Week 15 concluded with the interesting phenomenon of league-wide parity rearing its head. I won’t speculate now as to whether or not parity is a good thing, but it has made for some very disappointing team and player performances and presents difficult personnel decisions for fantasy football fans. How so, you ask? Just take the New Orleans Saints, for example, who are doing their best schizophrenic “Sybil” impersonation. Flat as a pancake one week, they’re capable of showing true grit the next as they did against the Cowboys and Buccaneers in their last two games. The team and their enigmatic QB, Aaron Brooks, are difficult to anticipate, and which version of the Saints takes the field seems to vary from week to week. Although he possesses tremendous physical gifts, Brooks still makes bizarre decisions and myriad mental mistakes, tries to force passes into postage-stamp-sized openings and simply hasn’t been able to put it all together for an entire season.
This past week, a previously porous Saints D which saw Panthers fifth-string back Nick Goings and Cowboys rookie RB Julius Jones tally a combined 260 yards and two TDs on 59 totes allowed Buccaneer RB Michael Pittman the 130 yards rushing that I anticipated, but did keep him out of the end zone. Those pesky Saints! And on the opposite side of the field, the Buccaneers D was stout against RB Deuce McAllister (89 yards, 0 TDs) and the run but the secondary was not, permitting both WR Joe Horn and the talented but equally enigmatic Donte Stallworth to find the end zone. Furthermore, the unpredictable Saint D held resurgent Buc QB Brian Griese to one TD, picked him off once, and prevented him from exceeding 190 yards passing.
And lastly, how about the Green Bay Packers last week? Playing at home, with a playoff berth on the line, on a truly frigid Lambeau Field (I’d predicted a temperature of one degree; in actuality, the temperature dropped below zero during the game), against a Jacksonville Jaguars team that as a rule plays poorly in such polar climes, a fired up Favre and company came up as short as the thermometer’s mercury. The Packer D allowed RB Fred Taylor to tear off huge chunks of yardage and run virtually at will, while WR Jimmy Smith (one of my Week 15 “Must-Start WRs”) hauled in two big TDs. The Jag D disregarded the cold, and with an impressive gut-check, kept their post-season hopes alive while hindering Green Bay’s. Jacksonville pressured Favre all day, sacking him three times while forcing three picks and a fumble. Likewise, the Jag D played “Scrooge” to Pack back Ahman Green, forcing him to cough the ball up twice while holding him to under 100 yards with no TDs.
This week is the final round of playoffs for virtually all leagues. Therefore, each and every decision is crucial for those owners still vying for their league’s title, prizes and bragging rights, and now is certainly NOT the time to tinker or experiment. As the old expression goes, “you go with the horse(s) that brung ya’.”
Daunte Culpepper versus Green Bay: Culpepper has matured substantially this season as both QB and leader. He takes what opposing defenses are willing to give him, resists the temptation to force his passes and has cut down considerably on his turnovers, particularly fumbles. In addition, C-Pepp’s gotten much better at progressing through his reads and is as comfortable throwing the ball to WR Nate Burleson and TE Jermaine Wiggins as he is passing to his again healthy game-breaker, Randy Moss. Surrounded by a healthy offense, playing smart football and determined to avoid a repeat of last season’s heart-breaking collapse (it was heart-breaking for us Viking fans, at least!), against a Packer team that was embarrassed at Lambeau by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Culpepper should be good for 265 yards and three TDs.
Trent Green versus Oakland: Over the course of the past three games, Green’s posted 808 yards, nine TDs and two interceptions. The Chiefs’ week 13 game against this Raider team saw Green throw for 340 yards, three TDs and one pick. With Green on such a roll and well acquainted with the opposition, a line of 290 yards and another three TDs should be about right. If this Chiefs team could field any kind of D … they’d be unstoppable.
Billy Volek versus Denver: In QB Steve McNair’s absence, Volek has stepped up big time. Having spurned off-season starting job offers in order to return to a situation and offense he feels at home in, Volek has provided the Titans with a spark that unfortunately, the depleted defense cannot match. Over the course of the past four games, Volek has thrown for an eye-popping 1,521 yards, 14 TDs and a mere four interceptions. Plug those numbers into a regular 16 game season and you get a preposterous 6,100 yards and 56 TDs! With WR Desmond Mason the model of consistency on one side, and Drew Bennett, who’s positively blown up in recent weeks, on the other, Volek could easily go for another 275 yards and three scores at home.
Kerry Collins at Kansas City: My week 15 “Sleeper QB,” Collins had a monstrous 5 TD/1 INT day against a Titan team that was missing much of its secondary last Sunday. This week, Collins faces yet another defense and secondary that has become accustomed to surrendering swaths of yards and dozens of points. Against this Chief team, a line of 300 yards and three TDs would not be an outrageous prediction for a passing attack that stretches the field as capably as Collins and his receivers do.
Jake Plummer at Tennessee: The past four games haven’t been particluarly good ones for Bronco QB Jake “The Snake” Plummer. And, having tossed nine picks to a mere two TDs over that span, patience with the streaky QB is quite understandably running thinner than the mile-high air in Denver. This week, however, everyone’s offensive punching bag is on the Bronco docket; the defensively challenged Tennessee Titans who, during the same four game span, are allowing opponents to score a hair under 40 points per game. If the Broncos can straighten out the roller-coaster that is their running game, Plummer may be able to get his game going this week against the Titan’s terribly depleted and easily defeated secondary: 250 yards and three TDs.
Quarterbacks Who Should Be Benched
Kyle Boller at Pittsburgh: Although Boller has made progress and has quieted his detractors, the Raven offense still revolves around the run and relies upon its defense to stay in games. Expect the Steelers to blitz the young QB early and often, preventing him from establishing a rythm. In addition, TE Todd Heap can’t do it by himself, and the Ravens need more production from WRs Travis Taylor and the impressive but very raw rookie, Clarence Moore.
David Carr at Jacksonville: A Jag defense that frustrated Brett Favre by intercepting him three times, sacking him three times, forcing him to fumble once and effectively shutting down the Pack in the brutal cold at Lambeau last week should be capable of doing the same to Carr and company this time.
Ben Roethlisberger versus Baltimore: The Ravens came as close to shutting down The Peyton Manning Show as any team possibly could last week, holding him to the very human numbers of 249 yards and one TD. The last time the Ravens and Steelers faced off was week 2, coincidentally enough Big Ben’s first game as a pro, and he threw for 179 yards, two TDs and two interceptions. Having had ample time to prepare for Roethlisberger, expect Ravens defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn to bring the blitz from every point of the compass and mix up defensive looks in order to confuse Roethlisberger. There’s a great deal riding on the outcome of this game, and more than likely, the Ravens will see a steady diet of RB Jerome Bettis.
Must-Start Running Backs
Ahman Green at Minnesota: Green has had an irritating habit of fumbling at inopportune times. That aside, he’s still a top ‘Back and is a determined runner who can be difficult to bring down. Last week, the Vikings as they have had each week, had a hard time containing the run and Lion RB Kevin Jones. If the Lions had a QB capable of instilling confidence and winning a big game they probably would have won last week’s tilt against a Viking team that is playing poor Football and is backing into a playoff berth. With the Packers still in the playoff hunt and Green’s fumble contributing to Sunday’s Packer loss, look for the big back to try and redeem himself with a productive game against an arch-rival; 110 yards two TDs.
Larry Johnson versus Oakland: Penn State product Larry Johnson hopped out of his diapers, spat out the pacifier and finally went to work week 12. Having looked much like a bust (frightening visions of Ron Dayne danced through Chief’s fans heads) up until mid-season, LJ is now displaying the speed and elusiveness that he showed in college and is at long last justifying his first round pick status and quite possibly, cementing himself as Priest Holmes’ successor. The passing of the Chief’s feature ‘Back torch however, more than likely will not occur until the ‘06 season at the earliest. The Raiders have not displayed the ability to stop the run, as Falcon RBs Warrick Dunn and TJ Duckett capably illustrated week 14 by gutting the Raiders for a combined 168 rushing yards and four TDs. This week, look for Larry Johnson to notch 115 yards and two TDs.
Tiki Barber at Cincinnati: A Bengal team that prior to last Sunday’s game against the Bills was allowing opponents 140+ rushing yards per game has another tough match-up this week, the NY Giants and versatile RB Tiki Barber are coming to town! Tiki has been the unquestioned Giant team MVP, and though it appeared as if he might have been wearing down the past few games, he acquitted himself quite nicely against a tough Steeler D last Sunday racking up 114 total yards and one TD. Rookie Giant QB Eli Manning threw the ball with more confidence and accuracy and provided Tiki with some room to operate. If the young “Man-ning” can build upon last week’s performance and is able to mount an effective aerial campaign again this week, Tiki should eclipse 100 yards and score once or twice on a Bengal D that remains… toothless.
Kevin Jones versus Chicago: Make it five consecutive very solid games for rookie Kevin Jones as he had another nice game against the NFC North rival Vikings Sunday. While he didn’t reach 100 yards rushing, the Lions were losing by double digits for much of the game and the Vikes’ forced Joey Harrington and WR Roy Williams to try and beat them. Jones did however, notch a TD and eclipsed the century mark in combined yards. Over the past 5 games Jones has run for 630 yards and three TDs. Against a Bear D is sorely missing it’s field general, MLB Brian Urlacher, Kevin Jones is a very solid play and should bank 120 yards rushing and two TDs.
Sleeper Running Back
Curtis Martin versus New England: The ultimate competitor, rugged and reliable Jet ‘Back Curtis Martin is arguably enjoying his best season as a pro having already rushed for 1,500 yards and 14 TDs (including two receiving) with two games remaining. While the Patriots are certain to be irritated by their humiliating loss to the Dolphins in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football, they will have their hands full trying to defend a loaded offense featuring QB Chad Pennington (who’s seemingly recovered from his shoulder injury), Martin, and WRs Santana Moss and Justin McCareins. Look for Curtis to rack up 115 yards and one TD.
Running Backs Who Should Be Benched
Julius Jones versus Washington: A tough ‘Skin D should be able to handle aged QB Vinny Testaverde (who in Football years is old enough to have played alongside Chief Sitting Bull) AND Julius Jones this week. The Redskins did a nice job containing Eagle QB Donovan McNabb, WR Terrell Owens (who was knocked out of the game and will most likely miss the remainder of the season with a broken fibula), and multi-purpose RB Brian Westbrook last week.
Edgerrin James versus San Diego: Manning will be gunning for the TD pass that will tie Marino’s record this week. After he tosses that TD… he’ll be looking to toss another TD, the one that will break Marino’s remarkable 48 TD record. And although Manning did give the ball to Edge’ on the goal-line for the Colts second TD last week, he probably won’t be so magnanimous this week. Against a Charger D that flows to the ball so quickly and consistently shuts down the opposition’s run game, Edge’ is a risky play this week with league championships riding upon every fantasy starter.
Onterrio Smith / Michael Bennett versus Green Bay: Until such time as Viking head coach Mike Tice settles upon his feature ‘Back, these two will split carries diminishing their value. The Packers are a team easily run upon and while either ‘Back could, and should, have value this week… are you willing to gamble away your league championship if you pick the wrong running one? Unless your other RB options are so weak as to be worthless, your best gamble is to sit both Viking RBs.
Must-Start Wide Receivers
Randy Moss versus Green Bay: Last week at Lambeau and without a true threat opposite him, Jaguar wideout Jimmy Smith hauled in a pair of TDs. This week a healthy Moss, who has the very capable WR Nate Burleson opposite him, should be capable of dismantling a Packer secondary that is truly awful and banged up. Look for 120 yards and two TDs this week as Moss helps the Vikings secure a playoff berth and exorcise the ghosts of seasons past.
Javon Walker at Minnesota: On the opposite side of the field Packer WR Javon Walker is having his best season as a pro and has a very capable WR in Donald Driver opposite him. Walker should be able to capitalize on a Viking secondary that was picked apart by Lion QB Joey Harrington last Sunday and is still missing its top corner and leading tackler, Antoine Winfield; 125 yards and one TD.
Chad Johnson versus New York Giants: As anticipated when I listed Chad Johnson as one of my “Wide Receivers Who Should Benched” last week, the Bill CBs did a masterful job of shutting down both Johnson and his mouth. This week however, a Giant defense that has been hit hard by injuries will have a very difficult time trying to handle RB Rudi Johnson, emerging WR T.J Houshmanzadeh and WR Chad Johnson. Chad Johnson should be the greatest beneficiary of a Giant defense that will be stretched to the breaking point, so look for him to have a big day; 125 yards and two TDs wouldn’t be an unreasonable projection.
Jerry Porter at Kansas City: Having recorded three TDs last Sunday against the woeful Titans, Porter should have another big receiving day against a Chief secondary that has been victimized through the air for the past seven straight games. 120 yards and 2 TDs.
Sleeper Wide Receiver
Lee Evans at San Francisco: Evans was one of my “Must Play Wide Receivers” last week and stepped up to that challenge, responding with a 100 yard receiving day and 1 TD. This week, against a 49er team that has suffered significant defensive injuries (but which team hasn’t?) and is already assessing roles and auditioning players for next season, Evans should be good for 100 yards and a score or two. A Buffalo team (and QB) that re-discovered itself and won five of seven games when standout RB Willis McGahee was inserted into the starting lineup will be forced to win without him and the ‘Back he replaced, Travis Henry, this week due to their respective knee and ankle injuries. Thus, the Bills will be even more reliant upon QB Drew Bledsoe and the passing game with unproven RB Shaud Williams getting the nod this Sunday.
Wide Receivers Who Should Be Benched
Reggie Wayne versus San Diego: As they did last week against Baltimore, the Colts face another top defense this week. And although this Charger defense is more stingy against the run than pass, they are capable of closing down at least one of Manning’s weapons. This week I will again choose Reggie Wayne to be the least produtive Colt receiver. WRs “Marvelous” Marvin Harrison ALWAYS finds a way to get himself open, Brandon Stokely continues to seemingly be overlooked by the opposition, and Colt TEs Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard may well be the best receiving TE duo in the league.
Hines Ward versus Baltimore: Boasting nickleback Deion Sanders and outstanding, aggressive and swift CBs in Gary Baxter and Chris McAlister, the Steelers will probably have a game plan revolving more upon powerful RB Jerome Bettis.
Good luck to everyone still vying for their league championships!
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.