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Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Around the AFC: Will playoff-bound teams rest their stars?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

What have the coaches been saying in their weekly news conferences? Tristan Cockcroft takes a quick-hitting look at the goings-on for each of the 16 AFC teams. Given the holiday next week, this will be the last "Around the AFC" of the season:

All quotes are from Monday's news conferences (unless otherwise noted).

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: The weather was a huge factor in Cleveland on Sunday, so much so that the Bills were forced to take a bus back to Buffalo on Monday instead of flying out that night. The Bills were shut out in Cleveland, and no individual player managed better than Marshawn Lynch's eight fantasy points. "This game, with the rain and snow on the field, you didn't know what yard line you were on most of the time," said coach Dick Jauron during his postgame news conference, according to the Buffalo News. "This is the worst I can recall ever being involved in." Lynch got off to a hot start, though, rushing 12 times for 52 yards before the half; he finished with 21 carries for 82 yards. Backup Fred Jackson, meanwhile, ran seven times for 16 yards. "The footing going forward wasn't very good," said Jauron. "It was just treacherous out there, and it got progressively worse." Lynch's success could guarantee him the vast majority of the carries in the final two weeks, though, which is encouraging enough for fantasy that he remains a worthwhile No. 2 back/flex option.

Miami Dolphins: Little-known receiver Greg Camarillo broke out with a three-catch, 109-yard, one-touchdown effort in Week 15, capitalizing on an opportunity to play with Marty Booker inactive. "He's played a lot, and he plays obviously on the kicking game," said coach Cam Cameron, according to the team's Web site. "He's done a great job blocking, and he gives us a lot of flexibility. He plays all three positions in our offense, all four now with our four-wide receiver sets, so yeah, you'll see Greg out there." Despite Camarillo's performance, his only shot at fantasy significance the next two weeks is in Week 17 against the Bengals' poor secondary, and that's only if he follows this effort up with another respectable one in Week 16 at New England and Booker sits out the contest. ... Linebacker Channing Crowder will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Tuesday, said Cameron. Crowder has yet to be ruled out for the season, though the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports it's unlikely he'll play the final two weeks. The Dolphins are now down four starters on defense, so have no fear using your Patriots and Bengals offensive players in Weeks 16 and 17.

New England Patriots: Laurence Maroney managed season highs in carries (26), rushing yards (104) and fantasy points (16) in Week 15, earning the praise of his coach. "He got a lot of carries," said Bill Belichick, according to the team's Web site. "We ran the ball [Sunday] quite a bit, partially because of what the Jets were doing. Sometimes they only had a couple defensive linemen in the game. We felt like we had some matchups there, and I thought our offensive line did a good job of sorting out some of those formations where they were moving people around and stemming guys in and out of the front late and dropping safeties down." Maroney might also have received such a hefty workload as a result of the weather conditions, something that's worth monitoring heading into Week 16, when the Patriots also play at home (versus Miami). He's a safer flex option when the elements dictate a heavy dose of the running game, and the Dolphins' defense ranks last against the run (155.9 yards per game). ... Belichick, though, wasn't willing to admit his game plan regarding Tom Brady changed due to the elements in Week 15. "I don't really think there were too many things we took out of the game plan, [maybe just] a couple of plays with some ball-handling," said Belichick. "It's just we didn't feel like that was the best situation to run them in yesterday. But for the most part, everything we had, probably 95 percent of what we had in the game plan, we were prepared to run." Brady attempted 27 passes in Week 15, his second-lowest total all season and significantly beneath his 41.2-pass average from Weeks 8-14. That's enough to indicate a more conservative offensive approach due to heavy winds in New England. Again, keep tabs on the weather heading into Week 16 because Brady's numbers could take a hit again under similar conditions.

New York Jets: Kellen Clemens suffered a cracked rib on his first passing attempt of Week 15, putting his status for Week 16 in doubt. Coach Eric Mangini had no further information Monday on Clemens' status, and he wasn't willing to disclose who will start at quarterback for Week 16. "You like to have a good idea by Wednesday," said Mangini, according to the team's Web site. "You have the rest of [Monday] and [Tuesday], and you go from there." Chad Pennington, who completed 25 of 38 passes for 186 yards, no scores and no interceptions, might return to the starting role should Clemens be unable to play. Even though the Jets are already playing for 2008, don't be surprised if they take a conservative route with their young signal-caller. Using Pennington now could serve to showcase him for an offseason trade, and there's no reason to push Clemens and risk further injury. Keep tabs on the Jets' mid-week practice sessions.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: Though it's unclear whether Todd Heap, who has missed five straight games and eight of 10 with a hamstring injury, or Samari Rolle, who has missed two consecutive contests and five of seven with a shoulder injury, will play in Week 16, coach Brian Billick said injured reserve is currently not an option for either. "Until we put them on IR, we're obviously hoping that there's some opportunity to play," said Billick, according to the Baltimore Sun. "They want to. We've had those discussions with them. 'Look, we're at [that] point in the season. Do you just want to go on IR?' Neither one of them are at this point. They want to play these last two games. So right now, that's where we'll proceed, and hopefully both will be available this week. But we won't know until we get into the week." Rolle's absence has helped cause the Ravens' pass defense to slip into a terrible funk, allowing 10 passing scores the past five weeks, so keep tabs on his health. Heap, meanwhile, has missed so much time with his injury that one has to question whether he'll offer anything for fantasy the next two weeks, even if he does play. ... Billick also forecasted a healthy Kyle Boller for Week 16 after his starting quarterback left Week 15 early with a concussion. "In my opinion, Kyle clearly gives us the best chance to win the game, although we're prepared to go with Troy [Smith] if that presents itself," said Billick. Smith has completed 8 of 16 pass attempts for 82 yards in brief action the past two weeks, although it's clear he's not in the team's immediate plans. That seems to indicate he'll be a long shot to win the starting role to begin the 2008 season, too.

Cincinnati Bengals: Performance in the red zone has been the Bengals' biggest problem the past two weeks, so says coach Marvin Lewis. "We had one run each of those series [at San Francisco] and two passes, and kicked a field goal," said Lewis, according to the team's Web site. "The tighter you get to the end zone, the harder it is to run and pass, due to the [lack] of field you have." In Weeks 14 and 15 combined, the Bengals attempted 10 runs and six passes in red-zone situations, and scored only one touchdown, a one-yard run by Rudi Johnson against the Rams. The Bengals' matchups, though, do appear favorable the final two weeks against the Browns and at the Dolphins, teams that have allowed the seventh-most (38) and third-most (41) touchdowns, respectively, this season. Fantasy owners can't help but hope for a bounce-back effort from the team.

Cleveland Browns: Despite treacherous weather conditions, Jamal Lewis stepped up with a standout fantasy performance in Week 15, totaling 174 yards and a game-best 17 fantasy points. "I think it helps him in these kinds of conditions because the footing is tough," said coach Romeo Crennel, according to the team's Web site. "You're slipping, you're sliding, and if you can keep your feet under you, that gives you a little advantage. If you over-stride, you end up slipping and falling down and not being able to make a cut that might be there." Lewis has averaged 119.3 rushing yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry and 18.8 fantasy points per contest the past four weeks while facing the most fantasy-friendly portion of his schedule. The favorable schedule extends two more weeks, with the Browns playing at Cincinnati before hosting the 49ers, so continue to rely on Lewis as a top-10 running back regardless of the weather conditions. He showed us Sunday he'll be a huge focus of the Cleveland attack.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, listed as questionable because of soreness in his right (throwing) shoulder, played in Week 15 and managed to throw for 146 yards and three scores in spite of a season-worst 48.5-percent completion percentage (16-for-33). He overcame a tough matchup and challenging weather conditions, although his Steelers lost. "He was feeling well enough to play," said coach Mike Tomlin during his post-game news conference, according to the team's Web site. "Once we make the decision to play, not only him but anybody, we don't second-guess it. We don't look back. We are not looking for any built-in excuses. We made the decision that he was well enough to play, so his play speaks for itself." Roethlisberger has struggled through four consecutive weeks in which either the matchup or the field conditions were far less than stellar, yet he stepped up with six passing touchdowns and an average of 170.5 passing yards and 13.3 fantasy points during that span. If he's performing at a respectable level despite facing those challenges with a sore shoulder, what does that say for his chances the final two weeks, at St. Louis and Baltimore, who have two of the weaker pass defenses in the league right now?

AFC South

Houston Texans: A second opinion on Matt Schaub's left (non-throwing) shoulder confirmed the team's original diagnosis of a dislocation, although he has yet to be ruled out for the season. "I think there's a good chance [he'll play again in 2007]," said coach Gary Kubiak, according to the team's Web site. "I'm hoping that, if anything, this week he's ready to be Sage's [Rosenfels] backup going into the game. He did take some practice reps [Monday], but I'm hoping that he's available this week, and we'll see. But I'd like to see him play some more before the year is up." Kubiak also indicated, though, that he won't rush Schaub back and risk the chance of aggravating the injury, and that a decision on surgery should come after the season. One must wonder whether Schaub might need an operation, and if so, if he'd opt to have it now with the Texans now mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. He has to be considered a long shot to play any significant minutes the rest of the year, although surgery shouldn't threaten his 2008 status. Schaub should be back as Houston's starter next year, regardless of Rosenfels' performance the next two weeks. ... Kubiak also said that Ron Dayne, whose ankle has troubled him of late, was held out of Monday's practice. The move seemed precautionary, as Dayne did garner 12 touches in Week 15 and looked fairly healthy doing it. He'll be someone to monitor during mid-week practice sessions but faces a Colts team that he tore up for 156 total yards and two scores the last time he faced them (Week 16 of the 2006 season).

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts clinched the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC in Week 15 -- they're locked out of the No. 1 seed -- but fantasy owners of their players don't need to worry about their starters resting, at least not in Week 16. Coach Tony Dungy said he plans to use his regulars "like we normally would," according to the Indianapolis Star. With the Colts earning a first-round playoff bye, there would be three weeks in between games if players began sitting now. "A month is a long time," said Dungy. Still, judging from the coach's post-game comments Sunday, it's clear the Colts will think about lifting players early or sitting them entirely in Week 17. "I don't think it will be wholesale resting everybody, but we may in certain spots," said Dungy, according to the team's Web site. With the Colts scheduled to face the Titans, a running back-friendly matchup, in Week 17, Kenton Keith might make a smart pickup for fantasy owners this week. If he either gets the start or it becomes clear he'll play two or three quarters of that game, the rookie would be a useful flex option for the season's final week.

Jacksonville Jaguars: For the fourth consecutive week, Fred Taylor ran for 100-plus yards, and for the fifth week in a row, he received more carries than Maurice Jones-Drew. In addition, Taylor's Week 15 touchdown proved the game-winner, earning the praise of his coach, Jack Del Rio. "We needed it, and we got it," he said, according to the team's Web site. "We saw the way Fred was going and wanted to make sure we fed him the football." Despite his relative age (31) and mileage (he ranks 22nd all-time in career rushing attempts), Taylor has enjoyed one of his most productive seasons, averaging 77.9 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry, the latter a career best. With the Jaguars facing the Raiders and Texans the final two weeks, he should remain a solid No. 2 option.

Tennessee Titans: Chris Henry's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's banned substances policy ended in Week 15, and he returned to the team on Monday. "We've requested a [roster] exemption," said coach Jeff Fisher, according to the team's Web site. "We will have it through the weekend [including the team's Week 16 contest]. We'll just watch Chris and see how he is through the week and then we'll make a decision [on his status]." Fisher also said Henry has been working out and "always stays in good shape," though it's unclear how he fits into the team's plans the final two weeks of the regular season. LenDale White has averaged 88.7 rushing yards per game with two touchdowns the past three weeks, and his backup, Chris Brown, has 28.3 yards and two touchdowns during that same span. Henry could wind up inactive or a little-used third stringer in Weeks 16 and 17, although he remains an intriguing prospect for keeper-league owners.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: Brandon Stokley missed Monday's practice because of a knee injury that kept him out of Week 15, according to the Denver Post, and Daniel Graham sat with a high ankle sprain he suffered in Week 15, according to the team's Web site. "Exactly when [Graham] will be able to practice, I'm not really sure," said coach Mike Shanahan, who added that Stokley will be monitored during the week. Graham hasn't been much of a fantasy option this season, with 24 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdowns, though his absence, combined with the absence of Stokley, would put a heavy emphasis on Tony Scheffler in the passing game. Scheffler has 38 receptions for 423 yards and four touchdowns in his past nine games, serving as a respectable weekly stand-in for owners hurting at the position. Keep counting on him for as long as Javon Walker remains limited, especially if both Graham and Stokley are unavailable in Weeks 16 or 17.

Kansas City Chiefs: Brodie Croyle set season highs with 217 passing yards, two touchdowns and 12 fantasy points in Week 15, earning the praise of coach Herm Edwards. "He threw the ball a lot [Sunday]," said Edwards during his post-game news conference, according to the team's Web site. "We wanted to do that and he made a couple of bad decisions. But he's going to do that. He's a young quarterback. He made some good plays, too, with his arm. ... He's going to get better every week, and the more decisions that he has to [make], the more he's going to learn from them." Croyle actually has back-to-back fantasy-friendly matchups to finish the season, playing at the Lions and Jets, making him a potential sleeper in two-quarterback leagues. He remains erratic, with more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4) in five starts, but is showing gradual signs of improvement. There's risk involved, but he'll be worth watching in Weeks 16 and 17.

Oakland Raiders: Justin Fargas suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee in Week 15, an injury coach Lane Kiffin said would likely sideline him for the final two weeks of the season. If that's the case, Fargas finishes the year averaging 112.3 total yards per game, 4.1 yards per carry and totaling four touchdowns in seven starts, perhaps enough to make him the favorite to start in 2008. LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes will battle for the bulk of the carries in Weeks 16 and 17 during practice this week, although Rhodes might be the favorite since he's the stronger bet to be with the team in 2008. "There's only two options with Dominic and LaMont," said Kiffin, according to the Oakland Tribune. "So we'll let them battle it out this week. We'll go from there and figure out who's starting, and we'll figure out how we'll divide playing time as well." With the Raiders scheduled to finish the season facing the Jaguars, who have allowed only 79.4 rushing yards per game the past five weeks, and Chargers, who have allowed 84.6 during the same time span, neither Jordan nor Rhodes should be a particularly appealing fantasy choice. Rookie Michael Bush is ineligible to play, incidentally, as the Raiders failed to activate him from the physically unable to perform list (PUP) to the 53-man roster within the designated time frame. ... Kiffin said Monday that JaMarcus Russell will see his first action in a road game in Week 16, although at what point he enters the game and for how long has yet to be determined. Russell isn't playing enough snaps to warrant fantasy attention, though he's worth keeping an eye on the final two weeks, including the Week 17 home game against the Chargers. Don't be shocked if he plays significant minutes or starts that contest.

San Diego Chargers: With the Chargers clinching the division in Week 15, and standing no better than a chance at the No. 3 seed, don't be surprised if they rest some starters in the next two games, particularly in Week 17 at Oakland. Still, coach Norv Turner offered no indication Monday that he plans to rest any starters, at least not in Week 16. "We're going to be smart with Shawne [Merriman], we're going to be smart with Luis [Castillo], and anyone who has something that is iffy," said Turner, according to the team's Web site. ... Backup running back Michael Turner suffered a shoulder injury in Week 16. "They think he'll be fine, but he'll be limited for a couple of days," said Norv Turner. With Michael Turner sidelined, third-stringer Darren Sproles ran 25 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15, almost all of that coming in the game's second half, after the Chargers had mounted a 38-7 lead heading into the half. Keep tabs on Turner's health, as Sproles could see significant time again in Week 17, either as a starter or in relief of LaDainian Tomlinson if Turner is unavailable. With the Raiders having a poor run defense, Sproles would warrant flex consideration in that event. Norv Turner joked when asked what might happen if, late in Week 17, Tomlinson needed a few yards to win the rushing title. "Put L.T.'s jersey on Sproles," he said. That's a somewhat telling comment for fantasy.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.