Saturday, December 8, 2012

NFL WEEK 14 - MATCHUPS & BREAKDOWNS

The fantasy playoffs have arrived.  Well, they have for those Commissioners that got with the program and realized that Week 17 is one lousy week for fantasy football.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get taken down because I can’t play my stud Arian Foster, who is ‘resting’ while Justin Forsett has the game of his life.

Several teams sitting at 11-1 right now are getting dangerously close to wrapping up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Once that happens, all bets are off.  So this week could see fantasy owners cheering against Atlanta, screaming for the Patriots even if they’re from Houston, and hoping once again that Joel Dreessen doesn’t take yet another TD pass from a Denver Broncos player that actually matters to us --- Damn you, Joel Dreessen.  Damn you to hell.


 THE 1PM DOCKET

ST. LOUIS @ BUFFALO
Ah, winter in Buffalo – for those who haven’t experienced lovely upstate New York in the winter, it’s like traveling to the Mojave to get a suntan in July.  It’s freezing cold, windy all the time because of the lake, and yet still I can’t bench Greg ‘the leg’ Zuerlein.  I’m pretty sure this kid might be able to kick a hurricane right back out to sea.
The offensively challenged Rams have seen a ground game resurgence and they’ll be forced to use it here.  Steven Jackson has passed 100 all-purpose yards in three of the last four games and scored a touchdown.  The Bills defense is third worst in giving up an average of 21.3 fantasy points per game to RBs, and a league worst 14 rushing touchdowns.  As loathe as I have been to rely on Jackson when it matters, you must hope he left his invisibility cloak at home and start him.  With Danny Amendola unlikely to play, Chris Givens is another top-notch sleeper this week.  Last week was his emergence from occasional deep threat to receiving leader.  He notched 11 grabs for 92 yards against the 49ers.  If there is one drawback here, it’s that the Bills pass defense, just a few short weeks ago ranked near the bottom is now ranked 13th.  An increase in sacks from their front seven has to worry Sam Bradford, whose offensive line has helped assist him to the ground 30 times.  He doesn’t do well when he can’t plant and throw. 

The Bills face a 13th ranked St. Louis rush unit that had plenty of problems with the 49ers Frank Gore.  The Bills line might not be San Francisco’s but Buffalo had 39 rushing attempts last week. Fred Jackson was given 25 to C. J. Spiller’s 14, making neither a back you can depend on for RB1 numbers.  You’d prefer Spiller’s breakaway talent, but Jackson is the safer start, as he’s more likely to get more carries.  Wide receiver Stevie Johnson and TE Scott Chandler own 11 of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s  20 TD passes.  While Fitzpatrick hardly warrants consideration, as long as Johnson plays (he’s got a hamstring injury), he’ll see a consistent 8-10 targets.  The Rams have only given up three passing scores to opposing TEs, but in the elements that can be a Buffalo game in December, any red zone possession is likely to involve Chandler, who leads the team in TD receptions with six.

BILLS 21, RAMS 17

 
DALLAS @ CINCINNATI
A few weeks ago the Cowboys were left for dead by the Redskins.  If this was 1835, that would have a whole different meaning, now wouldn’t it?  But instead, these Cowboys are one game out of first, and fighting for the guaranteed playoff spot that comes with a division crown.  The Bengals are on the cusp of the AFC playoff race because of a 1-3 division record.

This game could spell trouble for the Cowboys.  DeMarco Murray will likely be limited the rest of the year in practice, but I expect he’ll see the field.  However, Cincinnati has been shutting down runners as of late: Ahmad Bradshaw, 10 carries for 57 yards; Marcel Reece, 15 carries for 74 yards; Willis McGahee, 23 carries for 66 yards.  The Cowboys run at barely a 35 percent clip, so Murray’s matchup is tough and he’s fighting to get the ball.  If Murray is going to affect the outcome, it’s going to be in the passing game.  He’s caught 21 of 22 passes that have come his way, and with the Bengals’ pass rush, he will be used in the screen game to keep the Bengals from pressing too hard.  Tony Romo will attempt to get Dez Bryant going, but big receivers have had problems with Cincinnati’s secondary, and Marvin Lewis’s club will attempt to take him out of the game.  The Bengals pass rush will also make it hard for Romo to get the kind of big plays he wants with Bryant.  So Mile Austin, if anyone, is likely to have more receptions running inside slants, along with Jason Witten, who has almost nine catches per game in the past nine.  Romo could end up with 300 yards, but it's more likely to be 240 with a couple of TDs and an interception.
The Bengals will make every attempt to exploit the Dallas secondary, which has just five interceptions this year, lowest in the NFL.  With the added importance of each game, A.J. Green will be targeted as often as possible.  Dallas will focus on keeping Green from the end zone, leaving Andrew Hawkins and Jermaine Gresham as prime end zone targets.  The Cowboys have given up five of their 11 passing TDs in the last two weeks, and it's been to secondary and tertiary receivers, so Hawkins is a nice WR3.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been running stronger of late, albeit against weaker defenses, but the Cowboys are giving up 4.3 yards per carry and have allowed 11 rushing touchdowns.  Green-Ellis has a good matchup this week for another near 100-yard effort and a score.  

Both teams are playing for their playoff lives, none more than the Cowboys.  However, the Cowboys are minus-10 in turnovers and that glaring number is there for a reason.  Facing DT Geno Atkins and the Bengals fearsome pass rush leading the NFL with 39 sacks, Romo will be forced into some mistakes.  Murray will help balance Dallas into a better offensive rhythm, but it won't be enough.

BENGALS 24, COWBOYS 20




KANSAS CITY @ CLEVELAND
In a game I've deemed the Dog Pound Bowl (Cleveland has lost the right to use an "A" in Dawg because that's the bad-ass spelling, and K.C. has been beaten more times than a poor man's dog), this game will be brought to you by the folks at Pet Smart: Be smart enough to adopt a dog instead of these football teams.

All kidding aside, Cleveland is riding a modest three game winning streak.  Trent Richardson has been a huge part of that, and if there wasn't so many great rookie QBs this year, there'd be a solid case for Trent as ROTY.  Though he's averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, he needs just 116 more to pass Jim Brown for the most yards gained by a Browns' rookie in club history.  Against the Chiefs 26th ranked unit, that shouldn't be so hard.  They've had four 100-yard rushers against them, and have six games giving up 15 or more points to opposing runners.   However, the Chiefs secondary has given up over 200 yards passing just three times this year, and that was to heavily pass-reliant teams Denver, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.  Elements aside, you can bet Cleveland will give Richardson 20 carries Sunday.  Brandon Weeden will be challenged to get the ball downfield, and though Josh Gordon has become his prime end zone target (five scores, but only one in the second half), Ben Watson has 13 catches the past three games and two for touchdowns.  The Chiefs have allowed three TE scores in the past five weeks, making Watson a highly likely recipient.
New Era in K.C.
The Chiefs return Brady Quinn to play against his former team, and while the odds-makers say this game will be the one that the tragedy takes from them, I'm not so agreeable.  Quinn has motivation, if nothing else then to show last week was the beginning of a new era him.  The Browns passing defense is improved, but still ranked 20th.  They give up an average of over 21 points per week to WRs, and big receivers have given them issues, with the likes of Dez Bryant and Rod Streater scoring in two of the past three weeks.  Dwayne Bowe will be good this week for 5-6 catches and 65 yards and a score.  Jamaal Charles is rolling, and has three 100-yard games in his past four.  Cleveland's rush defense is ranked 16th, but they give up over four yards per carry.  Jonathan Baldwin got a score last week but don't be tempted here, even though this should be a good matchup for him.  Quinn is more likely to stare middle of the field, as he has most of his career, meaning TE Tony Moeaki could again be in for another 4-5 grabs.

In this battle of runners, I think the Chiefs are being underestimated here.  Life-changing events give men purpose, and I think as well as the Browns have been playing, Quinn and company want to send a message in Cleveland.  The Browns haven't been favored by seven points in nearly a decade.  I can't believe I'm supporting a Brady Quinn offense, but this is the kind of year it has been.
CHIEFS 20, BROWNS 16



PHILADELPHIA @ TAMPA BAY
The Michael Vick era -- (era?  this was less than two years)-- uh, pilgrimage is over.  Nick Foles, the all-time passing leader from Arizona has been declared the starting QB from the remainder of the season, which is really just a clever way of saving Vick and the Eagles' staff added medical insurance costs
.

Tampa Bay has really one concern right now and that’s stopping Bryce Brown.   The rookie has rolled off two impressive performances, and even with Tampa Bay’s rushing defense sitting atop the NFL, if they can’t stop Brown, they’re in trouble.  You can’t bench the hot running Brown, but keep in mind, he’s facing a team that stuffs 22 percent of all rushing plays.  Taper expectations to 75 yards or so.  Foles had a strong performance last Sunday night against Dallas.  Now he gets a shot at opening up against a Tampa team that with a minimal pass rush, and a secondary yielding 309 yards per game.  The Eagles are still without DeSean Jackson, meaning Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek will be featured, and should provide decent numbers.  Keep in mind though, since Foles stepped under center, Riley Cooper has been targeted 18 times in four games and has two touchdowns.  Just saying, he’s a possible flex play, particularly on a day where Brown has a tough matchup and the Eagles are likely to pass to set up the run. 
For the Bucs, Josh Freeman keeps rolling along.  Though they’ve lost the last two, the Buccaneers offense continues to make the games close.  Freeman now gets the second kindest defense to opposing QBs in fantasy, and ninth to opposing receivers.  Surprisingly, Philadelphia has given up just three rushing touchdowns all year.  But, where they’ve struggled is giving up passing touchdowns to runners out of the backfield.  They’ve given up four of those, an NFL worst.  At home, Freeman has been virtually unstoppable, posting a QB rating of over 105 and a 10:2 touchdown to interception ratio.  I don’t think Greg Schiano is going to risk simply running Doug Martin.  Against a disheartened Eagles franchise, watch Freeman attack through the air, using Martin’s abilities in between for balance.  Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are having career years.  Both should be in your lineup this week.  Dallas Clark  has three scores in the last four games, and has become a fixture in the red zone.  Tampa’s opportunistic secondary will force Foles into a few mistakes, Jackson will score again, and Martin will provide 75 yards and a score. 

BUCCANEERS 31, EAGLES 13


BALTIMORE @ WASHINGTON
Even with the 31st ranked pass defense, the Redskins are more likely to dare Joe Flacco to beat them.  That’s because Flacco’s had five games with a QB rating under 80.  In the last three games, Flacco has completed 66-of-117, a 56 percent clip with just two touchdown passes and one interception.  For the year he’s completing 55 percent of his passes on the road and has four touchdowns versus four interceptions.  For Baltimore, this game becomes about keeping Alfred Morris in check.  When he can run, the sky is the limit for Robert Griffin III and this Redskins offense. 

Joe Flacco is going to have to have a good game.  Ray Rice has just two 100-yard games this year and one on the road, but the offense still rides on his shoulders.  Washington’s rush defense is ranked fourth but gives up 4.1 yards per touch.  Though they give up just 91.5 yards per contest, that number is probably directly correlated to the fact their pass defense gives up nearly 300 yards every game.  The Redskins give up the most points to opposing TEs and second most to WRs.  Thus, I expect Cam Cameron to try to attack early on and deep.  Torrey Smith, who is sixth in the NFL with 11 big play catches should be in your lineup this weekend, and if you held onto Dennis Pitta, he’s in for a 50-60 yard day with a possible touchdown.   The problem for the Ravens is on defense.  Terrell Suggs is out with a torn bicep muscle, and Baltimore is already struggling to get to the quarterback.  Alfred Morris will get 20-25 carries again and should provide RB1 numbers against a Ravens defense that has surrendered 11 rushing TDs and almost 1400 rushing yards to opposing RBs.  Robert Griffin has completed 67 percent of his passes at home 10 total TDs against one interception.  He’ll have to avoid Ed Reed who had two interceptions the last time these two teams met.  Pierre Garcon has returned and with him healthy, so has the big play for this Redskins team.  Pencil him in for at least 7-8 looks.


The game is close, but I seen a downward trend in the Ravens.  They’ll be angered having to come off a loss to Pittsburgh, and that could elevate their play, but Griffin is a difference maker, while Flacco is unpredictable on the road.

REDSKINS 19, RAVENS 17


ATLANTA @ CAROLINA
Atlanta comes into the game a 3.5 point favorite over their division rival because they’re on the road, and the first game between these two teams was a two point squeaker.  Both teams average 5.8 yards per offensive play, and perhaps that’s why many folks see this game as close as the last one.  I’m not one of them.  For one, the Falcons average over 28 points per game on the road this year.  It’s evidenced in Matt Ryan’s splits wherein he’s completing over 70 percent of his passes away from the Georgia Dome with a  15:4 ratio of TDs to interceptions. 

Carolina’s pass defense is ranked eighth, but they allow a 67 percent completion rate, and with the bevy of weapons that Ryan has, conjoined with the fact Atlanta runs 39 percent of time, expect Atlanta to try to lock up the home field advantage this week.  Last meeting, the Panthers took Julio Jones out of the equation, so Roddy White chomped on the small Carolina secondary with eight grabs for 169 yards and two scores.  You’re not sitting either here.  Michael Turner will again spearhead the rushing attack, and though he has just two 100-yard days this year, one came against the Panthers on September 30.  However, Turner isn’t nearly as potent on grass, losing a full yard per carry.  Pencil him in for 65 yards, just enough to balance Matt Ryan’s 300 yard day.

The Panthers should attack with their running game against an Atlanta front seven yielding 4.4 per carry.  DeAngelo Williams has scored in their last two meetings, and average 4.8 yards per carry against them.  Jonathan Stewart has hardly made an impact on the RB position since Williams was supposedly demoted.  He’s good for 50-60 yards and a score.  However, where Atlanta has really struggled is covering Greg Olsen.  Olsen has three touchdowns in five game s against the Panthers, and averages 56 yards per game against them. 
Cam Newton completed over 62 percent of his passes in their first contest, including two touchdown passes.  However, one of those went to Kealoha Pilares on a busted play for 36 yards.  With the Panthers as a team barely averaging 17 points per game at home, I don’t expect this game to be as close.  Remember, Brady Quinn just put up a QB rating of 132.1 on this defensive unit.  Newton’s passing numbers will be closer to 200 yards, and the Falcons secondary that picked off Drew Brees five times will take a few from him as well.
 
FALCONS 28, PANTHERS 14

 
NEW YORK JETS @ JACKSONVILLE           
There’s no doubt Chad Henne is playing for a starting position somewhere.  Maybe the Jets will take notice and lure him to New York in 2014.  But for now, he’s taken over as the Jags starter.  The problem is that injuries struck this team just as the offense was starting to get interesting.  Cecil Shorts has a concussion and is out this Sunday.  So is Rashad Jennings.  That means that Montell Owens with get his first start.  The Jets defense is a perfect choice, as they’re giving up 137 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt.  That doesn’t mean Mularkey will give him more than 12-15 chances, mainly because the odds that there will be any sustained drives in this game by a Jaguars team converting just 29.2 percent of its third downs isn’t strong.  Justin Blackmon has been inconsistent and makes for a dreadfully risky play against a Jets’ secondary that recently shut down the likes of Danny Amendola and Chris Givens and Larry Fitzgerald.  He’ll be targeted 10-12 times with rookie Kevin Elliott starting as his complement.  Marcedes Lewis could have added impact in this game, simply because there are so few options, and while the Jets do a great job against receivers, against TEs they allow the ninth most fantasy points.
Powell's been vulturing TDs
The Jets put Mark Sanchez back under center, and at least his mediocre weapons are healthy.  honn Greene has two straight games averaging more than four yards per touch, and Bilal Powell has three rushing touchdowns in the last three games.  He’s now a TD vulture and probably the better start here considering  Shonn Greene’s longest run from scrimmage is 36 yards.  Jeremy Kerley has been targeted 17 times in the last two games, but it’s hard to imagine this one will require a ton of passing from Sanchez.  Dustin Keller is doubtful, meaning “White Thunder” Jeff Cumberland is likely to get a few looks, but he’s no one to consider for your team. Both teams are hurting enough on offense that I wouldn’t hesitate to play either defense here.  It’s likely to be snooze-fest, but I’m deferring to Sanchez to put up 180 yards and a deep play to Kerley.  Greene and Powell can control enough of the game, while their counter-part Owens provides 45 yards or so.

JETS 13, JAGUARS 10

 
TENNESSEE @ INDIANAPOLIS
This game might be one big Andrew Luck party, as the Colts return to Lucas Oil Stadium after a miracle comeback that put the Indianapolis on track for a playoff appearance just one year after they went 2-14.  The Colts took a 19-13 victory home when last they visited Tennessee by rushing for 171 yards, 28 of which came from the legs of their number one draft pick.  That game was also known as the Vick Ballard game, where Ballard leapt and twisted in midair to score the deciding touchdown in overtime. 


Ballard had been sharing more carries with Donald Brown, but the oft-injured Brown won’t play this Sunday so Ballard will again see 15-17 carries. Delone Carter will back him up. The Titans hoped to return LB Colin McCarthy which would have improved their interior some, but he’s still suffering from concussion symptoms. Ballard’s coming off a game where he provided 12 fantasy points, but he doesn’t get enough opportunities when it comes to the offense. The Colts run just 38 percent of the time, while Andrew Luck averages 42 attempts per game. The Titans defense will have to slow down Luck’s air attack, spread between Reggie Wayne, Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton.  Tennessee held all three without a TD the first time around, but they won’t be so fortunate in round two. The Titans have yielded 24 passing scores, and Luck will find Reggie Wayne for his fourth of the year. I also like the speedy T. Y. Hilton to cause problems when the Colts go three wide.

Expect Chris Johnson to key the attack for Tennessee and considering he dropped 99 yards on them in the first meeting and has averaged close to 100 in seven other meetings, you are putting him as your RB1 here.  He’ll get 20-25 tries in an attempt to make Indianapolis commit more to the play-action.  Jake Locker will get his first shot at Indianapolis since last year where he managed just 108 passing yards and a score, however, his 56 percent completion rate and seven interceptions versus eight touchdowns speak to his larger accuracy problem.  Since the bye week, Kendall Wright has taken over as his primary target, with 11 catches for 126 yards.  However, it has been Kenny Britt who has two touchdowns in the last two weeks.  Defer to Wright because touchdowns are often random.  TE Jared Cook has also been targeted heavily, including 12 last week.  Yet he caught just four for 51 yards, and I wouldn’t expect much more here.

COLTS 24, TITANS 17


You’re at the halfway point of the blog….that’s right, eight games down.  Now you know why they have bye weeks – too much research to do.  So here’s a cool video that I found that sans the annoying self-promotion at the end, is worth the watch.  Here’s one lady playing every NFL fan’s girlfriend. 

 

CHICAGO @ MINNESOTA
It’s hard to believe that two positions on one team can be headed in such polar opposite directions.  Running back Adrian Peterson seems to be getting stronger as the season goes on.  While the Bears defense has started to lose its way, now yielding 4.5 yards per touch to runners, Peterson has gained over 100 yards in six straight games and has scored in all but one of those.  One of those games was against Chicago just two short weeks ago.  Meanwhile, the loss of Percy Harvin has compounded Quarterback Christian Ponder’s struggles.  He was challenged enough as it was with limited weaponry, but sans TE Kyle Rudolph and youngster Jarius Wright, he's had almost no playmakers in the receiving game.  Thus the Bears will do everything they can to shut down Peterson and dare Ponder to beat them.
The Bears have a decent running game of their own, though Matt Forte has struggled to stay healthy this season.  In Week 12 when these teams met Forte was just coming off an ankle injury.  Last week, he appeared to regain his foothold on the RB1 position with 21 carries against Seattle.  He’s now 37 yards shy of his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season.  The problem with Forte is that Michael Bush, who has had 21 carries just once and other than that has barely managed 10 carries per week since Week 4, has five rushing touchdowns this year, all coming within the five yard line.  That means so many of Forte’s opportunities are being siphoned to someone else.  Forte’s receptions are also down this year by nearly 40 percent, meaning while he still has PPR appeal, he’s not the guy you drafted in the early second round.  At this point, I’d defer to Michael Bush as an RB2/RB3 play as any red zone possession is likely to see him behind Jay Cutler.  Cutler isn’t anyone to toy with during the playoffs, but he does have Brandon Marshall, who is automatic this season. 

Minnesota will run the ball successfully, but sooner or later Ponder will have to make plays.  Without Harvin, the Vikings special teams have fallen off, and they’re likely to lose this battle of field position.  Ponder makes too many mistakes and the Bears take this one on the road.


BEARS 23, VIKINGS 12

 
SAN DIEGO @ PITTSBURGH
Ben Roethlisberger returns to the Steelers lineup after Charlie Batch solidified his place in this season’s history with a big upset win in Baltimore.  The Steelers aren’t a very good running team, though they’ve been beset by injuries and of course, back-up quarterback-itis.  Their Jerome Bettis clone, Jonathan Dwyer, will get another start, but the Chargers have been a stout run defense.  Thus, Todd Haley will thrust the bulk of this game onto Big Ben’s shoulder.  The Chargers secondary was thrashed by Tampa Bay and Denver, for multiple touchdown games, and this game you expect Antonio Brown to see 10-12 targets and 80 yards and a touchdown.  The wealth will also be spread to Heath Miller, as both Jermaine Gresham and Dennis Pitta found seams in the middle of the field for touchdowns.  Miller is having a career year, and he’ll be worth a start this game as well.

The Chargers have a viable rushing attack behind Ryan Mathews.  Expect Norv Turner to employ he, Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown in an myriad of plays to try to put together drives that will tire out the strong Pittsburgh defense and keep the Steelers offense grounded.  Malcom Floyd is still a top target for Philip Rivers, but the biggest threat now is Denario Alexander.  This head-topping 6’5” receiver is averaging over 100 yards per contest the last four weeks, and could easily give the Pittsburgh secondary some troubles.  He should put up a strong six-catch, 80-yard day with a touchdown.  Antonio Gates has been tough for the Steelers in the past, but this year the Steelers yield just 5.1 average fantasy points per week to opposing tight ends.  It’s hard to bench someone like Gates when you know Rivers will be gunning for him.  The problem lies in River’s countless mistakes this year, and if the Steelers pass rush continues to improve behind James Harrison’s recovery, this week should be no different.  Rivers will keep the Chargers competitive until he makes one throw too many.  Mathews is good for 60-70 yards. 
STEELERS 23, CHARGERS 18

 
THE 4PM DOCKET
MIAMI @ SAN FRANCISCO
Based on last week’s performance, huge pressure must be mounting not only on Colin Kaepernick, but on his coach as well.   This game should help redeem him, though Miami’s defense is not exactly a slouch unit.  Sure, they ranked just 20th, but in the last few weeks they held a high-powered Patriots offense to just 23 points while intercepting Tom Brady for just the fourth time this year, and held the Seattle Seahawks offense scoreless in the 4th quarter so they could come back and win.
Miami’s hope is that they can get the ground game going behind the two-headed monster of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas.  Losing LT Jake Long to injury last week could have devastating effects, especially now that they’re facing the NFL sack leader Aldon Smith.  The Dolphins have managed 14 rushing touchdowns versus just eight passing TDs, so Bush and Thomas can expect to get a minimum of 25 carries, even against the stingiest fantasy run defense.  Bush has been averaging 14-15 carries per game, while Thomas is getting 8-10 on average.  Can we expect Bush to return to the passing game where he belongs?  Well, there is no hint that from Mike Sherman, but one would think he would dial up some screens in advance of the aggressive niners pass rush.  If not Bush, Davone Bess is a likely to play a big role.  Expect some quick slot routes and some short outs and 6-7 receptions.  Brian Hartline is not likely to be as pertinent in this game, though he still knows how to use his body size to shield DBs from the ball. 

The 49ers will use Frank Gore to control the clock with Brandon Jacobs likely to spell him for a few series.  We might also finally see rookie LaMichael James, who though a liability against the pass rush, owns 4.45 speed.  The Dolphins have been a stingy rush defense all year, and Gore isn’t going to see upwards of 75-80 yards.  Thus, Colin Kaepernick will have to be a big factor, and will have to be sharp in his pre-snap reads as Miami also brings a strong pass rush.  Mario Manningham has been ruled out which means Randy Moss will start opposite Michael Crabtree.  Crabtree is your only real starter here, as the Dolphins are tough against opposing TEs and Vernon Davis has all but disappeared. 
Kaepernick will give you 210 yards passing and 65 yards on the ground and a couple of TDs and Crabtree will on the receiving end of 11-12 targets.  Miami is minus-10 in the give take, so expect the 49ers defense will force a turnover at a key point in the game.  That will be the difference.

49ERS 24, DOLPHINS 13

ARIZONA @ SEATTLE
In a rematch of Arizona’s Week 1 upset, John Skelton returns under center giving fantasy owners that were about to drop Larry Fitzgerald just enough hope to hang onto him (yours truly).  Russell Wilson goes for his third win in four games in an all-important game to keep pace with the 49ers. 

Not only has Skelton returned, but Beanie Wells has found his way back onto the field.  He has three touchdowns in the past three games against Seattle, but will have little value except for a goal line plunge.  Those who own LaRod Stephens-Howling are certainly hoping for a more substantial workload than his one carry last weekend.  Seattle’s once stout rush defense has softened and now yields 4.5 yards per carry dropping them to 12th overall against the run.  The offensive line of Arizona is porous to say the least, so expect shorter throws initially to Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts.  Seattle’s Brandon Browner begins his suspension this weekend and should Richard Sherman have to as well, the Seattle defense could find itself compromised beyond its ability to compensate.  Regardless, Ken Whisenhunt will force the issue to get Larry Fitzgerald making plays early on, so don’t be surprised if he has Skelton unload one, even as a toss-up, for Fitzgerald to go get.  Tight end Rob Housler is going to miss Ryan Lindley, who threw at him 17 times in two games.  However, in Skelton’s last game before his injury, Skelton targeted him 11 times for five catches and 55 yards.  The Seahawks have given up three touchdowns to tight ends all year. 
It's a bad time for the 'Hawks to lose Browner
Arizona’s secondary has 18 interceptions this year and they’re weakest in the trenches.  That means a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch, who should surpass 100 rushing yards for the seventh time.  Sidney Rice and Golden Tate will see a lot of targets, with Tate still being his favorite red zone target.  Wilson also has the ability to make plays with his feet, so expect a tally of 30 rushing yards along with 180-200 passing yards.  Tight end Zach Miller has nine targets the past two games, but hasn’t scored since October.  Doug Baldwin is much more likely to be part of the box score, as Baldwin is healthy and had four catches in five targets against the Bears.

Seattle’s just too tough for the traveling Cardinals, who flip quarterbacks like the referees do coins.  The defenses will keep it tight for a half, and Fitzgerald will be able to take advantage of the now depleted Seattle secondary.  By the second half, Wilson and Lynch will have a rhythm going and own time of possession and the scoreboard.
SEAHAWKS 23, CARDINALS 13


Ivory will sit this one out.
NEW ORLEANS @ NEW YORK GIANTS
The Saints don’t want to run the football.  The Giants were a team last year that couldn’t run the football.  Both teams pass nearly 60 percent of the time or more.  Think this one should be a good game for the quarterbacks?

Well, not so fast.  Eli Manning ranks 10th among NFL QBs in pass attempts, and if Tom Coughlin wasn’t the coach he might throw all day long.  But Coughlin’s physical style and designs provide for a running game that now eatures Ahmad Bradshaw, with David Wilson spelling him occasionally after the loss of Andre Brown.  If the Giants have their way against this 32nd ranked New Orleans defense, Bradshaw and Wilson simply make the game a nice demonstration of how to own the clock while scoring at will on your opponent.  The Saints yield 5.1 yards per carry and have given up 11 rushing TDs.  That means Bradshaw could be in for a lot of yardage, and a score, but the end zone is likely going to have reservations for Victor Cruz and Martellus Bennett.  With Hakeem Nicks banged up again, even though he’s playing I expect that Domenik Hixon will pick up some slack, along with rookie Rueben Randle.  Hixon did the majority of his work in a five week span.  Since that time health has again wreaked havoc for the slot receiver, but when healthy, Hixon can have a major impact on a defense as he’s a hard cover.

In the merry-go-round that is the Saints rushing attack, New Orleans is missing Chris Ivory this week after he injured his hamstring in practice.  Maybe it was from lack of use after a zero touch day last Sunday.  That likely means more ground work for Pierre Thomas, and red zone vulturing from Mark Ingram.  The Giants secondary is still without Kenny Phillips and has shown a vulnerability to deep balls.  If I own them, I’m starting all three of Marques Colston (8TD, 12 games), Lance Moore (team-leading 74 yds/gm) and Jimmy Graham (disappointment but can take over a game).  Expect each to be targets 6-8 times, and I like Colston for a few TDs here.

The last time one of these two teams put up 100-yard single rusher against the other was 2006, a game where both their RBs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush each topped 100 yards.  Expect Bradshaw to change that, adding 100 yards and a score.  The Giants defense is the key, and coming off a shaky five interception performance, Brees will be a little more pocket aware with the likes of Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiawanuka and Jason Pierre Paul breathing down his neck.  The inconsistency of the Giants has been scary, but against this defense, Eli and company should be able to score at will.


GIANTS 35, SAINTS 32


SUNDAY NIGHT GAME

DETROIT @ GREEN BAY
In case you were considering picking Detroit, just know the Lions haven’t won at Lambeau Field since 1991.  That covers several eras of quarterbacks and half my lifetime. 

The Packers’ offense has been a mish-mosh of inefficiency, particularly after losing Cedric Benson to injury.  James Starks now joins that bunch, leaving Alex Green to tote the ball against Detroit’s defense, which has slid to 19th against the run in the rankings from 14th a few weeks ago.  The Packers were surprisingly successful running against a solid Minnesota Vikings team, putting up 124 yards between Starks and Green, with both averaging well over four yards per carry.  Even with tackle T.J. Lang questionable, which could mean a first start for Don Barclay, the Packers may try to control the ground game.  Starks was given 25 attempts in Week 11, and with their defense compromised minus Clay Mathews and Charles Woodson, the Pack want to make sure Matthew Stafford and company have nice long rests between offensive possessions.  Green could see 20 touches, as Detroit gives up 4.6 per carry now and Green Bay has evened out their play-calling.  There’s no denying Aaron Rodgers chemistry with Randall Cobb, who’ll man the slot.  He was targeted 12 times in Week 11 against Detroit, and even with Greg Jennings back, that number will still be 8-9.  Naturally, just as Greg Jennings returned, Jordy Nelson again went down, bothered by the same hamstring that has nagged him for weeks.  Jennings shook the rust off with four catches last week, and should see more this week, but keep an eye on Jermichael Finley, who has no less than 50 receiving yards in each of the last three games.  The Lions struggle to defend tight ends, so start Finley in this matchup.


Fomer Jaguar Mike Thomas is the WR2 this week 
Detroit’s offense may be ranked second overall and first in passing, but Matthew Stafford never developed the rhythm this season that he had last. year  He’s on pace to breaks his own attempts record of 634 last year, but he’s delivered just 3,742 yards with just 16 touchdown passes.  One has to wonder if part of Calvin Johnson’s problems early on were purely health related, as could have been Stafford’s, but Johnson has turned it up as of late, and should be able to exploit Green Bay’s depleted secondary.  Mike Thomas will get the start with both Ryan Broyles and Titus Young missing in action.  Thomas used to be a WR1 in Jacksonville, so don’t underestimate his value here.  The Packers give up and average of 21.4 points weekly to wide receivers, and though Johnson will dominate the targets, Thomas is a veteran who will make an impact.  He’s a sleeper play this week for 40 yards and touchdown.  Brandon Pettigrew caught his first TD pass in three weeks last Sunday, and should be able to take advantage of a middle of the field minus Mathews, much like Martellus Bennett did.  Mikel Leshoure continues to score in the red zone and is all but assured another opportunity here.  However, it’s Joique Bell that has been making the most of his opportunities.  He ran seven times for 81 yards against the Colts, and for the season is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, not to mention while adding 33 receptions.  Play him.

Green Bay is trying to hang onto the NFC North lead.  However, much like the first game, this one will come down to the wire, and Detroit’s ability to run the ball could be the difference.  If Matthew Stafford can actually avoid a big interception, Detroit will sneak out of Lambeau with an upset.  Take Detroit and the seven points here.

LIONS 23, PACKERS 20


MONDAY NIGHT GAME


HOUSTON @ NEW ENGLAND
This game has become important as these two division winners try to lock up a bye in the first week of the playoffs.  At present, Houston is in line to have the road to the Super Bowl travel through Reliant Stadium.
The Patriots have hardly missed a beat since they lost TE Rob Gronkowski.  Wes Welker has touchdown receptions in consecutive games since Week 5 and Week 6.  Stevan Ridley surpassed 1,000 yards, just the second New England runner to do that in the past eight years.  He’ll find it much tougher against a Houston rush defense who allow a measley 10.5 fantasy points average to opposing runners.  Thus, Danny Woodhead and even Shane Vereen could not only siphon carries, but will likely be used a lot more to provide different looks so as to confuse the Texans front seven.  Welker will be heavily targeted to move the chains, as will Aaron Hernandez.  But the wild card here is Brandon Lloyd, who was brought in to provide a deep threat in Josh McDaniels offense.  Tom Brady has 24 big play passes, and Lloyd has one big play touchdown reception.  In the past three games, Houston has allowed four touchdown passes longer than 20 yards.  Lloyd will get a shot deep, but he’s a risky gamble, but there’s a better chance that Aaron Hernandez makes that play.

The Texans offense moves through the running game, but they have shown a willingness to pass first in order to loosen up defenses.  See Lestar Jean’s 54-yard first quarter TD against the Titans last week for reference.  The Patriots know that if they stop Arian Foster from impacting the game, the odds are much more in their favor.  Texans QB Matt Schaub will have to have a big game for the Texans to come away winners, and I like his matchup here.  First off, the Patriots have a plus-24 give/take with 30 forced fumbles.  That kind of skew means the Patriots 9-3 record might be built on a pile of sand, because turnovers only go your way so often, and that Pats have recovered 19 of those balls, three for scores.  The Texans have among the fewest giveaways in the league with only two lost fumbles.  With the Patriots secondary giving up a whopping 280 yards per game and a near 64 percent completion rating, expect the Texans to not only use Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels, but to mix Kevin Walter (a nice sleeper this week) and possibly Jean and Keshawn Martin.  That could mean mixed results for this receivers group.  Johnson has averaged just 8.67 yards per catch against Belichick’s team, and you can bet the Patriots won’t let Johnson beat them.  Thus Owen Daniels is the ace in the hole here, and could put up 100 yards receiving and a touchdown.


When the Pats haven’t manhandled their competition, they’ve escaped some close contests.  The Texans are 6-0 on the road this year, and I expect their defense to cause New England problems.  The Pats will likely go into the hurry-up to try to wear down this Houston defense, but they’ll still have to keep J.J. Watt in check which is nearly impossible to do.  I’m taking Houston and the points as the turnover wheel spins back Houston’s way.
TEXANS 24, PATRIOTS 21