Joyner: McDonald, Gonzalez, Gaffney strong sleepers
One of the safest rules to follow in fantasy football is to play good players against bad teams as often as you possibly can. The beauty of the fantasy playoffs is that, unlike earlier weeks of the season, the bad teams are very well-defined. This week is chock-full of just these kinds of matchups.
Chris Chambers, Chargers: Chambers has been alternating between good and mediocre fantasy performances this season. In three of his past five games, Chambers posted either eight or nine points, but in the other two starts he posted one and five points.
A matchup against the Detroit defense should bring out the best in Chambers. His lineup matchup is Travis Fisher. Fisher's yards per attempt (YPA) allowed was either worst or second-worst in the NFL in 2005 and 2006. His coverage skills had improved earlier this year, but of late Fisher has regressed to his earlier form. That gives Chambers a lot of upside potential.
Derrick Mason, Ravens: Mason is similar to Chambers in that his fantasy production during the past few weeks has also been quite inconsistent. In three of his past six starts, Mason has totaled three points or fewer, but in the other three starts Mason put up 29 points.
The Miami secondary as a whole has been a sieve in coverage of late, as shown by their 78 points and five touchdown passes allowed in their past two games. Mason is slated to face Will Allen, who is the best of the Dolphins secondary, but Allen isn't that good (I have him rated as a C). The Ravens also do a good job of moving Mason around, so Mason should be able to see his share of passes versus Michael Lehan or Andre Goodman. Those matchups would be quite favorable and make Mason a high-quality start, especially in a point-per-reception league.
Donald Driver, Packers: In previous years, Driver was a definite start every week because he was capable of putting up good fantasy numbers against pretty much any and all matchups. That hasn't been the case this year, and wasn't the case last week when Driver put up only three points against a strong Raiders secondary.
That won't be a problem for him this week. The Rams' secondary has looked better of late, but I'm still not convinced this unit is very good. Driver is due to face Ron Bartell, a backup cornerback who is starting due to injury and who I have rated as a C-minus, so Driver should see a lot of passes this week.
Steve Smith, Panthers: Smith had a great start to this season (89 points in his first six starts) but has since completely fallen apart fantasy-wise (24 points in his past six starts). He has caught 30 passes during his slump, so he is still the centerpiece of the Panthers' passing attack, but he is averaging only 8.3 yards per reception. Those numbers indicate he simply hasn't been that successful on vertical passes.
That should change against Kelly Jennings this Sunday. The studies I've done on Jennings the past two years show that he tends to do quite poorly against fast receivers. Smith may be nursing a shin injury, but I would still be willing to bet that he has enough burst to get deep on Jennings more than once.
Michael Jenkins, Falcons: At some level, I hesitate to put Jenkins on this list because he is only owned in 8.1 percent of ESPN leagues. That being said, Jenkins has 24 points in his past two games, so there are certainly fantasy coaches out there considering picking him up for a playoff shot in the arm.
I'm here to tell you that is a low-percentage proposition. Jenkins is due to face Ronde Barber. Not only is Barber playing quite well this year (I have him graded as a B-plus), but the matchup of Roddy White versus Philip Buchanon on the other side will be the likely target for the Falcons' passing game.
Hines Ward, Steelers: In my ESPN.com Insider article this week, I took a closer look at the Jaguars' defense to see if it was as good as their overall numbers indicated that it was. I found that Jacksonville's secondary has quite a few holes in it, so that would seem to make Ward a good start.
Some other numbers from that study make me say otherwise. Rashean Mathis posted a 3.1 YPA allowed in the games that I broke down. A YPA of six or less means a cornerback is playing at a Pro Bowl level and Mathis has been doing better than that despite nursing some injuries. I expect the Steelers to avoid this matchup and go after the Santonio Holmes-Brian Williams matchup much more often, and that makes Ward a low-upside play this week.
Shaun McDonald, Lions: It was thought that the primary beneficiary of the Roy Williams injury would be Calvin Johnson. If the past two weeks are any indication, McDonald is actually the one benefiting the most. McDonald has 14 catches for 150 yards in the 6 é quarters since Williams suffered his injury against the Vikings. McDonald should be a safe pick in standard leagues and a great pick in point-per-reception leagues because of the volume of passes he is likely to see.
Anthony Gonzalez, Colts: I have to admit to being shocked that Gonzalez is currently owned in only 17.4 percent of ESPN leagues. He has posted two games of 10-plus points the past three weeks and has looked more impressive every week. His matchup against Nnamdi Asomugha does look to be quite daunting, but if you are willing to play for the upside of the Colts offense, Gonzalez is someone to grab a hold of.
Jabar Gaffney, Patriots: Gaffney was another player whose low-ownership percentage number (1.3) was extremely surprising. Over the past three weeks, Gaffney has become what the Patriots thought Donte' Stallworth was going to be for them this year: the alternate vertical threat. In three of his past four starts (excluding the Baltimore game), Gaffney has 16 receptions for 253 yards, or 15.8 yards per catch. Gaffney also has a touchdown in each of his past three games. Putting Gaffney on your roster the week before the Jets game has the look of a low-risk/high-upside no-brainer pick.
KC Joyner, aka The Football Scientist, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider.