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Four Downs: Tom Brady bounces back

11/15/2010

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn't enter the Week 10 matchup in the Steel City looking like the top fantasy option he was expected to be. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a terrific defense, and Brady, the No. 4 quarterback and 17th overall in ESPN average live drafts months ago, hadn't topped 16 fantasy points in a game since Week 3. Certainly he had been relatively disappointing, especially since the Randy Moss trade, and asking for big numbers against the mighty Steelers seemed unwise.

Of course, Brady put on a show by throwing a trio of touchdown passes to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski and running for another score in a spirited, emotional night that resulted in 39 points for the Pats, the most ever for an opponent at Heinz Field. Oh, in fantasy Brady had 32 points (standard leagues), but nobody entering Monday night has more. It's easily a season high for Brady, and this was a pretty big game, especially in light of the embarrassing Week 9 demolition loss against the Cleveland Browns. While the Patriots are having a strong season, Brady, Wes Welker and much of this offense hadn't performed like a top unit in more than a month. Now, fantasy owners that weren't trusting Brady and Welker have to re-evaluate.

Due to what I suspect wasn't only concerns about the matchup but also his recent statistical play, Brady was ranked No. 10 at quarterback by the fantasy crew for this week, and it made sense. Welker, who caught eight passes for 89 yards, pulled in a No. 34 ranking at wide receiver! That's unreal! But since the Moss trade, Welker, like his quarterback, hadn't done much. On Sunday, Welker was open all day and targeted an appealing 12 times. That's more like it!

This coming week, the Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts in another meeting of top teams with a recent, noteworthy playoff history. On paper, it's a far easier defense to pilfer, and the Patriots just shredded the Steelers for 453 yards and 39 points. They even ran the football with success. Brady won't be a borderline top-10 quarterback this week, but rather closer to the top five, and Welker will surely be among my top 20 wide receivers.

As for Gronkowski, who continues to be regarded somewhat as a fantasy afterthought -- we ranked him 23rd at tight end -- because teammate Aaron Hernandez has more upside, I really haven't changed my thought process on the team's hierarchy at the position. Hernandez, a statistical no-show on Sunday night, remains the borderline top-10 fantasy tight end option; Gronkowski registered 25 fantasy points with his three touchdowns and 72 yards, and that's certainly worth celebrating for the 2.8 percent of those in ESPN standard leagues who activated him, but entering Sunday's game, he had 28 fantasy points for the season. Hernandez remains the New England tight end of choice.

Second down: On the Steelers side, maybe the game would have been different -- even more of a shootout -- had Hines Ward not become concussed and attached to the sideline for the game's duration. Like Brady to a degree, Ben Roethlisberger exorcised some fantasy demons with his performance -- he had 15 points in Weeks 8/9 -- though it leaves us wondering whether half the 387 passing yards and a few of the touchdowns simply came due to garbage time playing catch-up. Hey, just a thought. I'll be ranking Mike Wallace better than Ward the next few weeks, and Roethlisberger right with Brady, safely in the top 10.

Third down: I wonder how many fantasy owners will win this week because of the David Garrard Hail Mary pass that beat the Houston Texans. The stats count just the same, of course, and Garrard continues to be an all-or-nothing fantasy option. Can he exploit a decent Browns defense in Week 11? I'm skeptical. However, I'm not at all skeptical about running back Maurice Jones-Drew; his owners surely noticed the lack of rushing touchdowns, but fantasy's No. 3 overall pick doubled his season total Sunday with a pair of ground scores and his third 100-yard rushing game. He remains a top-10 option for me, but every once in a while it's nice to have a reminder what he's capable of.

Fourth down: And finally, we close with a former Patriot -- and Viking and Raider, for that matter -- in the aforementioned Randy Moss. Look, maybe I'm not his biggest fan from a fantasy aspect, as I wrote when the Tennessee Titans took the plunge, but his debut continued a season-long trend in that it was much ado about, well, very little. I won't say "about nothing" because Moss remains capable of statistical prowess. I just remain skeptical he'll supply it on a consistent basis. He's out of my top 10 until the Week 12 game in Houston against the league's worst pass defense. Even if he's not motivated, he has to perform in that game just based on ability.