As sad as it is to say, the football season is winding down. We’ve watched 13 straight weeks of football both in real life and on the pretend field, and each second of it has been more spectacular—or gut-wrenching—than the last. Some of our real-team loves are Super Bowl contenders. Or playoff hopefuls. Or they suck on a level you can still barely comprehend. Or they’ve won six straight games led by a quarterback who may or may not already be the greatest football player who lived.

But to be honest, none of that matters yet. The fantasy playoffs are happening right now, and if you’re reading this column, your squad is probably still in it. If your team is stacked and you cruised into the playoffs, you might scoff at the players listed below. But if you’re anything like me, your team snuck into the playoffs and is hopelessly desperate to find someone who can score you points this week. So whether you’re still looking for the right replacement to jump-start your team or you’re looking to tear apart the consolation bracket, glue your eyes to this bad boy for the next 10 minutes of your life.

Same deal as usual here: these aren’t player you necessarily wanted to start this week, but due to injury, byes or general suckery, you have to. It’s your backup plan. Here’s a rundown of some of the top widely available fill-ins by position and which guys they’ll be better than this week.

Quarterbacks

Carson Palmer vs. Green Bay

Yahoo: 60 percent owned, ESPN: 57 percent owned

He’s got a glorious matchup, to say the least. It’s always Aaron Rodgers this and Aaron Rodgers that with the Packers, but their defense still isn’t anywhere near on par with their offense. Which is good, because Palmer may have to put up 50 throws to keep up with Aaron “four touchdowns per game” Rodgers. The Raiders need this game in the AFC West race, so you can safely expect Palmer to throw the ball enough to put up some gaudy fantasy numbers.

Guys he’s better than this week: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco

Matt Hasselbeck vs. New Orleans

Yahoo: 54 percent owned, ESPN: 51 percent owned

Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me. Burn me a third time, Matt Hasselbeck, and you earn a spot on The Backup Plan blacklist. Three straight weeks of single-digit standard fantasy scoring has been a real punch in the man-parts, but here’s hoping he finally turns it around against the Saints. New Orleans is putting up massive offensive numbers while stopping nobody in the process, meaning the Titans will have to throw to keep up.

Guys he’s better than this week: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton

Alex Smith vs. Arizona

Yahoo: 51 percent owned, ESPN: 38 percent owned

Alex Smith injects as much excitement into your fantasy team as your cousin’s new boyfriend injects awkwardness into your holiday family gatherings, but he’s not the worst if you’re quarterback-desperate. He put up 30+ standard points last week and had 22 the last time he faced the Cardinals, so he’s in a good position to give you another solid, if unspectacular, performance.

Guys he’s better than this week: Matt Moore, Mark Sanchez

Running Backs

Toby Gerhart vs. Detroit

Yahoo: 44 percent owned, ESPN: 44 percent owned

Consider this moot if Adrian Peterson decides he’s ready to go on Sunday. But if Peterson is out, there will be no moot here. With an average of 70 rushing touchdowns per game and one score in his past two, Gerhart has been everything we all wanted Peyton Hillis to be this season: good at football, a white running back and not a complete jerk. If Gerhart gets the start again this week, he should continue to get workhorse touches.

Guys he’s better than this week: Steven Jackson, Jonathan Stewart

Marion Barber vs. Denver

Yahoo: 52 percent owned, ESPN: 38 percent owned

Bet you hoped you never had to start this dreadlocked hack in fantasy again. Though he’s mostly been a source of constant disappointment, Barber is back in our lives after an MCL injury to Bears’ star Matt Forte. The matchup isn’t great, but as is The Backup Plan’s mantra: “opportunity begets skill.” He’ll get enough touches to make an impact, especially near the goal line. He’s worth a look, especially if you own Forte.

Guys he’s better than this week: Cedric Benson, Brandon Jacobs

Dexter McCluster vs. New York Jets

Yahoo: 39 percent owned, ESPN: 28 percent owned

Not sure whether this is an insult or something worse than an insult, but McCluster seems something like a C.J. Spiller-lite type player. He’s small and quick, making him hopeless when he runs between the tackles but solid when he gets the ball out in space. Plus, he’s RB and WR eligible in most fantasy circles. He’s been getting a lot of touches in a lot different ways the past few weeks, making him a decent fill-in, especially in PPR leagues.

Guys he’s better than this week: Ryan Grant, Donald Brown

Wide Receivers

Damian Williams vs. New Orleans

Yahoo: 25 percent owned, ESPN: 11 percent owned

At this point, there’s no reason to think he won’t keep doing what he’s doing. Williams has put up an average of 52 yards per game over his last six. He has three touchdowns in that span, as well as seven targets in the red zone. Those might not be the best numbers, but you’re currently scraping the bottom of the free agent barrel right now. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Guys he’s better than this week: Dwayne Bowe, Plaxico Burress

Doug Baldwin vs. St. Louis

Yahoo: 28 percent owned, ESPN: 21 percent owned

In the past four weeks, Baldwin has 50, 50, 60 and 21 yards receiving, respectively. Here’s hoping last week was the outlier. Baldwin’s role in the Seahawks’ offense should continue to expand now that Sidney Rice is out for the year, and hopefully it will expand into the end zone this weekend. The Rams are on a mission to stop absolutely nobody defensively this season, so Baldwin could see pay dirt in an absolutely awful MNF matchup.

Guys he’s better than this week: Golden Tate, Pierre Garcon

Demaryius Thomas vs. Chicago

Yahoo: 10 percent owned, ESPN: 7 percent owned

Just when Eric Decker was becoming a consistent fantasy force, Demaryius Thomas steals his thunder, much the chagrin of everyone (me) who started Decker last week. But this is something fantasy owners have seen coming for a while now. Thomas is a stellar deep threat with a big body, essentially the perfect target for Tim Tebow. Be wary though: there’s as good a chance of him getting another two touchdowns as there is of him getting two catches for 16 yards.

Guys he’s better than this week: Johnny Knox, Nate Burleson

Tight Ends

Brent Celek vs. Miami

Yahoo: 37 percent owned, ESPN: 23 percent owned

MIKE VICK IS BACK! DREAM TEAM! DREAM TEAM! Sorry about that. The Eagles are so exciting it’s hard to control the emotions sometimes. After taking a three-week hiatus from what is surely the Eagles’ run at perfect futility, Vick is back, much to the benefit of Celek. He was seeing a lot of targets from Vick, so hopefully that will continue for three quarters before Vick injures something else.

Guys he’s better than this week: Owen Daniels, Kellen Winslow

Defense/Special Teams

Seattle vs. St. Louis

Yahoo: 35 percent owned, ESPN: 39 percent owned

When the Rams had Sam Bradford at quarterback, they were a great offense to stream defenses against. They were even better when the put A.J. Feely under center. But with Tom Brandstater getting his first career start, they might just change the streaming world forever. Seattle’s defense has been good this year, but against St. Louis, it’s a clear top-5 option this week. Only one question remains: who allowed this debacle to take place on Monday night?

Defenses they’re better than this week: Chicago, Philadelphia

Denver vs. Chicago

Yahoo: 51 percent owned, ESPN: 16 percent owned

Two words: Caleb. Hanie. That’s it. Stop whatever you’re doing and make this move. The Bears have been, to put it nicely, terrible with Hanie under center, and it doesn’t figure do get any better with VonDoom breathing down his neck all afternoon. To make matter worse for Chicago, Matt Forte’s injury makes Marion Barber the team’s primary ball carrier. Hanie and Barber sounds like a lawfirm you would never, ever want representing you. The Denver defense should have no trouble capitalizing.

Defenses they’re better than this week: Green Bay, New York Giants

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshVitale.

  1. elwood blues says:
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    Playoffs!
    Defense Question–
    I have Atlanta.. do I stick with them against CAR??

    or pick up:
    Miami against Philly, KC against Jets, or NE against WAS.
    Your above DEF’s are already taken.

  2. CL says:
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    I left this question for Doc on the weekly rankings, but I’ll leave it here as well for another opinion:

    Laurent Robinson & Crabtree ranked about the same this week. For my 10 team, 1 PPR/return yards, who do you like more this week (Austin is back?)? I could slide one into my flex over Pettigrew…?

    Same league, Beanie Wells & Barber are ranked the same… who would you roll with? Beanie? The Bears could be done-done…

    Thanks!

  3. lone wolfpack says:
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    Playoff conundrum….
    Start Palmer against the Pack or Vick against the surging Fins?

    Also, start Michael Bush against the Pack or Morris against the Vikes (if Kevin Smith is out).

    Also, Pettigrew, Douglas, or Breaston?

  4. Josh Vitale says:
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    @elwood blues: I would definitely bench ATL. Too much Cam for them to handle this week. Depending on what your league values most, I like NE and KC. KC has been playing well and it could be a low scoring game, but NE will definitely force more turnovers against Rex Grossman. If you like low points scored: KC. Turnovers: NE.

    @CL: I like Crabtree a lot this week, but I also like Laurent more than Pettigrew, so I would start both if you can. And i like Beanie a lot more than Marion.

    @lone wolfpack: Vick. Gotta roll with your studs, even if they’ve been a massive disappointment. And if K.Smith is out (likely), I actually like Morris a lot. The Raiders won’t be able to run much once Rodgers throws his seventh touchdown in the second quarter. And Pettigrew is the best of those three.

  5. Mr2Bits says:
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    Josh : Are you liking Vick or Romo as a starter this week? I can see Vick trying to make a statement on his return but then again Romo can get into a 30+ shootout with the Giants

  6. elwood blues says:
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    @Josh Vitale:
    Thanks for the help.

    Unless its a shutout we don’t get too many points.. we start to lose pts for scores 24 and higher.
    Sacks and picks are a point each, but Def TD’s are 6.. so maybe NE. I don’t see WAS scoring a lot.

  7. Josh Vitale says:
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    @Mr2Bits: I’m with you. I see Giants-Cowboys being a shootout, so I think Romo has a big day this week.

    @elwood blues: If that’s the case, I like NE. They’ll finish with more sacks than KC, and definitely more turnovers with Rex at QB for the Skins.

  8. Clem says:
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    Great Column!

    Who would you pick up/start at WR3 in a 12 team league

    I have Manningham, picked up Chaz Schillens against GB, could pick up Burleson or Knox off of waivers…what would be my best move. I already have Marshall and Boldin. Thanks in advance for your help!

  9. Vlad says:
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    Please pick two of these three: Julio Jones, Crabtree, or Maurice Morris.

  10. Josh Vitale says:
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    @Clem: Thanks Clem. I think, sadly, Burleson might be the best of those options.

    @Vlad: Crabsies and MoMo FTW.

  11. Jason says:
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    Wow, you’d really start Palmer over Ryan? I guess it’s not too far-fetched but Palmer has nobody to throw to with Ford and Moore out.

  12. Jason says:
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    Oh, one other question, would you start Den D over Bears D?

  13. Frankelstache says:
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    Hi josh,

    THings aren’t looking good for me in terms of a flex starter in my PPR league.
    With Andre johnson down, i need to pick between Maclin, Steven Jackson, Damian Williams or Ryan Grant. What say you?

    Thanks!

  14. @Josh

    Love the haircut!

  15. Josh Vitale says:
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    @Jason: Ryan has underwhelmed me terribly this season. And I see Palmer having a big fourth quarter in garbage time. And easily the Broncos over the Bears for defense.

    @Frankelstache: I don’t like that I’m saying it, but S-Jax might be the best of that bunch.

    @CmhBuck: It’s not a new haircut. But thank you so much.

  16. Evan says:
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    Stephen Jackson or Brandon Jacobs?
    then
    Laurent Robinson or Jeremy Maclin?
    then
    Seahawks def or Denver Def

    Standard scoring league

    Thanks

  17. Frank Rizzo says:
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    Ppr league, miles Austin or Willis McGhaee?

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