You want to say it’s just a game, but you know it’s much more than that.
Winning a fantasy football championship is more than just the pot of money you’re stealing from your friends. Winning the pretend pigskin trophy brings bragging rights – bragging rights that will allow you to win nearly every argument with your league mates for an entire year.
And for some, including myself, winning a championship is a pride thing. I know that I care more about proving that the hours and hours of studying and reading about the game of football didn’t go to waste. I want to prove – through action (winning) – that I do, in fact, know a thing or two about fake football.
Others need to win because, well, they want to be able to do this to one of their buddies. Yes, those are real tattoos. And yes, thanks to Matthew Berry of ESPN, everyone now knows about the league where the winner gets to choose a tattoo to be permanently pasted on his friend's body.
A fantasy football championship is more than just a game for most because we’ve – society – made it more than just a game. It’s part of what we are, how we function and how we think during the months of September through December. In America, at least.
The game matters, and it’s OK to think that it matters. Just remember that there will always be a next year if you do end up losing. After all, only one winner can be crowned.
Though, let’s just hope this column will lead you to fantasy football gold so you don't even have to think about the "what ifs."
Winning the Ship: Nothing Like It (Solid Starts)
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
Rivers has been consistent, solid and a surprise all season long. This week he’ll be facing numberFire’s second-worst pass defense, Oakland, in a must-win game for San Diego. He hasn’t had a single-digit fantasy performance this year, and there’s no reason to think that he will during championship week.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
I’ve targeted Atlanta’s defense many, many times this season in this very column, so why change now? Kaepernick has just as much upside as anyone in the league because of his running ability, and he’s typically one to take advantage of soft matchups. No one is softer than the Falcons, who have, analytically, the worst professional defense in the country.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite rookie Le’Veon Bell’s poor 3.3 yards per attempt average this year, which has just as much to do with an awful offensive line as it does him, he continues to be one of the safer running back options in fantasy. He has one game with fewer than 10 half-point PPR fantasy points thanks to volume and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Against the Packers this week, a bottom-10 team according to our metrics at stopping the run, Bell should be locked and loaded as a top running back option.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Gore’s seen a nice increase in yardage over his last two games, including a 100-plus yard performance against Seattle in Week 14. Unfortunately, in those games, he wasn’t able to find the end zone, making him nothing more than an RB2 at best.
But like Kaepernick, it’s time to take advantage of the Falcons’ defense. Atlanta ranks 25th in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs this season, and have given up at least 83 running back rushing yards in every game since Week 2 concluded. Gore’s a solid play this week.
Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington Redskins
Garcon finally found the end zone last week, the first time since Week 10. Everyone’s aware that he has at least five receptions in every game this season, but with Kirk Cousins, he seems to have big-play upside, shown by his long touchdown score against the Falcons.
The Cowboys, Washington’s Week 16 opponent, have had their fair of struggles on defense this season, including blowing a 23-point lead against the Packers last week. This matchup shouldn’t scare anyone from playing someone like Garcon.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jackson’s had a nice high-upside WR2 season this year in fantasy, putting up typical Vincent Jackson big performances followed by some duds. He’s scored in each of his last two games, and I think that has a chance of continuing against St. Louis this week. The Rams have the 10th-worst defense according to our metrics, and have allowed the fifth-most wide receiver receptions this season.
Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans
After suffering a concussion a couple of weeks ago, Walker stepped back into his Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense and caught eight passes for 53 yards and a score. The team – the offense – is a different beast when he’s in the lineup, and Walker has built a nice rapport with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, catching 23 balls in his three full games with Fitz since Jake Locker’s injury.
Walker will face the Jags this week, a team that’s allowed the second-most fantasy points to tight ends this year. He could win you some cash this weekend.
Streaming a Quarterback to the Finals: Underrated (Sneaky Starts)
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Though Dalton didn’t look fantastic against Pittsburgh on Sunday night, he still managed to score 19 standard fantasy points, giving him nearly 50 over his last two games. And in Week 16, he should be able to up his production against a Minnesota secondary that’s allowed the second-most points to opposing quarterbacks this year, ranking 30th in our Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points metric. He’s our ninth-best fantasy quarterback option this week.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins
Beware: Our algorithms are smarter than I am, and aren’t fully convinced that Kirk Cousins can get it done this week against Dallas. But if you need a high-upside play, Cousins could be that guy.
The Cowboys have given up some monster days through the air, including last week’s 25-point performance to the middling Matt Flynn. Though their schedule has been tough in terms of opposing quarterbacks, the recent play should give you a little bit of confidence in Cousins this week.
He’s a player you plug in if the rest of your lineup is in need of a spark.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Tennessee Titans
As mentioned with Walker, Ryan Fitzpatrick is a different quarterback with the tight end in the lineup. He completes over 13% more of his passes, and has a 9-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio with Walker suited up as opposed to a 2-to-4 one without him.
The Jaguars aren’t the same Jaguars we saw during the early stages of the season, but they’ve allowed six 20-plus fantasy point performances to opposing quarterbacks over their last seven games. The only reason it hasn’t been every week since Week 8 is because of their performance against Case Keenum back in Week 12.
Fitzpatrick, like Cousins, is clearly a risk, but I think a safer fantasy signal-caller than Cousins given his overall sample size of games played.
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
Denver’s rookie was only able to see three carries in their Thursday night loss to the Chargers, running for -1 yards. However, he was still part of the passing game, catching five balls for 49 yards.
Game flow got in the way of Ball’s volume last week. Entering the game, he had 28 carries over his previous two, including 28.8 total half-point PPR points over that time. Against Houston, an opponent that will probably be crushed by the Broncos early and often this weekend, Ball has a great opportunity to see the volume he did back in Weeks 13 and 14.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
You may feel a little turned off by Bernard’s 13-carry, 33-yard game against Pittsburgh, but Minnesota, Gio’s Week 16 opponent, hasn’t been able to stop opposing running backs this year. In fact, one of Bernard’s strengths – his pass-catching ability – can really be used this weekend to exploit a Vikings’ unit that’s allowed the second-most running back receptions in the NFL this year.
Bernard also saw goal line touches in the Bengals game against the Steelers, which should boost the confidence of his owners in the championship, too.
Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans
Targeting the Jaguars is an easy thing to do, but the trio of Walker, Fitzpatrick and Wright are really worthwhile right now in fantasy football.
Wright blew up last week with 12 catches for 150 yards, and is a lock to start in PPR leagues. He may not find the end zone, but if you need a high-floor guy, he’s your man against a Jacksonville defense that ranks 29th against the pass according to our numbers.
Rod Streater, WR, Oakland Raiders
Streater was still able to catch four passes for 59 yards during Denarius Moore’s return last week, and he’s become the clear top target in the Raiders passing game this year. Moore rotated snaps with Andre Holmes in Week 15, so it doesn’t appear he’ll hurt Streater’s value (which I wrote about before the season started, if you’re interested.)
Streater should be able to exploit a San Diego secondary that’s been pedestrian all year, despite a nice performance last week against the Broncos. And because the Chargers can score, I’d expect the Raiders passing offense to be able to see high enough volume to make a guy like Streater fantasy relevant this week. We have him pegged as a low-end WR2 play in 12-team leagues.
Ryan Griffin, TE, Houston Texans
There’s a chance that Garrett Graham doesn’t see the field again this week with a hamstring injury, giving Ryan Griffin a clear path to start. He, Griffin, caught six passes for 62 yards against Indianapolis last week, and will face a Denver defense that’s allowed the seventh-most fantasy points to tight ends on the year. If you need a deep sleeper for someone like Jordan Cameron, who may not play, Griffin is a good one.
Defense to Start: Detroit Lions (vs. New York Giants)
Getting Beat by Matt Asiata: Unpredictable (Risky Starts)
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan took a good matchup against the Redskins last week and threw it in the trash, totaling just 8.3 fantasy points. He hasn’t topped the 16.1 he put up against Buffalo three weeks ago since Week 7, and is averaging just 11.5 fantasy points per game over his last eight games. Yikes.
There’s no reason to throw him into your championship lineup this week, as he’ll be facing the 49ers. San Francisco has allowed no more than a 14.1-point performance to Drew Brees since Week 8. They’re on fire, and Ryan is most certainly not.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
It’d take a lot for me to bench Drew Brees in the fantasy football finals, but “a lot” could be a road game against the Carolina Panthers.
Brees is dramatically better at home than on the road this year, scoring over 11 fantasy points more per game in the Superdome compared to anywhere else. In a hostile environment against one of numberFire’s best defenses, Brees is someone you may want to stay away from this week if you have a better option, as he has a lower floor than he typically does.
Steven Jackson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Jackson’s disappointing season turned around a bit over the last four weeks, but mostly due to rushing scores. He still hasn’t topped 84 rushing yards this year, and is coming off a 15-carry, 38-yard day against an average-at-best Washington rush defense.
He’s touchdown dependent to say the least, and will be going up against a San Francisco squad this weekend that’s allowed just four running back scores since Week 3 ended. Nope, he's not worth it.
Andre Brown, RB, New York Giants
The Giants runner came through with just 17 rushing yards against a solid Seattle defense, scoring 4.6 half-point PPR fantasy points last week. This week, he’s facing Detroit’s front seven; they rank third against the run according to our metrics, and outside of the “Snow Bowl” in Philadelphia, haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown since Week 4. I’d look for a better option if I could.
Riley Cooper, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Cooper’s boom-or-bust play makes him a risky start every week, which is why I felt the need to mention him in the “Sits” section of this article. In a fantasy championship, unless you really need upside, there’s no reason to slot in a guy who has clearly regressed since tearing up gridiron during Weeks 9 and 10. The matchup is average, and there are probably better, safer options out there.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
As of now, Larry Fitzgerald is numberFire’s 18th-best receiver this week. And I think that’s a little generous from our algorithms, as Fitz – if he does play coming off a concussion – will see Richard Sherman’s Seahawks. I’d stay away if my depth was good enough at wideout.
Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts
Once a plug-and-play tight end, Coby Fleener’s done little to boost fantasy owner’s faith in playing him in their championships. He had a goose egg last week against Houston, and in the two weeks prior, Fleener totaled 81 yards.
His Week 16 opponent, Kansas City, has allowed the least amount of points to opposing tight ends (without factoring in strength of schedule), so there’s a chance that he doesn’t perform once again. Unless there aren’t any other guys off the wire, I’d bench Fleener.
Losing to Justin Tucker in the Semifinals: The Worst (Bad Starts)
Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
There was a two-week period where Palmer looked like a legitimate fantasy quarterback this season, but against formidable opponents, he’s slowly gone back to his mediocre ways. There’s no chance I’d trust him against the league’s best defense this week, especially if the previously mentioned Fitzgerald sits out.
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots
Ridley hasn’t topped his 13-carry, 48-yard Week 11 game over his last four contests, which, coincidentally, came during the same week Shane Vereen showed back up. He’s not seeing the volume, and he’s not scoring touchdowns. Against Baltimore, a team playing much better defensively at stopping the run, I’d run away from Ridley.
Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker, RB, Cleveland Browns
Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to how the carries will be split in Cleveland. And when the opponent has an above average rush defense, you simply stay away.
Nate Burleson, WR, Detroit Lions
The pizza-loving wideout hasn’t come close to the performance he had in his return game in Week 12. In fact, in his three games since then, Burleson hasn’t even combined to reach the seven-catch, 77-yard, one-touchdown line that he compiled against the Bucs. If you’re contemplating whether or not you should start him, let me make it easy for you: Don’t, unless you’re in a deep, deep league.
Defense to Sit: Carolina Panthers (vs. New Orleans Saints)
For any other start or sit questions, visit numberFire’s Questions section and take a look at our weekly rankings.