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Andy Behrens

Tip Drill: Five keys to surviving, and winning, the fantasy playoffs

Andy Behrens
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If you're still reading fantasy football content in December, then you've obviously had a respectable season. Maybe you haven't clinched a playoff spot just yet, but you also haven't been eliminated. So that's something. Title hopes, alive. Well played. Congrats on the success of your fake team.

But this isn't park district U-12 fantasy football, where everybody gets a participation trophy at the year-end picnic. Your league is going to crown a champ. One owner to rule them all, so to speak. We're all playing for the ring, the trophy, the bobblehead, perhaps a modest monetary prize (which of course you'll report as income, because you're a responsible citizen).

Today, we're here to discuss the end-game. In any head-to-head fantasy format, the final weeks mean everything. Everything. No one cares how dominant your team was in November. Did you have an undefeated regular season? That's great. Super. Good for you. In Week 16, you might still find yourself facing a 6-loss team that happens to have stellar match-ups at every roster spot. These things happen. Your unblemished regular season won't matter a bit in the title round.

Let's review the big year-end considerations, entering the most important stretch on the fantasy calendar…

[More advice: Week 13 pickups that could be your key to victory]

Don't get Dungy'd

The absolute worst event in fantasy is … well, OK, it's when Brian Westbrook(notes) intentionally takes a knee at the 1-yard line, instead of scoring. Because he's securing a win for his real-life team at the expense of your imaginary team. Jerk.

But the second worst event in fantasy is when an NFL team sits starters in the final weeks, because they've clinched everything there is to clinch. This move was made famous by Tony Dungy, though Jim Caldwell followed the same path last year. Many coaches do this. It's a defensible move, certainly — Indianapolis and New Orleans benched key players in the final week last season, then met in the Super Bowl.

The nice thing about the way the current season is unfolding, unlike 2009, is that no NFL team appears to be running away with a division title. It seems doubtful (though not impossible) that any franchise will lock up home field advantage by Week 16, when most fantasy championships are decided. At present, there's really no dominant team in either conference, no '09 Colts. In five of the NFL's eight division races, two teams are tied at the top — and in the other three divisions, the leader is just one game ahead. So the Dungy threat level remains low.

And we're reasonably certain that all healthy Colts will play in the final weeks, since every team in the AFC South has either a 6-5 or 5-6 record entering Week 13.

Find fresh legs

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Most of you will recall that last season, the greatest fantasy assets in the final weeks were three players who were essentially afterthoughts on draft day: Jonathan Stewart(notes), Jerome Harrison(notes) and Jamaal Charles(notes). Between Weeks 15 and 17, those three combined for 1,619 total yards and 12 touchdowns, carrying their owners to fantasy titles. Stewart was rostered in plenty of leagues at the beginning of the season, but Harrison and Charles were not. In fact, those two were owned in less than one percent of all Yahoo! leagues back in September of '09.

It's not as if 2009 was so unusual, either. The previous season, Pierre Thomas(notes) was a one-man fantasy army in the second half. In 2007, it was Earnest Graham(notes) and Ryan Grant(notes). If you're going to steamroll your league in December, go find some fresh legs. The guy who wins you a fantasy title probably won't be the same player who led your squad in October.

The player pictured above, Carolina running back Mike Goodson(notes), is a solid candidate to be this year's Harrison. (That's not to say he'll ever have a 286-yard game, because that was absurd. But he's fresh, ready to serve). Goodson has topped 100 total yards in three straight games, yet he's still available in 57 percent of Yahoo! leagues. And if Goodson isn't the guy, perhaps it's Dallas RB Tashard Choice(notes) (3 percent owned), a guy who's barely been a rumor this year. He figures to finally make an appearance in the box score, with Marion Barber(notes) sidelined by a calf injury. Other candidates include Mike Hart(notes), Justin Forsett(notes), Michael Bush(notes), Rashad Jennings(notes), and Ryan Torain(notes) (or whichever back Mike Shanahan selects from the discard pile. Keiland Williams(notes) and James Davis are in the mix, too). Fresh legs frequently win fantasy championships.

Mind your match-ups

By now, you should all understand this one. It's Fantasy 101, the stuff you need to know in order to get your permit. But it's nonetheless our duty to remind you that friendly match-ups can transform ordinary players into stars (think Westbrook on Monday night), or turn legit stars into unstoppable fantasy machines (think Vick vs. Washington).

Here's a quick snapshot of the remaining schedules for the league's most user-friendly pass and run defenses (sorted by yards-per-attempt and yards-per-carry)…

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It's late enough in the season that we can say, with relative certainty, that Jacksonville will continue to struggle against the pass, Indianapolis will continue to struggle against the run, and Arizona will continue to struggle at football. We've identified the lousy defenses; pick on 'em whenever you can.

Clearly the weeks that matter most are 14, 15 and 16 — those are the win-or-go-home weeks for basically everyone. Teams with inviting schedules in the biggest weeks include Denver (ARI, OAK, HOU), Oakland (JAC, DEN, IND), Tampa Bay (WAS, DET, SEA), Indianapolis (TEN, JAC, OAK), Washington (TB, DAL, JAC), Miami (BUF and DET in Weeks 15-16), Dallas (WAS and ARI, 15-16) and Green Bay (DET and NE, 14-15).

So that's a bunch of teams. The point is, you'll want to begin to script the final weeks, because they'll be here soon. Don't get blindsided by a match-up with, say, the Chargers (KC, SF, CIN), Jets (MIA, PIT, CHI) or Steelers (CIN, NYJ, CAR) in a critical week.

[Video: Running backs to start in crucial Week 13]

Depth doesn't matter, not anymore

At the beginning of the season, with all the injuries and bye weeks ahead, depth is a big deal. It's terrific. Depth carries your team, makes possible all those ugly 88-86 wins at mid-season. But in the end game, roster depth declines in importance — all those benched stats in Week 16 are simply wasted resources. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the last time we Tip Drilled, it's usually best to swap your depth for elite fantasy talent as the season grinds on. When the fantasy playoffs arrive, you don't need a loaded bench; instead, you need the best possible starting lineup.

This is really the time of year when you should care about handcuffing (depending of course on the quality of the players involved). If you're a Darren McFadden(notes) owner — and you're excitedly eyeing the Raiders' playoff schedule above — then it's ideal to have Michael Bush available as an insurance policy.

If the fantasy playoffs arrive and you're suddenly stumped by sit/start dilemmas, then there's a decent chance you didn't plan ahead, that you failed to identify your probable lineup in advance. If by some odd chance your league still allows you to trade this late in the year — I'm in three such leagues; it's maddening — then you still have time to empty the bench. By all means, do it.

Before we release you to the final weeks of your fantasy season, there's just one more topic that needs to be discussed…

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Let's talk about the weather

If you were to sift through my email in mid-to-late December, you'd find — in addition to the usual threats, insults, supplement offers, polite queries from Canadians — dozens of questions about the weather. As if I'm qualified to discuss it. (Accredited fantasy expert, yes. Accredited meteorologist, no). In the final weeks, weather becomes the dominant topic.

If you tune into Fantasy Football Live in Week 16, you'll see it for yourself. It's almost surreal. Fantasy experts breaking down storm systems, tracking blizzards, monitoring snow accumulation, wind speed. (To his credit, Brad Evans actually has an advanced degree in something weather-related. He can talk barometric pressure. The rest of us are faking). But the fact is, NFL teams don't generally change gameplans — veering away from the things they've done successfully all year — because the mercury drops, or snow begins to fall.

For example: Does anyone happen to recall the time that Matt Schaub(notes), a warm-weather quarterback, threw for 400-plus yards in single-digit temperatures at Lambeau? If you benched him, I'm sure you remember. Or how about Tom Brady's(notes) 380-yard, 6-TD afternoon in the snow?

My usual rule of thumb regarding bad weather, based on years of overreaction, is that field conditions shouldn't trump factors like skill and match-up — not unless we're talking about extreme weather event. If flights are grounded, if schools are preemptively closing, if people are hoarding food and checking on the elderly, OK. Perhaps you'll want to consider sitting your fantasy quarterback. High winds can be a big deal (30 mph or more), but light winds are not. Rain is OK, as long as we're not talking about a monsoon. It's nice to have a dome-dwelling kicker, I suppose, but it's even better to have a kicker tied to an elite offense.

Awesomely enough, the folks at Weather.com have a specific page dedicated to NFL gameday conditions. Bookmark it. Don't ask a fantasy guru about the flurries in Foxborough; ask a weather professional. I'll tell you to play your talent, play your match-ups.

Now let's go get a ring, gamers.

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Photos via AP Images

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