The Great Fantasy Debate: Start or sit RBs Portis, Westbrook?

I need to start three running backs from Chris Johnson, Peyton Hillis, Michael Turner and Brian Westbrook. My gut is telling me to go with Hillis over Westbrook. What do you think? -- T. Cramer, Madison, Wis.

Michael Fabiano: Turner and Johnson are must-starts, so your decision boils down to Hillis and Westbrook. Based on the number of emails I've received on the topic, countless fantasy leaguers will have to decide between Hillis and either Westbrook or Clinton Portis this week. If your gut is telling you to start Hillis ahead of Westbrook, I think you should follow it. After all, Hillis has a great matchup against the Chiefs and their 31st-ranked run defense. He's also been a touchdown machine as the top runner in Denver. What's more, Westbrook is facing the Giants and their stout run defense at the Meadowlands. He also scored just five fantasy points against them back in Week 10.

Which quarterback should I start from Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub and Tyler Thigpen? -- J. Blair, Canada

2008 statistics:
Completions: 257

Attempts: 398

Passing yards: 2,784

TDs/INTs: 13/10

M.F.: Despite his struggles against the Steelers last week, I think Cassel is the best option of this trio. He'll head to Qwest Field to face the Seahawks, who rank dead last in the league against the pass. The one scenario that might make Thigpen the better option is the weather -- there's a 40 percent chance of rain in the Seattle area. So if the weather outside becomes frightful (and it will more often during the month of December), Cassel could be a bit less attractive in fantasy leagues.

Do I dare bench Tony Romo on the road against the Steelers in favor of Joe Flacco, who faces the Redskins at home? -- C. Miller, Tyler, Texas

M.F.: I have been very impressed with Flacco, who's scored multiple touchdowns in five of his last six games, but there's no way I'm starting him ahead of Romo. I know the matchup couldn't be worse, but you're talking about an elite fantasy quarterback. Romo has thrown for three touchdowns in six of his last eight starts. Overall, he's thrown 21 touchdown passes despite missing three games with an injured finger. It's also not impossible for an opposing quarterback to produce good numbers at Heinz Field -- Peyton Manning threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns there back in Week 10. In my humble opinion, Romo has just as much value as Manning in fantasy circles.

I'm in a flex league that starts one running back, one wide receiver and two other spots, either a running back or a wide receiver. I have Marion Barber, Lee Evans, Matt Forte, Santonio Holmes, Thomas Jones, Deuce McAllister, Willie Parker and Wes Welker. Who should I start? -- B. Sjolinder, Greensburg, Pa.

M.F.: Jones has become too valuable to reserve in the fantasy postseason, so start him at the running back position. At wide receiver, it's hard not to like Welker against a Seahawks defense that has allowed more receiving yards than any team in the NFL. Welker did take a monster hit against the Steelers, but he should start in Week 14. Finally, Forte and Evans should start ahead of Barber based on the matchups. Forte faces a Jaguars defense that allowed Steve Slaton to have a monster game on Monday night, while Evans battles a Dolphins defense that ranks 26th in pass defense. Barber faces a Steelers defense that ranks first in the league in total defense and run defense.

I need to start two running backs from Jamal Lewis, Le'Ron McClain and Clinton Portis. What do you think? -- J. Fisher

M.F.: McClain has seen more carries in recent weeks, but I don't think he's someone I'd start ahead of Lewis or Portis for one reason -- it's impossible to predict who will see the most work under coach John Harbaugh. McClain also has a tough matchup against the Redskins, who rank seventh in run defense. Lewis heads to Tennessee and will face the Titans, who rank 12th in run defense, but have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns. I wouldn't expect much from the veteran back, but at least he's guaranteed to see most of the carries. We all know the situation with Portis -- he's hurt, facing the Ravens and a huge risk this week. Still, he deserves to start ahead of McClain (and Lewis).

What is going on with Willis McGahee? Is he ever going to see another carry for the Ravens this season? Should I drop him for Peyton Hillis? -- G. Learner, Lancaster, Mich.

M.F.: I would release McGahee in favor of Hillis, who's become the featured back in Denver. In fact, coach Mike Shanahan said earlier this week that the team will now alter their offensive approach to fit Hillis' downhill running style. That's good news for his value down the stretch. As for McGahee, he's become invisible in the Ravens backfield in recent weeks. However, Harbaugh did tell the Baltimore Sun that the veteran back will be "a huge part of we're doing." I'd guess that the team has rested McGahee in an effort to have him back at full strength for the stretch run. So while I'd release him for Hillis, I wouldn't drop McGahee out of spite or impatience for a lesser player.

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Which quarterback should I start this week: Philip Rivers or Kurt Warner? - J. Collis

M.F.: Warner is the better option this week against his former team, the St. Louis Rams. In fact, there isn't a quarterback I would start ahead of Warner this week not named Drew Brees. As for Rivers, he has a tough matchup against the Raiders and their eighth-ranked pass defense. But if he does have one trend on his side, it's that most of the Thursday games have been shootouts. Outside of the Lions, who have a struggling offensive attack, home teams have averaged an impressive 34 points.

I benched DeAngelo Williams for LaDainian Tomlinson last week, and he scored four touchdowns! Now I have the same dilemma in Week 14 -- Tomlinson or Williams? L.T. seems to have a better matchup against Oakland. -- L. Pham, Minneapolis, Minn.

M.F.: Tomlinson has had great matchups in three of the last four weeks, but he's still averaged a mediocre 12 fantasy points on On the other hand, Williams has averaged 24 points in that time. Even against the Raiders, who field one of the league's worst run defenses, I don't trust Tomlinson and would bench him in favor of Williams. The Panthers running back has passed Tomlinson in terms of production and overall value. I think he should be active regardless of the opponent in most formats.

Hi Michael, should I bench Clinton Portis in favor of Larry Johnson this week? I plan to start Steve Slaton and one of these two backs. Thanks! -- T. Bruener, Homestead, Fla.

M.F.: I would start Johnson, who faces the Broncos and their 28th-ranked run defense, ahead of Portis. As I mentioned in a column earlier in the week, the decision to start or sit Portis against the Ravens is one that you have to be comfortable with because there is no right or wrong answer. If you prefer to stick with your studs or you have little backfield depth, I'd keep Portis active. But in this case, I would be more than comfortable starting Johnson ahead of the banged-up Redskins runner.

I'm in a 14-team keeper league and need to retain five players from Kevin Boss, Marques Colston, Chris Cooley, Jerricho Cotchery, Marshawn Lynch, Willis McGahee, Rashard Mendenhall, Tony Romo and DeAngelo Williams. Who should I keep? -- J. Chamorro, Nicaragua

M.F.: Wow, the first keeper league question for 2009! I'd retain Romo, Colston, Lynch, Mendenhall and Williams. I think Romo, Colston, Lynch and Williams speak for themselves, while Mendenhall's upside and long-term potential in Pittsburgh is hard to pass on.

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