1. Week 15, Titans–Texans, Johnson–Finnegan: The Sequel. With the NFL watching closely, and any extracurricular activity guaranteed to result in hefty fines (think six digits), don’t expect another round of hockey-style fisticuffs between Johnson and Finnegan. My money’s on Johnson having a huge game, with Texans head coach Gary Kubiak feeding his stud receiver a huge amount of targets and with Johnson embarrassing the feisty Titans cornerback.
2. Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen has struggled during his rookie season, and with Carolina currently sitting last in the league standings, speculation has swirled that the team may consider using the first pick in the draft on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, just one year after taking Clausen in the second round. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith added fuel to the fire this week, suggesting that Clausen has “a lot to learn.” That qualifies as stating the obvious since Clausen sports an 0-7 record as a starter and has just one touchdown pass on the season, yet has seven interceptions and a 51.3 completion percentage. However, Smith is a veteran who should know to support a rookie quarterback rather than tear him down. Perhaps Clausen should remind Smith that he had a lot to learn as a rookie as well. A third round pick, Smith had just ten receptions for 154 yards and no touchdowns during his rookie season in 2001.
3. The Buccaneers were handed a pair of gifts this week, but they may not matter given their current injury situation. Tampa Bay walked away with a win in Washington when Redskins holder Hunter Smith failed to catch the snap on what should have been a game-tying, final-minute point-after attempt. Also, the Bucs benefitted from the Packers loss to Detroit, as Green Bay’s offense sputtered with quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the sideline with a concussion. The Bucs and the Packers both sit at 8-5, one game behind the Giants in the race for the final wild-card spot in the NFC, but the Bucs hold the tiebreaker advantage. However, Tampa Bay lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Quincy Black to season-ending injuries this week, marking the third consecutive game in which Tampa Bay has had to place two starters on IR. Last week they lost cornerback Aqib Talib and center Jeff Faine, and the previous week they lost right guard Davin Joseph and rookie safety Cody Grimm.
4. With their win over the Packers this week, the Lions snapped a 19-game losing streak against teams in the NFC North.
5. How many fantasy owners lost in the first round of the playoffs because they were going up against Cardinals kicker Jay Feely this week? Playing in one of the NFL’s worst offenses, Feely was ranked in the bottom third of the league’s kickers. But his owners got an early Christmas present when he kicked five field goals and had a five-yard touchdown run in Arizona’s 43-13 thrashing of the Broncos. No doubt many teams lost because of Feely’s 25-point explosion (which included four extra points, as well). His touchdown run marked just the fourth time in the past 40 years that a kicker has run it in for six points.
6. The Bengals have been a doormat for most of the last two decades, including having the worst record of the 1990’s, but they surprisingly set a new record for futility this week. Despite winning the AFC North last year, the Bengals have foundered this season, and this week’s loss to Pittsburgh marked their tenth in a row, establishing a new franchise record for most consecutive losses.
7. Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson has been a major star since bursting onto the scene in the 2008 season. Jackson has regularly burned opposing defenses for big plays, averaging a healthy 18.3 yards per reception during his career. Interestingly, though, Jackson has not fared well against division rival Dallas. Prior to this week, he had 13 receptions for 232 and no touchdowns in four games against the Cowboys. But he changed all that on Sunday night, catching a 91-yard touchdown pass en route to a four-reception, 210-yard performance against Dallas.
8. In the preseason, the Chiefs expressed confidence in quarterback Brodie Croyle as the team’s backup behind Matt Cassel for the next several years. After his dismal performance against the Chargers in Week 14, look for the Chiefs to move in another direction. Croyle is not signed beyond this season, and it seems likely that Kansas City will look to either free agency or the draft to replace him for the 2011 season.
9. Sticking with the Chiefs, while Croyle might not be a part of the team’s future, Jamaal Charles will be, courtesy of the five-year, $32.5 million contract extension he signed prior to this week’s game. Thomas Jones is signed through 2011 but will be 34 years old before the 2012 season starts, making him an unlikely candidate to be re-signed by Kansas City. Dynasty leaguers shouldn’t just assume that Charles will take on a workhorse role in 2012, however, since Jones’ original signing seemed a clear indicator that management was concerned about the 5’10”, 200-pound Charles staying free of injury if used in such a capacity. While a workhorse role may be in the offing for 2012, it seems more likely than not that the Chiefs will acquire another running back, either in the draft or through free agency, to compliment Charles.
10. The Buffalo Bills poor personnel decisions have been well documented, and one often overlooked area where they have failed miserably in recent years is in acquiring a solid pass-catching tight end. While most of the rest of the league has been placing an increased emphasis on the position, and while several teams feature solid pass-catching threats at tight end, the Bills have been unable to adequately fill the position despite using several draft picks trying over the last decade. Buffalo has not had a tight end top the 50-reception mark since the 2001 season when Jay Riemersma caught 53 passes. Since then they have used reasonably high draft picks on Mark Campbell, Kevin Everett, Derek Fine, Derek Schouman, and Shawn Nelson, as well as acquiring free agents Robert Royal and Michael Gaines—but they have come up empty. This has to be particularly distressing for Bills fans during a season in which division rivals New England drafted not one but two excellent tight end prospects in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and in which the Jets will likely send Dustin Keller to the Pro Bowl.
11. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is having his finest season with New England, currently the odds-on favorite to capture the Super Bowl despite entering the season with several question marks on defense and having to deal with disgruntled wide receiver Randy Moss. Belichick should be considered the front-runner to win the league’s Coach of the Year award despite solid turn-around seasons by Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay, Todd Haley in Kansas City, and Steve Spagnola in St. Louis. It is worth noting that despite predictions the sky was falling on the team after Moss was traded, the Patriots have tallied an impressive 8-1 record since. The teams that acquired Moss, Minnesota and Tennessee, are 1-8 when he has been in the lineup.
12. St. Louis running back Steven Jackson lost an opening-quarter fumble in the Rams loss to the Saints this week. It was his first lost fumble in 562 touches, going back to Week 5 of the 2009 season. On the play, Jackson went over 1,000 rushing yards for the sixth consecutive season, becoming the first Rams running back to accomplish the feat.
13. With the Jets scoring just nine points in their last two games (both losses), fans chanted for the ousting of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer after this week’s home loss to the Dolphins. Interesting that less than a full season removed from being praised for his offensive play calling in helping the Jets get within a game of the Super Bowl, Schottenheimer is being scorned by the team’s fans. Quarterback Mark Sanchez should be the target of Jets fans’ derision, given his play in recent weeks. Over the team’s last three games, Sanchez has completed 50 of 105 passes for 546 yards with one touchdown against five interceptions. The low completion percentage is even more startling considering the Jets’ reliance on short and intermediate plays. Head coach Rex Ryan chimed in this week that he will bench his second-year quarterback if he deems it necessary. Sanchez currently ranks 24th in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks with eight or more starts, a distressing situation for his dynasty league owners who were hoping that the addition of Santonio Holmes at wide receiver would allow Sanchez to develop into an upper-tier backup for fantasy purposes.
14. With his touchdown in Week 14, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis had caught touchdown passes in five consecutive games, while averaging 64 receiving yards per game, with Alex Smith starting at quarterback. During Troy Smith’s five starts, Davis had caught one touchdown and averaged 50 receiving yards per game. Unfortunately for Davis owners, the 49ers threw it to him only once in Week 15, and his touchdown streak with Smith at quarterback ended.
15. How fitting that in the game in which Brett Favre’s consecutive-games-started streak was snapped at 297 his replacement suffered a season-ending injury. Tarvaris Jackson suffered ligament damage in his toe, forcing the Vikings to place him on injured reserve. As for all the commentary about Favre’s streak being the most impressive in all of sports history and unlikely to be beaten, don’t buy it. With 205 consecutive starts, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning needs five full seasons and 13 games of a sixth season to break the record. Are you betting against him? I’m certainly not. Here’s my vote for the most impressive consecutive game streak: the 502 consecutive games Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall played between 1955 and 1962. Goalies didn’t even use masks back then, and if you count Hall’s time in the minors, he played in 881 straight games beginning in 1951.
16. The Giants placed wide receiver Steve Smith on injured reserve this week with cartilage damage in his knee that will require complex microfracture surgery as well as a mosaicplasty procedure. His recovery time is expected to be between six and nine months, which puts his availability for training camp in doubt. With medical procedures becoming more sophisticated, recovery times for major surgeries have been reduced. The Patriots Wes Welker started slowly this year but has been solid, despite suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 17 last season. However, Smith’s surgery is more complex and comes at an inopportune time given that he is in a contract year. The situation increases the dynasty league value of Mario Manningham, a player who has generally produced when given an opportunity.