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Fantasy football Risers/Sliders: Beware the Ravens

Photo: Nick Wass/AP

Despite the Ravens' change to a supposedly more run-friendly scheme, Ray Rice had only 12 carries for 38 yards versus the Broncos.

Blowouts and shutouts were the rule across the NFL in Week 15. Three teams -- the normally explosive Giants and Buccaneers, and not-so-potent Chiefs -- came up with goose eggs on the scoreboard, leaving many fantasy playoff competitors with egg on their faces. That was more shutouts than had occurred the entire NFL season (two) through the first 14 weeks. Here are the players who were unexpectedly good and bad during the fantasy playoff week that was.

Quarterbacks

Risers:

? Sam Bradford, Rams -- In what was the finest fantasy performance of his career, the Rams' budding star threw for a career-high 377 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to the Vikings. Bradford's receiving corps is the key to him making the next step to fantasy stardom. With scoring connections to rookie receiver Brian Quick, tight end Lance Kendricks and old standard Danny Amendola Sunday, to go along with the continued involvement of Brandon Gibson, Chris Givens and Steven Jackson, the future in St. Louis is looking much brighter.

? Kirk Cousins, Redskins -- Judging from how spry Robert Griffin III looked in pregame warm-ups in Cleveland, and given that the Redskins lead the NFC East and control their own destiny, chances are that Cousins will be a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was. He threw for two touchdowns and 329 yards against the Browns, exceeding RGIII's top single-game yardage total by six.

Sliders:

? Josh Freeman, Buccaneers -- In what looked like a favorable matchup in New Orleans, Freeman came up small. Yes, he threw for 279 yards in a losing effort but he was also guilty of throwing a season-high four interceptions against the Saints' soft pass defense. Freeman's effort took down many hopes, dreams and fantasy football championships with him.

? Eli Manning, Giants -- The Falcons halted what seemed to be a nice post-bye roll for Manning by shutting him, and the Giants, out for just the second time in his collegiate or pro career. He had thrown eight touchdown passes the prior three games but could muster just 161 yards against a Falcons defense that obviously was still stinging from last year's crushing 24-2 playoff loss. What was most unfortunate about Manning's day was that other Giants, most notably Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Lawrence Tynes, all fell far short of their lofty expectations.

Running backs

Risers:

? Beanie Wells, Cardinals -- Entering Sunday's game against the Lions, the Cardinals' offense looked dead, a fantasy wasteland. But there's nothing like a three-touchdown day to immediately send someone's value soaring. That's exactly what happened with Wells, who had scores of 5, 1, and 31 yards while compiling 67 rushing yards against the toothless Lions after managing just 40 yards on 21 carries in his previous two games. Many will be tempted to use him again next week, but be forewarned -- the Bears are the third-hardest team for running backs to score running back points against.

? Mike Tolbert, Panthers -- The former Charger enjoyed a successful homecoming, returning to Qualcomm Stadium with two quick one-yard, first-quarter touchdown plunges as part of his 40 total yards. Although he was one of the NFL's better short-yardage backs in 2010 and 2011, when he scored 19 rushing touchdowns combined, ease your expectations regarding Tolbert; Cam Newton normally assumes the Panthers' duties of short-yardage back, leaving big fantasy days like these few and far between for Tolbert.

? Vick Ballard, Colts -- The Texans are a tremendous defense against the run but even they couldn't stop Ballard, who ran for a career-high 105 yards on 18 carries. With Donald Brown out for the year and Mewelde Moore coughing up a critical fumble deep in Houston territory on Sunday, there's little standing in the way of Ballard being a solid running back option in the season's final two weeks.

? Curtis Brinkley, Chargers -- Reports of yet another broken collarbone suffered by Ryan Mathews has opened the door for Brinkley to become the Chargers' primary back. The former Syracuse rusher averaged 7.0 yards on a team-high six carries against the Panthers; modest numbers, yes, but the result of a game that saw San Diego down 21-0 by the end of the first quarter. Early-season star Jackie Battle should also see some carries, especially in the red zone, but it's Brinkley who should step into Mathews' lead back role.

Sliders:

? Ray Rice, Ravens -- The idea of replacing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell was to get more touches for Ray Rice. If the first game under the new management is in any indication of things to come, though, Rice could be a major fantasy disappointment for the rest of the playoffs. The Ravens' best weapon had just 15 touches (12 carries, three catches) for 41 yards (38 rushing, 3 receiving). Baltimore's offense looked lost against Von Miller and a tough Broncos defense. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco threw 40 times in a failed come-from-behind attempt. Owners have to use Rice against the Giants and Bengals if he's on their team, but they won't feel all that good about doing so.

? Montell Owens, Jaguars -- Last week's surprise came back to reality in Miami with 47 yards on 11 carries in a 24-3 loss to the Dolphins. There's little chance that the Jaguars will be able to run the ball next week, both because New England's defensive front seven can stop the rush and because New England's offense will run and hide from a completely overmatched team, creating an all-passing scenario for Chad Henne and the Jags.

? Bryce Brown, Eagles -- For as good as Brown was in his first two games he's been shut down in his last two by the Buccaneers and Bengals. His fortunes should pick up at home in Week 16 against a Redskins team that ranks as one of the league's best against the rush but still gave up 186 rushing yards to the Ravens two weeks ago and two scores to Trent Richardson on Sunday.

Wide receivers

Risers:

? Leonard Hankerson, Redskins -- After going 11 games without a touchdown and becoming a fantasy afterthought, Hankerson was thrust back onto the list of prospective flex receivers by connecting twice with Kirk Cousins for touchdowns in Cleveland. The Eagles' secondary will have their hands full next week with Pierre Garçon, Santana Moss and Josh Morgan, so it's possible that Hankerson finds his way back to the end zone, even with the expected return of Robert Griffin III.

? Antonio Brown, Steelers -- Last week it was Mike Wallace whose big game coincided with Ben Roethlisberger's return to the playing field; this week it was the forgotten Brown who got into the act, hauling in a season-high eight catches for 76 yards and scoring a touchdown for the second consecutive week. Brown's 12 targets were his most in more than a year. Pittsburgh has to keep winning, and both Brown and Wallace should be good to go in Sunday's AFC North showdown with the Bengals at Heinz Field.

? Riley Cooper, Eagles -- The former Florida Gator has quietly slid into DeSean Jackson's spot and has been producing fantasy-worthy numbers. Cooper has more touchdowns (3) on just 19 catches than the more heralded Jackson, who caught just two scoring strikes out of his 45 grabs. Cooper is another example of a player who became well acquainted with his backup quarterback and now it's paying dividends in games. In your wildest imagination you couldn't foresee using him in the fantasy playoffs, especially in the finals, but he's not a bad flex play against a vulnerable Washington passing defense.

Sliders:

? Torrey Smith, Ravens -- Another casualty of the Ravens suddenly anemic attack, Smith has now been stuck on a season's total of seven touchdowns for the past five games, only of which (San Diego) (144 yards on seven grabs) has he provided respectable fantasy points (144 yards on seven catches). Baltimore will undergo more offensive changes in the offseason and Smith remains one of the most exciting receivers in the game. Be wary this week at home against the Giants. Smith suffered a concussion in the third quarter against the Broncos and is, at best, a risky proposition.

? Greg Jennings, Packers -- The 2012 season got away from Jennings due to injuries. While Randall Cobb and James Jones have taken starring roles in the Packers' offense, Jennings has become an afterthought and likely will be phased out when his contract expires at the end of the season. With Jordy Nelson sidelined again, the old Jennings would've been Aaron Rodgers' main man, but now that title goes to Cobb or Jones, depending on Green Bay's position on the field. With an average of three catches and 41 yards per game since his return, it's not hard to find a better alternative.

? Alshon Jeffery, Bears -- So much for being a solid alternative to Brandon Marshall. Not a single Bears wide receiver not named Marshall caught a ball against the short-handed Packers secondary, crushing the hopes of those who thought the big rookie from South Carolina could be a difference maker out of the flex spot. Right now the wheels are coming off of a Bears offense that's been held to 17 points or less in five of the past six games. Everyone besides Marshall and Matt Forte should be avoided in Chicago.

Tight ends

Risers:

? Dennis Pitta, Ravens -- The stars were aligned for a big day from Pitta in Week 15 and he came through. Not only was his fellow pass-catching tight end, Ed Dickson, sidelined, but he was also facing a Broncos defense that's been torched by opposing teams more than any other. And while it took until garbage time to do it, Pitta had a great fantasy day, coming up with his first career two-touchdown game and rambling for 125 yards, the first 100-yard receiving day of his career. With the Giants pass rush up next, Pitta likely will be asked to stay more in pass protection, which makes him less attractive, but he'll still be one of the top 12 tight ends for the week.

? Dwayne Allen, Colts -- Unlike most "rushing" attempts for tight ends that come on lateral screen passes behind the line of scrimmage, Allen's three-yard carry came in a short-yardage situation against the Texans. That sets up the distinct possibility that the 6-foot-3, 255-pound tight end could see some work at the goal-line for an offense that's been decimated by injuries to running backs. Don't use Allen just because of that, but if it's a toss-up between Allen and someone else, potential bonus touchdowns are as good a deciding factor as any.

Slider:

? Jacob Tamme, Broncos -- In the blink of an eye, Tamme has fallen out of favor with his former Colts teammate, Peyton Manning. Through the first 12 games Tamme was looked to an average of 6.25 times per game, and came down with 3.9 catches for 37.4 yards per contest. In the past two games, however, he's been virtually wiped from Denver's game plan, managing two catches for 24 yards on four targets last week against the Raiders and zip against the Ravens. Although they went back and forth all season, Joel Dreessen has become the better option if you want to use a Denver tight end.

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