Fantasy playoffs schedule outlook

Also, what to make of Matt Ryan, the Chargers' backfield and Aaron Dobson?

Updated: November 15, 2013, 2:01 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Betrayer Of Zac Stacy" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes, that way you'll never miss a show! And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter at @CHarrisESPN. All right, let's get to today's topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Three in depth

1. Fantasy playoff schedules for quarterbacks: The trade deadline for standard ESPN leagues is next Wednesday, Nov. 20, and hopefully many of you are thinking of your fantasy playoffs. Clearly, the overriding edict in all cases is "don't bench your studs," but there seem to be fewer according-to-Hoyle "studs" you can rely on from week to week in the NFL these days, and you're forgiven if you don't have a team completely comprised of them. When it comes to the middling fantasy options -- of which there are many -- the attractiveness of schedules from Week 14 to Week 17 can be a boon, and could make the difference between wanting to trade for a player, or wanting to trade one away. Schedule doesn't make the man, but it helps. Here are two QBs whose fantasy schedules I like and two I hate for the ESPN standard fantasy playoffs:

Good -- Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens (MIN, @DET, NE, @CIN): Aqib Talib could return for the New England Patriots as soon as Monday night, and perhaps he reverts to his excellent early-season form. But until we see that happen, Flacco appears to have three fantastic matchups to begin the fantasy playoffs. And the Cincinnati Bengals are OK in their pass defense, but without Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, they don't frighten me. Of course, there's the idea of having to rely on Flacco's consistency in a fantasy playoff game. Now that frightens me.

Good -- Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles (DET, @MIN, CHI, @DAL): I'm as skeptical as I can be of Foles' rise to presumed fantasy glory, but I also grow weary of hearing myself make excuses for why he's had back-to-back great games. So let's acknowledge that this is a sweet schedule. The Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings are the No. 7 and No. 1 matchups for opposing QBs at the moment, and the Chicago Bears can be had without Charles Tillman.

[+] EnlargeQuinn
Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson's value could take a hard hit during the fantasy playoffs.

Bad -- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (@SF, @NYG, ARI, STL): Let's hear it for the New York Giants. I'm more impressed with the run defense's improvement, but the fact is over the past five weeks, my metrics have this unit as the second-worst for fantasy QBs and RBs to score fantasy points against, and the worst for fantasy WRs. The St. Louis Rams may not actually be awesome on the back end; they may simply be so easy to run against that QBs don't typically have to rack up big numbers against them. Then again, when it gets going, that Rams pass rush can be ridiculous.

Bad -- Philip Rivers (NYG, @DEN, OAK, KC): I hate Carson Palmer's schedule and Drew Brees has to face the Carolina Panthers twice, but I want to give you advice that actually helps you make decisions, so I'll mention Rivers. The Oakland Raiders allowed Foles a massive day in Week 9, so maybe we don't freak out about that one, but the others look daunting, especially considering Rivers just went for 12 fantasy points versus the Denver Broncos last week (and hasn't eclipsed 18 in any of his past five outings).

2. Fantasy playoff schedules for running backs: How many truly reliable RBs are there right now? Ten? Maybe 11? Let's list them, in no real intentional order: Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, Alfred Morris, Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy and Knowshon Moreno? Do you want to put Zac Stacy in there already? Maybe. Anyway, these guys are the pure gold of the fantasy playoff season; certainly we'll see some huge performances from unexpected quarters, but teams who have more than one of the RBs I just listed have a leg up. And if you don't have a bunch of these guys? It's mix-and-match time, and hope for the best.

Good -- Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers (ATL, @DAL, PIT, @CHI): Lacy has 143 carries since Week 5, 15 more than his closest competitor; only seven RBs have even eclipsed 100 in that span, so there's concern about him wearing down. But there isn't a matchup here that looks bad. The last time we saw the Dallas Cowboys defense, it was allowing three New Orleans Saints rushers to eclipse 20 fantasy points in the same game. The Pittsburgh Steelers are capable of good run defense, as they held down the Buffalo Bills backfield Sunday, but they're also capable of stinking up the joint, as they did the week before against the Patriots.

Good -- C.J. Spiller, Bills (@TB, @JAC, MIA, @NE): For sure, Spiller's concerns go beyond mere scheduling. Do yourself a favor and don't listen to anything coach Doug Marrone says; he's establishing himself as one of the biggest misinformation machines in the NFL. Believe your eyes: Spiller is still hobbling around out there. The Bills are off Week 12, but Fred Jackson is healthy, so it's tough to say Spiller has an easy path to a bunch of touches, but that also means he should come cheaper at the trade deadline. With only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking like a hard matchup here, there's a chance for a Hail Mary save of the season.

Bad -- Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks (@SF, @NYG, ARI, STL): I just dissed Lynch's QB's schedule, and I don't think this lineup is much better for rushers. Clearly, though, Lynch does belong to the "stud" category, which would make him pretty tough to deal away or bench. But if you've got a blockbuster on your mind, in which you can get a king's ransom for Lynch and set yourself up at multiple positions, I might be somewhat more likely to consider it because he'll face some stout defensive fronts.

Bad -- Darren McFadden, Raiders (@NYJ, KC, @SD, DEN): Just in case you're eyeing DMC as a buy-super-low candidate for when his injured hamstring gets right in early December, here's a word of warning: Don't. The New York Jets have, by my metrics, the best rush defense in fantasy, and McFadden's other three opponents are on the negative side of neutral. Sure, you could get McFadden really cheap, and if he didn't have that nasty Week 14 tilt looming, I might even advocate for it. But he does, so I'm not.

3. Fantasy playoff schedules for wide receivers: Wideouts are, by their nature, mercurial, relying as they do on so much else to go right for them to achieve steady production. So while I probably can't give you a list of "reliable" WRs (even Calvin Johnson has a two-point and a three-point outing in his eight starts this season) as long as the RB list above, that's expected. You know going in that big days from wideouts can rescue you, but they're often tough to count on.

[+] EnlargeTorrey Smith
Doug Kapustin/MCT via Getty ImagesTorrey Smith is easily having his best season in terms of catches and yards, but the touchdowns have yet to come.

Good -- Torrey Smith, Ravens (MIN, @DET, NE, @CIN): I gave you the Flacco argument earlier, and while I don't believe in Flacco's game overall enough to make him a recommended trade target, I do believe in Smith. I still think you can get him at a relative discount, because he's stuck on two TDs after scoring a combined 15 in his first two seasons. But Torrey is top-15 in targets and receiving yards, and has too much speed not to break a long one before the season is up.

Good -- Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs (@WAS, @OAK, IND, @SD): You want to talk about the ultimate flier? Why not? Trade a bag of used footballs for him, and stash him on your bench, just in case something clicks. I don't expect anything. Bowe has off-field issues now, plus plays with Alex Smith. But while I do think the Washington Redskins have gotten better on pass defense, the other three defenses here have been dreadful against the pass lately. A best-case scenario would have Bowe breaking out in Weeks 14 and 15, and suddenly seeming trustworthy for the stretch run.

Bad -- Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals (STL, @TEN, @SEA, SF): I'm listing only one bad wideout schedule, because it's just that bad. Yeah, it's a dumpster fire. Fitz is already held hostage by Palmer's erratic tendencies, and this is a set of strong pass rushes, good cover secondaries and smart defensive coaching. The best thing that could happen to you if you're a Fitzgerald owner would be to have him score a TD this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, so you can get something good for him. I'm punting.

Four in brief

4. Hail Mary: Matt Ryan? Ranking quarterbacks was no fun this week. Figuring out what to do with Tom Brady versus the Panthers; wondering whether I'm underestimating Nick Foles, Case Keenum and Josh McCown; finally cutting bait on Colin Kaepernick … it was a full plate. But nothing compares to recommending Ryan, who has been a disaster for three consecutive weeks. However! Look at the three defenses he faced: Arizona, Carolina and Seattle. Notice a pattern? The hailstorm lets up this week against the Bucs. Please, please, please stop with the "Revis Island" stuff when it comes to evaluating an opposing quarterback. The Buccaneers have allowed QBs to add 6.4 fantasy points to their averages over the past five weeks. Nick Foles, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill have all bumped up their recent performances when they've faced Tampa. And you know who else has done so? Matt Ryan. Week 7, without Roddy White or Julio Jones, Ryan escaped Revis Island to the tune of 20-of-26 for 273 yards, three TDs, no turnovers and 22 fantasy points. Statistics can say whatever you want them to say. Watch the tape: That day, Ryan was controlled in the short passing game, made no mistakes and gave no hint that three bad games were coming. It says here he's adequate again Sunday, though you'll want to check to make sure that both White and Harry Douglas overcome their current maladies to start.

5. Why "Danny Woodhead > Ryan Mathews": When you're evaluating players, the worst thing you can do is be swayed week to week by the box score. That's why I'm sticking with Woodhead. Mathews got 15 touches against the Broncos in Week 10, including an honest-to-goodness goal-line carry, and that's terrific. Woodhead was the lesser-used player, with 10 touches. Each man scored a TD. But in my opinion so much has to go right for Mathews' role to stay major. If the San Diego Chargers fall behind, forget about it. If they have a lot of third downs, forget about it. And frankly, until last week, if they got into the red zone, forget about it. (Maybe that last one is changing.) But the simple fact is that Woodhead averages 30.7 snaps per game while Mathews averages 23.5. I salivate at the thought of any RB facing the Miami Dolphins these days, but when you're not a pass-catcher, don't play on third downs and typically don't get the rock in high-leverage situations, you're tough to trust. This helps explain why I stuck with Woodhead at No. 20 on my RB list, while Mathews is No. 23.

6. Is Aaron Dobson arriving? By now, you folks know I don't get blinded by the fact that the last time we saw a box score involving Dobson, he posted a five-catch, 130-yard, two-TD line. I mean, it was awesome if you started him, but 81 of those yards came on one play, and there's always a tendency to be wary of Mr. Brady's outside weapons' consistency. Rob Gronkowski appears all the way back, Shane Vereen should be involved in the passing game as soon as Monday night, and for the moment, Danny Amendola is healthy. (Emphasis on: for the moment.) So shouldn't we just assume Dobson will ebb and flow in the Brandon Lloyd circa 2012 mode? I'm not so sure. By Week 9, Kenbrell Thompkins had fallen out of the rotation, playing zero snaps after playing only 13 in Week 8; meanwhile, Dobson was on the field for 63 of 71 snaps against the Steelers. In his past four games, he has averaged nearly eight targets per contest, and that includes the five and nine he got with Amendola back in the fold in the Pats' past two games. Dobson is still available in about 87 percent of ESPN leagues, and I rated him 31st among wideouts, even in the tough Carolina Monday nighter. I agree that it can be scary to rely on any team's No. 3 or 4 preferred aerial weapon. But that hasn't stopped folks from starting Keenan Allen, right? And wouldn't you rather have Tom Brady flinging it to your wideout than Philip Rivers?

7. Andrew Luck got away with one: I know everyone in the media is gaga over Luck, and I even did a video breakdown of him this week. But let's face it: All is not right with the Indianapolis Colts offense. Blame the line, blame the running game, blame Reggie Wayne's injury, but Luck was lucky to escape Thursday night's tilt with 18 fantasy points, thanks to an 11-yard TD run. Hey, that's definitely part of his game (he's now got nine rushing TDs in 26 career regular-season starts, more than Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson), but the throwing offense is still shaky, and some of that is on Luck. During a typical Colts broadcast you hear oohs and ahhs with every movement Luck makes, but he's still missing throws, especially deep ones, even sometimes when he isn't getting pressured. Mechanically, he's not as consistent as the great QBs, and spent some of the first half against the Tennessee Titans throwing off his back foot. Now, I'll grant you that the larger problem is the fact that Indy's blocking just isn't any good. Luck seems to have uncanny pocket presence, which covers up for just how much traffic his O-line allows to swirl around him. And by now we should be convinced the kid can get on a serious midgame roll. I still view him as a nice acquisition in advance of next week's fantasy trade deadline (though this latest rushing TD probably hiked up his price); Week 12 against the Cardinals may not go great, but after that he's got TEN, @CIN, HOU, @KC, JAC, and nothing there freaks me out too badly. But let's face it: Luck has still topped 18 fantasy points in only three of 10 outings. His floor feels safe, but his ceiling is pretty low.

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