Will Carroll
Monday January 17th, 2011

Is it telling that I can use any of the remaining Super Bowl permutations and none would surprise you? There are no Cardinals, there's not even a story like the Saints left here. We have a season where the favorites have, for the most part, done what they were supposed to do. Instead of doing something unexpected, these teams have just avoided the traps along the way. They've had distractions, injuries, challenges, and all the things that every team faces in some dose ... but here they are. There's no new coaches here. There's not much turnover in coordinators, either. There's no new QBs. Aside from injury, it's relatively easy to predict things within a broad range, but it's that range that makes things so difficult. There's something to be said for a strategy that would focus only on playoff contenders, though it would be a better strategy to focus on consistency. Injury will mess with any plan, but if you're looking for one of the few remaining fantasy arbitrage opportunities, it's in properly valuing consistency. That's not happening just yet, but this could be a long offseason, offering up opportunities for lots of research, mock drafts and trials. For now, let's fast forward around the playoffs:

If there's any pattern we see besides consistency, it's the presence of first-round QBs. Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck hold out hope for sixth-rounders, but also show just how these teams have stayed good so long -- by filling in the gaps behind even the most entrenched starters. Remember, it was the Packers that drafted both Hasselbeck and Rodgers while Brett Favre was around. Mark Sanchez, like Jay Cutler, is good enough, but as a very high pick, I'm not sure he's ever going to match his value on-field. He can handle the pressure of being in New York, so that's certainly worth something, and he does have some kind of extra gear in the playoffs. The Jets were able to play a more passive style as their opponents continue to allow Darrelle Revis to turn football into a 10-on-10 game. This isn't a slight on Revis, who demands that kind of respect, but it's gone from respect to some kind of Men In Black-style mind eraser. Worse, the Colts and Pats haven't found ways to make that work for them with any sort of play-calling. With three tight ends, the Pats could have caused all sorts of matchup issues for the Jets, but I don't think we ever saw all three on the field. Did Bill Belichick get outcoached? This week, he did. The Jets played the same game they did in Week 2 and were able to hew to that model -- rather than the 45-3 one that everyone seemed focused on.

That rumble you hear is the bandwagon change. While the Falcons were always a bit under the radar for how well they played this season, it was amazing how quickly things shifted in a matchup that was tipped as even. The Falcons should have had an advantage in the running game, but it was neutralized, both by defense and by the score. The Falcons should have been even -- or within range of Aaron Rodgers these days -- on QB play, but it was a real mismatch as Matt Ryan looked rattled early. There's little question that Rodgers will be one of the top-three QBs picked next season, but does this game tell us anything more about Ryan? Ryan rates as the No. 9 overall scorer and No. 8 QB. (Yes, nine of the top-10 scorers in all of football were QBs, which is why you don't draft one too early. Then again, the definition of "too early" keeps changing.)

To give you an idea, Ryan scored about 50 points less than Brady and Rodgers this season, or about three points a game. Ryan had a very consistent season, never scoring more than 24, but never less than eight (Week 1 vs the Steelers.) Rodgers had more big games, missed a couple, but in fantasy, consistency has real value. Ryan is going to be brutally undervalued next season. Matthew Berry of ESPN gives us some idea with his early rankings, putting Ryan at No. 77 despite having Roddy White and Michael Turner 7 and 8, respectively. This might seem elementary, but over the last decade, to be in the Top 5 of WRs, you needed a Top 5 QB. I'm not ready to say that Ryan will be that, but he still has the tools. One bad game doesn't change that, though Peyton Manning might have some tips on the care and feeding of the monkey the media's about to put on him.

There's really not much to take away from this game that we didn't already know. Like their many intra-division meetings, this one was less defensively focused, but came down to execution and turnovers -- the way most games with even talent turn. The Ravens lost again, in a disheartening fashion, but with both teams, there's very little sign that there's a need for anything more than a continuation rather than any sort of big change. The Ravens are playing in the Steelers' shadow, as Peter King put it, but they're hardly seeing their window of opportunity closing. Ray Lewis doesn't look like he's slowing down. Ray Rice and Joe Flacco are growing and learning. Baltimore could be looking to shore up its interior line and wouldn't Mike Pouncey be a perfect fit, either at center or guard? The Steelers are much the same and by beating the Ravens, might have missed out on a second Pouncey. Both teams will go not so much with the "best player available" as the best player for their system. These teams will continue to be contenders, though those same systems subsume some of their stars' fantasy potential.

People love the Cinderella story, but as Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders said during the game, "sometimes a 7-9 team is just a 7-9 team." That's all this was -- a good team beating a mediocre team. The NFL is built on the idea of "any given Sunday," but this wasn't a given Sunday for the Seahawks. Hasselbeck couldn't find open WRs, the running game never engaged Beast Mode or even Kinda Productive Mode, and the defense didn't have answers for Mike Martz's multi-angle attack. It makes me wonder how the Bears might look with Kyle Orton instead of Jay Cutler ... or should I say Orton and the extra picks the Bears gave up. Cutler's certainly been good enough to get them to this stage of the season, but most measures aside from that peg Cutler as an average-at-best-QB at this level. There's a real disconnect between the real value, the fantasy value and what one NFL FOP called a "system value." He made the assertion that Cutler worked within the system, something Orton might not do as well. That's possible, another of those what-if scenarios we'll have to work on in the offseason.

Injuries can happen any time, but at the end of Saturday's game, two Packers ended up with concussions. John Kuhn got his on a TD reception, while B.J. Raji got one late. I can grasp why Raji, a defensive mainstay is in the game in a blowout, but at what stage do we see backups or at least a rotation? Is there some sort of sliding scale of points and minutes left that coaches can use like their "go for two" cheat sheet? ... The Dennis Byrd story is nice, though bringing his jersey out for the coinflip was a bit gimmicky. My question is -- What's he doing now? Is he walking well? What physical remnants, if any, does he have from that scary but inspirational episode? ... "Starting" is some sort of leftover remnant that means nothing. When it was announced just before gametime that Wes Welker wouldn't be starting, it's nothing more than a symbolic penalty. He was on the field as a punt returner before he would have been with the offense, so is that a penalty? He missed the first series before coming in, but ended with a normal set of targets. During that period, the Pats used a two-tight end set for three of the first five plays, shuttling Julian Edelman in and out ... Nice step, but not enough. The biggest danger now is recognition of concussions and return to play in-game. The NFL needs to set an example here, rather than issue press releases ... David Harris had a pick-six without question, but was out of gas 40 yards down the field. Really? All that conditioning work, the athletic talent, and a player can't go 40 yards early in the game? It's one of those mysteries of football, I guess ... I close this week with four amazing words: Black Magic Coffee Bacon.

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