- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Was it Week 15 of 2004 when I realized it doesn't matter what your record is, or who is on your fantasy team, because all your hopes and dreams of a fantasy championship can be dashed by some guy named Billy Volek? Or did it happen years earlier? I think it was probably a decade or so earlier, when another one of my Warren Moon-led undefeated teams lost in mid-December.
Great, you went 11-2. Wonderful, you led your league in points by a hundred. It's exciting that you've already squashed your postseason opponent a few times this season. Go ahead and tell the commish what nickname you want for yourself on the trophy. You still can lose. Happens all the time.
On Dec. 19, 2004, Mr. Volek and his partner in crime Drew Bennett finished up their collective three-week stretch of turning the fantasy football world upside down. Nobody could stop them, well, until Week 16, but in Weeks 13-15 Volek and Bennett led average fantasy teams to major playoff upsets. Volek, now a backup to Philip Rivers in San Diego, didn't even play in Weeks 11-12, but the next three weeks he totaled 12 touchdowns and averaged 395 passing yards per game. Wide receiver Bennett, who was a bit more established and owned in some leagues, hauled in 28 passes for 517 yards and eight touchdowns in those three games. Own 'em both, it was like having Tom Brady and Randy Moss for much of this season, but at the most critical time.
It all came crashing down the final two weeks of that season, but the damage was done. Ever since then, when the fantasy playoffs begin, I am deluged with questions about who the next Volek is. It's an easy answer to say nobody, but it's true! That was an incredible streak, the Titans scoring 97 points in those three losses, and allowing 140! Who does that today?
I made a remark in jest the other day about Chris Redman becoming the next Volek. You might not know who Redman is, because, well, he threw some passes on Sunday for Atlanta, pretty much the first time he had played at all since 2003, before the Volek era. Redman, now 30, replaced an ineffective Joey Harrington -- really, is there any other kind -- and kept the Falcons competitive. He might earn the start this Monday at New Orleans. As we know, the Saints ain't exactly the 1985 Bears. They can be thrown on. Redman seems unlikely to play so well as to carry fantasy teams, but then again, did anyone think Volek would do that? He hasn't exactly done much since.
Who will be this season's fantasy playoff heroes?
Derek Anderson, QB, Browns: Let's just say the tough part of the schedule has passed. This playoff-bound QB is about to get paid, and totaling say 10 touchdowns the final four weeks against the Jets, Bills, Bengals and 49ers won't hurt. As for Tom Brady, even if he continues to "underwhelm" with only a 20-point effort against the Steelers, he should romp against the Jets and Dolphins.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers: I see him ending up as fantasy's top running back, passing Brian Westbrook, who is three points up, but might not last all of December based on health and/or the Eagles giving up. LT should be fine against the Titans Sunday, then will be a potential 30-point possibility against the Lions, Broncos and Raiders. In Week 6, he scored 44 fantasy points against Oakland. LT is not really a disappointment at all, and won't be when he wins you titles.
Jamal Lewis, RB, Browns: Sure, it's obvious now, but it took us a while to get used to this, that's for sure. Lewis looks reborn, and with a great schedule, he's looking like a lock to finish in the top-6 overall among running backs. Who woulda thunk that? We must also mention Earnest Graham and Ryan Grant, who like Lewis are obvious at this point, but unlike Lewis you hadn't heard of either in September.
Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Joey Galloway, et al.: I view wide receivers different than quarterbacks and running backs, and I can't see any true scenario in which I would sit these stars, or pretty much anyone in the top-10. I have sleepers, but to me, about 25 wide receivers are obvious.
Jay Cutler, QB, Broncos: No, he didn't look very good in Week 13 at the Raiders, but before that he totaled 35 fantasy points against the Titans and Bears. Cutler's supposedly getting a healthy Javon Walker into the fray, his running backs aren't being suspended and the schedule still has Houston and, in the finale, Minnesota.
Rudi Johnson, RB, Bengals: With one double-digit fantasy game since Week 2, I think we can call him a bit of a sleeper for activation status. You're probably sick of him. Don't be. He's scored the past two weeks, and should continue the success against the Rams, 49ers, Browns and Dolphins. Man, there are a lot of bad teams in the NFL.
Chris Brown, RB, Titans: I've been concerned about LenDale White for a month now, ever since those 100-yard games ceased. White is dealing with a broken finger, and while I expect he will continue to play, look for Brown to split those carries. Brown has fresher legs, and remember the 175-yard beatdown he put on a seemingly solid Jacksonville defense in the opening week. I also like Reuben Droughns, Ron Dayne and Maurice Morris for sleeper potential down the stretch.
Bryant Johnson, WR, Cardinals: As of now, we still don't know whether Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald will play, but I think the chances are pretty good at least one of them is out. Fantasy owners make the mistake of eschewing certain pickups because they won't play the guy this week, not thinking ahead. What if Boldin doesn't suit up again? Johnson has been around for years, even though he has little to show for it, and you know Kurt Warner will be throwing a lot with the Saints, Falcons and Rams the final three opponents.
Justin Gage, WR, Titans: Quickly losing that sleeper status, because it appears Vince Young has found his No. 1 target. Gage is averaging 80 yards the past four weeks and he's scored twice. It doesn't really matter the Tennessee schedule, either, since Young appears to play better when trailing. Other options for this spot include Mike Furrey, Brad Smith and Sidney Rice.
Brodie Croyle, QB, Chiefs: What, you really thought I'd go with Chris Redman? Well, maybe after Monday. I thought about Sage Rosenfels and Kellen Clemens, but not with those schedules. Tarvaris Jackson? Brock Berlin? Why not Croyle, who really hasn't shown us anything at all, which is why the word reach makes sense. He did have to play the Broncos, Colts and Raiders, each teams easier to run on. He gets Denver again this week, then a difficult Titans team, but ends at Detroit and the Jets. That's not bad.
Ladell Betts, RB, Redskins: We should know more later on Thursday about him, but as of this writing Betts has been ignored much of the season. Clinton Portis isn't on his way to Hawaii in February, either. Betts got eight carries in Week 12, which seemed a harbinger of things to come, then he didn't get any the next week. I don't really like the Washington schedule, especially the final two weeks at Minnesota and against Dallas, but who knows the situation those teams will be in? That's why this is a live reach!
Lorenzo Booker, RB, Dolphins: No, we know very little about what this guy can do, but we have seen Jesse Chatman fall on his face the past month since he got his chance. Chatman isn't healthy, and maybe Samkon Gado really is next in line, but I'd watch the Miami situation. Booker caught six passes against the Jets this past week, and would appear to be more a part of the future than Gado or Chatman. I'll also mention Garrett Wolfe, Tony Hunt, Pierre Thomas and Adimchinobi Echemandu as reaches to keep in mind.
Jason Avant, WR, Eagles: Honestly, I don't know who will be throwing the ball for my favorite team after this week. I suspect Donovan McNabb will start Sunday, and probably struggle, and if he loses, even the most optimistic of Philly hopefuls have to realize the playoff chase is over. Avant has shown flashes of stardom this season, I'd like to see him get a chance to play more. Remember, he and Hank Baskett caught touchdowns from A.J. Feeley in the 2006 finale.
Jabar Gaffney, WR, Patriots: With touchdowns each of the past two weeks, Gaffney is beginning to get noticed by not only fantasy owners, but someone more important, that Brady guy. New England will not be easing up these final weeks, and there should be plenty of fun for all the receivers, especially if Randy Moss continues to garner extra attention. Also keep an eye on Koren Robinson in Green Bay and Ben Obomanu in Seattle. Like Gaffney, their teams will have things settled soon.
Will (Texas): "I have followed you all season long and, now that you quoted David Byrne, I will be coming back for seasons to come. Thanks for the insight and see ya next year."
Eric: Amazing. He wasn't the only one to note the Talking Heads reference from Tuesday. Name more bands, I'll quote them, too!
Ace (Las Vegas): "No Chris Redman in your rankings for this week? Playing at home against the horrible Saints pass defense, I think Redman will have a good game, and is a better start than some guys in your top-25. He looked good Week 13, and he knows Bobby Petrino's offense from Louisville. What are your thoughts?"
Eric: I'd be lying if I said I didn't think Ace was correct, but I left Redman out because it's still not official that he will play over Harrington. Regardless, I would find it hard to trust Redman in a playoff matchup. Maybe in a few weeks, who knows, but it's really a reach.
Josh (Outer Banks, NC): "I play in a great league that is total points with no playoffs. It's like the black sheep of league formats. What are your thoughts on leagues such as ours? I never hear you talk about them. There are only 25 points separating first and second place, and third is only 40 points behind! It's awesome. It's standard scoring 10-man roster. Thanks for all the good stuff."
Eric: I generally speak and write about ESPN standard leagues, since ESPN is the one giving me this forum, but I play in a league like yours and agree it's terrific. One of the bad things about fantasy football, which to some is good, is how 16 weeks of Brady-led stardom can go up in smoke in the final week. In your league, or some other points format sans postseason, everyone is essentially head-to-head. I like that as well. The goal remains the same, however, to accrue the most points. It really doesn't alter your strategy, so most everything I say about a standard league holds true here.
Mike (Washington, D.C.): "Eric, my league starts three running backs and I have the playoffs coming up in Week 15 and a bit of a decision to make. Willis McGahee is a lock, Marshawn Lynch should be back this week or next, but that third running back spot is giving me fits. Should I go with the underachieving Reggie Bush or Kansas City's current starter Kolby Smith?"
Eric: Sounds like you don't need to make this decision now, but I'm guessing Smith is going to play so well this week against the Broncos you'll be leaning toward him. Smith ranked higher than Bush on the staff rankings for Week 14, and unless Bush stops his slide, that should continue. By the way, it doesn't appear Larry Johnson is particularly close to returning to the lineup. I don't know why the Chiefs would rush him, anyway.
Keep sending those comments by clicking here. I read all the comments, whether they are thoughts on the blog, mistakes you found, topics for new ones, whatever, and I post a few e-mails in each blog. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your Thursday.