Atlanta @ Carolina
Game-watchers know Michael Turner's on-field play has been lackluster since midseason, and box scores are catching up. Turner has one touchdown in his last four games and 63 yards on his last 26 carries (2.42 YPC), showing a noticeable tendency to wear down in second halves of games. The matchup, of course, couldn't be better in Week 14 against a Panthers team that lost both starting defensive tackles (Terrell McClain -- MCL, Sione Fua -- hamstring) to injured reserve this week. The NFL's No. 27 run defense will rotate in 2010 undrafted free agent Andre Neblett and 2011 seventh-rounder Frank Kearse. Turner may not capitalize to the extent he could have were he still playing at a high level, but this is the most favorable matchup he'll get the rest of the way. ... Continuing to defy age, Tony Gonzalez is the No. 3 fantasy tight end behind only Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Matchups don't matter for Gonzo. He's an every-week starter.
Julio Jones was finger tips away from a mammoth Week 13 game, skying for a would-be score over Texans CB Jason Allen only to land just out of bounds, and dropping what could have been the game-tying touchdown on the final play. His hamstrings now healthy, Jones again has a more favorable matchup than Roddy White. Whereas White figures to deal with Panthers top CB Chris Gamble for the majority of Sunday's snaps, Jones will square off against burnable RCB Captain Munnerlyn. Jones was inactive for Atlanta's early-season meeting with Carolina, and Gamble held White to 21 yards on two catches. This isn't to say White should be benched in fantasy leagues, but the smart money says Jones will out-produce him in Week 14. ... After a four-week stretch that saw him prey on weak pass defenses, Matt Ryan returned to Earth with a pair of picks, one touchdown, and 267 yards at Houston last week. Keep in mind that the Falcons will play outdoors Sunday for the first time since Week 4. Ryan isn't a terrible bet for a big game with his receiver corps back healthy, but here's guessing you've made the fantasy playoffs with a superior starter.
I like the over on Vegas' 47-point projection for Falcons-Panthers because I don't think either defense can stop either offense. Cam Newton is a one-man wrecking machine and could have pushed for Michael Vick's single-game record of 50 fantasy points had Carolina not taken the pedal off the gas during the second half of last week's termination of the Bucs. ... The Panthers are winning games recently with the rushing attack, which will inevitably open up passing lanes for slumping Steve Smith. The Falcons are again without top CB Brent Grimes (knee), and last week served up 97 yards in less than three quarters to Andre Johnson with Grimes out of the lineup. This week sets up as well as it possibly could for a Smith rebound game. I'd think of Smith as a top-five receiver play versus Atlanta. ... Greg Olsen has battled turf toe and knee injuries since the first month of the season, perhaps contributing to his sharp drop-off in production. He's exceeded 50 yards once in the last eight weeks. The Falcons have not been particularly generous to tight ends in fantasy, so it's reasonable to consider sitting Olsen if you own a viable alternative.
The Panthers resumed starting Legedu Naanee (2-38-1) over Brandon LaFell (3-64) in Week 13, although LaFell played more snaps. LaFell is the better fantasy option of the two, but remains a rotational player and would need a sustained stretch of respectable production in order to be a "trustworthy" fantasy play. If you're into trying to anticipate those things as opposed to wait for them to happen, the Falcons rank 21st against the pass and are at less than full strength in the back end. ... Over the last three games, Jonathan Stewart has 47 touches to DeAngelo Williams' 37. Neither has exceeded 16 touches in any week this season, but Stewart gets more receptions and therefore sees increased in-space opportunities, where he has a better shot to hit big gains. D-Will is a low-end, low-ceiling flex. J-Stew at least offers upside in a flex spot, and it's worth noting that he racked up 74 yards and a score against Atlanta's top-three run defense in Week 6.
Score Prediction: Panthers 30, Falcons 24
Houston @ Cincinnati
A Bengals defense that opened the year stuffing the run is springing leaks. Over the past month, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Ray Rice, and Peyton Hillis -- the latter at less than 100% -- have combined to tag Cincy for 349 yards and six touchdowns on 86 carries (4.06 YPC). The per-play average isn't exciting, but rushers are scoring on the Bengals because they've been easy to move the ball against since losing CB Leon Hall. Offenses are getting into scoring position, and each of the aforementioned rushing touchdowns has occurred inside the ten-yard line. With nine TDs in his last six games, Arian Foster is as safe a bet for weekly scores as any back in football. Foster also ranks third in receiving yards among tailbacks, finding ways to compensate even in weeks where his yards-per-carry average is low. ... The 7-5 Bengals should stay competitive enough Sunday to prevent Ben Tate from proving a worthwhile flex start. Since Foster returned from his early-season hamstring injury in Week 4, Tate has averaged 7.5 carries for 37.5 yards with no touchdowns in games the Texans lose or win by fewer than 18 points (four-game sample). When Houston wins by 18 or more (three-game sample), Tate has averaged over 13 carries for 94 yards with two touchdowns. Ben Tate needs blowout victories for fantasy-viable production.
T.J. Yates is a poised, aggressive young passer. He is comfortable in the pocket and willing to take shots downfield. Yates can keep Houston's offense afloat, but the team's run-heavy mindset prevents his pass catchers from posting consistent production. ... Here is Yates' target distribution since replacing Matt Leinart in the second quarter of Week 12: Andre Johnson 12, Owen Daniels 11, Foster 6, Jacoby Jones 4, Kevin Walter 4. ... With Johnson (hamstring) out 1-2 weeks, Jones will take over at split end with Kevin Walter at flanker. Jones averaged 48 yards with two scores in Johnson's six missed games earlier this season. Walter had one touchdown and a 41.5-yard average. Both are WR3 rolls of the dice, but Jones has a superior matchup against Bengals RCB Pacman Jones. Walter will spend most of the day in LCB Nate Clements' coverage. Clements has been Cincinnati's top cornerback in Hall's absence. ... Daniels is probably the favorite for targets in Houston now, but this is a prohibitive matchup. The Bengals are allowing under 50 yards per game to tight ends, and only three players at the position have scored on Cincinnati all season.
Cedric Benson has managed a pedestrian 425 yards on his last 119 carries (3.57 YPC). He is a low-end RB2 against the Texans' fourth-ranked run defense. Fellow straight-line power backs Michael Turner (14-44-0) and LeGarrette Blount (10-34-0) will attest to the fact that Houston isn't easily run on. ... A.J. Green has burned Joe Haden and Ike Taylor for 212 total yards and a touchdown in back-to-back weeks. He has "earned" a WR2 start against Texans CB Johnathan Joseph. ... Jerome Simpson has a more favorable matchup on paper than Green, but is not fantasy playoffs material. He's been held to 15 receiving yards or fewer in three of his last five games and did not catch a pass in Week 13. ... The Texans pose a prohibitive matchup for Jermaine Gresham. Houston has allowed the third fewest receptions in the league to tight ends, and the fourth fewest yards. Only two tight ends have scored on the Texans this season. ... This game sets up poorly for Andy Dalton, as well. Houston ranks third against the pass and Dalton has a 3:4 TD-to-turnover ratio over his last three games. December weather also threatens to be a factor in Cincinnati. This projects as a low-scoring affair with two top-six defenses doing battle.
Score Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 13
4:05PM ET Games
Chicago @ Denver
Proving that matchups don't matter, Tim Tebow has posted top-ten QB stats against both premier run defenses (Vikings, Dolphins) and highly-ranked pass defenses (Jets, Chargers). Tebow has played extensively in eight games this year. As a passer alone, his 16-game pace would include a 20:2 TD-to-INT ratio, plus six more rushing touchdowns. The Broncos haven't quite unleashed Tebow and allowed him to play "street ball" -- attacking opponents with both the run and pass in the same game from the shotgun -- but it's coming. A Week 15 matchup with the Patriots may be the target date, so look for Denver's coaching staff to tinker with it versus Chicago. Tebow has maintained a "high floor" with considerably more fantasy upside than we've witnessed so far.
Demaryius Thomas' 4-144-2 stat line in Week 13 was more an indication of his enormous long-range potential than an immediate sign of things to come. As Eric Decker's owners know by now, inconsistency is inevitable for receivers in the NFL's most run-heavy offense. Decker and Thomas both offer plenty of weekly fantasy "ceiling," particularly with Eddie Royal (neck) not expected to play. They're also major gambles. Until the Broncos remove Tebow's shackles, Decker and Thomas may alternate week-to-week production. As to who will out-produce whom against Chicago, your guess is as good as mine. ... Willis McGahee was given Thursday and Friday's practices off in order to ensure that the soreness in his knee would subside as much as possible before Sunday's game. The Bears' No. 8 run-defense ranking looks tough on paper, but they're permitting 4.45 yards a carry. Since Tebow replaced Kyle Orton at halftime of Week 5, McGahee has 553 yards and three touchdowns on 104 rushing attempts (5.32 YPC). McGahee managed 333 yards and one score on 78 early-season carries (4.27 average) with Orton under center.
After Caleb Hanie's three-pick Week 13 game, Bears OC Mike Martz has vowed to increase his offensive tempo and play more aggressively, rather than scale things back to give Hanie more comfort. It's another factor working in Tebow's favor, because the Broncos are a good bet to win the time-of-possession battle Sunday. Hanie has been turnover prone in the preseason and threw two interceptions in two quarters of action during last year's NFC title game. This is becoming a trend. Start the Broncos' defense and avoid all Bears pass catchers. ... Marion Barber has been ignored in Chicago's passing game this season and will essentially be a homeless man's version of LeGarrette Blount going forward. Kahlil Bell will replace Barber on the field when Chicago falls behind. Barber stands to receive 16-22 carries against Denver's No. 20 run defense, assuming the Bears stay competitive. Bell will be the passing-down back and preferred option on screens. This offense probably isn't going anywhere on Sunday, so Barber is just a flex option in non-PPR leagues. Bell would need a pass-heavy comeback scenario to prove a worthwhile fantasy start.
Score Prediction: Broncos 24, Bears 13
San Francisco @ Arizona
Granted A.J. Feeley was quarterbacking the offense, but the 49ers didn't allow the Rams to cross the 38-yard line on a single possession during last week's 26-0 shutout victory. San Francisco is playing the toughest defense in football, erasing rushing attacks and forcing opponents to resort to the pass. No team in the league is allowing fewer points per game (13.4). The Cardinals' offense has struggled mightily to generate points and yards when Beanie Wells has been a non-factor this season, and precedent says that will remain the case on Sunday. Battling hamstring, knee, and thumb ailments, Wells is a low-end RB2 against the 49ers. He'll probably need a goal-line score to be profitable, and San Francisco hasn't given up a rushing touchdown all year. If you are looking for a desperation tiebreaker, perhaps the fact that All-Pro ILB Patrick Willis will miss the game with a knee injury could tilt you toward Wells. But he's not a strong fantasy play regardless. ... Kevin Kolb's return from foot and toe injuries did nothing to spring Larry Fitzgerald in Week 13, but it's difficult to imagine benching wide receivers who are on pace for over 1,250 yards and eight touchdowns. ... Andre Roberts caught all six of his Week 13 targets for a game-high 111 yards. It was the second game over 55 yards of Roberts' career. The pendulum could just as easily swing back toward Early Doucet this week, leaving neither as a viable starter during the fantasy playoffs.
Last week, Dez Bryant toasted Patrick Peterson for 86 yards and a TD on eight receptions in a design similar to how Michael Crabtree dropped his 7-120 line on Peterson in Week 11. Peterson doesn't get a quick break on the ball in "off" coverage, and for some reason the Cards continue to let him give a cushion. This is a matchup ripe for the picking for Crabtree, especially in PPR. ... Vernon Davis is one of the league's most physically gifted tight ends, but he's underwhelmed in the passing game due to increased blocking. The tight end position has thinned out around the league as the season has gone on, so Davis has remained a top-ten weekly play. ... Frank Gore racked up 88 yards on 24 carries against Arizona in Week 11, but it's fair to wonder if he's slowing down at the wrong time of the year. Gore has managed 203 yards and no touchdowns on his last 69 rushing attempts (2.94 YPC). ... Braylon Edwards' return may add an explosive element to San Francisco's offense, as long as Edwards doesn't perform as poorly he did before the knee and shoulder injuries. Alex Smith will be a strong two-QB league play when we see evidence of that on the field.
Score Prediction: 49ers 17, Cardinals 10