1. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has put together a solid fantasy season in 2011, throwing for 3,526 yards and 21 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions in 13 games. While he hasn’t run the ball as much or as well as in previous years (just 70 yards on 30 carries with no touchdowns), Roethlisberger’s passing prowess has propelled him to the number nine ranking amongst quarterbacks and that ranking could go even higher in 2012. In starting wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown and third year player Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers will enter next season with their most dynamic group of receivers in years. Wallace is averaging 17.1 yard per catch while Brown is at a healthy 16.8 per reception and Sanders is a player the team is high on but who has struggled with injuries in 2011. That trio and Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arian’s preference for the passing game bode well for Roethlisberger’s prospects in 2012.
2. In Kansas City, the Chiefs did the expected and fired head coach Todd Haley with three games left in the season. Although Haley led the Chiefs to the AFC West division title in 2010 and Kansas City struggled with injuries to numerous key players this season (Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Matt Cassel), there were whispers that he did not get along well with general manager Scott Piolo and that friction would eventually lead to his departure. While Haley was hamstrung by injuries to key players, he was also responsible for a preseason regimen that left the Chiefs ill-prepared to start the season and his decision to continue playing Tyler Palko at quarterback even when the evidence was clear that he was not a capable NFL starter. As for Pioli, he doesn’t escape Haley’s firing unscathed as his personnel decisions (some of them clearly influenced by Haley such as the signing of wide receiver Steve Breaston and retaining Palko as a backup) have either backfired or not resulted in the production expected from high-salaries players or players taken early in the draft. Defensive ends Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey were both top five selections that have failed to live up to expectations and running back Dexter McCluster was taken in the 2nd round but has done little to justify being taken so high. Who Pioli chooses as the team’s next head coach will clearly be the deciding factor in how long he remains in Kansas City.
3. Sticking with that theme, the apparent front-runner to take over as the Chiefs next head coach is former Broncos head coach and current Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Pioli is familiar with McDaniels from their time together in New England and was the Patriots offensive coordinator when Cassel started 15 games for an injured Tom Brady in 2008. Also working in McDaniels’ favor is the Broncos production on offense with Kyle Orton starting at quarterback while he was head coach. However, McDaniels has been an abysmal failure in St. Louis this season as the Rams are last in the league in points per game with just 11.7 per contest and quarterback Sam Bradford appears to have regressed. The Rams have scored just 12 offensive touchdowns in 13 games this season although they have suffered numerous significant injuries on offense. While McDaniels has struggled with some questionable game plans in 2011, look for him to be hired as Kansas City’s new head coach based on the strength of his relationship with Pioli.
4. The Redskins placed starting safety LaRon Landry on injured reserve this week with an Achilles tendon injury and there is speculation in Washington that he may have played his last game with the team. He is a free agent at season’s end and while the Redskins do not have an obvious replacement, they may not be willing to shell out a substantial contract to a player that has missed 15 games over the last two seasons. Landry is clearly a talented player but he has not developed into the playmaker Washington envisioned when they made him the sixth selection in 2007, failing to top two interceptions, two forced fumbles or one and a half sacks in any given season. Having doled out a lucrative contract to former Rams safety O.J. Atogwe this past offseason and with several glaring holes on offense, it will be a surprise if the Redskins sign Landry to a contract this offseason that makes him one of the league’s top paid safeties.
5. Another player likely looking for a new home in 2012 is current Bengals starting running back Cedric Benson. Benson has played well since joining Cincinnati in 2008, gaining 747 rushing yards in just 12 games that season, topping 1,000 yards in 2009 and 2010 and likely to achieve that feat again this season with 883 rushing yards with three games remaining. However, Benson is a free agent at season’s end and the team, armed with two 1st round selections and possibly next season as well (depending on the conditional pick in the Carson Palmer trade) may decide to draft a more dynamic running back, rounding out a solid nucleus of talented, young players on offense including quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
6. The Chargers running game has remained productive despite a flurry of injuries across the team’s offensive line that have resulted in two starters missing significant periods of time. Left tackle Marcus McNeill and left guard Kris Dielman, both former Pro Bowlers, are both on injured reserve while center Nick Hardwick has played hurt and right guard Louis Vasquez has missed two games. With McNeill suffering a neck injury and Hardwick a free agent at season’s end, it is possible that the team will lose two Pro Bowl quality players prior to the beginning of the 2012 season. The 2012 fantasy prospects of quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews will both take a hit if both starting lineman have new teams next season.
7. The Packers are clearly the league’s elite team thus far in 2011 and with last week’s win over the Raiders, the Pack have now won 19 consecutive games dating back to last season. With wins this week over Kansas City and next week over Chicago, Green Bay will tie New England’s record of most consecutive wins at 21 games.
8. Texans owner Bob McNair took a lot of heat in the offseason for refusing to fire head coach Gary Kubiak despite Kubiak having failed to lead the team to the playoffs during his first five years with the team. McNair’s faith in Kubiak’s ability to lead the team’s offense and his insistence on the team firing its entire defensive staff which led to the hiring of Wade Philips as the team’s defensive coordinator paid off this week with the Texans clinching their first AFC South division title. With a 10-3 record and games against the Panthers, Colts and Titans remaining, the Texans have a chance to finish as the AFC’s top seed which would guarantee the team home field advantage throughout the playoffs, a significant advantage with rookie T.J. Yates leading the team at quarterback.