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FR: Biggest What Ifs of 2010

Mike Vick with Philadelphia

Image via Wikipedia

Each year, we look back at the NFL season and wonder what if? Let’s compare the biggest what ifs of the 2010 NFL season.

Feel free to add your own ideas via comment, and then we’ll include them in the comparison.

10 – What if the Eagles had stuck with Kevin Kolb as their starting QB? – After trading Donovan McNabb in the offseason, the Eagles anointed Kevin Kolb as their new starter. But Kolb was injured in the season opener, and Michael Vick played well in relief (albeit in a 27-20 loss to the Packers). Vick started in Week 2 against Detroit and played well, but Andy Reid said that Kolb would return as the starter when healthy. But after watching film, Reid reversed course, naming Vick the permanent starter. Vick has gone on to have an MVP-caliber season in leading the Eagles to the NFC East title, while Kolb went 2-1 starting for an injured Vick in the middle of the season. Given the Eagles’ young and sometimes porous D, it’s hard to imagine Philly as much better than 8-8 had Kolb gotten his job back in Week 3. Instead, they’re Super Bowl contenders.

 
 

Calvin Johnson's would-be TD catch

 

9 – What if Calvin Johnson’s touchdown had counted in Week 1? – The Lions trailed the Bears 19-14, but Matthew Stafford led the team on a comeback that appeared to result in a 25-yard touchdown to Calvin Johnson in the game’s final minute. But thanks to a rule that receivers must complete the catch, when Johnson put the ball on the ground while standing up, the catch was overturned. The Lions lost the game, and Detroit ended up losing their first four games, three by one score or less. Had the Lions gotten a road win to start the season, our hunch is that they would have been able to build on that momentum to a better start. We see with Detroit’s current three-game winning streak that the talent is there. Chicago, meanwhile, started 3-0, winning all three games by one score or less. A Week 1 loss could have kept them from the NFC North championship season they’ve enjoyed. In fact, the hypothetical part of us wonders if these two teams would have switched places had the call gone the other way.

8 – What if the Patriots had kept Randy Moss? – Moss has been the biggest newsmaker in the NFL this season, starting with a postgame news conference after a season-opening win and then a series of transactions – a trade to Minnesota, a release by the Vikings, and a waiver claim in Tennessee. Through it all, Moss has done next to nothing on the field, with 27 catches for 315 yards and five touchdowns through Week 16. But what if the Patriots hadn’t dealt Moss after Week 4? The Patriots’ offense likely wouldn’t be humming along as well as it is with Deion Branch (Moss’ replacement), Wes Welker, rookie tight ends, and undrafted running backs. Our guess is that New England wouldn’t be the strong Super Bowl favorites that they currently are. And if Moss hadn’t been traded, the Vikings’ season might not have spiralled out of control the way it did. Perhaps Minnesota could be fighting for a winning record and Brad Childress could have at least lasted through the season. If Philly’s decision to go with Vick is prescient move No. 1 of the year, Bill Belichick’s choice to deal Moss was the second-best bit of preja vu all season.

DeAngelo Hall returns Tashard Choice's fumble

7 – What if A.J. Smith hadn’t let his ego get in the way in contract negotiations with Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson? – Andy added this suggestion about Smith, known around San Diego as the Lord of No Rings. Smith’s top two restricted free agents weren’t happy about not hitting the open market, and the Chargers took a super-hard line with them, reducing their tender offers in the offseason so that they would make far less than market value in 2010. McNeill missed five games before agreeing to a new contract, while Jackson stayed out (between his holdout and suspension) until Week 12. The Chargers started 2-3 without both players and never recovered from the slow start, falling behind the Chiefs and eventually losing the AFC West to K.C. While having McNeill and Jackson would have helped, the Chargers’ biggest issues were on special teams. But there’s no doubt that Smith’s hard-line, organization-uber-all approach cost the Chargers dearly this season.

6 – What if Dallas hadn’t gone for a score at the end of the first half in Week 1? – Dallas opened the season in Washington, and they trailed 3-0 late in the first half. When Dallas got the ball on its own 30 with 27 seconds left, Wade Phillips decided to go for a score. The Cowboys continued on the attack with four seconds left, but Tashard Choice was stripped of the ball by Lorenzo Alexander, and DeAngelo Hall returned the fumble for a 32-yard touchdown. Washington ended up winning the game 13-7, sending the Cowboys reeling. Dallas started the season 1-7 and Phillips was fired, and it’s hard to imagine things getting that bad had Dallas sat on the ball at the end of the first half and gone on to win the season opener.

5 – none

4 – What if Ryan Grant had not gotten hurt? – Grant, the Packers’  leading rusher for the last three seasons, suffered a season-ending ankle/leg injury in the season opener against Philadelphia. Since then, the Packers’ running game has suffered. The only two Packers who have averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry are Grant (8 carries, 45 yards) and QB Aaron Rodgers. While the Packers have fought through injuries to Grant and other key players, you have to wonder if their playoff future would still be in doubt in Week 17 had they had a consistent running game all season.

3 – none

2 – none

1 – What if the Cardinals had kept Matt Leinart? – The Cardinals jettisoned Leinart, a former first-round pick, before the season after he lost the starting QB job to Derek Anderson. Leinart has settled in with a clipboard in Houston and has not played all season. But the Cardinals have had some of the worst QB play in the league from Anderson and rookies Max Hall and John Skelton. Arizona has somehow squeezed out five wins, in part because of its horrific division, but we have to wonder if Leinart had stuck around if he could have provided an upgrade, at least over Hall and Skelton, and kept Arizona in the NFC West race until Week 17.

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Patriots/Bears 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 tuned into the snow spectacular between the Patriots and the Bears.

Deion Branch celebrates in the snow for the Patriots, via espn.com

The Patriots jumped out to a 33-0 halftime lead in bad weather en route to a 36-7 victory. With the win, the Pats clinched a playoff spot, and coupled with the Jets’ loss, New England now is firmly in the driver’s seat in the AFC East. The Bears fell to 9-4, but with the Packers’ loss in Detroit and Aaron Rodgers’ injury, Chicago still has a great chance to make the playoffs.

On-field thoughts
*Wes Welker, who had eight catches for 115 yards, is the perfect receiver for bad weather and snow games. He is so effective in short spaces that high winds don’t affect his targets, and when he gets rolling he’s tough to tackle on a slippery track. If you wonder why the Pats have been so effective in the snow, Welker is a prime reason.
*While Welker had a great game, Tom Brady’s was even better. Brady starred with 369 passing yards, including an impressive down-field throw to Deion Branch at the end of the first half that went for a 59-yard touchdown. Brady is great in bad weather, which makes the Pats even more dangerous if they lock away home-field advantage in the AFC.
*BenJarvus Green-Ellis was equally tough to bring down on the bad track. He has developed into a physical runner who may not break a lot of big runs but who keeps the chains moving regularly. He’s a weapon the Pats haven’t had in the running game since Corey Dillon’s early days as a Pat.
*Devin McCourty, the Pats’ first-round pick, has emerged into a play-making corner. His forced fumble against Johnny Knox in the second quarter broke the game open, because Gary Guyton picked it up and returned it for a touchdown. McCourty has six interceptions this season and is a prime contender for defensive rookie of the year.
*DE Eric Moore, whom the Patriots added after the UFL season this week, had a sack, another tackle for a loss, and a forced fumble. Moore had a terrific training camp for the Panthers this season but lost out to several young players and draft picks. He could be an incredible late-season find for the Pats.
*We haven’t focused much on the Bears in this post, and that’s because they looked awful in the bad weather. While the Patriots rose to the occasion, the Bears fell flat. Jay Cutler threw two interceptions, and the Bears lost two more fumbles. Meanwhile, when Chicago had chances to make plays on defense, balls bounced off defenders’ hands. For the Bears to truly contend against the league’s best teams, the defense will have to make some of those plays.

Fantasy Football perspective
*We’ve said it before, but Green-Ellis should be starting for your team every week. Branch, who has scored three straight weeks and who had 151 receiving yards in this game, joins Welker as a regular starter as well.
*None of the Bears had a good fantasy game, but Cutler is still a weekly starter in most leagues, as is Matt Forte. Johnny Knox is worth starting many weeks as well.

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Thanksgiving Leftovers – Saints/Cowboys, Patriots/Lions, Jets/Bengals

Most weeks, we focus on one game and share our thoughts on it, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. But this week, we’re going to present our thoughts on all three Thanksgiving Day games. After we feature the Saints’ 30-27 victory over the Cowboys, the Patriots’ 45-24 win over the Lions, and the Jets’ 26-10 victory over the Bengals, we’ll throw in some Fantasy Football perspective for dessert.

Malcolm Jenkins (27) chases down Roy Williams to make the biggest play of the day. Via espn.com

 

Saints/Cowboys thoughts
*The premiere individual play of Thanksgiving Day was Malcom Jenkins’ forced fumble against Roy Williams late in the fourth quarter. Willams broke free in the secondary with the Cowboys’ leading by four, but Jenkins caught up and ripped the ball out to force a fumble that set up the Saints’ game-winning drive. While some outlets blasted Williams for a boneheaded play,Williams didn’t make a bad play; Jenkins made a great one. There’s an important difference.  So it’s hard to blast Williams for the loss.
*The Cowboys fell behind early 17-0 but rallied, which shows that Jason Garrett has added quite a bit of fight to a team that would have rolled over in that situation a month ago. Despite losing a fourth-quarter lead, that’s a good sign.
*While the Cowboys showed some fight, they had a bunch of mistakes – seven fumbles (even though only two were lost) and an interception. It’ll be interesting to see if Garrett and the coaching staff can eliminate mistakes down the stretch.
*The Saints won largely because they could make deep plays against the Cowboys’ struggling secondary. Devery Henderson’s 57-yard catch set up the first touchdown, and Robert Meachem’s 55-yard streak down the right sideline set up the game-winning score. Drew Brees threw beautiful passes in both situations, and without both plays, the Saints would have been sunk.

Wes Welker breaks free against the Lions. Via espn.com

 

Patriots/Lions thoughts
*The Patriots’ offense doesn’t miss Randy Moss at all. Tom Brady threw four TD passes, two each to Wes Welker and Deion Branch, in a complete dissection of Detroit’s mediocre secondary. And the Patriots’ running game looked good with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Those two runners, though unheralded, bring more punch and explosiveness than veterans Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk did at the beginning of the year.
*I felt bad for former Wake Forest star Alphonso Smith, whom the Patriots absolutely abused throughout the game.  Smith, a former second-rounder, has been a nice addition for the Lions since they dealt a former seventh-rounder (Dan Gronkowski) for him before the season, but this game showed that Smith is a nickelback, not a starting corner.
*While the Patriots’ offense was strong, it was interesting to hear Brady talk after the game about how strong the Lions’ defensive line is. Rookie Ndamukong Suh was especially forceful, recording a sack and wreaking even more havoc. But it was Patriots CB Devin McCourty, not Suh, that was the best first-round rookie on the field. McCourty has developed into an asset for the Patriots’ defense. Now they just need to find a corner who can thrive across from him.
*The Lions went for a touchdown on fourth down (much like the Cowboys did against the Saints). It was the kind of decision that a playoff team can’t make, but for a team trying to establish an identity, we like the move. Jim Schwartz doesn’t have the defense he hopes to one day, but we like the team and the culture he’s building in Detroit.

Santonio Holmes, via espn.com

Jets/Bengals thoughts
*Brad Smith isn’t on the top 10 list of Jets you would expect to single-handedly win a game for the team, but he did just that against the Bengals. His 53-yard run and 89-yard punt return were the two biggest plays of the game. Smith is a niche player, but the Jets know that he can help them from time to time if given enough chances. He certainly did Thursday night.
*The Bengals’ offense just isn’t strong enough to hang with a solid team like the Jets. Carson Palmer threw for just 135 yards, and he threw two interceptions, including a key red-zone turnover in the second quarter. Given the targets Palmer has, he simply must do more to keep his team in games.
*The Jets did a good job defenisvely in the game, although they didn’t make a ton of big impact plays. If the Jets continue to get efforts like that one, they will get enough offense from their running game and the Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes combo to be solid playoff contenders.
*While there’s a lot to dislike about the Bengals, we’re bullish on the future of rookie WR Jordan Shipley, who had a TD in this game. Shipley is a Wes Welker type of player who should really make an impact for Cincy in future years. The other hat tip we have is for Bengals NT Domata Peko, who plays hard and makes an impact despite his low profile.

Fantasy Football perspective
*New Orleans RB Chris Ivory scored two touchdowns against the Cowboys, but he likely won’t be a fantasy factor as Reggie Bush starts to get reintegrated into the offense and Pierre Thomas returns. We hope you took advantage of Ivory’s role when he had it, because he won’t be much more than a short-yardage back (at best) going forward.
*Felix Jones had just 44 rushing yards for the Cowboys, but he also had seven catches for 69 yards. Since Jason Garrett took over, Jones has had at least 86 yards from scrimmage in each game. That makes him a fantasy flex play. However, the fact that the Cowboys continue to use Marion Barber and Tashard Choice over Jones on the goal line keeps Jones from being more of a factor.
*Jahvid Best was active but did not play for the Lions, which opened the door for Maurice Morris to score two touchdowns. It’s hard to rely on Best at this point given his injury problems, but Morris is the definition of a journeyman back. Don’t get too excited about his performance.
*With Matthew Stafford out, Shaun Hill remains a decent fantasy option. He threw for 285 yards and a touchdown in this game, and he’s good enough to take advantage of Detroit’s solid cadre of targets.
*While Brad Smith scored twice against the Bengals, he’s not a consistent enough producer to be worth a fantasy football roster spot.

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Football Relativity: 2010 trades

This post compares trades made during the 2010 season between the opening game and the trade deadline on October 19 (after Week 6). For analysis and comparison of trades made during training camp and the preseason, check out this post.

10 – Patriots trade WR Randy Moss and a 2012 seventh-round pick to Vikings for 2011 third-round draft pick – The Vikings, desperate to contend this season, gave up a third-round draft pick to bring Moss back after a five-plus-year absence. Moss has long been one of the preeminent downfield threats in the league, and although he has just nine catches through four games this year, he has been a 1,000-yard receiver in 10 of his first 12 NFL seasons. And when he’s motivated – which this trade plus a contract drive should provide – he’s still one of the most dominant players around. Brett Favre has long wanted to play with Moss, and now he gets the chance. The move comes at a good time, because the Vikings are without Sidney Rice for at least another month, and Percy Harvin’s migraine issues can keep popping up. This is the kind of trade a team makes to remain a contender, and while it mortgages the future via a draft pick, the Vikings had already gone all-in with Favre. That makes this trade make sense. For the Patriots, trading Moss seems foolhardy on the surface, because they have no one to replace him. But Moss wasn’t happy in New England, and he’s been known to institute Operation Shutdown in similar situations in Oakland and Minnesota. So trading Moss might have become a necessity. The offense will suffer, as the Pats rely on Brandon Tate to emerge as a legitimate outside threat. Wes Welker will be even more of a security blanket for Tom Brady, and rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will have to continue their early-season production. That still leaves a hole at an outside spot, with either Julian Edelman moving outside or rookie Taylor Price getting a shot. Regardless of what the Patriots do, a bit of a decline in 2010 is inevitable. But the Pats now have a young and talented receiving corps headlined by one veteran in Welker, and they also have double picks in the first four rounds of April’s draft. Again, the Patriots must at some point use these picks to upgrade, but they are rebuilding on the fly and doing it very well. It’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots can survive offensively in 2010, but it’s easy to foresee them thriving in the future because of trades like this. That future plus Moss’ past made this move sensible for Bill Belichick and company.

9 – none

8 – none

7  – Bills trade RB Marshawn Lynch to Seahawks for 2011 fourth-round pick and conditional 2012 draft pick – Lynch, a former first-round draft pick, has been effective but unspectacular in his three-plus years in Buffalo, although off-field issues have raised consternation. He’s averaged around 4.0 yards per carry, which is good but not great, and last year Fred Jackson began to surpass Lynch on the depth chart. This year, the Bills spent a top-10 overall pick on C.J. Spiller, who is more explosive than Lynch and took more carries away. And given the depth of the Bills’ needs elsewhere, having three starting-caliber backs was foolish. So the Bills finally gave in and dealt Lynch to Seattle for a fourth-round pick this year and a sixth-rounder in 2012 that can become a fifth-rounder if things go well for Lynch with the Seahawks. The trade doesn’t significantly lessen the Bills’ chances of recording even a single win, so whatever price they got will help. For the Seahawks, Lynch represents an upgrade over Julius Jones (who was released when the deal went down). He is a far better every-down back who can be supplemented by former college teammate Justin Forsett and Leon Washington to add more explosiveness. It’s another piece for a Seahawks offense that is adding pieces wherever it can to upgrade the talent level. Given the weakness of the NFC West, adding Lynch could help the Seahawks get another win that could get them to 8-8, which could be enough for a playoff berth. Given that situation, then, this price isn’t too much to pay for a guy who will come in and start for 12 games in 2010 and who is also signed for 2011.

7 (con’t) – Seahawks trade WR Deion Branch to Patriots for 2011 fourth-round draft pick – After trading away Randy Moss, the Patriots bolstered their receiving corps by bringing back Deion Branch from the Seahawks for a fourth-round pick. With Moss gone, the Patriots needed another outside receiver who could keep pressure off Wes Welker in the slot and allow Brandon Tate to develop. Branch may not be able to do this, because he topped out at just 53 catches in his four full seasons in Seattle, but his presence will undoubtedly make Tom Brady comfortable. Maybe Branch can emerge into a Jabar Gaffney-type threat for New England and deliver enough presence to keep Welker and Tate from being mobbed by defenders. Given Branch’s history with Brady, which includes a Super Bowl MVP trophy and 213 catches as a Patriot, the move makes sense. New England overpaid for Branch by giving up a fourth-round pick in 2011 (it’ll be the higher of New England’s pick or the pick the Pats acquired from the Broncos for RB Laurence Maroney), but from the Patriots’ perspective Branch will be more valuable than Maroney, and so the net result is a win. The Seahawks, meanwhile, get a solid asset back for a guy who has been starting but has just 13 catches this season. With youngsters Golden Tate and Deon Butler, reclamation project Mike Williams, and recently signed vet Brandon Stokley, the Seahawks didn’t really need Branch, so getting a pick they can use to upgrade their talent level works – as long as they don’t think about the first-rounder they traded away to get Branch for four mostly disappointing seasons.

6 – none

5 – Patriots trade RB Laurence Maroney and 2011 sixth-round pick to Broncos for 2011 fourth-round pick – Maroney, a former first-round pick, never lived up to the hype in New England. He had three 700-yard seasons out of four, but never had more than 835 yards. He also failed to grasp the passing game well, which kept him from getting playing time. And this season, Maroney fell behind a healthy Fred Taylor, as well as role players Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, which led to him being inactive in Week One. So he goes to Denver to be reunited with Josh McDaniels, who likes to collect running backs. Maroney won’t replace starter Knowshon Moreno, but he could usurp Correll Buckhalter as the backup. The Broncos don’t lose a draft pick but instead trade back from the fourth round to the sixth, giving up the equivalent of a late fourth-rounder. That’s a significant but not prohibitive price to pay for a guy who might just be a first-round bust.

4- none

3 – Jaguars trade S Anthony Smith to Packers for conditional 2011 7th-round draft pick – With Morgan Burnett out for the year and Atari Bigby still on the PUP list, the Packers called in reinforcements by signing Smith. The fifth-year veteran had started three games for the Jaguars, but he’s a passable veteran but not much more. Still, given the Pack’s injury woes, adding Smith for such a small price is a worthy investment. They’re hoping that Smith provides stability in the back end for them.

2 – Eagles trade RB Mike Bell to Browns for RB Jerome Harrison – In a classic change-of-scenery trade, the Eagles and Browns traded backup running backs. Harrison had some huge games down the stretch for the Browns last year, but even in most of those games he wasn’t breaking big runs. He’s not huge, but he can make one cut and go. He was surpassed this year by Peyton Hillis in Cleveland, and so the trade makes sense. His running style and receiving skills seem to fit better in Philadelphia’s West Coast offense. Bell, who signed as a free agent with the Eagles in the offseason, is more of a banger who runs a lot like Hillis and who makes more sense as a Hillis-style runner for Cleveland. Since both players are on the final year of their contracts, both teams are looking for someone who better fits their offense right now, and thus this trade is a why-not-try scenario.

2 (con’t) – Chiefs trade DE Alex Magee to Buccaneers for 2011 draft pick – Magee, a third-round pick in Kansas City in 2009, never panned out as a defensive line contributor for the Chiefs. But he’s got good size at 6-3, 300 pounds, and the Bucs need a lot of help at defensive end both against the run and the pass. So spending a conditional draft pick on a prospect like Magee makes sense.

1 – Vikings trade DE Jayme Mitchell to Browns for late-round 2012 draft pick – Mitchell, who played in two of the Vikings’ first three games and had just one tackle, moves to Cleveland, where he will add depth on the defensive line. The five-year veteran has played just six games since 2007 for the Vikings, but he should be good enough to contribute for the Browns.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud Week 6

Which fantasy football standouts from Week 6 are legit, and which should you go ahead and quit on? 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.

 

Jeremy Maclin catches a TD pass. From espn.com

 

Quarterbacks

Kevin Kolb, Eagles – In his second start since taking over for an injured Michael Vick, Kolb threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Vick’s presence looms over Kolb’s starting job, but if Kolb stays in the lineup, he’s good enough to be a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Colt McCoy, Browns – McCoy, starting with Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace both sidelined, put up decent numbers at Pittsburgh by throwing for 281 yards with one touchdown and one interception. But even if McCoy gets another shot as a developmental starter, he’s not going to be reliable enough to be worth a roster spot. Verdict: A fraud

Running backs

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots – We discussed Green-Ellis in our Ravens/Patriots post and determined why he’s not an automatic starter. Verdict: A fraud

Chris Ivory, Saints – With Pierre Thomas out again, Ivory ran wild for 158 yards. He’s clearly the guy behind Thomas and Reggie Bush, but he’s only worth a start when both guys in front of him are out. Ivory is worth a claim, especially as insurance behind Thomas. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Danario Alexander, Rams – Alexander, who was promoted to the main roster in St. Louis after Mark Clayton’s injury, had four catches for 72 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown. He was the Rams’ leading receiver in the game. He’s an interesting prospect who’s worth a claim in larger leagues right now and who bears watching in leagues of 10-12 teams to see if he can do it again. Verdict: Applaud

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – After a disastrous Week 5 game in Indianapolis, Bowe exploded for 102 yards and two touchdowns against the Texans. He’s the Chiefs’ best receiver, and if he has his head on straight he’s a fantasy starter. Maybe this game represents the day it clicks for Bowe this season. Fantasy owners hope so. Verdict: Applaud

Deion Branch, Patriots – We discussed Green-Ellis in our Ravens/Patriots post and determined why you should claim him. Verdict: Applaud

Deon Butler and Mike Wiliams, Seahawks – With Deion Branch gone, Butler had 47 receiving yards and a touchdown, while Williams had 10 catches for 123 yards. Both guys are ownable now, but it’ll take another game or two to tell if either can emerge as a fantasy starter now that the receiving corps is less crowded in Seattle. Verdict: A fraud

Patrick Crayton, Chargers – Filling in for Legedu Naanee, Crayton had six catches for 117 yards. But that situation doesn’t appear likely to happen again, which means Crayton’s not worth a claim once Naanee returns. Verdict: A fraud

Jeremy Maclin, Eagles – Maclin had a huge day against the Falcons with 153 yards and two touchdowns. He now has six TDs on the season, and his production merits making him a weekly starter whether Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick is throwing him the ball. Verdict: Applaud

Derrick Mason, Ravens – We discusse in our Ravens/Patriots post why Mason shouldn’t be a starter for your team. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Aaron Hernandez, Patriots – We discussed Hernandez’s upside in our Ravens/Patriots post. Verdict: Applaud

Ben Watson and Evan Moore, Browns – Watson had six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown, while Moore had four catches for 84 yards. But neither has been consistent enough to this point to be a dependable fantasy option. Verdict: A fraud

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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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Branch grafted back in

The Patriots continued dealing, reacquiring WR Deion Branch from the Seahawks in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick. Below are some thoughts on the move; we’ll compare it to other in-season trades at the trade deadline next week.

Deion Branch as a Seahawk

After trading away Randy Moss, the Patriots bolstered their receiving corps by bringing back Deion Branch from the Seahawks for a fourth-round pick. With Moss gone, the Patriots needed another outside receiver who could keep pressure off Wes Welker in the slot and allow Brandon Tate to develop. Branch may not be able to do this, because he topped out at just 53 catches in his four full seasons in Seattle, but his presence will undoubtedly make Tom Brady comfortable. Maybe Branch can emerge into a Jabar Gaffney-type threat for New England and deliver enough presence to keep Welker and Tate from being mobbed by defenders. Given Branch’s history with Brady, which includes a Super Bowl MVP trophy and 213 catches as a Patriot, the move makes sense. New England overpaid for Branch by giving up a fourth-round pick in 2011 (it’ll be the higher of New England’s pick or the pick the Pats acquired from the Broncos for RB Laurence Maroney), but from the Patriots’ perspective Branch will be more valuable than Maroney, and so the net result is a win. The Seahawks, meanwhile, get a solid asset back for a guy who has been starting but has just 13 catches this season. With youngsters Golden Tate and Deon Butler, reclamation project Mike Williams, and recently signed vet Brandon Stokley, the Seahawks didn’t really need Branch, so getting a pick they can use to upgrade their talent level works – as long as they don’t think about the first-rounder they traded away to get Branch for four mostly disappointing seasons.

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