Commentary

Looking ahead

Which players have the best, worst matchups for the fantasy playoffs

Updated: December 10, 2011, 9:56 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Five Six In Depth

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

1. Smartening up the Strength of Schedule metric. As we head into the first round of ESPN.com standard-league fantasy playoffs, figuring out which players have the easiest and toughest roads the rest of the way is a useful pursuit. The best starting place to discover this is our Points Against pages, where you can find out how many fantasy points each defense has allowed on average to each major fantasy position. This is where I always begin when I'm trying to figure out who has tasty matchups on the horizon.

Now that each NFL team has played 12 games (as of Thursday night, two of them have played 13), our Points Against pages are slightly out of date. I'm not sure how much good it does us, for instance, to know that the Miami Dolphins defense allowed 34 fantasy points to Tom Brady in Week 1. Considering what it has done to Rex Grossman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tony Romo and Carson Palmer over the past month, it seems the Dolphins are no longer the purely cake matchup for opposing QBs that they obviously were back in September. That's why as the season rolls on, I weed out the older results from Points Against and only look at the previous five weeks to get a snapshot of how defenses are playing lately.

[+] EnlargeRex Grossman
Howard Smith/US PresswireCould Rex Grossman be a viable option for the fantasy playoffs? The schedule says yes.

That's all well and good, but what about a case like the Detroit Lions pass defense? In Weeks 10 through 12, it faced Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and accordingly gave up 24, 20 and 25 fantasy points to opposing QBs in those games. If I'm looking only at the average fantasy points allowed to QBs over the past five weeks, the Lions D is going to stink because it had the ill fortune of facing a murderer's row of top-three QBs. Merely taking the average doesn't do. What I want to know is how far above or below a QB's average did a defense hold that QB? Knowing that Rodgers racked up 20 fantasy points versus the Lions on Thanksgiving is fine. Knowing that on average over the past five weeks, Rodgers has produced 26.4 fantasy points -- and that the 20 he scored versus Detroit was actually his lowest output over the past five weeks -- is crucial.

What I've done with some Excel magic is examine each defense's performance against the major fantasy positions relative to each opponent's average over the past five weeks. This isn't revolutionary -- many folks have been rolling out "opponent-independent" stats for years -- but it's a bit complicated and isn't immediately apparent for ESPN.com standard scoring when you look at our Points Against pages. I wanted to find the NFL teams with the most outlier opponents against each position -- good and bad -- to see if we can find the most favorable and unfavorable schedules headed into the fantasy playoffs. Enjoy.

2. Playoff Matchups: QBs. These are the defenses who have the best and worst opponent-independent ratings against quarterbacks over the past five weeks:

Consequently, here are the quarterbacks I think have the most favorable schedules over the next four weeks:

Certainly, you see a preponderance of games against the New England Patriots, and that's no coincidence. The Patriots have allowed the most fantasy points above an opposing QB's average over the past five weeks. Grossman has potentially nice bookend games against the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles and in the middle faces two foes that have almost been just as hospitable to opposing QBs. I'm not saying you bench Brees for Grossman, but if you're a playoff underdog who's been eking by with Matt Schaub's various replacements? There have been worse ideas.

Here are the QBs who I think have the worst row to hoe in December:

The player of note here is Rodgers. Week 14's battle against the Oakland Raiders is highly favorable, but after that Rodgers will see the second-, fourth- and fifth-toughest defenses against fantasy QBs over the past five weeks. That doesn't mean you sit him. Even if opposing defenses hold Rodgers down to 80 percent of his standard efficiency, he's still a stud of the highest magnitude. But that doesn't mean his fantasy owners won't have a little something extra to keep them awake at night deep into the playoffs. After all, it takes only one crummy game.

3. Playoff Matchups: RBs. Here are the defenses who have been least- and most-vulnerable to opposing RBs the past five weeks:

So these are the running backs I think have the best schedules the rest of the way:

Rice's owners hopefully got a glimpse of the future last week, when the Ravens went to Cleveland and just squeezed the life out of the Browns, running it 55 times. Does Ricky Williams steal some looks under such a scenario? Sure, but Rice's owners will take it. The Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns stink against the run, and lately the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals are on the favorable side of average. You were always going to use the top four guys on this list every week anyway, but how about a shoutout to Bush, who's proving the experts who said he'd never hold up to every-down pounding (I have my hand up) wrong. A season-high 22 carries in Week 13 and Bush is none the worse for wear, heading into back-to-back easy RB games. The Pats and New York Jets are above-average versus the run in Weeks 16 and 17, but you can worry about that when you get to your league championship.

Here are the RBs with the toughest schedules the next four weeks:

Jackson can't catch a break. He was shut down by the San Francisco 49ers last week and gets them again in the finale, plus it sounds possible he'll be rolling with Tom Brandstater as his QB Monday night in Seattle. Lynch has a cake matchup in that game, but thereafter things get nasty. Even the Arizona Cardinals have done a just-about-average job against opposing RBs lately. Will you be able to sit Lynch in Weeks 15 and 16, coming off what I assume will be his sixth-straight bonanza performance? Probably not, but there's a chance you'll wish you had. I put Stewart into the Carolina Panthers RB spot, but I could just as easily have put DeAngelo Williams there. The only time I'd consider playing either guy is Week 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a matchup Stew Beef took advantage of on Sunday.

4. Playoff Matchups: WRs. Here are the best and worst defenses against WRs the past five weeks:

Accordingly, here are the WR groups I think have the easiest matchups over the fantasy playoff slate:

Here are some fascinating test cases. Unowned in nearly 40 percent of leagues, Moss hasn't produced much since his return (nine catches, 71 yards and zero TDs in two games), but he has the most targets of any Washington Redskins receiver in that time (19) and it's hard to imagine a more favorable schedule. His next three tilts should present scads of opportunities. Will he and Grossman take advantage? I didn't rank Moss as a fantasy starter this week against the Patriots but am prepared to be very wrong. If I am, and if you survive the week, Moss is going to give you tons to think about in Week 15. I'd love to tell you that Johnny Knox is ready to take advantage of sweet matchups versus the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in his final two games, but who can say? Between playing-time and QB woes, the Chicago receiving corps is one big question mark. As for the Dallas Cowboys, it's easy to love what that passing game should look like with Bryant, Austin and Robinson in there, but which guy excels each week? Tough to know, which explains why I don't have any of them in my top 10 WRs this week but all of them in my top 23.

Here's the flip side, the WRs with a more difficult road:

By my count, the New York Giants trio has more than Eli Manning spreading the wealth stacked against them. The Dallas Cowboys have toughened considerably against the pass of late, and Revis Island is no fun at all to visit. It's easy to sit Manningham for the time being, since he hasn't shown he's healthy. But Nicks and Cruz? Yeah, I don't think I could stay away either. The last guy on this list, Fitzgerald, presents one of those eternal quandaries: Should you keep starting a supremely talented WR even when his QB is a train wreck? This week, against a good-not-great Niners pass defense, I think you should, and I ranked Fitz ninth. While his schedule has no gimmies (the Bengals are beatable without Leon Hall but haven't fallen apart completely), it also has no horrifying matchups, because I'm not convinced you can't throw on the Browns when you want to. (It's just so fun to run against them.) Fitz should probably be in most lineups through December. I guess. Gulp.

5. Playoff Matchups: D/ST. Quickly, let me run through the best and worst offenses for your fantasy defense to face and offer my five best and five worst schedule-wise this month:

Most favorable D/ST schedules:

Least favorable D/ST schedules:

6. How did T.J. Yates look? I figured I'd add one more "in-depth" item by popular demand, as the "play-by-play" analysis of key players over the past several weeks has met with some approval from readers. And nobody was on a hotter hot seat than Yates last week. Andre Johnson sounds questionable at best this week because of another injured hamstring (that's all the hamstrings he has, right? He's not hiding a third hammy somewhere he can pull?), but it sounds as if AJ won't be out long. His fate is absolutely twined to Yates' for now. So let's look at the young QB's performance Week 13 versus the Atlanta Falcons. Here are my throw-by-throw notes, divided by quarter:

[+] EnlargeTJ Yates
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesT.J. Yates had his moments against the Falcons, but it's hard to really trust him, especially with Andre Johnson hurt again.

First Quarter:
1. Overthrows an out to Johnson, incomplete.
2. Complete on a five-yard stop to AJ, all the way across the field, good strength on a line.
3. Play-action deep in-cut to AJ, wildly overthrown.
4. Easy throw over the middle to Owen Daniels; huge window to throw into, but he hit him.
5. Same in-cut route to AJ as No. 3, overthrown again; this time AJ skies to somehow catch it.
6. Pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage, not Yates' fault; next play, he foolishly tries to fling the ball as he's getting hit, and it's ruled a lost fumble.
7. Play-action, pretty nice out thrown to AJ; Dunta Robinson just made a nice play to break it up.
8. Play-action, simple little out by Daniels, easy completion.
9. Play-action rollout, beautiful throw down the field simply dropped by AJ.
10. Meaningless dump-off to Arian Foster on third-and-long, could have been picked.

Second Quarter:
11. Third-and-long middle screen to Foster; Falcons bite hard, and Foster rumbles 28 yards.
12. The bomb everyone saw in the highlights; Yates almost falls down on play-action and then hoists a bomb into single coverage that AJ grabs ... nice ball.
13. After Foster is stuffed twice from inside the Falcons' 5; Yates makes a simple throw to Joel Dreessen falling into the end zone for a TD.
14. Easy wide-open throw over the middle to Daniels.
15. Play-action, nice handling of pressure, dumps it to Foster in the middle who gets nine.
16. Play-action, wanted to go deep but WR was covered; threw it out of bounds under pressure.
17. Wildly overthrew Foster on a screen while under pressure.
18. Ill-advised throw over the middle for double-covered Kevin Walter, probably should have been picked right at the end of the half, would have been disastrous.

Third Quarter:
19. Very nice deep cross to AJ who caught it in stride for 22 yards; following play was play-action but he was absolutely crushed by John Abraham, held on to the ball.
20. Nearly a disastrous quick out, which Abraham read and probably should have intercepted and taken for a TD.
21. Another awful look to Walter into double coverage, could have been picked.
22. Play-action, avoided the rush, scrambled and threw it out of bounds.
23. Play-action, trying to take a shot downfield to AJ into double coverage, but Johnson dropped to the turf with a bad hammy. We'll never know if he would have caught it.

Fourth Quarter:
24. Awful late throw intended for Foster, intercepted by Mike Peterson and taken for a TD, called back because of defensive holding on Robinson away from the play. Awful call. Next play, play-action on a fake reverse, missed a wide-open Jacoby Jones down the field.
25. Empty backfield, nice zip on a cross-field out to Walter for 12 yards on catch and run.

Yates had no more throws but did have two nice scrambles that helped the winning drive. In all, he went 12-of-25 for 188 yards, one TD, zero INTs and a lost fumble. The Texans went play-action on eight of his throws, which frankly might not be enough. I counted five passes that could have been picked, including the one that was picked but was called back by a bogus defensive holding call away from the play. I counted six throws that I thought were truly major-league, which isn't an insignificant number. I didn't see a bevy of other mental errors (besides the near-picks), and he didn't throw into double coverage often. It was a solid effort, but I think it's been oversold in the media. The Falcons are rightly frustrated that they were this close to getting to the kid and shaking his confidence. They didn't. But I'm not sold that Yates is going to keep defenses honest or keep AJ relevant (once he returns).

Five Four In Brief:

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Getty ImagesThe 49ers stifled Steven Jackson last week, and the road doesn't get much better for him down the stretch.

7. What should you do with Steven Jackson? As I detailed above, Jackson might have the worst remaining schedule of any RB on the planet, and in a bad matchup last week versus the 49ers, we saw him stumble for 19 yards on 10 carries and 11 yards on one reception. If you survived that horrendous performance and are alive in the fantasy playoffs, I fully understand why you're thinking about benching Jackson on Monday night, and I support it. Over the years, we've seen Jackson play well when he probably shouldn't have, when his QB was awful or his O-line was decimated, when the Rams had no threat of a running game and Jackson himself was banged up. But there's a pretty good chance that Brandstater is starting at QB for St. Louis. Yikes. Early in the week, I rated Jackson my No. 15 back, but that was before I knew Sam Bradford was unlikely to play. Now Jackson is outside my top 25. I think the greatness of Seattle's run D is overstated, especially lately (they allowed big numbers to Roy Helu and McCoy the past two weeks), but Brandstater is a sub-NFL talent and the box will be stacked against Jackson.

8. Why don't I like the Joe Flacco-to-Anquan Boldin connection more versus the Colts? All the other ESPN.com rankers placed Flacco and Boldin well inside the top 20 at their respective positions. Sorry, I'm not biting. Right now, I believe the Colts are more likely to get run on in a major way than to get thrown on. As I mentioned above, I have them as the second-worst defender of RBs over the past five weeks, and they actually have been a negative matchup for QBs over the same span (probably because it's so easy to run on them). Flacco is the No. 18 QB in fantasy, one point behind Colt McCoy. He's spit the bit in nice-seeming matchups against the Jaguars, Seahawks and Cardinals, hasn't had more than 27 attempts in any of his past three outings, and has thrown for multiple TDs in a game once since Week 3. Boldin hasn't caught more than four balls in a game for a month and has one TD since Oct. 24. Can I imagine the Ravens deciding this is the game where they finally make Flacco a star? I guess, but I think it's much more likely that they let Rice and Williams do the heavy lifting and move on to next week in San Diego. No way in the world I'm trusting these guys in the fantasy playoffs.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireRyan Grant is seemingly long removed from days when he was a top fantasy running back.

9. Why can't Ryan Grant succeed if James Starks doesn't play? I've been asked quite a lot about Grant this week. Not that fans think he's played well (29 yards on 13 carries last week disavows most right-thinkers of that notion), but if Starks is gone and it's only undrafted rookie Brandon Saine standing in the way, why wouldn't Grant be an OK sneaky flex play in a game where the Packers might be salting away a big second-half lead versus the Raiders? Well, I'll tell you why. Because Grant looks absolutely cooked. His legs look lifeless. Whatever spark we saw in that one game when Starks was benched for ballhandling issues (against the Bears in Week 3) is long gone, and Grant deservedly lost many snaps to Saine once Starks left last week's game in Gotham. I actually rated Saine several spots ahead of Grant, though in my opinion neither man should be anywhere near fantasy lineups this weekend. Saine is in there most of the time when Green Bay threatens to throw, which, I think we all know, is much of the time. If this Packers/Raiders game was played 10 times, maybe Grant would wind up fantasy-relevant in two of them. I don't like those odds.

10. Is Golden Tate the Seahawks' No. 1 receiver? With Sidney Rice out for the season with concussion problems, the remaining smorgasbord of wideouts in Seattle isn't pretty. Mike Williams (northern chapter), Ben Obomanu, Doug Baldwin ... this is a motley crew, indeed. Tate is probably the most naturally talented of the bunch, and while Tarvaris Jackson isn't the QB you want to hitch your wagon to, Tate can make a difference in deeper leagues. He made his first start in last Thursday night's game, led the Seahawks WRs in targets (granted, it was only four) and made a couple of plays that illustrated why he was taken with the 60th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Tate has a score in consecutive games, but I'm not chasing those. I'm just saying the Seahawks have a relatively favorable schedule for their passing game in December, and Tate is my candidate to benefit most. Standard-leaguers don't need to start him. But deep-leaguers? There are worse ideas.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.

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