Pat Fitzmaurice is addicted to competitive cooking shows ("Top Chef," "Chopped," Hell's Kitchen," etc.), and he also loves to eat. Since he isn't much of a cook, he's channeling his chef obsession into Fitz's Four-Course Fantasy Feast, a regular column featuring an appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. Bon appétit.
Appetizer: Chile relleno
This cheesy treat is being served in honor of Jets QB Mark Sanchez and his Mexican heritage. Sanchez appears to have taken a step up in class over the last two weeks, so he deserves the culinary tribute.
Before the season began, two buddies and I got into a debate about which starting quarterback was the worst in the league, and we ended up betting on it. I took Derek Anderson, one friend took Alex Smith, and the other friend took Sanchez. (Somehow Trent Edwards remained unselected.) I'll spare you the details of the wager, but suffice it to say that the guy who took Sanchez is out of the running.
The 37-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes last week with 16 seconds left in overtime was a terrific, heady play by Sanchez in the Jets' road win over the Browns, but I was more impressed by a two-play sequence at the end of the first half. On 2nd-and-goal at the Cleveland one, the Jets lined up in a passing formation. Sanchez dropped back, drifted right and, finding no one open, sailed a pass out of the endzone. On the next play, Sanchez appeared to have a run-pass option, and he dove through a crease in the defense for a touchdown that gave the Jets a 17-13 lead going into halftime. The safe throwaway on second down was the sort of smart decision that the Jets need Sanchez to keep making. Can't make a play? Keep possession of the ball and we'll try again on the next snap.
And let's not forget how Sanchez took the high road after a shutout loss to the Packers in Week Eight, when the Jets' pass catchers turned in perhaps the worst performance you'll see by a set of pass catchers all season, pro, college or high school. Sanchez didn't play well that day, but his receivers dropped a bunch of easy passes, and Sanchez was twice intercepted on passes where a receiver had the ball in his hands, only to let it be ripped out by Green Bay defenders. Sanchez declined the opportunity to throw his teammates under the bus, even though he had to have been gritting his teeth in postgame interviews.
Two quick fantasy-related thoughts on Sanchez:
1. As well as he's played the last two weeks (592 passing yards, three TD passes, two TD runs), it's hard not to love his prospects against the Texans' league-worst pass defense this weekend.
2. I think a lot of fantasy owners (me included) fall into the trap of expecting young players to make their most significant improvements from season to season rather than during the season. A player can work out and study film in the offseason, and there are myriad minicamps, of course, but that player isn't getting full-pad reps at true game speed. Some fantasy owners expected Sanchez to take a step up in class in his second season, and that's what we thought was happening when Sanchez played lights-out football in Weeks 2-4, throwing eight TD passes and zero interceptions. But then Sanchez seemed to lose his way for a while, turning in three mediocre games before getting his groove on again two weeks ago in an OT win over the Lions. It wouldn't shock me if Sanchez had another regression in the weeks to come, but it seems like a lot of things have clicked for him over the last couple of weeks, and I hold him in higher esteem now than I did during his nice early-season run.
Salad: Speedy spinach salad
My wife and I assuage a lot of our guilt about unhealthy eating by keeping a bagful of spinach leaves and a bagful of shredded carrots on hand for quick salads during the week. And while we're talking "quick" ...
I'm very anxious to see what fleet-footed Jacoby Ford does for an encore after catching six passes for 148 yards (and also returning the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown) in Oakland's big Week Nine win over Kansas City. Ford's terrific 47-yard grab in overtime set up the Raiders' game-winning field goal.
The Raiders were praised for conducting an uncharacteristically shrewd draft back in April, but Al Davis indulged his speed tooth by spending a fourth-round pick on Ford, a 5-foot-9 receiver/track champ from Clemson. The game against the Chiefs suggested that Ford might be more than just a return specialist. With Darrius Heyward-Bey dealing with a hamstring issue and Chaz Schilens spending the entire season in a body cast (or at least that's how I imagine it), Ford is expected to start opposite Louis Murphy when the Raiders visit Pittsburgh this weekend. The Steelers pose major challenges for an offense, particularly in their own house. If you can't sustain drives against the Steelers, why not try to beat 'em deep? I don't know that I'd bank on another banner game for Ford, but I think he'll play a significant role in Oakland's game plan this weekend.
It will also be interesting to see how Seyi Ajirotutu fares this week. Like Ford, Ajirotutu came up big in Week Nine and kept the interest level of fantasy owners percolating during a Week 10 bye. With San Diego's pass-catching corps decimated by injuries, Ajirotutu stepped into the void and caught four passes for 111 yards and two TDs in the Chargers' win over the Texans two weeks ago. Despite being an undrafted free agent, the former Fresno State Bulldog has some skills. It would be a nice story if he proved more than just a one-week wonder, but is he?
We have to consider that his breakthrough game came against Houston's awful pass defense. We also have to consider that injured WRs Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee might be back this week, TE Antonio Gates could be back soon, and stud WR Vincent Jackson will finally be eligible to play next week. But no question Ajirotutu is worth monitoring.
Entrée: Dim sum
Small portions, but a lot of variety:
— You have cause for concern if you lean heavily on members of the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers' offensive line is in shambles right now. It's a banged-up group that played an alarmingly poor game against the Patriots last week. There haven't been many holes for Rashard Mendenhall lately, and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times against the Pats. Not good.
— With the Bengals at 2-7 and Cedric Benson dealing with a foot issue, I suspect that Bernard Scott's fantasy value may have increased considerably by this time next week.
— Matt Ryan played a superb game against the Ravens in Week 10, throwing for 316 yards and three TDs. Pretty good, right? Well, in a couple of my leagues, Michael Vick had scored 50 percent more fantasy points than Ryan by the time Vick entered the tunnel for halftime. I can't remember a fantasy player putting together a more impressive half than the one Vick had against the Redskins.
— Speaking of impressive halves, Joe Flacco had 31 passing yards and no TDs at halftime of Baltimore's Week 10 loss to Atlanta. Flacco threw for 184 yards and three TDs in the second half.
— And speaking of the Ravens, their pass defense has been pretty flammable lately. Baltimore plays Carolina this week, and you're probably not itching to get any Panthers into your lineup. But I suspect that from Week 12 on, fantasy owners won't let a matchup with the Ravens discourage them from using a particular quarterback or receiver.
— Brutal loss for an owner in one of my leagues last week. With neither he nor his opponent having anyone going in the Sunday-night or Monday-night games, it came down to the end of the late-afternoon games. This owner — let's call him Freddy — was clinging to a slim lead, and his opponent was basically down to a few more minutes of 49ers PK Joe Nedney. The Niners staged an improbable TD drive late in the game. Had that drive fizzled, the Rams might have been able to run out the clock to ensure Freddy's win. Freddy also would have won if the Rams hadn't forced overtime by driving for a field goal at the end of regulation. In overtime, the 49ers benefited from one of the worst pass-interference calls of all time. Troy Smith threw an uncatchable pass down the middle of the field, and a Niners receiver changed direction and ran into Rams FS O.J. Atogwe. The contact drew a gift-wrapped flag for San Francisco, and Nedney sank both Freddy and the Rams with the game-clinching kick. Awful call — one of the worst I've seen all year. (The NFL has to revise the officiating principle that receivers are entitled to an unimpeded path to a misthrown ball.) Tough loss for Freddy. Fantasy football can be a real kick in the chops sometimes.
— The shutout for Aaron Hernandez in the Patriots' Sunday-night win over the Steelers was a puzzler. Fellow rookie TE Rob Gronkowski had three TD catches, while Hernandez was a nonfactor. Hernandez said it was part of the game plan. Guess we have to take his word on that, but fantasy owners will have to swallow hard before inserting Hernandez into their lineups this week.
— The yardage hasn't started coming yet, but rookie receiver Arrelious Benn seems to have a nose for the endzone. He's too risky to start, but I like him for 2011 (assuming the NFL actually plays games in 2011) and beyond.
— Following up on the item directly above ... the prospect of an NFL labor stoppage next season scares the hell out of me. What do fantasy commissioners do about scheduling a draft if August rolls around and NFL owners and players are still miles apart on a new bargaining agreement? Savor these last few weeks of the fantasy season, friends.
Dessert: Caramelized pears with toasted hazelnuts
A lot of us obsess over matchups when trying to set our fantasy lineups. I get a little less worked-up about matchups than I used to. If I'm trying to decide between two wide receivers of roughly equal value, and one is going against the 14th-ranked pass defense, and one is going against the 20th-ranked pass defense, that slight matchup discrepancy won't be a factor; I'll either look for another compelling difference between the two players or just go with my gut.
But sometimes a defense is just so unspeakably abominable against either the run, the pass or both that you have to dramatically elevate your expectations for any player who faces it.
That's right, Houston Texans: I'm talking about your pass defense. Opponents have been caramelizing your pears and toasting your hazelnuts all season long.
There have been times this season when I've let out an involuntary gasp upon noticing that one of my opponent's receivers is going up against the Texans. Houston is giving up 301.3 passing yards per game and has allowed a league-high 22 TD passes. Gino Torretta could probably come out of retirement this weekend and hit the Texans with 200 yards and a couple of TDs.
A few other matchups that can be especially delightful or dubious, depending on which side of the coin you're on ...
— The Redskins' pass defense: It's almost as bad as Houston's. Members of the Washington secondary will be getting Christmas cards from Michael Vick this year.
— The Bills' run defense: It ranks last in the league, but it's not so bad that Detroit could run on it last week. If it ever gets to the point where the Lions' offensive line can push a run defense around, then we're looking at a historically bad run defense.
— The Colts' run defense: This is more of a lifetime achievement award. Sometimes it seems as if Colts tacklers are made out of Nerf material.