Here is my post-free agency, pre-draft look at the 15 friendliest team schedules during the fantasy football playoff period of Weeks 13-16.
The list was compiled based on five factors: specific opponent, potential weather issues, home/away considerations, travel commitment and the collective viability of a team's playmakers.
For example, Aaron Rodgers (the No. 1 fantasy QB) could have had three road games against the Jets, 49ers and Steelers, and one home clash with the Bears—and yet, Green Bay would still warrant a top-10 ranking.
Luckily for fantasy owners, though, the Packers have three home games (Vikings, Lions, Titans) during that defining four-game stretch.
Rationale: A lot can change between now and December, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more doable slate than Buffalo's three straight home games against non-division foes (Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks), and then one trip to sunny Miami for Week 16.
Obviously, weather could play a major factor in Buffalo, but this finish just screams fantasy goodness for Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller.
Rationale: Not that Matthew Stafford needs atmospheric serenity to throw for 320 yards and four TDs on a given Sunday, but his Lions play three indoor games (two in Detroit, one in Arizona) during that Week 13-Week 16 stretch.
Plus, three of those pass defenses are just OK.
3. Green Bay
Rationale: I believe the Packers will be the NFL's best regular-season team again this season, which bodes well for a near-unstoppable passing attack that's led by Mr. Rodgers himself.
Rationale: Yes, I'm aware of how brutally cold (and windy) a December night in Foxboro can be, but I still love the Texans' chances of putting up points against the Patriots in one of the season's best Monday Night Football clashes during Week 14.
After that, it's smooth sailing for Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson in Weeks 15 (vs. Indy) and 16 (vs. Minnesota).
5. New Orleans
Rationale: It's probably unwise to make big assumptions about the Saints offense eight months from now, given the instability at head coach, GM, the interim head coach and with QB Drew Brees' contract squabble.
That aside, I like the club's three weather-friendly games against the Falcons, Bucs and Cowboys.
Rationale: This could be a dicey pick, given the Cowboys' tough opponents for Weeks 13 (Philly), 15 (Pittsburgh) and 16 (New Orleans), but all three games are at Jerry World, so the fantasy ranking makes sense.
Rationale: The Falcons could score 25 against the Saints, Panthers, Giants and Lions from Weeks 14-17—but let's stay conservative here.
Rationale: This lofty ranking is a reflection of Maurice Jones-Drew's all-world talents, plus the Jags' slate of four straight AFC East opponents. It is NOT an endorsement to start QB Blaine Gabbert over a more established asset.
9. New England
Rationale: The Sunday Night Football date with San Francisco (Week 15) doesn't have much fantasy appeal, but Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley should fare well against the Dolphins, Texans and Jags during that stretch.
Rationale: I would start a healthy Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy (20 TDs last year) against an NFL team that lined up 13 defenders on every play.
Rationale: Pencil Chris Johnson in for 120 total yards and/or two touchdowns against the Colts (Week 14) and Packers (Week 16).
Rationale: The Broncos don't have a particularly sexy schedule for Weeks 13-16 (vs. Tampa Bay, at Oakland, at Baltimore, vs. Cleveland), but QB Peyton Manning should have a good rhythm by then.
On the flip-side, I probably wouldn't draft him until Round 6 in 12-team leagues.
Rationale: The Panthers' Week 13 road trip to Kansas City looks very tough, but I love the three-game finish (vs. Atlanta, at San Diego and vs. Oakland) for Cam Newton and co.
Mark it down: Mike Tolbert will score one TD against the Chargers.
Rationale: This ranking plays off the big endorsement for the Cardinals' Week 15 and Week 16 home games against the Bears and Lions. For Week 16 especially, Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams or even Kevin Kolb should have a prominent role with fantasy Super Bowls everywhere.
Four In Flux
The following four teams (in alphabetical order) have schedules for Weeks 13-16 that I'd prefer to ignore in the fantasy realm, based on opponent, weather concerns and a general uncertainty for how these clubs will be progressing in mid-December.
Rationale: I have much appreciation for the Browns' patient approach to building an annual playoff contender through the draft—I just think the defense is way ahead of the offense at this point.
On the half-hearted plus side, Cleveland draws four non-divisional opponents (Raiders, Chiefs, Redskins, Broncos) for Weeks 13-16.
Rationale: Weather won't be a problem for three games against the Bears, Rams and Texans, but I am still leery of the Vikings.
Will Christian Ponder be their un-benchable quarterback, regardless of isolated struggles? Will the club develop an outside receiver to complement Percy Harvin?
And what will be the status of Adrian Peterson (torn ACL)? Can he sustain and flourish for an entire season?
Rationale: I have great fantasy love for Philip Rivers and RB Ryan Mathews, but I'm not willing to predict greatness for the duo against the Bengals at home (Week 14), followed by two road clashes with the Steelers and Jets.
Rationale: It's not like the Seahawks will be overwhelmed by the Bears, Cardinals and Bills in Weeks 13-15, and Marshawn Lynch has already proven that he can score a rushing touchdown against the 49ers.
And yet, I still don't really have a good fantasy feeling for any of these four games.
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