As we all know, the NFL has become a passing league. While the emphasis has shifted towards the quarterback, we have still witnessed the emergence of a crop of very talented running backs, each of which can be the key to keeping the success of their respective offenses. The starting tailbacks of the teams lucky enough to still remain in the NFL playoffs are primed to make a fantasy football impact on Sunday.
This week’s defenses may be especially hard on the running game. Sunday’s slate of games features the top two rushing defenses in all of football, the 49ers and Ravens respectively. For the Giants and Patriots offenses that must face these stellar defenses, they must turn their sights even more to throwing the football, rather than carrying it. These defenses have proven all season that any attempts to beat them on the ground are destined for failure, so any runners facing these seemingly unstoppable defenses are in for a rough day. Despite this, there is still hope for the remaining teams to utilize their running backs in the passing game, and which ever player can best assist his quarterback as a receiver is likely to be the most successful fantasy running back this weekend.
1. Ray Rice – Ray Rice has been a fantasy force this season. Almost quietly, Rice has racked up 1,364 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns this season, good for 2nd best in the NFL, trailing only Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew. This week he is faced with the challenge of beating the New England Patriots, a team with obvious holes on all defensive fronts. As you may remember, Ray Rice was dominant the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, gashing the Patriots for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 22 carries. While in no way do I expect a repeat performance, his previous successes against this defense and in the playoffs should not be overlooked. The Ravens offense is very much centered on their running game, but it may not be so on Sunday. Because of the high scoring nature of the New England offense, even a valiant effort on the part of the Baltimore defense will likely result in a high scoring affair. Should this be the case, the Ravens will look to have Joe Flacco try and win it through the air. As with most teams, the situation will determine how many touches Ray Rice is allotted. Should the Ravens be forced to come back from a multiple possession deficit, they will be forced to rely on the arm of Joe Flacco to put up points, and not the legs of Rice. However, if put in the position to hold a lead and run the clock, Rice will be heavily featured. You can also expect Rice to be the go-to guy in the red zone and other short yardage situations. While everyone knows how dangerous Ray Rice can be as a runner, many do not realize how skilled he is as a receiver. This season, Rice had 76 receptions for 704 yards and 3 touchdowns, unheard of numbers for a running back. Even more shocking is the fact that Rice led the entire Ravens offense in receptions by a wide margin. The next closest reception total was amassed by wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who’s 57 catches fell 19 short of Ray Rice’s mark. Rice also led all Ravens players in targets with a whopping 105, one more than the aforementioned Boldin. Expect Ray Rice to be active in the passing game as he has been all season. The combination of Rice’s distinction of being the best running back remaining in the playoffs as well as having the most favorable matchup makes him the clear choice to stand out of the fantasy running back crowd on Sunday.
2. Frank Gore – Gore, the second best back still playing, has had a rollercoaster season. Fantasy football owners have had to suffer through his streaks of poor performances while also enjoying his many triumphs. Despite his inconsistency, Frank Gore finished the season ranking 6th in rushing yardage with 1,211, while also adding 8 rushing touchdowns. While he has been sufficiently effective over the past few weeks, he must now try to sustain his success against a ravaging Giants defense. Like the Patriots defense, New York’s squad has been very susceptible to the passing game this season, while doing a much better job of stopping the ground game. The Giants defense has been playing with new life since the tail end of the regular season, and it is very much on the shoulders of Frank Gore to carry the load for the 49ers. In order for Alex Smith to have success against this defense, Gore must be able to efficiently get up the field and allow Smith to take advantage of the play action pass. Should he be successful, the Niners will have a great chance to win the game. While this is not a great matchup for Gore, fantasy owners can have peace of mind in knowing that he will be very much an integral part of San Francisco’s offense in the week ahead.
3. Ahmad Bradshaw/Brandon Jacobs – I was faced with a tough decision in choosing which backfield I believe will have the most success on Sunday. The matchup could not be any worse for New York’s running backs. In fact, a matchup with this season’s 49ers defense is one of the scariest matchups in history for any running back as San Francisco’s front seven is in the midst of perhaps the most dominant season any defense has ever had at stopping the run. After not allowing a single rushing touchdown through their first 14 games of the season, the Niners fell just short of tying the single season record of only 2 rushing scores allowed, they finished with 3. Led by linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers defense only allowed 1,236 rushing yards, tops in the NFL. This prolific defense has made an impact equaled to that of a dominant shutdown cornerback, completely neutralizing any running back who has dared to test their prowess. With that in mind, I would never predict a rushing score for any opposing running back, though I believe there is a chance we may see one this week. While the committee of Bradshaw and Jacobs has been among the hottest in recent weeks, playing any Giants rusher against a historic defense such as this is taking a huge gamble that more than likely will not pay off, fantasy owners beware.
4. Benjarvus Green-Ellis/Danny Woodhead – You may be asking yourself how I can possibly rank this committee behind that of the Giants after gushing about the magnitude of San Francisco’s dominance. There are 3 key factors that make the New England backfield my choice to be utterly non-existent in fantasy football this Conference Championship weekend. The first factor from which I have based my decision around is the Ravens defense. While they have been overshadowed by the stellar unit in San Francisco, Baltimore’s rushing defense has been as impressive as any outside the Bay Area. Finishing 2nd in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for 6th in rushing touchdowns allowed, the Ravens defense has been the best in the AFC this season. Opposing running backs have been unable to muster up much, finishing with a mere 3.5 yards per carry; their average yards allowed of 3.5 tied none other than the 49ers for 1st in the NFL. My second factor in making my decision is the nature of the Patriots offense. Everyone knows that Tom Brady runs the show in New England, and because of that, no running back will get enough carries to matter in fantasy leagues unless they can break through for a touchdown. Aside from that, Bill Belichick is only matched by Washington’s Mike Shanahan as being the most frustrating coach for fantasy football running backs. Both of these great coaches like to mix and match their running backs, splitting carries between multiple players each week. The absolute unpredictable nature of these coaches is the best to avoid, as you never know who is going to have the most carries on a given day. The last factor in choosing Jacobs and Bradshaw over New England’s committee is that the Giants rushers are just flat out better players. No running back on the Patriots roster can match the production of Bradshaw or Jacobs under usual circumstances, so in this situation I simply chose the more productive runners. Running backs on the Patriots should always be avoided in fantasy football, and this week is no exception. Unless one of these players can punch one in for a score, don’t expect any production this week from any New England rushers.