Congratulations on reaching your fantasy playoffs. We’ll be here until the end of the NFL regular season to help you win your league title, and all the wealth, fame and bragging rights that go along with such an honor.
(What’s that? You missed your league playoffs, and you’re still reading this column anyway? Uh … thanks!)
As noted previously, each position below will have a list of weekly “must starts” to go along with the usual recommendations. They’re players that warrant “no-think” fantasy status due to talent, workloads or both, regardless of opponent. The lists are subject to change, but additions and deletions will be made sparingly. Also, if a player is ever “removed until further notice,” it doesn’t mean you need to bench him; it just indicates that his status has become a week-to-week proposition that depends on the rest of your roster.
If you disagree with any of the selections, or want to offer some of your own, please post a comment at the bottom of the page. We’ll be here every Thursday until the end of your fantasy season.
Thursday game: The Colts (three straight losses) and Titans (five straight losses) battle in Nashville to see which team can suffer the AFC South’s worst collapse of the season. Set your lineups accordingly.
Start him: Joe Flacco, Ravens
Flacco is getting beaten up a little bit for a subpar performance against the Steelers, in which his team scored 10 points, and he ended the game with a poorly thrown fourth down pass to the flat that bounced before reaching its intended receiver. Flacco could probably use some reassurance, and the Texans’ pass defense is the football equivalent of a big, giant bear hug. There’s nothing redeeming about the Texans -- they’ve allowed 27 touchdowns, 287 yards per game and a 102.8 opponents’ passer rating, all worst in the NFL. Flacco is no slouch to begin with, averaging 249 yards per game and throwing 19 TDs this season. Week 14 should be a big one for him.
Sit him: Matt Ryan, Falcons
Matt Cassel was the “Sit Him” recommendation in the first draft, but is in danger of not playing due to the appendectomy he underwent Wednesday. But the rules of the column dictate that we include a quarterback, so Ryan is the call.
We actually don’t hate Ryan this week, but the Panthers’ pass defense isn’t ;too bad -- eighth in the league with 206 yards per game allowed, and only 15 TDs given up -- and this game could be a blowout by halftime, leading Ryan to a boatload of second-half handoffs. If you’ve been playing the matchup game with Ryan and another quarterback, this could be a good time to keep Matty Ice on the fantasy bench.
He’s baaaaack! Smith lost his job earlier this season due to both injury and ineffectiveness, making his status as a preseason fantasy sleeper seem unwarranted. Look a little closer, and you’ll notice that he averaged 237 yards with eight touchdowns in his six starts. Sure, he threw nine interceptions, but nobody’s telling you that he should replace Rodgers or Brady in your lineup. Signs point to the Niners once again leaning on the Smith-friendly spread offense, and the former No. 1 overall pick could have a solid day dinking and dunking his way down the field against the Seahawks (268 passing yards allowed per game). There are some scenarios in which Smith could start for your fantasy squad this week. Not a lot, but some. He’s owned in 41.4 percent of FoxSports.com leagues.
Start him: Tim Hightower, Cardinals
Hightower had 15 carries to Beanie Wells’ three in Week 13, and word is that a blown blitz pickup played a part in the disparity. It’s likely that Wells’ inability to stay healthy hasn’t endeared him to the coaching staff, either. With third-string rookie John Skelton or the even more obscure Richard Bartel likely to start at quarterback for the Cardinals this week, they’ll try to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible. With the Broncos’ 31-st ranked rushing defense as their opponent, that plan actually might work. Give Hightower a chance if you own him.
Sit him: Cedric Benson, Bengals
Some parts of this job are easy. Recommending running backs to sit when playing against the Steelers is one of those parts. We had Benson here before he played the Steelers in Week 9, and while the strategy was basically correct, Benson scored on a one-yard TD after a pass interference penalty in the end zone. That was a lucky break for Benson, and we don’t think the fantasy gods will be so kind to him this week.
Pick him up: James Starks, Packers
Though Brandon Jackson isn’t bad, it was starting to look like the Packers were just going to throw the ball every down for the rest of the season. Then Starks -- owned in 0.7 percent of FoxSports.com leagues -- carried 18 times for 73 yards during his first game action in two years, and changed everything. The Packers are saying things like “there’s no depth chart” in their backfield, but it’s getting cold up at the frozen tundra, and every playoff contender can use a clock-killing back to take the load off their quarterback -- even if that quarterback is out-of-this-world good. Look for Starks to lead the Pack in carries again this week, making him a borderline fantasy start against the young Lions. His upside is pretty significant.
(Note: The Packers play at Detroit this week, and the game is indoors. But that “frozen tundra” stuff was too catchy to leave out, don’t you think?)
Also: Tashard Choice (5.2 percent owned) shared the Cowboys’ workload with Felix Jones in Week 13 against the Colts, and they’re talking about keeping Choice in there even when Marion Barber is healthy. Haven’t we been recommending that all year long? … Ryan Torain (48 percent owned) is expected to make his return to the Redskins after missing four games with a hamstring injury. Assuming he’s ready to carry a full workload -- make sure he practices every day this week -- Torain could be worth a start right away … The Colts have a banged-up backfield, with Donald Brown and Javarris James (1.1 percent owned) apparently the last men standing. James should get whatever goal-line carries exist, and can be a low-end starter if you really need one.
Must starts (15): (WR – 11) Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Terrell Owens, Roddy White, Brandon Lloyd, Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe, Stevie Johnson, Miles Austin, Hakeem Nicks*; (TE – 5) Antonio Gates*, Jason Witten, Jacob Tamme, Vernon Davis, Brandon Pettigrew
Removed until further notice: Larry Fitzgerald, who still gets a ton of targets … or should we call them “off-targets?”
Injury watch*: Giants’ WR Hakeem Nicks could return from his leg injury this week, and you should start him if he’s active… Gates (foot) played again in Week 13, but will probably remain a week-to-week proposition due to his very painful injury. Once again, if Gates is active, start him, even if you need to wait until the last minute.
Start him: Brent Celek, Eagles (TE)
Remember this guy? Celek was a consensus top-five fantasy tight end during draft season, but struggled in September and October due to a hamstring injury and the need to stay in and block more often than usual. However, Celek has been targeted 15 times over the last two games, catching seven passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. After the handful of must-start tight ends listed above, Celek is as high on our list as anyone else. If you’ve hung on to him all season, it might be time that your patience pays off.
Also: Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen can’t hit the side of a barn most of the time, but he keeps trying to get the ball to Steve Smith; he targeted the three-time All-Pro 10 times last week. Clausen’s erratic arm is a big reason for Smith’s fall from grace in fantasy terms, but just because Smith isn’t a stud any more doesn’t mean you can’t start him once in awhile. This week against the Falcons (21 passing TDs allowed) could be one of those times.
Sit him: Deion Branch, Patriots
Branch has three touchdowns over his last two games. He also has a quarterback who loves to spread the ball around, is playing against a defense that has allowed just nine touchdowns all season through the air, and is looking at a snowy, slippery Soldier Field on Sunday.
If you have solid receiving alternatives, use them.
Pick him up: Anthony Armstrong, Redskins
Armstrong caught six passes for 97 yards and a score in Sunday’s blowout loss against the Giants, and it would be easy to dismiss his performance as a garbage-time aberration. Look more closely, and you’ll see that Donovan McNabb has been looking for Armstrong with increased frequency lately, targeting him five, seven, seven and 10 times over the last four weeks. With an average of 20.7 yards per catch, Armstrong is now McNabb’s primary deep threat, and the ‘Skins are about to face a Bucs’ defense that just lost shutdown corner Aqib Talib for the season due to a hip injury. You could start Armstrong this week, but even if you don’t, grabbing him off the free-agent wire is a no-brainer.
Also: We knew Jay Cutler would start looking for his former college teammate eventually! Bears WR Earl Bennett -- who was recently called a “security blanket” by head coach Lovie Smith -- has 11 receptions for 180 yards and a pair of touchdowns over his last two games. Bennett is now the Bears’ No. 2 wideout, and looks to be a solid pickup in points-per-reception formats.
If you’re here again next week, it’ll mean you’ve advanced one step closer to your league championship. Good luck!
John Halpin writes his “Wide Write” fantasy football column every week during the NFL season for FoxNews.com. He also writes fantasy columns and early-morning blogs four days a week at FoxSports.com/fantasy, and co-hosts a daily fantasy podcast. You can receive more fantasy news and contact John by following him on Twitter (@jhalpin37), or e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.