It's here. The fantasy football playoffs. For most teams with 8- or 6-team playoff, they begin today. For those who play in leagues where only four teams make it, it's the final week of the regular season and it's time to get your team in the best position possible to win it all.
Some people will tell you not to look ahead, that you shouldn't be thinking about the second round or the championship. I say nuts to that. If there was ever a time to look ahead, now is it, particularly if there are postions you've been streaming throughout the year like quarterback or defense.
Here are three things I'm doing with my teams to get ready for a championship push.
1. Identify your best and worst players. Chances are, you know who these guys are pretty easily. Go ahead and set your line-ups for all two or three weeks of the playoffs and make note of the guys you are definitely playing barring injury. Now, look at your bench, and figure out one or two players that you wouldn't trust to start in a high-stakes game, regardless of match-up (maybe it's someone you took a flier on but hasn't quite boomed enough for you to start). Just make sure you aren't cutting someone lose who will immediately help one of your opponents.
2. Handcuff your stud running backs if you haven't already. Own DeMarco Murray? Make sure you add Joseph Randle (he looked darn good on his lone carry Thursday night). Jamaal Charles? Knile Davis. Matt Forte? Ka'deem Carey. Arian Foster? Alfred Blue. LeSean McCoy? Chris Polk. Marshawn Lynch? Robert Turbin. Le'Veon Bell? Josh Harris. Ryan Mathews? Brandon Oliver. You get the idea.
3. Load up on defenses with good matchups. I'm not a big believer in carrying more than one defense at a time during the course of the regular season, even if you stream them. But come playoff time, knowing there are a finite number of weeks left, I want to make sure I've got a good "D" for each week with a good to great match-up. And just as importantly, I want to keep those options away from my opponents.
So which of those defenses to add?
The Minnesota Vikings are the defense I want this week, at home against the New York Jets, but that's it. The Vikings are getting after quarterbacks and I absolutely want to have whatever defense is playing against Geno Smith. After that, the Vikings are on the road against Detroit and Miami. No thanks.
Even with the suspension of Haloti Ngata, I want to add the Baltimore Ravens. Not for this week (at Miami) but for week 15 when they host the Jacksonville Jaguars, which are giving up the most points to opposing fantasy defenses. The Ravens (42 percent availability) have five double-digit fantasy days this season, most of them coming at home. In all but one home game (week 1 vs. the Bengals), the Ravens have at least two sacks and forced at least one turnover. They should have plenty of success against the Jags.
The Tennessee Titans (88 percent available) aren't a particularly good defense, but they finish the season at home against the Jets in week 15 and at Jacksonville in week 16. Heck, they even get the turnover prone and banged-up New York Giants at home today. Speaking of the Giants (70 percent), they are in a similar boat, along with their week 15 opponents, the Washington Redskins (96 percent). All three of these teams would be hard to trust starting, but I'd be OK seeing them racking up a couple of defensive TDs on my bench rather than my opponents' lineup over the next few weeks, wouldn't you?
I know it sounds crazy, but what about adding the Jacksonville Jaguars (98 percent)? They've racked up nine sacks and forced six turnovers in the two games since their bye week. Tennessee is one of the best teams to stream defenses against and the Jags have them at home in week 16. How sneaky of a play would that be?
Finally, the Buffalo Bills have arguably been fantasy football's best defense this year. But they face offensive juggernauts the Denver Broncos today and the Green Bay Packers next weekend. If the Broncos light them up, and they might, a few owners might drop them heading into the Green Bay matchup. Pick them up. They get the Oakland Raiders in week 16, when most teams are playing for a championship. Boom.
Injuries mounting at the running back position
Say you made it to the fantasy football playoff, but did so using a combination of Andre Ellington, Rashad Jennings, Justin Forsett and Isaiah Crowell. You could be in a world of hurt this week. All three are banged up, with Ellington already ruled out and the other three questionable.
Stepfan Taylor will draw the start for the Arizona Cardinals, but there is no track record here and he could end up sharing carries with Marion Grice. On the plus side, his opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, are giving up nearly 5 yards per carry. Taylor is the ultimate dice roll, but I'd rather play him and the mystery of the unknown than, for example, of the Vikings' running backs against the New York Jets' stout run defense this week.
Andre Williams is the clear handcuff to Jennings, and gets a juicy match-up against Tennessee's porous run defense. But the rookie from Boston College has gotten the majority of the workload a few times this season when Jennings was out and did little with it, even when the match-up was in his favor. Even if Jennings plays, you have to worry about a re-aggravation, which puts him solidly in RB3 ranks for me. Williams, at least, should get goalline work, so hope Odell Beckham puts the Giants on the 1-yard line once and cross your fingers.
Even if Crowell plays, Browns coach Mike Pettine has been nearly as bad as Patriots headmaster Bill Belichick when it comes to giving fantasy players headaches at the running back position. Terrence West seems to be in the dog house (not to be confused with the Dawg Pound) for fumbling the ball last week and some guy named Glenn Winston seems to think it's showtime for him this week. You can't take chances on this situation in the fantasy playoffs, but if I'm playing daily fantasy games, why not save money and play Winston in a good match-up versus the Colts, just in case it is "Lights, Camera, Action," like he claims?
Should Justin Forsett not play -- which seems unlikely -- then the Ravens would likely use a combination of Lorenzo Taliafero and Bernard Pierce. Neither is an exciting fantasy option, the team would likely roll with the hot hand and the Miami defense is pretty stout against the run anyway. I want no piece of this one either.
If you don't want to look within the same backfield for a starter to replace one of these guys, then Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers is an interesting name that is still available in more than 60 percent of leagues. He gets a soft New Orleans Saints defense giving up more than 5 yards per carry and nearly 29 fantasy points per game over the past five weeks to the running back position. Stewart also has gravy match-ups with Tampa Bay and Cleveland over the next two weeks. If he gets the workload, J-Stew could be one of those guys that comes out of nowhere to win someone a fantasy title. However, we've been teased by him before, only for him to come up lame -- sometimes literally -- when you need him most.
When the Raiders have given Latavius Murray the football, he's been explosive. But, after racking up 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just four carries two weeks ago, he sat with a concussion and now faces a top 10 defense against fantasy running backs in the San Francisco 49ers, and his coach is claiming he won't be a workhorse. I think Murray is more boom than bust, even against a stout defense. If I'm an underdog in my fantasy playoff match-up and I'm deciding between Murray and another RB like his counterpart on Sunday Frank Gore, or someone in the timeshare backfields with the Patriots, Jets, Vikings, or a plodder like Trent Richardson or Doug Martin, I think I'd go Murray.
On your quarterback
This isn't really the week to get cute at the quarterback position, especially in one quarterback leagues, which is probably most of you. The best QBs have good, or at least very beatable, match-ups this week.
Here's a list of fringe guys I'd be OK starting this week (the 10-15 range) and a couple I'm not OK with (the 16-20 range).
Start: Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Shaun Hill
Sit: Mark Sanchez, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy
It'd be hard to sit Sanchez and Roethlisberger, especially for Fitzpatrick and Hill, but based on recent play and match-ups, I like the Texans and Rams quarterbacks just a bit better. Fortunately, these are not decision I have to make this week, and hopefully you don't either.
With 13 weeks of data, you should know who you are starting and who you aren't at this point. Larry Fitzgerald and DeSean Jackson are likely game-time decisions for their teams.
Fitz might try to give it a go for the ailing Cardinals, but Drew Stanton doesn't feed him continually to make it worth putting him in your lineup. However, if he plays, it would probably make me feel better about starting a guy like John Brown, who really struggled last week when he had to start rather than playing in the slot as the third receiver.
Regarding Jackson, all indications are he's probably not playing, so even if he does, I'd be hesitant even though the match-up is good.
However, the guy I keep hearing people are concern about this week is Eagles' wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who is likely going to face Seahawks corner Richard Sherman all day every play. In the interest of full disclosure, I don't own any shares in Maclin. But if I did, I'd probably be starting him. He's the No. 5 WR in all of fantasy and if you're still playing for something this week, he's probably a big part of why.
There's a good chance he comes up small against Sherman. Then again, the game is being played in Philly, not Seattle, and the Seahawks have been beatable on the road.
I looked at three leagues I'm in to see what Maclin owners are doing this week. All three have a very usable option on their bench, but have Maclin in their lineup less than 24 hours prior to kickoff. There are too many possiblities to go over them all, but here's three possiblities you might have to choose from in place of Maclin, all with very good match-ups.
Odell Beckham vs. Tennessee, Golden Tate vs. Tampa Bay and Kenny Stills vs. Carolina.
I wouldn't blame a single owner if they benched Maclin for one of those guys this week. I wouldn't blame a single one if they started him over those guys.
Sometimes, lineup decisions just come down to a gut feeling. Just remember, ultimately, and especially in the playoffs, you need to take accountability for your lineup decisions.
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