Cleveland @ San Francisco
The Browns planned to give Peyton Hillis his starting job and 20-25 touch-per-game role back this week, but the contract-year runner suffered a setback with his now-lingering hamstring strain and won't play against the 49ers. Hillis' 2012 free agent market value is tanking, and not just because he's been bitten by the Madden Curse. Hillis hasn't been the same player since midway through last season. Dating back to December of 2010 -- a six-game sample size -- he's averaging 3.32 yards per carry. Since Week 11 of 2010 -- an 11-game span -- the average is a more respectable, if still unimpressive 3.72. Hillis had his day in the sun, and I'd bet heavily that last season goes down as the best of his career. The Browns were smart to not pay him. ... The 49ers rank second in run defense and remain the only team yet to allow a rushing score. Montario Hardesty has shown capable of grinding out three yards a carry, but that's it. He doesn't play on passing downs anymore because he can't catch, and the 49ers are a near-lock to keep his rushing stats low. I wouldn't start him. ... San Francisco's defense hasn't been quite as tough against the pass as the run, but is still far from a pushover unit in the air, surrendering the NFL's fifth-lowest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. Colt McCoy is a fantasy option only in two-QB leagues.
Ben Watson suffered his second concussion of the season in Week 7, the first occurring in training camp. Evan Moore's playing time was already on the rise -- he played a season-high 41 snaps in Week 7 -- and could be in for another bump if Cleveland's starter sits this game out. No. 2 receiver Mohamed Massaquoi is also coming off a concussion, so Moore is a realistic candidate to lead the Browns in targets Sunday. Perhaps only Greg Little would be a better bet for catches and receiving yards. ... Little will square off with 49ers RCB Tarell Brown on early downs and slot CB Carlos Rogers when he moves inside in passing situations. I'm usually high on Little, but not this week. Rogers is playing at a shutdown level, and McCoy struggles to connect on passes outside the numbers. Little will have better matchups ahead. ... Special teamer Joshua Cribbs will supposedly start if Massaquoi can't go. Cribbs could command 5-6 targets in that scenario, making him a solid option in return-yardage leagues. He's off the fantasy football radar otherwise.
To put it mildly, Frank Gore has turned it around after a slow start. Whereas Gore managed a 2.51 YPC average in the 49ers' first three games, he's leaped to 7.86 in his last three with TDs in all of them. Gore's 28-year-old legs are extra fresh coming off a Week 7 bye, and he's playing far too well to be concerned with matchups. ... Kendall Hunter's playing time is slightly down with Gore lighting it up, but he's still one of my favorite lottery-ticket backup running backs to hold for the stretch run, even if you don't own Gore. With bye weeks soon ending, I like to use the strategy of packaging borderline starters sitting on my bench in trades that upgrade my starting lineup. I stack the open bench spots with NFL backups like Hunter, betting that the starter might go down. All it takes is one reserve to "hit," and you may have this year's late-season fantasy star.
Alex Smith predictably crashed back to earth before the open date, following up a 5:0 TD-to-INT ratio in Weeks 4-5 with a 125-yard, one-score game at Detroit in Week 6. Smith lacks talent to sustain effective play, and this is another uninviting matchup. Back to full strength, the Browns' defense is surrendering a league-low 171.5 passing yards per game and paltry 53.3 completion rate to quarterbacks. Smith is a poor bet to hit 200 yards in Week 8. ... Vernon Davis probably won't finish like the top-three fantasy tight end he's been two years running, but he's maintained TE1 value as a top-nine player at the position in fantasy points per game. Look for Davis to face off with Browns SS T.J. Ward often in this one. ... Michael Crabtree appeared to be busting out of his slump before the bye week, but a matchup with shutdown CB Joe Haden and the potential return of Braylon Edwards (knee) to steal targets will take the wind out of Crabtree's sails. Davis is the only member of San Francisco's pass-catching corps I'd be willing to trust against Cleveland.
Score Prediction: 49ers 17, Browns 13
Cincinnati @ Seattle
No Week 8 game is projected to produce less scoring than Bengals-Seahawks with a pathetic 38-point over/under. Avoid players in this game where possible. ... Bernard Scott is the Flavor of the Week because he's starting for suspended Cedric Benson. While expectations should be limited against a stout Seahawks defense permitting a league-low 3.15 yards per carry, Scott may in fact be the Bengals' best option for this matchup. Scott is elusive with short-area quicks, which could give Seattle's heavyweight interior more trouble than Benson's downhill style. The Bengals are a top-nine team in rushing attempts per game, so Scott should offer plenty of volume. Scott started twice in 2009 and racked up 238 yards on 42 touches. Averaging 4.59 YPC entering this season, Scott has a reputable history of per-play effectiveness and offers one-week RB2 appeal. Just don't expect an expanded role going forward. The Bengals are smitten with Benson as their clear feature back. ... Jermaine Gresham has a touchdown in two of his past three games, but he is averaging 38.5 yards per week. Through six games, the Seahawks have allowed two touchdowns to tight ends and a five-catch, 54-yard weekly average. It's a mediocre matchup for Gresham.
Where the Bengals can exploit Seattle is on the perimeter, targeting heavy-legged cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. A fifth-round rookie, Sherman has entered the starting lineup after recent year-ending injuries to Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond III. Assuming the Seahawks don't shadow him with RCB Browner, A.J. Green will draw LCB Sherman for most of this game. Green rarely moves around the formation, almost always squaring off with left corners. You can't beat his Week 8 matchup. ... Jerome Simpson gets the tougher draw and has been wildly inconsistent. He's yet to find pay dirt this season, clearing 45 receiving yards in just 2-of-6 games. ... Andy Dalton makes for a fine two-QB league start against Seattle's 20th-ranked pass defense. Just don't get too cute. He's 20th in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks, this projects as a low-scoring affair, and road games in Seattle don't typically end well for rookie signal callers.
Coach Pete Carroll claims the Seahawks are leaving their Week 8 quarterback to a "game-day decision," but Charlie Whitehurst will likely make another start. Whitehurst was indescribably bad in last week's embarrassing, 6-3 loss to the Browns. No Seahawks pass catcher exceeded 38 yards, and no wideout topped two receptions. If you are starting a Seahawks receiver this week, you're essentially betting on a bounce-back game from Whitehurst. I can't imagine making that bet against a Bengals team that ranks No. 1 in total defense and No. 5 against the pass. Look past Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin for your Week 8 WR3. ... Realistically, there isn't a single start-able Seahawks fantasy player this week because of the matchup, low-scoring game projection, and Seattle's utter shortage of skill-position talent. Marshawn Lynch has a recurring back injury that left him inactive for Week 7 despite being listed as active on the game-day roster. While Lynch is supposed to play this week, he presents too much risk and not nearly enough possible reward to "wait for" in a late game. Lynch ranks 31st in fantasy scoring among tailbacks.
UPDATE: Tarvaris Jackson took a big step in his recovery from a strained pectoral in his right (throwing) arm Friday, participating in a full practice. Multiple reports suggest Jackson is now likely to start. I'm not confident that Jackson will be 100 percent on game day, and would continue to avoid the entire Seattle offense when it comes to lineup decisions.
Score Prediction: Bengals 17, Seahawks 10
Sunday Night Football
Dallas @ Philadelphia
This game has the second highest over/under of Week 8 at 51 points, so get your Cowboys and Eagles going. ... Philly returns from its bye with an O-Line at full strength. LT Jason Peters is back from his hamstring injury, and the interior of LG Evan Mathis, C Jason Kelce, and RG Danny Watkins was hitting its stride prior to the off week. Michael Vick is poised for a monster second half. ... Dallas' pass defense has overachieved relative to its middling secondary talent, but this game's high-scoring projection, the offensive line's improved health, and DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin's recent performance should lock the Eagles' receivers into fantasy lineups. While D-Jax has been inconsistent as usual, he's averaging 76 receiving yards per game and turned in an insane 4-210-1 line in his last meeting with Dallas. ... Maclin has been even more productive, averaging over seven catches for 98 yards per game since Week 1, to go with three touchdowns.
Slot receiver Jason Avant no longer has to worry about Steve Smith vulturing snaps, but remains an underwhelming WR3 option whenever D-Jax and Maclin are at full health. Avant hasn't scored a touchdown on the season while topping 40 yards in just 2-of-6 games. ... The Cowboys rank No. 1 in the league in run defense, but LeSean McCoy has proven matchup-proof in his true breakout season, already dusting the Falcons' top-six unit for 116 yards and two scores. Only Fred Jackson is averaging more fantasy points per game among NFL running backs, and McCoy's 5.42 YPC ranks third among players with at least 50 rushing attempts. ... Brent Celek had his best game of the season before the bye (4-42-1), but the touchdown was his first all year and he's yet to clear 45 yards entering Week 8. Even in a potential shootout, it's difficult to get excited about Celek when he's blocking on a big majority of his snaps and averaging under nine yards a catch.
In terms of corner-receiver matchups, Dez Bryant plays split end in the Cowboys' base offense, aligning to the left side of the formation. He'll primarily see RCB Nnamdi Asomugha in coverage. Miles Austin is a flanker-slot receiver. His usual position is RWR, meaning Austin will draw a mix of LCB Asante Samuel and slot CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in what projects as a more favorable matchup than Bryant's on paper. Both Austin (No. 6) and Bryant (No. 10) are top-ten fantasy receivers in points per game. So they're every-week starters. ... The best bet for targets and receptions on Dallas' side, however, may be Jason Witten. In matchups with Tony Gonzalez, Fred Davis, and Vernon Davis, the Eagles have been gashed for three touchdowns by tight ends and a per-game average of 7.3 catches for 85.7 yards. Philly has simply never been effective in coverage of tight ends. In his last four meetings with the Eagles, Witten has piled up 24 catches for 234 yards and four touchdowns. In terms of a statistical line average, that's 6-59-1. I'd take it.
Tony Romo will take his final painkilling injection for a previously cracked rib and should be as healthy as he's been all year. With six touchdowns and two 300-plus yard efforts in his last three games, Romo is a shoo-in QB1 this week. Philadelphia has a top-ten pass defense, but has allowed nearly two passing scores per game despite having faced one of the NFL's weakest slates of signal callers. The Eagles' quarterback opponents so far (in order of goodness): Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Rex Grossman. ... DeMarco Murray's breakout Week 7 game should be taken with a grain of salt considering the matchup with St. Louis' league-worst run defense and Dallas' out-of-nowhere ability to open running lanes. The Cowboys haven't been able to run block all season, but suddenly could against a Rams team that played the entire game on its heels. The good news is Murray has another favorable matchup with a Philly defense that ranks 23rd against the run and surrenders 4.82 YPC. I would immediately look to sell Murray after this week. Felix Jones (ankle) will eventually return, and at least based on what I saw from Murray as a junior and senior at Oklahoma, last week's game will prove a mirage in the long run.
Score Prediction: Eagles 27, Cowboys 23
Monday Night Football
San Diego @ Kansas City
The Chiefs' defense has padded its stats in consecutive matchups with Donovan McNabb, Curtis Painter, and the disastrous Raiders duo of Kyle Boller and Carson Palmer, aided by an early-game injury to Darren McFadden. K.C. now ranks what appears to be a somewhat respectable 18th in total defense, 17th against the pass, and 25th versus the run. We just don't know how good this Chiefs defense is because of the pathetic schedule. On San Diego's side, what we do know is that coach Norv Turner divvies up tailback playing time based heavily on practice reps. Mike Tolbert (hamstring, hand) missed two practices this week, and the last time that happened Ryan Mathews exploded for season highs in touches (25), total yards (149) and touchdowns (2) against these same Chiefs in Week 3. While Tolbert only got the ball seven times in that game, Mathews handled goal-line duties and a comfortable majority of passing-down snaps. Games don't always (rarely?) play out as we expect them to, but it'd be reasonable to anticipate a healthy dose of Mathews at Arrowhead Stadium. It's hard to imagine using Tolbert in a fantasy league.
UPDATE: Tolbert missed a third straight practice Friday. Afterwards, Turner acknowledged that he's "not hopeful" Tolbert will be available against the Chiefs. Mathews should be in line for no fewer than 24 touches on Monday Night Football.
Speculation via Wesseling, ESPN's Matt Williamson, and NFL Network's Jason La Canfora this week that Philip Rivers is playing hurt was vehemently disputed by Rivers and the Chargers' coaching staff. If Rivers and Turner are to be believed, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback should finish fast against one of the league's softest pass-defense schedules, and it will start on Monday night. Rivers has historically lit it up at Arrowhead, in his last three games there completing 74-of-117 passes (63.2%) for 912 yards (7.79 YPA), seven touchdowns, and one interception. Amid the rumors, I personally would consider Rivers a QB2 until he actually plays well in a game. But the matchup isn't prohibitive, and Rivers' track record suggests he'll pick it up. ... Antonio Gates will play Monday night, and his availability alone makes him a top-five fantasy tight end play. It's icing on the cake that Gates has 194 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches in his last two meetings with the Chiefs. ... Vincent Jackson owners need to shake off last week's 1-15 clunker against Darrelle Revis and use him against Kansas City. Jackson is as healthy as he's been since the season started and might be the best "buy low" in fantasy football right now.
Matt Cassel's three-game hot streak crashed to an end against Oakland in Week 7, completing 50% of his 30 attempts for 161 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Chargers rank third in pass defense, so this is a forbidding matchup for a quarterback who isn't any good. ... If San Diego continues the coverage strategy it employed against the Jets last week, Quentin Jammer will be assigned to Dwayne Bowe with rookie Marcus Gilchrist on Steve Breaston. Jammer held Santonio Holmes to 24 yards on two Week 7 catches, while Gilchrist was promoted onto the first-team defense this week after ex-starter Antoine Cason allowed a trio of red-zone touchdowns to Plaxico Burress. I'll never recommend Breaston because I don't believe in him as a player or his offense, but he's got a good-looking matchup. Playing out of his mind in a contract year, Bowe is the No. 6 fantasy receiver and has earned a start every week. Just keep in mind that the Chargers have held Bowe under 14 yards in three of their last four meetings with him.
Last week's snap and touch distribution in the Chiefs' backfield (snaps are first, touches second): Jackie Battle 41, 16; Dexter McCluster 23, 11; Thomas Jones 14, 9. ... 7 of Jones' 9 carries against the Raiders occurred after Kansas City built a 28-0 lead. Jones is a non-factor unless the Chiefs are blowing out a team, and that won't happen on Monday night. ... Battle has clearly taken over as the team's lead back, and has a favorable Week 8 matchup. Simply unable to field an effective rush defense this season, the Bolts are serving up 4.74 yards per carry and rank 21st versus the run. Last week, they allowed Shonn Greene's best game since Week 4 of 2010, when he had a cupcake matchup with the Bills. Battle is a low-end RB2 but high-end flex option.
Score Prediction: Chargers 20, Chiefs 17