NY Giants @ Atlanta
Eli Manning is back, alright. What tired arm? "He was predatory," ESPN's Steve Young observed of Manning's four-touchdown Week 14 throttling of the Saints. "You talk about a guy that smelled blood and then just went after it. And made throw after throw after throw. This is the guy that wins Super Bowls." Heating up since New York's Week 11 bye, Eli has completed 58-of-98 passes for 788 yards (8.04 YPA), and an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio over his last three games. He's reentered QB1 discussion in potential shootout indoors versus a Falcons defense that ranks 16th versus the pass and got touched up for 287 yards and two touchdowns by Cam Newton last week. ... Manning's target distribution since the bye: Hakeem Nicks 29, Victor Cruz 23, Martellus Bennett 18, Ahmad Bradshaw 6, Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle 4. ... Knee and foot injuries have cost Nicks explosiveness in his routes, but the Giants are force feeding him the football and Nicks is the No. 16 fantasy receiver over the past three weeks. In last January's Wild Card floor-wiping of Atlanta, Nicks burned the Falcons for 115 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions. Nicks isn't quite the same player he was then, but he's still capable of exploiting a favorable matchup. And he'll get one Sunday against RCB Dunta Robinson, fresh off a Week 14 toasting by Steve Smith (7-109).
Falcons top corner Asante Samuel (shoulder) figures to return this week after what's amounted to a two-game absence, but he never moves off his left cornerback island and may go to waste covering Hixon in the Giants' three-wide sets. Hixon and Randle are no longer roster worthy in re-draft leagues. ... Despite fewer targets, Cruz is outscoring Nicks since the bye with either a touchdown and/or 100-plus yards in three straight games. Fire up Cruz as a borderline WR1. ... Bennett has found pay dirt in consecutive weeks. The Falcons allow the 11th most fantasy points and eighth most yards to tight ends, so the self-dubbed Black Unicorn has an attractive Week 15 matchup. ... Atlanta is the most flawed 11-2 team in recent NFL memory, and perhaps their primary flaw is that the Falcons are not a physical ballclub. And opponents can run all day long on their No. 23 run defense, which allows the second highest yards-per-carry average (4.88) in football. If Bradshaw does not play -- and all signs point to his deactivation -- David Wilson belongs in all lineups as the potential hero of fantasy semifinals week. "Boy, does he have a lot of juice," NFL Films' Greg Cosell observed this week of the Giants' first-round pick. "... He runs very, very hard inside, too. He runs with a lot of velocity." Both laterally and vertically explosive, homerun-hitter Wilson has averaged 5.15 YPC on 41 rushing attempts as a rookie.
Friday Update: Bradshaw has indeed been ruled out for Week 15 and won't even travel to Atlanta, locking Wilson into the feature back role. Coach Tom Coughlin indicated to the New York Daily News that Wilson is prepared for a heavy workload. "This guy has very, very good leg strength and he has got one ingredient that you look for in everybody, and that's stamina," Coughlin said. "He has outstanding stamina. It appears that he can go all day long."
The Giants' pass rush is hitting its late-season stride, which is an unwelcomed development for the rest of the league. Since the open date, New York's defense has faced a Murderers' Row of quarterbacks. They've held Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Robert Griffin III to a combined 53-of-89 passing (59.5 percent) for 736 yards, only three touchdowns, and three picks. The Giants' pass-defense ranking is 27th, but this is a much more challenging matchup for Matt Ryan than that statistic suggests. Having fallen to eighth in fantasy scoring at his position, Ryan is a mid-range to low-end QB1 in Week 15. ... Ryan's target distribution since Julio Jones returned from an ankle scare three games ago: Jones 28, Roddy White 25, Tony Gonzalez 19, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling 10, Harry Douglas 8, Michael Turner 4. ... Atlanta's overall passing production may be modest Sunday, but Jones and White remain appealing, borderline WR1 fantasy plays. While the Giants can mask back-end deficiencies when Jason Pierre-Paul & Co. are firing on all cylinders, New York's defensive weakness is cornerback play. LCB Corey Webster and rookie slot CB Jayron Hosley have struggled all year. RCB Prince Amukamara is out with a hamstring strain. Fire up Jones and White in fantasy, and hope the Falcons' offensive line gives Ryan time to throw.
Friday Update: White missed practice all week with a knee injury and is listed as questionable for Week 15. We'll know his official status early Sunday because Giants-Falcons is a 1PM ET game. White has a long history of playing on game days after little or no practice time, and being very effective on the field.
Gonzalez's Week 15 matchup also looks favorable versus a Giants defense permitting the fourth most receptions and sixth most yards to tight ends. Start him as a top-five tight end in Week 15. ... Turner has a touchdown in four straight games. The scary part is that his fantasy value is living off gimme goal-line scores, while Turner's touches and snaps have plummeted over the past month. Turner doesn't gain enough yards anymore to prop up his production when he isn't getting in from a yard out. So if he doesn't score against the Giants, he's going to hurt you. Turner should be benched in the fantasy playoffs. ... Although Rodgers has played more downs than Turner in four straight weeks, the change-of-pace back has done little to justify fantasy start-ability. Rodgers has averaged 58.3 total yards per game over the month-long stretch, hitting pay dirt once. Quizz can be counted on for 9-12 touches against the G-Men, but he'd be a bottom-feeding flex option.
Score Prediction: Giants 31, Falcons 27
4:05PM ET Games
Seattle @ Buffalo
Seahawks-Bills will be played at Rogers Centre in Toronto, likely in domed environs beneath a retractable roof. From a fantasy standpoint, Bills skill-position players are in for a very tough test. "I think they're a team that nobody really wants to play," NFL Network's Mike Lombardi said of Seattle this week, "because they're hard to move the football on effectively." Buffalo's five-wide spread offense matches up poorly with physical defenses, particularly those that play press-man coverage on the perimeter. The Seahawks play that style. So do the Jets, Rams, and 49ers, and against them Ryan Fitzpatrick has combined to complete 59-of-91 passes for 568 yards (6.24 YPA), and a 4:5 TD-to-INT ratio this season. Even in a two-quarterback league, Fitzpatrick would be a poor Week 15 fantasy option. ... Fitz's target distribution over his last four games: Stevie Johnson 37, Donald Jones and Scott Chandler 16, T.J. Graham 14, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson 9. ... Just like Larry Fitzgerald last week, Johnson can expect to be shadowed all over the field by Seahawks CB Richard Sherman. Fitzgerald was held to one catch for two yards. Johnson belongs on benches during the fantasy semifinals, as do the rest of the Bills' wide receivers and tight ends.
Though coach Chan Gailey has declined to commit to Spiller as the foundation of his offense and run game to this point, Jackson's year-ending knee injury leaves Gailey with no choice but to lean heavily on his best skill-position player. In Jackson's last eight missed games dating back to last season, Spiller has racked up 621 yards on 108 carries (5.75 YPC) and 300 additional yards on 29 catches. He's scored eight all-purpose touchdowns and averaged 116 total yards per game. While the matchup with Seattle's top-ten run defense appears difficult on paper, Spiller possesses lateral moves, change-of-direction skills, and edge speed to pour yardage on even the stoutest of NFL defenses. Just ask the Dolphins. Start him as a low-end RB1 with top-five upside this week.
It was discouraged in this space to lean on Russell Wilson as fantasy starter in Week 14, and is again discouraged in semifinals week. He's a two-quarterback league player only. While Buffalo has surged to 14th in the league's pass defense rankings with a kick-started pass rush and quietly terrific secondary performance, Wilson continues to be utilized as a manager averaging 25.4 pass attempts per game. In addition, top receiver Sidney Rice spent half of the week in a walking boot with an allegedly bruised foot. Wilson and Rice are always borderline fantasy plays, so we're always looking for tangible, logical reasons to either sit them or start them each week. The tea leaves are negative on both players for Week 15. ... The outlook isn't especially rosy for Golden Tate, either, even if Rice were inactive. In that event, Tate would draw red-hot rookie CB Stephon Gilmore in coverage. Stats for receivers covered by Gilmore on the majority of pass plays over the past five games: Brian Hartline 4-49, Brandon Lloyd 5-45, Reggie Wayne 8-102, Justin Blackmon 1-9, Chris Givens 3-25. No touchdowns allowed. I think Tate would actually be a better fantasy option if Rice played.
Friday Update: Rice returned to a full practice on Friday, and coach Pete Carroll promised he'll play in Toronto. Fantasy owners should avoid Rice whenever he's at less than full health, however. Tate stands just a good a chance of leading Seattle in Week 15 receiving.
Wilson's target distribution since Seattle's Week 11 bye: Rice 17, Tate 14, Doug Baldwin 13, Zach Miller 12, Marshawn Lynch and Anthony McCoy 7. That's a three-game sample. The Baldwins, Millers, and McCoys of the world are role-playing pass catchers in a run-first offense. ... Not only does this game present an opportunity for Lynch to exact revenge on the Bills coaching staff and front office that treated him like a washed-up third-stringer three seasons ago, leaning on their bellcow back simply fits what the Seahawks do on offense, philosophically. Lynch is going to get the ball a ton in Week 15. He's also the No. 3 overall running back in fantasy football.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23, Bills 13
Carolina @ San Diego
No quarterback west of Foxboro has been hotter than Cam Newton since the season's halfway point. In Newton's last six games, he's accounted for a 15:2 touchdown-to-turnover ratio, 308.2 all-purpose yardage average, and leads all players in fantasy scoring. "He went through so much criticism early on, and every player has the choice: You can get bitter or you can get better," ESPN's Trent Dilfer said on Monday Night Countdown this week. "I saw Cam Newton get better. ... He's getting better every week in training and he's such a physical force. He's daunting physically." The Chargers are no pushover opponent with a top-nine defense, but Newton has lit up the similarly highly-regarded units of Atlanta (twice) and Denver this season. Lock Newton into lineups as the elite QB1 he was expected to be. ... Newton's target distribution during his six-game, fantasy team-carrying surge: Steve Smith 49, Greg Olsen 39, Brandon LaFell 26, Louis Murphy 22, Mike Tolbert 14, Jonathan Stewart 7, DeAngelo Williams 6. ... It was noted last week in this space that speed receivers give San Diego's slow-footed cornerbacks fits. It showed up in Week 12 when Torrey Smith roasted Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason for 144 yards on seven receptions. Last Sunday, Mike Wallace shredded the Bolts for a 7-112-2 line. Back on a tear with 100-plus yards in back-to-back games, you might want to start Steve Smith in sunny San Diego.
A promising development for Olsen's fantasy outlook has been Cam's improved accuracy in the short passing game. Due to fixable mechanical flaws, Newton's precision and touch were major early-season issues. No more. Pro Football Focus charted Newton at 17-of-18 on throws of ten yards or fewer in Week 14, so it's no surprise that Olsen came away with a solid stat line (4-55-1). While San Diego has allowed the fifth fewest fantasy points to tight ends, Olsen is worth a look as a low-end TE1. ... LaFell (toe, foot) and Murphy (hamstring) are both battling injuries this week and can be safely written off as fantasy semifinals options. ... DeAngelo Williams shed several would-be tacklers on a 53-yard screen pass for a touchdown in Week 14 versus Atlanta. On his other 18 touches, Williams managed a combined 59 yards (3.28 average). On Sunday, Williams will take on San Diego's top-four run defense, a unit that has permitted just five rushing touchdowns in 13 games and allows 3.82 yards per carry. He will be a dicey flex option offering minimal upside.
Although Pittsburgh's defense came out flat in last week's Chargers win and failed to exploit San Diego's rag-tag offensive line, Philip Rivers' pass protection remains a big weekly concern. While Carolina's defense is commonly perceived as weak, the Panthers have a talented front four that ranks in the top half of the NFL in sacks and harassed Matt Ryan in last week's upset of Atlanta. Panthers LE Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles) and RE Greg Hardy (9 sacks) should lick their chops for Sunday's matchup with undrafted rookie LT Mike Harris and practice squad-caliber RT Kevin Haslam. Rivers is only a fantasy option in two-quarterback leagues. ... Rivers' updated target distribution since Danario Alexander became a starter five games ago: Alexander 47, Floyd 33, Antonio Gates 27, Ryan Mathews 23, Ronnie Brown 22, Micheal Spurlock 13, Eddie Royal 8, Robert Meachem 3. ... Alexander has another highly attractive matchup in Week 15 versus a Panthers secondary that benched RCB Josh Norman last week and will start third-stringer/special teamer D.J. Campbell at strong safety due to Sherrod Martin and Haruki Nakamura's year-ending injuries. Moving from strong to free safety, Charles Godfrey will play through a back injury.
Since Alexander came aboard as a street free agent signing, Floyd has been reduced to the No. 2 option in San Diego's passing game, and is therefore very touchdown reliant. Floyd has not hit 70 yards since Week 5, although he has four end-zone trips over the last month and a half. Start Floyd if you think he'll score a touchdown versus Carolina. ... No. 17 overall fantasy TE Gates figures to benefit from all of the Panthers' injuries at safety. Gates is no longer a reliable weekly starter, but he should be played over the likes of Jacob Tamme and Kyle Rudolph in Week 15. ... Mathews' play has been so poor in recent weeks that he's very hard to trust as more than a flex against Carolina's No. 21 run defense. That said, Ronnie Brown's potential absence due to a hamstring injury would certainly improve Mathews' outlook, perhaps forcing him into the every-down role coach Norval Turner has refused to hand Mathews for whatever reason. Volume shouldn't be an issue for Mathews. His 2012 performance suggests effectiveness may still be.
Friday Update: Brown is listed as doubtful for Week 15 after missing all three Chargers practices, and beat writers are anticipating a full workload for Mathews. Mathews has been perhaps the single biggest disappointment of the 2012 fantasy regular season, but it's not inconceivable that he could really help owners in the fantasy playoffs. The talent is still in there, somewhere. I think the reasons for Mathews' struggles have been confidence, usage, and Chargers offense-related. Mathews is a strong flex option versus Carolina.
Score Prediction: Panthers 27, Chargers 20
Detroit @ Arizona
"I'm a huge Matthew Stafford fan. He's got incredible talent," ESPN's Ron Jaworski conceded this week, discussing Detroit's Jekyll & Hyde passer. "But he is wildly inconsistent, wildly inaccurate. He throws from so many different platforms, not a consistent throwing slot. I really do have to wonder, what is he doing at practice? What is he doing in the offseason to improve those flaws?" Stafford's league-high pass attempt and completion totals keep him on the QB1 radar, but his maddening inconsistency and Week 15 matchup with Arizona's blitz-heavy, top-five pass defense make Stafford a dicey play on the road. I would start Colin Kaepernick, Josh Freeman, and Ben Roethlisberger over him. ... The Cardinals are expected to let Patrick Peterson shadow Calvin Johnson on all Week 15 pass plays. Don't be surprised if Megatron steals his lunch money. "Some people in the league that I talk to say that, they don't think he's a great player," plugged-in Sirius XM Radio host Adam Caplan said of Peterson this week. "Some people like him, some people don't." Opinions are likely split because Peterson is a beastly physical talent, but gives up a ton of catches. Megatron will dog-walk Peterson all over the field if the Cards don't give him safety help.
With Brandon Pettigrew nursing an apparent high ankle sprain, Mike Thomas demoted, and Titus Young and Ryan Broyles out of the picture, tight end-turned-slot receiver Tony Scheffler has been elevated to the No. 2 option in the most pass-heavy offense in football. And considering how weak the position has been in fantasy this year, you can make a case that Scheffler is a top-eight tight end in Week 15. Scheffler played 62-of-85 snaps (72.9 percent) in last week's loss at Green Bay. He's the No. 13 fantasy tight end over the past three weeks. ... To the surprise even of Lions beat writers, Thomas was benched for Kris Durham against the Packers. Thomas went catch-less, while Durham secured four balls for 54 yards. They're both waiver fodder at this point. ... With Mikel Leshoure struggling, the Lions' backfield has officially devolved into a two-man timeshare. Leshoure and Joique Bell shared the workload evenly in Week 14, and this week they face Arizona's bottom-three run defense. Both Bell and Leshoure are in the Week 15 flex discussion, although the muddled backfield curbs each Detroit back's fantasy upside and increases the risk. The matchup is great, but in fantasy semifinals week the situation would ideally be avoided.
The Cardinals rank dead last in the league in points scored, yardage gained, and rushing yards, and they're 28th in passing. While the Lions' defense is hardly a juggernaut, Arizona's offense has bypassed the Jets' as fantasy football's most barren wasteland. Week 15 starting quarterback Ryan Lindley has completed 48.3 percent of his 120 attempts this season for 507 yards (4.2 YPA), no touchdowns, and five interceptions. He's turned the ball over twice more on fumbles. There is not a single Arizona skill-position player worth trusting in the fantasy playoffs. Beanie Wells, Rob Housler, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, and even Larry Fitzgerald all belong on benches.
Score Prediction: Lions 23, Cardinals 9