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Working the Wire: Separating the Contenders from the Pretenders

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.


With fantasy football over in most formats, it's time to ask ... Who's going to win this year's Super Bowl? Before you answer, check out the list of quarterbacks who have won the Super Bowl in the past 20 years ... Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, John Elway, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, and Brad Johnson. Notice a theme? Put aside Dilfer and Johnson for a moment, and you'll notice every QB on the list is an elite, Hall of Fame QB. (Eli Manning is borderline, but at his current rate, he'll make it.) As for Dilfer and Johnson, they quarterbacked teams with historically great defenses - the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs. Hence, it seems the only realistic way to win the Super Bowl in today's NFL is to have an elite quarterback or an historically great defense. With that in mind, let's evaluate the teams still vying for this year's Lombardi Trophy:

The Pretenders:

Broncos, Jets, Raiders, Titans, Bengals: Andy Dalton might qualify one day, but none of these teams has an elite QB. Plus, if you're still competing for a playoff spot in this year's AFC, you're not a contender. Let's move on.

Texans: You can't play "hide the QB" and win in the NFL playoffs. Heck, the Texans proved they can't "hide the QB" and beat the Panthers or Colts. Their defense rebounded impressively from 2010, but any realistic title hopes ended when Matt Schaub got hurt.

By the way, has there ever been a season when three of the six playoff teams from one conference have *zero* chance of winning the Super Bowl? If anyone besides the Patriots, Ravens, or Steelers represents the AFC in the Super Bowl, it will surprise me more than anything I've seen in the 2011 NFL season.

In that same vein, it's nuts that either the Texans or the AFC's sixth seed (whoever it winds up being) will win a playoff game and advance to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. You may think the winner of the Texans/6th seed game is irrelevant, but remember how the matchups work - if the sixth seed wins, they'll go to New England (presuming a Pats victory in Week 17), giving the Pats a cakewalk to the AFC title game, whereas if the Texans win, the Ravens (presuming a victory in Week 17), will have the benefit of facing the Texans in the divisional round. As I see it, whoever faces the Texans/sixth seed in the divisional round will have a huge advantage, getting to face a patsy while two of the Pats, Ravens, and Steelers beat up on each other.

Falcons: Matt Ryan plus no defense equals not happening. If that's not enough to convince you, look at the likely matchups. If the Falcons wind up as the sixth seed, they'll likely have to win in New Orleans, in Green Bay, and in San Francisco. I wouldn't bet my life on that not happening, but I'd bet Liss's life on it. [Ed. Note: that makes no sense as you'd be risking something of far greater value.]

Ravens: This team is no different than recent Ravens teams, all of which fell short. If anything, the 2011 version has an inferior defense. Yes, the AFC is weaker than usual, and a favorable draw (i.e. the Texans in the divisional round) could push them to the Super Bowl, but I think their best-case scenario is a double-digit loss in the Super Bowl. We saw it from Philip Rivers a couple of weeks ago - an elite QB like Rodgers or Brees will kill them, and Flacco won't keep pace.

49ers: The 49ers defense is historically good against the run, but in a conference with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, run defense is basically irrelevant. The question, hence, is whether Alex Smith's 49ers are an elite defense against the pass, and on that score I think they fall well short. They're good, yes, but normal good, not all-time good. If you disagree, look at the opponents they faced. Mike Vick (416 yards, 2 TDs, 99.5 QB rating) and Tony Romo (345 yards, 3 TDs, 116 QB rating) abused them, Eli Manning played well (311 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs), and Roethlisberger was hurt. Other than that, the rest of the 49ers schedule was padding stats against bad QBs. There's nothing wrong with that, but the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs wouldn't have let Vick, Romo and Manning play so well, and the 49ers need to be on that level to win a Super Bowl with Alex Smith. They're not, so they won't.

Possible, but Unlikely:

Giants and Cowboys: It might seem nuts to eliminate the Ravens and 49ers and keep the Giants and Cowboys alive when one of them won't even make the playoffs. But whoever wins this Sunday will ride momentum and an elite quarterback into the playoffs. We've seen the Giants win a Super Bowl in this type of situation, and I wouldn't put it past Dallas to do so, either. It's not likely, but I just can't eliminate them yet. Look at it this way - if I had to bet that Manning or Romo would win a Super Bowl at some point before retirement, I'd do so.

Possible, but Not Yet:

Lions: Matthew Stafford is a notch below the league's top QBs, but the stats he's posting (4,500 yards and 36 TDs with one game remaining) lend themselves to the argument that Stafford could be starting a Hall of Fame career, much like Brady was when he won his first Super Bowl. It's likely the Lions are too young/immature/inexperienced and need more talent in the secondary, but crazier things have happened. (If you disagree, that's fine, but don't point to the Packers/Lions game on Thanksgiving as support, as Stafford had that finger injury and clearly wasn't himself.)

The Contenders:

That leaves the Patriots, Steelers, Saints, and Packers as the contenders for this year's Super Bowl. One of Brady, Roethlisberger, Brees and Rodgers will add another Super Bowl trophy to his showcase. If you think you know which one, you choose that team, I'll take the other three, and you can have the rest of the field. Fair bet? I'd say so. And that's how I see the playoffs at this point.

Trivia fun: Only two players have rushed for 1,000 yards with three different NFL teams. Name them. (One should be easy, the other more difficult.) Answer below.

Pierre Thomas' touchdown celebration (putting a bow on a football and handing it to a fan) may have been cute, but it's totally inexcusable to use the ball as a prop in a celebration. We all know a 15-yard penalty is coming, so certainly the players do as well. Since it's quite obvious so many of these touchdown celebrations are premeditated (Thomas had the bow inside his uniform), I don't understand why NFL coaches don't stop them from happening. All they need to do is take five minutes on Saturday with their offensive skill players and say "okay, show me the touchdown celebrations you're planning." Anything that doesn't pass muster gets the axe, and any celebrations which the coach didn't pre-approve get a hefty fine.

The Jets haven't beaten a team with a winning record since Week 1, Mark Sanchez has regressed badly, the team is undisciplined, and Rex Ryan keeps writing checks his mouth can't cash. Isn't it time the Jets fire Ryan, bring in an offensive-minded coach, and try to figure out if Sanchez is their QB of the future? I don't think the Jets can afford another year of Sanchez struggling and Ryan blowing hot air.

Have you ever played Madden, started losing badly, put down your controller out of frustration, and then decide not to pick the controller back up? That's how the Bucs have been playing defense the past several weeks.

Initially, I found it weird the Colts veterans were trying so hard to beat the Texans and that Peyton Manning was cheering so wildly on the sideline. But as I thought about it, it struck me ... the veterans are playing for Manning's future in Indy. Yes, the fans definitely want the number one pick, and management may want it (even though they'd never admit it), but the players don't want to rebuild in 2012 with a young QB; they want Manning as their quarterback without distractions from Andrew Luck. As for Manning, he wants the Colts to keep winning so they won't draft Luck, they'll draft a different position (which could help the team in 2012), and he'll get his big bonus in March.

Adrian Peterson's injury makes it clear there is no such thing as a "safe" running back in fantasy football. I'm convinced Rodgers, Brees, Brady and Newton should all be first-round picks next year, and if the fantasy industry doesn't agree with me, I'm going to draft them anyway.

Trivia answer: Willis McGahee (the easy one, since he just completed a 1,000 yard season for the Broncos, having already done so for the Bills and Ravens), and Ricky Watters (49ers, Eagles, Seahawks)

I cut Brent Celek about a month ago in the RW Staff League because I have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and I figured there'd be no scenario where I used Celek. Plus, I wanted the roster spot. Of course, Celek exploded in the ensuing weeks, and my opponent started him against me in the finals. I was really ticked at myself until I realized that my five-second decision to cut Celek paled in comparison to the Broncos' decision to cut Kyle Orton.

Suggesting waiver claims for Week 17 is by far the hardest article of the season, especially since I'm writing it on Monday. Ideally, I'd wait until Friday or Saturday, see the player updates during the week, and set my lineup accordingly. Unfortunately, I don't have that luxury, so here's what sticks out to me right now:

Kyle Orton, QB, Chiefs: Among the teams/players who have been eliminated from the playoffs, I can't think of anyone who will be as motivated as Orton to perform well. Not only is he facing the team that just cut him, but he's also auditioning for a free agent contract. Optimum motivation doesn't always lead to optimum results, but I like Orton's chances of playing well against a struggling Broncos defense.

Joe Webb, QB, Vikings: Christian Ponder got hurt again last week, and Webb took advantage, rallying the Vikings to a victory while throwing for two TDs and rushing for a third. I absolutely love Webb's scrambling ability for fantasy purposes, but it's worth noting that the Bears are a tough matchup for him - they've always contained Michael Vick because their front seven is really fast.

Josh McCown, QB, Bears: I wouldn't be thrilled about starting a quarterback who's played just one game this year and was just signed off the street. That said, McCown wasn't bad against the Packers, and his Week 17 matchup against the Vikings is as good as it gets. My biggest concern with McCown, frankly, is that the Bears seem content to run a lot if they can stay in the game, as they showed last week, and unlike the Week 16 game against the Packers, the Bears will be able to play with the Vikings.

Evan Royster, RB, Redskins: Roy Helu was inactive last week, and it's hard to see why the Redskins would rush him back from his toe and knee injuries for a meaningnless Week 17. If Royster gets another start, he faces an Eagles defense that has been exposed by opposing running backs for much of the season.

Dion Lewis, RB, Eagles: Adrian Peterson's injury may cause NFL coaches to be more cautious with their star running backs than usual. LeSean McCoy has had a terrific season, but with an ankle sprain and the Eagles officially eliminated, check to see if McCoy is active. If not, Lewis could be Week 17's version of Evan Royster, as I suspect the Eagles will want to evaluate Lewis rather than give Ronnie Brown (whom they tried to trade earlier in the year) a bunch of carries.

Toby Gerhart, RB, Vikings: To my surprise, Gerhart has played fairly well this year when Adrian Peterson has been hurt, and he'll get another chance to do so this week against a solid Bears front seven.

Robert Meachem, WR, Saints: Lance Moore has been hurt at various points of the season, including Week 1, when Meachem had 70 yards and a TD, and Week 16, when Meachem posted 75 yards and a TD. If Moore misses this week, Meachem is a decent option for your fantasy team in Week 17. After all, the Saints are still playing to win (they play at 1 pm, and the 49ers don't start until 4pm), and they have a good matchup at home against a bad Panthers secondary.

Earl Bennett, WR, Bears: I've beaten to death the Vikings bad secondary almost as much as NFL QBs have this season. With Johnny Knox hurt, a terrific matchup in front of him, and Josh McCown playing better than Caleb Hanie, expect Bennett to have a serviceable conclusion to his 2011 season.

Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers: Jim Harbaugh has to know the 49ers must play better on offense if they're going to beat the Saints or Packers in the NFC playoffs. Hence, don't be surprised to see him treat Week 17's game against the Rams as a confidence-builder for Alex Smith. Let him throw more than usual, even if it means running up the score - Smith needs to feel good about himself going into the playoffs. Meanwhile, Crabtree has emerged as the 49ers top receiving option the past few weeks, and he scored against the Rams in Week 13.

Jared Cook, TE, Titans: Cook's terrific Week 16 stats (8 catches, 169 yards, 1 TD) weren't completely out of the blue - he had nine catches for 103 yards the week prior. I realize Cook failed to record a single catch in Weeks 13-14, but if you need a sleeper tight end in Week 17, Cook is hot now and seems like the guy.

Anthony Fasano, TE, Dolphins: The Jets are still pretty good against the pass, but their clear weakness is against opposing tight ends. Presuming Fasano returns after missing last week with a mild concussion, he's a better than average bet to score a touchdown.

Bad weather defenses: We haven't seen weather have a big impact on a game so far this year, and I have to think that will change at some point, if not this week then in the playoffs. Watch not just for snow/rain, but for wind, as it's wind that affects the passing game. The Patriots defense would be a nice play in bad weather at home against the Bills, as the Pats need a win to clinch the top seed. The Eagles defense has played well recently and gets the Redskins at home.

Colts D/ST: I think the Colts veterans want to avoid drafting first overall, and that means they'll have to win in Jacksonville this week. Plus, the Colts have played fairly well lately, and Blaine Gabbert hasn't.

Falcons D/ST: If Lions beat the Packers at 1 pm, the Falcons home game against the Bucs at 4 pm will be meaningless, as they'd be locked into the sixth seed. But if the Packers beat the Lions, then the Falcons will have a home matchup against an awful Bucs team and will be fighting for the fifth seed. The difference between the fifth seed and the sixth seed in the NFC is huge, as it's the difference between facing the Cowboys/Giants and the Saints in the Wild Card Round, and if the sixth seed somehow wins, it will immediately have to go to Green Bay. If you can wait for the outcome of Lions/Packers, the Falcons might be a really good play; just make sure you have an alternate option ready.