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Before the season starts, we all have beliefs about which teams are likely to be good or bad and which players belong in the top-10 at their respective positions. By the time the season ends, those beliefs will change quite a bit. We all know this going in, but it's not always easy to pinpoint the exact moment where an initial belief faded away and a new one took hold. These inflection points – where a player or a team was suddenly seen in a different light – are key. The sooner you pick up on them, the more quickly you can react. For example, for Chris Johnson – universally a first-round pick – the Week 1 contest against the Pats was an inflection point. Usually one week isn't enough, but because of its similarity to 2011, it was, in retrospect, an inflection point.
On our Sirius XM show Monday, Brad Evans floated the idea that Andrew Luck would finish as this year's No. 1 overall quarterback based on his performance to date, his receivers, his skills and his easy schedule. I had already put him in my top 10 and suggested he had a 40-45 percent chance of outproducing Aaron Rodgers, but No. 1 overall was particularly bold. Whether or not Evans turns out to be right, it illustrates the point that for both of us, Luck's monster game against the Packers was an inflection point that changed the way we view him going forward. (Incidentally, Brad and I now have a wager from Weeks 6-17. I have Tom Brady, he has Luck).
Two weeks ago, Trent Richardson's performance in Baltimore during the Thursday night game seemed like an inflection point to me. He didn't rack up huge numbers, but the way he was used and the skills he showed made him a top-5 back in my opinion. These inflection points also happen in the opposite direction. Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Tony Romo might not even crack the top-10 QBs were we to draft today. At some point, that change happened, and it was no longer, "Don't worry he'll be fine" and instead "Use him and Andy Dalton according to matchups."
The questions then are how we spot these inflection points early – before they're obvious to everyone looking back, and how we anticipate an approaching inflection point before it occurs. Evans' saying Luck is No. 1 is an attempt to do just that. By now everyone realizes Luck belongs at least near the top 10, but for Luck to go from that status to No. 1 overall would be another major shift. Evans is anticipating that future move and declaring him No. 1 already.
That doesn't mean he's right, and out of principle I took Brady straight up against Luck. But one should at least be doing this exercise – imagining what might happen, what players could change their trajectories dramatically and then position oneself to reap the benefits.
Here are a few players that might be on the cusp of major changes:
David Wilson – I mentioned him last week after some big plays in the return game and on Sunday he ran for a 40-yard touchdown in garbage time. Now that Andre Brown is concussed and Ahmad Bradshaw is coming off a 30-carry game, I'd expect Wilson to get some looks against the 49ers. While that's an ugly matchup against a tough, fast defense, Wilson is dangerous even to them should he find an opening.
James Starks – Everyone's talking about Alex Green, and perhaps rightly so. But he'll cost you a good chunk of FAAB, while Starks, who could return this week, will be cheaper. Starks, who averaged 4.3 YPC last year and caught 29 passes in 13 games, is also the more trusted blocker and could start ahead of Green for that reason.
Mikel Leshoure – He's off to a slow start on a per-carry basis, but Jahvid Best might never play again, and the team has apparently soured on Kevin Smith. Leshoure is the rare workhorse, pass catcher and goal-line back that can still be had for reasonably cheap, especially with the talk of Joique Bell being the team's "game closer," which possibly means something like "he'll get a few carries when the game is already over."
Darren Sproles – I think we're going to see him on the waiver wire in non-PPR leagues pretty soon, and even in PPR, you're not thrilled with a guy who can't be counted on for more than a handful of rushing attempts. Moreover, last year's 6.9 YPC is probably not realistic, so don't bank on 500-600 rushing yards, either.
Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham – Neither has been bad, but both are underperforming expectations slightly, largely due to injuries. Tight ends are a little bit like catchers in baseball. It's great if you have a good one, but usually their upside is limited by the beating they take, so you don't want to invest too much in them. The one exception is Tony Gonzalez, who is off to a monster start and never seems limited by the dual role of blocking and taking hits as a pass catcher. It's always cool when the all-time catch leader at the position is padding his lead by being the catch leader this year. It's like Derek Jeter leading the majors in hits.
Bad Clock Management
Being an NFL head coach is such a demanding, high-profile, high-paying job you just assume most of these guys – particularly the successful ones – are intelligent, capable people who can grasp strategic concepts at least as well and likely much better than your average fantasy owner.
But every week, there are clock management gaffes – apparent to anyone watching TV – that boggle the mind and shock the conscience.
Here are a couple I noticed, though I'm sure there were more:
Andy Reid – The Eagles were up one point with 1:47 left in the game, and the Steelers had the ball 2nd and 2 on their 23-yard line. This is where you let the Steelers score (and incidentally go up five or 7, depending on the conversion, to cover the three-point spread for me), and take your chances with more than a minute and a half to go down the field. While I get that Shaun Suisham can shank the kick, it's 2nd and 2. It's very likely the Steelers have four more downs to run clock and advance the ball for a chip shot, which is exactly what happened.
Mike McCarthy – The Colts had the ball 1st and 10 at the Packers 32 yard line with 1:48 left, down five with a timeout left. Time is clearly not a problem for the Colts. At that point, the Packers – who have two timeouts left – need to consider what happens if the Colts do in fact score. This is an inflection point – of sorts – when the team with a lead goes from running out the clock to suddenly needing to preserve more of it just in case. The Packers didn't use the timeouts and got the ball back with only 35 seconds. Had they used them on defense, they'd have had nearly two minutes and no timeouts. Of course, Aaron Rodgers got them into long field-goal range anyway, but with more time he might have gotten them a good deal closer or even scored a touchdown.
Things to Take Away from Week 5
• I know it was a home game against the Bills, but Alex Smith is a good quarterback. Good decisions, accurate throws and an underrated scrambler. His fantasy upside is probably limited by his defense, but he's more than a caretaker at this point.
• Michael Crabtree is a top-25 WR, while Frank Gore is as washed up as Michael Turner which is not washed up at all.
• The Giants got down 14-0, but this offense is almost never out of it. It's strange saying that about what's traditionally a defensive-oriented franchise, but if and when they get Hakeem Nicks back and David Wilson more involved, it'll be one of the top two or three units in the NFL. It's probably top-5 right now.
• The Falcons won yet another close game against a mediocre opponent, albeit on the road, thanks in large part to RGIII missing nearly half the game. Matty Ice gets his 350 and 2, but with 6.6. YPA and a pick six. Even though they're 5-0, I still wouldn't have them in my top-7 teams to win the SB.
• Incidentally, how many teams would you need to give someone the field in picking the SB winner? I think I'd take five (49ers, Texans, Patriots, Giants and Ravens). But if you want to take four, I'd take the field.
• The Jaguars and Titans have distinguished themselves as league doormats of late. Not merely losing, but losing huge, with no hope whatsoever. Maurice Jones-Drew had a bad game, but can be counted on to produce even in the ugliest of offenses. Chris Johnson, despite the anomaly against the Texans, is on the ropes. I suppose one should trade for him, but what could you offer? Antonio Gates? As terrible as Johnson's been, that probably doesn't get it done.
• The Packers offense just isn't the same, and it's hard to pinpoint what's missing. James Starks wasn't important last year, and while Greg Jennings is a good player, he never seemed like a unique game breaker. The Giants have been fine without Hakeem Nicks, for example, so it's hard to believe a QB of Rodgers' caliber is missing Jennings that much. Is it the offensive line play? The line wasn't great last year, either. RotoWire's Packers' writer Herb Ilk says it's a lot like the first six games of 2010:
"You don't have to go back too far to find a mediocre stretch like this from Rodgers. Look at the first six games of 2010: 10 TD, 7 INT, 14 sacks, 89.7 rating, 23 ppg from the offense. "Rodgers holds the ball too long" and "the offensive line stinks" were the same issues then. "
That team got it together in the playoffs, of course, but how long does it take to fix it this time?
• Andrew Luck has got to be a top-10 fantasy quarterback, right? What are the odds Luck outproduces Aaron Rodgers the rest of the way? 40-45 percent? How about Tom Brady? At this point, is Luck ahead of Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton? At least Reggie Wayne has a decent quarterback getting him the ball for once.
• Of course Shane Vereen got the Pats' first rushing touchdown, even though Stevan Ridley had another great game. I actually sat Chris Johnson (my first round pick) in a league where I had Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw and Ridley. I had a moment of panic while watching at a bar when I couldn't remember whether I had started Johnson or Bradshaw, and that I am writing this article and not defenestrated in a heap of broken glass is proof I started Bradshaw.
• I backed the Chiefs plus five, and while they came through, I have to say Matt Cassel is truly an abominable player for whom to root for. Of course he fumbled at the goal line. Thankfully, the Chiefs know how to play for the cover, and the Ravens know how to kill the clock. Incidentally, Jamaal Charles is getting a massive workload this year, despite coming back from ACL surgery. If you take out the game he left hurt, he's at 24 carries per game. That's a pace for 384.
• You know you've hit rock bottom when you're 3-9 ATS heading into Sunday night and rooting for the Chargers to bail you out on the road in a two-minute drill. I realize the refs made some questionable calls on that drive, but either way, the chances of San Diego showing heart after surrendering that lead were between zero and infinitesimal. And in the event they did score, they surely would have blown the cover in overtime.
Things to Look for in Week 6
• The Giants go to San Francisco for a re-match of the NFC Championship game. The big key is whether they can protect Eli Manning – who took a brutal beating last time.
• The Packers go to Houston with essentially the same issue. Can they protect Rodgers long enough to hit on some big plays?
• The Lions, who are on the ropes, draw a tough matchup at Philly.
• The Cowboys, coming off a disastrous Monday night game and a bye, head to Baltimore.
• The Patriots try to be the first team this year to win (officially) or cover in Seattle.
Beating the Book
Line: Bills +4.5 at Cardinals
I know the Bills just got worked 45-3, and it's their second trip to the west coast in as many weeks. And I don't doubt the Cardinals have a solid defense. But I'm buying low here on a team with arguably the best running game in the league and a defense that should get a respite against a weak offensive line. Back Buffalo who at the very least keeps it close and possibly wins outright.
Prediction: Bills 21 - 17
Last week we lost with the Redskins to put us at 2-3 on the season in this forum and 35-40-2 overall. Last year we went 10-7 in this forum and 124-125 overall. Over the last five years we've gone 50-34 in this space. You can read the full Week 6 column here Surviving Week 6
We got by easily with the 49ers last week, but pretty much everyone survived along with us. Let's take a look at this week's slate:
Home Team in CAPS
* according to OfficeFootballPools.com
** average of the two moneylines
Clearly, there's one team that stands out, and that's Atlanta. While the percent-taken number isn't as reliable as in most seasons because it includes a lot of second-chance pools, I don't think a lot of people used Atlanta so far, so I'm going to assume it's in the ballpark
The question then is whether the relative safety of Atlanta (21 percent chance to lose) is offset by the 54 percent of people taking them. Let's compare them to the 49ers (or Steelers), both of which have a 31 percent chance to lose. That means the 49ers/Steelers are 1.48 times more likely to lose than the Falcons.
And for the purposes of the example, let's use Pittsburgh, as most people have taken the 49ers already. There are 20 percent of pools on the Steelers. That means in a hypothetical 100-person, $10 entry-fee pool, if the Falcons win and Steelers lose, your equity would be $12.50.
But if the Steelers win and Falcons lose, 54 people are knocked out. Your equity would be worth $21.74. The ratio of $21.74 to $12.50 is 1.74. So you're taking on 1.48 times as much risk, but getting 1.74 times as much payout.
That means – if you believe these win percentage and pick percentage numbers, you should take the Steelers. Or especially the Niners if you have them available.
Full disclosure, I happen to be a Giants fan, and I also happen to think the Niners chances of winning are closer to 60 percent, so I'll be taking the Steelers. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when the full article comes out Wednesday night.
Follow Chris on Twitter at @Chris_Liss