A fascinating dilemma is facing some fantasy owners this week.
Whom can you trust?
Those who own Indianapolis Colts and are in their league’s championship game this week have to determine if Colts coach Tony Dungy is being on the up-and-up when he indicates his regulars will play as usual and that his team will go all-out to win Sunday’s home game against Houston.
I mean, let’s look at this scenario objectively: The Colts are locked in as the No. 2 seed for the upcoming AFC playoffs. They can’t fall below second, and they can’t overtake New England for the top spot. It’s a done deal.
There are two weeks remaining in the NFL regular season. So why in the name of Jeff George would you risk injury to any of your marquee guys in a totally meaningless game? You can’t even argue that the game has meaning for the Texans, because it doesn’t. They were officially eliminated from postseason contention Sunday when Cleveland beat Buffalo.
Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark… these players are crucial to the Colts’ hopes of defending their Super Bowl title. Does it make sense to risk injury to any of them when there’s literally nothing to gain? No way. Plus, the Colts have another regular season game remaining to give these players a little work so they don’t go stale between now and their divisional playoff contest in three weeks.
All that said, I sure hope Dungy is a man of his word. Manning and Wayne are both key guys on my primary fantasy team attempting to capture its fifth crown in seven years. Who is my alternative at QB? Jeff Garcia…
… Or Jim Sorgi. Please, Coach, don’t be messin’ with us.
2007 Picks Record Straight-up: 145-79 (65 percent)
2007 Picks Record Against-The-Spread: 109-106-9 (51 percent)
Last Week: 11-5 SU, 10-6 ATS
Here’s how I see Week 16:
PITTSBURGH (9-5) at ST. LOUIS (3-11)
Thursday, Dec. 20, 5 p.m. PT
Line: Steelers favored by 7½
Strongest Trends: The Steelers are 2-4 SU and ATS on the road this season. The home team has won seven of the last eight meetings.
Last Meeting: The Rams triumphed at Pittsburgh, 33-21, in 2003.
Steelers Status Report: Pittsburgh’s 29-22 loss to Jacksonville last week was its first at home this season, and its second defeat in a row. Pittsburgh is tied with Cleveland atop the AFC North, and hold the tiebreaker edge over the Browns.
Rams Status Report: St. Louis played tough into the third quarter at home against Green Bay Sunday before the Packers pulled away to win, 33-14. The Rams are last in the NFC West.
Fantasy Factors: Plenty of good matchups for the Steelers. You should feel good about starting all of their key personnel, and the defense as well. The Rams worth a start are QB Marc Bulger (in larger leagues), RB Stephen Jackson (because he’s elite), and WR Torry Holt (because he’s steady). That’s it.
Game Summary: A home underdog on national TV is always dangerous, and the Rams would make their otherwise dreary season with an upset of the Steelers. And if you consider Pittsburgh is coming in on a two-game losing streak, the time might be ripe for that upset. But the Steelers are superior on both sides of the ball, and need the victory desperately. Their two recent losses, against New England and Jacksonville, both came against elite clubs, which the Rams are not.
Prediction: STEELERS, 31-17
DALLAS (12-2) at CAROLINA (6-8)
Saturday, Dec. 22, 5 p.m. PT
Line: Cowboys favored by 10½
Strongest Trends: The Cowboys are unbeaten on the road, 4-2 ATS. Carolina is 2-5 at home, both SU and ATS. Dallas has won seven of the last eight meetings (6-2 ATS) including four of five at Carolina.
Last Meeting: Dallas romped at Carolina last season, 35-14.
Cowboys Status Report: The Cowboys are coming off a 10-6 home loss to Philadelphia that snapped a seven-game winning skein. They have already clinched the NFC East and a first-round playoff bye, and are tied with Green Bay for the conference’s best record. The Cowboys own the tiebreaker over the Packers.
Panthers Status Report: Carolina knocked off visiting Seattle on Sunday, 13-10. The Panthers, third in the NFC South, are still mathematically alive for a wild-card playoff berth but need a lot of help.
Fantasy Factors: Dallas QB Tony Romo’s thumb is still sore – he makes a riskier-than-usual start this week but if he’s your clear-cut No. 1 you probably have to stick with him. RB Marion Barber, TE Jason Witten and TE Terrell Owens are all obvious plays, even if veteran Brad Johnson ends up on the throwing end. I like the Cowboys defense/special teams as well. For Carolina, WR Steve Smith remains the Panthers’ only no-brainer play. If you’re hard-up for a back, either DeShaun Foster or DeAngelo Williams will probably get you something… just not a lot.
Game Summary: The Cowboys offense has been pouring it on with too much regularity this season to let one stinker of a game derail it. Give Philly credit for a great gameplan last week… and move on. The Panthers are better than their record – if QB Jake Delhomme hadn’t gotten hurt, I believe that team would be at least 8-6 rather than 6-8 – and their defense undoubtedly took a lot of notes on what the Eagles did last week. Dallas will likely avert another upset, but the game is likely to be competitive.
Prediction: COWBOYS, 23-14
NEW YORK GIANTS (9-5) at BUFFALO (7-7)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Giants favored by 3
Strongest Trends: The Giants are 5-1 ATS on the road this season, the Bills 6-1 ATS at home. The visiting team has won the last two meetings.
Last Meeting: Buffalo rolled at The Meadowlands, 24-7, in 2003.
Giants Status Report: New York was thoroughly outplayed at home Sunday night in a 22-10 loss to Washington. The Giants remain the leaders in the wild-card chase, by one game over Minnesota.
Bills Status Report: Buffalo was blanked in the frigid cold and snow at Cleveland Sunday, 8-0. The Bills, second in the AFC East, were eliminated from playoff contention with the loss.
Fantasy Factors: The weather will likely be nasty, which lowers expectations for all players. For the Giants, RB Brandon Jacobs is a good start as is WR Plaxico Burress and the Giants defense/special teams. For Buffalo, RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Lee Evans, and the Bills D/ST all make sound starts. Avoid both QBs.
Game Summary: My Upset Special. The Bills are a tough team against any winning foe not called the Patriots. Although eliminated from the playoff race, they will be motivated by the opportunity to finish the year with a winning record. In a game like this especially, the turnover battle is all the more crucial… and the Bills are at plus-7 for the year, the Giants at minus-8. QB Eli Manning will make one mistake too many for the G-Men. Buffalo QB Trent Edwards limits mistakes – that’s why he’s the guy there.
Prediction: BILLS, 16-13
CLEVELAND (9-5) at CINCINNATI (5-9)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Browns favored by 3
Strongest Trend: The Browns are 11-3 ATS overall this season, 5-2 on the road.
Last Meeting: Cleveland rallied for a wild 51-45 victory over the visiting Bengals in Week 2.
Browns Status Report: Cleveland shut out visiting Buffalo Sunday at home amid snow flurries, 8-0, and is tied with Pittsburgh for first in the AFC North.
Bengals Status Report: Cincinnati lost at San Francisco Saturday night, 20-13.
Fantasy Factors: The weather will almost definitely keep the score way down compared to that first meeting. For the Bengals, the primary offensive players are worth starts. Ditto for the Browns. Despite the likelihood of a lower-scoring game, fantasy owners have a hard time justifying any significant benchings.
Game Summary: The Bengals will be highly motivated here – arch-rival to whom they can put a serious dent regarding playoff hopes, while also salvaging something for themselves. Problem is, Cincinnati’s defense is really bad. I mean… Shaun Hill picked them apart last week. I like Derek Anderson’s chances at success this week, and the same for rejuvenated Jamal Lewis. Too much at stake here for Cleveland. Quite honestly, I question the Bengals’ team intelligence. They don’t play smart.
Prediction: BROWNS, 24-16
HOUSTON (7-7) at INDIANAPOLIS (12-2)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Colts favored by 7
Strongest Trend: In five previous meetings at Indy, the Colts won all five and none by fewer than nine points.
Last Meeting: Indy won, 30-24, at Houston in Week 3.
Texans Status Report: Houston whipped visiting Denver last Thursday night, 31-13, but has been ousted from the playoff chase.
Colts Status Report: Indianapolis rallied at Oakland Sunday for a 21-14 victory. The Colts are the South Division champs and No. 2 seed for the AFC playoffs.
Fantasy Factors: Difficult to recommend any Texans beyond WR Andre Johnson. QB Sage Rosenfels has played well, but this is a tough matchup for the offensive line even with Colts DE Dwight Freeney out for the season. For the Colts, refer to my lead… go ahead (gulp) and play the regulars, including the defense/special teams, unless something different breaks before kickoff.
Game Summary: If Dungy truly is committed to keeping his team on a roll, and is willing to risk injuries to do it, then there’s no reason to believe the Colts will do anything other than win handily against a team they’ve always dominated at home.
Prediction: COLTS, 28-16
OAKLAND (4-10) at JACKSONVILLE (10-4)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Jaguars favored by 13
Strongest Trend: All three previous meetings went under the points total, but all three were played at Oakland.
Last Meeting: The Jaguars prevailed at Oakland, 13-6, in the 2004 regular season finale.
Raiders Status Report: Oakland lost at home to Indianapolis last week, 21-14, and is tied with Kansas City for last in the AFC West.
Jaguars Status Report: Jacksonville went into Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers, 29-22, on Sunday. The Jaguars lead the wild-card race in the AFC by a game over Cleveland.
Fantasy Factors: Easy call. Bench all Raiders. Play QB David Garrard and the two stellar Jaguars RBs, Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. And by all means, utilize the Jaguars defense/special teams.
Game Summary: The only way this game won’t be a rout is if the Jaguars take the Raiders lightly… and Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio doesn’t strike me as the type of head coach who would tolerate such a mental letdown.
Prediction: JAGUARS, 24-3
KANSAS CITY (4-10) at DETROIT (6-8)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Lions favored by 4½
Strongest Trends: At home against losing teams this season, the Lions are unbeaten with an average winning margin of almost 23 points.
Last Meeting: The Chiefs won a laugher, 45-17, at Kansas City in 2003.
Chiefs Status Report: The Chiefs dropped their seventh straight Sunday, 26-17 at home to Tennessee. They are tied with Oakland at the bottom of the AFC West.
Lions Status Report: Detroit’s losing streak reached six with a lopsided 51-14 loss at San Diego Sunday. The Lions were officially eliminated from playoff contention when Minnesota won Monday night.
Fantasy Factors: TE Tony Gonzalez and WR Dwayne Bowe are decent upside starts. And RB Kolby Smith is an OK play for the Chiefs. For Detroit, QB Jon Kitna and WRs Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey are solid starts. WR Calvin Johnson would rank as a sleeper. RB Kevin Jones is riskier, but if you must…
Game Summary: We know this for sure – one of these teams will avoid having its skid extended. On paper, everything points to a big Lions win. Some frustrations will be cast Sunday.
Prediction: LIONS, 38-14
PHILADELPHIA (6-8) at NEW ORLEANS (7-7)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Saints favored by 3
Strongest Trends: These teams met at New Orleans twice last season – once during the regular season and again in the NFC Divisional playoffs – and the Saints won both times by identical 27-24 scores.
Last Meeting: See above.
Eagles Status Report: Philadelphia stunned host Dallas Sunday, 10-6, to retain thin playoff hopes despite residing in the cellar of the NFC East.
Saints Status Report: New Orleans turned back visiting Arizona Sunday, 31-24. The Saints are second in the NFC South and trail Minnesota by a game for the second wild-card slot.
Fantasy Factors: RB Brian Westbrook is a great play as long as he feels well – check his health status. QB Donovan McNabb and WRs Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis are decent risk starts. For the Saints, QB Drew Brees and WR Marques Colston are easy calls. Check the status of RB Reggie Bush. If he doesn’t play, RB Aaron Stecker makes a pretty good start again. I also like under-rated WR David Patten.
Game Summary: Tough game, could go either way. But there’s a perception that the Eagles are snake-bitten at New Orleans, so I won’t buck that trend. The loser is out of the playoff chase.
Prediction: SAINTS, 27-24 (Okay, make it 28-24 so NO covers the spread)
GREEN BAY (12-2) at CHICAGO (5-9)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 10 a.m. PT
Line: Packers favored by 9
Strongest Trends: Green Bay is 6-1 SU and ATS on the road this season. The Bears are 2-4 and 1-5 at home. The road team has won six of the last seven meetings.
Last Meeting: Chicago shocked the Packers at home before a national TV audience, 27-20, back in October.
Bears Status Report: Chicago lost at Minnesota Monday night, 20-13, and is last in the NFC North as well as officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Packers Status Report: Green Bay pulled away for a 33-14 victory at St. Louis Sunday and the NFC North champs are tied with Dallas for the conference’s best record.
Fantasy Factors: QB Brett Favre is a medium start this week – he remains an elite quarterback but the weather could limit his production to some degree (pun intended). RB Ryan Grant is a go, as are WRs Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, and TE Donald Lee. The Packers defense remains a stellar play. Bench any Bears except perhaps taking a flyer on WR Bernard Berrian, and go with the Chicago defense/special teams because of Devin Hester – opponents are still kicking to him at least occasionally.
Game Summary: Brett Favre vs. Kyle Orton. Hmm... Yeah, I know this is a division rivalry game and the Bears won the first meeting. That’s all the more reason to like Green Bay this time. Still, home divisional underdogs of more than a TD cover about 70 percent of the time, so I have to take Chicago to keep it reasonable under possibly blustery conditions.
Prediction: PACKERS, 17-10
ATLANTA (3-11) at ARIZONA (6-8)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 1:05 p.m. PT
Line: Cardinals favored by 10
Strongest Trends: The home team has won six of the last seven meetings, but is only 4-3 ATS. Atlanta is 1-6 SU on the road this season, but 4-3 ATS. The Cardinals are 4-2 ATS at home, SU and ATS.
Last Meeting: Atlanta rolled at home, 32-10, last season.
Falcons Status Report: Atlanta was routed at Tampa Bay last week, 37-3, and has lost five in a row and eight of 10.
Cardinals Status Report: Arizona lost at New Orleans, 31-24, and was ousted from the playoff chase.
Fantasy Factors: RB Warrick Dunn is an OK play, WR Roddy White and TE Alge Crumpler make fair starts as well. For Arizona, all the key offensive players are a go and you can even play the Cardinals defense/special teams if you feel the need.
Game Summary: I get the distinct impression that Atlanta, minus its gutless former coach and clueless QB, is just mailing it in for the balance of the season. The Cardinals would still like to avert a losing season.
Prediction: CARDINALS, 35-13
TAMPA BAY (9-5) at SAN FRANCISCO (4-10)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 1:05 p.m. PT
Line: Buccaneers favored by 7
Strongest Trend: The home team has dominated this series, winning five in a row and seven of eight.
Last Meeting: The 49ers won at home, 15-10, in 2005.
Buccaneers Status Report: Tampa Bay romped at Atlanta Sunday, 37-3, and has clinched the NFC South title.
49ers Status Report: San Francisco knocked off visiting Cincinnati, 20-13, last Thursday night. The 49ers are third in the NFC West, a game ahead of the Rams.
Fantasy Factors: QB Jeff Garcia and WR Joey Galloway are moderate starts at best, as is RB Earnest Graham, because San Francisco typically plays respectable defense at home. For the 49ers, you have to go with RB Frank Gore and a sleeper start is WR Darrell Jackson, who seems to have a “connection” with QB Shaun Hill. I can’t recommend Hill, however, because the Bucs pass defense and rush are too good.
Game Summary: Tampa Bay has to be careful that this doesn’t become a trap game – the 49ers looked like a legit team against Cincinnati last week. Oh… wait… that was Cincinnati? Never mind. Bucs will do enough to take care of business.
Prediction: BUCCANEERS, 20-10
MIAMI (1-13) at NEW ENGLAND (14-0)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 1:15 p.m. PT
Line: Patriots favored by 22
Strongest Trends: See the W-L records.
Last Meeting: New England won at Miami, 49-28, in October.
Dolphins Status Report: Miami got off the schneid, beating visiting Baltimore in OT last week, 22-16, for its first victory.
Patriots Status Report: New England downed the visiting Jets in miserable conditions, 20-10, to remain unbeaten and clinch homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Fantasy Factors: Even if the weather is nasty again, you treat this game as if it’s not a factor. That means sit all Dolphins, start all prominent Patriots. Check the health of both New England tight ends before committing to either Ben Watson or Kyle Brady (consider starting only if Watson is out).
Game Summary: An upset pick here is very tempting… uh huh, and Cleo Lemon will be mistaken for Tom Brady at a local bar after the game.
Prediction: PATRIOTS, 38-3
NEW YORK JETS (3-11) at TENNESSEE (8-6)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 1:15 p.m. PT
Line: Titans favored by 8½
Strongest Trends: The Jets have won and covered ATS each of the last three meetings.
Last Meeting: The Jets won at Tennessee, 23-16, in the 2006 season opener.
Jets Status Report: New York avoided embarrassing itself in a 20-10 loss at New England Sunday, yielding only 13 points to the Patriots’ juggernaut offense while aided by high winds and freezing rain.
Titans Status Report: Tennessee scored a 26-17 victory at Kansas City to remain one game out of the final playoff berth in the AFC.
Fantasy Factors: No Jets to recommend – QB Chad Pennington is starting for the Jets but he would be a poor play against the Titans. RB Thomas Jones is a start only if you’re desperate. For the Titans, RB Lendale White is the only no-brainer although it’d be tough to avoid using the Titans defense/special teams as well. Utilize the Tennessee passing game at your own risk.
Game Summary: The Jets will not roll over in this one, and the Titans aren’t doing a lot to impress me offensively. And they allowed 17 points to Kansas City, not exactly dominant. Jets keep it close.
Prediction: TITANS, 24-17
BALTIMORE (4-10) at SEATTLE (9-5)
Sunday, Dec. 16, 1:15 p.m. PT
Line: Seahawks favored by 10
Strongest Trend: The Ravens are 0-7 ATS on the road this season.
Last Meeting: The Ravens won a shootout at home in 2003, 44-41.
Ravens Status Report: Baltimore became the first team this season to lose to Miami, dropping a 22-16 overtime decision on the road Sunday. The Ravens are last in the AFC North.
Seahawks Status Report: Seattle got trapped at Carolina last weekend and lost, 13-10, but has already clinched the NFC West crown.
Fantasy Factors: RB Willis McGahee and WR Derrick Mason are the only Ravens worth considering. For Seattle, avoid the running game and focus on QB Matt Hasselbeck and WRs Deion Branch and Bobby Engram. The Seahawks defense is a great start this week.
Game Summary: This one will be ugly. The Ravens have thrown in the towel, undoubtedly, after what happened last week. I don’t care how loud LB Ray Lewis yells during warm-ups.
Prediction: SEAHAWKS, 42-10
WASHINGTON (7-7) at MINNESOTA (8-6)
Sunday, Dec. 23, 5:15 p.m. PT
Line: Vikings favored by 6½
Strongest Trend: none.
Last Meeting: Minnesota prevailed at Washington, 19-16, early in 2006.
Redskins Status Report: Washington rolled to a 22-10 upset victory over the New York Giants on the road last Sunday night. The Redskins trail the Vikings by a game for the final NFC playoff berth.
Vikings Status Report: Minnesota won at home against Chicago Monday night, 20-13.
Fantasy Factors: Defenses are likely to rule the evening. For Washington, the matchup for RB Clinton Portis stinks – Minnesota is No. 1 against the rush. WRs Santana Moss and Antuan Randle El are hit-and-miss. QB Todd Collins is unpredictable. The only relatively safe start for the Redskins is tight end Chris Cooley. For Minnesota, RB Adrian Peterson appears back in form… but will a one-dimensional attack be enough? The Redskins rank in the upper third in run defense. Speaking of which, both defenses are decent plays (especially Minnesota’s).
Game Summary: With a wild-card playoff berth potentially on the line, this game figures to go to the wire. I have to give the host Vikings the edge, but not by a lot. If Washington can force QB Tavaris Jackson into mistakes, it can definitely pull off the upset.
Prediction: VIKINGS, 20-17
DENVER (6-8) at SAN DIEGO (9-5)
Monday, Dec. 24, 5:30 p.m. PT
Line: Chargers favored by 8½
Strongest Trends: San Diego is 6-1 ATS at home this season, Denver is 1-6 on the road. The Chargers have won the last three meetings all by more than a TD.
Last Meeting: The Chargers routed the Broncos at Denver, 41-3, in October.
Broncos Status Report: Denver is out of the playoff chase after its 31-13 loss at Houston last Thursday night.
Chargers Status Report: San Diego clinched the AFC West crown with a 51-14 rout of visiting Detroit Sunday.
Fantasy Factors: The Broncos RB situation remains confusing. Avoid if you can. QB Jay Cutler is too erratic. Avoid if you can. WR Brandon Marshall and TE Tony Scheffler are both solid starts. For the Chargers, they will almost certainly play this all-out to win – so go ahead with RB LaDainian Tomlinson and TE Antonio Gates. WR Chris Chambers has been coming on – he’s a good sleeper play and he’s due for a TD. The defense/special teams are also a good start.
Game Summary: Although the Chargers can finish no better than third in the AFC, the difference between third and fourth is significant because third means avoiding a trip to Foxborough, Mass. and a date with New England until the AFC Championship Game. Being seeded fourth likely would mean the Chargers would have to win at New England AND Indianapolis to get to the promised land. Also, they have owned this rivalry recently.
Prediction: CHARGERS, 34-20