- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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It's playoff time, not Week 4, and while that shouldn't really mean a ton when it comes time for you to make roster decisions, you know it does. Admit it. I try not to, but I know it's there, even for me. So much more is on the line. The problem is that so many fantasy football owners manage differently in December. It's still, ultimately, all about accruing the best stats, and that's it.
Peyton Hillis is a better play than Marion Barber. I don't really see any way around this, based on how these running backs have played the past few weeks; how healthy they currently are; and, most important, looking at the defenses they will face Sunday. LaDainian Tomlinson is a better play than either, but if LT were playing the Ravens, you bet I'd go with Hillis. It's about the matchups, even in the playoffs.
In Week 4, I don't think too many owners would be scared to play Hillis. Lose and you still have a few months to make up the ground. In December, I think a lot of Hillis owners -- assuming his relatively paltry ownership continues to rise -- are scared to play him over their first-round pick. I have nothing against Barber or the Cowboys, by the way. They are, after all, performing in Pittsburgh. Try a sandwich at Primanti Brothers if you have the time.
You might not believe me, but I do not manage one bit differently in Week 14 than I did in Week 4. The goal remains the same: to score points. I don't even look at my opponent's roster, either. The playoffs are a blast, that time of the year we all look forward to and hope we've got lineup decisions to make, as opposed to sadly agreeing to spend Sundays shopping. I've heard what that's like, and I don't want to partake. No matter how tough the decision is to play Darren McFadden this week, at least the decision exists.
You'll see some available names in strange places in these flex rankings, I admit. Hillis didn't exist in our world in Week 4, while Barber was still a stud running back. Hey, things have changed a bit, haven't they? I'm not going to win all my playoff matchups, no matter what decisions I make. Know this going in: Luck will play a role, and even if you play your best lineup and do everything perfectly, your opponent could have Adrian Peterson, Drew Brees and Roddy White and embarrass you. I can live with that if I managed my team the right way.
Peyton Hillis over Marion Barber? Sounds strange. You'd do it in Week 4, based on all the factors we know today, wouldn't you? Then do it in Week 14.
Happy December, everyone, and remember, this isn't the best time of the year just because of the holidays, but also because of fantasy football. Glad you're still playing for something. Here are the flex rankings for Week 14, whether it's a playoff game for you or not.
Reggie Wayne versus Tim Hightower: We start with two players who haven't exactly pleased fantasy owners lately, but matchups this week dictate that a smile should be on its way. How Peyton Manning couldn't manage to drive the Colts to even one offensive touchdown against the Browns I can't answer, but I don't think Wayne is hurt or being ignored or anything like that. I think he's been a victim of defenses' not needing to double-team anyone else, and let's face it, the Colts haven't had the easiest schedule, either. That changes in Week 14. The Bengals can't stop anyone. I see Manning putting up Manning-type numbers and Wayne, not even close to the biggest bust among top-10 wide receivers this season, having one of his better games. I don't play him because he was a high draft pick, but you can't forget why you did it, either. Hightower has what seems to me a very generous projection this week, but then again, he's playing the Rams. My question is, will the rookie get the carries to reach 100 yards? I see Hightower finding the end zone, thus a favorable overall rank, in comparison to running for a total of 85 yards the past four games. He should do this against the Rams, with proper attention. I still play Wayne over him, but the fact they're in the same conversation speaks volumes.
LenDale White versus Lee Evans: The common thread here is that both are players fantasy owners love to complain about. White doesn't get enough carries, but he's still having a very productive season, and I'd guess more than a few of his big games have occurred while more than half of ESPN owners had him benched. That was obviously a mistake on Thanksgiving against the pitiful Lions. The Browns are better, at least defensively, based on how they flummoxed Manning's Colts. The difference is, the Titans are at home, and they run the ball better, much better. Chris Johnson is a very good play this week, and White should be able to get 60 yards and score a touchdown, earning a ranking better than quite a few starters. I know all about Evans' really enjoying previous games against the Dolphins. Didn't everyone enjoy playing Miami last season? I don't care so much who the Buffalo quarterback is, to be honest, because the case can be made that Evans is better or worse with each guy. I think Evans is a worthy play, but White is more likely to score. And stop complaining: Each guy is having a nice season.
Tony Gonzalez versus Reggie Bush: These cats clearly don't play the same position, but how different are they statistically, really? If you're a Pierre Thomas owner and you're worried Bush is going to be a large factor in the running game, I don't think you need to be concerned. To me, the fact that Deuce McAllister is facing suspension and may not suit up in December is a lot of things -- a shame, a misunderstanding, annoying -- but it's not going to affect greatly how the Saints do things. McAllister had all of eight carries the past two weeks. Bush looked a bit rusty in his first game back from the knee injury, with key drops and odd decisions when he had the ball in the open field. He'll get better. I'll cautiously expect six or seven receptions each week, 70 or so total yards, and that's about it. Well, isn't that what we want from Gonzalez as well? Look, I'm not jumping off the Tyler Thigpen bandwagon, not when he registered an average of 20 fantasy points the previous five weeks before the Oakland stinker. You run on the Raiders, right, Jake Delhomme? Gonzalez is the best at his position in the business, and his 110 standard scoring points are 26 more than anyone else. He's a wide receiver, basically, and a good one. Bush is a wide receiver, and a good one. This week Gonzalez gets the nod.
Laveranues Coles versus Kevin Smith: Speaking of the league suspensions handed down to six players for diuretic use, the player who would stand to gain the most this week is Detroit's main running back, Mr. Smith. The Vikings bring the league's No. 2 rushing defense into Week 14, but don't even look at that number, because if half the starting defensive line is suspended (Pat Williams and Kevin Williams), that changes things. Here's the thing: I kinda like Smith anyway. I do not think the Vikings will suddenly crumble and allow the Lions to score 30 points on them no matter who is eligible to play. As of this writing, the suspensions were being held up in court. The Vikings have a scheme that works, in large part because of the personnel, but that's not the only reason. In a normal week against a team that actually moves the ball well and puts up a reasonable fight defensively, maybe I'd worry. I do think Smith becomes a usable flex option or, if the Williamses are out, a No. 2 running back this week because the Lions have to try to establish the run, and even if they don't, Smith should get his 75 yards. Remember, before the Thanksgiving massacre against the Titans' top-ranked defense, the rookie was on a roll once the Rudi Johnson impediment had been redirected. Smith ran for 96, 112 and 86 yards on the Jaguars, Panthers and Buccaneers. Sure, the Lions got blown out, but Smith is still getting his yards. I think he will this week as well, but I still can't play him over either of the top Brett Favre wide receivers. Numbers are a bit deceiving for them as well. Coles, for example, had just two catches for two yards against the Broncos, a weak defense, this past Sunday. That's awful. Only once in the past five weeks has he had a decent game. But fantasy is about matchups, and the 49ers, even at home, are ripe to be thrown on. I think Smith will surprise people this week, but Coles remains the better flex play.
Dominic Rhodes versus Domenik Hixon: Break out the Dom Perignon for this meeting of Dominics -- um, I mean Domeniks -- and let me explain. Hixon is legit. However, he's not a No. 2 wide receiver play to me, thanks to a tough matchup, Amani Toomer's productivity and the borderline dominance of the Brandon Jacobs-led running game. Hixon has received much attention this week, and deservedly so. Plaxico Burress is no longer playing, and Hixon should be good for upward of 50 or so yards. I think Rhodes can do better. Joseph Addai is the starter, but he's not always the finisher. How can the Colts not explode on the poor Bengals for a blowout win? Well, why would Addai get abused in the second half? Addai remains a good play -- this isn't really about him -- but so is Rhodes, the good soldier who has more double-digit fantasy games this season than his team's starter. I think Rhodes will get some goal-line attention, making him a bit more flex-worthy than the new Plaxico beneficiary.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
4hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon