By B.J. Rudell, Special to SI.com
Have you ever lost a playoff game because your supposedly elite quarterback tanked? It happens to even the best teams. That’s why it’s essential to be armed with a high-upside backup. Here are five guys you’re not hearing much about, but who could make waves in the season’s final few weeks.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston Texans
Fitzpatrick gets very little credit as a fantasy quarterback. He’s scored at least two touchdowns in five of his 10 starts this year, has thrown for at least 200 yards in five straight and often gets a handful of points running the ball. He also has a favorable schedule through the remainder of the regular season, with a game against the Colts and two versus the Jaguars. In addition, Houston has scored the NFL’s 13th most points, and when Fitzpatrick starts, the team has averaged more than 25 points per game.
What makes Fitz most dangerous going forward is the fact that he’s one of the only quarterbacks partnered with a top-five fantasy running back (Arian Foster) and a top-10 fantasy wide receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). He’s a good bet to post top 12 quarterback numbers the rest of the way.
Shaun Hill, St. Louis Rams
The Rams’ quarterback carousel made another turn three weeks ago when the Hill replaced rookie Austin Davis, who replaced Hill when the veteran got hurt in Week 1, who in turn replaced Sam Bradford when Bradford was lost for the season in August.
But the Rams’ season is not lost, as evidenced by last week’s 52-0 drubbing of the Raiders. While no game will be that easy for Hill and company, upcoming matchups against the Redskins and Giants bode well. Even after St. Louis lost its top wideout, Brian Quick a few weeks ago, WR Stedman Bailey has risen to the occasion in his last two games, racking up 189 yards and a score. WR Kenny Britt has been quiet, but is always a threat to bust out. And RB Tre Mason has finally given the Rams a legitimate ground game.
Hill is not a dazzler. But in two of his next three games, he’ll help plenty of people advance in the fantasy playoffs, posting top 14 quarterback stats.
Eli Manning, New York Giants
Manning has failed to reach double-digit fantasy production in 10 of his last 26 games. So how has he managed to be a top 14 fantasy quarterback this season, even after losing his top receiver, Victor Cruz? Look no further than WR Odell Backham, JR, who has established himself as one of the game’s elites in only eight contests. Stretched out over a full 12 games (he missed the season’s first four), Beckham would be the seventh highest scoring fantasy wide receiver. Few players are as important to their quarterback’s production as he is.
But Manning also has played a role in his own success. After accumulating an abysmal 29 turnovers last year, he has only 16 in 2014 -- not great, yet acceptable given the Giants’ remaining schedule, which includes upcoming games against Tennessee and Washington.
Never underestimate Eli’s ability to come undone during a game, but the odds are in his favor to produce 18+ points in three of his final four contests, making him a top 12 quarterback.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
How the mighty have fallen. Does anyone remember that Dalton was last year’s fifth highest scoring fantasy quarterback? This year he’s ranked No. 20, wedged between Fitzpatrick (who’s played two fewer games) and Brian Hoyer. How can anyone recommend Dalton?
If the passing game begins to click, the offense could be among the AFC’s top three. WR A.J. Green has gotten back on track after missing time earlier this season, and WR Mohammed Sanu has slowed after a very strong start, but is still a decent No. 2 option. It comes down to whether Dalton can rebound.
Week 10’s mysterious letdown aside (when he threw for only 86 yards while tossing three interceptions), Dalton still has the tools and weapons to score 17-plus fantasy points per game -- something he’s done five times this season after achieving the mark only seven times in a terrific 2013 season. With two games against Pittsburgh and a rematch versus Cleveland, Dalton will be a top 12 quarterback the rest of the way.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bortles is a longshot to be a QB1 in his last four games, but the rookie has been quietly improving. Consider that his TD:INT ratio in his first six contests was an anemic 6:12. In his last four games, it’s straightened out to 3:3 -- nothing to brag about, but also a promising turnaround for a first-year player.
While losing WR Allen Robinson didn’t help, WR Marqise Lee’s arrival came at just the right time. Alongside fellow wideouts Cecil Shorts and Allen Hurns, Lee should continue to help make Bortles look better. The return of TE Marcedes Lewis also will help; Lewis netted 106 yards and a touchdown in his first two games this year before getting hurt. He gives Bortles a veteran target who can help move the chains.
But what makes Bortles most interesting is his remaining schedule, which includes a game each against Tennessee (tied for seventh most passing touchdowns allowed) and Baltimore (most passing yards allowed), and two versus Houston (fifth most passing yards allowed). I believe we’ll see the best of Bortles in these four games, making him a strong option in two-quarterback leagues and a good bet for top 16 quarterback production.