Fantasy Football Today - fantasy football rankings, cheatsheets, and information
A Fantasy Football Community!

Create An Account  |  Advertise  |  Contact      

Inside the Matchup
Week 1

By: Damon Autry | Sal Marcoccio | Chris Eakin | Kyle Smith

NO @ GB | NYG @ WAS | DAL @ NYJ | NE @ MIA


BUF @ KC | PHI @ STL | MIN @ SD | SEA @ SF

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
- Autry 0 0 100
- Marcoccio 0 0 100
- Smith 0 0 100
- Eakin 0 0 100

Saints @ Packers - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: Drew Brees is one of the most reliable fantasy QBs in the league. He and Peyton Manning are the only signal-callers in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in five consecutive seasons. Brees does, however, throw more INTs than we’d like. He’s averaged 16 picks per season since arriving in New Orleans, including a career-worse 22 last year. His production seems to always overshadow his mistakes, and that probably won’t change in 2011. He is also notorious for spreading the football around. The Saints have a boatload of receiving talent, but it’s often difficult to predict who will have a big game. Marques Colston has been his primary target the last five years, but the wideout has battled a few ailments this preseason, prompting some to predict a down year for him. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen; just know that Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem will play big roles this week, as Lance Moore has been officially ruled out. TE Jimmy Graham is many people’s sleeper this year, and if the preseason is any indication, they are right. Graham is a former basketball player whose skills on the hardwood should translate beautifully on the gridiron. He will more than likely benefit the most from Moore’s absence.

Green Bay’s defense is lauded as one of the league’s best. CB Charles Woodson seems like he’s as good as ever, and youngsters B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and others are a year better and a year wiser. They will be a force not only this week, but all season. Brees can expect to see Matthews and his flowing mane in his grill all day. Green Bay’s defense was fifth best overall last year and had the second most INTs with 24. Expect them to snatch at least one of Brees’ passes on Thursday.

Running Game Thoughts: The Saints running game will consist primarily of rookie Mark Ingram and veteran Pierre Thomas. It’s too early to definitively state how each will be utilized, but I’d venture to say Ingram will more than likely receive the coveted goal line carries while Thomas will be the receiving threat out of the backfield. Thomas carved out 28 receptions last year in only six games. With that kind of production in the passing game, he’s bound to continue in that role this season.

The Packers were a bit vulnerable to the run last season, finishing the year as the league’s 18th best. But only two teams surrendered fewer rushing TDs than Green Bay’s six. I would imagine New Orleans will choose to move the ball primarily through the air anyway, so don’t expect too much on the ground from the Saints’ two-headed RB—although Ingram could sneak in a short score.

Drew Brees: 240 yards passing / 2 TDs / 1 INT
Marques Colston: 85 yards receiving
Robert Meachem: 50 yards receiving / 1 TD
Devery Henderson: 35 yards receiving
Jimmy Graham: 35 yards receiving / 1 TD
Mark Ingram: 40 yards rushing
Pierre Thomas: 30 yards rushing / 25 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Forget the cheatsheets from the fantasy draft season that listed Michael Vick as fantasy’s best QB. For my money, Aaron Rodgers holds that distinction. He’s a QB that throws TDs at an amazing rate, but the part that I believe separates him from someone like Brees is his ability to score on the ground. He’s rushed for 13 scores over the last three years. And unlike Brees, Rodgers takes better care of the football. Rodgers has averaged only 10 INTs over the last three years; Brees 17. As good as Rodgers was in 2010, I believe he will be even better in 2011. TE Jermichael Finley returns after an ankle injury sidelined him early last year, and while Donald Driver is getting long in the tooth, WR Jordy Nelson seems poised to take the baton from the aging vet. Of course, Greg Jennings is the main cog in the passing game; look for him to get off to a great start in week 1.

If last year is any indication, the Saints will present a formidable challenge against the pass. They finished as the league’s fourth best pass defense and relinquished the fewest number of TD passes with 13. Strangely, even though the Saints had the fewest TDs allowed via the pass, they weren’t as opportunistic on defense as they were the previous year. They finished 2010 with the fewest INTs with nine. Expect Rodgers and company to put up decent production despite the New Orleans’ defense.

Running Game Thoughts: Rumors persisted during training camp that Ryan Grant was on the chopping block. He agreed to take a pay cut, which probably saved his roster spot. Now there are expectations that James Starks, who played well late last season, will split carries with Grant. Green Bay became a pass-first team anyway last season, so it remains to be seen if that trend continues. However, keep an eye on how Grant and Starks are used in the game. That should give us an indication of how head coach Mike McCarthy plans to use his RBs.

New Orleans was a middle-of-the-pack run defense last year. They weren’t too spectacular, nor were they downright dreadful against the run. Look for the running game to be an afterthought anyway for Green Bay. From a fantasy perspective, both Starks and Grant should be sidelined this week while the dust settles on what their roles will be in the offense.

Aaron Rodgers: 280 yards passing / 3 TDs
Greg Jennings: 90 yards receiving / 1 TD
Jordy Nelson: 45 yards receiving / 1 TD
Donald Driver: 55 yards receiving
Jermichael Finley: 70 yards receiving / 1 TD
James Starks: 45 yards rushing
Ryan Grant: 35 yards rushing

Prediction: Packers 27, Saints 20 ^ Top

Giants @ Redskins - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: The younger Manning brother Eli, who will be the league’s new ironman after Peyton sits out this week, lost two of his biggest security blankets this offseason when WR Steve Smith signed with Philadelphia and TE Kevin Boss left for Oakland. However, Eli will still have two dynamic WRs in Hakeem Nicks and rising star Mario Manningham to toss to on Sundays. Nicks followed up a fine rookie season, with a stellar second year and is now a consensus Top 10 fantasy WR. He’s able to make acrobatic grabs and is one of the better runners after the catch in the league. Manningham doesn’t have great timed speed, but has outstanding game speed as he can get deep against almost any cornerback in the league. Concentration lapses have been an issue throughout his young career but last season he put up 960 yards and 9TDs after starting the season as the Giants No. 3 WR. He’s a prime breakout candidate now that he’ll be a full time starter. After that things get a little sketchy. Second year WR out of UMass Victor Cruz who famously exploded on the Jets last preseason will split WR3 duties with Domenik Hixon who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Neither player has stepped up thus far. New TE Travis Beckum was thought to have some pass catching skills coming into the league out of Wisconsin, but has not looked good so far this offseason. The Giants could have an unfilled hole in the middle of the field – which could mean RB Ahmad Bradshaw needs to gets even more involved in the passing game this year.

The Redskins’ secondary was a weak link last season. DeAngelo Hall gets paid like a top corner but has never really lived up to the hype. LaRon Landry is a beast that plays the run well but struggles when required to drop into pass coverage and he is not expected to play this week due to leg injuries. Overall the Redskins were better than only the historically bad Houston Texans last season finishing as the 31st ranked pass defense. They allowed 261.7 yards per game and 23 TDs on the season. Brian Orakpo can get to the passer, but often finds himself being the focus of the opposition’s blocking schemes since the Skins have very little else to worry about. Orakpo will need some help if the Skins’ hope to be able to protect their poor secondary by generating a consistent pass rush.

Running Game Thoughts: Head Coach Tom Coughlin has publicly stated that he plans to get veteran Brandon Jacobs more carries than he did last season. Jacobs averaged 5.6 yards per carry in a support role behind Ahmad Bradshaw and nearly reached double digit TDs. Bradshaw wasn’t able to turn his breakout 2010 campaign into a big contract on the open market so he returns to New York, but as mentioned he may lose some of those career-high 276 carries he received last season to Jacobs. Bradshaw is the more dynamic runner, and is also able to gain tough yards due to his deceptive strength and running style that initiates contact. This style has lead to a rash of minor injuries, so perhaps the decrease in workload will keep him fresh. The Giants o-line has consistently produced a solid running game, but the team will have a new look up front after failing to bring back veterans Shaun O’Hara, Shawn Andrews and Rich Seubert. The Giants did sign center David Baas from the Forty-Niners who should be a solid anchor and will bring back guard Chris Snee and tackle Kareem McKenzie keeping the right side of the line in tact. There could be some struggles early in the season as the new comers try and work their way into the unit.

The Washington run defense was amongst the best in the league heading into the Week 5 contest last season, but like the rest of the team, the unit fell apart as the season progressed. They finished the season ranked 26th in the league after allowing 127.6 yards per games and 15 TDs. Gone is Albert Haynesworth who proved to be a colossal bust and in is former Giant, Barry Coefield. Coefield is a strong inside presence that should help the team’s interior line, which should at least get the ball rolling in a positive direction. With a year’s experience in the new coaching staff’s 3-4 scheme, things should get brighter in Washington this season.

Eli Manning: 255 yds passing 3 TDs, 1 INT
Hakeem Nicks: 95 yds receiving, 2 TDs
Mario Manningham: 60 yds receiving, 1 TD
Victor Cruz: 30 yds receiving
Travis Beckum: 15 yds receiving
Ahmad Bradshaw: 55 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving
Brandon Jacobs: 45 yards rushing, 1 TD / 15 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Rex Grossman gets one last reprieve at an NFL career this season, but Shanahan favorite Jon Beck is waiting in the wings should “bad” Rex re-emerge. Grossman played well during the three game stretch to end last season and has also performed well this preseason, but he has the reputation of folding under pressure. He’s been mistake prone throughout his career in between flashes of relative brilliance. The insertion of Rex into the line-up is good news for Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney owners (if any Gaffney owners exist), as Rex favors throwing the ball to his outside targets and has a better deep arm than Beck. Moss is coming off a 90-catch season in 2010 and always seems to be under the radar. Given the state of the Redskin defense there’s some value in grabbing Moss or Gaffney in your drafts’ later rounds since the team should find itself behind in many games this season – especially when facing the high powered offenses in the NFC East. Chris Cooley has been banged up for much of the preseason and will be a game time decision this week. Fred Davis has always performed well when called upon and could be a sneaky Week 1 start for those weak at the position.

The Giants defense has taken more hits this offseason than Greg Brady did in his celebrity boxing match against Danny Partridge. Gone for the year are ILB Jonathan Goff and CB Terrell Thomas, while DE Osi Umenyiora and rookie CB Prince Akumanura will miss several weeks. The team also lost a few depth players to injury, so it could be rough sledding early for what was once a very powerful unit. Of course the team should still be able to apply pressure on the very flappable Sexy Rexy with Justin Tuck, Jacques Pierre-Paul and Matthias Kiwanuka still around. This could potentially be a very ugly day for either team very quickly.

Running Game Thoughts: Tim Hightower has looked like he was born to play in the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme that has made stars out of ordinary backs like Orlandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Rueben Droughns. He has been the surprise of the preseason and likely flew up many fantasy draft boards once he got the full Shanahan endorsement. Hightower isn’t particularly fast or shifty, but hits the hole quickly, gets good forward lean and finishes his runs hard. He’s also quite adept at blocking and receiving the ball out of the backfield. Ryan Torain, another average back made to look good by the ZBS, hurt his chances to cement himself as the starter by once again succumbing to injury - this time, breaking his hand early in the preseason. He now sits third on the depth chart after falling behind Hightower and rookie Roy Helu.

The Giants as stated earlier are hurting on defense and are extremely thin at the linebacker spot. Sixth round pick Greg Jones will be forced to start at middle linebacker and it’s slim pickings behind him. Last season they were the 8th ranked run defense after allowing 101.3 yards per game and 11 TDs on the season. Of course much has changed since then including the loss of leading tackler Terrell Thomas and Jonathan Goff to injury and Barry Coefield to free agency. One would have to guess this unit will struggle early in the season, which bodes well for Hightower this week.

Rex Grossman: 195 yds passing, 1 TD, 2 INTs / 10 yards rushing
Santana Moss: 70 yds receiving
Jabar Gaffney: 45 yds receiving, 1 TD
Anthony Armstrong: 30 yards receiving
Fred Davis: 25 yds receiving
Tim Hightower: 125 yds rushing, 1 TD / 15 yds receiving
Roy Helu: 20 yds rushing

Prediction: Giants 31, Redskins 20 ^ Top

Cowboys @ Jets - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: While Jon Kitna played reasonably well last season for the Cowboys, their players, fans and fantasy owners have to be thrilled that Tony Romo will be back under center this year. Romo had his best season as a pro in 2009 (4,483-26-9) but got off to a slow start in 2010 before succumbing to injury, largely as a result of his makeshift o-line. The Cowboys spent the No. 7 overall pick on OT Tyron Smith (who may miss this week’s game) and revamped the o-line, which should buy Romo a little more time when he drops back to pass. Mile Austin should see his numbers increase with the return of Romo as they picked up in 2010 where they left off in 2009. Second year talent Dez Bryant (45-561-6) actually saw his numbers increase after Romo went down, and was on pace for an outstanding rookie season before breaking his ankle in Week 12. With Roy Williams being let go by Dallas, Bryant will be the unquestioned starter opposite Austin and should be in position to surpass 1,000 yards in this offense. Jason Witten has consistently been amongst the top 5 TEs in fantasy rankings yearly, but may find himself being kept in to block a little more if the rookie Smith struggles early in pass protection. On paper this is a dynamic passing offense loaded with weapons and fantasy owners of any Cowboys’ skill player should be drooling most weeks this season. However…

The New York Jets were the No. 6 passing defense in the NFL last season. They feature the best starting CB tandem in the league in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, outside of possibly Philadelphia. The Achilles heal of the Jets pass defense however was the middle of the field, as the team consistently allowed opposing TEs and slot receivers to eat them alive. This could change with safeties Jim Leonhard returning to health and Eric Smith being inserted into the starting FS spot over Brodney Poole and if second year defensive back Kyle Wilson steps up after struggling during his rookie season. It’s always a difficult decision to bench a highly drafted stud, especially in Week 1, but a lot of this league’s very best WRs have struggled to produce when stuck on Revis Island. Austin owners can hold out some hope in the fact that Revis wasn’t glued to one WR at times last season and was instead moved around to different WRs to create different defensive looks. However, it could be a tough week for the Cowboys passing attack overall on Sunday night, especially if Rex Ryan’s blitz packages allow the Jets to pressure Tony Romo.

Running Game Thoughts: Fourth year RB Felix Jones finally gets the backfield to himself this season and has looked fantastic this preseason. Jones shed the extra pounds he added prior to last year and has looked explosive while still maintaining the ability to break tackles and gain tough yards. Tashard Choice should be the main backup to Jones with Marion Barber being released, but rookie Demarco Murray could step in on passing downs in order to take advantage of his straight line speed. With teams focusing on the Cowboys passing game, don’t be surprised to see a breakout campaign from Felix Jones – who has the potential to finish the season as a top 10 RB.

The Jets were the third ranked run defenses in 2010, allowing only 90.9 yards per game and 11 TDs, so it will be a test for Jones this Sunday at MetLife Stadium (while I hate the corporate sponsorship that has taken over sports today, I do have to admit that this name is far better than the “New Meadowlands Stadium” moniker). Kris Jenkins was forced into retirement due to his over abused knees and will be missed but the Jets played virtually all of 2010 without him and half of 2009 as well. Sinoue Pouha and Mike DeVito replaced Jenkins in the line-up and more than held their own against the run during both of the aforementioned seasons. However, it’s LBs David Harris and Bart Scott who star against the run as tackling machines.

Tony Romo: 235 yds passing 1 TD, 1 INT / 20 yards rushing
Miles Austin: 45 yds receiving
Dez Bryant: 50 yds receiving
Kevin Ogletree: 30 yds receiving
Jason Witten: 40 yds receiving, 1 TD
Felix Jones: 55 yds rushing, 1 TD / 20 yds receiving
DeMarco Murray: 15 yards rushing / 45 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s time for the training wheels to come off Mark Sanchez. While after only two seasons in the NFL, Sanchez has won more road playoff games than many of the all time greats, it was apparent the game plans were scaled back for Sanchez during the regular season. And even with that he was still a very inconsistent QB. In what could cause the youngster to take a step back before he starts forward again, the Jets have turned over ¾ of their top 4 wide-outs from 2010. Gone are Jerricho Cotchery, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith and in step grey beards Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress and rookie Jeremy Kerley. Burress flashed his former greatness a few times this preseason, but after sitting out for two years while in prison, the 34-year-old may take some time to get into full gear. Sanchez however does get two familiar faces back and luckily for him they were his two most dependable receivers last season, Santonio Holmes and TE Dustin Keller. Holmes is the consummate WR who is equally adept at going across the middle and gaining yards after the catch or streaking deep down the sideline. Keller was the Jets leading receiver last year and should be a much bigger part of the game plan as he is a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers or safeties. Expect Holmes and Keller to continue being Sanchez’ go to guys, especially early in the season.

The Cowboys were extremely poor against the pass last season finishing the year ranked 26th in the league allowing 243.4 yards per game and more than 2 TD passes per game. The team brought Rex Ryan’s brother, Rob Ryan, into the fold as DC this offseason and while the defense should be more aggressive in 2011 – featuring outstanding pass rusher DeMarcus Ware – will that be enough to protect an over-matched secondary? The new look Jets passing game may just get off to a quick start against a “soft” opponent, especially with CB Michael Jenkins looking doubtful to start this week.

Running Game Thoughts: The Jets were not as effective running the ball last season as they were in 2009, but still managed to make what was believed to be a washed up LaDainian Tomlinson look 4 years younger than he looked the prior season in San Diego. The team loses veteran road grader RT Damien Woody to retirement, but retained Wayne Hunter who filled in admirably for Woody when a late season injury kept him out of action. The team will hand the reigns over to third year back Shonn Greene while relegating Tomlinson to third down duties. Greene is a powerful runner with good straight-line speed but lacks quickness and shiftiness so he’ll need the Jets o-line to remain the outstanding unit it’s been the last several years. Last season was supposed to be Greene’s coming out party as well, but LT2 looked so rejuvenated he took the job, ran with it and didn’t look back until the wear and tear of the season caught up to him. Greene should grind out yardage in the “ground and pound” offense being a steady force in his fantasy owners line-up, but his inability to thrive in the passing game and the fact that Tomlinson could still vulture some goal line looks limits his upside.

The Cowboys were better than average against the run last season, allowing 108.4 yards per game and 11 TDs on the ground. Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Jay Ratliff is undersized in the middle but makes up for it with his quickness and a relentless motor. ILB Bradie James led the team in tackles last season and teams up well with veteran Keith Brooking to keep opposing runners in check. This matchup of strength on strength should go a long way in determining the games final outcome.

Mark Sanchez: 245 yds passing, 2 TDs / 10 yards rushing
Santonio Holmes: 65 yds receiving, 1 TD
Plaxico Burress: 40 yds receiving
Derrick Mason: 20 yards receiving
Dustin Keller: 55 yds receiving, 1 TD
Shonn Greene: 55 yds rushing / 5 yds receiving
LaDainian Tomlinson: 40 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving

Prediction: Jets 20, Cowboys 14 ^ Top

Patriots @ Dolphins - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: Once again this offseason the Patriots passing attack added a few new wrinkles. Last offseason we had the addition of two rookie TEs, which helped add to the departure of Randy Moss and now they bring in another “diva” fading star in Chad Ochocinco. Chad 85 has not fared so well. According to reports he’s had trouble learning the Patriots’ complicated offense, but there’s still time to work out the kinks. The great rookie TE experience worked famously as both Rob Gronkowksi and Aaron Hernandez had seasons that placed them both in the top 12 of all rookie TE seasons. Gronkowski’s production was largely based on his high TD ratio, which may not be sustainable, but one would think his role could increase in the passing game overall offsetting any dip in TDs. Hernandez exploded early, looking uncoverable at times, before injuries slowed him down. He has regained his form this preseason. Wes Welker may have been slowed due to his recovery from an ACL tear or it could have been that his running room underneath shrunk once the Pats jettisoned their only legit deep threat. The team will need Ochocinco to become that deep threat to help open things up in the middle, something he hasn’t really been in years. Have I even mentioned Tom Brady yet? Last season may have been his most remarkable so far. Many “experts” and message board pundits wrote him off after the team let Randy Moss go, but instead Brady put up his second greatest season statistically, once again leading the NFL in passing TDs. It would be tough to predict anything other than the New England well oiled machine not skipping a beat, even if Chad proves to be mostly ineffective.

Miami’s young defense was one of the highlights of last season and is the one thing giving this team hope for 2011. They finished 8th against the pass and allowed only 209 yards per game passing and 22 TDs on the season. Undersized defensive end Cameron Wake (only 236 pounds) used his speed to blow past offensive tackles on his way to 14 sacks on the season. CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith weren’t flashy but played well in coverage. This is another classic strength on strength matchup and should go a long way in determining the outcome of the Monday Night matchup. The problem for Miami though is that you need to pick your poison against New England as they have too many diverse options that deserve a defense’s attention. Advantage: New England.

Running Game Thoughts: BenJarvis Green-Ellis has a lot of names and he scored a lot of TDs last season. It was rather remarkable that New England was able to run out to a 14-2 record with a backfield, which relied heavily on two small school NFL draft afterthoughts like Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Woodhead the runner out of Chadron State with elite level speed was scooped up by the Patriots after he was released by the Jets. At the time, the move clearly looked to be a “pick the brain of a player cut by an upcoming opponent” pickup. Instead Woodhead went on to look like the most dangerous player on the field. The diminutive back was mostly used as a pass catcher but also showed an ability to carry the football up the middle when called upon. The Patriots drafted two running backs in round 2 and round 3 of the 2011 NFL draft, but the team still expects Green-Ellis and Woodhead to carry most of the load. Belicheck loves the way Green-Ellis can chew up a clock without any turnover worries and Woodhead just may be the answer to Kevin Faulk’s fast approaching end.

The Miami run defense was even better than their fine pass defense, as the unit allowed only 100.1 yards per game and a mere 8 rushing TDs. The sudden retirement of Channing Crowder could cause a small step back for the unit, but there’s enough talent to keep the ship afloat. Expect the Patriots to avoid testing the Dolphins’ run defense, by taking to the air early and often.

Tom Brady: 275 yds passing 3 TDs
Chad Ochocinco: 45 yds receiving, 1 TD
Wes Welker: 60 yds receiving
Deion Branch: 10 yds receiving, 1 TD
Rob Gronkowski: 30 yds receiving, 1 TD
Aaron Hernandez: 80 yards receiving
BenJarvis Green-Ellis: 55 yds rushing, 1 TD
Danny Woodhead: 35 yards rushing / 35 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: At times Chad Henne looks like a team’s franchise QB. Most of the time though, not so much. Henne has been inconsistent and at times lacks the confidence to create the aura of the leadership required to be successful at this level. As an example, let’s look at Mark Sanchez. Sanchez and Henne are very similar from a statistical viewpoint, but which QB inspires more confidence in a big game situation? Henne has looked better this preseason and is still young enough to turn things around. Having an excellent possession WR that can run after the catch like Brandon Marshall can only help. Henne also added a dynamic pass-catching back in Reggie Bush this offseason, which may just be a boon to a QB that likes to check-down often.

The Pats’ young secondary was so inconsistent last season that at one point the team found itself in the embarrassing position of having the worst pass defense in the NFL next to Houston. They finished the season ranked 30th in the NFL after allowing 258.5 yards per game and 25 TDs. The team surprisingly dumped safety Brandon Meriweather and Darius Butler – both former first round picks – as a result. Youngsters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung did gain valuable experience and one should expect the unit to be better, especially if DT Albert Haynesworth regains the form he had in Tennessee which allowed him to terrorize QBs from the middle of the line.

Running Game Thoughts: The Phins completely overhauled their backfield this offseason allowing Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to leave via free agency while drafting Daniel Thomas and signing former No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush after he was released by the Saints. Thomas is a big back out of Kansas State that was versatile enough to line-up at QB and WR while in college but has been disappointing thus far for Miami. His upright running style makes him appear slow and lumbering, but he has good speed for his size and was very effective during his years in the NCAA. Bush has been a bust in some people’s eyes given his draft position, but has been a very effective weapon as a target out of the backfield. Of course health has been a concern with him during almost every season he has been in the league. Behind a very good o-line these two pairs of fresh legs may do a lot more damage than some people expect. Late injury note: Thomas tweaked his hamstring during practice Wednesday and the team has re-signed Larry Johnson.

Linebacker Jerrod Mayo has developed nicely during his short time in the NFL and led a very effective Patriots running defense in tackles with 114. Of course when you are ranked 30th in pass defense and teams are forced to keep up with your high powered offense, run defense rankings have a tendency to be artificially inflated (11th ranked run defense in 2010). However, between the massive DT/NT Vince Wilfork and the aforementioned Mayo, it’s never going to be easy to run on the Patriots - even if teams want to.

Chad Henne: 225 yds passing, 2 TDs, 2 INTs / 10 yards rushing
Brandon Marshall: 85 yds receiving, 1 TD
Davone Bess: 60 yds receiving
Brian Hartline: 10 yards receiving
Anthony Fasano: 25 yds receiving, 1 TD
Daniel Thomas: 25 yds rushing / 5 yds receiving
Reggie Bush: 40 yds rushing / 35 yds receiving

Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 17 ^ Top

Colts @ Texans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Colts had the number one passing offense in the league in 2010. But Manning’s neck is currently a physiological mess, and that leaves the ageless Kerry Collins to lead Indy under center. Collins has had a nice career, but he was retired about a month ago, and is presumably still learning the intricate offense that the Colts run. While Indianapolis does have a plethora of weapons to throw to, the question is if Collins is still capable enough to get them the ball. One thing that will help, however, is that he’ll be facing Houston’s pass defense.

The Texans, by any measure, were the worst defense against the pass in 2010. They allowed the most passing yards, the highest opponents quarterback rating, and tied for most passing scores given up. There is hope for improvement this season though, as the team brought in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who moved the team to a 3-4 defense, and also signed Jonathan Joseph to be a much-needed anchor at cornerback. Frankly, there’s nowhere for this team to go but up when it comes to pass defense.

Running Game Thoughts: The Colts haven’t had much of a running game in recent years because, well, they didn’t need one. Last season, the team was 29th in the league in rushing yards per game, and tied for 25th in yards per carry average, at 3.8. Joseph Addai, coming off an injury-plagued campaign, will be the lead horse for the team once again. What may change, however, is the place of former first-round pick Donald Brown in the pecking order. He has offered very little to the team in his short career, and Delone Carter may have passed him up in the preseason. Either way, we’ll find out soon enough.

Houston was horrific against the pass last season, so naturally, teams attacked them that way instead of on the ground. The result was, they ranked 13th in the league in run defense. The more telling stat may be that they allowed 16 rushing scores in 2010, and only five teams gave up more. As we mentioned earlier, the team is switching to a 3-4, and that could help shore up the team’s run defense, as could a full season of Brian Cushing being available.

Kerry Collins: 220 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Reggie Wayne: 80 yds receiving, 1 TD
Dallas Clark: 55 yds receiving
Pierre Garcon: 35 yds receiving
Austin Collie: 30 yds receiving
Joseph Addai: 70 yds rushing / 15 yds receiving
Delone Carter: 20 yds rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: The Texans threw for 259 yards per game last season, which was good for fourth in the league, though they were well behind the top three teams (Indianapolis, San Diego and New Orleans each threw for at least 279 per). Quarterback Matt Schaub threw for over 4,000 yard for the second consecutive season, while also tossing 24 touchdown passes. He wasn’t spectacular against the Colts though, with only a pair of touchdown throws in two games against Indy, and he also completed less than 60 percent of his passes in those contests. Houston has arguably the best wide receiver in the league in Andre Johnson, and Owen Daniels should prove to be a top-tier fantasy tight end this season. Arian Foster also gets into the mix, having caught 66 passes for over 600 yards in 2010. Clearly, they have a lot going for them. The Colts are no pushovers against the pass, however.

Indianapolis ranked a solid 13th in the league in pass defense last season, and allowed only 22 touchdown passes, which tied for the ninth-best mark in the league. As we mentioned, the team held Schaub down last year, and even kept Johnson from going off in Week 1, holding him to 33 yards. Johnson beat them for 106 yards and a touchdown in Week 7, and the Colts will likely struggle against him once again this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Arian Foster (hamstring) is said to be a game-time decision this week, so the team’s running game is difficult to project as of right now. As all fantasy players know, Foster had a monster breakout year in 2010, running for over 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns. In his two games against the Colts, Foster ran for 334 yards and three scores. If he doesn’t play this week, the team will likely split carries between veteran Derrick Ward and young Ben Tate. Tate had a very good preseason, and is the more explosive of the two, and is more likely to give a return to fantasy owners who roll the dice with him if Foster can’t go.

The Colts run defense, in part due to Foster, was just plain bad last year. They were 25th in the league in run defense, giving up an average of 127 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. Indy also allowed 14 rushing touchdowns, which was good for 20th in the league. Their defense is small but swift, and power running teams can have their way with them. Even if Foster can’t go this week, the aforementioned duo of Ward and Tate could have some success.

Matt Schaub: 310 passing yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Andre Johnson: 110 receiving yds, 1 TD
Owen Daniels: 70 receiving yds, 1 TD
Kevin Walter: 55 receiving yds
Jacoby Jones: 35 receiving yds
Arian Foster: 75 rushing yds, 1 TD / 30 receiving yds
Ben Tate: 30 rushing yds

Prediction: Texans 27, Colts 16 ^ Top

Titans @ Jaguars - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Titans were among the least successful passing teams in 2010, ranking 25th in the 32-team NFL by averaging just 194 yards per game through the air. That was with the highly underwhelming combination of Kerry Collins and Vince Young under center, however, and as the team went in a new direction this year by drafting Jake Locker and signing Matt Hasselbeck to be their starter for the short term. By no means was Hasselbeck great last season, but he should provide a bit more spark to a team that has some valuable weapons in wideout Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook. Britt played just once against the Jaguars last season, but did haul in a touchdown in that contest, and Cook had four receptions for 47 yards in the team’s second meeting last year.

As for the Jags, they were like most every team in the AFC South last season when it came to pass defense: soft as butter. Jacksonville was 28th in the NFL in defending the pass, gave up the most passing yards per attempt (8.3) and were 26th in passing scores given up. And frankly, we’re not so sure they’ve gotten a whole lot better on this front.

Running Game Thoughts: Chris Johnson had no preseason to speak of, and his conditioning is something that fantasy owners ought to be a bit worried about, but he’s still the most explosive running back in the league when it comes to flat-out speed. It also helps that he has routinely put a hurt on the Jaguars. In the six career meetings between Johnson and Jacksonville, Johnson has ran for at least 80 yards four times, including running for 111 yards and a touchdown against them in Week 6 of last season.

The Jags were in the bottom half of the league in run defense last season, ranking 22nd in the league, but they were really worse than those numbers might indicate, because teams were too busy throwing the ball on them to continue running it. Jacksonville was also tied for second-to-last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed, at 4.7, and only two squads gave up more rushing scores than the Jags did in 2010. So yes, this is a prime matchup for Johnson, regardless of how long he’s been out.

Matt Hasselbeck: 205 passing yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Kenny Britt: 65 receiving yds, 1 TD
Nate Washington: 45 receiving yds
Jared Cook: 40 receiving yds
Chris Johnson: 105 rushing yds, 1 TD / 25 receiving yds

Passing Game Thoughts: With David Garrard having been brazenly released less than a week before the season opener, and with Jacksonville not ready to commit to first-round pick Blaine Gabbert just yet, Luke McCown will get the start under center for the team. What that means for the Jaguars isn’t quite known yet, but we’re betting it won’t be that good. McCown completed 11 of his 19 passes last season for 120 yards, but hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since 2007, and for his career has thrown nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing just under 60 percent of his throws. That should make for an easier day for the Titans pass defense than it would have had facing Garrard.

Tennessee was actually just behind the Jaguars in pass defense awfulness in 2010, ranking 29th in the NFL in that regard. However, they did allow five fewer touchdowns than Jacksonville, and ranked a respectable 13th in passing scores given up. They did have trouble with Mike Thomas when the two squads met for the first time, as Thomas caught eight passes for 88 yards, but they put the clamps on him a bit when the two squads met again, and held him to 31 yards on four receptions.

Running Game Thoughts: Maurice Jones-Drew’s knee appears to be fine, which is a good thing for fantasy owners, as he helped lead Jacksonville to the number three ranking in rushing offense last season. MJD ran for more than 1,300 yards a season ago, but his five rushing touchdowns were a disappointment. The good news for MJD’s fantasy owners this week is that his best game of 2010 came at the expense of the Titans, when he ran for 186 yards against them in Week 15. In fact, he also ran for 177 yards against them in 2009, which is a nice history for fantasy owners to look at.

Tennessee was just 20th in the league in run defense in 2010, but that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. They allowed only seven touchdowns on the ground, and just three teams gave up fewer. They also allowed only 3.9 yards per rush, which was tied for the seventh-best mark in the NFL.

Luke McCown: 170 passing yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Mike Thomas: 60 receiving yds
Marcedes Lewis: 40 receiving yds, 1 TD
Jason Hill: 25 receiving yds
Maurice Jones-Drew: 110 rushing yds / 20 receiving yds

Prediction: Tennessee 17, Jacksonville 10 ^ Top

Lions @ Buccaneers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Even without Matthew Stafford under center for most of the season, the Lions were 12th in the NFL in passing offense in 2010. That speaks mostly to the talent around the rest of the offense, mainly in the form of Calvin Johnson. Megatron caught 12 touchdowns last season among his 77 receptions, and accumulated 1,120 yards. 152 of those yards came at the expense of the Buccaneers when the teams matched up in Week 16. That was a season-high for him, and he also tied a season-high in that game with 10 receptions.

The Bucs clearly struggled to contain Johnson in that contest, but they did not struggle to defend the pass very often last season. Tampa was seventh in the league in pass defense, allowing just over 200 yards per game through the air, and they were also a solid 13th (tied) in passing scores allowed. They may be better than that this year if they can generate more of a pass rush, which seems likely considering they’ll get a (presumably) better Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle, and with the additions of first and second-round picks Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, respectively.

Running Game Thoughts: The Lions were not very good at running the ball a year ago, finishing 20th in the league in rushing offense while averaging 4.0 yards per attempt and scoring only 11 times on the ground. The team’s early hopes for a potent ground attack were stymied a bit in the preseason, when second-round pick Mikel Leshoure was lost for the season, but they still have Jahvid Best, though injuries are a constant concern for him. Best played when the Lions and Bucs met at the end of last season, however, but that didn’t turn out so well for him, as he gained all of 12 yards on a half-dozen carries, and didn’t catch a single pass, which was one of just two games in which he failed to do so.

It’s odd that Best didn’t have that much success against Tampa on the ground, because most of the rest of the league did. The Buccaneers were 28th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, and were tied for second-to-last in yards per attempt allowed, at 4.7. That’s way too big of a number for a team that has playoff aspirations, but it will work this week for Best’s fantasy owners.

Matthew Stafford: 235 passing yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Calvin Johnson: 90 receiving yds, 1 TD
Nate Burleson: 45 receiving yds
Brandon Pettigrew: 40 receiving yds
Jahvid Best: 90 rushing yds, 1 TD / 20 receiving yds

Passing Game Thoughts: After a difficult rookie season, Josh Freeman was a revelation for Tampa Bay in 2010. He threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions while amassing over 3,400 passing yards. He has a good number of pass catchers to chuck the ball to, including Mike Williams, who shone in his rookie season, as well as Arrelious Benn and the dependable Kellen Winslow. Freeman was good against the Lions last season, throwing for 251 yards and one touchdown without an interception.

The Lions were actually better against the pass in 2010 than many people may believe, as they ranked 16th in the league in pass defense, and they tied for 13th in the NFL in passing scores allowed. This was a huge departure from 2009, when they were the worst pass defense in the league. The question now is if they can take another step forward.

Running Game Thoughts: After a few weeks of riding the pine, LeGarrette Blount finally got double-digit carries in a late October game against the Rams, toting the rock 11 times for 72 yards as the Bucs won. He had at least 13 carries in every game thereafter, and wound up running for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns, and maintaining a 5.0 yards per carry average. Blount’s average was helped when the Bucs squared off against the Lions, as he ran for 110 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

Then again, a lot of teams ran on the Lions in 2010, as they ranked 24th in the league against the run. Detroit allowed it’s opponents to average 4.5 yards per carry against them, and they also gave up 18 rushing scores, which was tied for 24th in the NFL.

Josh Freeman: 225 passing yds, 2 TD / 10 rushing yds
Mike Williams: 90 receiving yds, 1 TD
Kellen Winslow: 65 receiving yds, 1 TD
Arrelious Benn: 35 receiving yds
LeGarrette Blount: 85 rushing yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Tampa Bay 24, Detroit 21 ^ Top

Panthers @ Cardinals - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: Let the Cam Newton era begin. Newton looks like a fine prospect. He throws better than the many he’s been compared to, namely Vince Young. He seems closer in comparison to Josh Freeman, actually. The Panthers’ passing game will evolve as Newton gains experience, but in the beginning they will lean on double-tight end sets with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. Shockey is basically shot as in impact tight end, but Olsen is a terrific talent that could have a big year. Along with short dump offs, the Panthers will try to get Steve Smith on some deep play-action. Newton has a huge arm that the Panthers haven’t had under center in years. A great matchup here is Arizona’s rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, whom many scouts ranked as the most NFL-ready prospect in the draft, versus Smith, a former Pro Bowl receiver.

Running Game Thoughts: This comes down to the Panthers’ strength versus the Cardinals’ weakness. Carolina needs to run the ball to relieve pressure on Newton. They struggled last year but were missing their two best offensive linemen to injury. The big question is how the carries will be doled out between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Many assume that the money they paid to keep Williams means he will see the majority. That may be true, but when asked which runner would lead the Panthers in scoring, Steve Smith suggested that Mike Goodson would. He explained that Goodson will have the third-down role, with special packages to get him in space. It could be fodder, but Smith is generally a straight shooter who may have simply revealed a telling preseason nugget. We shall see. One thing we do known is that the Cardinals were among the worst rushing defenses in 2010. They will bring their talented safety duo of Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson into the box and dare the Panthers to let Newton throw.

Cam Newton: 170 yds passing, 1 Int
Steve Smith: 55 yds receiving
Brandon LaFell: 30 yds receiving
Greg Olsen: 55 yds receiving
DeAngelo Williams: 75 yds rushing, 1 TD / 20 yds receiving
Jonathan Stewart: 35 yards rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: Time will tell if Kevin Kolb is a star, but he will certainly be an upgrade over what the Cardinals had last year. He does have an advantage in Larry Fitzgerald, perhaps the best in the game at catching jump balls. Just get it in his general vicinity with some loft and big plays will follow. Fitz stands a good chance of returning to the top of the WR mountain if the O-line can give Kolb time in the pocket. Chris Gamble will likely draw the assignment to slow Fitz down in this game. Once thought of as near elite, Gamble showed decline last year and it has continued into the preseason. He doesn’t look capable of covering of the league’s elite talents anymore. Beyond Fitz, the Cardinals have a number of promising weapons in Andre Roberts, Early Doucet, and Stephen Williams. Roberts is just ahead of Doucet but both will see plenty of action. Both could benefit greatly from single coverage, and one could turn into a sleeper candidate if he shows consistency and grabs the full-time No. 2 receiver job on a pass-oriented team.

Running Game Thoughts: All signs point to Beanie Wells having a breakout campaign. The knock on him has always been his health, but we only have to look at Darren McFadden in 2010 to know how quickly fortunes can change. Wells struggled last season with a nagging injury, and people forget he closed out his rookie year averaging over 4.5 yds per carry. He is virtually unchallenged by any other rushers on the team, which is a rarity. He has a great matchup facing a Panthers team that lost starting defensive tackle Ron Brace in the preseason and is starting two rookie D-linemen in Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. To compound the problem, the Panthers’ defensive captain, middle linebacker Jon Beason, is nursing a foot injury and hasn’t played a down this year. Beason is expected to start this game, but it would stand to reason that he won’t be 100 percent.

Kevin Kolb: 275 yds passing, 2 TD, 1 INT
Larry Fitzgerald: 110 yds receiving, 1 TD
Andre Roberts: 55 yds receiving
Todd Heap: 45 yds receiving / 1 TD
Chris Wells: 95 yds rushing / 1 TD

Prediction: Cardinals 27, Panthers 17 ^ Top

Bills @ Chiefs - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Bills’ passing game will be without Lee Evans for the first time in seven seasons. Evans spent last year playing decoy to open up routes for Buffalo’s 2010 leading receiver, Steve Johnson. Johnson will now be decoy-free with unproven second-year wideout Donald Jones starting as his battery mate. I expect Johnson to have a fine season. Because Fitzpatrick is a capable quarterback, Johnson should see an increase in targets, more catches, but likely fewer yards per catch, as defenses roam without fear of Lee Evans going deep. As for Donald Jones, to date he is nothing special, but I can remember writing the same about Johnson going into last season, so you never know. Jones won the job by being more refined and well-rounded but with less upside and physical gifts than the two players he beat out, David Nelson and Marcus Easley. At this point, Ryan Fitzpatrick has to be respected as an underrated fantasy option. He threw for over 3,000 yards in just 13 starts last season. However, beyond the loss of Evans, he will be protected by a questionable offensive line with a new right guard and tackle. The Chiefs will have a chance to get to Fitzpatrick with ends Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and with outside linebacker Tamba Hali. The Chiefs also have a pair of good young cornerbacks in Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers. This is a game where short, quick passing could rule the day, so running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson will see plenty of passing targets.

Running Game Thoughts: The Bills will start Fred Jackson. He’s a steady, all-around player who, at 30 years old, could enter his the twilight of his career this year. Buffalo would love C.J. Spiller to get going, and they’ll give him plenty of chances with set packages to get him in space. The Bills were 18th in rushing last year while the Chiefs were 13th in stopping the run. Neither team is overly dominant here, so we can expect average player values. I do like the Chiefs’ safeties, Jon McGraw and Eric Berry. Berry is a superstar, and given the lack of a deep threat from the Bills’ passing attack, he should be in the box supporting the run for much of the game, limiting the Buffalo rushing lanes. Jackson isn’t the dynamic type of talent that is going to make Berry miss very often. It should be a grind-it-out day assuming the Bills keep it close, which I think they will.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: 220 yds passing 1 TD / 1 Int
Steve Johnson: 85 yds receiving
Donald Jones: 40 yds receiving
Scott Chandler: 30 yds receiving
Fred Jackson: 75 yds rushing, 1 TD / 20 yds receiving
C.J. Spiller: 35 yards rushing, 35 yds receiving / 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: Todd Haley’s decision to play his starters in the fourth preseason game has created a firestorm, due mainly to starting tight end Tony Moeaki rupturing his knee and quarterback Matt Cassel injuring his ribs. Moeaki had a promising start to his career and supposedly was going to be featured in a Dallas Clark type of role, so he is a huge loss. Hopefully he can come back next year with little lingering effect. Cassel is questionable for this game, but rumors are he will gut it out. He could be vulnerable though. I envision a conservative game plan (more than usual, if that’s possible), which could hurt the chances for deep threat Dwayne Bowe. Kansas City signed Steve Breaston in the offseason, and he should not be too slow at getting up to speed, having worked with Haley in Arizona. However, the player many are sleeping on for the Chiefs, and the one who stands to benefit most from the loss of their starting tight end, is wide receiver Jeremy Urban. Urban is slated to start, and he will be the possession target who replaces Moeaki as the top check-down option, especially in a game where the Chiefs will be calling short routes to protect Cassel’s ribs. Urban came over from Arizona with Haley as well but missed last season with injury.

The Buffalo pass defense was solid last year, ranking third, and should improve with the addition of outside linebacker Shawn Merriman and defensive end (and third overall pick) Marcel Dareus, both of whom flashed their talent this preseason. Merriman is the wild card. If he has regained his form, he could abuse Chiefs’ left tackle Brandon Albert.

Running Game Thoughts: This is the bread winner for this matchup: The Chiefs’ top-ranked rush offense from a year ago facing the league’s worst rushing defense. Never mind the dismal preseason the Chiefs had. They simply chose to go vanilla on offense. They will look to run over the Bills in this game, with superstar Jamal Charles leading the way. Charles could be the highest rated RB of the week. Don’t overlook Thomas Jones though. I think his presumed fantasy demise is perhaps a year premature. He is a workout warrior that can extend his career longer than most, and he has looked strong so far. Just ask rookie Jonathan Baldwin.

The Bills’ core defense has changed, so evaluation will be difficult for a few weeks. Replacing their captain, middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, is ex-Packer Nick Barnett. Barnett is more athletic but maybe not quite as strong at the point of attack. If he is at full health, he could be an upgrade. The Bills also replaced strong safety Donte Whitner with their special-teams leader George Wilson. In IDP leagues Wilson is a gem. Buffalo’s weak run defense is notorious for producing stud strong safeties. Also, in 2009, Wilson started 12 games and produced 103 tackles and four INTs. Any publication not ranking Wilson as a top 10-15 DB option in IDP leagues isn’t doing their homework. Period.

Matt Cassel: 215 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Dwayne Bowe: 40 yds receiving, 1 TD
Jerheme Urban: 75 yds receiving
Steve Breaston: 35 yds receiving
Thomas Jones: 45 yds rushing / 1 TD
Jamaal Charles: 115 yds rushing / 30 yds receiving,

Prediction: Chiefs 20, Bills 17 ^ Top

Eagles @ Rams - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: The prospects of Michael Vick and the Eagles’ passing game look monumental at first glance. After an outstanding year, Vick faces the softest rated passing schedule of any QB this year. Not only that, but Philly added one of the league’s best route-running possession receivers in Steve Smith. Smith was expected to miss the first half of the season according to Giants’ team doctors, but he seems to be way ahead of schedule with the possibility of seeing limited action this week. Smith should still be avoided for now, but he could be a great waiver addition if he hasn’t been drafted in your league. The same caution should not be followed with Jeremy Maclin and his mysterious offseason illness. Maclin is slated to start and there is no reason to think he won’t have a big day facing the Rams’ beatable secondary. DeSean Jackson should also have a great year and opening day. Anytime you combine one of the league’s best big-play wide receivers with a quarterback who can buy time and throw as deep as anyone, fantasy gold will follow.

The Rams’ pass defense was just below average in 2010, ranking 19th. Their biggest offseason change was upgrading the strong safety position with former Eagle Quintin Mikell. He’s one of the better all-around safeties in the league, capable of both great run support and coverage. The Rams aren’t blessed with terrific cornerback play, so their best defense is a pass rush led by Chris Long. Long will cause problems for the shuffling Eagle offensive line, which is a real threat to Philadelphia’s dream season. They must protect Vick, and it may take a few weeks for them to become a cohesive unit. When Vick gets in trouble, his safety valve is running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy led all RBs in receptions last year and is capable of putting up elite fantasy numbers, à la Bryan Westbrook.

Running Game Thoughts: McCoy isn’t bad when the ball is handed to him either. He managed 1,080 yards on just 200 carries last year. He could be even more lethal when the Eagles add the additional threat of Steve Smith since he will basically face nickel defenses all year. The Rams were just below average in run defense a season ago. McCoy should have a big day running and catching.

Michael Vick: 280 yds passing 2 TD / 1 Int
DeSean Jackson: 85 yds receiving/1 TD
Jeremy Maclin: 70 yds receiving/1 TD
Brent Celek: 40 yds receiving
LeSean McCoy: 70 yds rushing, 45 receiving yds /1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: The prospects for second-year quarterback Sam Bradford look great this year, especially when considering that he had one of the best rookie years of all-time and is now coupled with passing guru Josh McDaniels, who led Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd to stardom in Denver. The Rams will certainly find their measuring stick in facing the Eagles, who boast the most talented secondary thanks to the acquisitions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Those two join ballhawk Asante Samuel and the three will lock up man to man with the Rams’ Mike Sims-Walker, Brandon Gibson, and Danny Amendola. This will leave eight defenders to rush Bradford. The Rams will be overmatched by ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole and will be running hot routes all day. It will be intriguing to see if Amendola, often compared skill-wise to Wes Welker, will be able to get free of coverage. If not, rookie tight end Lance Kendricks has opened eyes this preseason as a Bradford favorite and could get off to a fast start to his career. The Eagles are notorious for struggling to cover tight ends.

Running Game Thoughts: The Rams’ advantage lies in their power running game with Steven Jackson. Jackson’s talent seems to be in slight decline, but he has the power to grind yards out against a small Eagles front that looks vulnerable against a big back. Still, Jackson will have to face seven- and eight-man fronts as the Eagles combat their lack of size with numbers.

The Eagles hope rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews will measure up to his bloodline. Son of Clay Jr. (Browns/Falcons, 1978-1996), brother of Clay III (Packers, 2009- ), and nephew of Bruce (Oilers/Titans, 1982-2001), Casey is a member of the NFL’s top family—by a landslide. Casey was an Oregon Duck standout but comes into the season undersized at 235 lbs. His weight was maintained to run well in the combine, so he should be able to gain size as his career develops. If he can’t hold up at the point of attack, however, outside linebacker reserve Jamar Chaney is capable of filling in, having made a few starts there last season.

Sam Bradford: 235 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Mike Sims-Walker: 40 yds receiving
Brandon Gibson: 55 yds receiving
Danny Amendola: 55 yds receiving
Lance Kendricks: 45 yds rushing / 1 TD
Steven Jackson: 75 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving / 1 TD

Prediction: Eagles 24, Rams 20 ^ Top

Vikings @ Chargers - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: McNabb comes in for the Vikes to keep the seat warm for rookie Christian Ponder. If McNabb plays well, then maybe he remains the starter for a year or even two; or he could fall flat, as he did in Washington, in which case we’ll see Ponder start the final third of the season. McNabb may have to dink and dunk with a lack of outside speed from Bernard Berrian and Michael Jenkins. The team’s receiving talent lies in underneath targets with Percy Harvin and tight ends Kyle Rudolf and Visanthe Shiancoe. Those three will be McNabb's bread and butter, which I don’t see as a good match for his talents. McNabb is a good medium- and deep-ball thrower with a strong arm. But he is not an accurate short or timing-route passer. His skills are not ideal for this offense unless Berrian or Jenkins manage to resurrect their careers, which isn’t something I’m rushing to Vegas to bet on. I can see the Vikings struggling to move the ball through the air on a Chargers defense that has two good, physical cornerbacks that can lock up the outside without much help over the top.

Running Game Thoughts: With possible difficulties moving the ball through the air, as usual, the Vikings will lean heavily on the league’s best running back, Adrian Peterson. Peterson has the talent to overcome just about all deficiencies in front of him, but it’s worth noting that his offensive line has vastly deteriorated over the past couple of years. That and the loss of big-play wide receivers combine to make life more difficult for Peterson this year. The Vikings will combat that by lining up two-tight end sets to push the point of attack.

The Chargers made a few adjustments to their fourth-ranked run defense from a year ago. In the middle, they brought in Takeo Spikes to provide some muscle and veteran leadership for a young core of linebackers. Promising outside linebacker Larry English is recovering from foot problems and will be replaced by Travis LeBoy, a career special teams backup. The Chargers also brought in talented (when healthy) safety Bob Sanders from the Colts. Sanders is a dynamic player and a former defensive MVP. He is the type of guy that could lead this defense to elite status. He thrives on turnovers and will be testing Peterson to see if he is really over his past fumbling problems.

Donovan McNabb: 225 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Bernard Berrian: 45 yds receiving
Michael Jenkins: 45 yds receiving
Visanthe Shiancoe: 55 yds receiving / 1 TD
Adrian Peterson: 105 yds rushing / 20 receiving /1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: This could really be the year that Philip Rivers’s delivers his dream season; most of the elite quarterbacks ranked ahead of him have had theirs. Everything is lined up, with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates returning and Malcom Floyd seasoned from a year as the lead guy. I am on the fence a bit, though. I know they will be great. But as far as a career year or huge progression, a few things give me pause. First is the health of Antonio Gates, who could have his foot troubles flare up at any time according to doctors. Second is the loss of Darren Sproles, who was perfect in the third-down role. The Chargers could miss his explosiveness. Last, I think they will be able to run the ball very well with the two-headed monster of Tolbert and Mathews. Will it be effective enough to give Rivers great opportunities, but keep him just a smidge short of MVP type numbers? It very well could turn out that way.

As for this game, the Vikings’ secondary has a bend-but-don’t-break style of keeping safeties over the top, having linebackers drop deep in max protection, and getting a good pass rush from their four down linemen. This can be effective when you have the luxury of Kevin Williams’ occupying multiple blockers and elite sack artist Jared Allen collapsing from the outside. The matchup of Pro Bowlers Allen and Marcus McNeil at left tackle is a key. McNeil is an athletic tackle who could hold his own with Allen. The Vikings will also be short handed with Williams suspended two games because of the Star Caps case and suffering from foot problems. The first quarter of this year is likely to be dominated by teams that had the least amount of turnovers. Also, teams that have the same coaches, systems, and personnel will have a big advantage due to the short offseason. In this area, the Chargers have a huge advantage over a team like the Vikings, which has a new offense and quarterback to grow into early on.

Running Game Thoughts: The Chargers could have a great rushing attack in the real world, but that may not translate into fantasy gold. Mathews and Tolbert are going to be split evenly. Mathews will work more between the 20’s and have more yards, while Tolbert could hammer the red zone. Keep in mind that Norv Turner tends to run the ball more than most at the goal line. The result may lead to Tolbert having more value than Mathews, despite Mathews perhaps being the better actual talent. For Mathews to become a quality option, he will need to win the trust of coaches, showing that he can block well enough to play on third downs. Right now they trust Tolbert more. Without that third-down receiving action, Mathews could be a colossal disappointment again. There is every bit an equal chance that impressive rookie Jordan Todman will also carve out a niche on third downs after having shown some game-breaking skills himself in the preseason.

Philip Rivers: 315 yds passing, 2 TD, 1 INT
Vincent Jackson: 115 yds receiving, 1 TD
Malcom Floyd: 75 yds receiving
Antonio Gates: 65 yds receiving / 1 TD
Ryan Mathews: 55 yds rushing
Mike Tolbert: 45 yds rushing / 30 yds receiving, 1 TD

Prediction: Chargers 27, Vikings 17 ^ Top

Seahawks @ 49ers - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: I’m not sure if any passing offense looked worse than the Seahawks’ this preseason. Tarvaris Jackson doesn’t look like a guy that can lead a team. He is a veteran of the system but appears to have no confidence or presence. He also rarely had time to throw, with position adjustments and cohesion being a work in progress for the O-line. It looks like left guard Robert Gallery will sit, which won’t help. Worse yet, their most talented wide receiver, Sidney Rice, is likely to sit as well. Ben Obomanu would replace him and they will keep Golden Tate in the slot. Seattle will lean on Mike Williams to move the chains. The Seahawks will want a conservative, ball-control offense utilizing Williams, talented tight end Zach Miller, and lots of screens and swing passes to a pair of good receiving backs in Leon Washington and Justin Forsett.

Running Game Thoughts: There is a bit of concern here for the prospects of Lynch having a good year toting the rock. I covered the offensive line woes, but I think the group, as a whole, is better than last year and will eventually settle in. Lynch has never averaged more than 4.1 yards per carry in a season as a starter. He’s not an explosive guy, outside of what he flashed against the Saints in that playoff game. That is acceptable when you have a legitimate passing game. Thus the problem. How is Lynch going to shake loose of eight-man fronts? He needs Tarvaris Jackson to get his sea legs and stretch the field by making Rice a concern to opposing defenses. The other option is Charlie Whitehurst. He could come in and be just capable enough to save the value of Rice and Lynch. In fact, if Jackson really struggles through the first few games, Lynch and Rice would both be bargains to target in hopes of Whitehurst getting the nod. All of this is assuming that Seattle isn’t going to tank it for the already infamous Andrew Luck sweepstakes. A race, by the way, the Colts may have just entered. Wouldn’t that be ironic? However, no team is going to start thinking that way until the last quarter of the year. And that is a long ways off from Week 1.

The key matchup is clearly Lynch versus middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis is elite, Lynch is not, and sometimes it’s that simple. Willis will have a new running mate on the inside. Gone to San Diego is Takeo Spikes. He is replaced by second-year man Navarro Bowman, who makes up for a lack of size with skill and determination. He was the leading special team’s tackler for San Francisco as a rookie who displayed a nose for the ball. The Seahawks like their young center Max Unger, but he could struggle to move the mammoth Isaac Sopoaga off the point. The Niners upgraded their run support further by adding strong safety Dante Whitner. Whitner played for the Bills, and as a result has lots of practice tackling ball carriers when they get loose.

Tarvaris Jackson: 220 yds passing / 1 Int
Mike Williams: 55 yds receiving
Ben Obomanu: 40 yds receiving
Zach Miller: 50 yds receiving
Marshawn Lynch: 65 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: Reset, “Alex Smith’s Career,” take four, and….action! This is Smith’s best chance to succeed without question. I love Mike Singletary, but the 49ers were running a 1985 offense last year. No motion, no deception, no moving players around or mixing in creative player packages. New head coach Jim Harbaugh changes all that. He is a creative thinker. Also, with the addition of Braylon Edwards, the Niners have some talent with which to surround Smith. Edwards and Crabtree are big physical receivers that can play. Josh Morgan is a perennial breakout candidate. Tedd Ginn has the speed and open-field diversity to be dangerous if utilized properly. They have a Pro Bowl tight end in Vernon Davis. Running back Frank Gore is one of the better pass catchers out of the backfield. And now their new young linemen have a year under their belts. It may take a while to completely implement a new system, but the pieces are there for Smith to succeed.

Running Game Thoughts: With all the possibilities the 49ers now have in the passing game, they still live or die with Frank Gore. Gore is elite when on the field, ranking third last year in fantasy points per game by a running back. Harbaugh knows the run game and isn’t afraid to grind it out. Don’t forget, he made Toby Gerhart a Heisman candidate. Gore should continue to benefit from the bolstered run-blocking specialists the Niners have carving holes. This will be a great matchup between Gore and Seahawks middle linebacker David Hawthorne. In IDP leagues, Hawthorne should be a top-10 LB. In 2009 he filled in for Lofa Tatupu and registered 19 tackles. Last year they moved him to the outside, an unnatural position for him, and he still made 109 tackles. His play has rendered Tatupu expendable. Now he returns to the middle where he could challenge as the league’s leading tackler, especially considering the struggles Seattle will have on offense.

Alex Smith: 235 yds passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Braylon Edwards: 70 yds passing
Michael Crabtree: 45 yds receiving
Vernon Davis: 65 yds receiving / 1 TD
Frank Gore: 85 yds rushing / 20 yds receiving / 1 TD

Prediction: 49ers 20, Seahawks 9 ^ Top

Raiders @ Broncos - (Eakin)

Passing Game Thoughts: I like the Raiders’ weapons if rookie Denarius Moore can keep his preseason flash going. He looks better than Darius Heyward-Bey, but the Raiders are giving Heyward-Bey one more chance to live up to his draft slot. At the other outside spot, Jacoby Ford was on pace for a 1000-yard 2010 season before getting injured. They could have suffered a big setback in letting tight end Zach Miller go, but they covered themselves a bit by replacing him with former Giant Kevin Boss. Boss has a sore knee that makes him questionable this week, however.

The key for the Raiders’ success against the Broncos lies in their offensive tackles blocking Denver’s dynamic tandem of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. I’m not sure they can do that. The Raiders like to run deep verticals, and Denver is going to get to Campbell by the time he hits his seventh step.

Running Game Thoughts: The Raiders will need to pound the ball on the ground to win, and they should be capable. McFadden will play with a broken orbital bone, but that shouldn’t slow him down. He will look to get off to a fast start to his breakout campaign. He will be supported by between-the-tackles horse Michael Bush. Bush compares to Jonathan Stewart in Carolina, a backup that looks better than many starters around the league. Keep an eye out for another speedy combine darling in running back Taiwan Jones. He has the speed and size of Jamaal Charles and looked good in preseason, but he battled injuries and fumbling issues at Eastern Washington.

Jason Campbell: 220 yds passing 1 TD / 1 Int
Jacoby Ford: 65 yds receiving
Darrius Heyward-Bey: 40 yds receiving
Kevin Boss: 40 yds receiving
Darren McFadden: 75 yds rushing, 1 TD / 40 yds receiving
Michael Bush: 35 yards rushing / 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: The hate for Brandon Lloyd as a fantasy asset has perhaps swung a bit too far when based on the idea that John Fox is too conservative. Will Lloyd be a top-five receiver again? Not likely, but he still should be in the top 15 or so. Steve Smith seemed to do just fine under Fox in Carolina. The problem is more that Carolina has been awful at quarterback and Steve Smith spent more time in the infirmary then on the field of play. With a suspect, albeit improved, Denver defense, Lloyd’s team may fall behind more often than not and need to incorporate the forward pass. The No. 2 wide receiver spot is still a moving target. Eddie Royal, two years removed from his rookie success, is currently the starter. But many think Eric Decker, the third wide receiver taken in the 2009 draft, will displace Royal sooner than later. Though he missed last season, Decker is big, physical, and has the ball skills to be a good starting wideout. Another promising prospect for Denver emerged from the tight end position this preseason. Julius Thomas becomes the latest former basketball player to try following in Antonio Gates’ footsteps. Thomas looked smooth when I saw him in limited action. He’ll be one to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Running Game Thoughts: Because John Fox favored the committee approach with his RBs in Carolina, expectations are that Moreno and McGahee will both see quite a bit of carries in a 60/40 split favoring Moreno. Moreno is more dynamic, but hasn’t lived up to expectations of his great college career. Injuries have slowed him down. There is hope that he has the talent to turn it around as he finished last year with a string of solid games. He has proven to be a capable receiving option for Orton as well. McGahee will get the majority goaline and short yardage carries which he vulture so effectively from Ray Rice over the years in Baltimore.

The Raiders have an underrated front seven that with Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and John Henderson. They have lacked help from the LB unit. The Raiders haven’t gotten the production from Rolando McClain as quickly as they would have liked. For them to improve their run defense he is the man that needs to step up.

Kyle Orton: 265 yds passing, 2 TD, 1 INT
Brandon Lloyd: 90 yds receiving, 1 TD
Eddie Royal: 45 yds receiving
Eric Decker: 55 yds receiving / 1 TD
Daniel Fells: 35 yds rushing
Knowshon Moreno: 75 yds rushing / 30 yds receiving
Willis McGahee: 35 yds

Prediction: Raiders 20, Broncos 17 ^ Top

Bengals @ Browns - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Cincinnati Bengals start the Andy Dalton era this week. Not that that means much from a fantasy perspective, as the Bengals don’t have much in their passing game that many fantasy owners will rely on in 2011. Although rookie WR A.J. Green is a nice piece in keeper leagues, he’s bench fodder this week and for the foreseeable future. TE Jermaine Gresham had a fairly solid rookie year last season. His presence could be huge for the young Dalton. As a good underneath option, Gresham should serve as the safety valve when plays go awry and the rookie is under duress.

New Cleveland defensive coordinator Dick Jauron will look to confuse the young signal-caller. Expect blitzes from all over the field, with CB Joe Haden locking horns with A.J. Green. The Browns hope to improve a defense that was ranked 18th in the league in 2010. With the apparent inept Bengals up first, they should get off to a good start.

Running Game Thoughts: Cedric Benson has had an adventurous off-season. He’s fresh out of jail after serving five days in lock-up. Obviously, that’s not a good way to start a season in which you’re the most experienced player on an offense with little veteran leadership and fewer playmakers. Benson had a workman-like season in 2010—1,100 yards and seven scores. He can expect to see a crowded line of scrimmage this week, as Cleveland will certainly dare the young QB to beat them.

The Browns were one of the worst run defenses in the league last season. Only five teams were worse defending the run. That may be the primary objective for Cleveland’s defense, as Benson is literally the only real threat the Bengals have. Benson will be a non-factor this week. If you have to rely on him, good luck.

Andy Dalton: 185 yards passing / 1 TD / 2 INTs
A.J. Green: 55 yards receiving
Jerome Simpson: 35 yards receiving
Jordan Shipley: 40 yards receiving
Jermaine Gresham: 35 yards receiving / 1 TD
Cedric Benson: 55 yards rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: At first glance, Colt McCoy’s numbers from last year won’t impress anybody: six passing TDs and nine INTs. But when looked at in pieces, he had some impressive outings. His first start in the league was on the road at Pittsburgh, a fact that could make the best NFL QB shake in his boots. But, McCoy went out and had the most passing yards in a game all year. That display showed the skill level and intestinal fortitude of the youngster and gives Browns fans something to look forward to down the road. It would have helped, however, if Cleveland had brought in a veteran receiver. Instead, it seems they’re relying on young draftees with the hope and expectation they will morph into productive players.

CB Nate Clements joins Leon Hall to form a solid secondary in Cincinnati. Manny Lawson, Michael Johnson and Rey Maualuga’s names all look good on paper. Will they be able to come together as a cohesive unit and be a disruptive force against a divisional foe? It should be fun to see.

Running Game Thoughts: Peyton Hillis was one of fantasy football’s biggest surprises last season. Hillis came out of nowhere in what many considered a putrid offense and produced numbers worthy of a first round fantasy selection. The one concern is he tailed off at the end of last season going scoreless in the last five games. Is that a sign of things to come? Montario Hardesty’s name has surfaced as a possible sleeper so keep an eye on his production.

Cincinnati was an average run defense last season, although they held their last three opponents last year—Cleveland, San Diego, Baltimore—to less than 100 yards on the ground. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will look to continue that trend.

Colt McCoy: 220 yards passing / 1 TD / 1 INT
Brian Robiskie: 70 yards receiving
Mohamed Massaquoi: 55 yards receiving / 1 TD
Greg Little: 25 yards receiving
Ben Watson: 55 yards receiving
Peyton Hillis: 65 yards rushing / 1 TD
Montario Hardesty: 40 yards rushing

Prediction: Browns 17, Bengals 10 ^ Top

Falcons @ Bears - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: What happens when your opponent scores 48 points as the visiting team in the playoffs? You spend a ton to move up in the following NFL draft to select a wide receiver; what else? It’s baffling that the Falcons would do that considering their defense was carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by Aaron Rodgers. Perhaps Atlanta feels they simply need to outscore the opponent. The team’s head-scratching draft-day move aside, rookie WR Julio Jones’ arrival makes both Matt Ryan and Roddy White even more intriguing fantasy options. Ryan is a mistake-free QB who only tossed multiple INTs in a game twice in 2010. Both are every-week starters for sure. Jones’ role in the offense and his potential to be a borderline fantasy starter should be made evident early in the season.

Chicago gave up a ton of yards via the pass last year, but was one of the stingiest when it came to keeping opponents out the end zone. They ranked 20th against the pass but only one team gave up fewer TD passes than Chicago’s 14. Rod Marinelli’s crew will be tested in this one against Atlanta’s offense. Keep an eye on the ever-present Julius Peppers. He’s made a career of disrupting offensive game plans and that shouldn’t be any different this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Michael Turner doesn’t have the fantasy buzz as in years past. He had the second best year of his career in 2010, but somehow I don’t hear much excitement about him. A double-digit TD scorer rarely flies under the like this. Turner is the quintessential workhorse, and his presence gives Atlanta’s offense a nice balance. He’s had more than 334 carries in two of the last three years. That could be an issue for his longevity, but for now, enjoy the work he’s destined to get in this offense.

Having said that, Turner could find it a tough go this week against last season’s second best run defense. Chicago held nine of their opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in 2010, including 20 yards to Detroit, 36 to Dallas and 34 to Seattle. Those aren’t traditional running powerhouses, but those yardage totals are insane. When Turner faced Chicago in 2008, he rushed 25 times for 54 yards with no TDs. Don’t be surprised if those numbers are mirrored this week.

Matt Ryan: 235 yards passing / 2 TDs / 1 INT
Roddy White: 135 yards receiving / 1 TD
Julio Jones: 65 yards receiving / 1 TD
Tony Gonzalez: 40 yards receiving
Michael Turner: 65 yards rushing

Passing Game Thoughts: How’s this for a stat… Jay Cutler has never gone three consecutive games without throwing an interception. Part of it can be attributed to Mike Martz’s high risk/high reward offense, but some of it has to go to Cutler and his poor decision-making. It doesn’t help that the Bears are devoid of a top-notch wideout as Devin Hester was bred to play defense, Johnny Knox is nothing more than a WR3 and Roy Williams thinks he’s Jerry Rice but plays more like Jerry Lewis. Why the team chose to get rid of TE Greg Olsen is odd indeed. Good luck if you’re relying on anybody on this team for receiving/QB fantasy points.

Again, the Falcons were blazed in the playoffs by Green Bay, and I think they should have put more attention toward their defensive backfield during the offseason. Regardless, Chicago won’t be able to exploit the league’s 22nd-ranked defense. Cutler is a borderline starter in the deepest of leagues, but bench your other Bears.

Running Game Thoughts: Matt Forte was eager to get a contract extension, perhaps because he knows he’s the straw that stirs this offensive drink. He’s as gifted running the football as he is catching the football – perfect fit in this offense. The Bears have a long way to go to improve upon their 22nd-ranked run offense. Marion Barber was brought in to help supplement the running game, but he’s out this week. He won’t be much of a factor even when he comes back. He was a one-dimensional player in Dallas and even more so at this stage of his career.

Atlanta’s 10th-ranked run defense feasted on average running offenses in 2010. Traditional running teams such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Carolina (twice) rushed for well over 100 yards, while teams that struggled on the ground (Cleveland, St. Louis, Green Bay) found it tough. Expect Forte to have a decent game and be a nice RB2 this week.

Jay Cutler: 210 yards passing / 1 TD / 2 INTs
Devin Hester: 60 yards receiving
Roy Williams: 45 yards receiving
Johnny Knox: 40 yards receiving / 1 TD
Kellen Davis: 25 yards receiving
Matt Forte: 60 yards rushing / 35 yards receiving / 1 TD rushing

Prediction: Falcons 20, Bears 17 ^ Top

Steelers @ Ravens - (Autry)

Passing Game Thoughts: Ben Roethlisberger returned in week five last season after missing the first four from suspension and promptly threw five TDs and only one INT in the first two games. Granted, it was against Cleveland and Miami, but his ability to hit the ground running is evidence of his ability and importance as a fantasy starter. As I predicted in one of my preseason articles from 2010, Mike Wallace has taken over as the WR1 in Pittsburgh. He’s undeniably one of the league’s top deep threats, regardless of the opponent. Hines Ward is his usual self, running clearing routes underneath and opening lanes deep for Wallace. Wallace is a bona fide every-week starter, period.

Don’t expect Roethlisberger to do much in this game. He has only four TD passes and three INTs in his last four games against Baltimore. The Ravens on paper aren’t as strong defensively as they have been in the past, as their 21st-ranked pass defense proves. Baltimore’s opponents realized that apparent weakness. Only two teams had more passes thrown against them. Regardless, this is a tough divisional game that is traditionally a low-scoring affair.

Running Game Thoughts: Rashard Mendenhall had the best year of his career last season. He had career highs in carries, yards and TDs, including a 79-yard, two-TD performance against the Ravens in Week four. Mendenhall is one of the few RBs in fantasy football who more than likely won’t have to compete for carries in his offense. His receiving skills are mediocre, but expect a 20-plus carry game and a possible short run for a score.

If there’s a true strength of the Ravens defense, it’s their ability to stop the run. They were the fifth-ranked run defense and surrendered the fewest rushing TDs with five. Since they may be a run-heavy game, there’s a good chance Mendenhall will score. That being said, Mendenhall is a must-start regardless of the opponent. Put him in your line-up and hope for a semi-productive game.

Ben Roethlisberger: 220 yards passing / 1 TD
Mike Wallace: 85 yards receiving
Hines Ward: 55 yards receiving / 1 TD
Antonio Brown: 40 yards receiving
Heath Miller: 35 yards receiving
Rashard Mendenhall: 70 yards rushing, 1 TD / 10 yards receiving

Passing Game Thoughts: The Ravens didn’t ask Joe Flacco to do much at the tail end of 2010. He averaged only 20 attempts and 133 yardsper game his last three contests. They won each game, so I guess it’s a moot point. Lee Evans replaces Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as a complement to Anquan Boldin. Evans is perhaps the best deep threat the Ravens have had in awhile, and they will definitely try to pair his speed with Flacco’s big arm. Boldin, meanwhile, will look to improve upon a 2010 season where he scored seven TDs. The only problem is he scored three of those in one game, meaning only four scores came in the other 15 games. That’s a nasty ratio. Hopefully Evans’ presence will open things up for Boldin.

Troy Polamalu’s presence in Pittsburgh’s defense is inextricably linked to the team’s success. It’s not a coincidence that the team plays better when he’s in the line-up. He’s healthy, fresh and itching to be a thorn in the side of the Raven’s passing game. Flacco had better know where #43 is before he throws the football. I would only suggest starting Flacco in the deepest of leagues; Boldin is a low-end WR2 this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Many fantasy owners took a chance and drafted Ray Rice #1 overall in redraft leagues, especially after Arian Foster’s injury. They justified taking Rice over Adrian Peterson due to his superior receiving skills and the fact that TD vulture Willis McGahee has taken his game to Denver. Wherever Rice was drafted, his owners should be satisfied with his production. His dual threat ability, reminds me of a poor man’s Marshall Faulk. Start this guy with confidence every week.

Pittsburgh was #1 in the league defensively in several important categories: #1 in yards against; #1 in TDs allowed; #1 in yards per carry. Those numbers speak for themselves. But even with the immovable object that is the Steelers’ defense, that should not prompt you to toy with the idea of sitting Rice. He’s only had one game of more than 100 yards rushing against the Steelers, but he is what makes the Ravens offense go. Put him in your lineup.

Joe Flacco: 185 yards passing / 1 TD
Anquan Boldin: 70 yards receiving
Lee Evans: 35 yards receiving / 1 TD
Ed Dickson: 40 yards receiving
Ray Rice: 60 yards rushing / 35 yards receiving

Prediction: Steelers 17, Ravens 13 ^ Top