Steele: Rudy, are you ready champ?
Rudy: I've been ready for this my whole life.
Steele: Then you take us out on the field.
You've clawed. You've scratched. And you've tried to sleep your way to the top of your fantasy league, albeit unsuccessfully. Now, its do or die time.
The opening round of the fantasy playoffs always reminds me of an underdog story that rivals "Rudy." And I played the role of Daniel Rudiger. At least I had hoped.
For most of my 2004 season, my team was repeatedly dealt seven-deuce. Even with Shaun Alexander on roster, each week, it seemed, my opponent's players ingested a cocktail of fantasy steroids, taking out their pimple-faced complexions and fits of rage on the Crunk Juiced Cowbells. Thankfully, with a 6-7 record, I squeaked my way into the playoffs, destined to be the whipping boy of the No. 1 seed.
In a bold, yet brilliant move, I decided to take a chance and started Titans gunslinger Billy Volek over then valued vet Aaron Brooks. Volek had always been one of my favorite super backups and, with Steve McNair sidelined by injury, he was given an opportunity to showcase his talents on Monday Night Football. His opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, ranked dead last in pass defense. My chops salivated.
As the events of the decisive day unfolded, the same sorrowful story took shape. Just like the rest of my season, the competition tallied a hefty margin. Fortunately, my team landed a starry-eyed counterpunch as Alexander ripped Minnesota for 112 yards and a touchdown. By the end of Sunday's games, I had a slim lead of 1.5 points heading into Monday with Volek left to play. My opponent had Drew Bennett. You could say I was Derrick Mason's biggest fan.
In a first half that nearly ended my life, Volek threw three touchdowns of 48, 22 and 7 yards. Unfathomably, they were all to Bennett. Not even a late TD pass to Mason could put me over the top. Bennett's career-day of 12 receptions for 233 yards and three touchdowns trumped Volek's incredible 426-yard, four-touchdown explosion by a lousy two fantasy points. For only the second time in the recorded history of the world, the Noise went silent (Trent Green's preseason injury in '99 was the first). I was devastated.
The moral of the story: It's anybody's game in the playoffs. Be confident.
Outside of the once-in-a-lifetime Volek-to-Bennett prime-time exhibition, here are my top-five most remembered opening round fantasy playoff performances since 2003:
5. 2003: Mike Vanderjagt, Ind, PK
Line: 5 field goals, two extra points
Now he can't even convert a field goal in flicker football.
4. 2004: New England Patriots D/ST
Line: 5 sacks, 2 INTs, TD, FR, SFTY, 134 YA, Shutout
The chowda was peppered with specks of fish in Foxboro as the Pats dismantled Miami.
3. 2004: Matt Hasselbeck, Sea, QB
Line: 226 YDs, 4 TDs
Funston, a diehard Seahawks fan, would kill for a game like that.
2. 2005: Larry Johnson, KC, RB
Line: 26 carries, 143 YDs, 3 TDs, 28 receiving YDs
Grand-Ma-Ma and his gold-plated Depends knitted a Cowboy sweater.
1. 2003: Clinton Portis, Den, RB
Line: 22 carries, 218 YDs, 5 TDs, 36 receiving YDs
Two TD runs of 50-plus and 49 total fantasy points in performance leagues created millions of man-crushes.
WEEK 14 FANTASY FLAMES
Do you want to look like a pigskin prophet? Each week the Noise will dig deep for five no-so-obvious names to turn you into a gridiron guru. Here are this week's flame candidates:
Fearless Forecast: 198 YDs, 2 TDs, INT, 65 rushing YDs, TD
Notes: You know Young would like to say to his critics: "Wonderlic deez!" Arguably the hottest fantasy quarterback around, Young ranks fourth among signal callers in points-per-game since Week 9. Over that span he's averaged 177 passing yards, 49.8 rushing yards-per-game and totaled eight scores (two rushing). This week, the uber-athletic gunslinger returns to his hometown to face a Texans team that has yielded 269.5 passing yards-per-game and four touchdowns over their past four. Young threw for a bland 87 yards and one score, but did manage 44 ground yards and a rushing touch against Houston in Week 8. With the Titans surging and many soft-hearted Longhorns fans in attendance, it will feel like a home game for the rookie.
Fearless Forecast: 244 YDs, 2 TDs, INT
Notes: Even Snoop Dogg would like to get his hands on this Green. Dusting off the mothballs in his previous two starts, Green muzzled the Dog Pound last week completing a precise 75 percent of his passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns. The return of Ray Lewis has greatly improved a Baltimore pass defense killed by explosive pass plays. However, with Grand-Ma-Ma a major defensive priority, look for Green to hook up with main flames Tony Gonzalez and Eddie Kennison for a handful of big gainers. The Ravens have allowed the ninth-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks since Week 11, but my gut tells me Green-er pastures will be found in a must win at Arrowhead.
Fearless Forecast: 18 carries, 82 YDs, TD
Notes: After his Week 13 explosion, "The Entertainer" received enough Big Apple media attention to carry a one-man Broadway show. As the Guiness cartoon scientists would say, Houston was BRILLIANT in Green Bay, rushing for a career-high 105 yards and two scores on 22 carries. A straight-forward tackle-to-tackle 747 with average speed, Houston will continue to be the goal-line bulldozer in the Jets timeshare. The Beefalos have been grilled in the trenches surrendering 177.4 rushing yards-per-game and six ground scores in their past five. With the Jets offense peaking at just the right time, Houston will be worth the price of admission as a No. 2.
Fearless Forecast: 12 carries, 63 yards, TD
Notes: "Boo-Boo" is no longer the sidekick to a quick-witted, kleptomaniac Bear. With Rex Grossman (AKA Park Ranger Smith) anxious to reverse the tables of his repulsive 1.3 quarterback rating, Lovie Smith will lean heavily on the not so bearish combo of Thomas Jones and Benson. The rancid Rams front seven is a major liability for a team clinging to playoff hopes. Since Week 9, the St. Lunatics have yielded 179.2 yards and five rushing touchdowns. Benson's dynamic downhill style will have no difficulties finding fantasy success on 10-15 carries.
Fearless Forecast: 15 carries, 65 YDs, TD
Notes: "Big Daddy" Dayne is set to run, or eat, his way through the Titans in Week 14. Overall, the Titans have improved defensively, but continue to be handicapped by a questionable run defense. Since Week 11, they have given up 122.3 yards-per-game and the 10th-most fantasy points to backs. Houston head coach Gary Kubiak insists Wali Lundy is still the starter, but noted Dayne is his second-half back after he hammered his way to four fourth quarter runs of 10-plus yards against the Raiders last week. Ultimately, Dayne's value is in-game dependent, which means he's a huge risk. However, Houston played well in Tennessee in Week 7, totaling 26 rush attempts and 22 offensive points. If Houston can keep it close, which I think is very possible, Dayne will exceed 15 or more carries and post serviceable flex numbers.
Fearless Forecast: 8 receptions, 85 YDs, TD
Notes: In one of life's great ironies, Furrey is bald. Along with bone polished teammate Jon Kitna, the Mr. Clean D-Town duo will wax the floor with a Minnesota secondary that has yielded four 80-plus yard receivers in their past four games. With Fred Smoot assigned to Roy Williams, Furrey should find success against a struggling Antoine Winfield. The Vikings have given up the ninth-most fantasy points to receivers in their past three and Furrey has eclipsed the 60-yard mark in five of his past six. Coming off his second 100-yard game of the season, he's a superb No. 2.
Fearless Forecast: 5 receptions, 77 YDs, TD
Notes: Since his drunken driving arrest on November 21, a well-behaved Bryant has totaled 20 targets, six receptions, 132 yards and a score. Despite four Pro-Bowl appearances by cornerback Charles Woodson, he and teammate Al Harris have had their troubles in single coverage all season long. With Frank Gore able to pound away at a flexible Packers line, the suspect Green Bay safeties will bite on the run, opening up Alex Smith to take shots downfield. Against a Packers secondary that has yielded a league-high 17 touchdowns to receivers this season, look for Bryant to strike gold with Smith on a couple of giant gainers.
WEEK 14 FANTASY LAMES
Worried about your awful matchups this week? The Noise lists five players that should be relegated to clipboard duty for your fantasy team. Here are this week's lame candidates:
Fearless Forecast: 213 YDs, TD, INT
Notes: As if he were a member of the St. Louis chapter of the Polar Bear Club, the Bulge will have a bad case of fantasy shrinkage against the Monsters of the Midway. Chicago has allowed a league-low eight passing touchdowns this season and only three 200-yard passing performances in 12 games. Nathan Vasher could be sidelined by a pulled hamstring, but nickleback Ricky Manning Jr., and his five interceptions, will slide over to fill the void. Even without Tommie Harris, the Bears should apply copious amounts of pressure on a tender-ribbed Bulger, whose been sacked a whopping 41 times this year. Throw in a 3:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his past four and the stage is set for a Monday night meltdown.
Fearless Forecast: 14 carries, 47 YDs
Notes: With Laurence Maroney concussed early, old man Dillon drank from the fountain of youth and racked his first three TD game since October 2001 in Week 13. Amazingly, it took the Dolphins 11 weeks to surrender three total ground scores. Anchored by Jason Taylor and overshadowed DE Vonnie Holliday, the Dolphins defensive line is one of the best in the business. They have yielded the third-fewest fantasy points to runners and allowed a mere five rushing scores this season. Dillon has a nose for the end-zone, but the inflexible Miami front will not abdicate any wiggle room in the trenches.
Fearless Forecast: 18 carries, 69 YDs
Notes: The feeling a night owl gets after digesting multiple chili cheese burritos is what Taco Tatum will inflict on his backers in Week 14. The return of Mohawk juicer Shawne Merriman last week provided a much needed jolt to a run defense that had become susceptible. Led by Merriman's six tackles, the Bolts limited Willis McGahee to a meager 26 yards on 16 carries. Taco missed the Week 11 clash with their division rival as the Broncos stampeded for 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns. With hole-plugger Luis Castillo possibly back this week from a high ankle sprain, the Chargers are a much more formidable foe this time around. Trust Taco only as a flex option.
Fearless Forecast: 4 receptions, 50 YDs
Notes: The rookie's rough edges cuts Walker like a knife. Experts, including this one, jumped too quickly on the Jay Cutler bandwagon. The youngster clearly showed his inexperience under the spotlight as he made numerous misreads and arrant throws. Walker has failed to surpass the 70-yard mark in four straight and has crossed the chalk only once since Week 10. Conservative play calling by Mike Shanahan, Cutler's misgivings and a revitalized San Diego defense at home, are a disastrous fantasy mix for one of the league's most gifted wideouts. Until Cutler's confidence grows, Walker should be considered bench fodder in shallow leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 4 receptions, 42 YDs
Notes: If Wii owners have yet to break their TVs trying to pick up a 7-10 spare, they will by watching Moss. Hampered by a tender hamstring for nearly four weeks, a healthy Moss exploded in Week 13 snagging seven passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. It was only his second 100-yard game of the season and his second game with a touchdown. Since Week 7, the Eagles secondary has soared, allowing a microscopic 146 passing yards-per-game and five scores. Pumped by a stone-faced Sly Stallone on Monday night, the Eagles jumped right back into the playoff mix and will carry over their hunger versus a Redskins team playing for pride.
Scanning media reports with a fine-toothed comb, the Noise puts his fantasy spin on various tasty tidbits.
On Monday, Lovie Smith remained firm that Rex Grossman will keep the starting job.
Spin: If Lovie Smith reaches for the hook by season's end, Kid Rock and Pam Anderson really meant "Till death do us part" all nine times. Come on people, this is the Bears. They are supposed to win games with defense, not a star quarterback. Remember, Kyle Orton? Jim McMahon?
Grossman's meteoric rise was unforeseen. He stormed out of the gates with a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his first five games, before discarding the ability to make rational football decisions in the desert. Grossman's rapid decline is remarkable. With six interceptions and zero scores in his past two, Sexy Rexy has gone from Jessica Biel to Jessica Tandy in a blink of an eye. Obviously, he cannot be trusted even in the deepest of leagues, but don't go buck wild over Brian Griese just yet. Smith has every intention to stand by his man and work out the kinks. Look for Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner to install safer pass plays for Grossman down the stretch. Abandoned since Week 10, Desmond Clark will be worked prominently back into the offense to help repair Grossman's damaged psyche. Clark could pay instant dividends if he's sitting on your bench. As for Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, they are too much of a risk to be considered anything more than middle-tiered No. 3s in deep leagues.
Anticipate the grizzly ground duo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson to see increased reps. With a string of juicy matchups remaining (at StL, TB, at Det, GB) they could be key components for a championship run. Benson is still available in 73 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
UNLEASH THE BEAST
Upset you don't have a forum to express your disdain for drafting Willis McGahee? Do you question why on earth you're not a fantasy expert? This is the place for you to vent your thoughts, tirades and frustrations. Can you bring the noise?
What the heck is wrong with Phillip Rivers? He doesn't play well against weaker defenses where he should put up great numbers (i.e. Cleveland and Oakland). The guy drives me crazy!
– Larry, Warner Robins, GA
Noise: Rivers inconsistent fantasy production reminds me of Eva Green (Latest Bond girl). Sometimes she looks hot. Other times, she's not worth the price of a shaken, not stirred, apple martini.
Undoubtedly, Rivers, like Eva, is a fantasy two-face. When he's good, he's good. And when he's bad, well, he's stick-your-head-in-a-Super-Bass-O'Matic-76 bad.
In order to fully understand the Rivers rollercoaster you have to separate the positive from the negative.
When Rivers has raged …
WK 2, Ten: 235 YDs, TD
WK 5, Pit: 242 YDs, 2 TD, INT
WK 6 at SF: 334 YDs, 2 TDs
WK 7 at KC: 266 YDs, 2 TDs, INT
WK 8, StL: 206 YDs, TD
WK 10, at Cin: 338 YDs, 3 TDs
WK 11, at Den: 222 YDs, 2 TDs, 2 INT
When Rivers has calmed …
WK 1, at Oak: 108 YDs, TD
WK 4, at Bal: 145 YDs, TD, INT
WK 9, Cle: 211 YDs
WK 12, Oak: 133 YDs, INT
WK 13, at Buf: 160 YDs, TD
Excluding Baltimore, the reason why Rivers simmered in a handful of games this year was due to Marty-ball. Oakland and Cleveland have performed admirably in pass defense this season, but have been spanked by the run. In those contests (and in Buffalo), Schottenheimer clearly wanted to establish a ground attack to take advantage of his opponents' weakness at the cost of Rivers end-game results. LT averaged a combined 24.5 attempts, 137.6 yards and totaled eight touchdowns in those five games. In fact, three of those contests (at Oak, at Bal, at Buf) are the only games this season in which LT has carried the ball 26 times or more. With Denver, Kansas City, Seattle and Arizona remaining, its clear Marty-Ball will likely take a back seat. Unlike the Raiders and Browns, each team can be exploited by the pass.
Based on his schedule, Rivers should average around 220 yards and total 1-2 scores per game from here on out. He won't single-handedly guide you to gridiron gold, but he will be a key piece to the puzzle if your squad has two top-quality backs. If not, my playoff aspirations, like yours, will drown with him.