Saturday, December 17, 2011

NFL WEEK 15 PREVIEWS

We wish Wade Phillips a speedy recovery from surgery this week, and we also wish Sam Hurd would have learned that he’s making enough money and had enough of a future to not join the other knucklenuts in jail who have squandered their careers.  Hurd has absolutely denied the charges that he was dealing to anyone within the NFL....he just needed that much cocaine and weed to celebrate New Year's.

THE 1:00PM DOCKET

CINCINNATI @ ST. LOUIS
Attempting to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Bengals couldn’t ask for a better road matchup than the beaten down Rams. QB Sam Bradford did not practice again, as well as A.J. Feeley, leaving Kellen Clemens or Tom Brandstater as the option at quarterback.  As if that wasn’t problem enough, the Rams lost starting fullback Brit Miller to the IR with a knee injury.  All this adds up more reasons why the Rams will struggle to score.  Steven Jackson hasn’t put up 100 yards since the Cleveland game five weeks ago, and I don’t like his chances here, even at home.  The Bengals have been a top ten rushing defense the entire year, and even with a hobbled Manny Lawson in the middle, they’ll be keying on Jackson.  Cedric Benson’s back kept him limited in practice, but he should be good to go on Sunday.  He’s had two 20-plus carry days in the past three weeks, and as long as his back doesn’t act up prior to kickoff, expect another one here.  The whole right side of the Bengals line will be patchwork, as RG Bobbie Williams is now on the I.R. and RT Andre Smith is fight an ankle problem.  Nevertheless, I still think Benson will be a top ten back when all is said and done.  The Rams secondary has actually been a strength of theirs, though some of that is because teams don’t need to throw when you’re giving up nearly 157 rushing yards per game.  Expect Cincinnati to employ a similar strategy to what the Falcons did this week, with QB Andy Dalton searching for A. J. Green trolling deep in the secondary, and Jermaine Gresham underneath.  Jerome Simpson’s knee might not yet be fully healed as four weeks ago he had 13 targets in a 152 yard game against Baltimore.  The last two weeks he’s had just nine, and only two receptions, thus tread cautiously.  At home Cincy would roll – on the road, it’ll still be a relatively easy victory.

BENGALS 23, RAMS 10


WASHINGTON
@ NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are coming off a thrilling victory over the Cowboys in Dallas, and Eli Manning has been playing about as well as the Giants could hope, putting up 400 yards last week against what was the 14th best pass defense in the league.  The Redskins secondary sits at 13th, after having succumbed to a Tom Brady-esque, 14-point fourth quarter.  Normally, you’d give this game to the Giants easily.  However, December has never been Eli’s best month, and DEs Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora are both nursing injuries.  Umenyiora is unlikely to play while Tuck is a game-time decision.  The Giants secondary is ranked 29th, their rushing defense 22nd, a reminder why the Redskins beat this team earlier this year.  Roy Helu will key the Redskins' offense, which would much rather see QB Rex Grossman as a complimentary passer than leader.  Helu has had no less than 23 attempts the last three weeks, and you can expect 25 here for 110 yards and score.  Santana Moss has thrived against his division rivals, but not on the road.  In the past two meetings in New York, Moss has a total of four catches for 30 yards.  I don’t expect his numbers to be that bad, particularly versus this secondary, against which he put up 6 catches for 76 yards during the game in Washington.  He was targeted nine times last week, yet only grabbed three balls, so don’t expect much more than one big play for a TD, and/or a total of 70 yards.  The guy to keep an eye on is Donte Stallworth, who has flirted with success before only to continually set himself back.  Last week he had four receptions on six targets for 96 yards.  The Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw should be a bit healthier this week but is still likely at best to split carries with Brandon Jacobs after Jacobs mashed Dallas for his first 100-yard game of the year. With a passing attack that has 15 plays over 40 yards, the most in the league, don’t expect more than 20 carries total between the two of them.  Where Bradshaw could increase his output is on screens and flat passes, assuming D. J. Ware isn’t called in a as a third down back.  Eli Manning’s going to have a three touchdown day against this defense, and even though the game will be close much of the way, the Giants should pull away in the fourth quarter.

GIANTS 31, REDSKINS 20


TENNESSEE
@ INDIANAPOLIS
Even with his calf strain, Matt Hasselbeck is expected to play Sunday, but if I’m in my playoffs, even against a pitiful team like the Colts I’m not starting him.  Jake Locker is a flea’s breath away from being giving the reins for good, and all it would take is a slight aggravation for Locker to spell him for the game.  This is especially good news for Chris Johnson, who has three 100-yard games in the past five.  The Saints shut Johnson down, but the defense of Indianapolis is in such shambles this year, that even the Titans rebuilt offensive line should reap success against them.  I see Johnson as a top five pick this week, adding 125 yards and two scores.  Damian Williams was again the target leader for the Titans with ten last week but managed just two catches.  However, those two catches went for 62 yards.  He’s still the top look here, particularly since Nate Washington did not practice earlier this week because of his bad ankle, but he’s no better than a WR3.  For the Colts, Dan Orlovsky struggled against the Ravens defense, and was sacked four times.  He won’t see that kind of pass rush against the Titans, as they have just 24 sacks this year.  Thus, Pierre Garcon (24 targets in the past two games) is a sneaky play this week as the Titans have given up 46 plays of 20 yards or greater.   I like the Colts to actually make this a game, but their defense is just too inept to keep them in it, their offense too inefficient in the red zone, and Johnson will bleed the clock when it matters most.

TITANS 24, COLTS 15


SEATTLE
@ CHICAGO
The NFC West champs are suddenly climbing out of their hole and are a win away from .500.  However, they’re 2-4 on the road this year, and now face a Chicago defense that has given up 46 points in their last four home games.  Chicago is not the team they were just four weeks ago.  Since then, they lost Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and now find themselves amidst the swirling investigative winds surrounding the arrest of WR Sam Hurd on drug trafficking charges.  How much of a distraction it will be depends on who was involved within the organization that we don’t yet know about.  No doubt this is a new black eye on the Bears facial image, as it has been reported the feds seized a list of clients that were spending plenty on drugs within the NFL, and speculation is going to be rampant that someone within the Bears locker room might be one of those.  Marion Barber has added another blemish to the team, after arguably costing them both the Denver game and the game against Kansas City.  Barber refused to speak to reporters until today, and now the question is how much trust Lovie Smith is going to put in this guy with Kahlil Bell chomping at the bit.  Bell put up 64 yards of total offense, rushing nine times for 40 yards and catching five balls for 24.  I think Barber sees less touches this week because of it, and that makes Bell a possible flex play going forward.  That leaves Caleb Hanie and a weak wide receivers group to attack Seattle’s 14th ranked pass defense. Since Hanie took over, only WR Johnny Knox has managed more than 50 yards receiving and he’s done so in two of the three games, all of which have been losses.  The Seahawks game plan will be to continue to run with Marshawn Lynch, the NFL’s leading rusher the past six weeks, keep the game shorter and close, and have QB Tarvaris Jackson take less risks with shorter passes to Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin.   Chicago is likely missing Safety Major Wright, so a deep shot isn’t out of the question either, and Tate has the speed to make that happen.  Lynch is worth 80-85 yards here, as he’s a great after-contact runner, but don’t expect much scoring.  Seattle’s defense and special teams make another strong play here this week, but don’t forget about the Bears’ unit either.  They just happen to have Devin Hester, the all-time NFL leader in returns for touchdowns.

SEATTLE 17, BEARS 9


GREEN BAY  @ KANSAS CITY
The loss of the type of WR Greg Jennings is would be disastrous for most other units, but not the Packers.  Last week, QB Aaron Rodgers made little used TE Ryan Taylor the ninth player he’s thrown a touchdown pass to this year.  Ryan Grant is coming off his best day in years, putting up two touchdowns, and with James Starks likely out Sunday, Grant is going to get his share of carries against a Chiefs rushing defense allowing almost 133 yards per game.  I like him to continue here as the Chiefs are allowing the fifth highest average fantasy points for opposing running backs at 19.5 per game, while allowing opposing QBs just 13 points weekly.  Meanwhile, the Chiefs unveil interim coach Romeo Crennel and newly acquired Kyle Orton at the QB spot.  Remember, Orton knows the Packers well, having played in Chicago for several years.  He also faced the Packers earlier this year for Denver, going 22 –of-32 for 273 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.  Orton being behind center makes Dwayne Bowe a top play this week against a Green Bay defense allowing an average of 24 fantasy points to opposing wide receivers. Dexter McCluster is still the only Chief’s runner averaging over four yards per carry, yet Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones will likely get some carries.  Crennel has a strong secondary to play with, and without Jennings, Crennel’s biggest concern will be to take away Jordy Nelson, who is in the midst of a breakout season.  If Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers can hold their own in occasional man coverage, then maybe the Chiefs can generate some pressure on Rodgers.  However, Rodgers has been so solid, that even if the Chiefs get some hits on him, he’s still likely to find the open man, which again could be Randall Cobb in the slot.  Orton should make this game competitive, and I could see an upset here.  However, Orton’s still a little too turnover prone, and against the Packers, that’s not something you can overcome.

PACKERS 33, CHIEFS 21


CAROLINA @ HOUSTON
Arian Foster and Ben Tate have to be dreaming of yardage counters and celebration dances early this holiday season.  Carolina’s 23rd ranked rushing defense is coming to town, along with their third worst tally of allowing 15 rushing touchdowns.  It’s not that T.J. Yates won’t throw the ball this game – it’s more that he may not have to.  Houston is only one of four teams that run more than they throw, so Foster is good for at least 20 carries Sunday.  I also expect two touchdowns, one from the ground and one from the air, with Tate also garnering 60 yards or so.  Owen Daniels will get his share of targets, but it’s likely that someone like Foster or Joel Dreessen will get the touchdown pass.  By the way, since Yates stepped in three weeks ago, he has targeted Dreessen four times in the red zone, second best on the team behind the now injured Kevin Walter.  Cam Newton will have his hands full, as the Texans defense has really solidified under Wade Phillips, who is recovering from surgery, something I have a feeling will simply motivate these Texans.  Even without DE Mario Williams, the Texans have generated 36 sacks, tied for sixth best in the league.  I expect they’ll get their fare share of pressure on Newton, forcing him to use his legs more often.  This should give Cam some added bonus points from his rushing yards, but I fear his passing yardage could be among the lowest for him this year.  Ron Rivera will likely try to exploit matchups, favoring CB Kareem Jackson over Jonathan Joseph in an attempt to get Steve Smith the ball more often and deeper down field.  Smith has gone three weeks without seeing the end zone.  Newton may be forced to target  Brandon Lefell, who was named the other starting wideout over Legedu Naanee in early December.  Neither has managed much, with Lafell grabbing 10 balls the past three weeks for 138 yards, while Naanee has seven receptions for 74 yards and a score.  I’d expect more from Lafell here, though I wouldn’t bank on either.  Newton will make some plays with his feet, and probably add another rushing touchdown, but Houston’s running attack should own the day.

TEXANS 23, PANTHERS 17


MIAMI @ BUFFALO
Dolphins QB Matt Moore and LT Jake Long were back at practice Thursday, so the odds are good they’ll play Sunday.  However, the last time Miami won at Buffalo later than October was back in 2001.  With free agency shifting teams so much, I’m not so much a believer the weather factor matters so much to the Dolphins.  Thus, this will come down to who protects the ball as temperatures will be in the 30’s with a chance of snow.  I’ve mentioned the growth of Reggie Bush, and I believe in him this week.  First, Bush is getting carries at almost a 2-to-1 pace versus Daniel Thomas.  Second, the Dolphins are a slightly better running team on the road, and markedly better on turf.  Last, the Bills have given up 313 rushing yards the past two games at home.  Start Bush with confidence.  The Bill have also had trouble pressuring opposing quarterbacks, with a league worst 19 sacks.  That means Moore will have time to find Brandon Marshall and Davone Bess, should Miami stop killing their own drives with bad fumbles.  The Dolphins haven’t given up 100 yards rushing to a team in each of the last five weeks, so expect the best part of C.J. Spiller’s day may be catching screens.  The Dolphins pass rush will do their best to hide their inept 25th ranked secondary, but Ryan Fitzpatrick with still make Steve Johnson a good play, as the Dolphins give up an average of 21 points to opposing WRs.  However, I think that Miami’s defense isn’t about to have two bad weeks in a row, and I’m taking the Dolphins to force Fitzpatrick into a few bad throws, while Moore works some magic to Anthony Fasano inside the red zone.

DOLPHINS 28, BILLS 17


NEW ORLEANS @ MINNESOTA
Adrian Peterson should provide a strong test to the Saints' 15th ranked rushing defense.  The Saintsh ave prevented opponents from 100 yards of rushing offense four out of the last five weeks, and that includes shutting down a hot Chris Johnson.  Peterson has missed two weeks with a high ankle sprain, so his load could be shared with Toby Gerhart (19 carries, 90 yards last week) and Percy Harvin (four carries for 40 yards).  Christian Ponder is also expected to return, though Joe Webb adds an exciting element to the offense, and scrambled for 109 yards on his own last week.  Have the Vikings found a new version of  Kordell “Slash” Stewart?  Ponder has four interception his last two games and has thrown nine through the last five.  If he commits any turnovers on Sunday, the New Orleans offense will make him pay.  The beat up Minnesota secondary will have their hands full containing Marques Colston and big TE Jimmy Graham.  Graham’s been quiet as of late, and the Vikings do a pretty decent job against opposing tight ends, so keep an eye on Lance Moore underneath, and of course Devery Henderson deep.  Mark Ingram is doubtful with the turf toe injury, but that just gives Brees more chances to throw, which is what he’ll do.  The Saints should seize the lead, try to remove Adrian Peterson from the game, and focus on sacking Ponder.  New Orleans wins big.

SAINTS 31, VIKINGS 17


THE 4:05 GAME

DETROIT @ OAKLAND
Detroit running back Kevin Smith tested his bad ankle in practice and is likely to try to play through the pain when the Lions visit Oakland Sunday.  Against the Raiders 29th ranked defense, I’d still want a healthier guy but I might give him a shot as a flex player depending on my options.  One thing it does do is immediately halve Maurice Morris’ value.  Matthew Stafford is coming off another solid half of a game again, wherein he led the Lions to a big lead in the first quarter, then failed to do much but watch his defense lose their grip on the lead.  Generally, Stafford and his crew have been slow starters, finding their rhythm in the second half.  I’m sure Jim Schwartz would just like to get a full 60 minutes from him at some point this season.  Ndamukong Suh returns after serving a two-game suspension, to help bolster the defense, though truth be told, Suh or no Suh, the Lions have hardly stopped the rush all year.  For the Raiders, Michael Bush has slowed down, possibly due to the defensive competition in Green Bay, Miami and Chicago, but also because he already has 38 more carries than his career high.  The last three games, Bush has averaged 2.89 yards per carry, and for all the yards the Lions relinquish, they are ninth best at yielding fantasy points to opposing runners.  In the end, for the Raiders to end their two game skid, Carson Palmer is going to have to protect the football, something that is appreciably hard to do when all five of your wide receivers are listed on the injury report, and one is guaranteed to miss Sunday (Jacoby Ford).  Not surprising that during this run, Palmer has a 3:6 TD to interception ratio.  The Raiders also must nip their penalty problem in the bud – they are worst in the league.  Detroit isn’t much better, but with weapons like Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew, this team has a little more room to maneuver, and in this case a little too much fire power.

LIONS 31, RAIDERS 27



THE 4:15 DOCKET

CLEVELAND @ ARIZONA
By Sunday, It’ll have been ten days since Colt McCoy was allowed to wander back into a football game without having been tested correctly for a concussion after a James Harrison hit left him seeing stars.  After shutting tight end Ben Watson down for the year after his third concussion, McCoy won’t even make the trip to Arizona, leaving Seneca Wallace to step in with just Thaddeus Lewis as his backup.  In the 18 games Wallace has started, he’s posted a record of 6-12.  He’s completed 60.5 percent of his passes for his career, with 29 touchdowns against 16 interceptions.  Wallace has won just one game where he attempted more than 25 passes so Peyton Hills should be featured.  He’ll have a new FB leading him in the backfield in Eddie Williams, signed off the practice squad to replace Owen Marecic.  This could mean more erratic play from the Cleveland rushers.  Watson’s loss is a big one for Cleveland’s passing game, as he was second on the team in targets and receiving yards, a pretty big indication of the Browns’ struggle in the passing game.  The Brown challenge will be to shut down a hot Arizona team that has won three straight, two of which were against Dallas and San Francisco.  According to azcentral.com, John Skelton is likely to get the start, but Kevin Kolb could be a game-time decision.  Larry Fitzgerald will be of primary concern, and is expected to match up with Joe Haden, who likely has redemption on his mind after slipping against Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, the result of which was an 79-yard touchdown.  Beanie Wells will carry the Arizona offense, and should see 20-25 touches.  The difference maker could be Wallace, who offers a lot of mobility even as a 31 year-old veteran.  I think Skelton will make his share of mistakes, and it’s going to keep this game tight until the final quarter.

CARDINALS 17, BROWNS 10


NEW ENGLAND @ DENVER
The NFL itself couldn’t design a game more enticing if they tried.  Tom Brady leads the vaunted Patriots offense into Denver, where Tim Tebow and the AFC West division leaders await.  For Denver, no matter how you paint it, Willis McGahee and Tebow will have to control this game on the ground to win.  The Patriots are giving up just over 107 yards up per contest, and the Broncos are now averaging over 156.  The problem is Tebow and company lead the NFL in three-and-outs, and as a result the Broncos are 23rd in yards per game while being 26th in time of possession.  Yet Tebow has manufactured wins in close games and in shootouts, and has a passer rating of 110.4 in the fourth quarter.  As most fantasy players have noticed, with Demaryius Thomas’ health has come some production, and the shoddy New England secondary has more to concern themselves with than just Eric Decker after Thomas’s three touchdowns the past two weeks.  However, Tebow’s luck has run out.  He’ll face an elite team that’s healthy for the first time.  Tom Brady will do what he does, attack with a short to mid-range passing game, and even with the improved Broncos defense, fantasy wise they’re yielding the seventh most points on average to opposing QBs.  The Broncos pass defense will be tested to contain Rob Gronkowski, who broke the single season touchdown reception record for a tight end with is 15th TD reception last week.  The Broncos linebackers are a talented group, and paired and with veteran safety Brian Dawkins (questionable with a neck injury), Gronkowski will face one of his toughest challenges this year.  A stiffer test for Denver will be stopping Wes Welker, who added his fourth 100 reception season of the five he’s been with New England, and who put up eight receptions for 86 yards with a touchdown the last time these teams met at Invesco in 2009.  The key player here could be NFL interception leader Kyle Arrington, especially with Patriots’ safety Patrick Chung doubtful for Sunday.  Tebow has a history of occasionally locking onto his target early, and Arrington’s quick instincts could make for an important game-changer.  Bill Belichick is infamous for taking any misdirected spotlight and pointing it right back on his team.  As porous as his secondary has been, he’s going to make John Fox’s job harder with some kind of surprise, and the turnover differential will decide this game.

PATRIOTS 35, BRONCOS 21 


NEW YORK JETS @ PHILADELPHIA
Though this could easily be billed as the Jets secondary versus the speedy wide receivers of the Eagles, the passing game will likely be hidden in the shadows of the teams high-caliber running games.  LeSean McCoy hasn’t been racking up the yardage like he was earlier in the season, he’s been scoring in droves, putting up five rushing TDs in the past five weeks.  He’s also added 23 receptions during that span for 126 yards and a touchdown making him a PPR gem.  Shonn Greene has picked up his play, along with the Jets offensive line, carrying the ball 59 times for 295 yards in the past three weeks.  He also added four touchdown runs.  He’s not much for catching the ball if LaDainian Tomlinson is healthy, but Greene still has 12 receptions in those three games for 96 additional yards.  With their pass defenses being their strength, Michael Vick’s ability to rush from the pocket could alter the game in the Eagles favor.  Certainly, Mark Sanchez is going to have to spread the ball around more than he has (Plaxico Burress didn’t catch a ball last week), as he hasn’t surpassed 200 yards for the last three weeks.  However, he has a 7:1 touchdown to interception ratio during those same three games, a key for the Jets winning streak.  With Vick’s tendency to turn the ball over, and the Jets pushing for a playoff run, I’m sticking with Rex Ryan’s team.

JETS 23, EAGLES 21



THE 8:20PM GAME

BALTIMORE @ SAN DIEGO
Are the Chargers for real?  That question will be answered this Sunday when they take on the Ravens third ranked defense Sunday night.  Philip Rivers seems to have flipped his Tebow switch, and has the Chargers winners of two straight.  Just three short weeks ago, Rivers had 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.  Since them he’s throw seven touchdowns and zero picks.  In the last two weeks he’s completed 46-of-61 passes, a stunning 75 percent completion rate.  Yes, it was against Jacksonville and Buffalo, but Baltimore’s secondary has shown vulnerabilities to deep strikes and tough passing teams.  Ryan Mathews has helped add a much needed balance on the ground the Chargers haven’t had since LaDainian Tomlinson’s departure.  Mathews has three straight games rushing for over 100 yards, and a powerful December in which he has averaged 6.8 yards per carry so far.  Even against the Ravens, I still think the Chargers will try to extend the edge and run Mathews to the sidelines where he averages over five yards per carry.  However, they’re going to have to play much more physically than they’ve had to recently, as Ray Lewis is expected to return.  Terrell Suggs will impose his presence on this injury-riddled Chargers line, as he has 13 sacks, over half of which have come in the last three weeks.  On the other side of the ball, John Harbaugh has seen fit to get Ray Rice more involved in their game plans and the results have been a four game winning streak in which Rice has carried 20 or more times all four games.  He’s scored four rushing touchdowns during the streak, while adding 16 catches for 123 yards.  Raven’s QB Joe Flacco has put up three games of 100-plus QB rating in this four-game span, and has thrown five touchdowns against two interceptions.  “Joe Cool” will have to be that on the road, and I think Torrey Smith continues to challenge the Chargers secondary.  The Ravens defense slows down Rivers this time, and the Chargers lose this one by seven.

RAVENS 23, CHARGERS 16


THE MONDAY NIGHT GAME 
PITTSBURGH @ SAN FRANCISCO
If you were to ask me what the Steelers should do when it comes to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, I would tell them to sit him.  High ankle sprains are set-back type injuries that once re-injured can cause longer and longer delays in healing (see Michael Turner’s high ankle sprain in 2009).  This game means more to the Steelers than the 49ers, though the 49ers could help seal a first round bye if they get to 12 wins.  The Steelers have the post-season to think of, and a further aggravation of this ankle could be disastrous to their season.  That being said, Roethlisberger has certainly earned the moniker “toughest QB in the game”, and he is likely to test his metal if he can at all.  Without him, this is the 49ers game to lose.  Rashard Mendenhall will get the lion’s share of carries, with Ike Redman being used in short and goal line situations.  Center Maurkice Pouncey suffered an ankle injury the same night Roethlisberger did, and this could be a big loss for Pittsburgh if he’s unable to go.  The 49ers rush defense is the heart of this team, and the Steelers will attempt to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, even more so with Roethlisberger sidelined in an attempt to give QB Charlie Batch more play-action capability.  The Steelers’ defense will be without LB James Harrison, who is serving a suspension for his illegal hit on Browns QB Colt McCoy.  However, Lamar Woodley is expected to play, and he is by far their best pass rusher.  Defensively, it is Frank Gore that the Steelers will have to slow down.  If the 49ers get Gore going, the Steelers will be in for a long night.  Gore will likely have a line of something like 16 carries for 67 yards and a score, but with Troy Polomalu out of practice Friday with his hamstring, Gore might find 100 yards possible.  The game will likely be one of field goals, one San Francisco should win if Batch is under center.  If Roethlisberger is able to go with any level of consistency, the Steelers will go after the 49ers 18th ranked secondary and extend the field of play with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.  As of now, assume it’s Batch, and the 49ers will win an ugly one.

 49ERS 16, STEELERS 12