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Do you know who your starting fantasy quarterback is up against in December, when you’re relying on him most? Is your stud running back poised to run rampant this season over the lightweights of the league, or will he get pounded by run-stuffing defenses week after painful week? And what about that receiver that you spent an early round pick on? Will he be spending the chilly months slip-sliding through arctic conditions, rendering him useless come fantasy playoff time?
These are all questions that your fantasy league rivals are already considering during their fantasy football draft prep work. While the NFL schedule is far from the only thing to keep in mind during your draft, it can play a major role in making those close call decisions between Player A and Player B. For instance, going into last year, I may have taken Miami’s Ronnie Brown over Green Bay’s Ryan Grant. The ‘Fins were coming off a dreadful 1-15 season, and thus, were blessed with a super sked, which no doubt played a major role in their quick resurrection to the top of the AFC East last year. This season however, thanks to that top finish, Miami’s fall agenda is far from easy, as evident by their rough September stretch, beginning their ’09 campaign with games at Atlanta, home vs. Indy, then out to the west coast to visit a returning Shawn Merriman in San Diego. So this season, when I’m on the clock in the third or fourth round looking for a #2 back, I’m looking Grant’s way over Brown.
Having schedule info handy at your draft is essential. Granted, teams change. Defenses improve and decline, offenses go heavier or lighter on running or passing from year to year, and of course, injuries to key players can flip a “tough team” into a cake walk like that. But loading your head with all the NFL knowledge you possibly can before draft day can only help you, and that includes studying the weekly slate of NFL games.
So this week, I’m highlighting eleven points to ponder when it comes to this season’s upcoming NFL schedule. This is one time I turn my fantasy football focus to the team element, rather than the individual player. So hop on the bus to FSU, (not Bobby Bowden’s FSU) Football Schedule University. Class is in session.
We are a Boston sports web site after all, so let’s start with a look at this year’s Pats’ schedule. After a 2008 schedule that was historically easy on paper, the Pats are faced with a somewhat more challenging agenda this season, although by all means not overly intimidating. For all you gamblers that are hoping to roll the dice with Tom Brady this year, you have to consider this year’s schedule a favorable one for #12. There aren’t a large amount of great pass defenses to face off against. Yes, the Jets and Dolphins twice a year could pose a problem, as their defenses should be on the rise this year, but beyond a meeting with the always tough Ravens in Week 4 and a road trip to Indy in Week 10, Brady owners (and Moss, Welker, Maroney, Morris, & Taylor owners too) can feel safe starting your Pats week after week.
I’m a winter guy by nature. I hate the heat. Give me a brisk 40-degree day over a 90-degree scorcher any time. But when it comes to fantasy football, the great white north is nowhere you wanna be, especially down the stretch in December, when you’re looking for major production from your fantasy studs. So that’s why I have always turned a blind eye to teams like the Buffalo Bills. Now listen, I’m not saying that if Terrell Owens is still out there in Round 7, I’m taking a pass on him…that’d be downright silly. But when I’m circling the players I plan to target on my draft board, Bills don’t earn circles. No one likes to wake up on a Sunday morning in December, ready for a full day of tracking your fantasy lineup during a playoff run, only to see Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium buried in two feet of fluffy white stuff. The Bills play four of their final six games at home, so if you like ‘em early, trade ‘em early, before they “chill out.”
Also in the AFC East, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins will both be greeted this year with major tests right from the start. New York, with new head coach Rex Ryan at the helm, will have their defense tested early and often, with a schedule that gets rolling against Houston, New England, Tennessee, and New Orleans. The Jets’ D may end up being a top 10 unit by season’s end, but that’s a rough go of it early on. The same can be said for Miami, who as I mentioned earlier, start off with three playoff teams from a year ago, in Atlanta, home vs. Indy, then at San Diego.
Both teams’ schedules ease up a bit in October and November, but in the typical fantasy playoff weeks of Week 15 & 16, the going gets rough, as New York faces Atlanta and Indy, while the Fish take on the Titans and Texans. These two squads aren’t loaded with fantasy talent anyway, but if you’re looking to pluck some production from either of these two division rivals, just keep in mind their schedules are bookended with tough stretches at the beginning and end.
Beyond the defending champion Steelers, there’s not a ton of talent in this division, never mind fantasy talent. But the schedules of these four squads may make you consider taking a chance with some folks from this group. Looking at Baltimore’s schedule, Ray Rice and Le’Ron McClain may see some success early in the year against a soft start, but the Ravens face Pittsburgh twice down the stretch in weeks 12 and 16, along with the Colts in week 11 and Chicago in week 15.
Cincinnati will look to rebound without their top wideout from last year, as T.J. Houshmandzadeh headed west to Seattle in the offseason. Beyond a nice 3-game stretch against Oakland, Cleveland, and Detroit during weeks 11 through 13, having to face Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice is never fun, especially for running back Cedric Benson. Cincy won’t be a very good team, which might mean Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, and new Bengal Laveranues Coles could be airing out to play catch-up more often than not.
Across the Buckeye State in Cleveland, if you’re even looking at anyone on that awful team, good luck. The Browns don’t get a break at all this season, not going more than two games without facing a stout defense all season long. I won’t waste any more time on Cleveland than that, just avoid them and we’ll leave it at that.
Then there is Pittsburgh, who is trying to mount some late competition in the “Team of the Decade” race against the Pats. After what could be a tough block of games to start the year, with Tennessee, Chicago, and San Diego all within the first 4 weeks, the schedule lightens up quite a bit, with only two Baltimore games and a visit from the Vikings in week 7 to worry about. Load up on Pittsburgh, especially one of my favorite sleepers of the year, running back Rashard Mendenhall.
The Peyton Manning Lovefest will surely continue into 2009, as the Colts were handed one of the easiest schedules in the league for the upcoming season. Manning and the Colts only have two speed bumps to get through in their cushy sked, a back-to-back against the Pats and Ravens in weeks 10 & 11, and then a week 17 trip up to frigid Buffalo the first Sunday in 2010. Most fantasy leagues don’t use week 17 as a playoff week, but if yours does, watch that Doppler in Buffalo if you’re a Peyton owner.
As for last year’s division winner, like the Jets and Dolphins, the Titans’ schedule is an easy sandwich on difficult bread. Chris Johnson and LenDale White will face three tough 3-4 defenses off the top within their first four road games, in Pittsburgh, New York (Jets), and New England, then they host Miami and San Diego during the fantasy playoffs in weeks 15 & 16. In between though, lots of love for the Titans.
As for the Texans, you have to love their schedule. They have a late season bye in week 10, which I always love for fantasy purposes. They play 11 games indoors, which should help the highly touted offense stay on a roll both on the ground and through the air. Their only tough stretch comes at the very end, in Miami week 16 and hosting the Pats week 17, but by then, your Texans’ love affair should be in full effect.
Lastly, remember the Jaguars? Beyond MJD at running back, I don’t know if you’re even going to consider drafting any other Jags, but I’m here to tell you…don’t bother. Their schedule isn’t all that difficult, but down the stretch they face Miami, Indy, and New England. So really, if they can’t produce for you come playoff time, just look elsewhere.
San Diego is always stacked with impact fantasy players at all positions, and this year is no exception. After an opening date at Oakland, they face their toughest stretch of the year early, with visits from Baltimore and Miami, followed by a cross-country trip to Pittsburgh in week 4. But after their week 5 bye, their sked lightens up quite a bit. So don’t give up on your Chargers too early if they aren’t producing, it’ll come.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the new-look Broncos can hit their “easy button” throughout September, kicking off with a three-game stretch against the Bengals, Browns, and Raiders to get rolling. After that, jump ship on all of your Broncos. Weeks 4 through 6 are brutal, hosting Dallas and New England, then going to San Diego before their bye week. After their bye, they see Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Yuck.
Another rebuilding club, the Chiefs are a team you should look towards near your fantasy league’s trade deadline, as their second half schedule is significantly easier than the early part of their agenda. A nice four-game stretch against Denver, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnati in weeks 13 through 16 could help Matt Cassel, Larry Johnson, and Dwayne Bowe put up nice numbers for your playoff-bound fantasy squad.
Lastly, we turn to the Oakland Raiders. Why bother, right? Well, they do start off pretty easy after their opening game vs. SD. Once week 5 comes around though, it’ll be more of the same for the silver and black. No need to pay much attention to Oakland anyway, other than maybe Darren McFadden.
Although this division features some of my most hated teams (there’s NO team in pro sports that I hate more than the Cowboys, and the Eagles don’t rank too far behind either), there’s no denying this division is loaded with fantasy talent. Starting first with Dallas, just to get them out of the way so I don’t have to mention them again. They have a nice stretch of their schedule from weeks 4 through 12 where Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice should run wild, as the Eagles serve as the only potential stumbling block for Big D’s ground game. Things get tougher for the ‘Boys from there though, having to hit the road for three out of their next four, at the Giants, home vs. San Diego, then back out on the road at New Orleans and Washington.
Speaking of the ‘Skins, Clinton Portis & Co. should get off to a nice start, as they get their mojo working against the likes of St. Louis, Detroit, and Kansas City over the first six weeks. After that though, their job gets a lot tougher, so dump your drafted Redskins before the trade deadline.
As for the Giants, it could be a long year for the new $97.5 million man, Eli Manning. Several tough pass defenses highlight the Giants schedule, leaving no room for rest for the G-men.
The easiest schedule in the division has to go to Philly, where McNabb, Vick, and the Eagles set their sights on a division title. A nice stretch of games in December including home games vs. San Fran and Denver should help your Eagles earn you fantasy playoff wins when it’s all on the line.
As a division, the NFC North collectively has the easiest set of schedules this season over any other division, based on last year’s winning percentages. The easiest schedule based on last year is enjoyed by Jay Cutler’s Chicago Bears, who other than a week 2 visit from Pittsburgh and a week 15 trip to Baltimore, should see Cutler, Forte, Hester, and the rest enjoy productive fantasy seasons from beginning to end.
The second easiest schedule goes to the dome-dwelling Vikings, who beyond their matchups with Pittsburgh and Baltimore midseason, could have the easiest slate of games of them all this year. Mr. NFL Schedule Maker must have Adrian Peterson in his keeper league.
From there, draft plenty of Packers, enjoy their production through week 12, and then abort, abort, abort! Come week 13, the Pack face possibly the toughest stretch of any team this year, hosting Baltimore’s tough defense, then traveling to Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Lastly, we look at the Lions. My bold prediction: the Lions only have to wait until week 3 for the first win of the year, when they host Washington. If they don’t find a way to win that one, they probably won’t win until week 8 vs. the Rams, at the earliest. It’s a tough schedule for the Lions. Calvin Johnson and the QB-to-be-named-later will be playing a lot of catch-up.
From the division with the easiest set of schedules to the NFC South, which has the toughest road ahead of them this season. Carolina’s opponents were 151-104 last season, so there is no easy window for Panthers’ players this year. With a late season stretch of Pats-Vikes-Giants during weeks 14-16, I’m unloading my Panthers well before that, while they still have value.
For those of you hoping to grab Michael Turner near the top of your drafts, get a load of the Falcons’ schedule before you fall in love with Turner the Burner. Atlanta gets rolling at home against Miami and Carolina, then heads north to face the Pats, before an early week 4 bye. After that, there’s no rest for the weary, as tough run defense after tough run defense look to pummel Turner and the Falcons all year long.
The young Buccaneers are already at a disadvantage having lost one of their home games because of them being dubbed the “hosts” against the Pats across the pond in London this October. Beyond that, their schedule here in the states is no better, as they have no more than two consecutive matchups against lousy defenses. Their only saving grace, no cold weather games down the stretch.
Then there are the high-flying Saints. How does the schedule stack up for Drew Brees and the potent air attack of New Orleans? Well, finishing in last place last season sure did help their cause this year. Getting to play the Rams and Lions separates their slate of games from their rivals, and loads of indoor affairs should lead to big years from Brees, Colston, Bush, and one of my other new favorites, Pierre Thomas.
The Cardinals, fresh off their improbable romp through the NFC playoffs this past winter, lead arguably the weakest division in the league, and that should continue without worry this year. Arizona doesn’t face a tough defense until a trip to New York to face the Giants in week 7. Two matchups a piece against Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Louis is never a bad thing either.
If Michael Crabtree sucks it up and gets himself into 49er camp in time to be ready for week 1, he and fellow wideout Josh Morgan could potentially light it up early and often for San Fran, as their early slate of games definitely lends itself to strong air attacks against weak pass defenses. It gets a bit tougher for them further down the road, but overall it’s a nice sked for Singletary’s Niners.
Also with a pretty light agenda this fall is the reloaded Seattle Seahawks, who with a healthy Matt Hasselbeck and new toy T.J. Houshmandzadeh should challenge for at least a wild card spot in the NFC, if they can piece together some semblance of a running game. No East Coast trips for the Seahawks is a major plus, and no real tough stretches should mean you need to look closer at grabbing a ‘Hawk or two.
Rounding out the NFC West is the St. Louis Rams, who obviously aren’t that deep for fantasy talent behind RB Steven Jackson. But a relatively easy schedule early for the Rams might make you think about adding Marc Bulger and Donnie Avery in backup roles to act as solid bye week replacements.
And to round out this week’s Starting 11, I leave you with my golden rule of fantasy football drafting: “Turf before grass, won’t make you an ass!” There’s a reason why many of the great team offenses in NFL history were found on turf-trekking teams. If you can draft players who won’t have to face Mother Nature’s unpredictable wrath more often than other players, you’ll be in the driver’s seat come playoff time, when the winds will howl and the snowflakes will fall.
While your competitor whines about Terrell Owens being thrown to just once in a snowy December game up in Buffalo, you’ll be sitting pretty having Minnesota’s Bernard Berrian racing down the field catching pass after pass in the comfort of their friendly domed stadium.
You can sit back and watch as Ryan Grant fumbles for the third time on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, then flip the channel to see Pierre Thomas rushing his way towards fantasy victory for you and your squad.
And come fantasy playoff time, you’ll gleefully rejoice as Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed, has a game-winning field goal carry wide right by a swirling 75-mph wind that costs your opponent the title, and delivers the healthy cash prize your way, since your kicker, Atlanta’s Jason Elam, sucked just a bit less than your rival’s did. Ahh, the sweet smell of victory.