Conference championship picks

No Brees vs. Rodgers matchup. No Tebow. The NFL playoffs trudge on.

Those of us without teams left to root for are hoping San Francisco and Baltimore win to set up a meeting of their coaches — brothers Jim and John Harbaugh — in the Super Bowl.

I’m not so sure that’s going to happen. Home teams are cruising in this year’s playoffs (7-1) while Baltimore has struggled on the road this season (4-4), with losses to San Diego, Seattle, Jacksonville and Tennessee.

The Ravens’ only two touchdowns last week came off turnovers when Joe Flacco had great field position: an interception that started Baltimore 34 yards out and a fumbled punt that put Flacco on the Houston 2-yard line. Playing the Patriots in New England is a much more daunting task than playing against T.J. Yates at home.

New York-San Francisco should be a closer game. Alex Smith, least elite of all remaining quarterbacks, is coming off a game in which he rallied his team twice in the fourth quarter to take down the Drew Brees and the mighty Saints.

The Giants, meanwhile, are rolling. Eli Manning and his receiving corps needed a Week 17 win over Dallas to get into the playoffs but are peaking at the right time, similar to the Giants’ last Super Bowl run. I’m sure Eli wouldn’t mind using Peyton’s off-year to pass his older brother in the ring category.

Baltimore at New England (-7)

Giants at San Francisco (-3)

Playoff picks: 5-3

Drafting your fantasy team in 20/20 hindsight

Hours removed from my third fantasy football draft this week, I offer a few pointers for those of you drafting in the near future–and some tips several of my league members learned the hard way.

  • Know how many players you start at each position- If your league starts three receivers, you probably shouldn’t wait until the fifth round to take one. Even the fourth round is pushing it. By round 5, I like to have a quarterback, two running backs and two receivers. If someone falls to you and you want to load up on one position early, that’s ok, but make sure make up for it in the next round. A tight end can wait, I’d make sure you are set on your core positions first.
  • Take a QB early- My tier of quarterbacks are: Brees, Rodgers, Manning, Schaub, Brady, and Romo (more here). After that, they start to drop off. Once you get into Favre-Flacco-Rivers-Kolb-Eli Manning-Cutler territory, you’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Plus, if you grab an elite signal caller, they should be your starter every week. You won’t need to worry about a backup until the late rounds, and you can focus on rounding out the rest of your team.
  • This is the year people actually wait on picking Bills- Every year, there has always been the one guy who goes way out of his way to pick a Bills player that he could’ve waited a good three rounds on. Last year it was the all-star who picked T.O. as his first receiver. But this year, morale is so low about the Bills that people are completely looking past them. With the injuries to both Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, you might even be able to grab C.J. Spiller on a bargain. That being said, Spiller is a second RB at best, and Evans probably won’t be more than a good third receiver. Picking the Bills D/ST is pushing it, and Trent Edwards is reach even in 2 quarterback leagues. Your best bet may be Ryan Lindell, but that’s assuming the Bills can get into field goal range.
  • Watch for runs-These usually happen when people start picking tight ends or defenses. We expect a lot of running backs in the first round. That’s not a trend to be careful of. What you need to watch for is when six people in a row take their second receiver or wipe out the top-tier of defenses. When this happens, you have two choices to make: go with the flow and get someone at that position so you don’t miss out, or pick someone else and hope for the best. Picking someone else can often work to your advantage though– if most people already have a one-start position covered (TE, D/ST, K, etc… varies by league), they won’t be picking another player at that position any time soon, and you can wait on it.
  • Wondering if your guy will fall to you? Know what the people around you have- Say you waited on a quarterback. Now you want to know if you should take Joe Flacco with your upcoming pick or wait on him until your turn comes back around. Look at the teams drafting after you. If they already have a QB, you are probably safe and you can take another RB. If not, you might want to snag your QB now before someone else does. This happened to me in my first draft– DeAngelo Williams fell to me in the second round, and while it would have been awesome to have two top-10 running backs, I passed on him for Matt Schaub because several QBs had already gone and nobody after me had a QB yet. I later asked the guy who took Williams about the situation, and he said he was hoping Schaub would have come to him, and I would have been out of luck. (Have I mentioned I’m high on Schaub this year?)
  • Go with your gut- Nowadays everyone uses nearly the same rankings. How many people showed up at your draft with the same cheat sheet from So if everyone has the same information, you’re going to need a little bit of talent (luck) to win. Just because the “experts” at ESPN say you should draft a certain player at a certain spot does not mean you have to draft him. Think Devin Aromashodu is due for a breakout year? LeSean McCoy? Take them earlier. Asking yourself why the likes of Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best are ranked so high? Skip them. Don’t get crazy on me with Antonio Gates in the third round or anything, but snagging guys who have breakout years is how you win your league (and it’s great bragging material).
  • It’s okay to laugh at the guy who drafts injured players- There’s always one idiot who doesn’t come prepared for the draft and picks a bunch of guys who probably won’t see the football field this year. Suspensions and injuries are the most likely culprits. Guy who thought he was cool buying his magazine in April but hasn’t touched it since will tell you Ben Tate is going to be comparable with Rashard Mendenhall this year, and will proclaim his eminent run to fantasy glory after Antonio Bryant “fell” to him in the 13th round. Hey bud, I hear that David Carr guy could be a steal, too. Just laugh at these people, and by all means do not let them repick. They deserve it.
  • Know your bye weeks- I feel this should go without saying, but some people still don’t realize that they need to be careful of players’ bye weeks when drafting them. Be especially careful of weeks 8 and 9, where six teams are off instead of the usual four. Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Hakeem Nicks, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson are all people I’d sign up for, just not together. They all have week 8 off, and if you draft them, so will your fantasy team. Also be weary of taking players on the same team. Taking a QB and his top receiver can be an effective strategy when deployed correctly, but don’t take two receivers from the same offensive. I like Jeremy Maclin this year, but if you already have DeSean Jackson, that’s enough Eagles at wideout. The only combo I think this would be interesting is if you had both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. They could both go over 100 yards a game. Could get interesting.
  • That’s about all I have. If you read this far down the page you deserve a reward, though- Someone I feel is an emerging sleeper pick this year is Bernard Berrian, receiver from Minnesota. Sidney Rice has not been on the field yet due to a hip injury, and Percy Harvin can’t seem to keep enough blood in his head to stand up (wonder where it is…?). Brett will need to throw to someone other than Visanthe Shiancoe, and Berrian could be the guy. Not sure why more people aren’t picking up on this, but hey, that’s their problem.

Oh, and if you want to add an extra round in your draft for everyone to take a total reach pick, that could be a fun idea. I’d go with James Starks, Stevie Johnson, Tim Tebow, etc. Could be your only shot at drafting a Bill and not regretting it later.

Fantasy football QB rankings

With NFL camps kicking off in just over a week, that means fantasy football draft season is picking up speed… don’t get left in the dust. Here are you pre-camp quarterback projections.

1.       Drew Brees, NO
For the longest time, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were alone atop the fantasy world. Over the last few years, Brees and Aaron Rodgers have made their way onto the top of the list. I give Brees the nod because I feel he has more firepower to work with than Rodgers and the Packers. There were only two weeks last year, not including week 17, that he didn’t have a touchdown pass (one of which was against the Bills), and he threw for three or more TDs six times.

If you believe in the Madden curse, you’ll want to stay away from the 2011 cover boy. Last season featured a split-cover with Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu; Fitzgerald played in all 16 games, but Polamalu injured his left knee twice and played in only five games. In the words of Donovan McNabb, “Is it better to be injured and on the cover of Madden, or just injured?”  If you want to find something to knock him for, I’d pick Super Bowl hangover before I plea to the Madden curse.

He has a good offensive system in place for him in New Orleans. He drops back to throw with high frequency, and he set a record last season for completion percentage at 70.6. Will most likely be drafted in the first round.

2.       Aaron Rodgers, GB
I have Aaron Rodgers just behind Brees, although there is good argument he should be first. He was the fantasy points leader for QBs last season, and came in second in ’08. This kid can flat out play quarterback, which he’ll display week 2 at Lambeau Field against the Bills.

Greg Jennings is a stud at WR, but Donald Driver has been on the decline for some time now, which hurts Rodgers. He’s still a good secondary receiver, but look for the likes of James Jones and Jordy Nelson to play a more prominent role in the passing game this year.

Rodgers has good legs and can scramble, but if your league takes off for sacks, you may want to reconsider selecting Rodgers: his 50 sacks last year tied for the league lead. Could be a late first round pick but is more likely to go early second round.

3.       Peyton Manning, IND
If you’re not sure which quarterback to draft, go for Peyton. The elder Manning is the most consistent player in the NFL, if not all of sports.  

He throws more than almost any other player, and set a career high in completions last season. Manning may not go deep as often as he used too, but he’ll make up with a plethora of mid-range passes and red zone touchdowns.

His numbers did decline down the stretch last year (threw for 300+ yards in eight of the first nine games, then only once after that), but he threw more touchdown passes in the second half of the year than the first half, including weeks 17 and 18 where he hardly played. Plus, if you saw this guy in the playoffs, you have no worries about him tapering off.

With guys like Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez around him, he’s sure to have a great year. Late first round or early second.

4.       Matt Schaub, HOU
Matt Schaub has arrived. He stayed injury free last season and look what happened– he led the NFL in yards, attempts and completions.

Schaub to Andre Johnson is arguably to most dangerous home run threat going right now in the league, and a mix of Ben Tate and Steve Slaton will be enough to keep defenses honest. Tight end Owen Daniels was having a great year before getting injured, and other wide outs Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter have both been viable NFL receivers at points in their career. 

“Schaub” doesn’t have the glorified connotation to his name like Brady and Manning do (yet), so if you can snag him at a bargain, do so. Second round or early third.

5.       Tom Brady, NE
Tom Brady makes receivers look good. I don’t know how he does it, but that skill will be put to the test this season. Brady’s knee will be stronger this year compared to last, but unfortunately for him, Wes Welker’s won’t be.   

Randy Moss is still a freak who puts fear into all DBs not named Darrelle Revis, but after that, talent at WR is thin. Julian Edelman (who played QB in college) could be their guy, as could Brandon Tate. The Patriots also brought in Torry Holt, who knows what he’s doing, but he’s way past his prime. The deep threat he posed in years past is no more, but never underestimate Brady’s ability to throw him open.

Four games this year against the Jets and Bills secondaries won’t help, but knowing Brady, it probably won’t hamper him. Should be a late-second or early- third round pick, but will go higher because of his name.

6.       Tony Romo, DAL
I think Tony Romo suffers from a case of Alex Rodriguez syndrome. He is a very good player who puts up very good numbers, yet people devalue him because don’t like him as a person or the team he plays for. If Romo is under center in a different city, he gets mentioned in MVP talks and is considered one of the best in the game. He threw for 4,483 yards last year, more than Brees, Rodgers, Brady, Phillip Rivers, and Brett Favre, and was an offensive holding call behind Peyton Manning (4,500). He was also one of just four starting quarterback to throw single digit interceptions.

If you watched football at all last year, you know Miles Austin is a stud; Jason Witten is one of the best-catching tight ends in the league; and between Roy E. Williams, Dez Bryant and Patrick Crayton, Romo will have good secondary targets to hit too.

7.       Brett Favre, MIN
Every year I’ve said Brett should come back. At this point, it would be shocking if Favre decided not to return for another season in purple. He drew a lot of heat last year for saying his Vikings team was the best team he’d ever played on, but if you look at his numbers, it’s hard to argue that. A career low seven interceptions went along with 33 TDs and 4,202 yards. At age 41, science says he should be slowing down, but when has Brett ever done what his body was supposed to do? 

The running game in Minnesota must be respected by defenses, which gives Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin room to operate. Bernard Berrian will also be in the mix, and TE Visanthe Shiancoe is a large target in the red zone. Favre could very well end up higher than seven, but you have to think Father Time nags him eventually.

8.       Joe Flacco, BAL
Flacco may be a slight reach here, but I’ll give you two words why he’ll be a top-10 QB this year: Anquan Boldin. I don’t think Boldin will be a top-10 receiver, but he completes the Baltimore offense and makes the unit that much more lethal (Don’t forget what Jerry Maguire taught us: wide receiver + quan = awesome). His arrival pushes Derrick Mason, Donte’ Stallworth, Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams back to receivers 2-5, respectively, which is a much better spot for them, talent-wise, than 1 through 4. Ray Rice keeps defenses on their heels and led all RBs in receptions last season as well. 

Flacco didn’t have a great year from a fantasy standpoint in ‘09, but this year will be different. He has always had the poise and arm strength to succeed, and this is the year he finally puts it all together. Flacco’s stock is on the rise, and I’m buying.

9.       Phillip Rivers, SD
For all the hype Rivers is getting this season, I don’t think he’s going to touch top-tier QB status like some think he will. His main hookup is with Vincent Jackson, who was the leading fantasy receiver for the first half of last year before struggling in the final eight games. This season Jackson will miss the first three games with a suspension, which in turn, hurts Rivers as well. 

San Diego also lost LaDainian Tomlinson, which could mean ever more passing, but could also mean more defenses ready for the pass. Again, I think this development makes it harder on Rivers and the Chargers. He has huge upside and put up great numbers last season, but I’d be surprised if he matched last year’s totals. Will probably go round three, but I’d think twice before spending a high pick on him.

10.   Eli Manning, NYG
Manning was up and down at points last season, but he did have a career-best 27 touchdowns and eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark. Steve Smith had a breakout year in 2009, and Hakeem Nicks looks to do the same.

Manning finally looks comfortable as a starter on the field, and at no. 10, he looks to be a starter on your fantasy team, too. The Giants are going to throw, and I like Manning’s chances this year. You can wait on him until rounds 5-8, and if he’s around late, he could be a steal.

11.   Kevin Kolb, PHI
Kolb is a rather unproven quarterback, but he will be under center for the Eagles this season following Donovan McNabb’s move to Washington. Relatively speaking, that’s a good place for a young QB to be. I have trouble trusting my fantasy team to a quarterback with two career starts, but he put up good numbers in both games and aims at being the next great young play caller in the NFL. 

In his first start he put up 391 yards against the Saints, although several of them came with the game far out of reach. The next week he threw for 327 yards in a winning effort against Kansas City, which is good, except it’s Kansas City. Even the Bills beat KC.

Kolb has two good, young receivers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant is good in the slot. Brent Celek had a stellar year at tight end, and a mix of LeSean McCoy and Mike Bell will provide the ground attack for Philly. McNabb put up great numbers in the Eagles’ offensive system, and I think Kolb will too. He has learning to do going into his first season as a starter, but if you’re looking for a sleeper pick, Kolb might be your man.

12.   Jay Cutler, CHI
This man is an enigma. Cutler went only one game without a turnover last year and totaled a whopping 26 interceptions–more than Trent Edwards has in his entire career. Yet he still managed to set a career high for touchdowns (27) and was a top-15 fantasy quarterback.

You would think it could only get better from here on in, but considering his favorite target is named Aromashodu and his other wide outs are a D-II college player and a DB-turned-WR, it’s hard to say with any certainty. Also worth noting is that his numbers are inflated by a huge (but fantasy-irrelevant) week 17; without which he throws for 3,390 yards and 23 TDs. 

Running back Matt Forte was a bust-and-a-half last season, a contributing factor to Cutler’s poor year. The Bears brought in Chester Taylor to help shoulder to load, which should aid Cutler’s numbers as well. New Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz is known for doing wonders with QBs, although he is also known for getting them injured, too.

There’s a good possibility Cutler has a decent year and finishes higher than the 12th ranked QB. However, there is also a possibility he struggles again and is too inconsistent to put in your starting lineup. He’s hit or miss, and while he’s more likely to hit, there is the threat that he misses and kills your team. It’d be ballsy to draft Cutler as your starter, but if you want to make him your number 2, I think you’d have to draft him awful high for a backup quarterback. My thinking is to steer clear and let him be someone else’s problem, but if you’re the gambling type you could get good numbers at a bargain.

Don’t be that guy. Don’t do it.

13.   Donovan McNabb, WAS
I think it’s against the law to hate Donovan McNabb and his Chunky Soup-loving mother. That being said, he now plays in Washington, whose offensive situation is a lot worse than Philadelphia’s. I don’t care for any of the three formerly studly running backs on the team (Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker), and the receiver situation isn’t much better.

Santana Moss heads another Redskin group of has-beens and busts-to-be (seeing a pattern here?). Michigan State product Devin Thomas and former Oklahoma Sooner Malcolm Kelly hope for improvement in their third year of NFL service, a year receivers are known for breaking out in, but they might turn out to be more like the Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe than NYG’s Steve Smith. Receivers 4-6 consist of Joey Galloway, Mike Furrey and Bobby Wade. Still not impressed. Plus, the offensive line in Washington sucks.

While I don’t doubt McNabb’s ability to put the ball where it needs to be, I have major concerns with his receivers’ ability to do their job (and the line’s ability to keep McNabb on his feet, which only adds to threats on him going down with an injury). Mike Shanahan’s teams are hard to count out, but the rest of the Capital is a mess, so why stop here? For the deliciousness that is Campbell’s Chunky Soup with sirloin burgers and garden vegetables, I hope McNabb doesn’t become another washed-up Redskin.

14.   Matt Ryan, ATL
I’m willing to buy Matt Ryan on the rebound after a rough sophomore season. His numbers were bogged down by injuries last year, both his injury and Michael Turner’s. Being number 14 doesn’t exactly sound like a place for a resurgent player, but there isn’t really anywhere else to put him. I don’t think Atlanta has done enough to get players around Ryan for him to be an upper-echelon QB. Roddy White is very good and is one of the most consistent WRs in the league week-to-week, but after White it’s a steep decline.

Second receiver Michael Jenkins didn’t hook up with Ryan for a touchdown all last year, and Turner doesn’t catch the ball out of the backfield (had just five receptions). Tony Gonzalez had a great 2009, but he’s not the Dallas Clark/Antonio Gates type of game changer anymore. 

At 14, Ryan is literally above average… but nothing more. He’ll be one of the better backups, but if he’s your top QB you will want to invest in another passer, and fast.

15.   Chad Henne, MIA
I liked Chad Henne last season for Miami. He made plays the Dolphins needed him to make, and for a rookie, I was impressed with what I saw. However, fantasy bloodhounds are sniffing the tag “game manager,” which typically spells trouble for a fantasy team. His numbers attest: 2,878 yards, 12 TDs, and 14 INTs; scored 20 fantasy points only twice but was held to single digits four times. 

So what changes this year? Just a guy named Brandon Marshall. The Fish brought in arguably the most coveted free agent of the off-season to go along with one of the game’s top ground attacks, which will help Henne tremendously. ESPN projects Marshall to lead the league in receptions with 104. After Marshall, Miami isn’t as thin at WR as you would think.

Here’s a question for you, which receiver going into his third year has the most receptions? Is it DeSean Jackson? Eddie Royal? How about Pierre Garcon, Donnie Avery or Robert Meachem? The answer is actually Miami’s Davone Bess, with 130. Behind Bess on the depth chart is Greg Camarillo, who’s coming off a 50 catch season, and Brain Hartline, who has no real claim-to-fame except scoring two of his three career touchdowns against the Bills.

Henne will lose some game time when Miami goes into the Wildcat and I don’t see him being an elite passer just yet, but look for Henne to come into his own this year. The third-year Michigan product won’t be picked in the first 10 rounds, but he could provide good value to your team.

The next few quarterbacks, in no particular order:

Ben Roethlisberger– Will put up numbers when he comes back from suspension, but players who come late to the party tend not to pick up where they left off. Isn’t that right, Marshawn? 

Alex Smith– I like what Mike Singletary is doing in the Bay area. Could rise into the teens. 

Matt Leinart– Hard to believe Arizona’s QB well has run dry, but Leinart is yet to string together a good month of football, let alone an entire season. Imagine the criticism the Bills would be getting for “ruining” such a prospect if we hadn’t passed on him for Donte Whitner. 

David Garrard– Mike Sims-Walker had a good year last year and any QB who has MJD pounding the rock should see some single coverage. 

Jason Campbell– Didn’t do much in Washington… or did he? Numbers actually weren’t that bad, all things considered. Oakland is only a slight upgrade though, if any.

Vince Young– Won’t put up huge passing numbers but gets it done on the ground as well. For those of you holding on to memories of Mike Vick a la 2002, your best bet is to draft Young rather than Vick himself.