A running back comes down with turf toe. If that happens in Week 17 for a team that has been out of the playoffs since October, it's no biggie. But if his "little piggie" sends him crying "wee, wee, wee" all the way to the bench with one game left and the playoffs at stake, that's a big toe injury.
A field goal kicker pulls a 30-yard attempt wide left. If it's the second quarter and his team goes on to lose by two, the likely response will be "The team had plenty of other chances to score." If he misses that same kick with 18 seconds left in the game, he could be looking for work come Monday.
A football fan eats several chili dogs and imbibes multiple malt beverages while tailgating before the game and then finds himself with a gastrointestinal marching band playing "oom-pah-pah" music, if you know what I mean. If he's just with his buddies, at worst he earns himself a nickname. If he's sitting next to that gal he's been trying to date for several months, his second date is gone with the wind.
Everyone has the occasional bad day. However, the timing of that bad day is often what decides whether it's a little deal or a big deal, and if that bad day happens to a valuable fantasy football player in your league, it could result in a really big deal for you.
Casing the Joint
On a purely statistical level, all losses are created equal. A team that wins its first five games and loses their next five is the same as another that alternated wins and losses for the first 10 weeks of the season. But losing at this point in the season hurts more, especially for teams on the playoff bubble, which is why players who let their owners down now are viewed in a more damning light than those who stumbled earlier in the season, because everything is on the line.
Thus, when Aaron Rodgers produces a five-point "wretch-a-thon" against the Vikings, he's not just hurting his owners' chances of winning a game, he is single-handedly trying to end those fantasy owners' bids for greatness. When Chris Johnson, who has given so much, goes out this past Sunday and manages one measly point, he's not entitled to an off-day. He is a fantasy traitor, sent to infiltrate a roster and destroy it from within just when the championship appears within reach.
Am I exaggerating? Sure. But do owners who are afraid of missing the playoffs feel that way right now? You betcha. So here's your assignment: Look at the rosters of any teams sitting at 4-6, 5-5, or 6-4 and scour them for the player who let them down in Week 10. If it's someone you have a man crush on, make an offer. Not a lowball offer, though. Make as close to a full-price offer as you can, and see if you can get a deal done. I'm not directing you to go "steal" a top-tier player. I'm suggesting that a "one-week blunder" at this point in the season could make someone who should be "untouchable" into someone who is, for a very short time, touchable. These are the guys I'm focusing on in my
Three I'm Stealing
Steve Slaton, RB, Texans: Why would any football-savvy fantasy GM be surprised when a running back who's listed as 5-foot-9 and 203 pounds doesn't see much work against a Ravens D that grinds opposing backs into tiny little bits? I don't know, but throw in the fact that Slaton had touched the ball 24 times the week before against an equally brutal Vikings run defense and this is a classic case of a stud player having a predictably bad week. Slaton doesn't have another killer assignment until he faces the Titans in Week 15. This week, he sees the Colts, so wanting him as your second running back isn't a bad idea. Waiting a week to offer up LenDale White for him is. More on this later.
Steve Smith, WR, Panthers: Remember, I'm not suggesting you're getting Smith with a clever little "How about Mewelde Moore and Mark Bradley?" offer. I'm talking about giving the goods to get the goods when, in truth, Smith should be a dealbreaker. Week 10's one-catch, nine-yard stinkeroo was Smith's first game with less than nine fantasy points since returning from suspension back in Week 3. Of course, even in his awful week, Smith saw six passes, tying him for Carolina's top target for the week, so it's not like he was out of the game plan. It was simply an awful week for the Panthers' passing game. With the Lions up this week, Smith will be back on the untouchable list in a matter of days.
Owen Daniels, TE, Texans: I'll go with my second Texan of the section in Daniels. One catch for 13 yards is downright deadly from a guy who scored double-digit points in two of his past three games. But Daniels has all the positive matchups that Slaton has, plus he'll get a bump when Matt Schaub gets healthy in time for your fantasy playoffs. He's especially useful in point-per-reception formats, where Daniels' bad games are mitigated by the frequency of his targets. Thus, he's probably better than half the starters in your 10- or 12-team league. If you can sell someone on the idea that you'll give them Bo Scaife or Kevin Boss, plus an upgrade elsewhere, you're getting a real weapon coming off a week when his whole team misfired.
Three I'm Dealing
LenDale White, RB, Titans: Not since 2005 when Jerome Bettis scored nine touchdowns in 12 games while only rushing for 368 yards have we seen a guy make this kind of fantasy living as a true touchdown vulture. The Titans have a few ideal playoff matchups -- the Browns in Week 14, the Texans in Week 15 -- so if you're already locked into the postseason, feel free to hold on to White. But if you need wins now, White's average of 9.3 carries and about 35 yards rushing per game over the past three weeks is a dangerous trend. He is completely dependent on scoring at the goal line, and while I have no doubt there will be some opportunities, I'm looking for more than one dimension out of my second running back.
Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals: There's still plenty of heat behind the Cardinals' new featured back, and after watching Edgerrin James only get two carries in Week 10, his job seems very secure. But if San Francisco can bottle him up for 22 rushing yards, you have to wonder what defenses like the Giants, Eagles, Vikings and Patriots -- four of Arizona's next six opponents -- can do. Granted, Hightower's six catches show that he can find a place in the Cardinals' "Shoot and Shoot" offense, but he's still a player whose current buzz makes him worth more in trade than in your lineup. Could you get the soon-to-return Reggie Bush or the recently slumping Marshawn Lynch for him? It's at least worth asking.
Braylon Edwards, WR, Browns: I admit, when Brady Quinn took over in Cleveland, the two players I was most interested in tracking were Edwards and Kellen Winslow, because when a team switches quarterbacks, it's a chance to see who the new guy targets. Winslow blew up, while Edwards saw six passes but only caught one. While I do think the entire Browns offense gets upgraded based on Quinn's performance, Edwards needed to come up big and announce that he was ready to be the 2007 Braylon. It didn't happen, so maybe you can parlay the overall optimism in Cleveland into a deal that gives you someone like Wes Welker, who sees a ton of balls and catches nearly all of them. That's production that stands up, even in winter weather.
Pulling the Job
I made a small deal this week, as my attempts to survive without Tony Romo in my main PPR league came to a crossroads with Jeff Garcia on a bye. Staring at Gus Frerotte as my starting quarterback, I dealt Kevin Faulk to my buddy, Jon, who also has Sammy Morris, in exchange for Chad Pennington, who had a great matchup against the Seahawks. Of course, Pennington was no better than average, while Faulk watched BenJarvus Green-Ellis carry the load for the Patriots.
As a result, we both got smoked in our head-to-head games, and with byes over and Romo on the verge of returning, it's possible neither player in the deal will start for either of us again. But both of us believe the minute you stop dealing is the moment you start dying.
There's only one week left before the trade deadline in ESPN standard leagues. So don't just win your league. Steal it, pronto.
Shawn Peters is a fantasy baseball, football and golf analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him your own grand theft rotos by clicking here.