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Football Outsiders: Bad games ahead for Romo, Portis

12/4/2008

Time to do our best Kanye West impression.

Roger Goodell hates fantasy football players.

How else can you explain why Big Poppa left the various hearings and appeals of the StarCaps case to be wrapped up just as the fantasy playoffs begin, creating uncertainty for owners who potentially have to set their lineups on Thursday for Sunday games that may or may not feature Kevin Williams and Pat Williams? Where the Saints could see a 100-yard game out of Deuce McAllister … or a zero from him and 100 out of Pierre Thomas? What's next? Matt Jones gets suspended halfway through the first quarter and is pulled off the field?

OK, so maybe we're giving the commish a little trouble, but uncertainty is the last thing that any fantasy owner wants with the first week of the traditional fantasy playoffs upon us. Fortunately, after taking a week off for the holiday, Football Outsiders is here to help with our regression analysis of the week's matchups.

For those of you new to the column, the difference between our matchup suggestions and everyone else's on the planet is where they come from: Football Outsiders' database of advanced statistics, primarily defense-adjusted value over average, our metric that analyzes each play against nearly 14 years of play-by-play data and adjusts for down, distance, situation and opponent. With that more accurate picture of how a team is performing, we look at similar fantasy matchups from the past and see how players in those situations have performed. Finally, we adjust for factors that our database doesn't know about: weather, injuries, performance in particular situations and other assorted little things.

The result is a projection of how much better or worse that player will do versus his average performance against an average defense. This sort of methodology isolates sleepers while also providing details on how much, on average, you can expect your stars to underperform with a tough matchup facing them. Although it's extremely difficult to bench a first-round pick, we can tell you when it makes sense to do so and why. That's the advantage to using real data and history, and the advantage you'll get by reading this column throughout your fantasy playoffs.

Note: We're projecting this week as if the StarCaps Six are all suspended. If the Williams brothers play, do not, in any situation, start Kevin Smith; if McAllister is active, he should split time with Thomas as the focus of the Saints' rushing attack, turning them both into marginal plays.

Best and worst matchups for Week 14

Quarterbacks

Gus Frerotte (Vikings, plus 14 percent): The biggest problem for any quarterback playing the Lions isn't the concern that Detroit might suddenly decide to start playing defense; it's that the offense could get ahead so quickly that coordinators turn to a run-heavy mix thanks to injury concerns and pity. Before it gets to that point, Frerotte should make a big play or two down the field.

Jay Cutler (Broncos, plus 13 percent): Cutler is a must-start in virtually any format instead of virtually any other quarterback this week. Kansas City's secondary simply can't keep up with Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal for any period of time; the previous time they played the Chiefs, Cutler threw for 361 yards (although his Broncos did lose).

Matt Cassel (Patriots, plus 12 percent): Last week was a far cry from the 400-yard days he put up in Weeks 11 and 12, but that doesn't mean Cassel has turned into a pumpkin; he just faced one of the league's toughest defenses. That's not the case this week, as he'll face a Seattle pass defense utterly neutered without Patrick Kerney's rush. Cassel should have all day to throw, and when he's not being rushed, he's very capable.

Ken Dorsey (Browns, minus 21 percent): At Football Outsiders, we have something called "Loser League." What it essentially amounts to is a reverse fantasy football league in which the goal is to score as few points as possible. In that league, Dorsey's matchup against the Titans is expected to set records. In your league? You could start Dorsey, sending a message to the opposition that you can win without a quarterback. But our advice is just to leave the quarterback spot empty and send the message that way. At least you're assured you won't get negative points.

Tony Romo (Cowboys, minus 13 percent): This is a really tricky situation for Romo. The Steelers' pass rush is ferocious; more so than that, though, the Steelers are excellent tacklers. Much of Romo's game is predicated upon scrambling out of the rush and breaking arm tackles, something he very well may struggle to do this weekend. If you have another option with a favorable matchup, you'll want to look elsewhere this week.

Jason Campbell (Redskins, minus 12 percent): The Ravens' defense has made life tough for four different quarterbacks during the past two weeks. Although Campbell should manage to last the entire 60 minutes without being benched or injured, he'll simply struggle with facing a defense this good. Everyone does. He's usually a marginal start in most leagues anyway, but stay away from him this week.

Running backs

Adrian Peterson (Vikings, plus 15 percent) and Chester Taylor (Vikings, plus 8 percent): Glory! After a bizarrely bad performance against the Lions earlier in the year (the two-fumble game), All Day returns to face the league's worst run defense with something to prove. The likelihood of the Vikings' dominating the Lions is such that Taylor is worth noting in really deep leagues; Peterson, though, should be able to approach 150 yards and 20-plus fantasy points.

Tim Hightower (Cardinals, plus 14 percent); The big secret, of course, is that Tim Hightower hasn't been very good this year. As a fantasy back? Sure, he's picking up a lot of short-yardage touchdowns (even though he's actually below average at converting runs inside the five). The yardage, though, hasn't been there. That should change this week, as Hightower faces a Rams defense that gave up on the season weeks ago. Hightower's only 100-yard game of the season -- heck, his only game when he ran for more than 40 yards -- came against the Rams. During their six-game losing streak, the Rams have allowed the starting opposing running back slightly less than 20 fantasy points per game.

Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson (Packers, both plus 12 percent): It looks as if Grant will be the healthier of the two and get the start, but whoever gets the rock against a very mediocre Houston rush defense should be able to move the ball. We understand if Grant owners are gun-shy about putting him in the lineup, but this is the week to get him in there.

Steve Slaton (Texans, plus 12 percent): On the other side of that matchup is Slaton, who gets to face a Packers team that's horribly unbalanced defensively: great pass defense, awful rush defense. Although Slaton's team is likely to be behind most of the game, expect him to break a long run and pick up a touchdown at some point.

Clinton Portis (Redskins, minus 16 percent): No, you don't want to play Clinton Portis against the Ravens' rush defense. Yes, we know what Brandon Jacobs and the Giants did. That was impossibly rare, and was helped by the league's best offensive line. Portis has a very good offensive line, but it's not up to that caliber, and he'll also be called on to pass-block a good portion of the time. Factor in the injuries, and he's simply not a good start this week.

Marion Barber and Tashard Choice (Cowboys, both minus 12 percent): We'd expect Barber to play better than Choice, but to be honest, it's not likely that Barber will see the field on Sunday. In our database of injuries, the only skill position player to play on a dislocated toe without missing a game is Antonio Gates, and he was a nonfactor for all of last season's playoffs because of it. Barber's tough, but the Cowboys recognize how important it is to have him stay healthy for the final four weeks; they made the same difficult decision to hold out Tony Romo earlier this year, and it helped him avoid a Brady Quinn-style injury. Expect him out or not playing 100 percent, and even if he were at full health, he'd still be facing one of the league's best rush defenses. The Cowboys' backs are just a bad idea this week.

Fred Taylor (Jaguars, minus 10 percent): Why Taylor here and not Maurice Jones-Drew? Well, the Bears aren't very good at defending against running backs in the passing game, so MJD's abilities in that aspect of the game mitigate the matchup concerns that he'll see when running the ball. Taylor, on the other hand, will struggle to get yardage any way he tries.

Jamal Lewis (Browns, minus 10 percent): One of the things we've found with our injury research is that an injury to the quarterback affects the running game more than an injury to the running back or the offensive line. The Browns have lost two quarterbacks and are facing the league's eighth-best run defense. He's a straightforward sit.

Wide receivers

Reggie Wayne (Colts, plus 15 percent): It's a wonderful time to have Reggie Wayne on your roster. The Bengals are terrible against No. 1 receivers: They have the second-worst DVOA in the league against the opposing team's top target, allowing them to go for more than 75 yards per game. That's Wayne, and with 75 yards being the average, Wayne's a virtual lock to reach 100 yards.

Bernard Berrian (Vikings, plus 11 percent): Berrian's best day as a Vikings player? That would be his last game against the Lions, when he caught five passes for 131 yards and a score. He should reach 100 yards and a touchdown once more, and he's an absolute must-play as a No. 2 wide receiver in any league.

Randy Moss (Patriots, plus 10 percent): So, remember how the Bengals are allowing 75 yards per game to the No. 1 wide receiver? The Seahawks top that by allowing 81 yards, on average, to the other team's ace. That's the worst figure in the league. With the abomination of a secondary that Seattle has to offer, this is Moss' best chance all season of looking like he did in the first half of 2007.

Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers, minus 14 percent): A sneaky one here: The Buccaneers are the best team in the league in defending the opposing team's No. 2 wide receiver, allowing him only 21 yards per game. There's no reason to expect the mediocre Muhammad to change that.

Antonio Bryant (Buccaneers, minus 9 percent): When Muhammad comes off the field, Bryant and the Buccaneers' offense will come on, and they'll be up against a Panthers defense that stifles opposing No. 1 guys. Come on, do you think they gave Chris Gamble that huge contract extension because he's a nice guy? Carolina has the best DVOA against top guys in the league and allows them only 48 yards per game. Bryant should be right around that figure on Sunday.

Braylon Edwards (Browns, minus 9 percent): Even if he gets open deep, it's not as if Ken Dorsey will be able to throw the ball to him. He could catch a fade pattern against the much shorter Cortland Finnegan, but Finnegan probably will scare him with some well-timed trash talk and Edwards will drop it.

Tight ends

Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs, plus 11 percent): Gonzalez is a great fit against a Broncos defense that can't cover tight ends. In their first game, Gonzalez had only 47 yards, but he scored; on the other hand, the Chiefs also were winning and he spent most of his time blocking in the run game. With the Chiefs likely to be behind this week, they'll have to throw, and a lot of those throws will go to Gonzalez.

Dustin Keller (Jets, minus 13 percent): The 49ers' defense is underrated in most circles; one thing they do really well is defend against the other team's tight ends. Starting tight ends playing San Francisco average only 20 yards per game; Keller will have to split catches with Chris Baker, and neither will have a great day.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.