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Critical thinking

With only five games remaining in the NFL regular season, there are several pending issues that fantasy owners need to consider before setting their starting lineups or making any transactions.

Here are four things to keep in mind so your team is prepared for the final push of the fantasy season.

1) Indianapolis Colts' undefeated run– The Colts continue to chase history and remain the NFL's only undefeated team with an 11-0 record. They're one game away from clinching a playoff spot, and home-field advantage isn't far behind.

The question whether head coach Tony Dungy will rest his starters if the Colts clinch home-field advantage already has surfaced, and Dungy hasn't committed either way. Should he rest quarterback Peyton Manning, which is a real possibility given the two-time defending league MVP's significance to the team, it will have a negative trickle down effect on the fantasy value of the Colts' remaining offensive parts.

Running back Edgerrin James' production will suffer—if he's still on the field—because running lanes won't be as wide with inexperienced backup Jim Sorgi behind center. Even if wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley receive normal reps, their production also will decline.

Another interesting consideration is that the Colts' offense, without some of their starters, won't be able to sustain drives as well. That, in turn, puts more pressure on the Colts' defense, which has been a pleasant surprise so far this season.

On the bright side, a Colts' offense without Manning and some of the team's other offensive protagonists probably won't be as efficient in the red zone, meaning Mike Vanderjagt might have more opportunities in the kicking game.

2) Cleveland Browns' quarterback situation – The Browns (4-7) are not eliminated from the playoff race, but that's only a formality.

The reality is that coach Romeo Crennel must decide an approach with the Browns' quarterback of the future, which looks to be rookie backup Charlie Frye, and not veteran starter Trent Dilfer.

Would it be beneficial now to give Frye, a third-round pick, some snaps to prepare him for next year? Or would that be counterproductive because Frye's confidence could nose dive (he already has two interceptions on 12 pass attempts this season)?

Dilfer has been slowed by tendonitis in his knee, and he didn't practice on Wednesday, so Crennel might not have a choice in the matter. Dilfer didn't play the entire game last week at Minnesota, and he is listed as questionable on this week's injury report.

By no means have the Browns been an offensive juggernaut with Dilfer at the helm, but starting a rookie could be a tricky proposition. Fantasy owners with running back Reuben Droughns or wide receiver Antonio Bryant should monitor this situation closely. Also, fantasy owners, especially ones that play in leagues with two starting quarterbacks, might want to see if Frye is available on the waiver wire.

3) Baltimore Ravens' defensive injuries– What once was considered among the NFL's best defenses now ranks 20 th in the league in scoring average (20.5 avg.), a season after allowing less than 17 points per game.

The Ravens' defense still has the personnel to be successful, but injuries have taken a toll. Seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis has been inactive the past five games with a thigh injury, while two-time Pro Bowl strong safety Ed Reed has been sidelined the past six games with an ankle injury. Earlier in the season, defensive end Anthony Weaver missed four consecutive games with a toe injury.

This week, Lewis and Reed are listed as questionable and have missed portions of practice. Weaver is fine to play, but starting cornerback Chris McAlister (thigh) is questionable and starting free safety Will Demps (knee) is out and may be placed on injured reserve.

If the Ravens continue to heal and avoid further injury on defense, they will be in good position to finish off the season strong and regain their status as one of the NFL's stingiest units.

That's important to remember if one of your fantasy players faces Baltimore in the remaining five games of the season.

4) Weather patterns – It may be true that nothing is guaranteed except death and taxes, but fantasy owners can almost always count on kickers to struggle during the latter months of the season when the cold weather sets in.

The unflappable Neil Rackers missed his first field goal of the season last week when the Arizona Cardinals hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars in Tempe, where the temperature at kickoff dropped below 60 degrees. The New York Giants' Jay Feely, meanwhile, had converted 21-of-23 kicks before missing three of his five opportunities last Sunday in Seattle, where the temperature hovered around 40 degrees at Qwest Stadium.

Is it a coincidence? Perhaps. Wind, a bad snap or hold and poor footing also can contribute to misses. Sometimes there is no excuse.

But the bottom line for fantasy owners is that it's important to be aware of every factor before finalizing the starting lineup. Something as seemingly small as the weather report can be invaluable when a few points decide the outcome of a matchup.

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