Fantasy owners return to 'fanland' after playoff exit

For those who made an early exit from the fantasy football playoffs, Sunday's schedule played like a visit from the Ghost of Football Past.

Chargers at Browns. Bah! Seahawks at Jets. Humbug!

Is this what Sundays were like before fantasy football? Pretty scary.

Football without the fantasy is like Desperate Housewives without the desperation – it's pretty hot and all, but you know it could be so much better.

At this late stage in the season, once the fantasy has faded, most owners go back to being fans. It's not always an easy transition. You watch the games, because it's football, but you feel like you're getting a watered down version of the original. Like those Matrix sequels.

But for those for whom the stats still matter, this is the most wonderful time of the year. You stayed up late to watch bad Sunday night games. You got up early to scour the waiver wire. You worked hard. You protected this house.

You deserve this – because you're good enough, you're smart enough and … ah, forget it. Good luck and happy holidays. When do we draft again?

Quick hitters

Terrell Owens wouldn't come to Baltimore to play for the Ravens, but he did make the short trip down I-95 yesterday to have surgery on his injured right ankle. Not too many in Baltimore are boo-hooing, but TO's injury comes as a major blow to both the Eagles and fantasy teams that have ridden the league's top-scoring receiver deep into the playoffs. It also puts a dent in the value of every player on Philadelphia's offense, most notably Donovan McNabb – Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell, huh? – and Brian Westbrook, who's sure to see lots of eight-in-the-box looks down the stretch.

Showing he has no respect for the fantasy game, Atlanta coach Jim Mora said that Michael Vick and Alge Crumpler will likely skip this weekend's game as the Falcons gear up for the playoffs. Crumpler could use the break after totaling five catches, 65 yards, one touchdown and a fumble in his last three games. But Vick is a big loss. He's coming off one his best games of the season and would be one of the best plays of the week as Atlanta faces New Orleans. Hope you've got a better backup than the Falcons, who will start rookie preseason sensation Matt Schaub.

With 347 points this season, Peyton Manning has scored twice as many points as the top-ranked running back, LaDanian Tomlinson.

Skip the shop-till-you-drop drill on Friday and instead check out the Packers-Vikings game, which shapes up as a shootout. It's a great week to play Brett Favre or Daunte Culpepper – both teams rank in the top 5 in total offense and near the bottom of the league in pass defense. Plus, both quarterbacks have four TD passes in Green Bay's 34-31 win in Week 10. The missing ingredient for the Vikings was Packer-killer Randy Moss, who sat out with a hamstring injury. In 13 career meetings, Moss has scored 11 touchdowns against Green Bay, more than against any other team.

Frustrated Chris Brown owners got some closure earlier this week when the hobbled running back was declared done for the season. What began as a breakout year for the second-year pro – 556 yards rushing and four TDs in his first five games – will end with Brown out of the lineup for five of the Titans' final seven games. Steve McNair is done, too. But Tennessee still has the AFC's leader in receiving, Drew Bennett, who's scored eight touchdowns in his last three games.

Starting nod

Quarterback: Kerry Collins, Oakland – Talk about a tear. Collins has tossed 12 touchdowns in his last four games, a stretch that includes a no-TD outing two weeks ago against Atlanta. He's a risky play, but against Kansas City's league-worst pass defense, one that could pay huge dividends.

Running back: Larry Johnson, Kansas City – What's not to like? He's got three consecutive 100-yard games, fresh legs and a great matchup at home against Oakland. Can the Chiefs really want to trade this guy? Warrick Dunn, Atlanta – I knocked him a week ago, but I like his prospects this week against the Saints' league-worst run defense. With Vick on the sideline, Dunn looks like an excellent play.

Wide receiver: Jimmy Smith, Jacksonville – Smith has three scores in two games and has fared well against Houston in the past. In a game the Jags have to win to continue their playoff push, Smith will get a lot of looks; Brandon Stokley, Indianapolis – He's put kept in check in his past two games. In the Colts offense, that just means he's due. With Manning gunning for the record once again, Stokley's a sure bet to get in the end zone.

Tight end: L.J. Smith, Philadelphia – This trendy early pickup is back in style with two TDs in his last three games. With no TO, the Eagles have to find someone to throw to.

Kicker: Jason Elam, Denver – The winner of this week's pick-a-kicker sweepstakes gets to go up against a Tennessee team that's given up 140 points in its past three outings. The Broncos haven't been great of late, but they won't need to be against the Titans.

Defense: Buffalo – The offense has gotten a lot of credit for the Bills turnaround, but don't overlook this defense. Buffalo has 11 sacks, nine interceptions, seven fumble recoveries and three defensive touchdowns in its past three games. Next stop: San Francisco.

Ravens report

The Ravens want to run early and often, but that won't be easy against Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense. Jamal Lewis had a couple of touchdowns against the Steelers in Week 2, but he was also held to 62 yards on 24 carries. In seven career games against Pittsburgh, Lewis has scored seven TDs and averaged 67.7 rushing yards per game. He'll get the ball on Sunday, but don't expect much – only one player has run for more than 76 yards in a game against the Steelers this season.

Baltimore might find some daylight in the passing game, however. If Eli Manning can throw two touchdowns against this team, surely Kyle Boller is good for a couple, too, right? Todd Heap, as always, is the best bet to be on the other end of any Ravens TD passes, provided he doesn't take another cheap shot from Joey Porter.

Ben Roethlisberger's been great, but this is a good week to leave him on your bench. Look for the Ravens to try to confuse the rookie QB by varying coverages and blitz packages, something they did quite effectively last week against Peyton Manning and the Colts. The Steelers offense hasn't exactly been on a roll lately, either. Before beating the Giants 33-30, Pittsburgh had been held under 20 points in four consecutive games.

The Steelers tend to play it safe in the passing game against good defenses, but a healthy Hines Ward is a must-play coming off a nine-catch, 134-yard effort last week. But stop there. No way Antwan Randle El comes close to the 149 yards he put up a week ago. And Plaxico Burress, who's missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, isn't likely to play, much less be a factor.

Whatever damage the Steelers do will be done with the run. Who does the running is another matter. Jerome Bettis rushed 36 times for 140 yards last week, but Duce Staley is expected to be ready to go this week and split time in the backfield. That's bad news all around for fantasy owners – with 15 carries apiece, neither back is going to put up very impressive numbers. Throw in Bettis' career stats against the Ravens – 12 games, two touchdowns – and you've got good cause to leave him on your bench.

Dave Alexander is a sports producer at baltimoresun.com. Send questions or comments to dalexander@baltimoresun.com

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