With most leagues down to their final two weeks of the regular season, our fantasy football experts Michael Beller, Brian Flood and Alessandro Miglio discuss whether Bobby Rainey and Donald Brown have what it takes to lead a team to a championship, if Ray Rice is back for real and should owners be concerned about Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs offense.
1. Bobby Rainey and Donald Brown were two of the stars of Week 11. Can they keep it up and be difference-makers in the playoffs?
Beller: Not only do I think both can keep it up, but also I think Rainey, specifically, will end up on a lot of playoff champions. I don't care if the entire Atlanta team is reeling, you don't run for 163 yards in an NFL game by accident. Rainey will undoubtedly be the feature back in Tampa Bay for the remainder of the season, while Brown has, at the very least, earned a significant increase in touches.
The Colts offense was clearly better with Brown on the field in place of Trent Richardson, and the only reason Indy would continue featuring the latter is because its so invested in him. The Colts' remaining schedule isn't particularly friendly to running backs, but Rainey and the Buccaneers play the Bills Week 14, typically the first week of the fantasy playoffs. Two weeks later, when most leagues are deciding their champion, he has a choice matchup with the Rams. That Week 16 game could be especially lucrative, as the Rams have allowed the third-most fantasy points per game to running backs.
Flood: There's no doubt Rainey and Brown can be playoff difference-makers. Former fantasy playoff heroes such as Samkon Gado and Ron Dayne were in similar situations and determined championships. Rainey has a better opportunity, as he should be the Bucs starting RB going forward. Last week everyone thought Brian Leonard would get the first shot to replace the injured Mike James. Well, Leonard received the first two carries. Once Rainey got into the game he looked like a superstar, rushing 30 times for 163 yards with two touchdowns and catching a pass for another score. He's a capable blocker and should finish the season as a solid RB2 with upside. The only downfall is a Week 15 matchup with San Francisco.
The Colts, meanwhile, will continue to let the struggling Richardson attempt to justify being dealt for a No. 1 pick. Richardson picked up eight carries last week compared to Brown's 14. He turned 14 carries into 80 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per attempt. Brown will be a playoff hero if he continues to receive the bulk of carries, but I don't see Richardson getting benched completely.
Miglio: I was low on the Tampa Bay backfield when everyone was putting in waiver claims for Rainey and Leonard, but I did say Rainey had a much higher ceiling. We saw what that looked like last week. The good news is that the Buccaneer running game appears to be running on all cylinders regardless of who is back there. The bad news is the Falcons are a poor test of mettle. I expect a big regression from Rainey, but he is still a viable option going forward.
The same can be said of Brown, who just looks better than Richardson at this point. He won't be scoring two touchdowns every game, but the Colts might have wised up in the second half of that Titans game and given Brown the keys to that backfield. I am less confident in Brown than Rainey, though -- will the Colts really eschew Richardson like that every week given that first-round pick they gave up for him?
2. Should Jamaal Charles owners be worried about the lack of explosion in the Kansas City offense?
Beller: As someone heavily invested in Charles, I'm starting to get a little nervous about the offensive environment in Kansas City. The Chiefs are 16th in the league in scoring with 23.2 points per game. The offense is so dependent on Charles that he's not getting any easy opportunities set up for him by his teammates. While a dink-and-dunk attack can occasionally help a pass-catching back, it also draws the linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. The fact that they don't have to play honest can't help but curb Charles' production. We need to be careful to not overreact to the Denver game. He remains the top fantasy back, in my opinion. There were a few anomalous happenings on Sunday night, most notably that he had two catches for -6 yards. That will not happen again. Still, if the Chiefs can't get more out of the passing game, defenses will be even freer to key on Charles more than they already do. That could make him a playoff disappointment.
Flood: You should be thankful if you're fortunate enough to own Charles. He's an elite fantasy talent and even in a "bad" game Charles picked up 78 yards on 16 carries. The Chiefs fell behind the Broncos early and had to abandon the run for a majority of the game. Charles will be just fine and could have a monster game Week 12 against the Chargers. In fact, I wouldn't want any running back in the NFL over Charles this week.
Miglio: No. The lack of explosion in the Kansas City offense has been there all along, and Charles provides what little combustion the Chiefs have on that side of the ball. What should be concerning is that defenses are actively trying to stop Charles in the passing game -- Alex Smith can no longer check down to him 10 times a game because defenses are keying on him in coverage. This would help to explain the 14 targets Dwayne Bowe got. Even so, I expect Charles will bounce back from his recent malaise.
3. Kansas City effectively put a lid on Peyton Manning and the Denver passing game, and there's an outside chance Wes Welker and Julius Thomas might not be at full strength Sunday against the Patriots. What would a Broncos' offense look like without its full complement of weapons?
Beller: If Manning were forced to make do without Welker and Julius Thomas, we would be looking at a downgrade from "absolutely terrifying" to "just regularly terrifying." Let's not forget that we're talking about a guy who has turned the likes of Austin Collie into must-have fantasy receivers. I think he and this offense will be just fine if they only have him, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno for a few weeks. One guy to keep an eye on is Montee Ball. He played quite well with greater responsibility against the Chiefs, and proved himself a capable receiver out of the backfield. With potentially more targets to go around, he could play his way into the fantasy discussion over the next few weeks.
Flood: The Broncos offense would turn into the Demaryius Thomas Show if it were ever without Welker and Thomas for an extended period. Thomas might not have the resume of Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison yet, but he's arguably the most talented receiver Manning has ever played with. Eric Decker is a serviceable No. 2 receiver and I have a feeling Manning would make the best of the situation. That said, the Broncos would probably lean on the running game a little more often. Knowshon Moreno racked up a season-high 27 carries Week 11 and is expected to take on a huge workload against the Patriots in Week 12. Don't ever underestimate what Manning can do, regardless of his injured weapons.
Miglio: Hopefully Thomas and Welker won't be out for long, if at all -- early reports indicate that Thomas isn't seriously injured and that Welker is expected to play against this former teammates in New England -- but losing those two would be a decent blow to Peyton Manning. This is, however, a Manning that turned Dallas Clark and Austin Collie into studs, so I wouldn't expect too much of a dropoff. Eric Decker would probably see a big increase in targets, and Joel Dreessen might be fantasy-relevant for a week or two, but that's about it.
4. Has Ray Rice finally discovered the light at the end of the tunnel, or did he just take advantage of a vulnerable defense?
Beller: Rice's owners no doubt welcomed the 131-yard, one-touchdown game he posted against the Bears last week. There's good news and bad news in the wake of Rice's best game of the season. Let's start with the bad. The Bears' defense is in total shambles. Five of the unit's Week 1 starters were out in Week 11, including both defensive tackles, the middle linebacker and its two best players, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. In other words, the matchup had a lot to do with it.
Are you ready for the good news? Rice has a ton of good matchups looming the final six weeks of the season. He has to play the Jets next week, but then gets the Steelers Week 13, Vikings Week 14, and Patriots Week 16. Those three teams allow the ninth-, sixth- and 11th-most fantasy points per game to running backs. It has been a nightmare to own Rice this season, but if you've stuck with him to this point, it just might pay off at the most important time of the season.
Flood: There is a very good chance you're already eliminated from playoff contention if you drafted Rice in Round 1. He's been that bad. Patient owners were finally rewarded with 25 carries for 131 yards and a TD in Week 11. That big game separates Rice from fellow busts such as Trent Richardson and C.J. Spiller but don't expect the trend to continue. Rice faces the Jets this week and that will be a much more difficult task.
Miglio: Considering the Bears gave up that monster game to Brandon F. Jacobs a few weeks ago, I will chalk this one up to matchup more than rebound. Rice had just 72 yards after the weather delay, and he won't be playing that decimated defense every week.
5. What's the biggest fantasy takeaway from the Monday night showdown between the Patriots and Panthers?
Beller: You shouldn't count on a Carolina running back as a starter now that the bye weeks are all but behind us. DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert each got six carries against the Patriots, while Jonathan Stewart got just four, and the trio combined for just 41 yards. While Williams or Stewart is liable to put up a strong game at a moment's notice, it's nearly impossible to predict who might be the guy to do so. That makes both of them far too risky. Now that you have your full complement of players beginning Week 13, there isn't any reason to plug a Panther running back in your lineup.
Flood: Don't ever trust a Patriots running back. Stevan Ridley carried the ball 26 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns in his previous game. Ridley had scored six TDs in his last four games entering Monday. Fantasy owners probably figured Ridley would be a consistent, if not spectacular, RB2 going forward. Then he fumbled early on Monday Night Football and Twitter was buzzing that Ridley wouldn't see another touch. It made sense, as Bill Belichick has punished his young running back for fumbling in the past. Ridley didn't see the field again until late in the third quarter Monday, but played well once his punishment was over. He finished with 13 carries for 48 yards and a TD.
Ridley owners escaped Week 11 with a solid performance but they had to sweat it out. LeGarrette Blount received important fourth-quarter carries even after Ridley returned to action. Nobody in the league causes fantasy owners more anxiety than Belichick. A fumble or missed assignment can result in a permanent seat on the bench. If Ridley fumbles next week Belichick won't be so forgiving. Patriots RBs simply can't be trusted long term.
Miglio: The Patriots offense is getting healthy, and it's only a matter of time before Tom Brady, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Rob Gronkowski start lighting defenses on fire with regularity. The Panthers have a great defense, but New England was a blown call away from scoring 27 on them. Count on your Patriots if you have them.
MORE WEEK 12 FANTASY FOOTBALL CONTENT:
GONOS: Start 'Em, Sit 'Em -- Should owners take the plunge on Roethlisberger?
BELLER: Stat Projections -- Will Stafford come through for owners again?
EDHOLM, MIGLIO: Bold Strategies -- Start McCown, not Kaepernick
SI STAFF: Roundtable -- Should Charles owners be worried by K.C. offense?
BELLER: Early Advice -- Rainey emerges as an unlikely fantasy hero