Atlanta @ Indianapolis
The Falcons rank seventh in run defense with a front seven fresh coming off a bye, creating a prohibitive situation for fantasy owners of Colts tailbacks. Joseph Addai (hamstring) is healthier after sitting out Week 8, and Indianapolis employed a two-way timeshare in Addai's absence against the Titans. Delone Carter started and operated as the Colts' feature runner for two-plus quarters. Indy fell behind by two touchdowns, and third-down back Donald Brown promptly took over in pass-heavy comeback mode. Carter finished with 11 touches in 50 snaps. Brown played only 32 snaps, but similarly got the ball 11 times and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown from four yards out. While Carter has emerged as the Colts' top week-to-week backfield fantasy bet, he's not a realistic candidate for more than 10-14 touches in an unfavorable matchup. The situation, ideally, would be avoided in fantasy leagues. Addai remains Indianapolis' starter when healthy, and is coming off a full week of practice. He’s going to play against the Falcons.
I broke down Colts-Titans play by play this week in order to get a clearer grasp of Curtis Painter's passing-game tendencies. The target numbers have screamed that Pierre Garcon is far and away the team's No. 1 receiver, and the game tape reinforces the notion. Painter dropped back 58 times in Nashville, and on a whopping 25 of them Garcon appeared to be Painter's first read. Reggie Wayne was first on 14 occasions, with 10 for Austin Collie and 7 for Dallas Clark. Donald Brown and Delone Carter had one apiece. This has roughly been the case throughout Painter's six appearances (five starts). Going forward, look for WR2/3 value from Garcon. Wayne is no more than a low-end WR3. ... Collie (5-44) and Clark (6-77) both set season-highs for receiving yards against the Titans in large part because Painter threw a year-most 49 times in the blowout loss. Falling behind early is a possibility against Atlanta, but it's not a bankable fantasy situation.
Game watchers noticed Michael Turner slowing down before Atlanta's Week 8 bye, even if it isn't apparent in his stats or usage. Turner would theoretically be an advised sell high, but not this week. The 29 1/2-year-old's legs will be fresh after an open date, and Turner has totaled 204 yards and an incredible five touchdowns on 46 carries (4.43 YPC) in his last two post-bye games. Turner has also led the NFL in carries in two of the past three seasons and ranks in the top five in rushing attempts per game this year, so he's probably more likely to benefit from in-season rest than most backs in the league. Since Indianapolis ranks 31st against the run, this was always going to be an enticing matchup. ... Tony Gonzalez has "earned" an every-week start by ranking sixth among tight ends in fantasy points per game, but the Colts' defense has posed a forbidding matchup for players at Gonzo's position. Through eight games, Indy has allowed a grand total of 326 yards and three touchdowns on 36 catches to tight ends. It's a 4.5-catch, 41-yard average.
In their last four games, the Colts' defense has been shredded for an 11:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 1,070 yards on 129 throws (8.29 YPA), and a 77.5 completion rate by Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Andy Dalton, and Drew Brees. Atlanta may employ a run-first approach Sunday, but it shouldn't deter fantasy owners from using Roddy White or a now-healthy Julio Jones. The Falcons' offense projects to be highly efficient because the Indianapolis defense just can't stop anyone. (Except, oddly, tight ends.) ... Jones has a particularly good-looking matchup because he’s Atlanta’s biggest receiver and the Colts’ smallish secondary routinely struggles against large, physical wideouts. … Matt Ryan ranks 14th in fantasy quarterback points, confirming himself as a QB2 only. And the schedule only stiffens from here. After squaring off with the Colts' No. 22 pass defense, Ryan gets just one more matchup with a pass defense ranked lower than 17th. He faces the Saints (No. 11 pass defense) twice, Jaguars (No. 8), and Texans (5) with the Titans (17) and Vikings (29) mixed in. At the season's midway point, the takeaway for Ryan is that he may purely lack the talent to be an elite fantasy quarterback. Ryan has never possessed top-end arm strength or athleticism, and the latter deficiency has been exposed by a descending offensive line.
Score Prediction: Falcons 23, Colts 17
4:05PM ET Games
Denver @ Oakland
Darren McFadden is still on crutches recovering from his mid-foot sprain, so the Raiders will hold him out of Week 9 in hopes of DMC returning for next Thursday night's clash with San Diego. The starter against Denver will be Michael Bush, with rookie Taiwan Jones in line for 5-8 touches as Bush's change of pace. In Bush's three starts last season, he averaged 27 touches for 122 total yards per game, with a pair of touchdowns. Bush can pick up oncoming blitzers and is an adept receiver, so he projects as an every-down back against Denver's No. 17 run defense. Volume is the key for Bush. Across the league, there won't be many safer bets for at least 20 carries week. ... Including the preseason, Jones has touched the ball 24 times for 161 yards (6.71 average) in nine appearances as a pro. While Jones probably won't exceed 4-5 carries or 2-3 catches against the Broncos, the big-play ability makes him worth a look for fantasy owners desperate at a flex position. A skinny, linear runner, Jones drew Jamaal Charles comparisons coming out of Eastern Washington but plays more like Jerious Norwood. He will be tough to handle in open space.
The Raiders' Week 9 game plan will likely be geared to "protect" Carson Palmer with a run-heavy approach until he begins to feel comfortable on the field and making high-velocity throws in critical situations. The run will be used to set up the pass. We don't know whom Champ Bailey will "shadow" in this game, but opponents have typically assigned top cover men to Denarius Moore despite Darrius Heyward-Bey's four-game streak of 82-plus yards. Moore lines up most often on the right side of the formation, squaring off with left cornerbacks. Bailey, by nature, is a left corner. I'd struggle to use Moore in a fantasy league based both on his recent lack of productivity and Bailey's potential coverage. ... Heyward-Bey is averaging 5.5 catches for 96 yards during his hot run. While it's smart to be wary of considering DHB a reliable week-to-week fantasy starter, this matchup is right and he'll be the Raiders' best bet for catches and receiving yards in Week 9. ... 34-year-old T.J. Houshmandzadeh's tank is on E, but Hue Jackson still saw fit to add him to a receiver corps that otherwise lacked true possession threats. Houshmandzadeh's addition sucks the life out of Jacoby Ford's fantasy appeal. Ford has been Oakland's slot receiver all year, and that's the position Housh now projects to play. ... TE Kevin Boss' greatest strength is run blocking, and he figures to do quite a bit of that Sunday. He's not worth a roster spot in 12-team leagues.
There are two ways to view Tim Tebow's Week 9 start. The glass-half empty, if more realistic approach says Tebow is at risk of an in-game benching after going 31-of-66 (47.0%) for 333 yards (5.05 YPA) in his last two games. The glass-half full take looks to Tebow's Week 15 start in The Black Hole last year. Tebow racked up 138 yards passing and 78 rushing, scoring once in the air and once on the ground to finish with 23.3 standard league fantasy points. Tebow is an extremely risky, if high-upside fantasy play and will remain so as the coaching staff evaluates him on a start-by-start basis. In Tebow's case, matchups don't matter. He must show an improved ability to pick up first downs and move the chains in order to keep his position. ... The Broncos' receiver corps is shaping up as a total tossup with Tebow struggling. Demaryius Thomas was Tebow's preferred option in Week 7, seeing 10 targets and securing three for 27 yards and a touchdown. Last week, Thomas dropped to 10 yards on one catch and three targets while Eddie Royal emerged as the Broncos' target leader (13). Tebow threw Eric Decker's way 12 times, and the two connected on six occasions for a team-high 72 yards and a touchdown. Your guess is as good as mine.
Denver writers anticipate Willis McGahee returning ahead of schedule from hand surgery. Coach John Fox described the situation as a pain-tolerance issue while praising McGahee's toughness Thursday. We'll have more updates on McGahee by Friday evening and into Sunday morning, but for now he should be considered a risky, low-end RB2. The broken hand is likely enough to keep McGahee off the field on all passing downs, and the Broncos may ease him back in a rotation with Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball. The Raiders' defense is fresh coming off a bye, and in their Week 1 matchup held Broncos rushers to 38 scoreless yards on 13 carries. If you buy into the notion that Denver will be playing from behind in this game, McGahee won't be a good fantasy start. The Broncos' offense changed while McGahee was out to cater to Tebow, and it isn't necessarily a given that he'll play more snaps than Moreno if Denver continues to go shotgun on 70% of plays.
Score Prediction: Raiders 24, Broncos 20
Cincinnati @ Tennessee
The Titans have held up the rear in the NFL's rushing offense ranks for several weeks, and their passing offense is beginning to circle the drain as well. With Kenny Britt on I.R. and Chris Johnson already calling it a season, Tennessee has no playmakers left on offense. Not helping matters is a matchup with a Bengals team that ranks fourth in total defense, ninth against the pass, and second versus the run. It's hard to envision much Titans scoring. ... Try watching Johnson's Week 8 runs with Bloopers Music in the background. It's sickeningly hilarious. He's the only member of the offense simply not trying. The Titans had no choice but to turn the backfield over to Javon Ringer against the Colts, and he easily out-produced Johnson (102 total yards compared to C.J.'s 51) while dominating playing time with Tennessee protecting a lead. Ringer played 17 fourth-quarter snaps, and the "starter" Johnson played two. While Ringer offers limited talent, he can play on all three downs and gives the Titans their best chance to win. Unless Johnson turns it around -- and I have lost hope -- Ringer should lead the backfield in touches the rest of the way.
Matt Hasselbeck is averaging an Alex Smith-like 202.5 passing yards per game since losing Britt for the year. In such a difficult matchup, he can't be more than a QB2. ... Damian Williams can get it done as a possession receiver, but struggles to separate downfield. He's a low-upside WR3. ... The Titans are at least making an effort to get the ball in Nate Washington's hands. He scored on a three-yard carry in Week 8 and also caught a 14-yard touchdown pass. Washington has proven a highly inconsistent player even when given an opportunity at a featured role, but the Titans view Washington as their No. 1 receiver and will continue to try to feed him. ... Playcaller Chris Palmer does have a potential playmaker in tight end Jared Cook, but Cook continues to be extremely under-utilized. He played enough to be targeted just twice in Week 8, catching both for 40 yards.
The Titans' defense has taken a nosedive since its fast start, getting pummeled for 79 combined points by the Steelers and Texans before last week's relief effort from the Colts. It's certainly not a fearsome unit as Tennessee may have appeared during the season's first month. After ranking sixth in per-game rushing attempts during the first month and a half, Cedric Benson's legs are fresh coming off a two-week layoff due to a bye and one-game suspension. He'll resume his usual role as a 20-carry runner against Tennessee's 27th-ranked run defense, making for a nice RB2 situation. ... Bernard Scott held his own against Seattle last week, but the Bengals have never made him a serious part of weekly game plans. He's just a handcuff going forward. ... In my game review of Bengals-Seahawks, I noted that Andy Dalton's arm is probably stronger than given credit. It's obviously not Matthew Stafford-caliber, but heads-and-shoulders better than someone like Colt McCoy's. While I'm skeptical that Dalton will ever be more than a fantasy QB2, he's done well to keep all of the Bengals' pass catchers afloat. Dalton has five touchdowns in his last three games and now takes on Tennessee's middling, 17th-ranked pass defense.
In other words, owners should no longer hold A.J. Green's rookie quarterback against him. Green has either a touchdown or over 100 yards in 6-of-7 games. He's the No. 6 overall fantasy receiver. In this game, Green has the best matchup of any Bengals wideout. He'll go against Titans LCB Jason McCourty for the majority of the day. ... Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) is not expected to play Sunday and may be limited if he does. Gresham has encountered setbacks and is not on the Week 9 fantasy radar. Look for journeyman Donald Lee to see more time at tight end. ... Jerome Simpson's consistency remains an issue with two games over 100 yards and the rest all under 45. He'll face off with RCB Cortland Finnegan on early downs against Tennessee, and nickel back Alterraun Verner in passing sets. Both have played exceptionally well in coverage this season.
Score Prediction: Bengals 17, Titans 16