Washington @ Cleveland
The 7-6 Redskins are one game behind the 8-5 Giants in the NFC East. Washington has a win over New York and the best record in the division -- both key for tiebreaker purposes -- and might quietly be the NFL's most dangerous cusp-playoff team right now. "I think that's a team that is starting to figure out how to win," ESPN's Eric Mangini said of the Redskins this week. "There's a real belief in their quarterback. And, sometimes, that's the most important thing." The Skins are in the thick of a playoff chase, and Robert Griffin III is expected to play Sunday regardless of his questionable tag. He should be available to fantasy owners, but needs to be downgraded on cheatsheets due to the threat of decreased mobility and fewer read-option runs. ... Washington's Week 15 response to RG3's LCL sprain still figures to be conservative, protecting Griffin as best they can and confining him to the pocket. This projects as an Alfred Morris-heavy game. With 698 yards on his last 138 carries (5.06 YPC), Morris is certainly performing in a manner that suggests he can shoulder an offensive load. Oakland and Kansas City halfbacks tagged Cleveland for 258 yards on 40 rushing attempts (6.45 YPC) in Weeks 13-14, so Morris' matchup is unimposing. Proceed with caution on RG3 as a mid-range to low-level QB1, but Morris should be locked into lineups as a candidate for 25-30 carries.
Friday Update: FOX Sports' Jay Glazer reported Friday that Griffin "truly is a game-time decision," while D.C. beat writers noted that RG3 didn't look 100 percent during Friday's pre-practice drills. Griffin will try to play at Cleveland, but the confidence in him doing so doesn't seem as strong late in the week as it was on Wednesday and Thursday. Coach Mike Shanahan indicated that he expects to know whether Griffin will play, for sure, by Saturday. Per Glazer, rookie Kirk Cousins took all of the first-team reps throughout the practice week and has 50:50 odds to get the nod.
Griffin's target distribution since Pierre Garcon returned from a foot injury following the Redskins' Week 10 bye: Garcon 29, Josh Morgan 18, Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson 10, Logan Paulsen 8, Niles Paul 3, and Aldrick Robinson 2. ... Even if the use of pistol-option plays are dumbed down or scrapped as Griffin is nursed back in, the Redskins still figure to take their shots downfield, complementing the run-first design. Griffin's injury and Browns top CB Joe Haden's likely shadow coverage drop Garcon from WR2 to WR3 status in Week 15, but the Skins will continue to look to hit him on bombs and across the middle, where Garcon does some of his best work. ... The remainder of Washington pass catchers lack fantasy value. Griffin is only averaging 27 pass attempts per game, and the low-volume passing attack has proven incapable of supporting more than one consistently fantasy-relevant receiver.
Friday Update: If Cousins indeed gets the start, Garcon's fantasy outlook will become quite shaky. He'd have to get free from Haden's coverage with a lesser thrower of the football under center, in an undoubtedly less explosive offense. Garcon is a high-end WR3/flex if Griffin starts. If it's Cousins, downgrade Garcon to low-end WR3 option.
Hitting a late-season stride, Cleveland's offense has impressed Greg Cosell of NFL Films on tape. "They're 5-3 in their last eight," Cosell noted this week. "Their offense has become extremely stable and consistent. They run the ball every week. Trent Richardson gets his 20-plus carries. Brandon Weeden gets his throws. They get the ball downfield because Weeden has a good arm. It's become a very stable, consistent offense that for the most part does the same thing every week." The Browns have an appealing Week 15 matchup versus a Washington defense that struggles to rush the passer and cover, setting up Josh Gordon as a high-ceiling fantasy start. Gordon has clearly separated himself as Cleveland's go-to receiver, and is a good bet for a long pass play when one of Redskins DC Jim Haslett's blitzes doesn't get home, leaving the back end vulnerable. ... Weeden's target distribution since Cleveland's Week 10 bye: Gordon 33, Ben Watson 25, Greg Little 20, Richardson 19, Jordan Cameron 11, Mohamed Massaquoi 9. ... Watson is worth a look for tight end-desperate owners. The targets have been there for Watson in recent games, and Washington has allowed the most fantasy points in the league to tight ends.
Little's on-field performance has picked up since a brutal, drop-filled beginning to the season. Pro Football Focus hasn't charted Little with a dropped pass since Week 5, and he's been noticeably physical and productive running after the catch the past two games. Little isn't a standalone Week 15 fantasy option beyond deeper leagues, but his improvement boosts the outlook of Weeden as a mid-range to arguably high-end two-quarterback league play in an already favorable matchup. ... Pace-change back Montario Hardesty essentially came out of nowhere to lead Cleveland in Week 14 rushing, ripping off 52 yards on 10 carries against the Chiefs. The yardage total was the fourth highest of Hardesty's 19-game career. Hardesty deserves a figurative butt-pat for playing well off the bench behind Richardson last week, but isn't in the Week 15 start discussion against the Skins.
Score Prediction: Redskins 23, Browns 20
Tampa Bay @ New Orleans
For a Saints offense struggling to find any rhythm the past two weeks, a Superdomed date with Tampa's No. 32 pass defense will serve as a slump buster. Drew Brees shredded the Bucs for 377 yards and four TDs on 27-of-37 passing in these clubs' October meeting, and that was before the Bucs traded top CB Aqib Talib and lost fellow starter Eric Wright to suspension. Brees owners need to have short memories, shrug off Weeks 13-14, and start him as a top-two quarterback play. ... What's wrong with Jimmy Graham? What's wrong with Marques Colston? The issue isn't those particular players. It's been New Orleans' pass offense as a whole. Brees has a 1:7 TD-to-INT ratio over his last two games, road losses to the Giants and Falcons. Graham and Colston will be fine when the overall pass-game production picks up, and there's every reason to believe it will in the most favorable matchup the Saints get all year. "I would expect Brees and this pass game to very, very effective against this defense," NFL Films' Greg Cosell said this week. "They'll dictate matchups. I think the matchups favor them. ... I would expect Brees to have a very big game this week." Short memories. Start Graham as the best tight end in fantasy. Colston racked up seven catches for 73 yards and a score in the Week 7 game, and he's every bit worth a WR2 start versus Tampa. ... Brees' target distribution during his two-game slump: Graham and Darren Sproles 16, Colston and Lance Moore 15, Pierre Thomas 9, Devery Henderson 7, Joe Morgan 4.
Streak-route specialist Morgan secured his two Week 14 targets for 106 yards and is averaging a redonkulous 44.3 yards per reception on the year. Lightly targeted and yet to catch more than two balls in any game this season, Morgan is too unreliable for fantasy semifinals week. ... Moore burned the Bucs for 121 yards on nine catches in Week 7, and the attractiveness of his Week 15 matchup is obvious. When the Saints' offense is humming, it is capable of supporting big fantasy games from Graham, Colston, and Moore. It should hum against Tampa. Moore is a respectable WR3. ... I discussed the style of attack with which the Bucs dominate opposing ground games in Thursday's Bengals-Eagles Matchups primer. Tampa has the best run defense in the league, and it isn't close. Due to the brutal matchup, fantasy owners would be smart to write off Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas as Week 15 fantasy considerations. Chris Ivory is out with a hamstring injury. ... Because Sproles is not utilized as a traditional halfback -- he's almost strictly a "satellite" player who does his damage in space -- Sproles is the one Saints running back who should be inserted into PPR fantasy lineups as a Week 15 flex starter. Sproles has only 31 rushing attempts on the season, however, and is less appealing in standard settings. He's rushed for a touchdown just once in his last 11 games.
So much for the Rookie Wall. Doug Martin got off the schneid in Week 14 following a two-game yards-per-carry lull, rushing 28 times for 128 yards and a touchdown in Tampa Bay's loss to the Eagles. The every-down back chipped in three receptions. With Josh Freeman struggling mightily in the passing game, Martin was the Bucs' most effective offensive player. Martin touched up New Orleans' 32nd-ranked run defense for 122 yards and an end-zone trip in the Week 7 meeting, and that was before his breakout stretch. Consider Muscle Hamster a top-eight RB1 in this mouth-watering matchup. ... The Bucs' offense as a whole is very run-game reliant. Play-action vertical strikes to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams depend on an effective rushing attack to keep a defensive safety close to the line of scrimmage. This explains why Freeman's box-score stats have sagged when Martin has been stifled this year. When all the elements are clicking, though, Tampa can field a top-ten NFL offense in the run-to-pass design. I think Martin is a good bet for Week 15 rushing success, thus opening up the passing game for downfield strikes. Freeman is a top-ten QB1 against New Orleans' No. 30 pass defense. ... Freeman's target distribution over the past three games: Jackson 25, Williams 24, Tiquan Underwood 19, Dallas Clark 14, Martin 11.
V-Jax obliterated the Saints for 216 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in Week 7. The No. 4 overall fantasy receiver, Jackson is an elite fantasy playoffs start. ... On pace for just 906 yards and 57 receptions, Williams' weekly production has been highly touchdown dependent. When he hasn't scored this season, Williams has averaged three catches for 51 yards per game. Start Williams if you think he'll discover pay dirt this week. I'd call him a slightly better than 50:50 bet. ... Continuing to hover around 50 percent of the offensive snaps, Clark is an underwhelming fantasy option on a weekly basis, needing to catch breaks like pass-happy comeback mode in order to prove a worthwhile play. The Saints have allowed the eighth most fantasy points to tight ends, but that statistic is less meaningful for TEs who are complementary role players like Clark.
Score Prediction: Saints 31, Bucs 27
Indianapolis @ Houston
Andrew Luck has an 18:18 TD-to-INT ratio as a passer this season. He has lost five fumbles and completed a Sanchezian 49.7 percent of this throws in his last four games. But a 9-4 record fuels his hype train, and Luck has been a steady if low-end fantasy QB1 due to sheer volume. Matthew Stafford is the only NFL quarterback with more pass attempts, and Luck leads the league in 20-plus-yard completions, benefiting from comeback mode and Bruce Arians' vertical passing attack. This game will be played beneath Reliant Stadium's retractable roof, and the Texans' sputtering pass defense keeps Luck in the top-dozen QB conversation. Houston has allowed 1,400 combined yards on 174 attempts (8.05 YPA), 11 touchdowns, and three interceptions to Stafford, Chad Henne, Tom Brady, and Jake Locker in its last four games. ... Luck's target distribution over the last month: Reggie Wayne 51, Donnie Avery 35, T.Y. Hilton 29, Dwayne Allen 25, LaVon Brazill 10, Vick Ballard 7, Coby Fleener 6. ... Allen was a fun midseason pluck-and-play matchup-based tight end, but he's off the re-draft league radar with Fleener back. Allen's target total has sunk in three straight games. Allen and Fleener are canceling each other out in fantasy football.
The Texans have only intermittently employed Johnathan Joseph in shadow coverage of No. 1 wide receivers this year, and Wayne moves around the formation too often for defenses to easily track. In previous dates with shadow corners Sean Smith and Antonio Cromartie, Wayne racked up stat lines of 7-78-1 and 5-87. Start Wayne with confidence. ... Although Avery is an every-down player in a high-volume passing offense, he's inevitably prone to inconsistency as a lightweight speed receiver who plays without physicality. Avery has been held under 40 yards in three of his last four games. He won't be a recommended WR3 start in Week 15 or 16. ... Hilton's on-field role is less reliable than Avery's, but the rookie is willing to make plays in traffic and has been the superior fantasy bet all year. If you're itching to play a Colts receiver beyond Wayne against the Texans, Hilton should be your pick. Hilton also plays in the slot more than Avery, where he can rack up easy catches against a Houston team that recently lost slot CB Brice McCain to a broken foot. Replacement Brandon Harris has struggled mightily. ... Delone Carter's high ankle sprain improves Ballard's outlook by increasing the feature back's scoring potential. Short-yardage specialist Carter has vultured three goal-line TDs over the past seven weeks. Ballard remains more of a flex than RB2 against a Texans defense that ranks second in the league versus the run and is especially stout versus inside runners like Ballard.
Friday Update: Concerning for Ballard's Week 15 outlook is the absences of RT Winston Justice (bicep) and C Samson Satele (knee). Key run blockers for Indianapolis, Justice and Satele were both ruled out on Friday.
No. 1 receiver stats against the Colts over the past six weeks: Brian Hartline 8-107, Cecil Shorts 6-105-1, Wes Welker 7-80, Stevie Johnson 6-106, Calvin Johnson 13-171-1, Kenny Britt 8-143. It's a promising trend for Andre Johnson. ... Indianapolis has also been gashed by tight ends for a month now. The Colts have allowed 21 receptions for 306 yards and five touchdowns to TEs over their last four games. Owen Daniels has a rosy Week 15 outlook. ... Matt Schaub's updated target distribution since Houston's Week 8 bye: Johnson 70, Daniels 38, Kevin Walter 28, Arian Foster 25, Garrett Graham 21, James Casey 17, Lestar Jean 7. ... Keep in mind Daniels missed a game since the bye. Walter, Graham, Casey, and Jean are rotational role players lacking fantasy value.
Foster has managed just 415 yards on his last 123 carries (3.37 YPC), which is a concern for his keeper and dynasty league owners. Fortunately, Foster's 2012 fantasy value has been buoyed by a league-leading 16 touchdowns. With Foster facing Indianapolis' 19th-ranked run defense, only Adrian Peterson is a superior Week 15 running back play. ... Ben Tate isn't a viable flex option in the fantasy semifinals, but he's retaken Houston's No. 2 back job from Justin Forsett. Tate ripped off 46 explosive yards on eight rushing attempts in last Monday night's loss to the Patriots. Forsett rushed three times for seven yards. Foster owners should handcuff him with Tate for the final two fantasy weeks. ... Despite a plus matchup with the Colts' No. 20 pass defense, Schaub is a two-quarterback league starter only. Particularly with Tate back healthy, the run-minded Texans will look to attack the Colts on the ground as struggling Schaub resumes his game-manager role.
Score Prediction: Texans 27, Colts 24
Green Bay @ Chicago
Combine the return of difference-making pass rusher Clay Matthews (hamstring) with Jay Cutler's shaky health and historical ineffectiveness against the Packers, and it's hard to imagine Chicago having much Week 15 passing success. In his Bears career, Cutler has faced Green Bay seven times. He's completed 115-of-216 throws (53.2 percent) for 1,383 yards (6.40 YPA), and a 7:16 TD-to-INT ratio. Chicago's record is 1-6. A healthy Matthews also changes the complexion of the Packers' defense. "In Week 2, Matthews was a dominant, dominant player," NFL Films' Greg Cosell recalled this week. "... He doesn't have to play 70 snaps. Even if he can get 35 snaps in given situations, he is really difficult for Chicago to block." Packers CB Tramon Williams held Brandon Marshall to 24 yards on two catches in the Week 2 matchup. Marshall is likely to have a better game this time around, but Cutler is a high-risk, low-end QB2 trying to play through a stiff neck and sprained MCL. ... Alshon Jeffery returned from in-season knee surgery in Week 14 to record three catches for 57 yards and a touchdown, playing 59-of-80 snaps (73.8 percent). A healthy Jeffery gives Cutler a legitimate No. 2 receiver with playmaking ability, but the rookie receiver isn't a reliable fantasy playoff option in a game where the entirety of Chicago's passing attack may struggle.
Cutler's target distribution in Jeffery's three starts this year: Marshall 47, Jeffery 17, Kellen Davis 15, Devin Hester 14, Matt Forte 11, Michael Bush and Kyle Adams 5, Earl Bennett 4. ... Bennett (concussion) has been ruled out for Week 15. With Jeffery back, Davis, Hester, and Adams are complementary role players bereft of fantasy value. Performing with hilarious inefficiency, Davis has eight drops and only 17 receptions on the season. ... Forte has been a 2012 fantasy disappointment, ranking 17th in running back scoring. Forte has 215 total yards and a touchdown in his last two games, however, and is fully recovered from the recurring ankle injury that's plagued him all year. Green Bay ranks a middling 15th in run defense and generously permits 4.51 yards per carry, which is the ninth highest clip in football. With goal-line vulture Bush continuing to nurse an aching rib injury that limited him to two offensive snaps in Week 14, Forte should be confidently played as a mid-range RB2 at chilly Soldier Field.
The Bears stifled Aaron Rodgers to the tune of 219 passing yards, a touchdown, and a pick in the aforementioned Week 2 meeting. The sledding should be easier in the rematch. Bears RCB Tim Jennings (shoulder) and MLB Brian Urlacher (hamstring) won't play. Wave rusher/joker end Shea McClellin (MCL sprain) and top DT Henry Melton (chest) are both listed as doubtful and will almost certainly be inactive. Perhaps Rodgers should be downgraded to mid-range QB1 with Green Bay's pass game struggling for the past month, but his every-week blowup potential is hard to justify as a Week 15 "sit" at home versus a banged-up Bears defense. I love Colin Kaepernick and Josh Freeman's matchups this week, but couldn't bring myself to start either of them over perhaps the NFL’s most talented quarterback. ... Rodgers' target distribution since Green Bay's Week 10 bye: Randall Cobb 32, Jermichael Finley 18, Greg Jennings 12, James Jones 11, Jordy Nelson 10, John Kuhn and Alex Green 8, Donald Driver 1. ... As usual, Cobb was the best Packers receiver on the field in last week's win over the Lions, racking up seven catches for 102 yards and consistently making highlight-reel grabs. He'll give Chicago matchup fits in the slot, where Jennings' injury forced the Bears to reinsert gambler D.J. Moore after a midseason benching. Cobb is an every-week WR1.
Failing to capitalize on Nelson's injuries, Jones has 40 yards or fewer in three straight games and continues to be a weekly dice roll, offering plenty of upside but a scary-low floor. Jones' stat lines in his last six meetings with Chicago: 1-10, 2- -1, 4-50-2, 4-24, 1-8, 5-55. ... Fantasy tease Finley topped 50 yards in three consecutive games entering Week 14, only to be held to two catches for 16 yards on three targets by Detroit. The Packers are running the ball more, which not only cuts down on Finley's passing-game chances, it butcher-knifes his snaps. The coaching staff does not trust Finley as a blocker. He was a 50-percent player last week. ... Although Jennings' production (1-27) underwhelmed against the Lions, he played 47-of-54 snaps (87.0 percent) and will be the second best statistical bet in Green Bay's passing game moving forward. I mentioned Jones' last six stat lines in Bears games before. Here are Jennings': 9-119, 8-130, 4-97, 2-18-1, 3-56, 6-106-1. ... Although Chicago has defended the run poorly since midseason, Green Bay's lack of backfield clarity limits presumptive lead runner Alex Green to risky, low-end flex status. Green touched the ball 14 times last week, gaining 68 scoreless yards. Practice squad-type DuJuan Harris had seven rushes for 31 yards and a TD. Kuhn remains the top option for goal-line carries. Ryan Grant gained 13 yards on his lone run against the Lions, and his role may increase at Soldier Field. Ideally, this is a situation to avoid.
Score Prediction: Packers 24, Bears 14