While last week's column examined the volatile nature of wide receivers and exploiting matchups at the position, let's take a closer look this week at running back strategy during the fantasy playoffs.
Generally, historical data suggests that the truly elite at the position -- meaning essentially the top three -- are matchup-proof, every-week starters. Beyond that group, however, exploiting matchups is usually the way to go.
But there are exceptions.
In the absence of outstanding matchups -- like Bryce Brown against Carolina in Week 12, Mikel Leshoure against Indianapolis in Week 13 and Knowshon Moreno against Oakland in Week 14 -- it's a wise move to load your lineup with consistent performers, low-downside players who won't run the risk of sinking your week. Nothing stings more than a two-point Beanie Wells week when you could have just as easily used, say, a ho-hum Shonn Greene.
Always be sure to check your players' Consistency Ratings before setting those playoff lineups. Here are three running backs whose year-to-date performances might not be earning them enough credit:
CONSISTENCY RATINGS BENCHMARKS
Using 2012 statistics and fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, the charts contained in this column rate players based on how consistently reliable they are. To familiarize you with some of the terminology:
Start: The number of times that the player's point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league.
Stud: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the top at his position.
Stiff: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
These are the benchmarks for what constitutes a Start, Stud or Stiff performance, numbers identifying the player's rank at his position:
Sat: The number of times the player missed a game. Players are not charged Stiff points for sitting out, but it hurts their overall Consistency Rating.
%: The player's overall Consistency Rating, calculated as number of Start performances divided by scheduled team games.
Ray Rice: His owners are understandably concerned about the mere 13 touches he had to backup Bernard Pierce's nine in Week 13, his invisibility during the fourth quarter of that game and Rice's diminishing fantasy returns. He hasn't managed greater than a 15-point fantasy day since Week 6, a span of six games during which he has averaged 11.5 per contest after having nine games of 20-plus fantasy points in his previous 25. Rice, while still fourth in total fantasy points among running backs, is a noticeable amount behind the top three; he has averaged 13.6 points per game, a full three fewer than Adrian Peterson (first, 16.9 average), Arian Foster (second, 16.8) and Doug Martin (third, 16.3) have combined.
Perhaps Rice hasn't fully delivered a return on his draft-day investment, having been selected No. 2 on average in the preseason, but his strength remains his consistently reliable fantasy production, even if his week-winning upside has faded. He has been -- and should remain -- a mainstay in your weekly lineup, devoid of a Stiff performance since Nov. 16, 2008 (Week 11), a span of 63 games played. Since 2009, Rice has the highest Consistency Rating of any non-2012 rookie: 85%. He has, in other words, warranted a Start in all but 11 games during that time.
Keep that in mind if you're troubled by his remaining schedule -- @WSH, DEN, NYG, @CIN -- which doesn't include a single team that rates among the 10 most generous to opposing running backs in terms of fantasy points allowed. The Cincinnati Bengals, in fact, are the only one that doesn't rank among the eight least favorable matchups using that category. Those matchups cap Rice's upside and will almost assuredly lock him in at that No. 4 position come season's end, but in no way should they be spawning fears that he is a weak lineup option or should be benched.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: Before you criticize him for his No. 15 ranking among running backs in total fantasy points, ask yourself, did you really expect more than this? Considering he was the 23rd running back off the board on average this preseason as a sixth-round pick, anyone arguing to the contrary is entirely off base.
Another argument for those folks: Did you know that Green-Ellis is averaging more fantasy points per game this season (9.5) than last (8.6)? Green-Ellis' owners probably have warmed to him following his three consecutive 100-yard performances from Weeks 11-13, but the truth is that, during his cold spell, he still belonged in any fantasy lineup.
Ultimately, Green-Ellis' impact is dictated by his goal-line usage. Last season, he had the fourth-most carries within five yards of the opponent's goal line (21) and the second-most touchdowns on those (10). This season, he is 4-for-11 scoring on those opportunities, ranking eighth in both categories. Regression was inevitable, considering the strength of the respective offenses -- 2011 New England Patriots versus 2012 Bengals -- but the fact remains that, when the Bengals need a running back to punch one in, he'll be their guy.
Remember that if you're worried about his schedule -- DAL, @PHI, @PIT, BAL -- which, like Rice's, doesn't include a single game against the 10 teams most generous to opposing running backs. All it takes is a score for Green-Ellis to have warranted a Start, and he is an awfully good bet to get one most weeks.
Steven Jackson: The "old man" among running backs, Jackson, after an early-season scare that rookie Daryl Richardson might begin cutting into his workload, has picked up the pace. He has 49 fantasy points in the past four games, two of those against one of the toughest run defenses in football (San Francisco 49ers, Weeks 10 and 13), and he is the 13th-most consistent player at his position (66.7% Consistency Rating). Jackson hasn't been a Stiff since Nov. 8, 2008, a span of 63 games.
Jackson has totaled 96 touches during his four-game rebound (24 per contest), and he has one of the most positive track records of performing well despite nagging aches and pains of any player in the league. Now 29 years old, he might be due for a decline next season, but for the remainder of this one, he's as smart a weekly RB2/flex candidate as you'll find.
He also has one advantage the previous two running backs don't: He has a favorable Week 14 matchup at the Buffalo Bills, which have afforded the position the third-most fantasy points this season.
Consistency Ratings chart
Players are initially ranked in order of their Consistency Rating, calculated as the percentage of the player's scheduled games -- not games played, scheduled games -- in which his fantasy point total registered a Start score. All categories are sortable both ascending and descending; just click on the headers to sort. Players must have met at least one of the following minimums for inclusion in the chart: 20 percent Consistency Rating in standard scoring leagues or 20 percent Consistency Rating in PPR formats. All defense/special teams are included, regardless of whether they met those minimums.
These statistics are for 2012 only. Statistics for games since 2010 can be found here.