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Thursday, December 6, 2012
It comes in stages

By Matthew Berry
ESPN.com

I recently got mentioned in a tweet that read something like this: "If @MatthewBerryTMR doesn't win every league he's in he should be fired. #Fact."

The Talented Mr. Roto

That's insane, of course, but I'm not going to lie. I feel that pressure. I put it on myself. I mentioned I'm doing an eight-team family league with my kids, their friends and their parents. I co-own a team with the 12-year-old. One week this season we just got crushed. Sunday night, we're looking at the scores and as he sees we have no one left, he says to me, "We're not gonna win?" "Hey, it happens, kid," I tell him. "Our guys didn't show up. They had some huge games. We'll be OK."

"Ugh. I can't believe I'm gonna lose with you as my partner."

Sigh. I even feel pressure in this league. It's an eight-team league, every team is stacked, I only pay attention to it when I'm talking about it with my kid, and now I realize ... crap, I gotta win this league, too, or I'll look like a failure to my kid.

We're in second as the playoffs start. Fingers crossed.

I've talked about the 16-team "War Room League" comprised of all the ESPN NFL analysts and our most senior NFL producers. Last week, I needed to be beat Mark Schlereth to clinch a playoff spot. I've been sweating this league all year. I was a nervous wreck all Sunday, as Stink's Calvin Johnson/Demaryius Thomas combo was crushing in our PPR format. Luckily, Brandon Myers, bless his junk-time soul, Matt Forte and my Jets D pick-up allowed me to squeak by on RG3's Monday night performance. I'm the No. 2 seed and have a bye this week. But I didn't celebrate when I had secured victory. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I always feel pressure.

Among my leagues is the "Emotional Friends" league, comprised of nine guys who work on SiriusXM's "The Howard Stern Show" and myself. If you've read me for any amount of time, you know that I am a longtime Stern fanatic, and a few years ago, after I did an event with Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate, I became friends with him, ended up meeting a lot of the guys on the show, and then, two years ago, I was invited into the league. And because (A) the show has an audience of more than 20 million and (B) the guys in the league often appear on the show ... I really want to do well in this league. The last thing I need is hearing on that show, "Oh yeah, the ESPN guy is in it. But he lost."

Drew Brees
Woe be to you if you ran into Drew Brees during last year's fantasy playoffs; he piled up 112 points in the season's final four weeks.

Despite losing first-round pick Jamaal Charles in Week 2 last year, I still managed to make the finals and finish second last year, where I was one of many to fall victim to Drew Brees' crazy Saints-Falcons game, when they kept pouring it on to get Brees the Marino record. Not much you can do about that. So I was safe after Year 1. But this year, the league was ready. Half the league had my rankings in front of them when I came in to draft. They had all read Love/Hate. They knew which way I wanted to go before I did. Which is fine. Comes with the gig and I'm used to drafting like that. And I left with a team I felt very good about.

Now, in four weeks, I will complete my 20th year of playing fantasy football. Over these two decades, I have lost count of how many fantasy football leagues I have played in, but it is well into the hundreds. I thought I had seen everything.

I thought wrong.

I had at least one player leave the game early due to injury in every week of the season! Everyone deals with injuries, of course, but there's no more frustrating injury than the one in the first half of the game. You can't replace him, he's just a very low score sitting on your bench. It's excruciating, just watching the game as your guy heads to the locker room and the sideline reporter tells you his "return is questionable."

Questionable? They never come back. Where's the question?

Rashad Jennings in Week 1 started it off and then Forte, Aaron Hernandez, Hakeem Nicks (this league has an early waiver period and if a guy is ruled out after waivers, like Nicks was, you can't replace him), Cedric Benson, Rashard Mendenhall, Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Davis, Aaron Hernandez again (the late scratch in London), Percy Harvin, Jordy Nelson, Forte again ... it was a brutal year. Forget just general injuries; players such as MJD, Hernandez and Harvin missing significant time, and even Ben Roethlisberger's injury, which killed Mike Wallace (whom I dealt Nicks for, midseason) -- these were weekly in-game crushers.

But somehow, with a few trades and lots of waiver pickups, I was able to cobble something together every week. While it was not my year, I was in the playoffs heading into Week 13. The Stern league has a fun rule in which you get two wins (or losses) a week: your head-to-head matchup, and then the top five scoring teams, regardless of matchup, also get a win. All I needed was a split and I'm in. Great. Whew.

My basic take is talent gets you to the playoffs, talent plus luck gets you the title. Anything can happen in one week, so as long as I make the postseason, I am fine.

As Week 13 began to unfold, and with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, I experienced the Five Stages of Fantasy Grief.

Stage 1: Denial. Banged-up heading into the week, I knew I needed to start hot. And so I sat down to watch the Thursday night game -- and promptly saw Drew Brees have the worst fantasy game of his Saints career. This is a league with six points per touchdown pass, so QBs are important. But as I stared at his three measly points, I refused to believe I was in trouble. My opponent had Matt Ryan. He did better, but not a ton better. I can still do this. I'll be OK. Three points from Drew Brees? Whatever.

But then the Sunday games start. And my expected studs are doing good, but not great. They're not racking up the stats at the pace I need to overcome Brees' poor start. It all leads to ...

Nelson/Jennings
Ah, the vaunted Packers receiving corps. Two of them had great seasons. Just not the ones you drafted early.

Stage 2: Anger. Come on, Jets defense! Just two sacks? Just one turnover? Against the Cards? What the hell? And then ... oh no. What the ...? Jordy Nelson leaves with an injury. No! He's hobbling off the field. And wait ... what? Ryan Broyles, who I am also starting, just left? He has a serious injury and is done for the day? What?!!? You can not be serious. Another in-game injury? And then another? Every week it's one, and now, in Week 13, it's two? What the HELL!?! ARGHHH! This is ridiculous, I say, as I slam the table with my fist. Come on, man!

As the 1 p.m. games continue on, and I realize my hole is getting deeper and deeper, I get to ...

Stage 3: Bargaining. "OK," I plead to the fantasy gods. "I don't need both. Just let one guy come back for the second half, how about that? I'm not greedy. And I have Jonathan Dwyer and Marcel Reece going in the later games. I'm playing against them in other leagues, but I don't care. Please, let them go off. I'll lose those other games. I'll be OK. Look, I'm trying to work with you here. And I have both Lawrence Tynes and Pierre Garcon going Monday night. Give me a huge game from Garcon and Tynes can miss everything. I'll take a split. Just give me this ... please?"

As the next slate of games start and I'm further and further in the hole, reality starts to set in. And I fall int0 ...

Stage 4: Depression. It's all so bleak. No, Garcon and Tynes are not going to have the games of their lives on Monday night. They'll probably both get injured. On the same play. The first one. I think back to all the missed opportunities. If only this guy hadn't gotten hurt. If only I played against this team instead of that team. What about the week I was the second-highest scorer in the league but lost by two points to the highest-scoring team? Darkness surrounds me. If only the schedule had been different, I would be in the playoffs. I watch the Sunday night game with sadness. It doesn't matter anymore. Nothing matters. It's all so meaningless. Why are we even here? What's it all mean? Who even cares?

I go to bed with a heavy heart. And when I awake, I am in ...

Stage 5: Acceptance: I am going to lose. I have run out of time. I am powerless to stop it. I will not beat my opponent. I will not squeak into the top five scorers. Thanks to an early-season tie, I will finish half a game out of the playoffs. I have lost. I do this for a living. And I will not make the playoffs. I'll survive. It is what it is.

Because I'm human. I can't tell the future. I watch the games, I study stats, trends and matchups, I talk to everyone I can that has some inside info or insight into foggy situations, I consider injuries and likely game play and then ... I guess. It's a highly informed, educated guess ... but it's a guess. And sometimes, it's a wrong guess. I'm sure if I looked in the fantasy "expert" handbook I'm not supposed to admit that publicly or anything. I'm sure I am only supposed to talk about all the leagues I crush and my amazing picks and why I rule, but I never read that handbook and I'm not about to start now. (Guessing it also says not to writing long intros all about yourself, too, but that ship sailed a long time ago.)

It's actually been a pretty good year.

Except in the Stern Show league.

Where I lost.

As you head into the fantasy playoffs, my advice is to go safe. My friend Brian emailed me yesterday and said, "I see you have Stevan Ridley one spot ahead of Knowshon Moreno, but I'm worried the Patriot game will be one of those crazy Danny Woodhead games. Should I go Moreno?"

Fells
Hey, now, don't get cute. It's the playoffs, ya gotta dance with the girl that brung ya.

And what I told him is what I will tell you. I think Moreno has a good game. It's a great matchup. I get why you'd think that. And it's your team; you should do what you want. But it's the playoffs. I'd rather lose with Ridley, who has been doing it all year, than lose with a guy who was on the practice squad most of the year. If you play Ridley and he fails, you'll be like, "Eh, he was my stud, what are you gonna do? Wouldn't have been here without him." But if you bench him and play Moreno and Moreno tanks (but Ridley goes off) ... you'll jump right to Stage 4. When in doubt, play your studs and don't get cute.

This week's Love/Hate reflects that. Play the obvious guys. Remember my preseason mantra: What's most likely to happen? It won't always work out, but it's the most likely result. They are obvious for a reason.

Remember, ESPN standard leagues have two-week playoffs, so look toward Week 15 for good matchup defenses and other potential pickups. If you have the roster space, no need to wait. And finally, remember what I've said before above all else: I really, really want you to win. But not as bad as you do. It's your team, you have to live with it ... go with your gut feeling above everyone else's, including mine. Use this article and especially my rankings as a guideline, but if you lose, only one of us has to live with it all offseason. Make your own choices.

A shout-out to John Parolin and the gang at ESPN Stats and Information, and away we go.

Quarterbacks I love in Week 14

Drew Brees, Saints: Putting him here because I've gotten feedback from some people who are nervous after last week. Just stop. He's Drew Brees. And hey, if you survived last week with him as your guy, you'll survive anything.

Cam Newton, Panthers: When I mentioned recently that I would rank RG3 No. 5 among quarterbacks for 2013 if I were drafting today, I got a lot of people saying, "He'll have a sophomore slump like Cam." Forgetting that RG3 is currently the No. 1 QB in fantasy -- so No. 5 has some regression built-in -- my reaction was, "Uh, you guys realize Cam is the No. 6 scorer in fantasy, right?" Apparently not. Definitely been a little inconsistent, but red-hot the past two weeks and he scored 30 the last time he faced Atlanta. Yes, the Falcons picked off Brees five times and have had extra time to prep for this game, but I don't care. Newton has just two turnovers the past five weeks and at least 37 yards rushing in eight of his past nine.

Andrew Luck, Colts: You don't need a Stanford degree to know you start Luck in a dome (307 yards per game) against Tennessee (eighth-most fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks). You also don't need a Stanford degree to realize when I see an obvious joke, I'm taking it. Hey, it's the playoffs, isn't it nice to have something to count on?

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers: I know, he didn't help last week. But like Brees, I am back in. Consider this: He has three passing touchdowns and no interceptions outside the pocket, plus two rushing touchdowns outside the tackles in the past four weeks. Miami's defense has allowed a 78.9 Total QBR when quarterbacks leave the pocket this season, which is second-worst in the league.

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers: "Hello! Over here, please. Yes, in front. Thank you! Hello, Eagles defense! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg! Your sightseeing vacation today will take you all through Revolutionary City, where you'll meet residents living in this tumultuous period of our nation's history!"

If you're desperate: Russell Wilson has quietly been on fire lately, with 15 points in five straight and in six of his past seven. I expect Sunday to make it six in a row. ... I could easily see Jake Locker having some very solid junk-time stats against the Colts. ... You know how I said the Dolphins were bad defending outside the pocket? Well, the Vikings are even worse, allowing the most attempts (63) and completions (36) outside the pocket this season. Did you know Jay Cutler has a 92.6 Total QBR outside the pocket, the best of any quarterback in the league? Me either.

Quarterbacks I hate in Week 14

Eli Manning, Giants: I know everyone is salivating at the thought of the Saints, and I am sure he'll be solid. But New Orleans did play Atlanta tough, and how much upside is there, really? Eli has just one 20-point game in his past seven and more than two touchdowns only three times all year. Solid? Sure. Monster game? Hard to see, given how much I expect them to run to try to control the clock the way they did against Washington. I have him outside my top 10.

Tony Romo, Cowboys: Another guy just outside my top 10 this week. He'll be fine, but listing him because the Bengals are locked in right now, giving up single-digit fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks in each of the past four weeks. They get good pressure on the quarterback, and in their past three, the Bengals have allowed just 5.5 yards per attempt, best in the NFL.

Philip Rivers, Chargers: Ha! Just kidding. If you're starting Philip Rivers at this point, you're not in the playoffs.

Running backs I love in Week 14

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: The Chiefs are 2-1 when Charles has at least 25 rushes, and 0-9 when he does not. Kansas City's offense is one of six to average more than 3.0 yards before contact per rush this season. And the Browns' defense has allowed 2.7 yards before contact per rush this season, 20th in the NFL. Let's hope Romeo reads Love/Hate.

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants: See Brees, Drew. The only running back they trust, he has a score in three of his past four at home, they will want to run to keep Brees on the sideline and no team in the NFL is worse against the run than the Saints.

Chris Johnson, Titans: Averages 103.3 scrimmage yards per game against the Colts and had 99 rushing yards in the last game. Don't worry about last week. Only two teams have allowed more rushing touchdowns to opposing running backs than the Indianapolis Colts.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos: I know what I wrote above. I stand by it. But injuries being what they are, you may not have a "stud or Moreno" choice like Brian did. And anyone getting a majority of carries against Oakland has a legit shot at fantasy goodness.

If you're desperate: Every time I watch Jonathan Dwyer play, I come away liking him more and more. With Big Ben expected back for Pittsburgh, the offense becomes multidimensional again, and despite the Chargers' success against the run this year, this is a cold-weather game for them, on the road, in December, in a lost season. ... With Donald Brown ruled out, Vick Ballard will get the majority of work for Indy against the Titans and I don't expect the Colts to be in catchup mode in this one. A more balanced attack with work from Ballard seems likely. ... Last time Green Bay played Detroit, the Pack ran it 29 times. The Packers need to run to help the pass game, so I expect a similar workload, and Alex Green will get the majority of that work against the 19th-ranked run defense.

Running backs I hate in Week 14

DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray has broken your heart before ... who's to say he won't do it again?

DeMarco Murray, Cowboys: I have him just inside my top 20, so that's a low-end starter, so you probably don't have better options. But I'm not convinced he has as much success as he did last week. Yes, he got a lot of work. But look closer. Just 13 rush yards after contact gained, his lowest mark of the season despite a season high in rushes (23). The Bengals are 11th against the run and have allowed just 2.3 yards before contact per rush over the past three weeks, which is 13th in the league. Like I said, he'll be OK, but not expecting greatness.

Ryan Mathews, Chargers: This is me, standing up, applauding you if you managed to make the playoffs with Ryan Mathews on your team. And if you made the playoffs with Ryan Mathews on your roster, you did it by not starting him. So you're certainly not starting him now, on the road in Pittsburgh. And for those of who rode him right out of the playoffs? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Serves you right. I tried to warn you. And now, you too have been Norved!

Darren McFadden, Raiders: Marcel Reece will still be involved, we are not sure how much work McFadden will get, and people forget that before the injury, Run DMC was struggling (just 3.3 yards per carry). Going against Denver's seventh-ranked run defense in a game I expect the Raiders to be down in? No thanks.

Reggie Bush, Dolphins: Six points or less in three of his past four, and he's on the road at San Francisco. Come on. What has your team ever done to you?

Beanie Wells, Cardinals: Prior to last week, everyone yelled at me for having Beanie so low, coming off his two-touchdown game and with a seemingly good matchup with the Jets. And I said ... still a bad offensive line, you can't count on the touchdowns and, you know, he's Beanie Wells. After 15 carries for 22 yards, I haven't heard as much complaining. He's on the road at Seattle. John Skelton helps the offense some, but seriously, you can't possibly be this desperate.

Wide receivers I love in Week 14

Randall Cobb, Packers: I know, he's been quiet the past two weeks, but I expect a shootout in this game, and Cobb, who made nine catches for 74 yards and a score the last time he faced Detroit, will be a big part of that. Cobb such a big-play threat, the Lions are top 10 in yards after catch allowed and no team has given up more touchdown passes of 20-plus yards.

Mike Williams, Buccaneers: "Do I have a volunteer from the crowd? How about you, Mr. Asomugha? There you go, let's give him a round of applause, folks. Now, this is how you churn butter ..."

Eric Decker, Broncos: Gut call. I say I believe more in the great matchup with Oakland and in the talent of both Decker and Peyton Manning than I do in the recent cold streak. I have Decker as a top-20 play this week.

Pierre Garcon, Redskins: With the Ravens continuing to be banged-up on defense and getting gashed on the ground (they give up 126 rushing yards a game), play-action will be really effective here and RG3 only has eyes for Mr. Garcon (17 targets the past two games). All he needs is one big play, and with the Redskins' defense, this isn't going to be a low-scoring game.

T.Y. Hilton, Colts: With double-digit points in four of his past five, Hilton is a big part of Luck's success. Over the past three weeks, when Luck targets Hilton, he completes 62.5 percent and averages 9.7 yards per attempt. When he goes to Reggie Wayne? Just a 51.4 completion percentage and 6.1 yards per attempt. In a game in which you know I like Luck, Hilton is the big-play guy with a great matchup.

If you're desperate: Of the 63 wide receivers who have an average target depth of at least 10 yards downfield, only Brandon Stokley has caught a higher percentage of his targets than Danario Alexander. With Ike Taylor out for the Steelers, Alexander should be solid. ... Like Russell Wilson, Sidney Rice gets no love, but six scores in his past seven games, he should keep it going against Arizona. ... And in the past three weeks, Josh Gordon has caught 15 of 20 targets (75.0 percent) with 229 yards and no dropped passes. Only the Cowboys and 49ers have allowed more completions of at least 30 yards downfield than the Chiefs.

Wide receivers I hate in Week 14

Steve Smith, Panthers: Just three catches for 52 yards the last time he faced Atlanta, he'd been ice cold for the three weeks before the game last week against the Chiefs. They have not been able to consistently get him the ball and I have no confidence they'll be able to do so against a Falcons team that just shut down New Orleans and allows the sixth-fewest fantasy points to opposing wideouts.

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: Here's what's sad. This isn't even a controversial call anymore. Skelton helps, as does the Brandon Browner suspension, but not nearly enough for me to risk starting a guy who has a total of six points in his past three games and five or less in five of the past six. Did you know that Fitzy has the most end zone targets without a catch of any player in the league this season? Not a category you want to lead the league in.

Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs: Postgame news conference league? I'm totally starting Brady Quinn. But when my guy has him as a quarterback on the road at Cleveland with Joe Haden all over him? Looking elsewhere.

Denarious Moore, Raiders: Ice cold, and insert wide receiver facing Champ Bailey here.

Tight ends I love in Week 14

Brandon Myers, Raiders: Not only the apple of my eye these days, but a red-hot tight end that is somehow still available in 70 percent of leagues. Four scores in his past five games, I expect Oakland to be in catchup mode and Bailey all over Moore. No team allows more fantasy points to opposing tight ends than the Denver Broncos.

Brandon Pettigrew, Lions: Scored last week after an eight-catch, 74-yard game the week before. Pettigrew should see even more of an increase with Ryan Broyles out and lots of defensive attention on Calvin Johnson.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings: Another guy who has seen his production increase due to injury, he's now scored in three straight games, including the last time he faced Chicago. With Percy Harvin out for the year and no Brian Urlacher or Tim Jennings for the Bears, Rudolph should have another productive day. Still available in 40 percent of leagues.

Martellus Bennett, Giants: Finally healthy, we saw Martellus come alive on Monday night, and the Saints have allowed four scores to opposing tight ends in the past four games. Solid, low-end, top-10 tight end.

If you're desperate: With Stokley out, Jacob Tamme should have his third straight solid game. ... The same thinking about Brandon Pettigrew applies to Tony Scheffler, just less so.

Tight ends I hate in Week 14

Vernon Davis, 49ers: Three points or fewer in three of the four games Colin Kaepernick has played significant time in, he doesn't seem to be a consistent part of the offense (just four targets the past two weeks). Hell, Delanie Walker has more fantasy points over the past two games than Davis. The Dolphins have allowed only two scores to opposing tight ends all year, although they have come in the past four weeks. Davis has the talent to have a big game, but he's been so inconsistent and there are so many solid tight end options available, I'd rather look elsewhere in a playoff week.

Antonio Gates
Oh, Antonio Gates. What your fantasy owners wouldn't give for one last vintage performance. That they could see coming.

Antonio Gates, Chargers: Six points in the past three weeks. Six total. The Steelers allow the fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends, and they have allowed only one score to an opposing tight end at home this year. As talented as Gates is, just remember, if you trust him, you're also trusting your playoff fate to Philip Rivers and Norv Turner.

Brent Celek, Eagles: "Mommy, why is that large man wearing a white wig? And what's a musket?"

Defenses I love in Week 14

Cleveland Browns D/ST: Averaging more than 10 fantasy points per game at home this year, the Browns are the best "plug and play" defense option this week, available in more than 75 percent of leagues. In Brady Quinn's triumphant return to Cleveland, you know the crowd will be fired up as they chant, "Hey, I forget, was he on our team?"

Tampa Bay Buccaneers D/ST: "Come on, Trent Cole, finish that pint of old Sticher Ale. We are late for the shoeing of the horse. We've already missed the smelting class!"

Cincinnati Bengals D/ST: They're red-hot, and Tony Romo has been known to throw a pick or two, you know?

If you're desperate: Averaging 12 points a game the past three weeks, the Buffalo Bills send four or fewer rushers on 83.7 percent of drop backs. Of the quarterbacks with at least 250 attempts against standard pressure, Sam Bradford is either last or tied for last in touchdowns, TD-INT differential and first downs. ... The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't been a great defense, but Mark Sanchez can make up for a lot of that.

Defenses I hate in Week 14

Houston Texans D/ST: Banged up and facing Tom Brady on the road for "Monday Night Football"? Not a top-10 defense for me.

Baltimore Ravens D/ST: Also banged up, the big thing about Washington is it doesn't really turn the ball over that much and it's getting harder to sack RG3. The  Redskins allow the fourth-fewest fantasy points to opposing defenses.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- forgot to include Step 6: Start preparing for fantasy baseball. He is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.