- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
One of the risks a fantasy owner must deal with when it comes playoff time is that a potentially lopsided real-life matchup will change what we have come to rely on as the normal course of statistics. For example, I think the Pittsburgh Steelers will demolish the lowly Cleveland Browns on Thursday night. If you're a Browns fan, I apologize, but then again, you can make fun of my favorite Dream Team (ahem, the Eagles, ahem) as they sadly tank their remaining games. The Steelers should roll in a mismatch, and it has me a bit worried about Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace and the team's passing game, which was reflected when I ranked those fellows for Week 14.
The Browns don't do a lot well, but only two teams have been better at preventing fantasy points to quarterbacks than Cleveland. Against wide receivers, no team is in the same neighborhood; the Browns allow a mere 11.7 fantasy points per game there, a full two points fewer than the next team (which is, oddly enough, the Steelers). When the Steelers jump out to a two-touchdown lead, what impetus will there be for Roethlisberger to throw the ball 40 times? I just don't see it. The Steelers have won eight of their past nine games, including embarrassing the contending Cincinnati Bengals 35-7 in Week 13. The Browns are 4-8, and that record could easily be even worse. The Steelers have won 14 of the past 15 in this series, and the last three in Pittsburgh by an average of more than 20 points. This game is going to be a blowout, and fantasy owners should be prepared for the outcome statistically.
I don't think it's overthinking things to be a bit wary of Roethlisberger, Wallace and perhaps Antonio Brown. Big Ben didn't get a top-10 rank by any of the four rankers (I had him 13th) despite the fact he's No. 10 for the season. Last week Roethlisberger was held to 176 yards by the Bengals -- though he did find Wallace for a pair of touchdown passes -- because the game's winner wasn't in doubt. If the game was close, perhaps the Steelers throw more. Do you think this Browns game will be close? Last season the Steelers edged the Browns by a combined score of 69-19. Oh, and these same two teams close out the season, as well. We might see reserve Charlie Batch handing off to Isaac Redman after halftime in that one.
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, meanwhile, got a favorable No. 10 rank from me and two others, even though he hasn't had a particularly strong season. He's 19th in scoring among running backs, and has topped 70 rushing yards in just one game. Mendenhall lit up the Bengals for 18 fantasy points in two of the past three games despite not accruing many yards, and I expect he'll score at least once Sunday. I didn't rank Redman, the backup, but I see him getting double-digit touches. Maybe you look his way in a deep league.
It's December, and the matchups matter. It's also how I can justify Mendenhall topping Wallace in this week's flex rankings, which will be posted Thursday. Wallace caught three passes last week, and we can't depend again on two of them going for scores. I did not rank Wallace among my top 10 wide receivers this week (he was 12th). Sure, stick with your studs in the fantasy playoffs, but don't ignore the facts, either. I like Mike Wallace. He's having a good season, though he has been relatively quiet since Week 7. I don't sit him for Demaryius Thomas. But both New York Giants star wide receivers, for example, are better plays. Vincent Jackson against the Buffalo Bills is a better play, too. Don't close your mind to other options.
Here are some other thoughts about the Week 14 rankings:
Quarterbacks: Andy Dalton apparently scares all of us, which is why he's No. 22. The Houston Texans defend the pass well, and Dalton hasn't done great work on dropbacks against extra pressure this season. In fact, according to ESPN research, when Dalton faces five or more pass-rushers this season, he ranks 23rd in completion percentage, 25th in yards per attempt and 24th in total QBR. And only the Saints have sent at least five pass-rushers on a higher percentage of dropbacks than the Texans. Dalton is not a good option in Week 14. Meanwhile, I was highest (by a lot) on Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore. The Eagles gave up weeks ago. And yes, I'm using Tim Tebow, even against the Chicago Bears. Tebow gets 15 points every week.
Running backs: I don't think Adrian Peterson will play Sunday, which is why I didn't rank him, while Toby Gerhart earned my No. 21 spot. If Peterson were to play, he'd be my No. 6 guy. I also didn't rank Darren McFadden. I have doubts we'll see him suited up again in 2011. The reason I didn't give Michael Bush as good a rank as the others is somewhat related to what happened in Week 13, a blowout loss to Miami. The Raiders needed to throw to stay in the game. Well, this week they face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. I think the Packers can be run on, but it doesn't happen because opponents get into shootouts. I like Carson Palmer and Denarius Moore, but I could see another low-touch game for Bush.
Wide receivers: The Eagles figure to have Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin back, but I'm still cautious. And I cannot trust DeSean Jackson. I also ranked Miles Austin third among Dallas wide receivers. Laurent Robinson was doing fine in Week 13 until getting hurt, and he's back now. What if a rusty Austin gets only 30 snaps? We don't know for sure that he won't.
Eric Karabell analyzes this week's rankings decisions, including some cautious words regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers' passing game, the Oakland Raiders' running game and a few banged-up Eagles options.