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FR: Biggest what-ifs of 2009

As the NFL season draws to a close, I thought it would be interesting to play a game of what if? So we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison to see which of these what-ifs could have impacted the fates of their teams the most this season.

10 – What if Troy Polamalu hadn’t gotten hurt? You could argue that no player more impacted a defense than Polamalu, the do-everything free safety who added a free-ranging scary element to Pittsburgh’s defense. But in Polamalu’s absence, the Steelers gave up late passing touchdowns and lost games to Chicago (Week 2), Cincinnati (Week 3), Kansas City (Week 11), and Oakland (Week 13). It’s impossible to say how many of those games the Steelers would have won with Polamalu in there, but there’s no way they would have surrendered leads in all of those games with 43 playing. Polamalu’s injury was a huge reason that the Steelers’ Super Bowl defense was so mediocre and ultimately ended with the team missing the playoffs.

9 – none

8 – What if Falcons QB Matt Ryan had been healthy for home games vs. Eagles and Saints in Weeks 13 and 14? The Falcons finished 9-7, and they were a terrific home team with the exception of the two games Ryan missed against Philly and New Orleans. Both were tough games, but if the Falcons pulled off a win in one or both of those games, they could have easily been a playoff team. (Beating Philly would have put both teams at 10-6 and given Atlanta the tiebreaker.) Those two home games were Atlanta’s playoff push, and not having Ryan for them ultimateky ended up being a killer.

7 – What if the Panthers had gotten simply average quarterback play instead of the multiple stinkers that Jake Delhomme gave them this season? If you had to pick the player who had the worst season, it might well have been Delhomme, who threw 18 interceptions in just 11 games and finished with an abysmal passer rating of 59.4. But if Delhomme had avoided just a couple of meltdowns – three interceptions vs. Buffalo in Week 7 or four interceptions vs. the Jets in Week 12 – perhaps the Panthers would have a couple more wins and would be in the playoffs instead of finishing 8-8.

6 – none

5 – What if the Titans had won in overtime in Pittsburgh in Week 1? The season opened on a Thursday-night in Pittsburgh with the Titans putting up a valiant effort against the Steelers, only to fall short and lose 13-10 in overtime. But that loss started a slide that didn’t end until the Titans found themselves 0-6. Tennessee staged a valiant comeback, and fought back to finish at 8-8, but the early-season hole was too deep to dig out of, and Tennessee missed the playoffs. But a Week One win might have helped Tennessee pull out a couple more close games early on, and that would have been enough for this talented team to become a scary opponent in the playoffs.

4 – none

3 – What if Cleveland took Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the draft? Instead of taking Sanchez, the Browns traded down twice, gaining two marginal starters and a sixth-round pick in the process. But the Browns’ future might look better with Sanchez playing with Braylon Edwards, Jerome Harrison, and Josh Cribbs around him (not to mention Joe Thomas protecting him). They could have gained almost as much as the pittance they got in exchange for moving down by trading Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, or both. Instead, the Browns’ future roster is a big question mark. Meanwhile, the Jets would have played with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Would they still be a playoff team? (Thanks to Chase for this idea.)

2 – What if the Broncos hadn’t gotten a miracle win in Week 1? Few teams had as much offseason controversy as the Broncos, who traded away QB Jay Cutler after a spat with head coach Josh McDaniels and then weathered plenty of petulance from WR Brandon Marshall. But in Week One, the Broncos caught a huge break when Brandon Stokley caught a deflected Hail Mary pass around midfield and took it for an 87-yard touchdown in the game’s final minute for the Broncos to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati 12-7. That win loomed large as the Broncos started 6-0. Without that early success, it’s quite possible that McDaniels could have lost his team early, and a bad start would have led to huge questions about the decision to trade for Kyle Orton instead of hanging with Cutler. Instead, the Broncos had a solid first season under McDaniels despite a slow finish, and McDaniels’ gruff ways didn’t lose all of the locker room (only part of it).

1 – What if the Ravens had kept Matt Stover at PK instead of trusting Steven Hauschka? – Hauschka, whom the Ravens moved up from kickoff specialist to full-time kicker at the start of the 2009 season, missed a 44-yard potential game-winner in Week 6 at Minnesota and a 38-yarder in that would have gotten Baltimore within one score against Cincinnati the next week. The Ravens still snuck into the playoffs, but one more win would have made them more comfortable and also given them a playoff game in Cincinnati instead of Baltimore.

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Colts/Ravens thoughts

In honor of a vacation week spent partly in Baltimore, we share a few thoughts on the Week 11 game between the Colts and Ravens, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Indianapolis stayed undefeated by scratching out a 17-15 victory in Baltimore. This was the sixth win by four points or less this season for the 10-0 Colts, and their fourth in a row by that kind of margin. Meanwhile, the 5-5 Ravens lost by less than a touchdown for the fourth time this season.

On-field perspective
*Two pregame thoughts. First, Sports Illustrated’s Ross Tucker had a nice historical tweet just before kickoff. He said: Scoreboard here in Baltimore says “Ravens 0 INDY 0”. They still don’t recognize the “Colts” after all these years. Funny.
*Meanwhile, while I was in Baltimore this week, the hand-wringing was all about PK Matt Stover’s return to Baltimore as a Colt after so many years with the Ravens. The fact that Stover returned the same week the Ravens had to cut his replacement Steven Hauschka because of inconsistency only magnified how dependable Stover had been. No wonder the Ravens’ faithful went crazy when replacement Billy Cundiff narrowly made a 46-yard field goal in the first quarter. Cundiff hit 5-of-6 field goal attempts in the game, but the one he missed proved incredibly costly.
*Dallas Clark’s touchdown catch early in the first quarter was an incredible display of concentration and hand strength. Catching the ball by palming it in your right hand with no other support on the ball, and tapping your toes in the end zone in the process, was something that not many other receivers could do. What a play.
*Kelley Washington has been a nice find for the Ravens this year. He’s terrific on special teams, and he’s emerged as a solid No. 3 receiver as well.
*Young Colts DBs Tim Jennings, Melvin Bullitt, and Jacob Lacey all made nice plays on the ball in the first quarter. That’s a good sign for a team trying to overcome injuries to Bob Sanders, Marlin Jackson, and Kelvin Hayden.
*DE Haloti Ngata makes a huge difference for the Ravens’ defense. He busted up a fourth-down play at the end of the first quarter causing a penalty and a punt, and he makes that kind of impact regularly. He may well be the best player on that defense, and I’d argue that the Ravens need Ngata more than Terrell Suggs, who missed this game with an injury.
*The Ravens’ offense is much more intimidating when Ray Rice is in the game than when Willis McGahee is. Rice provides the opportunity for special plays, and McGahee simply can’t. It’s not that McGahee is a bad back, because he’s OK. Rice, meanwhile, is a big-play threat as a runner and a receiver. LeRon McClain, meanwhile, looks slow and tentative – nothing like the power back he was last year.
*The Colts have really restocked their playmaking ability with rookies Austin Collie and Donald Brown, along with first-year player Pierre Garcon and second-year tight end Tom Santi, who stepped up in this game. That shot of youth is vital with Marvin Harrison gone and Joseph Addai getting more banged up by the day.
*The Ravens did a good job of making plays on the ball vs. Peyton Manning after the first drive, and safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry both got interceptions. Reed and Landry make for a strong pair up the middle in the secondary.
*Joe Flacco isn’t the machine that Peyton Manning is, but he showed on the two-minute drill at the end of the first half that he’s a big-time quarterback. Flacco is allowing the Ravens to develop offensively as a new kind of team, and the downfield throw out of his own end zone in the third quarter was a beauty. But you could see the difference in Flacco’s inconsistency on third down, which forced the Ravens to settle for four first-half field goals. And the pick Flacco threw in the fourth quarter was more egregious than either of the interceptions Manning threw in this game.
*The Colts’ front 7 isn’t big, and the only way they could generate a ton of pressure was to send a huge blitz against Flacco. That’s something that some team is going to exploit before the end of the season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis weren’t able to generate a ton of pressure on their own against young and huge Ravens OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither. For the Colts, Gary Brackett not only had a pick – he had the most impact on that front seven throughout the game. He’s such a solid player for Indy.
*Ravens head coach John Harbaugh did a great job of managing his replay challenges until late in the fourth quarter. He went 2-for-2 on challenges – both of which were ultra-close and therefore worth challenging regarding the outcome – and more importantly avoided a challenge that would have failed in the second quarter. That decision to pick up the red flag saved the Ravens a timeout and probably three points in the first half and 22 yards on a successful challenge in the second half. But when Harbaugh called timeout and then challenged a spot late in the fourth quarter, he cost his team its final timeout and about 40 seconds toward a last-gasp comeback.
*Reggie Wayne is one of the top five receivers in the league. He’s so good catching the ball that you’re surprised when he doesn’t come up with it. His dominance allows youngsters like Garcon and Collie to make plays in spaces much bigger than usual.

Fantasy football perspective
*Dallas Clark isn’t just the best fantasy tight end available; he’s one of the top 15 receivers of any kind in the league. No other tight end comes close to matching his production, because no tight end is as vital a part of his offense as Clark is for Indy.
*Pierre Garcon, who had a 100-yard game, has gone back ahead of Austin Collie as the Colts’ No. 2 wide receiver, mainly because he’s more prone to bust a big play. Garcon is much like Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh in that he’s going to get 2-3 shots at a huge play each week, and if he makes one of those plays, he can help your fantasy team. Garcon isn’t as valuable as some teams’ No. 2 wideouts because of the Dallas Clark factor, but he is a top-35 receiver who can spot start as long as Anthony Gonzalez’s injury continues to linger.
*Colts TE Tom Santi hadn’t had a catch all season, but he had six in this game for the Colts, including a 31-yarder. Santi must have been playing a bigger role in this game because of a matchup the Colts saw that made a two-TE set advantageous. But fantasy owners shouldn’t rely too much on Santi going forward. The Colts don’t use two-TE sets regularly enough to make Santi ownable in any league, despite his 80-yard effort in this game. The fact that Santi fumbled once in the end zone and dropped another possible touchdown won’t add to the young tight end’s chances going forward.
*Joseph Addai scored a rushing touchdown in this game, and he has at least 60 yards per scrimmage in every game but one this season. So while he feels like an unreliable fantasy back, his numbers have been good enough to put him inside the top 20 at the position. He’s a fantasy starter, but he’s not a dominant force.
*Ray Rice is just a yardage machine. He’s so good as a runner and receiver that he’s going to pile up 120-150 yards in just about any game. And if he breaks a big play or scores a touchdown, he puts up elite fantasy numbers. He’s become a dependable top-10 fantasy back.
*Derrick Mason is old for a wide receiver, but he continues to produce solid fantasy numbers as the Ravens’ unquestioned No. 1 wideout. He had more than 100 yards in this game, passing the century mark for just the second time this season. But he has had at least 78 yards in five of 10 games, which makes him a solid top-25 wideout. He’s not cemented as a starter, but he’s a nice option to have around.

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Ravens/Vikings thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week 6 game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Minnesota Vikings, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Vikings survived a last-second field goal attempt to win a 33-31 barnburner.

On-field perspective
*Vikings QB Brett Favre got off to a hot start, but after the first two drives he started to come back to earth. Favre still throws hard, but his receivers helped him out with some nice catches of balls that were a tad off target. He wasn’t always 100 percent sharp, but he was plenty good enough for the Vikings to win. If Favre continues to play like this, the Vikings are going to be tough to beat, because the rest of their team is stout.
*One thing helping Favre is his underrated group of receivers. Sidney Rice is emerging as a dependable threat, and Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin both bringspeed and surprising toughness. And TE Visanthe Shiancoe is a terrific middle of the field target. Minnesota’s receiving corps doesn’t get a lot of props, but it’s better than you think.
*Meanwhile, Ravens QB Joe Flacco lacks that kind of threats. The fact that RB Ray Rice was the team’s leading receiver entering the game says it all. Derrick Mason is generally dependable, although he offers few breakaway opportunities. The rest of the receiving group is pedestrian. That’s going to hold the Ravens back in games like this one when they’re trying to play from behind.
*While the Ravens showed vulnerability on defense, I liked the offense’s persistence throughout the game. Even though they were down early, they fought back and made a game of it. That heart makes the Ravens dangerous despite their shortcomings.
*Rice is a emerging young player, but Flacco needs to fight his propensity to check down to him is a little too much of a security blanket right now. Rice had six first-half catches, including a line-of-scrimmage check-down on the final offensive snap of the half on a play that Flacco should have thrown into the end zone on. That’s the kind of thing Flacco will learn to do as he becomes more secure in what he can and can’t do. I’m all for using Rice as a weapon, as on his long fourth-quarter catch and run, but the Ravens can’t rely on him to move the offense as a check-down option.
*The Ravens’ defense gets a lot of pub, but it showed some softeness in the secondary, especially early. The best defensive player I saw was Terrell Suggs, who is a great pass rusher but a good player all over the field. He’s as complete a player as a 3-4 outside linebacker can be.
* The Vikings’ defensive line is stout. Jared Allen gets all the attention, but Kevin Williams blows stuff up inside on a regular basis, and Ray Edwards and Pat Williams are assets as well. That’s as good a group of four as there is in the league. Allen made some plays against Ravens rookie OLT Michael Oher, although Oher wasn’t completely embarrassed the way Green Bay’s Daryn Colledge was against Allen.
*You have to wonder, after Steven Hauschka missed a 44-yard field goal that would have won the game, if the Ravens wish they had given stalwart kicker Matt Stover (now with the Colts) another year. That miss was a killer.

Fantasy Football perspective
*Adrian Peterson is really, really good. ‘Nuff said. Even against a good defense, you see his talent pop off the screen, and he unquestionably is a No. 1 fantasy back.
*Sidney Rice is going to emerge as the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver by the end of the season. He’s the guy Favre seems to look to most often, and his size allows him to sit down in zones, while he has excellent hands. Rice may never be a 12-TD receiver, but he can develop into an 80-catch guy, and he can break a big play from time to time, as he showed twice in the second half. Rice should be at least a No. 3 fantasy receiver in larger leagues over the rest of the season.
*Bernard Berrian, meanwhile, has a relatively minor role in the offense, especially given his contract. He did catch a first-quarter touchdown, but he was wide open on that play, which definitely helped. He’s more of a No. 4 fantasy wideout. But his big-play ability, which he showed by drawing a long pass-interference penalty in the fourth quarter, is still an asset to the Vikings and gives him fantasy value as a fill-in.
*Percy Harvin, meanwhile, is faster and tougher than you would think. He’s still learning to be a receiver, but he has a surprising amount of polish for a rookie. He’s a borderline No. 3 fantasy receiver right now who will be much better next year.
*Visanthe Shiancoe is a top-10 fantasy tight end. His seven-TD season in ’08 looked like a fluke, given his past performance, but he’s following up on it in 2009. He caught his fourth and fifth TDs of the year and had several other nice grabs. He’s a big, rangy target who should be a good receiver – it just took him a while to develop. But now, he’s should be an every-week starter at tight end.
*Willis McGahee is probably the biggest fantasy anomaly of the season thus far. He has seven TDs but his role in the offense doesn’t support that kind of production. So don’t fall victim to his numbers and consider McGahee anything more than a No. 3 fantasy back. Meanwhile, Ray Rice is getting the lion’s share of the carries and he’s developing into a huge threat. This was a breakout fantasy game for Rice, who had two rushing touchdowns and 194 total yards from scrimmage. All of us now need to recognize that Rice is an every-week fantasy starter no matter who the Ravens are playing.
*Derrick Mason is the only Ravens’ wideout you want on a fantasy team. Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington don’t get enough looks, even though Clayton did have a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, and TE Todd Heap had to stay in and block often enough that it will hamper his fantasy value. With OT Jared Gaither hurt, that trend for Heap could continue.
*While Joe Flacco doesn’t have one great target, he moves the ball around enough that he can still be hugely productive. His 385-yard, two-touchdown performance is the kind of thing he has done all season. He’s now a top-12 fantasy quarterback. Likewise, Favre is a top-12 fantasy quarterback. He had 278 yards and three TD passes in this game.

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