What fantasy player out there doesn't love a mismatch?
Check this one out: Colts. Lions. In Indianapolis.
On one side you have a team in the midst of a six-game winning streak, thundering down the track toward an almost-certain playoff spot, including wins against some very good football teams (the Steelers, for one). On the other, you have a team that has lost six in a row on the road this season -- in fact, the Lions (0-13) are losers of 14 consecutive regular-season contests.
It's like a dream matchup if you own players on the Indianapolis Colts (9-4) with one possible exception, and that's the team's running game. Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes have been splitting the work, underperforming as a duo besides, and now comes word that Addai has missed back-to-back practices with a shoulder injury, putting his Week 15 status in doubt. Throw a monkey wrench into our Week 15 rankings, won't you, Joseph?
The Addai/Rhodes debate is a growing one heading into this weekend, and as such, let's get the takes of our four experts (Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Erik Kuselias and Eric Karabell). Welcome, gentlemen!
Cockcroft: Matthew and Erik, you initially had Joseph Addai in your top 10, while Christopher and Eric, you had him slotted as more of a second-tier back, demonstrating a clear difference of opinion on the Colts backs in the first place. But with things now much more up in the air than they appeared Wednesday, what kind of plans might you have with regard to re-ranking the two? Where might Rhodes land today?
Berry: Well, now it looks like Addai is not playing, so I'll take him off the ranks and have Rhodes as a solid No. 2 running back. It's Detroit, the game is at home and I expect Indianapolis to be up big and running a lot in the second half. The only thing stopping Rhodes from being in the top 10 is that the Colts have so many weapons. But he will get the majority of the work against a bad team.
Harris: Well, I don't know that there's any specific Addai news that I'm not aware of. I don't know my plans for re-ranking them yet; I'll do that Friday morning, based on what comes out of Colts camp Thursday night. I've been saying all along that if any one guy gets that job for sure Sunday, he's a must-start against the Lions. The issue is that the Colts signed Najeh Davenport, so I'm worried that even if Addai is inactive, we might have to worry about Davenport stealing from Rhodes. Still, if Addai winds up being inactive Sunday morning, I'd probably start Rhodes if I was in a Peyton-Hillis-like pinch.
Karabell: I just don't think Addai is healthy, and in a game that should be a blowout early, why would the Colts risk his health for future games, including the playoffs? I thought the initial rank I gave Addai was fair; he should get his yards and maybe a score in the first half, then cede the touches to others when it's 28-3 at the half. I think Rhodes is a live flex option this week.
Cockcroft: For me, Rhodes is going to be a clear No. 2 back if Addai is ruled out of that game. Interesting to see what the Friday practice sessions tell us. Moving on ... like Addai, Deion Branch received a split vote from our experts (two for, two against). Matthew and Erik, you rated him a clear No. 2 receiver, but Christopher and Eric, you appear to have taken the more conservative approach, rating him as a flex option or worse? Looking at that matchup, I find it hard not to side with the higher ranking.
Berry: Branch has double-digit fantasy points in each of his past four starts, and the Rams give up the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers and to opposing quarterbacks. He had two scores in Week 14, and QB Seneca Wallace looks for him often -- and on the turf against a bad team, how can you not love him?
Harris: My whole thing in rankings is trying not to get swayed by one game. As bad as you think the Rams are in the secondary, trust me when I tell you that the Patriots are worse, and Branch had scads of motivation against his old club. And you're going to start him in your fantasy playoffs? Again: You got this far for a reason. It seems to me that everyone else here is telling you to bench the guy that brought you this far, and go with someone who's been awful for all but one week this season. (And I don't really see a "split" here -- pretty much three guys above 26 and I'm at 40.) Maybe that's just a philosophical thing: The others won't hate themselves if they suddenly start someone they haven't started all year, and he spits the bit in the playoffs. Me, I don't want to look back and wonder, "What if I'd started the guy I'd been using all season?"
Kuselias: Deion Branch has speed. That makes me warm and fuzzy. But when we add in the fact he's healthy, scored twice last week, is playing a putrid defense in a dome and has chemistry with Seneca Wallace only rivaled by those cheesy couples on the match.com ads, he's a solid No. 2 play.
Karabell: I don't think we can assume Seneca Wallace or Matt Hasselbeck can get Branch the ball consistently, and for me to rank the wide receiver as a No. 2 choice, in the top 20, he would need safer quarterback play. I think Branch is worth using, but let's remember the negative to his Week 14 performance; he scored twice but had only two other catches. I like the matchup, but I don't think the Seahawks are all that good.
Cockcroft: Returning to that Colts-Lions game for a second, and turning the focus to the weaker of the teams: Matthew, I noticed you had Kevin Smith slotted in as a high-end No. 2 back for that matchup. Now, Indianapolis does sport a poor run defense, but you have no concern that the Colts could crush the Lions early and take the run out of the equation?
Berry: Smith has at least 20 carries in three of his past five games, and at least eight fantasy points in four of his past five. The Colts rank 25th in the NFL against the run, and on the road, with quarterback issues, my guess is that the Lions feature the run quite a bit this week. Even if they fall behind big, Smith is on pace for 37 receptions this year. He'll stay on the field during passing downs.
Cockcroft: I suppose that's possible, but it troubles me that the guy has had two or fewer receptions in eight of his past nine games, and a few of those were blowouts obviously in the other team's favor. It scares me.
Berry: Yeah, I don't think Jacobs will play.
Cockcroft: I absolutely agree with that, or at least that he gets a limited number of touches. Next week's game is the all-important one for the Giants, so they won't take any chances with Jacobs' knee. He's too valuable for the playoffs.
So what's the scoop behind Donovan McNabb's second-tier quarterback ranking? Everyone else had him in the top 10, and the matchup figures to suit him.
Berry: I think he'll be OK. I just don't think he'll have the monster game a lot of folks expect. Look at his scores in his past four games: 9, minus-4, 28, 12. He had a great game against Arizona, but otherwise has been very mediocre. The Browns actually play much better pass defense than run defense; they're 15th-best in the league and allow only 11.6 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks, 12th-best in the NFL. Look at the past four quarterbacks to face the Browns: Kerry Collins had 10 points, Peyton Manning had one point, Sage Rosenfels had 11 and Trent Edwards had 9. Not exactly a Pro Bowl lineup except for Payton, but not terrible either. Yes, Jay Cutler lit them up, but that was a short-week game. I think McNabb gets you 12 points or so, which is fine, but you could easily do better.
Cockcroft: Brian Westbrook is by far my top play of the week -- I'd agree with that -- but that game is so important to the Eagles, I still somehow can't see McNabb throwing for 250-plus yards, or two scores, or both. Call it a hunch.
Christopher, speaking of those NFC East teams with motivation, I'm very interested to hear your thought process behind Santana Moss' No. 7 ranking. Not one of the other guys was even willing to rank him as high as in the second tier of receivers.
Harris: I hear you. I've already written the Breakdown for the Washington-Cincinnati game, and I basically apologized for believing in Moss so much. Frankly, the person I think the matchup is best for is Chris Cooley. The Bengals have no healthy safeties and their linebackers are either injured or not very good. And it's not like the Redskins throw down the field much. Chalk this one up to a "feeling." I think Moss is tired of his lack of production and will make one very big play Sunday. I'm remembering his huge day against the Lions, about six weeks ago. I think he's due for one of those against Leon Hall; remember, the Bengals don't have Johnathan Joseph active.
Cockcroft: A feeling, eh? Somehow thoughts of Kirk Van Houten's demo-tape song from "The Simpsons" comes immediately to mind.
OK, Erik, this one has me perplexed: Would you please make the case for Tony Gonzalez not being No. 1? I just can't see that. I know, you had him No. 2, but that's a monstrous matchup for him and he's in the midst of a massive hot streak.
Kuselias: Dallas Clark scored last week and would have had a second, but he coughed it up on the 1-foot line on a fluky play. So he's hot, his quarterback is the best player in the free world -- at the quarterback position anyway -- and, lookie lookie, they play Detroit. Clark has the best chance for a huge day, so he's No. 1.
Cockcroft: A chance, sure. Best chance? I don't know about that. The Chargers have allowed by far the most fantasy points to tight ends this season (10.5 per game), and Gonzalez himself has averaged 94.7 receiving yards with six touchdowns in his past 10 games against them. In Week 10, he had 113 yards and two scores against them!
Eric, I see you clearly prefer Ted Ginn Jr. to Davone Bess among the Dolphins' receivers, but the other three experts appear to admire the matchup more for Bess. Wouldn't it make more sense to take Bess, who seems to get more targets, than a boom-or-bust play in a fantasy playoff week?
Karabell: Entirely a hunch. I do like Bess, and think he'll get his catches, but I don't see him scoring much. The 49ers have allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to wide receivers, which could mean Bess has a big game, I suppose, but I see Ginn finding the end zone. In retrospect, I should have ranked these receivers closer together, since both are nice options.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.