Fantasy Football: Dark Horses for the Playoffs

Collin HagerSenior Writer INovember 23, 2008

Weeks 14 through 16 of the football season have implications for every team. Playoffs are on the line, coaches are fighting for their jobs, and players are looking for the next big pay day.


But it’s not just the pros that deal with pressure in these weeks. Fantasy owners are heading into the playoffs, and everyone is concerned about who will play and who will sit.


Dark horse players are what help you win in these weeks. Each year, one or two emerge that carry teams to playoff titles. Can anyone forget Ron Dayne for that?


The NFL talks about the parity in the league, and this year is no exception. As we sit here today, we could be talking about 16 teams that have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. They will all certainly be fighting heading in to the first week of the fantasy playoffs, or even the final week of the regular season for some leagues.


The factor that makes some teams more appealing than others is schedule. This immediately rules out four teams. The Steelers, Cowboys, Bills and Ravens are going to be in tough positions in the final weeks of the season.


The Steelers will face two of the toughest defenses in football in Weeks 15 and 16 with the Ravens and Titans. Dallas has the Steelers, Giants, and Ravens in the coming weeks, which is not good news for their passing attack. Buffalo draws two division opponents (and they don’t have a win against the AFC East as of this writing), and Baltimore will pit a rookie quarterback against Washington, Pittsburgh, and Dallas.


If we’re looking for teams that have players with match-ups we can exploit, they aren’t going to be found here. That becomes even more the case when there are teams that have good match-ups and will be fighting for their division or a wild card spot. There are a few teams that fit the bill: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, Minnesota, the AFC East, Indianapolis, Washington and Atlanta.


Where should we look then? Well, we know that we’re going to rely on our studs in many cases. Those under-the-radar players? Check out these names and ride them to playoff victory.




Greg Olsen and Rashied Davis


We all know about the Bears running game and how well Matt Forte has played. Kyle Orton is regaining his health and his Bears are likely going to be fighting for the one spot to come out of the Black and Blue division.


In Weeks 14 and 15, the Bears draw the Jaguars and Saints, two teams prone to giving up big games through the air. Olsen has been given an expanding role in the offense, has soft hands, and doesn’t drop balls. Davis had his coming out party during the injuries to Hester and company.


You can add Hester to these Bears as well, but he’s likely owned in most formats. These two are widely available and should boost your point totals, especially in the first two weeks of the playoffs.


Not only are these match-ups good, but the Bears are home in Weeks 14, 15, and 16 (against Green Bay).




Ted Ginn, Greg Camarillo, and Ricky Williams

Update: At time of this writing, Camarillo's injuries were not known. Devone Bess will likely provide the same type of numbers. We saw in the Patriots game that the Dolphins will use him in those screen packages and as a possession receiver in the way they did Camarillo.


We might as well just say all your Dolphins. Miami faces the Bills, 49ers, and Chiefs in Weeks 14 through 16. While only the 49ers are at home, the match-ups are solid for fantasy owners.


In many cases, Ronnie Brown is owned. Brown, though, has fallen off in recent weeks and we’re seeing Chad Pennington start to effectively run the Miami offense. In addition, Ricky Williams is getting enough carries to be fantasy relevant going forward.


As Pennington grows in the offense, we’re seeing the emergence of Ted Ginn as a playmaker. Ginn showed this prowess in college, and Tony Sparano is finally helping to release it at the professional level. We’ve seen Ginn make two tough catches in traffic as well as run the ball in from 40 yards out. He provides return yards to boot. He’s widely available, and he will provide playoff production as Miami fights for both the wild card or the division.


Greg Camarillo isn’t as explosive, but fits into the Wes Welker profile. Camarillo sees the most targets on a weekly basis, and has more value in PPR formats because of that. With three weak pass defenses in the final weeks of the season, his potential for two big games is high.


I’m still a big fan of Ricky Williams, and his work in recent weeks has given reason for that. With the Chiefs sitting in Week 16 and the 49ers having struggled in general in coming east to play early games, there are two potential big games for the running attack in Miami as well.




Anthony Gonzalez and Jordy Nelson


Gonzalez and Nelson have had a tough year. For Gonzalez, his quarterback’s inconsistent play in the first part to the season had him relegated to fantasy irrelevance. Nelson has had success in spurts, but is overshadowed by two much more prolific receivers.


All that could change in the fantasy playoffs.


Gonzalez will draw three teams that Peyton Manning has simply owned. The Colts will take the field against the Bengals, Lions, and Jaguars. You have to look at those three teams and feel pretty good if you’re Manning.


While the obvious names will get a boost, Gonzalez (and Marvin Harrison, to a lesser degree) are going to get more looks and more chances. You have to think that the third receiver in Indy gets some good touches, especially against the Lions and Jaguars.


For Nelson, his best games have come against teams that shut down Greg Jennings. But the Packers could be looking to get the young player some more touches, especially down the stretch and heading towards the NFL playoffs. They will draw Houston, Jacksonville, and Chicago. All three defenses have been beaten soundly through the air, each ranking in the lower-half of the league.


The Bears check in at 30th. The Jaguars and Texans are giving up nearly two passing touchdowns a game. All three give up more than 210 yards per game through the air. The only concern would be that the Pack will be on the road against Jacksonville and Chicago.


Look for Nelson as a true dark horse, especially as we see more teams double-covering Jennings. He’s being used as a possession receiver, and that’s the type of player that sees higher than average touches in any offense.




Jeff Garcia, Matt Cassel, and Gus Frerotte


Indirectly, we mentioned that Chad Pennington has some good match-ups. What other quarterbacks could you rely on? Surprisingly, Garcia, Cassel, and Frerotte are all available in at least 30 percent of leagues.


Cassel and the Patriots will be fighting for a playoff spot, especially after a couple tough games and a road trip before these three weeks hit. The Pats will be sitting pretty with Oakland, Seattle, and Arizona. Only Arizona is at home, but the other two match-ups give them two of the softest defenses in football, and Arizona has to basically travel across the country.


Jeff Garcia will see Carolina, Atlanta, and San Diego. Specifically with the latter two teams, he should be in for some good games. He’s available in 40 percent of leagues, and is going to be trusted to throw more and more. With Graham hitting the sidelines, the Bucs will be careful no to overwork Dunn. Dunn hasn’t carried a full load in several years, and Tampa will want him as fresh as they can keep him down the stretch. That means relying on the arm of Garcia to do some damage.


Frerotte might be a reach, but hear me out. He’s made Sidney Rice look good the last two weeks. Berrian continues to impress. Defenses are doing everything the can to stop Peterson and make Frerotte beat them. That’s good for a team that posts a decent secondary. It’s not so good when Detroit, Atlanta, and Arizona are on the docket.




Leon Washington, Peyton Hillis, and Warrick Dunn


These three are more-or-less household names. Warrick Dunn is gaining traction now because of the injury to Earnest Graham. He draws three weaker defensive teams, the same three that should lead to decent numbers for Jeff Garcia. As a flyer at the end of the year, you have to like what he brings to the table.


Peyton Hillis is the only healthy back, but he could lose some time to Tatum Bell. Both are names to know. Denver will need to win that division to make the playoffs, and they’re bad defensively. They get the Chiefs and Bills, both of whom give up yards to running backs. Even Carolina, who they also have, is just 17th against the run.


The Jets and Leon Washington will draw the Bills, 49ers, and Seahawks. You might think this would be Brett Favre’s dream, but the Jets have looked to be more conservative with their game plans and thus minimize the mistakes Favre makes. Washington gets yards every way possible, and he’s available in nearly half of all leagues. For those that get yards for returns, Washington is even more valuable.




“The Others”


There are plenty of teams that will be out of contention or have clinched that will be looking to rest players or get young players some additional time. Want to identify a few? Kevin Smith in Detroit has some good games for rushing yards outside of playing Minnesota.


J.J. Arrington is taking some of Tim Hightower’s touches, and scored twice last week. With the Titans having put up a crazy division lead, they may look to rest LenDale White and Chris Johnson. If they do, don’t forget that Chris Henry held the starting job in Tennessee last season.


The AFC West is very bunched up. Even the Chiefs may look to play spoiler. We’ve all talked about Tyler Thigpen and Mark Bradley, but look at Jamaal Charles as well, especially as the Chiefs look to determine what to do with Larry Johnson after the season.


The 49ers have no options outside of Shaun Hill, and the NFC West is just as easy to throw against as the AFC West is to run against.