Last week I stressed the importance of playing it safe at playoff time, of sticking with the guys that got you to the show and putting your best talent in the lineup regardless of matchups. A week deeper into win-or-go-home land, I'm struggling mightily with that premise at the most crucial position in football-real and fantasy. In two leagues - one in which I face my brother for a shot at the Super Bowl - I own Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. I've been fortunate enough to get into the semi's based on the strength of my other positions, but have barely won games as Rodgers has been outscored (significantly, I might add) in several weeks by Wilson on my bench. Now comes a meeting with a back-against-the-wall Bears team in Soldier Field, and I'm faced with an unthinkable decision on which my season may ride. To bench or not to bench Aaron Rodgers? That is somehow a legitimate question.
With just five touchdowns and four turnovers in his past four contests, Rodgers, an undisputable All-World talent, is begging to be benched. If your team has scratched it's way this far with him in your lineup, it's either stacked elsewhere or extremely fortunate. Chances are the competition at this point is too stiff to win with another line of 219 yards, one TD and one pick, which the reigning MVP has done twice - once three weeks ago in New York and way back in September against the very Bears he's about to meet again. One or two bad weeks is an exception, but four consecutive is a trend, and Rodgers is trending far enough down that he must be considered seriously for the bench, particularly given his rough matchup.
The Rodgers dilemma aside (and the Larry Fitzgerald tragedy), all other studs belong in the starting lineup. Don't expect Drew Brees to fall on his face for a third consecutive week with the Bucs' 32nd ranked pass defense - against which he tossed four touchdowns against in Week 7 - coming to town. It's one thing to be cute, and another to be crazy. Rodgers' problems are unique from most other quarterbacks, and his situation doesn't look to improve against an aggressive Bears defense that plays Cover 2 (which has killed Green Bay this year) as well as anyone. At the other skill positions the formula for making those pivotal start decisions remains a simple one: talent plus touches/targets equals start.
No. 2 QUARTERBACKS
1. Carson Palmer vs. Kansas City - Palmer is the king of garbage time. During the Raiders' six-game losing streak he's thrown for at least 270 yards and two scores in five of six contests. This week, he'll get to remember what it's like to play with a lead as he torches the last team Oakland defeated and the worst pass defense in the NFL in terms of yards per attempt and passer rating allowed.
2. Ben Roethlisberger at Dallas - Teams have had little trouble running the ball on Dallas the last three weeks, as the Cowboys have been rolled for 481 yards on the ground in that span. If the Steelers can get Jonathan Dwyer going on the ground that will set up Big Ben for play-action to his speedy deep threats and open up the middle of the field for Heath Miller to slip past linebackers pressing the box. With or without an effective run game, this must-win type of game is what Roethlisberger thrives on, so expect one of his sharper performances of the season now that he's proven his arm is healthy.
3. Russell Wilson vs. Buffalo (at Toronto) - Wilson's five-game streak of games with multiple touchdowns came to a halt despite Seattle hanging 58 points on the Cardinals last week, but that was more a result of the immense blowout nature of the game than Wilson's play, which was extremely efficient. The Seahawks aren't likely to find the same resounding success this Sunday despite a bad Bills opponent. Seattle is simply not going to dominate away from home, and though the Seahawks may run the ball a good amount versus Marshawn Lynch's former team, Wilson will still get his opportunities to score. Count on him getting in the end zone given the poor Bills defense and how easily the run will set up the pass.
4. Colin Kaepernick at New England - After seeing the Patriots decimate a very good Texans defense, it seems a safe bet they'll be able to move the ball on the Niners in Foxboro. If Kaepernick is forced to throw it more than usual he should be able to find the end zone for the first time in a couple games with his arm. And of course he always has those wheels to rip off chunks of yardage on the ground if New England lets him escape the pocket.
5. Matt Schaub vs. Indianapolis - Schaub will not have as difficult a time facing a Colts defense that will have to sell out much more than New England to slow Arian Foster and the Texans' run-heavy attack. That means the play-action will work this time around.
6. Brandon Weeden vs. Washington - The Skins are tied for the most passing scores allowed with 27 relinquished and have only limited division rivals Eli Manning and Nick Foles - the latter in his first career start. Weeden hasn't done much damage since a hot streak in October, but if you're hurting at QB and need to start two, you could do worse.
7. Chad Henne vs. Miami - If Cecil Shorts returns from his concussion, Henne is worth a look in deeper formats. Without his top weapon he struggled versus what is still a very good Jets pass defense, but drawing a 25th-ranked Miami unit gives him a nice shot to bounce back. Again, that's ONLY if Shorts suits up.
1. Joique Bell at Arizona - After disappearing for a brief period in November, Bell has returned to posting his usually solid yardage totals. Despite limited touches, Bell has at least 9.5 points in each of his last three games. A Cardinals defense that's allowed four 100-yard rushers in three weeks and has been ground into dust recently figures to present little threat of stopping Bell's streak. In fact, if the Lions build an early lead, Bell may be one of the sneakier plays of the week.
2. Bilal Powell at Tennessee - Four games, four touchdowns. Powell has run it well and been the Jets' preference near the goal-line in recent weeks. With New York having an extremely limited passing game, the second-year back is a sure bet for double-figure carries, and facing a weak Titans run D in a must-win game Powell could post a career day yardage-wise.
3. Alex Green at Chicago - Green has now averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry in three of the last four games in which he's seen double figure attempts. Coincidentally, the Bears yield 4.5 yards per tote and have been run on with great success in recent weeks (though they've faced five 1,000-yard rushers). The Packers might work a committee approach, but Green will be the headliner and figures to see upward of 15 touches every week. If the weather in the Windy City is dreary (as expected) and Aaron Rodgers continues to struggle through the air, don't be surprised to see a heavy dose of Green versus a Brian Urlacher-less Bears defense.
4. Jason Avant vs. Cincinnati - With Nick Foles getting considerably more comfortable in the Philly offense the last couple weeks, Avant has become a big part of the passing game. And with the strong likelihood that a bad Eagles D will force Philly to play from behind once again, Avant may post a solid encore to his 133-yard explosion last week despite a tough Cincy secondary.
5. Josh Gordon vs. Washington - Gordon has seen a healthy diet of targets in recent weeks (34 in four games) and is starting to look like more than just a deep threat, as evidenced by his past two games with six and eight grabs for 116 and 86 yards respectively. Facing a Skins defense that's given up a ton of yards (289 per game) and touchdowns (27 on the year) through the air should translate to another prime performance for this special athlete.
6. Justin Blackmon at Miami - Blackmon's numbers have been limited the last two weeks but those struggles were highly circumstantial. A rain storm and an Antonio Cromartie blanket held him to 66 yards in two weeks, but that dip in production figures to come to an end versus a Miami team giving up more than 250 passing yards a week. The Dolphins have been strong versus the run, so when the Jags falter on the ground they'll turn to the pass early and often, which will translate into big target numbers for Blackmon whether Cecil Shorts returns from a concussion or not.
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