Fantasy football Early Advice: On the road to the title game
Jamaal Charles ran for just 20 yards against the Raiders on Sunday. What a bum, right?
Oh yeah, he also had eight receptions for 195 yards and found the end zone five times in the Chiefs' 56-31 win. He became the first running back in NFL history to catch four touchdown passes in one game, and was just one score away from Gale Sayers' one-game record. Charles is having a fantasy playoffs for the ages, combining for 373 total yards and seven touchdowns in the last two weeks. In the process, he may have earned himself a piece of individual hardware.
If Charles ends up beating out Peyton Manning for the MVP, we'll look at his ridiculous Week 15 performance against the Raiders as the day he won the award. While it will be hard for voters to give the award to anyone else should Manning break the single-season yardage and touchdown records, Charles has just as strong an argument to be named the league's best player. He now has 1,181 rushing yards, 655 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns on the year. He's the most important player on a team that is 11-3 and won just two games last year. The more likely outcome may be him getting the Offensive Player of the Year as a consolation prize, but either way Charles has been one of the most important players in fantasy leagues this year. Chances are one of the two teams in your league's championship owns Charles. That's the truest sign of a fantasy MVP.
Let's get to the rest of the Week 15 news and how it might translate to Championship Week!
Before Sunday, Matt Asiata had three carries for nine yards in his career. He didn't appear in a game in 2013 until last week, and even in that game he played just three snaps. With Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart both injured, though, the Vikings had no choice but to turn to the second-year man out of Utah. Any fantasy owner that did the same is likely heading to the championship.
Asiata didn't exactly carve up the Eagles, running for just 51 yards on 30 carries. He made all those yards count, hitting paydirt three times in the Vikings' 48-30 win. For weeks now we've been trying to target the players who could become unlikely playoff heroes. I suppose if we were able to see them coming well in advance, they wouldn't be all that unlikely. Asiata became just the latest player in a line of surprising playoff stars, inheriting the mantle from Knowshon Moreno, who carried fantasy teams at this time last year after taking over for an injured Willis McGahee.
Will Asiata be able to carry this over into championship week? Unfortunately, this looks like a one-week wonder. First of all, we're not sure Adrian Peterson will sit out next week. He was reportedly ready to go Sunday and did not agree with the decision to make him inactive. Even if Asiata does play, the Bengals present a tough matchup. On top of that, he really didn't run all that well against the Eagles. He simply took advantage of all the goal-line situations the Vikings had on Sunday. The chances of that happening again are quite slim. If you started Asiata today, pat yourself on the back and enjoy the spoils. And then plant him on your bench for your championship game.
One week after single-handedly getting his owners through the first round of the playoffs, LeSean McCoy totaled 106 yards from scrimmage and zero touchdowns on Sunday. A shade more than 10 points might be fine for some backs, but McCoy owners count on him getting into at least the mid-teens every single week. Unless your team is absolutely stacked, it's tough to win when getting about two-thirds of your star's usual production. That means many McCoy owners may have just watched their championship dreams die this week.
However, if you managed to survive your semifinal matchup, you will be loving McCoy again in just six short days. The Eagles host the Bears on Sunday Night Football in a game with huge playoff implications in Week 16. The Bears, of course, feature what is likely the league's worst run defense. While they finally broke their streak of allowing 100-yard runners at six on Sunday, they allowed another unknown back to post a double-digit fantasy-point game. McCoy could be looking at another 200-yard game.
Let's go back to that Vikings-Eagles game for a second. Through the first 14 weeks of the season, no Minnesota quarterback had thrown for 300 yards in a game. This is a pretty incredible feat in an era where we don't even blink an eye at 400-yard passers. Perhaps more incredible, they've only had three 100-yard receivers on the year. On Sunday, Matt Cassel and Greg Jennings ended those ignominious streaks. Cassel torched the Eagles for 382 yards, 10.9 yards per attempt and two touchdowns. Jennings caught 10 passes for 163 yards and a score. In the process, they and the rest of their offensive teammates exposed the holes in the Philadelphia secondary. That's bad news for the Eagles with the Bears coming to town next week.
We'll talk more about the Bears in a bit, but suffice to say the offense looked healthy in Jay Cutler's return. The Eagles already allowed the most fantasy points to receivers before Jennings put up a 22-point day on them. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will both be inside the top eight at the receiver position next week.
Week 15 observations
• There was no doubt some handwringing in Chicago when Cutler ended the Bears' first possession with an interception in the end zone on a ball he forced to Brandon Marshall. There was even more anxiousness three possessions later when he overthrew a wide open Marshall for another pick that Tashaun Gipson returned for a touchdown. Chicago sports radio hosts had to be getting ready for a flood of calls that would have made Josh McCown sound like John Elway. And then Cutler turned it all around. He led the Bears to a 21-point fourth quarter, throwing for 71 yards and two scores in the quarter alone. He finished the day with 265 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, helping to keep alive the Bears' hopes for winning a division title. Now that he has shaken off the rust, he gets the aforementioned Eagles. Given what Matt Cassel just did to them, Cutler could have a field day Sunday night. He's easily a top-10 quarterback for fantasy championship week.
• While Chicago radio hosts may have dodged the crazy caller bullet, their counterparts in Washington might not be so lucky. Kirk Cousins is sure to have gained some followers after throwing for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions against the Falcons on Sunday. The bad news for those of you who took a shot on Cousins in Week 15 is that the Falcons have one of the worst pass defenses in the league, making Cousins' performance less impressive than it seems. The good news is that he gets the Cowboys next week. They've allowed the most fantasy points to quarterbacks this season. Cousins will once again be a strong play for Week 16.
• I was one of the many wary about Tom Brady this week. With Rob Gronkowski done for the year, Brady would again be without his best playmaker, leaning on a group of players with whom he did not have a ton of success during the first two months of the season. Add to that the tough matchup with Miami, and it seemed that Brady was a risky play. He made any of us who thought like that look foolish, throwing for 364 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola went over 100 yards, combining for 23 receptions, 270 yards and a score. The Pats have a tough matchup at Baltimore last week, but Brady just showed us this week what he thinks of tough matchups. If you own him, start him.
• Brady didn't have the best day in that game, though, as Ryan Tannehill threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the huge win for the Dolphins. While he doesn't get much fanfare, Tannehill has quietly put together a nice fantasy season. He's up to 3,629 yards and 23 touchdowns this season, and deserves mention whenever we talk about the quarterback class of 2012.
• He has logged significant time in just nine games this year, but Nick Foles merits consideration for any imaginary Fantasy Football All-Star Team. He threw for 428 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in the Eagles' loss to the Lions on Sunday. That gives him 2,398 yards and 23 scores against just two picks on the season. In his nine starts, he has averaged 261 yards and 2.4 touchdowns, which translates to 20.04 fantasy points. With the Eagles going up against the Bears next week, I'm betting that average increases.
• Heading into Sunday's game with the 49ers, the Buccaneers had allowed the fourth-most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks. That should have us a bit less bullish on Colin Kapenerick's 203-yard, two-touchdown performance. He burnished his stat line with 39 rushing yards, the equivalent of another touchdown pass. While his line may have left his owners wanting a bit more, he did put up a top-10 day at the position and has another great matchup next week with the Falcons. At this early juncture, I'm calling him a QB1.
• Alex Smith rode the Jamaal Charles express to 287 yards and five touchdowns against the Raiders on Sunday. Charles had touchdown receptions of 49 yards, 39 yards and 71 yards, and obviously you cannot count on Charles breaking three screens for huge scores every week. He's a mid-tier QB2 against the Colts next week.
• Ryan Fitzpatrick had his biggest statistical day of the season, and could be a sneaky play during championship week. He threw for 402 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, his best fantasy performance of the season. That it came against an Arizona defense that had allowed just 6.4 yards per attempt heading into the game was even more impressive. The Titans travel to Jacksonville to take on the Jaguars next week, who are basically the Cardinals' opposite in pass defense. They've allowed 7.6 YPA and 26 passing touchdowns this year.
• Drew Brees fell short for his fantasy owners in Week 15, scoring just 15.72 points in standard leagues. The Rams pass rush got to Brees four times and kept him uncomfortable all game. He and Jimmy Graham hooked up just twice for 25 yards, a sign of just how hard it was for Brees to get going Sunday. He has struggled in two of his last three games, and though he shredded the Panthers the last time the two teams met, that game was in New Orleans. Brees' home/road splits tell the story of a guy who has been a completely different quarterback when the Saints leave the Bayou. He has completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 2,454 yards, 23 touchdowns and three interceptions at home this year. When he hits the road, his completion percentage drops to 63.4 percent for 2,046 yards and 11 touchdowns against seven picks.
• The Redskins have allowed the second-most fantasy points to running backs this year, and that was enough to make Steven Jackson a great play this week. While he ran for just 38 yards on 15 carries, he scored twice, producing his biggest fantasy game of the season. It has been a rough first year for Jackson in Atlanta, and his owners are well aware that he failed to take advantage of a third touchdown opportunity against the Redskins, but he's still capable of striking paydirt in a beneficial matchup. Unfortunately for his owners, he does not have that next week. He won't be higher than a low-end RB2 against the 49ers.
• Last Tuesday, the Browns signed Edwin Baker to their practice squad. On Sunday, he put up a 14.4-point fantasy day against the Bears. Baker surprisingly received the most carries out of Cleveland's backfield, running for 38 yards on eight carries. He also caught four passes for 46 yards, outpacing Chris Ogbonnaya in touches, 12-10. This is less of a commentary on Baker than it is on the Bears' run defense. The Browns play the Jets next week, and you won't want any part of Baker in that matchup. The Bears, however, have now allowed an opposing running back to score double-digit fantasy points 15 times this season. I hope you aren't facing LeSean McCoy in your championship game.
• It appears Trent Richardson could be back in the driver's seat in Indianapolis, albeit not totally on merit. Donald Brown suffered a stinger early in the Colts' win over the Texans on Sunday, making way for Richardson to have his best game of the season. While he piled up 102 total yards and a touchdown, he ran for just 3.4 yards per carry. Brown got just five totes before his injury, but he ran for 38 yards, an average of 7.6 yards per carry. It's hard to say a guy who got just five carries had a better day than someone who went north of 100 scrimmage yards, but Brown did look like the more effective runner. Brown will likely remain the starter if he is healthy enough to play next week.
• While we try not to worry about matchup too much when it comes to the better players, it is a good tiebreaker to use, especially when considering down-ticket options. That's why Andre Brown was not an advisable play on Sunday. The Seahawks entered the game having allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points to running backs on the year. Given that and the high likelihood that the Giants would be trying to dig out of a deep hole most of the game, Brown could not have been considered anything more than an RB3. He ended up running for just 17 yards on 11 carries in the Giants' 23-0 loss. The matchup is once again not in his favor next week, with the Giants traveling to Detroit to face one of the best front fours in the league.
• Jordan Todman played well in Maurice Jones-Drew's stead, running for 109 yards on 25 carries and catching four passes for 44 yards. He could end up being a key player in fantasy championships assuming Jones-Drew is out again next week. The Jaguars host the Titans, who have allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to running backs this year and just gave up double-digit days to both Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall.
• Rashad Jennings returned after missing one game because of a concussion, and ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. The Raiders could have eschewed the run after falling behind 35-10, but they kept feeding Jennings and actually drew to within four points in the third quarter. He'll be an RB2 against the Chargers next week.
• DeAngelo Williams took advantage of Jonathan Stewart's absence against the Jets, running for 81 yards on 15 carries and catching three passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. Williams has had more carries in each of the last three games that both of them played, and after Sunday's performance he may have earned a larger share of the touches next week against the Saints. The Jets have given up 204 rushing yards to Williams and Marcel Reece over the last two weeks, so those of you who play Week 17 may want to hold onto Lamar Miller in case this defense is fading.
• DeMarco Murray has taken advantage of two bad run defenses in Dallas' last two games. He put up 134 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against the Packers, one week after burning the Bears for 146 yards. After their improbable loss to the Packers in which they went away from Murray in questionable spots, he could get more touches in Washington next week. He will be a top-five running back for his owners in the championship.
• Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall continue churning out productive games playing alongside one another. Ellington did his yardage thing again, running 10 times for 71 yards and hauling in four passes for another 87. Mendenhall hogged the end-zone spotlight, scoring twice, and also ran for 69 yards, his second-highest total of the year. Unfortunately for their owners, a matchup with the Seahawks looms on the biggest week of the season. We'll revisit their exact ranking later in the week, but they'll likely both be high-end RB3s. The Seahawks have been a shutdown unit against the run outside of a two-week blip against the Rams (Zac Stacy) and Buccaneers (Mike James) in the middle of the year.
• Speaking of Stacy, he took advantage of a porous New Orleans run defense on Sunday, picking up 133 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries. It was his best game since he suffered a concussion in what was shaping up to be a monster day against the Bears. You're starting him no matter what against the Buccaneers next week, but they've been better against the run than you might guess. They've allowed 4.1 yards per carry, which is tied for 13th in the league, and the sixth-fewest rushing touchdowns at six.
• Count Pierre Garcon among the people in Washington happy with the move to Kirk Cousins. In his last four games with Robert Griffin III as the starter, Garcon had 28 catches for 214 yards and zero touchdowns. He had seven receptions for 129 yards and a score on Sunday. Of course, it was against the Falcons, so the degree of difficulty wasn't very high, but it was a day he and his owners needed. Start him with confidence next week against the Cowboys, who have allowed ninth-most fantasy points to receivers.
• In the five games started by Josh McCown, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall each had exactly 52 targets. In Jay Cutler's first game back, Marshall had 13 while Jeffery had just five. Before Cutler got hurt against Washington, Marshall had eight more targets on the season than Jeffery. Now that Cutler is back, we have to expect Marshall to inch back ahead of his talented, second-year teammate in targets. Jeffery remains a WR1 against a Philadelphia team that has allowed the most fantasy points per game to receivers, but know that Marshall is once again the apple of his quarterback's eye.
• Julian Edelman continued his resurgence on Sunday, catching 13 of his 19 targets for 139 yards and a touchdown. In his last four games, he has 37 receptions, 414 yards and four scores. With Rob Gronkowski done for the season, Edelman figures to hold onto this large role in the offense. Danny Amendola finally showed up on Sunday, catching 10 passes for 131 yards, and he, too, could be in for more targets with Gronk out. They face a tough defense in Baltimore next week, but I have Edelman as a WR2 and Amendola as a WR3.
• DeSean Jackson had another monster game on Sunday, catching 10 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown. It marked the fourth time this season he racked up at least 130 yards in a game. He had just seven such games in his previous five years in the league. The California product is up to 75 catches for 1,275 yards and nine touchdowns on the year, and is undoubtedly having his best season in the league.
• Jerrel Jernigan led the Giants in receiving yards on Sunday, catching seven balls for 67 yards. He had more yards than Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle combined. The fall from grace for the Giants' passing offense is one of the biggest developments of the season. Just one year ago, Eli Manning had 3,948 yards and 26 touchdowns. He has 3,254 yards, 16 touchdowns and 20 interceptions this season. Two years ago, he had nearly 5,000 yards with 29 touchdowns. Victor Cruz had 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first two years in the league. He has 973 yards and four scores this year. I would, however, play Cruz against the Lions next week.
• As usual, the No. 2 receiver playing against the Buccaneers had a better day than his team's No. 1. Anquan Boldin received a heavy dose of Darelle Revis on Sunday, and caught just three passes for 43 yards. Meanwhile, Michael Crabtree had five receptions for 45 yards and his first touchdowns of the season. It was Crabtree's best performance since he returned from an Achilles injury two weeks ago, and he could be a crucial player in fantasy championships next week. The 49ers play the Falcons, who just got burned by Pierre Garcon this week.
• Kendall Wright's breakout season rolls on, as the second-year man out of Baylor caught 12 of his 20 targets for 150 yards against the Cardinals. Sunday marked a career high in both receptions and yards, and though he has just two touchdowns, his 85 catches and 1,007 yards have made him a beast in PPR leagues this year. He's set to top it off for his fantasy owners against a Jacksonville defense that has allowed 7.6 YPA and 26 passing touchdowns this year.
• It was an off day for the New Orleans offense as a whole, but Marques Colston had a fine game, catching eight of his 13 targets for 92 yards and a touchdown. In his last two games, he has 17 receptions, 217 yards and three scores. It's no surprise that his two of his three best games have come when getting a season-high 13 targets. If the line can keep Brees safe against the Panthers, he should get a similar amount of attention from his quarterback.
• Tony Gonzalez has now scored in three straight games after catching six passes for 62 yards and a score in Atlanta's 27-26 win over Washington. It has been a rough year for everyone in Atlanta, but if this is indeed Gonzalez' swan song, he'll be going out on yet another strong season. He now has 71 receptions for 740 yards and seven touchdowns. The Niners have allowed the third least fantasy points to tight ends this season, but you'll still want him in your lineup next week.
• After getting blanked last week, Zach Ertz caught six passes for 57 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. The game before his goose egg, he had five receptions for 68 yards and two scores. He has victimized the Vikings and Cardinals, who have allowed the third-most and most fantasy points to tight ends this year. He gets another great matchup next week, as the Bears have surrendered the eight-most fantasy points to the position.
• It will be interesting to see where Tim Wright ends up on tight end cheat sheets next year. He has put together a solid second half, punctuated by his seven-catch, 82-yard, one-touchdown performance against the 49ers this week. He's up to 45 grabs for 486 yards and four touchdowns on the season. The Rams have allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to tight ends, but Wright should still be considered a low-end TE1.
• After catching five passes for 88 yards against the Jets this week, Greg Olsen now has 63 receptions for 739 yards and five touchdowns this year. It'll be interesting to see where he goes next year, as well, as he should probably find himself in the top five. You know what to do with him against the Saints next week.
• Jimmy Graham had just two receptions for 25 yards in the Saints' surprising 27-16 loss to the Rams on Sunday. It was the third-fewest yards he has had in a game since he became Jimmy Graham. Expect the bounce back against the Panthers next week.
• First, there were two seven-takeaway games on Sunday. First, the Falcons picked off Kurt Cousins twice and recovered five fumbles in a win over Washington. Later in the day, the Chiefs had four interceptions and three fumble recoveries against the Raiders.
• The Bears and Browns combined for five takeaways and three defensive touchdowns in Chicago's 38-31 win this week.
• Seattle picked off Eli Manning five times, posted four sacks and shut out the Giants in a dominant performance this week. Buffalo had four takeaways and five sacks in Jacksonville. If you had one of the week's top performing defenses, there's a good chance you came away with a victory.
• And then, there were the Cowboys. They entered Sunday's game having allowed the most fantasy points to quarterbacks and running backs, and the ninth-most to receivers. They proceeded to allow 299 yards and four touchdowns to Matt Flynn and 141 yards and a score to Eddie Lacy. Jordy Nelson and James Jones each scored for the first time since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. If you have any Steelers, count your blessings. They visit Dallas next week.