Every week in the Engel Eye, I'll take a look at some key performances from Sunday. I'll determine which players are delivering pivotal performances during your fantasy playoffs, and I'll pinpoint late-season trends.
The playoff picture: Before Week 15 even started, fantasy owners who were looking ahead were concerned about their possible top starters being benched or playing less in Week 16. That doesn't seem to be a major concern with the Patriots, as Bill Belichick has already waved off any suggestions he might sit players next week against Miami. New England is ready to embrace making history, so unless weather becomes a major deterrent again next week, you should keep all your top Pats active. Indianapolis, however, is locked into the No. 2 seed and its top starters are big risks for the Week 16 game against Houston. You could see one half or less from guys like Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Kenton Keith should see more playing time and will be much more useful. Less proven receivers such as Devin Aromashodu and Craphonso Thorpe are not optimum plays just because they see more time. They are less likely to produce good numbers against starting defensive personnel, especially if they are working with Jim Sorgi. One half of Manning, however, will likely be better than a full game of Chris Redman or Josh McCown. It all depends on who your alternative choice is.
The Chargers will likely want to wrap up the third seed in the AFC, because it means one more week of avoiding a trip to New England. Pittsburgh must play its top guys for another week, as it still has not wrapped up the AFC North, and the Browns still have a shot to win that division and have not officially clinched a playoff berth, so no worries there, either. Jacksonville has not clinched and still wants to lock up the fifth seed in the AFC, so the Jaguars' top guys are good for at least one more week. Dallas and Green Bay are still battling for the top seed in the NFC. While fighting for a third seed has not always motivated coaches to use their full arsenal in the past, it is unlikely Mike Holmgren will rest his top guys next week against the Ravens after Seattle was upset at Carolina. "We want to go into the playoffs playing good football and finish strong," Holmgren told the Seattle Times. Jon Gruden has already said he will not make any wholesale lineup changes in Tampa Bay. "We're still playing for something, and we want to continue to get better," Gruden told the Tampa Tribune.
What the Seattle and Tampa Bay coaches say publicly may not always ring true, but it's difficult to envision either team giving its starters extensive rests for two weeks, especially in the case of the Seahawks. Holmgren is certainly not happy after his offense struggled at Carolina and will want to fine-tune some more before the playoffs start. Seattle owns the tiebreaker over Tampa Bay for the third seed, but Week 17 could be much less meaningful for both teams, who are each guaranteed a home playoff game in the first round. There's no reason for major worry yet with these two teams, but monitor the comments from Holmgren and Gruden closely as we move closer to Week 16 play.
Championship fuel: I truly believe the Packers are the best team in the NFC. When they played Dallas, Charles Woodson was out, and Brett Favre was knocked out of the game. Green Bay has a better defense than Dallas, has developed a strong running game, and is certainly just as strong, if not deeper, in the passing game. That's why the Pack will not only win the NFC, but will be the backdrop to many fantasy championship celebrations next week. Green Bay faces Chicago in Week 16, and will tear the Bears up as the Packers look to avenge their first loss of the season back in Week 5. Favre has thrown a pair of touchdown passes in consecutive games and will be on fire next week as the Pack attempt to keep hopes alive for the top seed in the NFC. Defenses are now paying more attention to Ryan Grant, but he still scored on Sunday and will continue to finish off Green Bay scoring drives. Greg Jennings has scored six times in the past five games and has emerged as a top fantasy wideout this year. Donald Lee has scored in consecutive games and may be the most underrated tight end in fantasy football. The defense shut out the Rams in the second half Sunday, and has terrific playmakers like Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk, Aaron Kampman and rising strong safety Atari Bigby, who can freelance and frustrate opposing quarterbacks as the cornerbacks take care of opposing wideouts. Perhaps the only Packer not worth locking into your lineup is Donald Driver, who has not scored since Week 3 and has only one 100-yard game since then.
Sizzling Saints: New Orleans has won two in a row and three of its past four games, and remains alive in the NFC playoff race. The Saints have run hot and cold all year long, but they are hot again as they head into a Week 16 matchup with the erratic Eagles. You can't bench Drew Brees right now, as he is very capable of leading your team to a fantasy championship next week if you have him. He has thrown for 300-plus yards in the past two games and has tossed 10 touchdown passes in his past four outings. Aaron Stecker has emerged as a top fantasy starter late in the season. The more I see of him, the more impressed I am by him. Not only can he slither through small spaces and exhibit cutback moves to make tacklers miss, he is also willing to battle hard for tough yardage. He also catches passes. He totaled 141 yards from scrimmage on Sunday and has become a must-start player in the fantasy postseason. The great success of Marques Colston has been well-documented. David Patten has re-emerged to score in back-to-back games, but he has been up and down all season long, and is the one top Saint you won't be able to trust against the Eagles next week.
Wild weather: While the conditions wreaked the expected statistical havoc in New England and Cleveland, the weather was overcome in Pittsburgh and overlooked in Carolina. David Garrard and Ben Roethlisberger both overcame snow, wind and adverse field conditions to throw three touchdowns each as the Jaguars outlasted the Steelers. Garrard proved he is a must-start player in any conditions, and Roethlisberger has played well in bad weather before. Fred Taylor rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown and is going to be the MVP of many fantasy teams this year. Pittsburgh clearly misses injured defensive lineman Aaron Smith, and the Steelers' defense is no lock to contain Steven Jackson and Willis McGahee in its final two games. Most fantasy owners didn't expect weather to be a factor in Carolina, but Seattle's performance in a loss proves fantasy owners need to pay attention to more than just snow and rain. Wind gusts up to 30 mph certainly affected the Seattle passing game, as Matt Hasselbeck was held to one late, inconsequential touchdown pass.
A step forward: Laurence Maroney has been a disappointment for much of the 2007 season, but he delivered a high-quality outing against the Jets on Sunday. Maroney rushed for 104 yards on 26 carries and scored on a 1-yard run. What was most impressive about Maroney's performance is that he battled hard for tough yards and earned extra yardage after contact on several occasions. In the past, I've seen Maroney dance too much and not hit holes quickly enough, so he has been unreliable as an inside runner. I saw a different Maroney on Sunday, though, a guy who will challenge defenders and can fight for the hard yards. There's no doubt he can be an explosive open-field runner as well. Maroney is on his way to becoming a more complete runner and is a good starting option in the season's final two weeks.
Random reads: Plaxico Burress was a disappointment again on Sunday, catching only three passes for 35 yards. He is going to be a key performer, however, in the next two games as the Giants try to keep their playoff hopes from fading away. … Anthony Gonzalez caught seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown, and he is no ordinary rookie. He runs sharp routes and has great moves. But if his playing time gets scaled back in the next two weeks, you'll have to bench him. … Chris Redman completed only four passes on Sunday and should not be used as a starter in the final two weeks even though he played well enough in the previous two games. Now that opponents are seeing more of him, they are easily exposing his weaknesses. … LenDale White continues to run hard, as he finished with 93 yards on 24 carries. He remains a good starter as Tennessee tries to keep its playoff hopes alive.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.