Sometimes in fantasy football, a team catches fire at an absurdly auspicious moment, backs into the playoffs and ends up winning the whole thing. That scenario is a rarity however. Much more often than not, one of a small handful of high-caliber teams forges ahead in weeks 15-17 to take the crown. It usually takes more than deft drafting and lady luck to win a fantasy championship. The spoils go to those with the foresight to make fortuitous trades and bold moves.
If you are likely to make the playoffs, but unsure that you can win once you get there, you can afford to be opportunistic now, because there is not much for you to lose, and a lot to gain. You can set yourself up for some big point totals in the playoffs by deciding to jettison some players who may not give you the returns you’ll need at the appropriate time because of the unspoken star-sit rule. Conversely, you can acquire other players who should shine when you need it most because of schedules that are now in their favor.
If you have Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison or especially Edgerrin James on your squad you have probably been enjoying success this season. Despite that success, now is the time to jettison them – before your trade deadline kicks in. There has been a lot of talk about the possibility that Indianapolis will remain flawless and finish 16-0 in the regular season, with a chance to redefine perfection by surpassing the 17-0 mark of the 1972 Dolphins if they hit 19-0 by winning the Super Bowl. Notice I mention the prospect that they will remain unblemished. I think it is entirely possible that they can accomplish that goal. However, I don’t believe that they will.
The yearly reality in the NFL is that top teams give their star players fewer reps and series in the final weeks of the season, once the team has a playoff spot or home-field advantage wrapped up. Often, coaches decide to sideline the players entirely. That is what will happen with the Colts. They will probably beat the Titans next week, and the Jaguars the week after that, to stand at 13-0.
But by week 14, when the team plays San Diego, things will begin to get dicey. The Chargers will be desperate to win that game, and Indianapolis backups will be getting some more action, particularly at running back. If the Colts have locked up the playoff advantage by week 16, the Seattle game is one they may tank, not by choice but as a byproduct of necessity. For whatever it’s worth, coach Tony Dungy will not hesitate to pull his top players to preserve them for the playoffs. He has the Super Bowl as a goal – that’s it. If the team can win without its starters in the game all the time, that is topping on the cake. What is clear is that Dungy won’t want to risk injury, and the subsequent media criticism that would no doubt come with it, to his best players.
It may be a bit premature to recommend the same procedure with players from another team, as none other is truly close enough for us to be certain they will be able to sit players. Still, keep an eye on Denver and perhaps even Cincinnati in the AFC. The Broncos might provide more carries to Ron Dayne and Tatum Bell, keeping Mike Anderson fresh for the playoffs. The Bengals, should they beat the Steelers this weekend, will be two games up in that division, and have very capable backups in Jon Kitna and Chris Perry.
In the NFC, this process could play out in later weeks with Seattle, Chicago and Carolina. Though Shaun Alexander will be eager to go for the touchdown record and to win the rushing title after missing out on that by one yard last year, the team will want to limit him if they claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bears may give Adrian Peterson more carries in an attempt to keep Thomas Jones healthy, and Carolina will likely stick with DeShaun Foster over Stephen Davis, and hold back Steve Smith a bit should they beat Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans the next three weeks and be 11-3.
Players to trade for include those from teams desperate to make the playoffs, or those facing weak schedules in the season’s final three weeks. In the AFC, look to pick up players from San Diego, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, as two of these four likely won’t make the playoffs. Teams that have players to target in the NFC are Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New York and maybe Minnesota.
Three teams that face favorable schedules are Arizona, Miami and Jacksonville. Arizona plays the Texans, Eagles and Colts in weeks 15-17, respectively. While the Eagles can be a tough bunch, especially if they are still hoping for a playoff spot by then, the Texans and Colts will be pushovers, Houston because they are not a tough squad and Indianapolis because they will have the second team in by then. Besides, Warner and his two young wideouts have proven they can put up statistics on anyone.
Miami goes against the Jets, Titans and Patriots. The Jets and Titans can’t do much on defense this year, and the Patriots are susceptible to the pass. Chris Chambers, Randy McMichael or even one of the team’s runners will be gaining good yardage then.
Finally, Jacksonville faces the 49ers, Texans and Titans. Need I say more? Whoever will be playing for that team in those weeks stands to benefit. I don’t think David Garrard will implode, so you could see either Greg Jones or Fred Taylor, and Earnest Wilford, Matt Jones and possibly even Jimmy Smith excel then. The Jags will work hard to stay ahead in the playoff hunt.
Hire Joe Levit for corporate or client appreciation events at fantasyfootballspeaker.com. His fantasy football columns appear on SI.com and thehuddle.com. Joe, a PFWA and FSWA member, writes about the NFL for patriotsinsider.com and is a fantasy football analyst on radio. He is the creator of the Sleeper League and FF Hold ‘em League concepts.