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STAR RUNNING BACKS ARE BEST BETS FOR WEEK 17 HEROICS

Week 17 truly is a double-edged sword.

If you're still playing fantasy football by now, you're probably preparing for the championship game, so it's been a very good year. The bummer is that Week 17 is far and away the most difficult to set a lineup for because of the many variables involved.

Many leagues wrap up business in Week 16, when the likelihood for throwaway games is a bit less. But if you had Donovan McNabb as your starting quarterback or Brian Westbrook as one of your running backs, you probably found out the hard way that the Philadelphia Eagles played last Monday night's game in St. Louis as if it were the first scrimmage of training camp.

Get ready for a lot more of that. The one bit of good news is that all 16 games will take place on Sunday so there's no need to submit an early lineup as was necessary last week, when there was one game on Friday and two more Saturday.

Ideally you want your players involved in meaningful games. Trouble is, there just aren't that many of them on the schedule. New Orleans at Carolina and the New York Jets at St. Louis are the only two where both teams will be putting their postseason hides on the line, so expect Grade A efforts from everyone involved.

The Panthers are one of the NFC's hottest teams, having won six of their last seven to come back from the dead. Hot teams that have something to play for are the best bets. Put the Buffalo Bills, who have won six straight (while averaging a remarkable 38 points), and eight of their last nine, into that category. On paper, they're up against the league's hottest team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Steelers (14-1), who have won 13 straight, have wrapped up the AFC's top seed in the playoffs. Injured starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won't play and the Steelers may take a cue from their Pennsylvania brethren and just go through the motions in an effort to stay healthy.

Ditto for the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers, who have sewn up spots two through four for the AFC playoffs. By 4:15 p.m., the Denver Broncos figure to be fighting for a spot in the AFC playoffs against the Colts, who have won eight straight.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, his single-season record for touchdown passes secured, isn't likely to put up big numbers against the Broncos. He never misses a game, but hasn't carved a reputation for being a dynamo in the final game of the regular season, either. In six such previous games, he's averaged 204.6 yards passing, which is about 60 yards less than his career per-game average.

If you're looking for a monster fantasy effort during the final week, it's probably going to come from a running back. Last year, two of the season's top three rushing yardage games came during Week 17: San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 243 yards and Green Bay's Ahman Green for a franchise-record 218 yards.

Ironically, Tomlinson did his dirty work in a game involving teams that picked No. 1 (San Diego) and No. 2 (Oakland) in last April's draft with, of course, no playoff implications.

Last season, six rushers cracked the 100-yard mark in Week 17, while just two passers went over 300 yards and two receivers had 100 yards or more. Since 2000, five running backs have gone for more than 200 yards on the last day, including Clinton Portis, while a Bronco, and the New York Giants' Tiki Barber in 2002 and St. Louis' Marshall Faulk in 2000.

A team out of playoff contention that looks good for an honest effort is the Houston Texans, who can secure an 8-8 campaign by beating the woeful Cleveland Browns at home. A Texans win, combined with a Jacksonville Jaguars defeat in Oakland, would propel Houston into second place in the AFC South because the Texans swept the Jaguars.

Weather shouldn't factor into lineup decisions because temperatures are projected above average. Rain is forecast in Buffalo, Chicago (versus Green Bay), Houston, Tennessee (versus Detroit), Washington (versus Minnesota), San Diego (versus Kansas City) and Oakland. If storms hit Houston the league's only retractable roof at Reliant Stadium will swing shut, providing a second indoor game to go along with the Jets at Rams.

START HIM:

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is 151 of 243 (62.1 percent) for 2,026 yards with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions during the last eight games. He passed for 294 yards against New Orleans in Week 13 and the Saints are dead last in total defense with a yield of 388.1 yards per game.

San Diego receiver Eric Parker has 15 catches for 239 yards and two TDs in the last three games and has been the Chargers' leader in reception yardage in three of the last four games. He faces the Kansas City Chiefs, who give up a league-worst 265.9 passing yards per game.

Carolina kicker John Kasay went a franchise-record 6 for 6 on field goals against the Saints in Week 13, including boots of 50 and 46 yards.

BENCH HIM

San Francisco 49ers running back Kevan Barlow faces a New England defense that is fourth against the run (95.8 yards per game). Last Sunday, the Patriots held New York Jets star Curtis Martin to 33 yards rushing, his lowest output in 29 games.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Luke McCown is 28 of 63 (44.4 percent) for 231 yards with two TDs and five INTs the last three games and goes against the Houston Texans, who haven't allowed a TD while surrendering just five points in their last two games.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown faces the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rank second in passing defense (164.3 yards per game) and second in sacks (45).

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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