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A truant finds home
A wish to hold on to
There's a trapdoor in the sun:
Fantasy Up: You're probably not getting a full day of fantasy goodness out of Tom Brady and Randy Moss, but start them anyway. The Patriots have a finely tuned sense of history (to go with that finely tuned chip on their collective shoulder), and are invested in having Tom Brady break the single-season record for touchdown passes (so much the sweeter that he'd be taking it away from a Colt). That means Brady will get at least two touchdown throws before he exits stage left. And Moss will probably catch two, too, so he can top Jerry Rice. Want a ridiculous assertion? In deep leagues, Kevin Faulk might be worth a spot this week. Laurence Maroney is healthy, but if anyone is getting rest here, it would be a rusher with an injury-checkered past with no records in sight. The same might go for Ahmad Bradshaw. He took one 88 yards to the house in Buffalo, and I have to admit: I don't know what to make of Brandon Jacobs this week. He needs just 56 yards for 1,000 and practiced Wednesday, but logic dictates it's way more important that he be healthy for the wild card. Jacobs owners will have to keep an eye on ESPN.com and the New York newspapers Saturday. If cooler heads prevail, and Jacobs doesn't get action, I'd pick the sprightly Bradshaw (who should be available despite a thigh bruise) over the plodding Reuben Droughns. Start the Pats' D, but not the Giants'.Fantasy Down: The Giants would be foolish to suit up Plaxico Burress, who's been hounded by leg injuries all season. Again, check the latest news on ESPN.com to make sure. Eli Manning might play for a quarter or a half, but after that it should be the Anthony Wright Show. Amani Toomer isn't very good anymore, though he did log five catches for 99 yards this past Sunday. Still, he's a starter and he's 33. Don't expect to see much of him. And don't start rookie Steve Smith, who dropped an easy bomb for a touchdown against the Bills.
Fantasy Up: Steve Smith appears to have decent chemistry with Matt Moore, and the shoulder injury he suffered catching a 57-yard bomb against the Cowboys probably won't keep him out. In a sea of resting elite receivers, that suddenly makes Smith a must-start in all leagues. One wonders how long Smith will have to run against Tampa's first-team secondary. Steve Smith Now that the Panthers are officially eliminated from playoff contention, will John Fox finally let DeAngelo Williams have a full complement of starter's carries? Both Williams and Jerious Norwood have been trapped by stubborn coaches seemingly afraid to expose their sophomores to major touches, but for different reasons. The Falcons are scared Norwood can't take the pounding, while the Panthers actually appear to believe DeShaun Foster is better. He isn't. I'm guessing Williams winds up being worth a start this week. Steve Smith Michael Clayton figures to be the lead dog catching passes for the Bucs, and if you're desperate and can stand the stench, he did have five catches for 71 yards in Week 16.
Fantasy Down: Garcia and Graham might not play at all for Tampa and aren't worth starting. Joey Galloway suffered a minor shoulder bruise against the Niners and came out early; it sounds as if he won't suit up, either, and Ike Hilliard will be limited, too. The Bucs' running back situation promises to be messy. Michael Pittman, Michael Bennett and maybe Kenneth Darby figure to see time, but none will definitely get enough carries to be useful. Julius Peppers won't play. As if you needed a reason not to use Carolina's D.
Fantasy Up: That makes Drew Brees a must-start in all formats, with the caveat that if the Chicago weather is as ridiculous as it was this past Sunday, all bets are off. But this is a sweet revenge game for the Saints, as they lost last year's NFC title game here. Despite the fact that he was coughing up blood after the Philly game, Marques Colston expects to play and is still an elite option. Aaron Stecker got a full accompaniment of starter's carries in Week 16 but sprained a foot ligament and is now having trouble getting onto the practice field. Reggie Bush hasn't been able to practice as of this writing, either, so Pierre Thomas could get his first career start. Even in winning a 35-7 game, the Bears allowed 125 rush yards (and 6.0 yards per carry), so there's value here. If Stecker can go, start him. Otherwise, consider Thomas. Adrian Peterson had 22 carries in the first half alone versus Green Bay (an NFL high for 2007), and wound up with 30 total. He converted that workload into only 102 yards, but hey, we'll take it. He also scored, and with the Saints missing depth along the defensive line, Peterson is a starter here. The Bears' D played like it was 2006, racking up 25 fantasy points as the top defense of Week 16. This is still a unit that's decimated (now defensive end Mark Anderson is done for the year, joining a bevy of defensive linemen), but Alex Brown (starting his first game since the Super Bowl) played very well. Starting Chicago against the Saints would take guts, though if the weather is bad again, it's a no-brainer. The Saints' one good corner, Mike McKenzie, is done for the year with a torn ACL, making a horrible New Orleans secondary even "horribler." If the wind is below 30 mph, start Bernard Berrian, in what might be his last game as a Bear.
Fantasy Down: Can I envision a scenario where Kyle Orton has a big Week 17 game? Yes. Do I want my fantasy championship resting on that possibility? No. I do not. I'm not buying the Bush hype this time around. Don't start him.
Fantasy Up: The Niners have been consistently middle-of-the-road against the run, which means Jamal Lewis is the headliner in this game. Entering his age-29 season in '08, Lewis and Michael Turner will be the two huge unrestricted free-agent names. Considering the left side of the Browns' offensive line, Lewis shouldn't want to go anywhere. I wavered on how good I felt about Frank Gore this week; after all, the Browns have allowed just one rushing touchdown in their past five games. But starting defensive tackle Ethan Kelley is out for the year with a knee injury, which rocks Cleveland's 3-4. Start Gore. Braylon Edwards is a stud. The 49ers have allowed the second-most pass yards in their past five games, so despite the fact that Derek Anderson regressed whole hog in Week 16, you probably have to use him. Dance with who brung ya.Fantasy Down: If you're in a two-quarterback league, I guess Shaun Hill is worth considering, and in his past two starts he's thrown some deep-middle balls with great zip and an aggressiveness that's been missing from the San Francisco offense. But he still went just 11-for-24 passing, and that offensive line got him crunched this past week. As of this writing, he was considered "questionable" with a bad back, though I think he'll play. Arnaz Battle got shut out versus Ronde Barber this past week but gets a much easier secondary Sunday. Battle has great hands and was a whisker away from a Week 16 touchdown catch, but couldn't get his feet down. He's borderline, but in a potential weather game, you should be able to do better. I still don't love Vernon Davis. I know he scored for the fourth time this year on Sunday, but he also lost a fumble, and he just never seems to break anything big. He'll be entering his crucial third season in '08, and there's still plenty of time for him to put it together, but one wonders why a guy taken sixth overall can't get downfield.
Fantasy Up: The Lions made Damon Huard look like Y.A. Tittle a week ago, so Brett Favre should put up a touchdown or two before his inevitable sojourn to the bench. But to whom will he throw? Greg Jennings suffered an ankle injury against Chicago, and while it isn't a concern for the playoffs, there's no reason for the Pack to tempt fate with Jennings. That makes Donald Driver my fave for a score, though once the scrubs get in there, James Jones could strike. Detroit is also the only team to have allowed 10 rushing touchdowns the past five weeks (sensing where the Lions' draft needs lie yet?), but Ryan Grant probably won't get more than 10 carries before hitting the showers Sunday. Will that be enough? It's borderline. No Kevin Jones (torn ACL) means Mike Martz can forget his rushing restraint in what might (should) be his last game as Lions offensive coordinator. Charles Woodson should sit a lot, too. Kitna is borderline, while the three (shaky) amigos -- Shaun McDonald, Calvin Johnson and Mike Furrey -- each could have worthy fantasy days. Or not.
Fantasy Down: I've been a big booster of the Packers' defense since August, but I'm skeptical of them in Week 17. Justin Harrell looked awful versus Chicago, with Ryan Pickett out. Green Bay says Pickett will play Sunday, but again, if he gets in on more than a handful of downs, it'd be foolish. Kevin Jones is gone, which gives T.J. Duckett Sunday's start. Honestly, with so many good backs likely to be on the bench, Duckett can lay legitimate claim to being worth a fantasy start, but there's potential for doughnut-hood here, too. The desperate among us can play him. The rest of us can be glad our fate doesn't rest in his hands.
Fantasy Up: Andre Johnson will be the most reliable commodity in this one; his Week 16 touchdown may have been a garbage-time special, but they all count the same. His 74 yards against the Colts dropped him below 100 yards per game on the year, but he still leads the NFL with 97.1. If Matt Schaub comes back, it will benefit Owen Daniels. Sage Rosenfels hasn't looked his tight end's way more than six times in a game; Schaub did that six times. Schaub was Houston's emergency quarterback against the Colts and could play some in relief Sunday, depending how his shoulder feels in practice. Under normal circumstances, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew would each be a no-brainer start. As it is, one or both could break a first-quarter run that's become this offense's trademark. But I have to believe neither back will get a second-half carry. Despite an injury to underrated defensive end (and unrestricted free-agent-to-be) Paul Spicer, use the Jacksonville defense. Reggie Williams might not play at all Sunday; he already eclipsed the Jags' franchise record for touchdown receptions in a season: nine. (Somewhere, Jimmy Smith is sad.) But if he does go, Williams has more weeks with a touchdown (nine) than not (six), and he's the best bet in this offense to get another red zone look.
Fantasy Down: Ron Dayne didn't see a single down of action in Week 16, but Gary Kubiak thinks Dayne will split carries with Darius Walker Sunday. Neither is worth much of an investment. The Jags removed David Garrard from their blowout win over Oakland. As of this writing, it was unclear if Garrard would play at all in Houston. If he doesn't, Quinn Gray gets the nod, and while he produced a couple of garbage-time scores against the Raiders, I'd avoid him. Greg Jones and LaBrandon Toefield should share the load once the starters exit. Use neither.
Fantasy Up: Hey, I'm not thrilled with Carson Palmer, either, but he'll play this entire game, and that's something. The Dolphins are OK at one corner (Will Allen) and bad at the other (Mike Lehan), so Palmer's receivers should take turns getting open. Mike Lehan The Bengals think Rudi Johnson has a chance to play, but he didn't practice Wednesday, and the team signed Quincy Wilson to back up Kenny Watson just in case. (DeDe Dorsey is out with a high-ankle sprain.) That makes it sound as if Watson will be the man, as he was versus Cleveland when he rushed it 30 times for 130 yards. His late fumble nearly gave the Browns life, but he's the only game in town. Use him. Jesse Chatman returned against the Patriots and had some spark, toting it nine times for 38 yards and catching two passes. You can stop waiting for Samkon Gado; he had two carries in Week 16. Defenses facing Miami have averaged 8.6 fantasy points per game in Cleo Lemon's starts. If you count only the three games since Lemon returned to the starting lineup, that number rises to 12.3. The Bengals haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in five weeks, and while they aren't great, neither is Lemon. I have them rated 14th among defenses this week.
Fantasy Down: Rather than take a big hit at the goal line while scrambling toward the pylon, Lemon ducked out of bounds holding the ball in his outside hand, which caused him to end up inches short of a touchdown on fourth down. That's the kind of play that loses a guy any chance at a starting job in 2008. Ted Ginn Jr. has 22 targets the past three weeks, including 10 against the Ravens and nine against the Patriots. But he has only nine catches in that span, for 108 yards, and is a disappointing 23rd in the NFL in kickoff return average (he's ninth in punt returns). Ginn is fast but not elusive, and his hands are suspect, but it's not fair to evaluate him until he gets to play with a better quarterback.
Fantasy Up: Donovan McNabb looked young again on his 40-yard scramble on the third play of the New Orleans game (despite the fact that he fumbled at the end of the run). He threaded a pass he probably shouldn't have thrown to Reggie Brown for a long score, and was able to pass for two short touchdowns in the red zone. So I'm not getting carried away by his numbers (24-of-35 for 263 yards). The Bills have allowed just one touchdown pass in their past five games, but the weather has been a major factor in a few of those, and the Bills are patched together with spit and shoe polish in the secondary. I like McNabb big Sunday. Offensive tackle Jason Peters, whose hype has finally caught up with the reality that he's been one of the best in the business for a couple of years, will miss this game because of a groin injury, which hurts the cause of Marshawn Lynch a bit. Still, Lynch got 18 ferocious touches against the Giants and should match that total Sunday. If the weather is OK, I actually like Kevin Curtis, Lee Evans and Reggie Brown just fine as fantasy starters. Sometimes owning players on noncontenders is a good thing.
Fantasy Down: Peters is more important as the protector of Trent Edwards' blind side. Before he got hurt in Week 16, the Bills were winning 14-7 and driving. Peters left about four minutes into the second quarter, and thereafter Buffalo scored just seven points and gave up three sacks. (The Bills hadn't allowed a sack since Week 12 against Jacksonville, and Edwards hadn't been sacked more than once in a game since Week 7.) That means stay away from Edwards and think about using the Philly D. The Buffalo defense, however, should be avoided. Don't get clever.
Fantasy Up: Hmm. Don't rush me. I'm thinking. I'd say Jerious Norwood and Maurice Morris have a chance to be starter-worthy Sunday. Norwood turned his seven carries into 33 yards against Arizona, while Warrick Dunn was awful with 12 carries for 13 yards. Listen, Norwood might not have the skills to be an inside runner, or the durability to be a 20-carry back. But how will the Falcons know until they try? On Seattle's side, Shaun Alexander was relatively strong versus Baltimore but has fought injuries to every piece of his anatomy save his right eyelid and left thumbnail and shouldn't make more than a token appearance Sunday. That would presumably leave Morris in his place. Roddy White turned in another monster effort against the Cardinals, his fifth 100-yard outing and the second time in the past four games he's been targeted at least 17 times. (Wow.) Seattle's secondary is far stronger than Arizona's, but that doesn't mean Chris Redman will stop looking White's way. That said, I'd still use Seattle's defense in any and all leagues. It has 12 sacks and 11 picks in its past five contests.
Fantasy Down: I just don't think you'll see much of Matt Hasselbeck, Bobby Engram or Deion Branch. They'll likely start, but certainly should be gone by halftime. Seneca Wallace has always been an intriguing specimen, but more as a "slash" style guy than a quarterback. Avoid him. Leonard Weaver? Yeah, maybe. But I think Morris will get carries. Dunn told reporters this week he doesn't plan on retiring. However, he's owed $4 million next year. The ax may come calling for Mr. Dunn this spring.
Fantasy Up: Todd Collins hasn't exactly drunk the Kurt Warner alien juice, but he's emerged as an honorary ancient-mariner replacement candidate if your regular quarterback's posterior will be gathering splinters Sunday. He has four touchdowns and zero picks along with a 74.3 percent completion rate. He's a good bet for another 200-plus yards with a couple more scores, especially if and when the Cowboys start taking out defensive starters. Incidentally: Jacques Reeves. My word, he can't play at all. I'd play Clinton Portis and Santana Moss, too. These former Hurricanes have done the memory of their fallen teammate proud the past few weeks. As of this writing, the Cowboys have been relatively mum about who will and won't play, but I have to believe we'll see quite a bit of Brad Johnson at quarterback, which means the Washington defense makes a good fill-in candidate.
Fantasy Down: Tony Romo went out with a whimper for his fantasy teams the past two weeks and probably won't offer much Sunday. His thumb is still swollen, and while he played OK in Carolina this past Saturday, the Cowboys should let him heal for a couple weeks. Terrell Owens won't play (and will be questionable for the first playoff game), and while Patrick Crayton will probably start, I doubt he'll play much. Instead, Terry Glenn will make his first appearance of 2007, and Sam Hurd will probably start, too. Miles Austin, who I think is better than Hurd, should see some time, as well. Especially since we probably won't see much of Romo, I'd look elsewhere for receiver help. Whither Jason Witten? The breakout tight end needs six catches for 100, so maybe I'm wrong and maybe the Cowboys will try to let him hit the century mark. But I doubt it. I think the most you'll get out of Witten is a cameo.
Fantasy Up: Because both this game and the Chargers-Raiders tilt have late start times, I expect the Steelers to play everyone, at least until news comes of a blowout on the Left Coast. Ben Roethlisberger is still fighting a sprained ankle but will start and should have a super-sweet time picking on Baltimore's reserve corners for as long as he plays. The offensive line continues to be a problem. Big Ben was sacked another four times against the Rams' crazy blitz, and you know the Ravens will bring pressure (plus tackle Marvel Smith is out). Still, the Steelers will make big plays. Start Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, too. It's still possible that Roethlisberger will sit early in this one, so make sure you check ESPN.com and the Pittsburgh newspapers this weekend for concrete word. Najeh Davenport replaces Willie Parker as the ground game's lead sled dog and should start in all but the shallowest leagues. The Steelers' D is my second-ranked unit of the week. Last time out against the Ravens, in Week 7, they scored 18 fantasy points.
Fantasy Down: There isn't a player suiting up for the Ravens whom I'd start. Troy Smith gets the nod at quarterback, and he played worse than his statistics (16-of-33, 199 yards, one touchdown, no picks) indicate in Seattle. Musa Smith gets the call for Willis McGahee, who's out with broken ribs, though if Mike Anderson can overcome a hamstring injury he'll get some work. Derrick Mason caught a 79-yard bomb in garbage time this past week, and deserves consideration, as always, in point-per-reception leagues. But otherwise, no. And please don't use the Ravens' defense.
Fantasy Up: Kurt Warner has three touchdowns passes in each of the past three games and a respectable 24 on a season that's seen him log significant time in just 12 games. The Rams will throw the kitchen sink at Arizona, because they throw the kitchen sink at everyone. But Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin will all make plays. Wow, what was up with Torry Holt, as cerebral a guy as the NFL has to offer, reaming out Scott Linehan on (sort of) national TV a couple of Thursdays ago? Nobody's said much of anything in Rams camp, but that can't be good for Linehan's job security. Anyway, Holt will be open Sunday, and I'd start both him and Marc Bulger without reservation. Isaac Bruce would even be worth considering as a flex in deeper leagues. Steven Jackson lost a fumble against Pittsburgh but ran with the kind of authority he's featured for about a month. It's the difference between being hurt and being fresh, and right now, Jackson is one of the only fresh guys playing. If you're lucky enough to have survived this long with him on your roster, you don't need me to tell you to start him.
Fantasy Down: It was tough to see Edgerrin James losing red zone touches to J.J. Arrington in Week 16. I don't think you can use him. Needless to say, stay far, far away from these two fantasy defenses.
Fantasy Up: Which Broncos defense will show up? The one that stuffed Kolby Smith in Week 14 and ended a lot of fantasy playoff runs? Or the one that made Justin Fargas, LaDainian Tomlinson and the Ron Dayne/Darius Walker combo look spectacular? I'm betting on the latter. Adrian Peterson is back to getting most of the Vikings' carries, and while he hasn't done much since that scintillating back-from-injury game against Detroit, I've got AD pegged for a huge one Sunday. I was the ESPN.com ranker most down on Jay Cutler last week and was proved right by his Monday night performance in San Diego, so you know I'm not some pie-eyed Cutler promoter when I say this: He's probably worth a start this week. He'll be home, he'll face a bad Vikings secondary whose top corner (Antoine Winfield) will be limited, and at least you know he'll play the whole game. You always play Brandon Marshall, no matter what.
Fantasy Down: Selvin Young turned 10 carries into 39 yards at San Diego, while Travis Henry had only four totes and converted them into 11 yards. Is that a trend? Predicting Mike Shanahan's backfield distribution is a lost cause, so let's make it easy: Start neither. The Vikings are the best team in the NFL against the run and the worst against the pass. I know it's not possible to change Tarvaris Jackson's mechanics overnight, but doesn't the fact that he's so technically poor speak volumes about Brad Childress? This can't be news to him, right?
Fantasy Up: Because this is a meaningful game, LaDainian Tomlinson has to be in your starting lineup, but the hamstring twinges he's felt the past two weeks let you know that if and when this gets out of hand, LDT will sit. Maybe because Michael Turner has been hurt lately, or maybe because the Burner is headed toward unrestricted free agency, Darren Sproles has been the beneficiary when Tomlinson has come out of games, and I think that'll be the case Sunday, too. Dominic Rhodes erased questions about whether he was Justin Fargas' replacement, racking up 115 yards on 27 carries in Week 16, while LaMont Jordan touched the ball exactly once, on a reverse. San Diego is my top-ranked defense this week, and the Chargers have been solid against the run for a couple months, so I'm not turning handsprings about Rhodes. But in 12-team leagues, if your regular starter is resting, use him.
Fantasy Down: Philip Rivers went from "the next Troy Aikman" to "the next Dennis Rodman" in exactly one season. Rivers is a mechanical mess almost as bad as Tarvaris Jackson, throwing fadeaway jumpers and air-mailing receivers all year, and this past Monday he spent the better part of the fourth quarter of a blowout screaming and taunting Jay Cutler. Clearly, Rivers let his emotions get the best of him, and we've all done that, but while winning by 20 points? On national TV? When you've played pretty badly this year? It was Rivers' poor fortune to have ESPN highlight his shouting, but I know I'll look at Rivers a bit differently in the future.
Fantasy Up: The Jets have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three straight and nine times overall this season, so despite the fact that Kolby Smith hasn't come close to living up to his explosive starting debut a month ago against the Raiders, Sunday he's worthy of a start in most leagues. I also think you can try Thomas Jones at your flex spot. The Chiefs have given up eight 100-yard rushers themselves, and last week's crummy home effort turned T.J. Duckett into a waiver-wire wonder. Jones has an excruciating 3.5 yards-per-carry average and just one score, but I'll go out on a limb and say he notches one final touchdown Sunday. Since Jerricho Cotchery is about all the Jets have healthy in their receiving corps, you can assume he'll see nine or 10 targets again Sunday, as he has in each of the past three weeks. Like everyone else associated with the Jets' offense, Cotchery doesn't score touchdowns much anymore, but he's a fantasy starter in your title game.
Fantasy Down: Edwards has reportedly decided that Brodie Croyle will be his front-runner for the '08 quarterback role, but don't play Croyle this week. He has an injured hand and might not make it through the game, plus Damon Huard outplayed him in Week 16. Incidentally, how perfect is it that the Chiefs are also reportedly mulling the idea of trading for Chad Pennington? Herm's interior monologue: "Darn it, this Croyle guy has too big an arm. Sorta scares me. Wonder who we can get who can fit into my offensive ideals? And by offensive ideals, I mean someone who can't throw it more than 10 yards downfield."
Fantasy Down: Sigh. The Colts are likelier than any other team in the NFL to take out their starters, so I wouldn't play any of your Indy regulars. But can you plug in any of the backups? Aaron Moorehead? Bryan Fletcher? Jim Sorgi? Kenton Keith? Joseph Addai owners caught in desperate straits could go with Keith, whom I've rated 25th among rushers this week. (Realize, though, that there's a chance Keith could rest and lose touches to Clifton Dawson.) Otherwise, just steer clear of the whole lot. Peyton Manning will play a series or two, Reggie Wayne will leave the game with him, and I don't expect Addai to suit up at all. Justin Gage is the top target in the Titans' offense, but because Young has 26 or fewer attempts in each of his past three games, starting any Tennessee wideout is super-risky. Tony Dungy has made noises that Marvin Harrison might see a few snaps, and maybe play as long as Manning does. I'm not buying it, and even if it's true, it wouldn't be worth using Harrison. In addition, Anthony Gonzalez, young and in need of experience enough to actually get extra minutes Sunday, has an injured foot and is questionable. It figures.
(Remember, you can find my weekly positional rankings in The Big Rotowski. Also, all ESPN.com fantasy columnists will update their rankings on Friday.)
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
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