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IF YOU DIDN'T GET BREES, YOU SHOULD CRY A RIVERS

While it never worked with Rob Johnson, being benched for Doug Flutie looks like it may have done the trick for San Diego's Drew Brees.

The 2004 fantasy football season has been a breeze -- at least at the quarterback position -- if you were lucky enough to pick up Brees.

Brees -- that's right, the same guy who was thought to be simply warming the pilot's chair for rookie Philip Rivers -- is up there with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning and Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper as the top fantasy football quarterbacks in the game.

If you didn't grab Manning or Culpepper by say, the middle of the second round, then you didn't get them. Brees probably was available in the late rounds, or even a supplemental draft, or from the waiver wire.

That hasn't stopped him from posting gaudy numbers: 160 for 242 (66.1 percent) for 1,854 yards with a career-best 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has nine TDs and no INTs the last two games and 15 TDs and one INT in his last six games.

OK, maybe we're not talking about numbers you would confuse with Dan Marino in his prime, but the truly astounding part of the story revolves around Brees' first three NFL seasons.

According to the Web site profootballreference.com, Brees never ranked higher in fantasy value than 20th at his position during his first three years. He was rated 27th last year, when he threw three interceptions in a game twice.

The 25-year-old came into the 2004 campaign with a 59.4 completion percentage, 29 career TDs, 31 interceptions and 47 sacks for 370 yards in losses in 28 games, plus a 10-17 record as a starter.

Now, the Chargers are tied with the Denver Broncos atop the AFC West at 6-3 and Brees has even improved on his sack numbers, which show just 11 for 79 yards.

If you were really paying attention, you'd know Brees started to become more like a fantasy gust than a breeze at the tail end of last season. He was pulled in the fourth quarter of a 20-7 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Nov. 2, 2003, after going 7 of 15 for 49 yards and one INT.

As he did so often with Buffalo when a fire was needed under Johnson, Flutie relieved Brees and started the next five games.

At the time of his demotion, Brees had gone three straight games without a TD pass, while throwing five INTs. He got his job back for the final three games and had four TDs (including a 68- and a 57-yarder, his two longest scoring passes of the season) and three INTs.

That's a subtle, but definite, improvement.

Still, Brees may not have survived training camp with his job had Rivers, the fourth overall pick in last April's NFL draft, not missed three weeks of practice and the first two preseason games while holding out for his $40.5 million contract. He was the final first-round pick to sign a deal.

You might have missed it because of Brees' efficient outing against New Orleans in Week Nine, but Rivers got his first NFL game action in the Chargers' final series of a 43-17 win over the Saints. Brees went 22 of 36 for 257 yards with four TDs and no INTs (the seventh time in nine games he didn't throw a pick), while Rivers got to execute three handoffs to third-string running back Michael Turner, and three kneel-downs.

Maturity and experience aren't the only reasons for Brees' dramatic improvement. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell, a 13-year veteran acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 19, gives Brees another weapon. And the emergence of Antonio Gates (54 catches for 602 yards and eight TDs) gives Brees a weapon like Dan Fouts had with Kellen Winslow during the Chargers' glory days.

Until this year, San Diego fans were reminded more of Ryan Leaf than of Fouts when they watched Brees. Leaf was taken second overall by the Chargers in the 1998 draft, behind Manning, but 19 picks ahead of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss. Leaf had 13 TDs and 33 INTs in two seasons in San Diego before hanging it up after a short stint in 2001 with the Dallas Cowboys.

Like Brees, Hall of Famer Fouts struggled at first. He had 34 TDs and 57 INTs in his first five pro seasons, but went plus-35 for the rest of his career.

START HIM:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese is facing a San Francisco 49ers defense that has yielded six touchdown passes the last two games and an NFL-high 261 points this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis scored twice against Cincinnati in Week Four, giving him 16 rushing touchdowns in 17 career games against the Bengals.

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Javon Walker has a TD reception in his last three games and faces a Houston Texans defense that has surrendered a league-high 23 scoring passes.

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Brown carried 23 times for 101 yards and a TD against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week Three.

BENCH HIM:

St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk has gone without a touchdown in the last three games, has averaged just 63.3 yards rushing in road games this season and faces a Buffalo Bills defense that has allowed an NFL-low three rushing scores this season.

Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington threw one TD and seven interceptions, two of which were returned for scores, last season against the Minnesota Vikings.

Oakland Raiders running back Amos Zereoue carried six times for minus-1 yard against the San Diego Chargers in Week Eight and has gained just 6 yards on 13 rushing attempts in his last two games.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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