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First Down: Jackson leads list of 2010 playoff difference-makers

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Around this time each year a running back, whether the beneficiary of injury or ineptitude, crawls out from the darkest depths of the free agent pool – or owner benches – to outpace the virtual game’s biggest stars. Often, their contribution is the reason why owners reach the pinnacle of fantasy greatness. Just ask the guy who faced Ron Dayne(notes) in 2006. To the miserable sap, the mere mention of the portly back still triggers embarrassing wetness.

Other recent playoff breakouts probably do too.

Three years ago, the new Nigerian Nightmare, Samkon Gado(notes), pounded the competition. Two seasons back, multidimensional rookie Tashard Choice(notes) gashed opponents by land and air. While last year, a certain MVP candidate, Arian Foster(notes), foreshadowed his 2010 dominance with two sterling efforts to cap the season.

The above players amassed considerable late-season success because they were simply in the right place at the right time. Friendly offensive circumstances, particularly an exploitable schedule, spurred their performance.

What underappreciated or undiscovered gems should playoff-minded owners grab now?

Dissecting each team’s remaining slate, here are eight RBs, whether widely available for pickup or cheaply acquirable via trade, that are capable of becoming the next Nick Goings(notes) All-Star. (Note: Numbers in parentheses, from FFToday, represent how well RBs have performed above the league average against a particular team).

Brandon Jackson(notes), GB (78-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): at Det (27.1%), at NE (23.5), NYG (-41.2)

Regardless of format, Jackson is a ninja assassin in disguise. Quiet, deceptive and dangerous, his point totals typically sneak up on the competition. Since Week 5, he’s averaged a stout 92.3 total yards per game and splashed six four times, good for a top-15 line in standard formats. With 17 receptions over that stretch, he’s been even more valuable to the PPR masses. John Kuhn(notes) will continue to wrest away roughly 8-10 touches per game from Jackson, but the coaching staff’s growing confidence in him, especially near the goal-line, suggests he will receive 15-20 touches per game down the stretch. Owners who smashed their piggybanks to acquire his services will surely net a sizable return on investment at the season’s most critical time. Detroit and New England rank inside the top-10 in fantasy points allowed to rushers.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Brett Favre(notes), Shonn Greene(notes), Lee Evans(notes), Vernon Davis(notes)

LeGarrette Blount(notes), TB (73-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): at Was (-13.9), Det (27.1), Sea (40.2)

Blessed with intimidating size and humiliating power, Blount has trucked over and through tacklers in recent weeks. Over his past three contests, he’s totaled 79.3 rushing yards per game and three touchdowns, averaging a stupendous 5.2 yards per carry. As witnessed in Atlanta, his North-South running style can be a limitation against stiff defensive fronts. However, with second-season battles against softies Detroit and Seattle, owners shouldn’t be worried. The Bucs’ steady improvement in run execution combined with a competent passing attack will provide the rookie with plenty of favorable opportunities. He could become quite the workhorse in Weeks 15 and 16. Consecutive 100-yard, 1-2 TD efforts are definitely attainable. Stimulate the brain.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Jay Cutler(notes), Danny Woodhead(notes), Santonio Holmes(notes), Brandon Pettigrew(notes)

Michael Bush(notes), Oak (63-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16):at Jac (22.1), Den (79.3), Ind (9.0)

Once a common punchline among nonbelievers, the Noise included, Darren McFadden(notes) has finally abandoned his pussyfooting alter-ego, relegating Bush to a secondary role. Despite a significant decline in touches, the brawny back has remained a consistent flex producer in deeper formats. Deployed often inside the five, he’s crossed the chalk in three of five games as the second option. Naturally, McFadden’s health will determine just how valuable Bush will be during the fantasy playoffs. If the depth-chart topper is sidelined, he will undoubtedly be a top-10 producer. Even if Run DMC isn’t nicked, he could still yield bountiful production. Tom Cable, who has called “run” 52-percent of the time, will continue to toe a conservative line. With arguably the easiest slate of any rusher on this list, Bush will prove very effective in large or limited doses.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Sam Bradford(notes), Marshawn Lynch(notes), Michael Crabtree(notes), Danny Amendola(notes)

Tim Hightower(notes), Ari (48-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): Den (79.3), at Car (-3.6), Dal (4.7)

Hightower, chained to Ken Whisenhunt’s doghouse two weeks ago due to ongoing ball security issues, was appropriately banished to the scrapheap in shallow leagues. The presence of Beanie Wells(notes) and emergence of LaRod Stephens-Howling(notes) as a viable third-down option made the third-year rusher dispensable. However, Wells’ persistent knee problems have once again thrust the veteran back into the catbird seat. Sunday against Seattle, he totaled a useable 59 yards and a touchdown. If Beanie’s health doesn’t improve, additional RB2 gains could be in Hightower’s future. Generous defenses, Denver and Carolina, rank No. 3 and No. 10 respectively in fantasy points allowed to RBs. Yes, the Cardinals offense is disheveled as a whole, but Hightower could be a key to your fantasy survival. As the starter, he’s capable of 60-80 total yards per game and 1-2 TDs in Weeks 14 and 15.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Matt Hasselbeck(notes), Christopher Ivory(notes), Davone Bess(notes), Kellen Winslow(notes)

Jason Snelling(notes), Atl (30-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): at Car (-3.6), at Sea (40.2), NO (-25.8)

In terms of completeness, Snelling might be the best back on Atlanta’s roster. Terrific between-the-tackles and as a receiver out of the backfield, he possesses more dimensions than battery mate Michael Turner(notes). When pressed into action, he’s generated spectacular results, evident in his Week 2 thrashing of Arizona (24-129-2, 5-57-1). Turner’s recent susceptibility to injury could thrust the Hillis-skilled rusher into a lead role, one in which he occasionally thrived in a season ago. Even if he continues to play the second fiddle, Snelling could prove indispensable to deep-thinking PPR owners. Carolina and Seattle don’t exactly elicit fear. Both games could be lopsided affairs. Ooo that Snell!

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Jon Kitna(notes), Marion Barber(notes), Chester Taylor(notes), Steve Breaston(notes)

Javarris James(notes), Ind (six-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): at Ten (14.8), Jac (22.1), at Oak (-17.4)

Ironically, Edge’s cousin has become this Indy team’s version of Dominic Rhodes(notes). The tough interior runner has functioned efficiently inside the red zone, scoring three times in his past two games. Even when Joseph Addai(notes) returns from a shoulder injury, likely next week versus New England, James could remain a fixture at the goal-line. Unless Addai and Mike Hart(notes) are again snacked on by the injury imp, it’s highly unlikely he’ll record 10-plus touches per game during the playoffs, but he could be Willis McGahee(notes)-useful in deeper formats. Peyton Manning(notes) can part any sea. Keep in mind Addai punctured the end-zone twice from 2 yards out against Jacksonville in Week 4.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): Bernard Scott(notes), Dexter McCluster(notes), Tony Moeaki(notes)

Keiland Williams(notes), Was (three-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): TB (34.3), at Dal (4.7), at Jac (22.1)

Any back rostered on a Lucifer Shanahan team deserves a spot on this list. The treacherous coach would intentionally screw over his own mother if given the chance. Right now, Williams might be the third option on the Redskins depth chart. Ryan Torain(notes) appears cemented as the primary carrier on first and second downs. Clinton Portis’(notes) exact role is still undetermined, but he’ll likely slide into a variety of roles, including third-down duties. Because of the crowded backfield, it may seem unlikely for Williams to overtake the starter’s job, but considering Portis and Torain would snap tendons in an innocent game of Twister, the buried back’s odds are better than you think. Against swordless Tampa, which has surrendered 5.1 yards per carry, 177.4 total yards per game and nine touchdowns to RBs this year, he could be the virtual game’s biggest surprise.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): None

Javon Ringer(notes), Ten (three-percent owned)
Playoff Schedule (Wks 14-16): Ind (9.0), Hou (11.1), at KC (21.6)

Obviously, in order for Ringer to make an impact, consensus No. 1 pick Chris Johnson would have to fall on a grenade. If that unpredictable scenario came true, the second-year rusher would instantly morph into an untamable beast. In limited action, he’s averaged a hefty 4.5 yards per carry. Versatile, quick through the hole and surprisingly powerful, he would be in a prime position to shred Indianapolis and Houston’s overmatched defensive lines. Combined the two frail units have allowed 4.6 yards per carry, 143.7 total yards per game and 18 scores to rushers. The Titans’ terrific run execution combined with the downfield attention drawn by Randy Moss(notes) would create walrus-wide holes for the little used rusher to jet through. If the unthinkable occurs, savvy owners who stashed the young back would surely run their playoff opponent through the Ringer.

Recent trades (one-for-one deals in Y! leagues): None

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