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Attaching the expression "always expect the unexpected" to the most critical week of the fantasy season may seem cliché, but it's unmistakably applicable.
Because four years ago the unexpected really did happen.
A cloaked gunslinger named Billy Volek, with ammunition draped across his chest and grenades strapped to his waist, commanded the attention of the fantasy community over an unforgettable two-game stretch.
Cast as Steve McNair's backup for much of the season, the occasionally-used No. 2 had performed admirably when thrust into the starting role. Filling in for the brittle McNair for four games during the fantasy regular season, he averaged a rock solid 253.3 passing yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game.
However, no one could've predicted the unthinkable events that unfolded next.
With McNair in street clothes, the thin, accountant-faced quarterback, who could've played Anthony Edwards' character in "Revenge of the Nerds," morphed into an indestructible fantasy Rambo. His back-to-back 400-yard games and nine combined touchdowns (1 rush) against Kansas City and Oakland during Weeks 14 and 15 helped risk-taking managers advance deep into their playoffs. Although for those of us who battled Drew Bennett backers in Round 1, his legendary contributions unbelievably were not enough.
This holiday season, Cassel will perform on the field and on the stage in the Boston Philharmonic's version of the "Nutcracker"
This year, another unknown backup with Volekian tendencies has emerged from the depths of obscurity. His name: Matt Cassel.
Just four weeks ago the conservative Patriots tosser was for all intents and purposes a mediocre benchwarmer to most owners and fanalysts, including yours truly. His 200 passing yards and 13.8 rushing yards per game averages and 7:7 TD:INT split in nine games prior to Week 11 was terribly bland. To most, the White Cassel was as tasty to owners as processed miniature burgers are to sober patrons.
But on a primetime platform Week 11 versus the Jets, the quarterback who hadn't started a game since high school prior to this season suddenly mutated into the Abominable Statistical Snowman of the North. On a chilly night in Foxboro, he threw for 400 yards, rushed for another 62 and hurled three touchdowns. His epic 38.2 fantasy point output not only established a new QB benchmark in scoring for Week 11, but also the entire season. Many thought Cassel's performance was nothing more than an aberration.
But the following week, he went all Volek on Joey Porter's ass.
Proving that he's a highly adaptable creature, New England's Bumble played vibrantly under the steamy South Beach sun. The rapidly ascending QB threw for 415 and three touchdowns and powered his way into the end-zone for another score. For those who started the hot hand, his sensational 40.2 fantasy point day almost single-handedly destroyed the competition. Meanwhile, he became the sixth player in NFL history to post consecutive 400-yard games, joining Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Phil Simms and, appropriately, Volek.
Afterwards the media couldn't avoid hyperbolic comparisons to Tom Brady. And Cassel's teammates couldn't stop gushing about how their quarterback was the best in the league, as Pats left guard Logan Mankins remarked:
"You can't say enough about how good Matt's playing right now. He's putting the ball on the money. Some of his best throws have been dropped. (The Dolphins) couldn't stop us. I'm not sure there's another quarterback in the league I'd rather have right now."
However, last week, in a pivotal AFC clash with Pittsburgh, fantasy's latest "it" player was clubbed over the head by a group of menacing iron workers. Pressured repeatedly by mad genius Dick LeBeau, Cassel was swarmed under by a sea of black. He completed just 48.7 percent of his passes for 169 yards and committed four turnovers. For the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fantasy crowd, the bandwagon was quickly abandoned. But most in gray-hooded-sweatshirt land weren't as quick to change their minds, as Randy Moss told the Boston Globe:
"Any given Sunday, anything can happen. I think the last couple weeks, from an offensive standpoint, people – the media, the fans – have seen what Matt Cassel has done with the offense and, from a certain stance, people think we're riding high. But football is football. Once we came out in the second half, a couple bad things happened and it trickled on down. Part of being a professional is being able to play through adversity and let the bad go and make something positive out of it."
The White Cassel will lead
Cassel's progression from ultra-conservative game manager to bullet-firing gunner over the course of 10 weeks was a dramatic transformation. Prior to last week's debacle, his check-downs, coverage reads and opportunistic legs had steadily improved. More importantly, his renewed cadence with Moss opened up the playbook, which created exploitable opportunities downfield. Pittsburgh's aggressive defense is the best in the league at confusing young quarterbacks so it wasn't a shock the strides he made vanished in a flash.
Naysayers contend Cassel's phenomenal two-game stretch is anomalous. Viewing it from a historical perspective, it was. But based on his very favorable matchup this week in Seattle, the 51-percent started passer is someone who must be activated in all formats. Only a handful of fantasy megastars (e.g. Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers) will likely accumulate more points.
Aerial-centered offenses have run roughshod through Seattle's porous secondary. Since Week 9, the Hawks have surrendered 298 passing yards per game and eight air strikes to QBs, equal to the most fantasy points allowed. They've also conceded the most 20-yard pass plays in the NFL this season. Tony Romo's elusiveness and sharp accuracy proved problematic for John Marshall's aggressive defense last week (331 yards, 3 TDs). Considering Cassel is built from a similar mold, he will be highly productive, especially in situations when Moss matches up one-one-one with 5-foot-11 corner Marcus Trufant.
Sure, another 400-plus yard performance seems unrealistic. But, as we learned previously from Volek, unexpected occurrences lurk behind every corner this time of year.
Unlike Brady, who shockingly floundered in the fantasy playoffs last year, Cassel won't crumble.
Week 14 Fearless Forecast: 29-44, 327 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 25 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown
Here are this week's flames, lames and stars of video games:
Each week the Noise highlights five somewhat obscure, unobvious names who he believes are destined for flame madness or lame sadness. In honor of waiver wire hero Ron Dayne's legendary three-game dominance late in '06, the "Shocker Special" segment spotlights one player owned in less than a third of Yahoo! leagues who is poised for instant greatness. The Noise, an accountability advocate, will tally his hits and misses and post the results, whether genius or moronic, each week using the scoring system listed at the end of the lames segment.
*BNRK = Big Noise weekly position ranking
*Y!% = Percentage owned, started in Yahoo! Plus leagues
|Week 14 Fantasy Flames|
|Matt Ryan||QB||8||94, 44|
|Lowdown: Saunter down Bourbon Street this weekend and you're liabel to see fantasy fanatics tossing multi-colored beads at a bare-chested Ryan. Over the past few weeks, the rookie has continued to defy conventional wisdom. Since Week 9, he's averaged a healthy 236.8 passing yards and posted a very respectable 6:1 TD:INT split. Aerial blood brother Roddy White, can't say enough about Ryan's rapid progression, "He goes out there and he's poised. He's a confident guy and he makes the throws. He can make every throw in this league. That's a big part of it. He's great at reading defenses and getting the ball to the right people. We go out and practice things and it translates into the game. He's doing a good job getting the ball out of his hand. If he keeps doing what he is doing, he can't do anything but get better." This week, look for the Big Chill to take another major developmental step. Over the past five weeks, New Orleans has ranked in the bottom five of fantasy points yielded to QBs. Also recall in Atlanta on Week 10, Ryan threw for 248 yards and two scores against the pliable Saints, his second-best fantasy effort of the season. Jason David has played surprisingly well since Mike McKenzie suffered a season-ending injury four weeks ago, but this is still a vulnerable secondary that doesn't match up favorably to Roddy White or Michael Jenkins. Trust Ryan over marquee names Donovan McNabb (at NYG), Tony Romo (at Pit) and Philip Rivers (vs. Oak).|
|Fearless Forecast: 21-37, 252 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions|
|Pierre Thomas||RB||13||80, 33|
|Lowdown: The Noise's harbored feelings for Thomas are borderline restraining-order worthy. Expected to see an increased workload with "diuretic" Deuce McAllister suspended the rest of the season, the PT Cruiser should continue to roll this week versus Atlanta. Over the past four weeks, Thomas has averaged 4.9 yards per carry, 94.8 total yards per game and scored four times, equal to the eighth-best fantasy points per game output among RBs. Last week, with Reggie Bush still rounding into shape, Saints head honcho Sean Payton felt the former Illinois standout was his most productive back in Tampa, "I thought Pierre was really playing the best for us, most consistent … Pierre by far, or by and large, was our best option on the first- and second-down snaps." Now that Deuce is out of the picture, Thomas will be the Saints' exclusive goal-line option. Combine that with Bush's inconsistencies and his owner's should anticipate at least 15-20 touches going forward. Atlanta has performed marginally against the run since Week 9 surrendering 4.4 yards per carry, 109 total yards per game and five touchdowns to plowshares. Because Drew Brees will likely have ample success through the air, it's conceivable the 23-year-old will be a multi-TD performer in Week 14. Trust him as an RB2 in all 10-team and deeper leagues.|
|Fearless Forecast: 15 carries, 66 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 22 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns|
|Chester Taylor||RB||21||64, 12|
|Lowdown: The Minnesota Moses is poised to part the Detroit River. The Purple Jesus' biblical accomplice has accumulated appreciable stats when provided opportunities, averaging 60.8 total yards per game and totaling three touchdowns since Week 9. Prior to last week's clash with Chicago, Vikings sideline chief Brad Childress said Taylor will be featured more prominently down the stretch in order to keep Adrian Peterson fresh. Per the Pioneer Press, "As we go through the rest of the year, you're going to see us change up with Chester. He's fresh. I want to keep Adrian fresh, so you're going to see him in there more and more." Based on the very user-friendly matchup, Taylor could see his highest tote total of the season. Defensively, the soon-to-be infamous Lions are a train-wreck. Over the past five weeks, they've surrendered 5.8 yards per carry, 213.8 total yards per game and 11 touchdowns to rushers, equal to the most fantasy points allowed. The Cheetah only tallied 54 total yards on eight touches against the Hello Kitties back in Week 6, but given his expanded workload, he should be counted on as a strong Flex option in all formats, especially PPR-heavy leagues. Clinton Portis owners with Taylor on their bench are strongly encouraged to roll the dice.|
|Fearless Forecast: 13 carries, 71 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 24 receiving yards, 1 touchdown|
|Amani Toomer||WR||19||74, 32|
|Lowdown: Whenever a Glock discharges in the sweatpants of a star athlete in a liberal state with strict gun laws, someone stands to benefit. The beneficiary in the Plaxico Burress debacle is undoubtedly Toomer. Overnight, Domenik Hixon became the hot free agent ticket, but the 34-year-old veteran is the true must-add Giants receiver. Despite his advanced age, Toomer, who apparently is familiar with contorting his body in the downward-facing dog pose, has performed respectably this year. The seasoned wideout credits his continued success to challenging his groin to stretch into uncompromising positions, "I can do everything that I did when I was younger. I think going through yoga and doing a lot of the stuff that I do in the off-season has definitely helped me. The experience actually helps me as well because I think I am doing pretty well." Over the past two weeks, it seems Toomer has sipped from the Fountain of Youth. During that stretch he's caught nine passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Targeted often in the red-zone by Eli Manning, the crafty wideout should post another fruitful effort against Philadelphia. The Eagles have yielded four 60-yard games and seven scores to receivers since Week 9, equal to the ninth-most fantasy points conceded. Start the ageless wonder as a WR3 in all 12-team and deeper leagues.|
|Fearless Forecast: 5 receptions, 67 receiving yards, 1 touchdown|
|Devin Hester||WR||18||49, 17|
|Lowdown: This week, Obi-Wan Eight's furry Ewok-sized companion is destined to gather plenty of fantasy points. The loss of premiere cover corner Rashean Mathis to a sprained MCL is devastating to an already bendable Jacksonville secondary. Drayton Florence, Mathis' replacement, has been a major financial bust for the organization, severely underperforming this season. Florence's average speed will prove problematic against the rocket-wheeled Hester. Last week, Orton's inconsistencies in Minnesota pushed Lovie Smith over the edge. The normally cool-headed coach spouted off that the passing attack "has to make some strides" for his team to reach the playoffs. Based on the favorable matchup, Orton's, and Hester's, end-results Sunday may finally put a smile on their coach's face. In their past five contests the Jags have surrendered four 60-plus yard WR tallies and six touchdowns. Look for Ron Turner to call a handful of airmail shots downfield to Hester in an attempt to exploit his mismatch with Florence. Owners in 12-team and deeper leagues with questionable starting choices (e.g. Braylon Edwards (at Ten), Santana Moss (at Bal) and Kevin Curtis (at NYG)) should activate the moderately available speedster.|
|Fearless Forecast: 5 receptions, 69 receiving yards, 1 touchdown|
Other Flame candidates: Brett Favre (at SF), David Garrard (at Chi), Peyton Hillis (vs. KC), LenDale White (vs. Cle), Le'Ron McClain (vs. Wash), Mark Clayton (vs. Wash), Laveranues Coles (at SF), John Carlson (vs. NE)
|Shocker Special of the Week|
|Brandon Jackson||RB||32||28, 1|
|Lowdown: This week, Jackson will be a rolling Hickory Farms cheese wheel. With Ryan Grant expected to wear a split on his sprained thumb in practice and possibly during the game Sunday, the "Brick Cheese" is expected to shoulder a larger role, potentially supplanting Grant as the starter. Running for an attention-grabbing 80 yards on 11 carries last week versus Carolina, the second-year tugboat seized the moment, impressing the Packers coaching staff with a number of decisive runs. Per Green Bay running backs coach Edgar Bennett, "When the opportunities came to carry the football, he broke tackles, he showed burst, he showed quickness, he showed patience, he showed vision. That's the result of his preparation – some of the things he went through his rookie year and taking that information and putting it to good use." Mike McCarthy reiterated Monday if Grant is able to grip the ball effectively he will start, but noted he has "no qualms" about playing Jackson in "all situations." Considering the game-time temperature is expected to be a butt-numbing 17 degrees, its likely Jackson will tote at least 12-15 carries. The matchup is also extremely favorable. The Texans have yielded 4.9 yards per carry, 172.4 total yards per game and six scores to rushers since Week 9, equal to the fifth-most fantasy points allowed. Since Jackson's workload is undetermined, he's best suited as a Flex option in 12-team and deeper leagues, assuming his quadriceps injury doesn't become an issue.|
|Fearless Forecast: 10 carries, 52 rushing yards, 2 receptions, 13 receiving yards, 1 touchdown|
|Week 14 Fantasy Lames|
|Donovan McNabb||QB||11||99, 59|
|Lowdown: Whether at home or at the Meadowlands, McNabb will be seeing double this week. Persevering through turmoil, the chunky soup maestro turned the Cardinals into bird stew last Thursday tossing for 260 yards and four scores. The five-time All-Pro said his quick turnaround was largely due to reawaking vintage Donovan, "I kind of went back to the basics of just watching the film and understanding if the opportunity was there to go downfield, take it, and if not, hit the check down, buy time maybe with your legs if you have to. I think that was important. Early on in the season, I went with the old aggressive approach of giving the guys opportunities, putting the ball up there and letting them compete for it and just have them work. I still kept that mentality, but tried to be smart with the ball and just tried to be me out there." Unfortunately, this week the maligned McNabb will rear his ugly face. Since Week 9, quarterbacks have thrown for an average of 215 yards per game and tallied an unappealing 6:8 TD:INT split against New York. Inconsistencies on the Eagles offensive line could prove devastating against the Giants' strong pursuit. McNabb totaled 194 yards and three scores Week 10 versus the G-Men, but in hostile territory the forecast is portentous.|
|Fearless Forecast: 19-37, 189 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 17 rushing yards|
|Steven Jackson||RB||24||100, 58|
|Lowdown: Jim Haslett and Busta Rhymes just can't seem to find common ground. Strapping on pads for the first time in four weeks last Sunday versus Miami, Jackson touched the pill 22 times, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and totaled 110 yards. After the game, Haslett claimed his prized runner "got sore about the 30th play and starting dragging a little bit." Jackson countered he wasn't at all "gassed." Regardless of Jackson's retort, any player who is shelved for a significant amount of time is bound to experience some conditioning issues when he returns. But, despite the disagreement, the underwhelming first-round pick is expected to practice fully by Friday and is expected to receive an increase in reps. Although things are finally looking up for Jackson, he's still a suspect start in 12-team leagues this week. Arizona is a Jekyll and Hyde defense that tends to show its soft side on the road and their sinister face at home, especially to opposing rushers. In five desert games, the Cards have limited visiting plowshares to just 3.4 yards per carry and two TDs. Because St. Louis will likely be buried early, Jackson's workload will most certainly be adversely affected, making him a questionable play in 10-team leagues. Anticipate solid total yardage returns, but pay-dirt will be elusive.|
|Fearless Forecast: 19 carries, 68 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 25 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns|
|Clinton Portis||RB||26||100, 66|
|Lowdown: The Drag Queen of Mean won't do his little turn on Baltimore's purple clad catwalk. Handicapped by an injury menagerie, Portis is currently dealing with a sore hip, knee and a moderately serious neck injury. On Tuesday, Jim Zorn designated Portis a "game-time decision," but based on the rusher's warrior mentality and prior record, he'll likely suit up. Whether he attaches the chin strap or not he's a very questionable start in all formats. Back snacker Haloti Ngata and his trench mates have feasted on opposing rushers, holding them to a mere 106 total yards per game and three scores since Week 9, equal to the fourth-fewest fantasy points conceded. Yes, Portis is a gamer who has a superhuman pain tolerance, but he's simply too risky to trust at such a critical time. Keep in mind he hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 7, and the Ravens haven't surrendered a 100-yard rusher at home in their past 31 games. Sammy Morris (at Sea), LenDale White (vs. Cle) and Tim Hightower (vs. StL) are much safer plays.|
|Fearless Forecast: 22 carries, 78 rushing yards, 2 receptions, 13 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns|
|Andre Johnson||WR||19||100, 98|
|Lowdown: Johnson backers better hope their beloved receiver packed his thermal underwear. Including the forecasted upper-teens temps at the outdoor meat-locker, Lambeau Field, a number of negative factors are working against Johnson this week. For starters, Matt Schaub, who has surely accumulated a thick layer of rust standing on the sidelines for the past five weeks, is set to return. Secondly, Charles Woodson is again expected to play safety in between the 20s this week which means Johnson will have difficulties connecting with Schaub on long pass plays, no matter what side of the field he lines up on. More worrisome, Woodson is slated to switch back to corner to blanket Johnson inside the red-zone, significantly lowering the receiver's odds of crossing the chalk. Finally, the aforementioned frigid conditions could be a distraction for a team used to Southeastern Texas' comfortable temps. Oh, and the numbers aren't exactly in Andre 3000's favor either. Only five receivers have compiled more than 72 yards against the Pack in a game this year. Green Bay has also allowed the eighth-fewest fantasy points to wideouts since Week 9. Of course you're not demoting Johnson in 12-team and deeper leagues, but owners in shallow formats with a plethora of useful options may consider otherwise.|
|Fearless Forecast: 4 receptions, 48 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns|
|Hines Ward||WR||27||99, 89|
|Lowdown: Ward may be able to coax joyful giggles out of elementary school children, but he'll only invoke tears for those who trust him against the 'Boys. Dallas' secondary is nearly back at full-strength. Terence Newman returned to the lineup three weeks ago and rainmaker Adam Jones, who hasn't taken the field since Week 6, is scheduled to see time in dime and nickel packages. More than likely, physical corner Anthony Henry will be assigned to Ward. If he can jam him at the line, which is likely given Henry's size, it's probable the sloth-footed Steeler's wideout will struggle getting into his routes. Statistically, the deck is also stacked against Ward. Against softer defenses over the past two weeks, he failed to eclipse 40 receiving yards in a game. Plus, Dallas has surrendered three touchdowns and only one 60-yard WR performance over the past five weeks. In what will almost certainly be a war of attrition in possible snowy conditions, Ward is due to underwhelm.|
|Fearless Forecast: 3 receptions, 36 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns|
Other Lame candidates: Philip Rivers (vs. Oak), Reggie Bush (vs. Atl), Willie Parker (vs. Dal), Ronnie Brown (at Buf), DeSean Jackson (at NYG), Santana Moss (at Bal), Lee Evans (vs. Mia), Dwayne Bowe (at Den)
SILENCE THE NOISE CHALLENGE
Each week one lucky aspiring fantasy prognosticator is chosen to go toe-to-toe against the Noise. If you want to be a guest "expert" submit your flames, lames (QB, 2 RB, 2 WR/TE) and shocker special (any position) along with a valid email address here no later than midnight central time on Tuesdays. Oh, and please, no long dissertations to justify your picks. All that's required are your player selections and projections. Winners earn a league spot to compete against yours truly next season. Good luck!
Week 14 contestant: Stefano from Palermo, Sicily
Matt Hasselbeck, Sea (vs. NE): 24-39, 232 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception
Dominic Rhodes, Ind (vs. Cin): 13 carries, 61 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 34 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Sammy Morris, NE (at Sea): 19 carries, 126 rushing yards, 2 receptions, 32 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Michael Jenkins, Atl (at NO): 6 receptions, 72 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Matt Jones, Jac (at Chi): 5 receptions, 94 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
JJ Arrington, Ari (vs. StL): 13 carries, 88 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 65 receiving yards 1 touchdown
Peyton Manning, Ind (vs. Cin): 13-19, 145 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception
Brandon Jacobs, NYG (vs. Phi): 14 carries, 49 rushing yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 fumble lost
Thomas Jones, NYJ (at SF): 18 carries, 74 rushing yards, 1 receptions, 9 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns
Terrell Owens, Dal (at Pit): 5 receptions, 58 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns
Santana Moss, Was (at Bal): 3 receptions, 19 receiving yards, 0 touchdowns
Week 13 Results: Jake from Los Angeles
Flames: 3-3, 50.0% (W – Michael Turner, Isaac Bruce, Dustin Keller; L – Chad Pennington, Jonathan Stewart, Hank Baskett (SS))
Lames: 2-3, 40.0% (W – Maurice Jones-Drew, Calvin Johnson; L – Tony Romo, Marion Barber, Eddie Royal)
Noisers YTD - Flames: 40-38, 51.3%; Lames: 32-32, 50.0%; Shocker Special: 6-7, 46.2%
Challenge Winners: (Brian from Dallas, Noah from Kansas City, Bill from Indonesia, Zhen from Shanghai, Elliot from Fremont, Calif., Ryan from Ontario)
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- Matt Cassel