Late-season lineup gamble could yield playoff jackpot

ON FANTASY SPORTS

Commentary

December 08, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

Playoff time is nigh.

The head-to-head format favored by most football leagues creates tremendous excitement in the final weeks.

Dominant teams can't run away and hide like they do in fantasy baseball, where many leagues are decided by cumulative stats. And those teams that just slide into the playoffs, well, they have as good a shot as anyone if they're surging at the right time.

On the downside, you may have built a tremendous squad, one that was clearly the best over the course of the season. But if you have your one hiccup during Week 16, it all goes down the toilet.

Worse, real teams often rest star players down the stretch as they prepare for the playoffs. That means your Edgerrin James or Shaun Alexander may not be at his peak when you need him most.

So fantasy football can be a terrifically frustrating enterprise ... just like real football.

The playoffs often come down to chance, but there are ways to maximize your team's performance in crucial games. If you're ever going to be obsessed with matchups in real football, these are the weeks.

My first instinct is to stick with the horses that brought me and that's generally correct, but a few well-placed lineup gambles can pay off. I was emailing with my buddy Dan about this the other day. He benched his season-long quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, for last year's championship game. And Houston backup Billy Volek passed him to victory.

Don't be afraid to take risks like that if the matchups seem right.

Atlanta's rushing defense, for example, presents a ripe target. Third-tier backs like Samkon Gado and DeShaun Foster have ripped the Falcons to shreds in recent weeks. So if you have Chicago's Thomas Jones in Week 15 or Tampa Bay's Carnell Williams in Week 16, start them and enjoy the show.

Foster is a player whose stock is rising because of coming matchups. He's staved off Stephen Davis to become Carolina's starter and will have juicy opportunities against New Orleans and the Falcons.

You might not start Jacksonville's Greg Jones most Sundays, but he'll be facing the league's worst run defense, Houston, in Week 16, so give him a look. Same goes for Curtis Martin in Week 17 against Buffalo. Martin might be near the end of the line, but his one big game of the year, 18 carries for 148 yards, came against the Bills.

Among passers, look for Eli Manning in Week 15 against the Chiefs and Drew Bledsoe in Week 17 against the Rams.

Steer clear of backs who share time. In Denver, Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson made great early-season gambles because it seemed either could excel if coach Mike Shanahan made a choice. But he hasn't, which is fine for his team but bad for yours. Anderson gave nice production last week because of a 66-yard touchdown reception, but you can't count on those week to week, and he carried the ball only 13 times.

You also want to watch out for meaningless games. Once teams have clinched playoff berths and home-field advantage, they may not play their stars more than a few series. The Colts are the most obvious example. They may clinch home field this weekend, and if last season is any indication, Tony Dungy will rest his starters the last few weeks.

You'll want to watch news reports closely for indications of what he might do (don't worry, there will be plenty if the Colts remain undefeated), but if you have reasonable alternatives to Colts stars, be prepared to use them.

Watch for similar scenarios in Seattle, Denver and Cincinnati, though all those teams probably will be playing for something through Week 16.

The final rule, one I'd emphasize above everything else, is: Don't get crazy. In most cases, talent transcends.

Here are a few guys who should start unless catastrophically injured: LaDainian Tomlinson, Alexander, Carson Palmer, Larry Johnson, Tiki Barber and Rudi Johnson.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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