San Diego @ NY Jets
Fantasy owners hoping Danario Alexander might avoid Antonio Cromartie's shadow coverage in Week 16 had their hopes dashed Tuesday when Malcom Floyd (ankle) hit year-ending injured reserve. Coming off a catch-less game where coach Ron Rivera admitted Carolina's defense changed coverages to "focus" on taking Alexander away from Philip Rivers, DX would be a very poor fantasy title-week play. Here are the final stat lines of the last four wide receivers covered by Cromartie: Kenny Britt 1-7, Justin Blackmon 6-57, Larry Fitzgerald 1-23, Brandon Lloyd 3-26. ... The Chargers figure to choose between Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, and Micheal Spurlock to fill the hole left by Floyd's loss. It's an obvious fantasy situation to avoid. ... The Jets rank second in the NFL in pass defense and have answers for just about everything San Diego is capable of doing in the passing game. No. 21 overall fantasy quarterback Rivers is a bottom-barrel QB2.
The one San Diego pass catcher who might rise above is Antonio Gates, mostly by process of elimination. Gates found pay dirt in Week 15 garbage time and has been the NFL's third most heavily targeted tight end over the past three weeks. Despite disappointing production all year, NFL Films tape maven Greg Cosell suggested this week that Gates hasn't lost a step. "It's not as if he can't move or can't run," Cosell said. "I think he actually runs pretty good. But there's just no continuity (to the Chargers' offense)." ... Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley have a seemingly attractive on-paper matchup versus the Jets' No. 29 run defense, but they're more likely to prove fool's gold. Battle and Brinkley will encounter the same inept Chargers offense that contributed to Ryan Mathews' ineffectiveness, and there are no guarantees on Week 16 workload distribution. Battle is an early-down thumper and the favorite for goal-line carries, which could be meaningful in the unlikely event San Diego's offense enters scoring position. Brinkley is a passing-down specialist lacking inside running chops. Battle would be the preferred option in standard fantasy leagues, but true championship contenders will ignore the Chargers' backfield this week.
Friday Update: Battle and Brinkley already both had the look of poor flex options in finals week, and Ronnie Brown's return to full practice on Friday is likely to render San Diego's backfield a three-headed committee. Brown is listed as probable and will play. None of the three Chargers runners is likely to reach 15 touches against the Jets.
"It's chuck-and-duck offense," is how ESPN's Trent Dilfer described Jets OC Tony Sparano's unit following last Monday night's embarrassing loss at Tennessee. "Pick and stick. It's, in practice this guy was open, so I'm gonna drop back and throw it up, and hopefully he'll catch it. It's just a form of spitball offense and it doesn't work in the National Football League." While I thought that was an interesting quote from Dilfer, I won't waste two minutes of your life explaining why you should avoid the Jets' entire passing game in fantasy championship week. Just look elsewhere. ... The combined record of the teams New York has "won" against this season is 33-50-1, "good" for a .399 winning percentage. Along with Andrew Luck's QB rating, the Jets' six "wins" are one of the most misleading stats of the 2012 NFL season. ... The Shonn Greene-Bilal Powell timeshare will square off Sunday with a San Diego defense that ranks seventh against the run and permits just 3.84 yards per carry. Neither Greene (13-68) nor Powell (6-28) paid dividends as a flex play in Nashville, and it's well within the realm of possibility that neither will against a much better Chargers defense. No Jets skill-position player is a good title-week fantasy option.
Score Prediction: Chargers 17, Jets 6
4:05PM ET Game
Cleveland @ Denver
I've seen some fantasy title-week concern regarding Joe Haden's potential shadow coverage of Demaryius Thomas. I tend to believe it won't even happen. Thomas runs most of his routes against right cornerbacks, and the Browns have left 33-year-old RCB Sheldon Brown on that side of the field since early in the season because he's held up relatively well. Haden has stayed home at left corner. If that defensive design sticks -- and here's guessing it will -- Eric Decker will see more of Haden while Thomas draws Brown. ... All that said, Brown got absolutely torched by Kirk Cousins' Redskins last week. Leonard Hankerson was his responsibility on a 54-yard touchdown bomb, and Josh Morgan beat Brown for a 32-yard fourth-quarter gain. Pierre Garcon also racked up several underneath catches in Brown's coverage. I like Thomas to lead the Broncos in Week 16 receiving as a hero of fantasy championship week. ... The Haden factor should give Decker owners some pause, despite a two-week hot run. Peyton Manning loves to pick apart favorable matchups and will likely put a bulls-eye on the Brown-Thomas assignment, targeting it relentlessly. Expect the box-score pendulum to swing back to Thomas this week, and consider Decker a WR3.
Cleveland's defense is falling apart just in time for a date with Manning, who's the No. 6 fantasy quarterback through 14 games. One of the top safeties in football, Browns SS T.J. Ward was lost for the season in Week 15 due to a bone bruise on his knee. Ward often mirrors tight ends in coverage, so his absence may translate to more openings for the Jacob Tamme-Joel Dreessen combo. Like Brandon Stokley, Tamme and Dreessen are not viable Week 16 fantasy plays, but any uptick in production from Denver's role-playing pass catchers would stand to benefit their quarterback. ... Ward's loss may be felt even more against the run, where Pro Football Focus grades him as the NFL's premier run-support safety, and by a significant margin. Even with Ward in the lineup, Raiders, Redskins, and Chiefs halfbacks have tagged Cleveland for 348 yards and four TDs on 69 carries (5.04 YPC) over the past three games. It also stands to reason that Denver could build a big lead at home versus a vastly inferior Browns team, translating to a high volume of Broncos rushing attempts for a fourth straight week. Excelling in the old Joseph Addai role, Knowshon Moreno has graduated to high-end RB2 status while proving a late-year fantasy stud.
With Brandon Weeden plateauing after improving for most of the season's first half, Cleveland will have trouble moving the ball through the air against Von Miller and Champ Bailey's top-eight pass defense. Weeden remains a one-read passer who locks onto the first receiver in his progressions, leading to head-scratching throws and a 3:5 TD-to-INT ratio over his last four games. "My big concern with Weeden -- and I've watched every game -- is he's a little slow-twitch," NFL Films' Greg Cosell observed this week. "He's not particularly light on his feet or quick in the pocket. He's a little stiff. He needs to quicken everything he does. ... I'm not sure the slow-twitch can really be worked on. And they're gonna have a very interesting offseason decision to make with their new management group." ... Bailey can render Josh Gordon a non-factor, and Cleveland's other pass catchers exhibit no big-play ability. It's going to be a long day for the Browns. ... Greg Little won't have an easy go of it, either, in Week 16. The Browns use Little similarly to Anquan Boldin in Baltimore, moving him inside on passing downs. Broncos RCB/slot corner Chris Harris held Boldin catch-less last week, on six targets. Little is not on the championship week fantasy radar.
Although the Broncos surrender the most fantasy points in the league to tight ends, Ben Watson essentially plays in a three-tight end weave with Jordan Cameron and Alex Smith. Cameron, in fact, led the production-sapping committee with three receptions for 34 yards last week. It's a situation to avoid in fantasy title games. ... No. 6 overall fantasy running back Trent Richardson is the lone Browns skill-position player worth starting confidently against the Broncos. Cleveland playcaller Pat Shurmur figures to reemphasize featuring Richardson after abandoning the run in the second half of last week's loss to Washington, giving his rookie runner just two carries in the final two quarters. While Richardson has not demonstrated the explosive, game-breaking ability evident on his college tape this season, he's always a strong bet for touchdowns. Richardson has scored six times over the past four weeks. He's averaging 23 touches per game during that span.
Friday Update: Cameron will miss Sunday's game with a concussion after failing to pass the NFL's protocol testing this week. Watson should receive increased pass-catching opportunities against a Denver defense that's been leaky in tight-end coverage. While Tony Scheffler and Dennis Pitta would be superior options, Watson is at least worth a desperation look as a low-end TE1.
Score Prediction: Broncos 27, Browns 13
4:25PM ET Games
Chicago @ Arizona
As you probably know by now, the Bears' sieve-like offensive line has caught up with them down the season's stretch. Primarily due to injuries and an early-season turnover rate that was always unsustainable, the defense is no longer effective enough to carry the team. The Bears have lost five of their last six, a span during which Jay Cutler has posted a 5:6 TD-to-INT ratio while missing one game with a concussion. And facing the Cardinals' defense in Arizona will be no Week 16 cakewalk. The Cards play top-four pass defense, rank top-seven in sacks, and no team in football has more interceptions through 14 games. Cutler won't get a break from DC Ray Horton's blitz-heavy group. He's a low-end QB2. ... A week removed from serving up 10 catches for 121 yards to Calvin Johnson despite "box and one" and "punt gunner" coverage to give him help, Patrick Peterson is telling folks he's the best cornerback in the league. The Bears' passing game probably won't have enough overall success Sunday to support more than one fantasy-viable pass catcher, but Brandon Marshall ought to still get "his." Marshall ranks first in fantasy receiver scoring and third in the NFL in targets, and he'll eat Peterson alive whenever he gets off-coverage cushion.
Alshon Jeffery remains a promising prospect, but he's cleared 50 yards in one of his last seven games and was held catch-less last week by Packers CB Sam Shields, who isn't generally regarded as a shutdown corner. Earl Bennett's (concussion) return may also cut into Jeffery's snaps. Marshall is the only Chicago receiver on the Week 16 fantasy radar. ... Horton's defense is most vulnerable on the ground, where the Cards rank 28th against the run and provide Matt Forte with a strong title-week fantasy matchup. Although Forte was stuffed repeatedly at the goal line last week, he's racked up at least 110 total yards and/or a touchdown in three consecutive games and will continue to be leaned on heavily with Michael Bush (ribs) lost to injured reserve. Bears OC Mike Tice did talk up Kahlil Bell as a potential Week 16 short-yardage alternative, but Forte should have no trouble exceeding 20 touches versus a vulnerable defense. Forte offers upside in RB2 slots this week. The Bears have not been playing postseason-caliber football for the last month and a half, but they still should mostly control this game against a brutal Cardinals team.
Full disclosure: Desperation has forced me into starting Beanie Wells in one of my fantasy Super Bowls. I don't feel the least bit good about it, but Wells' matchup is favorable against a Bears run defense that's gone in the tank since midseason, and I am slightly encouraged by Ryan Lindley's Week 15 best game of the year. All of that is incredibly glass-half-full analysis, of course; I hope you aren't forced to do the same. Although he's scored five fluky touchdowns the past four weeks, Wells has run unimpressively all season (2.75 YPC) and plays behind an offensive line that allows no margin for error. View him as a low-end flex option. ... Larry Fitzgerald can be expected to draw Charles Tillman's shadow coverage all game while facing the Bears' top-six pass defense. Here are Fitz's stat lines in Lindley's 2012 starts: 3-31, 1-23, 4-22. Counting on Fitzgerald in title week would take quite the leap of faith. ... Andre Roberts, Rob Housler, Early Doucet, Michael Floyd, and La'Rod Stephens-Howling all should've been dropped from fantasy rosters sometime ago. ... Although Chicago is racking up losses and Arizona is coming off a win, let's not forget that Lindley plays behind the NFL's swiss-cheesiest offensive line and the Bears rank top-ten in sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles. Chicago's defense is a recommended play in Week 16.
Score Prediction: Bears 20, Cardinals 10
NY Giants @ Baltimore
Although it took place due primarily to necessity, the biggest change in Baltimore's offense during Jim Caldwell's Week 15 playcalling debut was Dennis Pitta's featured receiver role. With Champ Bailey shutting down Torrey Smith (1-14) before Smith's concussion and Broncos slot CB Chris Harris putting Anquan Boldin (0-0) on ice, Pitta delivered a career-best stat line of 7-125-2 against Denver, pacing the Ravens with ten targets. Pitta has a Week 16 matchup to stay hot versus a Giants defense that surrenders the fourth most receptions and fourth most yardage to tight ends. ... Pitta has quietly been on a tear for the past month, scoring four touchdowns in his last four games. Joe Flacco's target distribution during that span: Boldin 29, Pitta 28, Smith 27, Ray Rice 22, Jacoby Jones 15, Tandon Doss 9. ... Boldin has a favorable title-week matchup versus Giants struggling rookie corner Jayron Hosley, on whom opponents are picking relentlessly. Hosley plays RCB on base defensive downs and covers the slot in the nickel. In Week 15, Hosley gave up Julio Jones' 40-yard touchdown and most of slot receiver Harry Douglas' season-high 83 yards. Boldin is hard to love coming off the goose egg, but his Week 16 recipe is ripe for a bounce-back game.
Smith's (concussion) Week 16 status is questionable, even if his return to a limited practice on Thursday was a positive sign. If Smith is active -- and we may not have a good read until late Sunday afternoon -- he'll be a boom-or-bust WR3 against a Giants defense with shaky corners whom Smith is capable of running by. Smith hasn't made an end-zone trip since early November, failing to clear 40 yards in four of his last five games. ... If Smith does not play, inconsistent underachiever Jacoby Jones would draw the start. ... Flacco will face off with the Giants' No. 28 pass defense Sunday in a plus matchup on paper. Although Flacco's on-field performance has left much to be desired recently, he typically plays quality football at home and is a high-end QB2. ... Rookie change-of-pace back Bernard Pierce's concussion will sideline him for Week 16, which should stabilize Rice's workload against New York's 22nd-ranked run defense. Pierce has siphoned over eight touches a game over the past month. Rice's matchup is attractive, and he is a candidate for 25-plus touches against the G-Men. Start him as a top-six fantasy back in title week.
Friday Update: Although Smith is indeed listed as questionable on the injury report, he practiced on a limited basis on both Thursday and Friday and the Baltimore Sun reported he's likely to play. Smith's downside is apparent in his recent box scores, but he offers an enticing amount of upside against a weak Giants secondary. I'd struggle to keep him out of a WR3 slot.
Eli Manning appeared to turn his season around in a Week 14 four-touchdown game against the Saints. He went right back in the tank last week in Atlanta, completing 52 percent of 25 attempts with no touchdowns and two picks. "His fundamentals in the pocket have become very erratic and sloppy," NFL Films' Greg Cosell observed. "... This offense is struggling. Eli has not played well. He's had a very inconsistent season." Not helping matters is the fact that Hakeem Nicks (knee) can no longer create downfield separation, allowing defenses to focus attention on Victor Cruz. While Baltimore's pass defense ranks 22nd in the NFL, it's permitted the fewest touchdown passes in football and has quietly played better of late. Eli is not a recommended starter in the fantasy finals. ... Manning's target distribution since the Week 11 bye: Nicks 36, Cruz 28, Martellus Bennett 20, Domenik Hixon 10, Ahmad Bradshaw 6, David Wilson and Rueben Randle 4. ... Although the targets continue to be there, Nicks' diminishing on-field effectiveness caught up to him against the Falcons and he was held to 40 scoreless yards on three catches. Downgrade Nicks to dicey WR3 at Baltimore. Nicks' production has become very Eli-dependent late in the year.
The increased defensive focus has affected Cruz's consistency in the season's second half, but he's still the premier wide receiver play on either side of Giants-Ravens. Set to square off with special teamer-turned-LCB/slot corner Corey Graham on a heavy majority of Sunday's snaps, Cruz should not have trouble leading New York in receiving. ... The fact that Bennett is third in line for targets in a struggling passing attack bodes poorly for his outlook this week, as does the fact that Baltimore's defense has limited tight ends to the fifth fewest fantasy points in football. ... The Giants are likely to have more running than passing success against the Ravens, who field the NFL's No. 26 rush defense and got blown up for 167 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns by Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, and Jacob Hester last week. Unfortunately, New York's backfield lacks clarity with Ahmad Bradshaw (knee) missing practice all week and David Wilson (12-55) coming off a disappointing NFL starting debut, even if his production was torpedoed more by game flow and a huge early deficit than his own performance. If Bradshaw does play, consider him a back-end RB2. If Bradshaw doesn't, Wilson will remain an enticing flex option with god-given talent to bounce back big in what figures to be a more competitive affair.
Friday Update: Bradshaw returned to Friday's practice on a limited basis. He is listed as questionable, but is expected to play. The New York beat writers anticipate a "hot-hand" approach in the Giants' backfield. Start G-Men running backs in title week at your own risk.
Score Prediction: Giants 23, Ravens 20
Sunday Night Football
San Francisco @ Seattle
49ers-Seahawks is a difficult game to try to project with confidence. Both offenses have come so far since their Week 7 meeting, which had a 13-6 result. Quarterback play on each side has improved dramatically, and the offenses have been opened up. But Seattle and San Francisco's team strengths remain on the other side of the ball, and big-time defenses tend to shut down good offenses. The Vegas experts have an over-under of 39 on Niners-Hawks, as one of just three Week 16 games with point projections of fewer than 40. I tend to agree that this will be a relatively low-scoring affair, but it could go either way and I really like the over. ... One area in which the 49ers may have an offensive edge on the Seahawks' defense is an ability to move opponents in the run game. The Niners' power-blocking O-Line cleared lanes consistently in the Week 7 matchup, as Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter combined for 162 yards on 25 carries (6.48 YPC). The Seahawks' run defense really hasn't been the same since. Seattle quietly serves up the eighth highest yards-per-carry average (4.51) in the NFL, supporting Gore's matchup as favorable. Coach Jim Harbaugh won't be afraid to attack the Seahawks with the run, so start Gore as a low-end RB1 in Week 16. ... LaMichael James has replaced Hunter in the change-of-pace role, although the explosive rookie's biggest impact has been in the return game. James doesn't get the ball enough on offense to be a viable flex play.
Through five starts, Colin Kaepernick has completed 85-of-128 throws (66.4 percent) for 1,083 yards (8.46 YPA), and a 7:1 TD-to-INT ratio. He's added two more touchdowns on the ground and averaged 6.31 yards per carry. Kaepernick is the No. 5 overall fantasy quarterback over that span, behind only Newton, Brady, Romo, and Brees. Even in a tough matchup with Seattle's top-three pass defense, Kaepernick has earned a back-end QB1 start with obvious upside for more. In last Sunday's win over the Patriots, Harbaugh unleashed the most aggressive game plan of his 49ers coaching tenure. It worked, and I think that bodes well for Kaepernick's Week 16 box-score outlook. ... What'd bode even better for top receiver Michael Crabtree would be Seahawks top CB Richard Sherman's absence from this game. Sherman's four-game PEDs suspension appeal will be heard on Friday. Fantasy owners needing tiebreakers for lineup decisions on Kaepernick and Crabtree can use the outcome of Sherman's appeal to lean one way or another. If Sherman does not play Sunday night, Seattle will be minus both starting corners. RCB Brandon Browner has two weeks left on his own four-game ban. ... Harbaugh tried to involve Vernon Davis more against New England, as Kaepernick targeted him on two bomb attempts. Davis secured neither, finishing with one catch for ten yards. Davis was held catch-less in the aforementioned Week 7 game. Seattle is 24th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, so this isn't the greatest matchup.
Friday Update: ESPN reported Friday that the Seahawks do not expect to learn the results of Sherman's appeal until next week at the soonest. So he is expected to play in Sunday night's game. Sherman is a top-five cover corner, so his availability removes some luster from both Kaepernick and Crabtree's matchups. Kaepernick should still be viewed as a viable low-end QB1, perhaps with a slightly lower ceiling. Crabtree can expect Sherman to shadow him all over the field, and is a WR3.
One intangible factor that may adversely affect San Francisco in Sunday night's game is fatigue. The 49ers' defense was on the field for a whopping 94 snaps against the Pats, as New England ran its speed-no-huddle offense for the entirety of the second half. For perspective, an average snap total is about 65. 49ers defenders might lose their legs a bit as this game wears on. In his last two meetings with the Niners, Marshawn Lynch has racked up 210 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries (5.25 YPC). So despite San Francisco's top-three run defense ranking, matchup-proof Lynch should be locked in as an RB1. ... One injury situation to monitor for Seattle's offense is 49ers RE Justin Smith's elbow ailment. Smith didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and ultra-reliable 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco wrote this week that there is "serious doubt" about Smith's availability for Sunday night. Justin is a critical part of the Niners' defense, as he plays adjacent NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith on passing downs and
holds commands double teams, often freeing Aldon to rush the passer unblocked on inside stunts. With Justin on the sideline during the second half of the Patriots game, San Francisco's pass rush evaporated.
Russell Wilson's target distribution since Seattle's Week 11 bye: Sidney Rice 22, Golden Tate 18, Doug Baldwin 16, Zach Miller 15, Lynch and Anthony McCoy 8. ... With physical press coverage on the perimeter, the Niners' top-five pass defense put breaks on Rice (2-32) and Tate (0-0) in the Week 7 matchup. Ben Obomanu, who has since hit injured reserve, led Seattle in receiving (3-50). Wilson has gotten markedly better since midseason, but the Seahawks still seem unlikely to successfully generate consistent ball movement through the air against the Niners' defense, even if Justin Smith misses the game. Seattle's best means of sustaining offense will be on the ground. Consider Wilson a high-end QB2, but he should probably be avoided in standard-league lineups. Rice will be an iffy WR3. Tate, Miller, Baldwin, and McCoy should not be started in title week.
Friday Update: Rice (knee) was limited in Friday's practice and is listed as questionable on the injury report. Coach Pete Carroll expects him to play against the 49ers, but Rice should probably be left on fantasy benches with shaky health in a very difficult matchup. If Rice is less than 100 percent -- and the signs suggest he will be -- it'll also be concerning for Russell Wilson.
Score Prediction: 49ers 23, Seahawks 20