As we get deeper into the NFL season, fans, players, and coaches gain a clearer grasp on the true talent level of both players and teams. Not only are we seeing players whose performance has changed for better (Marcus Stroud) or worse (Ronde Barber) since the start of the season but also everyone's played at least five games, which helps to separate the flukes from the units that have seen a real change in their performance.
That means we can project matchups with more confidence, as the likelihood of a player or team performing dramatically different from our expectation decreases with each game. We can safely say now, for example, that losing Cullen Jenkins and Corey Williams has dramatically affected the Packers' run defense, turning them into a favorable matchup for opposing running backs. We know that despite the brilliance of Nnamdi Asomugha, the awful play of DeAngelo Hall and the refusal of Rob Ryan to stick Asomugha on the other team's top target on every play makes playing wide receivers against Oakland something of a crapshoot.
Of course, there's always going to be a significant amount of variance in fantasy football. No one's ever going to be able to eliminate that with their projections, but we can mitigate more of it each week. That's why you'll see our percentages for player projections become more extreme as we enter the middle half of the season, and why you should be paying more attention to matchups with each passing week.
Best and worst matchups for Week 7
Kerry Collins (Titans, plus-8 percent): There's not much to Kansas City's secondary, but the biggest reason Collins isn't higher on this list is the Chiefs' rush defense is worse. The likelihood that the Titans will be winning this game early leads us to believe they'll run the ball too frequently for Collins to accrue a significant amount of fantasy points. He's still a good start in deeper leagues, though.
Jeff Garcia (Buccaneers, plus-8 percent): Since Garcia returned, he's been strictly a dumpoff guy, barely throwing anything deep and seemingly averaging three yards a completion. Unless you get completion points, that's not really exciting. Garcia is playing a Seattle defense that's 31st in the league in pass defense defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) and can't decide who they want to start across from Marcus Trufant. Meanwhile, Trufant looks nothing like the franchise corner he was a year ago. Garcia will probably end up with something like 24-of-29 for 220 yards and a touchdown. That's 17 points just waiting to be had in most leagues.
Brodie Croyle (Chiefs, minus-16 percent): You read that right! Croyle is already off to an awful start, and while he has at least had a week's notice that he'll be starting this game, Tennessee has the best pass defense in football. They have a pass rush that's already sacked Croyle three times, and the game hasn't even started yet. Albert Haynesworth's agent already has a highlight film from this game prepared for Haynesworth's offseason suitors, and the season's not even halfway done.
Chad Pennington (Dolphins, minus-12 percent): What we learned last week about the Ravens is they can't get away with covering the corpse of the Indianapolis Colts' offense in man coverage across the field. Once Rex Ryan realized that, the score was 17-0 and the game was virtually over. It was a good lesson to learn, but this week, the Ravens replace Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne with Pennington, Greg Camarillo, and Ted Ginn Jr. This should work out better for the Ravens. On a side note, if Pennington motions out as a receiver, what are the odds on Ray Lewis following him and laying him out? 98 percent? 99 percent?
Seneca Wallace (Seahawks, minus-9 percent): We suppose there are friends and family of Seneca Wallace who draft him every year in their fantasy leagues, hoping Mike Holmgren will either make him a starting wide receiver or Matt Hasselbeck will get hurt. They got their wish a few weeks back, and now, they get another Wallace start under center. For the eight of you, then: Wallace has a bad matchup. Don't start him. You'll get another chance in 2011. Hope he has a better matchup then and that it's not in the CFL.
Marion Barber (Cowboys, plus-12 percent): We don't know if Tony Romo will be back. Roy Williams (and we mean the Roy Williams who plays offense for the Cowboys, not the Roy Williams who plays defense and is hurt this will get annoying very quickly) will be around, but he still has to learn the offense before he'll play a real role. Felix Jones is gone for the next several weeks. That means, to us, that until Romo's 100 percent again the Cowboys will lean on Barber. This week, against the Rams, that could be a very, very good thing.
Chris Johnson (Titans, plus-11 percent): Johnson will likely have to split more time with LenDale White than we'd like, but this is a great matchup for him. The Titans are very likely to be beating the Chiefs early, which means lots of running the ball against a bad rush defense. In addition, the Chiefs have the second-worst pass defense in the league against running backs. Think Johnson can take advantage of that?
Dominic Rhodes (Colts, plus-9 percent): With Joseph Addai out, Rhodes enters the lineup at precisely the right time. The Colts' offensive line looks to be returning to its former prominence, and while Rhodes wasn't great against Baltimore last week, well, it's the Ravens. He'll get much less resistance from the Packers and their porous run defense. Look for something like 115 yards and a score.
Clinton Portis (Redskins, plus-9 percent): If, say, you're in a league in which you can only start one running back, and it's a six-team league yeah, you'll want to start Portis. Seriously, there's not a single league in which the goal is to score the most points as possible that you shouldn't start Portis in this week. Not one.
Willis McGahee (Ravens, minus-9 percent): McGahee is having a total disaster of a season so far. You would think playing the Dolphins would normally help that, but astute readers of the Football Outsiders matchups column know the Dolphins have actually had one of the best run defenses in football this year. Considering he'll have to split time with Le'Ron McClain, leave McGahee out.
Ronnie Brown (Dolphins, minus-9 percent): Brown, on the other hand, is off to a stupendous start. By now, though, everyone should know the Ravens are fantasy death for running backs. The possibility still exists that the Wildcat could throw the Baltimore defense off, but that's an offensive strategy that works well against teams with slow linebackers, like the Patriots. The Ravens have one of the fastest groups of linebackers in the league.
Matt Forte (Bears, minus-8 percent): The Bears have given every team a healthy dollop of Forte, and I don't doubt that he'll get his 22-25 carries this week. But against the stout Vikings run defense, though, those carries aren't likely to go for very much.
Julius Jones (Seahawks, minus-8 percent): Tampa Bay's rush defense has quietly gone from being pretty good last year to elite this year; their rush defense DVOA is currently second in the league. We think they'll regress some from that spot, but they're playing like they're a top-five rush defense, and the Seahawks no longer have the offensive line to handle that.
Andre Johnson (Texans, plus-10 percent): We wish we could pull off the mind-meld that allowed Matt Schaub's fourth-down prayer to go through a Dolphins' player's hands and into Johnson's last week. Imagine for a second, though, if Johnson could catch the ball without having to worry about using his technology to knock a pair of hands out of the way? That would be what it should be like this week against the Lions. It's kind of like Superman fighting Lex Luthor and then, a week later, he's buying groceries and someone holds up the liquor store next door with a plunger.
Terrell Owens (Cowboys, plus-9 percent): We fully believe T.O. will be upset about not getting the ball sooner rather than later. It just won't happen yet. Owens will pick up a couple of scores against the Rams, everyone will be happy and there'll be 100 stories about how Dallas is back on track, and then people will remember they played the Rams and have a horror schedule coming up after the bye.
Calvin Johnson (Lions, plus-9 percent): The flip side of the Roy Williams thing is true, too; no Williams means Calvin Johnson can be the 12-target-a-game guy the Lions drafted him to be. Even though he'll see more double coverage, his increased opportunities should cause his numbers to bump up over the rest of the season. Going up against Jacques Reeves this week should only help make that happen.
Ted Ginn Jr. (Dolphins, minus-11 percent): Freaky stat of the week: Avowed speedster and deep threat Ted Ginn is averaging 8.1 yards per catch. 8.1! That's so low that Wes Welker and Peerless Price would make fun of his inability to get downfield. Wayne Chrebet laughs at 8.1 yards per catch, and he's been retired for two years now. Ginn shouldn't find much separation against Chris McAlister or Corey Ivy.
Dwayne Bowe (Chiefs, minus-10 percent): In a former life, we interviewed Dwayne Bowe but couldn't do anything except stare at his mammoth chain. Later on, we turned on our iTunes and realized Dwayne Bowe's iTunes was also on and listed as a shared library. We clicked on it, all excited, waiting for it to load up and reveal Bowe's hidden love for Dwight Yoakam and his library loaded to show three Lil' Wayne songs. Not that we don't love our favorite ESPN blogger, but that wasn't particularly exciting. All of this is a long way of saying the Chiefs' matchup still stinks, and Albert Haynesworth has sacked Brodie Croyle two more times since we wrote about him in the quarterback section.
Rashied Davis (Bears, minus-7 percent): Davis has emerged as this team's top target, which means that he'll see a lot of Antoine Winfield on Sunday. Winfield is not the elite corner he once was, but he shouldn't have too much trouble handling Davis.
Owen Daniels (Texans, plus-13 percent):
Those are the career totals of four tight ends, normalized to a 16-game season.
Player A is Daniels. Player B is Dallas Clark. Player C is Todd Heap. Player D is Chris Cooley. Why is Daniels less famous than the other three guys? Not really sure, but sleep on him at your own peril. He plays the worst defense in the league against tight ends this week, and they're the worst by a large margin. He could very well go over 100 yards this week.
Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs, minus-12 percent): This has nothing to do with the trade rumors failing to come through; it's just that the Titans have an excellent pass defense, and Gonzalez won't likely have too many chances to pick up significant yardage on Sunday. This should be something like seven catches for 45 yards.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.