StrategyDecember 16, 2004

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Starters and Benchwarmers – Week 15

By Jamey Feuer

Week 14 was truly a wild week in the NFL. The Bengals and Patriots engaged in a high-scoring see-saw shoot-out, with the gutty Pats ultimately pulling ahead for good late in the fourth, and the Saints beat the Cowboys rather handily and proved my Week 14 prognostication to be incorrect: the ‘Aints haven’t quit on head coach Jim Haslett. Washington kept it reasonably close with Philadelphia, provided fans with a Laveranues Coles sighting, and refused to allow Terrell Owens to beat them; the other Eagles did however. The Seahawks peeled themselves off of the canvas and beat a Viking team that is deep into its yearly second half swoon. The Texans, humiliated by the Colts and QB Peyton Manning earlier in the season, “held” Manning to a mere 300 yards and two TDs, and the Chiefs edged the Titans in the second-highest-scoring Monday Night Football tilt ever. And so we enter week 15 with the only certainty being that in the National Football League … nothing is ever certain.

As you select your starters for week 15, again keep in mind that as I wrote in this column last week, “overstrategizing” will only serve to help your opponent. Also, keep in mind that teams who have already secured playoff berths may well rest, or lighten, their money players’ loads in order to keep them as fresh as possible for the post-season. In addition, teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention may be more inclined to rest their nicked-up athletes, start younger players, and assess roles for the 2005 season.

Must-Start Quarterbacks

Donovan McNabb versus Dallas: Aside from one poor game against the Steelers, McNabb has been rock steady all season. The injury-depleted Dallas secondary has regressed a bit and isn’t nearly as intimidating or effective as last year’s model was. And oh yes, McNabb lit this Cowboy team up like a Christmas tree in week 10 with a line of 345 yards and four TDs. This week, look for 280 yards and three TDs.

Brian Griese versus New Orleans: A candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, Griese has seemingly rediscovered the form that landed him in the 2000 Pro Bowl as a Bronco. Beating Dallas last Sunday doesn’t diminish the Saints’ defensive woes, and with elusive, powerful RB Michael Pittman keeping opposing defenses honest and back on their heels, 270 yards and two TDs are certainly attainable numbers for the resurgent Griese. By the way, Griese has secured the confidence of head coach Jon Gruden and will enter the offseason confident, knowing that he will be the Buccaneer starter in ‘05.

Drew Brees at Cleveland: Another candidate for Comeback Player of the Year honors, Brees has been as cool as the other side of the pillow this season. With nothing to lose and operating a simplified offense, Brees has displayed the confidence, accuracy and leadership one expects of a high second-round pick. Also helping matters: a vastly improved O-line, receivers who actually catch the ball and can make things happen, and the sensational out-of-nowhere emergence of former hoopster Antonio Gates at tight end. With all-world RB LaDainian Tomlinson completely recovered from a groin strain and again running with confidence and purpose, a Cleveland D that was picked apart by Bills QB Drew Beldsoe and dismantled by RB Willis McGahee last Sunday will again have its hands full trying to figure out precisely where to allot its resources. Two hundred fifty yards and two TDs should be about right for Brees this week.

Sleeper Quarterback

Kerry Collins at Tennessee: This past Monday night, the Chiefs hung 49 points on the hapless Titan team. Missing from the Tennessee secondary due to assorted injuries are CB Samari Rolle and safeties Lance Schulters and Tank Williams. A Raider team and QB that makes its living by stretching the field could have, well, a “field day” against this injury-depleted corps.

Quarterbacks Who Should Be Benched

Byron Leftwich at Green Bay: Playing in Green Bay … in what promises to be bitter cold weather … with a playoff berth on the line, never bet against Favre and the Pack. Sack specialist Kabeer Biaja-Biamila, NT Grady Jackson, LB Nick Barnett and friends will make an already hostile stadium and difficult environment even more unfriendly for a team that plays better with the mercury hovering somewhere above … I don’t know, one degree let’s say. This should be a relatively low-scoring, close game.

Chad Pennington versus Seattle: Pennington was one of my three Must-Bench QBs last week as well. And with a line that included zero TDs, three interceptions, and no trips inside the Steeler red zone, that selection was well justified. This week, Chad is a Must-Bench candidate not based upon the strength of the Seahawk defense, but rather because of what we saw from him physically last week. Pennington floated passes all day, clearly lacked zip and arm strength, his timing was off, and he seemed to jump into each throw in order to put a little more giddy-up on the ball. Until Pennington performs more like the Pro-Bowl Jet QB we’re used to seeing, he’ll be on my “All-Pine” squad.

Matt Hasselback at New York Jets: With the exception of last week’s performance against the Minnesota Vikings, who are both deep into their annual end-of-season collapse and have suffered costly injuries on the defensive side of the ball, Hasselback has regressed and is a shadow of last year’s model of QB consistency. Against a young and talented Jet D, Hasselback is a risky start.

Must-Start Running Backs

Kevin Jones versus Minnesota: OK, I’m officially a believer. With four consecutive good games under his belt, Kevin Jones has arrived. And against a Viking D that quite possibly couldn’t figure out how to stop a washroom faucet from running, Jones is a sure bet to again exceed 100 yards rushing. Look for 130 yards and a pair of TDs this week.

LaDainian Tomlinson at Cleveland: Having completely recovered from a painful groin pull (I squirm just typing the words “groin pull”) that hindered his cut-back ability and sapped his usual explosiveness, Tomlinson should have room to operate behind the continued success of Drew Brees and the passing game; 135 yards and two TDs is my projection.

Michael Pittman versus New Orleans: Pittman had a tough day last Sunday running against a San Diego D that flows to the ball and has the ability to shut down any team’s run game. This week, however, Pittman draws a much better match-up against a Saints defense that often appears to shun contact and has trouble with such physical backs. Last week, even though the Saints prevailed, they had a hard time containing Cowboy RB Julius Jones who has a similar running style to that of Pittman; look for 110 yards and two TDs from the brutish Buc back.

Willis McGahee at Cincinnati: Again I wanted to limit this list to three backs, and again I find myself unable to resist adding a fourth. McGahee draws a tremendous fantasy matchup against a Cincy defense that is allowing opponents a shameful 140+ rushing yards per game. McGahee should have no trouble racking up 130 yards and two TDs against the toothless Bengal D.

Sleeper Running Back

Tatum Bell or Reuben Droughns at Kansas City: Beware! Following the carousel that is the Bronco running game could cause vertigo. Due to Reuben Droughns’ recent fumbling issues (he put two on the ground last week after I called him “sure-handed”) Bronco head coach Mike Shanahan decided to plug rookie RB Tatum Bell into the O. Shanahan wasn’t disappointed by Bell’s week 14 performance. Assuming he can go this week after suffering a seperated shoulder towards the end of last week’s game, Bell could run roughshod over a Chief D that was embarrassed by the Titans on Monday Night Football this past week. If Bell is unable to go, Reuben Droughns should be a good play as well. Droughns’ past two games aside, he’s had a phenomenal season and has been a waiver wire wonder for many a fantasy team.

Running Backs Who Should Be Benched

Brian Westbrook versus Dallas: I may end up regretting this choice, but I’m going with the logic that Eagle head coach Andy Reid is going to want the versatile Westbrook to have as fresh legs as possible for the post-season, and will feel comfortable giving the bulk of the touches to veteran RB Dorsey Levens.

Deuce Mcallister at Tampa Bay: Deuce simply can’t shake loose from the high ankle sprain that has hampered him since early in the season. Couple the injury with LB Derrick Brooks and a Buc D that remains stout against the run, and this could be a weak week for Deuce.

Edgerrin James versus Baltimore: Having a QB like Peyton Manning should be a blessing for a back like Edge as it forces defenses to loosen and prevents the safety from creeping up in order to better support the run stuffers. But during Manning’s relentless, and what is more frequently appearing to be single-minded, pursuit of Dan Marino’s single-season passing yardage and TD records, Edge has often been shut out of the end zone. Even in obvious run situations Manning will drop back to pass. James is a poor play this week against a Raven D that features sideline-to-sideline tackling machines in LBs Ray Lewis and Edgerton Hartwell.

Must-Start Wide Receivers

Terrell Owens versus Dallas: OK, so TO did anything but put on a “receiving clinic” last Sunday against Washington as I so boldly predicted and so profoundly regret. But TO has a habit of stepping up after being shut down, and this week should be no exception. Earlier in the season TO had a poor showing against the Steelers and proceeded to blow up against these same Cowboys the following week with six catches for 134 yards and three TDs. If Saints QB Aaron Brooks was able to expose the vulnerable Cowboy secondary as he did last Sunday, imagine the damage Eagles QB Donovan McNabb and a motivated TO could do. Overdue for a big day, 125 yards and two TDs shouldn’t be too difficult a task for TO this week. I hope.

Jimmy Smith at Green Bay: Smith has been the Jags’ go-to receiver all season long, but recently rookie WR and first round pick Reggie Williams has begun to step up and has helped alleviate some of the pressure. Even though QB Byron Leftwich is a QB I suggest benching this week, the Packer D is bringing up the bottom of the league in pass defense and will have to pay considerable attention to Fred Taylor; 135 yards and one TD would be a reasonable projection for Smith.

Lee Evans at Cincinnati: This is not as big a stretch as it might seem. Evans is what old-school football scouts would call a “speed merchant.” He also happens to possess a soft pair of hands and plays alongside reliable WR Eric Moulds and breakout RB Willis McGahee. Cincinnati was gutted through the air and pounded on the ground by the Patriots last week, and the Bills will probably follow a similar game plan against them this week. Evans could easily accumulate 130 yards and notch a score or two.

Sleeper Wide Receiver

Clarence Moore at Indianapolis: At 6′7″, Clarence Moore is one of the NFL’s tallest receivers. He’s also developed a nice chemistry with improving Baltimore QB Kyle Boller. A healthy TE Todd Heap tends to draw much of the opposition’s attention, and if RB Jamal Lewis can run on his injured ankle, Moore should find himself in single coverage. If Lewis is ineffective, backup RB Chester Taylor has done yeoman’s work filling in for him and would be a starter for many teams. While the Colt secondary has shown some improvement of late, they’re still allowing opponents 250+ yards through the air per game. Moore probably won’t break 100 yards receiving, but he is a good bet to find the end zone and win a jump-ball or two.

Wide Receivers Who Should Be Benched

Andre Johnson versus Chicago: An improving, young Bears secondary has aquitted itself well of late, and Chicago will exert significant pressure on Texans QB David Carr who’s been struggling over the course of the past few games. With Carr trying to find his groove and the Bears defense missing stud MLB Brian Urlacher, expect Houston to give RB Domanick Davis a heavy workload this week.

Joe Horn at Tampa Bay: A Buc D that has already racked up 37 Sacks will be breathing down Saint QB Aaron Brooks’ neck all game, and an above-average secondary that has averaged at least one interception per game should be able to contain Buc WRs Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth.

Reggie Wayne versus Baltimore: This too is a risky pick. But Baltimore is a team that has a knack for forcing turnovers and possesses one of the most talented and aggressive secondaries in the league. While the Ravens will have trouble trying to cover all of Peyton Manning’s weapons, I had to pick one. And, CBs Chris McAlister, Gary Baxter, and “legend in his own mind and time” nickleback Deion Sanders are all talented enough to play on an island, covering their men without help.

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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