Check your playoff matchups; see if you can wheel and deal

The Baltimore Sun

I was going to write a cheesy column about things fantasy owners should be thankful for on this holiday, but with my quarterback, lead running back and top receiver all injured, I'm not in the mood.

We're drawing close to fantasy football playoff season, and even though my teams won't be participating, it's time to talk a little endgame strategy.

Savvy owners have probably already looked ahead to the matchups in weeks 14, 15 and 16. But if your team is in contention and you haven't checked the schedule, do it now. You might still have a chance to pick up some useful reserves or swing a last-minute trade if your starters face killer defenses.

Derek Anderson owners are already overjoyed at their fortune, but things should get even better for the Cleveland passing offense during playoff time when the Browns face the Jets, Bills and Bengals in weeks 14 through 16. Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards are must-starts anyway, but even Joe Jurevicius might help you in a flex spot during that stretch.

The Giants also face favorable passing matchups in the Bills, Redskins and Eagles and should have plenty of motivation as they battle for playoff seeding. Some owners might be souring on Plaxico Burress after his run of poor games, so he's a good trade target for playoff contenders.

I know the Bears' offense isn't so popular right now, but Chicago faces a favorable pass schedule during playoff time. You could store Rex Grossman as an emergency quarterback for those weeks and go after his favorite receiving target, Bernard Berrian.

On the downside, Houston faces a brutal run of pass defenses in Tampa Bay, Denver and Indianapolis. I've heard a lot of buzz about the rejuvenated Matt Schaub after last weekend. And I like him as a short-term pickup. But he and Andre Johnson don't look like the best bets for your fantasy playoffs.

As far as run matchups, Green Bay faces good ones in Oakland, St. Louis and Chicago. That means if you're not already sold on Ryan Grant, you should be. If he could run for 119 yards against Minnesota two weeks ago, imagine what he'll do against those turkeys when you need him most.

Tampa Bay also faces vulnerable defensive lines from Houston, Atlanta and San Francisco. Owners worried about Earnest Graham's sore ankle going into last Sunday, but he looked great against the Falcons, and he's a guy I'd love to have for the finishing stretch.

I'd also take a look at Cincinnati's Kenny Watson, who has outplayed Rudi Johnson this season. Watson might not get the ball enough to help you, but he's a good guy to have in reserve because his role could expand again, and the Bengals face porous rush defenses in weeks 14 through 16.

Among teams facing bad rushing matchups, Washington jumped out at me. If you own Clinton Portis, you'll want to have a solid reserve on hand for the playoffs.

OK, let's switch gears and survey the NBA for a few early-season surprises. Archbishop Spalding product Rudy Gay deserves a shout-out for becoming a serious scorer and three-point threat. Gay also helps with blocks and steals, so he's turning into quite the all-around fantasy forward. If only he'd pick up the rebounding.

I'm not sure what turned Clippers center Chris Kaman into such an inside animal, but he's on pace to exceed his career-best averages by seven points, four rebounds and a block a game. I suppose Elton Brand's absence has simply afforded him more shots and more space to rebound. Brand is expected to be out most of the season, so Kaman should keep this up.

The Bucks were roundly pilloried for guaranteeing playing time to Chinese draft pick Yi Jianlian. But it turns out he can play. His per-minute rebound and block numbers are excellent, and with the possibility that he could start draining threes at some point, he's an attractive fantasy target.

I don't know about you, but I love guys who keep improving. Two years ago, Sacramento's Kevin Martin grew from an afterthought rookie to an efficient 10-point-a-game scorer. Last year, he nearly doubled that average and finished second in the Most Improved Player race. Now, he's averaging 26.2 and ranks among the top 20 fantasy players. He's the Dale Ellis of this generation.

One last point. If you play fantasy basketball and have never owned LeBron James, I highly recommend the experience. I paid big for LeBron in my auction, but no bigger than others did for Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Those guys are great, of course, but James helps in every category aside from free-throw percentage. In his past three games entering last night, he had averaged 37.7 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, and had shot an uncharacteristic 31-for-36 from the line. He's 20th in the league in blocks, for crying out loud. So, yeah, that one I'm thankful for.

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