Best, worst plays for fantasy playoffs

Updated: November 9, 2012, 3:44 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I talked about Doug Martin, Eli Manning, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, Denarius Moore, Marcel Reece and Taiwan Jones, Russell Wilson, the Indianapolis Colts D/ST and the Chicago Bears D/ST. So you won't find discussions of those players in this column. Here are 10 other topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. The best and worst QB matchups: On the Underground podcast before Week 9, Field and I started talking about fantasy playoff schedules. The ESPN standard leagues' regular season runs through Week 13, so if you're gearing up for the playoffs, it's not a bad strategy to find some gems who have a better-than-average chance of benefiting from the schedule in Weeks 14 to 17. Toward that end, this week's Hard Count is going to take some time to process data and figure out which defenses have been the best and worst to face. Let's start with the way defenses have treated quarterbacks.

My metrics are based on how good or bad NFL defenses have been at keeping quarterbacks from attaining their weekly fantasy point averages. While I base as much of my analysis as possible on watching game film, this is the statistical "special sauce" behind my weekly rankings. At this point in the season, I diminish the importance of early-season performance. This analysis is weighted heavily toward the past five weeks. Here are my defense-versus-QB metrics as of Week 9, which I'll explain afterward:

The translation of this chart goes like this: You can expect the New York Jets defense to shave 5.2 fantasy points off the scoring average of a quarterback they face. (Again, these numbers are strongly weighted to the past five weeks, which makes this number quite impressive considering the Jets have been without Darrelle Revis since Week 3.) And you can expect the Buffalo Bills defense to add 6.0 fantasy points onto the scoring average of a quarterback. The standard deviation of this data for all 32 teams is 3.4, so the best and worst listed above are the teams outside the standard deviation.

Potential fantasy playoff beneficiaries: Sam Bradford (@BUF, MIN, @TB, @SEA in Weeks 14-17); Matt Schaub (@NE, IND, MIN, @IND); Michael Vick (@TB, CIN, WAS, @NYG).

Potential fantasy playoff victims: Philip Rivers (@PIT, CAR, @NYJ, OAK); Carson Palmer (DEN, KC, @CAR, @SD); Matthew Stafford (@GB, @ARI, ATL, CHI).

2. The best and worst RB matchups: I use the same methodology for determining which defenses are adept and struggling against opposing running backs, with a standard deviation for all 32 teams of 3.6. Here are the defenses on the margins for good and bad:

It's worth noting how incredibly bad the Bills defense is, providing the best matchups for opposing quarterbacks and running backs. This unit played a bit better against the Houston Texans last week, as Mario Williams had his best game of the season, Kyle Williams continued yeoman's work amid chaos, and Jairus Byrd proved he is not just a ball-hawking safety, stepping up and making several nice plays against the running game. Maybe this group will start to live up to its lofty preseason billing. For the moment, though, it should be considered the gold standard for opponents.

Potential fantasy playoff beneficiaries: Shonn Greene (@JAC, @TEN, SD, @BUF); Alfred Morris (BAL, @CLE, @PHI, DAL); Jamaal Charles (@CLE, @OAK, IND, @DEN).

Potential fantasy playoff victims: Donald Brown (TEN, @HOU, MIN, HOU); Beanie Wells (@SEA, DET, CHI, @SF); Adrian Peterson (CHI, @STL, @HOU, GB).

3. The best and worst WR matchups: There is decidedly imperfect overlap between defenses' proclivities against quarterbacks and wideouts. The reasons should be obvious: quarterbacks pass to players other than wide receivers, quarterbacks score fantasy points via their legs, a wide receiver's fantasy value is far more touchdown-dependent than a quarterback's, etc. You'll see some recurring teams, but not a duplicate of the quarterback list:

Where are the Bills? They're 26th on the list, just inside the standard deviation of 3.7. They're still likely a positive matchup for wide receivers, just not as positive as for quarterbacks or running backs.

Please note that these numbers are all well and good, but they're no substitute for watching with your own eyes. I try my best not to be blinded by Excel spreadsheets. Treating something as flighty as fantasy points -- which as we all know are incredibly touchdown-dependent and thus incredibly difficult to project -- as purely scientific is a losing battle. The official motto of the Fantasy Underground podcast is "Fighting the tyranny of the box score," and I believe stats can be tyrannical. However, numbers do have their place, and defensive bodies in motion do tend to stay in motion. If your fantasy stud is going up against Rex Ryan's defense, it's a legitimate cause for concern.

Potential Playoff Beneficiaries: Reggie Wayne (TEN, @HOU, @KC, HOU); DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (@TB, CIN, WAS, @NYG); Percy Harvin (CHI, @STL, @HOU, GB).

Potential Playoff Victims: Malcom Floyd (@PIT, CAR, @NYJ, OAK); Denarius Moore (DEN, KC, @CAR, @SD); Larry Fitzgerald (@SEA, DET, CHI, @SF).

4. What's up with the Baltimore Ravens' passing offense? And more importantly, why is it murdering Torrey Smith's fantasy value? Smith scored a touchdown last week against the Cleveland Browns, but he hasn't eclipsed 50 yards receiving or four catches in a game since Week 4. In Baltimore's past two games, it hasn't been for lack of trying: Smith has four catches in each game on 13 and nine targets. Remember those puff-piece stories about the high-powered, remade Ravens offense? Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?

Joe Flacco is a weird quarterback. He doesn't stink, despite what his doubters and statistics say. Flacco is on pace for 3,980 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, which is hauntingly similar to his mediocre numbers in 2010 and '11.

But you do see Flacco's huge arm on display. According to Stats LLC, he has 41 attempts that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air this season, putting him behind only Eli Manning, who has 45 in one more game. Against the Browns last week, his deep shots seemed to be good decisions. When he had Smith running deep and could see that safety help wouldn't be coming soon enough, he took deep shots and tried to let Smith make a play. Flacco picked on Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, and those guys simply defended well.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireJoe Flacco has just 300 yards passing in his past two games combined.

One criticism of Flacco that I think has merit is his occasional lack of touch. He sometimes throws a nice lofted outside ball (Smith caught one of those Sunday), but often over the middle he hammers it into a window and either messes up his receiver's timing or just makes the ball too difficult to catch. Also, I don't think he throws enough to Ray Rice, who is on pace for 62 catches for 502 yards a year after grabbing 76 for 704. (Regular readers know I can't stand Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator, so I won't beat that dead horse again.)

More than anything, the Ravens just don't give you confidence that they can consistently sustain drives. The first quarter in Cleveland was terrific, with two touchdown drives that ate tons of time and frustrated the Browns, but Flacco and the Ravens let them back into the game by producing drives of five, three, three, three, three, three and three plays thereafter.

For most fantasy owners, the ship on Flacco as a fantasy starter has probably sailed. So what about Smith? His talent is evident. He belongs to a new generation of average-sized speed merchants who are learning to become complete, dangerous wideouts -- put Mike Wallace, Denarius Moore and maybe Chris Givens in that category. Smith's touchdown Sunday was a simple 7-yard square-in that he caught, turned, saw the defender too far off him and bolted to the right corner for a score. But despite the several shorter passes and wide receiver screens he saw Sunday, it's unfortunate that so much of Smith's fantasy value seems to rely on the deep ball, because that can be so hit-or-miss. (It didn't help that he had a couple pretty nasty drops.) As with Wallace, there will be weeks where Smith explodes because of his speed, but as with Moore, it's tough to see high enough volume to make Smith a top-20 fantasy wide receiver. I have him penciled in that 21-to-30 range with week-to-week explosive possibilities.

5. Now who starts at running back for the Green Bay Packers? James Starks didn't exactly cover himself in glory during his first play of 2012 as the Packers' starting running back. It was a called pass, and as Aaron Rodgers dropped back, Starks bounced out to help block Darnell Dockett and kind of just fell over. Watching the tape, I figured maybe he'd hurt himself, because it was all kinds of awkward. But he got a carry on the next play.

I've seen some outlets suggest that Starks played on all early downs while Alex Green was limited to third-down and hurry-up situations, but that's not true. In the first quarter, Starks got the first series and Green got the next two series, whereupon the backs began to rotate. However, Starks fumbled on a mid-second-quarter play and was exceedingly lucky that Rodgers hustled to pick up the ball; it came at the end of a run, and the ball was on the field for a tantalizing length of time before Rodgers sprinted into the picture. Starks was banished for nearly 15 full minutes of game time after that. Green handled the next eight RB touches before Starks reappeared mid-third quarter.

So truthfully, we probably don't have a complete picture of this backfield's workload. Would the rotation have been different without the Starks fumble? Possibly. For the day on first and second downs, Starks had 16 carries to Green's nine, but that figure was probably influenced by the banishment. I'm not going to make the argument that Starks is some kind of elite player, because I don't think he is. But at this stage in his pro career, he is a better rusher than Green. I don't buy him as some lumbering ox. At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, he can get to the edge and cut upfield, and he has better between-the-tackles instincts than the faster Green. If the Packers had to make a couple yards in the middle of the field, I think Green would pick the wrong hole and get bounced backward, whereas I think Starks gives them a chance.

There are two complicating factors: Cedric Benson and John Kuhn. Kuhn has been out with a bad hamstring but should reclaim third-down work when he returns, which could be as soon as Week 11 against the Detroit Lions. Benson is on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury but is eligible to return in Week 14. Nobody really knows yet how realistic that is.

During Green Bay's bye, if I'm anticipating which running back has the most fantasy value, it's Starks. Even with Benson and Kuhn out, it may be too fractured a job to feel great about starting Starks in a standard-sized league. But if I'm stashing one of these dudes, Starks is my choice.

Five In Brief

6. Deciphering the Pittsburgh Steelers' backfield: Pittsburgh media reported that Rashard Mendenhall will get his starting job back once he's healthy, but that won't happen in Week 10. After Mendy, we're left to read the tea leaves. Isaac Redman was solid against the New York Giants last week, but Jonathan Dwyer may have been even better in Week 8 against the Washington Redskins. These two running backs have nearly identical frames and similar styles. They don't really make you miss, but they push the hole hard and get vertical quick. They'll also barrel through half-tackles and fight for yards. I think Dwyer is a better player. He is more agile and quicker through the defense's first level. But because his good game came more recently, I'd expect Redman to be the first man up Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs. Expect these guys to alternate series until someone gets hot. The larger story is how well the Pittsburgh O-line is playing and how remarkable that is considering how many injuries it has faced. Rookie right tackle Mike Adams is still a mess in pass protection (why he's not referred to as "rookie left tackle Mike Adams"), but he has had back-to-back run-mashing games, turning the right side of that line, along with RG Ramon Foster and C Maurkice Pouncey, into a pile driver. Bottom line? Redman barely over Dwyer, with each guy considerable as a flex. Remember, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley just got fired by the Chiefs. He's not likely to let up, even in a blowout.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireJulio Jones has back-to-back 100-yard receiving games for just the second time in his young career.

7. Home/Road nonsense: Hooray! Julio Jones played well in a home game, to the tune of five grabs for 129 yards, which finally puts to bed one of the most nonsensical notions of the season. Until Sunday, Jones had produced four strong fantasy efforts in road games and three weak ones at home, which led pseudo-scientists to conclude that there was a pattern and warn you to stay away from him any time he played in the Georgia Dome. People, home/road splits mean something in baseball because the parks have different dimensions. Some baseball stadiums are legitimately statistically better for hitters or pitchers. Football fields are all the same size. Was Jones leaving too many tickets for his friends? Crowd noise is an issue sometimes, I suppose, but in the modern NFL, do we really think offenses haven't worked with stadium noise all week during practice? To say nothing of the fact that Jones was supposedly struggling during home games. Was it too quiet for him? Listen: The Atlanta Falcons receivers have occasionally struggled because they're all really good at their jobs. The ball finds different guys different weeks. If someone starts to peddle you home/road splits in football, nod sagely and back away. That's also true for contentions like, "Oh, he's always really struggled in Monday night games" or "Andy Reid's teams are always so great coming out of the bye." Heaven knows I traffic in enough statistics, but I can tell the difference between smart ones and dumb ones.

8. Where is Vernon Davis? Oh, he's out there. Davis is playing virtually every snap for the San Francisco 49ers, but in his past three games combined, he has five catches on seven targets for 71 yards, including a complete shutout in a Thursday night game against the Seattle Seahawks when Alex Smith didn't throw it Davis' way once. I watched the coaches' tape of the Niners' Monday-night throttling of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 and saw San Francisco move Davis all over the formation, put him in motion and have him run different kinds of routes. The truth is there were times when the Cardinals had a linebacker on Davis' side, essentially playing zone in the middle, while a safety played him man-to-man. In such circumstances, Smith rightly didn't throw it Big Vern's way. But I also saw a few times where Davis streaked across the front of a zone wide open and Smith looked elsewhere. Weird. The route Smith seems to want to throw Davis' way is the post, and on his first reception of that game, Arizona cleared out the middle of the field and had Kerry Rhodes one-on-one with Davis. Smith hit him for a 25-yard gain. Still, I have to assume the 49ers spent the bye realizing that their best aerial weapon has to get more involved, and if I'm seeing missed opportunities on tape, you know they are. I admit it's kind of just blind faith trusting Davis right now, but I trust him. He's racking up 60 yards and a score this week.

9. Why I'd stick with Michael Vick: The other three ESPN rankers have Vick outside the top 10 in their QB ranks this week; I have him seventh. Why? It's pretty simple, I guess: He has been a top-10 fantasy quarterback in each of the past three weeks. He scored 21 fantasy points in Week 6 against the Lions, which put him seventh among quarterbacks. He scored 15 in Week 8 versus the Falcons, good for a tie for 10th. And he scored 17 Monday night against the New Orleans Saints, which tied him for ninth. Are these elite totals? Nope. Are they surprisingly steady for a guy who has been at the center of so much controversy? Yup. And are they significantly better numbers than what Eli Manning or Cam Newton have produced in that time? Absolutely, and those are two quarterbacks the other rankers like, perhaps nominally, more than Vick this week. I agree that the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive line is quite sieve-like at times and that Vick is one of the easier quarterbacks in the league to rattle with a blitz. But the dude can still run. He was dangerous against the Saints -- six carries for 53 yards -- and has a combined 154 rushing yards the past three weeks. That's around 15 fantasy points right there, which is the joy of a running quarterback. No doubt the Dallas Cowboys will come hard after Vick on Sunday, and no doubt he'll take some shots. But he deserved far better Monday night, having led several end-to-end drives before a teammate's mistake (usually Brent Celek) messed up a chance for a touchdown. Vick is still a massive injury risk, but I'm not benching him.

10. Pick up Taiwan Jones: I lied, claiming I wouldn't write about players we discussed on the UG podcast. But that's because when you're doing a podcast you don't always get to fire every arrow you have in your quiver. In talking about the men who remain standing in the Oakland Raiders backfield -- while Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson rest their injured ankles -- I believe I failed to lay out a clear strategy. If I'm looking for a player who will give me something this week, I probably add Marcel Reece. Reece, a converted collegiate wideout, is the NFL's most athletic fullback and has 26 catches in 2012, which is tied with Adrian Peterson for seventh among running backs. Alas, he has only one carry, so you probably won't see him with too many totes Sunday in a good matchup against the Ravens. But I won't be shocked if he's the goal-line choice -- it figures to be Reece or Owen Schmitt. In short, I'm not sure how the backfield snaps will be parceled out, but Reece appears to have a safer baseline for giving you something. However, the upside play is Jones, he of the 4.33 40 time at the 2011 combine. He is very much in the Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller mold, and as I mentioned on the podcast, I went back and watched tape of his only "involved" game last season. He wasn't slick or decisive to the hole, but when he got to the end, watch out. Jones has durability issues and could give you nothing, but he could give you an 84-yard touchdown on his first carry. In just about all leagues, Jones is the one who should be picked up, if not necessarily started. The odds aren't good, but there is a chance he could alter fantasy leagues.