Looking ahead: Midseason fantasy forecast

Fantasy owners don't think about the midpoint of the NFL season, or when it actually occurs. We're in the groove of our season and, frankly, the schedule is not the same for most who play fantasy football. Our midpoint already happened, and pretty much flew under the radar at that, unless your league just totally dismisses its playoffs. For instance, I used to play in a roto-style league that just counted season points and ended like the NFL regular season in Week 17. So for you trendsetters, take a 10-minute nap and get ready for the second half.

For the rest of us, we've got a month or so of regular-season action, and then we wake up from our post-Thanksgiving nap to realize that the fantasy playoffs are just about upon us. A time of reflection is always warranted. Take this opportunity to make sure your playoffs aren't starting ... now.

No matter what point of the season this is for you, it's always a wise time to look ahead and plan for the future. And I'm not talking about the stock market. Consider this where the market and fantasy have something in common, except you're not going to lose tons of money and your college-age child won't be raking leaves for the neighbors rather than attending college. Decisions you make on player movement now will affect your team in December, so why not look ahead?

All of us can peer at December schedules and see who gets a healthy dose of Lions and Bengals, oh my, and who has to deal with the Titans and Ravens, oh no. I want to deal with bigger-picture items, and really predict the future. So, here goes.

Tom Brady will not return: OK, just want to get that out there right off the bat. He's done. Toast. Finished. However, Brady remains owned in more than a third of ESPN leagues (although that ownership number also includes keeper leagues and leagues with IR spots). Chad Pennington -- the same guy leading the league in passing yards for the past month -- just passed Brady in ownership this past week, while the productive Gus Frerotte, noted winner Kerry Collins and somewhat intriguing Dan Orlovsky (apparently the Lions aren't intrigued, if the Daunte Culpepper rumors are true) are all owned in fewer leagues. Look, maybe you won't go so far as to predict Orlovsky, Tyler Thigpen or Shaun Hill can win you a fantasy league, but I will. I'm also quite certain Brady cannot. Take this opportunity to check your team's bench and make sure it features active players, and maybe an upside fella or two. San Francisco's Hill, for example, has a bye this week to prepare for his deserved opportunity, which will include potentially high-scoring games with the Cardinals and Cowboys and a pair of tilts with the Rams. Brady will not return, and neither will J.T. O'Sullivan as Hill seizes his chance to become the NFC version of steady Trent Edwards. Seriously, Hill is legit, and if you liked O'Sullivan because of the Mike Martz factor, let's welcome a better candidate, one who doesn't fumble six times per game. Watch Hill get the Niners on track and supply one double-digit fantasy game after another.

Peyton Manning will return: Wait, he's out for the season, too? No, Manning might not look like his old 49-touchdown self, but he's returning to major fantasy relevance, as if Monday's three-touchdown performance wasn't more proof. Manning had four multi-interception games in the first two months as he dealt with a balky knee and balkier weapons around him, but the first two weeks of December feature the Lions and Bengals. Manning is a lock for good times in those games. Entering Week 9, he's tied for No. 10 in quarterback fantasy points with Kyle Orton. Get in now before the going gets good, and either keep Manning or deal for him, because I see him ending up tied for No. 6 at quarterback, which means good things are ahead. While he has only 10 touchdown passes in seven games, I predict he ends up with 25 touchdowns.

Who else breaks into the top six?: Glad you asked. Manning and Orton are currently tied, and they will finish that way. This is not the same Orton you made fun of in 2006, not even close. We can credit his weapons and schedule and all that, but he's actually learned how to play the quarterback position and thrive in the role. Since Week 3, Orton has averaged two touchdowns and 15 fantasy points, a pretty legit trend I expect to continue. He gets another meeting with the Lions, road tilts with the penetrable Rams and Vikings and, when it matters most, finishes up with the Saints, Packers and Texans. Orton isn't merely a fantasy curiosity -- he's turned the corner to major fantasy relevance, and he'll end up with more fantasy points than Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre.

The running back hierarchy adjusts: The very top of the running back leaderboard for fantasy points is currently sans Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, among others. It won't end that way, however. This threesome has been a bit disappointing, generally because of injuries, but all appear healthy now. Peterson comes off a bye and has numerous meaty matchups to go, especially in December. Tomlinson gets to face the Chiefs twice. And Westbrook is second to none in fantasy points per game, so all we need is more games. I won't predict doom for Clinton Portis, Marion Barber and Frank Gore, the current top three by a healthy margin, but expect the top three from draft day to make a run at them. Don't be surprised if Westbrook, for example, makes it into the top three.

Rookie runners slow down: I wouldn't start moving Matt Forte, Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton in low-ball trades, but these fellas have been receiving plenty of touches, and with history as our guide, it stands to reason they're going to cool off in December as their bodies run out of steam. Hey, it happened to Adrian Peterson, and nobody was expecting that, either. Forte's Bears have fortuitous matchups to finish with, but that could also make Kevin Jones a suitable handcuff. Johnson's handcuff (LenDale White) leads the league in touchdowns, so he's already owned, and in Houston there's always Ahman Green ... forget that. Just expect Matt Schaub to throw more. Also, if you're waiting for Jonathan Stewart and Tim Hightower to emerge, be careful; even with opportunity, they're not weekly fantasy plays. I think Darren McFadden is going to be a star, but turf toe is nothing to make fun of. Don't assume all rookies are bad investments for December, but I wouldn't go buying low, either.

The waiting is the hardest part: Every season, fantasy owners hold out hope that the first two months were just a fluke for those struggling players, either due to performance or injury. Ryan Grant, for example, is having a season that reminds me of what Thomas Jones did a season ago, yet Grant's owners think that's a ridiculous comparison. I think it's very real, and not likely to change. He'll get his 1,000 yards, but with about three touchdowns. Those who wasted high picks on Joseph Addai, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and even Terrell Owens also need to revise their preseason expectations. I do not expect to see Larry Johnson play again this season, nor do I think Kolby Smith ever tops the 75-yard plateau in a game. Things are messy in Kansas City.

Mile High dreams: Meanwhile, out in the land of Shanahan, where fantasy football owners have uttered many a disparaging word, a young, talented, rehabbing running back named Ryan Torain is owned in more leagues than Ray Rice, Pierre Thomas, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and quite a few other running backs who made it into fantasy lineups this past week. I think Rice has a bright future, and he's wise Willis McGahee insurance. Thomas is just a Deuce McAllister setback away from relevance, and someone has to run the ball for the Patriots, so why not a man named BenJarvus? Torain hasn't played a down, yet he's owned in four times as many leagues as the actual Denver backup these days, Andre Hall. Selvin Young burned us, Michael Pittman surprises us and Ryan Torain teases us. None of them will help you win a fantasy title in December, but Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal will. Keep Pittman around, as I expect him to lead the Broncos in rushing this season, while Cutler runs for more yards than Torain.

Rookie receiver rage: While I'm cold on first-year running backs keeping with the pace and bringing joy to all the little boys and girls in the fantasy football world, I don't have the same concerns with a few of our favorite wide receivers. DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal have already emerged, and here comes Donnie Avery and Josh Morgan, too. Oakland's Chaz Schilens and the Packers' Jordy Nelson are others who just seem to need more opportunity. We all saw what happened to Dwayne Bowe a season ago, when his big games of September didn't get duplicated. The Eagles and Broncos aren't going to lose every week in the final two months, so I'm not worried about Jackson and Royal. Anthony Gonzalez and Calvin Johnson didn't disappear. In 2006, Marques Colston, Greg Jennings and Santonio Holmes stayed productive. Maybe it's unfair, but I notice a rookie running back's first-year status, much more than a wide receiver's, especially late in the year.

The NFC will be led by ... : Tony Romo will return in Week 11 to save the day, right? Well, I don't think he'll have a problem producing 15 or more fantasy points a week, but note his December opponents aren't pushovers. The Steelers, Giants, Ravens and Eagles are all in playoff contention, and all can rush the passer. None of those games figures to be high-scoring affairs. Romo is not going to finish in the top 10 for fantasy quarterbacks, and not just because he'll miss three games, so fantasy owners should be aware of this. Yes, I'll take Orton, Schaub and Aaron Rodgers first. In fact, I don't think the Cowboys will make the playoffs in a tough NFC East. The rest of the division will. Marion Barber is fantasy's No. 2 running back, and I see him losing touches later in the season to Felix Jones. Terrell Owens is unhappy all the time, and for good reason; the team's quarterback has ignored him for a while, and now Roy E. Williams is stealing end-zone chances. Jason Witten has a broken rib, sure to cost him time. I have the Giants and Panthers deciding the NFC title, and fantasy's eventual No. 1 wide receiver gets the winning touchdown. No, it's not Plaxico Burress. It's Steve Smith.

... and in the AFC: I'm not going to pick against the Tennessee Titans, not the way they run the ball and defend. However, I'll surprise you with my other AFC title game team. Philip Rivers is the top player in fantasy today, Tomlinson is healthy, and while the team's defense is full of holes, it might not matter the rest of the way. With no dominant running back getting it done for the entire season, I think a quarterback wins the fantasy scoring title, and I'll stick with Rivers, who has better weapons than people think, and the type of schedule he can really exploit. That Week 17 finale against Denver will provide fantasy owners many smiles, get the 10-6 Chargers into the playoffs and spur a January run. It ends in Nashville in late January, but the Chargers will make a case for having the best team fantasy owners can make, with Rivers, Tomlinson and Antonio Gates ending up the best, or close to the best, at their respective positions.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.