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Jerry Sullivan: Nowadays, much of the NFL is pure fantasy

I often refer to the NFL as the most popular sport in the U.S. But you could make an argument that fantasy football has become a greater obsession in this country. I'm sure some fantasy fanatics consider it an actual sport.

The average weekly viewership for NBC's Sunday Night Football last season was 22.5 million, the largest of its 11-year existence. Estimates of fantasy football players range from 40 million to 75 million, which was the figure cited in an American Express study a couple of years ago.

Whatever the real number, it's staggering. There are more fantasy magazines than I can count. The NFL caters to the fantasy crowd., the go-to site for the sport's statistics, now includes a separate section for annual fantasy numbers.

The numbers suggest what I've believed for years, that many NFL fans care more about their fantasy teams than the ones on the field. More and more, they root for players, not teams. Many probably don't even know who's winning the games, unless they're at the stadium. Even then, I wonder.

I'll confess, there have been times when I've missed a mundane moment of a Bills game because I was checking on my fantasy guys. And let's face it, fantasy gives us a way to occupy ourselves during the interminable stoppages of play in a real NFL game, which provides about eight minutes of live football action.

Anyway, we're four days away from Thursday night's opener between the Patriots and Chiefs. We've analyzed the Bills to death. So how about a few tips on winning in fantasy football? After all, it's more important to a lot of fans.

This won't be of much use if you're already drafted in your league (and people who know me would claim it's worthless regardless), but here are a few things to keep in mind if you're preparing for a fantasy draft:

1. The draft can set you up for a title, but it's only the start. You have to pay attention all season long. Be obsessive about it. Leagues are often won by grabbing gems off the free-agent pile or making trades. Like Red Auerbach with the old Celtics, champions can profit from the stupidity of others.

Last year, I picked up Vikings wideout Adam Thielen late in the season. He had been sitting out there for a week after a 100-yard game. Thielen had 12 catches for 202 yards and two TDs to put me over the top in the championship  game. Yes, I won. I'm not bragging, just making a point. Cam Brate, another waiver pickup, also scored for me in the final.

2. Don't overreach for running backs. People often panic when the top running backs go off the board early, grabbing some pedestrian back when stud wideouts are still on the board. Frankly, I believe fantasy leagues should require only one starting tailback. Real teams don't play two at once, do they?

3. The NFL is a passing league, with a record 69 percent of total yardage coming through the air a year ago. Receivers score a lot of points. Most leagues use a flex position now, which is generally a third wide receiver. Who has three good running backs? I like to get two wideouts high and a lot of solid ones later. I play in a point-per-reception league, which is obviously a big factor in my strategy.

4. Avoid Bills. Why torture yourself further? You'll miss the occasional stud like Fred Jackson in early 2011, but you're generally better off. LeSean McCoy is being drafted off last year's stats, which is too high. Teams will key on him and crowd the box.  I don't expect him to last the season. The same goes for Tyrod Taylor, who could lose his job through injury or poor play.

5. Take a kicker late, from a team that scores a lot. Don't overthink it. I'm cursed with kickers. Back in 1990, in fantasy's paleozoic era, I drafted Donald Igwebuike, who was charged with smuggling heroin and deported just before the opener. In 2011, I took Nate Kaeding, who got hurt on the opening kickoff and was lost for the season. Zero kicker points that week.

6. Take a defense at the end. It's even less important than kicker. Smart owners switch their defenses from week to week, depending on matchups (thanks, Joe Buscaglia). This keeps you true to Rule 1, by making you stay involved and studying all the time. You often stumble across other free-agent treasures when you're vigilant.

7. Don't be afraid of receivers from bad teams. Bad teams fall behind in games and pick up a lot of garbage passing yards against defenses playing soft coverage. Terrelle Pryor had 77 catches for 1,007 yards for the Browns last season. Five different quarterbacks threw passes for Cleveland. I'll bet you can't name them.

8. Take chances on guys you really like. Don't just pick off the list. Boy, I miss the days when there was no internet and no lists telling you who to pick. But you don't want to reach for your sleepers. You want them to be value picks. Don't draft a guy in the sixth round if you can get him in the ninth.

9. I'm leery of poaching because the Bills media draft is Sunday night, but here are a few of my wideout sleepers: I still like Thielen, who will work out of the slot in Minnesota; Ted Ginn Jr. should thrive with Drew Brees in New Orleans; also the Seahawks' Paul Richardson, the Chargers' Tyrell Williams, and the Pats' Chris Hogan. Yes, former Bills are OK.

10. Again, see Rule 1. Pay attention right up until game time. Keep up with the injury reports and make sure you know which players are inactive on game day. If this seems a bit excessive, maybe you shouldn't have a fantasy team. As Sean McDermott likes to say, it's a process. Have fun.

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