The fantasy football season draws to a close, and with it comes the final installment of Fantasy Musings. It's been an interesting season, to say the least, and if your fantasy team is in the playoffs, it likely has a different cast than you'd have expected at the beginning of the year.
While fantasy is what we've been focused on for the last 16 weeks, the real playoffs hang in the balance as teams shuffle players in and out of their lineups. They operate much like fantasy managers do, looking for the winning combination that will push their team into the postseason.
The next two weeks will bring the playoff picture into focus, and my thoughts will likely meander between fantasy and reality as they often do this time of year. Meanwhile, please take some time to enjoy your family and friends during this holiday season as we feast on a buffet of football.
Philadelphia has traded places with Washington, which makes this week's game an interesting one to watch. The Redskins came of the gates out on fire, with Clinton Portis seemingly the darling of the fantasy world and Jason Campbell looking like a Giant-beater. After a 6-2 start, the Jim Zorn love-fest suddenly turned into an episode of Divorce Court. The Redskins have followed their fast start by losing five of their last six games, but until the loss last week to Cincinnati, the defeats came at the hands of quality teams such as Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas and the aforementioned Giants.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have played themselves into contention and need a loss by either Atlanta or Tampa Bay to move into a playoff spot. Saying they'll be motivated when they travel to FedEx Field to face the Redskins would be an understatement.
Will the Portis-led Redskins finally turn the tables on the suddenly-resurgent Eagles? The key here is the health of Brian Westbrook, who has battled various injuries all season. While he practiced this past week, he was limited. Westbrook has only had three 100-plus yard rushing games this season, and he was largely ineffective against the Browns last week after two straight 100 -yard efforts.
Speaking of Zorn, will the impetuous and impatient Daniel Snyder cut him loose this year? Even after losing five of his last six, I think it would be foolish for Snyder to pull an Al Davis. NFL teams need consistency from year-to-year to build a championship squad. Zorn needs to at least finish 8-8 to hold onto his job, and a win against Philadelphia would go a long way towards providing him some job security.
Who will win the Rookie of the Year award? There are a number of worthy candidates, but I've see it as a dead heat between the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Bears' Matt Forte. Only one will likely make the playoffs, and the odds tend to favor winners.
What will Chris Johnson do this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers? It's a selfish question, since I have him paired with Forte in one of my championship games, with FrankGore waiting in the wings as the dreaded "game-time decision." The Steelers have gutted their way to the top of the AFC with a smothering defense and just enough offensive production, often thanks to great field position provided by their tenacious defense. In fact, the Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rushing performance by any running back this season. However, the best performances have all come in the last three games, as Kevin Faulk (73), Tashard Choice (88), and Le'Ron McClain (87) have seen some late-season success. The defense can't carry them every game, and Johnson has the game-breaking speed that could provide the chink in Pittsburgh's armor.
Will Peyton Manning win the MVP? Many of you were upset with my early-season comments about the future Hall of Famer, but as I said in the preseason, his knee surgery and lack of playing time slowed his acclimation to the game. As he struggled early to catch up to his teammates, the Colts struggled to win games. As I said then, once he is healthy, the fortunes would turn. After starting out the season 3-4, the Colts have rattled off eight straight victories and locked down a postseason berth. Hopefully this is the championship week for your fantasy team if you are a Manning owner. You know Tony Dungy will rest his starters next week in a meaningless game against Tennessee, since Indy is locked into the fifth playoff spot.
In the competitive NFC South, the Carolina Panthers seemingly have the division locked up with a two-game lead over the Buccaneers and Falcons. But a trap awaits. This week they head into the Meadowlands and a fight for the top seed in the NFC, which guarantees home-field advantage for the winner throughout the playoffs. After being last year's version of road warriors, the defending champion New York Giants would like nothing better than to wipe the stigma of their recent struggles off the backs of the Panthers. Carolina finishes against the Saints, who will be looking to salvage some pride while playing spoiler.
The Buccaneers meanwhile control their destiny, but seem to have lost their GPS along the way. Frankly, I am amazed that they've held on this long with the injuries, especially the loss of Earnest Graham. The past two weeks, the stout defensive line suddenly became a sieve, something they need to plug this week when LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers pay homage to Raymond James Stadium and (hopefully) the beginning of the end of Norv Turner's reign as San Diego's head coach. He's been on my hot seat for so long that he can't have much fat left on his glutes. The Bucs get some good news, as it looks like the twin anchors of the defensive line, Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye, will play this week. Who will start at quarterback, on the other hand, is anyone's guess.
In Chicago, the Bears faithful can see that their season lays on the point of a finely-honed blade. Chicago needs the Vikings to lose out against the Falcons and the Giants, which is a distinct possibility, and they then need to win out against Green Bay and Houston. I kind of wish they were playing Houston this week, but Forte can have a big game against the Packers and will need to avoid the rookie wall to keep the Bears slim hopes alive.
Which Marshawn Lynch will show up this week against the Broncos? I've been on the platform and far away from "beast mode" all season, but lately Lynch has played like most anticipated he would. Too bad he likely left a lot of his fantasy owners on the outside looking into their league playoffs with his subpar performances for most of the year. If you are still in it and have Lynch, count your lucky stars and be thankful for your bench depth.
I said early in the season that I wouldn't want to put my playoff hopes in the hands of Kerry Collins. While the Titans have done a great job of not having to lean on the aging journeyman, the loss of Albert Haynesworth for the rest of the season and the ailments that have befallen Kyle Vanden Bosch will force Tennessee to lean on the offense against Pittsburgh. Considering they couldn't get the job done against Houston last week, I wouldn't be holding my breath for a Titans win.
Finally I want to thank Peter King and Gil Brandt for their patronage this year on the RotoExperts radio shows. Not only are both extremely knowledgeable football analysts, but they are also the kind of guys you could easily see yourself sitting down at the bar with, watching a football game, and enjoying a few cold ones.
For me, it's time to focus on fantasy baseball, our new Diamond Draft software, and a few quiet days with my family for the holidays. My son returns home just in time for his beach wedding this weekend (it will be 80 degrees, so beach weddings in Florida in December aren't as crazy as they sound) and will be home for Christmas with his new bride. Count all your blessings as we wind down the year, and then multiply them to the power of 10. In the end, that's what it's all about.