Pat Fitzmaurice: Well, Beller, it’s Week 16, so let’s try to help people win championships. But first, I must bend the knee to you, Your Excellency, for vanquishing me last week in the semifinals of the Chicago Media League. You hadn’t fared well in the postseason in that league the last couple of years after dominating the regular season, but you took a big step toward changing that, avenging a regular-season loss to me and earning the right to meet our good friend Eric Edholm of Yahoo! in this week’s finale. Congrats, buddy. Take a well-deserved bow.
Once you’re done with the curtain call, help me sift through a tricky tier of wide receivers. It seems as if the vast majority of the start/sit questions I’ve been fielding this week have pertained to players in the WR20-WR40 range. Here are the names I keep seeing in those questions: Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder, DeAndre Hopkins, Dontrelle Inman, Taylor Gabriel, Cameron Meredith, Malcolm Mitchell, Steve Smith, Sammy Watkins. You don’t have to comment on all of these dudes, but are any of them must-starts or fades for you?
Hopkins owners have to feel like Christmas came early. I don’t think he was in many lineups last week, but the QB change from Brock Osweiler to Tom Savage was a godsend. Not that Savage is any savior, but he peppered Hopkins with 17 targets last week and was smart enough to understand that if your best receiver has single coverage, you throw it to him. Even though he was matched up against rookie stud Jalen Ramsey last week, Hop had eight catches for 87 yards. I suspect he’ll have another nice game against the Bengals on Saturday. I’m also all in on Inman. He failed to score a TD last week for the first time since mid-November, and I think he’ll get into the paint this week against the moribund Browns. I’m also bullish on Mitchell against the Jets, who have been flying a white flag for a few weeks now, and I also sort of like Meredith. I know you’re an Alshon Jeffery advocate, but he is probably going to be running a lot of routes against Josh Norman this week, which bodes well for Meredith. Cam has been taking the majority of his snaps from the slot over the last month, and over the last two weeks he’s had 15 catches for 176 yards and a TD on 21 targets. He’s at least flex-worthy this week, I believe.
I just can’t bring myself to trust Robby Anderson. Yes, Bryce Petty seems to love him, but I’m not eager to hitch my wagon to a banged-up Petty in a fantasy championship. I’m also sort of down on Smith, who has produced more than 60 receiving yards only once in his last eight games and isn’t churning out many big plays. The guys I’m struggling with are Crowder and Watkins. You’d think that Jordan Reed’s shoulder problems would mean more looks for Crowder, but he has been targeted only five times in each of his last two games, and this is a cat who usually needs volume in order to ring the bell in a given week. It’s also sort of curious that Watkins has seen only 10 targets the last two weeks. I’m compelled to start him in a championship game this week, but I’m not that excited about it.
Michael Beller: I’ll happily take that bow, Fitz. A win is a win, right? But man, we did not exactly bring our A-games into that semifinal showdown. We both came up well short of our projected scores. I put up my third-worst performance of the season, while you had your second-lowest score of the year. Of the four quarterbacks we had active (it’s a superflex league) my Tyrod Taylor was the highest scorer at 15.86 points. No one can be sure what would have happened had the Bears and Packers gone to overtime, but at the end of the day we can say that Jordy Nelson’s 60-yard catch to set up the game-winning field goal was the difference, sending me to the championship. It was fun doing battle with you. I will carry on SI’s colors as best I can, hoping to take down Edholm this weekend.
I’m getting those exact same questions on wide receivers. That’s definitely where the most intrigue is this week. You and I are in lockstep on a lot of these guys, it appears. I’m right there with you on Hopkins, Inman and Mitchell. I already have my DFS lineups set, and Hopkins is in all of them. In 13 games with Brock Osweiler under center, Hopkins had one game with eight catches. He got there in about three quarters with Savage. He also got 15 targets from Savage, resembling the usage that helped make him a fantasy star last season. We know Hopkins is as talented as they come. His problem this season has been his quarterback. That may have been rectified just in the nick of time for his owners playing for a championship. I won’t parrot what you said on Inman and Mitchell. I’ll simply add my voice to the chorus. Anyone who owns them wants to start them for the reasons you detailed.
I’m not quite as high on Meredith as you are because of my affinity for Jeffery, but he does have some flex appeal to me this week. I really think Jordan Howard can dominate this game for the Bears, though. The dude has averaged 16.26 standard-league points in his 10 games with at least 15 touches. He’s going to be viewed as an RB1 next season, and rightfully so. The Redskins haven’t stopped anyone on the ground this year, and they’re not going to start against Howard, who would be getting some Offensive Rookie of the Year love in a season that didn’t include runaway candidates like Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott.
I’m way down on Watkins. How many eggs do recent injury returnees need to lay before the fantasy community fades that class as a whole? Sure, you might miss out on a big game here or there, but you’re going to come out way ahead on net. Let’s also be honest about the Bills. Their seven wins this season are against the Cardinals, Brady-less Patriots, Rams, 49ers, Bengals, Jaguars and Browns. As SI’s Chris Burke pointed out in his Week 16 power rankings, their last five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 12-57-1. They aren’t beating the Dolphins on Saturday, and Watkins is not going to have a good game.
I’m still mostly in Crowder's corner. His recent performance and usage is a bit troubling, but Jordan Reed is not 100% and may not play on Saturday. No matter what, Washington is going to need both Crowder and DeSean Jackson to show up to keep its playoff hopes alive. Crowder is right on the start/sit border for me. I can’t outright fade him because of the presence I expect him to have, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near a must-start. I’d play him over guys like Tyreek Hill and Steve Smith, but I prefer the likes of Stefon Diggs and Larry Fitzgerald.
Last week was tough on quarterbacks, but Week 16 is taking on an opposite feeling. There are 13 quarterbacks I’d feel anywhere from “solidly confident” to “extremely confident” to play this week. In addition to the obvious guys at the top, I think fantasy owners can trust Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston. What’s your read on the position this week? Am I too sanguine on these guys as a group?
Fitz: Yes, we finally get a more straightforward week at the QB position after two house-of-mirrors weeks where a lot of the top guys had seemingly difficult matchups and a lot of the second- and third-tier quarterbacks had relative cakewalks. Newton, Rivers and Winston all make the back end of my top 10 this week due largely to favorable matchups. I have Wilson at QB11. Not sure what sort of effort we’ll see from an Arizona defense that faxed it in against the Saints last week, but I’m finding it hard to drum up enthusiasm for Russ when his offensive line is so atrocious. He isn’t running very much either, and though he had a nice game against the Rams last week, he hasn’t been putting up anything close to the funhouse numbers we saw from him in the second half of 2015.
I’m not feeling the same level of trust in Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr that you are, Beller. And it kills me to say that about Mariota, because I love him nearly as much as I love eggnog spiked with bourbon. Thing is, Mariota’s passing volume has fallen off. He’s averaged 28 pass attempts over his last five games. Mariota also has a bad matchup against the Jaguars. Rich Hribar, the high priest of numbers over at Rotoworld, notes that the Jaguars have allowed just one top-10 week by a quarterback over their last 12 games, and they’ve yielded only 10 TD passes over that stretch. I’m also worried about Carr. A home matchup against the Colts looks great on paper, but Carr hasn’t looked right since dislocating the pinky finger on his throwing hand. He has thrown just one TD pass in his last two games, and he hasn’t been locating the ball as well as he had been. I have Mariota at QB14 this week, Carr at QB15. I’d be willing to play them in a pinch, but there are a lot of other guys I’d rather start, including Tyrod Taylor (QB12 for me) at home in icy Buffalo against the warm-weather Dolphins.
Let’s swing over to running back. We’re obligated to talk about Todd Gurley, aren’t we? If by some miracle any of his owners have managed to make it this far, they’ll be rewarded with a plum Gurley matchup against the hapless 49ers. Where is TG30 in your rankings this week? I’m so jaded on Gurley at this point that I couldn’t rank him any higher than RB12. As for borderline start/sits, Jay Ajayi, Kenneth Farrow, Robert Kelley, Doug Martin, Thomas Rawls and Jonathan Stewart are interesting calls this week. I have them all in the RB2 range, but a lot of the fantasy owners who have made it this far might have the luxury of being choosy. I think Ajayi is a must-start based on volume. Assuming that Melvin Gordon doesn’t return from his knee/hip injuries, Farrow also seems like a must-start thanks to the cushy matchup against the Browns. J-Stew is coming off the big game against Washington, and while a matchup with Atlanta doesn’t seem especially daunting—the Falcons are pretty good against the run but give up a lot of receiving yards to RBs, and Stewart rarely catches passes. Kelley, Martin and Rawls all make me nervous. I’m not confident that Fat Rob can carve up the Bears’ defense as easily as Ty Montgomery did last week. Martin has a good matchup against the Saints, but his recent yardage totals have been uninspiring. Rawls hit a wall against the Rams last week and might not be good enough to overcome his bad offensive line. Where are you on some of these guys?
Beller: I hear what you’re saying on Carr and Mariota. I have Carr QB11 and Mariota QB13 (with Wilson between them), so while they are part of the group I’d feel confident starting, they’re at the backend of it. I’ve got them both just ahead of Taylor, who is my QB14. You know my love for Tyrod, but, as I indicated in my first entry in this week’s discussion, I think the Bills are just about as fraudulent as a 7–7 team can be. I think they’re going to have trouble with the Dolphins, who have a very realistic path to clinching a playoff spot this week.
You know we have to talk about Gurley. I’m sure most Gurley owners went something like 4–9 cursing his name all the way, but if you somehow made it to this point, you have an incredibly interesting decision on your hands this week. If Gurley doesn’t run for something like 200 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, it will run counter to everything I know about the indiscriminate cruelty of fantasy football. The perfect capper to his complete bust of the 2016 season would be to eviscerate the worst run defense in modern history. The 49ers have allowed 11 100-yard rushers this season. A ridiculous nine running backs have scored at least 20 standard-league points against them, with three reaching the 30-point threshold. There have been 11 such performances by running backs in 2016, meaning the 49ers’ defense is responsible for helping create 27.3% of this year’s 30-point games by the position. I’m not sure if Gurley will add to that, but he’s going to finally show up as an RB1. He’s my No. 7 running back this week, trailing only the six backs—Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, DeMarco Murray and Jordan Howard—who have separated themselves from the pack this season.
We’re in total agreement on Ajayi, who’s simply going to get too much work to be on fantasy benches this week. He’s my RB15, aided by the fact that I think the Dolphins will win in Buffalo on Saturday. I’m also with you on Martin and Rawls, though I like the latter a bit better. Martin has been bad since returning from injury, running for 336 yards on 119 carries, or 2.82 yards per carry. The Tampa Bay line shares in the blame, too, but Martin just hasn’t shown much burst over the last six weeks. He has largely been a non-entity in the passing game, as well, and that’s unlikely to change with Charles Sims back on the field. He’s my RB25, right behind Ryan Mathews and Kenneth Dixon. I’ve got Rawls at RB21, and I hope that’s not wishful thinking given that I’ll need him to show up if I’m going to knock off our pal Edholm to claim the Chicago Media League title. I just don’t think most fantasy owners can afford to turn their nose up at a back who’s likely to get a floor of 16 or 17 carries, and possibly north of 20 should the Seahawks present him with a favorable game script. Seattle is favored by 7.5 points, suggesting that it could be awfully run-heavy in the second half. I’d be lying if I said the line didn’t concern me, but I’m feeling solid on Rawls.
I’m going to have to disagree with you on Kelley and Farrow. I don’t think the former is a borderline starter. He’s my RB12 for Week 16, which has him easily in all owners’ lineups. I agree that Kelley might not make the Bears’ run defense look as bad as Ty Montgomery did a week ago, but we’re still looking at a game with an over/under of 47, and he should have the ball in his hands a minimum of 15 times. I like him quite a bit in a game that I expect to be a high-scoring affair. As for Farrow, I added him to this week’s start/sit on the wrong side of the divide. My concern is that his success is likely volume-based, and he’ll probably give up about one-third of the Chargers’ carries to Ronnie Hillman, as he did a week ago. I realize that a lot of his owners may not have the luxury of sitting him. If you added a player of his ilk in Week 15, you likely either just lost Melvin Gordon to injury or were so thin at running back that you’d be willing to take a shot on anyone in line for 15 carries. I just don't have confidence in his yardage floor, and hate betting on any player who absolutely needs a touchdown to prove himself a worthy fantasy starter.
Let’s weigh in on football from a real-life perspective. With this being our final roundtable of the regular season, we’re not going to get to make Week 17 playoff predictions in this space. Plus, a lot of spots could be spoken for after this week. When it’s all said and done, Fitz, how do you see the playoff picture developing? I’ll say the Patriots and Raiders get byes in the AFC, with the Steelers and Titans joining them as division champions. I’ll take the Chiefs as the 5-seed and Dolphins as the 6-seed. Over in the NFC, give me the Cowboys and Seahawks getting byes. I’ll say the Falcons fall to the Panthers this week, opening the door for the Buccaneers to win the NFC South, thanks to a win in New Orleans this week. That’ll make the Packers the 3-seed in the NFC when they knock off the Lions in Week 17. The Falcons hold onto a wild-card spot and qualify as the 6-seed, while the Giants remain the 5-seed.
Fitz: In the NFC, I agree with you on the Cowboys and Seahawks getting byes, and as a Packers fan, the view through my green-and-gold-tinted glasses has Aaron Rodgers fulfilling his run-the-table prophecy and helping Green Bay take the NFC North title. I haven’t been a big believer in the Falcons in recent years, but this year’s team seems legit. I’ll say Atlanta wins its last two and takes the NFC South. The Giants get one wild-card spot, and the other goes to ... Tampa Bay. I see the Bucs and Lions both finishing 10–6. The head-to-head tiebreaker doesn’t apply, they both have 4–1 conference records, and they’ve both gone 4–1 against common opponents. That would invoke the rarely used strength-of-victory tiebreaker, and the Bucs have the edge over the Lions there. Detroit fans deserve a better fate, but they’ve grown accustomed to this type of heartbreak.
In the AFC, I’m with you on the Patriots and Raiders getting byes. I also agree with you on the Steelers holding off the Ravens to win the AFC North, and on the Titans winning the AFC South. (I don’t often look forward to AFC South intra-divisional games, but Texans-Titans in Week 17 could be mighty compelling.) I’ll go with the Chiefs and Ravens as wild-card teams, with the Dolphins losing their last two and failing to secure their party invitation.
O.K., Beller, it’s time for us to tie a big, red bow around the pre-Christmas edition of our weekly conversation. I’d like to wish all of our followers a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Hanukkah, and a happy and prosperous New Year. But before we go, my friend, take a seat on Santa’s lap and give him your Christmas wish list. What sort of gifts does Michael Beller need to find under his Christmas tree if he’s going to beat Eric Edholm and become the Chicago Media League champion?
Beller: So you’ve got the Buccaneers, Falcons and Packers winning out, and the Lions beating the Cowboys this week. That would definitely make for an interesting Week 17 in the NFC.
Santa got me off to a solid start with Odell Beckham Jr.’s 150-yard performance on Thursday night, although a touchdown would have been nice. Looking ahead to Saturday, I’ll need Santa to leave me at least one Jordy Nelson touchdown and a positive game script for Kenneth Dixon. I’ll also need him to leave me some crow. Why is that? Two players I’ve sold to varying degrees in this very discussion, Tyrod Taylor and Kenneth Farrow, are in my starting lineup. I’ll happily eat some crow on Christmas morning if it means Taylor and Farrow went off for me. Finally, I could use a ghost of Christmas past in the form of 2015 Blake Bortles. Somehow I’ve made it to this point with Bortles in my lineup in nearly every week. If he can take advantage of a beatable Titans defense, I just might be raising the Chicago Media League trophy for the first time ever.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to everyone out there. Thank you for reading the SI fantasy roundtable all season!