New England @ St. Louis
Note: Pats-Rams is this year's London game, played at Wembley Stadium. Past scores on the "pitch": Giants 13, Dolphins 10 (2007); Saints 37, Chargers 32 (2008); Patriots 35, Bucs 7 (2009); 49ers 24, Broncos 16 (2010); and Bears 24, Bucs 18 (2011). There is no bankable trend for the Wembley games. So treat Rams and Patriots skill-position players as you would normally.
The Pats have played their past three games against top-ten pass defenses. So hindsight tells us it's not shocking Tom Brady & Co. are in a small rut. The Rams are no pushover, either, limiting foes to under seven yards per pass attempt and a 7:8 TD-to-INT ratio against. St. Louis is fifth in the NFL in sacks. Similar to Aaron Rodgers' Packers, though, Brady's Pats are capable of finding their groove at any given moment. Rodgers hit his stride in a similarly unlikely matchup with Houston's top-five pass defense. Keep trotting out Brady and hoping this is "the week." Brady is No. 4 in quarterback scoring, so it isn't as if he's been a bust. ... Brandon Lloyd's three-game lull is explainable in that he faced Champ Bailey in Week 5, Seattle in Week 6, and Antonio Cromartie in Week 7. They were really hard matchups. The good news is coordinator Josh McDaniels hasn't stopped calling plays for Lloyd. He remains the go-to option when Brady challenges deep, and uncharacteristically dropped 3-of-8 targets against the Jets. Lloyd has some of the best hands in the game. Downgrading Lloyd from WR2 to top-end WR3 might make sense, but he's not bench-able yet. If the Patriots can isolate Lloyd on struggling Rams rookie CB Janoris Jenkins, he will pay fantasy dividends. ... Wes Welker may have a difficult coverage draw in St. Louis slot CB Cortland Finnegan, but the contract-year slot guy is playing too well to sit. Welker leads the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. Even with both Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman back in the Week 7 lineup, Welker played 64-of-80 snaps (80 percent) and is locked into a featured role.
Even if the stats say St. Louis defends tight ends stingily, Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez are every-week stud plays. Gronkowski leads all tight ends in fantasy scoring again, bypassing Tony Gonzalez. Hernandez isn't quite over his ankle injury, but he's still a top-five guy. ... Edelman was a non-factor against the Jets, playing 7-of-80 snaps and seeing two targets. He carries no re-draft value. ... Shane Vereen has stepped up as Stevan Ridley's caddy during Brandon Bolden's (knee) absence. Vereen totaled 59 yards on nine Week 7 touches and is worth stashing in 12-team leagues. He'd still need a Stevan Ridley injury in order to be start-able. ... The Rams have played legitimately tough run defense over the past three weeks, although matchups with putrid ground attacks of Arizona, Green Bay, and Miami may have had plenty to do with St. Louis' sudden stoutness. Only the Dolphins rank better than 24th in rushing offense from that group, and feature back Reggie Bush was hobbled by knee and hip injuries when he played the Rams. Ridley has experienced back-to-back slow fantasy games, but workloads haven't been problematic (34 touches) and he's not suddenly an inferior runner because the Seahawks and Jets held him in check. The Rams are a better, harder-playing team this year than they've been in awhile, but the Patriots should still control this game. The rushing attempts will be there for Ridley. He's an RB1.
Friday Update: Hernandez was left off the team flight to London as the Patriots give him two full weeks for the ankle to heal. (New England has a Week 9 bye.) Hernandez's absence doesn't really alter any Pats skill-position players' Week 8 fantasy outlooks. Gronkowski has actually put up better numbers when Hernandez has played this year. Lloyd and perhaps Welker should get a few more targets.
After re-watching Week 7 Packers-Rams, I may have to change my opinion of St. Louis rookie tailback Daryl Richardson. To this point used primarily as a change-of-pace complement behind Steven Jackson out on the edges, Richardson showed between-the-tackles running chops on a series of first-half and fourth-quarter carries against Green Bay, delivering some blows. Jackson remains the lead runner in the rotation, but there is growing reason to believe Richardson is a realistic heir apparent. Richardson also stayed in to pass block a handful of times and didn't embarrass himself. As the trade deadline looms next Tuesday, Richardson owners should cling tightly to the rookie. Coach Jeff Fisher isn't shy about featuring undersized speed backs. ... S-Jax is still running well enough to be an every-week RB2/flex. He handles the bulk of St. Louis' passing-down snaps and should receive 14-17 touches against New England's No. 8 run defense. ... Richardson figures to be in the 9-13 touch range Sunday, based on recent usage, and is on the bye-week flex radar. Richardson isn't going to get any goal-line carries, but possesses big-play ability and causes matchup problems on the perimeter against linebackers and strong safeties. He definitely offers better short-area quicks and acceleration than Jackson.
Chris Givens is St. Louis' best receiver right now, and the coaches know it. They also know he is a raw, limited player. So they're creatively crafting ways to get the ball in his hands. Givens' 56-yard gain in Week 7 came on a quick screen. He got 14 more yards on a carry. Givens has blazing wheels, and beyond the backfield is the Rams' best big-play threat. With 50-plus yards in four straight games, Givens can no longer be ignored as a viable WR3. He runs by coverage, and the Patriots' No. 29 pass defense struggles to cover. ... Brandon Gibson played an efficient, physical game in Week 6 at Miami (7-91), but was back to his old tricks in last week's loss to Green Bay (5-60). Gibson doesn't separate from defensive backs and is holding back the Rams' offense. Go with Givens if you want to start a St. Louis receiver in Week 8. ... The Rams would love for No. 33 overall pick Brian Quick to unseat Gibson, but they're still bringing the rookie along slowly. Quick played 11 snaps against the Packers, securing 2-of-4 targets for 31 yards. ... Full disclosure: I'm really desperate for a bye-week quarterback filler in one of my leagues and will be starting Sam Bradford in Week 8. I don't feel great about it, but the matchup is right and Bradford has been slinging it around the yard the past couple of weeks. He's also a threat for some garbage-time numbers. In an ideal world, Bradford's value would be restricted to two-quarterback leagues.
Friday Update: The Rams' No. 1 receiver when healthy is Danny Amendola. Amendola made an ahead-of-schedule return to practice this week, coming off his clavicle injury. He's listed as questionable on the injury report. While it's good news that Amendola is healing so fast, he is not expected to play in the London game.
Score Prediction: Patriots 27, Rams 13
Jacksonville @ Green Bay
Coach Mike McCarthy's evaluation of Alex Green's Week 7 game was not promising. "I wasn't really happy with the production in the run game," McCarthy said of Green, who managed 35 yards on 20 carries at St. Louis. "We left too many yards on the field. There were too many 1-, 2-yard runs that should have been hardball 3-, 4-, 5-yard runs." Green has a paltry 78 yards on his last 38 carries (2.05 YPC), and it's time to start worrying about him losing time to James Starks. Jacksonville's No. 29 run defense keeps Green in the flex-play mix, but his shine is fading fast. ... Aaron Rodgers continues to say all the right things about Jermichael Finley, but on-field realities tell a different tale. The Packers aren't efforting to get Finley the football anymore. Due (allegedly) to a shoulder injury, Finley has seen five targets or fewer in six straight weeks, and has just six over the past two. He played 79.1 percent of the snaps in Green Bay's first four games. He's been a 46.9-percent player the last three weeks. Jacksonville has been stingy against players at Finley's position, having yet to allow a single touchdown to a tight end. Only Arizona and Indianapolis have permitted fewer tight end fantasy points than the Jaguars. Finley is a TE2 for Week 8 and beyond.
While Greg Jennings remains out indefinitely after abdominal surgery, and Finley's playing time is in free fall, Randall Cobb has emerged as a slot-receiver staple in Green Bay's lethal pass attack. The single-most efficient receiver in the game today, Cobb has secured 26 of his last 30 targets for 339 yards and three touchdowns. That 87-percent "catch rate" is off the charts. The Packers average an 11-yard gain every time they so much as throw the ball in Cobb's direction. Still think he's going away when Jennings returns? Get outta here. ... You know the drill with Rodgers. The Jaguars rank 24th in pass defense and last in the NFL in sacks, and Rodgers pulverizes defenses that don't bring pressure. This is one of the bigger mismatch games of the 2012 season to date. ... Regardless of Jordy Nelson's hamstring injury, I think James Jones actually has the friendlier Week 8 coverage matchup. Based on where Nelson and Jones line up on most of their offensive snaps, Nelson figures to vie with Jags top corner Derek Cox for the majority of Sunday's game, if he's active. Jones will draw 32-year-old LCB Rashean Mathis. I really like Jones' chances of a big day. ... Nelson will be a game-time decision after straining the hammy in Wednesday's practice. He's too good to bench if he's active. If Nelson is inactive -- and we won't know until Sunday A.M. -- the Packers would turn to Donald Driver in three-wide sets with Cobb and Jones.
It's fair to wonder about the chances of Blaine Gabbert lasting four quarters in Sunday's tilt with Green Bay. Will he make it to halftime? Gabbert has been diagnosed with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and already had a tendency to react overdramatically to pressure. Now trying to play injured, he'll have Clay Matthews bearing down on him in Week 8. The Packers won't hesitate to dial up heavy blitzes with Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) out indefinitely, and Dom Capers' unit already leads the NFL in sacks. ... The Jags' announced plan to "force feed" Justin Blackmon the football coming out of their Week 6 bye didn't work out so well in last week's loss to the Raiders. Still unable to defeat coverage both off the line of scrimmage and downfield, Blackmon secured 1-of-4 targets for seven yards. Being routinely outplayed by Cecil Shorts, Blackmon has managed 14 receptions on 37 targets this season and is averaging 21 yards per game. ... The Packers' loss of FS Charles Woodson to a six-week collarbone fracture won't be felt in Week 8 pass coverage. Woodson often matches up one-on-one with tight ends, but Marcedes Lewis is much more blocker than pass catcher. Lewis has gone a month and a half without topping 32 receiving yards.
Simply being a member of Jacksonville's last-ranked passing game makes Shorts a weekly dice roll brimming with downside, but he's the go-to guy if you're dying to start a Jaguars receiver for some reason. Shorts has big-play ability (23.7 YPR) and leads the Jags in receiving touchdowns (3). Shorts will start again in place of concussed free-agent bust Laurent Robinson. ... Replacing MJD will be Rashad Jennings, who possesses a 4.78 career YPC average and will be a legitimate every-down back. While Jennings lacks Jones-Drew's dynamic running ability, he can get what's blocked and consistently finishes runs. Because Jennings also plays in the passing game, he won't be coming off the field if the Packers grab a big lead early, which minimizes fantasy risk. So Jennings should be fairly consistent. Jacksonville will square off with Green Bay's No. 17 run defense in Week 8, and the Packers have been depleted by recent injuries to key run stoppers Woodson, ILB D.J. Smith (knee), and NT B.J. Raji (ankle). Only Raji has a shot to play this week.
Score Prediction: Packers 34, Jaguars 6
Atlanta @ Philadelphia
I'm probably in the minority on Michael Vick. I believe he's been playing a lot better than he's been credited for, and think the turnovers are fixable. He's certainly moving the Eagles' offense. Philly ranks seventh in the NFL in yards per game, a respectable 13th in passing, and tenth in rushing offense. Aside from Vick's fumbles and interceptions, Philadelphia's biggest problem has been an inability to get into the end zone. And I think the touchdowns will come. The Falcons' defense is heavily dependent on the takeaway because opponents can gash them with the run and have passing success by attacking RCB Dunta Robinson. Chris Wesseling ranked Vick as the No. 7 quarterback play in Week 8, and I don't think that's too bold. Andy Reid will get this thing fixed. If he didn't believe Vick was the right guy to fix it, Vick would have been benched for Nick Foles during the Week 7 bye. ... Jeremy Maclin is key to the turnaround. He's been available for only 13-of-24 quarters so far. Now healthy, Maclin runs most of his routes on Robinson's side of the field and dismantled Robinson for last September's ridiculous 13-171-2 game at the Georgia Dome. A recommended buy-low target, slow-starting Maclin will be high-upside WR2 the rest of the way.
Game-to-game consistency will always be an issue for DeSean Jackson, and he'll get a tougher Week 8 coverage draw versus LCB Asante Samuel. Jackson's weekly upside should keep him in fantasy lineups, though, and he's capitalized on Maclin's nagging injuries to this point, averaging a solid 78 receiving yards per game. ... Atlanta isn't particularly stingy in tight end defense, allowing the 13th most fantasy points to the position through seven weeks. Brent Celek remains more of a high-end TE2 than legitimate weekly starter. ... Joining Maclin in the best-buy-low category is LeSean McCoy, who will face off Sunday with a Falcons club whose team weakness is rush defense. Atlanta ranks 28th against the run and surrenders an NFC-high 5.23 yards per carry. McCoy faced a similar-looking Falcons front seven in Week 2 last season, and went off for 116 total yards and two TDs. This is a springboard-type matchup for the Philly feature back's season.
We'll see a different Philly defense following the removal of overmatched playcaller Juan Castillo. New DC Todd Bowles will pursue a more aggressive approach in an attempt to capitalize on the Eagles' personnel. Philadelphia has speed ends that explode off the edge from Wide-9 stances, and cover corners that theoretically complement that playing style perfectly. It's worth noting that Matt Ryan lit up the Eagles for four touchdown passes when they were employing this same up-tempo strategy early last year. Two of Ryan's scoring tosses were good to Tony Gonzalez in that Week 2 game. ... The best way to combat the Eagles' revised defense is to respond with quick hitters. Particularly with slot man Harry Douglas (knee, ankle) out this week, Gonzalez and Roddy White should be Ryan's go-to targets underneath. Bubble screens to Julio Jones have already been a staple of first-year Falcons OC Dirk Koetter's playbook, and they are similarly effective counter plays. Philadelphia's defense will generate more sacks under Bowles, and should do a better job of taking advantage of the team's best players. But the Falcons match up well with the Eagles. They have the quarterback and supporting cast to continue to put points on the board.
In terms of coverage matchups, I expect to see White matched up with LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in two-receiver sets. In the three wides, White may replace Douglas at slot receiver and draw rookie CB Brandon Boykin. Julio Jones most often deals with RCBs, and Nnamdi Asomugha is Philadelphia's primary right corner. White, Jones, and Gonzo should all be confidently started in fantasy. ... In last season's aforementioned Week 2 Eagles-Falcons game, Michael Turner ran all over Philly with 114 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries (5.43 YPC), also chipping in a 32-yard gain on a swing pass. The Eagles are defending the run better this year than last, but Turner is worth trotting out as an RB2 with upside in a possible shootout. Fantasy owners are still advised to sell Turner high if he has a big day. His tendency is to wear down considerably as seasons progress. ... Jacquizz Rodgers figures to play the majority of passing-down snaps, but his role in terms of handling the football has diminished greatly. It's understandable because "Quizz" lacks burst and inside running ability to be an effective NFL ball carrier. He's too small to break tackles and is incapable of pressing the hole with acceleration.
Score Prediction: Eagles 34, Falcons 28