Detroit @ Jacksonville
Matthew Stafford struggled in Detroit's first six games. He struggled mightily, to the point that he may have been the 2012 season's single biggest first-half fantasy bust. But Stafford always possessed too much talent in too high-octane an offense for that funk to continue, and his Week 8 performance was an emphatic reminder. With Titus Young delivering the finest effort of his 25-game career, Stafford snapped out of it, playing with confidence and aggressiveness and placing the football with precision in a thrilling 28-24 win. Remember Aaron Rodgers' early-season funk? Tom Brady's? Drew Brees had one a few years back. Stafford's just lasted a bit longer. Trot out Stafford as a QB1 against Jacksonville's No. 23 pass defense. The Jags are expected to be without three starting defensive backs (RCB Derek Cox – back; LCB Rashean Mathis – groin; FS Dwight Lowery - ankle). ... Playing 68-of-74 snaps, Young abused Seahawks LCB Richard Sherman for the majority of last week's 9/100/2 line, which provides a hint at the second-year receiver's potential. Sherman is perhaps the NFL's best young cornerback. Young can fly, and Nate Burleson's year-ending leg injury makes him a full-time receiver in a pass-first, vertical offense where Calvin Johnson dictates coverage. Expect ups and downs, but Young will be difficult to keep on fantasy benches moving forward. ... Burleson was a Lions locker-room favorite, but I think it's safe to say they'll be better off with Young and Ryan Broyles on the field. The play speed of the entire offense was noticeably faster in Week 8. Broyles is a rotational slot receiver, but he plays on all passing downs and is a fixture in Detroit's red-zone offense. ... Newly acquired Mike Thomas will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver and likely cut into Stefan Logan's return duties. Logan has three fumbles over his past three games.
Johnson (knee) was clearly laboring in the second half of Seahawks-Lions. Perhaps the Jags saw his diminished movement skills in their tape preparation and will leave Aaron Ross on him all day. Even at 75 percent, Megatron needs to be started every week. Despite missed practices, Johnson is fully expected to start Sunday. ... Brandon Pettigrew made a few plays after the catch against Seattle, breaking tackles and finishing with seven receptions for 74 yards on nine targets. The Jags have allowed the second fewest fantasy points to tight ends -- largely because no tight end has scored on them -- but Pettigrew is worth a look as a back-end TE1. ... Tony Scheffler was a bigger part of the offense in Burleson's first full missed game, and has more seam-stretching ability than post-up guy Pettigrew. Scheffler went for 46 yards against the Seahawks, but still only played half of the snaps and isn't on the 12-team league radar. ... Although it has faced back-to-back struggling opponents, one aspect of Jacksonville's team that has come to life since the bye week is the run defense. Switching out overmatched rookie DE Andre Branch for veteran Austen Lane and demoting NT Terrance Knighton into a rotation with C.J. Mosley, the Jags have stuffed Oakland and Green Bay's running games for 135 yards and one touchdown -- a goal-line sneak by Carson Palmer -- on 52 carries (2.60 YPC) since the off week. The Jaguars are suddenly getting backfield penetration and creating pileups at the line of scrimmage. Mikel Leshoure is a low-end RB2 option. Joique Bell remains a pace-change back.
Blaine Gabbert won't be mistaken for a fantasy asset anytime soon, but tangible signs of on-field progress are promising for No. 1 receiver Cecil Shorts. Gabbert has completed 34 of his last 60 passes (56.7 percent) for 411 yards (6.85 YPA), and a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio, and that counts as a step forward based on his early-career standards. On pace for a respectable 914 yards and seven receiving scores despite playing backup snaps early in the season, Shorts remains firmly on the WR3 radar against a Detroit pass defense that was plagued by injuries even before top cover safety Louis Delmas’ latest knee aggravation. ... Jacksonville's Week 6 bye did nothing to kick start Justin Blackmon's season. He's secured 5-of-12 targets for 74 yards in two games since the open date and has yet to find pay dirt on the year. Blackmon is waiver-wire fodder in 12-team fantasy leagues until proven otherwise. ... Marcedes Lewis has gone six games without topping 32 yards and is showing no signs of busting his funk despite Gabbert's improved play.
Rashad Jennings was the superior Week 8 waiver claim over La'Rod Stephens-Howling, but that doesn't mean Jennings is headed for stardom. While his workloads have been voluminous -- 51 touches the past two weeks -- Jennings is showing himself to be a pedestrian ball carrier who doesn't get much more than what's blocked. He's under 3.0 yards per carry on the season. The Lions rank 18th against the run and surrender a fairly generous 4.37 YPC, but Jennings is really nothing more than a low-upside flex option on a good fantasy football team. He's not going to hit long runs, or score very often in one of the league's poorest offenses. The passing-game usage is Jennings' brightest spot. He plays a major role even when Jacksonville falls behind in games.
Score Prediction: Lions 23, Jaguars 13
Chicago @ Tennessee
Chicago pulled out a Week 7 fourth-quarter comeback win over Carolina, but offensive line woes are rearing their ugly head again. Jay Cutler has absorbed 11 sacks and 24 hits over his last two games, and losing the possession-time battle 37:23 to the Panthers cost Matt Forte in the box score, where he received only 15 carries. Tennessee conveniently ranks 29th in sacks, so this is a matchup in which the front five should hold its own. ... Forte's versatility stabilizes his production even in down weeks for rushing, and he still came away from the Carolina game with 94 yards and a touchdown on 20 all-purpose touches. Dating back to Week 5, Forte has 259 yards on his last 56 carries (4.63 YPC) and is a shoo-in top-dozen running back play against the Titans' No. 28 rush defense. ... Forte has been healthy for each of Chicago's last three games. Backup Michael Bush has averaged five touches per game over that span, and bottomed out last week with three carries for five yards and no receptions. Bush is a handcuff only at this point with zero flex appeal.
Cutler is engineering long drives when the line gives him time and delivering the rock relentlessly to Brandon Marshall, but Chicago's signal caller has settled in as a QB2. He's 27th in quarterback scoring and 23rd in points per game. While Tennessee's No. 29 pass defense makes Cutler a worthwhile two-QB league play, he's not a starter in standard settings. ... Enemy No. 1 receiver stats in the Titans' last four games: Reggie Wayne 7-91; Stevie Johnson 5-71-1; Mike Wallace 2-94-1; Percy Harvin 8-108-1. Marshall is good to go. ... Cutler's distribution of targets since the Bears' Week 6 bye: Marshall 24, Earl Bennett and Forte 10, Devin Hester 8, Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth 3. ... Bennett is a volume-dependent possession receiver who doesn't make plays downfield or score touchdowns. So in terms of fantasy relevance, his average of five targets per game isn't going to get it done. Forte and Marshall are the Bears' only realistic fantasy starters.
The Bears' primary team strength is a dominant front four that works in "waves" to keep everyone fresh. It's actually an eight-man rotation with Shea McClellin, Corey Wootton, Amobi Okoye, and Nate Collins spelling starters Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, and Israel Idonije. Chicago ranks first in run defense and second in sacks, and the constant up-front havoc works in unison with an opportunistic secondary that's tied for the NFL lead in interceptions. Tennessee will have its work cut out to generate ball movement. ... As brimming with talent and blowup potential as Kenny Britt is, there couldn't possibly be a less likely matchup for his long-awaited breakout game. The Titans are dinking and dunking with noodle-armed Matt Hasselbeck under center. The Bears' Cover 2 will allow Hasselbeck to do so while shutting down the deep half, attempting to eliminate Tennessee's run game, and awaiting a Hasselbeck mistake. Bears LCB Charles Tillman shut down Calvin Johnson two weeks ago and figures to shadow Britt in this game, as well. ... Hasselbeck's target distribution in his last four starts: Nate Washington 32, Britt and Kendall Wright 27, Jared Cook 21, Damian Williams 11, Chris Johnson and Craig Stevens 10.
Chicago is playing top-five defense in yards per pass attempt, TD-to-INT ratio (6:16), and passer rating allowed (62.0). The statistics indicate the Titans will struggle to throw the football Sunday. ... Hasselbeck is spreading the wealth, and limited anticipated Week 9 production makes all of his would-be pass catchers weak, low-ceiling fantasy bets. Washington, Britt, and Wright are already weekly WR3 rolls of the dice. Wright's vertical speed continues to go to waste catching screens and dump downs. ... The Titans seemingly say every week that they "want" Cook more involved. It never happens. I would have requested a trade, too. ... The Bears have been even better against the run than the pass. They're No. 1 in the league in run defense, have permitted only one rushing touchdown through seven games, and allow 3.76 yards per carry. Chris Johnson has strung together three consecutive weeks of tough running, and that is a promising forward-looking sign. The odds just don't favor Johnson doing much in this game. He's more of an RB2/flex than an RB1 in Week 9.
Score Prediction: Bears 20, Titans 10
Denver @ Cincinnati
Perhaps the most underrated running back in the game today, Willis McGahee is coming off a thorough shredding of the Saints that witnessed the seemingly ageless 31-year-old post season highs in carries (23), rushing (122), and total yards (155). McGahee is lighting up opponents on cutback runs. A top-ten fantasy back through seven games, McGahee will face off Sunday with a Bengals defense that ranks 22nd in run defense and has allowed the NFL's second most rushing touchdowns. McGahee is an every-week RB1. ... Broncos rookie tailback Ronnie Hillman received a Week 7 uptick in carries as Denver sat on a blowout lead. Though still prone to negative runs, Hillman flashed his jets and fast feet with 86 yards on 14 carries and has clearly bypassed Lance Ball to be McGahee's handcuff. Hillman is worth a fantasy roster stash in case McGahee breaks down. ... Peyton Manning's updated 2012 target distribution: Eric Decker 59, Demaryius Thomas 57, Jacob Tamme 42, Brandon Stokley 26, Joel Dreessen 25, McGahee 24, Hillman 5. ... The Bengals allow the sixth most fantasy points in the league to tight ends, but Dreessen and Tamme are just TE2s. Tamme played 33.8 percent of Denver's Week 8 snaps and has begun losing time to Virgil Green. Dreessen played 90.5 percent, but didn't catch a pass.
Saints DC Steve Spagnuolo threw all but the kitchen sink at Manning last Sunday night. New Orleans played nickel-zone as its base defense, blitzed frequently, and even scratched healthy run-stopping DT Brodrick Bunkley to get more pass rushers on the field. It didn't work. Manning carved up Spags' group for his fourth consecutive game of three touchdown passes and 300-plus yards. An unquestioned elite QB1 again, Manning should pad his stats against Cincinnati's slow-footed secondary in Week 9. Observed NFL Network's Kurt Warner of Manning this week, "Take out that one first half against Atlanta, and I don't know if anybody's played the position better all year long." ... Thomas is everything the Cowboys hoped Dez Bryant would be coming out of the same 2010 draft. A physical playmaker with an increasingly complete game and genuinely solid head on his shoulders, Thomas will make a serious run to be this year's top fantasy receiver. ... Thomas is an every-week WR1, but Decker has a more favorable Week 9 matchup. Whereas Thomas will run most of his routes against Bengals top CB Leon Hall, Decker will draw either 34-year-old LCB Terence Newman or rookie Dre Kirkpatrick, who's expected to make his NFL debut. A top-15 fantasy wideout in his own right, Decker is a recommended play Sunday at Cincinnati.
The Bengals' passing game shuts down when defenses take away A.J. Green, and the Steelers reconfirmed that reality just before Cincinnati's Week 8 bye. Ike Taylor limited Green to one catch, and Andy Dalton finished with 105 passing yards. In Week 5, Dolphins CB Sean Smith held Green to 65 yards. Dalton threw one touchdown and was picked off twice, managing 234 yards in Cincy's 17-13 loss to Miami. Green has been held out of the end zone once this season -- in Week 1 by the Ravens. Baltimore dismantled Cincinnati 44-13 as Dalton produced a 0:2 touchdown-to-turnover ratio and 221 yards. Shutting down Green is easier said than done, of course, but Champ Bailey is one of the league's few cornerbacks capable of it. Per Pro Football Focus, Bailey hasn't allowed a single touchdown this season, and quarterbacks challenging his coverage have a 69.0 passer rating. Green remains a must-start, but Dalton is just a QB2. ... It's worth noting that Green posted a 10-124-1 line in last year's Week 2 matchup with Denver. Bailey missed the game with a left hamstring strain. Green did much of that damage against Andre' Goodman, who is now jobless.
The Bengals faced one defense ranked higher than 22nd in their first seven games. They'll round out fantasy season with 4-of-8 matchups against top-ten units and 7-of-8 ranked 18th or better. The lone outlier is Week 10 versus the Giants, who obviously field a better defense than their No. 24 ranking suggests. It's easy to envision a second-half skid for Cincinnati, particularly on offense. It would be their second in as many seasons. ... Denver is No. 8 in total defense and 15th versus the run, and won't go easy on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Broncos' 3.67 YPC allowed is quietly the sixth stingiest clip in football. Law Firm is a low-upside flex option in Week 9. ... Beyond Bailey, the Broncos' defensive strength is the outside-edge rush of LE Von Miller and RE Elvis Dumervil. Denver surrenders the third most fantasy points to tight ends, but Jermaine Gresham may do quite a bit of "help" blocking in this game. ... It will be interesting to see whether OC Jay Gruden increases the role of Andrew Hawkins coming out of the bye. The No. 2 receiver rotation of Armon Binns and Brandon Tate has flopped, and there are two players in Cincinnati's offense Gruden should be scheming to get the ball: Green and Hawkins. Since a fast start, "Baby Hawk" has fizzled out due to a shortage of field time and lack of commitment to keeping him involved.
Score Prediction: Broncos 24, Bengals 17