THE NFL opened up the ballot box the other day and is now soliciting votes for its annual Pro Bowl.
Generally, around this time of the year, some players start to separate themselves and become Pro Bowl candidates and fantasy stalwarts. It starts to become clear who are studs and who are stiffs. But this year, just like many of the league's teams, the projected top players are like crabs in a barrel trying to escape the boiling pot of mediocrity. Tennessee's Chris Johnson has four games in which he has run for 100 yards and three in which he has run for fewer than 70.
So while the NFL paints the rosy picture of parity, fantasy fans are left to sort through a bunch of Mona Lisas with mustaches.
Vote for whomever you want for the Pro Bowl, but here are five guys who are eating out of the fantasy dog bowl:
* Tom Brady. The New England quarterback hasn't hit 300 yards in a game this season, and the Patriots traded away his only proven deep threat ( Randy Moss ). Saw on a message board a guy tried to trade Brady to the Tony Romo owner in his league and was rebuffed. The other guy said he would pick up Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick instead.
* Hey, didn't you used to be Larry Fitzgerald? The Cardinals can't find a quarterback, and it's killing him.
* Andre Johnson. The Texans wide receiver has battled an ankle injury since his monster game (12 catches, 158 yards) in Week 2. Heck, Steve Johnson, a scrub wide receiver from Buffalo, has more touchdowns.
* Ray Rice. The Ravens back has been held to fewer than 100 yards and out of the end zone in six of his first seven games. He better watch out or Chris Berman might give him the nickname "Pork-Fried."
* Maurice Jones-Drew. Has more touchdown receptions (two) than TD rushes (one), and the Jacksonville Jaguars are a mess.
Feel free to vent by sending other nominees to email@example.com.
"My mindset going in isn't going to be nonchalant because I had 231 yards. That's not what I'm thinking at all. I'm thinking they are going to remember that and prove that's not what we're about. And we're going to try to prove that we can run the ball . . . again." - Texans running back Arian Foster, who faces the Colts on Monday for the first time since running for 231 yards against Indianapolis in Week 1.
* Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (shoulder) will be back in the Lions' lineup Sunday at Washington. Detroit hosts the Jets next week, so you might want to see whether he survives that game before spending transaction money . . . Though Jon Kitna hasn't started a game in more than 2 years, the Cowboys have enough weapons to make him a viable pickup. At least I hope so . . . Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 18-5 against NFC opponents, with 32 touchdowns and 16 picks. Pittsburgh visits New Orleans Sunday night.
* Running back: The Colts' Mike Hart becomes a sleeper play this week, since Donald Brown (hamstring) looks iffy and starter Joseph Addai (shoulder) is almost certainly out . . . Carolina's Jonathan Stewart is another backup in line for more carries. Stewart was a monster at the end of last season, but his 2010 numbers have been dismal. He got a season-high 14 attempts Sunday, but managed only 29 yards.
* Wide receiver: Those in deeper leagues should look out for Blair White - as well as Anthony Gonzalez - to benefit from all the injuries to Indy's receivers . . . Red-hot Kenny Britt goes Sunday against the Chargers, who are first in overall defense and first in pass defense. That's all you need to know about numbers. San Diego is 2-5.
Joe Kelly, of Philadelphia, won last week's contest. Readers were asked to project how many rushing yards Chris Johnson would get against the Eagles. CJ2K ran for 66, just shy of Kelly's guess of 67. He (Kelly, that is) will receive a Daily News fantasy football T-shirt.
* Miami's Davone Bess has 32 grabs and a TD in each of the last three games. Teammate Brandon Marshall has 42 catches, but only one touchdown this season.
* Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick has 11 touchdowns and four picks in four games this season. Who cares if they are all losses, right? Sunday, the Bills are at Kansas City, which is 25th against the pass.
* Chris Johnson has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight consecutive road games, which is two behind Barry Sanders' all-time record. The Titans visit San Diego Sunday.
* Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe has scored twice in each of the last two games and has been targeted a total of 22 times in his last three.
* The only tight end in the NFC with more catches than Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (33) is Washington's Chris Cooley (35). Pettigrew's problem is that he has only one touchdown.