As one-time Indianapolis head coach Jim Mora's words ring in your ear, most Fantasy football leagues have moved into the first week of Playoff territory. Many, if not all, of those leagues have various rules locking down rosters (to prevent teams out of the playoffs from dumping good players into the Waiver pool for their buddies) and limiting adds and drops. We'll still touch on a few last-minute injury replacements, but this week will focus more on who's good to start and who's ripe to sit.
Much of the actual NFL playoff picture has taken shape, with the exception of which horrible AFC teams will get to be double-digit underdogs in the actual playoff first rounds. That means many teams (with many star players) will start to structure their game play to favor health for older players and experience for younger ones...and that means trouble for some of the guys you depended on to make your playoffs.
That leads me to first breakdown (briefly, I swear) the teams into groups, based on how much they have left to play for.
First, the teams that are done in four weeks, no matter what metric you use:
Washington, Minnesota, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Houston are mathematically eliminated.
Who's mathematically alive
Jacksonville would need several pieces to fall right (currently 3-9...but not out. The AFC is terrible after the first five teams.) to make it, and Oakland, Cleveland, Green Bay, the NY Giants and Buffalo are one minor mistake from calling it a season. Those teams will do the following three things:
1) Start every rookie and second-year guy they believe could be good.
2) Try out every crazy play in their playbook in an effort to upset rivals in their remaining games.
3) Rest every veteran with a significant injury that is not in a contract situation making them need to be on the field (stat bonuses, games played, etc.)
That means guys like MIN RB Adrian Peterson, GB QB Aaron Rodgers (if he even returns), HOU WR Andre Johnson, ATL QB Matt Ryan, WAS RB Alfred Morris and NYG QB Eli Manning will only play if there is no reason to let them begin healing for next year. Monitor these normally-automatic starts carefully.
It also means that CLE WR Josh Gordon, TB RB Bobby Rainey, MN WR Cordarrelle Patterson, BUF QB E.J. Manuel and GB RB Eddie Lacy will get as much playing time as they can handle, and will likely be showcased for evaluation purposes.
None of that means you should sit Andre Johnson in favor of Patterson, for example, but Johnson ranks a touch lower, and Patterson a touch higher, than they would in Week 6, with the season still on the line.
Who's already in?
Next, the teams secure where they currently sit:
Denver, Seattle (already clinched a playoff spot!), Indy and New England have their divisions well within control. The battle for the #1 seed in each conference may keep things interesting, but if there's any doubt about DEN QB Peyton Manning's health this week, John Fox will sit him. These teams will not give the luxury of time to grow to their youngsters these next four weeks, unless a game becomes a blowout, and those guys play in the 4th quarter.
In short, guys like DEN RB Montee Ball will probably get more time, while RB Knowshon Moreno will not see too many 20+ carry efforts until January. Monitor the following guys closely, as their individual team situations will change day-by-day for the next few weeks...but grade them down if they clinch anything:
DENVER - QB P. Manning, RB K. Moreno, WR W. Welker, DEF
SEATTLE - DEF, RB M. Lynch
INDIANAPOLIS - RB T. Richardson (should be benched soon anyways), DEF
NEW ENGLAND - TE R. Gronkowski, RB L. Blount, DEF, RB S. Vereen
**Important note: These teams will take various approaches to the home-field advantage. Denver, for example, is sure to play games outdoors this playoff season, so their incentive may be lesser than Indy, who benefits from the dome during the colder months.
Who's battling for the remaining spots?
The remaining sixteen teams are out for blood this week and next. That will lead to a heavier reliance on their stars, and lesser output from their supporting casts. For ease of reading, I will sort out the upside and downside for each team, one-by-one, by division.
NFC EAST - Will get a division winner, 5 percent chance at wild card team.
Dallas: Uptick for QB T. Romo, RB D. Murray, WR D. Bryant, DEF... Downtick for TE J. Witten and WR T. Williams
Philadelphia: Uptick for QB N. Foles (MVP candidacy in play, if numbers hold), RB L. McCoy, WR D. Jackson, WR R. Cooper...downtick for WR J. Avant, TE's B. Celek and Z. Ertz, DEF. Cut QB M. Vick if you still have him, and add someone who will see the field the next few weeks.
NFC NORTH - Division winner only
Detroit: Uptick for WR C. Johnson, QB M. Stafford, RB J. Bell, RB R. Bush...downtick for TE's (time splitting deluxe) and DEF.
Chicago: Uptick for RB Matt Forte, WR S. Marshall, A. Jeffrey. Downtick for TE M. Bennett, QB J. McCown.
**This one is tough, since QB Jay Cutler proves an issue for all Fantasy owners, as well as for the Bears' management. Cutler is soon to be a free agent, and his Franchise Tag price is over $18 million. Cutler has missed almost a dozen games since the start of 2011, and is questionable for this week. Sit him if you can afford to this week, then watch his health. If he were healthy right now, I would start him over everyone not named Peyton Manning or Drew Brees in Fantasy. Contract negotiations make for prolific passing stats.**
NFC SOUTH - Div. Winner, 95% chance at one Wild Card team
New Orleans: Uptick for QB D. Brees, WR's K. Stills and M. Colston. Downtick for DEF and RB's D. Sproles, M. Ingram and P. Thomas, as the unreliability over who will get touches makes them people you start when you're ready to end your Fantasy season.
Carolina: Uptick for DEF (currently on fire), QB C. Newton, WR S. Smith and TE G. Olsen. Downtick for RB D. Williams and WR T. Ginn, Jr. --- These two teams are tied for the division, play each other this week...and again in two more weeks. This will be highly competitive in both games, making the downticks minor and the upticks much more pronounced.
NFC WEST - Div. Winner, 95% chance at one Wild Card, 5% chance at two Wild Card teams.
Seattle: Uptick for DEF (monsters!!!), QB R. Wilson, RB M. Lynch, WR's D. Baldwin and G. Tate. No downticks.
San Francisco: Hosting Seattle, then at TB, home vs. ATL, at Arizona. A tough game sandwich, surrounding two winnable ones. Expect max effort out of these guys until Week 16, where many of your Super Bowls lie. Uptick - WR M. Crabtree (huge return from injury), QB C. Kaepernick, WR A. Boldin, RB F. Gore (possibly not this week, but definitely in Weeks 15-17), TE V. Davis, DEF...downtick for those hoping for anything out of WR M. Manningham.
Arizona: Still in the hunt for a Wild Card, especially if the loser of the CAR/NO game collapses after the games. Uptick - RB A. Ellington, WR's L. Fitzgerald and M. Floyd, slight uptick for QB C. Palmer...downtick for DEF (injury bug), all TE's in timeshare, WR Andre Roberts.
AFC EAST -Div. Winner (likely New England), 15% chance at one wild card
New England: Expect most of the studs to see limited time after this week's game. Downtick for QB T. Brady, TE R. Gronkowski
Miami: Uptick for QB R. Tannehill, WR's B. Hartline and M. Wallace. Downtick for everyone else.
N.Y. Jets: Uptick for DEF, downtick for all others.
AFC NORTH - Div. Winner, 15% chance at one wild card
Cincinnati: Uptick for QB A. Dalton, WR's M. Sanu and A.J. Green, RB's B. Green-Ellis and G. Bernard (an actual good timeshare), DEF. Downticks for WR M. Jones (one fluke week away from no one knowing his name), TE's T. Eifert and J. Gresham.
Baltimore: Stay away from RB Ray Rice, but expect upticks from all others on both sides of the ball, including QB J. Flacco, WR T. Smith and TE D. Clark
Pittsburgh: WR Antonio Brown will be huge for the rest of the season. Huge. Also on uptick: QB B. Roethlisberger, TE H. Miller, WR's E. Sanders and J. Cotchery, DEF. No downticks, but little chance of playoff run. Watch for them to be knocked out of the hunt, at which point the only ones seeing the field will be RB L. Bell and WR A. Brown.
AFC SOUTH - Div. Winner, 2.5% chance at one wild card
Indianapolis: One week away from everyone not named Andrew Luck resting. For this week, upticks for RB D. Brown, TE C. Fleener only. Cincinnati DEF will make it tough on QB A. Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton, but they'll be competitive after that...if they need to be.
AFC WEST - Div. Winner, 98% chance at one wild card, 0.00036% chance at two.
Denver: The Broncos have a late start on Sunday, while the Chiefs play at 1:00 p.m. EST. If the Chiefs lose, Denver may start resting QB P. Manning in the second half with a small lead. Not likely, but possible. All uptick guys until clinching the division.
Kansas City: The only name to watch here is RB Jamaal Charles. He is on a mission. Must start at all times. The DEF will continue to score, but the rest of these guys are emergency starts only, and only WR D. Bowe could even possibly return to a regular in a playoff lineup.
San Diego: The Chargers have a veteran team, and an infinitesimal chance at the playoffs. They should be in the list of those starting young guys...but the AFC sucks, so you can't write them off. Uptick for WR Keenan Allen, QB P. Rivers, RB R. Matthews. Downtick for RB D. Woodhead, TE A. Gates (nursing hamstring injury), DEF.
Matchup of the Week: The Stink Bowl on Thursday
The Texans travel to Jacksonville, in the battle for draft position...er, an AFC matchup. RB Ben Tate should fare well, but the resurgent Jaguars will see good production from RB M. Jones-Drew and WR C. Shorts III. WR Ace Sanders could surprise for the rest of the season...so grab him if you need an WR3 really, really badly.
Blown Call of Week 13:
Not a player, not even a team...but a whole matchup!
"New Orleans at Seattle - This will be a great primetime game. High-octane on both sides of the ball. Will be a boondoggle for Fantasy holders. Add in the loudest crowd in the NFL, and this could be one for the ages."
Well, at least the last sentence is right on.
Good luck, and good scoring!