- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I'm not against fantasy league championships being decided in Week 17. In fact, I think that's when the smartest fantasy owners tend to shine the brightest, making the tough moves and overcoming the Week 17 blues. So you've ridden Peyton Manning all season, and now you're scared he could sit half, if not all, of this week's game. Brandon Jacobs is playing terrific football, but might be wearing a suit on Sunday. You should have been prepared for this. In every season, some of the best players are nonfactors Christmas week, so how can anyone be surprised?
When you get to the point of being lucky enough to have to make a decision in Week 17, embrace it. You're obviously meeting someone in the title match, so they've got choices as well. At this point one just has to take more things into account, because playing time is no longer assured. It's not necessarily true that the best fantasy players are on the best real teams; on the contrary, the quarterbacks on the teams likely to get byes are hardly fantasy reliables. The top two running backs for the season are playoff-bound, but after that, the rest of the top 10 might be playing golf in a week. This is the week the top performances tend to be real surprises, so get ready.
I'm cool with this. In the final week of 2007, really bad Atlanta -- hard to remember now -- scored 44 real points, thanks to Chris Redman's four touchdown passes. Quinn Gray of the Jaguars threw for 302 yards. Brandon Jackson, Ron Dayne and Pierre Thomas were running back stars, and Nate Burleson, Ernest Wilford and Bobby Wade were among the top wide receivers. A scant few of these players made an impact the following season. Don't worry about 2009 if you're making decisions for this week. Worry about this week. And check out some of the surprise names ranked high in the flex rankings for this week. Note that this is posted on Wednesday this week, so keep abreast of player news after Christmas, just in case the coach for some playoff-bound running back you're relying on decides his player has a sore hammy.
Thanks for reading this column the past few months, and we hope it helped. Happy holidays to all.
Sammy Morris versus Eddie Royal: Here are two good options for this week; both are on teams that clearly need to win. Both of these games are rematches from earlier this season, but Morris wasn't active when the Patriots beat the Bills the first time. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was, however, and he ran 26 times for 105 yards and a touchdown. Is Morris better or worse than Green-Ellis? I think he's better, but it's irrelevant, really. Morris has run well the past month, scoring touchdowns in three straight games in Weeks 13-15 and gaining 88 yards in Week 16 against the Cardinals. And only one of these teams needs the win: The Bills have packed it in, and I expect the Patriots to win going away, with Morris getting at least 13 fantasy points. I realize LaMont Jordan is a factor, but I think he'll do well, too, as you can see from his ranking. Royal is also dealing with a colleague who should have a decent game. When the Broncos beat the Chargers in Week 2 on that stunning two-point conversion, Royal scored the late touchdown and the winning points. Brandon Marshall had the monster game, with 18 catches for 166 yards and a score. I expect Marshall to do quite well this week, but Jay Cutler will be throwing so much that Royal will get into double digits as well. I just trust Morris a bit more.
Maurice Jones-Drew versus Dwayne Bowe: The reason Jones-Drew owners are going to be cautious this week has little to do with his recent play, but rather the fact the Baltimore Ravens are going to be playing to win. That's a terrific defense. It is possible the Ravens will have clinched the playoff spot before they take the field, though. None of this matters to me. Even top defenses give up the occasional rushing touchdown, and Jones-Drew has been on such a roll -- rushing and receiving -- that I'd still use him. David Garrard doesn't just hand off to Jones-Drew, but MJD has been one of his top receivers as well. Bowe gets targeted more by Tyler Thigpen, and he's not a bad choice at all against the Bengals, but note Cincinnati has played a bit better the past few weeks, allowing only one touchdown. Sure, the Browns haven't been scoring on anyone, but I don't think the Chiefs are going to score 35, either. Look for Cedric Benson and Larry Johnson to control the ball, which could hamper Bowe from having the big game many expect. Bowe has topped 11 fantasy points just once all season.
Donald Driver versus Chris Johnson: Here are two teams that have nothing to play for, but are approaching things a whole lot differently. Driver has actually been consistent the past month, reaching 60 or more yards each game, and the first time he played the Lions, he scored a touchdown as the Packers put up 48 points. Aaron Rodgers has a shot to become fantasy's top player, and surely the Lions aren't going to put up much resistance. I give Driver a decent shot to score. I don't think the same goes for hotshot rookie Johnson. The Titans don't need to use him, and while I do think he'll get some run, along with LenDale White, I don't see the Colts getting lit up on the ground, either. Sure, the Colts don't need the game, but these teams could meet again in a few weeks. Look for Ahmard Hall and Chad Simpson to do most of the dirty work in the second half, but I wouldn't play them, either.
Steve Breaston versus Ronnie Brown: The Cardinals went in the tank a month ago, playing only one decent game since Thanksgiving, and it's hard to tell how much we'll see Kurt Warner this Sunday. I think he'll play, but even if it's a lot of Matt Leinart in the second half against Seattle, Breaston has a shot for a pretty big game. He's been a solid third receiver for this team, and while Anquan Boldin is listed, as of this writing, to be probable, I'm betting he probably plays only a bit. I see Breaston having one of his more productive games; he just missed my top 20 for wide receivers. He gets the nod over Miami's Brown because, even though the Dolphins need this game, they've needed them the past six weeks and Ricky Williams has either been getting more touches, or just as many. Brown did next to nothing in Week 1 against the Jets, getting four fantasy points, and he's managed to score just once since Week 10. Williams scored in Week 16, but don't get the idea he's a good play, either. Other than this past week, the Dolphins haven't been scoring much. That should continue.
Tashard Choice versus Devin Hester: The Cowboys caught a break when the other NFC wild-card contenders folded in Week 16. Marion Barber carried two times for zero yards against the Ravens, but don't you think he's going to get a lot more chances against the Eagles? It's a division game, against a strong but not Ravens-strong defense, and the Cowboys have to win it. Despite convincing myself Barber will get double-digit carries and ranking him as if he'll score, I think Choice is going to put up some numbers as well. He has scored three straight weeks while Barber wasn't doing anything, but this time I see both Dallas backs being productive. I think there's a better shot Choice does something and therefore makes for a more-worthy flex choice than Hester. I don't get why Hester is so in demand. The Bears should be able to score points at Houston, but Hester has scored once since Week 3, and it's not like he's getting 80 yards per week. He's done it twice. I'll take Choice, especially if Barber keeps limping around.
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.
Eric Karabell ranks the 100 best flex options for Week 17.