By David Sabino
December 02, 2010
Gridiron 11: Keys To A Title

As we reach the precipice of the fantasy playoffs we come to the realization that all of the work we've done throughout the season just to get our teams to this point can go up in smoke with one bad game or even one poor decision. Clouding matters are a spate of superstars who, at some point, were a sure thing, but now swirl in questions due to injuries to themselves, to teammates, or for any number of other reasons. How these 11 players perform in the next few weeks holds the key to the championships in many leagues.

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1 <a href=Peyton Manning, QB, Colts" title="Peyton Manning, QB, Colts"/>
Whether it's overcompensating for playing without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie or the total lack of a running game, the NFL's poster-boy has recently been a far cry from the league's most accomplished player. Over the last four games he's thrown only seven touchdown passes (four in one game against New England alone) while getting picked off nine times. He's still one of the Top-5 QB options with the ability to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns in any game, but you can't go into the playoffs as confidently as you might have if he doesn't have his full complement of weapons at his disposal.
2 <a href=Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings" title="Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings"/>
Welcome to doomsday. The man you were so happy to get with the first or second pick in your draft is now a major question mark due to the ankle he sprained last week against the Redskins. Clouding matters even worse is that the Vikings are nowhere near playoff contention and the last thing they'll do is jeopardize the career of the league's third-leading rusher by putting him out on the field at less than 100 percent. Cross your fingers, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
3 <a href=Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars" title="Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars"/>
MJD was M.I.A. for a good portion of the early season, but he's been on a roll recently, stringing together four-straight 100-yard rushing games while scoring three of his four touchdowns on the season in the last three weeks. He's been helping the Jags to an improbable late-season playoff push, so perhaps he'll do the same for you after leaving you high and dry for much of the year.
4 <a href=Drew Brees, QB, Saints" title="Drew Brees, QB, Saints"/>
SI's Sportsman of the Year is going to give the ol' cover jinx a challenge down the stretch, but if anyone can sidestep history, you have to believe it's the Saints' Superman. Look for a return to the big numbers of the past few years to coincide with a backfield populated by Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush instead of Julius Jones and Ladell Betts.
5 <a href=Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers" title="Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers"/>
How much better is Gates than the rest of the fantasy tight ends out there? Despite missing two full games and being severely hampered by plantar fasciitis and a toe injury in at least two others, Gates remains the clear top fantasy contributor at his position. He's been sitting out practice and receiving treatments in hopes that he can help fuel the Chargers' late-season run to the playoffs. With only one big game to his credit since early October, you might think of taking a look at another option, but even at half-speed, Gates is worthy of a start.
6 <a href=Matt Forte, RB, Bears" title="Matt Forte, RB, Bears"/>
An all-or-nothing fantasy scorer for much of the early season, Forte has put together three straight solid games of late as his Bears have rededicated themselves to the running game. Eighth in receiving yards among running backs but just 18th in rushing and overall yards from scrimmage per game (among everyone) for the season, he's become a must-start option, especially in the next three weeks against the Lions, Pats and Vikings.
7 <a href=Steven Jackson, RB, Rams" title="Steven Jackson, RB, Rams"/>
For the second year in a row, nobody in the league does less with more than Jackson. Only Arian Foster has more offensive touches, so how can Jackson be ranked 15th among running backs in standard PPR leagues? Despite carrying the ball 31 times from inside the 20, the Rams' workhorse has scored just three touchdowns this season, which jibes with the four he scored last year. One of the better receivers out of the backfield, he's now made 93 straight receptions without visiting the end zone, dating back to 2008. That lack of scoring is a killer and requires you to explore other options for the most important games of the season.
8 <a href=DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles" title="DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles"/>
I'm not sure there's anyone more explosive in football than Jackson, both in terms of his ability on the field and his penchant for making boneheaded decisions both on and off it. His chemistry with Michael Vick has made them one of the most dangerous quarterback-receiver duos in the league, but he's still prone to mixing in a two-catch, 26-yard dud, as he did last week in Chicago. You have to play him but hold your breath when you do.
9 <a href=Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions" title="Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions"/>
Megatron could have mega-troubles with his quarterback situation as Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill appear to both be done for the season. That leaves Drew Stanton attempting to help Johnson add to his 11 TD receptions, second only to K.C.'s Dwayne Bowe in the NFL. In Stanton's only significant action of this season, he and Johnson hooked up on an 87-yard score against the Giants as part of their three-catch, 103 yards worth of connections, but in the past the two have had less-than-spectacular results, combining for 10 catches, 232 yards and one touchdown (plus two turnovers) in parts of three seasons.
10 Steve Johnson, WR, <a href=Bills" title="Steve Johnson, WR, Bills"/>
Steve Johnson, WR, Bills
The last thing fantasy owners want to deal with is retribution from a deity, but one has to wonder how the Almighty is going to respond to Johnson's Tweets regarding his dropped overtime touchdown last week. The guess here is that Johnson, one of the major fantasy finds of the season, bounces back quite well the rest of the way, and secures his spot among the Top 10 receivers in next year's draft.
11 <a href=Matt Schaub, QB, Texans" title="Matt Schaub, QB, Texans"/>
The passing yards leader in 2009 received great news this week when Andre Johnson was only fined $25,000, and not suspended, for his brawl with Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan. However there hasn't been much other good news for Schaub owners, who have slogged through a pedestrian season during which their quarterback has thrown for fewer yards than Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer, fewer touchdowns than Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez, David Garrard and Sam Bradford and ranks 16th in quarterback fantasy points in standard leagues. With a tough matchup against the Eagles in Week 13 and then again next week in a rematch with Tennessee, it's advisable to go in another direction.

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