This is it. All of the hours you've spent staring at the screen and analyzing your fantasy teams, they all lead up to the playoff stretch. From the mock drafts in July to the recently passed trade deadline, it all leads up to these crucial final weeks.
While people jockey for seconds on the bird Thursday, we fantasy nerds will be fighting for the ideal football viewing angle and asking our uncle whether he has Wi-Fi and/or the NFL Network. Let's be honest, though: We'll all be going for seconds on the grub.
Anyway, the point is that fantasy is that extra splash of gravy on what is already an awesome day (moment of silence for the inventor of gravy). When Keith Bulluck levels a Lion or DeMarcus Ware dismantles a Seahawk, their fantasy owners can execute a silent fist pump, knowing they're adding to their point total in this most pivotal of fantasy weeks.
With all of the effort that has gone into your fantasy season, make sure you finish it out with the appropriate level of scrutiny and due diligence. Are your defensive backs deflating at the wrong time? Or are your linebackers no longer keeping up the tackle pace that led you to playoff contention? If this is the case, or whatever ailments your team might be enduring, keep your options open. Don't simply trust your team merely because they got you here. In most IDP leagues, some quality options are still available on the wire that might make the difference in your team's fate. Many of them are mentioned below.
Consider using these players if you are in immediate need of impact defenders, especially in deep leagues.
Linebackers and linemen: Bulluck has fought through injuries this season to lead one of the league's truly elite defenses. With a savory matchup against the sloppy Detroit offense, Bulluck, owned in just 46 percent of ESPN leagues, might nab his first interception of the year to go with a nice blend of tackles. James Farrior's ownership dropped by nearly 10 percent this past week, but that's simply an overreaction to a few down weeks. He bounced back with a stellar outing against the Bengals and has a favorable run-heavy schedule to finish out the season. The Jets' Eric Barton has been one of the most productive defenders over the past month -- it's not an aberration, but rather, a sign of things to come. Expect Barton, who is owned in just 20 percent of ESPN leagues and has some weak offensive lines on the docket, not only to continue to post healthy tackle totals, but also to tally some sacks. Jamie Winborn will be chasing down Thomas Jones and Leon Washington all afternoon, which should lead to some valuable production for his few fantasy owners. If nothing else, trust that Denver linebackers net a lot of tackles regardless of the opponent. Trent Cole might just be the lone Eagle who is playing well lately. At least fantasy-wise, that is. Cole burst onto the fantasy scene last season with his penchant for big sack days, and he's back to collapsing pockets like a pool shark. With unique eligibility at both LB and DE in ESPN leagues, enjoy the added value and expect a nice outing from Cole this week against the pass-heavy Cardinals offense. I honestly don't want to continue to endorse that you add Joey Porter to your roster, given that I've been doing so all season, but the guy continues to notch sacks and is owned in only about half of ESPN leagues. Porter has certainly been a boom-or-bust fantasy commodity over the years, but this year we've seen a lot of boom. Lofa Tatupu and Julian Peterson were elite fantasy sources just a season ago and have fallen out of favor with many managers, thanks to the overall stigma that Seattle's poor play and record has garnered. Don't let the public sway you on this one; both are still valuable commodities and enjoy a favorable schedule down the stretch that could lead to many a fantasy championship. Oakland's Thomas Howard is proof that there is some legit fantasy value on the Raiders -- it just isn't on offense. Howard and fellow Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison have quietly been fantasy studs for years now, and both merit spots on fantasy rosters for the stretch run.
Defensive backs: Eric Weddle might just lead the league in tackles from his safety spot on the Chargers. While that's a glaring indicator of how poor the front seven for San Diego has been, it's quite a fantasy feat for the 50 percent of you in ESPN leagues who own him. Fellow Charger Quentin Jammer has also been building quite a statistical resume behind said anemic front seven and should continue his productive campaign with extremely favorable matchups to finish out his schedule. The theme for targeting fantasy defensive backs is pretty well established in this column: Target safeties who play behind poor tackling and undersize defensive lines and linebacker corps. Atlanta's Erik Coleman embodies this template, as he's become a proven tackle-source on a weekly basis. Chicago's Kevin Payne has been the lone steady source of production from the Bears' secondary this season; the others have been beset by injury and underperformance. Payne is on pace for 92 tackles in addition to a handful of picks and fumbles and is of particular value in IDP keeper leagues.
Target these guys for depth with an eye on their potential to be full-fledged starters.
Linebackers and linemen: The Rams' Pisa Tinoisamoa (say it with me kids, PEES-oh tee-noy-SAW-mo-ah) is a nice addition in deep leagues to consider. He's quietly on pace for 100 tackles and a number of forced fumbles. That and you get to work on your phonetic dexterity. There's an Atlanta rookie emerging besides Matt Ryan: His name is Curtis Lofton, and he's manning the middle for the Falcons. While Lofton isn't good for much more than steady tackle numbers, you can trust he'll be consistent, and he's available in an absurd 94 percent of ESPN leagues. Detroit's Paris Lenon will be plenty busy chasing down Tennessee running backs Thursday, as the Titans likely will control the ball most of the day. On a side note, it would be pretty awesome if Paris and London Fletcher ever teamed up, forming a distinctly European cosmopolitan linebacker tandem. Richard Seymour has long embodied the concept of a great real player but a fairly irrelevant fantasy source. This season, however, he has been remarkably consistent in getting to the quarterback. With six sacks in as many games, Seymour is on pace not only to crush his career-high sacks total but also to destroy the perception that he's not a valid fantasy commodity. In leagues that start a defensive tackle, Seymour is among the elite. Napoleon Harris' numbers are inflated by a happenstance touchdown last week, but he is starting for the Vikings and has a nice matchup against what will be a steady dose of Matt Forte. If you own Pierre Woods and Pierre Thomas, you own not only two of the three Pierres in the NFL (Colts receiver Pierre Garcon is the other), a feat in itself, but also two valuable depth additions for the stretch run. Woods has filled in ably for the injured Adalius Thomas in New England and should finish the season with a nice stretch of production.
Defensive backs: Cincinnati's Marvin White is yet another example of the benefits of scouting bad defenses for good fantasy values. Playing behind a sieve of a front seven, he's on pace for nearly 90 total tackles and yet is owned in just six percent of ESPN leagues. Consider White if you are trusting a boom-or-bust corner that you aren't confident in as we head to these critical final weeks. Roman Harper sounds like the name of a book publisher, but he's actually a good young safety for the Saints. Harper was a fantasy stud last season with 90 tackles, four sacks and three picks. This year he has been pedestrian, but he should pad his numbers with some nice matchups down the stretch. Quintin Mikell and Brian Dawkins merit serious consideration for your fantasy roster this week, as they'll be chasing down the highly targeted and capable Arizona receiving corps, which will likely lead to stellar tackle production. Ronde Barber is a hit-or-miss fantasy player in his twilight but is a nice bet for some healthy numbers against the pass-happy, Drew Brees-led Saints.
Jim McCormick is an analyst for ESPN.com fantasy football.