Saturday, December 1, 2012

NFL WEEK 13 -Matchups and Breakdowns

I’m no astrology major but there are a lot of people out here in the good ole’ West who like to hang their bad days on something being in retrograde.  Usually it’s the planet Mercury, and they pick on this little planet mercilessly. 
 
Rammed their car into a post?  Mercury must be in retrograde.
 
Had a pitch meeting that bored the studio executives to sleep?  It’s Mercury’s fault.
 
Fell down the stairs after an all-night bender?  Sure the beer had something to do with it, but that front step wouldn’t have collapsed if Mercury wasn’t plotting some sort of astrological coup.
 
I’ve often wondered how these same folks attribute all the good things that happen to people on that very same day, but that’s neither here nor there.  If the NFL was full of astrologists, you’d think the entire solar system was in retrograde this week.
 
We’ve seen a former NFL QB-turned-head-coach bench a guy that was 6-2, leaving no doubt Alex Smith will no longer be wearing a 49ers jersey next year.  The Eagles, suddenly and without ceremony, released Jason Babin, one of their few quality pass-rushers left, and Babin hardly seemed upset about it.  Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain came out and basically said he was mentally done with the Raiders with four weeks left in the season.  Titus Young was put in a “time-out” (so aptly put by fantasy cohort Allie Fontana), and it’s being reported he was sent home because he intentionally lined up in the wrong place to sabotage Detroit’s offense on a play.  I guess he didn’t like the call.
 
All this could be astrologically based.  Who’s to say?  Of course, it also could be reflective of a league that has now become so intently fixated on the almighty dollar that there just aren’t any Art Rooney’s or Dick Vermeil’s or Pete Rozelle’s left – men who mixed business with principle because they realized to win as a team requires a family mentality. 

But probably it’s about the planet Mercury – that bastard.

THE 1PM DOCKET
 
SEATTLE @ CHICAGO
Coming off a disappointing loss in Miami, Seattle’s travel schedule continues this time with a half-country flight.  Their timing is rather fortuitous because not only is the Chicago defense reeling from injuries, but Seattle CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner won’t have to honor an impending suspension this weekend.  The once stout Bears rush defense has given up over 100 yards of rushing offense in four straight games, and three of those featured 100-yard games from a single rusher.  Say hello to Marshawn Lynch who’ll be in for 23-25 attempts on Sunday in order to keep Russell Wilson exposed as little as possible.  He may be coming off one of his worst outings, but prior to the bye Lynch had four 100-yard showings.  While that will keep Seattle competitive, the difference on the road for Seattle can be summed up in Russell Wilson.  Out of six road games this year, last week’s game was the first time Wilson didn’t turn the ball.  He has eight interceptions in the other five road games, and zero picks at home.  With the Bears’ big-time playmaker CB Charles Tillman hobbled with a chipped bone in his foot, expect Wilson to look often for Sidney Rice, particularly in the red zone. 
 
The Bears offense is likely to return Matt Forte, who’ll go on an injured ankle, but he has struggled against Seattle with just 2.66 yards per tote for his career.  However, Seattle’s once impossibly stout run defense has allowed over 150 yards rushing in three of the last five games.  Where the Bears are in trouble is in the passing game.  Rookie Alshon Jeffery is still out, and will be joined this week by WR/KR Devin Hester.  With Jay Cutler’s sloppy mechanics and only Brandon Marshall’s reliable hands receiving the secondary’s full attention, expect Earl Bennett to rise to sleeper status in Week 13.  Remember, Bennett played with Cutler at Vanderbilt, and with Marshall drawing the double and triple teams, he should see a nice five catch, 75-yard day.  Cutler has only had two games this season where’s he thrown more than two touchdowns and only three games of 20 fantasy points or more.  With the numerous injuries to his receivers group and his porous offensive line, I don’t like him here at all. 
 
Golden Tate will provide a decent yardage day, as will TE Zach Miller, but Wilson is likely to only attempt 18-20 passes for a meager 220 yards and one score.  The Seattle defense will conquer the faltering Bears, forcing Cutler into one too many passes into Marshall’s double coverage, and Marshawn Lynch will add 85 yards and a touchdown. 

SEAHAWKS 17, BEARS 13

 
INDIANAPOLIS @ DETROIT
Everyone thought Detroit’s passing offense would be in the top ten this year.  Nobody believed Indy’s would.  However, this battle of two star QBs will come down to not only the passing game, but the effectiveness of their respective rushing attacks.  Both teams have similarly ranked rushing defenses, but when comparing Indianapolis’ Vick Ballard and Donald Brown against Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, this matchup is no contest.  Besides the fact Detroit’s second option Bell is having a stellar season averaging nearly five yards a carry, Mikel Leshoure has been virtually unstoppable in the red zone, scoring all six of his touchdowns inside the 10 yard line.  Indy has allowed 11 rushing touchdowns and I’d play both Detroit backs here even though Detroit rushes the ball a near league-low 33.6 percent of the time.

Deroit will take advantage of not only their superior ground game, but superior passing attack, giving Ryan Broyles an enhanced role this week as the WR2.  Calvin Johnson is likely to continue his recent onslaught, and should see another 13-14 targets and eight catches worth over 110 yards.  Joique Bell will continue to be a solid PPR play, and might even surprise with a rushing score of his own.  The Colts 3-4 has done a pretty good job stifling production from the TE slot meaning Brandon Pettigrew’s disappointing season is likely to continue.  For some reason, Detroit has fallen behind in almost every game they’ve played this year.  This week it won’t happen.  Andrew Luck has been a woefully different player on the road in terms of turnovers, throwing four touchdowns versus 10 interceptions outside of Lucas Oil Stadium.  The Lions will simply focus on Reggie Wayne, virtually ignoring Donnie Avery, while racking the increasingly dangerous T. Y. Hilton, who is now a solid WR2 for your fantasy team.  Dwayne Allen is a nice start against a Lions defense allowing seven of 17 TD passes to that position, but expect his line to be in the nature of two catches for 15 yards and a score.  I’d give up on Donald Brown at this point, simply because Bruce Arians has no designed screen game for Luck.  Ballard is worth 60 total yards but not much else.  Detroit will grab the lead early, making Luck a decent play again for 275 yards passing and two touchdowns.  However, it won’t be enough at Ford Field to defeat the Lions.

LIONS 24, COLTS 20
 
 
JACKSONVILLE @ BUFFALO
Chad Henne must have sailed under a new astrological sign, huh?  He has almost single-handedly reinvigorated a Jaguars offense that was left for dead the moment Maurice Jones-Drew limped off the field with his injured foot.  Henne has also given fantasy owners reason to believe as well with two weeks of 30 and 16 points in ESPN standard leagues, and against a Bills team giving up the seventh most points to opposing QBs, he’s worth a gamble start in two QB leagues.  The Bills whole defensive line is aching with both Mark Anderson and Kyle Williams not practicing earlier this week.  That’s good news for Henne, who has still managed to get sacked nine times in his two starts and isn’t much more mobile than Peyton Manning.  Rashad Jennings finds himself willed into the starting RB position after Jalen Parmele found the I.R. as quickly as he found the starting rotation.  While Buffalo is the kindest defense in terms of giving up fantasy points to opposing rushers, expect Mike Mularkey to push his offense into Henne’s hot hand, meaning Jennings figures to put up maybe 35-40 yards on 8-9 carries.  Justin Blackmon has suddenly come alive, and he and Cecil Shorts now look like a dangerous tandem, with Shorts rising to become one of the top deep-play threats in the league.  He has nine big play catches (defined as over 20 yards) and is second best in yards after the catch averaging nearly 21 yards after the grab.  In two games with Henne, Blackmon has been targeted 20 times for 298 yards and two scores.  I like Blackmon as a solid WR3 for your team this week. Even better reason to use Jags players is the fact that their defense prior to the Tennessee game had given up no less than 24 points per week.  That means they will have to score a lot to stay competitive.
Reborn as a Jaguar?
The recent addition of Jason Babin could help the Jags defense, which hasn’t allowed an opposing RB into the end zone the last three games.  This includes games against Houston and Tennessee.  Now he’ll add to a pass rush which managed just 13 sacks all year.  C.J. Spiller is fighting a shoulder problem, but he’s still managing 6.7 yards per tally, and even if he’s getting only 60 percent of the carries this week, that should amount to no less than 15 attempts.  That means you’re looking at a return of 120 total yards and a touchdown.  The Jags secondary has given up 14 passing scores, and 66 receptions to opposing tight ends.  Only two other teams have allowed as many catches to opposing TEs, making Scott Chandler possible red zone target, but Chandler has had just one TD in the last seven games.  Stevie Johnson also becomes a viable WR2 play, as he’s had no less than seven targets the last five games, and though that’s only garnered him one TD, he’s gained 271 yards the last three weeks. 
 
The Bills have managed to score more than 20 points just once in the last four games while the Jags are playing with renewed life.  Henne’s playing for a reason while the Bills are playing for the off-season.
 
JAGUARS 23, BILLS 17

 
MINNESOTA @ GREEN BAY


Just a couple of months ago, the Packers offense was ranked 16th, and everyone expected their offensive upswing to continue after they shellacked the Houston Texans.  Their offense is now ranked 18th.  Decimated by what’s now a season-ending injury for Cedric Benson, as well as the intermittent losses of Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, it’s amazing that the Packers are still 4-1 since that game.  It hasn’t always looked pretty, but Aaron Rodgers has thrown 28 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.  Fantasy owners might not embrace the return of Greg Jennings this week for fear he’ll continue the disappearing act of James Jones.  It’s a legitimate worry, though I’d contend that Randall Cobb and the recently awakened Jermichael Finley may be most hurt by Jennings’ return.  Jones’ hot start has simply balanced out, and Jennings’ return mean single coverage for Jones and more chances for him to find the end zone.  Cobb is still a return man first, and likely will get a few series here and there, but not at the expense of Jennings or Nelson.

For the Vikings, it has been a downward trend, and besides Adrian Peterson, there’s been little to be giddy about unless you consider Percy Harvin’s injury a highlight.  The one thing that Green Bay has improved upon is its rush defense, now ranked 11th.  That’s not good news for a team that needs to control the time of possession to win this one.  With Toby Gerhart factoring little, expect Peterson to get a full day’s load of 22-25 carries.  Peterson has scored at least once in each of the last two meetings with Green Bay, and Sunday is likely to be the same.  Christian Ponder has floundered recently, though he and Jarius Wright has made great strides with 15 targets 114 yards and a touchdown in the past two games.  With Harvin ruled out for Sunday, Wright is a strong candidate for a flex play.
The Packers will try to score quickly, take Adrian Peterson out of the game and force the game into Ponder’s hands.  Ponder hasn’t delivered more than one two-touchdown performance in the past five games, while throwing five INTs.  A healthy Greg Jennings will certainly present challenges for Antoine Winfield and company, and the Packers simply will outman the Vikings, who won’t be able to keep up on offense.

PACKERS 31, VIKINGS 17

CAROLINA @ KANSAS CITY
Panthers QB Cam Newton gave fantasy owners something to smile about last week, unless of course you own any part of the Carolina rushing attack.  Newton is the team’s leading rusher, which should tell you all you need to know about the usefulness of their two highly paid RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (henceforth known at “De-Stew”).  De-Stew faces a favorable matchup, which in Rod Chudzinski terms means 90 yards on 20 attempts combined.  For all the talk of Williams’ demotion, he has just two less carries than Stewart.  However, he is now being targeted less than once per game.  Wide receiver Brandon LaFell has slowly been usurping the top wide receiver spot from Steve Smith.  He has eight grabs for 167 yards and two touchdowns in their last two contests but will face a much better Chiefs secondary and yardage will be harder to come by. 
If you think the Panthers have problems, Romeo Crennel has Brady Quinn under center, the QB who claimed his light ‘went on’ after throwing two interceptions while filling in for the injured Matt Cassel against Tampa Bay.  I’m not sure if that light was the fasten seatbelt sign pilots use during air travel to let you know you’re in for a bumpy ride, but since then Quinn has added two more interceptions, zero touchdowns all whilst engineering throws no longer than your average ring toss. If you own anyone Kansas City besides Jamaal Charles or Shaun Draughn, my apologies.  Both runners will be useful this game not only on the ground against a Carolina rush defense ceding 4.5 yards per attempt, but through the air.  The Panthers have given up the most receptions to opposing RBs in the NFL.
Ron Rivera's team is trying to set a tone for next year, assuming he has one left.  He's likely to be pretty aggressive and let Cam Newton do what he does best -- use his mobility and strong arm to make plays.  That should allow Newton to gain 250 yards passing, another 40-50 rishing and two passing touchdowns.  He's likely to steal another rushing TD as well.  The Chiefs will keep it close for awhile with Jamaal Charles adding another 18-20 rushing attempts and 100 yards, only to lost his TD opportunity to Peyton Hillis.  The Panthers are 3-8 this year, but two of thsoe victories came on the road.  They'll add a third.
 PANTHERS 21, CHIEFS 10
HOUSTON @ TENNESSEE
The Texans and Titans feature two of the biggest stud fantasy backs in the league.  Arian Foster has carried the ball less than 20 times only twice this year and has crossed 1,000 yards already.  Chris Johnson has 20-plus carries in three of the fast four contests and needs just 58 more yards to break the 1,000 yard plateau.  The last time these two teams met it was Johnson who topped out with 141 yards, his first 100-yard performance of the season.  Johnson should be in your lineup again, but I don't see another 100-yard performance here.

Considering offenses have put up 100 more points on Tennessee than the Titans have put upon their opponents, this game should again be Houston's to lose.  With Ben Tate returning, it's likely Foster won't exceed 20 carries, but could easily see 18-19, and will get you at least one touchdown and 75-plus yards.  Andre Johnson has been heating up, but was limited in practice with a groin issue, and that could prevent him from spreading the field the way he's capable.  However, he's had no less than 10 targets the last six games, and though this game may not require a lot of passing, he will end up with 7-8 targets.  Owen Daniels is Matt Schaub's other stellar target, and he's good for at least eight more targets at well this weekend. 
Houston will pounce on the Titans early, leaving Jake Locker to try to pull this one out.  Though he's a got a big arm, his accuracy still falters at times, and the Houston secondary is strong enough to take advantage.  I wouldn't put it past him to hit Nate Washington for a deep touchdown as Houston has been victimized recently by both Detroit and Jacksonville, but in fantasy playoff week, I'm not risking Kenny Britt or Jared Cook against the Texans unless I have no choice.
TEXANS 27, TITANS 14
 
SAN FRANCISCO @ ST. LOUIS
Ah, the Colin Kaepernick era begins.  You can feel that fresh air of inconclusiveness rushing right by your face, can’t you?  After taking a week of flack for defending Alex Smith’s right to start (Kaepernick’s better, he's got a better arm, he's so much more mobile, etc. – all things which I wrote first), we’ll get to see Kaepernick make his case on the field as a starter against the 12th ranked Rams defense on their turf.  The good news for Frank Gore owners is that both Kyle Willams and Kendall Hunter are done for the season.  That means more rushes this week, and he’ll be spelled by Brandon Jacobs and maybe Anthony Dixon.  The bad news is that Kaepernick has had two rushing TDs in three games under center, making Gore’s likelihood at pay dirt more limited.  However, both TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker get a boost, as Kaepernick has been almost exclusively targeting his tight ends all over the field.  Mario Manningham emerged as his first WR choice against New Orleans, and as the playbook expands, Kaepernick’s fearless nature could provide more scoring opportunities for the receiver.

C.K.'s mobility and strong arm get him the start.
The Rams offense has been an enigma all year and maybe that’s because Brian Schottenheimer can be as indecisive as his father.  For awhile there it appeared Daryl Richardson was making inroads on the RB1 spot.  Recently, Steven Jackson has been infused with new energy, putting up two 100-yard performances in three games, one of which was against these 49ers.  Both will get plenty of opportunities, simply because the 49ers pass rush has been on a sack tear as of late.  Aldon Smith has delivered 12 in just five weeks. meaning TE Lance Kendricks, already more of a blocker by trade, could stay home more often, particularly in long distance down scenarios.  Wide receiver Chris Givens has vaulted to the top of the ‘most dangerous receivers’ list averaging over 21 yards per catch while leading the NFL in yards after the catch.  Sam Bradford isn’t afraid to launch one deep any time Givens is matched in single coverage, even against the 49er secondary.  Defensively, Rams’ sack leader DE Robert Quinn has yet to be cleared for Sunday’s game after suffering a concussion.  His loss would be tremendous for a Rams defense that will want to pressure Kaepernick into some novice error. 
Last game, the Rams attacked the 49ers deep, completing three of their four deep attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown.  Danny Amendola's (doubtful) absence will cause a void of 7-8 receptions.  The 49ers playbook will be opened to let Kaepernick take a few shots deep of his own.  Expect Manningham to see 5-6 targets and 60-70 yards.  Vernon Davis should also find his way onto the score sheet.  The key will be Frank Gore, simply because with the thinning depth chart at RB, if Gore can’t get something started, Kaepernick will be faced with longer yardage situations, which could spell trouble against the Rams.  Gore’s last meeting in St. Louis saw him gain nine yards on seven attempts.  He’ll have to do better this week, and he will, managing 75-80 yards and a touchdown.  This one could be a lot more action-packed than people would think, and I’ll defer to the 49ers defense as the stronger of the two units and more likely to make a statement in this one.



49ERS 28, RAMS 17
 
NEW YORK JETS @ ARIZONA

It's hard to understand why Rex Ryan would be on the chopping block with his team and Ken Whisenhunt wouldn't be with Arizona.  After all, the Cardinals were 4-0 and are now 4-6.  I suspect it comes down to one thing: expectations.  New York's were just as unrealistic as their coach's, and in Arizona they just naturally expect failure. 
Last week, Ryan Lindley actually started to impersonate a QB with his stat line of 31-of-52 line 312 yards.  Unfortunately, he still hasn't thrown a TD pass in two games and added four more picks.  For the Cardinals, they have to limit the turnovers to beat the Jets.  The threesome of LaRod Stephens-Howling, Beanie Wells and William Powell should be able to work over the Jets front seven, which is giving up 4.2 yards per carry.  Powell has become more involved in the passing attack, and it would behoove Lindley to throw more screens this week as the Rex Ryan's defense will attempt to pressure him into bad decisions early.  Larry Fitzgerald has just four catches since Lindley took the helm, and you can expect this tough Jets secondary to focus on not letting him beat them.  Thus, Andre Roberts who had nine catches last week, is your best option, along with TE Rob Housler.  One-third of the Jets passing TDs have gone to tight ends, and though Housler has yet to score, only six teams give up more points to TEs than New York.  Rookie QBs tend to eye the middle of the field a lot and if you doubt me, see Housler's best game of the season last week as evidence.
Arizona's secondary may be ranked fourth, but a good part of that is based on the fact that only they and Denver sack QBs on over eight percent of their dropbacks.  Mark Sanchez has been sacked 26 times, and isn't a much better QB at home than he is on the road.  For Sanchez to be successful, the Jets must get Shonn Greene going against the Cardinals 23rd ranked rushing defense.  Though they've only allowed just five rushing TDs, the Cardinals allow 124 rushing yards per contest.  Greene is coming off a 5.1 per carry game against New England, but that game was so out of hand early that it's hard to put much faith in it.  Greene also has managed just 13 catches to Powell's nine, so neither of these guys are ones to heavily invest in, but if you have to start someone, it has to be Greene.  Jeremy Kerley is the only receiver playing you might start as a flex or WR3, but he's going to have to face the physical Patrick Peterson, and that means Chaz Schilens is likely to get a shot at better numbers.

Lindley may be a rookie, but after watching Sanchez collide with his own offensive lineman while Lindley threw for 300 yards against St. Louis, I don't give this one to the Jets so easily.  I wouldn't shy away from playing either DEF/ST this week as they are among the best fantasy defenses.  I think Lindley throws his first TD, builds on his game last week, and Arizona's defense on the road makes a few crucial plays to take the victory.  They have yet to get a pick-six this year and they're due. 
CARDINALS 19, JETS 17

 
NEW ENGLAND @ MIAMI

The Patriots have been scoring points in Josh McDaniel’s offense as if they were back in 2007.  The last four games have seen the Pats plant 190 points on the opposition.  Stevan Ridley has become this team’s Lawrence Maroney, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.  He’s just 61 yards away from a 1,000 yard season, and inevitably will become the Patriots second runner this decade to do that.  The Dolphins rushing attack is even more crucial for them in this matchup.  Starting fast against a Patriots team that can score in seconds isn’t going to help.  They’ll put an even larger emphasis on long sustained drives meant to bleed the clock and keep Tom Brady off the field.  Yet both teams sport a top ten rushing defense, and a bottom third passing defense, so this one will come down to the quarterbacks.
And that’s where the comparison falls apart.  Last year when these two clubs met in Southern Florida, the Patriots escaped with a 27-24 victory.  Reggie Bush put up over 130 yards rushing and while Matt Moore threw three TD passes to keep pace with Brady and make the game close.  Ryan Tannehill isn’t quite as good as Matt Moore yet.  Tannehill’s managed just one game over 300 yards passing, and has five more interceptions than touchdowns.  Bush has had success against New England, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 33 attempts in two games.   He and Daniel Thomas will likely share 25-30 carries if the Dolphins are having a good day, 20-25 if they’re not.  However, it’s likely Bush is featured in the screen game a lot to try to take advantage of his speed and take the pressure off of Tannehill.  Therefore, he’s still a strong PPR play.  Brian Hartline becomes a solid start against the Patriots iffy secondary.  He’s the more physical receiver, and though Davone Bess has come on strong lately, Hartline still leads the team in targets.  The Patriots give up the second most points to opposing tight ends, but I still don’t like Anthony Fasano for more than 50 yards.  He’s questionable with a hip problem, and that could mean another solid week for Charles Clay.  A touchdown would be a strong possibility in this game for whoever plays the middle.

Hartline should be in for a big day
Brady and company will attempt to take away the run, and force Ryan Tannehill to keep up with the high flying Patriots offense.  With Rob Gronkowski out, you’ll see the Patriots combine a mixture of Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead in their short passing attack.  They’ll likely run an early no-huddle in an attempt to quickly grab a lead.  Wes Welker makes a solid play against his former franchise.
With Chandler Jones and Don’t’a Hightower both questionable, the Patriots pass rush could be compromised, which would lead to a much closer game.   The Patriots are a ridiculous plus 24 in turnover ratio and has forced 26 fumbles.  Those numbers are bound to take a turn the other way, and while I could see the Dolphins giving New England all they can handle, with a rookie QB like Tannehill leading the charge, the end result is likely to return favorable results.
PATRIOTS 31, DOLPHINS 19

THE 4PM DOCKET
CINCINNATI @ SAN DIEGO
Philip Rivers has become increasingly sloppy with his play.  Already unorthodox in his side-arm sling of the football, Rivers has fallen into some bad habits of not planting his feet properly, and occasionally trying to zip the ball into area with two or three defenders hovering.  The result has been 14 interceptions in just 11 games.  It’s like he’s channeling Jay Cutler for all of the wrong reasons.  The Chargers once strong defense has started to regress, and with the turnovers mounting, now’s not a great time for the Bengals to take on the Chargers.
Cincinnati’s running game of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Peerman have had two straight weeks of greater than 150 yards rushing, and A. J. Green continues to be virtually unstoppable, averaging 93 receiving yards per contest.  Peerman has fast been becoming more and more a part of the offense, and has 16 carries for 136 yards the past two games (over eight yards per carry).  Green will make life miserable for Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, though speedy Andrew Hawkins might make the biggest impact.  The loss of WR Mohamed Sanu makes Green the likely target of double teams, and Hawkins is incredibly difficult to cover one on one.  However, if he can’t go, expect Brandon Tate or Marvin Jones to step in, making Green all the more attractive against San Diego’s declining passing defense.  Dalton is also likely to use the hot hand of Jermaine Gresham.  The 24 year-old TE has scored twice in the last three games, and grabbed 19 passes for 233 in the last four.  The Chargers are tough in the middle of the field with safety Eric Weddle and linebackers Shaun Philips and Takeo Spikes, so Gresham is unlikely to find the end zone.
The Chargers will attempt to exploit Cincinnati’s weaker rush defense, though the Bengals entire unit hasn’t allowed more than 13 points in the last three contests.  Norv Turner and Clarence Shelmon have been unable to decide who of Ryan Mathews, Jackie Battle or Ronnie Brown they trust the least, leaving Mathews to lead his team in carries but not receptions where he might be strongest.  Last week, Mathews carried the ball 19 times against the Ravens, his most totes in five weeks.  Ronnie Brown has 41 receptions this year, a career high, not to mention second most on the team.  Browns overuse may to be an attempt to fill the gap that Antonio Gates’ decline has left on the offense.
Expect Rivers to look to Malcom Floyd and new top threat Denario Alexander more, but against a Cincinnati pass rush led by Geno Atkins, he might not have time to get the ball downfield.  Atkins and company have helped create 10 turnovers in the past six games, so Rivers is likely to exploit his tandem’s height advantage.  How he does that will again come down to his choices and mechanics.  I like both Chargers’ receivers to be viable fantasy plays with Alexander topping out in yards and both ending up in the end zone.  Expect Mathews to get another bulk of the carries, with Jackie Battle grabbing four to five of his own, and perhaps a few red zone rushes.  Brown could make a decent PPR play as the Bengals have given up 73 receptions to RBs, tied for third most in the league.

If Rivers protects the ball, the Chargers should be able to repel the suddenly hot Bengals.  But I don’t believe this team will get out of its own way long enough to do that.  River will give you a 235-yard day and a few touchdowns, but I wouldn’t rule out a fumble or two and an interception. Since starting 2-0 the Charegers are 2-7 and the only team they’ve beaten is the Kansas City Chiefs….twice.
BENGALS 26, CHARGERS 20
  
CLEVELAND @ OAKLAND
Darren McFadden is expected to return to the sideline for the first time in four weeks, hopeful that he can get the Raiders train moving in a positive direction.   However, after the derailment that has happened this week that might not be possible.  Offensive Line Coach and former player Steve Wisniewski resigned suddenly on Friday.  This was preceded by LB Rolando McClain’s removal from practice Wednesday and subsequent Facebook declaration that he was looking forward to playing for a real team.  He’s been suspended for two games starting this weekend.
Though having only won three games, the Browns come into Oakland on a high after defeating the Steelers 20-13.  Cleveland has yet to win a road game, but this one shapes up as a true possibility for a victory.  Trent Richardson will be given 23-27 carries if the Browns have their way, especially after witnessing BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Doug Martin amass 380 yards between them against Oakland’s front seven.  Not only that, but the Raiders have allowed at least one rushing touchdown in four straight games.  Expect Richardson’s ceiling to be 125 yards and at least one TD.  Brandon Weeden will throw the ball to a variety of receivers, but none more than Josh Gordon and Greg Little.  They have six touchdowns between them this year, but Little is the possession guy with the most targets, so if I’m deferring to anyone fantasy wise, it’s still him.
Oakland’s Marcel Reece filled in more than adequately for both McFadden and Mike Goodson.  Reece sewed his oats as a hybrid type player, often being used as a lead blocker while being targeted out of the backfield in the red zone.  Coming off two games where he ran 34 times for 177 yards, expect he’ll still get some carries.  Oakland is paying for both these guys, and while I wouldn’t expect Goodson or McFadden to get a huge tally, if McFadden plays, he’ll still take 8-9 carries away from Reece, making Reece an RB2 play at best.  Carson Palmer only has one game where he failed to throw a touchdown pass, and the Browns give up the seventh most points to opposing wide receivers.  That’s a clever way of saying you can start both Palmer and WR Denarius Moore, and if you’re in deeper leagues, Darius Heyward-Bey. 
It’s hard to imagine Palmer or any of the long-time professionals not putting forth a strong effort, but this Raiders team is in shambles, and the toll it took in practice this week will be evident on the field.
BROWNS 20, RAIDERS 14
TAMPA BAY @ DENVER
The Buccaneers came within a point of making themselves relevant in the NFC South divisional race.  Now they have to face a Denver team that has just started to peek.  John Fox started and emphasized Knowshon Moreno the entire game against K.C., shocking those that felt Ronnie Hillman was in line to be the top replacement candidate.  Moreno ended up with 111 all-purpose yards and average 4.3 yards per carry on 20 totes, while Hillman received just three carries.  However, any desires you have to play a Denver RB should be put in storage until next week because the Buccaneers have a dominating run defense, ceding just 81.5 yards per game and stuffing runners at a ridiculous 22 percent clip.  The only way one of these guys is likely to find a touchdown is if it comes to them.  Peyton Manning will to find himself attempting 40 passes in this one, and a 300-yard game with 2-3 touchdowns is easily within his grasp.  The Bucs defense has been beaten for two 80-yard touchdown passes in the past three weeks.  That makes TEs like Jacob Tamme a receiver non grata and a guy like Demaryius Thomas a receiver gonna starta.  Eric Decker might top out with the most targets (think 10) and manage near 100 yards himself, but it will be Thomas with a couple of deep game breakers. 
Josh Freeman has it a little trickier.  As we’ve seen these past five weeks or so, he’s purely capable of getting into a shootout against a solid offense and coming out on top.  Vincent Jackson is just 41 yards away from his fourth career 1,000-yard season, and will likely get it this week.  While Denver gives up just 210 yards per contest in the air, they have given up 18 passing touchdowns, the same number as the Bucs.  Big receivers have found the end zone with little problem against Denver, making Jackson a safe start this week.  Mike Williams disappears every once in awhile, but as much as the Bucs want to rush Doug Martin against Denver ninth ranked rush defense, the likelihood is they’ll have to throw to loosen up Denver’s front seven.  Thus I’d consider starting Williams as well.  Meanwhile, Denver yields just 3.6 yards per carry and that doesn’t bode well for Martin to have a strong day.  Expect maybe 10-12 carries for 60 yards and not much more on the ground.  Where he could make up more is through screen plays of differing kinds.  The game shapes up to be an aerial battle, and though Josh Freeman has some mobility, he’s facing the best pass rushing team in the league.  Both Von Miler and Elvis Dumervil will be in his face all day, so expect dump offs to Doug Martin, and even TE Dallas Clark, who has come on as of late for 12 receptions for 126 yards and a touchdown in the last three weeks.  No team is worse at guarding TEs than Denver, so Clark is a nice sleeper.  I expect four catches for 35 yards and a score.
Denver’s biggest issue this week is their rushing attack and the fact that while they are a minus-three in turnover ratio, Tampa Bay is an amazing plus 11.  Denver’s tendency to fall behind could kill them this week as the Buccaneers offense has enough weapons to protect a double digit gap.  I don’t expect Denver will allow that again, but I’d take Tampa Bay and the points.
BRONCOS 37, BUCCANEERS 31
  
PITTSBURGH @ BALTIMORE
When last they met, the Steelers prevented the Ravens from scoring a single offensive touchdown.  They better do the same this week because as physical a game as it’s likely to be, the Steelers simply can’t match the Ravens stride for stride when their strides are coming from 37-year old Charlie Batch.   Just three days away from his 38th Birthday Sunday, Batch will likely be given a game plan of heavy runs and short passes, not so unlike most of Todd Haley’s plans this year.  However, Batch’s arm limitations were obvious last week.  I predicted in their previous meeting the Steelers would try to get on top with a deep attack to Mike Wallace, something they attempted in their first series.  However, Wallace’s value is already in decline, and that’s not just because Batch is under center.  Wallace’s hands have been in question all year.  We’re used to seeing numbers of just over 50-60 percent completions to Wallace, but that’s usually associated with 18-20 yards per catch average.  This year Wallace is at the 55 percent range, but has just 572 yards on 47 catches, an average of just 12 yards per catch.  Antonio Brown’s return spells the end of Wallace being a solid fantasy option until Ben Roethlisberger returns.  Running back Jonathan Dwyer gets the start, and while I don’t think the demotion of Rashard Mendenhall makes sense, I do think these two used in tandem makes for a nostalgic rendition of Jerome Bettis/Willie Parker.  Dwyer is so much like Bettis it’s scary, and against a solid tackling team like Baltimore, he’ll struggle if he doesn’t stay low to the ground. 
Wallace won't be useful until
 Ben returns
Joe Flacco’s claims of being elite actually make sense when he plays at home.  At home, Flacco completes 11 percent more of his passes and averages almost four more yards per attempt.  Still, the Steelers know this offense starts and ends with Ray Rice.  Pittsburgh has the best defense in the land, and are ranked sixth against the run.  Rice failed to gain more than two yards per carry last game in Pittsburgh, but on turf, Rice is a different runner altogether.  He averages about eight more touchdowns a year when he’s playing on that surface, and last year in opener in Baltimore, Rice put on a show against Pittsburgh, gaining 5.6 yards per carry, and scoring two touchdowns.  Rice may not come through with RB1 numbers Sunday, but you can’t bench a stud in Week 13.  Torrey Smith will again face CB Ike Taylor, leaving Anquan Boldin for possibly another 7-8 catch afternoon.  However, this time I think Flacco will connect for a couple of touchdowns (Smith included), and if the Ravens can stop Dwyer and Mendenhall from early down yardage, Charlie Batch will find himself in for a long day. 

Much like the truth, picking the outcome of this game lies somewhere inbetween their past history.. However, it is necessary to defer to Joe Flacco’s experience and ability to move the chains. Pittsburgh’s best hope is some early down passes and a solid rushing attack against the Ravens 26thranked rush defense. I think they get that but can’t overcome Batch’s limitations.

RAVENS 22, STEELERS 13

 
SUNDAY NIGHT GAME
PHILADELPHIA @ DALLAS
The Cowboys won't get cute with Murray
It seems like every time I come across a game like this one the first thought that goes through my head is, the schedulers thought they had a juicy one.  What has almost always been a tremendous game with playoff implications now looks about as interesting as Cleveland and Oakland.  Ok, nothing really is as bad this week as Cleveland visiting Oakland, but this one is fighting to be a close second.  Dallas has had a disappointing season (gee, where have I heard that before?), and the Eagles have imploded.

Last week, QB Nick Foles may not have had great stats, but his line of 16-for-21 for 119 yards looked a little more QB-like.  Not NFL QB-like, but QB-like.  Since Foles’ first game where the rookie hurled the ball down the field against the Cowboys and averaged 6.8 per attempt, his stats have collapsed to 4.4 yards and 5.7 yards per throw.  This could be a sign he’s becoming more cautious, something you never really want to see in a young QB.  You want the bad interceptions to go away, not the attempts to spread the field.  Now, he travels to Dallas for his third start amid controversy galore voiced by Vick that the Eagles are using the NFL’s concussion recovery rules as an excuse to keep him off the field.  I have news for you Michael, they don’t need much more excuse than your stats.  With LeSean McCoy out, Foles has Bryce Brown again starting behind him.  Who would have thought that might actually be an improvement?  Brown averaged 9.4 yards per carry last week against Carolina, and if he can curtail his MichaelVick-itis, (aka fumbling problem no doubt brought on by prolonged exposure to Michael Vick’s hands), he’ll give you solid numbers and might be the only part of his offense worth using.  Dallas is likely to crowd the box, making Foles throw as often as he can.  That means you can expect some early down short yardage throws to TE Brent Celek, Brown and possibly Clay Harbor out of the backfield.  With DeSean Jackson out, Jeremy Maclin is the only truly reliable set of hands for fantasy, though Jason Avant is experience enough to get into the act.  Regardless, don’t expect a lot of points except from this offensive cast except maybe Alex Henery, who I contend will continue to get tons of chances.  On defense, Brandon Graham will start in place of the freshly released Jason Babin.  He’ll get a chance to make a splash against a Dallas front five that has allowed 26 sacks this season.
The Cowboys couldn’t be happier to have DeMarco Murray back.  And don’t think he’ll be eased into the offense again.  The Cowboys are playing for their playoff lives right now, and if he’s available, I’d expect the delicate Murray to get as many carries as his ankle will allow.  Whether you want to risk him in your lineup depends on the gambler in you.  No doubt, Felix Jones will see some work, and as he showed last week, is great in the screen game.  Jason Witten is having another season where he has seven catches a game but manages one touchdown all year.  Pretty soon any time someone has a lone touchdown we’ll just say, ‘he got his Witten’ for the year.  Why the Cowboys can’t find this guy around the end zone is confounding, but then again, so is the Cowboys offense.  Dez Bryant has come into his own in recent weeks, and is the best option against the Eagles secondary other than Witten.
DeMarcus Ware should cause some havoc for young Foles.  Tony Romo should give leading target Jason Witten an easy seven to 10 fantasy points in standard leagues, and the return of DeMarco Murray should help take some pressure off of Romo. 
COWBOYS 17, EAGLES 10
 
MONDAY NIGHT GAME
NEW YORK GIANTS @ WASHINGTON
The Redskins have won two straight to get themselves back into contention in the NFC East.  The Giants broke out of a three game slump by lambasting the Packers.  This game has added importance because it’s divisional and would put the Redskins a single game behind the Giants should New York falter.

Some interesting notes on this game:
  • Since taking over as the Giants head coach, Tom Coughlin is a barely noticeable 18-19 in December. This coincides with Eli Manning’s worst completion percentage as a QB (55 percent in December). For November 2012, Manning has already fallen to his lowest rate of 55 percent….where to now
  • The Redskins are the most penalized team in the NFL and it isn’t even close.  They have 93 penalties against them for a whopping 770 yards.  The league average is 70 for 594 yards
  • Only two teams have attempted less passes than the Redskins – the Seahawks and the 49ers - both NFC West franchises, both with top RBs and both with essentially rookie QBs now.
Eli Manning has struggled through November. Of course, he faced three top ten defenses in Pittsburgh, Dallas and Cincinnati. Now he gets the Redskins, a top five worst team in giving up fantasy points to opposing QBs, WRs and TEs. With the returned health of his wide receivers and the importance of this game, expect big days from Eli even though his recent history at Washington saw him complete just 56 percent of his passes. Ahmad Bradshaw’s foot issues are better, but it wouldn’t surprise me down the stretch to see even more of David Wilson than you might think. The Giants still own their division, and they could ill afford to lose Bradshaw, leaving the rookie as their main option. Thus, when the Giants get the lead in this one, expect Wilson’s carries to equal out with Bradshaw’s. So taper expectation for Bradshaw, and not just because the Redskins rushing defense is ranked third.
Robert Griffin knows that this game could put his team back in contention for the division, and Griffin is a mobile enough QB to give the Giants all they can handle.  In his first game against the G-men, Griffin completed over 70 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns  With Alfred Morris about to cross 1,000 yards, expect the Redskins to attempt to run the ball often, with an occasionally big strike to Pierre Garcon or Santana Moss to keep the Giants defense honest.  Morris should be up for 100 yards, as the Giants yield 4.4 yards per carry.
Expect a high scoring affair with both QBs providing solid fantasy numbers.  Hakeem Nicks has 14 catches the past two games, and when a QB is struggling as Eli has, a big target is a welcome site.  I like Nicks for at least 85 yards and a score.  However, the Giants defense has come alive and even with Jason Pierre-Paul questionable, the pass rush of their front four is a difference maker in this crucial game.
GIANTS 31, REDSKINS 27