Buffalo @ Miami
This time of year, savvy fantasy owners put bulls-eyes on teams who've called it a season. Non-contenders that have packed it in. Kind of like last year's Tampa Bay Bucs. "Did the Buffalo Bills practice last week?" ESPN's Ron Jaworski asked rhetorically on Monday Night Countdown, after watching the Buffalo-Seattle tape. "They looked ill prepared for everything the Seattle Seahawks threw at them." Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch deserve credit for magical Week 15 performances, but NFL teams don't generally drop 50-burgers on other NFL teams without "help." The Bills' effort on defense came under early-season fire, and may be an issue again. It's something to consider. ... The Dolphins' likeliest candidate to capitalize on Buffalo's rediscovery of defensive ineptitude is Reggie Bush. Over their last two games, the Bills have been shredded by Lynch and Steven Jackson for a combined 177 yards and two TDs on 29 carries (6.10 YPC). (Not including Wilson's 9-92-3 rushing line.) Bush hasn't been shabby in his own right, racking up 40 touches the past two weeks and averaging 332 yards on his last 66 rushing attempts (5.03 YPC). Daniel Thomas is no longer a factor in Miami's backfield. Bush has been thrust back into the every-down back role with Lamar Miller used minimally as a change of pace.
Whereas Bush is a high-upside RB2/flex versus Buffalo, the Dolphins' pass game is considerably less interesting in fantasy title week. It's a low-volume, popgun attack that ranks 24th in pass attempts and spreads the ball around. Brian Hartline is Miami's nominal No. 1 receiver, but Bills rookie shadow corner Stephon Gilmore held Hartline to 49 scoreless yards on four receptions in these teams' Week 11 meeting. Hartline has one touchdown all year. ... Anthony Fasano's Week 15 usage increased with Davone Bess (back) out of the lineup. Manning the slot on passing downs, Fasano was targeted six times, securing all six for 56 yards and a touchdown. The six targets were Fasano's season high since Week 6. Bess is likely to miss another game, but Fasano has a tougher matchup this week versus a Buffalo defense that ranks 17th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, and 29th in catches. ... Although Ryan Tannehill has flashed promise as a rookie, he's never emerged as a viable fantasy option due to the fact that Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland has no eye for skill-position talent. Tannehill is a lowly 23rd in fantasy quarterback scoring.
Friday Update: Bess has been ruled out for Week 16. Hartline is battling his own back injury this week and is listed as questionable. While Hartline still figures to play Sunday, the injury combined with his historical struggles against Gilmore make him an undesirable WR3 in title week.
C.J. Spiller's updated statistics in Fred Jackson's last nine missed games: 724 yards on 125 carries (5.79 YPC), with 298 more yards on 32 receptions. He's scored nine all-purpose TDs and averaged 114 total yards a game. It just so happens that Miami's run defense has crossed his path twice during that span, and Spiller has posted touch-yardage-touchdown stat lines of 21-167-2 and 25-130 against them. A matchup-proof RB2 with every-week RB1 upside, Spiller should be started as a top-15 back in Week 16. Also working in Spiller's favor is the healthy return of C Eric Wood from a two-week knee sprain. ... Ryan Fitzpatrick's target distribution over his last five games: Stevie Johnson 49, Scott Chandler 24, T.J. Graham 22, Donald Jones 16, Spiller 14, Brad Smith 8. ... Johnson is the featured player in Buffalo's passing game, and has hit a healthy spell at the back end of an injury-plagued year on the heels of a big offseason contract extension. Johnson has at least 70 yards and/or a touchdown in six straight games. The lone viable fantasy option in the Bills' pass-catching corps for title week, Johnson is a solid WR3 in sunny Miami.
Score Prediction: Dolphins 20, Bills 17
Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh
A.J. Green owners will dodge a bullet Sunday as Cincinnati visits a Pittsburgh defense with the most banged-up secondary in the NFL. Top CB Ike Taylor, who held Green to a 1-8-1 stat line in these clubs' October meeting, will miss the game with injuries to his ankle and right fibula. Fill-in Cortez Allen is battling a painful hip pointer and was inactive for last week's loss to Dallas. LCB Keenan Lewis aggravated his own hip injury against the Cowboys and couldn't finish the game. The Steelers will lean on special teamer Curtis Brown and practice squad call-up Josh Victorian for significant Week 16 snaps. Green should have no trouble tiring them out. ... Andy Dalton's target distribution since Mohamed Sanu fractured his foot in November 30 practice: Green 31, Jermaine Gresham 22, Andrew Hawkins 17, Marvin Jones 11, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis 9. ... Gresham often gets stuck on the line blocking in Bengals-Steelers games, and it shows up in the box score. Gresham's four career stat lines against Pittsburgh: 3-19, 3-37, 4-23-1, 2-11. He's not a recommended TE1 this week. ... Although Hawkins and Jones have flashed at certain points this season, neither has been targeted or productive enough to justify as fantasy title-week starts.
The one Week 16 concern for Green is Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's historical befuddling of Dalton. In three career matchups with Pittsburgh, Dalton has completed 40-of-82 passes (48.8 percent) for 410 yards (5.0 YPC), four touchdowns, and three interceptions. Dalton has never topped 170 yards against the Steelers. "Dalton, despite excellent fantasy numbers, has really not played that well," NFL Films' Greg Cosell opined. "He continues to miss throws that are there. He continues to leave plays on the field. He's becoming a little quick to move now, he's perceiving pressure at times. He's not been very sharp." On the road for this one and playing poorly recently, Dalton is not in the QB1 discussion. ... Pittsburgh's top-four run defense held Green-Ellis to 69 scoreless yards on 18 carries when these teams met in Week 7. While the Law Firm is running better these days than he was then -- and getting legitimately dominant blocking up front -- he's going to be difficult to trust for fantasy-worthwhile numbers in such a forbidding matchup. This game projects as a low-scoring, grinding affair between division rivals clinging to shaky playoff hopes. Green-Ellis will likely require a goal-line score to pay off in RB2/flex spots.
Since taking over as Bengals defensive coordinator in 2008, Mike Zimmer has game planned to stop Ben Roethlisberger nine times. Roethlisberger has completed 176-of-282 passes for 2,029 yards (7.20 YPA), and a 9:5 TD-to-INT ratio in those meetings, failing to reach 280 yards in all of them and throwing multiple touchdown passes in 2-of-9 games. The numbers aren't terrible, but they aren't QB1 caliber, either. In a difficult matchup with little to no possibility of a shootout, Big Ben is more high-end QB2 than surefire fantasy starter. ... Roethlisberger's target distribution since returning from injury two games ago: Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown 21, Heath Miller 16, Jonathan Dwyer and Emmanuel Sanders 5, Plaxico Burress 2. ... I like Brown to lead Pittsburgh in Week 15 receiving, facing off with Bengals LCB Terence Newman. RCB Pacman Jones is quietly having a standout season on the other side and will draw Wallace in coverage on most of Sunday's snaps. Brown paced Pittsburgh with 96 yards on seven catches when the Bengals and Steelers met in October. His quickness and change-of-direction skills will be tough for 34-year-old Newman to handle. ... Wallace is still a quality WR2 with 11 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns since Roethlisberger got back. The Bengals are using top CB Leon Hall in the slot when opponents go three-wide, so Hall may go to waste covering slot receiver Sanders.
Friday Update: The Bengals added Pacman to Friday's injury report as questionable with a hamstring ailment. It appears as if Jones got hurt in Friday's practice, and simply couldn't finish the workout. If Pacman can't play against the Steelers, give Wallace another matchup boost. Cincinnati does not have depth in the secondary to competitively withstand Jones' absence.
Miller shredded Dallas last week for six catches, 85 yards, and a touchdown in the first half. After the game, Roethlisberger complained that OC Todd Haley didn't call enough plays for Miller, he was so smoking hot. Ben later apologized, and Haley may incorporate more of Miller into the Week 16 game plan as the appeasement comes full circle. The Bengals have allowed the tenth most receptions and 11th most yards to tight ends, so this is a plus matchup for Miller any way you slice it. ... The Pittsburgh run game has devolved into a fantasy black hole. Now running behind a makeshift offensive line that will be without mauling LG Willie Colon the rest of the way, blocking-dependent lead back Jonathan Dwyer has been held to 233 yards on his last 73 carries (3.19 YPC). Dwyer may be on an increasingly short leash with Rashard Mendenhall returning from suspension this week. Even Isaac Redman has been more effective than Dwyer of late. The Bengals rank ninth in run defense and the Steelers' backfield carry distribution is up in the air for fantasy championship week. Dwyer is the lone remotely viable option, and he's a desperate flex.
Score Prediction: Steelers 17, Bengals 14
New England @ Jacksonville
All signs point to this being a Stevan Ridley game. Ranked 32nd in both run defense and sacks, Jacksonville's defensive front seven gets consistently moved off the ball en route to the NFL's second most rushing touchdowns allowed (18), as well as a league-high 148.1 rushing yards permitted per game. Although Ridley's Week 15 lost fumble -- just his second all season -- may seem concerning for his Week 16 workload, it's worth noting that the Patriots turned right back to Ridley for a late third-quarter goal-line carry against the 49ers. Ultimately, he experienced reduced playing time due more to a 31-3 deficit, necessitating comeback mode. Game flow forced passing-down specialist Danny Woodhead into the lead back role in the loss. Now facing the 2-12 Jags, expect a role reversal in the New England backfield. Ridley has been an offensive centerpiece for a 2012 Patriots team that ranks third in the NFL in rushing attempts, and the Pats are significantly more likely to use this game to kick start Ridley rather than leave him behind. Start him as a high-upside RB2 in a game the Patriots figure to control from beginning to end, allowing Ridley to rack up 20-plus rushing attempts. Woodhead can be comfortably left on waiver wires. ... Tom Brady's target distribution since Aaron Hernandez returned from his ankle injury four games ago: Wes Welker and Hernandez 46, Brandon Lloyd 31, Woodhead 17, Shane Vereen and Deion Branch 5.
Julian Edelman and Donte' Stallworth's year-ending injuries have locked Lloyd into a prominent late-season role. New England's pass attempts are sure to be down if this game goes as it should -- so don't expect Lloyd to repeat last week's 10-190 line -- but he's been heavily targeted in two straight weeks and has a favorable matchup versus Jacksonville's No. 24 pass defense. Lloyd is a solid WR3 in fantasy title week. ... Hernandez is still the favorite to lead the Pats in Week 16 receiving. With defenses often treating him as a traditional tight end, thus covering Hernandez with linebackers, he leads all players at his position in targets, catches, and touchdowns over the past three weeks. He's the No. 1 fantasy tight end play. ... The targets have been there for Welker, but he's managed two touchdowns over his last eight games and cleared 75 yards twice during that span. Seeing his production dwindle down the stretch for a second straight season, 31-year-old Welker is a WR2 in PPR and WR3 in standard scoring. ... Brady's volume figures to be down in Week 16, but he's a top-four quarterback play because he should be masterfully efficient. The Jaguars generate no pass rush, which projects to a clean pocket for Tom Terrific. Only Cam Newton, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers are better fantasy QB bets in Week 16.
Seemingly light years removed from November's point-scoring mirage, Jacksonville's offense has gone back in the tank. Chad Henne has completed 59 of his last 121 passes (48.8 percent) for 608 yards (5.02 YPA), a touchdown, and three interceptions. And the Jags will have to continue to lean on Henne because they're destined for little or no rushing success against New England's No. 11 run defense. Henne is playing too poorly for more than back-end QB2 consideration, but voluminous pass attempts combined with comeback mode could keep Cecil Shorts rolling after his six-catch, 101-yard Week 15 return from a concussion. With 100-plus yards and/or a touchdown in seven of his last eight games, Shorts is a trustworthy WR2. He's playing so well that you could make a good case for Shorts as the best wideout play on either side of Pats-Jags. ... Despite inferior productivity, opponents have routinely matched their No. 1 cornerbacks on Justin Blackmon over the last month. I'd tentatively expect the Patriots to use Aqib Talib on Blackmon in a difficult matchup for the up-and-down rookie. ... New England allows the third most fantasy points to tight ends, but Marcedes Lewis has fallen off the map with single-digit yards in back-to-back weeks. ... Write off the Jaguars' backfield in Week 16. Plodding Montell Owens has another forbidding matchup after the Dolphins stifled him for 53 scoreless yards on 12 touches last week.
Score Prediction: Patriots 28, Jaguars 10
Oakland @ Carolina
Putting fantasy teams on his back since a rocky first half of the season, Cam Newton has soared to No. 2 in quarterback scoring with a 17:2 touchdown-to-turnover ratio over his last seven games. Newton is on pace to significantly improve his TD-to-INT ratio, rushing yardage, yards-per-pass attempt average, and QB rating off last year's record-breaking rookie campaign. In spite of the early-season handwringing, Newton will be selected in 2013 fantasy drafts ahead of where he went this year (ADP: 4.05). A dominant, dual-threat weapon facing an Oakland club that ranks 21st in run defense and 27th against the pass, Newton is the premier quarterback play of fantasy championship week. ... Steve Smith has either a touchdown and/or 100-plus receiving yards in three straight games, riding the tail end of Newton's piping-hot stretch. The Raiders are more prone than any team in football to letting receivers run uncovered through their secondary, and they'll be down to third-string RCB Brandian Ross on Sunday following Phillip Adams' second concussion in three weeks and Ron Bartell's release. Just like teammate Newton, everything about Smith's Week 16 matchup points toward a very big game. Start "89" as a borderline WR1.
Brandon LaFell returned from his turf-toe injury in Week 15 to rotate with Louis Murphy. LaFell played the slot in three-receiver sets and was not targeted. Murphy has brought zero fantasy appeal to the table in 2012. Avoid Carolina's No. 2 receiver spot in finals week. ... The Raiders have permitted the sixth most fantasy points to tight ends, creating a favorable matchup for No. 5 overall fantasy TE Greg Olsen. Olsen is a strong start in Week 16. ... For DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, last week's box score at San Diego is deceiving. The Panthers jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and took the air out of the ball for most of the second half. Williams' 22 carries were his most since November of 2009. Tolbert vultured two goal-line scores, both of which could have just as easily gone to Cam, and finished with a season-high 11 touches. Williams is a quality Week 16 flex play because Oakland defends the run so poorly, but the Week 15 final stats are not a sign of things to come. His "role" is not "growing." The increased workload had everything to do with game flow specific to that week. Tolbert hasn't been a fantasy asset all season and still isn't.
Friday Update: Carolina's lead back when healthy, Jonathan Stewart (ankle) made a surprise return to Friday's practice and is listed as questionable on the injury report, with beat writers expecting Stewart to play. Panthers coach Ron Rivera insists Stewart will be a game-time decision, but his availability would adversely affect the Week 16 fantasy outlooks of both Williams and Tolbert. Williams' workload would likely be cut in half. Tolbert's prospects already looked grim. In championship week, the Panthers' backfield has now become a fantasy situation to avoid.
The Raiders didn't score any touchdowns, but they too controlled their Week 15 game from start to finish, defeating the hapless Chiefs 15-0 on the strength of five Sebastian Janikowski field goals. Oakland poured 45 rushing attempts on Kansas City, compared to only 18 Carson Palmer throws. Now facing a Panthers team playing its best football of the season, the Raiders won't churn out ground-game production like last week. Safely dismiss Mike Goodson's 103 total yards as a fluke. ... The Panthers rank a middling 17th in run defense, but surrender a crisp 4.39 yards per carry and can be moved up front. Being employed as a true workhorse again, Darren McFadden has piled up 213 yards and a touchdown on 47 touches the past two weeks. The YPC average and scheme are still issues for DMC, but usage and overall production aren't. Consider him a mid-range RB2 with some upside at Carolina. ... Brandon Myers has now turned in back-to-back clunker games, which is a reminder that he's a target-dependent fantasy commodity and worthless when he's not being targeted heavily. The Panthers rank 19th in receptions allowed to tight ends and 18th in yards. Fantasy title contenders should aim higher than Myers in Week 16.
So much of No. 14 overall fantasy QB Palmer's production has occurred in comeback mode, with his team trailing big and throwing the ball to try to catch up. While the box scores look nice when they're heavily skewed by game flow, it's not a bankable weekly outcome. Squaring off with a Panthers defense that ranks tenth against the pass and can wreak havoc on porous O-Lines like Oakland's, Palmer is not on the Week 16 standard-league radar. Following news that he may be replaced by Terrelle Pryor on some third-down and red-zone plays, Palmer is a dicey start even in two-quarterback settings. ... Not that either is an attractive title-week play, but Rod Streater has passed Darrius Heyward-Bey as the No. 2 option in the Raiders' receiver corps. While DHB was held catch-less in Week 15 for the third time this season, Streater led Oakland in receiving for the third consecutive game. Palmer is exhibiting more chemistry with Streater, who's gotten free for some big plays downfield. Denarius Moore remains the best receiver on the team, but he's failed to clear 50 yards since early November. Aside from perhaps Moore in a roll-of-the-dice WR3 slot, the entirety of Oakland's pass-catching corps is undesirable in fantasy championship week.
Score Prediction: Panthers 28, Raiders 17