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First Down: Choice, Dixon and Starks, a fearsome playoff threesome

Brad Evans
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This time each year, veterans of the virtual gridiron always emphasize sticking with the players who got them there. Get too cute, the conservative say, and months of counseling sessions with Uncle Jack will assuredly follow.

Though exercising caution is important during the fantasy playoffs, taking risks shouldn’t be frowned up. In fact, calculated gambles are highly recommended. As seen previously, uncovering a new source of production, especially at running back, is often the key to survival. Jerome Harrison(notes) (’09), Earnest Graham(notes) (’08) and Pierre Thomas(notes) (’07) are prime examples. In a game of matchups, any player in the ideal situation can pay heroic dividends.

This year, “Three Amigos,” Tashard Choice(notes), Anthony Dixon(notes) and James Starks(notes), will ride into Fantasyland at the most opportune time. The grossly under-owned trio could rescue your team from elimination – and innocent Mexican villagers from the villainous grip of El Guapo.

Here’s why you should invest in and trust the threesome during the most important week of the fantasy season:

Tashard Choice, Dal, 11-percent owned
Week 14 matchup: vs. Phi

Finally unshackled, Choice channeled anger through his legs, netting only the second 100-yard rushing game by a Cowboy this season. A versatile, surprisingly powerful runner, the Pierre Thomas clone posted a fantastic 5.1 YPC on 19 carries. Yes, the matchup (at Indy) was incredibly favorable, but this is a back who has seized the moment in the past. He’s no Beanie Wells(notes). Remember his unforgettable playoff run as a rookie in 2008?

Once again, Choice could post prime numbers during the most critical phase of the fantasy season. The man is motivated. Here’s what he told DallasCowboys.com after Sunday’s win in Indy:

"Everybody doubts me," Choice said. "You hear what people say about me: 'He's not good enough. If he was good enough, he'd be playing.' All that stuff just motivated me. Every time I made a run, it was just another way to tell everybody, 'Here I am.'"

After Dallas' thrilling victory against the Colts, Jerry Jones said Choice will be removed from special teams work, an indication he’s permanently earned his spot in the backfield rotation. The wrinkly owner’s uncertainty about Marion Barber’s(notes) availability for the rest of the season also boosts Choice’s value substantially. Though he’ll continue to split the load with Felix Jones(notes), the third-year back will be option No. 1 at the goal-line. With the resurgent ‘Boys executing on offense, scoring opportunities could be plentiful even in Week 14. Philadelphia isn’t exactly a soft opponent, but controlling time of possession is crucial for Dallas to spring another upset. In Jason Garrett’s mind, the fewer attempts Michael Vick(notes) has, the better. Choice and Jones will be leaned upon heavily.

The Eagles have been unyielding to backs for much of the season, allowing only one 100-yard performance. Despite allowing low yardage totals, they’ve are penetrable inside the red zone. Over the past five weeks, they’ve surrendered eight touchdowns to RBs, the fourth-most in the league. If Dallas can stay within striking distance, another double-digit fantasy effort is achievable for Choice. Flex him in 12-team and deeper leagues.

Fearless Forecast: 16 carries, 73 rushing yards, 2 receptions, 8 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 14 fantasy points

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Anthony Dixon, SF, 13-percent owned
Week 14 matchup: at Sea

Frank Gore’s(notes) season-ending hip injury created a waiver frenzy for Brian Westbrook(notes). Because snowflakes are more durable than the veteran, the smart money, however, was placed on Dixon.

The rookie from Mississippi State first captivated the fantasy community’s attention back August. In four preseason games, the burly rusher totaled a league-best 344 yards and four touchdowns. During that stretch, Dixon, similar in style and substance as Tampa’s LeGarrette Blount(notes), displayed humiliating power, elusiveness and adequate speed. Though his gaudy numbers were compiled largely against second and third-string talent, he definitely opened eyes.

Consistency will be key for Dixon to thrive down the stretch. Mike Singletary has advised the rookie to avoid hitting the juke button, encouraging him to use his powerful 6-foot-1, 233-pound frame to steamroll opponents. From the Sacramento Bee:

Coach Mike Singletary said Wednesday that he wants 233-pound Dixon and 203-pound Westbrook, who both will be used to replace injured Frank Gore, to be a "thunder and lightning" combination, not lightning and lightning.

"He's going to be thunder," Singletary said of Dixon. "I think what we want him to do is be a little more disciplined toward hitting the hole and hitting it now. And if it's not there, trying to make one there. I just think he's still learning what his style is going to be, but I'm very excited about the possibilities there."

Singletary and running backs coach Tom Rathman are trying to wean Dixon off his college running style. Mississippi State used a spread offense that put Dixon in space where he could outmaneuver smaller and often slower defenders. The 49ers' offense is built on relentlessness and overwhelming opponents with power.

Last week against one of the league’s most intimidating run defenses, Green Bay, Dixon tallied a team-high nine carries for 33 yards. Though unspectacular, the near 50-50 touch distribution lends a clue of what owners should expect this week versus a lacerated Seahawks defense.

As Jonathan Stewart(notes) proved in Week 13, downhill runners have logged considerable success against Seattle. Over the past six weeks, the clipped ‘Hawks have surrendered 4.9 yards per carry, 210.7 total yards per game and nine touchdowns to rushers equal to the second-most fantasy points. If Dixon retires the dancing shoes and attacks the line, he will be deployed extensively. Assuming the Niners can keep pace or establish a lead, the rookie could finish well inside the RB top-20.

Fearless Forecast: 16 carries, 83 rushing yards, 1 receptions, 5 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 14 fantasy points

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James Starks, GB, six-percent owned
Week 14 matchup: at Det

On Sunday, the fantasy masses were introduced to Green Bay’s latest out of nowhere star. Quite possibly the 2010 version of Samkon Gado(notes) (’05), Starks, encased in a block of cheddar for much of the season due to a hamstring injury, opened eyes in his first action as a pro. Against an above average Niners front, he racked 73 yards (4.1 yards per carry) on 18 carries, the most by a Packers rookie runner since 1948. More astonishing, it was his first in-game action logged since 2008. Mike McCarthy, who gushed about the kid post-game, came away very impressed.

As Behrens detailed in the Sunday Scene, the Packers’ ground game has been largely unreliable for much of the season. Brandon Jackson(notes), who is best suited for third-down work, has compiled yards primarily through the air. His plodding style between-the-tackles is why McCarthy has searched for a power complement. He has to look no further.

Starks was a favorite dark-horse of ours in April’s draft. Sans the injury concerns, the sixth-rounder would have surely gone Day 1. While shrouded in relative obscurity in Western New York, the Buffalo product churned out obscene numbers before a shoulder injury cost him his junior season. Granted it was MAC competition, but his skill set stood out. At 6-foot-2, 218-pounds, he’s an upright runner with plus power and speed, eerily similar to teammate Ryan Grant(notes). Though he’s not exactly dodgy, Starks is an ideal fit for the Pack’s zone-blocking scheme. How his vision and open-field moves develop will ultimately determine what he can to accomplish as a pro. Based on his remarkable debut, he appears to be on the fast-track to top-20 stardom. Keep in mind, he’s still very raw.

Entrusting a rookie rusher with little experience may seem delusional, but against the Lions he has favorable odds of finishing with low-tiered RB2 numbers in 12-teamers. Detroit has conceded 4.6 yards per carry and the fourth-most fantasy points to backs this season. The attention drawn to Aaron Rodgers(notes) will undoubtedly open up running lanes for Starks. If Green Bay builds an early lead, it’s not unfathomable the rookie totals 20 carries. The coaching staff’s confidence in him is sky-high. Roll the dice.

Fearless Forecast: 20 carries, 89 rushing yards, 1 reception, 6 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 15 fantasy points

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