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Biting bullet now could pay dividends later

Even supposed experts fall flat on their faces.

Consider one fantasy football analyst, playing in his first keeper league despite over a dozen years of leagues, number-crunching and projecting stats.

The timing is perfect — thanks in part to Matt Ryan's 10 interceptions and two fumbles in five games before last week, the analyst fell out of contention and muddled around at the bottom of his league's standings.

It was at that point he made the decision: Despite being only two games out of a playoff spot, it was time to play for 2011.

It was a tough decision, and a liberating one. He became the Pittsburgh Pirates of fantasy football, forced to auction off top players for a chance to rebuild for next season. Away went DeAngelo Williams, Brandon Jacobs and the Baltimore Ravens' defense.

And instantly, excitement. He is now the league favorite for next season, with high-ceiling keepers (such as Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall) who won't cost much to keep around.

If you're in that position yourself and approaching your trading deadline, here are the top keepers for next season, based on a standard scoring and keeper system:

1. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Steelers (Avg. draft rd. 10-14)

Certain to be the Steelers' No. 1 running back next season after a few strong games this season. Solid performer + traditional running team + low draft pick • ker-ching!

2. LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles (10-12)

Even if Brian Westbrook returns next season, the former Pitt star will be a heavy contributor as the Eagles try to lessen Westbrook's workload. A season line of 800 rushing yards and 30 catches should be a minimum in 2010.

3. Mike Sims-Walker, WR, Jaguars (undrafted)

Best thing written about Sims-Walker in the preseason was that he was questionable with an ankle injury. He was even overshadowed at Central Florida before he came to the NFL in 2007. Now, he's one of the best receivers in football.

4. Ray Rice, RB, Ravens (4-6)

Might be the most valuable player on this list, but he was a little higher rated coming into the season. Is a no-brainer first-rounder next season.

tie-5. Miles Austin, WR, Cowboys (undrafted)

Has defined "boom or bust." Weeks 5-6 brought 421 receiving yards and four TDs; his top output otherwise has been 61 yards and he has only three total TDs in his other eight games. But his scoring ability is undeniable.

tie-5. Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers (undrafted)

Gets an 'A' for consistency. Despite a weak passing game, he has 22 catches in his first five games. Only 21 wide receivers have ever matched that (see "Fast starts", left) , and most followed it up with quality careers.

Top 20 keeper players

Rk. Name (Pos.) Team

1. Rashard Mendenhall (RB) Steelers

2. LeSean McCoy (RB) Eagles

3. Mike Sims-Walker (WR) Jaguars

4. Ray Rice (RB) Ravens

t-5. Miles Austin (WR) Cowboys

t-5. Michael Crabtree (WR) 49ers

7. Cedric Benson (RB) Bengals

8. Steve Smith (WR) Giants

9. Sidney Rice (WR) Vikings

10. Jamaal Charles (RB) Chiefs

11. Knowshon Moreno (RB) Broncos

12. Ahmad Bradshaw (RB) Giants

13. DeSean Jackson (WR) Eagles

14. Kyle Orton (QB) Broncos

15. Percy Harvin (WR) Vikings

16. Vernon Davis (TE) 49ers

17. Jeremy Maclin (WR) Eagles

18. Mike Wallace (WR) Steelers

19. Devin Hester (WR) Bears

20. Matt Schaub (QB) Texans

NFL passing games flourish on Thursdays

Thanksgiving is a passing holiday, and that's not a reference to the dinner table.

No, it turns out that the passing game has been a staple of Thursday games — including Thanksgiving — the past 5 12 seasons. Since the start of the 2004 season, teams have averaged 26 passing yards and almost a quarter of a touchdown more during Thursday games than their season averages. It might not seem like much, but it amounts to a quarterback being 17 percent more likely to throw a touchdown or two.

Those are odds you should like.

In reality, it probably won't change which quarterback you plan to start. If you have Aaron Rodgers (Packers vs. Lions) or Tony Romo (Cowboys vs. Raiders), you're not even considering benching him most weeks. But if you have Eli Manning (Giants vs. Broncos) or Kyle Orton (Broncos), something to consider.

And if you've stuck with Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings this long, be ready to cash in finally.

Hot pickups

Name (Team) Pos.

Mike Bell (N.O.) RB

Jamaal Charles (K.C.) RB

Rock Cartwright (WSH RB

Freezing cold

Name (Team) Pos.

Jay Cutler (CHI) QB

Carnell Williams (TB) RB

Mark Sanchez (NYJ) QB

Wideouts to watch

Donnie Avery, Rams — Disappointing this season, Avery is a good option against a Seattle defense that was torched last week. The Seahawks are third-worst in the NFL in passer rating allowed, and Avery has more than 60 yards each of the past two weeks.

Jermichael Finley, Packers — Technically not a wide receiver, but Finley should play like one this week. The Lions are allowing opposing QBs a 110.3 passer rating, have given up a league-high eight TDs to tight ends and have only 18 sacks (sixth-fewest).

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