Thursday Night Football
Indianapolis @ Jacksonville
60 degree temperatures, 13 mph winds, and a 30 percent chance of rain are in the Municipal Stadium forecast Thursday night, so passing is unlikely to be inhibited.
Having opted to play their starters despite clinching the AFC, the Colts trot out the NFL's No. 1 passing offense in a mismatch with Jacksonville's No. 26 pass defense. There is no indication that Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, or Dallas Clark will be pulled during the game. They're all elite starts.
Top CB Rashean Mathis' (groin) return helps the Jags' secondary on paper, but probably won't make a difference. More of an overaggressive gambler than "shutdown" cover guy anyway, Mathis will likely be rusty after a month on the sidelines. Manning may throw at Mathis early with fellow CB Derek Cox playing well of late.
Colts slot receiver Austin Collie has scored in two straight, but is only averaging 35 receiving yards per game since Week 6. Especially in the fantasy play-offs, it's hard to trust a guy whose value is so touchdown dependent.
As usual, Pierre Garcon will face single coverage and is a high-quality WR3 in a favorable match up. The Colts' primary deep threat has out-produced Wayne over the last month.
Jacksonville permits just 4.0 yards per carry on the ground and gets a shot in the arm with 6'7"/335lb DT John Henderson (shoulder) back, but Joseph Addai is always difficult to bench as the every-down RB for a high-scoring offense. He's fourth in the NFL in touchdowns.
Maurice Jones-Drew's 3.37 YPC average since Week 10 is slight cause for concern considering he's already set a career high with 295 touches. While it's possible that MoJo is wearing down late in the year, he still leads the NFL in touchdowns and is the guy that got you here.
With David Garrard and his wide outs struggling, expect a run-first approach from Jags play caller Dirk Koetter as long as Indy doesn't jump ahead early. Helping matters, the Colts rank a below-average 17th against the run, and DEs Dwight Freeney (abdomen) and Robert Mathis (quad) are questionable.
Mike Sims-Walker is hard to trust as more than a WR3 with six grabs for 64 yards and no TDs combined in his last three games while battling a calf injury. The Colts have also given up the third fewest passing scores in the league and allow just 6.3 YPA. Use MSW at your own risk.
David Garrard plays well at home, but only has thrown 10 passing touchdowns all year. He's a low-end QB2 in a tough match-up.
Torry Holt's 71 yards in Week 14 were his most since Week 6, and came on just two catches (one for 63 yards). He hasn't scored a touchdown as a Jag.
Rookie TE Zach Miller cuts into Marcedes Lewis' targets too much for either to be an option.
My Pick — Colts
Saturday Night Football
Dallas @ New Orleans — My Upset
The losses of top CBs Jabari Greer (groin), Tracy Porter (knee) and Randall Gay (hamstring) are catching up to New Orleans.
Gashed by Chris Redman and Jason Campbell for 676 yards, four touchdowns, and a 70 percent completion rate in Weeks 13-14, the Saints now welcome red-hot Tony Romo to the Superdome. Romo has a 7:0 TD to INT ratio, 317 yards-per-game average, and 8.33 YPA in his last three outings. This is a terrific match-up indoors.
Romo is also clicking with Miles Austin again. Dallas' go-to wide out has scored in three straight while averaging eight grabs for 107 yards a game since Week 11. You won't find a better receiver play this week.
Roy Williams has benefited from Dallas' opened-up attack and is worth a WR3 gamble in what figures to be a high-scoring affair.
New Orleans is one of the NFL's tougher teams on tight ends, although few players in this game are worth sitting. Jason Witten should run plenty of pass routes as play caller Jason Garrett looks to prey on New Orleans' banged-up secondary.
Marion Barber hasn't scored since Week 8 and was disturbingly unable to punch it in on four straight second-quarter tries inside the Chargers' three-yard line last week. He'd still be hard to bench against a Saints defense that's given up 15 rushing scores through 13 games and allows 4.4 YPC.
The Cowboys' inability to generate pass rush cost them Week 14. Sacked just once, Philip Rivers was able to connect deep with Vincent Jackson, who entered the game coming off one of the biggest four-week droughts of his career. V-Jax had 120 yards on seven grabs.
Potentially without OLB DeMarcus Ware (neck), it's hard to imagine Dallas slowing Drew Brees. Expect another big game for Brees and No. 1 WR Marques Colston.
Robert Meachem went scoreless for the first time since Week eight last Sunday, but was promisingly involved in more short-to-intermediate stuff than usual. He is becoming a complete receiver and is likely to pick it back up against Dallas.
Devery Henderson has fallen into the old situational role that Meachem once occupied, making him too unreliable for the fantasy play-offs.
Jeremy Shockey's ankle injury has become a concern. He was in and out of the lineup last week at Atlanta and is a mere TE2 with zero games over 47 yards and no touchdowns in his last six efforts.
The guess here is that Sean Payton hasn't let Pierre Thomas top 15 carries since Week four because he wants Thomas 100 percent for the play-offs. P.T. wore down late last season. However, this doesn't make Reggie Bush or Mike Bell good plays, particularly against a No. 8 overall Dallas run defense that's allowed just six rushing TDs all season.
My Pick — Cowboys
1:00PM ET Games
Miami @ Tennessee
Despite a favorable forecast for passing at LP Field (40 degree temperatures, 7 mph winds, 20 percent chance of rain), this is a running game-friendly match-up.
Both teams rank in the top four in rush attempts. The Dolphins do play the run well, but Chris Johnson can't be stopped. He needs 159.7 yards per game in the last three weeks to catch Eric Dickerson for the all-time rushing record, and 137.3 total yards per game to catch Marshall Faulk for the all-purpose yardage mark. With the Titans' play-off hopes also still alive, they'll make sure to get the ball in the hands of their best play-maker against the visiting Dolphins.
Vince Young has a gimpy knee and hamstring. He's slated to start, but is too unreliable for use in standard leagues, even against Miami's No. 22 pass defense.
Kenny Britt has at least 75 yards and/or a TD in each of his last four games. Despite Young's injuries, Tennessee's No. 1 receiver is a quality WR3 in a match-up with a Dolphins secondary that gives up loads of big plays.
Keep away from Nate Washington and Justin Gage. Washington has a case of the drops and may lose snaps with Gage (back) getting close to 100 percent.
Bo Scaife has emerged from the Titans' three-pack of tight ends, but his mediocre talent and a deep rotation at the position kill any upside.
Ricky Williams' ability to hold up to 20-touch weekly workloads at age 32 is highly impressive. He had 30 touches last week and has nine TDs in his last eight games. The Titans aren't as good against the run as their No. 7 overall rank indicates on paper, leaking out 4.2 YPC and 11 rushing scores through 13 games. Ricky is a must-start, as usual.
Ted Ginn Jr. officially lost his starting split end job to rookie Brian Hartline last week, although Hartline didn't capitalize with just 34 yards. The Dolphins' receiver rotation continues to crush any hint of fantasy accountability.
Davone Bess' first-half ankle tweak in Week 14 forced Greg Camarillo into the primary receiver role at Jacksonville. The 110-yard game was by far Camarillo's best of the year. However, Bess is 100 percent this week and could just as easily take the position back. Neither is usable in the fantasy playoffs.
Chad Henne was better against the Jags than the stats (220 yards, no touchdowns) indicated, completing a club-record 17 straight passes at one point and exhibiting terrific accuracy, especially on intermediate throws. It's just too bad Miami lacks the pass-catching play-makers for Henne to ever have a high fantasy ceiling. He's only a QB2 despite the favorable match-up.
My Pick — Titans
Arizona @ Detroit
Cardinals LT Mike Gandy was a major liability in his return from a pelvis injury last Monday night. The good news: only three teams have fewer sacks than the Lions, whose No. 32 pass defense has no chance of slowing down Kurt Warner or exploiting Gandy the same way San Francisco did. Safely expect Warner to rediscover top-ten QB1 form indoors at Ford Field.
Larry Fitzgerald (knee) will be listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. He's very likely to start, but check back Sunday morning to be sure. Rotoworld will have all the inactives posted around 12PM ET.
Chris Wells is locked in as Arizona's featured runner with 29 touches and a TD compared to Tim Hightower's 11 touches, no scores, and two lost fumbles in the last two games. Confidently use Wells against a Lions team that served up an earth-shattering 308 yards and five touchdowns to Ravens ball carriers last week. Running with power, explosion, and decisiveness, Wells will be a top-25 pick in 2010 fantasy drafts.
Anquan Boldin is averaging a 7-80 line with three TDs in his last five games. He'll face off with struggling Lions CB Will James and is a borderline WR1.
Sit Steve Breaston unless Fitzgerald is a surprise scratch. Breaston hasn't topped 26 yards in a month.
Kevin Smith's ACL tear leaves Detroit with a running back corps that has no shot at fantasy postseason success. 30-year-old Maurice Morris, averaging 3.7 YPC, takes over as the starter. He'll lose passing-game looks to speedy Jerious Norwood clone Aaron Brown and perhaps some short-yardage work to versatile fullback Jerome Felton.
The Lions also have poor matchups with Arizona (held Adrian Peterson to 19 yards on 13 carries in Week 13) and San Francisco (3.7 YPC allowed, No. 5 overall). Even the desperate should look elsewhere.
Calvin Johnson was held out of practice Thursday and appears to have suffered a setback in his recovery from a troublesome knee injury. The Cardinals are sure to press Johnson at the line with top CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and keep FS Antrel Rolle over the top, especially since Detroit will pose no threat on the ground.
With Daunte Culpepper starting again (the duo hooked up just four times for 37 yards last week), owners can consider benching Johnson if they have strong, safer options. You already know to avoid Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, and TE Will Heller.
My Pick — Cardinals
Houston @ St. Louis
The Texans are the recommended "deep" fantasy defense play of the week
Forced to cancel practice Thursday, the Rams admitted that several of their players have been diagnosed with H1N1. Top QB Kyle Boller and C Jason Brown are among them. St. Louis will be without its entire interior offensive line after placing LG Jacob Bell on injured reserve Tuesday and waiving RG Richie Incognito. RT Jason Smith (concussions) also still isn't ready to play.
It looks like D-II rookie Keith Null, coming off a five-interception performance, will make his second straight start for St. Louis.
Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are marquee plays indoors at The Ed against St. Louis' weak pass defense.
Kevin Walter had just 17 yards on two catches last week versus a Seattle secondary that's even weaker than the Rams'. Leave him benched.
The biggest story in Houston is at tailback.
While Chris Brown is supposed to start, Ryan Moats is expected to be weeded out of the rotation after losing a Week 14 fumble and struggling in blitz pickup. The path is clear for rookie Arian Foster to see 14-18 touches in a high-scoring offense against the Rams' No. 27 run defense. Consider him a strong RB2 in PPR formats and viable FLEX play in standard settings.
It's hard to disagree with Gregg Rosenthal's assertion that Steven Jackson is a far riskier play than usual.
With a herniated disc in his back and the aforementioned absence of four starters on the Rams' offensive line, S-Jax qualifies as a mid-level RB2 at best. We've often touched on Houston's turnaround on run defense in this space since SS Bernard Pollard's promotion to starter. Jackson is also coming off his worst game of the season (53 yards and no TDs on 21 touches).
With Null preparing to start and Texans DTs Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody likely to wreak havoc on St. Louis up the gut, no member of the Rams' receiver corps is usable. Houston has also shown the ability to take opposing wide outs out of games; T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson, Mike Sims-Walker, and Torry Holt all have been held to 52 yards or fewer and scoreless in the last two weeks. Safely bench Donnie Avery, Brandon Gibson, and of course, Randy McMichael.
My Pick — Texans
Cleveland @ Kansas City
The Browns' defense has improved with Ahtyba Rubin at nose tackle. A true two-gap lineman, the 330-pound Rubin holds the point of attack better than Shaun Rogers did. Since Rubin took over, Cleveland has permitted an average of just 3.25 YPC to "grinders" LaDainian Tomlinson and Rashard Mendenhall.
But Jamaal Charles is a different animal. One of the AFC's fastest backs, he will get to the outside against the Browns and exploit their lack of perimeter speed. With six all-purpose TDs and a 114-yard average in his last five games, you can't sit Charles against the Browns.
Rust isn't a big concern as Dwayne Bowe returns from his four-game suspension because he was immediately placed on the first-team offense Wednesday and had all week to get back in sync with Matt Cassel. He's a WR2/3 against the Browns' No. 25 pass defense.
Chris Chambers will remain a starter, but is no longer a fantasy option with Bowe back. Bowe is very likely to resume leading the Chiefs in targets.
Cassel is also worth a long look in two-QB leagues, despite a four-pick outing in Week 14. He'll be much better off with Bowe in the lineup.
Kansas City's No. 28 run defense provides a plus match-up for any ground game, but it would be complete guesswork to project which Browns RB (Jerome Harrison or Chris Jennings) will be featured on Sunday.
Harrison received 17 touches and scored twice in Week 13, while Jennings touched the ball just seven times. Last Thursday night, Harrison started but Jennings led the way with 21 touches and a score. The Browns appear to be riding whichever runner has the "hot hand" early in games, making both far too risky to rely on in the fantasy postseason.
Not helping matters for Jennings and Harrison is the possibility of Cleveland using Joshua Cribbs at tailback, which coach Eric Mangini eluded to doing on Wednesday. Cribbs ran for 87 yards out of the Wildcat in Week 14. He's not a safe fantasy bet either, but may heavily cut into Jennings and Harrison's snaps.
After posting a 7:0 TD to INT ratio in Weeks 11-13, Brady Quinn returned to fantasy irrelevancy last week, completing just 6-of-19 passes for a pathetic 90 yards and no scores against a Pittsburgh secondary that has struggled.
He brought Mohamed Massaquoi down with him, completing just one pass to Cleveland's top receiver for 37 yards.
My Pick — Chiefs
Atlanta @ NY Jets
Michael Turner (ankle) and Matt Ryan (toe) finally got some practice reps Thursday, slightly helping their still-long odds of facing the Jets.
Turner obviously won't be 100 percent if he plays and has a tough match-up with a New York run defense that surrenders just 3.9 YPC. Should Turner miss his fourth game out of the last five, Jerious Norwood will start and share the backfield with Jason Snelling. It's worth noting that despite Norwood being on the field for the first snap last week, Snelling received the first four touches. Snelling would clearly be the superior fantasy play, though still a weak one.
Chris Redman exploited a decimated Saints secondary in Week 14 for 303 yards and a TD, but has tougher sledding against the Jets' No. 1 pass defense. Darrelle Revis is certain to shadow Roddy White, while Jets RCB Lito Sheppard is finally healthy and has strung together three solid efforts. Redman would be a poor two-QB league play.
White is obviously a major risk, and should be sat if you've got strong, safer options. Revis, who held a streaking Antonio Bryant to 22 yards on two grabs last week, is the finest corner in the league.
Tony Gonzalez is probably the best bet for yardage on Atlanta's side. If the Jets have a weakness in the secondary, it's covering tight ends.
Mark Sanchez (knee) is due back, but has some potentially nasty Meadowlands weather to deal with. While 35-36 degree temps won't inhibit passing, 19-20 mph winds and a 90 percent chance of snow aren't a great combination with Sanchez's mediocre arm.
Wipeouts Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery are weak plays despite a favorable on-paper matchup against Atlanta's No. 30 pass defense.
We'd love to recommend Dustin Keller because he's so talented and theoretically the Jets' go-to guy underneath, but he is bench material with two catches for eight yards total in his last two outings.
The Jets were taking a run-first approach before Sanchez's Week 13 PCL sprain and will continue to heavily feature Thomas Jones, who's been perhaps the most consistent player in fantasy football all year. In his age-31 season, Jones has at least 100 total yards and/or a score in ten consecutive games. There aren't many safer options in the league as Jones squares off with Atlanta's No. 23 run defense.
Shonn Greene's first year can be chalked up as a disappointment. He's flashed in spots, but lost his third fumble in seven games last Sunday. The rookie is no threat to Jones' workload.
My Pick — Jets
New England @ Buffalo
Much has been made of Randy Moss' slow Week 14.
The facts of the matter are he had a safety over the top, only saw four targets (which won't happen again), and still blocked well in the run game. Carolina also has the league's No. 6 pass defense and has taken opposing No. 1 receivers out of games all year.
Moss racked up 12 catches for 141 yards on Buffalo earlier this season. Look for Tom Brady to get Moss going early with some quick-strike slants and curls, setting up an eventual bomb.
Wes Welker is an even better fantasy bet, leading the NFL in receptions. Moss gets more red-zone looks, but Welker is averaging over 10.3 catches for 113 yards per game since Week four.
Brady is allegedly playing through cracked ribs, but the weather at Ralph Wilson Stadium (29 degrees, 13 Mph winds, 20 percent chance of rain) is of little concern and he's practicing more than last week, indicating that he is getting closer to 100 percent. Despite a difficult matchup (Buffalo is top five in pass defense), the No. 5 overall fantasy QB would be difficult to sit.
Sammy Morris was benched for fumbling in Week 14, allowing Laurence Maroney to continue dominating carries. There's no reason to think that will change Sunday. Maroney will likely start hot against the Bills' dead-last run defense and remain New England's featured back. Running with purpose, he is a high-end RB2.
After letting Drew Brees and Chad Henne combine for a ridiculous 706 yards and seven TDs in Weeks 12-13, the Patriots' typically tough pass defense received an injection of confidence from a Week 14 match-up with the Matt Moore-led Panthers passing "attack." Moore managed just 197 yards and one score on 30 attempts.
The Pats' secondary is very talented and should not have trouble keeping noodle-armed Ryan Fitzpatrick in check. Fitzpatrick is coming off back-to-back sub-100 yard passing games, which is nearly unprecedented.
Lee Evans' year-long struggles figure to continue against a New England defense that's had his number since entering the league.
Terrell Owens missed Thursday's practice with an illness and is averaging 2.5 catches for 23 yards in his last two games. Bill Belichick's praise of T.O. during the week also indicates that the Pats plan to double team him. Someone has to catch the passes, but Owens carries lots of risk.
Fred Jackson started in Week 14 and retook his featured role from Marshawn Lynch. Lynch played well off the bench, but Jackson was the go-to guy, generating 122 yards on 23 touches. F-Jax also tore up New England's below-average run defense for 140 total yards and a touchdown earlier this year.
My Pick — Patriots
4:05PM ET Games
Oakland @ Denver
In terms of fantasy viability, Oakland's skill players can safely be written off the rest of the way with temporary sparkplug Bruce Gradkowski (torn MCLs) almost certainly done for the year.
New starter Charlie Frye has appeared in three games since 2006, averaging a dreadful 3.55 YPA with an even worse 48 percent completion rate. He was also terrible in 19 early-career starts for the Browns.
Confidently bench Chaz Schilens, rookie Louis Murphy, Johnnie Lee Higgins, and injured first-year bust Darrius Heyward-Bey, hopefully none of whom you were planning to start in the first place.
Zach Miller is out with a concussion, further decreasing Frye's chances of success.
Justin Fargas remained Oakland's starting tailback in Week 14, getting nine carries to Darren McFadden's eight. McFadden showed burst when the Raiders got him out in space, busting one reception for 48 yards and another for 26. Still, McFadden is totally ineffective when asked to run between the tackles and isn't close to overtaking this backfield.
Stay away from Fargas, McFadden, and definitely Michael Bush (zero touches last week) against a Broncos defense surrendering less than 4.0 YPC.
The Raiders' stubborn use of Nnamdi Asomugha at CB only (he doesn't shadow opposing No. 1 wide outs) gives Brandon Marshall a shot at a third straight monster game. Marshall has a nearly incomprehensible 29 catches for 294 yards and three touchdowns in the last two weeks. He already rang up 5-67-1 on Oakland in Weekthree.
Eddie Royal has not found the end zone once this year, and has topped 32 yards twice. Some would call Matt Forte, Willie Parker, Steve Slaton, McFadden, or T.J. Houshmandzadeh the biggest bust in fantasy this season. But there's no doubt: Royal is it.
The Mile High forecast (45 degrees, seven mph winds, 0 percent chance of rain) is favorable for passing, but Knowshon Moreno is the premier fantasy play on either side in this one.
Correll Buckhalter (high ankle sprain) is out, pushing Moreno into an every-down role against a Raiders defense that ranks 30th against the run and has served up an NFL-high 20 rushing touchdowns.
After averaging just 25 pass attempts per outing in Weeks 10-13, the Broncos let loose of the reigns on Kyle Orton last Sunday. He went on to throw for 277 yards and two touchdowns on 41 tries against a stout Colts secondary. Orton is a respectable two-QB league play against Oakland's No. 17 pass defense.
My Pick — Broncos
Cincinnati @ San Diego
The Bengals' biggest defensive weakness is in the front seven with NT Domata Peko (knee) still out, as Kevin Smith and Adrian Peterson demonstrated by totaling 241 yards and three TDs against Cincy in the last two weeks.
The Chargers, unfortunately, don't have the ground game to expose it. While LaDainian Tomlinson is always a fair bet to score because he dominates goal-line work, the Bolts' 3.2 YPC average ranks dead last in the league.
Fifth in passing offense, San Diego will continue to rely heavily on Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and Vincent Jackson to hold off their main competition for the AFC's No. 2 seed. Get the aforementioned three in lineups against the Bengals.
Excluding dome games, you won't find a better Week 15 forecast than Qualcomm Stadium, where 70 degree temperatures, 5mph winds, and a 10 percent chance of rain are expected. This keeps V-Jax as an elite fantasy play coming off a 120-yard game. He'll square off with LCB Johnathan Joseph, the more burnable of Cincinnati's two corners.
Malcom Floyd will mostly draw CB Leon Hall, who held Bernard Berrian to 43 yards last week.
The Bengals are good at checking tight ends, but Gates is unstoppable. He recorded a 4-44-1 line against Dallas in Week 14 despite constant double teams.
A week after managing just 3.1 YPC against Detroit, Cedric Benson confirmed that he still has his late-season legs with 96 yards on 16 carries (6.0 average) against the Vikings' No. 4 rush defense. A run-first game plan from Bengals play caller Bob Bratkowski is quite possible due to Carson Palmer's recent struggles, so CedBen is a must-start against San Diego's nose tackle-less No. 21 rush defense.
Larry Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott aren't threats to Benson's workload. L.J. didn't enter until the third quarter for the second straight game in Week 14 and had four touches. Scott is expected to return from his turf toe Sunday, but will probably focus on kickoff returns.
Palmer denies that his elbow is giving him trouble, but the box score and his on-field play indicate otherwise. Completing 57.7 percent of his passes with a 5.4 YPA (his career marks are 63.3 and 7.2) in the last three games, Palmer has thrown for just three scores in his last five. Despite favorable weather, he's merely a QB2 against a top-ten Bolts pass defense that gets back FS Eric Weddle (knee).
Also avoid Andre Caldwell and Laveranues Coles.
Chad Ochocinco, on the other hand, will be playing motivated for recently deceased teammate Chris Henry in a match-up with Chargers CB Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie was torched by Miles Austin and Roy Williams in Week 14.
My Pick — Chargers
San Francisco @ Philadelphia (Moved to 4:15 ET due to weather)
Updated forecast for the 49ers/Eagles as of Friday morning: 35 degrees, 70 percent chance of snow, 17 mph winds.
Both of these teams are coming off impressive offensive outings (they totaled 69 points combined in Week 14), but this one threatens to be fairly low scoring.
Not because of the forecast at Lincoln Financial, but more because both sides play solid defense. Since a slow start, the 49ers' secondary has stiffened with the pass rush hot. San Francisco has allowed just two passing TDs in the last three weeks, holding both Kurt Warner and Matt Hasselbeck under 200 yards.
Donovan McNabb and DeSean Jackson are every-week starters, but it's hard to get excited about guys like Jason Avant and Reggie Brown despite Jeremy Maclin's (foot) absence.
Owners considering any member of Philly's muddled backfield are saved by a terribly difficult match-up against the Niners' top-five run defense.
Wildcat formations featuring Michael Vick in the open field and red zone crush LeSean McCoy's upside, as if McCoy's declining workload and production (average of 11.5 touches for 40 total yards in the last two games) didn't already.
Leonard Weaver also threatens to emerge as the lead back. Avoid the situation.
Brian Westbrook (concussions) still hasn't been medically cleared. We probably won't see him before the real-life play-offs.
Frank Gore reconfirmed his ability to perform in tough match-ups last Monday night, dropping 177 yards and a touchdown on the same Arizona defense that held Adrian Peterson to 19 yards on 13 carries the week before.
The Eagles surrender just 3.8 YPC and rank 10th overall in run defense, but a more balanced approach from 49ers play caller Jimmy Raye and Gore's elite talent keep him in the RB1 range.
Philadelphia has struggled against tight ends all year and let Kevin Boss post his second-best game of 2009 in Week 14 (7-71-1). Likely All-Pro Vernon Davis is a money play.
Michael Crabtree is an every-week WR3 coming off a 5-67-1 line against Arizona. The rookie has a massive catch radius and runs extremely well after the reception. Eagles CB Asante Samuel is not much of a tackler, and will struggle to bring down Crabtree when the two catch each other one-on-one.
After back-to-back six-catch efforts, Josh Morgan resumed blocking in Week 14. He's a poor bet for more than five targets on Sunday.
The Eagles allow just 6.6 yards per pass attempt, and Alex Smith has mostly struggled against strong secondaries this season. He's only a QB2 option.
My Pick — 49ers
Chicago @ Baltimore (Moved to 4:15 ET due to weather)
Updated forecast for the Bears/Ravens as of Friday morning: 34 degrees, 17mph winds, 70 percent chance of "light" snow.
Week 14 proved that Devin Hester is not a difference maker. With Hester inactive due to a calf strain, Johnny Knox and career practice squad receiver Devin Aromashodu combined for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 13 receptions.
Hester is very questionable again this week, but his absence wouldn't hurt Jay Cutler's match-up. Cutler's pass attempts are likely to be high because Chicago won't be able to run on Baltimore's No. 6 rush defense. The Ravens' secondary has also struggled for most of the season and the M&T Bank Stadium forecast won't hinder passing. Consider Cutler a low-end QB1 and elite QB2 start.
Knox and Aromashodu remain WR3 dice rolls. Both are very raw, and Earl Bennett could just as easily lead the Bears in receiving this week.
Greg Olsen has four catches for 15 yards in his last two games combined after looking like an every-week fantasy starter in Weeks 6-12. He's a very risky play against a Ravens defense that covers tight ends well.
Matt Forte's string of unfavorable late-season match-ups continues on Sunday. Baltimore permits the lowest YPC average in the league and has given up just seven rushing TDs all year. He's only a RB3 in non-PPR leagues.
A run-first attack (40 rushes, 23 passes) in Week 14 against Detroit indicates that the Ravens' coaching staff is more concerned with Joe Flacco's ankle and knee ailments than they've let on. Expect a similar approach Sunday versus a Chicago club that plays the pass well (No. 8 overall), but can't stop the run (No. 25).
Flacco won't be helped by injuries to Mark Clayton (hamstring, knee) and Kelley Washington (ankle).
Age-defying No. 1 wide out Derrick Mason, coming off a 94-yard, one-touchdown game, is still a premier WR3 play. He's certain to lead the Ravens in targets.
Willis McGahee's 78 yards and two TDs against the Lions came virtually all in garbage time. He is the slight favorite for goal-line work, but Ray Rice remains Baltimore's every-down back.
Rice was pulled from the blowout with a "chest" issue a few plays into the third quarter, but isn't on this week's injury report. He'll likely gash a Bears defense that allowed Ryan Grant to pile up 144 yards and two touchdowns on 22 touches in Week 14.
Todd Heap isn't over his chronic ankle problems and had to be assisted off the field at one point last week. He's off the fantasy radar.
My Pick — Ravens
Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
As if Rashard Mendenhall's matchup could get worse against Green Bay's No. 2 run defense, the Steelers ruled out brawling 344-pound LG Chris Kemoeatu, and C. Justin Hartwig barely practiced this week after having his knee drained.
Taking over as an every-down back (he's replaced Mewelde Moore in passing situations) is promising, but Mendenhall is best left benched.
Hines Ward is another weak fantasy bet. He's said to be battling a slightly torn hamstring, and it sure looked like it as he struggled badly to get open against Cleveland's No. 25-ranked secondary last Thursday night.
Managing just 201 yards and no touchdowns on 32 attempts at the Browns, Ben Roethlisberger took eight sacks and looked shell shocked two weeks removed from sitting out with a concussion. He's not much of a fantasy play against Green Bay's No. 3 pass defense.
The Packers cover tight ends well, cementing Heath Miller as a TE2. Throw out a 7-95-1 game against an awful Chiefs secondary in Week 11 and Miller is averaging under four catches for 29 yards with no touchdowns in his last six games.
Santonio Holmes and LaMarr Woodley were seemingly the only Steelers that came to play last Thursday night. Holmes should see less of All-Pro CB Charles Woodson than Ward and is a terrific WR2.
Especially if they continue to fail to get pressure, the Steelers don't match up well with Green Bay's top-nine passing attack. The No. 2 overall fantasy QB, Aaron Rodgers should be able to light up struggling CBs Ike Taylor and William Gay.
Gay has been a particularly big bust after looking like a future star while performing admirably in place of injured Bryant McFadden in 2009. Gay will see Greg Jennings in primary coverage, while Taylor tries to stay with Donald Driver.
Since sitting out Weeks 7-9 with a knee injury, Jermichael Finley has averaged nearly six catches for 60 yards per game and has three touchdowns in the last four weeks. Pittsburgh doesn't defend tight ends well.
The Steelers rank No. 1 in run defense, but are beginning to fall back to the pack. They served up a whopping 171 yards to a Browns backfield in Week 14 that consists of former University of Arizona backup Chris Jennings, Jerome Harrison, and career special teamer Joshua Cribbs.
Ryan Grant returns from his best game of the year (144 yards, two TDs on 22 touches) and can be considered a rock-solid RB2. The Steelers have size but lack quickness up front, creating something of a mismatch against a Packers offensive line is highly athletic and uses lots of zone blocking.
My Pick — Packers
Tampa Bay @ Seattle
Updated forecast for the Buccaneers/Seahawks as of Friday morning: 48 degrees, 80 percent chance of rain, 8mph winds
Among NFL tight ends, only Dallas Clark, Tony Gonzalez, and Vernon Davis have more targets than Kellen Winslow.
However, K2 hasn't found the end zone and is averaging five catches for 52 yards a game since Antonio Bryant overcame recurring knee woes and rejoined the lineup in Week 11. Winslow is a fantasy starter, but Bryant's presence curtails his upside.
After being held to 22 yards by Darrelle Revis and a stingy Jets zone in Week 14, Bryant is a good bet to rebound as he faces struggling Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant. Seattle also ranks a lowly 29th against the pass.
Josh Freeman's TD to INT ratio is 0:8 in the last two games and 3:11 in the last month. Opponents have probably figured out Freeman's weaknesses through film study. Avoid the raw rookie even in this favorable match-up.
Carnell Williams isn't in danger of losing his lead back job to Derrick Ward or Earnest Graham, but eked out a paltry 14 yards on 11 carries last week against the Jets, who the Seahawks are tied with at No. 12 in run defense. Cadillac's 175 touches through 13 weeks are easily his most since 2006, so he's probably wearing down. He isn't remotely a fantasy option.
The host Seahawks have a decisive edge (for once) because Tampa's pass rush is so weak (25 sacks through 13 games) and run defense so poor (last in the NFC).
With Matt Hasselbeck off the injury report, Jim Mora's staff clearly isn't concerned with his once-problematic right shoulder. The absence of Nate Burleson (high ankle sprain) won't doom Hasselbeck because he's experienced throwing to fill-in Deion Branch, and Burleson wasn't a difference maker. Hasselbeck is a fine two-QB league play against a Bucs defense yielding the third most passing scores in the league.
Branch, making his first start of '09, is not a good fantasy play. He's been a bust throughout his four seasons as a Seahawk and has lost explosiveness at age 30, averaging a career-low 3.7 YPC.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh will see plenty of Bucs top CB Aqib Talib and offers little fantasy intrigue.
John Carlson may be Seattle's best pass-catching bet against a Tampa Bay defense that can't stop tight ends.
Julius Jones retained his starting job in Week 14, but was out-produced by and saw slightly fewer touches than Justin Forsett. This is an even committee and Jones is the better early-down option, but Forsett is the superior fantasy commodity.
My Pick — Seahawks
Sunday Night Football
Minnesota @ Carolina
Facing a tough road test against Carolina's No. 6 pass defense, Brett Favre takes another hit with slot man Percy Harvin (migraines) doubtful to play. Harvin is also an elite returner, so his absence damages Minnesota's likelihood of getting good field position to rack up easy points.
Favre is a low-end QB1 despite fine conditions (42 degrees, 8mph winds, 10 percent chance of rain) in the Bank of America Stadium forecast.
Most likely to benefit from no Harvin: Visanthe Shiancoe. The high-scoring tight end has only 33 yards in his last two games, but will see more underneath targets.
While Bernard Berrian hasn't been much of a fantasy option all year, NFC receiving yards leader Sidney Rice needs to be in lineups every week.
Adrian Peterson bounced back big time from a disturbing 19-yard Week 13 by throttling Cincinnati's typically robust run defense for 137 total yards and two TDs last Sunday. The No. 4 overall fantasy player (and No. 3 fantasy back) gets a much easier match-up this week against a Carolina run defense that ranks 26th. The Panthers also allow the third highest yards-per-carry average in the league, behind only the Bills and Buccaneers.
The Panthers' chances of moving the ball Sunday were pretty remote when the week began. They got even worse when mauling 6'6/330-pound RT Jeff Otah (knee, shoulder) was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday.
Now down both starting tackles (LT Jordan Gross is also on I.R.), Carolina's "Double Trouble" backfield seems destined to struggle against Minnesota's No. 4 run defense. DeAngelo Williams is a mere RB2, while Jonathan Stewart isn't even FLEX worthy.
Vikings LCB Antoine Winfield proved he's recovered from his cracked foot in Week 14 by racking up nine tackles and forcing a fumble while helping Minnesota hold Carson Palmer to his fewest yards (94) since Week 1 of 2008. Look for the Vikings to stick Winfield on Panthers top WR Steve Smith for most of Sunday's game.
Matt Moore will likely throw at least 30 passes because picking up first downs on the ground will be so difficult, so Smith should be in most fantasy lineups. But Smith is unlikely to rack up yards after the catch. Winfield and CB Cedric Griffin are very sure tacklers.
My Pick —Vikings
Monday Night Football
NY Giants @ Washington
The forecast for FedEx Field (38 degrees, 7mph winds, 20 percent chance of rain) won't hurt passing, and Hakeem Nicks is the premier receiver play in this one. Possessing serious big-play ability and an every-down job after overtaking Mario Manningham, Nicks will mostly face off with Skins CB DeAngelo Hall, who's missed the last three games with a knee injury.
Eli Manning is coming off his best game of the year (391 yards, three TDs, no picks against Philly's tough secondary), making Nicks a confident WR two/three play.
New single-season franchise record holder for receptions Steve Smith is a strong PPR start, as usual. He's averaging 6.5 catches for 81 yards a game.
Eli doesn't offer big upside against Washington's No. 4 pass defense, but finally seems to be over the hump in his recovery from plantar fasciitis. He's a low-end QB1.
Manningham now plays only in three-wide sets. The demotion makes his numbers unpredictable.
The Skins cover tight ends well, keeping Kevin Boss as a TE2 despite improved production in the last month.
New York's running game has clicked in the last two weeks, posting 235 yards, three TDs, and a 4.4 YPC average. Using Ahmad Bradshaw as a FLEX would be too bold considering his inconsistent workloads, but Brandon Jacobs is a strong RB2 against Washington's No. 22 run defense.
With eight all-purpose TDs in the last three weeks and a 274 yards-per-game average, Jason Campbell certainly has the match-up to stay hot as he wraps up his contract year. The Giants' secondary has been awful lately, and isn't helped by a front seven that doesn't bring pressure. Campbell has teased with short-lived hot streaks throughout his career, but is an elite two-QB league play and worth a look in standard leagues if you're searching for options.
Devin Thomas regressed to the mean with just 34 total yards in Week 14 after a career game (100 yards, two touchdowns on seven catches) the Sunday before. He's definitely not a reliable WR3.
As Brad Morgan noted in his Red Zone Report, Fred Davis is Campbell's go-to target in scoring position. New York has also struggled against tight ends since losing SS Kenny Phillips to a year-ending knee injury. Davis never comes off the field and is becoming a reliable option.
Santana Moss has one TD and averaged a modest 4-40 line in his last five games. He's barely better than Thomas.
Quinton Ganther's 93-yard, two-score Week 14 is more likely to be the best game of his career than a sign of things to come. Lacking talent, he's bench material against the Giants.
My Pick —Giants