Thanksgiving Weekend marks the annual "Thinning of the Fantasy Herd", where about 1/3 of teams in a given league will begin to slack off on setting lineups, leave injured players active, and never look at matchups that would improve their chances at winning. Where they land on your schedule is out of your control, but the effect of their slacking off creates opportunity.
The injury bug doesn't watch the calendar, but the number of people in line to grab up replacements is down. Stay vigilant, as QB Matt Flynn, RB Bobby Rainey and WR Percy Harvin are just this year's names...injuries and cold weather make Fantasy champions.
If you have the players you need, you can now focus on matchups. If you are numbers-focused, the last five weeks of the season generally favor home teams at just short of a 60/40 split. Once you decide which team will win, then the stats can tell you how. For example, New Orleans will likely win with a short passing game, favoring TE Jimmie Graham, RB's Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas...and not with any consistent output from a talented WR corps. The Patriots will win with virtually no help from the run game. The Chiefs and Bengals score just enough to win with a turnover-creating DEF. Keep the perceptions you have of those teams in mind when setting your lineup.
On to the starters and sitters...listed by likely-owned players in each matchup.
Start 'Em or Sit 'Em:
Thursday Games (!)
Green Bay at Detroit - Turkey Bowl games typically start slow, then about half the time turn into shootouts. Detroit's passing attack is designed to win that type of game. If the Packer D somehow keeps the score under control early...it's still ugly in Green Bay until Rodgers comes back. Start GB WR James Jones, WR Jordy Nelson, RB Eddie Lacy...DET WR Calvin Johnson, QB Matthew Stafford, RB Reggie Bush, WR Kris Durham. Sit GB QB Scott Tolzein (Matt Flynn probable starter, but may not be announced in time to adjust lineup), WR Jarrett Boykin, GB DEF, TE Andrew Quarless...DET RB Joique Bell, All TE's, DET DEF.
Oakland at Dallas - Two teams that have been unsuccessful at getting out of their own way this season meet up in the Billionaire's Colossal Coliseum in Dallas this week. The Raiders will end up road kill in this one, unless Tony Romo gets crushed by a late hit to the sternum. Bet against any Raider getting close enough to get a chance to inflict said injury, and start every Cowboy that sees half the offensive snaps. Start OAK RB Rashad Jennings, WR Rod Streater...DAL WR Dez Bryant, QB Tony Romo, RB DeMarco Murray, TE Jason Witten. Sit OAK WR Denarius Moore (injury, expected back next week), QB Terrelle Pryor (either he's hurt...or he's in danger of getting that way against Dallas), OAK DEF. No DAL players on this side.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore - What was once a marquee matchup is now something more of...a marquee matchup in the AFC. Both of these teams are 5-6, and both are in a six-way tie for the last playoff spot, with three more teams one game back. With tiebreakers in play, the consensus is that the winner of this game is a likely candidate for the chance to get curb-stomped in the playoffs by New England or the Chiefs. These two teams are veteran-laden and desperate, and this game means something...expect a battle. The only strong Start I see for either team is their DEF's. This one will be a slugout. TD's will come after long drives in the darkness, and QB's will get sacked often. Sit PIT QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB LeVeon Bell, WR's Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery... BAL QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, everyone not named WR Torrey Smith. I don't recommend Smith, but he's too good to sit for most of the teams that have him.
Jacksonville at Cleveland - one player in this matchup ranks in the Top 20 at his position by stats: CLE WR Josh Gordon. Remember all of those teams tied at 5-6 in the AFC? These are not them. This game has the potential to be very sloppy, but not due to weather. Start JAX QB Chad Henne (if you REALLY REALLY need a QB), RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Cecil Shorts III...CLE DEF, WR Josh Gordon. Yup, that's it. Sit JAX DEF, WR Ace Sanders...CLE QB's Jason Campbell and/or Brandon Weeden, RB's Willis McGahee and/or Chris Ogbonnaya, TE Jordan Cameron (recent disappearance unexplained)
Tennessee at Indianapolis - QB Andrew Luck is cerebral, but competitive. That means he will not lose his cool this week, but he wants to run it up on a good defensive team within his own division. After a sound a**-whoopin' last week, expect fireworks. Titan QB's Jake Locker (injured) and Ryan Fitzpatrick have eerily similar stats on the year, despite Fitzpatrick getting one more full game than Locker... If Indy's secondary lays another egg, this game could not have a higher over/under. This one will scream offense, and the up-the-field kind, from both teams. Start TEN RB Chris Johnson, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Kendall Wright...IND QB Andrew Luck, WR T.Y. Hilton, TE Coby Fleener. Sit TEN WR Nate Washington, both team's DEF.
Chicago at Minnesota - Disclosure: your humble columnist is a huge Vikings homer.
The following things are working in favor of the Vikings going for a second consecutive tie this week: the game is at home, QB Jay Cutler is likely going to rest again, the Bears' front seven smells like a forgotten hot dog on the grill at a summer barbeque, after giving up 258 yards rushing to St. Louis' vaunted running attack of three guys no one drafted this past week.
Why the tie and not the win? Well, they're the Vikings. That's the way it plays out... pray for not losing. Start CHI RB Matt Forte, QB Josh McCown (big stat line coming here), WR Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, TE Martellus Bennett...MIN RB Adrian Peterson, QB Christian Ponder (surprises me, too...playing well and not in the elements this week), WR Cordarrelle Patterson, TE Kyle Rudolph. Sit CHI WR Earl Bennett, DEF...MIN WR's Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson.
Miami at N.Y. Jets - It's another 5-6 bowl! Both teams are playing for their coach's jobs (good luck with that), and both teams are playing for a crack at a playoff berth. Rain is possible, but won't alter the second-tier football they'll play at the new Meadowlands. I'm not saying this for effect. Do not start anyone from this game. I like MIA QB Ryan Tannehill plenty in terms of potential and all, but I think the Jets' D is going to hit him a lot. Might not rack up more than a sack or two, but they'll put shoulders into rib cages. Wait...did the NFL just make that illegal, too? In any event, NYJ QB Geno Smith is a dumpster fire, and there is no way to gauge what running back will do what for the Jets. Miami has no running game after the Martin/Incognito implosion. Just stay away if at all possible.
Arizona at Philadelphia - If this game is in Phoenix, I'd call it the Penn Relays II, since it would look like a track meet...but in Philly, with QB Nick Foles being given the starting job for the remainder of the year and his teammates rallying for him, the Eagles will score from all directions. ARI QB Carson Palmer will score Fantasy points with efficient passing, but it won't be enough to keep up. Start ARI RB Andre Ellington, QB Carson Palmer, WR's Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald...PHI QB Nick Foles, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson. Sit ARI DEF, RB Rashard Mendenhall...PHI TE's Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, WR Jason Avant.
Tampa Bay at Carolina - The Mike Glennon League-Endorsed Breakout continues in Carolina. This game is a football purist's dream...and a Fantasy player's unwieldy headache. There are several guys on both sides who can (and should) play to elite stats, but these division rivals always play weirdly-physical games that defy their records. Carolina is playing for the division, as they trail the Saints by just a game, but the Bucs DEF is capable, as they showed last week against the Lions. Winning seven straight and eight of nine is a sign that things are good for the Panthers, but fortune also dropped them into tight wins against two good teams, and a great schedule to get hot with. Am I predicting the Bucs suddenly are good enough for this win? Doesn't matter; Fantasy scoring is coming out of this one in droves. Start QB Mike Glennon, RB Bobby Rainey and WR Vincent Jackson...CAR QB Cam Newton and TE Greg Olsen are the only two must-starts. Sit anyone else from Tampa that you might have, including the kicker. CAR WR Steve Smith will not thrive without someone to jaw at, and he knows not to test Darrelle Revis, plus sit RB DeAngelo Williams. The team has 11 rushing TD's. Newton has five, and FB Mike Tolbert has 4. Your starting RB has only 2 rushing scores after 11 weeks? No, thank you.
New England at Houston - Brevity: This will be ugly for the home team. A solid defense has been reduced to respectable, due to never leaving the field. Brady and Co. will carve this up like its on the table Thursday (get it? 'Cuz it's a Turkey?)...Start NE QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, NE DEF...HOU RB Ben Tate should do ok. WR Andre Johnson will struggle a bit, but could be near his average. Sit NE WR Danny Amendola, RB's Brandon Bolden, LeGarrette Blount and Steven Ridley (if you have to start one, go against convention. Pick Blount. Belichcik wins by zigging when others zag)...HOU DEF, QB Case Keenum and TE Garrett Graham.
Atlanta at Buffalo - Two non-issue teams playing out a very long string. Ugh. Start ATL TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Harry Douglas...BUF QB E.J. Manuel, RB C.J. Spiller. Sit ATL RB Jacquizz Rodgers, QB Matt Ryan...BUF WR Stevie Johnson, TE Scott Chandler
St. Louis at San Francisco - The Niners' defense is currently passing out drool bibs for their upcoming matchup against Kellen Clemens. Don't anticipate a repeat of the Rams' outburst against Detroit last week on the ground. I don't bet directly on games, but I cannot imagine a way that St. Louis scores 20, or holds SF under 28. Start STL RB Zac Stacy, WR Tavon Austin...SF WR Anquan Boldin, TE Vernon Davis, QB Colin Kaepernick. Sit STL QB Kellen Clemens, WR Chris Givens...SF RB Frank Gore, RB LaMichael James and WR Mario Manningham.
Denver at Kansas City - A rematch of two teams that demolished the rest of the league, this time played at Arrowhead Stadium. KC's defense will show up for this one, and Denver's DEF better do the same, or their season could come to a disappointing ending. Start DEN QB Peyton Manning, RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Demaryius Thomas...KC DEF, RB Jamaal Charles, WR's Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. Sit TE Julius Thomas, DEN DEF, RB Montee Ball...KC has no must-sit players. They don't turn the ball over.
Cincinnati at San Diego - Only people in Cincinnati will get to see this game, since the DEN/KC game is on the same network. Too bad. This might be the most competitive game on the slate. A solid defense in Cincinnati faces off against an improving offensive unit led by a savvy pro. The other side of the ball has Andy Dalton trying to fend off the Chargers defensive front...yee-haw! Start CIN WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton...SD QB Philip Rivers, RB Danny Woodhead, WR Keenan Allen. Sit CIN TE's Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham...SD RB Ryan Mathews (minor injury), WR Eddie Royal (can dump for anybody getting reps now)
N.Y. Giants at Washington - Another division rivalry between two teams that cannot stick their head above water these days. The only guarantees out of these two teams are a solid running game and an abysmal night at QB for one of them. Sadly, I have both in my keeper league...and I want neither to start for me. Start NYG RB Andre Brown, WR Victor Cruz, NYG DEF...WAS RB Alfred Morris, TE Fred Davis (TE Jordan Reed is out) Sit NYG QB Eli Manning (only if able), WR Hakeem Nicks.
Monday Night 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. Start NO QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, TE Jimmy Graham, RB Darren Sproles and/or Pierre Thomas...SEA QB Russell Wilson, WR's Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin, RB Marshawn 'Skittles' Lynch. Sit NO DEF, SEA TE Zach Miller.
This is the last week of the regular season for about a third of your fellow players. Send 'em home with a lump on their Fantasy noggins...
Good luck, and good scoring.
By Bill Hudson (Twitter: @nosduhllib)