If you're reading this, you are officially one of two types of Fantasy football team owner: a successful one, or a lucky one. Either way, welcome to the playoff run that all of your smack talk on the league's chat boards promised.
Two key injuries affect Fantasy lineups this coming week, and four key free agents could swing your matchup this week. Others will always help, but those injuries (and how fast you react to the waiver wire) could be the difference between holding a trophy and holding your...hopes for a victory until next season.
The injuries to MIN RB Adrian Peterson and NE TE Rob Gronkowski differ in severity and impact, but both require immediate attention. Gronkowski took a brutal hit to the knee, and his ACL exploded, adding to the misery that is owning Rob Gronkowski in Fantasy football leagues. Replacing an elite-level guy normally isn't easy...but this week there is a TE returning from injury that most leagues show as a free agent that had a major impact on last year's NFL Playoffs. Oh, he was also targeted eleven times last week.
BAL TE Dennis Pitta. Stop reading and go pick him up, especially if you're a Gronkowski owner. With Pitta, there is a better-than-average chance you will see no drop-off from losing the second-best (or best) tight end in the game for at least a week. Baltimore is slated to play Detroit on Monday Night. Detroit gives up large plots of real estate to the passing game (25th in league, average of 255 yds/game), and the bright lights seem to draw the best out of teams vying for a wild card berth. Pitta and WR Marlon Brown are two must-grabs for this week.
For those who drafted A.P. first overall (or paid wild amounts of salary cap in an auction league), the loss of the star Vikings back is a potential season-killer. The bright spot? His handcuff, RB Toby Gerhart. 15 carries for 89 yards after Peterson went down and familiarity with the offense will make this week's tilt with the Eagles into a world-class track meet. The passing game will be active, the game played indoors at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis, and those conditions will cause an opening of large running lanes holes for Gerhart, and the emergence of WR Cordarelle Patterson limits defense's ability to add extra guys to the line. Gerhart, Pitta, Patterson and Brown could be your swing guys this week.
On to the matchups:
THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
San Diego at Denver
The 28th-ranked pass defense of the Chargers meets the Broncos at home. If your opponent has any Broncos facing you this week, hope he forgets to set his lineup. WR Wes Welker is recovering from his second concussion in the last four weeks, but is listed as questionable. All other skill position guys get the green-light in this one. By the way, the team directly below the Chargers on the pass defense list? The Denver Broncos.
Stock in Xcel Energy, the provider of electricity to the Mile High scoreboard, is up on speculation about the final tally.
Start: QB Philip Rivers, WR Keenan Allen, TE Antonio Gates, RB Ryan Mathews for SD, QB Peyton Manning, TE Julius Thomas, WR Demaryius Thomas, RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Eric Decker for DEN.
SUNDAY MORNING GAMES
Buffalo at Jacksonville
Both teams are playing out the string. The Jags are on a three-game winning streak, and ending the season on a high note seems to be the priority in J'ville. Home game in favorable weather = good chance at a 4th straight victory. Start RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Cecil Shorts III. QB Chad Henne is an emergency pick, if a good QB hurts himself in practice this week. RB's C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are both FLEX plays at best, with Spiller getting a slight nod. The rest of the squad is a stay-away.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay
This is a bad time for TB RB Bobby Rainey to run into the Niners. The second-year back has had two solid games since taking over for injured RB Doug Martin, but the third will not come this week. Start QB Mike Glennon at your own risk, but the rest of the team should be watching from your virtual bench. As for the visitors, RB Frank Gore should be wearing down by now...but hasn't. QB Colin Kaepernick appears to be getting his swagger back, especially with WR Michael Crabtree slowly getting up to speed. WR Anquan Boldin and TE Vernon Davis are comfortable choices to start, as this should be a double-digit victory for San Francisco, with a defensive performance that should make the SF DEF a must-start.
Washington at Atlanta
An ugly scene unfolding in the nation's capitol, as Head Coach Mike Shanahan appears to be angling for dismissal. The chaos involved with their QB situation has boiled over, with Shanahan building his game plan for QB Kirk Cousins to get the start at the Georgia Dome. RG III is projected to be listed as the 3rd QB for the game. Ugh. RB Alfred Morris should expect to see safeties sneaking up to tighten up the run defense. Morris will still get some, but not the RB1 performances that Fantasy owners have come to rely on. WR Pierre Garcon will be a favorite target of Cousins, but that will not amount to much...even against a weak Falcon team that may be unintentionally dumping games to improve their draft status. This game personifies the Race to the Bottom. Only start as injury replacements from this one.
Chicago at Cleveland
The Bears are scrambling for a piece of the NFC North, in a three-team race that promises to stay competitive until the very end. QB Jay Culter is listed as Questionable, and QB Josh McCown has had a bit of a hot hand in the last few weeks. Until a starter is set, the quarterback is the main stay-away for this team. Start RB Matt Forte and WR's Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall with no hesitation. WR Josh Gordon should start against any defense, regardless of who's throwing it to him. He is destroying the NFL, and probably has a team that drafted him a bit deeper in the playoffs than expected. TE Jordan Cameron is still well above expectations, and makes a solid starter, but the RB Willis McGahee injury leaves the rest of the team off-limits. Just say no to drugs, and to QB's for the Browns.
Houston at Indianapolis
Two teams with zero need to win the game here. The Colts clinched the division, but trail all other division leaders in the standings, suggesting they will not get a bye week in the playoffs. That means it's time to rest the big boys soon. Houston may actually prefer losing, to secure a higher pick in the upcoming draft. In short, neither team will be going full-tilt in this one, despite it being a divisional matchup. HOU RB Ben Tate is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, so individually, he'd like to rack up some numbers...but there won't be much else happening here. QB Andrew Luck will play until the game is out of hand, but that won't lead to big numbers. Be wary of anyone going in this game at Lucas Oil Stadium past Tate.
Seattle at N.Y. Giants
The Seahawks are in the playoffs, but could still try to lock up the top seed this week. The Giants may be playing for respect, or at least to avoid the ire of their fans. With that said, Seattle will pummel Eli and Company. WR Victor Cruz is the only easy start for the Giants, with RB Andre Brown good as an RB2 or RB3. The Seahawks DEF is a must-start, along with RB Marshawn Lynch and QB Russell Wilson. WR's Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin are ok for WR3. WR Percy Harvin is listed as Questionable, but the team will want him to get as many reps as he can before the postseason. Keep an eye on his performance this week.
New England at Miami
The Dolphins are playing for the last wild card in the AFC, while New England is, barring an historic collapse, cruising to the division title and a first-round bye. I think the Pats win a tight one, but QB Ryan Tannehill will throw to everybody in turquoise to stop that from happening. If RB Daniel Thomas is fully healed from his ankle injury, expect the team to rest RB Lamar Miller one more week. Thomas was very effective against the Steelers, averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry in the win. Start Tannehill, WR's Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, watch the final injury reports on Miller/Thomas at RB, and start (or pickup up sleeper) TE Charles Clay, who is averaging more than 8 targets a week since mid-October. As for New England, the Gronkowski injury means one guy sitting out there (62% available over three sites) is worth a ton. RB Shane Vereen is being used as a flanker/screen target, illustrated by his 12 catch, 153 yard performance against the Browns. For the year, Vereen has 40 catches...and only 38 carries. Also start: WR Kenbrell Thompkins, QB Tom Brady, RB Steven Ridley (RB2) and WR Julian Edelman (just guessing, but I think it's his turn in the Belichick WR tilt-a-whirl this week)
Philadelphia at Minnesota
Track meet. Philly has an unstoppable offense...at least unstoppable for the dumpster fire on the Vikings' side of that matchup. The only way the Vikings don't lose by 30 is to throw, throw, throw...and sneak Gerhart up the middle for 40 yards at a time like last week's shootout with Baltimore. QB Matt Cassell is gaining confidence in rookie WR Cordarrelle Patterson, and neither defense is a threat to shut the other team down. Love RB LeSean McCoy, like WR's DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper...and loooove QB Nick Foles. RB Toby Gerhart will have a RB2 day, with 20-ish carries and a few catches. If you start either defense, please close this column and back away. Slowly.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON GAMES
Kansas City at Oakland
The Chiefs want to challenge the Broncos to win the division outright, but will likely end up as a road favorite on Wild Card Weekend. This week, however, the engine will be running full-speed. RB Jamaal Charles will run for 63,000 yards (projected) against the Raider D, who are the main cause behind a three-game losing streak they bring to the o-dot-co this weekend. Don't expect much out of the passing game, as the result will likely be determined early, and the Chiefs will run clock. RB Rashad Jennings could score well if he strikes early, but otherwise this will be QB Matt McGloin's Big Contract Push of a game. WR's Rod Streater and Andre Holmes will be the beneficiaries. Don't start either of them if you have two legit pass catchers, though. These two are stopgap-only plays.
N.Y. Jets at Carolina
QB Cam Newton.
(Do I need to put anything else down?)
Start at Jet at your own peril. The Panther D is ridiculous right now. Start WR Steve Smith, TE Greg Olsen and in a pinch...start WR Brandon LaFell. That pick could win or lose a matchup this week...but something about the Jets' reputation on defense makes me believe that Rex Ryan will focus on taking Smith out of the game (with double coverage, not a crow bar), leaving LaFell as a very solid option.
Green Bay at Dallas
Both are in contention, and both have serious issues. If QB Aaron Rodgers manages to start this week, ignore the previous sentence, and count on a Packer win. Otherwise, this will be a slog-fest. Bad defense meets marginal offense. QB Tony Romo will have some numbers (he should be an 'always start' at this point, unless you have him backing up #18), and WR Jordy Nelson will have an 8-catch, 100-yd day. The rest is a crapshoot.
New Orleans at St. Louis
The Saints can, with a confluence of circumstance, clinch the division with a win. The Rams, with no luck whatsoever, will end up with two picks in the Top 12 of the draft. Pride will be the only thing stopping the Rams from giving up 60 at home to a motivated QB Drew Brees. Start TE J. Graham always, add a big day for RB Pierre Thomas to the mix, add a splash of WR Kenny Stills going deep, and the final score will be less-than-pretty to Saint Louis natives. Ram Starts: RB Zac Stacy only if you have no choice. That's it.
Arizona at Tennessee
A tricky situation for owners depending on either RB Rashard Mendenhall or Andre Ellington. I would stay away from both, as Arizona will be aggressive against the Titans on both sides of the ball this week. I don't think any Titan is dependable, although QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is due to rebound from two bad weeks, but the whole game is a stay-away, even from a gambling standpoint. Start your must-starts (WR Larry Fitzgerald, WR Michael Floyd), and leave the rest on the bench. QB Carson Palmer will be average.
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
This game is a football fan's dream, but a Fantasy nightmare. Pittsburgh is out of the playoff hunt, but will not roll over for a division foe. The game is a night game in a very cold Heinz Field, with a CIN RB tandem that is almost perfectly even on the season and a beat-up Steeler squad. Ugh. Oh well, here goes nothing:
Start WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton, WR Antonio Brown, RB LeVeon Bell. Sit QB Ben Roethlisberger (begrudgingly) and both CIN RB's (Green-Ellis, Bernard). Can't wait to see how wrong these picks are...this game will be very good television.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL
Baltimore at Detroit
Both teams are hungry, both can be potentially awesome or terrible on both sides of the ball, and both are very physical squads. Expect a smash mouth, 28-24 game, with WR Calvin Johnson's 165 yards and 2 TD's coming up just short against QB Joe Flacco's 325 yard, 3 TD performance. WR Torrey Smith will shake off a bad week against Minnesota, and be effective here, as will RB Joique Bell. Expect RB Reggie Bush to be limited in use if the game gets out of hand, as the team wants Bush at 100% for the playoffs (should they make it). Definitely sit a good BAL DEF, since this will not be a turnover battle, as much as a hit them until they hurt battle.
Good luck, and good scoring!
By Bill Hudson