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SIMULATED PRO LEAGUE CHALLENGES BRAINS OF AVID FANS

If your contemporary fantasy football team isn't bringing you much cheer this holiday season, check out the simulated football (SimLeagues) at www.whatifsports.com.

Warning: Playing this game can be hazardous to your mental health, even if you're a pro football junkie.

Still up to taking the plunge? You need to sign up with the new-look Web site, which is free. One full-season SimLeague football team, which consists of four exhibition games, 16 regular season games and playoffs (if you qualify) costs $9.95. The site, started in 1999 but recently given a face lift, also allows you to test the waters with a free four-game exhibition schedule.

If you're hoping to draft a team in a spare half-hour, forget about it. I've been playing fantasy sports for more than 20 years and this draft process was the most grueling I've encountered.

Each team receives a $60 million payroll to finance four quarterbacks, five running backs, five wide receivers, four tight ends, one field goal kicker, one punter, one offensive line unit, one defensive unit and one special teams unit. Not to sound like Daniel Snyder, but even though that payroll seems like a lot of money, it isn't.

Since the SimLeague is based on past performance, you may choose from any player, both current and retired (going back to 1960), who played in at least three games that season and who meets the following criteria: quarterbacks must have at least 25 pass attempts; running backs must have at least 25 rushing attempts; receivers must have at least 15 receptions, and tight ends must have at least 10 receptions.

So if you're a Jim Kelly fanatic, you've got 11 different seasons to choose from (1986 through 1996), with a different salary assigned to each season. His 1991 season, during which he threw 33 touchdowns and completed 64.1 percent of his passes for the Super Bowl-bound Buffalo Bills, is most expensive at just over $3.5 million. His '96 campaign (14 TDs, 19 interceptions) is cheapest at $2.465 million.

Balancing the ledgers isn't your only worry.

You are responsible for setting your defensive strategies -- such as when to go into a prevent defense and at which frequency to blitz. Offensively, you'll need to choose your starters and offensive sets. For instance, don't draft multiple fullbacks if electing a wide-open offense.

You'll also deal with injuries. The site also advises that when drafting players, keep in mind that injuries can and will happen. If you overuse (or abuse) a player, such as forcing Steve Young to rush 20 times a game, that player will become fatigued and have an increased chance of injury. Too many injuries could lead to a potential forfeit, so draft accordingly.

It's interesting to see how the Web site values the past.

The most expensive defense (at a cool $31 million plus) is the Super Bowl-champion 1980 Oakland Raiders unit that recorded 54 sacks and 35 interceptions. The highest-priced Bills unit, also from 1980, goes for $28.8 million. So taking a Rolls-Royce in this category basically eats half your salary allotment.

The 1963 Cleveland Browns are rated the most expensive offensive line ($10.074 million), just two notches ahead of the 1964 AFL champion Bills ($9.898 million). Buffalo's 1973 Electric Company that paved the way for O.J. Simpson's 2,003-yard season is 26th ($9.699 million).

Simpson, predictably, is the highest-priced individual Bill. His '73 season will cost you $5.945 million and is less expensive than only the '63 season of Cleveland's Jim Brown ($5.571 million), which produced 1,863 rushing yards and 12 TDs along with 24 receptions for three more scores.

Charley Hennigan, who caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards and 12 TDs in 1961 for the Houston Oilers, is the most expensive receiver at $4.007 million. The site puts a premium on yards per catch and Hennigan's 21.3 average justifies his high price tag. Elbert Dubenion's '64 campaign, with 42 catches for 1,139 yards and 10 TDs, ranks as the highest-priced Buffalo season at $3.059 million.

The key is finding lower-priced bargains rather than turkeys. The bargains are out there but finding them is easier said than done.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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