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Fantasy & Reality: Five make-or-break lineup decisions

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Making the playoffs in a Fantasy Football league is an unrivaled joy. OK, maybe it's not as awesome as winning Powerball, having a child or even scoring free football tickets, but it's still pretty awesome. And there isn't a more important week than this one since for most of you it's the last week of the Fantasy regular season. Setting a good lineup is as vital as ever.

Earlier this week I asked my followers on Twitter to give me one name of a player who's causing some serious lineup headaches. Of the dozens of tweets I received, the following five names were the most received. After chewing up some film and crunching some numbers, here's my take on what to do with these five controversial Fantasy options.

Eli Manning, QB, Giants

Normally when a passer goes up against a defense ranked 30th in Fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, you start him with impunity. And that's what we did with Eli Manning when he played against the Redskins at home in Week 7. But Manning put up mediocre stats for the fifth consecutive time against Jim Haslett's Redskins defense. In those last five meetings with Washington Manning has maxed out at 15 Fantasy points and historically he's stunk against them, failing to throw multiple touchdowns in 15 of 16 career meetings!

That seems like a trend, and if that's the case then there's no way Fantasy owners should start him this week at those same Redskins ... right? After a review of three games -- Manning's win against the Redskins in Week 7, a loss at the Bengals in Week 10 and the win vs. the Packers in Week 12 -- I'm not so sure.

Manning didn't have that bad of a game against the Redskins the first time around, he just had one touchdown pass and it came late. But he almost had three. On two separate occasions Manning knifed into the Redskins red zone and completed passes on plays that ended near the goal line, not over it thanks to the Redskins' defensive principles given the short field (lots of defenders crowded the goal line). So the Giants ran the ball in both times taking touchdowns from Manning's stat sheet. On one drive the Giants tried a first-and-goal pass but it failed; the run came the next play. On another drive the Giants just punched it in on the ground and didn't bother trying to throw.

And it's not like the Redskins were playing stellar defense -- Washington's D was as bad as its stats suggest. Manning was fine throwing short with some mid-range stuff as the Redskins dropped safeties back to take away the big play. The drawback for the Redskins is that they couldn't put much pressure on Manning and that led to him completing his easy passes. When he did strike deep -- a 77-yard bomb to Victor Cruz in which he split defenders on a go route -- it counted big as it made the difference in the game, a Giants win.

Three weeks later, Manning tried the exact same play against the exact same coverage in Cincinnati but Cruz dropped the ball. It was one of the rare times in that game where Manning had a second to breathe in the pocket and fire off a long pass. Unlike the Redskins, the Bengals defense boasts a strong defensive line and pass rush and a smart, savvy secondary. That made the difference as Manning did not have a lot of time to throw and the Cincinnati defensive backs were able to contend with the New York receivers. It also didn't help that the Bengals' offense throttled the Giants and forced New York to become one-dimensional, making life easy for the Cincy D.

Last week Manning actually had a mediocre game as a passer but still had excellent stats versus Green Bay, who couldn't pressure him much. He has plenty of time to throw and accumulated 249 yards and three touchdowns, he barely completed half of his passes and left plenty of stats on the field. Nearly 25 percent of his yards came on a short screen pass to Ahmad Bradshaw that he took 59 yards to the Packers 2-yard line. Six of his other completions went over 15 yards but just two of those six traveled 20 yards. And he missed on some easy throws including two of three end-zone fade passes to Hakeem Nicks in single coverage against Packers cornerback Davon House (they picked on House all game and Nicks lined up on him a lot). About the only positives were that two of his three touchdowns were caught right at the end zone and got across the line. If that had happened against the Redskins in Week 7 I probably wouldn't be writing about Manning and you probably wouldn't be scared to start him.

So what about this week? Even though the Redskins' pass rush isn't anything special, the Giants' offensive line could be without a starter, maybe two, and hasn't been consistently strong to begin with. Probably not a major deal. But the Redskins secondary remains pretty poor and a unit Manning can take advantage of assuming he has time to throw. That's obviously good but the hunch is that many of those throws will be short and mid-range passes because of how the Redskins seem to play Manning (safeties deep to prevent the big play). That could mean a lot of first downs and a good amount of yardage, but what happens when he gets in the red zone and specifically inside the 10? That's the issue. Manning couldn't complete end zone fades last week and when he did connect on middle-of-the-field touchdowns they came against a Packers defense that didn't have quite the same principles as the Redskins. There's a chance the Giants might be more inclined to throw inside the 5 with Andre Brown not on the field but old coaching habits die hard and the team could opt for Bradshaw (or fullback Henry Hynoski) to carry the ball at the goal line.

But despite the concerns near the goal line and despite his history, I think he'll come out OK. And perhaps the biggest factor on how Manning will perform will be on the field when he's not: the Redskins offense. Washington's offense is in full-speed-ahead mode and should put some points on the board. If anything, it will force Manning to throw against a pass defense that can't handle even competent quarterbacks -- and Eli is more than competent. I wouldn't hold out hope for another big game like he had against the Packers, but if you're debating Manning between guys like Andrew Luck, Josh Freeman or Carson Palmer, you're probably safer going with the Giant.

Reggie Bush, RB, Dolphins

He might be universally owned but Fantasy owners have been hesitant to start Bush, really since he got benched against the Titans and laid an egg at Buffalo. But those who didn't start him last week -- and there were a lot of us -- missed his 82 total yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks. So now what?

First, the basics: Bush looks healthy and still has good acceleration. He displayed this the most on three edge runs last week, including one that went for a touchdown thanks to some shoddy Seattle tackling. He had two runs of over 20 yards, his first since Week 4. Between the tackles he wasn't nearly as effective, be it because he was dancing in the backfield or pushing for yardage behind his line, which didn't consistently pop holes open for him. But he has company in the Dolphins backfield in Daniel Thomas, who ran splendidly behind the offensive line and picked up a short-yardage touchdown last week, a role he won't lose. Thomas was every bit as nimble as Bush except he ran much better between the tackles and is a pro in zone running. Bush reminded me of Darren McFadden a little bit when it came to him running in the zone -- he didn't do as well over his last two games unless it was on those edges.

I could go on about the Dolphins' next opponent, the Patriots, and how the Jets gauged them between the tackles with the run last week, or how the Patriots have allowed 377 rush yards (5.1 yards per carry) to the Bills, Colts and Jets' running back tandems over the past three weeks. But the biggest factor facing Bush right now is Thomas' role and the team's decision to use two backs pretty much evenly. The snap count has been almost even over the past two games (since Bush's benching) at 56 for Bush and 61 for Thomas. And Bush hasn't had more than 14 carries in six straight games even though he averaged more than 4.1 yards per carry in four of those six (6.2 last week). When Bush played the Patriots last he totaled more than 130 yards but he wasn't sharing. The simple fact that he now is sharing takes the potential for a big game off the table. Now if he has a game like he did last week it's incredible. In fact, it was his first game with more than 12 Fantasy points since Week 2.

The Patriots' run defense isn't anything special, at least it hasn't been of late. Unless Bush can rack up more carries or break a few long runs, it's difficult to count on him to have a great game. This sounds like a cop-out but it really depends on your other running backs and their upside versus a player like Bush. There might be too much risk for not enough of a reward.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

There's nothing that says Fitzgerald is a bad receiver. However, there's something to be said for his quarterback and if it's Ryan Lindley then Fitzgerald's stats are in big trouble against the Jets. The Cardinals' game plan last week against the Rams reminded me of what they ran back when Kevin Kolb took over earlier this season -- a lot of short passes with designs on letting the receiver make the play after the catch. Lindley was good at that until the Rams started bringing a lot of blitzes and then he melted. The Jets can dial up their share of blitzes while keeping Fitzgerald under wraps with Antonio Cromartie and a safety behind them if they so choose. Lindley did throw to Fitzgerald when he was in single coverage but the passes were either way overthrown or way underthrown and subsequently picked off. There's a reason why this dude was the Cardinals' third string quarterback and with the Jets desperate for a home win, I can't see Arizona's offense snapping into shape with Lindley under center. Fitzgerald's stats are going to suffer.

Marcel Reece and Darren McFadden, RBs, Raiders

Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp announced this week Marcel Reece would remain the primary ball carrier for the Raiders as they ease Darren McFadden back into game shape. If you remember how poorly McFadden played before he got hurt and how effectively Reece played once he had an opportunity, it makes a lot of sense. The Browns' run defense stats aren't pretty but they held the Steelers to a collective 49 rush yards on 20 carries last week and the Cowboys to 53 rush yards on 19 carries the week before. Even with McFadden back the Raiders might not run any more than they have the past couple of weeks. Maybe the weather in Oakland this weekend forced the Raiders to run more than throw (we'll know more Sunday) but it's probably not a good idea to use either back unless your other options are really weak.

Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers

For Gates, I hit the vault and went back to a two-game stretch in 2009 where he caught 15 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs and Browns in consecutive weeks. Gates was smoother off of the snap, a smidge quicker and a heck of a lot more explosive than he is now. The guy we're talking about now has one 100-yard game in his last two seasons and this year has more than 50 yards receiving in just three games. Yet he plays just as much as he used to, he's just a little easier to defend. What also hurts his case is a Chargers offensive line that is as leaky as any in the league, and that puts a lot of pressure on Philip Rivers to throw efficiently under duress, which is not so easy. In those 2009 games he had a lot of time and made any throw he wanted. He can't do that now. If you read my notes on Eli Manning above you know what I think of the Bengals defense. With no more than five targets in each of his last five games and a Bengals secondary that has been OK against tight ends (and even contained Gates to 33 yards and a touchdown soon after he had those electric games back in 2009 -- the last time they played him), I wouldn't expect much from Gates. If you're starting him do it with limited expectations.

Some DST projecting

One of the secrets of loading up on Fantasy points is having a Defense/Special Teams that produces numbers. A lot of people don't see much science into picking a DST, either opting to play a "stud" DST (think Chicago, San Francisco or Denver) or playing the matchups by going with a team taking on a shoddy offense.

First, here's a look at the remaining schedules of the top DSTs left in Fantasy. Note that some of them don't have great schedules and that they're ranked in order of most favorable to least favorable.

Stud DSTs down the stretch
DST Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16 Week 17
Steelers @BAL SD @DAL CIN CLE
Bears SEA @MIN GB @ARI @DET
Broncos TB @OAK @BAL CLE KC
49ers @STL MIA @NE @SEA ARI
Patriots @MIA HOU SF @JAC MIA
Bengals @SD DAL @PHI @PIT BAL
Texans @TEN @NE IND MIN @IND
Seahawks @CHI ARI vsBUF SF STL

Not everyone can land a stud unit for the stretch run. In case you like to mix and match your DSTs, consider these choices (favorable matchups are in bold).

Mix-and-match DSTs down the stretch
DST Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16 Week 17
Bills JAC STL vsSEA @MIA NYJ
Dolphins NE @SF JAC BUF @NE
Jets ARI @JAC @TEN SD @BUF
Packers MIN DET @CHI TEN @MIN
Panthers @KC ATL @SD OAK @NO
Buccaneers @DEN PHI @NO STL @ATL

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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