4:15PM ET Games
NY Giants @ New England
Of all the games on the Week 8 schedule, Giants-Pats has the best chance to be a shootout with both quarterbacks hitting on all cylinders and the defenses underperforming. Trot out your studs, and don't think twice. ... ESPN's Merril Hoge, a controversial but reputable analyst for his heavy reliance on game tape, ranked his top-five NFL quarterbacks in today's game on SportsCenter this week. They were 1) Aaron Rodgers 2) Ben Roethlisberger 3) Tom Brady 4) Drew Brees 5) Cam Newton. I don't quibble with Hoge's rankings, but Eli Manning has to be an awfully close No. 6. In his last six games, Eli has completed 138-of-209 passes (66.0%) for 1,773 yards (8.48 YPA), 13 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Since Week 3, his per-game yardage average is 334. The Patriots lost two of their top three cornerbacks last week, releasing Leigh Bodden and placing rookie starter Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve. New England ranks 32nd in pass defense and is tied for 24th in sacks. Manning has the best quarterback matchup in the league this week. ... Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) is not expected to play Sunday, leaving Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz as must-start WR2/3 options in a red-hot passing game with a plus matchup. Mario is the slight favorite for targets, and Cruz will get to play more at his natural outside receiver spot. This one isn't hard. If I owned Cruz and Manningham, I'd start them both.
Ramses Barden is tentatively expected to be activated from PUP and see action in the slot at New England. Barden can be a red-zone presence at a Plaxian 6-foot-6, 227, but will probably play no more than 20 snaps. ... Jake Ballard has settled in as a consistent if low-upside TE2 with at least 55 yards in three straight games. Ballard runs about a 4.85 forty and lacks big-play ability. ... Per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Ahmad Bradshaw will try to play against the Pats despite a crack in his chronically injured foot. The Giants will likely decide Bradshaw's status during pre-game warmups Sunday. In a late game, Bradshaw's availability probably won't be known until the afternoon, making him tough to count on if you're not a Brandon Jacobs owner, too. Monitor the situation into Sunday morning before setting your lineup. The Patriots rank ninth against the run, so it's not an especially favorable matchup regardless. ... Should Bradshaw miss the game, Brandon Jacobs would be on the hook for 16-20 touches in what may be a high-scoring affair. Jacobs would get the goal-line carries. D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott are change-of-pace and passing-down options.
Owners of Patriots skill players need to block out last week's game and start their studs against the Giants. New York ranks 13th against the pass and 28th against the run, so despite talented personnel this is hardly a shutdown defense. ... Tom Brady is the No. 5 fantasy quarterback with an 18:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 337-yard average through seven starts. He has multiple touchdowns in all but one game. ... Pittsburgh held Wes Welker under 40 yards last week by shadowing him with Ike Taylor, who has rarely covered the slot in his career. It was out of character for the Steelers. The Giants also never use CB Corey Webster against inside receivers, so the guess remains that Webster will be on Deion Branch for the majority of this game. Welker will play despite a neck injury and ranks second in the league in fantasy receiver scoring. ... In terms of fantasy points per game, Rob Gronkowski is the No. 2 tight end and Aaron Hernandez is No. 9. There's every reason to believe they're both top-ten fantasy plays at their position in this game.
Branch has either a touchdown or at least 69 yards on 6-of-7 games. While he's seemed to lack consistency, Branch is still a top-25 fantasy receiver. I don't own Branch, but if I did I'd consider him an every-week WR3. ... The Pats' already muddled backfield became even less predictable when Kevin Faulk came off the PUP list to lead New England's running backs in Week 8 touches and snaps. There's no way to tell whether that was a product of Bill Belichick's game planning, or something to expect going forward. Clearly, though, it has made Danny Woodhead (0 touches), Stevan Ridley (0 snaps), and Shane Vereen (inactive) fantasy non-factors for the moment. If I'm going to use a Patriots running back in Week 9, it would still be BenJarvus Green-Ellis. More often than not, "Law Firm" will be the favorite for carries and goal-line work. Stopping the run has been the Giants' weakness to this point in the season. Faulk is a 35-year-old passing-down specialist.
Score Prediction: Patriots 30, Giants 28
St. Louis @ Arizona
Preseason observations led me to believe Steven Jackson's demise was near. I'd never seen him run so slowly and struggle so much to get the corner. Perhaps it was post-lockout overanalysis, because S-Jax has been an animal in real games. As powerful as ever with plenty of remaining open-field acceleration, Jackson is averaging a career-high 5.35 yards per carry and has held up on four straight workloads of 21 or more touches. During his Week 8 destruction of New Orleans, Jackson had 13 gains of six or more yards and seven for double digits. Both of his touchdowns came from three yards out. Arizona has allowed a league-high 11 rushing scores this season, so look for Jackson to stay hot as a high-end RB2 this week. ... Brandon Lloyd's Week 8 game would've been much bigger had he not suffered a rare drop on the initial play of the fourth quarter that could've gone 76 yards for a touchdown. The Rams are moving Lloyd around the offensive formation in an effort to make him more difficult to defend, so he'll see plenty of both RCB Patrick Peterson and LCB A.J. Jefferson. Peterson has been obliterated in coverage all season, and Jefferson was benched for Richard Marshall last week after getting destroyed by Anquan Boldin.
The Rams are leaving their Week 9 quarterback up to a game-time decision. Danario Alexander (hamstring) will not play, so behind Jackson and Lloyd there isn't much fantasy hope for Rams skill players anyway. Brandon Gibson has proven to lack separation skills, catching two passes for 27 yards last week while drawing the start. Rookie Greg Salas has settled in as the team's slot receiver, coming off a five-catch, 47-yard game. Gibson isn't an option, and Salas offers scant upside in a WR3 slot even if Sam Bradford (ankle) plays. If not, A.J. Feeley would make a third straight start. As this is being written, my money would indeed be on Feeley starting the game.
I liked John Skelton as a small-school prospect coming out of Fordham two Aprils ago. He's got plenty of arm strength and is built like Joe Flacco. Accuracy has been a big issue for Skelton in the pros, however, and the Cardinals' coaching staff played undrafted rookie Max Hall over him last season. Even for as much as Kevin Kolb struggled before his foot injury, Skelton probably won't help the cause of any Arizona skill player. Pass protection problems won't suddenly go away. Kolb has taken 24 sacks, second most in the league behind Ben Roethlisberger. ... Look for the Cardinals to lean heavily on Beanie Wells as he takes on St. Louis' last-ranked run defense. Despite a knee ailment, Wells received 22 carries in Week 8 -- his second most all year -- and if coach Ken Whisehunt can help it, he won't leave the outcome of this game in Skelton's hands. ... In Skelton's four 2010 starts, Larry Fitzgerald averaged seven catches for 87 yards with one TD. The numbers are quite good and Fitzgerald is playing the Rams, so start him confidently. ... Early Doucet still hasn't supplanted Andre Roberts as a starter, even though he's out-produced him all year. Since the Week 6 bye, Doucet has played 55 snaps to Roberts' 118. With passing-game efficiency likely to drop in Arizona, Doucet is just a WR4/5. ... Rob Housler has been thoroughly unproductive, is now battling a groin injury, and Todd Heap (hamstring) still isn't 100%. Avoid the Arizona tight ends in fantasy.
Score Prediction: Rams 20, Cardinals 17
Green Bay @ San Diego
Pack-Bolts in sunny San Diego would normally have a shootout look, but not with the way the Chargers' offense is performing. San Diego's skill players can't even get on the practice field together, and tailback Ryan Mathews (groin) is not expected to play. I'd still want to see Philip Rivers play well in a game before trusting him as more than a QB2 in fantasy. Rivers leads the NFL in interceptions and has only seven touchdowns through seven games. He's the No. 19 quarterback after finishing in the top seven three straight years. After a half-season of struggles, I'd be skeptical that this is something he can "snap out of." ... Malcom Floyd missed two practices this week with a hip injury, and has under 60 yards in 5-of-7 games this year. He's found pay dirt once. In terms of cornerback-receiver matchups, expect to see Floyd square off with Packers RCB Tramon Williams for most of this one with a combo of Charles Woodson and Sam Shields on Vincent Jackson. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams has been targeted 38 times over the past five games, allowing 19 completions (50%). The catches have gone for 281 yards (7.4 YPA) without a single touchdown.
Antonio Gates played 75 snaps in Week 8. He doesn't appear to be 100 percent, but is healthy enough to be an every-down player. With nine catches for 127 yards and a score in two games since returning from the foot injury, Gates is an every-week fantasy starter. ... Mike Tolbert will handle a full workload against a Green Bay run defense that has flashed vulnerability since a hot start. The Packers are in good enough shape up front to hold Tolbert to 70-80 rushing yards, but he'll be a solid bet for a goal-line touchdown and 20-plus touches. The path to a huge role is cleared by Mathews' expected absence. Curtis Brinkley (concussion) won't play much, if he's active at all. ... Vincent Jackson has had three straight slow games, but dominant talent can't be left on fantasy benches. When he matches up with the aforementioned Shields, Jackson will boast a six-inch, 46-pound size advantage. The two will likely face each other often because Woodson is Green Bay's best option to cover Gates.
Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in completion rate (71.5%), touchdown passes (20), yards-per-pass attempt (11.0), and passer rating (125.7). No quarterback has scored more fantasy points. ... While the Chargers have struggled to stop the run, they rank fourth in the league in pass defense and don't figure to allow four Packers pass catchers to burn them as other defenses have. James Jones plays significantly fewer snaps and sees fewer targets than Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, and Greg Jennings, and will be difficult to trust because of this matchup. Jones only has one game over 63 yards this season. ... The Packers have used Quentin Jammer as a shadow corner for the last two games, so he'll likely track Jennings all around the formation. That would leave Jordy Nelson in rookie Marcus Gilchrist's coverage. Jennings is a WR1, Nelson a WR3.
It's scary to think that the Packers' passing game is hitting on all cylinders and Finley hasn't even hit his stride yet. The Chargers have allowed big games to Rob Gronkowski (4-86-2) and Aaron Hernandez (7-62-1) already this year, and in two other San Diego games Daniel Fells and Dustin Keller were the opposing team's top receiver. This isn't a prohibitive matchup, and the Packers may have tinkered with their offense during the Week 8 bye to emphasize getting Finley the ball more. He's a good trade target in fantasy leagues. Finley's ability has not diminished. ... John Kuhn only has 14 touches through seven games, but he's essentially made the Packers' backfield a three-way committee as the favorite for goal-line carries. James Starks hasn't scored since Week 1, and Ryan Grant hasn't reached the end zone all year. Starks still has the most value among Packers backs, but doesn’t get easy chances in scoring position, and there are no indications that Green Bay will get away from its rotational look. We may know more after this game because San Diego has been easy to run on all season.
Score Prediction: Packers 28, Chargers 20
Sunday Night Football
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
In seven career matchups with the Ravens, Rashard Mendenhall has managed 376 yards on 126 carries (2.98 YPC). While Mendenhall has kept his fantasy scoring afloat with five touchdowns in the last five Ravens-Steelers games, it would be overly optimistic to expect lofty yardage against the league's No. 3 run defense. Mendenhall's carries are down over the past two weeks because Pittsburgh has relied on a throw-heavy spread offense, posting a combined 89:51 run-to-pass ratio in wins over Arizona and New England. The formula has been successful, so it would be unreasonable to expect change. Mendenhall may need goal-line scores to please fantasy owners in Week 9. On a brighter note, Mendenhall is playing awfully well since his early-season hamstring injury. He's averaging 5.06 YPC since sitting out Week 5. ... Heath Miller routinely stays on the line to block when the Steelers play Baltimore. In 13 career regular season meetings with the Ravens, Miller has never exceeded 42 yards. He hasn't found pay dirt against them since 2007.
Emmanuel Sanders' (knee) loss is a blow, but the Steelers don't figure to get away from their spread-heavy offensive trend. A healthy Hines Ward will take over Sanders' role in the slot, with Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace outside. "60 Minutes" Wallace burned these same Ravens for eight catches and 107 yards earlier this season, and will be tougher to double team with Brown adding credibility on the opposite side. Through eight weeks, Wallace is the No. 4 fantasy receiver behind only Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, and Carolina's Steve Smith. ... Despite Ward's return, Brown's role won't change. He played a season-high 55-of-81 snaps (67.9%) in Week 8 while setting a career high in receptions (9). Brown should be a stable fantasy WR3 for at least one more game. ... Here are Ward's last six stat lines against the Ravens: 5-67, 3-25-1, 2-14, 1-13, 4-37, 3-47, 3-55. (Hint: Aim higher.) ... Ben Roethlisberger is on a tear in the revised offense, piling up an 11:2 TD-to-INT ratio across his last four starts with at least 360 yards in two straight. Even against Baltimore's top-three pass defense, Roethlisberger is a strong QB1 play in Week 9.
The Steelers are expected to be without three of their four starting linebackers Sunday night: LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), James Harrison (eye), and James Farrior (calf). Ray Rice would have been a top-five RB1 before the defensive depletion, and he's an even more confident fantasy start now. Remember, Rice torched Pittsburgh's defense at full strength for 149 total yards and two touchdowns in the opener. He'll have more lanes with special teamers Stevenson Sylvester and Chris Carter playing significant snaps on defense. ... Joe Flacco displayed some resilience by leading Baltimore back from a 24-3 first-half deficit in Week 8, throwing for 336 yards. Unfortunately, he now has to deal with the best pass defense in football. Flacco did have 224 yards and three touchdowns in the aforementioned Week 1 game, but he's consistently played poorly since. I wouldn't trust him as a fantasy starter. ... Ed Dickson hasn't reached pay dirt in his last six games and is averaging 35 yards over that span. He's a clear-cut TE2 in fantasy leagues.
Lee Evans (ankle) will miss yet another game. Rookie Torrey Smith leads the league in yards per reception, but it doesn't help much when he's catching three passes per week. Smith failed to capitalize on a prime matchup with Arizona's secondary in Week 8, dropping a pass that led to an interception and picking up 57 scoreless yards. He's a WR4 only, and at this point there's little doubt that Antonio Brown is a better bet in this particular game. ... The linebacker injuries on Pittsburgh's side could help Anquan Boldin's matchup because he runs so many routes over the middle. Looking fresh-legged since Baltimore's Week 5 bye, Boldin has racked up 19 catches for 317 yards and a touchdown in his last three games. The Ravens did an excellent job of keeping Boldin off Ike Taylor in the season opener, and he took advantage with 74 yards and a score.
Score Prediction: Ravens 27, Steelers 24
Monday Night Football
Chicago @ Philadelphia
With his offensive line and supporting cast healthy, Michael Vick returned from his Week 7 bye playing like the most confident football player in the league. Before taking the pedal off the gas in the final two quarters of Week 8, Vick doused the Cowboys for 187 first-half yards and two touchdowns on 13-of-17 passing, along with 45 rushing yards. For the season's final nine games, there isn't a quarterback I'd rather own in fantasy football. ... The Bears' Cover-2 defense is designed to hold deep threats like DeSean Jackson in check, although he's racked up more than 100 all-purpose yards in 2-of-3 career meetings with Chicago, to go with two touchdowns. While D-Jax is arguably the most boom-or-bust fantasy receiver in the NFL, his week-to-week ceiling makes him impossible to bench. ... Easily the most consistent wideout on the Eagles, Jeremy Maclin is the No. 11 overall receiver in fantasy points per game. Maclin also leads the team in targets on the season, suggesting he's quietly overtaken Jackson as Vick's No. 1 option in the passing game.
Fantasy owners should have trouble trusting Brent Celek as a fantasy starter despite back-to-back productive games (4-42-1, 7-94-1). It's an issue of middling talent with Celek, and he's only the fourth or fifth option in Philly's passing attack. If there is a team against whom Celek can stay hot for another week, however, it's probably the Bears. Chicago's zone defense has been burned for productive games by Jermichael Finley (7-85-3), Greg Olsen (5-50-1), Brandon Pettigrew (4-39-1), Jimmy Graham (6-79), and Tony Gonzalez (5-72) at the tight end position, giving up lots of cushion over the middle. ... The Eagles lead the NFC in time of possession, a stat that benefits LeSean McCoy more than any player on the roster. Usually pass-happy coach Andy Reid's offense is as balanced as it's ever been. Whereas Philadelphia ran the football on only 43.3% of its plays last year, the percentage has jumped to 47.1 this year, and the Eagles rank fourth in the NFL in rushing attempts. The No. 2-ranked running back in fantasy football, McCoy is on pace for career highs in carries (309), rushing yards (1,724), all-purpose touchdowns (23), and yards per rushing attempt (5.59). And barring injury, McCoy is simply playing too well for those numbers to sharply regress.
The Eagles' defense has flashed competitiveness against the run by stiffening its "Wide-9" scheme in the front four. It still got touched up for an 8.5 yards-per-carry average by Cowboys rushers last week, and Matt Forte has confirmed himself matchup proof with at least 120 yards in matchups with top-seven run defenses of Atlanta and Minnesota. In terms of YPC allowed, the Eagles still have the fifth-worst defense in football. Forte will continue to be his offense's centerpiece on Monday night. ... The Bears seemed to remedy their pass protection problems before the bye, but it's going to be put to a major test at The Linc. Philadelphia ranks sixth in the league in sacks, and Nnamdi Asomugha has picked it up since a slow start. The Eagles essentially took Dez Bryant (3-28) and Miles Austin (3-27) out of last week's game with physical press coverage and an attacking mentality up front. On paper at least, this is a mismatch for the Bears' passing offense. Jay Cutler is a QB2 against Philly's top-ten pass defense, and Roy Williams is unlikely to create separation with Asomugha in his face at the line. Devin Hester and Earl Bennett remain uninspiring options.
Score Prediction: Eagles 34, Bears 13