When it comes to fantasy playoff football, it's one thing to lose players due to fourth quarter thrillers like the Ravens-Steelers masterpiece. But it's another altogether when it comes to the one-and-done thumpings the Patriots and Falcons took, as postseason lineups took a few more hits in the divisional round. Those that gambled on green -- Bay, that is, as well as the Jets, are feeling bulletproof.
Owners with players still alive get to enjoy a compelling final four on Sunday with fantasy storylines aplenty. Here's four to watch:
Aaron Rodgers, unleashed: For those of us counting Michael Vick as the top QB in the 2011 fantasy draft, Rodgers is showing enough for us to almost reconsider the hypothesis. Last weekend he put together a video game-esque performance in shredding the Falcons. What he lacks in rushing compared to Vick he makes up for in consistent week-to-week production, pinpoint precision and durability. Even without winning Sunday, he would be the fantasy playoff football MVP of the second season. Next season's first rounds better end with Rodgers taken, or else an investigation should be launched.
The Steelers, clutch: Central Michigan rookie Antonio Brown delivered a David Tyree-type moment of pinning a ball against his helmet against the Ravens. But the Pittsburgh game also hit home how good QB Ben Roethlisberger can be, no matter who his receiving targets are. Brown and SMU rookie Emmanuel Sanders were his top pass catchers, along with usual No. 3 option, tight end Heath Miller. If the Steelers' passing game can go off without a hitch against the Jets (despite Mike Wallace and Hines Ward combining for a meager 45-yard performance), it won't matter who Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are covering.
The James Starks express: One of the most surprising developments of the Packers' run is what the Buffalo rookie has done. Starks gets another chance to prove himself against the Bears. And depending on Ryan Grant's health next season, you have to wonder if Starks has positioned himself to possibly be his successor sooner rather than later. Grant is expected back after missing the entire year and there are no guarantees he'll be the same, while Starks has provided a playoff spark and will be a draft day sleeper in '11.
Offense, Chicago style: Sunday will be the next step in Jay Cutler's maturation, a chance to show that last weekend's de-pants-ing of the Seahawks was the first step of something bigger. Bears OC Mike Martz's restraint and dare I say, careful adaptation of the personnel looks to be really paying off. The lack of a go-to receiver is still troubling, though tight end Greg Olsen is perfectly capable of the occasional poor-man's Antonio Gates impression now and then. Matt Forte has been an impressive two-way threat as the running game finally does not take a backseat in a Martz-run offense. With a good performance on such a big stage Sunday, Cutler, Forte and Olsen could be primed for big climbs up next year's draft board.
Using the 1-point per 10 rushing or receiving yards and 1 point per 20 passing yards scoring method, with touchdown passes worth four points, here are the top performers in postseason fantasy football. (An * indicates the player is no longer alive in the playoffs.)
1 QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers, 57 points2 QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks, 53 points*3 QB Jay Cutler, Bears, 374 QB Joe Flacco, Ravens, 32*5 RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets, 316 QB Mark Sanchez, Jets, 307 QB Drew Brees, Saints, 28*8 QB Michael Vick, Eagles, 27*8 RB Ray Rice, Ravens, 27*8 WR Brandon Stokley, Seahawks, 27*11 WR Mike Williams, Seahawks, 25*12 QB Tom Brady, Patriots, 20*12 TE Todd Heap, Ravens, 20*12 QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers, 2015 RB Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks, 19*|15 RB James Starks, Packers, 1917 WR Braylon Edwards, Jets, 1717 WR Pierre Garcon, Colts, 17*17 RB Julius Jones, Saints, 17*17 RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers, 1717 TE Greg Olsen, Bears, 1722 WR Jason Avant, Eagles, 15*22 RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs, 15*22 QB Peyton Manning, Colts, 15*25 RB Shonn Greene, Jets, 1425 TE John Carlson, Seahawks, 14*
There was plenty of fantasy fodder from the first playoff weekend to sift through in projecting ahead.
New England nightmare. Fake punts and no visible fourth quarter sense of urgency aside, the Patriots need to shore up the offensive line and defense with their seeming 20-something draft picks in April. The silver lining is that going forward the running game looks to be in far better shape than a year ago with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead making for nice flex plays next season as late-to-middle-round pick ups. Also, tight end Rob Gronkowski has separated himself from Aaron Hernandez going into next year and is a top-12 tight end, while Deion Branch (with a whole training camp under his belt) should make a decent WR3 in '11.
Jets up in the air. From week to week, figuring out the Jets, let alone getting a handle on the offense, is anyone's guess. It's hard to fathom QB Mark Sanchez suddenly airing it out next year based on a few good postseason games. The running back race usually boils down to LaDainian Tomlinson, despite his limited production down the stretch, and you have two co-No. 1 receivers vying for a shortage of pass attempts. In short, I hate everything about the Jets' future fantasy draft prospects. Unless it's Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards as a WR3, TE Dustin Keller in a bigger league or Tomlinson as a late-round flex play, I can't get jazzed on the Jets.
Seahawk down. Why did it seem the Seahawks were done for the minute John Carlson took his scary spill on the sideline? Besides (possibly -- the jury's out) finding a feature back in Marshawn Lynch and a second act in Matt Hasselbeck's career twilight, Pete Carroll may have finally figured out Carlson is a nice target at tight end. Next season look for Carlson, who was supposed to break out this year, ending up back in many a sleeper list once again.
So, some bum luck and you're looking at having the No. 1 pick in next year's fantasy draft. For those that have it or those that dream of drawing that August Ace, there are three options and two slam dunks for the top pick.
RB Arian Foster. The numbers are staggering -- 2,200 combined yards and 18 TDs in his first season of starting. His 327 carries are a concern, but when you consider the offensive weapons surrounding him (QB Matt Schaub, WR Andre Johnson) and the lack of miles on him overall, the term one-year wonder won't apply here.
QB Michael Vick. Had he stayed healthy all year, the league's, as well as fantasy's, biggest comeback story would have put together a season for the ages. What he did accomplish starting for the first time in years, was still hard to believe. In only 12 games, he passed for 3,000 yards and 21 scores and rushed for nearly 700 more yards and nine touchdowns. He plays on the league's youngest, most explosive offense with one of the most innovative offensive coordinators, Marty Mornhinweg.
RB Adrian Peterson. A pure default setting this high in the draft, Peterson is about as sure a thing as there is in fantasy. He gets the nod over Chris Johnson, thanks to a superior receiving corps and longer track record. No matter who plays quarterback, AP has shown in the B.F., or Before Favre, period, he can produce with a limited passing game. Only now, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin can stretch the field while Peterson, who produced 1,600 combined yards and 13 total TDs, plows through other teams' front sevens.
My pick: Vick. Whether one goes with Foster or not, there is no wrong answer between the two of them. Vick's upside with a full season is still scarier than Foster's ceiling but both are a cut above Peterson who in the third slot will still make a nice consolation prize.