MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
The Coltsquarterback torched the Broncos for 457 yards and four TD passes in the 2004playoffs, and he's averaging 270 yards a game with 12 TD passes this season. Ano-brainer, right? Not so fast.
Long the No. 1quarterback in fantasy (and reality), Manning is on pace to crack 4,000 passingyards for the seventh time in eight years. Manning can put up big numbersagainst most any defense, but it's worth noting that he has yet to confront abig-name cornerback this year. In fact, he has faced five defenses that rank15th or lower against the pass, including the league's second-worst, theTexans.
CHAMP BAILEY ANDTHE BRONCOS' DEFENSE
Suffice it to saythis is not the Denver defense of 2004. Despite having no players in the top 10in tackles or sacks, the revamped unit ranks fourth in the league in yardsallowed per game and has given up two touchdowns in six games. Bailey hashelped limit opponents' top wideouts to an average of 3.8 receptions for 49.2yards and no TDs--numbers that will make a savvy fantasy owner take notice.
Derrick Mason and Randy Moss can tell you what happens when a quarterbackforces the ball to his top receiver against Denver: Bailey INT. Manning hasstrong options beyond Marvin Harrison, and he must exploit the more favorablematchups. Manning owners who have strong QB options should do the same thisweek.
THE INSIDE MAN
The Ward IsOut
As Pittsburgh'syoung receivers mature, they make it easier for a Pro Bowl vet to get back onhis game
FANTASY OWNERSwho were concerned about the lack of production from Steelers receiver HinesWard can stop worrying. He's coming out of his early-season doldrums (207 yardsand two touchdowns through five games), and that's largely because of theimproved performance by the young receivers around him. Pittsburgh wasn'tgetting much out of Cedrick Wilson, Nate Washington and first-round pickSantonio Holmes, so opponents easily doubled up on Ward. But all three areevolving into dangerous playmakers who have to be watched closely--and here'sthe payoff: In a 41--38 overtime loss to the Falcons on Sunday, Ward had aseason-high 171 yards and three TDs. At the same time Washington (threecatches, 76 yards, one touchdown) and Holmes (five catches, 91 yards) also hadstrong outings.
There is stillone concern about Ward: The left hamstring injury that plagued him duringtraining camp continues to be bothersome, especially when he tries to explodeinto and out of cuts. "The muscle is fine, but the scar tissue around it iswhat's hard to deal with," Ward says. "I'm coming to realize that it'snot going to be 100 percent this year. It's really frustrating because I can'tget myself going at full speed." Judging by the way he looked againstAtlanta, fantasy owners can live with that problem.
The recent firing of Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Fassel is good newsfor owners of players such as quarterback Steve McNair, running back JamalLewis and wide receiver Derrick Mason. The Ravens had no continuity in theirplay-calling over the first month of the season, so those players produced veryfew fantasy points. "The most obvious problem," says a team source,"was that we didn't know if we were a run-first team or a pass-firstteam." Over the next couple of games fantasy owners should get a bettersense of which style prevails, as coach Brian Billick will be calling theplays. So a wait-and-see approach is wise as far as putting Ravens players inyour lineup.
Saints rookie running back Reggie Bush has shown some tantalizing flashes offantasy production, but such glimpses are all you're going to see from him thisyear. Deuce McAllister receives the bulk of the carries in the New Orleansoffense, particularly near the goal line, and that's not going to change. Bushgets a lot of touches, but they come from a variety of positions: He lines upin the backfield, in the slot and split wide. "I think he'll be a lot likeMarshall Faulk one day, but right now he's not going to take too many carriesaway from Deuce," says one NFC scout. "They're using [Bush]intelligently. They know his presence can open up a lot of things for otherplayers."
GETTING A GRIP
Although he's one of the league's leading rushers, Frank Gore is just nowovercoming a history of fumbling that was so troubling to 49ers coaches thatthey were reluctant to use him in many short-yardage or goal line situations.(He was often benched once San Francisco moved inside an opponent's 10-yardline.) But Gore has worked diligently to hang on to the ball, and that has ledto increased confidence from coach Mike Nolan and offensive coordinator NorvTurner. Lately Gore has received more work near the goal line, and he's alsobeen more involved in the passing game. In other words a reliable fantasystarter in the midst of a breakout year is about to get even better.
Apparently wideout Laveranues Coles is still bothered by the injury to hisright hand suffered at the end of the Jets' Week 4 loss to the Colts. Accordingto a league source Coles extended his left hand when he met with CBS crewmembers for pregame interviews before New York's win over the Dolphins on Oct.15 and did the same thing when owner Woody Johnson congratulated him on hisfive-catch, 106-yard, two-TD effort that day. (He was held to four catches for29 yards last Sunday.) Coles has proved that he'll play hurt, but a receiver'ssore hand is a situation that warrants close monitoring.
I THINK ...
...you shouldclip and save this piece of advice for next year's draft
Think back todraft day. If your league picked like everyone else's, your first round lookedsomething like this: Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson, TikiBarber, Ronnie Brown, Peyton Manning, Cadillac Williams, Clinton Portis, RudiJohnson, Edgerrin James, Steven Jackson, Chad Johnson.
You know thepunch line. Only three of the 10 running backs listed, Barber, Jackson andJohnson, are in the top 10 in rushing after seven weeks. Jon Kitna is throwingfor more yards per game than Carson Palmer, and Chad Johnson hasn't had a100-yard receiving game yet--and has one TD in six games.
My point: It'snever too early to start thinking about next season. And when you do, rememberthe lessons of this year. These are the three biggest ones:
1) Don't beafraid to go against the grain. When everyone is telling you to take Manning(yes, I was among those, and I still think he'll finish as the best fantasyquarterback), remember what you've seen from lesser lights such as Kitna andDrew Brees. It wasn't that much of a reach to think that Kitna could throw for3,500 yards with Mike Martz running the show in Detroit, or that Brees, ifhealthy, would flourish with Sean Payton calling the plays in New Orleans. Youcould've gotten either in the middle rounds. There will be a guy or two in asimilar spot next year.
2) Go forworkhorse runners who don't have a lot of competition for their jobs: Jackson,Willis McGahee, Willie Parker and (after the trade of Kevan Barlow) Frank Gore.You want backs who will carry 325 times or more. Obviously no one could havepredicted Williams's struggles or Alexander's injury, but the point is thatproductive backs can be found in the second and third rounds.
3) Don't fall forlast year's hot kicker or hot defense. Did you spend a middle-round pick onNeil Rackers or the Bucs' D? Big mistake. Imagine if you'd taken Robbie Gouldand the Broncos with your last two picks. No one can forecast which kicker or Dwill be the best, so draft them very late.
Since Joey Harrington took over for Daunte Culpepper, McMichael has 21 catchesin three games, including seven for 77 yards against the Packers on Sunday.
The rookie was a factor (career-best five catches, 91 yards) throughoutPittsburgh's shootout with Atlanta.
Tampa Bay picked off Donovan McNabb three times, and cornerback Ronde Barberreturned two for touchdowns.
Tall (6'5") and athletic, he's a jump-ball specialist; two of his fivecatches have gone for TDs.
The return of starter Ahman Green and the emergence of Noah Herron as a solidbackup make Morency mostly a special teams player.
After Gado's 10-carry, 27-yard effort on Sunday, it looks like Wali Lundy's thestarter again.
Brad Johnson prefers Marcus Robinson as his go-to receiver over this sophomoreunderachiever.
He showed promise last year but hasn't capitalized (three receptions, 66 yards)in two games while starter Matt Jones has been sidelined.
Read Peter King's 10 Fantasy Things I Think I Thinkand analysis from David Sabino at SI.com/fantasy.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
Sunday's big game puts Ward on pace for a career-high 13 touchdownreceptions.
Mason has disappeared amid the Ravens' identity crisis.
RICHARD C. LEWIS/WIREIMAGE.COM
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TOM SZCZERBOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE