Eric Mack
Thursday August 25th, 2011

You will spend countless hours this season agonizing over whom to start based on matchups. Frankly, it can be unnecessary minutiae. Most of the time you should just stick with the guys you drafted to carry you; just use matchups to break ties.

So, here is where you should actually agonize more over the schedule: before your draft. After all, if you pick the right players, you shouldn't want to bench them.

Everyone considering taking Jamaal Charles before the likes of contract-year star Adrian Peterson or 2010 breakthrough player of the year Arian Foster, you will want to read this. It might change your mind.

For those passing on the likes of the Ravens' Ray Rice or Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall because of their career-high carry totals last season -- not to mention the adding pounding of the postseason -- might want to change their tune. Those backs get some softies (when they are not facing each others defenses).

Heck, the schedule might make Rice or even Mendenhall better picks in the top half of Round 1 than the explosive Charles.

We break down the top five unfavorable and top five most favorable schedules going into this season. This can help you avoid players you like but might wind up sitting more often because of their matchup. You could be considering sitting Charles a lot in fantasy crunch time.

You might also find some hidden gems you might not have liked, but their schedule is just so intriguing. Hello, Felix Jones, Matt Hasselbeck and Kenny Britt. See below.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

They start promising with the Bills and Lions out of the gate, but fantasy crunch time is a going to make them a dud. From late November to late December, they face Pats, Steelers, Bears, Jets and Packers (weeks 12-15). That is a grind sure to frustrate you if you have Charles in the fantasy postseason. Those five teams are the best run-stuffing defenses in the NFL.

It is enough to drop Charles a few spots in your rankings.

Who to be wary of: RB Charles, RB Thomas Jones and QB Matt Cassel

2. Denver Broncos

Remember the late-season push Tim Tebow provided as a rookie? Forget about it this go around. Like the Chiefs, the Broncos face the third-toughest strength of schedule based on 2010 winning percentages (133-123, .520). And like the Chiefs, fantasy crunch time comes against the defensive stalwarts of the Jets, Chargers, Vikings, Bears and Pats in weeks 12-15. Ouch.

By the time the Broncos finally decide to bench (or trade) starter Kyle Orton, they are going to be facing the meat of their schedule with regard to opposing defenses. Tebow might be better off just sitting the whole year for fantasy owners.

Who to be wary of: RB Knowshon Moreno, QB Tim Tebow, QB Kyle Orton, WR Brandon Lloyd, RB Willis McGahee, K Ryan Succop, WR Eddie Royal and K Matt Prater

3. Washington Redskins

You shouldn't count on this offense providing you much this season, but you need to forget about it in the second half. The 'Skins already play in the rugged NFC East and crossover with the top-heavy AFC East, but their closing stretch comes against Jets, Pats, Giants, Vikings and Eagles in the final five weeks. That is a hellacious stretch through the most important weeks of the fantasy postseason.

Who to be wary of: QB John Beck, RB Tim Hightower, WR Santana Moss, TE Chris Cooley and K Graham Gano

4. New England Patriots

Their schedule is real soft in the beginning and end, but it is incredibly tough in the middle of the season with the Jets (twice) and NFC East crossover games with the Eagles and Giants. Why is that bad? Well, those are precisely the weeks when we face issues with byes. It makes roster flexibility tougher and forces you to start your marginal Pats in real tough matchups.

Who to be wary of: TE Chris Gronkowski, WR Deion Branch, RB Danny Woodhead, RB Stevan Ridley, RB Shane Vereen, D/ST Patriots (maybe)

5. New York Jets

The best news is they don't have to face their own defense, but they do have the Pats (twice) and then the Giants and Eagles in weeks 15 and 16. Like the Chiefs and Broncos, only the lowly Panthers (. 555) and Bills (. 535) have tougher strengths of schedule, according to last season's winning percentages.

Who to be wary of: QB Mark Sanchez, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, WR Santonio Holmes, WR Plaxico Burress and TE Dustin Keller

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

Usually Super Bowl losers deal with a hangover, but the Steelers face the sixth weakest strength of schedule (121-135, .473). It is even juicer in fantasy terms, because they face the awfully weak defenses in the Texans, Jags, Bengals (twice) and Browns (twice). They face only two decent defenses, too: the Ravens (twice) and Pats.

Who to be excited about: RB Mendenhall, QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Mike Wallace, D/ST Steelers, WR Hines Ward, WR Emmanuel Sanders, K Shaun Suisham, WR Jerricho Cotchery, TE Heath Miller and RB Isaac Redman

2. Baltimore Ravens

Sticking with the AFC North, especially since their crossover NFC opponents are the weaker ones out west: Yes, the division that gave us the only sub-. 500 playoff team ever. Sure, the Ravens face the Steelers (twice) and the Jets, but it is real smooth sailing otherwise. The Ravens' opponents were 117-139 (. 457) last season, second-weakest only to the Cardinals.

Who to be excited about: RB Rice, WR Anquan Boldin, QB Joe Flacco, WR Lee Evans, RB Ricky Williams, K Billy Cundiff and WR Torrey Smith

3. Tennessee Titans

Other than having to face the Ravens and Steelers in the first five weeks of the season, the Titans should have some smooth sailing thereafter. Heck, it might be enough to get you to draft holdout Chris Johnson in the top few picks -- at least pick him before Charles. Those defenses of the Colts, Texans and Jags in the AFC South are famously forgiving. And outside the division, they play last season's cellar dwellers of the AFC and the second-softest division of the NFC (the South).

Who to be excited about: RB Johnson, QB Hasselbeck, WR Britt, TE Jared Cook, RB Javon Ringer, K Rob Bironas and RB Jamie Harper

4. Dallas Cowboys

Big D stands for Big Disaster: If there is a silver lining from the disaster that was Dallas a year ago, it is the benefit of a softer schedule. They do open with the Jets, and have to face the Pats, Eagles (twice) and Giants (twice), but the 10 other weeks against patsies should more than make up the difference.

Who to be excited about: RB Jones, WR Dez Bryant, WR Miles Austin, TE Jason Witten, QB Tony Romo, D/ST Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray and K David Buehler

5. Green Bay Packers

How are both Super Bowl teams on this favorable schedules portion of these lists? Well, like the Steelers, the Packers benefit from not having to face their own stout defense. They manage to avoid the other elite defenses, too. They are also the only team in Las Vegas that isn't listed as an underdog in any of their 16 games going into the season. They should actually win their division this time (the Packers were the last wild card before going on to win the Super Bowl).

Who to be excited about: RB Ryan Grant, TE Jermichael Finley, QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Greg Jennings, WR Donald Driver, WR James Jones, K Mason Crosby, WR Jordy Nelson, RB James Starks and RB Alex Green

Eric Mack writes fantasy for and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his Fantasy Football Fast Forward. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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