The NFL might be the most fluid of our major sports (and our major fantasy sports). Don't write too many opinions down in pen; you might feel very different in a month, or two weeks, or two hours. That's just the nature of the beast.
With that in mind, crunching running back strength of schedule comes with a whole bunch of caveats. A laughable sieve in the first half of the year might not be so bad in December (hello, Buffalo). On the flip side, Minnesota's run stopping looked a lot better in the first quarter than it does right now.
And when we analyze outlier talents at running back, the superstars and the scrubs, strength of schedule might be completely irrelevant. Right now I'd start Adrian Peterson against the second coming of the 1985 Bears, even if you allowed the defense to use 15 players per snap. And there's no matchup juicy enough to make me want to try Peyton Hillis or Rashad Jennings. Let's keep this exercise in perspective.
The schedules are ranked from easiest to hardest. You want to be on the top of this list. And the ranks are only tied to the schedules; they have nothing to do with the skill players (or offensive lines) on tap.
Running Back Strength of Schedule, Weeks 14-16
1. Bears: @MIN, GB, @ARI
2. Texans: @NE, IND, MIN
3. Lions: @GB, @ARI, ATL
4. Rams: @BUF, MIN, @TB
5. Giants: NO, @ATL, @BAL
6. Buccaneers: PHI, @NO, STL
7. Panthers: ATL, @SD, OAK
8. Bills: STL, SEA, @MIA
9. Titans: @IND, NYJ, @GB
10. Jaguars: NYJ, @MIA, NE
11. Packers: DET, @CHI, TEN
12. Chiefs: @CLE, @OAK, IND
13. Broncos: @OAK, @BAL, CLE
14. Cardinals: @SEA, DET, CHI
15. Redskins: BAL, @CLE, @PHI
16. Seahawks: ARI, @BUF, SF
17. Dolphins: @SF, JAC, BUF
18. Bengals: DAL, @PHI, @PIT
19. Jets: @JAC, @TEN, SD
20. Chargers: @PIT, CAR, @NYJ
21. Niners: MIA, @NE, @SEA
22. Steelers: SD, @DAL, CIN
23. Falcons: @CAR, NYG, @DET
24. Cowboys: @CIN, PIT, NO
25. Saints: @NYG, TB, @DAL
26. Eagles: @TB, CIN, WAS
27. Colts: TEN, @HOU, @KC
28. Raiders: DEN, KC, @CAR
29. Browns: KC, WAS, @DEN
30. Vikings: CHI, @STL, @HOU
31. Patriots: HOU, SF, @JAC
32. Ravens: @WAS, DEN, NYG
A few notes about the team defensive rankings with respect to giving up fantasy rushing production.
-- Better Than You Might Think: Giants, Bengals, Browns, Eagles, Dolphins.
-- Worse Than You Might Think: Vikings, Seahawks, Packers, Falcons.
-- Staunch, As You'd Expect: Texans, Steelers (also lockdown against pass catchers), Jets, Niners.
-- Bad, As You'd Expect: Raiders, Titans, Saints.
-- Close To Neutral: Redskins (everyone prefers to throw on them), Lions, Chiefs, Cardinals.
With the general team comments out of the way, let's examine some specific players.
• Forte's the logical lead at the top as the Bears have the best remaining rushing SOS per the special sauce. The Vikings might not be a true giveaway on a per-snap basis, but the problems with Minnesota's offense (looking at you, Christian Ponder) have allowed opponents to pile on the volume. Forte's ordinary history with Green Bay deserves consideration (h/t, Andy Behrens), but if the Packers don't heal quickly, maybe that's not a big issue.
• No one needs a nudge with Arian Foster, obviously. He's not having a dynamic per-snap season either, but the team feeds him at the goal and plays with a lead more often than not. (Ben Tate? He was droppable a solid month ago, gamers.)
• I want to buy in with Mikel Leshoure, but Joique Bell just won't go away. Then again, every week I try Bell as a desperation flex it turns into one of the weeks he's on the Schwartz Double Secret Probation list. Sometimes you can't win.
• I'm eager to see how the Giants handle their backfield going forward (starting Monday night at Washington), because someone needs to scoop up all those short touchdowns that Andre Brown was giving us on a regular basis. Ahmad Bradshaw is decisive enough to run effectively in short yardage, but do the Giants want to subject him to the extra punishment? And how much does the coaching staff trust rookie David Wilson right now?
• The Panthers are No. 7, but I wouldn't start any of their runners on a bet. Although DeAngelo Williams was effective in Week 13 while Jonathan Stewart didn't dress, Carolina only let Williams rush the ball 12 times.
• It should be fun watching Bryce Brown go up against Tampa's top-ranked rushing defense (per the NFL stats, anyway) next week. The Bucs are first in YPC allowed and YPG allowed (the first stat tells you more). It's pretty clear Shady McCoy won't play in Week 14, and I think there's a decent chance we won't see him again in 2012. The Eagles are clearly in evaluation mode right now, especially with Nick Foles confirmed to start the rest of the season.
• The Raiders schedule looked a lot different a month ago, but the Chiefs rushing defense has rallied nicely and the Broncos are a nasty group on all three levels. Throw in the enigmatic Darren McFadden and the mess behind him (just when I bought in on Marcel Reece, he shifted back to a blocking role) and you have a rushing quagmire on your hands. Another par for the worst organization in football.
Feel free to discuss your favorite backfield picks and pans in the comments, and I hope the pre-playoff week was good to you.
Week 13 Takeaways, Observations and Thoughts
• While I'm normally in the "accrue points, ask questions later" mindset for most of the season, when we hit the playoffs my goals become much more specific and defined. You're only looking to beat one team a week and I'll consider upside and floor issues with a slightly finer point. If you think the other guy has the horses, don't be afraid to take some chances, swing for the fences. Maybe it's about matching up a quarterback and receiver. Maybe it's trusting players who are more volatile in nature. You know your rules and parameters better than anyone else.
• I'll argue until the cows come home that Pierre Thomas could be a Top 15 running back if the Saints loosened the reigns. But it's clear they're not going to do this, be it from the Payton Group or the 2012 Temps. I wish I could start Thomas even as a deep-league flex going forward, but we have to learn from the usage pattern. That all said, it looks like the Saints have also given up on Darren Sproles as a ball-carries - he's strictly a satellite player now - so Thomas and Mark Ingram might see some extra rushing work down the stretch.
• The Brandon Myers explosion speaks to how far a player can go on opportunity and trust. While Myers has super hands and good size for a tight end, he's not nearly as athletic as the top players at this position. You're not getting complicated routes from Myers, and he's not really a runaway train after the catch. But so long as Carson Palmer keeps looking his way, especially on those checkdowns, everything is copasetic in our numbers racket. Give me a solid player with a great setup over an elite talent in a bad setup any day (sorry about that, Larry Fitzgerald).
• While Nick Foles isn't likely to be a fantasy hero down the stretch, at least he's played well enough of late to keep the rest of the Philly lineup afloat. Granted, Brown's emergence has helped tremendously. Brent Celek is back on the radar as a TE2, and I don't think the Eagles will be a punching bag down the stretch. That said, I want no part of Jeremy Maclin for the balance of the year; what's done is done and I'm moving on.
• Some will come down hard on the Eagles for hardly using Brown before the McCoy injury, but I think that's a little too easy and convenient. While the club does, technically, see Brown every day in practice, it's very difficult to evaluate backup talent once the regular-season opens. Physical, high-impact practices are a thing of the past, and the aim every week is to prepare the starters and primary players. And heck, McCoy was coming off a monstrous season, a 20-score campaign with over 1,600 total yards. Sometimes a team really won't know what it has until it's forced to play an unknown commodity.
• Let's hear it for Danario Alexander of San Diego, a comeback from out of nowhere. He's been the No. 8 wideout in the Yahoo! Friends and Family League over the last four weeks (modified PPR scoring), posting a 26-437-3 line. That's heady stuff when you consider a few things: he just joined the team in mid-October; he's had multiple knee surgeries (the last number I heard was seven); and Phil Rivers has been a complete mess for most of the year.
The only cold water for Alexander is the schedule going forward: San Diego closes with the Steelers, Panthers and Jets, and the cushy Oakland matchup doesn't return until Week 17 (irrelevant in most pools). Thus, we have to consider Alexander a matchup guy and not a set-and-forget option. That said, he's easily the best of the bunch on this club (so long as he stays healthy), and I'll probably need to play him in a few playoff games this week, even against the nasty Steelers. Keep doing what you're doing, DX. (PM Update: Now that Ike Taylor is out 3-6 weeks on the Pittsburgh back line, that matchup isn't as intimidating. I still respect this group overall, but obviously Taylor is a notable loss.)
• I get asked every week when Maurice Jones-Drew might be coming back, or Darren McFadden, or Shady McCoy. All I can do is make the same educated guesses that you can. But keep one key point in mind: when non-contending teams have a major player with this sort of multiple-week injury, what's the incentive to rush the star back for some meaningless December activity? Every situation is different of course, and sometimes a proud athlete will force the issue and demand back into the mix, but when in doubt in this sort of context, I'm going to keep my expectations very low.
• Generally speaking I find player-versus-team history to be overrated and often irrelevant, but if you've going to put any stock in it, limit your searches to the teams that face each other twice a year. We'll be looking at plenty of divisional rematches over the final month — and Week 17 is exclusively games of that definition — so now is a good time to embrace the theory, at least with teams that offer some continuity. Wes Welker nods his head in approval; as discussed on Sunday, he's owned Miami over the years. A shame the rematch won't come until the season finale.