Half the teams in the NFC North are likely to be playoff-bound (Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears), while the other two have certainly supplied fantasy owners with valuable assets (Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions). However, as we hit the fantasy playoffs, there remain several potential options from this division who would fit into the sneaky pickups category, which we're all about in this Friday blog entry. Let's delve a bit, shall we?
Packers: Those in deeper formats have to at least think about running back Ryan Grant, re-signed this week now that James Starks is out with a knee injury. Alex Green isn't special, and Packers running back coach Alex Van Pelt claims the team will use Grant as the "pounding back" in conjunction with Green, who has 124 touches from scrimmage this season and nary a touchdown. Grant could be a goal-line option soon, as no Packers have even two rushing touchdowns. Also, don't discount potential opportunity at wide receiver as well; Jordy Nelson (hamstring) is likely out this week, and Greg Jennings (groin) has been back for all of one week. Donald Driver has a broken thumb. Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross have combined for three receptions, but remember the names if there's another injury or playoff seeding is secured in future weeks.
Bears: It's certainly possible Matt Forte (ankle) is still hurting, and Michael Bush (ribs) is listed as questionable this week. Armando Allen is next, and to that we say, good for him. At wide receiver, however, it's Brandon Marshall and nothing else. Earl Bennett (concussion) has already been ruled out for this week, and Alshon Jeffery (knee) and Devin Hester (concussion) were limited participants in practice. That leaves what, Eric Weems? I'd add enticing rookie Jeffery, even if he doesn't suit up this week. He should be ready for Week 15.
Vikings: Nobody wants to see fantasy monster Adrian Peterson pulled from duty while healthy, except for fantasy owners who will end up facing him, but the Vikings have lost four of five and if/when the Bears spank them this week, a playoff race will become merely a dream. Peterson is less than a year off major knee surgery. Just sayin' it wouldn't be a major surprise if a 6-8 Vikings team wisely benches its star until 2013 and lets Toby Gerhart handle the bulk of the work down the meaningless stretch. Gerhart was a weekly double-digit provider in fantasy five consecutive weeks late last season. The wide receiver situation here is a bigger mess, as Christian Ponder is playing terribly without Percy Harvin, and now Harvin (ankle) won't be back. I'd add rookie Jarius Wright in a deep league, but it's worth noting the matchups (Bears, St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans, Packers) are tough. Frankly, it wouldn't be a surprise if backup quarterback Joe Webb, who hit 20 fantasy points twice last December, got another shot. Ponder has 12 fantasy points the past two weeks combined.
Lions: Quarterback Matthew Stafford is exceptional, but like Minnesota's Peterson, the 4-8 Lions wouldn't risk his health should some ailment pop up, like his hip injury from September. That's why backup Shaun Hill could, in theory, be this year's Matt Flynn, the surprise Week 17 star (but let's say three touchdowns, not six!). There are no running backs to watch after Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, but the wide receivers keep dropping (Ryan Broyles, Titus Young), presenting opportunity. Mike Thomas becomes the starter in the slot and is worth adding in deep leagues. Veterans Kassim Osgood and Brian Robiskie could each play roles as soon as this week, and look for backup tight end Tony Scheffler, averaging 13.1 yards per catch and with more than 50 receiving yards in consecutive games, to become more relevant.
Quarterback: I actually speculated last week that Greg McElroy could get his chance for the New York Jets, and it happened. But Mark Sanchez is back starting this week. Sanchez has been awful. I would like to see what McElroy could do against the Jaguars, Titans, Chargers and Bills. Perhaps he still gets the chance. I don't think Tim Tebow will throw another pass this season. ... John Skelton is back starting! Woo-hoo! I'd rather use Jake Locker and Nick Foles, each very available. ... Don't count on Matt Schaub the final two weeks if the Texans have everything in the AFC clinched. T.J. Yates is the backup.
Running back: The Baltimore Ravens are postseason-bound, and Ray Rice has been seeing fewer carries. That means Bernard Pierce becomes interesting. ... With Donald Brown out, I really like Vick Ballard of the Indianapolis Colts this week, ranking him just outside the top 20, but the larger Delone Carter is a goal-line option. ... Montell Owens is the starter for Jacksonville, so who's next? Looks like it could be LSU product Richard Murphy, recently signed off the practice squad. ... The Chiefs aren't a good team, and in the same vein of Detroit's Stafford, there's no reason to push Jamaal Charles if he's hurt. Shaun Draughn would probably vault Peyton Hillis for early-down work, and the Raiders and Colts are still pending on the schedule. ... We haven't seen Brandon Bolden matter for the Patriots since Week 5, but he's back from his suspension. There's just a logjam, and a tough schedule, in the way.
Wide receiver: Carolina's Brandon LaFell is ailing, opening up a chance for Louis Murphy. Shouldn't matter this week, but the Raiders and Saints are still on the schedule. ... I still think Jon Baldwin can play. The Chiefs really should give him more targets. ... With Mohamed Sanu unfortunately out in Cincinnati, it's presumed Andrew Hawkins will thrive again. What about Brandon Tate? He's been quiet, but he's experienced. ... Finally, last week's Saints loss destroyed playoff hopes. Joe Morgan has five receptions this season, in five different games, going for 5, 80, 48, 33 and 38 yards. Why not throw him five footballs in one game, eh?
Best of luck the rest of Week 14 and beyond!