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Inside the Matchup
Week 16

By: Bill Andereson | Brian Thorne | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith


TB @ STL | ARI @ SEA | OAK @ SD | ATL @ SF


 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Smith 44 14 75.9
2 Caron 40 15 72.7
3 Thorne 33 23 58.9
4 Anderson 28 27 50.9

Saints at Panthers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Drew Brees threw for nearly 400 yards last week against the Rams, but also had a pair of costly interceptions to start the game and his yard totals were mostly the result of falling behind early. Still, he did get Marques Colston involved and the wideout had a second consecutive game of more than 90 yards with a score. Tight end Jimmy Graham was held out of the end zone and had only a pair of catches for 25 yards but fantasy owners should continue to start all three of these players, even against a tough Carolina defense.

The Panthers hold the NFL’s fifth-ranked pass defense and only the Titans have given up fewer touchdown throws. Quarterbacks are averaging fewer than 17 FPts/G when facing Carolina, which is the second-fewest in the league. The team is also holding wideouts to the third-fewest FPts/G but has had less success with tight ends, against which the Panthers are 18th in fantasy points allowed.

Running Game Thoughts: The Saints were never able to get their ground game going last week in their loss to the Rams because of the big hole they fell into. Using a triumvirate of backs, New Orleans can make things difficult on fantasy owners of those backs, but not as tough as the Panthers can. Carolina is second in the league in run defense and YPC allowed but are tied for the top spot in touchdown scores surrendered and only one team has given up fewer fantasy points to running backs this season than the Panthers.

Drew Brees: 310 pass yds, 2 TD, 2 INT
Jimmy Graham: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Marques Colston: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Kenny Stills: 45 rec yds
Lance Moore: 35 rec yds
Robert Meachem: 15 rec yds
Pierre Thomas: 35 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Mark Ingram: 20 rush yds
Darren Sproles: 15 rush yds, 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Cam Newton continues to throw the ball and put up solid – though not mesmerizing – numbers. He has thrown for more than one touchdown in a game only once in his past four contests, but his value remains high due to his rushing prowess. One player fantasy owners should have started to notice is Greg Olsen who has crept up to eighth in fantasy points among tight ends and who has eight or more fantasy points in six of his last eight games, though he’ll be challenged against the Saints.

New Orleans has the league’s third-ranked passing defense and they are fifth in touchdown throws allowed. Predictably, this means they’ve clamped down on the opposition’s fantasy point total. The Saints have held quarterbacks to the fourth-fewest fantasy points in the league, have held wideouts to the eighth-fewest, and tight ends to the seventh-fewest.

Running Game Thoughts: Jonathan Stewart will once again be sidelined this week as he has been most of the year. DeAngelo Williams will continue in his role as lead back for the team, with a mix of Newton and Mike Tolbert also contributing against New Orleans. The Saints rank 21st this season against the run, 28th in YPC allowed, 12th in rushing scores given up, and have surrendered the eighth-fewest fantasy points to running backs.

Cam Newton: 245 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 35 rush yds, 1 TD
Greg Olsen: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Steve Smith: 65 rec yds
Brandon LaFell: 35 rec yds
Ted Ginn, Jr.: 20 rec yds
DeAngelo Williams: 65 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Mike Tolbert: 30 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds

Prediction: Panthers 27, Saints 20 ^ Top

Titans at Jaguars - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Ryan Fitzpatrick tossed for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns last week in Tennessee’s loss to Arizona. He’s been inconsistent this season, though considering the opponent, fantasy owners should strongly consider starting him, as well as two other Titans players – Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker. Wright moved into the top-30 in fantasy points among wideouts after piling up 150 yards against the Cardinals and Walker is closing in on the top-10 among tight ends after scoring his sixth touchdown of the season to go with 53 yards versus Arizona. This week, against the Jaguars, all are good plays for fantasy owners.

Jacksonville is 19th in pass defense, but 27th in touchdown throws surrendered. The team has also allowed the third-most fantasy points in the league to opposing quarterbacks this season, the 14th-most to wide receivers, and the third-most to tight ends.

Running Game Thoughts: Chris Johnson’s utterly frustrating fantasy season continued last week, though this result was a bit more predictable. Against a very good Cardinals run defense, Johnson managed only 40 yards on 13 carries. Yet due to the nature of Jacksonville’s rush defense – lousy – fantasy owners should give Johnson the benefit of the doubt this week and plug him into their lineups. The Jaguars rank 30th in the NFL in run defense, 22nd in YPC allowed, 29th in rushing scores surrendered and have allowed the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing backs this year.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: 265 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
Kendall Wright: 95 rec yds, 1 TD
Delanie Walker: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Nate Washington: 45 rec yds
Chris Johnson: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 35 rec yds
Shonn Greene: 15 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Jaguars have nobody in their passing attack that fantasy owners should be the least bit concerned about now that Cecil Shorts has gone on injured reserve and will miss the final couple games of the year. Marcedes Lewis has touchdowns in each of his last three games, but fantasy owners would be wise not to trust him, and besides, the Titans are just too good on pass defense to even consider a Jacksonville player this week.

Tennessee has been very good against the pass overall this year. They rank 10th in pass defense, but no team in the league has allowed fewer touchdown throws than the Titans. They’ve allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points in the NFL to quarterbacks and the second-fewest to wide receivers, but the 11th-most to tight ends.

Running Game Thoughts: Maurice Jones-Drew missed last week’s game, and Jordan Todman filled in, picking up 109 yards on the ground and gathering 44 more through the air. MJD is still questionable, but fantasy owners should give strong consideration to either Jacksonville back due to how poorly Tennessee has played against the run this year. The Titans are 23rd in the league in rush defense, 16th in YPC allowed, only Washington has given up more touchdowns on the ground than they have and only Dallas has allowed more fantasy points to opposing running backs this season.

Chad Henne: 200 pass yds, 1 TD, 3 INT
Clay Harbor: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Ace Sanders: 40 rec yds
Mike Brown: 25 rec yds
Marcedes Lewis: 15 rec yds
Maurice Jones-Drew: 35 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Jordan Todman: 45 rush yds, 1 TD, 35 rec yds

Prediction: Titans 27, Jaguars 17 ^ Top

Broncos at Texans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Peyton Manning is likely the league’s MVP and the leader in fantasy points among all NFL players. He’s nearing 50 touchdown passes on the season and even though he may not have Wes Welker, and even though Houston has been good at limiting the yard totals gained by opposing quarterbacks, there is little to discuss here – Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas should all be starting this week against Houston.

The Texans have the league’s second-ranked pass defense, but they are 19th in touchdown throws given up. Houston has allowed the 11th-fewest fantasy points in the NFL to tight ends, and only five teams have allowed fewer fantasy points to quarterbacks this season than Houston, while only three have yielded fewer points to wideouts.

Running Game Thoughts: Knowshon Moreno has had a shockingly good season and even though he’s been under 20 rushing yards in two of his last three games, he has been contributing as a receiver to make up for some of this shortcomings in rushing yards and is a must-start against the Texans. Houston is 24th in the NFL in rush defense, 21st in YPC ceded, but 12th in rushing scores surrendered. They have allowed the 14th-most fantasy points in the league to running backs.

Peyton Manning: 295 pass yds, 3 TD
Demaryius Thomas: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Eric Decker: 65 rec yds, 1 TD
Julius Thomas: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Andre Caldwell: 35 rec yds
Knowshon Moreno: 60 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Montee Ball: 25 rush yds, 20 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Case Keenum will not play this week due to an injured thumb, leaving the team to turn back to Matt Schaub under center. The heavily-scrutinized Schaub has nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the season, but even though he has a good match-up, should not be relied on by fantasy owners. Wideout Andre Johnson (who was questionable as of this writing) should be in all fantasy lineups considering how many yards, touchdowns and fantasy points the Broncos allow to the opposition’s passing game.

Denver is 28th in the NFL in pass defense and ranks 21st in the league in touchdown throws allowed. This season, they’ve allowed the eighth-most fantasy points in the league to both quarterbacks and wideouts, and the 10th-most points to tight ends.

Running Game Thoughts: Ben Tate has been put on injured reserve, ending his season after he cracked a fifth rib. He will be replaced by a combo of Dennis Johnson and Deji Karim, with Johnson likely getting most of the work against Denver. Though the Broncos are 11th in the league in rush defense and 12th in YPC allowed, they are 25th in rushing touchdowns given up and have allowed the eighth-most fantasy points in the league to running backs.

Matt Schaub: 240 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Andre Johnson: 95 rec yds, 1 TD
Ryan Griffin: 50 rec yds
DeAndre Hopkins: 45 rec yds
Keshawn Martin: 25 rec yds
Dennis Johnson: 65 rush yds, 15 rec yds

Prediction: Broncos 31, Texans 13 ^ Top

Colts @ Chiefs - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Some might say that Andrew Luck has regressed a bit in his second season as a pro. Although Luck had a beautiful fantasy day against the Bengals in Week 14 when he threw for 326 yards and four scores, his other recent performances have not been very good. If the big game against the Bengals didn’t happen, Luck would be on an ugly streak. He threw just four total touchdowns in Weeks 10, 11, 12, 13 and 15 combined. He’s also averaging just 220 passing yards per game over that span. Add in the fact that he threw six interceptions in those contests and you can see why fantasy owners are biting their nails about using Luck in their championship game. Luck has just two 300-yard games all year. Worse yet, he has not helped out his fantasy owners with his rushing ability in recent weeks. After rushing for four rushing touchdowns in his first 10 games this season, he has not ran for a score in any of his past four games. Many thought that the loss of Wayne would mean an opportunity for T.Y. Hilton to step up, but that hasn’t happened. Hilton did have back-to-back excellent performances in Weeks 9 and 10 , but has since fallen off to the point of almost being unusable in fantasy. Hilton is averaging just 42.6 yards per game over his past five and although he has caught a decent number of passes, the big plays that made him a breakout star in 2012 have simply not been there this year. Receivers Da’Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill broke out in Week 14 when they combined for 160 yards and four touchdowns. Brazill missed Week 15, however, with a foot injury. Meanwhile Rogers was held in check to only two catches for 23 yards. The reality is that neither player is much of a fantasy consideration at all, but it is good to see Luck throwing the ball to a wider variety of receivers.

In Week 16, the Colts will look to continue what has been a tough streak for the Kansas City Chiefs defense. The Chiefs were abused by Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in back-to-back weeks but have since gotten back in the groove with nice performances against the Redskins and Raiders. Although they allowed 309 yard and two touchdowns to Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor a week ago, they made up for it by forcing five interceptions. Kansas City has made a killing with turnovers this season with 20 picks in just 14 games. That’s third-most in the NFL. Not only that, but they’ve also been one of the better pass-rushing teams in the leagues. Their 43 sacks are also third-most in the league and with the Colts struggling to protect their quarterback at times, this could really be a tough game for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis passing game. The Chiefs have held opposing quarterbacks to fewer than two touchdown passes in 10 of their 14 games this season and that seems like a fairly likely scenario again this week. The Colts could fall behind in this game which would force them to pass a lot, but that still doesn’t mean that there will be enough fantasy production here to justify putting Luck or really any of the Colts receivers in your championship week fantasy lineup. One player who is a particularly weak fantasy play this week is tight end Coby Fleener. Although the Chiefs have allowed four touchdowns to opposing tight ends over their past five games, that has not been the story throughout the majority of the year. Even after those four scores, the Chiefs rank No. 1 against tight ends this season. Fleener has had his moments this season, but now is not the time to take a chance on him.

Running Game Thoughts: Trent Richardson owners finally had something to cheer about a week ago when their first round fantasy draft pick finally busted into double-digit fantasy points for the first time since Week 4. Richardson’s 64 rushing yards were, disgustingly enough, his best total of the year. He also scored his first receiving touchdown of the year. After being an active member of the Browns passing game a year ago, Richardson had not been involved much as a receiver in Indianapolis this season. He has, however, stepped up in that area in the past two weeks as he has caught nine passes for 106 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. Donald Brown has taken a step back within his role in the Indianapolis offense. After taking 14 carries against the Titans in Week 13, Brown has only taken nine total carries over his past two contests. Part of that is because he sat out the second half of the game against the Texans this past week due to a stinger, but the 50/50 split has made it so that neither Colts back has been at all reliable. The disappointment of Richardson combined with Brown taking so many carries throughout the year has meant that Richardson has been pulled from most fantasy lineups at this point; especially those that are competing for a championship in Week 16.

Neither Brown nor Richardson has rushed for more than 80 yards in any game this season and that won’t likely change in Week 16 as they head to Kansas City. Kansas City has been one of the league’s best run defenses throughout the year. Prior to their past five games when their defense has taken a big step back, the Chiefs had allowed only one rushing touchdown in their first nine games combined. It’s not just that they were keeping opposing backs out of the end zone, either. They were also containing them in terms of yardage as they allowed only two teams (Philadelphia and Buffalo) to break even 90 yards rushing. Those numbers would certainly mean that the struggling Colts running game would be out of the question for fantasy owners this week but what has happened against the Chiefs recently does give some rays of hope for fantasy purposes. Kansas City has allowed an average of 98 yards rushing per game over their past five contests. They’ve also allowed a total of six rushing touchdowns during that span, including two to the Raiders just this past Sunday. Because of this recent struggle, one might consider giving Richardson a look in a FLEX spot this week. It’s tough to consider him an RB2 given that Brown is expected to be back for this game, but given his recent usage in the passing game and his nose for the end zone, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Richardson sneak in for a touchdown. Still, his overall usage could be limited so don’t come into this one expecting much. It’s unfortunate to think that Richardson has played so poorly after such high expectations coming into the year, but it is what it is. Don’t get cute now. Play him if you absolutely need to, but understand that 10 fantasy points (standard scoring) is probably right around his cap.

Andrew Luck: 260 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT, 25 rush yds
Trent Richardson: 35 rush yds, 1 TD, 30 rec yds
Donald Brown: 40 rush yds, 25 rec yds
T.Y. Hilton: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Da’Rick Rogers: 50 rec yds
LaVon Brazill: 30 rec yds
Coby Fleener: 35 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Well, that was certainly unexpected. Although Alex Smith has been a solid “game managing” quarterback throughout the 2013 season, his fantasy production has been fairly limited. That all went out the window this past Sunday, however, when Smith lit up the fantasy scoreboard to the tune of 287 passing yards and five touchdowns. Smith had only thrown for more than two touchdowns in two games this season prior to the massive performance against the Raiders, so no one could have possibly expected this kind of offensive explosion. But as the season has gone on, the Chiefs have given more and more of the offense to Smith. He has now thrown 14 touchdown passes over his past five games while throwing only two interceptions. By comparison, Peyton Manning has also thrown 14 touchdowns over his past five games, but he has also thrown four interceptions. Given his recent success, it’s getting to the point that Smith is no longer a simple “get me by for one week” kind of quarterback. He’s quickly becoming a player who fantasy owners can rely on to provide quality fantasy production on a week-to-week basis.

This week, Smith and the Kansas City passing game will be up against an Indianapolis Colts secondary that has really struggled to slow down opposing quarterbacks. Although they haven’t allowed any huge games to quarterbacks with no games over 30 points, the Colts have continually allowed solid production to the position. Other than three games against the 49ers and the hapless Jaguars and Texans, the Colts have allowed at least 13 fantasy points to every other QB they’ve faced. This is great news for Smith and his receivers who will be looking to continue on their hot streak. Receiver Dwayne Bowe was held in check to only three catches for 24 yards a week ago, which has to be a bit of a concern given the ridiculous offensive output that the Chiefs had. There are many reasons that could have had played a part in why Bowe wasn’t very involved, but it’s worth noting that although he only caught three passes and was targeted only four times, he did lead all Kansas City wide receivers in those categories. That’s not particularly surprising, however, as the other members of the Kansas City offense sat and watched with the rest of us as Jamaal Charles single-handedly took over the game, catching four of Smith’s five touchdowns. We don’t expect that to happen again, but it is worth considering that the Kansas City wide receivers have been some of the least-targeted players in the entire league. Even though Indianapolis has the 23rd-ranked fantasy defense against opposing wide receivers, the only Chiefs receiver who is worth putting in your lineup this week is Dwayne Bowe. Even then, it’s risky.

Running Game Thoughts: At the halfway point of the season, it looked as if there was absolutely no competition for Peyton Manning in the fantasy MVP running. That may no longer be the case, however, as we come down the stretch. Although Manning has continue to put up production at a record pace, Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles is also putting up some absolutely insane numbers. Charles has been an absolute rock star not only as an NFL player, but also as a fantasy running back. His 1836 total yards mean that he is averaging an impressive 131 total yards per game. That puts him on pace for just under 2,100 total yards. Better yet, he has also been productive in the touchdown department. His 18 total touchdowns are best in the league at any position other than quarterback, and put him on a pace of roughly 20.5 scores for the year. Perhaps best of all is the fact that Charles has developed into the best all-purpose back in the league. Those who own Charles in PPR leagues have been falling even more deeply in love with their running back as he has caught an impressive 65 passes on the year, which puts him in a rare class of running backs who are not only stud runners, but also their team’s best receiver.

Things are looking good for Charles’ production to continue this week as he goes up against an Indianapolis Colts defense that has given up an average of 115 rushing yards per game over their past 10 contests. That number doesn’t come from a few big games that offset the small games, either. During that 10 game stretch, only one group of team’s running backs has rushed for fewer than 96 yards. There’s no question that Charles has an excellent matchup when it comes to the running game, but there is an aspect of the Colts defense that may be surprising to fantasy owners. Allowing just 23.4 yards per game, Indianapolis has actually allowed the NFL’s fewest receiving yards to opposing running backs so far this year. With Kansas City having gone up a few scores in each of their past two games, we’ve seen more of backup Knile Davis than one might expect given Charles’ success. Davis had taken just 22 carries in his first 12 games this season, but has since taken 20 carries over just his past two games. Worse yet, he has sniped two touchdowns that “should have” been Charles’. This could be a bit of a concern given how bad Indianapolis has been has been in the first half of games. If Kansas City gets out to another large lead, we could see less of Charles than we normally do. Still, at this point, there is absolutely nothing that should keep Charles out of any fantasy lineup. His 215 total yard, five touchdown performance that included 195 yards receiving this past week against Oakland was one of the best fantasy games that has ever happened in the history of the league. He is red hot and is very capable of nearly single-handedly delivering a fantasy league championship to his owners in this juicy matchup.

Alex Smith: 215 pass yds, 2 TD, 25 rush yds
Jamaal Charles: 120 rush yds, 1 TD, 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Knile Davis: 20 rush yds, 1 TD
Dwayne Bowe: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Donnie Avery: 30 rec yds
Dexter McCluster: 30 rec yds

Prediction: Chiefs 31, Colts 17 ^ Top

Buccaneers @ Rams - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: An up-and-down season can be expected when you’re talking about a rookie quarterback, especially one who didn’t even expect to play coming into the season, but things have been pretty good overall for Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon. Glennon has had at least 13 fantasy points in seven of his 11 games. He has also thrown for multiple touchdowns in seven games. Glennon has done a decent enough job of not turning the ball over, throwing just eight interceptions compared to his 17 touchdowns. This has meant surprisingly good production for wide receiver Vincent Jackson who has remained a very solid fantasy option. Jackson currently sits as the No. 13-ranked wide receiver in non-PPR formats and he’s over 1,000 yards receiving for the fifth time in six years. The only other player in this passing game who has made much of an impact in 2013 is tight end Tim Wright. Wright is coming off of the best fantasy day of his career with the seven catch, 82-yard performance he had against the 49ers. It was Wright’s second score in as many weeks and he has now been in the end zone four times this season. Although those aren’t particularly great statistics, Wright is a player who could be considered for fantasy given the overall lack of production that has come from the tight end position in 2013, other than a select few top-scorers.

Glennon and the Tampa Bay passing game are in line for another potentially solid game this week as they go up against a middle-of-the-road St. Louis Rams defense. Although the Rams haven’t allowed any gigantic games to opposing quarterbacks, they have been a defense that has repeatedly allowed very good games to the position. They’ve allowed between 13 and 22 fantasy points to opposing QB’s in all but two games this season. Not only have they conceded 20 passing touchdowns on the year, but they’ve also allowed five quarterbacks to throw for more than 325 yards against them. Glennon has been a surprisingly good passer given his limited experience, but it’d be tough to expect him to become the sixth QB to throw for 325-plus against the Rams. Still, Glennon could make for a decent QB2 play for those in two-quarterback leagues. Tight end Tim Wright also makes for a questionable fantasy play this week, as the Rams have been very good against opposing tight ends this season. They’ve allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points to the position and have held opposing tight ends to 7.0 or fewer fantasy points in all but three games. Vincent Jackson, on the other hand, is a must-start as he looks to make it three straight games with a touchdown.

Running Game Thoughts: As the team’s third “feature” back this season, Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey has had some surprisingly good fantasy success. In his six games, Rainey has had three big games and three terrible games. It’s true that he’s been up-and-down, but when it’s been good, it’s been very good for Rainey and his fantasy owners. He scored a combined 63 fantasy points (standard scoring) in Weeks 10, 11 and 14. In his other three games, he scored just 11 total fantasy points. It took an 80-yard touchdown run in Week 14 for Rainey to reach his final total of 127 on the ground but his explosive ability explains why he is still usable for fantasy purposes.

In Week 16, Rainey has a very good matchup against a St. Louis Rams defense that has been terrible at slowing down opposing running games. With Robert Quinn and other players in this defense so heavily focused on getting after the quarterback, their ability to stop the running game has been almost non-existent. The Rams have held opposing running backs to fewer than 11 fantasy points in only three games all season. Over their past six games, the Rams have allowed an average of 21.8 points per game (standard scoring) to opposing running backs. This bodes well for Rainey who has become the main ball carrier in Tampa Bay. While Brian Leonard is still seeing a few touches per game, this is Rainey’s backfield and Rainey is a strong candidate to get 20 touches. Any player who sees the ball that many times instantly becomes a viable fantasy option. Rainey is a high-risk / high-reward player who makes for a good RB2 and an excellent FLEX play this week in St. Louis.

Mike Glennon: 215 pass yds, 1 TD
Bobby Rainey: 90 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds
Vincent Jackson: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Tim Wright: 50 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: It was another “decent, not great” performance for St. Louis Rams backup quarterback Kellen Clemens. Clemens stepped in for former No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Sam Bradford and although he has kept the team in line, he has not been much of a fantasy contributor. Clemens has thrown for multiple touchdowns in only two contests this season and has not topped the 250-yard mark in any game. Although the St. Louis offense has some talent at the wide receiver position, none of the players have been at all reliable for fantasy purposes. Rookie Tavon Austin leads the pack but was inactive last week with an ankle injury that could keep him out yet again. Even if he does play, he hasn’t been on a hot streak lately anyway. He caught just one pass for nine yards in Week 14. Tight end Jared Cook has been the only decent fantasy producer in the St. Louis passing game, but even he has been highly unreliable. Clemens threw two touchdowns to tight ends in Week 15 but neither was to Cook who was held to just one catch for eight yards on the day.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel for those looking at the Rams passing game this week. The Buccaneers are the 25th-ranked defense against opposing quarterbacks and have allowed multiple touchdowns in nine of their past 10 games. Although this week’s matchup against the Buccaneers is considered a good one for fantasy purposes, now is just not the time to start trusting this passing game. If you’ve made it this far, chances are that you weren’t relying on anyone in the Rams pass offense. Keep it that way in Week 16.

Running Game Thoughts: If you’re looking for fantasy production out of the St. Louis offense, look no further than running back Zac Stacy. Stacy has been one of the true breakout performers of the season. After taking just one carry in his first four games, Stacy has taken at least 14 carries in every game since. That kind of reliability in touches always makes for nice fantasy production, but Stacy has been better than just a workhorse. He has scored seven touchdowns in his 10 games as the Rams’ starter and he’s averaging 97 total yards per game. Best yet, his season hasn’t been a rollercoaster like so many others. He’s scored at least seven fantasy points in every game since becoming the team’s starting tailback.

Things project well for Stacy’s success to continue this week as the Rams host a Tampa Bay defense that has averaged allowing 106 yards rushing per game over its past five games. This alone would mean that Stacy would almost certainly be a top-10 fantasy play this week, but the Bucs have actually been very good against the position when you look at the overall fantasy production they’ve put together. Coincidentally or not, the Bucs have allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns of any team in the league this year, having given up only two to opposing runners. Still, given the commitment to the run that the Rams have shown all season, Stacy is unquestionably a rock solid RB2 option as we head into the final week of most fantasy seasons. Trust him as you have all year and don’t be too afraid of this matchup. If the Rams can stay in the game, as we would expect, he will see the ball plenty of times and should be in for about his usual fantasy production.

Kellen Clemens: 190 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Zac Stacy: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Stedman Bailey: 40 rec yds
Austin Pettis: 40 rec yds
Chris Givens: 30 rec yds
Jared Cook: 35 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Rams 20, Buccaneers 17 ^ Top

Cardinals @ Seahawks - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Cardinals haven’t gotten the type of production that they probably expected to get from veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, but it has been better lately than it was at the beginning of the season. Palmer has thrown for an average of 278.2 yards per game over his past seven games while throwing a total of 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions over that span. That’s a big time improvement from the first seven games of the season when he threw for an average of 248.7 yards per game while throwing just eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions. One of the biggest reasons for that jump in statistics has been the breakout of second-year receiver Michael Floyd who has really stepped up over the second half of the season. In his past seven games, Floyd has averaged 73.7 yards per game with three touchdowns. That, of course, has helped the team’s top target, Larry Fitzgerald, who has returned to being one of the best fantasy receivers in the game. Fitzgerald has scored 10 touchdowns on the year, something he has not done since 2009.

Although he suffered a concussion this past week, Fitz is expected to be on the field on Sunday when the Cardinals head to Seattle in what is sure to be their toughest test of the season. As most expected they would be, the Seahawks have been unbelievable on defense in 2013. They are statistically the best defense against opposing passing games in the entire league. Their 13 passing touchdowns and 2,713 passing yards against are the fewest that any team has allowed. They’ve also intercepted a league-most 22 passes. Given the ankle and elbow injuries that have kept Palmer limited in practice, this is an especially brutal matchup for the Cardinals passing game. Don’t expect Palmer to stay on the course he’s been at, by any means. He’s going to be under constant duress and it would not be at all surprising if he throws multiple picks for the seventh time this year.

Running Game Thoughts: Given the weapons that Carson Palmer has to throw to and the lack of success that the Cardinals have had running the ball this season, it’s probably a bit surprising to hear that the team has averaged 25.7 rushing attempts per game over the past three weeks. Most of that has fallen on the shoulders of veteran tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Despite a pathetic 3.1 YPC average on the year, Mendenhall has actually remained a moderately useful fantasy option, particularly in recent weeks. Mendenhall has scored five times in his past five games, despite conceding about 30-percent of the team’s carries to rookie Andre Ellington. As the more explosive player in the backfield, most would say that Ellington has been underutilized by the Cardinals. He has averaged 5.9 yards per carry while also being a player in the passing game where he has caught 34 passes. Despite having 74 fewer touches on the year, Ellington has out-produced Mendenhall by 211 total yards. His 158 total yard performance this past week against the Titans was his biggest total of the season and he will look to continue that this week.

Mendenhall and Ellington will have a tough time finding any space this week as they go up against a Seattle defense that ranks No. 3 in the league at stopping opposing running backs. The Seahawks have had a few tough games on the year, but the fact that they haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown in any of their past seven games about tells the story of how tough it is to get anything going against this defense. The last time these two teams played, back in Week 7, the Cardinals were able to score a touchdown. However Ellington and Mendenhall combined for just 25 rushing yards on 15 carries. Given the success they’ve had between them in recent weeks, fantasy owners may be strongly considering placing one of these backs in their lineup. But this is really not the time to trust either one of them.

Carson Palmer: 195 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Rashard Mendenhall: 45 rush yds, 10 rec yds
Andre Ellington: 25 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Larry Fitzgerald: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Michael Floyd: 50 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The breakout fantasy season for second-year Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson continued this past week when he made it nine games of 14 or more fantasy points in his past 10 games. The consistent high quality production has been anchored by his ability to run the ball. With his 50-yard game in Week 15, Wilson broke the 500-yard mark, second most among all quarterbacks. But what has been most impressive about Wilson is his ability to avoid turnovers. He has thrown just four total interceptions in his past nine games combined, while tossing 16 touchdown passes. What’s perhaps most impressive about Wilson’s run is that he is doing it without any real top target in the passing game. With Percy Harvin having missed almost the entire season and Sidney Rice out since Week 7, Wilson has had to turn to the likes of Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to be the team’s top receivers. Lately it has been Baldwin who has been surprisingly productive and consistent, averaging 66.3 yards per game over his past six contests, with four touchdown receptions.

Baldwin might actually make for an intriguing WR3 play this week as he could be the primary beneficiary of playing an Arizona defense that will be without its No. 2 cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu, for the second straight game. Without him, the Cardinals were abused by the Titans’ Ryan Fitzpatrick a week ago as he threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns—both season worsts for the Arizona defense. Wilson has a golden opportunity to make his fantasy owners very happy this week, as does the rest of the Seattle passing offense. The Cardinals are excellent against the run, which could mean a lot of passing in this one. Play Wilson with confidence and if you’re feeling extra confident, maybe even give Baldwin a look. Another player who has some intrigue this week is tight end Zach Miller. He isn’t too active in the passing game, but Miller goes up against an Arizona defense that is the very worst in the league at stopping opposing tight ends. They’ve an unbelievable 15 touchdowns to the position on the year, including one to Miller when these teams played earlier this year.

Running Game Thoughts: “Beast Mode” has been on full display once again in 2013 as Marshawn Lynch has topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third straight season. His 307 yards as a receiver are also already a career-best with two games remaining. Not only has he productive in the yardage department, Lynch has also totaled 13 touchdowns on the year, which has made him a top five option at the position once again this year. While he has been productive overall, there is a bit of concern heading into Week 16 as Lynch has struggled a bit as of late. He has scored five total touchdowns over the span so it hasn’t showed up on fantasy radars, but Lynch has averaged only 53 yards rushing per game over his past four contests. One would almost have to assume that the lack of production has been from a lack of opportunity, but that really hasn’t been the case. He’s averaged 17.3 attempts per game over his past four, which comes to out just a 3.2 YPC average.

This, combined with the fact that Arizona has been stellar against the run all season, has to have fantasy owners a bit worried headed into Week 16. Allowing just 10.2 fantasy points per game (standard scoring) to opposing running backs, the Cardinals are the NFL’s best defense against the position. They’ve allowed a crippling 882 yards rushing on the year, which is nearly 140 yards fewer than any other team. Over their past seven contests, the Cardinals have allowed an average of just 45.6 rushing yards per game against them. Given the fact that we’re talking about Marshawn Lynch, however, those statistics are only a barometer for fantasy upside. Lynch absolutely has to be in your lineup if you have him. When he played against this team back in Week 7, Lynch rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown. Don’t let this matchup, as tough as it is, turn you away. Lynch has taken you this far and now is not the time to start doubting him.

Russell Wilson: 260 pass yds, 2 TD, 40 rush yds
Marshawn Lynch: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Doug Baldwin: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Golden Tate: 60 rec yds
Zach Miller: 40 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Seahawks 27, Cardinals 13 ^ Top

Raiders @ Chargers - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: To say that Matt McGloin’s first inner-division contest as the Raiders’ starter was a complete disaster would be an understatement. McGloin was assaulted by the Kansas City defense as he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. While he did save things for his fantasy owners by throwing for 297 yards and two scores in the blowout loss, there was concern in Oakland that McGloin would be replaced behind center by Terrelle Pryor who has been utilized sparingly as kind of a “change of pace” quarterback in recent weeks. Reports are that McGloin will remain the starter, however, and that could make him a fantasy consideration this week as he and the Raiders head to San Diego to go up against one of the worst pass defenses in the league.

Only six teams have allowed more fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks than San Diego this season. They’re allowing 308 yards passing per game, second-most only behind the Cowboys, and they’ve allowed 22 touchdowns while forcing only 10 interceptions. Earlier this season, Terrelle Pryor threw for 221 yards and his only two-touchdown performance of the year against this very defense, which should bode well for McGloin’s chances. With wide receiver Denarius Moore now back from injury and the Raiders have three competent receivers who can make things tough on the San Diego defense. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes have filled in admirably for Moore during his absence and both figure to play a role in this week’s gameplan. It’s hard to really trust anyone in the Oakland offense, but this is the kind of matchup that leaves plenty of opportunities for fantasy production.

Running Game Thoughts: With Darren McFadden having taken just 10 total carries over his past seven games combined, backup Rashad Jennings has really come through for fantasy owners who took a chance on the former Jaguar. Jennings missed Week 14 with his own injury, but sandwiched that game with a couple two-touchdown rushing performances in Weeks 13 and 15. The truth is that with McFadden out, Jennings has become one of the highest-scoring and most reliable fantasy backs in the league. Jennings has averaged 16.8 fantasy points per game (standard scoring) since becoming the primary ball-carrier in Oakland and has been one of the best RB2’s in the business because of it.

He’ll enter a beatable matchup this week against a San Diego defense has itself allowed an average of 18.9 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs over their past seven contests. While that streak has come against some very good running games and includes an outlier against the Redskins where they allowed four touchdowns, this is still an overall weak defense that has allowed some serious fantasy production over the second half of the season. If they can stay in the game and not get blown out like they did a week ago against the Chiefs, expect Oakland to give plenty of touches to Jennings. There are rumors that McFadden could play this Sunday, but that has been in the cards for numerous weeks and it still hasn’t happened. Even if McFadden he does play, it’s very possible that he will only be used in a complementary role to Jennings in an effort not to get him re-injured in what has turned out to be yet another irrelevant Oakland Raiders season.

Matt McGloin: 250 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rashad Jennings: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Marcel Reece: 25 rush yds, 25 rec yds
Rod Streater: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Denarius Moore: 60 rec yds
Andre Holmes: 50 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: With yet another double-digit fantasy day in the books, Philip Rivers continued his return to fantasy excellence as he lead his team to a big win over the Denver Broncos in Week 15. Although he threw for a season-low 166 passing yards, Rivers was able to throw for two touchdowns and avoided throwing a pick for the second straight week. Wide receiver Keenan Allen continued his voyage to become the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with his second-straight two-TD day. Whether it’s his five 100-yard games or his seven touchdowns, Allen has been an excellent fantasy contributor and a breakout star in this offense. Meanwhile, tight end Antonio Gates has continued to slide down the fantasy rankings. After starting the season off with three double-digit fantasy days (standard scoring) in his first four games, Gates has since gone into double digits just once in his past 10 games.

The San Diego passing game has an excellent matchup as they head into Week 16 to face an Oakland defense that has been embarrassingly bad at stopping the pass this season. The Raiders’ 28 touchdowns allowed to quarterbacks are third-most in the league while their eight interceptions forced are the second-fewest in the league. They currently rank 30th in the NFL in points allowed to opposing quarterbacks and are coming off a humiliating day when they allowed five touchdown passes to Alex Smith. Rivers himself had an excellent day against this very defense earlier this year when he threw for 411 yards and two touchdowns. Although he also threw three interceptions, fantasy owners really can’t be too worried about their QB turning over the ball. Rivers has thrown just four interceptions over his past eight games and his decision-making has been at an all-time best. There’s no reason not to trust Rivers and Allen this week against this horrible defense.

Running Game Thoughts: Few could have possibly imagined that a player listed to strongly as a “bust” like Ryan Mathews could turn things around like this, but with each passing week, Mathews moves closer and closer to the top-10 among all fantasy running backs for 2013. Mathews’ 127-yard day marked his second-straight and his fifth overall 100-yard rushing game on the year. For a player was drafted as a low-end RB3 or even RB4 in some leagues, Mathews has certainly shattered all expectations. With Mathews’ emergence, however, has come a sharp fall back to reality for backup Danny Woodhead. Woodhead had been one of the most productive fantasy running backs in the league through the first half of the season, particularly in PPR formats, but has not been nearly as active as a receiver as of late. Since his impressive nine-catch performance in Week 9, Woodhead has not caught more than four passes in any game. A week ago, he caught a season-low one pass for just 13 yards, which when combined with his 29 rushing yards made for one very disappointing fantasy day against a Denver defense that had conceded the most receptions to opposing running backs in the league up to that point.

Woodhead will look to get back in the mix this week against an Oakland defense that he had a nice day against earlier this season. While he was held to just 17 yards on nine carries as a runner, Woodhead exploited the Raiders defense with a season-high nine catches for 58 yards and a touchdown as a receiver. In that same game, Mathews was held to his fewest yards rushing in any game this season (eight) and he was completely a non-factor in the passing game. Given how the offense has changed since then, it would be astonishing to see a repeat of those numbers. Instead, look for the Chargers to run right at this 27th-ranked Oakland fantasy run defense. They’ve allowed six rushing touchdowns over their past three games and Mathews figures to be given plenty of carries once again this week. Given how bad this defense is, though, there could be plenty of fantasy production to go around. He’s been disappointing as of late, but Woodhead should still be considered as a potential FLEX play in PPR leagues. Mathews, on the other hand, may be as good as an RB1 and is a must-start this week once again.

Philip Rivers: 285 pass yds, 2 TD
Ryan Mathews: 115 rush yds, 2 TD, 10 rec yds
Danny Woodhead: 25 rush yds, 30 rec yds, 1 TD
Keenan Allen: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Eddie Royal: 45 rec yds
Antonio Gates: 45 rec yds

Prediction: Chargers 34, Raiders 20 ^ Top

Falcons @ 49ers - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: The disappointing fantasy season for Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan continued again this past week as the former first round NFL draft pick gave his fantasy owners just eight fantasy points in a home win against a bad Redskins defense. Ryan has now failed to surpass even 15 fantasy points in a single game since Week 7. During that span, he’s also dropped three games of single-digit fantasy production, which is an absolute killer when it comes from your quarterback position. Amid Ryan’s terrible fantasy season has been the continued success for one of the game’s all-time greats, Tony Gonzalez, who has remained a top-six option at tight end. Better yet, he’s been really coming on in recent weeks, with having now caught a touchdown in each of his past three games. Gonzalez became just the fifth player in NFL history, and the only tight end, to surpass 15,000 career yards receiving.

Things don’t look much better for “Matty Ice” this week as he and the Falcons head to San Francisco. The 49ers have allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks this season and have been absolutely dominant as of late. In their past seven games, the 49ers have allowed an average of just 9.5 points to opposing quarterbacks over their past six games. That includes games against Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson; three of fantasy football’s best. Although Matt Ryan has thrown for at least one touchdown in all but one game this year, his overall production combined with San Francisco’s great defense just makes this just too tough of a matchup to really trust Ryan or any of his receivers.

Running Game Thoughts: His season certainly started off poorly with an injury that knocked him out for a good chunk of the season, but Atlanta running back Steven Jackson has gotten back into fantasy owners’ good graces in recent weeks with a burst of fantasy production. Jackson has scored five touchdowns over his past four games, adding 264 yards rushing over that stretch. His 3.8 YPC is nothing special, below average even, but his nose for the end zone is something that can’t be denied, especially in the Atlanta offense that has been excellent at running the ball near the goal line in recent years.

The fact that he struggled to get space against the Redskins’ horrific defense does cause some concern, however, as Jackson heads into his Week 16 matchup against the 49ers. San Francisco hasn’t allowed a team to rush for more than 100 yards against them since Week 6 and Steven Jackson doesn’t seem like a very likely candidate to change that around. Although they’ve been beatable on the ground, having allowed an average of 86 rushing yards per game, the 49ers have done an overall great job of keeping opposing backs in check, as they rank 8th in the league in that category heading into Week 16. Jackson is always a threat to score given the Atlanta offensive play calling, but his overall lack of explosion combined with the 49ers’ stingy defense really limits his upside. Jackson is probably only a low-end RB2 in most formats.

Matt Ryan: 220 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Steven Jackson: 45 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Jacquizz Rodgers: 20 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Harry Douglas: 40 rec yds
Roddy White: 50 rec yds
Tony Gonzalez: 50 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: The march to the playoffs continued for the 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick this past week as they did what most expected they would do by riding into Tampa Bay and steamrolling the Buccaneers. The re-emergence of Kaepernick as a fantasy option has put a smile on his owners’ faces as the quarterback has now averaged 18 fantasy points per game over his past four contest; his best stretch of the season. Not surprisingly, Kaepernick’s success has coincided with the return of the team’s top receiver, Michael Crabtree, who also caught his first touchdown of the season this past Sunday. Fellow wideout Anquan Boldin has remained an active part of the passing game as well, but it has been tight end Vernon Davis that has been the best player in this offense all season long. Davis is riding a five game stretch with a touchdown in every game and his 12 total tie him with Calvin Johnson for second-most in the league.

Davis might just be the No. 1 fantasy tight end option heading into Week 16 as he will have an opportunity to go up against an Atlanta Falcons defense that has surrendered the third-most fantasy touchdowns (10) to opposing tight ends on the season. Over their past four games, Atlanta has allowed an average of 12.8 fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends, which means Davis could be in for an absolutely monster day. Atlanta really hasn’t been good against opposing passing games at all this season. In fact, they’ve allowed at least 12 fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks in every game for an average of 18.1 points per game allowed. Only four teams allow more points to the position. For the Crabtree and Boldin owners, consider that the Falcons just got through allowing Kirk Cousins to hit the Redskins wideouts 23 times for 325 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15. This is the kind of matchup that fantasy championship are won on and now is certainly the time to get your 49ers into your lineup.

Running Game Thoughts: Ankle and knee problems have Frank Gore on a limited practice regimen this week but the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher is expected to get the start again this Sunday. A victim of San Francisco’s improving passing game, Gore has not been quite the fantasy superstar as of late that he was to start the season. After hitting double-digit fantasy production (standard scoring) in eight of his first nine games this season, Gore has since only hit double digits once in his past five contests. The bright side is that Gore has been good over his past two games, rushing for a total of 196 yards against the Seahawks and Buccaneers.

That gives us some shred of confidence in Gore as we head into Week 16. Better yet, he’ll be up against the Washington Redskins and one of the league’s worst run defenses. Washington has been horrible all over on defense, but their run defense has been especially terrible. They’ve allowed multiple touchdowns to opposing running backs in five of their past six game, bringing their season total to 19 rushing scores allowed on the year; most in the NFL. While it’s true that the Redskins have only allowed two teams to rush for more than 100 yards against them in their past 12 games combined, this is still as good of a matchup as one could possibly hope for from a fantasy perspective. The 49ers have been hot throwing the ball lately so that could limit Gore’s total touches, but look for him to get plenty of opportunities for fantasy production, especially near the goal line.

Colin Kaepernick: 220 pass yds, 2 TD, 30 rush yds
Frank Gore: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds
Anquan Boldin: 60 rec yds
Michael Crabtree: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Vernon Davis: 70 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: 49ers 24, Falcons 14 ^ Top

Vikings @ Bengals - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: Matt Cassel will start once again this week after a pretty impressive victory over the Eagles last week where he threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns (1 INT). While Cassel is nowhere near an elite talent, he has had a few nice games this year and more importantly has made Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson fantasy relevant. This week, during most fantasy leagues’ championship games, Cassel and the Vikings face a much tougher foe in the Bengals. The Bengals have given up the seventh fewest passing yards and, despite an array of injuries to all parts of their defense, remain one of the tougher all-around defenses in the league. While the Bengals rank just barely above average in sacks and interceptions, they are terrific at defending the big play and keeping receivers in front of them, allowing just 6.2 yards per pass attempt, second best in the NFL. Consequently, the Bengals are pretty tough against opposing fantasy QBs, ranking as the eighth toughest at this point in the season. Against opposing fantasy WRs the Bengals are almost as strong, ranking ninth toughest, and really have let up only two big games this year, and those were to fantasy’s two best WRs, Josh Gordon and Calvin Johnson. With the game being outside at Cincinnati, the weather could play a factor, and as long as Adrian Peterson is playing, you know the Vikings will run a lot, so with all that in mind along with the matchup, the upside of Vikings passing game players is certainly limited. The only real hope I see for above-average games from this unit is if the Bengals score a lot early against the terrible Vikings defense and Cassel is forced to throw it 35-plus times. In that scenario the volume of work should be there for the receivers, even if Cassel’s numbers don’t look that great—possibly with multiple turnovers.

Taking into account the matchup, environment, stakes, and lack of talent on this unit, I do not see a lot of upside with anyone here. Cassel might get the volume of work to be a low-end QB2, but in the championship week of your fantasy league there simply must be better options available. Greg Jennings has salvaged a bit of his year thanks to the play of Cassel, and while I think he is easily the safest member of this group, the matchup means that he is still just a fairly low-level WR3, about in that 22-25 range this week. Patterson is an exciting player to watch and a great dynasty league prospect, but the volume of work simply is not there most weeks, so he remains a boom-or-bust WR3 who could just as easily put up two or three points as he could get 100-plus yards and a couple of touchdowns. With the status of tight end John Carlson still up in the air (concussion), it is hard to project him right now, but if he plays he could be an average TE2 who should at least see five targets, even if his upside is capped by the matchup. Overall, while there are some players of relevance here and they are improved since Week 1, they are still a risky gamble to rely on in a big game.

Running Game Thoughts: As of this writing, we are not totally sure which Vikings running backs will be healthy this week, but it sounds like Adrian Peterson will be the man. With Peterson’s amazing healing ability and strong will, it will be difficult to keep him out of this game, especially after he sat out last week and with his team playing better of late. If you own Peterson and are still alive in your fantasy playoffs you simply have to start him, based on his track record and upside for huge fantasy days. While Peterson is a clear cut RB1, the matchup is a tough one and therefore makes him a little less attractive, at least by his high standards. The Bengals are among the top 10 defenses in rushing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed per attempt, and rushing touchdowns allowed. Consequently, they are also tough for opposing fantasy RBs to score against, ranking as one of the five toughest. Last week, despite the fact that the Steelers were playing at home with a big lead and were able to rush 36 times, they only ended up with 106 yards, or 2.9 yards per carry.

This week, with the Bengals being at home and basically in a must-win situation, there is little doubt they will put all their resources into stopping the Vikings' best weapon, which is clearly Peterson. While Peterson is obviously this generation’s best pure runner, the lack of other weapons around him should make it an easier task for the Bengals to slow him down, even if they (or anybody for that matter) cannot totally stop him. As I said, Peterson should certainly be started because of the volume of work he should get and the upside of breaking off some big runs, but he will likely not have this week’s best fantasy performance in the RB class. If some last-minute setback occurs and Peterson cannot go, I would not start any other Vikings running back, as they do not have the skill to overcome a tough matchup, and betting on any kind of decent performance from them would not be worth the gamble at this point in the fantasy season.

Matt Cassel: 255 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Adrian Peterson: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds
Cordarrelle Patterson: 55 rec yds
John Carlson: 50 rec yds
Greg Jennings: 75 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: This matchup is particularly interesting in many ways. The Bengals—other than A.J. Green, who is an every week solid fantasy play— are full of talent but often difficult to start because of the matchup or simply because of their inconsistencies. This week they face a dream matchup with the Vikings at just the right time in the fantasy playoffs. The Vikings have given up the third most passing yards in the league, along with a healthy completion percentage (64.1%), the most passing touchdowns in the league (32), and below average sacks and interceptions. Against opposing fantasy positions they are also generous, ranking second easiest against QBs, second easiest against WRs, and second easiest against TEs. Obviously this is a situation where all the Bengals key players become fantasy relevant, as the potential for big points is certainly here. But just how relevant are they, and who you would start them over, is the big question. Let’s start with the easiest, A.J. Green. Green was already an every-week WR1 starter, so this obviously does not change against one of the weakest secondary’s in all of football. He is a top three option at WR this week. Dalton has been way up and way down this year and has a reputation for collapses in the second half of the season, but he has been more consistent the past few weeks, at least as far as fantasy points go.

With a lot still to play for, being at home, and against a weak defense, Dalton simply has to be considered among the top 12 options at QB this week. I’d rank him in that 8-12 range, as he should not be started over the usual studs but is in that next tier of guys thanks to the matchup and the weapons at his disposal. The only other WR I’d consider for the Bengals this week is Marvin Jones. Jones played a season-high number of snaps last week and now has back-to-back weeks with a touchdown, and nine on the season. He is clearly the next most physically talented wide receiver after Green, and Dalton tends to look his way a good bit in the red zone. While it is certainly a risk to start a guy who only averages about three catches a week, the matchup along with his increased role makes him an interesting and sneaky fantasy play for those in deep leagues. I view Jones as a high-upside but lower-end WR3 this week, somewhere in that 25 range of wide receivers. Finally, keep a close eye on the injury report with tight end Jermaine Gresham. He left last week’s game with a hip injury and did not return. If he does not play in this game, Tyler Eifert becomes a very solid high-end TE2 in a juicy matchup. Eifert is a solid pass-catching tight end but his reps are split with Gresham, so the two tight ends have normally canceled each other out as viable fantasy options most weeks. If Gresham does play then both guys are simply low-end TE2 options, with Eifert having more upside. Overall, this unit has a great matchup to exploit this week and has at least four players that should contribute solid fantasy days.

Running Game Thoughts: With the Bengals forced to play catch-up last week, the team only rushed 22 times, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis got only four of those. It’s hard to take much from that game, as Green-Ellis missed a lot of practice time last week with an illness and the game was so lopsided early that the run game was just an afterthought. On the bright side for Giovani Bernard owners, Bernard did convert his lone goal-line chance from the one-yard line last week, which could be a sign that the coaches may trust him in that role going forward, at least part of the time. This week the on-paper matchup is very juicy, as the Vikings are among the most generous teams to opposing fantasy RBs and are among the bottom half of the league in rushing yards allowed and rushing touchdowns allowed. The surprising thing, and the troubling news for the Bengals run game, is that Minnesota has been playing much better of late, with three straight weeks without allowing a rushing touchdown.

Thanks to the Vikings offense exploding last week, the Eagles actually had to abandon the run and LeSean McCoy was held to just 38 yards on eight carries. This week the Vikings will face a defense much tougher than the Eagles, so I do not expect the Bengals will trail by much, if at all. With Andy Dalton struggling mightily lately, the Bengals should go run-heavy in this home game, and I would be surprised if, in a soft matchup, the Bengals do not accumulate 25-plus rushes. In this scenario BenJarvus Green-Ellis should see 10-plus carries, but he has been inconsistent and lacks the explosion to make anything big happen. The only way BJGE really retains much value is when he gets a touchdown. While this is obviously always possible, at this point in the fantasy season it is not worth betting your season on. The Law Firm remains a low-end and unexciting RB3/flex play. As for Bernard, he is averaging 15 total touches the past three weeks and while Green-Ellis steals enough touches to limit Bernard’s upside, Bernard is obviously the big-play back and therefore a better option for fantasy owners. Bernard should be a solid low-end RB2 this week, where he should once again see around 15 touches regardless of how the flow of the game goes.

Andy Dalton: 290 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
A.J. Green: 95 rec yds, 1 TD
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 50 rush yds
Giovani Bernard: 55 rush yds, 30 rec yds
Marvin Jones: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Tyler Eifert: 55 rec yds

Prediction: Bengals 33, Vikings 27 ^ Top

Giants @ Lions - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: If you were to look ahead at the beginning of the year at this matchup, you might have been tempted to grab a few Giants passing game players, but oh how times have changed. On paper it looks like a pretty solid fantasy matchup for the Giants. The game is in a dome, out of the weather; the Lions pass defense is below average, allowing the 10th most passing yards in the NFL; and the Giants have plenty of talent on offense. In reality though, the Giants offense is in shambles, Victor Cruz is likely out of this game, Eli has been awful, and the Lions defense has actually been playing better the past few weeks. While it is tempting to think the Giants are going to turn it around any week now, the truth is, if you are still alive in your league at this point, the risk is almost certainly not worth the potential reward. Let’s start with the obvious: Eli Manning should not be starting on your team right now. While the Lions have allowed a generous amount of passing yards, they are actually tougher than average against opposing fantasy QBs, allowing just the 19th most points to that position. With Eli playing horribly, and coming off perhaps his worst game of the year (5 INTs), something is obviously wrong with him or the offense, or both. Eli is not even in my top 25 QBs this week, so you simply have to do better.

While the Lions are decent against fantasy QBs, they are actually quite generous to WRs, giving up the fourth most points in the NFL to this point. With Cruz likely out, the opportunity lies with Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle. While both guys are obviously talented, they have been on different paths this year. Randle has looked totally out of sync with Manning at times, yet he leads the team in touchdowns and has made some timely big plays. Nicks has yet to catch a touchdown this year but has more catches and yards than Randle on the season. While the matchup would normally say both guys would be solid WR2s, the play of the offense as a whole, along with the expected return of Lions top corner Chris Houston, knocks both guys down a notch. I would rank both as mid-range WR3s (in that 20-25 range) in a game that should see the Giants throw a ton, but the effectiveness of those throws is likely to be inconsistent. If you had to pick between the two, I would say go with Nicks if you want sure points but less upside and Randle if you are looking for more of a high-risk, high-upside reward. The only other Giants player here to possibly consider is tight end Brandon Myers, but he is no doubt outside of the top 15 options, so there is little reason to trust him, especially with the Lions giving up the third fewest points to fantasy TEs this year.

Running Game Thoughts: The good news for Andre Brown owners is he is healthy and the starter on a team where he could theoretically be a 20-plus touch back every week because of the lack of competition. The bad news for Brown and his owners is that the Giants offense is so ugly right now that he might be lucky to get half those touches the way the team is turning the ball over. Last week in a tough matchup Brown got 15 touches but only managed 26 total yards against a stifling Seahawks defense. The Giants trailed the whole game and were forced to abandon the run early, leaving Brown as nothing more than a check-down option.

This week the matchup does not get much easier, and in fact gets tougher in some ways. While the Lions defense overall is not as dominant as the Seahawks, their run defense may actually be better. Currently the Lions have given up the fourth fewest rush yards in the league and have given up 100-plus yards to an opposing running back just twice this year. If you take out the fluky snow storm game in Philly a few weeks back, the Lions could easily be the league’s best run defense overall. In addition, the Lions offense, especially at home, is explosive enough to get out to an early lead, and the Giants may once again need to play catch-up. If things were rolling for the Giants offense and the matchup was juicy, Brown could easily be a solid RB2 because of his skill set and lack of competition. Unfortunately, this is an offense that is totally out of whack and cannot be trusted the rest of the year, much less in the fantasy playoffs. While the Giants probably should try to run the ball more this week after last week’s debacle, the matchup is tough and it is hard to trust anyone on this offense right now. Brown is a mid-level RB3/flex option at best this week and should probably find a spot on your bench in most cases.

Eli Manning: 245 pass yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Andre Brown: 45 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Rueben Randle: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Hakeem Nicks: 80 rec yds
Brandon Myers: 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Matthew Stafford and the Lions passing attack had a rough game against the Ravens last week, throwing for 235 yards, one touchdown, and three costly interceptions in a home loss. It was not all Stafford’s fault, as even the great Calvin Johnson had a few bad drops. Along with solid coverage and a couple balls batted down at the line, it was a day to forget for a usually powerful offense. With a lot still to play for, another home game, and a fairly healthy group around him, Stafford and Co. look to rebound this week against a Giants passing defense that is nowhere near elite and perhaps already planning their offseason golf vacations. The Giants have actually been decent as far as passing yardage allowed (12th best in the NFL) and yards per pass attempt (sixth best). The rest of their defensive stats, however, leave a lot to be desired, as they allow a healthy 62.2 completion rate (21st in the NFL), a 84.7 quarterback rating (17th), and a sorry 29 sacks (4th lowest). Fantasy-wise they rank right about the middle in terms of how QBs score against them, but a closer look shows that quality QBs can really do some damage against them. All but three opposing QBs have scored 15-plus fantasy points against the Giants this year, and those three are as follows: Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, and Terrelle Pryor. In case you have not being paying attention, all three of those guys are below average and all three do not start for their respective teams at this point. On the other hand, eight QBs have scored 20-plus fantasy points against the Giants this year, and they include: Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, and Peyton Manning. With Stafford certainly being in the conversation with these guys, it is not hard to see the potential here for a big day. While Stafford has struggled mightily the past two weeks, giving cause for concern, this is a must-win game and in front of a riled up home crowd the Lions will go all out in order to blow away the G-men.

While the matchup is not perfect and Stafford’s recent troubles knock him down a tiny bit, he is still an easy QB1 and a top 10 option in what should be a bounce-back game. Calvin Johnson had a case of the dropsies last week but still managed 98 yards against a physical, hungry defense that was playing for their playoff lives. With less talented and less motivated players covering him this week, Megatron should return to dominating form and be a solid WR1 and a top three performer at WR. After Johnson, the picture gets cloudy, as the targets are split up between two running backs (Bush and Bell) and three other receivers (Burleson, Durham, Pettigrew). Pettigrew is banged up and has four total catches the past three weeks combined, so no way am I messing with starting him at this point. Durham has been getting fairly consistent targets but doing almost nothing with them, so I would eliminate him as well. That leaves Burleson as the next most likely receiver to perform against a Giants secondary who just gave up 71 yards and a touchdown to the Seahawks' No. 2 wide receiver, Doug Baldwin. While I would rank Burleson as a high-end WR4 more than a WR3, a case could be made that this could turn into a shootout, giving Burleson has a chance to rack up some yardage. However, if you are still alive in your fantasy playoffs, there are likely better options out there unless you are in a large league. No other Lions receiver is worth a look this week, as the ball is spread around too inconsistently to rely on more than Johnson, Burleson, and the running backs in the passing game.

Running Game Thoughts: While the Lions faced a tough run defense last week in a home loss to the Ravens, Reggie Bush still managed 86 yards and a touchdown on the ground on just 17 carries, despite Detroit’s overall ineptitude on offense. Seemingly healthy now, and once again in the friendly confines of the dome in Detroit, Bush looks like another solid bet against a Giants team with nothing left to play for but pride. The Giants are about the middle of the pack when it comes to run defense this year, ranking 13th in rush yards allowed. While the G-men on the season have allowed just 3.8 yards per carry to opposing runners (4th best in the NFL), they have allowed double-digit fantasy points to opposing backs in all but two games this year. While few running backs have blown up against the Giants, few have been shut out as well.

With Jason Pierre-Paul likely still out, the Giants simply do not have the personnel to stop opposing offenses for four quarters, and Bush remains (along with Calvin Johnson) the focus of the Lions attack. While I do not expect Bush to have one of those games that single-handily carries fantasy teams to victory, he should easily get 18 total touches in a game where the Lions should always be close, if not have the straight-out lead most of the way. Bush remains a safe top 12 RB this week and a low-end RB1. Joique Bell is about as good a backup as they come this year, but with Bush healthy he remains bench fodder in all but the deepest PPR leagues, where he might retain some RB3 value.

Matthew Stafford: 295 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Calvin Johnson: 110 rec yds, 1 TD
Reggie Bush: 80 rush yds, 35 rec yds
Joique Bell: 20 rush yds, 25 rec yds
Nate Burleson: 70 rec yds

Prediction: Lions 30, Giants 24 ^ Top

Steelers @ Packers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers passing attack did not put up big numbers last week, but that is more because they had such a big lead and could run the clock out. Away from home and against a much weaker defense, the passing game numbers should be there, as the Packers have allowed the 11th most passing yards in the NFL this year. While the Packers defense does put a good amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks (fifth in sacks), they also allow a healthy 7.8 yards per pass attempt (6th highest in the NFL) and are tied for allowing the fifth most touchdown passes in the league. While the Steelers offensive line continues to be a weakness, and a few more sacks would not be a surprise this week, Big Ben continues to be one of the better NFL quarterbacks at buying time for his receivers to get open and throwing deep downfield.

The Packers are currently the 11th most generous team to opposing fantasy QBs and Ben has the weapons to make every snap count, especially now that defenses must respect the run game more than they have in the past. While Ben does not have the high-octane offense that guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have, he is fairly reliable and still the leader of a pass-friendly attack that can put up a solid amount of points. He is not an elite option this week, but in an above-average matchup with some nice momentum coming in, I see Ben as a high-end QB2, somewhere in that 11-14 range for QBs. Antonio Brown continues to be a WR1, even if his upside is limited by a lack of touchdowns and huge plays, there are few other WR options that can be counted on every week to put up consistent fantasy points. I see Brown in that 8-10 range for WRs this week. Emmanuel Sanders and Heath Miller are the only other guys I see as having much fantasy relevance this week. Miller continues to get solid targets and decent catches but has not seen the end zone in eight weeks now and thus cannot be trusted as anything more than a low-end TE2, in that 15-18 range. Sanders continues to be up and down this year, and while he is getting consistent targets and the matchup is pretty nice (Packers give up 10th most fantasy points to WRs), he is more of a high-end WR4 than anything else. No other Steelers passing game player is worth considering this week.

Running Game Thoughts: While Steelers rookie Le’Veon Bell has still not broken the 100-yard mark, he remains one of fantasy’s most worked, and thus reliable, RBs, even if his upside is not as high as many of his peers. Bell made it seven straight weeks with 20-plus total touches last week as the Steelers went into clock-killing mode against the Bengals in a blowout victory. While Bell’s yards per carry was just 2.4 in that game, he added a rushing touchdown and five catches for 50 yards, making his fantasy owners very happy. In many ways, this week’s matchup could make Bell owners even happier, as the Packers run defense has declined steadily through the season. They have given up the eighth most rushing yards in the NFL and have allowed a generous 4.6 yards per carry, fourth highest in the league. The past seven weeks, the Packers have been particularly generous, allowing five 100-yard games and six touchdowns to opposing running backs. Consequently, the Packers are now the 10th most generous defense to opposing fantasy RBs, and in the top five the past four weeks.

While it is not a complete dream matchup being away from home and against a solid offense that can keep pace with the Steelers, Bell is in little trouble of having his 20-touch streak broken, as one of the true workhorse backs in the NFL. While he is not as explosive as some backs, and he has little chance of having one of those “monster” fantasy games, he is steady and consistent and reliable, and for most fantasy owners that can be just as valuable. This week I like Bell as a high-end RB2, somewhere in that 12-15 range, in a game that should see him getting plenty of touches against a weak defense.

Ben Roethlisberger: 280 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Le’Veon Bell: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 25 rec yds
Antonio Brown: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Emmanuel Sanders: 55 rec yds
Heath Miller: 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: There is a lot of news and even more question marks this week with the Packers passing game, and their offense in general. The big question of course is will Aaron Rodgers play or will it be Matt Flynn once again. Unfortunately with deadline’s being what they are, I do not have the luxury to wait and see if Rodgers plays, so I will lay out both scenarios. At this point in the week I believe the most likely scenario is that Rodgers sits again. As of Wednesday night Rodgers has still not been medically cleared and is taking reps with the second team. Of course this could all change in a day or two, but the Packers cannot afford to rush him back and therefore may decide to be cautious, especially with Flynn actually playing well last week. While things obviously change a lot depending on if Rodgers plays, there are a couple of things to consider here. First, the Packers are likely to go run-heavy either way, at least more than normal. In a home game against a Steelers defense that is stronger against the pass than the run, the Pack is likely to lean heavily on Eddie Lacy to either protect Rodgers (if he plays) from taking hits or limit Flynn’s influence on the game.

Of course the Steelers offense is above average and the Packers defense is not exactly the Steel Curtain, so whoever is under center for the Pack will still need to throw it 20-plus times. If Rodgers sits, as I expect he will, Flynn is a shaky, low-end QB2 option as a guy who will probably hand the ball off a lot and be facing a Steelers pass defense that is among the top eight teams in passing yards allowed, completion percentage allowed, yards per pass attempt allowed, and touchdown passes allowed. While Flynn has some nice weapons and may need to play catch-up at some point, he is unlikely to come close to last week’s performance, which was against a poor Cowboys defense. Flynn is not a top 15 option this week and should be on your bench. With Flynn under center, all the Packers' receivers become riskier, although they are certainly capable of having solid games. Jordy Nelson remains the best option, both on the field and in fantasy, as he has continued to produce decent games even with Rodgers out. While 100-plus yards is unlikely with anyone but Rodgers starting, a touchdown is certainly possible and 70-80 yards is not out of the question either. I would feel confident starting Nelson this week, and while his upside without Rodgers is limited, he is still in that 14-18 range, making him a solid WR2. James Jones is the guy I’d trust next, and while he has not been as consistent as Nelson and does not possess the upside, he’s getting solid targets and should draw easier coverage than Nelson. Jones is a solid, mid-range WR3 this week and while I would not be totally confident with him, you could certainly do a lot worse. Jarrett Boykin had a nice game last week (6/83) but is third, at best, in the pecking order and is a risky WR4 this week, best to avoid.

Tight end Andrew Quarless has actually put together back-to-back solid weeks and with Brandon Bostick likely out with an injury, Quarless could once again see six-plus targets. While he is not a game-breaking tight end, the Steelers have been more generous to opposing fantasy TEs the past few weeks and will be without linebacker LaMarr Woodley, so the short part of the field may have a few more open spaces. There are certainly better options out there at TE, but I would have Quarless in the top 14 or so, and he might be the one player on the Packers who gets better stats with Flynn than with Rodgers. Finally, there was news this week of Randall Cobb getting back to practice, and while that is great news for the team, I do not see it affecting things much this week. I really do not think he will play, but if he does he is almost definitely going to be on a snap count and certainly way to risky to start in his first game back in over a month. Now, if Rodgers does play this week, I would rank him in the 10-12 range of QBs, so if you do not have someone better than that, he would certainly be a decent option, but not as high as he normally is because of the time off and the matchup. If Rodgers does play, bump up Nelson to that of a low- to mid-range WR1 and Jones to a low-end WR2. Bostick would still not be starter-worthy and Quarless would stay the same at best. So to sum up, pay attention to the injury reports closely, but either way, there is some value here regardless of who starts. Just be careful what you expect depending on who is under center.

Running Game Thoughts: While the Steelers are no pushover on defense, they are stronger against the pass than the run and, with question marks about who is under center for the Packers, the game plan may be a heavy dose of Eddie Lacy. With or without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are likely to feature the run this week, and that means big possibilities for Lacy. Lacy blew up last week with 171 total yards and one touchdown and is now over 1,000 yards on the season despite missing some time earlier in the year. Over the past five games Lacy has averaged just over 21 touches per game and has four touchdowns combined. While he has had a couple of dud games, he has been one of the more consistent backs this year and will no doubt be a big part of the Packers offense going forward. The Steelers run defense is about average, ranking 19th in yards allowed and allowing one rushing touchdown per game. Compared to other defenses, the Steelers are about average in terms of fantasy points they allow opposing RBs to score, ranking 16th. While rush yardage and touchdown-wise they are fairly generous, the Steelers are tough in limiting RBs’ pass catching. On the season the Steelers have allowed the third fewest catches, and the second fewest receiving yards to opposing backs, which is a shame because Lacy has really been more involved in the passing game lately but may not be able to get going in that way this week.

The good news, in addition to being the likely focus of the Packers offense, is that Lacy is a big power back, which is exactly the kind of back Pittsburgh has had trouble with this year. The Steelers have allowed three 100-plus rushers this year and all three (Adrian Peterson, Daniel Thomas, Stevan Ridley) are bigger, stronger guys rather than smaller scat backs. Lacy should be able to pound the middle of the Steelers defense early, and even if the Packers fall behind, it should not be by enough to totally abandon the run. While I would actually like Lacy a touch more with Rodgers in, he should still be a low-end RB1 with Flynn in, ranking somewhere in that 7-10 range for the position. Start Lacy with confidence this week.

Matt Flynn: 235 pass yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Eddie Lacy: 105 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Jordy Nelson: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
James Jones: 70 rec yds
Brandon Bostick: 40 rec yds
Andrew Quarless: 55 rec yds

Prediction: Steelers 28, Packers 27 ^ Top

Patriots @ Ravens - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The good news for the Patriots this week is that both Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have been practicing and should be active after missing last week’s game. Those two rookies, along with Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, and a healthy Danny Amendola, should give Tom Brady some solid weapons against a tough Ravens defense. The Ravens have given up the 13th fewest passing yards in the league to this point, which is not bad, but they are even better in sacks (12th), completion percentage allowed (third), and quarterback rating allowed (11th). To opposing fantasy QBs the Ravens are fairly tough, allowing the 11th fewest fantasy points, while ranking about in the middle to WRs and TEs. Numbers aside, this is a big game for both teams as playoff positioning (and qualifying) is up for grabs and the Ravens' home crowd should certainly be fired up against one of their better rivals in recent years. For the Patriots, the only injury news that is relevant (besides Thompkins' and Dobson’s probable return) is that one of the Pats' starting lineman, left tackle Nate Solder is questionable with a head injury. While Tom Brady remains one of the better quarterbacks at getting the ball out fast, he will need all the protection he can get as the Ravens apply lots of pressure to opposing quarterbacks. With their best cornerback, Lardarius Webb, covering outside wide receivers most of the day and Brady needing to get the ball out fast, I see a lot of short, quick passes in this game. In this likely scenario both Edelman and Amendola could see a ton of targets, and while they will probably not see a lot of deep bombs, they could certainly rack up the yardage. With the Pats offense being fairly strong and their defense being fairly weak, I could see this turning into a shootout, especially with the Ravens' lack of run game this season.

While this is far from a great matchup for Brady, he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game today and it would be surprising if he did not throw 40-plus times this week, making the volume of work a big plus for his fantasy prospects. The environment will be tough and Brady is likely to take a few sacks and turn the ball over a few times, especially if Solder is out, but the volume of work here and his track record should make Brady a solid back-end QB1, somewhere in the 8-12 range. As for the receivers, Edelman and Amendola should have the safest and most clearest path to nice games, with both being in that 15-23 range. I would prefer Edelman slightly more, however, as he has seen more targets lately and seems to be Brady’s safety valve, something that will come in handy against the Ravens tough pass rush. I would not be surprised if either Dobson or Thompkins catches a long bomb or two, especially after Brady works the middle most of the game, but betting on which one is dangerous, and it is possible that both guys do not top three catches. Dobson is a high-end WR4 and Thompkins more of a low-end WR4. No other receiver is worth mentioning here, as running back Shane Vereen will also eat up a ton of targets. Overall, this is not a great matchup for this unit but there should be plenty of volume here to rack up nice points, even if huge plays are at a premium.

Running Game Thoughts: The Patriots backfield is a mess right now from a fantasy perspective, and this late in the season it is usually not smart to play with a situation like this. With LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, and Shane Vereen all getting touches, all in a seemingly unpredictable quantity, this situation is shaping up as one to avoid unless the matchup is clearly juicy. Unfortunately for owners of any of these players, this week’s opponent is about as tough as they come when it comes to facing the run. The Ravens have given up the seventh fewest rushing yards in the NFL and are one of just 12 teams allowing under 4.0 yards per carry. In addition, the Ravens have let up just four rushing touchdowns, tied for the fewest in the NFL. Consequently, the Ravens are now the fifth toughest defense for opposing fantasy RBs to score against. With the backfield touches in question and the Ravens being so tough on the ground, I would safely eliminate both Blount and Ridley from your fantasy lineup this week, as the situation and their skill set does not match favorably this week.

That leaves us with Shane Vereen as perhaps the best—and only—option this week in the Patriots backfield. I personally had Vereen on one of my PPR leagues this year and while he has huge upside, as shown by his 12-catch, 153-yard outburst in Week 14, he also is only getting around six carries a game, so if the catches are not there (as they were not last week) he can ruin your fantasy week. With defenses clearly understanding that he is a big part of the passing game, most defensive coordinators will plan for that, and he can at least be contained, as he was last week. While his upside is relatively high (top 10), his floor is also fairly low (25 or lower), especially against a tough defense like the Ravens. Personally, I am benching Vereen this week, but I can see starting him as a high-end RB3/flex if you do not have better options.

Tom Brady: 290 pass yds, 3 TDs, 2 INTs
Shane Vereen: 20 rush yds, 45 rec yds
LeGarrette Blount: 40 rush yds
Danny Amendola: 70 rec yds
Julian Edelman: 85 rec yds
Aaron Dobson: 55 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The strange and perhaps frustrating part of this specific matchup is that these two units, the Ravens passing attack, and the Patriots passing defense, have both been so wildly up and down that it is tough to see how this one most likely turns out. Both units have dealt with injuries to significant players, both teams still have a lot to play for, both have talented individual players yet both units are below average as a whole. The Ravens, and specifically Joe Flacco, have not had a great season, but there have certainly been sparks and glimpses of greatness. Flacco has had games against decent teams where he stepped up to the occasion (342 pass yds, 2 TDs , 0 INT vs. Packers) and other games against weaker competition that leave you scratching your head (162 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT vs. Bears). Last week Flacco should have picked apart a weak Lions secondary in the dome, but ended up with just 222 yards and no touchdowns. With a healthy receiving corps Flacco has the tools to succeed but it having a tough time putting it all together. On the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots have been just as unpredictable. They were awful last week against an average passing attack of the Dolphins (312 pass yds allowed, TDs, 0 INT), but exceptional against the elite passing attack of the Broncos (150 pass yds allowed, 2 TDs, 1 INT). With such a crazy range of performances, all we can do is look at the averages of how each team performs in order to predict how this game might turn out. In general, these are two units that are each below average, so we can go ahead and assume that neither unit will likely explode nor be dominated.

The Ravens' best weapon, Torrey Smith, will likely see a lot of coverage from cornerback Aqib Talib, who was playing at an All-Pro level before getting hurt but has tailed off since returning. It is likely that Talib is still banged up, and with a similarly skilled player in Mike Wallace burning the Pats last week (105 yds, 1 TD), I give the slight advantage to Smith here. Other than that matchup, I see the rest of the individual matchups being a wash. The Ravens do not have any other consistent threat and the Patriots do not particularly defend well, or terrible, against wide receivers or tight ends. To me, Flacco remains what he has been most of the year, a QB2, somewhere in that 14-18 range, who should get you a decent amount of points but has little chance of blowing up and carrying your team. His floor is reasonably high compared to some, as the Ravens are a pass-first team, but unless you play in a two-QB league, he is not the guy you want to have starting in fantasy championship week. The aforementioned Smith is still a solid WR2 but more on the low-end, as the Pats try to take away opposing teams' best weapons. Still, Smith has decent upside so is worth starting. The only other weapon on the Ravens you might consider is tight end Dennis Pitta, not necessarily because he is that great, but the tight end position is so thin this year and Pitta at least has the upside to be a low-end TE1. No other Ravens passing game player is start-worthy this week, as they are all wildly inconsistent.

Running Game Thoughts: For Ray Rice owners, this year has been one to forget, as Rice has had his career worst year and at this point seems like a wasted pick in most leagues. With this being the fantasy championship week in most leagues, Rice has one final opportunity to make it up to owners that stuck by him all year. The matchup is a fairly good one on paper. The Ravens are at home, still with something to play for, and face a Patriots team that is struggling to stop the run. On the season, the Patriots have given up the second most rushing yards in the league, trailing only the Bears. While they have given up only nine rushing touchdowns (5th fewest in the NFL), the yardage they give up alone is usually enough to make most decent RBs have a quality fantasy day. In their past 10 games the Pats have allowed 100-plus yards rushing seven times, and the three teams that failed to reach 100 yards are all below-average rushing teams (Carolina, Cleveland, Miami).

On the flip side, Ray Rice has reached 100-plus rushing yards just once this year, and the Ravens are also a below-average running team. So which side has the advantage here? My money is on the Patriots. Rice’s only big game came against the absolute worst rushing defense in the league (Bears) and his only other solid fantasy games came when he scored a touchdown or two. The Pats do not give up a ton of touchdowns despite being generous in giving up yards, so if Rice’s best chance of being a solid fantasy play this week rests on him piling up a bunch of yards, I’m betting he will not. Of course, the matchup is juicy enough to consider Rice as a solid RB3/flex guy, but expecting anything more than that would be foolish. There are easily 15 other RBs I’d rather have this week despite the matchup, so proceed with caution if you are counting on Rice, as he should have a decent but not great game.

Joe Flacco: 280 pass yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Torrey Smith: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Ray Rice: 70 rush yds, 25 rec yds
Dennis Pitta: 70 rec yds
Jacoby Jones: 55 rec yds

Prediction: Patriots 30, Ravens 28 ^ Top

Dolphins at Bills - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: As a team on the precipice of playoff potential, the Dolphins find themselves needing a little help to sneak into the second wildcard spot, but even so they likely need to win each of their final two games to reach the postseason. A three-game winning streak has salvaged their season and not surprisingly quarterback Ryan Tannehill has played his best football of the year in the most recent contests; in no three-game span has he had a more touchdowns (8) or fewer interceptions (2) and his stat line of 312 yards on 25-37 passing for three touchdowns and no interceptions is the best of his career. As would be expected with the quarterback performing well, the Miami receivers are turning in some of their most consistent results of the season; Brian Hartline has posted six straight games of 50 or more yards receiving and has scored twice in the past three games, and Mike Wallace has recorded 80 yards or more and a touchdown in three of the last four games. For fantasy football playoff owners as well as fans of the Dolphins, the recent resurgence for Miami couldn’t have come at a better time, as the hopes of each are still riding high heading into the sixteenth week of the season.

This weekend will be the first time in six games that Buffalo has faced a team with a winning record. During that time they’ve given up seven touchdowns through the air compared to eight interceptions, have surrendered an average of 195 passing yards, and have recorded a total of 20 sacks, all of which are at or better than their season pace. While only two of the past five contests have resulted in a Bills victory, the unit least to blame for the unsatisfactory outcomes has been the pass defense, and since it is that unit which has helped to turn around the fortunes of Miami, that sets the stage for a compelling matchup on Sunday. During the Dolphins' winning streak Tannehill has been sacked seven times (2.3 per game), which is a marked improvement over the prior 11 games, where he went down four times each game. Miami has surrendered the most sacks this season, and that constant pressure on their quarterback has accounted for a large portion of their offensive struggles. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo has recorded the most sacks of any defense in the league, with 3.5 per game, meaning their 20 in the last five is better than even their own averages. Their pass rush and the personnel in their secondary have allowed them to earn a top six ranking in passing yards allowed, and considering how the Dolphins aerial attack ranks just below the league midpoint, it is in this area that the overall outcome of the game will likely be decided.

Running Game Thoughts: With the news of running back Daniel Thomas's injury being better than anticipated, the Dolphins were once again forced to make a decision as to who to start between him and Lamar Miller; by the end of the game the choice was obvious, with Miller receiving three times as many carries and more than three times as many yards as Thomas. This week the choice should be even more obvious, with Thomas reinjuring the same ankle that forced him to miss time in Week 13 and his status for Sunday being uncertain. Miller has been the better back for the majority of the season, but even at that he hasn’t found the end zone since Week 4 and has topped 70 yards only three times all season, breaking the century mark only once. As a team, Miami averages 95.3 rushing yards per game, the ninth worst mark in the league, and Miller is averaging less than 45 yards per game despite gaining 4.0 yards per rush. Because of the offensive line inconsistencies, the Dolphins have shied away from the rush when possible, recording the fourth fewest carries in the NFL and second fewest in the AFC. Although Miller is clearly the running back to own from a fantasy perspective, his potential will remain limited unless he can find the end zone.

Scoring on the ground is even less likely to happen on the road against the Bills, who have allowed only one rushing touchdown at home all season. Despite having the seventh worst yards-against average, Buffalo has the seventh best number of rushing touchdowns allowed, so while the Dolphins may find yards a little easier to pick up in the middle of the field, it is highly unlikely that any Miami ball carrier will hit pay dirt, thereby severely limiting their potential as a fantasy contributor. Buffalo has the tenth worst yards-allowed-per-carry mark in the league in addition to facing the third most rushing attempts from their opponents; the former can be attributed to their aggressive pass rush and the latter largely came from game situations that have gotten out of hand. In their Week 7 matchup in Miami, the home team carried the ball 25 times for 120 yards for an average of 4.8 per attempt. The Bills jumped out to an early lead and the Dolphins were forced to play catch-up for most of the contest; had the game been closer in the first half, Miami could have run the ball more and likely escaped with a win. In Week 16 a steady dose of rushing attack should be employed by the Dolphins to put themselves in the best position to win the game, even though their season-long futility on the ground suggests they’re likely to focus once again on the passing game and rely on the arm of their quarterback.

Ryan Tannehill: 230 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Lamar Miller: 70 rush yds
Mike Wallace: 60 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: Even though a knee sprain couldn’t keep him out of last week’s game against the Jaguars, quarterback EJ Manuel has been declared Out for this matchup weekend due to his limited pocket mobility the team has noticed in practice. In his place Thad Lewis will once again earn the start, his first since Week 8, the week after leading Buffalo to a road win against the same opponent they’ll see this weekend. In three games as a starter Lewis has completed 60.2 percent of his passes, averaging 217.3 yards per game on 20.7 completions with a total of three touchdowns and two interceptions. Those numbers are approximately in line with what Buffalo has averaged for the season as the fourth worst passing attack in the NFL, so while Manuel has better potential and is likely the future of the franchise, in the short term there is little discernible statistical difference between the starter and the backup. The other significant news out of Buffalo concerns wide receiver Steve Johnson, who will miss the Week 16 contest to be with family following the death of his mother. Tragically, he learned of her passing shortly before the game last week but was committed to the team following a full week of preparation; in response the team is showing their dedication to him in releasing him from his football obligations this weekend so that he has time to attend to family and personal matters. The team and its fans will certainly have him in their hearts and minds throughout this week and during the game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Both Johnson and Manuel are currently expected to be available for the season finale.

Without the mobility of Manuel in the pocket and the threat of Johnson to stretch the field, the Bills will have their hands full with a Miami pass rush that has recorded the seventh most sacks, sixth most interceptions, and fifth fewest passing touchdowns allowed this season. As a team, they’ve predominantly thrived on turnovers and increased quarterback pressure, even winning a game in overtime due to forcing a sack. When they don’t get into the backfield, the Dolphins are mediocre against the pass, falling right at the midline with 239 yards against per game. On a per-attempt basis Miami is one of the better teams in the league, but their quality is watered down by the increased volume of passes they’ve had to defend, over 37.6 attempts per game, the eighth most in the NFL. The way most teams have beaten the Dolphins, by throwing early and often, is not generally how the Bills operate, so while the potential exists for Buffalo to emulate the success that others have seen, it is more likely that they’ll ultimately play into the hands of the Miami defense by only throwing as a way of keeping the defense honest.

Running Game Thoughts: In the near-freezing winter weather in Buffalo this weekend, with snow a possibility, the home team will more than ever look to focus on their rushing attack; this is on top of being without both their starting quarterback and their one truly established wide receiver from an already underwhelming receiving corps. On a positive note, the Bills have a top four rushing attack that averages 138.2 yards per game and has found the end zone 13 times, nearly as often as the offense scores through the air. The key to their success all season has been their duo of running backs, each of whom averages more than 50 yards on the ground per game and greater than 4.2 yards per carry. The primary difference between the two running backs has been their usage, where C.J. Spiller sees more time in the middle of the field to allow his dynamic playmaking ability an opportunity to shine, and Fred Jackson earns more carries in short-yardage situations and in the red zone while being used slightly more frequently in the passing game. From a fantasy standpoint, Jackson has significantly outperformed Spiller because of the eight touchdowns he’s recorded compared to only two from his counterpart. Additionally, Jackson has gained 1,052 total yards from scrimmage to Spiller’s 876, despite the latter actually having more rushing yards. The split in production has been tormenting fantasy owners all season, but considering the personnel situation for Sunday, both of the Bills' ball carriers make good starts with each having fantastic potential.

The task of trying to stop the Buffalo duo falls on a Dolphins rush defense that has allowed 117.2 yards per game and barely escapes a bottom ten ranking. They also have surrendered 11 rushing touchdowns this season to go along with 4.2 yards per carry, both of which fall right around the league average. Miami was able to limit the Bills to 90 rushing yards on 30 total carries in Week 7, but they did give up a touchdown to Jackson. The two primary Buffalo running backs were inexplicably given only 17 total carries, significantly less than the 24 they average on the season. If the snow games in Philadelphia or Baltimore are any indication of the playing conditions to be expected on Sunday, the Dolphins will have an even more difficult time containing Spiller and Jackson; in the snow, offensive players have the advantage because of the footing and the defenders being less able to immediately react to cuts and moves made by the ball carrier. While either running back could be in line for a monster game, the most likely scenario is that of the pair approximately splitting carries and probably turning in similar days on the stat sheet, though based on their season performances, Jackson will have the greater potential because of his propensity for getting red zone touches.

Thaddeus Lewis: 190 pass yds
Fred Jackson: 90 rush yds, 1 TD
C.J. Spiller: 50 rush yards, 20 rec yards
Robert Woods: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Dolphins 17, Bills 16 ^ Top

Browns at Jets - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: Even with three different starting quarterbacks this season and the third worst yards-per-attempt average in the league, Cleveland has a top ten passing attack in terms of both yards gained and touchdowns scored. A large portion of this success is due to wide receiver Josh Gordon, who leads the league in receiving yards despite being suspended for two games. He has recorded more games with 100 yards (7) than without (5) and has gained 200 yards just as often as he has failed to reach 65. Regardless of who has been at quarterback, Gordon has continued to produce, making him one of the most reliable fantasy receivers this season and ranking him at or near the top of his position. Under center this week will be Jason Campbell, who is making his seventh start and seventh appearance for the year. In games that he has both started and finished Campbell has attempted at least 35 passes and completed at least 22 of them, totaling 124 of 210 for a 59 percent completion rate, averaging 293.4 yards per game, and recording 10 touchdowns with five interceptions in those five games. The veteran signal caller has generally been good for tight end Jordan Cameron, who had originally found a rhythm with quarterback Brian Hoyer yet struggled to produce with Brandon Weeden leading the team. While fantasy TEs are notoriously unreliable, the potential for Cameron to contribute late in the playoffs should be enticing for any owners who weathered the storm in the middle of the season.

The biggest reason to start Browns pass catchers is the defense they’re facing; the Jets have been even more permissive lately than they have for the majority of the season, even with their ranking as the seventh worst unit in the league. On top of allowing 255 yards per game, they’ve also surrendered 25 touchdowns (worse than average) while forcing only eight interceptions, more than just one other team. In the past five games, all of which came against teams ranking below the league midpoint, New York has allowed eight passing touchdowns while forcing only three interceptions and surrendering 277.4 yards per contest. Against a pass-heavy Cleveland squad, about the only thing that could help the Jets defense is inclement weather, and depending on when the expected front moves through, there will either be perfect playing conditions or it could be extremely windy at game time. Without any external assistance, New York and their depleted secondary will have their hands full trying to keep up with Gordon and whoever else releases down or across the field, as the Browns figure to throw early and often, giving Cleveland WRs and TEs great upside for Sunday and making Gordon once again the play of the weekend.

Running Game Thoughts: This area of the game plan is simply not a continuous point of focus for Cleveland; they have fewer rush attempts than all but two other teams and have fewer rushing yards than all but five. On average they record six fewer attempts per game than their opponents and throw nearly twice as often as they run; their 600 passes and 307 rushes give them the second most unbalanced offense in the NFL. After trading away running back Trent Richardson, they’ve equaled his production through contributions from Willis McGahee and Chris Ogbonnaya, with Fozzy Whittaker receiving touches occasionally. Richardson wasn’t worth playing from a fantasy perspective, so splitting his production among multiple players makes everyone even less playable. On only two occasions has McGahee surpassed 50 yards, but in each of those games he also recorded a touchdown. As a team, the Browns have rushed for only three scores and average less than 85 yards per game, meaning that none of their running backs are worth a fantasy start except in the most desperate of situations and the deepest of fantasy leagues.

As if their own performances weren’t enough of a reason to sit all Cleveland RBs, the defense they face this weekend is the third stingiest unit in the league, allowing a meager 86.1 rushing yards per game. However, in their three most recent contests, the Jets have surrendered 125 yards or more and given up a touchdown in each of the last two. Despite a season of mediocrity, the Browns have managed to top 93 rushing yards four times in the last five games, giving their offense just enough balance to prevent opposing defenses from entirely loading up against the pass. Unfortunately, the team’s leading rusher for each game changes nearly every week, with four different players leading in carries over the past five games, and only once did they break 40 yards. Considering how directly the strengths of one team line up with the weaknesses of the other, this particular game is likely to feature as few rushes as possible to maintain some semblance of balance to keep the defense relatively honest.

Jason Campbell: 280 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Willis McGahee: 30 rush yds
Josh Gordon: 130 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: Since both teams can’t lose, at least one will fare better in Week 16 than they have recently, with the Jets and Browns combining for a 1-9 record over the past five games. New York still has an opportunity to get back to .500 and possibly save Rex Ryan’s job at the same time. Even with a rookie quarterback and a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball, the Jets were 5-4 going into their bye in Week 10 but have since gone 1-4. During that span quarterback Geno Smith has lost and then regained his starting role, seeing split time in two contests in addition to the team utilizing the wildcat offense on occasion. Following consecutive terrible performances coming out of the bye, Smith has slowly played less awfully, eventually working his way up to a 64 percent completion rate with a 1-1 TD-INT ratio in a home victory two weeks ago; sadly, that 219-yard performance is one of his three best of the season. He has struggled with inconsistencies and turnovers all year, averaging only a 55.3 percent completion rate and throwing 21 interceptions with only 10 touchdowns. The Jets are second worst in yards gained per game, second worst in sacks surrendered, second worst in interceptions thrown, last in passing touchdowns scored, and are the only team in the league with a completion rate below 55 percent, making them undoubtedly the worst overall passing offense in the NFL. Over the past five weeks the Jets have had five different leading receivers and only twice has a receiver gained more than 60 yards; the most fantasy-relevant pass catcher has been starting tight end Jeff Cumberland, with two touchdowns, and the only other player to find the end zone has been wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, with one score.

If ever there were a silver lining to playing a top ten defense, it would be that recently they’ve been less than stellar and their best defender may be out for the remainder of the season. Cleveland allows only 225 passing yards per game and a very slim 6.2 yards per attempt, ninth and third best, respectively. In the other areas where New York has struggled, the Browns are also rather effective, recording sacks and surrendering touchdowns near the league average while forcing sacks more often than two-thirds of the league. In the last three games, Cleveland has been a bit less daunting defensively, with 286.7 yards per game, eight touchdowns to only four interceptions, and permitting a 62 percent completion rate with 7.1 yards per attempt. Even the eight sacks they’ve recorded in the last three games is less than their season average. In all, the Jets have been a mess offensively, especially through the air, though with the recent decline in the Cleveland defense and the potential loss of star cornerback Joe Haden, New York has a reasonable chance to move the ball through the air if Smith can find a way to make good decisions and get the ball out of his hands on time.

Running Game Thoughts: In order for the Jets to have a hope at getting to 8-8 by the end of the season, their rushing attack will likely have to shoulder an even more significant portion of the load than it already does. For a top ten ground game averaging 128.3 yards per contest, it may be hard to improve too much, but the talent is certainly present for it to be possible. Thanks to the work of running back Chris Ivory and change-of-pace man Bilal Powell, the team has the ability to run the ball consistently, always with a fresh set of legs, and in certain circumstances Smith has gotten into the rushing attack and averaged nearly 20 yards per game. The largest obstacle faced by the rushing attack is the futility of the passing game, giving defenses the opportunity to load up against the run with eight or even nine players in the box. Despite the relative success of the running game, even in the face of extra defenders, New York is one of the teams least capable of reaching the end zone, falling into the bottom third of the league with only nine rushing touchdowns all year. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Ivory and Powell have only four of those scores, with four going to Smith and the last going to the fullback. Since the quarterback is a poor fantasy start because of his propensity for turnovers, the likelihood of a Jets ball carrier both reaching the end zone and contributing to a fantasy team is particularly small; the two have combined for one touchdown in the past four weeks, the same number as their quarterback during that same span.

By the numbers, the Browns rush defense is even better than their pass defense. But just as the unit has been slipping recently, so has the other. Over the past three games Cleveland has allowed an average of 126 rushing yards per contest and 4.7 per attempt while surrendering two touchdowns and allowing one 125-yard rusher. Compared to their season average of 103.8 yards per game and a meager 3.7 per attempt, the latest marks don’t bode well considering the strengths of the Jets offense. The Browns front seven is one of the most underrated groups in the league and is one of the biggest factors in their defensive success; they will be directly opposed by a New York offensive line who as a group has been inconsistent and forced into even worse positions due to the play of their quarterback. Cleveland will surely look for holes to exploit in the O-line, likely targeting center Brian Waters, as most teams have this season; the subsequent chain reaction of other linemen helping out will ultimately leave a weakness somewhere along the line of scrimmage that the Browns can find and use to their advantage. Ivory and Powell have the ability to carry the game on their backs but they need to be given the opportunity to do so, something that Cleveland will almost certainly try to take away from the Jets' game plan this weekend.

Geno Smith: 150 pass yds, 1 INT / 30 rush yds
Chris Ivory: 60 rush yds
Jeremy Kerley: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Browns 17, Jets 9 ^ Top

Cowboys at Redskins - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: Sometimes when the Cowboys lose in December the fault lies with the defense, other times the offense set them up for failure. Two weeks ago Dallas couldn’t stop the Bears from scoring until their last drive, which mercifully ended with kneel-downs; this past week the offense built a 26-3 halftime lead and saw two late interceptions from Tony Romo bring the Packers not only back into the game, but also give them the ball with just enough time to run out the clock from the victory formation. Despite the perceived offensive struggles, Romo has still thrown the fourth fewest interceptions in the league and has attempted significantly more passes than everyone with as many or fewer picks. Additionally, he’s thrown the third most touchdowns while attempting fewer passes than those tied with or ahead of him; when combined, those statistics illustrate how Dallas is one of the most efficient pass offenses in the NFL with respect to scoring production and protecting the football. The leading Cowboys receivers continue to be Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, who in the most recent contest combined for 224 of the team's 384 receiving yards and both of their passing touchdowns. With Terrance Williams not expected to be available for Sunday (hamstring), Dallas will be without their third leading receiver, placing even more importance on the top two contributors. All together, those three represent 65.2 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 82.7 percent of their touchdowns on the season.

Even with the latest December meltdowns, Dallas is still in control of their own playoff fate, needing to win in Washington this week and then at home in the season finale to claim the NFC East title and the fourth playoff spot, thanks to a perfect 6-0 division record. First things first though, which includes getting through a heated rivalry game where the Redskins have their eyes set on upset and keeping the Cowboys out of the playoffs. The task of frustrating Romo will fall on the 21st-ranked passing defense, which has allowed 252 yards per game and twice as many touchdowns against as interceptions forced (26-13). Most telling, however, is the completion percentage opposing quarterbacks have achieved and the accompanying yards per attempt against the Redskins, both of which are second worst in the league. In all, Washington has an extremely difficult time getting off the field defensively whenever teams commit to throwing, and if their opponents don’t stop themselves, the defense isn’t likely to do it for them.

Running Game Thoughts: On Thanksgiving, running back DeMarco Murray put together one of the best performances in the history of Dallas's Turkey Day game, rushing for three touchdowns and gaining over 100 yards from scrimmage. That same week it was learned that backup Lance Dunbar (knee) would be lost for the season. In the two weeks since, Murray has received 36 of the team’s 46 carries and accounted for 280 of their 332 rushing yards while averaging an absurd 7.8 yards per attempt and recording one touchdown. Rookie ball carrier Joseph Randle has carried nine times for 56 yards and poached one score away from the starter, but even at that, Murray is averaging 140 yards per game on the ground and is handling the lion’s share of carries, including all 18 of the attempts last week. Going forward, the Cowboys will continue to utilize Murray as both a balance to the passing attack and one of the league’s most underrated weapons in the ground game. In the Week 6 matchup between these teams, Dallas was held to 48 rush yards as a team but still managed to score town touchdowns via the run, and even with limited touches, Murray still averaged 4.1 yards per carry in the middle of what was a brutal stretch for the Cowboys running game. Now safely on the other side of that slump, Murray runs with the fury of a man trying to will his team into the playoffs, something that will certainly work to the advantage of his fantasy owners as they’re searching out their own playoff successes.

Running backs looking for the most touchdown bang for their game-day buck need to look no further than the Redskins defense, which has surrendered the most touchdowns of any team this season despite coming outside the top ten for attempts faced. While the yardage they give up is approximately average for the league at 110.9 yards per game and their per-rush average is slightly better than average, they can’t seem to find a way to keep their opponents out of the end zone. They have allowed 11 rushing touchdowns with multiple scores in five their past six games (all losses), including a three-touchdown performance. During that time, they’ve actually been better in yards allowed, giving up 103.2 yards per game; and excluding the 192-yard disaster against Kansas City, that average drops to 85.4 in the other five contests. With respect to their flaws in defending against the pass, most opponents have found it beneficial to throw against the Redskins in the middle of the field, with an appropriate mix of running plays, and to focus more heavily on the run in the red zone. In Week 16, expect to see Romo open up the game with his arm and Murray take advantage of the scoring opportunities that will almost certainly be placed just in front of him.

Tony Romo: 300 pass yds, 2 TDs
DeMarco Murray: 80 rush yds, 2 TDs / 30 rec yds
Dez Bryant: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Jason Witten: 60 rec yards

Passing Game Thoughts: In the event that there is a fantasy football team out there that has stumbled into the playoffs without a solid QB, or who has a QB but isn’t happy with them, new Washington starter Kirk Cousins may be the ultimate wildcard as the season draws to a close. On the NFL side of things, the Redskins have struggled all year as Robert Griffin III has battled inconsistencies following offseason knee surgery, likely never returning to full strength and confidence. So in a move to salvage the season and possibly draw out trade offers, they’ve decided to bench last year’s second overall draft pick for a fellow sophomore signal caller. While this didn’t have any impact on their postseason future, it sent a ripple through the fantasy world when Cousins turned in a solid performance in his first start if the year, recording three touchdowns and 381 yards on a 64.4 percent passing day that also included two interceptions and a lost fumble. True that it came against one of the lesser defenses in the league, but it was on the road and the box score did represent one of the best days that the Redskins have put together all year, turnovers aside. Now in his first home game as a starter, Cousins will look to build on the success he had in Atlanta while he cleans up the mistakes that likely came from jitters associated with his first full game under center.

This weekend Cousins will become the fourth straight backup quarterback to face the Cowboys, something that has worked out well for both previous NFC replacements. Dallas has gone 1-2 against backups predominantly because of their atrocious defense, whose biggest deficiencies come against the pass. This season they have allowed a league worst 297 passing yards per game and more touchdowns than all but one other team. Opponents complete 65.2 percent of their pass attempts against the Cowboys and have been sacked only 29 times, both of which are seventh worst. Dallas has allowed 299 or more yards and at least three touchdowns in consecutive weeks while recording only one interception and three sacks. Assuming Washington is able to protect their quarterback (only one sack last week), Cousins should have ample opportunities to continue the misery that backup quarterbacks have brought to the Cowboys, potentially leading Washington to their first win in seven weeks and likely derailing Dallas's playoff aspirations.

Running Game Thoughts: Without a duel-threat quarterback to distribute the rushing load, even more ball-carrying responsibilities fall onto Alfred Morris, responsibilities which he nearly fumbled away in Atlanta after putting the ball on the ground twice and seeing those mistakes result in turnovers. The team suffered seven turnovers on the day and still nearly won the game, and would have done so if they had converted their two-point attempt after scoring with 18 seconds left in the game. In that one-game sample, Morris gained 98 yards on 18 carries, just three carries and five yards shy of the team totals. Given a similar distribution this weekend, his reliability will help to ease the pressure placed on Cousins and should do well to maintain offensive balance, even with the possibility of the read-option all but eliminated. Of the 316 rushes and 1,484 yards not contributed by Griffin, over 74.7 percent of each have come from Morris, a trend that is likely to continue despite the constant threat of a time-share with Roy Helu, who has recorded four touchdowns compared to six from Morris. Given the limited number of touches for Helu last week, Morris remains one of the top fantasy RB options, as he has been for most of the year, provided that the division of labor doesn’t change in response to his fumbles from last weekend.

By comparison, the Dallas rush defense is better than their pass defense, but only because it literally couldn’t be worse; with only 32 teams in the NFL, the Cowboys can’t rank 33rd, though their recent performances give rise to that sort of outside-of-the-box thinking. In three of the last four games, their defense has allowed 149 or more rushing yards, averaging 137.8 per contest and allowing four scores in addition to being abysmal against the pass. For Washington, this opens the possibility of maintaining a wonderfully balanced offense while still obliterating the Cowboys in whichever aspect of the game they wish to attack. The biggest potential roadblock revolves around Cousins and the relative inexperience he’ll bring into the game, which was at least partially responsible for the seven-turnover fiasco last weekend. While the outlook for the Redskins' season is particularly dim—possibly only playing for trade value (Cousins), job security, or draft picks—the massive void that exists where the Dallas defense should be is incredibly encouraging for fantasy owners of Morris, and potentially for those daring few who start Cousins as well.

Kirk Cousins: 330 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Alfred Morris: 80 rush yds, 1 TD
Pierre Garcon: 90 rec yds

Prediction: Cowboys 34, Redskins 31 ^ Top

Bears at Eagles - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: The Bears are the one NFC North team in control their own playoff destiny. They can still get in without winning this week and could still miss out even if they do win, but if they take care of business in the final two games of the season, not only will they be in the playoffs but they’ll be the third seed in their conference. After seven appearances (five starts) with Josh McCown as their signal caller, Chicago was faced with the decision of keeping him and his 13-1 TD-INT ratio or going back to their franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler, who has finally healed from his ankle injury. To a mixed fan-base reaction, Cutler got the start last week in Cleveland, throwing two early interceptions but bouncing back with three touchdowns and a 71 percent completion rate for 265 yard. Most importantly he helped to earn a win for the Bears. The key to the team’s success, regardless of who is under center, has been wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who each have 80 or more receptions, seven or more touchdowns, and 1,185 or more yards. The only downside to having two stellar receivers is that only rarely do they both have great games; just three times this year have they each scored a touchdown in the same game and only once have they both eclipsed 100 yards.

Those two alone ought to be enough to overwhelm the Eagles pass defense, but on top of that, running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett each have 85 or more targets, giving Chicago one of the most complete set of pass-catchers in the league. Against mediocre aerial attacks, let alone top five units like the Bears, Philadelphia has struggled all season long, finishing ahead of just one team in yardage surrendered. In other areas of their defense the Eagles are less bad, with a below-average mark for sacks recorded (32), a mediocre number of touchdowns allowed (22), and a top ten rating for interceptions forced (16). So while they may give up more yards than almost every other team, they’re able to force enough pressure and record enough turnovers to keep teams from entirely dominating the game through the air. Chicago will be the fourth top five passing offense that the Eagles have faced, with Philadelphia's only win against those teams coming in the snow two weeks ago, a game in which the weather did just as much as the defense, if not more, to limit the opposition. This weekend Philadelphia won’t come anywhere near freezing, even for the Sunday night game, so they’ll have to find a way to hold a top-flight offense in check on their own, something they’ve yet to do through 14 games this year.

Running Game Thoughts: To complement their top five passing attack Chicago also boasts a ground game that records more yards than the league average and with a per attempt average in the top ten. Forte is one of the top duel threat running backs in the NFL with the third most rushing yards, fourth most receiving yards, and third most total yards from scrimmage; he averages 123 total yards per game on just over 23 touches. The only potential shortcoming in his production comes from his less than stellar touchdown total (9), but considering that 29 of the team’s 40 touchdowns have come through the air he’s doing rather well to earn himself a piece of that scoring pie. For three games in a row he’s recorded 100 yards or more on the ground in addition to adding 108 total yards through the air as well as a receiving touchdown. He hasn’t reached the end zone via the rush since early November but goal line vulture running back Michael Bush has scored twice during that time. Forte receives roughly five carries for every one that Bush does so while lately the latter has been stealing some of his thunder the former is far more likely to score based solely on volume of touches.

One overlooked aspect of the Eagles defense is that their ability to limit their opponent’s rushing attack has been relatively consistent, holding ball carriers to 3.8 yards per rush, the sixth best mark in the league. In a bit of strange symmetry, they’ve also faced the sixth most attempts, so that they fall right along the midline for yards allowed per game. In a general sense, teams have been able to move the ball against Philadelphia in a method remarkably similar to the story of the tortoise and the hare, where slow and steady wins the race. During the past three games, Eagles opponents have gained 80-90 yards each but have scored a total of four rushing touchdowns despite averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. While the Bears have been both efficient and consistent in running the ball, at least one of those areas will be challenged this weekend. As others have demonstrated in recent games, eventually a hole will open up in the Eagles defense for the ball carrier to run through and probably find his way into the end zone, something Forte hasn’t been able to do since Week 9.

Jay Cutler: 270 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Matt Forte: 90 rush yds, 1 TD / 50 rec yds
Brandon Marshall: 120 rec yds, 2 TDs
Alshon Jeffery: 80 rec yards, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: The first rule of the fantasy football playoffs is to play your studs. Regardless of matchup, situation, history, trends, or likely game plan, play your studs. Since taking over in Week 6, excluding a game missed for injury and a bye week, Nick Foles has been the best fantasy QB and arguably the best in the NFL. He’s a stud, period, and should be started as such. In seven and a half games as the primary quarterback (replacing Vick halfway through Week 5) he’s averaged nearly 320 yards per contest with a 62 percent completion rate, throwing 22 touchdowns and only two interceptions while also rushing for three scores; he also added a garbage-time touchdown in Week 4. For Foles those two interceptions have come in the two latest games, one of which was clearly the worst full game of his career, which also coincided with the worst weather game in which he’s ever played. On the precipice of the playoffs Philadelphia will once again be turning to their backup-turned-starter to lead their offense, this time in the final regular-season home game before traveling to a division rival to conclude the season. If Foles continues to reinforce his status as a statistical stud, both his NFL and fantasy teams will be headed for playoff glory.

The most recognizable piece of Chicago’s secondary will be missing as the Bears travel east to try to slow down the high-powered Eagles passing attack; cornerback Charles Tillman (triceps) was officially placed on IR this week after he had previously been designated for return. He hasn’t played in any of the five most recent games, though, and until last week a quarterback had yet to break 250 passing yards against them and only once did any record multiple touchdowns. No receiver has gained more than 80 yards against Chicago during that time and opposing quarterbacks have been held to 55 percent passing with a combined TD-INT ratio of 7-5. All of this creates quite a challenge for Foles, especially since Chicago is the best passing defense he’s faced since playing half of a game against the Giants in Week 5, where he led the Eagles to a comeback victory and used that performance to propel himself into the starting role.

Running Game Thoughts: The league’s leading rusher and No. 2 overall fantasy RB, LeSean McCoy, will be looking to bounce back in a big way after seeing season lows in both carries and yards last week against a disappointing Vikings defense. Salvaging the day were his five receptions for 68 yards, the third highest production McCoy has had this year; though he was kept out of the end zone for the second time in three weeks, he does have four touchdowns over the past four games. With the exception of last week, the transition from Vick to Foles at quarterback meant a decline in the scoring opportunities for McCoy, but after a brief adjustment period, the star running back has seen a steady increase in his production as the season has drawn near its finale. He has gained 105 or more yards from scrimmage for five straight weeks and has received 24 or more touches in all but the most recent game. McCoy is the primary running back for a team that leads the league with 152.9 yards per game and a full five yards per carry while also landing in the top five for rushing touchdowns scored. The increase in his workload has directly aligned with victories for Philadelphia; since Foles became the starting quarterback (and did not leave due to injury)and in games where McCoy has touched the ball 14 or more times, they have emerged victorious, whereas failing to give him that many touches has resulted in defeat.

Understanding that correlation, the Eagles are likely to give McCoy at least his fair share of opportunities, and considering that Chicago has the league’s worst rush defense, they’re likely to give him as many touches as he can handle. The only possible grounds for improvement for the Bears is that linebacker Lance Briggs may possibly make his return to the field after missing seven games with a fractured shoulder. With or without him the defense is still woefully underwhelmed with talent because of injuries, particularly at the heart of the defensive line and throughout the linebacking corps. On the season, Chicago has allowed 152.4 rushing yards per game, nearly 20 more than the next closest team, while also allowing a massive 5.2 yards per carry, which is also the worst mark in the NFL. Adding insult to injury is the number of touchdowns they’ve allowed (17), which ranks them only two spots above the bottom of the list. For those reasons it is no surprise that the Bears have faced more rushing attempts than all but three other teams, a statistic that the Eagles would surely like to see climb even higher. Between the prowess of Philadelphia on the ground, the rushing attack led by McCoy, and the Bears' near inability to stop the run, all signs point to a monster game from the league’s most prolific ball carrier, potentially making him the fantasy football play of the week.

Nick Foles: 240 pass yds, 2 TDs
LeSean McCoy: 150 rush yds, 2 TDs / 40 rec yds
DeSean Jackson: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Riley Cooper: 50 rec yards

Prediction: Bears 38, Eagles 34 ^ Top