With the nation's snowpocalypse safely behind us, Sunday will be the last chance to get our fantasy football fix. So with our cheeseheads on, Terrible towels out, there are four top fantasy plots to focus on for Super Bowl XLV.
The Arms Race: This one is obvious thanks to the marquee matchup under center. While Aaron Rodgers has seldom looked better, Ben Roethlisberger, with the exception of a handful of big plays, has done his best Neil O'Donnell, game-manager impression. Roethlisberger is capable of putting up the same gaudy numbers as Rodgers, but he's averaging 179 yards while completing 56 percent with two touchdown passes and two interceptions in the playoffs. If the Steelers lose and his numbers offer more of the same, this year's off-field redemption story will have a goat-like ending. No matter what happens, his 2011 fantasy stock looks secure as a fifth through seventh round pick.
On the other side, Rodgers could hardly be hotter. He enters the game completing 70 percent of his passes, averaging 266 yards with a 6-2 touchdown to interception mark and two scores rushing. Rodgers' first round 2011 fantasy draft future is set already, (albeit late first round, early second) and a great outing and MVP performance would cement his status in mainstream NFL reality while echoing his already rock-star status in fantasy land.
Running Away With It: In the backfields you have a fantasy blue blood in Rashard Mendenhall against a depth-chart table scrap in James Starks, who wasn't even active for most of the regular season. Mendenhall, a first-round lock in 2011 drafts, had a career-defining moment by shredding the Jets in the AFC title game. The Maurkice Pouncey situation could slow him down, with the Steelers' center's status unclear. On the other side, Starks rose from the physically unable to perform list-ashes to supply the Packers with an honest ground attack doing a poor man's Ryan Grant impression. Starks, who's rushed for 263 yards in the playoffs, has leapfrogged Brandon Jackson into being Grant's '11 replacement if his injured ankle recovery stalls or he's ineffective. Stark's fantasy stock has been one of the off-the radar stories this postseason as he's played his way into being an effective sleeper in next year's drafts or at the very least a necessary handcuff for Grant owners.
Wide receivers have played huge roles with three winning MVP honors in three of the last six years, which brings us to the next two things to watch.
Old Dogs: Two of the oldest, most reliable fantasy wide receivers over the last decade go head to head with Hines Ward and Donald Driver. Ward, the 2005 Super Bowl MVP, knows a little something about playing big on the largest of stages. It will be interesting to see if among Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, one distinguishes himself as an heir apparent to his No. 2 receiver role. Ward's involvement in the offense has slowed, especially through the postseason, where his eight targets are fourth-best on the team. Donald Driver's hold on his No. 2 receiving slot is also tenuous with Jordy Nelson and James Jones emerging. Driver is involved a little more offensively, with the second-most playoff targets on the Packers. Either player could retire after winning Sunday with one more big game, and both are capable of stealing back the spotlight.
Young Guns: Greg Jenningshas been red-hot, and Mike Wallace, about as cold as the recent Dallas weather. After a bizarre, one-catch game with the Eagles, Jennings has exploded for 16 catches and 231 yards the past two weeks. He leads the league in playoff targets and has established himself as a top-five fantasy receiver in '11. Wallace, one of this year's sleepers and a home run threat anytime he steps on the field, has looked more like Rob Deer lately. While Roethlisberger has been more effective than flashy, looking more for Heath Miller and backup WRs Brown and Sanders, Wallace hasn't factored in much at all. After two games he has four catches for 26 yards on 10 targets and is overdue to break out. Wallace (a fourth or fifth round pick for '11 and perfect fantasy No. 2 wide out) is capable of matching Jennings' production and big plays if he can break his dry spell.
The best way to figure out a pass catcher's worth in an offense is tracking the number of passes thrown to them, otherwise known as Targets. Although the numbers are slanted in favor of players whose teams have survived longer through the playoffs, it's a good time to see which players lead the way in postseason targets.
1 Greg Jennings, Packers 26 targets2 Dustin Keller, Jets 24|3 Mike Williams, Seahawks 214 Todd Heap, Ravens 204 Anquan Boldin, Ravens 206 Ben Obomanu, Seahawks 197 Jerricho Cotchery, Jets 187 Donald Driver, Packers 187 Matt Forte, Bears 1810 Braylon Edwards, Jets 1510 Brandon Stokley, Seahawks 1512 Jordy Nelson, Packers 1412 Greg Olsen, Bears 1412 Ray Rice, Ravens 1415 Johnny Knox, Bears 1316 Santonio Holmes, Jets 1217 Heath Miller, Steelers 1118 Deion Branch, Patriots 1018 Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers 1018 Mike Wallace, Steelers 1018 Roddy White, Falcons 1022 Jason Avant, Eagles 922 Earl Bennett, Bears 922 Julius Jones, Saints 922 Lance Moore, Saints 922 Wes Welker, Patriots 922 Danny Woodhead, Patriots 9
It's ironic to have Jennings rank first, when in the regular season he was one of the least used fantasy wide receivers, ranking 20th in the league in targets despite his production. Judging from the data, one wonders if TE Dustin Keller is due for a larger workload next season with QB Mark Sanchez looking his way more, while redemption story Mike Williams emerged to be Matt Hasselbeck's go-to option. When it comes to underutilization, something's wrong about WR Santonio Holmes totaling only 12 targets through three playoff games. Making it worse was the target numbers accrued by his inferior teammates, leaving him 12 behind Keller, six behind Jerricho Cotchery and three behind Braylon Edwards. Two playoff teams that were one and done (the Colts and Chiefs) had something in common -- their top receivers being hardly used. Fantasy superstars Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Bowe combined for one total target in their two games. Wayne took the honors with the only target, while Bowe was never thrown to once in the Chiefs' loss to the Ravens.
So your fantasy playoff team is in shambles or you simply missed the postseason boat by not playing at all. One last chance for a fantasy taste is by drawing names blindly at your big game party in the Fantasy Grab Bag. Cut out strips of paper with names of every notable skill player and kicker on either side including defense/special teams, settle on a scoring system and use a deck of cards to determine the selecting order. Grab a paper bag or hat to throw the scraps of paper in and pick away. Odds are, most group get-togethers or league hang out parties will have enough fantasy addicts interested enough at least have two or three rounds of passing the grab bag around. Finally, add up the stats at the end of the night, to determine the highest scoring owners and pass out the pot winnings.
If the Steelers force the Packers to be one-dimensional by stonewalling surprise playoff hero/obvious weak link Starks, Rodgers will have to play perfect on Sunday. It's not that he isn't capable of it (see: Falcons, Atlanta) but in the second half of the Bears game he seemed worn down and once the timing was thrown off, the Packers limped to the finish as the defense bailed them out.
Despite its offensive line woes Pittsburgh has the championship experience, a blue chip RB and the same quick-strike passing capability also led by an elite QB. Both defenses pretty much cancel each other out, although the Steelers must account for B.J. Raji who could wreak havoc. Overall, I'll take the Steelers for their experience and well-rounded offense--as well as the, ahem, three points on the betting line. Steelers 31, Packers 24, MVP: Roethlisberger.