- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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(Remember, you can find my weekly positional rankings in The Big Rotowski. Also, all ESPN.com fantasy columnists will update their rankings Friday.)
Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) at San Francisco 49ers (3-10)
Hearing that Alex Smith and Mike Nolan are feuding is sort of like hearing that Horatio Sanz and Chris Kattan had a fistfight. Why should I care? Nolan was pretty clearly bred to be a defensive coordinator, and Smith shouldn't have been the first pick in a professional football draft.
Fantasy Up: Rudi Johnson has a so-so matchup against the 49ers defense. On one hand, Patrick Willis and company have allowed just 3.7 yards per carry over the past month, but because teams get ahead of San Francisco and run out the clock, the 49ers have allowed 123.5 yards on the ground per game. Johnson is healthy and lost only seven carries to the combo of DeDe Dorsey and Kenny Watson in Week 14. Despite decent corners, the 49ers also give it up via the air; Larry Fitzgerald just killed them (with an assist from a halftime Hail Mary) in Week 13. Start T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson and Carson Palmer. I've cooled on Chris Henry, who had a single target in Week 14. I resisted the urge against the Rams, but the specter of another third-string opposing quarterback is too much: If you are in a tight spot with your regular defense, I can see using Cincinnati's. Overall, it's the 16th-highest-scoring fantasy unit (and is owned in just 11 percent of ESPN.com leagues). It produced a couple of turnovers and just 10 points allowed versus St. Louis. Keep using Arnaz Battle. His ankle is OK.
Fantasy Down: Frank Gore owners circled this as a good fantasy playoff matchup when the season started, but things have changed. The Bengals gave up only 88 yards on the ground to St. Louis in Week 14 and allowed just two rushing touchdowns and 71.6 rush yards per game in their past five. Meanwhile, Gore hobbled in and out of the Niners' previous tilt and has topped 100 yards once all year. Trent Dilfer got crushed by Charles Gordon while scrambling on a fourth-and-3 from the Vikings' 10-yard line and probably is out for the year. Shaun Hill went 22-of-27 for 181 yards and a touchdown in a full half of garbage time, but you want no part of him. Don't you just get that pure knucklehead feeling from Vernon Davis? He had two more false-start penalties against Minnesota, giving him seven on a season in which he has played just 11 games.
Seattle Seahawks (9-4) at Carolina Panthers (5-8)
A month ago, the Seahawks were 4-4, going nowhere. (The Panthers were 4-4, too, by the way.) Five wins later, what has changed? Shaun Alexander got hurt. That's the simplistic answer, and the accurate one. Maurice Morris started a Monday-night shutout of the 49ers, and the Seahawks decided they could be a better team if they spread the field and asked their offensive line to pass block while no one felt beholden to the former league MVP. Now that Alexander is back, it's as a smaller cog in Matt Hasselbeck's wheel. Granted, the fact that the Seahawks' opponents in that span are a combined 22-43 helped. But this is a fun, air-bound fantasy attack.
Fantasy Up: Bobby Engram, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson all partook of the touchdown fiesta against the injury-ravaged Arizona secondary (heck, even Marcus Pollard caught one), but Engram is the name to know. He was targeted most (six for him, five for Burleson, four for Branch) for the eighth time this year, and while I absolutely can see starting Branch as well, Engram's consistency has him verging on No 1. fantasy wideout territory. I continue to not like their run defense very much, but I can't imagine it'll matter that much Sunday, so I say start the Seahawks' defense with impunity.
Fantasy Down: I have Alexander rated No. 32 among rushers and Morris rated No. 35. Either can be a decent flex against Carolina, but don't rely on them for full starting-rusher numbers. There's a chance Vinny Testaverde could sit in favor of rookie Matt Moore. Vinny was beyond dreadful against Jacksonville (13-of-28 for 84 truly dreary yards and a pick returned for a touchdown), and really, what's the point? Jake Delhomme still leads this team in touchdown passes. Why is DeShaun Foster still playing over DeAngelo Williams? Bobby Petrino made the same mistake all year with Warrick Dunn, but at least he had the good sense to quit (more on that in a minute). In his latest misadventure, with his team somehow trailing only 10-6 at halftime, Foster fumbled on the first play of the third quarter. Now, it's not like Williams doesn't fumble; he does, and often. But Foster isn't the future, folks. John Fox calling two timeouts under the three-minute mark while down 31 points looked a lot like Nero with his fiddle.
Buffalo Bills (7-6) at Cleveland Browns (8-5)
Jets rookie corner Darrelle Revis played OK against Braylon Edwards, and that's a good place to start. Because even against an athletic (if sub-6-foot) corner, Edwards can get his. On a crucial drive to begin the second half, Edwards was just way too physical for Revis on two out of three plays. The first was a midrange route on which Edwards muscled the ball from Revis and sprinted for 23 more yards (Kerry Rhodes stripped him of the ball, but it went out of bounds), and the second was a quasi-fade on which Edwards toyed with Revis before plucking the ball off his right shoulder. And Buffalo has nobody like Revis.
Fantasy Up: Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas have gotten some publicity for their play but not enough. Against the Jets, they were ridiculous run-blockers, and Jamal Lewis wasn't the only beneficiary; Jerome Harrison broke a big one on the first play of the fourth quarter. Lewis is a top-five fantasy back this week against a Buffalo defense that allowed the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing rushers the past five weeks. I'm not losing my lunch over Trent Edwards' big day against winless Miami, but the signs were good, and the Browns proved they are susceptible to the pass again in Week 14. In a 16-team league, if you've been starting one of the many injury-ravaged signal-callers, Edwards doesn't make a horrible play. I guess you have to use Marshawn Lynch, who turned 23 carries into 107 yards in his first week back, but Fred Jackson will take a lot of touches, too (15 for 115 yards in Week 14). The Bills love Lynch at the goal line, though, so he's the more valuable guy. Lee Evans can be your flex this week, but you'd better hope the Bills break out with a big lead. That seems to be the only time he gets motivated to score long touchdowns.
Fantasy Down: Neither defense interests me. The Bills lost another secondary member, safety George Wilson (who scored a defensive touchdown before breaking ribs in Week 14), for the season and shouldn't have answers for Derek Anderson, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, et al. And while the Browns aren't giving up a ton of fantasy points on the ground, that's mostly because teams are scoring via the air (the Browns still allowed 4.5 yards per carry in their past five games). It'll be cold with a chance of snow in Cleveland on Sunday, which could limit the air show. But barring weather issues, I think you're looking at a lot of points here.
Tennessee Titans (7-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-9)
Can the NFL's defensive MVP be a guy who missed three games? Talking about what a difference Albert Haynesworth makes for the Titans' defense is way too fashionable, but I promise: It's true. He is a beast. The Chargers threw everything they could at him, and he ate it up. Right now? The current favorites are Jared Allen of the Chiefs, Mike Vrabel of the Patriots and Patrick Kerney of the Seahawks, but my vote would go to Haynesworth.
Fantasy Up: LenDale White owners breathed a sigh of relief just as Kolby Smith owners cursed their fate in Week 14. White got 30 carries to Chris Brown's five versus the Chargers, while Smith rushed 13 times for 12 yards in a game in which the Chiefs played from way behind. The Chiefs gave up big days in consecutive weeks to Selvin Young (twice), Joseph Addai, LaDainian Tomlinson and Justin Fargas; there's no reason to think White won't do damage Sunday. And I'd get Smith in there, too. Tomlinson finally got to the Titans because Norv Turner finally stuck with the run all day, and it's unlikely Tennessee will build a huge lead early. Both of these coaches prefer blood-and-guts games, and frankly, the Chiefs aren't capable of playing any other kind. (Boy, are there a lot of bad offenses in the NFL, or what?) I'd feel pretty good about using the Titans' defense; they've got two studs on the defensive line, a great outside linebacker and surprising depth at safety.
Fantasy Down: Man, Vince Young still is impossibly rough around the edges. Sure, it did look as though he'd been partially concussed against San Diego, but at least two or three killer poor reads a game seem to be guaranteed with this kid. Antonio Cromartie's league-leading ninth interception was a gift. Dwayne Bowe officially has only four drops this year, but two came against Denver, just a continued indication the Chiefs' attention has flagged. I've ranked Bowe below flex-worthy levels. Ty Law is owed $6.5 million next year, and if the Chiefs pay him, they're crazy. Patrick Surtain wasn't good against Denver, but Law was torched. Too bad I don't trust Young to take advantage, but they are reason enough to skip using the Chiefs' defense, even with Jared Allen playing so well.
Fantasy Up: Willis McGahee stands out as the shining fantasy star in a sea of dreck (which rhymes with John Beck, who's benched). McGahee was awful against the Colts, and his first-quarter fumble while down 7-0 was a death spasm for the Ravens, but I'm certainly willing to give him a mulligan, especially when he's headed home for a good-weather game against a defense that gave up 100-yard games to both Buffalo backs in Week 14. Don't out-clever yourself; McGahee should be at the top of your starting lineup in your fantasy playoff game this week. As shaky as Baltimore's corners looked against the explosive Colts, fear not Miami's offensive attack. Yes, corner Chris McAlister is done for the year, and yes, Samari Rolle has health problems, but you can get your Ravens' D back in there against an offense that's accounted for fewer than 100 yards rushing and 185 yards passing per game.
Fantasy Down: If Samkon Gado does it again? Well, you're allowed to yell at me. I've liked Miami's offensive line all year, but to my eyes, it's played much worse over the past couple of games, and Gado has a big challenge this week: The Ravens' rush defense, which, despite everything, is still stout (it allowed almost exactly 3 yards per carry in the past five games). Of course, Gado earned a place in the Fantasy Football Hall of Fame by offering groin shots all around during the 2005 fantasy playoffs, but his two touchdowns against Buffalo were bunnies he lucked into. Jesse Chatman still could suit up, and Lorenzo Booker will steal touches. I'd stay away. I suppose I understand why Cam Cameron would switch back from Beck to Cleo Lemon: If Cameron doesn't win a game, he'll get fired. Still, this won't benefit the Dolphins long term. Ted Ginn Jr. and Beck were one-two in the '07 draft, and they should be getting every snap possible. Todd Heap might try to play this week. Beep. Todd Heap might try to play this week. Beep. Todd Heap might try to play this week. Beep.
New York Jets (3-10) at New England Patriots (13-0)
Those who continue to contend the Patriots' season was compromised by the videotaping scandal are boring to me. I hate this particular game, because it reopens the stupidity from Week 2 forward, causes Vegas to go wacky and returns Eric Mangini's mug to the back pages. It sounds like this contest might be played in a snowstorm, which would affect just about every fantasy league out there. That's a far more interesting story line than who had cameras where.
Fantasy Up: This just in: The Patriots are good. But they're not that good. I don't think any pro football line should ever be 27, especially not in a potential snow game. Nobody is more familiar with the Pats than Mangenius, and nobody wants to stop them more. If this really is a snow game, so much the better. Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the gang would be in your starting lineup even if a monsoon descended on Foxborough, but I expect this to be closer than the wise guys predict. That said, I still definitely would use the Patriots' defense. They'll benefit from weather too, obviously, and they'll be merciless on the kid quarterback. In my Wednesday rankings, I erroneously put Laveranues Coles higher than Jerricho Cotchery. That will be fixed in my Friday update. Coles gutted out a bad ankle against Cleveland, but he's not right and probably shouldn't start in fantasy playoff games. Cotchery, on the other hand, turned his "doubtful" pregame status into nine targets, six catches and 119 yards. He's had big games against the Pats before, and I can see using him.
Fantasy Down: Thomas Jones was my "Alone On An Island" pick from Week 14 (I had him rated quite a bit lower than other ESPN folk), and while Jones did rush for 106 yards against the Browns, he was stuffed on his only goal-line attempt and still has scored in only one game this season. Nevertheless, that output put him 18th among fantasy rushers last week, which (I have to admit) was even higher than I had him. Regardless, despite the fact that the Pats have sputtered stopping the run in recent weeks, I'd stay away from Jones and that very bad offensive line.
Arizona Cardinals (6-7) at New Orleans Saints (6-7)
Whose pass defense is worse? The Saints boast cornerback Jason David (the Human Flambé), who made Chris Redman look unlike an insurance salesman for much of Monday night's game. They also have given up the most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers in 2007 and have allowed a 100-yard receiver or a passing touchdown in all but two games this year. The Cardinals are missing Adrian Wilson and Eric Green, have given up the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing receivers, allowed all three Seattle receivers to post touchdowns in Week 14 and allowed an NFL-high nine aerial scores the past five games. In the end, it doesn't matter who's worse. Both pass attacks should go nuts in this game.
Fantasy Up: Drew Brees and Marques Colston are must-starts, but can you safely use any other New Orleans receiver? David Patten caught nine passes for 122 yards and a pretty touchdown against Atlanta, but he's had good games a few times this year and often put up goose eggs right after. Devery Henderson has three scores and is a deep threat, but no, you don't want him. And all those other receivers who for some reason wear uniform numbers in the teens? I don't think so. Colston is probably the only fantasy starter. Larry Fitzgerald had to play in a modified girdle in Seattle and will be similarly outfitted in "I Love Lucy" gear Sunday, but he should start. Against this poor Saints secondary, he's a must-use. Aaron Stecker ran it 20 times for 100 yards against the Falcons, and while the competition will be tougher here, I'd still use him. I worried he might not get Reggie Bush's full job, and that someone like Pierre Thomas might steal part of his gig, but that certainly didn't happen Monday.
Fantasy Down: I was thoroughly incorrect about Edgerrin James in Seattle. While James rushed for 128 yards against Seattle the first time around, he managed only 46 yards in Week 14, when the Cards got away from the run early. In 12-team leagues, you probably still have to use Edge, but I'm less enthusiastic about him against Will Smith and company. The Cardinals lead the league in penalties, and watching that all-important divisional tilt against the Seahawks, I couldn't help thinking Ken Whisenhunt (a reputed disciplinarian) isn't tough enough. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett committed a ridiculous tearing-the-helmet-off-an-opponent personal foul in the fourth quarter while the game was still in reach, then reportedly got into an altercation with a teammate after the game.
Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-4)
On the one hand, it's a shame this game doesn't mean more; the Steelers are nearly locked in as the No. 3 seed and the Jags are shaping up as the fifth seed. On the other hand, it'll be a referendum on two defensive lines that have been rocked by bad news. Jacksonville has lost tackle Marcus Stroud for the year with a bad ankle sprain just a couple weeks after he returned from suspension, and Pittsburgh has lost end Aaron Smith with a biceps tear. For two of the four premier fantasy run-stopping teams in the league, this could be trouble.
Fantasy Up: Despite his 124-yard output against the Patriots, Willie Parker dipped to 14th among fantasy backs on my Wednesday list, but I'm bumping him back up inside the top 10 on Friday. Stroud's injury, and the continued absence of end Reggie Hayward, makes this matchup a little less daunting. He might not ever score another touchdown (kidding), but Sunday won't be a disaster. Fred Taylor deserves to be ranked ahead of Maurice Jones-Drew, and not just because he took one 80 yards to the house against Carolina. Four straight games, Taylor has outcarried MJD, including an 18-11 margin in Week 14. I have Taylor No. 22 and MJD No. 24, so we're splitting hairs; each is a borderline No. 2 against the ever-brutal Steelers rush D. I thought Ben Roethlisberger played very well against New England. I know the final score didn't show it, but there were a few times in the first half that the game could've gotten out of control, and Big Ben willed his offense to stay in it. By now you know he's an every-week starter; I expect another very good game. I like the Steelers' defense more than the Jags', though each has to be taken down a peg because of the injuries. Troy Polamalu should play for Pittsburgh.
Fantasy Down: I have not given up entirely on Heath Miller, but I've got Marcedes Lewis ranked a notch higher this week, and Miller is trying his owners' patience. He does have nine targets and eight receptions the past two weeks, but for just 58 yards. The Steelers tried him in the red zone early in New England, but then went away from him. Santonio Holmes isn't on Pittsburgh's injury report, which is a bit specious, since he left the Pats game with ankle pain. If he draws Brian Williams, I kind of like the matchup, and I rated Holmes as a borderline starter. But beware.
Green Bay Packers (11-2) at St. Louis Rams (3-10)
Against Cincinnati, the Rams picked their poison, and it was the run. Safeties Corey Chavous and Oshiomogho Atogwe stayed back, the Bengals noticed and 192 rushing yards later St. Louis had its worst run-stopping game of the season (although 45 of those yards came on a screen the official scorer ruled a lateral). But the Rams also tackled terribly, in marked contrast to several games previous. You'd imagine they'll employ a similar strategy against the Pack (the safeties-back part, not the bad-tackling part), which should mean another good day for Ryan Grant.
Fantasy Up: Steven Jackson had 18 carries for 91 yards in Cincy, his fourth straight week listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam (that is, a fourth straight week in the '90s). As was the case against the Niners, Seahawks and Falcons, S-Jax basically had one terrific run (in this case a 54-yarder) and otherwise did nada. To my eyes, it seems like this patchwork O-line can do one of two things: open rush lanes or keep the quarterback upright -- but not both. Still, if Jackson breaks another big one against a Pack D-line that's lost a lot of depth, he makes for a decent fantasy start. What to do with Donald Driver? Greg Jennings is the obvious play among Green Bay receivers, but Driver hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 3. Simply put, Driver has always had a possession receiver's skills, but was forced into a downfield role. Watch the routes he ran against Oakland: hooks, outs and ins. He's not beyond 20 yards very often. In point-per-reception leagues, he's still golden. Otherwise, he's only a borderline fantasy starter. Grant has rushed for the most yards in the NFL since Week 8.
Fantasy Down: As of this writing, Marc Bulger was on track to return, but I've still rated him well outside fantasy starter territory. First, I don't trust that he'll definitely play. Second, can he take a hit? And third, Charles Woodson started against Oakland, and while I've not completely bought into Woodson's resurgence, he's much better than any other corner the Pack can muster. Jeff Wilkins has six outdoor misses this year. He's 14-for-15 in domes and 7-for-13 outside.
Atlanta Falcons (3-10) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)
Bobby Petrino is easy to pile onto: He's kind of a coward, and the NFL is
better off without him. But it seems to me that the real problem here is
Arthur Blank. How bad a judge of character is this guy? (Cue the footage of Blank wheeling around Mike Vick.) And how much vanity does he have, going
on "Monday Night Football" and waxing rhapsodic about how Petrino still has all his confidence, and can have anything he wants in the upcoming draft,
when he evidently knew Petrino was unhappy and considering the
Arkansas gig? During Wednesday's press conference, Blank said, "If I end up
becoming a real cynic as a result of a National Football League team, I
probably shouldn't be in this business." Amen, brother.
Fantasy Up: The Falcons played terribly in the secondary Monday night, and rookie Chris Houston isn't ready for this big a role in the NFL. Accordingly, I like Jeff Garcia a lot this week. He practiced fully Wednesday, and appears on track to start. Joey Galloway gets a bump up as a result; he was questionable with a bad toe for the Houston game, but came through fine. Roddy White is an every-week starter. He's caught touchdowns from three quarterbacks this year, and has scored in three straight games. He's the 16th-highest-scoring fantasy receiver in the NFL, but is still unowned in one-third of ESPN.com leagues. He's also five yards away from 1,000. Respect the Roddy! With Jerramy Stevens serving a one-game suspension, Alex Smith gets a push upward in the tight end ranks. I'll be honest: Earnest Graham was pretty lucky last week. He misread plays, dropped a couple screens, and was pretty much a non-factor against Houston, but still scored twice. I've been asked a bunch of times if I think Graham is the definite starter in Tampa next year, and I have to say, no. I think Cadillac Williams will get every chance to reclaim his job. The right side of the Tampa O-line, Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph, is finally living up to its potential, and that's got a lot to do with Graham's success. All that said, Graham's a great play against the Falcons this week.
Fantasy Down: Chris Redman played pretty well against New Orleans, and in deep leagues where your regular quarterback is hurt, I guess he's an option. But really, it'd just be best to avoid the Petrino Bomb entirely. One interesting aspect of this Atlanta mess will be whether Jerious Norwood finally gets his fair shake. I've said it several times this year: Petrino sticking so long with Warrick Dunn was his worst mistake.
Indianapolis Colts (11-2) at Oakland Raiders (4-9)
How bad is Oakland's rush defense? I'm not sure it's getting quite the due its awfulness deserves. To wit: They've allowed a league-worst 21 rushing touchdowns in just 13 games; if they really bear down on these final three (against strong opponents), maybe they can approach the post-merger record of 31. They give up a league-worst 4.8 yards per carry. They've allowed 16 rushes of 20 yards or more, worst in the NFL. At defensive tackle, Warren Sapp fixates on getting to the quarterback after his 2006 renaissance and Gerard Warren just isn't very good. Safety Michael Huff isn't an instinctive player or a great tackler, and the linebackers are pedestrian. That sound you hear is Joseph Addai owners, experiencing pleasure.
Fantasy Up: Justin Fargas had to leave the Green Bay game with injured ribs, but has practiced this week and, as of this writing, appeared likely to carry his customary load. The Colts aren't a great run-stopping team anyway, and injuries to Raheem Brock, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea make this a much friendlier matchup for Fargas and the improved Raiders O-line. This is a 4:05 p.m. ET start, so it'll be hard to get absolute confirmation, but I'd lean toward using Fargas. Before I had a sense of those injuries, I had the Colts D rated sixth this week, but I've bounced them down to 12th, meaning you can still start them in deeper leagues but they're not a no-brainer. Listen, I dig a good team putting pressure on Josh McCown and JaMarcus Russell as much as anyone, but I wouldn't be able to pick Quinn Pitcock, Keyunta Dawson or Matt Giordano out of a lineup, and they're starting for Indy Sunday.
Fantasy Down: Don't get carried away by Anthony Gonzalez. Yes, the starting role opposite Reggie Wayne is valuable, and I don't trust Fabian Washington much as Oakland's second corner. But Gonzalez scored his two long touchdowns against not-ready-for-prime-time corner David Pittman and almost-as-bad Corey Ivy, each of whom would apparently buy the Brooklyn Bridge. It would have to be a pretty deep league for me to start Gonzo. McCown will start over Daunte Culpepper, and Russell will get a few series. I don't know about Lane Kiffin's strategy of holding Russell out of the Green Bay game because he doesn't want the rookie playing in cold weather. Swaddling clothes can't be far behind.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-8) at Dallas Cowboys (12-1)
Oh, joy. Another Eagles-Cowboys game means another chance to compare the career paths of Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens. Surely T.O. has won this battle, given that he plays on the NFC's top seed, right? I suppose. There's little question one thing the Eagles lack, among several, is a game-breaking receiver. But when T.O. went to Dallas, Drew Bledsoe was the quarterback, and if Bledsoe was still the signal-caller (not such an asinine notion; a lot of coaches wouldn't have had the gumption to bench Bledsoe for Tony Romo, but Bill Parcells did), Owens would be whining and crying as much as ever. Listen, bottom line: The Cowboys are better, and Owens is better with Romo than he'd ever have been with McNabb. But seriously: Zzzzzzz.
Fantasy Up: Owens will perform well against the Eagles, because he's petty, and because Philly won't play such a strict umbrella zone as the Lions did. (It's what led to Jason Witten's career day.) Brian Westbrook's third-quarter fumble at the Giants' 37-yard line was the single biggest killer in Week 14's loss. Westbrook is far from a fumbler (six in six years), but what terrible timing. Last time out against Dallas, though, he had 14 catches for 90 yards. Patrick Crayton wore a walking boot around Cowboys camp early this week, but he's expected to play. The Eagles have allowed huge days to multiple opposing wide receivers in each of their past three games. Absolutely no way you start the Philly defense here, but Trent Cole deserves mention. He was all over Dave Diehl in Week 14, notching two more sacks. With Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard likely coming off the books next year, here's hoping Cole gets more help on the D-line. His speed and power against massive Flozell Adams will be fun to watch; Adams mostly got the upper hand back in Week 9. Underappreciated bounce that saved Romo's hide on a late fumble, eh? Lions linebacker Paris Lenon could've just fallen on it, but he mucked it up and guard Kyle Kosier saved the game.
Fantasy Down: McNabb had a weird outing against the Giants. He looked substantially more mobile in the pocket, quickly avoiding would-be sackers, often making something from nothing. But as soon as he'd get away from a New York rusher, he'd fire some uncatchable bullet to an open receiver. This is going to be a very interesting offseason for Philly. As it is, I probably wouldn't use McNabb this week. I know Kevin Curtis has decent aggregate numbers on the season (59 catches, 930 yards, five scores), but I'd rather use someone else in my fantasy playoffs. He'll get you four catches for 40 yards, but he's not the deep threat that can challenge Dallas' safeties.
Detroit Lions (6-7) at San Diego Chargers (8-5)
I'm convinced Shawne Merriman's antics got Philip Rivers hurt last week. Merriman "innocently" bopped Vince Young after VY had obviously handed the ball off; a few series later, Rivers had already pitched to his running back when a Titans D-lineman rolled into Rivers' knee with, it looked to me, a purpose. Rivers missed the rest of the first half as a result, and is questionable (but should play) this week. Meanwhile, Merriman's own injury came later on what he claimed was a cheap shot, from Kevin Mawae (wouldn't be the first time).
Fantasy Up: How about LaDainian Tomlinson completely blowing off an ineffective Rivers on the Chargers bench? Imagine if Terrell Owens or Randy Moss acted so petulantly in full camera view. Yeah, but it doesn't matter; LT will be huge once more. Tackle Marcus McNeill, last year's media darling for a sack-free rookie year, had his worst day as a pro trying to block Kyle Vanden Bosch of Tennessee last week. Time and time again, the Titans abused McNeill with a speed rush around the outside; on the day, Vanden Bosch registered three sacks (and, on the whole, the Titans had five). The Chargers had only allowed seven sacks in their previous six games. Even without Merriman, use the Chargers defense. The Lions have committed 11 turnovers and allowed 15 sacks in their past five games. Twelve targets and eight receptions later, and it's Shaun McDonald who tasted first blood in replacing Roy Williams as Detroit's top receiver. Calvin Johnson had eight targets and five catches, while Mike Furrey had just three and two, respectively. I've rated McDonald as a borderline No. 2 fantasy receiver, but whether last week's results will translate to this week is anyone's guess. Even Mike Martz's.
Fantasy Down: Rivers was putrid for three quarters, but put together a couple late drives to save himself from ignominy. The Lions have gotten nothing from tackle Shaun Rogers all year, and appear to be primed to allow a huge day to Tomlinson. That would be for the best, as far as Rivers is concerned. Best line of the week from perpetual ignorant quote machine, Jon Kitna: Asked if he's disappointed by his team's failure to meet his projection of 10 wins, Kitna said, "We can still reach it. Once that's eliminated and we can't, we'll be disappointed." Great, except his team's 6-7 with three to play. Oh, sure, maybe he's trying to imply a playoff win would push the Lions to double digits. But it just sounds funnier the other way, doesn't it?
Washington Redskins (6-7) at New York Giants (9-4)
Here's my plan to make Eli Manning an every-week fantasy starter. We need a "Manchurian Candidate" scheme where Eli is hypnotized into thinking it's the second half at 1 p.m. I mean, the guy looks like a completely different player in the second 30 minutes. Washington's secondary continues to struggle, having made Brian Griese look pretty good last Thursday, and I don't hate Eli as an injury-replacement option in your fantasy playoff game. That is, if he avoids first-half disaster.
Fantasy Up: Plaxico Burress gutted out a terrific performance against the Eagles last week, after he looked positively gimpy in pregame warm-ups. Was he playing possum? Maybe. After the game, Tom Coughlin said Burress is healthier than he's been in months. I like Burress to be the beneficiary of Manning's second-half alarm clock Sunday. The Giants may be the most skittish 9-4 team in league history. Everyone's waiting for the roof to cave in. Brandon Jacobs did his part with two fumbles in Philly, the second of which was such an utter gift that it almost led to overtime. But Jacobs is still a solid start against a decent (but not excellent) Washington rush defense. Todd Collins makes for a fine story, and he played well pulling out the Thursday Bears game, but the Giants pressure should eat him up. Normally, I'd be concerned about so many rookies in the secondary (Aaron Ross, Craig Dahl and Michael Johnson all started in Week 14), but I don't think Collins will consistently get enough time to take advantage. Start the Giants D.
Fantasy Down: Clinton Portis did break a fine 54-yard run off a dump-off pass, but was otherwise bottled up by a shaky Bears rush defense for just 36 yards on 17 carries. Washington had its worst rushing day since 1974, with just 34 yards in Week 14, and the loss of just-returned guard Randy Thomas doesn't help. Add that to Jason Campbell's absence (and Collins' presence), and while I'd say you probably have to start Portis (because he's probably one of the two best rushers on your fantasy roster), I'm worried. Who else wishes the flex game this week was Buffalo-Cleveland?
Chicago Bears (5-8) at Minnesota Vikings (7-6)
The Bears will go with Kyle Orton on Monday night, and despite the Vikings' occasional mega-lapses against the pass, only the quarterback-desperate should start Orton in a fantasy playoff game. This is, per the Chicago Sun Times, the 33rd time in the past 137 games the Bears have made a quarterback change, which boils down to once every 4.15 games. What a disaster.
Fantasy Up: Don't be turned off by Adrian Peterson's (the Vikings flavor) poor effort in San Francisco. Chicago is ripe for another big rushing performance; they lost defensive tackles Anthony Adams and Antonio Garay for the season, and Darwin Walker has a bad shoulder that could cause him to sit, too. We're down to the practice squad here, people (plus recently-signed bust Jimmy Kennedy). Peterson is a must-start in all formats, and as I've said a few weeks running, Chester Taylor should be considered as a flex. The Vikings D is the highest-scoring in ESPN.com leagues, and there's no reason not to use 'em in this spot. It's a national TV home game with the playoffs at stake, a third-string opposing quarterback and a ball-control Vikes offense. The past four weeks, this defense has scored 10, 30, 16 and 23 fantasy points.
Fantasy Down: Adrian Peterson (the Bears flavor) has a terrible matchup against the Vikings rush defense, and netted just 35 yards on 17 carries against the not-great Redskins D. I'm disappointed, and so was Lovie Smith: He gave Garrett Wolfe most of Peterson's playing time in the fourth quarter. Unless you're out of options, don't start this Peterson. And unfortunately, as hyped-up as I've been about Bernard Berrian (and his impending free agency) this month, and as good as he looked scoring his fourth touchdown in Washington (on a terrific grab), the Orton factor worries me. I've dipped Berrian out of starter territory, and into deep-flex land. In this same game, Sidney Rice makes almost as good an option as Berrian. Tarvaris Jackson has 12, 16 and 11 fantasy points the past three weeks, and with Nathan Vasher either out or highly limited, the matchup here isn't scary. But seriously, do you really want to bow out of your fantasy playoffs having benched your regular starter for Jackson? Forget the Bears defense. Don't start them again this year. You'll thank me.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
2dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne