Commentary

Playoff spotlight players

Manning, Maclin, Floyd look like solid bets; beware of Ryan, Greene, Panthers RBs

Updated: December 23, 2011, 12:14 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

It's the fantasy finals. If your team is alive, you're probably not ready to dwell in the land of speculation, like picking up Josh McCown on the off chance he turns into the little engine that could. Your life this week is all about lineup decisions among starting-viable players, many of which will hinge on matchups. So I'm staying away from "projects" and "sure things." I've looked at ESPN.com's Week 16 rankings, and found players I think will represent lineup-decision pressure points. Let's get to it:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. Should Eli Manning scare you this week? Manning produced a mere four fantasy points against the Washington Redskins last week, which could very well mean not very many of his owners lived to tell about it. Just in case you're still alive, though, you might sense a lingering bitterness among our rankers. I was the only one to put Eli above 10th among fantasy QBs, and two rankers listed him 11th. (I put him sixth.) How the bulletproof have fallen! Going into Week 15, Eli had produced three consecutive games of 20-plus fantasy points, had 25 TD passes on the season and seven games of 300-plus yards passing in his past 10 outings. I'm not absolving him of all responsibility for last week's shocking home loss, but certainly Hakeem Nicks and Manning's other receivers didn't do their QB any favors.

I presume that my ESPN brethren aren't ready to give up on Eli because of one bad outing. I'm guessing much of their trepidation centers on Darrelle Revis and the rest of the New York Jets defense. They do, after all, carry quite a reputation. But is that reputation earned? I would argue not, especially not lately. Check out the past five QB performances versus the Jets:

I think you'd say this QB defense has been inconsistent at best; certainly, Eli isn't a slam-dunk for a 300-yard day, nor is he likely to duplicate the rushing success of Tebow or Vick. But this group had its hands full with a latter-day Fitzpatrick throwing the ball, and made Palko look like a pro. To say that they're a lock to shut down the guy who, going into last week, was the No. 6 QB in fantasy (and still sits at No. 7)? I'm not there. If I've been relying on Eli all year and survived Week 15, I'm trotting him back out there.

2. If you own Eli and Matt Ryan, should you really play Ryan? Our ESPN ranks say you should. In fact, I'm the only ranker who kept Eli above Matty Ice, something that seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago. I guess that's what seven TD passes in Ryan's past two games will do. I'm assuming our experts view the Monday night tilt between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints as a shootout in which Ryan will have no choice but to throw early and often to keep up with the otherworldly Drew Brees. In theory, I understand that logic. I think it's possible to quibble with my Jets pass defense argument above, and proclaim that without a couple of QBs rushing for TDs, the number for Revis & Co. would look better, and would far outstrip the disappointing Saints' pass defense. This year, the Saints have defended 80 passes compared to 61 for the Jets, and opposing teams have thrown it 540 times (fourth-most in the league) versus New Orleans and 448 times (23rd-most) versus New York.

But I think Ryan's numbers are a bit soft. Yes, he has 26 TD passes this season, but 13 of those (that's half!) came in four games against the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars. That means Ryan tossed for 13 TDs in his remaining 10 games. Want some alarming numbers about Ryan's season? How about these:

That is an epically awful record on deeper-thrown balls, especially for a guy who ranks in a four-way tie for 14th place among all QBs in attempts of 21 yards or more. Compare Manning, and you see a Giants offense that takes shots:

That's a far more impressive output for a guy who has more attempts and completions that travel more than 20 yards in the air than any QB in the NFL. Ryan is a dink-and-dunk artist masquerading as a big-name signal-caller. Manning is a legit swashbuckler. If I sit him and his high upside Saturday and he goes off? I'm going to feel pretty bad.

3. Whither the Carolina Panthers running backs? You've watched Jonathan Stewart have a better first half of the season. You've seen DeAngelo Williams make big, fantasy-altering plays of late. You've seen Cam Newton go from being the Panthers' sole goal-line option to not having a carry inside an opponent's 5 in any of the past three weeks. And now you need to decide whether it's safe to use either Stewart or Williams in what looks like an obscenely sweet matchup versus a terrible Tampa Bay Buccaneers rush defense. (By my metrics, the Bucs have been second-friendliest to opposing fantasy RBs the entire season, and second-friendliest over the past five weeks as well.) The short answer is: No, it's not safe. It can't be safe, by definition. There are two guys here who -- surprise, surprise -- share this workload, and there's an elite rushing QB who'll take stats away, too.

Here's how the backfield workload has broken down in the past four games:

There's no way to consider either Williams or Stewart more than a flex in a 10-team league. Still, I rate each man a very attractive flex (I put Williams 21st and Stewart 23rd in my RB ranks this week), while my co-rankers didn't put either man so high.

The Panthers played the Bucs three weeks ago, and Stewart was the obvious winner: He had 16 touches for 99 yards and a rushing score, while D-Willy had 11 touches for 29 yards and no scores. I went back and looked at the film from that game, and I wish I could come up with some conclusive reason why Stew Beef was better. Yes, maybe Stewart played on a few more first downs than usual (especially as the game wore on). He had a couple of tough runs up the middle and maybe you're tempted to say he was somehow better suited to take advantage of Tampa's well-documented defensive tackle problems, but Stewart also had a sparkler for 31 yards around the left side, which kind of blows up that theory. Stewart was just better that day. But to say it'll carry over? I'm not sure. Knowing that the Bucs have allowed a whopping 593 rush yards in their past four contests, I say there's plenty of work to consider either Carolina back an elite flex. But I can't give Stewart a leg up over Williams.

4. Where were the Green Bay Packers WRs last week? Boy, it was ugly. Aaron Rodgers made it worse when he scampered for a late TD rather than passing for one, and the undefeated season is no more. Now owners of Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones and Randall Cobb have to worry not only about a ridiculously even target split (each man got four targets in Week 15, while Jermichael Finley got 10), but also about the possibility that the Packers will have clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed by Sunday night. If the San Francisco 49ers lose on the road to the Seahawks on Saturday, the outcome of Sunday night's game versus the Chicago Bears will be immaterial to Green Bay, and I'd bet we'll see Rodgers come out in the second half.

What's interesting to me about this week's rankings, however, is that while as a group we all seem to be completely aboard using Nelson (everyone has him either 10th or 11th among wideouts), the other guys would even tell deep-leaguers to stay away from Driver, Jones and Cobb. Nelson certainly gets the nod because we've seen how consistent and explosive he can be for most of the '11 season. He still figures to be the best replacement in that Packers offense for Greg Jennings, for at least as long as Mike McCarthy keeps him in there. But Driver scored a TD last week, his third in three games. Jones is a playmaker with five scores on the season. One or both of these guys will benefit if, as I expect, Rodgers shakes off his issues from last week and gets humming via the passing game again.

Hey, there's risk: Risk of your guy not being a primary target, and risk that the Niners lose and you're stuck with a bench player for half of Sunday night's game. I just find it weird that Nelson's ranking doesn't reflect that risk at all, while everyone else is Packer WR non grata. The Bears D has been a terrible one for running backs to face over the past month-plus, but opposing passing games have done well:

No, we're not talking about a bad pass defense unit, but that's an average of 19.8 fantasy points for opposing WR groups. Don't we think the mighty Rodgers is likely to outdo that average? And if so, shouldn't someone other than Nelson benefit? I'm not selling you Driver or Jones as standard-league flexes. But in deeper leagues? I'm still in.

5. I'm buying Jeremy Maclin as a standard-league starter. Maclin didn't do much on the stat sheet last week against the Jets. He had three catches for 57 yards. But the truth is much happier than the numbers make it look. After weeks of dealing with a bad hamstring, Maclin was himself again, cutting hard, and using his speed and strength to get past Antonio Cromartie on several occasions. One look at how Michael Vick's passing day went explains why Maclin's stats weren't impressive:

Brent Celek made the game's three big plays: a 38-yard bomb on the game's second play from scrimmage, a 26-yard mid-range strike in the first quarter, and a relatively short throw that Celek rumbled with for 73 yards, getting tackled at the Jets' 1. Outside of that, there just wasn't much for the Eagles' pass catchers to do with a big lead, but I viewed Maclin -- and not DeSean Jackson -- as the deep threat in the Philly offense Sunday. Vick took one (incomplete) deep shot Maclin's way, and on the passes he did grab, Maclin averaged a whopping 17.0 yards at the catch. Celek was awfully good the last time the Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys, too, but remember that Maclin had three receptions for 54 yards and a score that night. The way Jackson is fading leads me to the joyful conclusion that Maclin could be the man who gets behind the Cowboys defense Saturday afternoon. I rank him my No. 16 WR this week; I'm the only ranker to put him in my top 20.

Five In Brief

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets running back Shonn Greene
Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE Shonn Greene has been picking up the pace in recent weeks, but will he get enough chances against the Giants?

6. I'm a bit low on Shonn Greene. We've got one ranker with Greene inside his top 10 RBs, and everyone else has him at least 14th, but I put him 18th. To some extent this is how many angels dance on the head of an Albert Pujols-themed pin, because (you might say) we all have Greene listed as a fantasy starter. But what if you've got four RBs inside our top 20? You'll have to eliminate someone, and my ranks suggest that someone should be Greene. Why? Especially when Greene is just a week removed from back-to-back 28- and 23-fantasy-point outings? In my book, the Giants have been a slightly negative matchup for opposing RBs over the past five weeks, as they've been so easy to pass against. And Greene is dealing with a finger injury that won't keep him out of action Saturday, but which does add that slight bit of extra risk. Yes, Greene is a different player in the season's second half: more decisive, more powerful. By the same token, take away that quasi-fluky three-TD game two weeks back against the Redskins, and I'm quite certain most folks would rank him outside their top 15s.

7. Welcome to the weekly feast-or-famine Lance Moore act. I mean, what can you say about Lance Moore? He's done this so frequently -- score TDs while playing maybe half his team's offensive snaps -- that we can't chalk it up to flukiness. In fact, his seven targets from inside an opponent's 10 this season (he's scored on four of them) tie him for 13th in the NFL, which is striking for a part-time player. And in Week 15, after a game where he had four catches for 20 yards, sure enough Moore caught five for 91 yards and two TDs, including one shorty from the Vikings' 5 and one intermediate route from their 47 which Moore took to the house. I have to admit, I'd have a hard time trusting Moore in my fantasy championship, and I ranked him lower than everyone else. Jimmy Graham is the true close-in threat (his 12 targets inside an opponent's 10 are tied for second in the league), Marques Colston is the team's best all-around target, and at least last week Robert Meachem appeared to be the guy they send deep. No doubt, when the Saints get in close, you often see Moore run that little end zone out at which Drew Brees excels, and if that happens Monday night against the Falcons, put it in the bank. If it doesn't, though, Moore is apt to give you five fantasy points or fewer, which he's done eight times in '11.

8. I remain a Malcom Floyd booster. I gave Floyd my highest rating for him since his return from injury late last month, putting him 26th among wideouts, squarely within starting consideration. Obviously, you don't need me to tell you that this guy, too, is incredibly feast-or-famine. He hasn't caught more than five passes in a game all season, and as a result has only exceeded 60 yards receiving in four of his 10 outings. He's usually behind Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates in the pecking order, and Ryan Mathews has clearly become a No. 1 fantasy back, too. Yet the matchup at Ford Field is so darned sweet. The Detroit Lions will muster a pass rush against a once-shaky San Diego Chargers O-line (though off-the-street left tackle Jared Gaither is suddenly playing great again), but their secondary is falling apart. Louis Delmas will miss another game with his knee injury, Chris Houston is playing with a torn MCL, Aaron Berry has a bad shoulder, and the team just re-signed Brandon McDonald, a corner they waived a few weeks ago. Only Eric Wright is excelling in this Lions defensive backfield, and methinks he'll be seeing a lot of Jackson on Saturday. To me, that gives Floyd a lot of singled-up looks on injured, ineffective or inexperienced players, and you saw what he did to the Ravens' Jimmy Smith last Sunday night. I'm in.

[+] EnlargeLance Ball
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireLance Ball has the potential to do damage against the Bills, especially if Willis McGahee can't go.

9. Willis McGahee owners, please familiarize yourself with Lance Ball. McGahee is listed as probable after shafting his fantasy owners last week: only seven carries versus the New England Patriots. Sure, he gained 70 yards, but spent most of the afternoon getting stretched and re-stretched on the sideline with what turned out to be a hamstring tweak. As of this writing, I have every expectation that McGahee will be active Saturday. But please, if you're a McGahee owner and Lance Ball is available in your league? Please pick him up. If McGahee winds up a surprise inactive, you don't want to get caught without Ball, because this matchup against the Buffalo Bills D is elite for a running back. Reggie Bush put up a cool 203 yards rushing last week, which "elevated" the Bills to my Worst Defense Against The Run slot over the past five weeks. As I say, McGahee should play. But if he doesn't, I'd make Ball a top-20 fantasy RB option.

10. What should you do with Big Ben's boys? I felt certain Ben Roethlisberger would play last Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers, and he did. The question of whether he should have can remain open; I tend to believe that Charlie Batch probably would've scuffled every bit as much as an injured Roethlisberger, but we'll never know for sure. Anyway, I'm far less certain that the Steelers roll Big Ben out there against the St. Louis Rams on Saturday. In fact, I have a feeling it'll be Batch. The way the AFC contenders' schedules shape up now, the Steelers must know deep down that they're probably going to be the conference's No. 5 seed, and as such will play a road wild-card game. They'll need Roethlisberger much healthier for that matchup. Listen, if big No. 7 plays, I think you roll with his weapons as you normally would. He wasn't that far away from creating decent nights for Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown in Week 15. But if it's Batch under center? Oh, boy. I think at that point, Wallace descends to the level of a No. 3 fantasy wideout, and Brown is probably nothing more than a deep-league flex. I can't promise that the glimpse we got of Batch against the Cleveland Browns a couple of Thursdays ago is definitely what we'll get Saturday. But I'd be mighty scared to have everything in my fantasy league riding on his ossifying right arm.

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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