MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Carolina's 5'9" mighty mite has been a giant points producer this season.But what will happen when he faces the aggressive, almost airtight defensiveschemes of coordinator Jim Johnson?
Since being sidelined for the first two games with a hamstring injury, Smithhas either scored a touchdown or had at least 100 receiving yards in eight ofnine games. And he has proved to be more than just a deep threat. Lining up inthe slot or split wide, Smith has often been Carolina's go-to guy onintermediate routes, reverses and trick plays.
LITO SHEPPARD ANDTHE EAGLES' DEFENSE
A solid cover corner who mans the right side, Sheppard has been bothered by abad hip. Still, he will see most of the action against Smith, with occasionalhelp from fellow corner Sheldon Brown. Thanks to those two--and Johnson'sreliance on the blitz--Philadelphia's D is among the league's stingiest inallowing passing TDs (10) and passing yards per game (180.5).
Though Sheppard & Co. have excelled in coverage, the Eagles have struggledto get to the quarterback recently, producing just six sacks in their last sixgames. Without more pressure it won't matter how good the coverage is on Smith;he'll eventually get open for big gains.
THE INSIDE MAN
Texan Hold 'Em
Yes, Houston hasproblems, but that doesn't mean that Andre Johnson's stats will suffer
Ownerswho¬†are concerned about production from top receivers on bad teams neednot worry about the Texans' fourth-year man Andre Johnson, who is bouncing backfrom a disappointing 2005 (career lows of 688 yards and two touchdowns). Rookiecoach Gary Kubiak has made Johnson a top priority in the offense. As one teamsource says, "I don't want to criticize what we've done in the past, butGary came in with the attitude that Andre should have 100 catches a year. We'vemoved him around more than we ever have, and this staff has just found ways toget him the football."
The presence of11-year veteran Eric Moulds has helped Johnson, who caught 10 balls for 98yards and a TD against the Jets on Sunday. Moulds (49 catches for 510 yards)may have lost a couple of steps, but he's still dangerous enough to keepdefenses from doubling Johnson on every play. Through Sunday, Johnson led theNFL with a career-best 84 receptions and was on pace to eclipse his '04 careerhighs of 1,142 yards and six TDs. As long as Houston's line can provideadequate protection for quarterback David Carr, Johnson should remain areliable performer through the fantasy playoffs.
OUT OF THE LIONS'DEN After four dreadful seasons in Detroit, Dolphins quarterback JoeyHarrington has quietly turned into a worthwhile fantasy option. Harrington, whoreplaced Daunte Culpepper as the starter in Week 5, has thrown seven TD passesduring Miami's four-game winning streak--including three against his old teamon Thanksgiving Day. His decision-making has improved each week, and he'saveraging a respectable 222.7 passing yards over his last three games.Considering how hard it is to find productive QBs at this point of the season,Harrington is worth considering. "What makes me happiest is knowing thatI'm part of a team that appreciates what I bring to the table," hesays.
A VOTE FOR GOREProvided left guard Larry Allen stays healthy, 49ers running back Frank Gore(1,177 yards, five TDs) will continue to be one of this season's biggestsurprises. A team source says that since Allen returned to the lineup in Week8, San Francisco has steered more than half of its running plays behind him andleft tackle Jonas Jennings. Gore, in his second year, has averaged 131.4 yardsa game during that stretch. There's no reason to think he can't maintain thatpace.
SILVER LINING INOAKLAND If you're disappointed with the defense you drafted, the Raiders' unitis worth considering. As bad as this season has been in Oakland, the defensehas developed into a stout bunch with the ability to make big plays: ThroughSunday the Raiders ranked seventh in total D--first against the pass--and werefifth in interceptions with 14. Pro Bowl end Derrick Burgess (8 1/2 sacks) isone of the game's toughest edge rushers, and tackle Warren Sapp (six sacks) ishaving his best year since he arrived in Oakland in 2004. There are also someyoung playmakers at linebacker and defensive back who are gaining confidenceeach week. "We've got more chemistry now because this is the second orthird year that we've all been together," Sapp says.
A GODSEND Saintsthird-year receiver Devery Henderson has delivered eye-popping production overthe last few weeks. With 6'4" rookie Marques Colston fighting a high anklesprain--the type of injury that could linger for weeks--the 5'11" Hendersonerupted for 154 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons on Sunday, his third100-yard game in four weeks. "I like Henderson because he can flat-outfly," says one NFC personnel director.
...as you gear upfor the playoffs, you should look to the teams in flux for help
No NFLlineup¬†is the same in late November as it was in early September. Startersget injured, backups get promoted, other players gain (or fall out of) favorwith their coaches. As lineups change, so should your fantasy roster. My gutfeeling is that these players are smart pickups heading into the playoffs.
1) PatrickCrayton, ¬†WR, Cowboys Tony Romo is spreading the ball around, TerrellOwens is dropping almost as many passes as he's grabbing, and you can see BillParcells's faith in Crayton growing. In the last four games the third-year manfrom Northwestern Oklahoma State has 15 catches and a 17.5-yard average.
2) 49ers defenseDraw a line of demarcation at halftime of the Week 8 game at Chicago. In the 18quarters since, San Francisco has allowed just 60 points.
3) A.J. Feeley,QB, Eagles It's only a hunch, but I think that Andy Reid trusts him more thanhe does Jeff Garcia. Expect Feeley to get a start or two in December, whenPhiladelphia meets the lowly Redskins and the suddenly generous Giants (whohave given up 88 points in the last three weeks).
4) GeorgeWrighster, TE, Jaguars Did you see the chemistry brewing between David Garrardand Wrighster in the Week 11 Monday-night win over the Giants? Jacksonvillefaces some strong fronts in December (Dolphins, Colts, Patriots), and Garrardwill be looking for his tight end.
5) MikeVanderjagt, K, Cowboys, or Olindo Mare, K, Dolphins Dallas is going to score alot of points down the stretch (against the Giants, Saints, Falcons andEagles--not a top 10 defense among them), and you can't assume that's becauseRomo will throw five touchdown passes every week. Mare is averaging 2.4 fieldgoal attempts a game, and Miami will be a field goal team in December; I don'tsee Joey Harrington finishing off that many drives.
The most recent quarterback change could be the AFC's most seismic--providedthe rookie plays as well as he did in the preseason (four TD passes in fourgames).
After Romo's five-TD game, he and Drew Brees are (improbably) the top twoquarterbacks in the NFC.
Ronnie Brown is out for at least a week, so Morris (12 carries, 91 yardsagainst the Lions) becomes the man.
He had a career day against the Giants on Sunday: six receptions for 83yards.
He's fine in leagues that emphasize yardage, but if you need TDs, Marion BarberIII is your man.
Only offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer knows why Barlow (five yards oneight carries against the Texans) is still getting the ball.
Hopes that he'd be Tampa Bay's signal-caller of the future are fading fast.
A healthy Willis McGahee plus a four-carry, zero-yard day against the Jaguarsequals the end of the fantasy line for the A-Train.
Read Peter King's10 Fantasy Things I Think I Think and analysis from David Sabino atSI.com/fantasy.
Johnson is on pace for a career year: 122 catches and 1,428yards.
Sapp's Raiders have shown some life.