StrategyDecember 11, 2004

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Starters and Benchwarmers

By Jamey Feuer

The 2004 NFL regular season has passed as swiftly as Shaun King’s hold on the quarterback position in Arizona. And accordingly, fantasy leagues near and far are holding the first rounds of their playoffs this week, providing team owners with profound cases of gastric distress as they agonize over which players to start and which to sit.

What I find fascinating is that athletes one wouldn’t think twice about starting during the regular season have their owners gnawing fingernails to the quick this week. What’s the best plan when making these decisions? Don’t “overstrategize.” Go with your instincts. If you are vying for your league’s title then your instincts have served you well, having taken you this far. That being said, here’s a list of athletes that qualify as must plays, and others an owner would be wise to bench.

Must-Start Quarterbacks

Peyton Manning at Houston: Houston’s Reliant Stadium will become “Peyton’s Place” this Sunday as Manning continues his relentless assault upon Dan Marino’s single-season yardage and TD records. Manning made the Houston D look like a High School squad earlier this year, torching them to the tune of 320 yards and three TDs. Another three scores and 350 yards this week may well be a conservative projection.

Daunte Culpepper vs. Seattle: Culpepper has picked up his level of play, developing a nice rapport with WR Nate Burleson and TE Jermaine Wiggins, and with a little bit of luck, WR Randy Moss will serve as more than a decoy this weekend (although late reports indicate that Moss is experiencing back issues). In addition, Seattle’s secondary has been absolutely porous, particularly in the fourth quarter. RB Onterrio Smith will keep the defense honest and a line of three TDs, 275 yards, and possibly an additional TD on the ground is certainly attainable for Culpepper.

Brett Favre vs. Detroit: Favre, the ultimate contender, has his team in the thick of the playoff hunt despite the team’s awful D. This week, Green Bay will be relying even more upon Favre’s arm as RBs Ahman Green, still suffering from a rib injury, and Najeh Davenport, hindered by a bum wheel, will be at less than 100%. With the assistance of talented wide receivers Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and red-zone favorite Javon Walker, three touchdowns and 250 yards should be about right.

Quarterbacks Who Should Be Benched

Chad Pennington at Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has reestablished the “Blitz-burgh” defense and makes the Steelers a very difficult team to scheme for. Expect a very good and aggressive defense to harass Pennington all day.

Byron Leftwich vs. Chicago: Leftwich has made some nice strides this season, but he’s got a balky knee and faces a Chicago defense that intercepted Daunte Culpepper three times in the red zone and effectively put the clamps on the potent Viking offense. MLB Brian Urlacher (a surprise start last Sunday) and friends will prevent Leftwich from finding a comfort zone. And while Jacksonville may ultimately win this contest, it should be a low scoring affair, and Chicago will probably see a lot of RB Fred Taylor.

Jake Plummer vs. Miami: Plummer’s play has certainly improved since his arrival in Denver, but he still tries to do too much at times and remains prone to mental errors. With the playoffs not quite out of sight and the Miami D banged up and missing its top playmakers, expect Denver Head Coach Mike Shanahan to give the ball to sure-handed RB Reuben Droughns 30-35 times.

Must-Start Running Backs

Shaun Alexander at Minnesota: Alexander faces a Minny D that has been soft all season and has allowed opposing backs an average of five yards per carry and 130 yards rushing per game. In addition, the Vikings lost top cornerback and team-leading tackler Antoine Winfield last Sunday to an ankle injury. The Metrodome is one of the noisiest venues in sports, and with Matt Hasselback struggling, to say the least, look for Mike Holmgren to run Alexander all day; 130 yards and 3 TDs would be a “sound” projection.

Willis McGahee vs. Cleveland: As good as McGahee has been, team sources say that he’s still not 100%. Scary. Now that RB Travis Henry is done for the season with a broken leg, burning last season’s first-round draft pick on McGahee now looks more like a stroke of genius than arrogance. Cleveland has allowed opponents an average of 140 yards rushing per contest. With Drew Bledoe again throwing the ball with confidence to savvy Eric Moulds and speedster Lee Evans, Cleveland must respect the pass and won’t be able to stack the box. Look for 150 yards and 2 TDs.

Julius Jones vs. New Orleans: Wow! A healthy Julius Jones has really been eye-popping over the course of the past few games. Quick and very powerful, Jones runs with a low center of gravity, good pad level, gains yards after contact, and is rarely brought down by the first defender. A New Orleans D that has had its problems against the run and seems to have given up on the season could allow Jones to gain 200 yards and a pair of TDs.

Edgerrin James at Houston: I wanted to limit this list to the top three backs, but I’d be remiss if I omitted Edge. Having completely recovered from his knee injury, James is on pace for 1,500 yards and another rushing title. Colt QB Peyton Manning positively torched Houston earlier this season, and this should create room for James to run: 150 yards and two TDs.

Running Backs Who Should Be Benched

Tiki Barber at Baltimore: The stingy and talented Baltimore defense will focus on stopping Tiki, who did not have a particularly good showing last week against Washington, and dare rookie QB Eli Manning to beat them. Keep in mind, Tiki tends to wear down at the end of the season and seems to be doing so already.

Curtis Martin at Pittsburgh: Yeah, I know, Martin acquitted himself well against the Steelers the last time they faced one another. But … this is a different Steeler team and Big Ben Roethlisberger has everyone playing with confidence. Chad Pennington is also still shaking off the rust, and with the passing game not yet up to full speed Martin will have to fight for every yard.

Marshall Faulk at Carolina: If you’re still playing Faulk, chances are you’re out of playoff contention anyway. If you must play a Ram RB, Steven Jackson, who’ll be the Ram’s feature back next season, is the far better option.

Must-Start Wide Receivers

Terrell Owens at Washington: Although TO is a must-start every week, expect him to put on a receiving clinic this weekend. Washington must prepare for multipurpose RB Brian Westbrook and shadow QB Donovan McNabb, who’s always a threat to tuck and run. TO should find himself in single coverage from time to time. So will McNabb. 100 yards and three TDs? Yes, I think so…

Javon Walker vs. Detroit: Walker has developed a nice chemistry with Brett Favre and has already notched ten TDs and exceeded 1000 yards receiving. He’s Brett’s go-to guy and first option in the red zone, and should see even more action than usual as the Pack’s backs are banged up: 125 yards and two TDs.

Eric Moulds vs. Cleveland: Although Moulds shouldn’t be expected to post jaw-dropping numbers this week, he’s still one of the more solid WR plays. With Buffalo’s offense now revolving around and relying upon RB Willis McGahee, Bledsoe has found himself with more time to throw and has rediscovered his long-lost confidence and accuracy. With enough time, Bledsoe can still pick apart any secondary, and savvy receiver Eric Moulds will always find a way to get open. This week, that shouldn’t prove to be too challenging a task against the sad-sack Browns. Look for 120 yards and a TD.

Wide Receivers Who Should Be Benched

Issac Bruce at Carolina: With Chris Chandler, aka “The Concussion Kid;” at the helm this week, Bruce should ride pine. Chandler seems to be more comfortable throwing to WR Torry Holt.

Chad Johnson at New England: Somehow the Pats have managed to overcome hardships which would have buried most other teams. Even with Patriot WRs playing CB, they win. In fact, Patriot WR Troy Brown has more interceptions than Oakland’s top CB, Charles Woodson.

Jimmy Smith vs. Chicago: With no other Jag WR stepping up to take the heat off of Smith, Chicago won’t allow him to beat them. Jacksonville will most likely give the ball to RB Fred Taylor early and often, and play a game predicated upon field position.

Jamey Feuer is the Children’s Librarian for a large New Jersey community. Often, parents will bring their little ones to his library with the primary motive of talking sports with Jamey.

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