Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New and Improved: Power Ranking Your Fantasy Options for Week 6

If all you’re looking for is another fantasy analyst’s set of position rankings, scroll down to the bottom of the page to see how I’m ranking the top 26 QB, 35 RB, 35 WR, and 20 TE for their Week 6 games.

However, if you’re looking for power rankings of the 32 NFL teams with advice on who to play this week as well as some occasionally humorous, usually statistical analysis, then boy do I have 7,000 words for you.

This whole power ranking your fantasy options thing was a concept I came up with last week, but it clearly wasn’t fully developed. There will probably still be some tweaks over the course of the remainder of the season, but my hope is that this will become a helpful weekly column for fantasy owners, people in pick’em pools, gamblers, and anyone who’s somehow still alive in a suicide pool.

So without further ado, here are the New and Improved Power Start/Sit Rankings If Gambling Were Legal

Suck for Luck Division
Miami, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Arizona, Seattle, Denver, Kansas City

Minnesota managed to creep out of this zone, but it’s good to know we still have one fourth of the league to bet against on a regular basis.

32. Miami Dolphins (0-4, @NYJ)

Prior to this season, I hadn’t played Madden since the year Michael Vick was on the cover, but in playing through a franchise on the latest edition with six friends over the past month and a half, I’ve been gradually reacquiring a feel for the game.

About a week ago, I played an exhibition game with one of the guys and we just picked teams at random which we thought would make for a reasonably fair battle. He chose the Redskins. I chose the Dolphins. Roughly 25 broken tackles, dropped passes, and other various WTF moments later, I came to the conclusion that it’s a miracle the Dolphins didn’t lose last week on their bye.

They’ve played a lot of close games against good teams, but that was when they had a somewhat respectable quarterback throwing the ball. They have absolutely nothing on offense anymore. I have Matt Moore as the worst QB option this week, and Brandon Marshall just barely cracks the top 30 for WR. If he suits up, Daniel Thomas (#20 RB) has shown enough in his two games to earn a spot start in a bye week against a well below average rush defense, but it’s saying something when an injury prone rookie is the Dolphin I’d feel most comfortable starting.

31. St. Louis Rams (0-4, @GB)

I expected the Rams to have a below average season (case in point: I had San Francisco winning the NFC West with an 8-8 record), but I can’t say I expected them to (likely) start the season 0-7, be the lowest scoring team in the league, and have the absolute worst offensive and defensive lines. This is a bad team that isn’t showing any signs of improving.

The good news, though, is that by playing for a bad team, Bradford should have ample opportunity to rack up garbage time fantasy points if and when he’s not being sacked 5 times per game. If there’s one negative thing to be said about the Packers, it’s that they don’t have the best pass D in the NFL, so Bradford might be worth a start in deeper leagues (I have him at #13 this week). I’ve got Steven Jackson at 18th among RB, so there’s an outside chance you’re in a situation where you could bench him; the Pack have the 3rd best rush defense, and the Rams haven’t exactly been blocking for Jackson since that 50 yard run he had in the first quarter of the first game of the season. I also have Sims-Walker at #21 for WR under the “Bradford has to throw to someone” theory, but there really aren’t any Rams that I would say are must starts or even good starts in a game they’ll probably lose by a score of 45-14.

30. Indianapolis Colts (0-5, @Cin)

In each of the past four weeks, the Colts played well enough to jump out to an early lead, only to blow each game in the 4th quarter. I’m not suggesting they’re tanking, but if you told me there was a team in the NFL that is intentionally losing games, the Colts would definitely be one of my first three guesses. They have more than enough talent to have won at least 2 games, and yet a winless Jim Caldwell will probably get a free pass for having to coach a Manning-less team.

In a week where only 26 teams are playing, I have Joseph Addai ranked 30th among running backs, which has nothing to do with his injury and everything to do with the Bengals’ excellent rush defense. Cincinnati also has a stellar pass defense, so I have Painter ranked as the 3rd worst fantasy QB option this week. Even with that in mind, Garcon (#23 WR) might be worthy of a start in deeper leagues, and maybe even Wayne (#29 WR) as well, since they’re the only two people that Painter seems to ever attempt to throw the ball to. As is the case with a lot of these bottom feeders, there’s not a single guy on the team that I think you have to play, but there are a pair of wide receivers that just might net you some points.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-4, @Pit)

Like a fine wine, The Jaguars’ week 1 win over a full-strength Titans team just gets more mesmerizing with age. Blaine Gabbert has somewhat admirably stepped into the starting QB role, but this is still hands down the worst past attack in the NFL; and the Jags defensive stats would be much worse if they didn’t have a monsoon as a 12th and 13th man against the Panthers in week 3. When weather permits, opponents have been moving the ball at will against this team, and I don’t see any reason for that to stop.

In addition to having the worst pass offense, Jacksonville is facing the #1 pass defense this week, so, uh, don’t start Gabbert (#25 QB). The only reason I have Mike Thomas (#26 WR) ranked in the top 35 is because he’s 6th in the NFL in targets, and convincingly 1st on the Jaguars in receptions and targets, so he should at least have a lot of chances to pick up some yards; even if each pass thrown his way has about a 20% chance of amounting to anything against the Steelers. Fortunately for MJD fantasy owners, the Steelers rush D has been nowhere near as good as its secondary, and he’s been borderline unstoppable against respectable rush defenses all season anyway, so Jones-Drew (#6 RB) is a must start in all formats.

28. Arizona Cardinals (1-4, BYE)
27. Seattle Seahawks (2-3, BYE)
26. Denver Broncos (1-4, BYE)
25. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3, BYE)

Of the 8 worst teams, there are 2 from the AFC South, 2 from the AFC West, and 3 from the NFC West. You have to feel good about San Francisco’s playoff odds when the 2nd best team in their division is the 6th worst team in the league.

Better than Advertised
Philadelphia, Minnesota, Carolina

24. Philadelphia Eagles (1-4, @Was)

I admittedly don’t know much about coaching progression, but I do know I wouldn’t take a guy who had been an offensive line coach for 18 of the past 21 years and suddenly decide to make him the defensive coordinator in a lockout shortened off-season. I feel like that’s the equivalent of taking a guy who’s been a really good waiter for the past decade and making him the head chef of your restaurant; and in the transition process, not only do you not give him any time for training in cooking or managing a kitchen, but you also saddle him with a brand new pastry chef (we’ll call him Nnamdi) who’s been baking the most delicious cakes in the country for the past 5 years, except cakes don’t fit in with the menu, so he’s asked to bake pies instead. I’m not quite saying that Juan Castillo should be fired, but whoever promoted him to Defensive Coordinator should be. And I’m not quite saying that all of the Eagles problems are to be blamed on the defense, but when you have the #8 pass offense and #1 rush offense, you should probably have a better record than 1-4.

As bad as the Eagles' season has been in the NFC standings, they’ve been an absolute delight for fantasy owners. LeSean McCoy (#4 RB) and DeSean Jackson (#7 WR) are must starts, and Vick (#6 QB) is just about a must start unless you paired him on draft day with Matt Stafford, at which point you could really flip a coin, and if you pick the wrong guy, wipe your tears with all your riches. I also think Jeremy Maclin (#15 WR) is a guy you can safely start in all formats, and in deeper leagues, Jason Avant (#32 WR) has seen his workload increase over each of the past 4 weeks; however it wouldn’t be surprising if he lost a lot of faith from his coaching staff and quarterback after a week in which he fumbled two balls (though one absurdly counted as an interception against Vick). Long story short: Against a Redskins defense that can’t possibly be as good as it has statistically been thus far, smoke ‘em if you got ’em.

23. Minnesota Vikings (1-4, @Chi)

Much like the Colts, the Vikings realistically should have a winning record if they could just figure out how to close out games. McNabb hasn’t done anything for the team, leading the Vikings to the 31st ranked pass offense (we’re about 2 weeks past the time to being pondering starting Ponder), but Peterson has them near the top of the league in rushing, and Jared Allen and company have the Vikings near the top of the rush defense standings. They’re winning the battle in the trenches, but when forced to rely on the pass or defend it, they have some major problems.

Fortunately, that makes things pretty simple from a fantasy perspective. You don’t want to start McNabb (#20 QB) unless you really have no other choice, but he does have a few receivers that could have some value this weekend. Percy Harvin (#20 WR) has about one week left to prove that he’s actually worth owning and, more importantly, starting. He’s a borderline play this week in 10 team standard leagues, and a guy you’re probably not too happy with having to start in anything deeper than that, but considering how many facets of the game he’s involved in, there’s always hope for a score. At tight end, Visanthe Shiancoe (#13 TE) had been getting more involved in Weeks 3 and 4 before becoming meaningless in a Week 5 game that took Peterson 10 minutes to score 3 touchdowns. The Bears allow more fantasy points to opposing tight ends than any other team, so if you don’t have one of those “elite” tight ends, Shiancoe should have value this weekend. By the way, Adrian Peterson is the #1 RB this weekend, so you might want to play him in any league formats that count rushing yards and touchdowns as positive points.

22. Carolina Panthers (1-4, @Atl)

The Panthers are an NFC South basement dwelling 1-4, but I’m fairly certain they’re 4-1 against the spread, and have emerged as the NFC equivalent of the Bills: a team that you simply can’t count out of any game, even though they’re likely to trail in most of them. Kind of sad that 1-4 is cause for optimism in Carolina, but as a fan of a team that is actually rooting for his team to lose (Suck for Luck!), these Panthers are my favorite team to watch right now, and I’d imagine I’m not alone.

The Newton/Smith (#5 QB/#5 WR) combo has rapidly evolved into one that needs to be started in all leagues (except for my main league, in which I have to make a tough call between Romo and Newton. I know. Boo hoo.) Even against a difficult Falcons rush defense, DeAngelo Williams (#16 RB) is worthy of a start, and you could certainly do worse with your flex spot than Jonathan Stewart (#28 RB). Last, but not least, Greg Olsen (#10 TE) should get some more red zone targets, setting him up with the chance to score for a 4th consecutive week.

Worse than Advertised
Cleveland, Cincinnati

21. Cleveland Browns (2-2, @Oak)
20. Cincinnati Bengals (3-2, vs. Ind)

I don’t think you can overstate how nice it must be to play in the AFC North this season. Sure, the Bengals and Browns have virtually no chance of beating out the Steelers or Ravens for a playoff spot, but they also don’t play a game against the Steelers or Ravens until later in the season (Week 10 for Cincinnati; week 13 for Cleveland), giving them each plenty of time to pad their records against the AFC South and NFC West. By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the AFC North may very well be a combined 27-13 and looking better from top to bottom than any other division, but I’m not buying into the hype.

Both teams from Ohio have an above average defense (significantly above average in Cincinnati’s case), but between the two teams, I’m seeing a maximum of 9 guys that you even want on your fantasy roster, and a considerably lower number that you ever want to play. They’re both going to play more than a few games in which the total combined score fails to reach 35, which is pretty much the complete opposite of what you’re hoping for from a fantasy perspective.

In Week 6, as is the case with most weeks for these teams, I’m not fond of either QB option. Colt McCoy (#22 QB) IS facing a Raiders team with a terrible pass defense, but the Browns have no receivers worth mentioning, and the Raiders’ rush D is equally bad, so if you’re insistent on playing a Brown, the only one you really want is Hillis (#14 RB). In a super deep league or a bye week catastrophe, you could talk me into Montario Hardesty (#31 RB) or Benjamin Watson (#18 TE), but that’s about it. I will say, though, that if you need any help at WR, I would absolutely pick up Greg Little (#35 WR) if he’s available in your league. The rookie’s role has been increasing, and he’s already becoming McCoy’s favorite target. Not sure I would take a chance on starting him this week if I didn’t have to, but he’s at the top of my list of WR that I’m stashing away for future value if I can afford the roster spot.

In Cincinnati, the story is only slightly different. You really don’t want to start Andy “The Red Rifle” Dalton (#21 QB) if you can help it, as the Bengals should be relying heavily on Cedric Benson (#11 RB, suspension pending) against the 2nd worst rush defense in the NFL. If you have AJ Green (#11 WR), you’re playing him, and you can do much worse than Jermaine Gresham (#14 TE), but I really don’t foresee the Bengals throwing the ball more than 25 times in this game. That should still amount to at least 8 targets for both Green and Gresham, which should be more than enough for each to do some fantasy damage, but not enough for Dalton to have a respectable fantasy day.

Six Teams for Two Playoff Spots
Chicago, New York Giants, Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Dallas

Barring significant developments in Philadelphia, either Dallas, New York, or Washington will win the NFC East, and the two teams who don’t will be joining Atlanta, Chicago, and Tampa Bay in the race for the wild card spot that hasn’t already been awarded to the NFC North runner-up. Game on.

19. Chicago Bears (2-3, vs. Min)

The jury is still out on the Bears. They’re 2-3, but those 3 losses have come at the hands of the 3 best teams in the NFC; and it’s not as if they were blown out of the water in any of those games. What we can say with certainty is that Matt Forte is on pace to break records for yards from scrimmage in a single season and for dollars per year when he becomes a free agent in the off-season, and that the Bears offensive line is about as disciplined as a 3 day old puppy; which makes the Forte stats even more impressive, dare I say, Barry Sanders-ish.

 Even against a talented Vikings rush defense, there’s no way you’re benching Matt Forte (#8 RB) this week, but he’s probably the only Bear that you need to play. If you’re in a pinch at QB or WR, Minnesota does have a sub-par pass defense, so you could take a gamble on Jay Cutler (#14 QB, and honestly, that’s how you should be forced to say his name on draft day: “with my 12th pick, I’m going to take a gamble on Jay Cutler”) or Johnny Knox (#24 WR). I’d even consider Kellen Davis (unranked TE) if you’re really desperate, because the Vikings haven’t exactly been shutting down opposing tight ends. I do think, though, that unless you’re in a 16 team league, you can probably find a better option than any Bear not named Forte, especially if you’re in a league that penalizes QBs for taking sacks.

18. New York Giants (3-2, vs. Buf)

For the Giants’ “intro,” I’m just going to copy and paste what I wrote about this team last week, because it hasn’t changed one bit:

“I refuse to believe that this team is any good. I watched their first 3 games of the season in their entirety (missed the 4th because I was in the casino for the 4:00 games this past Sunday), and there’s no way they should have won any of those games; let alone two of them. I feel like every single Eli TD has come on completely blown coverage or a circus catch. Bradshaw and Jacobs are combining for all of 87 rushing yards per game. Their defense just got shredded by a running back who wasn’t even expected to play until half an hour before the game started. Can you even name their starting tight end? Seriously, if you’re not from New Jersey and you can tell me who their tight end is without looking it up, I’ll send you $20. Aside from dumb luck against a cream puff schedule, what redeeming factor does this team have so far?”

So long as he keeps shoving horseshoes and rabbits’ feet up his ass every morning, Eli Manning (#8 QB) is a guy who’s always worthy of a start against anything other than a top ranked pass defense; and the Bills are far from a top ranked pass defense. As a result, you’ll also want to start Hakeem Nicks (#6 WR) and Victor Cruz (#13 WR), who have both been on fire the past 3 weeks. Between Nicks (17 receptions, 26 targets, 252 yards, 2 TD) and Cruz (17 receptions, 25 targets, 369 yards, 3 TD), Mario Manningham (6 receptions, 14 targets, 66 yards, 0 TD in past 2 weeks) has clearly dropped to #3 in the Giants pecking order, and has completely dropped out of my WR rankings. He’ll be back in the future, because a lot of that decision has to do with the fact that the Bills have the 29th ranked rush defense, and the Giants absolutely have to get Ahmad Bradshaw (#15 RB) involved, because they are becoming far too one-dimensional.

17. Washington Redskins (3-1, vs. Phi)

Aside from most of the people living around me in Northern Virginia, there aren’t too many people who believe in the Redskins’ 3-1 record. If they beat the Eagles this weekend, that might change, but it’s just hard to believe in a team that can’t even decide which QB or RB it believes in. They don’t have a QB controversy yet, but if Grossman struggles this weekend (which he should), there will be a whole slew of talking head debates over whether it’s time to see what John Beck can do.

I like to combine the names of guys in backfields by committee (see Ryke Mathbert in San Diego, JontAngelo Willart in Carolina, and Dexmas JoCluster in Kansas City), but I’ve never tried to cram three names into one. Until now. Troyman Hirainlu is the 8th best backfield in the NFL, but easily the biggest fantasy headache this season. The Eagles have a terrible rush defense, so a Redskin running back is bound to have a big day. If only we could figure out which one it will be. I’m taking a stand with Ryan Torain (#12 RB), and saying he’ll outperform his partners in crime, Tim Hightower (#29 RB) and Roy Helu (unranked). Will I be surprised if Helu gets the bulk of the carries? Nope. And that’s why I don’t own any Redskin running backs in any leagues; but if I had to have one, Torain would definitely be the guy.

Aside from whoever winds up being the top running back, there’s no other Redskin I would particularly want to start this week. Rex Grossman (#23 QB), Santana Moss (#25 WR), and Fred Davis (#19 TE) should all be benched against the 7th ranked pass defense, if possible.

16. Atlanta Falcons (2-3, vs. Car)

As was the case with the Giants, this is another NFC team that I had pegged perfectly last week. They’re not very good, their schedule isn’t getting any easier, but no one seems to be ready to admit it yet. They probably have 6 wins left on their schedule, but 8-8 is going to be at least a game or two short of playoff contention.

As far as fantasy is concerned, the Falcons are akin to the Eagles this week in the “use ‘em if you got ‘em” frame of mind. Matt Ryan (#12 QB) is a borderline starter against a middling Panthers pass D, but the rest of the primary guys are definite starts in all formats. Michael Turner (#7 RB) should have a field day against the Panthers 27th ranked rush defense; Roddy White (#9 WR) and Julio Jones (unranked due to injury) are rapidly becoming the best 1-2 punch at WR in the NFL; and Tony Gonzalez (#6 TE) has been having quite the renaissance season, as he’s on pace for 86 receptions, 925 yards, and 13 TD, which are numbers we really haven’t seen from him in his past 2 years with the Falcons. With all of those weapons, it’s mind boggling that Atlanta isn’t even scoring 21 points per game, but hopefully they’ll turn the corner a bit this week against a Panthers team that is allowing over 30 points per game in all games not played in a monsoon.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2, vs. NO)

When a team loses a game by 45 points, there’s not a whole lot to be said about the outlook for their season, because it’s going to be pretty bleak until we see if they’re able to bounce back in the following week. Overreactions aside, the Bucs are still a playoff caliber team that straight up didn’t show up in San Francisco. As long as they’re competitive at home against the Saints this weekend, I think people will start buying their stock again.

In light of last week’s blowout and the possibility of LeGarrette Blount missing the game this week, the Bucs were one of the hardest teams to individually rank. I’ve got Josh Freeman (#16 QB) right in the middle of the pack of guys that you probably don’t want to start, but ahead of the 8 or 9 guys that you definitely don’t want to start. Despite Freeman's average rank, the only Buccaneers' pass catcher that I ranked this week is Kellen Winslow (#11 TE). As evidenced in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Green Bay, when a quarterback spreads the ball around as much as Josh Freeman does, it’s difficult to rely on any one wide receiver to consistently have solid fantasy production, but it usually bodes well for the tight end who doesn’t need nearly as many receptions or yards as a wide receiver to be a fantasy asset. At running back, I’m operating under the assumption that Blount (#13 RB) will start and get the bulk of the carries against a very average Saints defense; but if he misses the game entirely, Earnest Graham would jump from unranked to #19 – right in between Green-Ellis and Daniel Thomas.

14. Dallas Cowboys (2-2, @NE)

Between a pair of 4th quarter collapses and 4th quarter comebacks, Dallas really could be anywhere on the spectrum between winless and undefeated, so 2-2 makes sense for them. They have one of the best pass attacks in the NFL, and also feature the #1 rush defense. As far as how I believe the rest of their season will shake out, it wouldn’t surprise me if this game against New England is the last time in the regular season that they’re an underdog. Of the remaining 11 games left on their schedule after this weekend, the only game against a team that I currently have ranked ahead of them is a home game against the Bills. If the Cowboys finish the season with a single digit number in the wins column, a lot of people need to be fired.

I’ll probably be all alone on this island, but I have Tony Romo ranked as the #1 fantasy QB this weekend. Call me crazy, but when you take the #3 pass offense, re-introduce its #1 receiver into the mix, and put it up against the last placed pass defense, it should do pretty well. Once you include the facts that Felix Jones (#23 RB) hasn’t exactly been a stud yet this season, and that New England’s rush defense is significantly better than its pass defense, it seemed like a no-brainer that Romo should be atop the QB rankings. Along with Romo, I’ve got Jason Witten (#1 TE), Miles Austin (#3 WR), and Dez Bryant (#12 WR) all as must start guys this weekend in a game that realistically could have 70 total points scored.

AFC Afterthoughts/Lurkers
New York Jets, Oakland

13. New York Jets (2-3, vs. Mia)
12. Oakland Raiders (3-2, vs. Cle)

After starting the season at completely opposite ends of the expectations spectrum, the Jets and Raiders have settled into the “Anything Could Happen” zone. If either of them played the Packers and won, I wouldn’t be completely shocked; if either of them played the Dolphins and lost, I wouldn’t be completely shocked either. They’re considerably better than half of the AFC, and considerably less talented than the other half, but they each have an aspect of their game (Darren McFadden / Jets defense) that they could ride to greatness and an aspect of their game (Raiders defense / Mark Sanchez) that could completely derail their season. One of them is going to flirt with grabbing a wild card spot, and the other is going to finish with 6 wins and wonder where it all went wrong. And no, I have no idea which one will do which, but if either of them loses the home game they should absolutely win this week, I’ll at least have a hypothesis.

Looking at this week, the Jets should be relying heavily upon Mark Sanchez (#11 QB) against the 31st ranked Dolphins pass defense, which should spell good games for Santonio Holmes (#16 WR), Plaxico Burress (#22 WR), and Dustin Keller (#7 TE). If they can’t get their pass attack into a good rhythm on Monday night, I have serious doubts they’ll ever figure it out. Meanwhile, in the ground and pound, we finally had a bit of a Shonn Greene (#24 RB) sighting last week against the Patriots, but I’m still not buying him as a guy you necessarily want in your starting line-up, even in a bye week.

On the flip side of this coin, the Raiders’ running back is virtually the only guy you want out of Oakland this week. Darren McFadden (#2 RB) has been everything I hoped for this season (still can’t believe I got him with the 20th overall pick in one of my leagues). He struggled this past week against a Texans rush defense that was better than most people realized (should change with the loss of Mario Williams), but I like Run DMC to get back on track in a big way against the Browns’ 25th ranked rush D. Even Michael Bush (#27 RB) is worthy of some consideration as a flex play this week. In the passing game, Jason Campbell (#19 QB) is likely to have a rough game against the 4th best pass defense, especially considering the best guy that he has to throw to (Darrius Heyward-Bey: #28 WR) was nothing more than a punch line until 2 weeks ago. If the Raiders are even going to catch a whiff of the playoffs, they absolutely have to win this game. Since they’re still the Raiders, that’s why they’ll find a way to lose it.

The New NFC Fan Favorite
11. San Francisco 49ers (4-1, @Det)

Fan favoritism in sports is kind of like a championship belt in wrestling: when you have the belt, you compete fairly often in matches where the belt isn’t on the line, but every now and then you go head-to-head with an up-and-coming contender in a winner-take-all brawl. Last week, in one of those battles where the belt was up for grabs, San Francisco beat Tampa Bay more convincingly than Dave Batista would beat Rey Mysterio Jr. if wrestling was actually real. I’ve never seen one bandwagon fill up so quickly at the expense of another in the process of crashing and burning.

Fortunately for the Intercontinental Champion San Francisco 49ers, their NFC fan favoritism belt will not be on the line this weekend against the World Heavyweight Champion Detroit Lions, and shouldn’t be marketable again until a month from now when they travel to the potentially NFC East leading Washington Redskins. Don’t get me wrong, the Niners/Lions should be a good game, but it’s not one that I think San Francisco can win. After all, they just put Josh Morgan on injured reserve, which leaves Michael Crabtree (unranked) as the only WR that Alex Smith (#18 QB) has targeted more than 3 times per game this season. I still like Vernon Davis (#8 TE) simply because he’s Vernon Davis, and I think Frank Gore (#10 RB) could put up some big numbers against the Lions, but that’s the end of the list of 49ers I’d be willing to start.

Still an AFC ClusterF*#%
Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Houston, Buffalo, Baltimore, San Diego

There was some shuffling from last week, including Pittsburgh jumping into the mix and New York falling out of it, but we still have 6 playoff caliber teams who are each a full step and a half behind the 4 best teams in the league, that are battling for the “other” 5 AFC playoff spots.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2, BYE)

After allowing Roethlisberger to throw for 5 TDs and a Mendenhall-less Steelers rush attack to tear them to shreds, the bye week couldn’t come at a better time for the Titans. One can only hope Chris Johnson will come out of it like a bat out of hell.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2, vs. Jac)

After a lackluster start to the season, the Super Bowl runners-up are back in the heart of the playoff race. As previously noted, the AFC North has the easiest schedule of any division this season, so despite wishes that they finish the season on an 11 game losing streak, I have a feeling the Steelers will still end up with at least an 11-5 record.

Operating under the assumption that he’s back at something resembling full strength, Rashard Mendenhall (#21 RB) should have a decent but not great game against a rush defense that has been holding everyone in check. Also under the assumption that they try to ease Mendenhall back into the role, Isaac Redman (#35 RB) might be worth a shot in really deep leagues.

I think the new rule of thumb with Ben Roethlisberger (#9 QB) is feel free to play him against teams with a below average pass rush, and Jacksonville fits that bill, with only 8 sacks thus far this season. When he has time to look downfield and let routes develop, Ben has been connecting frequently with Mike Wallace (#8 WR) and Antonio Brown (#31 WR), so they should serve as a #1 WR and Flex play, respectively. Also, Heath Miller (#20 TE) returned from the fantasy grave last weekend with a red zone TD, so he cracks the rankings this week as a suitable desperation play.

8. Houston Texans (3-2, @Bal)

Even without Andre Johnson, the Texans really should have improved to 4-1 last week. They outplayed the Raiders in virtually every facet of the game except for absurdly long field goal kicking. The ghost of Al Davis’ corpse just wouldn’t allow the Raiders to lose that game. And now the Texans have a pair of back-to-back road games against AFC contenders coming off of a bye. Everyone’s favorite AFC Sleeper pick might just be falling back to sleep in front of our eyes.

Despite throwing for over 400 yards last week, I don’t foresee Matt Schaub (#15 QB) having another great fantasy week, primarily because his two best targets are tight ends, and the Ravens have allowed fewer fantasy points to opposing tight ends than any other team. I still kind of like Owen Daniels (#9 TE) and even Joel Dreesen (#16 TE), but I’m certainly not expecting monster games from either of them. Hopefully, Arian Foster (#9 RB) will still have a big role in the passing game, because the Ravens have absolutely been shutting down their opponents’ rushing game. Still, there’s no way you’re benching Foster unless your roster is completely stacked at running back.

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1, @NYG)

I still find it hard to believe that they’re actually this good, but until they prove otherwise, I have to assume they’re for real. They’ve definitely reaped the benefits of a lot of timely turnovers (an NFL leading +11 in the give/take differential), they haven’t been committing stupid penalties, and they have the most efficient red zone offense in the NFL. The surprise about them isn’t so much the offensive production as it is the fact that they’ve been the most disciplined team in the league. Bills and Discipline don’t usually go together in sentences without the words “horrible”, “lack of”, or “need to show more”, but they’ve ridden a perfect storm to a 4-1 record.

Combine that efficient offense with the below average defense of the Giants, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have a Bill in the top 10 at QB, RB, and WR this week. Ryan Fitzpatrick (#10 QB) should connect with Stevie Johnson (#10 WR) and David Nelson (#27 WR) en route to another 200+ yard 2+ TD type of day. And when the Bills aren’t doing it through the air, look for Fred Jackson (#3 RB) to continue his reign of terror. Not only has he been rushing it as well as guys with such acronyms as AP, DMC, and MJD, but he’s been getting more and more involved in the passing game, and should continue to be a fantasy deity.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1, vs. Hou)

Much like Tennessee/Pittsburgh last week, this game should prove to be a real litmus test for both teams involved. Of course, it’s hard to obtain conclusive results from a litmus test with a variable like Joe Flacco (#17 QB). Through 4 weeks, his QB rating is 79.9, but has not been within 23 points of that average in any given week. And naturally, his best game came against the best passing defense in the league? There’s no rhyme or reason to the madness. A wiser man would know better than to gamble on any game involving Joe Flacco, but of course I jumped on the Texans +8 and immediately regret that decision.

At least most of the other aspects of the Ravens game have been more consistent. Ray Rice (#5 RB) has been and will continue to be one of the best PPR running backs in the league. Anquan Boldin (#14 WR) and Ed Dickson (#12 TE) both have the ability to make a play on any ball that Flacco actually throws within 5 yards of them, and I just have a gut feeling that Boldin is poised for a big game. If you’re really desperate for a guy with big play potential, there are worse home run options than Torrey Smith (#34 WR).

5. San Diego Chargers (4-1, BYE)

They still haven’t had one of their patented games which remind us that Philip Rivers is a great QB and that they’re a force to be reckoned with from the AFC West, but it had better come soon, because that schedule is about to get painfully difficult.

Looking Better Each Week
New Orleans, New England, Detroit, Green Bay

As the other playoff contenders beat each other up, these four teams just keep distancing themselves from the pack. The AFC is still anyone’s game, but if you think at this point in the season that anyone aside from the Saints, Lions, or Packers will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, you’re out of your mind. I mentioned this last week, but it really says something about the state of the NFL that between these 4 teams, I have 4 of the top 7 QBs, 3 of the top 4 WR, 4 of the top 5 TE, and nary a running back ranked in the top 16.

4. New Orleans Saints (4-1, @TB)

Whether they’re playing Tampa Bay, Green Bay, or the Bay of Bengal, the Saints have two guys you’re absolutely starting, 2 guys that you want to believe will have better days than they typically do, and about a half dozen guys that are as tempting to play and as likely to result in profit as $1 lottery scratchers. The Drew Brees (#2 QB) to Jimmy Graham (#2 TE) connection is on pace to absolutely shatter the previous record for receiving yards in a season by a tight end; in 1980, Kellen Winslow set the record with 1,290 receiving yards…Graham is on pace for 1,587. (Jason Witten is also on pace to shatter the record with 1,464 receiving yards.) If you have Darren Sproles (#17 RB) or Marques Colston (#17 WR), they should be suitable #2 options at their respective positions.

Beyond those 4 guys though, you’re really just grasping at straws. Pierre Thomas (#33 RB), Mark Ingram (#34 RB), and Robert Meachem (#33 WR) just barely made it into my rankings, and Lance Moore and Devery Henderson don’t crack the list at all. Inevitably, one of those 5 guys will have a big day, but Brees just spreads it around so much that I wouldn’t have enough faith in any of them to play them unless they were literally the only option I had.

3. New England Patriots (4-1, vs. Dal)

As previously mentioned in the Dallas section, this game could easily see 70 points scored between the two teams. Tom Brady (#3 QB), Wes Welker (#2 WR), and Aaron Hernandez (#3 TE) are all no-brainer starts if you have them, and in what should be a shootout, I’m rather fond of Deion Branch (#19 WR) and Rob Gronkowski (#15 TE) as well. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (#19 RB) cracks the top 20 among running backs solely based on the great game he had last week. I don’t think he’s a great option against the #1 rush defense, but I know I wouldn’t be able to bench someone who just had 136 rushing yards and 2 TD.

2. Detroit Lions (5-0, vs. SF)

Jahvid Best (#22 RB) had an amazing game on Monday night, but that’s the first time we’ve seen any life from him in his career, and I don’t suspect he’ll duplicate that effort against the league’s 4th best rush defense. With Matt Stafford (#4 QB) facing a poor 49ers secondary, I’d frankly be impressed if Best even had a dozen rushing attempts again; which isn’t an ideal number of touches for a guy who was averaging 3.2 YPC for his career a week ago. Obviously you’re playing Calvin Johnson (#1 WR), and unless you’ve got one of the top 4 guys, you’re rolling with Brandon Pettigrew (#5 TE) as well. If I ranked 40 guys, Titus Young and Nate Burleson would have made the list, so I think they’ve got some potential this week if you’re looking for a sleeper play or a deep league flex option.

1. Green Bay Packers (5-0, vs. StL)

If you’re ever going to have to face the guy in your league with Aaron Rodgers (#7 QB), I think this is the week to do it, because he’ll probably never be ranked this low again. This is hardly an endorsement for St. Louis’ pass defense, because I’m quite certain that Rodgers will be able to pick them to pieces when he wants to. Rather, this is an assumption that Green Bay will be playing with a lot of short fields, with the lead, against the worst rush defense in the NFL. If either I or Mike McCarthy could decide who the primary running back is for this team, I probably would have ranked him in the top 15. As it stands I gave the slightest of nods to James Starks (#25 RB) over Ryan Grant (#26 RB). As far as receiving options go, Greg Jennings (#4 WR) and Jermichael Finley (#4 TE) are bona fide #1 guys to have on your team at each position, and Jordy Nelson (#18 WR) is always a legitimate threat for a few catches and a deep touchdown.

If you’re miraculously still alive in a suicide pool and have the Packers, don’t be afraid to use them in light of the Giants blowing the obvious pick of the week last week. If you really want or need to venture elsewhere, though, here are your best choices:

5th best: Baltimore over Houston
4th best: New York Jets over Miami
3rd best: Cincinnati over Indianapolis
2nd best: Pittsburgh over Jacksonville
The best: Green Bay over St. Louis

If you’re looking for an upset pick on the money line, I nailed Oakland +200 last week, and think if you bet both Buffalo +155 and Dallas +240, you’re bound to at least hit one of them.

For any questions that the following rankings don’t clearly answer, reach out to me on twitter (@kerrancejames) and I’ll do my best to help you out.

Position Rankings:

Rank:    QB:                                     RB:                                  WR:                                  TE:
 1           T Romo                             A Peterson                       C Johnson                          J Witten
 2           D Brees                             D McFadden                    W Welker                         J Graham
 3           T Brady                             F Jackson                         M Austin                           A Hernandez
 4           M Stafford                         L McCoy                          G Jennings                         J Finley
 5           C Newton                          R Rice                              S Smith                             B Pettigrew
 6           M Vick                              M Jones-Drew                  H Nicks                             T Gonzalez
 7           A Rodgers                         M Turner                          D Jackson                         D Keller
 8           E Manning                         M Forte                            M Wallace                        V Davis
 9           B Roethlisberger                A Foster                           R White                            O Daniels
10          R Fitzpatrick                      F Gore                             S Johnson                          G Olsen
11          M Sanchez                        C Benson                         AJ Green                            K Winslow
12          M Ryan                             R Torain                           D Bryant                            E Dickson
13          S Bradford                         L Blount                            V Cruz                              V Shiancoe
14          J Cutler                             P Hillis                              A Boldin                            J Gresham
15          M Schaub                         A Bradshaw                      J Maclin                             R Gronkowski
16          J Freeman                         D Williams                        S Holmes                            J Dreesen
17          J Flacco                            D Sproles                          M Colston                          D Clark
18          A Smith                             S Jackson                         J Nelson                            B Watson
19          J Campbell                        BJ Green-Ellis                    D Branch                           F Davis
20          D McNabb                        D Thomas                           P Harvin                            H Miller
21          A Dalton                           R Mendenhall                     M Sims-Walker
22          C McCoy                          J Best                                P Burress
23          R Grossman                      F Jones                             P Garcon
24          C Painter                           S Greene                           J Knox
25          B Gabbert                         J Starks                             S Moss
26          M Moore                           R Grant                            M Thomas
27                                                   M Bush                             D Nelson
28                                                   J Stewart                           D Heyward-Bey
29                                                   T Hightower                      R Wayne
30                                                   J Addai                             B Marshall
31                                                   M Hardesty                       A Brown
32                                                   R Bush                              J Avant
33                                                   P Thomas                          R Meachem
34                                                   M Ingram                          T Smith
35                                                   I Redman                          G Little

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