- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
Each week, I provide my list of 10 things I'm watching on game day, so you'll be prepared for some of the week's biggest developments in advance of them happening.
Thursday football! The NFL features a Thursday game in each of the next four weeks, exciting for football fans but a little complicated for the fantasy owner. So late in the year, nagging injuries for your Sunday players will force some tough Thursday decisions, and my best advice in those instances is to go the safest route possible with the information you have. This week, we sure have a great Thursday game: Ravens at Bengals, which could clinch a playoff spot for the Ravens if they win. In the Carson Palmer era, Ravens-Bengals has been a captivating and high-scoring matchup, with the combined score never below 30 and both teams topping 20 points each time with the exception of Baltimore managing only nine points in Week 9 of the 2005 season. In other words, throw all those Ravens defensive numbers out the window, because these battles can be anyone's game. Don't fear Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson or T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and on the Ravens' side, Jamal Lewis should have another fine game, as he so often does against the Bengals. The one wild card in the equation: Rain is expected in the forecast, a 70-percent chance, so I'd temper my expectations a bit for Palmer and Steve McNair, who each could be forced into a few more mistakes than we've become accustomed to this season. No drastic lineup shifts, though!
Rookie watch: Jay Cutler. In a story that has been a long time coming, the Broncos have benched the unproductive Jake Plummer for Cutler, the "quarterback of the future." It's a curious move based on the timing; Denver is 7-4 and in the thick of the playoff race, and most teams in that position don't like enduring the long rookie learning curve with such important games ahead. But leave it to coach Mike Shanahan to make the bold move, as who are we to doubt a guy who has led his team to the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and seven times in 11 years in Denver? Now, I wouldn't put my faith in Shanahan's decision as an endorsement of using Cutler in a fantasy league, but he's an interesting guy to stash on your bench for evaluating in his NFL debut on Sunday night. From the reports, Cutler's a mobile quarterback with a cannon of an arm, but among his bigger faults is his tendency to force passes. In other words, this could be a guy not much different in raw talent from Tony Romo, only that Romo had a little more time to learn the offense before he took over. I won't call for a Romo-like breakout, but Cutler was the preseason leader in passer rating (108.3) and had four touchdowns and one interception in those games, and he should be able to make use of big-play receiver Javon Walker. Walker owners shouldn't be too worried about the impact on his performance, and I wouldn't be totally shocked if Cutler even gets himself to the point where he's a useful No. 2 QB or desperation play against Arizona, Cincinnati and San Francisco the final three weeks.