The NFL is a bit topsy-turvy right now to say the least. Defenses that were once associated with being mighty stingy may still be so in terms of points, but are suddenly giving away yards like they're real estate developers. Then there are the teams that have yielded a lot of points on defense, but they are actually better defenses in terms of preventing sustainable drives. Offenses once identified with throwing the ball are still doing so, but are having more success on the ground. Some teams are putting up winning records despite large negative point differentials. Others are barely scraping the .500 mark while putting up huge amounts of points per game. How is this possible? Well, that's why you're here. Keep reading.
THE 1PM DOCKET
CINCINNATI @ CLEVELAND
The 0-5 Browns began their season on a last second loss the Philadelphia Eagles. It was one of those sour notes that have since become an opus for their entire season. The piece could be entitled, Oh, so close. In Week Two, in what became an unexpected battle of the quarterbacks, Bengals QB Andy Dalton completed three touchdown passes to three different receivers, with two of those touchdowns greater than 40 yards. We were introduced to the Bengals new quartet of receivers, including A. J. Green's future compliment, and it wasn't Brandon Tate, though he did score a touchdown. It was Andrew Hawkins, who made a fantastic run after the catch that became a 50 yard touchdown. In just his second week as the Browns' starter, rookie Brandon Weeden threw for over 300 yards, including two touchdowns. We were introduced to the Browns lack of receivers, though Mohamed Massaquoi had what appeared to be a statement game with five receptions on seven targets for 90 yards. More importantly, Trent Richardson announced his arrival in the NFL with 145 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. However, the Bengals escaped the feisty Browns in Week Two and the difference was a punt return for a touchdown by Adam "Pacman" Jones.
|Joe Haden returns Sunday|
Three things will decide this game: whether the Browns continue to kill themselves with penalties, which team can keep their quarterback upright, and the differences in the teams' secondaries. The Browns offensive line has protected Weeden to the tune of just nine sacks. Dalton has been felled 15 times. The Browns have picked off seven passes, six of which came without Haden at the helm. The Bengals have forced just one interception. Even with his lack of weapons, Brandon Weeden will find some time to throw, and Cleveland's own fierce pass rush (13 sacks on the year) will create some havoc. Expect a lower scoring game, as the weather calls for a storm, and the Browns will prevail for the first time this season.
BROWNS 21, BENGALS 17
KANSAS CITY @ TAMPA BAY
The Kansas City fans were excoriated by one of their own, as OT Eric Winston heard the boos as an injured Matt Cassel left last Sunday's game with a concussion and gave the NFL a juicy post game interview. Cassel certainly hasn't played very well, and except his performance against the Saints, has turned the ball over 14 times, including five lost fumbles. This week, Brady Quinn gets a chance to revive his status from first round bust, and his job is simple; stop the bleeding on offense. The Chiefs offense has been reckless all season long, and Cassel hasn't been the sole offender. Of the 145 points the Kansas City defense has given up, more than one-third, 58 points, have come as a result of a turnover. With both Peyton Hillis and Shaun Draughn limited in practice this week, RB Jamaal Charles will see his workload continue to increase. The Chiefs offensive line has done well in their zone blocking scheme instituted by Brian Daboll. However, their pass protection has been awful. Quinn is much more pocket wary than Cassel is, and will likely run a short-passing offense, in an effort to keep Tampa Bay from blitzing. The Buccaneers pass defense is ranked worst in the league, though they've given up only four touchdowns through the air. Basically, this adds up to very little Dwayne Bowe, and more Charles, Dexter McCluster, and maybe Tony Moeaki, though from a fantasy standpoint, you can no longer expect much from the Chiefs tight end. Daboll's offense has targeted their tight ends just 25 times in 178 passes.
The Chiefs defense ironically is improving. Now ranked tenth overall, sans the plethora of points against them, yardage wise they are ranked tenth in the league, with a greater propensity to stop the pass (eighth). Josh Freeman hasn't truly recovered from his sophomore slump either. He's completing fewer than 55 percent of his passes for a 6.6 adjusted yards per attempt average. No doubt, the matchup that matters most here is Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount against the Chief 22nd ranked rush defense. Martin has become the team's bell-cow, but he hasn't supplied fantasy owners with anything more than RB3/flex type numbers. He's averaging 3.5 yards per carry, has just one touchdown and averages 62 yards per contest. He only has eight receptions through four games. Coming off the Bye Week, Martin will be well rested, and he will get 20 carries on Sunday to try to loosen up the Kansas City secondary. With Brandon Flowers likely to be draped over boom/bust receiver Vincent Jackson, expect Mike Williams, who is coming off his best game of the season, to continue to build on that. He's a better set of hands generally, and is used to move the chains more. Tiquan Underwood, who caught all three of his targets two weeks ago, may also factor in, alongside Arrelious Benn. Jackson may get a shot at the end zone, but in most cases, I'm playing other receivers over Tampa Bay's this weekend. Even once you consider that Josh Freeman has been particularly average at home, posting a 9-13 record, a 59 percent completion percentage and a 28:23 TD/Interception ratio, it's incredibly hard to imagine Quinn leading the Chiefs to a victory here. Jamaal Charles is the only Chief I'd start, and he'll have solid numbers. Doug Martin is worth playing because of how many carries he should get, and Blount may mop up on red zone duty. Expect a low scoring matchup with Tampa Bay eventually outlasting Kansas City.
BUCCANNERS 13, CHIEFS 10
OAKLAND @ ATLANTA
No doubt survival poolers looked at this game and thought lock of the week, which is of course what makes this game scary. You have a 5-0 Falcons team facing a 1-4 Oakland team. The Falcons defense is supposedly on the rise, yet though they give up few points, they give up a ridiculous 5.4 yards per attempt on the ground. Teams have begun to sniff that out as the Falcons are now facing rushes 44 percent of the time. Guess who hasn't had a big explosive day yet, the kind of day you've been waiting for out of him since your fantasy draft? Yes, Raiders RB Darren McFadden, who hasn't really looked himself this year, gets a shot in the Georgia Dome, and considering Carson Palmer's arsenal of receivers, common sense says McFadden will get a lot of opportunities. However, this year McFadden is averaging just 2.3 yards per carry, and last year on turf, he averaged just 3.6. Worse still, McFadden has averaged one yard per carry from 11 carries on. This may be fancy numbers play, but McFadden has had foot problems, and his offensive line isn't exactly stellar. The Raiders are having runs stuffed 11 percent of the time too. This week, McFadden is likely to meet you in the middle, getting approximately 15-20 carries and providing 80 yards and a touchdown. Since his 13 reception debut this season, McFadden has just five over the last three games, so expect a slight uptick there, but not much more than 30 more yards. Oakland has a scoring differential of minus 58, and simply can't finish their drives. This is a case where Atlanta's offense, ranked 12th overall, but seventh in passing, will simply take it to the Raiders defense. The Falcons have 13 passing TDs, second best in the league. Matt Ryan is having his best year so far, and with two physical targets such as Julio Jones and Roddy White downfield, why shouldn't he? The Falcons were 9-17 on third down last week, and behind the Steelers, are second best in the NFL with a third down conversion rate of 48.5 percent. Matt Ryan's only appearance again Oakland was in his rookie campaign in 2008 and resulted in 220 yards and two scores, along with a completion rate of 77 percent. Although Carson Palmer has never thrown an interception against Atlanta and sports a passer rating of 112.5 against them, don't count on that kind of security here. Darius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore are both healthy for a change, but Atlanta's secondary, anchored by off-season acquisition Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have taken key targets out of each game. Atlanta's Moore was limited in practice earlier this week but if he can't go they have great depth in veteran strong safety Chris Hope. Of Atlanta's five passing touchdowns they've ceded, only one WR1, Denver's Demaryius Thomas, has found the end zone. Expect Denarius Moore to be removed from the equation, and Heyward Bey to give you five or six receptions for around 60 yards. Palmer will likely find Brandon Myers more often than not, so he could be a solid PPR play this week if you're looking for a fill-in.
The Raiders have generated just three sacks in four games. Expect the Falcons to throw on the Raiders until Oakland has to abandon the running game, and a couple of crucial turnovers will plague the Raiders on the road. Ryan is in line for another 300 yard performance, with White and Jones being great fantasy plays. Both could score this week, and Tony Gonzalez is in for yet another touchdown grab as Oakland has given up four passing TDs to opposing tight ends. Michael Turner might see his yardage increase in garbage time, so even though Oakland has given up 100 yards twice this year to lead running backs, Turner may do it only after Atlanta slows the pace and bleeds the clock. Book him for close to 100 yards. Sans the Steelers game, the Raiders have managed just 33 points in their other three games, and just 19 on the road. This one is not going to be that close.
FALCONS 34, RAIDERS 13
ST. LOUIS @ MIAMI
To say the season is going swimmingly for the St. Louis Ram isn't hyperbole. The Rams are 3-2 and are the only team that is 2-0 amongst divisional foes. Despite losing his Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams to a suspension, Jeff Fisher's defense is ranked 14th overall. They now have 15 sacks on the season, nine of which came last week at Arizona. Despite having an offense ranked 29th, the Rams have a postiive point differential over their opponents of plus two and have stayed competitive in every game but one. If you had glanced at the schedule prior to the season's start, you'd have been hard pressed to buy into the idea that this game would be the one to test the Rams' mettle. The Dolphins have the 15th ranked defense and 13th ranked offense. Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill hasn't lit up scoreboards with touchdown passes, but has averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and made Brian Hartline the leading yardage receiver in the NFL.
The Dolphins will attempt to run hopefully healed Reggie Bush and rookie speedster Lamar Miller into a Rams defense that stuffs such plays over 12 percent of the time. It's not that the 'Fins are worried about Sam Bradford's offense as much as the Dolphins average over five yards per carry at home and have a 27th ranked pass defense. Expect Bush to get nearly 20 carries if his knees can handle it, with Lamar Miller taking over for the concussed Daniel Thomas. Miller has yet to catch a pass this year, but with a blitzing defense like the Rams, he and Bush will be sent out in to the flat to foil the quick rush and get especially Miller into space. Bush is likelier to get the goal line duties with Thomas out, making him an even stronger play against a St. Louis defense which has yielded six rushing touchdowns. Only tight ends have found the end zone via the air against St. Louis (and that's twice – a correction from last week), but TE Anthony Fasano has just one touchdown this year. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane is the more likely candidate to vulture a red zone score. Even though Brian Hartline is Tannehill's top target, I don't see the Rams allowing him a touchdown. He'll get 5-6 catches and 50 yards, but not much more. If anything Davone Bess might pull a quick slant for a big play, and he's a better fantasy play of the receivers, but no more than a flex at best. For St. Louis fans, if you've been waiting for the day where Sam Bradford will have to carry the team on his shoulders to victory, that day has arrived. The Dolphins hold the top rated rush defense and yield a 2.7 yard per carry average. Steven Jackson is underperforming Daryl Richardson, but the Rams have seven million reasons to continue to start Jackson. I expect that Richardson, averaging a full yard per carry more than Jackson, will see a few extra carries this week, but it won't make the difference. With leading WR Danny Amendola expected to miss anywhere from 4-6 weeks with a shoulder injury, Bradford's going to have to execute Brian Schottenheimer's "Coryell" offense with precise passes, setting up mismatches for Brandon Gibson, and newly found threat Chris Givens. The past two games has seen Givens deliver a 50-yard touchdown reception in each one. He has just four receptions on 15 targets, but don't think they won't attack with Givens against this Dolphins secondary. Tight end Lance Kendricks will be used to move the chains, along with Austin Pettis, and Gibson is a possible WR3 this week in deep leagues. Givens is a calculated gamble, but not one I'd make considering the Rams only average 183 passing yards per game. At home, the Dolphins will control the clock as they own a 41.3 percent 3rd down conversion rate, and Tannehill will make just enough plays to keep take the Dolphins to .500. Bradford should have his best passing totals of the season, but I don't expect more than a two touchdowns. Turnovers will play a huge role in this one, and though Tannehill is more likely to make the mistake against this aggressive Rams defense, I expect Bradford's will be more costly.
DOLPHINS 17, RAMS 13
INDIANAPOLIS @ NEW YORK JETS
|Dustin Keller could be the difference maker.|
Colts give up 4.7 yards per carry. At home, expect this to be one of Greene's best days, even though he has yet to carry 20 times in a game. He started slow last year, and picked it up right around this time. Greene and Powell should combine for 170 rushing yards, with Greene topping 100 for the first time. The other big news this week is the return of Mark Sanchez's favorite target, TE Dustin Keller. Keller's return will put pressure on the Colts new 3-4 and could cause some big problems for them in coverage. Expect Sanchez to seek Keller out when plays break down, so that could be often. Stephen Hill could rejoin the Jets receivers group, making life a little easier for Jeremy Kerley. Though you'd think this game would be a constant battle of mistakes, I think the scoring in this one could get out of hand. It comes down who has the ball last and who makes the stop. I think the Jets will have to rely on Nick Folk in the end he'll deliver.
JETS 31, COLTS 28
DETROIT @ PHILADELPHIA
The Detroit Lions haven't much been themselves this year, which is to say offensively they appear lost and defensively they are improving. Now the ninth ranked defensive unit in the NFL, they've allowed just six touchdowns in their four games. Yet, they've given up 114 total points, meaning they're doing a good job stopping drives short, but not keeping teams from tallying something for their efforts. They meet a Philadelphia team which has the eighth ranked unit, and one that has held opposing quarterbacks to a meager 55 percent completion rate. The last time these two teams met, it was a shootout, with Philadelphia relying on the legs of LeSean McCoy, and the Lions QB Shaun Hill throwing for 335 yards and two scores. Jahvid Best carried the load for Detroit and scored three times, as did McCoy. Brandon Pettigrew had his first ever game with over 100 receiving yards, while Calvin Johnson and Jeremy Maclin each scored with minimal yardage. Has much changed? The big difference this year is the alacrity with which each quarterback is turning the ball over. Vick's fumble problems are becoming legend, and he is now solely responsible for 11 turnovers. Matthew Stafford has a 3:4 TD:INT ratio. By this time last year, Stafford had thrown 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
The biggest problem for the Eagles has been pass protection, though a lot of that falls on Vick as well. He's been sacked 14 times this season, and is completing just 58 percent of his passes. However, ten of those sacks have come on the road, and Vick has started October off better, completing 67 percent of his passes. Vick is more successful if he doesn't have to throw over 30 passes. When he attempts 31 passes or more he completes just 40 percent for a 4.09 average attempt. As such, LeSean McCoy will get plenty of opportunities against Detroit's 13th ranked rushing defense. For his career, McCoy averages exactly the same at home as he does on the road, and considering what he did to Detroit last time these two teams met (120 yards, 3TDs) you can bet Philadelphia will deploy him all over the field in an effort to take some pressure off Vick. He'll give you 100 yards rushing and another 25 receiving, not to mention a score. When Vick does throw, he's generally looking for his favorite target Jeremy Maclin. Detroit has had more trouble guarding tight ends, and Brent Celek, the team leader with eight plays over 20 yards, is an obvious choice here to start and get you a score with 60-70 receiving yards.
Detroit has the best red zone defense, and with Vick's inability to often finish drives, Alex Henery should be a solid start as well. Detroit's biggest problem is their special teams, which has allowed six returns for touchdowns in just four games. They'll do everything they can to control the ball in this one, and Mikel LeShoure will get plenty of opportunities to help move the ball. With WR Titus Young possibly falling out of favor in this offense, expect Calvin Johnson to get plenty of targets, especially if Brandon Pettigrew is unable to go. Johnson will see at least 12 passes throw his way, but will likely bring in about 5-6 for nearly 100 yards. Two weeks ago, RB Joique Bell led all receivers with 72 yards on eight targets and six catches. His 16 targets ties him with Young and his 175 receiving yards are good for fourth best on the team. Nate Burleson will have to factor as the Eagles try to take away Megatron.
The Eagles haven't had any luck returning kicks this year, though they'll certainly test Detroit. Yet with the Lions coming into Philly well rested, and the odd fact that Matthew Stafford is a better quarterback on the road, and on grass, and in the 4th quarter, the Eagles propensity to play loosely with the ball will kill them. Stafford gets back in the groove, throws for 220 yards, two scores and no interceptions while LeShoure adds a touchdown run.
LIONS 30, EAGLES 23
DALLAS @ BALTIMORE
|Romo's offense will get in sync soon.|
It's easy to have a visceral reaction to this game after Tony Romo's five interceptions against the Bears two weeks ago. It appears like a one-sided blowout for Baltimore. After all, Dallas is minus seven in the give/take this year, and the offense is flailing in mediocrity. Baltimore's defense has always been their defining characteristic; a Ray Lewis-led defense won't give much ground right? For the 4-1 Ravens, this year, that's not really the truth. Their 24th ranked defense is giving up 380 yards per contest. That in itself could be surprising enough, but the fact they're ranked 23rd against the pass, giving up 261 yards per contest doesn't speak well for them in this matchup. Sure the Cowboys have been a mess. Dez Bryant was supposed to dominate opposing DBs this year, but instead has managed zero touchdowns of his 21 catches and 269 yards. Jason Witten's spleen injury left him playing through pain for each of the first few weeks. Miles Austin has been as injury prone as Ryan Mathews, though he's started this year off right, with three touchdowns of his 18 receptions DeMarco Murray may be running at 3.9 yards per carry and have 16 catches for 114 yards, but he hasn't made any of the game-breaking type plays that defined him last year. Jason Garrett has stayed with him leaving Felix Jones inopportune times to tote the ball. Jones has just three carries on the season. Romo has completed a pass to 13 different receivers this year, which actually adds to the problem. Should guys like Witten, Bryant and Austin be ceding receptions to Kevin Ogletree, Philip Tanner and John Phillips? Let's face it, the Cowboys have underperformed at the skill positions maybe more so than any other team.
There lies the rub. At some point this team is going to chew on someone like a starving child at a smorgasbord. All signs point to a chance it's the Ravens. Despite Romo's eight interceptions this year, he's passing at a 67 percent clip, and 70 percent on first or second down. His QB rating on the road is 97.4, with four passing touchdowns against two interceptions and over an eight yard average. DeMarco Murray runs at a 5.5 yards per carry average on the road so far. The Ravens Joe Flacco does indeed play way better at home, completing 67.5 percent of his passes versus just 50 percent on the road. However, the Dallas pass defense is ranked best in the league, and when you combine that with Baltimore's pretty mundane 33% third down conversion rate, alongside the fact they are the second most penalized team on offense, Baltimore could struggle to sustain their drives. The Cowboys also return starters Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Martin to their defensive line. It's Ratliff's first game of the year. The game plan for Baltimore will center on Ray Rice, who has never faced Dallas. Both he and Bernard Pierce average over five yards per carry, and their job will be to keep Flacco throwing on shorter down situations. Rice should be able to find space and provide a top five day. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin could make life difficult for the Dallas secondary. Expect Smith to find the end zone, while Boldin gives you decent yardage. I'm skeptical they won't overlook Dallas and falter.
You remember how Dallas went into New York this year and beat the Giants. Well to give you further evidence that supports Romo as actually having a clutch gene – when the game is within seven points either way in the fourth quarter, Romo is a perfect 12-for-12 and posts an overall fourth quarter completion percentage of almost 78 percent. Romo rushes for one score and throws two others. Murray adds a couple of big plays and the Cowboys cause more head-scratching among the NFL team rankings.
DALLAS 30, BALTIMORE 23
THE 4PM DOCKET
MINNESOTA @ WASHINGTONPerhaps the biggest surprise of this young season is the 4-1 Minnesota Vikings. Shocking further is that they've done it without RB Adrian Peterson scoring since Week One. They've done it with Christian Ponder playing smart football, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and six touchdowns against two interceptions. They've done it with special teams and defense. The Vikings have allowed just 79 points, and a total of seven touchdowns in five games. Against Washington's defense, Ponder will have to do his fair share again, as the Redskins allow just 88 yards per game on the ground. However, their air defense is ranked 31st and has given up 13 passing touchdowns. I'm not only playing Percy Harvin, but Michael Jenkins and Kyle Rudolph. The Redskins haven't allowed a 100-yard runner all year long, and I don't expect that to change against their solid front seven, even with Adrian Peterson. However, Peterson could give you 100 all-purpose yards when you add another four catches for 40 more yards. Don't be surprised if Peterson finds pay dirt through the air.
Minnesota also hasn't allowed any rusher to reach 100 yards and have shut down the likes of Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Chris Johnson. So despite the fact Redskins RB Alfred Morris has 100 yards games in back-to-back weeks, the first Redskins back since Clinton Portis in 2008 to do so, taper thoughts of such an outing here. Robert Griffin III returns from a concussion, which is never a good thing. Concussed players, if not given the right amount of time to heal, often can't keep up with the speed of a game. That's not to say he's not cleared by the doctors, but I'm reminded of a similar situation in 2006 where Ben Roethlisberger returned after a concussion he threw four interceptions into a weak Oakland secondary. Minnesota's Achilles heel might be the deep ball, and that makes Leonard Hankerson a possible deep touchdown target. Pierre Garcon had a setback with his foot, leaving him questionable for Sunday. As such, Santana Moss, who has two touchdowns in the past two weeks, becomes the best option if Garcon can't go. He and Griffin seem to be finding each other more and more, and post injury, Griffin may want to keep the ball shorter with some trusted hands. Fred Davis has had a minimum of four catches while averaging 70 yards the last three weeks. He'll get you his first touchdown this week. However, in this game I trust Ponder more than Griffin, and Adrian Peterson more than Alfred Morris.
MINNESOTA 20, WASHINGTON 16
BUFFALO @ ARIZONA
The last time the Bills saw the Cardinals, it was 2008 and they were 4-0 and optimistic about a trip to face 2-2 Arizona. The Bills would slide to an 8-8 finish while the 9-7 Cardinals would make a Super Bowl run. At 4-1, the Cardinals are looking for a reprise of that season, and have already put down a few strong teams, giving them credence in the NFC West as front runner. This year, the 2-3 Bills had greater hopes, especially after signing Mario Williams away from the Texans for $100 million. It was expected that putting their contract star opposite second year man Marcell Dareus would push the Bills to the next step in their evolution. Even when they lost starting RB Fred Jackson as the season started, C. J. Spiller didn't miss a beat, stepping in and taking over as the Bills top runner. Then the wheels fell off. After moving out to a 2-1 record, they ran into two of the top teams in both conferences. San Francisco and New England dropped 97 points in two games on them. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been one of the most protected QBs in the league, having been sacked just five times in five games. For all that time, Fitzpatrick has made too many mistakes with the football. He's thrown eight interceptions to go with his 12 touchdowns. The Arizona defense can cause all sorts of problems, as they sack opposing QBs nearly nine percent of the time they drop back to throw. They also have given up just one rushing touchdown on the year, and it was to Jorvorskie Lane of Miami of all people. For the first time in awhile though both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller aren't listed on the injury report, and you can bet Buffalo will try to get those two going. Again, this week should see Spiller post better numbers because of his catching ability in space. Where Arizona has also shown vulnerability is deep. Not that Fitzpatrick throws the best deep ball, but both Brian Hartline and Chris Givens were able to take long balls to the house. So expect Donald Jones to get a shot deep. Stevie Johnson will likely be paired up against Patrick Peterson, and I don't like his chances for a big play or a score. Arizona will start RB William Powell, a guy who worked at Best Buy
all of a few years ago. He may look like a stud this week against the Bills 30th ranked rushing defense, but I'm not investing in anyone running in Arizona. Kevin Kolb will have to shoulder the load on this one, and the only problem there is that he's been sacked 22 times. If the Bills generate any sort of a pass rush, this game could get very interesting. Larry Fitzgerald should have a field day, and I wouldn't be concerned about playing Andre Roberts either, who Kolb took another shot at deep last week in St. Louis. While I don't think the Bills are as bad as they appear defensively, they aren't very good either. New England and San Francisco are elite teams this year and the Bills are not healthy. Even with the Bills defense allowing the most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks, this game won't be an easy one for Kolb because of his now one-dimensional offense and tattered offensive line. However, the Cardinals are opportunistic in causing turnovers, and perhaps Powell will channel his inner Samkon Gado for a weekend and surprise us all.
CARDINALS 17, BILLS 14
NEW YORK GIANTS @ SAN FRANCISCO
The Giants have won four out of the last five matchups between these two teams dating back to January 2005. This includes a 20-17 overtime win in the NFC Championship last year. This year, the Giants defense isn't generating quite the pass rush they were last year. They've sacked opposing quarterbacks just eight times, and have allowed 111 points on the year, including eight passing touchdowns. The visiting Giants may have Ahmad Bradshaw coming off a 200-yard rushing performance, but WR Hakeem Nicks is playing Sunday, and the Giants will attack early on with he, Victor Cruz and Domenik Hixon. They'll attempt to take San Francisco out of their top rated rushing offense and push the onus on Alex Smith to beat them. Martellus Bennett has three touchdowns already this year, and San Francisco has given up 60 percent of their passing touchdowns to tight ends. Bear Pascoe took one in last year, but it's Bennett who Manning will look for first. The Niners will do what they've been doing – rush Frank Gore and control the clock at home, making precision passes to TE Vernon Davis, and using Michael Crabtree when they need a possession play to move the sticks. If you have Mario Manningham, insert him here. I have little doubt after his tete-a-tete with Kevin Gilbride this week Jim Harbaugh is going to milk Manningham for every piece of information and then send Manningham to the best day of his season. Expect them to come after Eli Manning and pressure him into making a bad throw. Victor Cruz had 142 yards last year against San Francisco and this game won't be much different. Bradshaw won't have near the output this week, being held under 100 yards and without a score. And though Manning will throw for close to 300 yards and a few scores, the Niners are going to get to him like they did last year, force a few turnovers and take themselves to 5-1.
49ers 25, GIANTS 21
NEW ENGLAND @ SEATTLE
The Seattle Seahawks have never had Tom Brady on their home turf, and sporting the top rated defense, they're hoping to make it a long day on top of a long trip for New England. The problem for Seattle is that New England's strong rushing defense plays against their strength. Marshawn Lynch has been the leader of this team this year, rushing 113 times for 4.5 per carry and two scores. He's averaged just over four yards per carry for his career against the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Patriots pass defense is ranked 29th, having been scorched by Peyton Manning, which dropped them sixteen spots in the rankings in one week. Russell Wilson has thrown five touchdown passes against six interceptions, but he's had five of his six interceptions in the last two weeks. His leading receiver is Sidney Rice with only 17 receptions, and Rice has just one play over 20 yards. Three of his touchdown passes have been to Golden Tate, who has just 10 receptions on the year. The passing offense is dead last in yards per game and Seattle's longest pass play of the year is 41 yards. Which aspect of Seattle's offense do you think Bill Belichick is going to take away? One thing to note though: the Patriots are without safety Steve Gregory, a key component to this year's pass defense. Thus, Tate is set to have another big play downfield, and Wilson will give him a shot. The Patriots will have to find a way to use Stevan Ridley, the fourth rated fantasy back in ESPN standard leagues, as well as his cohort Brandon Bolden. The rush will be key to setting up play-action for Brady to throw downfield to his tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. This is a dangerous game for the Patriots, and as for fantasy value, it's hard to sit Tom Brady, but I can't say I'm crazy about him here. The Seahawks have give up few big plays and can contain the Pats running game. In the end, I think Russell Wilson will be prone to make the big mistake, and I'd play the Patriots defense here. The Patriots get a late touchdown to Hernandez, and other than that, the field goal kickers rule the day.
PATRIOTS 16, SEAHAWKS 9
SUNDAY NIGHT GAME
GREEN BAY @ HOUSTON
It seems as if the NFC North is suffering from some great malaise, wherein the teams everyone was expecting to have top notch offenses and improving defenses are completely out of sync, and the teams that no one saw being able to do a whole lot of anything have taken over. Green Bay has suffered such an affliction. Just when it appeared the Packers were going to climb out of it, the Indianapolis Colts snatched a road victory from them. Aaron Rodgers and last year's fantasy gem Jordy Nelson just haven't been on the same page. Instead it's been James Jones, the man Rodgers lobbied for, who is having a career year in Green Bay, but that's added up to just a 2-3 record. Greg Jennings has already been ruled out of this game, and Jermichael Finley is questionable. Running back Cedric Benson is now on the IR, leaving Alex Green, who managed their longest run from scrimmage so far this year with a 41 yarder, to take the reins. James Starks may also be in the mix for some carries, making Green really a speculative play. You're safer picking him up and stashing him, hoping he does something impressive. As I mentioned last week, Rodgers is a great QB on turf, and after last week sports a 29/6 TD:INT ratio on the artificial surface. All of this may be for not if they can't stop Houston's rushing attack and control second year sensation J. J. Watt from wreaking havoc on Rodgers, who has already been sacked 21 times on the season.
The Packers give up 4.3 yards per carry as a rushing defense, yield 115 yards per game and have ceded two rushing TDs. No doubt Arian Foster will get 20-25 carries in this one, if for no other reason than to bleed some clock and keep Rodgers and company on the bench. Where Matt Schaub has to be careful is against Green Bay's pass defense, because the Packers lead the NFL with 18 sacks, and have forced five interceptions. Schaub is 3-9 when he throws two interceptions or more, and the Packers are going to want to dare Schaub to beat them through the air. Andre Johnson's numbers have suffered as a result of the run heavy offense in Houston, but I expect Houston to involve him just enough to keep things moving along. He'll get your 3-4 grabs for 50 yards and a touchdown. I don't expect great numbers from anyone else but Owen Daniels, who has given you double digit fantasy points two weeks straight, and is now the third best TE in fantasy in ESPN standard leagues. Look for Rodgers and company to attack Houston's secondary, even without the services Jennings or Finley, to try to build a lead and take Foster out of the picture. Rodgers could easily struggle this game, and with Houston's pass rush, force a few ill-advised throws. I'd actually play Houston's defense because the sack potential is so high I like Foster to rule the day.
TEXANS 31, PACKERS 21
MONDAY NIGHT GAME
DENVER @ SAN DIEGO
These teams are basically mirror images of each other. Both factor in dynamic quarterbacks who will defer to the pass over the run. Both sport top 15 defenses. San Diego has a young dynamic playmaker in RB Ryan Mathews who is as dangerous in the backfield as he is out in the flat. Along with newest goal line pounder Jackie Battle, the two headline a steadily improving rushing offense now averaging 103 yards per contest and four yards per carry, up from under 100 yards just a few weeks ago. The Broncos have a revived Willis McGahee, who has posted 4.5 yards per carry and three touchdowns, not to mention adding 14 receptions for 91 yards. Add rookie Ronnie Hillman, who is beginning to add carries weekly, and the Broncos running game is not something to ignore. Where the teams differ is their ability to throw the ball. Peyton Manning is 4-3 all time against the Chargers, but has never faced them when it was a divisional matchup. Perhaps the ramifications of the venue change will be lost on such a veteran, but one thing Manning can't ignore is his 12:16 TD:INT ratio, 6.78 yards per attempt and his 61 percent completion rate. They are not his strongest numbers. However, for the season he's thrown just three interceptions while tossing 11 touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas is one of the rising stars among NFL receivers, as his size and speed can only draw comparisons with Atlanta's Roddy White. Philip Rivers is 9-4 all time against the Broncos, with a 20:7 TD:INT ratio. He still has a Hall of Fame Tight End in Antonio Gates, and a strong, head-topping Malcom Floyd, who has averaged no less than four receptions per contest and has nine plays over 20 yards this year.
However, the truth is the jury is still out on just how solid a team the Chargers are. They've beaten up Kansas City, Oakland and Tennessee, while losing to the Saints and Falcons. This game could be a major test for them, and it comes at a bad time as San Diego's injury problems are beginning to take hold. Mathews apparently suffered some sort of ankle tweak and was once again a featured name on the injury report after missing practice Wednesday. Malcom Floyd is suffering from a groin issue, the same kind of problem that has sidelined the Packers Greg Jennings for several weeks. He's listed as questionable as well. Wide receiver Eddie Royal was limited in practice Thursday with a hamstring and missing from practice Friday, giving true doubt to his availability on Monday night. Without these weapons at Rivers' disposal, Robert Meachem will have to elevate himself to top receiver status, something he hasn't been able to achieve thus far. He has just nine receptions on the season of his 19 targets, though he scored twice against his former team last week.
I don't have much doubt Floyd will attempt to play, and if he does, he'll get 10 targets in this one. However, Ryan Matthews has a chance to reclaim his RB1 position atop the depth chart, as Denver is ranked 21st against the rush. Mathews will be a terrific PPR play, as the lack of healthy receivers will make him a passing option as often as he runs. He'll get 15-17 carries and 5-6 receptions. Except Jackie Battle to take on goal line duty and Antonio Gates to finally make a big impact in the middle of the field, with several looks around the end zone. Yet one gets the feeling that Peyton Manning will show why he's among the greatest on Monday night. Demaryius Thomas has only faced San Diego once as injuries forced him to watch the other three games from the sidelines. This time his hip problem isn't keeping him away, and after seeing how much difficulty the Chargers had containing Marques Colston last week, Manning will exploit San Diego's 20th ranked secondary using Thomas as his manipulator. Willis McGahee will add 65 yards and a rushing touchdown, and Eric Decker will be the chain mover, giving PPR leagues solid WR2 numbers.
Check the injury report Sunday, but the Broncos are an aggressive defense, having sacked opposing QBs 14 times. Rivers has been dropped 14 times as well, and sans the weaponry of Floyd and Royal, will have to look to the likes of Gates, Meachem and Michael Spurlock for relief. Gates is the only reliable hands of those three, and Rivers has a tendency to force balls at inopportune times. He won't get away with that here as the Broncos 11th ranked defense will turn those turnovers into points, and this healthy and surly Broncos team will upset San Diego at home.
BRONCOS 31, SAN DIEGO 20