Saturday, December 22, 2012

NFL WEEK 16 - MATCHUPS & BREAKDOWNS

It is not lost on me that early season bad performances, whether by team or by player, cause much alarm among pundits and fantasy owners alike.  And it happens every year the same.  For us the writers, it makes for great drama creation, as it does for the owners.  Panic is a tangible feeling, one that’s easy to create and hard to ease.  In its essence, the panic or fear of doing nothing trumps all else, often forcing regrettable actions.  It happens in both arenas, real and fantasy, and ironically happens despite a history that shows decisions made in a panic rarely yield good results.

Remember Dallas’ early season woes after they smacked the Giants in the opener. Tony Romo’s five interception day wrought such havoc in an owner in one of my leagues he simply dropped him.  Remember Kevin Ogletree’s three touchdowns in that opening game, which made him the talk of every fantasy league (well, for a least a couple of weeks).

Remember when not so long ago Atlanta lost its second game to Carolina?  Suddenly, everyone was questioning their validity even though they were 11-2.  What about Houston?  As the Texans secondary yielded more yards and appeared vulnerable, especially after being drubbed by the Patriots, everyone started dissecting the Texans schedule and poking holes in their 11-2 record.  Two 11-2 teams and most guys on the major media outlets saw them as early playoff exits.

Make no mistake about it; Atlanta has been winning ugly all year long.  So has Houston.  Remember the Oakland game at Atlanta?  Originally, pulling out that kind of victory after such a bad game was deemed, ‘the sign of a good team.’  Remember Houston’s Thanksgiving matchup against the Detroit Lions?  Yes, they also were saddled with two games in less than four days, but that was one ugly game for them.  Yet good teams do pull out wins when their focus wanes.

Snap decisions are sadly a part of every walk of life.  However, this is the final week of what could be the most important quick decisions of the year; be cute and take a chance on a waiver wire player who has a hot hand, or stay with the steady player that might have struggled the past couple of weeks.  Do you bench Miles Austin or Mike Wallace?  Do you play Beanie Wells who scored three touchdowns last week?  Do you bench someone like Jamaal Charles or Darren McFadden at this point?  These are the decisions that might make or break you as this week is likely your championship.
 
THE 1PM DOCKET

MINNESOTA @ HOUSTON
There was at least two times during my research I had to actually look again to see if Minnesota was indeed 8-6.  While Christian Ponder’s numbers have been turned south for the winter, Adrian Peterson has found a fire and a gear that hasn’t been seen since perhaps Eric Dickerson.  In fact, Peterson’s last three games have put him just 293 yards shy of Dickerson’s all-time season rushing record.  He’ll have a tough matchup this week against a Houston defense that has allowed just 93 yards per game and three total rushing touchdowns.  Minnesota will give Peterson every opportunity to make more big plays Sunday, as he’s had no less than 21 carries the last three games.  However, I don’t see more than 85 yards and a TD from Peterson against even a slightly depleted Houston defense.  That means Ponder will have to make some plays.  He’s still completing 63 percent of his attempts but his YPA has plummeted since Percy Harvin went down.  Tight end Kyle Rudolph is likely to be one of his top targets, as the Texans are sixth worst giving up fantasy points to opposing tight ends.  Jerome Simpson is likely to be the other prime target, though Simpson is unpredictable.  He has caught just 19 of the 41 balls thrown his way, so while it’s conceivable he could have one of those rare Simpson games against Houston’s 18th ranked secondary, don’t get cute.


Foster will outduel Peterson
The Texans also have a strong ground game, and much like their NFC counterpart Atlanta, are trying to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  Arian Foster tallied 165 yards on 27 carries last week against a weaker Indianapolis Colts defense.  That left Ben Tate five touches for the game.  Foster isn’t likely to get any rest until this game is in the bag, so start him against a Minnesota rushing defense that both Steven Jackson and Matt Forte averaged well over five yards per carry against.  Foster should be good for a rushing TD and is likely to outshine Peterson this game, even with Peterson being the hot hand.  I like Foster to get another 25 carries and 120 yards rushing with a score.  Matt Schaub continues to protect the football well, and with Andre Johnson matching up against the likes of CB Antoine Winfield, Johnson may fall back to 75-80 yards on 6-7 catches. Owen Daniels hasn’t found the end zone this month, but against the Vikings, he’ll be key, as Minnesota has had trouble taking away the middle of the field.  I’m looking for 9-10 targets and six catches for 75 yards and a score.  Don’t be surprised if Devier Posey and Lestar Jean continue to be worked into the offense at the expense of Kevin Walter.  The Texans are still searching for Johnson’s complement and they haven’t found it.  The Vikings are the fourth kindest defense to opposing QBs, so expect Schaub to give you 225 yards and couple of TDs. 

Minnesota’s winning streak ends here, with Peterson being held under the century mark for the first time in eight weeks.

TEXANS 24, VIKINGS 10


OAKLAND @ CAROLINA
Offensively, Oakland has proved to have some merits, even with their prized runner healing on the bench.  Not that Darren McFadden tore it up this year, anyway.  He has just two scores, and has averaged a meager 3.4 yards per carry for the season.  However, this is a matchup McFadden owners can exploit.  First off, two of McFadden’s best fantasy performances came on the road at Atlanta and Kansas City.  Second, he has two consecutive weeks of scoring 12 fantasy points, leading me to believe he is finally healthy. Further evidence of that is the 30 carries heaped on him by Greg Knapp last week.  Though Carolina is ranked 17th against the run, the Panthers still yield 4.4 yards per carry, probably the most important stat of any rushing defense.  So McFadden may be the only weapon worth using this Sunday.  Carson Palmer is 1-5 this year on the road with a 57.7 completion percentage. Wide receiver Denarius Moore hasn’t found the end zone in three games, and against this 10th rated pass defense might struggle again.  If you’re looking for Oakland’s hot hand, you need look no further than Rod Streater, who has 12 receptions, 258 yards and a touchdown the last three games.  He’s the kind of big, bulky receiver that Carolina’s secondary struggles against.
Cam Newton comes off what was arguably his most complete game of the season in dismantling the Chargers.  Fantasy owners might not agree, because this game didn’t require him to run more than seven times for 18 yards.  With Brandon LaFell suffering with turf toe, Steve Smith will again be the target leader this week, along with TE Greg Olsen.  The Raiders defense has allowed more than one-third of their passing touchdowns to go to opposing tight end’s and Olsen leads Carolina with five TD receptions. 

Oakland’s defense is still in shambles, and the team is a minus-7 for the year in the give/take category.  You could do worse than Carolina’s defense at home.  Greg Hardy now leads the team in sacks with 11, and the Panthers have a combined 36 for the season, ranking them eighth best.  Newton seems to be back on track, with more confidence and more fearlessness, and that’s not good news for the Raiders.


PANTHERS 24, RAIDERS 13

 
NEW ORLEANS @ DALLAS
Though the Cowboys now are ranked first in fan distaste after parading Josh Brent up and down their sideline last week, they have started to play like playoff contenders.  Romo has generated 20 or more fantasy points three of the last four weeks and has the Cowboys doing just enough to break their fans’ hearts again.  At 8-6, they’re in the hunt, and face one of the worst defenses in the NFL.  Joining Romo on his current peak is Dez Bryant, who, regardless of his broken finger has eight touchdowns the past six games.  The Saints have surrendered 27 passing touchdowns – only the Redskins are worse.  To make matters worse for what should be a veritable feast for the Dallas offense, New Orleans yields 146.3 rushing yards per game.  DeMarco Murray has basically pushed Felix Jones out of bounds, leaving him the table scraps from Dallas’ newfound rushing attack.  Murray has three rushing TDs since his return coinciding with three games of double-digit fantasy output.  With Murray back, the Cowboys are now rushing the ball 46 percent of the time, and that could increase against a Saints offense ranked third in the NFL. 
Murray and the Dallas offense
 are strong plays
The Cowboys have lost the meat of their interior line with Jay Ratliff hurt and Josh Brent out indefinitely because of he’s irresponsible (yes, I’m taking my shots – don’t apologize for this guy).  As I mentioned earlier this week, Mark Ingram seems to have an inside track on the ground game and has raised his season average to 4.1 yards per carry.  He also has added three rushing touchdowns in the last five games, two of the last three.  He won’t get you any receptions, so for PPR players he’s a tall risk because you’ll be reliant on him getting the majority of carries, which means probably 14-16.  Darren Sproles is still very much a part of the passing game, delivering 60 catches this year, but keep in mind that Dallas has yet to allow a RB to catch a TD pass this year.  Marques Colston has never scored against the Cowboys in three games, and they’ll be keying on preventing the big receiver from making an impact.  Lance Moore, who averages the most yards per game receiving for the Saints, has outscored all other Saints receivers two of the last three weeks for fantasy owners.  Dallas gives up an average of over 21 points per game to opposing receivers, so Moore should give you some good totals.  I’d also stick with Jimmy Graham considering what Heath Miller did to the Cowboys last week.

New Orleans has won the last three meetings in Dallas.  As crazy as it sounds to even me, this week ends that streak, and Romo and the Cowboys control the game while keeping Drew Brees and company close until it matters.

COWBOYS 34, SAINTS 31


TENNESSEE @ GREEN BAY
There’s never a good time to visit Lambeau field when it comes to December.  It’s going to be cold, as in a high of 27 degrees cold, and might snow.  Check the forecast as that could affect the way things go, but don’t be fooled into thinking the Packers or the Titans won’t attempt to throw even if there are blizzard conditions.  Granted, Chris Johnson gets an uptick for the Titans if the weather is inclement.  There’s hardly anyone challenging Johnson’s position, as Darius Reynaud returns kicks and is averaging less than a carry per game.  Green Bay’s rush defense, though improved, still yields 4.5 yards per carry, which means that their propensity to overwhelm teams offensively often spares them from giving up as much yardage as they might.  While Johnson might not tear the place up, he does have a past history of success against them – last time they met he rushed for 89 yards and a TD in a 19-16 Titans win.  But he’s the only one I’m touching here.  Though Jake Locker has two weeks putting up 15 points each, a lot of that has come from his legs and not his arm.  The receivers group has some decent talent, but no one to rely on.  Both Kendall Wright and Nate Washington have 13 targets apiece the last two games.  With Jared Cook on IR, I’m not looking at Craig Stevens as any kind of an answer.

Green Bay is awaiting word on Alex Green’s status due to a concussion, and their depth at RB is so challenged that Dujuan Harris or Ryan Grant could get the yeoman’s share of carries.  The Packers have other troubles, as Center Jeff Saturday is out for the rest of the season, meaning Evan Dietrich-Smith will start at the position, a position considered almost as important as any of the scoring positions.  Considering that Aaron Rodgers has been dropped more than any other QB this season and the Packers’ running game is dissolving into injury dust, the Packers might find themselves in trouble.  The good news is that Greg Jennings is back, and Randall Cobb, though listed on the injury report this week, is expected to play.  James Jones will also figure in with 4-5 grabs and another shot at a TD as the Titans have given up 26 passing TDs.

I expect Rodgers to throw a lot on early downs rather than even try to establish a running game.  He’ll rely on Cobb again for a lot of quick throws, but I think Jennings makes an impact this game with his first TD since his return.  With Tennessee coming off a hard fought and ugly battle just six days ago, and Clay Matthews now healthy, the Packers defense will force Locker into a few mistakes and move to 10-4.
PACKERS 22, TITANS 15


NEW ENGLAND @ JACKSONVILLE
What looks like the lock of the week, the 31st ranked Jaguars defense welcomes the top rated offense, one that has put up a league-leading 506 points.  The Jaguars are going to have to generate some kind of a pass rush to even remain competitive.  With only 15 sacks this season, that seems highly unlikely.  In the sixteen year span in which Jacksonville and New England have played each other, the Patriots have lost just once. 

Tom Brady should deliver a 3-4 touchdown game, and without Rob Gronkowski out there again, Aaron Hernandez should be primed for another strong showing.  However, if you’re playing who is hot, you’re skipping Wes Welker for Brandon Lloyd, who has suddenly found himself again in this offense.  Lloyd has 17 grabs for 279 yards and a touchdown in the last two games, and there’s no reason to think he can’t be effective here.  Last time Lloyd faced the Jags where he had an effective QB connection like he does now he had five receptions for 117 yards.  Stevan Ridley is also worth a gamble, as after the Patriots take the lead, he’s likely to get a good share of carries.  Expect 25 or so, and 100-plus yards against a Jaguars defense that has surrendered 110 rushing yards or more 12 times this year.
Lloyd and Brady have connected

For Chad Henne, things have returned to normal, which for him in the NFL isn’t very good.  To be fair, he has very little running game to speak of.  Montell Owens has done well, but certainly isn’t the kind of home run threat Maurice Jones-Drew is.  The only certainty with Jacksonville this year is that somewhere along the line Cecil Shorts will contribute almost 100 yards in receptions. However, the Patriots have allowed only one receiver to gain more than 100 yards this season and that was Torrey Smith.  Justin Blackmon could have added value this week simply because Henne is likely to attempt 40-50 passes.  New England has given up 26 passing TDs, so don’t be surprised if Henne throws a couple.  However, the question is will Jacksonville ever have good enough field position to sustain any drives.  They convert third downs only 28.6 percent of the time, among the league worst.

This one shouldn’t be close for very long.


PATRIOTS 32, JAGUARS 10


INDIANAPOLIS @ KANSAS CITY
The Andrew Luck show comes to Arrowhead, a place where the Chiefs are 1-6 this year.  Let’s be honest here, the Chiefs are missing Dwayne Bowe.  They’re being led by Brady Quinn and barely have any weaponry besides Jamaal Charles.  There’s almost no chance for Quinn to make any impact when throwing to the likes of Jonathan Baldwin, Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki.  Moeaki has come on a bit lately but it’s been a disappointing season for the third year tight end.  He’s questionable for Sunday with concussion-like symptoms.  Obviously, you can’t sit Charles against a Colts 23rd ranked rush defense giving up 4.8 yards per tick even after his fantasy playoff- destroying performance of nine carries for 10 yards last week.

Where the Chiefs can hurt you is their strong pass defense.  Both teams are in deep negative territory in the turnover department, and Luck is more likely to make mistakes the more he has to carry the team.  Thus, Vick Ballard actually makes a decent flex or RB3 play here.  I don’t fully trust him because he has no track record, but he’s coming off his best game of the season, gaining 105 yards on just 18 carries.  After Mewelde Moore’s fumble at the one yard line, it’s unlikely he’ll cede many more carries to anyone in the red zone.  Reggie Wayne should find his way back into the double digits column, Ballard should supply no less than 80 yards, and the Colts defense might be worth a spot start against a Chiefs team that has turned the ball over 34 times.


COLTS 20, CHIEFS 10


BUFFALO @ MIAMI
The Bills handed Miami a tough loss when the Dolphins traveled north in Week 11 and the Dolphins are looking for some payback.  Reggie Bush appears to have returned to health, and while Ryan Tannehill has improved as the season has gone on, he’s still thrown two more interceptions than TDs at this point.  Having moved RB Daniel Thomas to I.R., this game would appear to be a strong matchup for Bush, especially since Buffalo has surrendered the most rushing TDs in the NFL with 22.  Tannehill comes off his best game, averaging nearly eight yards per pass against the Jaguars while throwing two touchdowns. With Davone Bess out for the game, Brian Hartline has a chance to add to his 1,000-yard season.  He’s questionable with a back injury and has scored just one touchdown all year.  Anthony Fasano had 13 fantasy points a week ago, but for the most part only elite TEs have scored against Buffalo.  I don’t expect that to include Fasano.


The Dolphins didn’t allow the Bills offense to score a TD in their first meeting.  Instead the Bills settled for four Rian Lindell field goals and a punt return touchdown from Leodis McKelvin.  McKelvin is now lost for the season, as is WR Donald Jones, and the Bills find themselves short-handed.  They will attempt to run C. J. Spiller as much as possible, trying to take the onus off their passing game.  Last game, Spiller put up 130 all purpose yards, including 91 on the ground.  With only Stevie Johnson left to test their secondary, expect Miami to stack the box against Spiller and blitz Fitzpatrick.  Johnson will get anywhere between nine and 12 targets, so he makes a good WR2 start.  However, while the Bills have been trying to get rookie T. J. Graham more and more involved, he hasn’t quite managed a breakout game. 

With their offense struggling, the Bills defense will only be able to hold on for so long.  Expect a low scoring affair, with the Dolphins defense causing a few timely turnovers.
DOLPHINS 17, BILLS 9


SAN DIEGO @ NEW YORK JETS
Greg McElroy gets his first NFL start, and the Chargers 20th ranked pass defense should be an interesting test, depending on which team shows up.  Both teams are in turmoil, as McElroy jumped over Tim Tebow, who was expecting to be the second string QB.  McElroy has lost Stephen Hill for the season, leaving Jeremy Kerley and Dustin Keller as his prime targets.  Shonn Greene is again finishing strong, putting up 249 rushing yards and a touchdown in the last three games.  Not surprising, but the Jets have not lost when Greene has run the ball 19 times or more.  Expect he and Bilal Powell to share carries with Greene getting a 2-to-1 edge in touches.  The Jets will try to keep San Diego’s pass rush guessing so that when McElroy has to throw, he can buy some time in play action.
Jackie Battle is a nice sleeper
Philip Rivers has 47 turnovers in the past two seasons, and has an offensive line that’s had its issues, not to mention the fact his leading RB Ryan Mathews is once again out for the rest of the season.  He is joined there by one of Rivers’ top targets, Malcom Floyd, who called it quits this week with a bad ankle.  Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown are likely to split carries and will be crucial against a Jets defense surrendering 4.5 yards per carry.  Brown’s been a PPR maven but has seen his use decline in recent weeks due to hamstring problems.  Expect Battle to start with Brown spelling him on occasion.  Battle has a chance to be a good sleeper play this weekend.  On the receivers’ side, that leaves Denario Alexander as Rivers best option besides TE Antonio Gates, who is aiming to become the all time leader for touchdown receptions for the Chargers.  You can bet Rivers will be looking for him Sunday.

I don’t like either QB in this one, and the only player you could make a case for is Gates getting a few red zone opportunities.  Rivers is as mistake prone as any rookie, but I just don’t see the Jets being able to run against San Diego’s seventh ranked rush unit.  However, the key to the game will be whether Rivers can avoid the silly turnover.  I think Rivers wins another one with 200 yards passing, a touchdown and an interception, and I like Jackie Battle to carry for a score or two while the Chargers force young McElroy into a few mistakes.

CHARGERS 24, JETS 10


WASHINGTON @ PHILADELPHIA
Robert Griffin III is probable and barring any setbacks, expected to pay on Sunday.  In their last meeting Griffin threw four touchdowns while young Nick Foles was intercepted twice.
Last week, the Eagles had the Cincinnati game in hand, and then in the span of two minutes fumbled away the ball and the game.  Part of that falls on Bryce Brown, who has had several inopportune fumbles.  This week LeSean McCoy returns for the Eagles, but to what extent Andy Reid will expose his prized runner with his team already out of the hunt remains to be seen.  I would expect him and Bryce Brown to share duties.  Washington is tougher against the run (ranked sixth), yielding just 96 yards per contest, but that may have more to do with the fact their secondary has been picked apart.  Expect Nick Foles will take his shots to Jason Avant, Jeremy Maclin and even TE Brent Celek because the Redskins are the second kindest defense to opposing receivers and tight ends in fantasy.  Keep in mind Riley Cooper as another flex play.  The last three weeks Cooper has nine, three and eight fantasy points, and has scored twice.

Before the Eagles can worry about Griffin and all he can do, they have to stop Alfred Morris.  Morris has double digit fantasy points the last four weeks, and has registered three 100-yard performances during that span.  He’ll get another 20-25 carries in an attempt to spare Griffin too much work on his knee.  Even with a slightly injured leg, Griffin is dangerously nimble, and his ability to evade the pass rush and make plays drove the Eagles crazy last time.  However, this time Pierre Garcon has returned to his stable of receivers, and Garcon has double digit fantasy points two of the last three games.  He scored a touchdown in each of the four games prior to Griffin’s injury, and though the Eagles secondary has been playing better as of late, they still haven’t been able to prevent big time players from scoring (see the game versus TB).

The Redskins can smell their playoff berth just ahead and a win here would put them in prime position to win the division.  As bad as their secondary has been, they’re a sneaky fantasy play here because of Philadelphia’s pension for turning the ball over.  Griffin throws for two touchdowns, Morris runs for another and the Eagles commit another ghastly mistake at a bad time.

REDSKINS 27, EAGLES 23


CINCINNATI @ PITTSBURGH
The Steelers have dropped two straight, and desperately need to win out if they are to preserve any chance of a playoff spot.  They have won the last five games against the Bengals, including their meeting earlier this year in Cincinnati.  The Bengals are 8-6 and keepers of their own destiny.  A win here and Pittsburgh is eliminated.

Andrew Dalton hasn’t looked as sharp as he did earlier in the season.  That may have a lot to do with the fact teams are doing everything they can to remove his favorite target A. J. Green from the offensive equation.  Green has just one TD in the last four games.  Pittsburgh has the top rated passing defense, but the Steelers numbers aren’t very convincing.  Their pass rush is all but absent, and they’ve caused a total of 18 turnovers this year leaving them with an ugly minus-14 in the give/take ratio.  For the Bengals, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been on a tear.  He has four 100-yard games in the past five and against the Steelers the first time around he managed 89 yards on 16 carries.  The Bengals would like to augment that total, keeping the Steelers passing attack sidelined.  Look for Jay Gruden to push the Law Firm of BJGS for 20-25 attempts Sunday.  Meanwhile, Andy Dalton will attack the Steelers wounded secondary repeatedly with attempts to Green and his tight end Jermaine Gresham.  While the Steelers have slowed TEs to nearly a crawl, Cowboys TE Jason Witten found paydirt and Antonio Gates managed three grabs for 31 yards.


The Steelers running game is in shambles.  Their original starter for the 2012 campaign, Rashard Mendenhall, was suspended after not showing up to a game when he wasn’t going to dress.  Jonathan Dwyer hasn’t been able to manage more than three yards per carry in the last few games.  Isaac Redman is a tough physical guy who just won’t go down but he is no threat to break one off.  Chris Rainey has speed but durability is a concern.  Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger sees this team as the second coming of the Patriots, wishing to throw their way down the field.  The only runner I’d consider playing is Redman, who has the ability to break tackles by the handful.  Mike Wallace has a strong history against the Bengals, but the big question is whether the Pittsburgh line keeps Ben upright. 

My guess is no.  The Steelers don’t appear to be a cohesive unit, and though they usually win when they have to, particularly at home, this Steelers team just hasn’t gelled as previous ones have.

BENGALS 24, STEELERS 21


ST. LOUIS @ TAMPA BAY
At home, Josh Freeman has a QB rating over 100 and has trampled his competition.  Sam Bradford has been on fire lately though, providing three weeks of 13, 13 and 27 points in standard scoring leagues. 
Last week Bradford tied his career high in attempts with 55.  He also completed 63 percent of his passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns.  Brandon Gibson has been the recipient of Bradford’s added pass attempts.  He has 12 catches in two games for 176 yards and one touchdown.  Steven Jackson has double digit fantasy points in five of six games, but this matchup against Tampa’s top rated defense seems not as likely to reap you any benefits on the ground.  However, Bradford has been targeting Jackson in the passing game an average of seven times per game.  Therefore, keep Jackson in your lineup.  The once prodigious Chris Givens hasn’t found the end zone in the last three games.  Danny Amendola is still your best play if healthy as he’s guaranteed 10-12 targets and seven to eight receptions.

As for the Buccaneers, Doug Martin had an off-week, and this matchup doesn’t favor him, especially when you consider he’s a better runner on the road than at home.  However, he’s going to get a large share of carries in order to try to keep the Rams torrid pass rush at bay.  Both Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson have now been targeted 100 times this season and have combined for 15 receiving touchdowns.  The Rams secondary has only yielded 14 passing touchdowns this season and haven’t surrendered a touchdown to an opposing WR in three games.  Freeman is going to have to work to move the ball downfield.  Dallas Clark had his best game of the season last week, 12 targets and eight grabs.  He could figure more into this one.

This game feels like another winner for Bradford and Steven Jackson.  The Buccaneers are reeling after four straight losses and St. Louis’ defense will continue its recent stranglehold on the competition.

RAMS 19, BUCCANEERS 12


THE 4PM DOCKET
CLEVELAND @ DENVER
If ever there was a way for new Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to asses just how far his team has come, this game is it.  The Browns defense has climbed to 22nd overall after the team won three of their last four.  The supposed improving pass defense hasn’t leapt so much in the ratings, but the 5-9 team is plus-7 in turnover ratio.  Of course, they lost T. J. Ward to the IR recently, as well as rookie LB James Michael-Johnson, but their run defense has also struggled.  Still, the Browns have beaten the likes of Pittsburgh, Oakland and Kansas City recently and narrowly lost the Cowboys.  With the 11-3 Broncos coming to town looking to add home field advantage to the list of their accomplishments this year, Brandon Weeden and company face their stiffest test.

Peyton Manning had one of his worst fantasy outputs against Baltimore, but more of that had to do with his defense giving him short fields, and Baltimore’s tough red zone defense.  Knowshon Moreno has also been a huge part of that, running with renewed strength and vigor to the tune of 5.4 yards per carry.  He’s put up no less than seven fantasy points in three weeks, and in the last two, 17 plus.  What perhaps Moreno doesn’t realize is the dual purpose he’s serving.  One, he’s demonstrating that he is indeed a possible every down player, while two, keeping the rest of the receivers and Manning from taking unnecessary shots.  As it is, Manning has been sacked just 21 times, fumbling only twice all year.  Manning and company are going to try to take away Trent Richardson by running up the score early, something they’ve failed to do most games this season. 


The Browns will respond by doing everything to lengthen their drives.  That makes Richardson a certain play this week, even against Denver’s stout defense.  He has only one game where he ground out more than five yards per carry, but Richardson’s nose for the end zone has delivered touchdowns in all but five games and 13-plus fantasy points in the last seven.  With their dearth of weapons, the Browns recently used as many as three tight ends.  However, they’ll have to attack downfield occasionally to keep Denver honest, and that means a good amount of targets for Josh Gordon.  Sixty yards and a touchdown wouldn’t shock me here.  Jordan Cameron is out this week with a concussion, and as such, Ben Watson could harass Denver’s middle all day long.   

Don't bench Richardson because of a tough matchup
Moreno is a strong play, and will be in line for his third strong performance in a row.  Demaryius Thomas has been quiet, with no touchdowns in his last two games.  However, bigger receivers like Anquan Boldin, Rod Streater and A. J. Green have found success and so will he.  Manning’s numbers will likely fall into a middle ground of 250 yards and two touchdowns with an interception.  If the Browns are to emerge victorious, Weeden’s numbers will be slightly less attractive but I think he’ll have to throw more than he wants to here, and Denver will make him pay.

DENVER 31, BROWNS 23


CHICAGO @ ARIZONA
Ryan Lindley has yet to throw a touchdown pass.  That is all you need to consider when deciding if this is the game to bench Larry Fitzgerald.   Only Andre Roberts has maintained some level of output with Lindley under center, becoming the team receiving yardage leader.  Beanie Wells appears to be healthy finally and managed 3.9 yards per carry against Detroit with three touchdowns last week.  He’ll have no such luck against the struggling Chicago rush defense.  Expect he’ll get 12-15 carries if possible, but he’s more likely to barely hit 40 yards.  Chicago stuffs 11.5 percent of runs against them and have given up just six rushing touchdowns.

The Cardinals defense is another story.  Forcing four turnovers against Detroit, Arizona put up two defensive touchdowns, something that’s possible here, if not unlikely.  Brandon Marshall will be tested against a defense that has given up just 142 passing first downs and 22 interceptions, best tallies in the NFL for each category.  He’ll still get his yardage and receptions, if for no other reason than Jay Cutler is willing to throw the ball into any open window no matter how small.  However, the key for the Bears will be Matt Forte.  Last week, Forte put up the kind of numbers we’ve been accustomed to – 133 total yards -- 69 on the ground and 64 through the air.  With Michael Bush on the I.R., there seems to be no reason Forte won’t get 20-25 carries, maybe more.  More importantly, Mike Tice seemed to remember Forte has good hands, targeting him eight times even with the returned health of Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester.


Forte should have one of his better games of the season.  Cutler will do just enough to make the game more exciting than it should be, and the Bears won’t make the same mistakes the Lions did.

BEARS 17, CARDINAL 6


NEW YORK GIANTS @ BALTIMORE
Two ‘elite’ quarterbacks meet at a time when both have been performing at average levels.  For Baltimore, the quickest way to neutralize the Giants potentially devastating pass rush is to have success on the ground.  Even with the Ravens running just 40 percent of the time this year Ray Rice has added his fourth 1,000-yard season.  With Bernard Pierce questionable, Rice should be highlighted even more against a Giants rushing defense giving up 4.6 yards per carry.  However, the Giants have yielded just two rushing touchdowns to RBs on the road this season.  Torrey Smith hasn’t found the end zone in five games, and though he’s listed as questionable with a concussion he’s expected to play.  He’ll need a strong game against the Giants opportunistic secondary (20 INTs) but I’m not as optimistic that he’ll play as important a role as veteran Anquan Boldin.  Boldin has never had less than 60 yards receiving against the Giants in four games.  Granted, his last game against the Giants took place when he was in a Cardinals’ uniform, but Boldin has eight receptions the past two games, three of which went for touchdowns.  Jacoby Jones may also figure in as speedy secondary receivers like Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu hurt the Giants this year.  Tight ends have been blanketed by the Giants, meaning Dennis Pitta isn’t likely to have the game he did last week against Denver.


The Giants also need to get their running game going.  David Wilson will start in Ahmad Bradshaw’s place again, and for two games as the starter he has averaged 6.2 yards per carry.  He should get a bulk of the carries, though Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride seem dead-set on having two runners play. So Kregg Lumpkin could see 8-10 carries as well.  Victor Cruz is still catching the ball prodigiously, but has just two touchdowns since Week 8.  This week should provide ample opportunity for him to augment that number.  Heath Miller is the only TE to find the end zone in Baltimore, but I expect the Giants, who throw nearly 48 percent of the time inside their opponents ten, to target Martellus Bennett a few times there.  However, the hot hand belongs to Domenik Hixon who has put up two weeks of eight and nine fantasy points respectively. 

Losers of three straight, things don’t look so cheery in Baltimore.  Joe Flacco is a much better QB at home, but the Giants are notorious for turning it on when they need to.  Ray Rice will give you a big game, but it won’t be enough to overcome the Giants December-killer tendencies, and the Giants will eke this one out on the shoulders of their pass rush.

GIANTS 27, RAVENS 24

SUNDAY NIGHT GAME
SAN FRANCISCO @  SEATTLE
In my estimation, this is the game that changes everything in the NFC West.  As much as the average San Francisco fan will tell you of their happiness at seeing Alex Smith relegated to chart duty, Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been a difference maker yet.  In fact, he averages just 109 yards per game passing.  This is the game that pits him against another rookie extraordinaire, Russell Wilson.  Both are mobile quarterbacks with strong arms and an ability to extend plays, meaning both of these top five defenses are about to be tested.  

While I don’t trust Pete Carroll to not make some bonehead coaching decision during this game, he has to be given credit for putting and keeping Wilson under center.  Wilson has thrown 21 TDs and rushed for three more while being intercepted just nine times.  Likewise, Kaepernick has protected the ball when throwing, providing seven touchdown passes against just two interceptions for the 49ers.  However, Kaepernick’s been fortunate in that he’s fumbled at least eight times and only lost two.   

The Seahawks game plan will likely feature a lot of Marshawn Lynch, who has averaged over 11 yards per carry the last two weeks.  Lynch also has five TDs in the last three games.  For San Francisco, Frank Gore is going to see the ball a lot.  He has eight touchdowns on the year and has averaged 4.8 yards for the season.  Stopping Gore will be of utmost importance for Seattle, because though their ranked tenth against the run, they give up a disturbing 4.5 yards per carry.  That kind of problem could haunt them if they aren’t able to trim it down to less than four.  Kaepernick likes to use play-action and roll out, and he’ll have a lot more success finding his favorite target Michael Crabtree if Gore has early success.

The difference will come down to Kaepernick’s play and the pass rush of these two teams.  Linebacker Aldon Smith is going after the sack record and has come on recently to record 10 sacks in the last five games.  Batten down the hatches on point tallies from receivers this game, and watch a true hard nose battle of the trenches.  The difference is Wilson, poised beyond his years, and able to make the throws to Sidney Rice and Golden Tate that can make the difference.  With bad weather expected, don’t expect tremendous fantasy tallies from anyone.

SEAHAWKS 17, 49ERS 7