With only four weeks left in the regular season of most fantasy leagues, team owners should have an idea of what their team outlook is like for the rest of the season. Teams that are 9-0 or 8-1 can probably rest easy, knowing that they'll make the playoffs, while commissioners should make sure they've collected league fees from the teams that are 0-8 and 1-9.
Of course, everyone also knows what their team needs to be a serious contender; after nine weeks of action, the NFL's players and pretenders have become pretty apparent, both offensively and defensively.
If you're going to make a move for a player or two to change your season, now is the time. Waiting another week means the guy has only three games to make an impact, which could very well be too late. A four-game win streak could push teams as bad as 3-6 from the outhouse to the playoffs, where anything can happen. If you're bound for the playoffs, now is the time to go ahead and make that move for the guy who can put you over the top in weeks 14, 15 and 16, even if it costs you a win before that.
Fortunately, we're here to help, regardless of which situation you're in. Using our matchup projection system, we've looked at each team's schedule over the next seven weeks, going right up to the championship week for most leagues, Week 16. That gave us a list of players to covet and avoid. We then looked at strictly the playoff weeks (14 through 16) and came up with a second list of players who are potential playoff studs and duds. Obviously, there's some overlap. We analyzed both pass and run defenses, but we're not confident enough in our individual defensive projections to predict wide receiver or tight end performance six weeks from now. Therefore, we'll be giving suggestions for quarterbacks and running backs.
Let's start with the guys who'll be relevant over the longer haul: weeks 10 through 16.
Starting with quarterbacks, the best matchups belong to two AFC East quarterbacks: Chad Pennington and Trent Edwards. Pennington still has matchups against Seattle, Oakland, New England, St. Louis, San Francisco and Kansas City to come. Oakland and its unsettled quarterback situation are third, while Peyton Manning is fourth and Tyler Thigpen is fifth.
On the other side of the coin, Eli Manning faces the most difficult schedule of any quarterback over the next seven weeks, as he faces five top-11 defenses. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tony Romo are second and third, respectively. Each also has to deal with a bye this week. David Garrard is fourth, and whoever the Detroit quarterback will be is fifth. If that doesn't talk you off picking up Daunte Culpepper, we invite you to try to find Daunte Culpepper 2006 or 2007 highlight videos on YouTube that don't involve video games.
With regards to the ground game, the easiest schedules belong to three AFC West backs who could be available in most leagues: Jamaal Charles has the easiest schedule, and right behind him are Justin Fargas (or Darren McFadden, if healthy) and Ryan Torain (or Selvin Young). Charles faces exactly one above-average rush defense the rest of the way, Miami in Week 16. The Dolphins and Ronnie Brown are fifth on this list, while the Carolina tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart is fourth.
Guys to avoid would be, well, everyone in the NFC East. Marion Barber has the most difficult schedule of rush defenses, Brandon Jacobs is third, Clinton Portis fourth and Brian Westbrook fifth. Cedric Benson and whoever takes over from Cedric Benson when he gets cut in Cincinnati would be second. In other words, if you happen to have Portis on your team, now would be a superb time to sell high.
For those owners who are already assured of a playoff spot, you can go ahead and focus on guys with great matchups in weeks 14 to 16 now. If you acquire them before their owners realize what they have on their hands, you can get a bargain for exactly when you need a player to produce most: playoff time.
That would start with Peyton Manning, who has the best playoff schedule of any quarterback in football. He gets Cincinnati, Detroit and Jacksonville in what should be a 1,000-yard stretch for him. One note of caution: If your league plays games in Week 17, Manning has to play Tennessee, which is a real buzzkill.
Other guys in the top five include JaMarcus Russell, Matt Hasselbeck, Tyler Thigpen and Gus Frerotte. Again as a warning, Frerotte gets Detroit, Arizona and Atlanta, but in Week 17, he has to face the Giants.
It's more NFC East players on the other half of the spectrum, as the Cowboys have the most difficult slate of defenses to face both on the ground and in the air. With regards to pass defenses, Tony Romo faces the Steelers, Giants and Ravens in the playoff weeks. Behind him are Matt Schaub/Sage Rosenfels, Ben Roethlisberger, Brady Quinn and Eli Manning.
The easiest schedule with regards to a rushing attack is, unfortunately, the Oakland Raiders, who seem to mitigate good matchups by being awful. If they have any clue by Week 14, owners could benefit from games against San Diego, New England and Houston. Behind them are Matt Forte, the Denver running back tandem, Steve Slaton and Earnest Graham.
As we mentioned, Dallas and Marion Barber have the toughest schedule on the ground during weeks 14 through 16. They're joined by Clinton Portis, who's at No. 2. Willie Parker is third, Michael Turner fourth and Jamal Lewis fifth.
Of course, if you can't acquire or get rid of any of these guys, we'll still be here on a weekly basis delivering our suggestions, just as we have all season.
On to Week 10!
Best and worst matchups for Week 10
Trent Edwards (Bills, plus-14 percent): Maybe Bill Belichick will turn Terrence Wheatley into a great corner by the time he gets back from his wrist injury. Until then, Wheatley's going to be replaced by Deltha O'Neal and Jason Webster, neither of whom will help a pass defense that now ranks as the worst in football and serves as a reminder that not every plan the Patriots' front office hatches turns to gold. Edwards is an excellent start against the Pats this week, and could end up approaching 300 yards.
Brady Quinn (Browns, plus-13 percent): You're probably asking, "13 percent of what?" We have a default projection for Quinn based on rookie performance and team variables, and while it's a shot in the dark, it's the best you'll find. Either way, Quinn should honestly have a good game Thursday against the Broncos. Their pass defense is terrible, and it's not as if Quinn's coming in unexpectedly. He's known he was going to start for about a week, he's been learning the offense for a year and a half, and he has the arm to make most of the throws that Derek Anderson couldn't. It's not going to be a huge day, but as a bye week fill-in, he should be passable at worst.
Philip Rivers (Chargers, plus-13 percent): Rivers has quietly been the best quarterback in the AFC this season while recovering from his knee injury, a remarkable feat that's gone preposterously underreported. The Kansas City secondary should be no match for him whatsoever.
Rex Grossman (Bears, minus-22 percent): Let's review the facts: Rex Grossman threw 19 passes last week. He completed nine of them. They went for a grand total of 58 yards. That's an average of less than three yards per attempt. (Since 1995, quarterbacks who have done that are 11-68 in those games.) The kicker: Grossman did this against the Detroit Lions, whose pass defense is, in fact, second-worst in football.
This week, Grossman faces the Tennessee Titans, who have the best pass defense in football. The absolute best. Honestly, our matchup projections regress to the mean so much as not to allow a projection much worse than minus-22 percent. So if you are thinking about starting Grossman this week, just don't. Take the zero. This is the guy who has three of the 10 worst fantasy performances from a quarterback this decade. He's capable of going below zero. Easily. You don't want this. If Kyle Orton is healthy, even he's at minus-15 percent. Just avoid the Bears.
Peyton Manning (Colts, minus-10 percent): Last week was so nice! Alas, it's back to the hardscrabble days for the elder Manning, who faces the third-best pass defense in football this week in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh's pass rush should create problems for Manning, limiting the Colts' big-play potential.
Gus Frerotte (Vikings, minus-9 percent): The Packers continue to have their bizarre defensive split: They're second-best against the pass and second-worst against the run. That bodes well for the next guy we're going to name, but it's bad for Frerotte, who should do well only in leagues that reward quarterbacks for lots of handoffs this week.
Adrian Peterson (Vikings, plus-19 percent) and Chester Taylor (Vikings, plus-16 percent): Projecting the performance of a guy like Taylor here is tricky. Obviously, he's the backup to Peterson, so his day will depend on the game situation and how the starter is playing and being used. If Peterson is being overworked, then Taylor will likely see more action, but to take last week as an example, Peterson's reliability in holding onto the football and the close nature of the game kept him in the lineup. We still project Taylor for above-average performance if he gets in there, but we can't say with much certainty whether he will.
Whoever runs the ball for the Vikings, though, should have a very nice day.
Thomas Jones (Jets, plus-16 percent) and Leon Washington (Jets, plus-15 percent): We're also including Washington because of his expanding role in the offense. With our man Jaws revealing the Brett Favre injury on NFL Matchup last week, we're skeptical of how much Eric Mangini actually wants Favre to air the ball out. That should mean a steady dose of Jones on the ground, with Washington chipping in through the air.
LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers, plus-15 percent): He got back to his touchdown-producing nature in London, and the dry spell from earlier this year should be an aberration. LT shouldn't have much trouble with the Chiefs' front seven; he absolutely feasts on crappy defenses. Remember when he had four touchdowns against Oakland last year?
DeAngelo Williams (Panthers, plus-12 percent) and Jonathan Stewart (Panthers, plus-12 percent): Williams has pretty much emerged as the starter here, with Stewart as a change-of-pace back. Of course, that could change in any week. Whoever gets the ball against the Raiders should do well, but unless you're in a deep league, you might want to keep Stewart out, lest he end up with only nine carries for 60 yards.
Steve Slaton (Texans, minus-22 percent): Slaton, of course, is naturally subject to the difficulties that any running back faces when he plays against the Ravens. In addition, though, Slaton has a more subtle issue to deal with: his new quarterback. Our research shows that losing a quarterback to injury actually affects the performance of the running game more than losing a running back; that should hold here, and Slaton should have a very middling game.
LenDale White (Titans, minus-13 percent): Tennessee has been very comfortable spotting White significant time in games in which he's a good fit and virtually benching him in games in which he's up against a big defensive line. (Think the three-carry game against Baltimore.) Chicago has a front seven that White won't be able to exploit, and the Titans likely will try to use Chris Johnson on the edges to get Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs out of the box.
Joseph Addai (Colts, minus-13 percent): The Disappointment Tour 2008 continues, as Addai will be faced with the second-best rush defense in football this week. He's now on pace for 578 yards this season. Not what you were expecting out of the fifth overall pick, huh?
Ryan Grant (Packers, minus-12 percent): His 57-yard run against the Vikings in Week 1 was the highlight of his season; take it away and he has 156 carries for 493 yards (3.16 yards per carry). It probably won't happen against the Vikings again this week.
Matt Jones (Jaguars, plus-13 percent): Obviously, this depends on whether Jones is suspended by the league this week. The fact that it's Thursday and it hasn't happened seems to indicate that it won't happen this week, which is a very good thing: He plays the Lions, who have the worst defense in the league against No. 1 receivers. If he's suspended, this is Jerry Porter's or Dennis Northcutt's spot (probably the former's).
Brandon Marshall (Broncos, plus-12 percent): Marshall is up against a bad secondary with something to prove. We predict two touchdowns, the second of which is celebrated with Marshall's pulling his jersey up to his chest à la Joey Porter.
Vincent Jackson (Chargers, plus-12 percent): Jackson is not quite playing as a No. 1 receiver, but he's close. The Chiefs don't have enough of a pass rush to prevent him from getting open downfield, which should allow him to pick up at least two passes of 25 yards or more. We suspect one of them will go for six.
Rashied Davis (Bears, minus-23 percent) and Devin Hester (Bears, minus-15 percent): How tragic! Davis goes from being our Matchup Spot hero last week to having the worst matchup of any player in the league this time around. You can thank Cortland Finnegan for that. Hester at least has the chance of getting a deep throw if he gets matched up against Nick Harper.
Javon Walker (Raiders, minus-13 percent): Carolina has the second-best defense in the league against No. 1 wide receivers. At the moment, Walker leads Raiders wide receivers in targets. He may not even be a Raiders wide receiver by the time Sunday rolls around, but until then, he's going to see a lot of Chris Gamble and be a terrible fantasy start.
Steve Smith (Panthers, minus-8 percent) and Steve Smith (Giants, minus-8 percent): We swear, it worked out this way. Carolina's Steve Smith has a weird matchup. On one side, there's Nnamdi Asomugha, instant fantasy death. On the other side, there's not DeAngelo Hall. We have no idea whether Stanford Routt will do better. We expect Smith to see a lot of Asomugha and do nothing, but then get up against Routt and pick up a big play.
The Giants' Smith has a tough matchup against Philadelphia; normally he feasts on linebackers and overmatched nickelbacks, but he'll be up against either Lito Sheppard or Asante Samuel, both of whom can handle him.
Anthony Fasano (Dolphins, plus-11 percent): So what if he can't run block? Fasano can catch and Seattle has the third-worst pass defense in the league against tight ends. Remember when their linebackers were good? You know, last year? Those were heady times.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.