By B.J. Rudell, special to SI.com
While reaching the playoffs in your fantasy football league is not something to put on your professional résumé, it does feel nice to own bragging rights for a year.
Those fantasy champions will know that what separates winners from posers is delivering the goods: plugging in the right players in the right games to go undefeated during the season’s home stretch. It requires thoughtful planning weeks in advance. Whether you’re already assured a playoff spot or still in the running, there are variables you should be analyzing today to help ensure December dominance.
Examine your roster’s schedules throughout your league’s playoffs. Sometimes, owners are better off replacing a second-tier player with a touchy matchup -- for example, a WR2 -- with a slightly lesser player boasting an easy matchup. Ignoring the warning signs could set you back 5-10 points, which could be the difference between winning and losing.
Take RB Frank Gore in Week 17 last year. He finished the season as the No. 13-ranked fantasy running back -- a solid RB2. Those who started him in their fantasy title game failed to appreciate what he was up against: a road matchup versus the league’s stingiest run defense (Arizona). 14 yards on 13 carries later, Gore broke a lot of fantasy owners’ hearts. But it wasn’t his fault; owners should have seen the warning signs and shifted strategy, plugging in an RB3/4 like Trent Richardson, who posted 42 yards and a touchdown against the league’s fourth worst run defense (Jacksonville).
Not even elite players are immune to letdown performances -- anemic production that could single-handedly upend your title hopes. About 10 percent of the time, they should be benched for lesser talent. For example, QB Russell Wilson entered Week 14 last year with 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions, and was on pace to finish the year as a top-five fantasy quarterback. But in weeks 14, 15 and 16 -- most fantasy league’s playoffs -- he played against three of the league’s top-10 defenses. If you started him with confidence, your confidence was probably shattered. Wilson posted only nine points against the 49ers and Cardinals, sandwiched around a pedestrian 15 points versus the Giants. A patchwork weekly lineup of lesser quarterbacks with more favorable matchups would have changed many owners’ fortunes.
Injury-prone running backs
You can never have enough starting running backs for the fantasy playoffs. Those who leaned on Adrian Peterson last season found themselves without a star running back in weeks 15 and 17, as Peterson missed both games with injuries. Similarly, a pulled hamstring sidelined Maurice Jones-Drew in Week 15 and limited his productivity in weeks 16 and 17. He entered the playoffs as a top 18 fantasy running back, but that was meaningless to owners who were forced to search desperately for a last-minute fill-in.
To avoid waking up to find a gaping hole in your otherwise 'perfect' starting lineup, smart fantasy owners grab running back handcuffs and untested newcomers off waivers. Hopefully, they'll never be used, but if the need arises, these backups could offer decent production with upside. Just ask those who took a chance on Latavius Murray last week, or Jonas Gray the week before.
This makes guys like Joseph Randle and Robert Turbin must-own running backs, each poised for 15-plus touches (and potentially top 15 positional production) if thrust into starting roles. Knile Davis and Carlos Hyde are two backups who are owned in a lot more leagues, but still might be available in yours. Both are capable of posting top 10 numbers if given the nod.
Rain alone does not significantly impact fantasy performances. Snow has a moderate effect, particularly for running backs and receivers. But statistics show that wind wreaks the most havoc, significantly influencing quarterback passes and field goal kicks.
Savvy fantasy owners look ahead to see which games might put a dent in their weekly numbers. For example, in Week 16, Green Bay travels to Buffalo, while New Orleans visits Chicago. December games in these two cities are at risk of facing high winds and/or snow. While I’m not suggesting benching Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, it’s important to start monitoring weather conditions in Buffalo and Chicago a week in advance. If the forecast calls for blizzard conditions, you’ll look like a genius for grabbing a middling quarterback with upside -- like Zach Mettenberger (home versus the Jets) or Joe Flacco (home versus the Jaguars).
And let’s not forget about kickers Mason Crosby and Shayne Graham. You might intend to start them every week, but if the weather is looking fierce a few days before the game, you’re far better off grabbing a seven-plus point kicker from the waiver wire than taking an unnecessary risk.
Finally, each season a few players fall under the radar due to underwhelming statistics. Now is the time to pick up those guys or (if your league rules still allow it) trade for them. They might not provide value now, but if one of your fantasy studs goes down, you’ll have a player with an extra-high upside to plug in.
For example, WR Michael Floyd was a top-25 fantasy wide receiver last year. Now he’s available in 34 percent of ESPN leagues. If WR Larry Fitzgerald misses extended time, Floyd could return WR2+ value the rest of the way, giving you 8-12 points each week that you couldn’t get easily from a lesser talent.
Similarly, perennial top 20 WR Vincent Jackson is unowned in 17 percent of ESPN leagues, yet offers high-end WR2 numbers on a good day. I want a guy like Jackson on my bench for the stretch run, as he’s likely to post terrific numbers if WR Mike Evans ever has an off day.
On the quarterback front, Matt Stafford and Cam Newton are actually unowned in a good chunk of ESPN leagues. Massively underperforming, yet fortunate to have relatively easy fantasy playoff schedules, both guys could put owners over the top if they reclaim the magic that we’ve seen from them in seasons past.