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Friday, December 27, 2013
Tough Week 17 decisions

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "9.5 Running Backs in the Top 10" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show! All right, let's get to today's topics:

Three In Depth:

1. Who will rest in Week 17? I do recommend ending your fantasy league's finals in Week 16, which you can customize in most ESPN leagues. It can be unfortunate to have backups and scrubs determine your championship, which could be the case in some instances this week.

 Jamaal Charles
Jamaal Charles is one of the biggest fantasy wild cards for the final week, given that the Chiefs could treat Week 17 like a preseason game.

The Kansas City Chiefs are the only playoff-bound squad that can neither harm nor help its seeding in Week 17. And because the Chiefs will be playing a road game on wild-card weekend, it makes logical sense that they'd rest key members of their team in preparation. No, I'm not proclaiming that we know with certainty what Andy Reid's plans are, nor will I believe anything he says because, as I've reiterated all season: Coaches lie. But this uncertainty makes the Fantasy MVP-elect, Jamaal Charles, well nigh untrustable Sunday versus the San Diego Chargers. We just can't assume he'll get more than a few touches. Could he take one of those to the house? Uh, yeah. But if he doesn't, he might not help you, which is why I barely ranked him, and put Knile Davis in my ranks as a risky flex. Similarly, Alex Smith and Dwayne Bowe -- already questionable finals fodder -- should be left on your bench. And, because the Chargers might be desperate to win this game, I'd also stay away from the Chiefs' D/ST if I could.

Are there other land mines for fantasy finalists? Probably no major ones. The Chargers could be eliminated by the time they take the field in a late game, if the Baltimore Ravens or Miami Dolphins win early. But one imagines that wouldn't be cause to rest players, although it might mean starters could be less likely to push through injury. Still, I wouldn't use that as a reason to bench Ryan Mathews, Philip Rivers or Keenan Allen. If the Denver Broncos look at the scoreboard and see the Buffalo Bills trouncing the New England Patriots, they might take their foot off the accelerator, as they'd have the AFC's No. 1 seed locked up, but that unlikely scenario doesn't feel like enough to fret over Peyton Manning and his gaggle of fantasy studs. The Seattle Seahawks could do the same if the San Francisco 49ers are getting routed by the Arizona Cardinals, but again, I don't think that's enough incentive to sit Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch.

The true unknowns could come down to players on noncontenders. Even if banged-up stars such as Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson are active (and, as of today, I ranked neither) will they have full workloads? Will Maurice Jones-Drew continue to tough out a bad hamstring? Will the Tennessee Titans or Houston Texans decide to look at reserve players? These questions go beyond the mathematics of tiebreaking into coaches' rooms we don't have access to. And so, in these cases, we probably have to proceed as usual and hope for the best.

2. Last week's backfield snap counts. In addition to having to ponder using Knile Davis in Week 17, you also will have to consider how other NFL squads might divvy up their final workloads of the '13 regular season:

Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew got 17 touches compared with only seven for Jordan Todman this past week, a box-score tally that makes it seem as if MJD was the dominant Jags RB. But Jones-Drew played 29 snaps and Todman played 27. Certainly, if I had to start one of these guys, I'd prefer MJD, but I don't view the workload as a no-brainer. Todman falls to No. 40 in my RB ranks for the week, but he's not off the radar as a vulture.

McFadden
Darren McFadden did get a TD last week but seems to be an afterthought in the Raiders' offense.

Oakland Raiders: In the box score, Darren McFadden looks like a pure vulture in Week 16, with only five touches for 16 yards and a 5-yard TD. Meanwhile, Rashad Jennings had 13 touches for 48 yards. But DMC did see the field for 19 snaps, compared with 31 for Jennings, meaning we're not talking about a pure starter/backup arrangement. Yes, I continue to rank Jennings higher. But McFadden could easily see enough work to be a fly in the ointment.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills went run-heavy in a shutout win over the Dolphins, and Fred Jackson shone with 19 rushes for 111 yards and a red zone TD and C.J. Spiller had 20 carries for 77 yards. And this is a case where that box score doesn't lie because Jackson played 40 snaps compared with 37 for Spiller. This is a split job, and the Patriots represent a pretty good matchup. I'd be comfortable flexing either guy.

Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard is the No. 18 RB in fantasy for this season, but he has found the end zone only once over the past five weeks. Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has four TDs in that span, making his fantasy season look respectable. Heck, if you look at the past five weeks alone, BJGE has 38 fantasy points and Bernard only 34. But the workload belies this even-looking split. Bernard played 42 snaps last week, compared with 26 for the Law Firm, quite a typical divide for the past two months. BJGE is only a TD-dependent flier, but Gio continues to be a low-level No. 2 RB.

Cleveland Browns: Entering Week 16, I was concerned that Edwin Baker's nice box score hid a lack of commitment to using him full time, but that abated versus the New York Jets this past week. Baker led Chris Ogbonnaya in touches 19-2, and that was reflected in their participation: Baker played 45 snaps, and Obie played 18 (Fozzy Whittaker and Willis McGahee each played one). That helps explain why I'm OK with Baker as an emergency flex fill-in this week.

3. Et tu, Matty Ice? After Matt Ryan played well in a comeback effort Monday night, only to have that effort fall short when he threw an interception inside the San Francisco 10, I tweeted: "How many game-winning drives has Matt Ryan choked away inside an opponent's 10 with less than 2 minutes left in a game? Has to be double digits." This was harsh, pinning the loss on Ryan when Harry Douglas had the final pass carom off his chest, and predictably I opened myself up for second-guessing from the Twitter world.

Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan threw a very untimely pick-six in the Monday night shootout against the 49ers.

And yet, I went back and looked at the play, and, although the Niners did blitz, and Ryan checking to his hot read was probably technically the right thing, I still don't think it qualifies as the best thing Ryan could've done. It wasn't fourth down. He still had time left. His throw was telegraphed to the point that Tramaine Brock got a spectacular break on the ball and basically hit Douglas the exact same moment as the ball did, causing it to pop in the air for NaVorro Bowman to intercept for a pick-six. Does that technically qualify Ryan for a "choke"? Probably not. I was uncharitable. But neither can I lay the blame entirely with Douglas. He got rocked because his QB put him in a precarious position, and the 49ers deserve credit for making one heck of a play. But the best thing, in retrospect, would've been to wing the ball out of bounds and not put Douglas in that position. And I don't back off my statement that Ryan -- although overall having terrific talent and mostly pretty good numbers -- has a shaky history late in games (even if this wasn't his worst example of late-game play). I'll give you three others just in the past calendar year:

• NFC Championship Game: On a potential game-winning drive, Ryan had Douglas wide open on a blown coverage and benefited from an awful replay call that should've canceled out a third-down grab. Later, on fourth-and-4 inside the Niners' 10, he threw it short of the sticks to Roddy White; the play absolutely should've been called for interference on Bowman, but I'm not sure it would have been a first down even had White caught it.

• Week 1: Down six points with two minutes to go, Ryan made a lovely pass to Douglas to get in the New Orleans Saints' red zone, but he made an awful throw over Douglas' head on first down, threw a bazooka at Steven Jackson's head from about 7 yards away that Jackson couldn't handle on third down, and, on fourth down, held the ball too long and then had to make a desperation heave into the end zone at Tony Gonzalez, who was covered by three defenders, and the pass was intercepted.

• Week 4: The New England Patriots went for it on fourth-and-1 up seven points after the two-minute warning around midfield, but Tom Brady lost a fumble. On the next play, Ryan took this gift and connected on a bomb to Julio Jones for 49 yards. But then, on first down in the red zone, he had Douglas wide open and threw it 10 feet over his head. On second down, Gonzalez probably was interfered with and it wasn't called, but, on fourth down, Ryan led White too far in the end zone, causing him to have to sprawl out and allowing Aqib Talib to knock it away.

No, I'm not able to come up with "double-digit" times a late-game Ryan drive sputtered in an opponent's red zone, so my tweet is guilty of a second kind of hyperbole. But four times in a calendar year isn't good. I'm not pitching Ryan as a bad player; in fact, he has lots of "come-from-behind" wins (realize, however, that not all wins that are technically "come-from-behind" are built the same) and he often plays well in the moments leading up to these frustrated red zone drives. He's a good player, and he certainly hasn't been the main problem with the Falcons this year. That Atlanta offensive line is a primary culprit (Ryan is on pace to be sacked 37 times this year, which will easily be a career high), and having his best weapons injured has also been a problem. But don't give Ryan a free pass. He could be a better fantasy quarterback with better late-game play, and he needs to find more ways to win late in games before he can ascend among the current elites in real-world NFL quarterbacking.

Four In Brief:

Aaron Rodgers
The last time Aaron Rodgers played, the Bears knocked him out of the game with a broken clavicle.

4. Is starting Aaron Rodgers fool's gold? Two months after he broke his collarbone in a game against the Chicago Bears, Rodgers will make his triumphant return when the Green Bay Packers need it most: in a winner-take-all battle against those same Bears. And I know there are some folks out there who've cobbled together their fantasy QB and who've made it to their finals, and they're thinking: Do I dare go back to A-Rod? I think the answer is a clear and unmistakable "yes." Is there added risk? Maybe a little bit, but really Rodgers is probably no more susceptible to injury in Week 17 than 31 other signal-callers, including his oft-hurt opposite number in this game, Jay Cutler. Is there a chance Rodgers will be rusty? Absolutely. But I'm guessing it'll go very well for No. 12. He is a big-moment performer, and a preternaturally accurate passer who takes deep shots, maintains a high completion percentage and doesn't throw picks. Heck, if I need to sell you on the talents and benefits of Mr. Rodgers, you probably haven't watched much football the past six seasons. If I wake up Monday morning and Rodgers submitted a crummy outing that got me beat, I'll be surprised and bummed. But if I wake up Monday morning having left him on my bench, only to see him submit a 20-plus-point fantasy performance, I'll be despondent. Get him in there.

5. Can Kyle Orton save the day? I'm a little tired of hearing folks say, "Well, there's a reason Jerry Jones signed Orton to that great big contract to be one of the NFL's highest-paid backup QBs." Uh-huh. Excuse me, are you familiar with Mr. Jones' work as a general manager? Remember giving up a first-round pick for a washed-up Roy Williams? Remember giving up two first-rounders for Joey Galloway coming off a torn ACL? Remember spending a first-rounder on Shante Carver and a second-rounder on Quincy Carter? Remember giving Jay Ratliff $18 million guaranteed while he still had two years left on a team-friendly deal? I could go on. Supposing that, because Orton got a $5 million signing bonus, he will necessarily be a competent fill-in for Tony Romo is dumb. Orton isn't awful, but he wasn't even an average QB when he was an every-week starter; is he automatically going to be good after sitting for two years? In 69 career starts, Orton scored 20-plus fantasy points exactly eight times. (And 20 points for a QB isn't a high mark.) I'm not saying you have to bench Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray or Jason Witten; in fact, I wouldn't. But I also don't consider Orton playing well a fait accompli, and I wouldn't pick him up as a Romo replacement unless you're in a really deep league.

6. Week 2 of the Kirk Cousins evaluation. I still think it's nuts that the Washington Redskins aren't getting Robert Griffin III more starts under his belt, but that's neither here nor there, and organizational dysfunction isn't my beat. So, instead, I took another nice long look at Cousins, whom some folks want to sell you as an NFL starter-in-waiting. (I remember how those same folks felt about Kevin Kolb, but whatever.)

Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins had a decent game against a not-so-great Cowboys defense this past week.

Against the Dallas Cowboys, Cousins was a decidedly mixed bag. Most of what worked for him in the first half was short; when he threw longer attempts, they were near disasters, as back-to-back incompletions late over the middle were off target and fell just in front of Dallas safeties primed for easy interceptions. But Pierre Garcon did great work in that first stanza, taking short crossing patterns again and again and ripping off nice runs after the catch, and Cousins gets credit for reading those routes correctly. Right after the two-minute warning, he zipped his best throw of the day -- a 26-yarder, also to Garcon -- showing pro-level arm strength. But he followed up that connection with back-to-back terrible passes, one that was several feet over Josh Morgan's head, and another that was behind Santana Moss and ricocheted off Moss for an interception. And so it is, kids. Cousins has the arm for the job, but I'm not sold that he has the poise or the accuracy. Against a team that mustered very little pass rush against him (or anyone else lately), he missed seven or eight throws he should make, and the bulk of his work came on delayed short patterns. Those don't work when the defense is competent.

I have absolutely no incentive for Cousins not to work out, and I'm not condemning him as someone who can't get better. After all, you can't teach an NFL arm. But he's far from being an above-average starter. As a fantasy option this week against the New York Giants? I think he's among the better options if you lost Romo (Ryan Fitzpatrick and Terrelle Pryor probably would be my other choices), but please calm down about the "QB controversy" in D.C.

7. That's it for me! On Monday, I'll be writing a recap of 2013 through the lens of value-based drafting, but this column marks the end of my regular writing for the '13 season. By my count, I've written 78 articles about this season, including winter/spring/summer preview stuff and in-season analysis at a three-per-week clip. I also wrote and maintained 409 player profiles before the games began. All put together, how many words is that? Before the season started, I'd written about 96,000 words devoted to the '13 campaign to come, and, during the season, I've written around 111,000. And that's a grand total of more than 207,000 words. For frame of reference, "Moby Dick" weighs in at 206,052. (Oh, and the novel I'm currently writing -- which is about a rock band -- currently sits at about 91,000 … although I'm not done yet!) In other words: I sure did write a lot. Call me Ishmael. Anyway, it's been a weird year -- and sometimes a frustrating one for fantasy owners -- but my foremost hope is that you had fun. I did. And I look forward to seeing you all again soon.