I can't believe it, but we're headed into the first week of the fantasy football postseason.
Time flies, huh?
With the Wild Card weekend in fantasy football on the slate, now is the time to discuss some of the guidelines and rules to finding that ultimate level of success. With that in mind, here is a list of five crucial points that all owners should heed in their quest for a championship.
1. Stick with your studs.
We all know the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson and Randy Moss should always be active in fantasy lineups. But in an unpredictable season where unknowns have shined and injuries have mothballed a number of prominent athletes, a list of new names has been added to the expanded stud categories.
Tony Romo has developed into an absolute star between the white lines, and Derek Anderson has more fantasy points than even Manning after 13 weeks. Ben Roethlisberger has also emerged into a must-start, and Brett Favre (if he's 100 percent) has made a tremendous impact for fantasy football owners. While we all knew about the likes of Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Steven Jackson and Joseph Addai heading into the season, an extremely large percentage of the new names to develop into superstars are at the running back position.
Rookie standout Adrian Peterson has been better than advertised in Minnesota and is a must-start runner across the board. Earnest Graham became the starter in Tampa Bay after Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman both went down with injuries, and he's been an incredible find off the waiver wire. In fact, Graham has developed into a solid and reliable No. 2 fantasy runner.
Much like Graham, Justin Fargas has made a statistical statement as well. In fact, the Southern California product has outscored Westbrook, Addai and Jackson, to name a few, over the past two weeks. Another must-start runner is Jamal Lewis, who has been reborn in Cleveland and has a cake schedule in the fantasy football postseason.
Most of the big names at wide receiver and tight end remain the same, as Moss, Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez have met and exceeded expectations. But breakout athletes such as Braylon Edwards, Greg Jennings and Wes Welker have become valuable assets. The same can be said of Kellen Winslow and Dallas Clark, both of whom are on pace to have their best statistical seasons at the NFL level.
2. Play the best matchups.
As much as I'd love to have a crystal ball or an audience with Nostradamus, there's really one route to take in the examination of the matchups, and that's in the numbers. No one can predict a positive or negative outcome (I make selections based on hard facts), but it's still important to make educated guesses.
Once you've penciled in the stud players into your starting lineup, it's time to make the difficult decisions. But in the examination of the matchups, fantasy owners can make life a little easier on themselves. If you have to decide between two or more players with similar value, take the one whose matchup is easier on paper.
For example, if you're left to choose between Kurt Warner, who faces a weak Cincinnati pass defense, and Donovan McNabb, who faces a Tampa Bay defense that ranks in the top five against the pass, the choice is simple: Warner. Even if McNabb goes out and finishes with more fantasy points than Warner, the bottom line is that you still made the best choice.
Remember that we as fantasy owners can't control what happens on the field.
I'll continue to offer a list of the players with the best and worst matchups in Start 'Em & Sit 'Em through the final week of the regular season, and you can also find much useful information in Gil Brandt's Fantasy football matchups. But since all fantasy teams are so diverse, owners do have to take it upon themselves to do some research.
3. Utilize the waiver wire.
This season has been littered unseen studs and injuries, so the waiver wire has unearthed a ton of hidden jewels like Derek Anderson, Graham and Fargas (to name a few). That should be a lesson to fantasy football owners, as we've moved into the latter portion of the regular season and some players are bound to break down.
A perfect example of this came back in 2004, when Steve McNair was injured and was forced to miss the final five weeks. That created a chance for Billy Volek, who turned into Dan Marino during a three-week stretch that saw him throw for 1,187 yards and 11 touchdowns. His success led countless owners that were diligent on the waiver to an appearance or win in their league's championship.
Volek's success that season also proves that a player doesn't need to have name value to be a true fantasy football asset. And just for the record, Volek has thrown five touchdowns passes after that improbable three-week stint...in the past four seasons.
4. Handcuff your best backs.
This is part of Point No. 3, as owners need to use the waiver wire to add insurance for their top backs. If you're in a smaller league or have running back depth, then you can pass on this rule. After all, it doesn't make sense to add, say Correll Buckhalter for Brian Westbrook if you have Addai, Graham, Fargas and Kolby Smith behind him.
However, if you have a ho-hum backfield and can add a handcuff at the expense of a third quarterback or a second tight end, kicker and defense, it's well worth the move.
Some of the handcuff players that could still be on the waiver wire and are worth a look include Buckhalter (Westbrook), Ladell Betts (Clinton Portis), Reuben Droughns (Brandon Jaocbs), LaMont Jordan (Fargas), Kenton Keith (Addai), Michael Robinson (Frank Gore), Aaron Stecker (Reggie Bush), Michael Turner (Tomlinson), Kenny Watson (Rudi Johnson), Leon Washington (Thomas Jones) and DeAngelo Williams (DeShaun Foster).
Some readers have also asked me about handcuffing the top quarterbacks, like Matt Cassel for Brady or Brad Johnson for Romo, but I don't see the benefit in that with so many decent options available at the position. There are some leagues where David Garrard is still on the waiver wire, so I don't see why you'd want Cassel or Johnson.
5. Watch the weather forecasts.
If you saw the Monday night contest between Miami and Pittsburgh, you know that the weather can be an enormous factor in late November and the entire month of December. Rain, snow, wind and ice are all possible throughout the Northeast each week, so it's important to know the condistions and adjust your lineups and decisions accordingly.
Here's how to gauge the effect: Rain of course hurts quarterbacks and wide receivers but makes running backs more prominent in offenses. However, as Willie Parker showed us on Sunday night against Cincinnati, wet conditions make backs far more prone to fumbles. Quarterbacks can throw the football without issues in the snow, which we learned back in 2004 when Kerry Collins went for 339 yards and four touchdowns in Denver, so don't let the white stuff be a concern at that position.
Of course, poor weather can also help the value of defenses -- look at the Dolphins in Week 13 -- so even a mediocre fantasy unit can have added value in leagues that reward for points and yadage allowed.
Waiver wire focus
Gus Frerotte, QB, St. Louis: Frerotte threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Atlanta in Week 13 in the absence of Marc Bulger. With Bulger's status for next week in question, Frerotte is relevant based on a matchup in Cincinnati.
Justin Gage, WR, Tennessee: Gage caught five passes for 64 yards with one touchdown in Week 13, and he now has 318 yards and two scores in his past four starts. he is still a free agent in close to 80 percent of NFL.com leagues.
Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo: Jackson totaled 151 all-purpose yards in a win over Washington. He has a chance to start in Week 14 against a weak Miami defense, so Jackson could be the next backup runner to shine for fantasy owners.
Jerious Norwood, RB, Atlanta: Norwood saw more of a shared workload with Warrick Dunn in Week 13, which could mean he'll be a much greater part of the Falcons offense down the stretch. He's worth a roster spot in all formats.
Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota: Rice recorded 53 yards and one touchdown in a win over Detroit, and he now has a score in each of his past two contests. If you need a wide receiver, Rice is worth a flier in leagues with 12-plus teams.
Which quarterback should I start in Week 14: Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger? -- J. Dinkfelt, Pittsburgh, Pa.
M.F.: As good as Roethlieberger has been this season, I'd stick with Manning. He has seven touchdowns in his past two starts, and he should find continued success against a Baltimore defense that can be inconsistent at times against the pass.
M.F.: Houshmandzadeh is a must-start wideout, and it's hard not to start Marshall regardless of the opponent. Boldin would be the third option if he's available after an injured toe suffered in Week 13, otherwise take a chance on Bruce against a vulnerable Cincinnati pass defense.