Saturday, October 20, 2012

NFL WEEK 7 – MATCHUPS AND BREAKDOWNS


We enter the seventh week of the NFL season, and it's almost like the NFL schedulers glanced into the future and saw that these games would not only be crucial, but each meeting would be against a worthy foe in a test to determine what team really has the mettle to get to the post-season. However, as powerful and important as the match-ups are this week, the media and players occasionally break the tension (unintentionally) with stories and headlines that make it hard to take things too seriously. Perhaps that's a good thing. After all, this is just a game, and Sundays not only mark a competition between the players, but the fans as well. NFL Football has ingratiated itself into the fabric of Americana as a sport that brings people together. Stop by any sports bar on Sunday and they're nearly always full of fans wearing different jerseys, playfully jeering, taunting, and occasionally punching each other. You can always find the old die-hards whipping up anecdotes from years past that somehow mesh with today's drama perfectly. You'll find the jersey-less fantasy player, who has come to know the game through his favorite pastime of assembling his own team and seeing how it performs. Then there's someone like me, a mix of it all, who finds the intensity and pride with which someone defends and supports their team as both charming and inane. So before getting into the gritty analysis, here are a few of the stories and headlines from the NFL this week that made me laugh:

Terrell Suggs is going to make a surprise returns to the Ravens Sunday. If you're telling us about it on Thursday, surprise is ruined man. Just saying.

Jerome Simpson is upset that he was made inactive because it cost him $60K – Simpson took umbrage at being benched Sunday by Head Coach Leslie Frazier, a move that cost him $60,000 because his contract is structured based on being active. Annoyed because he was ready to go, he labeled himself a 'competitor' who has the intense desire to be on the field. However, Simpson's competitive desire to be on the field didn't stop him from getting arrested and suspended for three games on felony drug charges. My feeling is that cost him way more than $60,000.
Calvin Pace alluded to the Patriots offense as borderline illegal. The Jets linebacker claimed that the Patriots often don't have all their players set before they snap that ball. What Pace meant to say was that having played 16 games only four times in his career, he's darn tired of lugging his 265 pounds at double-quick time between downs when playing New England, and he's tired of hurting himself.



THE 1PM DOCKET

BALTIMORE @ HOUSTON

After Green Bay fed them a whole lot of nasty cheese, the Texan gets a shot at redemption when the Ravens visit Sunday. How do you think Houston feels having given up six touchdowns last week, only to turn and face Baltimore, a team that owns the most big-game plays this year (34 plays of 20-plus yards). The Ravens have owned the Texans, going 6-0 against them, and all but two games they've won by more than six points, including last year's divisional playoff, where Baltimore disposed of Houston 20-13. However, this year, the tide may have finally turned in Houston's favor. First, the Houston defense is ranked sixth, a position more familiarly occupied by the Ravens than by the Texans. Second, the Ravens defense has fallen to 26th, and is markedly damaged, now minus Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis and cornerback LaDarius Webb. Linebacker Terrell Suggs is going to be activated for Sunday's game, which could be an emotional boost for Baltimore. However, no one knows just how well Suggs will be able to perform on his healing Achilles.

Perhaps no matchup is more important than that of Baltimore's Ray Rice and Houston's Arian Foster. Both runners have been among the league's leaders for the last few years. Against the Texans, Rice has never scored a touchdown, and Sunday he'll be tested to score one again. The Texans yield an average of 88 yards per game on the ground and have given up zero rushing touchdowns this year. Fantasy wise, Rice goes up against a defense giving up just over 11 points to opposing runners on average in ESPN's standard scoring leagues. Foster scored his first TD against Baltimore in their first post-season loss, and for his career has averaged 4.26 yards per carry against Baltimore. This year's Ravens' team is only yielding 3.8 yards per carry, but is giving up 136 yards per game. If NT Haloti Ngata can't suit up, it will leaving a gaping hole that Houston can easily exploit. Ngata is questionable, and likely will play, but he won't be 100 percent. Advantage: Houston.


Houston will attempt to own the clock. Having failed to get Foster really going against Green Bay, they'll want to move the ball in longer sustained drives, and keep Baltimore's eighth ranked offense playing spectator. Baltimore no longer has to rely on Ray Rice, as evidenced by the fact he has just one game this season with 20 or more carries. This added balance on offense is a result of the increased value placed on second year wide receiver Torrey Smith, veteran Anquan Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta. Quarterback Joe Flacco has performed well this September, but October has seen Flacco's completion percentage fall to 56 percent, while he's managed just a single touchdown pass and one interception. He is still likely to throw for 250 yards this game, but expect as many turnovers as touchdowns. He'll still make a good fantasy play. The loss of LB Brian Cushing can't be underestimated for the Texans and that void in the middle should make Dennis Pitta a great sleeper this week, especially since the Texans give up an average of ten fantasy points to opposing tight ends. Seeing how Jordy Nelson tore apart the Texans secondary must have Torrey Smith salivating, but I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to the Houston secondary for having an off day. If anything, they take away Smith leaving Anquan Boldin for a solid day of six catches and 95 yards. 

Boldin leads all Ravens WRS in targets and yards
In the end, the Ravens have endured too much to go on the road and win this one. Houston's Foster will have an exceptional day, and the other parts of this three-headed monster, Ben Tate and Justin Forsett will be employed as well. Play action to Andre Johnson could result in a long touchdown, but I'm expecting more like 8-10 catches for 100 yards. Tight End Owen Daniels will be the primary chain mover for Houston, and Matt Schaub will do just enough (210 yards, a TD and one INT) to keep Houston on top.

TEXANS 24, RAVENS 20


TENNESSEE @ BUFFALO
If this game was being played in November, the Titans might be tremendous underdogs considering their inability to run the football along with the tendency of high winds to make Ralph Wilson Stadium as inhospitable to opposing quarterbacks as Mario Williams used to be. However, looking back over Chris Johnson's shaky 2011 season, you'll find that December 4, 2011 was quite an enjoyable day for the C.J. faithful. Coming off a game where he tormented Tampa Bay for 190 rushing yards, Johnson tread another 153 on the Bills, showing us that he was either a useful runner, or just liked beating up bad defenses.

This year, Buffalo's defense against runners is worse if you can believe it. The Bills are giving up 173 yards on the ground per contest, which in turn would make you think that opposing quarterbacks do nothing but hand the ball off. However, quarterbacks have been feasting on the Bills defense to the tune of 13 passing touchdowns. Even so, it would be easy to defer Buffalo at home, but Jake Locker isn't bringing the Titans into Buffalo, an experienced Matt Hasselbeck is. With Kenny Britt finally healthy, there seems to be no one in Buffalo's secondary that can stop him and Kendall Wright from doing enough to score regularly, even if it is for a defense that has given up more points in the NFL than any other team. Hasselbeck doesn't have a stellar record in Buffalo, but in last year's matchup he was efficient and protected the football, something Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't do. And even though Fitzpatrick plays slightly better at home, he still completes just 56 percent of his passes.

Fantasy wise, if there was ever a game you have to play Chris Johnson, this is it. In addition, 11 of Buffalo's 12 passing touchdowns have gone to opposing wide receivers. That makes Kenny Britt your top option for a TD here, whereas TE Jared Cook will get you some good yardage but that's it.   The same goes for Buffalo's C. J. Spiller, who is the fifth highest scoring RB in ESPN standard scoring leagues. Fred Jackson is listed atop the depth chart, but Spiller is averaging 7.6 yards per carry to Jackson's 2.9. Both are solid plays against Tennessee's 24th ranked rushing defense. I don't expect either quarterback to attempt more than 25 passes on the day, and Scott Chandler becomes a strong play against Tennessee's passing defense which has allowed eight of their 13 TDs to tight ends. He's also the second most targeted receiver on the team.

TITANS 23, BILLS 14


WASHINGTON @ NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are coming off a tremendous conference victory that saw them re-establish their ability to run the football. Their defense forced three turnovers which resulted in 13 points. Thus, the Giants are now favored against the visiting Redskins in the Meadowlands. You would think the Giants might keep plowing ahead with the run, but the Redskins boast the eighth best rushing defense, giving up just 89 yards per game and three rushing touchdowns Ahmad Bradshaw is likely to see a little less involvement because of this, and the fact the Redskins secondary has been ceding real estate like a bank repo. The Giants are still a pass-first offense, averaging 289 yards per game. Eli Manning gets great protection up front, and with WR Hakeem Nicks likely to return, is loaded to fire at will. It would seem to be an easy victory.

Manning will outscore Griffin
However, the only type of quarterback to give the Giants fits over and over has been Michael Vick, a mobile quarterback with break-away speed. Enter Robert Griffin III, who in his return from a concussion last week didn't overwhelm with his arm. Instead he ran for 138 yards and two scores while adding 182 passing with a touchdown. He's liable to cause the aggressive pass rush of the Giants problems.

Expect Manning to throw nearly 40 times this weekend, and finish as a top five fantasy quarterback. The Redskins have given up the fifth most points on average to opposing QBs, and have given up 15 passing touchdowns. If Eli's a top five, the likelihood is that Griffin follows suit because in the first six weeks, (except Week 5 when Griffin was knocked out of the game with an injury), he's finished in the Top Ten in fantasy and outscored Eli Manning. Expect Bradshaw's carries to be tapered further by the return of RB Andre Brown, though you should monitor how and if David Wilson is used after the last few games where his breakaway speed has been on display. I'm playing all Giants wide receivers as well as TE Martellus Bennett because one-third of the 15 passing touchdowns Washington has given up has been to tight ends.


Wide receiver Pierre Garcon is not likely to play Sunday, and that leaves Santana Moss as the receiver I'd want most. Moss seems to terrorize the Giants, and in 15 games against them has scored nine times, and averaged four catches and 60-plus yards. Last week Moss was tied for the most targets and led the team in receiving yards. He's not likely to run any streak routes down the field, but is more than willing to go over the middle and often adds yards after the catch. Josh Morgan has seen his targets increase, and now has 20 targets and 201 yards. He could be the deep threat here against a banged up Giants secondary. Tight end Fred Davis leads the team in yards and receptions, but only one of New York's eight passing touchdowns has gone to that position. The middle is not New York's weak spot.

Griffin will cause some chaos, and Alfred Morris should supply at least 85 yards on the ground, but the Giants are likely to pick the up tempo of this one and outpace the Redskins limited offense while taking advantage of a defense that gives up 417 yards per contest.

GIANTS 34, REDSKINS 28


CLEVELAND @ INDIANAPOLIS
Though Cleveland has yet to win on the road this year, the Browns actually put up better numbers away from their home by Lake Erie. While completing just 52 percent of passes at home, they complete 59 percent on the road. Their average pass gain leaps two yards per attempt, from 5.5 yards per attempt at home, to 7.5 on the road. Stranger still, on turf, on which they've played three games, they're averaging 304 yards per game in the air, while on grass they're managing 179. What does all this mean?

I wouldn't be the first to suggest Cleveland is better than their record suggests. For one, Brandon Weeden has played at a very high level for a rookie, and he's getting better. Yes, he has 10 interceptions to seven touchdowns. Yes, he's only completing 56 percent of his passes. However, this team has been one or two plays from being a .500 team. The Browns defense is one to keep an eye on, especially now that Joe Haden's back. Considering they lost their first game against Philadelphia by one point, a game in which Haden started, then won the first game he returned against the Bengals, you can tell he's a difference maker.

Now the Browns meet Andrew Luck and his Colts. The problems for the Colts are increasing, but none is more glaring now than the lack of rushing threats in their backfield. Running back Donald Brown is out again Sunday. That leaves a mishmash of Vick Ballard, Delone Carter and Mewelde Moore, none of whom are likely to garner a ton of carries while Bruce Arians figures out who to use. I was monitoring Moore because he was with Arians in Pittsburgh, so there's some loyalty there. Moore is also a very good third down back, as he can block and catch. The jury is still out on Ballard. The Browns aren't a strong rushing defense, so it would appear that Arians would make a decision and lean toward using one runner more exclusively. However, last week Ballard received all of eight carries and averaged 3.1 yards per attempt. Carter had four carries and averaged 3.3. Moore was hardly used. Thus, Luck and the Colts are playing right into Cleveland's strength, their secondary. Andrew Luck will have to throw to win this game, but the only player I like out there for him is Reggie Wayne. Wayne's route-running ability and excellent hands make him a difficult match for any corner. He'll again be primed for 100 yards and a touchdown. However, I'm also starting the Cleveland defense as Luck has seven interceptions versus seven touchdowns, completes just 53 percent of his passes and has been sacked 13 times. You're saying, but Cleveland gives up almost 300 yards per game and two scores per game, are you crazy? Maybe, but last week against the Bengals high-scoring unit, the Browns recorded two sacks and caused four turnovers.


Trent Richardson is going to start Sunday, and with the Colts giving up five yards per tote and eight rushing touchdowns, he's in your lineup as well. The return of LB Pat Angerer could quell some of his numbers, so I don't expect as high of a yardage output. Consider WR Josh Gordon in deep leagues, as his numbers have surpassed Greg Little's, and the Colts have allowed opposing wide receivers an average of 25 fantasy points per game. Nine of their ten relinquished passing touchdowns were to wide-outs, and primarily the WR2. This game may start in the Colts favor, but unless someone steps up for the ground game, their now one-dimensional offense will force Luck into another 45 attempt game, and that's too much opportunity against the young and hungry defensive backfield of the Browns.

BROWNS 23, COLTS 19


NEW ORLEANS @ TAMPA BAY
If you're Tampa Bay Head Coach Greg Schiano, you have to believe your fourth ranked rushing defense is going to prevent any New Orleans runner from gaining more than 50 yards on the day. After all, you're coming off a week where you shut down one of the league's leaders, Jamaal Charles. You know you've given up four rushing TDs in six weeks, but half of them were from inside the five yard line. You're confident that your physicality up front can get the job when the ball is rushed. You're also aware that you're about to face Drew Brees and the number one passing offense in the NFL. Your secondary gives up 312 yards per game, including a 65 percent completion rate. Your team has managed just eight sacks in five games. You're very worried.

If you're New Orleans, you're coming off your finest performance of the year in besting the San Diego Chargers. Your defense kept you close enough so that you could make a comeback and forced a late interception to prevent San Diego from regaining any footing. You're 1-4 and one week away from getting back Joe Vitt from suspension. Every game is desperate, and desperate is the way I expect the Saints to attack this Buccaneers team on Sunday. The last time the Saints visited Tampa Bay, Drew Brees dropped 383 yards on the Buccaneers but was picked off three times in a 26-20 loss. However, in the his three games, Brees has found a rhythm, throwing for 10 touchdowns against two interceptions, and for over 1,000 yards. Expect nothing less than a 40 attempt game here, and another 300 yards. Brees' biggest concern is free safety Ronde Barber, who has intercepted him eight times in 13 games. One way to avoid him is to use Darren Sproles to his advantage. Because the Saints lack a running attack, Sproles will be used on short screens and flat passes to get him away from Tampa Bay's front seven. The other receiver that has had success against Tampa Bay is Lance Moore, who though he averages just 33 yards against them has scored three times in nine meetings. He's a slant route specialist and when healthy, is their quickest and best route runner. Tight end Jimmy Graham is questionable right now after being limited in practice Friday, but in four games against the Bucs, Graham has been relegated to four catches and 60 yards on average. He's scored just once. You can bench Graham if you need to.

Against New Orleans, rookie RB Doug Martin should play a tremendous role. Martin hasn't had twenty carries since the second week of the season, but I would be surprised if he doesn't top that number here. The Saints defense allows 173 yards rushing per game and five yards per tote. Martin should have his first career 100-yard game, and where he's been wanton for the end zone since Week Two, he should finally locate it again. The Saints will concern themselves with taking out Vincent Jackson, as he's truly QB Josh Freeman's best weapon and receiver Mike Williams disappears every now and again. Freeman may have to throw in this one if his defense can't hold, and considering the Atlanta Falcons are the only team he's thrown more touchdowns against than New Orleans, Freeman is solid Bye Week fill in. Look for a TD from Jackson and his first 100 yard day. Also, keep an eye on third man Tiquan Underwood who has become more involved in the offense the last couple of weeks. He's a sleeper this weekend.

I expect the Saints to play up-tempo and try to outgun the Buccaneers, forcing the Bucs to abandon the running game sooner than they'd like. The question will be can they hold on to a lead without being able to run the football. In this case, I expect so.


SAINTS 24, BUCCANEERS 16


GREEN BAY @ ST. LOUIS
The Rams defense has given notice to the league that they're on the rise. Ranked 14th just two weeks ago, the Rams have continued to work over opponents defensively and now have the seventh ranked defense in the NFL. Led by DE Robert Quinn and MLB James Laurinaitis, the Rams haven't give up over 20 points for three straight games, have racked up 14 sacks and forced four turnovers. To be fair, they've faced the offenses of Seattle, Arizona and Miami – not exactly juggernauts. This week things change.

The Packers season has mirrored that of New Orleans this year, with QB Aaron Rodgers getting out of the gate slow. Their offense is finally ranked in the Top 20, though their running game took a costly hit two weeks ago when they were forced to put Cedric Benson on the return IR. Since then Alex Green has been charged with keeping the Packers balanced and hasn't done a bad job. In his first game against the vaunted Texans he carried 22 times for 65 yards and caught one pass for eight yards. Most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. The road doesn't get any easier for Green here; nor does it for Rodgers, who has been sacked 23 times this season which averages out to four times weekly. The Rams secondary has been opportunistic under the leadership of the revitalized Cortland Finnegan, and with Packers WR Greg Jennings still doubtful, the Packers will again have to rely on Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones to keep drives alive. Jermichael Finley, is questionable with his shoulder injury, but is likely to play. Rodgers is coming off a six touchdown performance and collides with a Rams team that has given up just four passing touchdowns on the year. As they say, something's got to give.


Randall Cobb could be key for Rodgers/Packers
Two crucial things have to happen for the Rams to compete. They have to run the ball well. To that end, Steven Jackson will have to do at least as well as his 18 rushes for 96 yards he mustered in last year's meeting. However, it has been Daryl Richardson that has shown the most promise, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on the season following last week's 6.9 tally against the best rushing defense in the country. Both will need to deliver big days to keep Rodgers off the field. Sam Bradford, who has thrown just two touchdown passes in the past four games, has to provide more consistency and protect the football. Wide receiver Chris Givens has become the big-play receiver on this offense, and is the only Rams receiver I'd consider starting.

Green Bay is going to do everything to take a lead and force Bradford into a passing game. Rodgers isn't likely to enjoy as much pocket time as he did against Houston, so expect a lot of looks to Randall Cobb. Cobb received 10 targets last week, and he should be among the team leaders this week. Jones will get another couple of looks in the red zone, and the big play will be Nelson's doing. Finnegan is a tough defender, but he can get too aggressive and Nelson is fast enough to take advantage of the short but physical corner, especially with Rodgers accurate throwing arm.

In the end St. Louis won't be able to keep up with Green Bay. And while the scoring will be lower, the Packers will find enough fire power to bring home a victory.


PACKERS 22, RAMS 13


DALLAS @ CAROLINA
Both the Cowboys and Panthers come in with problems of varying degrees that are weighing down their respective seasons. People forget that Carolina was an 8-8 team last year with Cam Newton playing at an all-pro level. Dallas is coming off a disappointing loss to the Ravens, made worse by the mental errors that assisted in letting victory slip through their fingers. Statistically, the Cowboys are far superior to the Panthers. They boast the second ranked defense, which includes the top rated pass defense. On the offensive side, they're ranked sixth, despite being outscored by 25 points over their first six games. With RB DeMarco Murray out, Felix Jones gets a chance to prove once again he can be an every down back. Second year man Philip Tanner will also spell Jones on a few series. Jones should have a solid day as Carolina gives up 4.4 yards per carry and 127 yards per game. Keep in mind though that in his five years at Dallas, Jones has tallied 20-plus carries only twice, and this season the Cowboys have had a clear lack of commitment to their running game. Week 1 saw Dallas attempt 26 total rushes and achieve victory. They haven't equaled that number of runs until last week against the Ravens. The Cowboys also return their starting Center Phil Costa this week, which could have a steadying influence on the offensive line, so expect Jones to get you another 90 yards and a possible touchdown. He's a solid start in PPR leagues, as Jones is explosive when he's out in space. The Panthers have given up just four passing touchdowns all year. However, two of those have gone to TEs, and they're ceding nearly eight points per week to opposing tight ends. Thus, I like TE Jason Witten here to find the end zone, while Miles Austin provides good yardage. Dez Bryant won't have a ton of catches, but is likely to find the end zone again using his size against the small Panther corners like the 5'8" Captain Munnerlyn.  
    
The Panthers haven't been nearly as dynamic on offense this year, and much of that falls on Newton. Steve Smith hasn't posted a 100-yard game since week one, and hasn't found the end zone this year. Expect Dallas to do everything possible to keep that trend alive. Meanwhile, with the microscope being focused on Newton, Rivera will try to use his rushing attack a lot more this game. For fantasy players, the problem is the Panthers have Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, but Newton's downfield mentality (he leads the NFL in a YPA of 8.49), along with Rivera's indecisiveness on who should lead the unit, makes these guys a whole lot of average. Each of them yields an average of about four points weekly. This week it may be better, but they're not guys I'm investing in. Newton will try to involve Smith, but against the Cowboys he'll have to work in Brandon LaFell, as well as TE Greg Olsen, who is a solid play here. Newton has played his best against tough competition like Atlanta and New Orleans, but he's thrown just two touchdowns in the past three games. I expect the Bye Week to have refreshed Newton a bit, and he'll perform at a much higher level against the Cowboys. Expect 30 passing attempts and 250 yards, a touchdown and a few interceptions.

However, the Carolina defense is giving up 377 yards a game, and though Dallas doesn't finish a lot of drives, Dan Bailey will get enough opportunities this week and the Cowboys will indeed finish this game.


COWBOYS 26, PANTHERS 17


THE 4PM DOCKET

NEW YORK JETS @ NEW ENGLAND
The New England Patriots began their season with four of their first six games on the road. Now they get a five week stint at home including the Week Nine Bye. First visitor on the schedule is their old rival the New York Jets. The Jets never fail to make headlines, and after losing their star CB Darrelle Revis to the IR a couple of weeks ago, they find themselves in familiar territory – talking up a storm and yet playing mediocre football.

You can be sure after LB Calvin Pace's comments above that Tom Brady and the Pats will be glad to show their semi-illegal offense to the Jets. Aaron Hernandez returned last week during a tough loss at Seattle, but found the end zone nevertheless. So the Patriots will once again showcase their two tight-end-set offense, which assisted them in blowing out the Titans in Tennessee opening week. However, the days of ignoring Wes Welker have passed, and Josh McDaniels has made sure Welker sees plenty of opportunities, as he will Sunday.


Let's be honest. The Jets only chance to win is to slow down the pace, play solid defense and find some running room for Shonn Greene. It's true that having Stephen Hill back helps this team, as does the signing of veteran Jason Hill, which has already reaped some dividends. But even with the 28th ranked defense versus the pass, the only way New England allows Mark Sanchez the match-ups he wants is if Shonn Greene can threaten the interior and get some solid yards against New England's front seven. Last year Greene did manage a touchdown in their October match-up, but in two games managed only 144 yards. Now that the Jets are without RB Bilal Powell, Greene is in line for 30 chances Sunday.

New England is ranked fourth in rushing offense, third in passing offense and first overall. Stevan Ridley gets his shots against a Jets defense ceding 4.7 yards per carry and 150 yards per game. Fantasy wise, your only worry with Ridley is that the Patriots run so much that his carries are divided with all-purpose threat Danny Woodhead and backup RB Shane Vereen. I'm starting Ridley and Woodhead in PPR leagues. However, the Jets are one of the best defenses against wide receivers, so Wes Welker doesn't make my list as high as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Welker will get you six catches and 75 yards, but it'll be the two tight ends that wreak havoc. Expect Tom Brady to throw 25-30 times for 275 yards and two scores. Sanchez will throw better than expected but only if he gets TE Dustin Keller in the mix. Keller returned last week but only had one catch, and I can't recommend playing him until we see him putting up the kind of numbers we saw last year in health.

The Patriots defense turns up the heat and causes Sanchez another headache, and Shonn Greene returns to normalcy with 65 yards on 21 carries.

PATRIOTS 27, JETS 17


ARIZONA @ MINNESOTA
The good news for Minnesota is that they not only won't be facing a mobile quarterback who can torch them for rushing yardage, but the Arizona Cardinals' rushing attack is on life support after the losses of Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells. William Powell performed admirably in his audition last week, averaging five yards per carry against Buffalo. This week will be a great test, as Minnesota is ranked 11th against the run and has stuffed 12.3 percent of all rushing attempts. The question that remains is can John Skelton pump some life into an Arizona offense that is being blood-sucked dry by its offensive line?


Christian Ponder has begun to turn the ball over a lot more, throwing four interceptions in the last two games. He's fortunate one of those was against the Titans, where it didn't affect the outcome. However, two of his three turnovers led to 14 points and the Vikings lost by 12. Against the 10th ranked defense of the Cardinals, he can't be so cavalier with the football. Expect Minnesota to give Adrian Peterson his due, and with his past record of plucking the Cardinals, expect 100-plus yards and a touchdown. The Cardinals have also allowed over 1,100 yards to wide receivers this year, so I expect Percy Harvin may surpass his 90 yards per game average. The Cardinals are strong in the middle of the field and have allowed just 4.8 fantasy points on average to opposing tight ends. However, two of their five passing TDs have gone to tight ends, so Kyle Rudolph is a likely red zone benefactor, as he is atop the league with the most receptions inside the 10 yard line.

As for Arizona, John Skelton's insertion into the quarterback position means WR Larry Fitzgerald's stock rises. In the eight starts Skelton made for Arizona in 2011, Fitzgerald posted four 100 yards receiving games, and six touchdowns. He averaged six receptions in those games as well. Don't expect such high numbers this time around, as the Arizona line as given up 22 sacks in the last three games, and Skelton is not a mobile quarterback. I don't expect this game to stay close for long, and except for Fitzgerald, I'm avoiding all other Arizona starters.


VIKINGS 23, CARDINALS 14

 
JACKSONVILLE @ OAKLAND
The Raiders came within a fleas hair of taking out the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Carson Palmer is playing his best football in years. Last week he attempted 33 passes, his lowest output of the year, yet put up his second highest yardage tally. For the season now he's completing 63 percent of his passes while posting a 7.4 adjusted yards per attempt average. The Jaguars have been hapless against elite runners, allowing two to reach the 100-yard mark, and all of them to score at least once. Thus, Oakland will unleash Darren McFadden against the Jaguars front seven, and he should find the end zone against a Jacksonville defense that has allowed seven rushing scores. Denarius Moore has started to come into his own, and has 13 receptions and two touchdowns in the past three games. Brandon Myers, who wasn't supposed to be the lead tight end in terms of receptions, has 21 for the season out of his 24 targets. While the Jaguars have been tough on tight ends, Palmer is looking for him more, so don't be surprised if he has another 4-5 grabs and 50-60 yards. In PPR leagues that's a solid 10 points.

There's little doubt the Jaguars can't play from behind, so Jacksonville will lean on RB Maurice Jones-Drew as much as possible because Oakland is allowing 112 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert is managing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt, so you can expect Oakland to stack the box and dare him to beat them. With Laurent Robinson out indefinitely, rookie Justin Blackmon's targets are on the rise. Two weeks ago against Chicago he had eight targets, and the week prior he had ten. Blackmon's usefulness is unfortunately directly correlated to Gabbert getting him the ball, so his numbers might not impress, but he's certainly growing into the role he was drafted for. Oakland has just four sacks on the season, meaning Gabbert should have time, so don't be shocked if the Jags attempt to jump on Oakland early with a few deep passes, making Cecil Shorts III a calculated gamble as flex play. However, Blackmon might be a worthy third wide out this week. The Oakland secondary, ranked 25th, yields almost seven yards per attempt and allows 275 yards per game. I'm slotting Blackmom for another 7-8 targets and 65-70 yards.


The Jaguars have just one win this season. Between offensive mistakes and an injured offensive line, there's little they've been able to muster. Not much will change coming off their Bye Week, and with McFadden having a big day, the Jags will fall to 1-5.

RAIDERS 27, JAGUARS 13


SUNDAY NIGHT

PITTSBURGH @ CINCINNATI
Mike Tomlin has never lost a game when entering a contest with a losing record. That means he's never been two games under .500 in his career. Well, there's always a first time for everything. The Steelers enter this division matchup missing RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman. Third string runner Jonathan Dwyer is scheduled to start, but is likely to cede some carries to second year man Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey. The Steelers offensive line with again start rookie Mike Adams and is without the services of Marcus Gilbert. The Steelers defense continues on without Safety Troy Polamalu, which leaves veterans Will Allen and Ryan Mundy to cover the deep part of the field. Opposing teams are smelling blood in the water. 

Dwyer needs a big day for Pittsburgh
Cincinnati comes into this game with Andy Dalton posting improved numbers from his 2011 season. He's completing 66 percent of his passes at eight yards per pass. However, wherein Dalton had an 8:3 touchdown to interception ratio September, October has seen that turn to 4:5, and thus rendered the Bengals winless for the month.

The Steelers will run Dwyer for between 10-12 carries, but unless he meets with immediate success, Todd Haley has shown he's more than willing to open up the passing game. Cincinnati's secondary has been banged up most of the year, so Ben Roethlisberger could be in for another 40 attempts. Antonio Brown is Ben's top target, and will get the most looks and yardage as Cincinnati's pass rush will force Ben to keep most routes short to intermediate. Don't be surprised if this limits Mike Wallace's value this week, but the attempt numbers alone will give Wallace 4-5 grabs. Heath Miller has been exercised a lot in Haley's offense, and the Bengals give up the fifth most points to opposing TEs on average. He's got a strong chance of seeing the end zone this week.

A. J. Green will find things easier going than last year. Once the Steelers shut-down corner, Ike Taylor had another week of being exploited for big plays and penalties. This was against the Titans. A. J. Green will eat him alive. With a receiver like Green around it's easy to forget that Andrew Hawkins has compiled 329 yards and two scores of his own. Dalton's worry really isn't this secondary, because though it hasn't given up tons of yardage, has yet to really make any big plays. His concern is this will be the first time this year LBs Lamar Woodley and James Harrison will be on the field together, and they could force Dalton into a big interception. However, it's more likely that BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has never scored against Pittsburgh, gets nearly 20 carries 85 yards and a rushing TD. Jermaine Gresham won't have a fantastic day, but the Steelers have yielded three passing touchdowns to tight ends. I expect he'll be utilized as a blocker more often to counter the Steelers blitz packages, but should garner four receptions for around 42 yards and a touchdown.

The Steelers used to be the team that made up for some shoddy corner play by relying on heavy blitzes and star safety Polamalu. These days, it's the Bengals Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, with a combined 11 sacks between them, that will overshadow Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won the last four meetings between these two teams, but this game could conceivably come down to whoever performs the best in the fourth quarter, and Andy Dalton sports the third best QB rating during crunch time.

BENGALS 24, STEELERS 20



MONDAY NIGHT GAME

DETROIT @ CHICAGO
The Lions have won just once in the last eight regular season games between these two franchises. Last year's game wasn't necessarily won by the Chicago offense, but instead was assisted by a Bears defense and special teams unit which returned a punt for a TD and intercepted Lions QB Matthew Stafford four times, twice for two more scores.

This year, the Lions Special Teams is attempting to set a record for most returns allowed in a single season. Just in their sixth game, the Lions have allowed six kicks to be returned for scores, one of the main reasons they've led just one game after the first quarter. In order to hang with the Bears in Soldier Field, the Lions can't allow Devin Hester to be a factor (hint: if I own the Bears D/ST unit I'd be salivating this week). The Lions will want to force Jay Cutler to make plays, as in the last two games he has just one touchdown pass. Thus, Detroit will do whatever they can to stop RB Matt Forte. Historically, he hasn't put up tremendous game against the Lions, but has found his way into the end zone in three of the last four meetings.

This year Detroit's defense isn't such a pushover in the run department. They're allowing just 3.7 yards per carry and have surrendered just one rushing touchdown. Fantasy wise, they are the sixth best defense against opposing running backs. However, this year's Detroit offense is more turnover prone than last year. Where Stafford had just four interceptions after eight weeks in 2011, he already has five after five weeks. Historically, he's always been interception prone (42 INTS in 34 games), but Stafford's rhythm has been more chaotic than usual, particularly with his favorite target, WR Calvin Johnson. Johnson has just one touchdown this year, though he's still on pace for another 1,000 yard season. While Detroit would like to be able to control the line of scrimmage and run Mikel Leshoure to their heart's content, this game will require that Stafford protect the ball while throwing on early downs to avoid third and long situations. The Lions will look to take the lead, and force Cutler to have to throw his team back into contention. Cutler's passer rating is 23.7 when trailing this year.

Matt Forte will likely give you 100 all-purpose yards, but a touchdown seems unlikely on the ground. That means Cutler will have to make things happen. Brandon Marshall is averaging 99.2 yards per game, and no doubt will draw a lot of attention from the Detroit secondary, so expect Alshon Jeffrey or Devin Hester to have a say in this game, though Marshall will be Cutler's main target. Considering what Jeremy Maclin did to them a week ago, I like him Marshall to put up his average and a touchdown. The question is will Jay Cutler have time to get the ball downfield? Detroit has registered 12 sacks and has two interceptions. More importantly, the Chicago offensive line has allowed 14 sacks.

Expect Stafford and company to immediately strike out against this third-ranked Chicago unit. The Bears are an aggressive bunch that has delivered 18 sacks and 13 interceptions in just seven weeks. They're coming off back to back weeks of four interceptions returned for touchdowns. Leshoure will get approximately 15 carries, and likely end up with fifty or so yards. It's Stafford that will throw for nearly 300 yards, with several touchdowns. Johnson has averaged 77 yards per game against the Bears, and while he'll draw double teams, they still won't stop Stafford from targeting him 10-12 times. Brandon Pettigrew makes a strong fantasy play, not only because he's second on the Lions in targets, but because of their five passing touchdowns, the Chicago defense has given up two to opposing tight ends.

When the Bears defense hasn't scored, the offense has hardly impressed. However, the defense is strong enough to keep Stafford in check and shut down the average Detroit rushing attack. Chicago will win, but this time Detroit's defense will keep it tight, so I'm taking Detroit and the points.

BEARS 23, LIONS 20