What does a fantasy owner need to do to find a healthy, safe, top-flight running back with a favorable matchup right now?
Take a look at the season's top 20 fantasy backs:
• Chris Johnson, ninth, faces the Steelers.
• Frank Gore, tied for 12th, battles St. Louis, but has an ankle injury.
• Marion Barber, tied for 12th, has a toe issue and draws the Ravens.
• Brandon Jacobs, 14th, has knee problems and goes up against Carolina.
• LenDale White, 17th and, like Johnson, faces the Steelers.
That's one-quarter of our most reliable running backs of the 2008 season and not one of them earned higher than a No. 18 consensus ranking (that was Johnson's spot). Could anything be more frustrating than to have to dip into the well of sleepers, pretenders and desperation plays in such a critical fantasy week?
Those are the big stories as we head into this week's "Called Out!"; a fantasy championship week at that. Our experts -- Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Erik Kuselias and Eric Karabell -- tackled each of the aforementioned running backs' situations in their Week 16 rankings, and now, let's get a little more insight from them, shall we?
Cockcroft: Guys, I'd like to know how each of you is approaching the Gore/ DeShaun Foster conundrum. On paper, that's a fine matchup for whoever gets the start, so what's your leaning on who will play, how much, and how would you address ranking or using either one this week?
Berry: I'm worried Gore doesn't play and if he does, he won't get as many touches. If Gore is healthy and starting? He's top 10. As it is, I think you have to have him as a low No. 2 and that's where I will rank him. Foster has some upside, even if Gore plays, because I think he will get some work. If you are desperate for a flex play, he could be OK. I'll have him in the low 20s/high 30s in my Friday ranking updates.
Harris: Mike Singletary said he's optimistic about Gore playing, though Gore did miss Wednesday's practice. The matchup is so plum, though, I almost think you have to use him if he's active. Unlike, for example, Marion Barber or Brandon Jacobs, who wouldn't have much value if they didn't get a full accompaniment of carries, Gore could get 10 touches and still have a major fantasy impact. Consider the Rams have given up a rushing touchdown every single week this year. If Gore winds up being inactive, I saw enough good stuff out of DeShaun Foster last week -- who knew the guy could pass-block -- that I'd consider him at least as a flex. Someone's getting a rushing score for the 49ers this week.
Kuselias: I do think Gore will sit. And if that is the case, then Foster is a solid play against the putrid Rams, in the dome. I think the other guys will come around to my way of thinking and have Foster where he should be, at No. 18.
Karabell: I really don't expect Gore to play, but the matchup is so nice I had to give him a decent ranking. The thing is, I won't rank Foster in Gore's spot if Gore is out. I mean, how many times do we need to get burned by this guy? Sure, he got some yards in Week 15, but I'm not going to be fooled! It's Week 16, if I'm still playing I'd actually like to win. If Gore is out, maybe Foster is in my top 35.
Cockcroft: Watch, both play and the matchup elevates each of them to flex-play production. I'm starting to get the feeling they split the work and both do well.
OK, same question, but this time it's Giants-related. Do you think Jacobs will play? How do you approach ranking "Earth, Wind and Fire"? Is it different based on whether Jacobs is active or inactive and, if so, by how much? Again, from the early ranks, it seems Matthew is the only person who doubts Jacobs plays.
Berry: Here's what I said in "Love/Hate": "Not convinced he plays and, if he does, not convinced he gets a ton of work. If I'm wrong on both counts, he'll be great as always, but this is definitely feast or famine and a huge risk to take for the playoffs."
Harris: Yeah, I think Jacobs is going to start Sunday night's game, and as such, he's my highest-ranked Giants back. But literally anything can happen. His knee isn't stable, so he could take one hit on his first carry and be done. Or he could feel fine with his brace and play the entire game. For that reason, I also ranked Derrick Ward high (25th compared to Jacobs' 18th). I think the odds are we wind up seeing a fairly even split, and while Jacobs is the red zone guy, he comes with an awful lot of risk this week.
Kuselias: Foster will face a defense that gives up the third-most fantasy points. Conversely, I do think Jacobs will go, and Matthew will get on board. He will get the bulk of the work, and he should be the highest-ranked Giants running back. But I advise caution on all Giants running backs and would not put any as No. 1 starters; Carolina is among the better defenses against running backs.
Karabell: I really do think Jacobs will be playing, and getting most of the carries in what is a key game. I think if/when he plays, he'd be No. 2 running back. As for Ward, even if he's starting I don't think he'd make my top 25 at the position. Ahmad Bradshaw is, to me, kind of out of the equation.
Cockcroft: As a Giants fan, and knowing what this game means to the team playoff-wise, I would be shocked if Jacobs doesn't play. Shocked. It'd be pretty damning of the condition of his knee if he didn't get up for this game.
Sticking with the running backs, Matthew, Pierre Thomas was your No. 1-ranked running back. Bold, and I'd agree he's a certain top-five play. But No. 1? Can you make the case he absolutely should start even ahead of Adrian Peterson (among a few others)? Just what kind of week do you see in Thomas' future?
Cockcroft: Another curious No. 1 ranking of yours, Matthew, the Houston Texans defense. I'm surprised, frankly. What's behind that?
Berry: Here's what I said in "Love/Hate": "At least eight fantasy points in three of their past four games, and here are some numbers for you: 11, 15, 14. Those are the fantasy points scored by the defense playing Oakland the past three weeks."
Cockcroft: Somehow I feel like I want a chance at 20 points if I'm to put a shot-in-the-dark defense at the No. 1 spot. But that's me. I do think Houston stacks up a lot better in that game than people think. Another perplexing thing from that game: You've got Matt Schaub ranked fifth among quarterbacks, which makes sense, but Week 15 sensation Andre Johnson is your No. 25 wide receiver, compared to 12 for Kevin Walter. Come on, aren't you getting a little too carried away with the Nnamdi Asomugha factor now?
Berry: Prior to Week 15, Johnson had scored only twice in the past five weeks and topped 100 yards only once. He has played much worse on the road this year than he has at home. I do think Asomugha lines up on Johnson quite a bit. If you go back to Week 2, Kevin Walter has been a stud every other week. This is an "on" week for Walter. Given all that, plus Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels, and I like Johnson, but not enough to put him as high as everyone else. That's why I have Walter ahead of Johnson this week.
Cockcroft: Hey, Randy Moss beat Mr. Asomugha a couple of times, and we've seen that the Raiders are stubborn; will they put him on Andre all day? Hmmm
Christopher, I'm willing to say Brett Favre probably didn't deserve his Pro Bowl spot because he has disappointed this season. Still, you seem to have soured even more on Favre than I have, ranking him 19th despite his battling a Seattle defense ranked 32nd against the pass, and one that has allowed the most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks (16.0 per game). Too harsh, perhaps?
Harris: Well, since they sat Kelly Jennings, the Seahawks haven't been nearly as bad against the pass. They've allowed seven passing touchdowns in their past five games; by contrast, the Jets have allowed nine. More importantly, though, what in the world has Brett Favre done to deserve anyone's loyalty, fantasy or otherwise, in the past three weeks, when his passer rating has been in the low 60s? Now he's admitting to reporters he's lost some arm strength, and speculation is running rampant he's been dealing with an elbow injury for a while now. New York doesn't throw it down the field much anymore, so even a lot of Favre's vaunted upside is gone. I wouldn't use Favre against anybody right now, not deep in my fantasy playoffs.
Cockcroft: Perhaps the chatter I keep hearing on New York talk radio that the Jets' playoff hopes will come down to the Week 17 game against ex-Jets QB Chad Pennington and the Dolphins is legit. That division race is interesting, to say the least.
You appear to be suggesting two flex-play sleepers in Kevin Faulk (23rd) and Chester Taylor (24th). I like Taylor, picking him up for one of my championship battles even if in the end I keep him benched, only to block my opponent from using him. Do you see enough there in either back to really recommend starting one?
Harris: I don't know what else Taylor has to do to get the other rankers' attention. He's scored a touchdown in five straight games. Heck, I'm surprised Berry doesn't have him in his top 10. Sure, he maxes out between 10 and 15 touches per week, but the Vikes aren't shy about letting him have it in the red zone, and he plays most third downs. Adrian Peterson is awesome, but there have been a ton of scraps left for Taylor lately -- and Taylor could probably start for a quarter of the teams in the NFL.
Cockcroft: Santana Moss doesn't seem entirely healthy to me -- he has an apparent concussion -- and was held to, well, nada in these teams' Week 5 meeting. But you like him nevertheless, slotting him in as a No. 2 receiver?
Harris: Check the record, but I believe you also questioned me on Moss this past week, didn't you Mr. Cockcroft? And how'd that work out for you?
Cockcroft: Not well; he managed 13 points, 10th-most among receivers, so your No. 7 ranking for Moss wasn't bad at all. Touché!
Harris: This past week you hated on me because I had Moss in my receivers top 10; this week I only have him at No. 16. Yes, of course, he's limited by Jason Campbell's tentativeness, but as I rank receivers, I put as much emphasis as I can on whether the player is really good. Moss was just about the last of the really good receivers I ranked this week. I mean, this guy is lightning out of the break, ferocious going after the ball, and in another offense would merit Pro Bowl consideration. Plus, I doubt you'd have been anti-Moss right after he started the year with five scores in his first seven games. Plus, the Redskins only threw to Moss twice in that Week 5 game against the Eagles. I doubt they'll repeat that mistake.
Cockcroft: For the record, Moss has been held to fewer than 60 receiving yards per game with one score in his past seven against the Eagles. Had to throw that out there.
I notice that you're anti-Dolphins running backs entirely, despite what might seem a favorable matchup at Kansas City. Ronnie Brown's ranking was most curious; you had him 32nd, and each of the other three rankers had him exactly 13th!
Harris: Why don't I like Ronnie Brown this week? Did you see him play against the Niners? He was dreadful until the Dolphins were running down the clock. He dropped a couple of passes and didn't do anything notable out of the Wildcat. Most importantly, he and Ricky Williams continue to divvy up the running back job about 60-40, capping the value of each guy. And while the Chiefs' aggregate numbers against the run this year look bad, they've been much better lately. The 494 rushing yards they've allowed in their past five games ranks 15th in the league. Yes, Kansas City is susceptible to pass-catching backs, but Brown has a disappointing 24 receptions for the entire year. Williams has 22. I wouldn't use either guy.
Cockcroft: Erik, I noticed that, in a sense, you're advising caution with Steve Smith, ranking him 12th when everyone else had him a clear top-10 play. But it's such a critical matchup for playoff seeding, and don't forget, the guy has incendiary speed!
Kuselias: I have nothing bad to say about Steve Smith. But his quarterback has been putrid at times, and will have to travel into the swirling winds, in the Meadowlands, at night, where he is not used to playing. Thus I ranked Smith among the elite receivers, but not with the likes of Randy Moss, Megatron or Andre Johnson. Plus, Smith doesn't seem to have the ability to have the huge game. In four of his past six, he hasn't scored, and in all six he has failed to register a multi-touchdown game.
Cockcroft: So Tony Romo cracked your top 10? Do you have no fear of that matchup for Dallas? Hot team, for sure, but not the easiest of matchups.
Kuselias: Against a stud defense in Week 15, Romo had approximately 250 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. Nice. Plus, once again, he's at home. What I like best is Romo is hot, and not in a "Jessica Simpson wants you and will be wearing a pink No. 9 jersey" kind of a way. Romo has nine touchdowns in his past four games, and before anyone points to the Pittsburgh game, remember this game is in Dallas, not in 30-mph winds and the subzero temperatures Romo endured at Heinz Field. Thus, at home he has been crazy hot. In fact, I respect the Baltimore defense so much I have dropped him to a borderline start; any lower than that is insanity.
Cockcroft: Hey, if by some chance Jessica shows up to that game in a pink No. 9 jersey, well, let's just say you're going to wind up wrong on that one.
Why so faithful on Brian Westbrook coming off that stinker of a Monday night in Week 15? Might you be setting up his owners who survived that game for another letdown?
Kuselias: He is still Brian Westbrook, and he is playing against a defense that has not had double-digit fantasy points all season, in a must-win game. Plus, Washington is even more vulnerable to pass-catching backs. You quit on Westbrook; I'll stand by my man.
Cockcroft: Well, I won't quit on Westbrook in one of my championship matchups, if only because he's still a heck of a lot more talented than anything I could possibly use to replace him. But I will say if I had Adrian Peterson, Steve Slaton and Pierre Thomas on my team, Westbrook would be sitting. Of course, those were your No. 1, 4 and 2 backs, respectively, this week, so we're splitting hairs, really.
It's a high-No. 2 ranking, sure, but you had the Bengals' defense 14th, so that might convince someone to pick them as a sleeper. Should they?
Kuselias: Last week the Bengals gave up a measly 280 total yards -- and 13 points -- to Clinton Portis and the Redskins. This week they get the offensive -- and offensively challenged -- Browns. Cleveland couldn't score at the Cadillac Ranch with a fist full of 50s. I'm not saying the Bengals are a start, but their opponent is so putrid that they have to be a mid-level No. 2 defense.
Cockcroft: I'd probably add that I'd never use the Bengals over the Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins or Jets -- that's merely in alphabetical order, not ranked order -- but then you had all of those teams higher. Just wanted to throw that in.
From Erik to Eric Eric, I get the impression you're of the "play your studs" mind-set, at least judging by LaDainian Tomlinson's No. 6 ranking. But a road assignment at Tampa Bay is a difficult one, and relative to his draft position, he has stunk. Why so optimistic?
Karabell: Well, I don't think it's a "play your studs" mind-set, it's just I think between Philip Rivers and Tomlinson, the quarterback is the one with the tougher matchup, especially traveling across the country. People act like Tomlinson stinks -- he is still a top-10 running back. He just isn't No. 1. The Panthers embarrassed the Buccaneers on the ground a few weeks back, so why can't LT have a decent game? He's at the back end of my top 10.
Cockcroft: Amazingly, Tomlinson has ranked among the week's top 10 running backs in terms of fantasy points exactly four times this season. What a down year. And what a down month by Marion Barber, missing the Week 14 contest and then posting a miserable two points against the Giants in Week 15. What do you see in his health and matchup to recommend him as a top-20 option?
Karabell: Obviously it's not a good matchup for any Cowboys, but I view him a bit like the Giants' Jacobs. He's the main back, he's the one who would score a close touchdown, and I think the Cowboys would use him. I think Jacobs has a better chance of big carries than Barber, though. All it takes to be a top-20 running back is a score and 60 yards, and I think Barber is capable.
Cockcroft: True, in Week 15, all it took to crack the top 20 was 110 yards from scrimmage, or 50 yards and a score. Don't know that I see Barber doing either of those, but it's not entirely unthinkable, I suppose.
In terms of the matchup on paper, sure, it makes sense that Lee Evans is your No. 14 wide receiver. But he's coming off back-to-back stinkers, and then there's that dirty rumor started by The Buffalo News that Gibran Hamdan could start at quarterback if Trent Edwards suffers a late-week setback. Does that scare you at all?
Karabell: Evans has been struggling, but Trent Edwards is likely back in there at quarterback, not Mr. Turnover, a.k.a. J.P. Losman, so I think we'll see Evans be a bit rejuvenated. I can't imagine the Bills will be sitting Evans, and with wide receivers like this, they can go a few weeks with nothing, then all of a sudden explode. Gibran Hamdan? I love how fantasy owners think the unknown is so wise. They like the unknown only because the guy doesn't stink yet.
Cockcroft: OK, I admit, I knew I was setting you up to say that. And what a way to wrap things up for this week: Gibran Hamdan doesn't stink yet.
Hope you don't stink in your championship matchups! Best of luck to you.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.