Fantasy football: The playoff push

Here it is, fantasy football folks, we’re just about one week away from the playoffs. I’m here to provide helpful hints in extending your season and providing a guide for navigating the treachery of the postseason. Whether you’re trying to squeak into that last playoff spot, knock out a friend so they can join your wallowing or pad your team with studs to help bring home the championship, you’ll find at least one tidbit of information to strengthen your group of guys.

You may have used your ultimate wisdom by selecting Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers or DeMarco Murray with an early pick and have now been dominating the entire season. Or a hint of luck gifted you in swooping up Le’Veon Bell, Big Ben or the utterly spectacular Antonio Brown, leading you toward a surprising record. If either of these are the case, you’re probably feeling pretty great right about now.

On the other hand, if you had an early pick and grabbed Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy, it might be time to take a couple risks in hopes of salvaging your season. Every team has its holes to be filled in search of offseason bragging rights, so look below for steals that are worth a second glance. We’re working with guys that are generally still available, so don’t be surprised if big names don’t jump off the page, but solid players litter the group and are worth making a move in many leagues.

Best bets

For teams starting: Tavon Austin, Riley Cooper

James Jones (WR)—The Raiders are bad, plain and simple. This team hasn’t been good since they faced off against their former coach in the 2002 Super Bowl without the wherewithal to change their playbook. Now, in 2014, they’re still awful, but show signs they could be a solid team in the years to come. Jones is a good player on a bad team. He’s currently top-25 in the league when it comes to targets, but they haven’t amounted to big stats. Look for the wideout to keep seeing big targets and for quarterback Derek Carr to find Jones for, at least, a couple more touchdowns this season. Out of the top-25 receivers in targets, Jones is the only one not owned in at least 80 percent of leagues and, actually, still available in 68 percent of them.

For teams starting: Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker

Eric Decker (WR)—Ever since Michael Vick took over as the NY Jets quarterback, Decker’s value has drastically risen. He still won’t post WR1 stats, but he’s the most reliable player in a thin wideout core. Vick’s ability to throw deep isn’t any mystery, and Decker should see a lot more targets that give him an opportunity to run after the catch and actually score touchdowns. The wide receiver is still owned in a majority of leagues, but could be an easy add with a very high upside after a disappointing open to the season. Added plus is the Jets playing two bottom of the barrel defenses in the coming weeks (Vikings and Titans).

Safe play

For teams starting: Eli Manning, Alex Smith

Andy Dalton—At the start of the season, Dalton was being compared to a young Peyton Manning, and the Bengals were candidates for AFC champions. How quickly a season can change. His overall stats aren’t great, but they are marred by two historically bad games. Who knew a quarterback rating could be a single digit? The truth is that Dalton has a lot of talent and Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL for a reason. Look for Cincinnati to turn things around the final weeks as Lewis’ seat gets hotter and the push for the playoffs intensifies. Also, there’s one little X-factor impacting the play of Dalton: WR A.J. Green is an absolute animal and should hide some of Dalton’s faults. This sometimes top tier quarterback is still a free agent in 40 percent of leagues.

For teams starting: Cincinnati defense, Jacksonville defense

St. Louis (DEF)—After being touted as a top defense before fantasy drafts, the Rams’ D was a major letdown in the first half of the season. The most feared defensive line from last season wasn’t even able to notch a sack until week seven. They then ripped off 16 in just four games and are starting to outperform their projected stats. In the final weeks of the season, they face off against some of the lower-scoring offenses in the league and multiple backup quarterbacks. Expect their defense to continue the turn-around and act as an immediate impact for fantasy players with underachieving defenses. They could also help as a quick add when your regular defense is facing off against a dominant offense. Because of the rocky start, they are only owned in 34 percent of leagues.

All in

For teams starting: Tons of injuries at this point, so take your pick, or those still holding out for Adrian Peterson’s return and in need of a RB2 or flex play.

Chris Johnson (RB)—Like Decker, expect running back Chris Johnson to be one of the benefactors of Michael Vick taking over the Jets’ quarterback position. He has had some absolutely brutal games this year, like three carries for seven yards—ouch, but look for the holes to be wider with added passing ability on the team. Johnson will also see added touches and, hopefully, yardage against a pretty lax schedule. Worth the short add as he is still available in 51 percent of leagues.

For teams starting: Jay Cutler, Cam Newton

Kyle Orton (QB)—When Orton took over in week six, many Bills fans cried foul, but the long-term journeyman has made a strong and positive impact to the team. It’s about time that impact is transferred over to some fantasy teams as well. He’s currently averaging 275 yards through the air per game, even against solid defenses. Though he won’t toss five touchdowns per week, Orton is efficient (65 percent completion rate), doesn’t turn the ball over (10–3 TD vs. INT ratio), and is headed toward a schedule that begs shootouts. Like Dalton, Orton’s value is also bolstered by dynamic rookie wideout Sammy Watkins, owned in 15 percent of leagues.