Saturday, September 22, 2012

NFL WEEK 3 - MATCHUPS & BREAKDOWNS

NFL WEEK 3 - MATCHUPS & BREAKDOWNS

Reggie Bush looked like a new man in 2011
Football is more than simply a numbers game.  Sure, for skills players carries and targets equal opportunity and yards after a carry or reception create a value for such opportunity.  The statistic does bear some weight.

If Andre Johnson gets 11 targets one week, that's 11 opportunities to make plays.  However, if he catches only three of them and gains just 17 yards, well, how are we going to judge that?  For comparison, say Dwayne Bowe receives seven targets, but catches all seven, two of which were for touchdowns, now we have a measurable problem.  Statistically, Bowe was a much better receiver that week.  But is he a better receiver to own from a fantasy standpoint overall?  We can look at the past overall numbers and say with pretty good certainty, no, he's not.  But numbers don't tell us everything.  Many times, it is simply about watching a game and seeing what a player is capable of.  Because a lot of times, by the time someone of the expert ilk tells you to go pick up Danny Amendola, well duh, he's gone.  After all, how many fantasy footballers missed his 15 catch, 160 yard game Amendola put up last week? The key was to get Amendola after Week One or even late in your draft.  Another case is that of Reggie Bush.  Many pundits simply relied on the numbers to call Bush’s 2011 season an anomaly.  After all, he had been in the league five years, had never carried more than 160 times in a season, had injury issues, and averaged 3.98 yards per carry up until 2011.  However, if you had kept an eye on Bush last year, you realized something was different.  He no longer danced at the line of scrimmage.  He had bulked a bit.  He was hitting the hole hard and fast, and taking on contact.  This was a completely different runner, and you need to know so prior to drafting 2012. 

All of us try to make our arguments cohesive using numbers to bolster our argument.  However, it can't be all about numbers and the analysis below uses a heavy dose of both.

THE 1PM DOCKET



ST. LOUIS @ CHICAGO
Je
ff Fisher’s team heads to Chicago, already vastly improved from a season before.  For one thing, they’re 1-1, when last year their first win didn’t come until the last week of October when they shocked the New Orleans Saints.  This week they’ll come up against a well-rested Bears team that is recovering from what could only be called a sloppy performance last Thursday evening in Green Bay.  The Bears have won the last three meetings between these two teams and are 4-1 in games after which QB Jay Cutler throws two or more interceptions.  At present, the teams are mirror opposites.  The Rams are ranked 24th defensively, as is their pass defense, but have four interceptions.  They’re giving up nearly 5.5 yards per carry against opposing rushers, and are allowing a third down conversion rate of just over 36 percent.  The Bears are likely without Matt Forte again, who did not practice Thursday.  They re-signed RB Khalil Bell to bolster their group, but you can expect Michael Bush to have good value in this game.  However, for the Bears offense, this game is about Cutler and his offensive line, the group he was seen barking at regularly on national television a week ago.  The line is giving up sacks at a rate of 12% on passing attempts, second worst only to the Bengals.  It’ll be up to this group to protect Cutler so he can find his number one target, Brandon Marshall and keep the chains moving.  St. Louis QB Sam Bradford has been playing turnover-free ball but may have to shoulder more of the burden as the Bears pass defense is their weakest element, ranked 26th overall.  Danny Amendola comes off a monster game against the Redskins, and they’ll be moving him around all day to try to exploit the right matchups.  Brandon Gibson leads all Rams wide receivers with two scores, but he may not figure considering the Rams success has come a short passing game that requires Bradford spend less time in the pocket with the football.  With RB Steven Jackson’s sore groin, even if he plays you can expect less carries  from him and more from Daryl Richardson, who was having a fine day last Sunday until his ill-timed fumble.  That fumble may also produce some opportunities for Isaiah Pead, making the RB situation messy.  Start Cutler, who will rebound as he normally does after a turnover-laden game.  He’ll attack using Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who’ll be good for a short TD throw.  However, it’s more likely they use Devin Hester or Earl Bennett, with Hester being set up in space to make a play.  The St. Louis line, which is fighting through some injuries, will have a hard time keep this Chicago defense (with 8 sacks already) from registering a few more.

BEARS 23, RAMS 13


BUFFALO @ CLEVELAND

C.J. Spiller takes his league-leading rushing tally into Cleveland where the Browns are ranked 15th against the run, giving up 115 yards per contest.  Spiller will have ample opportunity here, as the Browns sport a young and opportunistic secondary, and in their last three meetings with the Browns, no Bills wide receiver has scored a touchdown except David Nelson in last year's 13-6 win.  Nelson’s out for the season, making QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s weapons even more limited.  Stevie Johnson is Fitzpatrick’s go-to receiver, but out of his 15 targets, he’s managed only six catches.  His speed is still a factor, as the Browns were unable to take away Cincinnati’s big weapons fully.  He’s a good play this week for 80 yards and a score.  However, for the Bills to win, Donald Jones has to step up to keep the Browns secondary from just stacking the box to stop Spiller.  The Browns haven’t exactly been scoring machines against Buffalo either.  In their last three meetings, kicker Phil Dawson has nine field goals, and already the Browns are worst in red zone efficiency making Dawson a strong play.  Browns QB Brandon Weeden comes off a strong 322-yard, two touchdown performance against the Bengals, but shouldn’t be forced to do more than is necessary here.  Trent Richardson has an ideal matchup as the Bills 24th ranked rushing defense is giving up 134 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.  Brad Childress knows how to use stud running backs, and Richardson should see no less than 25 carries.  Richardson should have an easy 100 yards on the ground, and the Cleveland defense should be able to force the turnover-prone Fitzpatrick (18 INTS on the road dating back to last year) into a mistake or two.


BROWNS 24, BILLS 21 



TAMPA BAY @ DALLAS
The Buccaneers have lost their last four meeting with the Cowboys and have won just once on Dallas’ home turf.  However, this will be their first journey to Cowboys Stadium.  Tony Romo is 31-19 lifetime and 3-0 against Tampa Bay.  His offense welcomes the 31st ranked defense giving up 452 yards per game.  The only Cowboy this game doesn't seem to match up well for is RB DeMarco Murray.  As bad as the Bucs secondary is, they're ranked third in run stopping, giving up 52 yards per contest and an average carry of 2.7 yards.  Of course, they've played against two very suspect rushing attacks, that of the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers.  Murray, who's averaging 5.5 yards per scamper will get his share of carries, but taper expectations, as Romo will run the spread offense well against this Bucs team, making Mile Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten all viable plays.  Even Kevin Ogletree warrants a consideration in deep leagues.  Where Tampa Bay could make some waves is with Doug Martin, who although averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, faces a Dallas front seven yielding 4.6 yards per run.  There was hope in Tampa Bay that QB Josh Freeman would have a rebound season.  So far, the numbers don't parlay into that happening.  The Buccaneers have the third fewest passing first downs with just 18, and are completing just 52.6 percent of their passes.  Vincent Jackson has one of Tampa Bay's three touchdown receptions, but as usual, he's been targeted over double the amount of his catches (20:9).  The most consistent receivers for Tampa Bay have been TE Dallas Clark and FB Erik Lorig.  Both Martellus Bennett and Anthony McCoy scored against this Dallas defense, and I expect Clark to here.  As for the outcome, the only concern for choosing Dallas is they are without their starting center, Phil Costa.  That could throw a real wrench into the Dallas offense.  Why I’m betting a Jerry Jones team will be more professional than to let something like that affect things, I don’t know.  But if that doesn’t throw them off, it won't be close.

COWBOYS 31, BUCCANEERS 17




SAN FRANCISCO @ MINNESOTA
The consensus pick as currently the best team in the NFL, the 49ers head east for an early kickoff date at Mall of America Field (the Metrodome) where they've lost four straight dating back to 1994.  Last time they faced the Vikings it was 2009 and Brett Favre was holding the reins.  He led the Vikings to victory over San Francisco 27-24 on his vaunted heave to Greg Lewis in the end zone with just 12 ticks remaining on the clock.  San Francisco could be in for a letdown here, and the focus of this game will be the rushing attacks of both clubs.  The newly-built Adrian Peterson leads Minnesota rushers with a 4.4 yards per carry average and two rushing touchdowns, both of which came in Week One.  On the flip side, Frank Gore has had a resurgence to start the year, averaging 6.1 yards per touch running behind the 49ers front five, and has two scores of his own.  Both defenses are stout against the run, with Minnesota having held both Maurice Jones-Drew and Donald Brown in check.  They have yielded zero rushing touchdowns the first two games and are holding opposing runners to just 3.1 yards per carry.  However, they will be without LB Erin Henderson Sunday, who has a concussion.  San Francisco also has prevented anyone from scoring a rushing touchdown, while holding opponents to 63 total yards per game and a 3.2 ypc. It likely will come down to the quarterbacks, and which of Alex Smith or Christian Ponder do you believe in.  For me, it's Smith, who hasn't committed a turnover dating back to November of last year.  While both teams' weapons are limited, the depth of Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis is just too much for this Minnesota secondary, who has played against two quarterbacks with little experience between them (Blaine Gabbert and Andrew Luck).  Ponder is much more likely to fold under the San Francisco pressure, and turnovers will change the outcome.  Temper numbers for both runners to 80-90 yards with Gore a favorite to post slightly bigger tallies.  I like Randy Moss to have a good day versus his former team, while Percy Harvin puts up some good receiving totals 50-60 yards, 15 rushing yards and a score. 

49ERS 17,  VIKINGS 13



KANSAS CITY @ NEW ORLEANS
Both teams are 0-2 and both teams come with coaches who are known for creating stellar defenses.  Yet neither team's defense has gelled just yet.  Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs head coach, fashioned strong defenses at New England and Kansas City, while New Orleans defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo of Giants defensive design fame has a defense ranked worst in the league.  How in the world though Matt Cassel and the Kansas City offense can keep up with Drew Brees and New Orleans in this game is beyond me.  The Saints have 51 first downs, the league's best tally, and have scored 59 points.  However, there are several glaring issues with the Saints offense as well.  First, while they're averaging 5.3 yards per carry (I did a double-take too) they are rushing just 26 percent of the time.  The other surprise is that Drew Brees is completing just 54.5 percent of his passes and averaging a measly 6.5 yards per attempt; not very Brees-like.  Brees also has been picked off four times in just two games, nearly one third the amount of all the interceptions he threw last season.  At this rate he'd throw 32 interceptions, a number he hasn't ever come close to in his entire career.  In fact, Brees hasn't had a season where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns since 2003.  One thing's for certain, if New Orleans doesn't add a few more running plays against the Chiefs 27th ranked rush defense, they're crazy.  Pierre Thomas is averaging almost 10 yards every time he runs the football, and he should have a bigger role this Sunday.  Jimmy Graham has been entirely consistent and will continue to be as the Chiefs middle has allowed Scott Chandler and Tony Gonzalez to score.  Graham is even tougher to cover, and may draw some double teams, but I doubt they can deny him here.  Marques Colston is fighting through foot problems, which could make returning receiver Devery Henderson and Lance Moore better plays.  Word came down earlier this week that Jamaal Charles was suffering knee pain, but it turns out it's a bruised knee rather than a setback to his surgically repaired knee.  Charles draws a fantastic matchup against the Saints worst ranked rushing defense.  He's a solid start this week for both regular and PPR formats.  Dwayne Bowe will challenge this secondary, but only if his offensive line keeps QB Matt Cassel upright.  He's been sacked eight times, nearly 10 percent of all drop backs.  Bowe is already hit or miss, catching about half his targets, but I think Dexter McCluster and Jon Baldwin could have a larger impact as they're a speedier combo.  Either way, the Saints are likely to send the Chiefs home 0-3.


SAINTS 35, CHIEFS 21


DETROIT @ TENNESSEE
What should scream rebound game for Matthew Stafford will less be determined by his arm and more be determined by whether Detroit can balance their offense.  Much like the Saints, the Lions are averaging 82.5 yards per game, and are running approximately 35 percent of the time.  This has allowed teams to play off the line more, with less concern Detroit can beat them on the ground.  Enter RB Mikel LeShoure, a tough physical runner who had a strong pre-season.  He returns from suspension and injury this week.  With he and RB Kevin Smith in the backfield against a Tennessee rushing defense that yields 155 yards per game and ceded 23 rushing first downs (only one team worse), Detroit could finally find the balance they're looking for.  That means that even when working QB Matthew Stafford from the shotgun, the Titans will have to give the running game its due.  Thus, WR Calvin Johnson should be in for his first touchdown reception.  Also keep an eye on Brandon Pettigrew as a solid play this week as the Titans were destroyed by Chargers' tight end Dante Rosario and both New England tight ends.  Tennessee's offense has been nearly as inefficient as their defense, but none has fared worse than RB Chris Johnson.  His contract malaise has carried over into this season, as he's managing just 2.1 yards per carry, and he's had just 17 rushes thus far.  But with Rashad Jennings still out with an elbow problem, there's little depth behind him.  No doubt offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is going to want to keep Stafford off the field and control the tempo.  To that end his offensive line has a shot to give Johnson his first solid rushing day against Detroit's 17th ranked rushing defense yielding 4.2 per carry.  They haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher yet, but last week Frank Gore did punch some holes during the 49ers win.  Where Detroit's defense has been vulnerable is the short passing game.  The Lions pass rush is sacking opposing QBs at an 11.1 percent rate, and it would behoove Titans QB Jake Locker to throw shorter passes to Jared Cook and Damian Williams and work controlled drives.  Last week, San Diego derailed Locker to just a 5.8 yards per attempt.  With Detroit's pass rush and Tennessee's lack of consistent line play, Detroit will take this one on the road.

LIONS 31, TITANS 17



JACKSONVILLE @ INDIANAPOLIS

The Jags are 7-15 all time in their series against their division foe, but have won the last two matchups.  This time it is a whole new Colts team they visit at Lucas Oil Stadium.  Colts rookie QB Andrew Luck has a luxury that Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert has never had, a receivers group led by a pro-bowler named Reggie Wayne.  At age 33, Wayne has another quarterback with a golden arm in his midst and he has taken advantage to the tune of 15 catches for 206 yards and a touchdown in two games.  He's been so stellar the first two weeks, along with the play of rising star WR Donnie Avery (12 receptions, 148 yards, 1TD) that RB Donald Brown, originally drafted because he was a multi-dimensional back with good hands, has yet to receive a pass.  He has just two targets, a representation of Bruce Arians downfield style of offense.  Thus, Brown's PPR value continues to drop.  For the Colts defense, they'll be looking for a way to stop Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who has compiled 283 yards rushing and two touchdowns in their last two meetings.  The Colts have given up seven touchdowns, three via ground, while the Jaguars have yet to score using a running play.  The Colts have faced the Bears and Vikings, and while Matt Forte and Michael Bush tallied 120 yards and three scores, Adrian Peterson was unable to get much going against them.  Perhaps Greg Manusky's hybrid 3-4 defense is starting to gel with some of the veterans, and though the Colts have registered six sacks, they're still not forcing turnovers, as they're a minus three for the year.  If Mike Mularkey has his way, Jones-Drew will do a lot of the heavy lifting on the road, and Marcedes Lewis and Laurent Robinson will make their plays when called upon.  In the end, without LB Daryl Smith healthy, the Jags rushing defense, sitting at 31st currently, will give Brown his first shot at 100 yards.  Jags QB Gabbert sunk back to his old ways against a fierce Texans defense last week, and though the Colts aren't the same beast, their pass rush with Robert Mathis and maybe Dwight Freeney (questionable with an ankle) will again force Gabbert to make plays quickly.  Take the Colts at home in a close one.

COLTS 21, JAGUARS 17



NEW YORK JETS @ MIAMI
This game will identify which two versions of these teams are for real.  Is it the Week One Jets who poured it on against Buffalo scoring 41 points? Or is it the team that looked completely incapable against the Steelers in a 27-10 defeat.  Are the Dolphins a team-in-progress with rookie QB Ryan Tannehill, who'll throw three interceptions because of questionable decisions, or are they a juggernaut running team behind their veteran Reggie Bush who can control the tempo of a game and keep the opposing defense on their heels?  Let's be honest; we can't be sure that Rex Ryan has enough faith in Mark Sanchez to allow him 30 throws in a game very often, and we know Joe Philbin would prefer to have Tannehill ease his way into the leadership role.  Both teams would like to control the line of scrimmage.  So far only the Dolphins defense has been doing it, having given up just 53 yards per game on the ground.  Houston's Arian Foster, besides his two TD runs, set up by turnovers, was shut down by the Dolphins, and Oakland's Darren McFadden fared worse.  Thus, Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell are not going to find things easier down south.  That means it's up to Sanchez, and maybe Tim Tebow to put together a victory.  Miami's weakness is their secondary, so I expect a lot of Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley down the field, along with Dustin Keller, who's been fighting a hamstring injury.  Remember, Keller was the Jets receiving leader last year with 65 receptions and five scores.  Should he remain inactive, this game is up to Tannehill's to lose.  The Miami receivers group isn't as deep as Pittsburgh's, but slot man Davone Bess and outside receiver Brian Hartline, can provide enough support to move the chains while Bush, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry against New York last year, puts them to the test.  The return of Darrelle Revis means that I'm not starting any Miami receivers this week, and Anthony Fasano could easily figure in, but Sanchez has only won once in Miami and was heavily dependent on Keller, his missing tight end.

DOLPHINS 18, JETS 14


CNCINNATI @ WASHINGTON
These teams haven’t seen one another since 2008, and the Bengals have won two straight.  However, these teams don’t resemble those units in the slightest.  Since then, Mike Shanahan has taken over, recruited a new quarterback, new running backs, and snatched a key free agent receiver.  Robert Griffin III has been nothing short of phenomenal in his first two games, completing almost 71 percent of his passes, while adding two rushing touchdowns to his three passing TDs.  Cincinnati comes off a win against Cleveland.  Andy Dalton continued to spread the ball around to keep the Browns off balance.  He may not have as hard a time against Washington as the Redskins defense has been brutalized, losing starting two key starers: LB Brian Orakpo and DE Adam Carriker.  And while the Redskins have the 10th rated defense, they’ve played against teams that have run against them just 28 percent of the time.  Though the Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn’t anything special in terms of style, this week could be quite important.  Considering how successful RGIII has been, Green-Ellis' job will be to eat up clock and preserve drives.  He’ll see at least 25 carries unless the Redskins put the game out of hand early.  That, too, is possible, because even though Cincinnati’s rush defense is giving up 126 yards per game (ranked 19th), they are yielding 5.5 yards per carry. That’s music to Alfred Morris’s ears, as he’s the first running back since Terrelle Davis to be given such responsiblility in a Shanhan system.  Out of the 72 rushing attempts by the Redskins this year, Morris and RGIII have 64.  Trent Richardson chomped on the Bengals for 109 yards on just 19 carries, so Morris is a strong play.  Griffin is missing his key weapon in Pierre Garcon, but that didn’t stop him from hitting five different receivers last week.  If Mohamed Massaquoi can take a bite out of the Bengals secondary, so can Aldrick Robinson and Santana Moss, though the most disruptive force could be Leonard Hankerson.  However, I wouldn’t play him as anything but a flex because of the high risk.  Washington’s defense couldn’t slow down the Rams’ Amendola, meaning Andrew Hawkins could be in for a great day.  However, I’d take the Cincinnati and the points in this one.

REDSKINS 33, BENGALS 31



THE 4PM GAMES

PHILADELPHIA @ ARIZONA

These aren’t your father’s Cardinals that’s for sure.  A week after stunning the Pats in Gillette stadium, the Cardinals find themselves hosting the 2-0 Eagles favored by 3.5 points.  Ironically enough, Kevin Kolb finds himself back in the saddle just in time to face the team that traded.  Last year, Arizona traveled to Philly in November and upset the Eagles on their home turf 21-17.  Larry Fitzgerald took control of the game almost single-handedly, grabbing seven balls for 146 yards and two touchdowns.   However, that was with John Skelton hurling the rock.  Kolb has not shown nearly the type of fearlessness Skelton has, and thus, Fitzgerald’s numbers are likely to suffer here against a team allowing opponents to complete just 44.2 percent of their passes.  Where Philadelphia is vulnerable is where Arizona is weakest.  The Eagles are ranked 15th against the run, and give up 105 yards per contest.  Starting running back Ryan Williams could cede more carries to Beanie Wells after fumbling the ball away in the final minutes of last week’s game against the Patriots.  Wells won’t have a whole lot of running room against this Philly defensive front that shut down Trent Richardson and Ray Rice.  The only question with the Eagles is can they stop turning the ball over.  My guess is no, and without Jeremy Maclin playing and more injuries to the offensive line, LeSean McCoy is the only Eagle I have confidence in this week.   The Eagles have lost three of the last four games by no more than seven points, and this will be a similar affair.  It will be ugly, with turnovers from the overly aggressive Michael Vick, and the often tentative Kolb, but I like Arizona in a squeaker.

CARIDINALS 16, EAGLES 13


ATLANTA @ SAN DIEGO
The Chargers have made it look fairly easy thus far, disposing of Oakland and Tennessee as if they were gnats being waved away on their road to this game.  Atlanta has been impregnable and unstoppable, and is 7-1 all time against the Chargers.  Matt Ryan has never lost to Philip Rivers, and has started this year by throwing five touchdown versus zero interceptions.  The big test for Atlanta comes with the return of San Diego’s Ryan Mathews, who is listed as questionable but expected to suit up.  Without Mathews, the Chargers rushing attack has been abysmal, averaging 3.1 yards per carry and just 90 yards per game.  Atlanta’s running game isn’t what it used to be, with no back averaging more than three yards per carry, but the truth is they haven’t had to.  The real question is San Diego’s defense, which have shut down both Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden on the ground resulting in their rating of best rushing defense in the NFL.  They’re barely yielding 42 yards per game, but have faced teams that have only run the 28 percent of the time against them.  Atlanta’s line will give them a much bigger test, and the three-headed monster of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez is nothing like they’ve seen from their first two contests.  Atlanta’s 15th ranked pass defense has been pressuring the QB well, with six sacks in two games, yet both defenses are allowing opposing quarterbacks to find open receivers at over a 70 percent clip.  While Rivers will covet the return of Antonio Gates, and use Malcom Floyd to the best of his ability, the only way San Diego holds off Atlanta is if Ryan Mathews has a big day and Matt Ryan commits too many mistakes.  I don’t see it happening even with Mathews getting you about 90 total yards of offense and a first score.

FALCONS 37, CHARGERS 28


PITTSBURGH @ OAKLAND
The Steelers are 12-13 all time against the Oakland Raiders, and 3-6 all time at the Oakland Coliseum.  However, the Steelers come into this game still hurting, with starters LB James Harrison, FS Troy Polomalu, and RB Rashard Mendenhall out for this week.  What used to be the Steelers vaunted weapon, the trap rushing attack, has failed to jump start under Todd Haley’s new offense, and is ranked 30th overall.  However, the passing attack has converted 100 percent of its third downs with three or less yards to go, and despite averaging 2.4 yards per rush against the Jets last week, converted eight of 15 third downs, while averaging 8.5 yards per pass play.  Isaac Redman has just two more carries than Jonathan Dwyer for the season, but both are healthy.  Redman seems like the biggest contender for the most carries against the Raiders. Oakland’s secondary has lost Shawntae Spencer this week to an ankle injury, and both Richard Seymour and Rolando McClain are questionable.  Where the Raiders can excel against Pittsburgh is on the ground.  The Steelers have given up just 16 passing first downs, among the lowest in the league, and QB Carson Palmer has a career 4-8 record against the Steelers with a pass completion rate of just 57 percent.  I like the Raiders to attempt to attack Pittsburgh deep, where one-on-one they have shown vulnerability in the past.  That means a shot or two to Denarius Moore.  However, with few weapons and Palmer struggling to complete 60 percent of his passes overall while being sacked 10 times, this game is the Steelers to lose.  The travel will make it closer than it should be.

PITTSBURGH 26, RAIDERS 19


HOUSTON @ DENVER
If San Francisco is the pundits consensus darling of the NFL, Houston is her closest cousin.  Forget the Texans offense, which is powered by the thundering ground game that is RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate.  Houston’s defense has simply been unrelenting.  They’re ranked first overall, giving up just 196 yards per game, a number that usually is reserved for most great passing defenses.  They’ve allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 50 percent of their passes, are sacking them almost 10 percent of the time they drop back, and have ceded just 17 total points.  They enter the Mile High City 1-2 all time against Denver, with the last game being decided in the final minutes of the fourth quarter by none other than “Mr. Victory” Tim Tebow.

Which Peyton Manning
will show up this weekend?
Their host for this game is Peyton Manning, who is 16-2 lifetime against Houston, and has so far been a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, with his week possibly deciding which spirit purveys him more consistently.  In Week One, Mr. Hyde, a vicious, precise and fearless attacker, carved the Steelers defense consistently and threw two touchdowns without turning it over.  In Week Two, Dr. Jekyll’s kindness overtook him, and in three straight drives he prescribed a victory for the Atlanta Falcons early with three interceptions.  Where Houston’s defense may be most vulnerable is the run game, because though they’re giving up just 72 yards a game, runners average 4.4 yards per touch.  The two teams they’ve played, Miami and Jacksonville, averaged 4.2 and 4.6 yards per carry respectively.  Behind the Denver line, veteran runner Willis McGahee is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, no doubt in part due to the inherent threat having Manning behind center imposes.  Houston is likely to keep their secondary tight on Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, forcing this young tandem to play physical and get separation.  This should allow McGahee a solid starts as an RB2 on any fantasy team.  Manning will have some opportunities, but in this case Houston’s defense is playing so well right now.  Thomas is a big receiver that can be a difference maker, but he’s not there yet, and Manning will have to take what the defense gives him.  Matt Schaub is likely to be the difference maker, as Denver’s defense is squashing opposing rushers to just 2.6 yards per carry and have allowed just one total rushing TD.  Arian Foster has had decent success in Denver, but Schaub will have to be efficient and avoid turnovers to win this matchup.  I see offensive coordinator Rick Dennison trying to grab and early lead with Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels downfield, with Daniels giving solid fantasy number (7-10 receptions, 75 yards), and then trying to ground it out.  Schaub has average over nine yards per attempt in the thin Denver air, and he’ll succeed in vanquishing Manning for just the third time.

HOUSTON 27, DENVER 24



SUNDAY NIGHT


Baltimore will try to forget this moment Sunday.
BALTIMORE @ NEW ENGLAND
This rematch of the AFC Championship game brings Baltimore back to the bittersweet confines of Gillette stadium where a missed field goal was the difference between a shot at the Super Bowl, and Baltimore’s return home.  This time the Ravens return with one their defensive leaders LB Terrell Suggs recovering from injury, and their defense, though they’ve made some big plays, isn’t the same.  Currently ranked 27th, although they’ve relinquished just 37 points to opponents, they’re giving up 275 yards per game through the air, and an additional 129 on the ground.  Their secondary have three interceptions, two by the ageless Ed Reed.  They’ll have to be up to the task of stopping the recurring nemesis that is Tom Brady.  This time Brady will be without one of his key weapons, hybrid TE/FB Aaron Hernandez, and Stevan Ridley has replaced hard-nosed BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  New England has struggled to find any rhythm, and it’s reflected in their red zone struggles, where they’re ranked in the bottom third in efficiency inside the 20.  Stephen Gostkowski is a top five kicker this week, and with Hernandez absent, Wes Welker should play a much larger role than the one he has been playing, bench jockey.  Baltimore will get a taste of this rising New England defense, led by young rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, along with veteran finds Rob Ninkovich and Jerod Mayo.  Ray Rice is not getting as many carries as usual, and in this case, New England’s has stifled their opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry.  For Baltimore to win, they’ll need Rice to get at least 25 carries, and Joe Flacco will have to exploit the match-up problems Torrey Smith caused New England last year.  The Pats will go no huddle, with Brady occasionally trying for a big strike with Brandon Lloyd (if healthy – he’s questionable) to keep Baltimore honest.  However, Gronkowski is in for a big day.  For Baltimore, start Joe Flacco even against this defense.  Why?  Believe it or not, though he’s 0-2 against New England in the regular season, Flacco has completed nearly 66 percent of his passes against with four TD strikes and only one interception.  He’ll be precise, using veteran Anquan Boldin and new favorite target Dennis Pitta.  Rice will be a decent PPR play, but temper rushing expectations to about 60 yards.  In the end, though New England’s offense is declining, Brady is 4-0 against the Ravens and seems to step up in big games.  He’s not a great fantasy option, (275 yards, a touchdown and an interception) but he tends to be the difference.

PATRIOTS 31, RAVENS 26
MONDAY NIGHT

GREEN BAY @ SEATTLE
No one thought this would be as good a matchup as it has shaped up to be.  While Green Bay looked more Green-Bay-like 10 days ago on Thursday night, the short week for Chicago after losing Matt Forte in additional to having to head north to Wisconsin made for a very sloppy win.  Seattle dismantled Dallas as an afterthought, with Marshawn Lynch leading the way.  The last time these two teams met it was 2009, and to give you an idea of just how different a team Green Bay was, they won 48-10 but behind the strength of four rushing touchdowns.  The Packers have employed RB Cedric Benson in an attempt to re-focus their ground assault, but it has yet to reap any real benefits, with Benson managing just 3.4 yards per carry, and zero touchdowns.  The good news for Aaron Rodgers and company is that Greg Jennings is finally healthy.  This is also good news for Jordy Nelson, who although shifty, is not the kind of physical guy that can shake double teams.  He’ll score his first touchdown of the season, and Jermichael Finley will help open up the middle of the field so Benson can get his first TD as well.  Green Bay’s rushing defense has been pretty soft, but they’ll tighten up the line and push the mobile Russell Wilson to beat them.  With Green Bay sacking quarterbacks a whopping 17 percent of the time, Wilson will have to scramble too often.  Wide receiver Doug Baldwin did not practice and may not play, leaving Sidney Rice and Golden Tate to outwit the Green Bay secondary.  I like Robert Turbin to find a bigger role in this game as a PPR specialist, as you expect Pete Carroll to keep Wilson measured with controlled with shorter throws.  It won’t be enough to keep up with Green Bay, both defensively and offensively.  I’d start Lynch and Benson as a flex. Start Rodgers who is 8-1 against NFC West teams and 3-0 lifetime against Seattle with a QB rating over 122.  Packers return to form and take one from Seattle.
 
PACKERS 31, SEAHAWKS 17