Rule No. 1 of playoff strategy: Go with the guys who got you there.
That's hardly new advice, and even if you're relatively new to the game, certainly you've heard it before. It's a line that's repeated frequently enough it has become somewhat clichéd, but it's still, simply put, the truth.
The problem is that it's advice that is sometimes misinterpreted. Obviously, players like Aaron Rodgers, LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster and Rob Gronkowski "got you there" -- and in one league of mine, all four actually reside on the No. 1 seed's roster -- but when we stress "go with the guys who got you there," what we really mean is not overthinking your roster, but rather sticking with the less-obvious, yet entirely reliable, types that you've counted on all season to date.
We're talking about those consistent, even if "not sexy," players.
At this critical stage of the season, a championship team might not be the one that takes chances on high-upside types; it might be the one that populates its roster entirely with high Consistency Ratings. Oh, sure, taking risks is warranted in certain instances. For instance, Matt Forte's owner might now take wild stabs in an effort to fill his considerable shoes until (if) he heals. But for the most part, I'd scan the charts below, trust the ones with the highest ratings, and let it ride.
So who are these "old reliables"?
Putting aside the obvious names, the following eight players stand out as consistent, clearly reliable, "got you there" options who deserve that playoff lineup spot:
HOW CONSISTENCY RATINGS WORK
Using both the past 34 weeks -- Week 14 of 2009 through Week 13 of 2011 -- of data, as well as 2011 alone, and fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, the charts contained in this column rate players based upon how consistently reliable they are. To familiarize you with some of the terminology:
Start: The number of times that the player's point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league.
Stud: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the top at his position.
Stiff: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
These are the benchmarks for what constitutes a "Start," "Stud" or "Stiff" performance:
Sat: The number of times the player missed a game. Players are not charged "Stiff" points for sitting out, but it hurts their overall Consistency Rating.
%: The player's overall Consistency Rating, calculated as number of "Start" performances divided by scheduled team games.
Stack: A formula designed to weigh how much of the player's 2011/past-34-weeks fantasy point total was driven by matchups, this compares his weekly point totals to the average weekly amount his opponent typically allows to a player at his position (RBs and WRs are weighted differently). Higher scores mean the player succeeded beyond the strength of his matchups; lower (or negative) scores mean the player might have been a matchups product.
VBD (or Value Based Draft score): This compares the player's season fantasy point total to that of a replacement-level player at his position, to demonstrate relative value across different positions. My methodology for "replacement level": No. 15 QB, No. 35 RB, No. 35 WR, No. 15 TE, No. 15 K, No. 15 D/ST.
Houston Texans defense: That's right, a defense tops the list. Of the top five defense/special teams in terms of 2011 fantasy points, the Texans is the least-owned (94.2 percent of ESPN leagues). Even the loss of Mario Williams hasn't adversely impacted this defense; this unit has actually averaged two more points in the seven games without Williams (11.6) than with him (9.6). Don't attribute it entirely to soft matchups, either, because the Texans' 93 Stack score ranks second in the league. And look what's on the schedule for that critical Week 16: The Indianapolis Colts, whose opponents' D/ST have averaged 11.1 points per game.
Tony Gonzalez: So much for "washed up." Gonzalez, despite his 35 years of age, actually has the best Consistency Rating among tight ends (91.7 percent), and fourth-best overall. He's also third among tight ends in targets (93) and second in receptions (66), meaning his involvement almost guarantees he'll never ruin your week, even if he has only once all season topped his position in fantasy points.
Ryan Mathews: You probably don't think of the phrase "consistently reliable" when you think of Ryan Mathews, because his constant listing on the weekly injury report leads to inevitable frustrations heading into Sundays. But the stats don't lie: Mathews has missed but one game all season, he has the eighth-best Consistency Rating among running backs (66.7 percent) and he has been a Stiff once. Oh, and he's coming off back-to-back 100-yard rushing games. Now are you sweating that Week 15 matchup with the Baltimore Ravens?
Tim Tebow: When it comes to fantasy production, yes, Tim Tebow is consistent. He has made 10 career NFL starts, and in them has averaged 19.1 fantasy points, with surprisingly little variance: He has topped out at 27 and bottomed at 12. It's amazing what good legs can do for a quarterback.
Brandon Marshall: The three touchdowns might be bothersome, but the Miami Dolphins keep feeding him the football. Marshall is fourth among wide receivers in targets (109), fifth in receptions (63), and if you look closer, he's ninth in the NFL in red-zone targets (18) and fourth in targets inside the opponent's five (6). With usage like that, Marshall's downside is minimal, and you'd have to think he might eventually sneak one of those into the end zone.
Roddy White: He has taken a beating from his fantasy owners, who have been frustrated with his lackluster production comparative to his draft-day price. But let's not let perceptions convince us that White can't help during the playoffs. His Consistency Rating ranks ninth among wide receivers (58.3 percent), he has the most targets of anyone at the position (128), and ranks third in red-zone targets (21). Even if he's not a week-winner, he should be a mainstay in your lineup.
Cedric Benson: He'll probably strike you as the oddest name of the bunch, but Benson's 2011 stats do support his case as a weekly fantasy start. Among running backs, he's one of four to have played at least 10 games and never been a bust; LeSean McCoy, Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson are the others. Benson also gets two favorable matchups in Weeks 15-16, at the St. Louis Rams and versus the Arizona Cardinals.
Matt Ryan: If Gonzalez and White are on this list, doesn't it follow that Ryan would as well? With the lower tiers at quarterback thinning out due to injuries in recent weeks, Ryan has become one of the more valuable options at least once you get past the obvious studs. He's actually eighth among quarterbacks in fantasy points and no one seems to know it; his having averaged 18.0 points since the bye has a lot to do with it. Don't "get cute" if you're a Ryan owner and see a tempting, yet less-talented quarterback facing a miserable pass defense; stick with him.
Consistency Ratings charts
Each position has two charts below: One for 2011 statistics alone, and one for the past 34 NFL weeks (Week 14 of 2009 through Week 13 of 2011). All categories are sortable both ascending and descending; just click on the headers to sort.