Championship weekend notes and top prospects
Posted: Thursday January 15, 2004 4:12PM; Updated: Thursday January 15, 2004 5:29PM
By Bob Harris, Special to SI.com
You betcha. With an increasing number of aficionados extending the fantasy festivities through the NFL playoffs, we thought it might be useful to offer a little something to keep you a step ahead of the competition.
For those of you taking part in postseason contests and tournaments, the following fantasy-specific, team-by-team overviews are just what the doctor ordered. I've also included each team's top three fantasy prospects for this weekend's game
And for the rest of you?
Get busy. There's still plenty of time to start experimenting with postseason play.
The Panthers still aren't sure if leading rusher Stephen Davis will play in Sunday's NFC championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Head coach John Fox said Davis is still bothered by a strained quadriceps, and the veteran halfback's status will depend on how well he responds to treatment. Davis was unable to practice Wednesday.
Either way, a decision on Davis may not be made until game day. The temperature in Philadelphia on Sunday is expected to be in the 20s, which won't make it any easier on Davis' pulled muscle.
Asked how long it normally takes a player to recover from such an injury, Fox said, "Everybody's different. It's the degree of the pull, the particular player and how they handle injuries. So there's no 100 percent right diagnosis."
If Davis can't go, DeShaun Foster will start. Foster proved again to be a suitable replacement last Saturday, running for 95 yards on 21 carries in Carolina's 29-23 double-overtime win over St. Louis.
Fox said the Panthers won't alter the game plan if Davis can't play.
"The coaching staff and players have had confidence in him all year long," Fox said. "When called upon, he's done an outstanding job. In a similar game against Indianapolis, on the road, he stepped in and did a great job.
Foster said he's ready for the challenge if called upon to start.
"If I know I'm just going to get one carry, I'll have the same confidence if I'll get 30 carries," Foster said. "I'm the same way no matter what. We rotate when we're in there anyway. I've been in that situation the whole year. This game he just got hurt and I had to step it up. It was a playoff game, so it may have been a little bigger."
Nick Goings, who had a season-high six carries last Saturday, will also see more action this week if Davis is unable to play.
Also of interest:
Carolina leads the NFC in total playoff offense, averaging 432.5 yards per game. That average, of course, is skewed due by the fact Carolina played into the sixth quarter at St. Louis.
Receiver Steve Smith leads the NFL in postseason yards from scrimmage, with 305 (298 receiving, seven rushing). No one else is within 100 yards.
Smith's game-winning 69-yard touchdown reception at the beginning of last Saturday's second overtime set an NFL record for the longest play to end an overtime playoff game. The previous record lasted just a week; it had been set in the first round when Green Bay's Al Harris intercepted a pass and returned it 52 yards for the win against Seattle.
The Colts' offense ranked No. 3 in total yards and tied for No. 2 in scoring during the regular season, but it has taken execution and productivity to new heights during the postseason.
"They're just really focused in," head coach Tony Dungy said Monday. "We're good enough, talent-wise, that when we're not making mistakes, we're tough to defend."
But they'll be going up against the league's No. 7-ranked defense in Foxboro this Sunday -- with the AFC championship and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII hanging in the balance.
But if you're looking for an offense that's hitting on all cylinders, the Colts are it. Their 79 points in two games are the second most since the NFL adopted the current wild-card/divisional round format in 1978.
Peyton Manning has completed 78.6 percent of his postseason passes for 681 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions. No other QB has passed for more than three touchdowns in the postseason.
The Indianapolis Star said this week, "The two-game numbers are so comprehensively gaudy that they seem straight out of a fantasy league."
The Colts' 17 postseason possessions have generated 10 touchdowns and three field goals. Manning has compiled a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 on third down (13-for-13, 186 yards, three TDs) and a 144.2 on first down (19-for-25, 360 yards, two TDs). Over the two games, he's at 156.9.
Touchdown drives against Denver covered 70, 81, 80, 87 and 64 yards. At Kansas City, the Colts mounted scoring drives of 70, 76, 71, 64 and 81 yards. Manning has used his entire arsenal. Eight players have at least one reception, and Manning has divvied his eight TD passes to four receivers.
Of course, all of that could change this weekend. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been on the sideline opposite Manning's nine times since Manning entered the NFL in 1998, four times when Belichick was defensive coordinator of the New York Jets and five since he has been New England's coach.
Belichick's team has won five of those encounters, including the past three. Manning has completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,288 yards and 15 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. Over the first five games, Manning was a 58.1 percent passer with six touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a sickly 64.4 passer rating. Over the past four, the numbers are 63.9 percent, nine touchdowns, four interceptions and an outstanding 98.2 rating.
Manning was 29-for-48 for 278 yards and four touchdowns with one interception when the Patriots won 38-34 at the RCA Dome on Nov. 30. He helped the Colts recover from a 31-10 deficit to tie the score at 31.
But the passing attack is only part of the bigger picture, especially with Edgerrin James coming off a career playoff-best 125-yard, 2-TD effort against the Chiefs.
Other notes of interest:
According to The Associated Press, receiver Brandon Stokley missed practice Wednesday to be with his hospitalized baby son.
Stokley has played a key role in the Colts' two playoff victories, catching three touchdowns passes. He has 25 receptions for 368 yards and six touchdowns in the Colts' last five games.
While Dungy would like to have Stokley in the lineup for Sunday's AFC championship game at New England, the coach said Troy Walters or Aaron Moorehead, an undrafted rookie, could start if needed.
Five other Colts -- four of them starters -- also did not practice Wednesday. Tight end Marcus Pollard sat out with a sprained right ankle and probably won't practice until Friday. If he can't play, Dungy said, the Colts will use backup tight end Pete Mitchell, who signed Dec. 22, three weeks after rookie tight end Dallas Clark broke his leg against the Patriots.
New England Patriots
The Boston Herald's Michael Felger wrote Wednesday, "If playoff football is about defending the run above everything else, then the fact the Indianapolis Colts have advanced to the AFC Championship Game stands as a statistical aberration."
While there's no guarantee that New England can take advantage of their weakness, they have fared reasonably well against less-than-imposing run defenses in recent weeks; their Dec. 20 win over the Jets is a prime example.
But complicating matters this week are leg injuries to their top interior lineman, Damien Woody and running back Antowain Smith.
Woody, who is listed as doubtful on this week's injury report, apparently hasn't recovered fully from being stepped on by left tackle Matt Light in the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills. He was in and out of the lineup last week against the Tennessee Titans, with Russ Hochstein doing a capable job in relief.
Smith reportedly suffered a quad injury against Tennessee but will be ready for the Colts. The injury occurred late in the third quarter after Smith ran for 17 yards deep in Pats territory. Smith may also have tweaked his ankle, as he appeared to be favoring that body part in the postgame locker room.
In a related note, coordinator Charlie Weis has been fairly consistent in his play calling this season. Over the past five games, the Pats have averaged 30.2 attempts, 104.4 yards and 6.6 first downs rushing per game. Over their previous 11 games, the Pats averaged 31.7 rushing attempts, 107.3 yards and 5.9 first downs.
The difference, however, has been Smith, who has been running with more purpose since being a healthy scratch at Indianapolis Nov. 30. In the five games since, Smith has averaged 72.6 yards on 18.6 carries per game. Previously, he had averaged only 34.8 yards on 10.5 carries.
Meanwhile, the Colts, who rank 20th in the league against the run, allowed 196 yards and an average of 6.5 yards per carry in Kansas City last Sunday. Against Denver the week before, they gave up 146 yards and 5.6 yards per carry even though the Broncos were forced to go to the air early.
Over the last four games of the regular season, they allowed 4.5 yards per carry to Houston, 4.2 yards to Denver, 4.8 yards to Atlanta and 4.9 yards to Tennessee.
Also of interest:
Tight end Daniel Graham committed the Patriots' lone turnover Saturday when he fumbled near midfield; he then dropped a perfectly thrown pass down the middle at the Titans' 4-yard line on what ultimately was the game-winning field goal drive.
"I don't think confidence is a problem," Belichick said of Graham. "I am sure that every player that played in the game is going to look back on that one and see some plays that they thought they did well on and others that they would like to have back. That goes for everybody."
But Graham has had a problem with dropped passes all season and his confidence, and it would certainly be understandable if Tom Brady's confidence in him wanes. He could be a significant weapon deep down the middle against the Colts' cover-two scheme, but only if Brady throws to him and he can catch it.
According to published reports, kicker Adam Vinatieri, whose 46-yard field goal in a minus-10-degree wind-chill Saturday night wafted clumsily over the goalpost with 4:06 to play and put the Patriots ahead for good 17-14, continues to receive treatment for unspecified back problems.
Brady, meanwhile, apparently has had up to four pints of fluid drained from his knee since suffering an injury during the regular-season finale. Brady also banged the knee last Saturday night, but did not come out of the game. Both he and Vinatieri will play as usual this weekend.
After spending most of the regular season trying to prove he's not a running quarterback, Donovan McNabb became just that in last weekend's win over the Packers. With Green Bay's defense forcing his receivers to the outside, McNabb ran for 107 yards -- an NFL postseason record for quarterbacks.
Combined with his 248 yards and two touchdowns last weekend's performance sets McNabb up as a top Fantasy prospect heading into championship weekend.
Asked about his record effort, McNabb said he ran out of necessity.
"I just tried to protect the ball," McNabb said. "I knew they were blitzing, I looked at my first and second read and I knew I was about to get hit, so I just tried to protect the ball."
Head coach Andy Reid had a simpler explanation. "It looked like he was the one guy that they didn't account for," Reid said.
McNabb has tried to become a quarterback who makes plays with his arm instead of his feet. But with star halfback Brian Westbrook sidelined by injury, McNabb came through in a big way, running for 41 yards in the first quarter. He also had runs of 22 and 24 yards before throwing the game-tying TD pass.
"Instead of sitting back there and patting the ball, I tried to pick up what I could get, move the chains, and put us in a position to score," McNabb said.
McNabb rushed for only 355 yards this season and never had more than 55 yards in a game, though he was sacked 43 times -- the most in three years -- and the Packers sacked him eight times.
Last season, he had 460 yards and two 100-yard games in 10 games before he broke his leg. He had a 125-yard game against Washington in 2000 when he finished with a career-high 629 yards rushing.
While McNabb used to be an option out of the backfield, the Eagles used a running trio this season led by Westbrook. But Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter were almost non-factors in Westbrook's absence, gaining 57 yards on 14 carries.
Reid had no complaints with McNabb's scrambling.
"He ran for over 100 yards. That was pretty good," the coach explained. "He threw the ball well, we got 300 yards-plus  of total offense and we can live with that. That's good stuff."
Reid said limiting Staley's carries was probably a mistake, though an early 14-0 deficit changed the play calling. "We probably could have run a little bit more, period," Reid said. "We didn't have a lot of success early with it and then when we got behind, it snowballed from there."
McNabb knows he'll be on the move again against the Panthers, though he ran only twice for six yards when the Eagles beat Carolina in November.
"I don't know how we're going to do it because he's crazy, a double threat," Carolina defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "You can say all you want about taking away the throwing option, but then he takes off and is running like Eric Dickerson. All you can do is go out there and line up, stay technically sound and hope for the best."
Regardless of his talent, Philadelphia's offensive line will have to deliver a huge effort against the Panthers in order to protect McNabb.
For what it's worth, McNabb moved into second place in NFL history for lowest postseason interception percentage last Sunday -- at least for the time being.
McNabb threw 39 passes without an interception against the Packers, improving his career playoff ratio from one interception every 41.3 passes to one every 47.8.
The only quarterback in history with a better ratio is Bart Starr, who threw three interceptions in 213 career pass attempts, or one every 71 attempts. McNabb bumped Phil Simms into third. Simms threw six interceptions in 279 attempts.
Brady is 12 attempts short of the 150 required to qualify for the all-time postseason passing leaders. He has thrown just one postseason interception in 138 attempts.
Other notes of interest:
Offensive coordinator Brad Childress told the media last week he thinks this Eagles team is tougher and a little more "battle-hardened" than last year's model.
Although most observers agree the Eagles don't have as much talent as they did a year ago, but adversity seems to have brought out the best in this year's squad.
"Sometimes [a player's struggles] go unseen, and they just work things through," senior assistant Marty Mornhinweg told Pro Football Weekly, referring to McNabb's highly publicized struggles. "But it didn't happen. And then all of a sudden, everything clicked, and it had as much to do with the timing and the rhythm as it did with [McNabb] getting better. I really believe all 11 players were struggling, not just McNabb. It made us tougher to realize that. ..."
And finally. ...
To quote the Philadelphia Daily News, "David Akers missing a 33-yard field goal is akin to Andy Reid missing a free buffet. It just doesn't happen."
But it did last weekend. Akers has missed just one other time from such a close distance, muffing a 30-yarder against the Giants in a playoff game after the 2000 season.
He bounced back nicely, though, making clutch field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime.
That said, Akers continues to have problems overcoming the unpredictable, swirling winds that blow out of open areas at each end of Lincoln Financial Field.
In the regular-season home finale against San Francisco, Akers lined up for a 42-yarder that seemed good all the way before catching the wind and falling to the ground like a weight.
"It's a learning process," Akers said. "This is my first full season in this place here and when southwest winds come out of there, it's brutal coming through that one opening."
Even though he seems to be getting a better feel for the conditions, I'd still consider looking elsewhere -- more specifically towards Vinatieri -- for my postseason fantasy needs.