Oakland @ Miami
Darren McFadden will miss a fifth consecutive game with a mid-foot sprain, leaving Michael Bush to take on his toughest matchup to date. In their last seven games, the Dolphins have allowed 532 yards on 152 carries (3.50 YPC) to enemy tailbacks, none of whom has scored. Bush can counter with heavy volume, of course. He's averaging 29 touches for 148 yards per start and has scored a touchdown in four straight. Bush is more of a high-end RB2 than top-five option this week, but he's still a must-start. Workloads like his are near impossible to come by. ... Brandon Myers and Kevin Boss are rotating at tight end, and neither has cleared receiving 40 yards since the season's first month. There's no fantasy value here. ... Raiders FB Marcel Reece has an extraordinary skill set as a 6-foot-3, 240-pound former college wide receiver. He ran 4.42 at the 2008 Washington Pro Day, with an impressive 9-foot-6 broad jump. The fact that Reece led the Raiders in Week 12 receiving (5-92) had more to do with the fact that Oakland was incredibly short-handed at wideout than Reece's emerging role, however. He's much more valuable in real life than fantasy football.
Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford's foot injuries have stripped Oakland's big-play ability, leading to a slowdown in Carson Palmer's production after his fast start as a Raider. Moore is tentatively due back this week, but got in little practice time and is officially a game-time decision. As the Raiders' flanker, Moore will likely spend most of this game in Dolphins LCB Vontae Davis' coverage. Davis held Dez Bryant to 35 yards on three catches in Week 12. It's a good week to wait and see on Moore, make him "prove" he's healthy, and possibly start him as a WR3 in a potential Week 14 shootout against the Packers. ... Ford, like McFadden, is believed to be targeting the Green Bay game to return from his foot sprain. Heyward-Bey will start at split end, but has not cleared 45 yards since Week 7 and would be a weak WR3 option, particularly if Moore plays. ... Miami's No. 24 pass-defense ranking suggests Palmer has a favorable matchup, but I'd be hard pressed to consider Palmer more than a high-end QB2 until his supporting cast returns at full strength.
After their fluky three-game win streak, the Dolphins' close Thanksgiving loss to Dallas provided an accurate glimpse of what to expect from Miami's skill players in the weeks ahead. Brandon Marshall racked up a team-high ten targets, while Brian Hartline was a distant second with five. Reggie Bush got 19 touches to Daniel Thomas' seven. Game flow can heavily impact usage and production, but on a weekly basis there are only two Dolphins worth consideration in standard fantasy leagues: Marshall and Bush. ... Marshall knows Raiders DBs Stanford Routt, Michael Huff, and Tyvon Branch well from their time together in the AFC West. In his last five meetings with Oakland, Marshall has posted rock-solid stat lines of 7-73-1, 5-67-1, 4-84, 5-82, and 6-67. It's an average of over five catches for 75 yards a game. He's a WR2. ... It's not breaking news that quarterbacks struggle when pressured, but Matt Moore gets more rattled than most. In four matchups this year with teams that rank in the top ten in sacks, Moore is 74-of-116 (63.8%) for 832 yards (7.17 YPA), three touchdowns, and six turnovers with seven fumbles. In his four other games, Moore is 64-of-103 (62.1%) for 775 yards (7.52 YPA) with six scores and three turnovers. He's fumbled twice, losing neither. Oakland ranks fifth in sacks, so if the trend holds Moore will struggle on Sunday. ... The Raiders can be beaten on the ground, where they rank 27th in rush defense and surrender a league-high 5.28 yards per carry. I'm not a long-term believer in Bush, but he has a plus Week 13 matchup and is the heavy favorite for touches in Miami's backfield.
Score Prediction: Raiders 23, Dolphins 17
Kansas City @ Chicago
Oakland was lucky to face turnover-prone Caleb Hanie in last week's game against the Bears, because Chicago's defense was stifling and it is becoming a trend. Over the last three games, opposing running backs have managed just 194 yards and one touchdown on 60 carries (3.23 YPC) against the Bears. Meanwhile, the Kansas City backfield has devolved into a three-way mess of ineffectiveness, suddenly led by Thomas Jones. That's right, the washed-up 33-year-old leads the Chiefs in carries over the past two games, and Dexter McCluster is second. Jackie Battle is third in line for rushing attempts and has all of two receptions since Week 5. It's hard to imagine using any of the three in a difficult matchup when none of them is a safe bet to exceed ten touches. For all of his PPR potential, McCluster has three catches over the past two weeks.
The Bears' run defense has come on lately, but their pass defense has been smothering for a more sustained stretch despite being matched up with one of the tougher pass-offense schedules in football. Over its last six games, Chicago has limited quarterbacks to 153-of-262 passing (58.4%) for 1,663 yards (6.35 YPA), five touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. The Chiefs are trying to be secretive about their Week 13 starting quarterback, but whomever it is will likely struggle. ... While Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin's fantasy values have gone by the wayside since Matt Cassel's year-ending injury, Dwayne Bowe has done well to stay relevant with seven receptions a game. The first read on a heavy majority of Kansas City passing plays, Bowe will be a WR3 if Tyler Palko starts and a borderline WR2 if a stronger-armed Kyle Orton gets the nod.
The Bears made some tweaks to their post-Jay Cutler offense in Week 12, utilizing Matt Forte on perimeter run plays and Marion Barber as the primary inside ball carrier. Forte finished with "only" 18 touches in large part because of Hanie's three first-half picks. By the third quarter, the Bears were trailing 18-7, and Hanie threw 21 of his 36 passes in second-half comeback mode. Forte capitalized in PPR leagues with six receptions, but the carry total (12) was not a sign of things to come. While Barber's role has undoubtedly grown, expect Forte to approach 25-30 touches in Sunday's matchup with Kansas City's 26th-ranked run defense. The Bears will do their best to prevent Hanie from throwing so often going forward, and Forte will be the offensive centerpiece. ... Barber remains a TD-heavy league flex option only, but did show some spark with 63 yards on 10 rushing attempts in Week 12, including a 21-yard burst. Despite several short-yardage carries that lower his average, Barber has racked up a respectable 198 yards and three touchdowns on his last 48 runs (4.13 YPC). Barber will stay involved as a candidate for 8-11 touches per week.
The Bears again started Roy Williams over Johnny Knox against Oakland, but Knox was clearly Hanie's preferred option. Knox's ten targets tied Forte for the team lead, and according to Pro Football Focus, he played 56-of-70 snaps (80.0%). Knox showed his big-play ability on a 29-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a fourth-quarter 81-yard bomb to set up Kellen Davis' nine-yard score. The rubs are that Knox's playing time may have been inflated due to comeback mode, and Hanie is an unreliable passer. Upside isn't an issue, but Knox is a dice-roll WR3. ... Rather predictably, Bears slot receiver Earl Bennett has been rendered a non-factor in old college pal Cutler's absence. Hanie targeted Bennett only four times against the Raiders, and the two hooked up once for five yards. ... Hanie's garbage time-influenced Week 12 fantasy statistics don't look bad. He's got a big arm and might run faster in a straight line than Cutler. But the Bears are working against fantasy owners in that they want to minimize Hanie's impact on games. If you're starting Hanie in a fantasy league, you're essentially betting that Chicago will fall behind early.
Score Prediction: Bears 24, Chiefs 14
Denver @ Minnesota
These were the words of NFL Network's Mike Mayock on the Broncos' offense during an SI.com podcast this week: "It's forcing coordinators to make phone calls to their buddies in the college level to say, 'How do we deal with this?' ... It's forcing coordinators to completely rip up game plans and change the way they look at things in today's NFL. ... All 53 players on that roster believe in Tim Tebow. Until teams figure it out and shut him down, count me in. I believe in Tim Tebow." On a personal note, I'm unaware of a more intelligent, well-rounded football analyst than Mike Mayock. And in my fantasy league, I will be starting Tebow for a seventh straight week when he heads to Minnesota. ... The Vikings' defense poses an intriguing matchup for Tebow because it can stop the run but has no prayer against the pass. Decimated by injuries, Minnesota has lost top safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) and No. 1 corner Antoine Winfield (collarbone) to I.R. Promising CB Chris Cook remains out indefinitely on suspension, while third safety Tyrell Johnson (hamstring) joined Abdullah and Winfield on the shelf for good this week. NFL front sevens still haven't figured out how to stop Tebow's running game, and he's now facing easily the worst pass defense he's seen in 2011. In terms of fantasy scoring, this could be Tebow's biggest game yet.
Here is Tebow's target distribution on the season: Eric Decker 36, Eddie Royal 30, Demaryius Thomas 22, Matt Willis 11, Daniel Fells 9. ... Royal was spotted in a walking boot at the club facility this week and may not play. Royal's absence would likely thrust Thomas into the starting lineup. Decker has been the lone viable Denver wideout from a fantasy perspective, but Thomas offers difference-making talent and qualifies as a Week 13 sleeper. Facing an awful Minnesota secondary and a front seven that will cheat toward the line to halt Tebow and Willis McGahee, Broncos receivers are going to be open on Sunday. ... The Vikings have a top-nine run defense, so the matchup is not working in McGahee's favor this week. The promising news long term is that McGahee is clearly recovered from his previous hand and hamstring maladies, racking up 117 yards on 23 carries (5.09 YPC) in Week 12 at San Diego. If you have high-volume running backs with better matchups, use them, but McGahee can certainly make for a respectable flex.
Toby Gerhart's Week 12 start went about as well as it could have for a back with below-average run skills against Atlanta's top-two rush defense. Gerhart was held to two yards or fewer on 12-of-17 carries. More troubling, he was stuffed on 3-of-4 short-yardage runs, including a would-be touchdown plunge on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter. The good news is that Gerhart goes from facing the NFL's No. 2 run defense to the 19th-ranked unit. He should approach 20 touches and will remain a solid bet to find pay dirt. ... Since Adrian Peterson went down at the end of the first quarter in Week 11, Percy Harvin has received 20 touches in seven quarters, taking them for 169 yards and two scores. Harvin came oh-so-close to a four-TD game in Week 12, getting tackled at the Falcons' one after a 20-yard reception, caught by the shoestring at the end of a 104-yard return, and narrowly missing out on a rushing score before Gerhart was thrown for a loss. Harvin is a slot receiver and Champ Bailey covers outside receivers, so he should avoid Denver's top cornerback for most of this game. A potential every-snap player for the first time this season following Michael Jenkins' year-ending knee injury, Harvin will be a high-upside WR2 in this game.
With Broncos edge rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil on an all-out rampage, the Vikings will struggle to keep Christian Ponder upright in Week 13. Dumervil and Miller have combined for 11 sacks over the past five games, and adversaries LT Charlie Johnson and RT Phil Loadholt are not up to the task. Pro Football Focus has graded Loadholt as the league's third-poorest right tackle in pass protection. Johnson ranks 28th among 37 qualifying left tackles. Ponder should have ample opportunities to put his athleticism to use, but he'll have little time in the pocket. His matchup will improve if Miller (thumb surgery) does not play. ... Jenkins' loss leaves Devin Aromashodu and Greg Camarillo as Ponder's top two perimeter targets. Camarillo is too slow to separate outside, and Aromashodu has nine receptions on the year. If Bailey stays at his usual left corner position, he will spend most of this game covering Aromashodu. ... Visanthe Shiancoe and rookie Kyle Rudolph have been eating away at each other's production all season. They would be worth a look this week and beyond if they could morph into one tight end's body.
Score Prediction: Broncos 21, Vikings 20
Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh
I discussed it in my Week 10 matchups column, and it held true in the first Bengals-Steelers battle earlier this year: Cincy defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has Ben Roethlisberger's number. In their past six meetings, Zimmer has held Big Ben to a 4:4 TD-to-INT ratio on 118-of-194 passing (60.8%) for 1,357 yards (6.99 YPA). The per-game yardage average is 226.2. Roethlisberger could bust the funk at any moment, but last Sunday night's effort against Kansas City (193 yards) provided little reason for optimism. Consider Big Ben a QB2 in Week 13. ... Rashard Mendenhall has essentially lost his passing-game role to Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman, which especially stings when he's not toting the rock 20 times per game. Mendenhall hasn't exceeded 17 carries since Week 6 and will likely need a goal-line touchdown to finish Week 13 as a worthwhile fantasy start. The Bengals' top-five run defense allows the third-fewest yards per carry (3.52) in football.
A picture of consistency, Antonio Brown has cleared 80 yards and/or scored a touchdown in five straight games. Here is Big Ben's target distribution over that span: Brown 37, Mike Wallace 36, Heath Miller 26, Emmanuel Sanders 19, Jerricho Cotchery 13, Mendenhall 13, Hines Ward 9. ... Brown's increasing role and Wallace's failure to exceed 70 yards since Week 7 have concerned some "60 Minutes" owners, but Wallace has in no way slowed down in terms of on-field performance, and has actually seen more targets than Brown in the Steelers' past two games. In coverage, Cincinnati's pass defense is significantly less imposing with top CB Leon Hall on injured reserve. FS Chris Crocker is coming off what is believed to be a subluxed (temporarily dislocated) right shoulder. Wallace is going to catch fire soon, and you don't want to be late to that dance. ... Miller's targets, on the other hand, have dipped in four consecutive games along with his yardage totals. He's only a TE2 going forward. ... Sanders and Ward are rotating sub-package wideouts playing in three- and four-receiver formations. Sanders played 29-of-66 snaps (43.9%) in Week 12, according to Pro Football Focus. Ward was in for 17 downs (25.8%). These players are not fantasy options.
Cedric Benson is coming off his best game since the first month of the season, but he's lined up to be shut down in Sunday's matchup with Pittsburgh's No. 6 run defense. In seven career games against the Steelers, Benson has managed 315 yards on 94 carries (3.35 YPC). Further hurting Benson's chances is the fact that SS Troy Polamalu has been medically cleared from his Week 12 concussion symptoms. After missing practice time with a foot injury, Benson is not playable in fantasy leagues this week. ... Andy Dalton threw two touchdown passes in the aforementioned Week 10 game, but Pittsburgh's defense was at less than full strength. Top edge rusher LaMarr Woodley, who had nine sacks in the season's first eight games, is back from his four-week hamstring injury and will be bookended by a healthy James Harrison. It's going to be very tough sledding for the entire Cincinnati offense this Sunday.
The 42.5-point over/under on this game seems awfully high. Jermaine Gresham will likely spend the day on the line blocking, and Pittsburgh held Jerome Simpson catch-less on four targets in Week 10. Simpson is easy to eliminate from the Bengals' offense with physical man coverage. Barring an absolutely mammoth effort from A.J. Green, Cincinnati will struggle to put points on the board. ... Green reconfirmed himself as an every-week fantasy starter by torching Browns top corner Joe Haden for 110 yards in Week 12. Fully recovered from his previously hyperextended knee, Green is the No. 11 overall receiver in fantasy points per game and should be in lineups at Heinz Field.
Score Prediction: Steelers 17, Bengals 13