With record in range, Stafford a smart play

Posted Dec. 28, 2012 @ 3:20 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

In “Start or Sit,” we make a call on players who merit strong starting consideration — and players who might be best on the bench. 

Here’s our Week 17 rundown:

START

Lions QB Matthew Stafford (vs. Chicago) Yes, Stafford has had a disappointing season, but he is nonetheless in range of 5,000 passing yards, and 305 yards in the season finale vs. Chicago will make him the first NFL passer to ever reach the 5,000 mark in back-to-back campaigns. There are multiple ways to make a case to start Stafford. If you believe the Bears will get out to an early lead and the Lions will need to abandon any semblance of a running game, Stafford is an attractive play. Also, if you believe the game will be close, Stafford is a reasonable play, for the Lions are pass-happy even in the best of times. 

Jaguars QB Chad Henne (at Tennessee) I can't say he's a slam-dunk start in smaller leagues, but I would give him a long look in two-QB formats and big one-QB leagues. I like Henne's matchup; the Titans' pass defense is not a strength. Also, Henne should relish the chance to get one more chance to show the Jaguars (and other teams, too) what he can do. In Week 17, I am always inclined to side with players who have every reason to be motivated to play hard, and Henne looks like a textbook case. 

Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (at Washington)  The Redskins are stronger vs. the run than the pass, but I would confidently start Murray in Week 17. Given the Cowboys' issues stopping the Redskins' offense in the first meeting between these teams, a ball-control offense would do Dallas some good. It's not as if the Redskins can't be run on; they are surrendering 4.2 yards per carry, the 15th-best mark in the NFL. Murray is one of the keys to the Cowboys' chances on Sunday night. The Cowboys need to continue feeding him the ball. I believe they will.  

Saints RB Mark Ingram (vs. Carolina)  Neither the Saints nor the Panthers are playing for anything but pride on Sunday, but I expect this to be an entertaining game. Both clubs continue to compete, which speaks well to their coaching and leadership. Since I'm confident that both clubs will show up, it allows me to make some educated guesses, such as this one: the Saints' running game, which racked up 163 yards in the first meeting with the Panthers, could again present problems for Carolina. And even if that doesn't happen, I can be fairly confident that Ingram (who has scored one TD in three of the last four games) will continue to get the bulk of the carries for New Orleans. Should that happen, he could get a goal-line look or two. 

Dolphins RB Reggie Bush (at New England)  He's a sensible play on numerous levels. For one, Bush needs 40 rushing yards to reach 1,000 for the second consecutive season. What's more, he's in the final year of his contract. Finally, he has played quite well in recent weeks, exceeding 100 combined yards in three consecutive games. 

Giants WR Victor Cruz (vs. Philadelphia) — He has given the Eagles fits the past two seasons. In the last three meetings between these teams, Cruz has hauled in 18 passes for 347 yards and four TDs. I would set aside his recent struggles (six catches, 36 yards combined in Weeks 15 and 16) and play him on Sunday. 

SIT 

There is nothing like Week 17, and that's precisely the reason why many fantasy leagues simply don't mess with it. Let us count the quirks and annoyances: 

• Some teams have clinched playoff spots and might be inclined to rest starters. 

• Other teams have little to play for other than pride, making it a guessing game as to the type of effort they will give. 

• The weather can be downright wretched. 

Rather than list any specific players to sit in Week 17, I would prefer to list the conditions and scenarios that would make me think twice about starting a skill-position player in the final week of the regular season. I've divided the risk factors for players on contending or non-contending teams into separate categories: 

Contending Team Risk Factors

— The player's team is locked into a playoff seed, and the player is a key contributor whom the team couldn't easily replace if injured. 

— The player has a nagging injury and could benefit from rest leading into the postseason. 

— The player is in range of a personal goal easily attained early in the season finale.  

— Poor weather conditions are expected.  

Non-Contending Team Risk Factors

— The player has a nagging injury and plays for a non-playoff team that counts him as a key part of its future. 

— The player is a veteran, and his backup is a young player who needs seasoning. 

— The player will be facing a defense that has shown recent and/or sustained strength combating the player's primary skill. 

— The player's team is in poor form.

— The team's starting quarterback is out. 

— The team was recently eliminated from postseason contention (i.e., Weeks 15 or 16). 

— The team's coach could be replaced at season's end. 

— The team lacks locker-room leadership. 

— The team will be on the road in the season finale. 

— The team will be facing an opponent that needs to win to clinch a playoff spot. 

— Poor weather conditions are expected.