for the Ravens, running for 83 yards and piling up 97 on receptions. He’s the best run-catch threat in the NFL right now.
*The Dolphins gave up 26 points in this one, but they showed they have some premium players in OLB Cameron Wake (who had two more sacks to give him 8.5 on the year) and LB Karlos Dansby, who singlehandedly stuffed a third-and-1 in the second quarter to force a Ravens field goal in the red zone. Dansby led the Dolphins with 10 tackles in the game. LB Channing Crowder was not nearly as impressive, as he demonstrated a matador tackling technique that let Ravens like Rice continue downfield.
*The biggest missed opportunity for the Dolphins came in the third quarter, when CB Sean Smith missed a chance to pull in a pass. It looked as though Smith was set up for an interception return that would have pulled Miami within three, but the ball bounced off his chest.
*The Ravens did a good job limiting Brandon Marshall’s chances down the field. Ed Reed’s return is crucial for Baltimore, but the addition of Josh Wilson late in the preseason and the return of Webb after an early suspension have really upgraded the Ravens’ CB play.
*Sam Koch of the Ravens won’t win our Crazy Kicker of the Week award (you’ll have to wait until later this week to find out who will), but he did a nice job reading the formation and converting a fake punt with a pass to gunner Cary Williams, who was uncovered on the left side. Williams made sure Koch saw him, gesticulating wildly before the snap to show that no Dolphin was close enough to keep him from moving the sticks. The result was a 13-yard gain and a third down.

Fantasy Football perspective
*For the most part, the fantasy players on these teams are pretty easy to determine. Rice is an every-week starter, and Flacco is a borderline top-10 quarterback who’s a must start at home no matter the matchup. Despite Boldin’s quiet game, he’s also an every-week starter. TE Todd Heap and Mason deserving starting consideration as well. We were impressed with how Mason looked in this game; with the Ravens having more options, Mason hasn’t taken the pounding so far this season that he usually does.
*For the Dolphins, Hartline showed that he can be a top-40 receiver. Both he and Davone Bess (who had five catches for 50 yards) can be flex plays. Marshall is still a starter, but he falls much closer to No. 20 at the receiver position than the first 10.
*At running back, Ronnie Brown still gets enough carries to be a decent No. 2 back, while Ricky Williams is basically droppable in 10-team leagues. Williams had just two carries in this game.

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Ravens/Patriots thoughts

Each week, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. This week, it’s the battle of AFC titans as Baltimore visits New England. The Patriots rallied from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to record a 23-20 overtime victory.

 

Brandon Tate's big gain against the Ravens

 

On-field perspective
*The Ravens made themselves much better in the offseason with the additions of WRs Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Boldin is a legitimate No. 1 receiver who can operate inside or outside, and he showed again in this game with a 25-yard touchdown catch that he can break deep as well. Houshmadzadeh doesn’t have those skills anymore, but he had an incredibly patient run after catch for a big gain on the first drive, and those skills deepen Joe Flacco’s options.
*With Boldin, Houshmandzadeh, Derrick Mason, and TE Todd Heap, Flacco has a cadre of experienced receivers with hundreds of catches on their resumes, but these guys can still perform. Baltimore has never been this scary in the passing game, and it’s no wonder Flacco completed 21 of his first 25 passes with this crew.
*In the absence of Randy Moss, the Patriots spread the ball around but still did a good job passing. Deion Branch had a touchdown in his return to New England, along with seven catches between the fourth quarter and overtime, while Wes Welker moved the chains as normal. But the breakaway ability is going to have to come from youngsters WR Brandon Tate and TE Aaron Hernandez. Both made a few plays in this game, but their consistency will be key if the Pats are going to get their offense running at full throttle without Moss.
*Props to Vince Wilfork for moving from nose tackle to defensive end to help the Patriots out. With Ty Warren out, Wilfork moved outside even though his study/rotund body type doesn’t really look the part out there. Still, his ability to play outside as well as inside allows the Pats to put their best three guys on the field up front.
*Ravens DE Haloti Ngata is a big-time player, and his late-game sack that stymied a Patriots’ game-winning attempt in regulation was the kind of huge play that big-time players make. He had two sacks in the game.
*The Ravens showed some vulnerability up the middle in the passing game in this one. They need Ed Reed to return as expected to patrol the middle of the field. Reed is eligible to return from the PUP list to the field for Baltimore’s next game.
*Perhaps the play of the game was Patriots P Zoltan Mesko’s 65-yard punt halfway through overtime. It flipped field position and put the Pats in position to get the game-winning field goal. It just goes to show that, when it comes to this rookie, you don’t mess with the Zoltan.

Fantasy Football perspective
*It’s risky to make assessments of Patriots players off of just one game, because their production is so dependent on the game plan, but after the show that Hernandez put on, it’s easy to forecast the rookie as a top-10 fantasy tight end. More than fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez has the ability to make big plays. He had three plays of 18 yards or more in this game.
*BenJarvus Green-Ellis is ostensibly the Patriots’ No. 1 running back at this point, and he had a touchdown in this game. But he’s not going to get a bunch of carries unless the Pats get a lead and try to sit on it. That keeps him outside of the top 20 among fantasy runners. And when another guy gets going, like Danny Woodhead did in this game, Green-Ellis’ touches will suffer.
*Branch was a factor in his first game back with the Patriots, grabbing a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and nine catches. That’s a good sign for fantasy owners who grabbed Branch hoping for some value. He’s going to be a solid flex option going forward, and he could emerge as even more. If he’s still on the waiver wire in your league, go ahead and put in a claim.
*Mason led the Ravens with 100 receiving yards in the game, but he’s still hard to put inside the top 30 among fantasy wideouts. Don’t get carried away and put Mason into your starting lineup based on this performance.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 3

Which fantasy football standouts from Week 3 do you need to trust, and which performances should you write off as unpredictable flukes? Each week we answer these questions by going through these performances and deciding whether to applaud or whether it’s a fraud. As always, with each verdict, we’ll give context for what it means.

Roy Williams breaks free for a 63-yard TD reception. Associated Press via espn.comQuarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs - After throwing for just 244 yards and one touchdown in the first two games of the year, Cassel led the charge as the Chiefs moved to 3-0 by throwing for 250 yards and three scores. That’s a nice game, but relying on Cassel to produce every week just isn’t wise. Even with bye weeks coming, there are other options who are better bets for your fantasy lineup than Cassel is. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco had thrown for just one touchdown in the first two games, but he connected with Anquan Boldin for three touchdowns against the Browns in Week 3. That offensive explosion is a reminder that Flacco has a good arm and good weapons and should be a consideration for a top-12 quarterback spot. With bye weeks coming, Flacco will be a premium fill-in option in 10-team leagues. Don’t be afraid to put him in your starting lineup. Verdict: Applaud

Kyle Orton, Broncos – We discussed Orton in our Colts/Broncos post. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Kenneth Darby, Rams - After Steven Jackson was injured, Darby stepped in with 49 yards and a touchdown. His yards-per-carry average wasn’t great, but Darby showed enough pop that he’s worth a claim as insurance vs. Jackson’s injury or as a potential bye-week fill-in if Jackson can’t play. Verdict: Applaud

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots – With Laurence Maroney traded, Kevin Faulk on injured reserve, and Fred Taylor injured during the Patriots’ win over the Bills, Green-Ellis stepped up with 98 rushing yards and a touchdown. Danny Woodhead also had a rushing TD for the Pats, but if Taylor’s out long term, Green-Ellis (aka the Law Firm) becomes a nice fantasy option who can fit in a flex spot in 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis not only scored for the third game in a row; he also piled up 144 rushing yards with Jerome Harrison out. Hillis, not Harrison, is the running back you want out of Cleveland, and at this point Hillis is a top-30 back who’s good enough to start as a flex in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Thomas Jones, Chiefs – Jones isn’t nearly as flashy as teammate Jamaal Charles, and he won’t pile up nearly as many yards as Charles does. But Jones had 95 yards and a score against the 49ers, following an 83-yard effort in Week 2. Jones deserves consideration as a bye-week fill-in. He doesn’t have massive upside, but he should be good for 70 yards or more most weeks, which is nice in a spot-start situation. Verdict: Applaud

C.J. Spiller, Bills – Spiller only had 39 yards from scrimmage against the Pats, but the rookie from Clemson scored twice, on a short reception and on a kickoff return. That kind of explosiveness is what makes Spiller so appealing for fantasy owners. Spiller won’t be consistent, however, which means that he’s a boom-or-bust play in your starting lineup. Most of the time, the bust will be too damaging to your chances of winning, which means you can’t start Spiller no matter how appealing it may seem. Verdict: A fraud

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – In his return from injury, Wells ran for 75 yards on 14 carries. Those aren’t eye-popping fantasy numbers, but it’s a good first game for a guy we believe can be a solid fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Austin Collie, Colts - We discussed Collie in our Colts/Broncos postVerdict: Applaud

Jabar Gaffney and Brandon Lloyd, Broncos – We discussed Gaffney and Lloyd in our Colts/Broncos post. Verdict: Applaud for Gaffney; A fraud for Lloyd

Jeremy Maclin, Eagles - Maclin had four catches for 83 yards and two scores against the Jaguars, and he now has four TD catches this season. At this point, he’s a must-start. Verdict: Applaud

Lance Moore, Saints – Two weeks ago, we mentioned that Moore is back to having a role in the Saints offense, and Moore proved that to be true with a 149-yard, two-TD performance against the Falcons. At this point, Moore is the second-most valuable fantasy receiver in New Orleans behind Marques Colston, and Moore’s return means that Robert Meachem has little chance of repeating his solid 2009 fantasy season. Moore’s worth a pick-up if you can get him. Verdict: Applaud

Mike Wallace, Steelers – Wallace had just 87 receiving yards in the first two games combined, and it appeared that the Steelers’ lackluster QB situation would limit his breakout potential. But Charlie Batch was able to hit Wallace for two touchdowns against Tampa Bay, as Wallace piled up 100 receiving yards. Wallace is going to be a starting-caliber fantasy receiver for Pittsburgh as soon as Ben Roethlisberger returns in Week 6, but we don’t recommend starting him against Baltimore next week. Call this delayed applause for a good young player. Verdict: Applaud

Roy Williams, Cowboys - Williams has been a big disappointment since he landed in Dallas, and the first two weeks of this season are no exception. But Williams (pictured above) exploded for 117 yards and two touchdowns against the Texans. We don’t buy this kind of output from Williams consistently, because he remains below Miles Austin and Dez Bryant in the pecking order. Maybe Williams is worth a waiver claim, but we can’t imagine a scenario in which Williams is worth starting anytime soon. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Kevin Boss, Giants – Boss returned from a Week 1 concussion with 88 receiving yards against the Titans. It’s a reminder that Boss is a decent fill-in option at tight end during a bye week. For that status, we’ll give some mild applause. Verdict: Applaud

Tony Scheffler, Lions - Last week, Brandon Pettigrew had a big receiving week for the Lions. This week, Scheffler posted 60 receiving yards and a touchdown. Both tight ends will have their moments, but predicting which will produce when is so unlikely that neither is worth a fantasy start. Verdict: A fraud

Jeremy Shockey, Saints - We’ve been shocked in the Saints games we’ve watched thus far how often Shockey has been targeted. Against the Falcons in Week 3, he finished with eight catches for 78 yards and a score. After two three-catch games to start the season, Shockey showed this week that he’s worth consideration as a fill-in starter when your team’s tight end goes on bye. Verdict: Applaud

8-78-1

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