After losing three straight games, the Falcons have won four of their last five, highlighted by a 34–31 triumph in Seattle. Atlanta heads into Week 13 holding the second wild card spot on the NFC side of the playoff bracket, something that seemed unlikely one month ago.
This has also served as a mini-redemption for quarterback Matt Ryan. Much of the blame for the Falcons slow start to the season rightly laid at the feet of new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, but it was plain to see that Ryan wasn’t playing nearly as well as he did during his 2016 MVP campaign. Most notably, Ryan was failing to produce the big plays that were a staple of the team’s offense last season, a troubling development I wrote about heading into Week 7. Atlanta’s offense last year was so lethal because it was equal parts efficient and explosive, and that was rooted entirely in their ability to connect on deep balls down the field. Take that away, and you get the bland offense that we saw during the first few weeks of the season.
But since a Week 7 23–7 loss to the Patriots, the Falcons’ third loss in as many games, Ryan has played his best football of the season. He hasn’t quite been at his 2016 peak, but he hasn’t been too far off it, either. In his last five games, Ryan has thrown for 1,294 yards, 8.19 yards per attempt, and nine touchdowns against two interceptions. In that same time, he has been the No. 9 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues. Is Ryan back insofar as his preseason expectations? No, and there’s a good chance we won’t see that Ryan this season. Is he back to the extent that he can be trusted as a starter in nearly every matchup? Yes, he is. That’s critical in a Week 13 game against one of the best defenses in the league.
Ryan and the Falcons welcome the NFC North leading Vikings to Atlanta this week. This is yet another huge NFC showdown for the Falcons, who own head-to-head victories over all their competitors for wild card spots in the playoffs. The Vikings likely won’t have to worry about a wild card berth, no matter what happens on Sunday. Still, this will be a major conference win for whoever gets it.
Ryan will have his work cut out for him against a defense ranked sixth against quarterbacks in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric (aFPA). The Vikings have held the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford (twice) at or below their season-averages. Xavier Rhodes is one of the best corners in the league, and figures to shadow Julio Jones all afternoon. This is not to undersell the matchup, which is undoubtedly going to be a challenge. It is, however, to say that Ryan is up to it.
The oddsmakers certainly believe in Ryan and the Falcons. They’re favored by three points in a game with an over/under of 47.5, giving them an implied total of 25.25 points. Even against a strong Minnesota defense, Ryan should be in your fantasy lineup this week, especially when he’s playing at home. Owners might be wary of the matchup, but this is what separates players like Ryan from the likes of Andy Dalton or Derek Carr. He doesn’t need the plus-matchup to be a fantasy star.
Case Keenum, Vikings (at Falcons)
Ryan isn’t the only quarterback I’m starting in the Vikings-Falcons game. I’m fully on board the Keenum-is-more-than-a-streamer train, as I laid out earlier this week in a piece on unlikely fantasy playoff heroes. You might assume that, like many middling quarterbacks who find short-term success in a lightning-in-a-bottle season, Keenum is much better at home than he is on the road. That is simply not true. He threw for 282 yards, 9.4 YPA and two touchdowns in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Two weeks before that, he led the Vikings to a win in Washington by throwing for 304 yards, 10.48 YPA and four scores. The Vikings line is doing a great job of protecting Keenum, and he’s making excellent use of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, one of the best receiver tandems in the league. I almost can’t believe I’m typing these words in succession, but Keenum has my full trust as a fantasy starter.
Matthew Stafford, Lions (at Ravens)
Stafford returned to practice on Wednesday as a full participant, so there’s no reason to worry about the slight ankle injury he suffered on Thanksgiving. The greater issue here is the Ravens defense, but fading Stafford because of matchup is short-sighted. Stafford has played four games against teams ranked in the top 10 in quarterback aFPA. He has thrown for 1,181 yards, 8.32 YPA and four touchdowns against one interception in those games. The touchdown number is a fluke on the low side, too, given that he threw for 423 yards against the Steelers, but failed to get into the end zone. The Ravens may be the best pass defense he has seen this year, but we’ve seen him come through in these spots before. He should do so again.
Brett Hundley, Packers (vs. Buccaneers)
Forget for a second that Hundley is coming off the best game of his young career. Consider the circumstances in which it came. No one gave Hundley and, by extension, the Packers, any shot in Pittsburgh last week. The Steelers defense, which still ranks 10th in quarterback aFPA and third in total passing defense after the game, was supposed to totally lock Hundley down. Instead, he threw for 245 yards, 9.42 YPA and three touchdowns, nearly leading the Packers to a win in a game in which they were 14-point underdogs. A home game with the Buccaneers is at the opposite end of the matchup spectrum. Get Hundley into your superflex lineups with confidence. He’s also a stream candidate in one-quarterback leagues.
Alex Smith, Chiefs (at Jets)
So that Smith-for-MVP talk sure has died down, huh? Over his last four games, Smith has thrown for 894 yards, 6.34 YPA, four touchdowns and four interceptions. The last two, losses to the Giants and Bills, were particularly ugly, giving Smith’s fantasy owners little reason for confidence against the Jets this week. I still believe the real Smith and the real Chiefs offense are both much better than what we’ve seen over the last month, but I can’t see how anyone would have any reason to start him on Sunday. He’s not a terrible play, but he’s no better than a mid-tier QB2.
Andy Dalton, Bengals (vs. Steelers)
Remember last week in this same space when I urged Dalton owners to take the easy win and start him? The easy win this week is to keep him on your bench. Dalton, for all his faults, is one of the most predictable quarterbacks in the league. His two best games of the season came against the Browns, and his third-highest point total was in a win over the hapless Colts. His worst games, meanwhile, were against the Ravens, Jaguars and Texans when J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were still healthy. Notwithstanding Brett Hundley’s great game a week ago, this Steelers defense is still fearsome. There’s no reason to add a degree of difficulty to your Week 13 fantasy game by starting Dalton.
Blake Bortles, Jaguars (vs. Colts)
Look, I understand that this isn’t exactly fantasy’s version of positing the theory of relativity. Look at the quarterback rankings this week, though. I have Josh McCown, Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr ranked 14th, 15th and 16th, respectively, at the position this week. Technically, that’s out of the QB1 class, but I wouldn’t call any an outright sit. That, and the positive matchup, leads me to Bortles. He’s getting some love as a streamer this week, but I just can’t get on board. To his credit, he threw for 330 yards, 12.52 YPA and a touchdown the first time the Jaguars and Colts played this season. The Jaguars are 9.5-point favorites and have an implied total of 25.25 points. Still, Bortles has one game all season with multiple touchdowns, and six with as many as, or more, interceptions than scores. Even in a great matchup where he has succeeded already this season, I can’t trust him as a fantasy starter.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, Vikings (at Falcons)
It has been a month since McKinnon delivered for his fantasy owners, while Murray has been one of the most consistent producers of the last three weeks. There’s good reason to believe in both of them this week. First, let’s go back to the intro and pull down that 47.5 over/under number referenced there. Despite the Vikings boasting one of the best defenses in the league, the oddsmakers have this pegged as one of the highest-scoring games of the week. I want to find ways to invest in this game, and given the wreckage at the running back position this season, I’d be willing to trust either Minnesota back if I owned one. I rate Murray as a high-end RB2, with McKinnon as a low-end RB2 and solid flex play.
Frank Gore, Colts (at Jaguars)
Gore was squeezed out of the offense by the game script the first time these teams met, a 27-0 Jaguars win. That could very well happen again this week, but I don’t think it will. The Jaguars are one of the league’s true run-funnel defenses. They rank first in both quarterback and wide receiver aFPA, but 17th in running back aFPA. Three of the Jaguars four losses have come in games where their opponents had big days on the ground. Derrick Henry ran for 92 yards and a touchdown against them in a Titans win in Week 2; Bilal Powell racked up 163 yards and a score in a Week 4 Jets win over the Jaguars; Todd Gurley paced the Rams with 116 yards on 23 totes in a Rams win in Week 6. The Colts will try to do the same, and that will mean a heavy dose of Gore.
Derrick Henry, Titans (vs. Texans)
I’m wary to recommend Henry as a starter, given that the Titans have shown no indication of riding him consistently when DeMarco Murray is also an option. Still, even they have to admit that Henry has looked like the better back over the last month. That came to a head last week, when Henry ran for 79 yards on 13 carries, while Murray ambled a long for nine yards on 12 rushes. The Titans are in prime position to win the AFC South, but to do so they’re going to need their best team on the field. There’s no way to watch both Henry and Murray and come away with any conclusion other than that the former is their best running back. If you’re willing to bet on Henry getting 15 touches this week and you win that bet, he’ll come through for you in a big way.
Kenyan Drake, Dolphins (vs. Broncos)
With Damien Williams out this week, and possibly for the rest of the season, the Dolphins have no reason not to give Drake a monster workload and see what he can do. At 4-7, the Dolphins are going nowhere this season. They do have some nice pieces in place for the future, though, and Drake may be one of them. He was the 73rd overall pick last year by a team for which running back wasn’t exactly a need. It’s time for that team to find out what it has in Drake. The matchup with Denver is brutal, but Drake should approach 20 touches. That’s reason enough to consider him a low-end RB2.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions (at Ravens)
Quick, when was the last time Abdullah ran for 100 yards? Give up? It was late November of the 2014 season. Of course, that was the 2014 NCAA season, and Abdullah did it as a member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a win over Iowa. What has been so frustrating with Abdullah this season is that the volume has been there in nearly every game. He simply hasn’t done anything with it. He certainly hasn’t done enough to inspire confidence in him as a reliable fantasy starter. The Ravens are much better against the pass than the run, but that’s not enough to counterbalance Abdullah’s performance this season.
Rex Burkhead, Patriots (at Bills)
This feels like tempting fate, but I’m willing to go back to the well on this one. Burkhead wasn’t terribly effective last week, despite the fact that he scored two touchdowns. His first one came on a two-yard plunge, after an impressive 7-yard run by Dion Lewis to get the Patriots on the goal line. His second was on a short pass. All told, though, he had 53 yards from scrimmage on 15 touches. Burkhead ran for 50 yards on 13 carries (3.8 yards per carry), while Lewis picked up 112 on 15 rushes. A bet on Burkhead is a bet on him getting in the end zone, and no matter what happened a week ago, he’s less likely to score a touchdown than Lewis, Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns (at Chargers)
Even I, the internet’s foremost Crowell fader, have to admit that he has played much better of late. He has rushed for 90 yards in two of his last three games, and has topped 10 standard-league points in three of his last four. In all three of those games, he ran for at least 5.5 yards per carry. Crowell looks more like the running back fantasy owners expected him to be in the summer when he had a third-round ADP. And yet, I just can’t get on board with him this week. The Chargers have turned a corner over the last month, holding the Broncos backs, the Cowboys backs and Dion Lewis in check. LeSean McCoy torched them for 114 yards on 13 carries, but he’s LeSean McCoy. There’s a very real chance this game gets out of hand, with the Chargers favored by two touchdowns. Should that happen, Crowell would get squeezed out of the picture.
Jay Ajayi, Eagles (at Seahawks)
If LeGarrette Blount weren’t on the Eagles, Ajayi would be an easy starter every week. Blount, however, is on the Eagles. So is Corey Clement, for that matter. The Eagles have shown no tendency toward making Ajayi a featured part of their offense, preferring to spread the ball around to all three of their capable backs. While that has worked great for them in real life, it’s a total pain for Ajayi’s fantasy owners. As good as he might be, there’s no way to trust him when he might not get more than five or six carries against a stout Seahawks defense.
Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, Lions (at Ravens)
From what I can tell based on FantasyPros consensus rankings, no one is benching Tate or Jones this week. That’s good. It also looks like I’m higher on them than almost everyone else in the industry. I won’t spend too much of your time on players that almost every fantasy owner will start, but understand that you should not concern yourselves with the matchup in this instance. Tate and Jones are simply too central to what the Lions do when the offense is playing well, and the Lions offense has proved trustworthy this season. In other words, it’s likely the Lions get the offense going, even in a tough matchup, and typically when it gets going, Tate and Jones deliver for their fantasy owners.
Rishard Matthews, Titans (vs. Texans)
Matthews was inactive last week because of a hamstring injury, but it looks like he’ll make his return in Week 13. When he’s on the field, he’s still the Titans No. 1 receiver, no matter what the fantasy community wants to make of Corey Davis. He has had at least six targets in all but two of his games this season, and matches up well with a Texans defense that is 30th in wide receiver aFPA. Marcus Mariota struggled the first time these teams met, but J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were on the field in that game. That won’t be the case on Sunday. Matthews has the look of a high-end WR3 this week.
Zay Jones, Bills (vs. Patriots)
Jones was a darling of the fantasy community back in the summer. I’m not sure it was possible to find a deep sleeper or late-round target list that didn’t include the rookie out of East Carolina. That’s why so many of us were disappointed when he got off to a slow start to the season that dragged through October. Jones has turned it on the last three weeks, though, catching 13 of 24 targets for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He’s clearly Tyrod Taylor’s best option outside the numbers, and while that may be a low bar to clear, it should guarantee him significant target share in every game the rest of the season. The Patriots long ago solved their defensive issues, but all that volume and the possibility of a blowout both work in Jones’s favor, as does his three-game trend in the right direction. He’s a low-end WR3 this week.
Ted Ginn, Saints (vs. Panthers)
Ginn is quietly putting together a solid season in his first year with the Saints. He has 42 receptions on 54 targets for 641 yards and three touchdowns, which has him 31st among receivers in points per game in standard leagues, and 33rd in PPR formats. In short, Ginn has delivered WR3 numbers for the balance of the season, and has mostly brought back that level of consistent weekly production, too. He gets a matchup this week with a Panthers defense (revenge game!) that is 26th in wide receiver aFPA, and the Saints have an implied total of 26.25 points. Ginn brings a WR3 floor into this matchup.
Corey Coleman, Browns (at Chargers)
In two games since returning from a broken hand, Coleman has nine catches on 19 targets for 144 yards. I’ve written about Coleman a handful of times over the last month or so, and I’ve said some variation of what I’m about to say every time. The difference between him and other Browns receivers who have risen to the top of the depth chart this year is that he’s actually good. He’s not the de facto No. 1 in Cleveland. He’s just the No. 1. He’s going to have to live on volume because of the restrictions of the offense, but there’s every reason for his fantasy owners to believe the volume will be always be there. It has been in his first two games back from injury, and it should be the rest of the season. He’ll have his work cut out for him against a Chargers defense that features a pass rush that makes it hard for downfield routes to develop, but that’s no reason to bench him.
Marqise Lee, Jaguars (vs. Colts)
There’s not a whole lot of mystery to this call. Lee is the No. 1 receiver on the Jaguars. He typically commands about eight targets in a given week. He struggled his way to one catch for 13 yards last week, but he won’t have anyone like Patrick Peterson lining up across from him on Sunday. The Colts aren’t terrible against the pass, just slightly worse than league-average, but it’s not like they’re some daunting test. Lee had four catches for 72 yards the first time the teams met, and the Jaguars packed in the offense relatively early in that 27-0 win. Finally, the Jaguars have an implied total of 25.25 points. Lee’s an easy WR3 this week.
Josh Gordon, Browns (at Chargers)
I’d love to be wrong about this. Like basically everyone, I’m rooting for Gordon to get everything together and resume what looked like it was going to be a truly special career. No offense to Chargers fans, but I hope Gordon goes off this week and gives a message to the doubters. At the same time, I can’t ignore the facts. This will be his first game in almost three full years, and even in that abbreviated 2014 season, he didn’t play all that well. I hope I’m back here next week issuing a mea culpa and telling fantasy owners everywhere to lock Gordon into their lineups. For now, however, I have to urge you to play the odds. The list of players who have returned from a three-year absence to shine immediately is non-existent. Don’t bet on Gordon changing that this week.
Also, make sure you check out this great story from our Ben Baskin on Gordon’s road back to the NFL.
T.Y. Hilton, Colts (at Jaguars)
Hilton has been this season’s boom-or-bust poster child. He has three games with at least 150 yards, scoring one touchdown in one of those games, and two in another. He also has six weeks with 30 or fewer yards. One of those six game the first time the Colts played the Jaguars. I’m not willing to say he’ll add a seventh to the ledger this week, but I am benching him comfortably if I own him. There’s no reason to believe in the Colts aerial attack against the best pass defense in the league.
Corey Davis, Titans (vs. Texans)
At some point, we have to stop ranking Davis on what he might be or what we want him to be, and start ranking him on what he is: a rookie who is struggling to find rhythm after missing all of training camp and most of the regular season. That point has arrived. Until Davis shows he’s something other than a rookie still trying to find his footing—which is completely understandable and has no bearing on his incredibly bright future—he cannot be started in fantasy leagues.
DeVante Parker, Dolphins (vs. Broncos)
Parker is another guy who has been getting by for too long on his perceived upside without ever showing any proclivity to hit it. He, too, needs to be taken at face value, which is a receiver on a bad offense averaging 4.4 catches, 51.1 yards and 0.13 touchdowns per game. Aqib Talib is suspended this week, a Talib-less Broncos defense is still one of the better units against the pass in the league. Parker is another guy who has broken the hearts of fantasy owners this season and must be on the bench in Week 13.
Jeremy Maclin, Ravens (vs. Lions)
The Ravens have had seven instances of a pass-catcher totaling more than 50 yards this season. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, 50 yards isn’t that great,” you’re right. It isn’t. And they’ve hit that pathetic total just seven times. By comparison, Antonio Brown has six 110-yard games this season on his own. Maclin needs to score a touchdown to give his fantasy owners a worthwhile performance, and I’m not willing to bet on that coming to fruition.
Hunter Henry, Chargers (vs. Browns)
Henry has proved one of the hardest tight ends to project from week to week this season. His maddening usage makes it hard to trust a player who’d likely be a top-five end if his own team would just plug and play him. I’d like to point out to the Chargers brain trust that I assume is reading this column that in your last two losses, Henry had a total of four targets. In your last four wins, not including the 54-24 drubbing of the Bills that got out of hand in a hurry, he had 25 targets, and turned those into 17 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Remember, too, that the Browns rank 31st in tight end aFPA. Make sure this guy is a big part of your gameplan this week.
Jack Doyle, Colts (at Jaguars)
I don’t mean to be flippant, but there’s not much to say here. Tight end is a wasteland this season, and Doyle has been reliable all year long. Once you get beyond the elite at the position, he’s one of the few bankable options every single week. The strength of the Jaguars pass defense on the outside forces teams to attack the middle, which is part of the reason why they’re first in wide receiver aFPA, but 17th in tight end aFPA. Doyle got seven targets the first time these teams played, catching six of them for 44 yards.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings (at Falcons)
Rudolph is coming off his best came of the season, in which he caught four passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Vikings to a Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions. Among the tight ends at the backend of the TE1 and frontend of the TE2 class this week—him, Vernon Davis, Charles Clay, Jason Witten—he has some of the highest touchdown upside, thanks in large part to playing in a game with an over/under of 47.5 points.
Greg Olsen, Panthers (at Saints)
Olsen returned last week, his first game in more than two months after breaking a bone in his foot in Week 2. He quickly aggravated the injury, and while it isn’t serious, it raises doubts about his readiness. Even if Olsen is able to suit up this week, chances are he’ll be restricted to a snap count, a likelihood spelled out by Russ Manalastas in his Week 13 Injury Report. That’s not what you want out of someone in your starting lineup, even when it’s a name-brand player like Olsen.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jets (vs. Chiefs)
I look at Seferian-Jenkins, and I just don’t see a lot of reason to get excited. He has had fewer than 30 yards in four of his last five games. He went for 67 yards two weeks ago, but that was against the atrocious Tampa Bay defense. I find it hard to believe in him over players like Rudolph, Vernon Davis, Charles Clay, Jason Witten and even Ricky Seals-Jones. If any of them is an option for you, there’s no reason to play Seferian-Jenkins. I would start him over the likes of Ben Watson, Julius Thomas and Austin Hooper.
Tyler Kroft, Bengals (vs. Steelers)
Kroft came through in a great matchup with the Browns last week, scoring his fifth touchdown of the season. He did the same the week before against the Broncos, finding the end zone before leaving the game with an injury. This week, however, he faces a Steelers defense that is third in tight end aFPA, and his allowed two touchdowns to the position. That’s not what you want for a player who is entirely dependent on touchdowns for his fantasy value.