Dallas @ San Diego
The Chargers enter Week 4 with the most banged-up offensive line west of East Rutherford. RT D.J. Fluker is back from his concussion, but LT King Dunlap was concussed in Week 3. RG Jeromey Clary missed the work week with a collarbone injury, and LG Chad Rinehart is out indefinitely with a toe problem. C Nick Hardwick was "limited" by a shin injury. The Cowboys rank second in the NFL in both sacks (13) and run defense, where they're one of just two teams yet to surrender a rushing TD. This Chargers offense could be in for a long day. ... Philip Rivers & Co. struggled to move the ball in Week 3 against the Titans after their game-opening touchdown drive. Although Rivers has been a high-percentage passer, the offense is dink-and-dunkish in nature, and Rivers ranks 18th in the league in 20-plus-yard pass attempts. We can't expect big plays from the Chargers' passing game. Rivers is a high-end QB2 against Dallas with obvious risk due to his protection. ... Rivers' targets through three games: Antonio Gates 21, Danny Woodhead 20, Eddie Royal 16, Vincent Brown 14, Keenan Allen 4, Ryan Mathews 3. ... Gates is the one Chargers pass catcher I'd feel good about starting in Week 4. He's eighth in fantasy scoring among tight ends, and Cowboys DC Monte Kiffin's unit has a talent shortage at safety. Gates is moving better this season than he has in years. It's very noticeable on tape.
Royal returned to Earth with 34 yards on two targets against the Titans. While his role in San Diego's offense has exceeded preseason expectations, Royal is still only playing 63% of the snaps and isn't heavily targeted. Despite the five fluky early-season touchdowns, consider Royal a WR4 going forward. ... Running routes primarily down the sidelines, Brown isn't getting open and has not won any of his three targets 20-plus yards downfield. If Royal is a WR4, Brown is a WR5. ... Allen has the best matchup of San Diego's wideouts against Cowboys whipping-boy RCB Morris Claiborne, but has been an afterthought in the passing game so far. Perhaps you could view Allen as a super sleeper this particular week, but he's not remotely worth starting in standard leagues. ... Mathews played only 19-of-59 snaps (32.2%) in Week 3, probably because the Bolts were worried about his inability to pass protect against the blitz-heavy Titans. Mathews simply isn't playing much, and he's now getting vultured at the goal line by Ronnie Brown. View Mathews as a poor flex play against the stout Cowboys defense. Back on the PPR flex radar, Woodhead could easily play the most snaps again because Dallas rushes the passer so well.
Friday Update: Dunlap is optimistically listed as questionable. Rinehart won't play, and Clary is doubtful. So the Chargers will be without both of their starting guards against Dallas, and quite possibly their left tackle, too. Woodhead is an interesting flex play in PPR leagues. Rivers will have to get it out quick, and Woodhead could be a major part of Mike McCoy's game plan on screens and dump-offs. They're high-percentage pass plays that don't require sustained pass protection.
The Chargers are getting dumptrucked defensively. Only the Redskins have given up more total yards, and no team in football is allowing more yards per play (7.0). It's a great week to fire up Dallas skill-position players. ... Although Tony Romo's start has been somewhat slow in fantasy terms, he's completing a career-best 72.2% of his throws and has a 6:1 TD-to-INT ratio. Likely to have a clean pocket Sunday, this could be a funk-breaker for Romo. ... The Chargers don't have anyone who can cover Dez Bryant. RCB Shareece Wright is 96th of 102 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings, while LCB Derek Cox is 66th. San Diego ranks dead last against the pass. ... Stiff, straight-linish DeMarco Murray is a virtual lock to get injured at this rate, but he's seventh in the NFL in carries and tied for fourth among running backs in receptions. Ride Murray while he's hot and facing San Diego's 28th-ranked run defense, but it'll be time to contemplate selling high soon. ... Romo's 2013 target distribution so far: Bryant 27; Jason Witten 23; Miles Austin 21; Murray 19; Terrance Williams 7; Dwayne Harris, Gavin Escobar, and James Hanna 5.
The Chargers have allowed the fifth-most fantasy points to tight ends through three weeks, and Witten is tied for third at his position in receptions, behind only Jimmy Graham and Jordan Cameron. He's a mid-range TE1 in this matchup. ... Battling hamstring woes again, Austin is going to be a game-time decision for Sunday's 4:25ET affair. Austin can't be trusted in fantasy lineups, and neither can his backups. Rookie Williams isn't making anything happen downfield or after the catch. The Cowboys have relegated Harris to fourth receiver and special teams duties, but he is a better player than Williams. Even in an ideal matchup, Cowboys pass catchers beyond Dez and Witten are Week 4 fantasy commodities to avoid. ... Trying to handcuff Murray is a tricky proposition. The Cowboys view Lance Dunbar as a change-of-pace back, and Phillip Tanner is probably second in line for early-down work. I'd rather own Dunbar than Tanner, but wouldn't bother outside of deep leagues. Dallas would resort to a timeshare if Murray missed time.
Friday Update: Austin (hamstring) missed a third straight day of practice Friday and will be inactive at San Diego. I'd rather start Harris than Williams if deciding between Dallas' two reserve wideouts. I've seen Harris play a lot more pro football and he is good. Williams is an incredibly raw rookie. I suppose you could argue Williams gives you more upside, while Harris is "safer." Slot receiver Cole Beasley is also in the mix.
Score Prediction: Cowboys 27, Chargers 23
Sunday Night Football
New England @ Atlanta
The Sunday nighter has a 50-point over-under, the second highest of Week 4 behind only Philly-Denver. It's a good game to peruse for sleepers and lean toward for borderline fantasy-lineup calls. ... Having lost WLB Sean Weatherspoon to short-term I.R. and LE/SLB Kroy Biermann for the year, the Falcons' defense looks vulnerable to power run games. Atlanta is now using UDFA Joplo Bartu as an every-down linebacker, and undersized (6'2/264) Jonathan Massaquoi as its primary left end. 33-year-old RE Osi Umenyiora has never been a great run stopper. Three games represent too small of a sample for genuine worry about an established fantasy stud like Stevan Ridley, but I'd be concerned if he doesn't regain clear feature-back duties in this plus matchup. Start Ridley as a good bet to score. ... Brandon Bolden's usage increased in Week 3 because the Patriots used more four-wideout formations to avoid Tampa Bay's stout defensive front and attack the Bucs' leaky zone coverage with the pass. Playing the "passing-back" role vacated by Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, Bolden is a low-end flex play at the Georgia Dome. His week-to-week role is based solely on game plan. Bolden had eight touches last week, fewest of all three Patriots backs. ... More than anything else, LeGarrette Blount's usage has had the biggest drain on Ridley's value. Blount has stolen 25 early-season carries. He was averaging 2.36 YPC before killing late-game clock in last week's 23-3 win over the Bucs. It's possible Blount's role increased in that specific game as a nod to putting away his old team. Blount remains off the fantasy radar.
This game has a high-scoring projection and will be played indoors. There are only four fantasy quarterbacks I'd play over Tom Brady this week: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, and Matthew Stafford. ... Brady's target distribution on the season: Julian Edelman 34, Kenbrell Thompkins 28, Aaron Dobson 20, Bolden 6, Michael Hoomanawanui 5, Josh Boyce and Zach Sudfeld 3, Ridley 1. ... Rob Gronkowski (back, arm) and Danny Amendola (groin) will not play on Sunday Night Football. Edelman will continue to hog targets and is borderline WR1 in PPR leagues. He's a WR2/3 in standard. Falcons slot cornerback Robert McClain has struggled in coverage this year, allowing both of Tavon Austin's Week 2 touchdowns and six catches to Brandon Gibson last week. ... Thompkins is coming off a two-score game, but has secured only nine of his 28 targets with a bad drop in back-to-back weeks. Thompkins remains a dicey WR3 because he's not playing particularly well, but he has a great matchup against Falcons rookie RCB Desmond Trufant. ... Dobson will run more routes at LCB Asante Samuel, who played a leading role in limiting Mike Wallace to 22 yards on four targets last week. Dobson is a WR4.
Friday Update: All week, indications pointed to Gronkowski and Amendola missing Week 4. On Friday, however, the Boston Globe reported they are both tentatively expected to play against the Falcons. It's a difficult fantasy situation. This is a Sunday night game, and lineup decisions need to be made on Sunday morning. Even if Gronkowski and Amendola are surprise "actives," they may not be available for full-time roles. Barring more clarification on Saturday or early Sunday, fantasy owners should treat Gronk and Amendola as if they will not play. You don't want to get caught with zeroes in your starting lineup.
Attempting to compensate for arguably the league's leakiest pass protection, Falcons OC Dirk Koetter has made noticeable and impressive adjustments. Atlanta is running wideout screens with high frequency, allowing Matt Ryan to get the ball out quickly and Julio Jones to rack up targets and receptions. Through three weeks, Jones ranks first in the NFL in receiving yards (373), and tied for first with Edelman in catches (27). Among wide receivers, only garbage-time kings Cecil Shorts and Pierre Garcon have more targets. ... Seemingly settling in as a back-end QB1, Ryan is tenth in fantasy quarterback scoring and will probably stay in that territory until he begins getting two things: 1. Better protection. 2. More production from Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. The Patriots rank sixth in pass defense, though they've faced E.J. Manuel, Josh Freeman, and Geno Smith. Ryan's matchup is unimposing enough for him to solidly stay in the QB1 mix. ... Ryan's targets through three games: Julio 35, Gonzo 19, Harry Douglas 17, Jason Snelling 12, White 9, Jacquizz Rodgers 8. ... Running NFL pass routes on a high ankle sprain that ostensibly isn't getting better, White is still only playing 61% of the Falcons' offensive snaps and operating as a decoy. Ryan threw at White four times last week. Until we see tangible signs of improved health, White is fantasy bench fodder.
Gonzalez lost his speed several seasons ago, so I'm not buying the notion his lack of explosion explains his lack of stats. He's been a box-out power forward for years. Perhaps it's attributable to missing so much camp and preseason time due to his hand-shake agreement with Falcons management, but Gonzalez is 21st among fantasy tight ends despite ranking second on a pass-happy team in targets. I think Gonzo is far more likely to pick it up than hit rock bottom. I'd start him Sunday night and hope for a shootout. ... Despite White's ineffectiveness, Douglas' yardage totals have declined each week this season, and he caught one ball for nine yards in Week 3. Just not a very good player, Douglas is off the fantasy radar. ... Since Steven Jackson strained his hamstring in Week 2 against the Rams, Quizz has handled 35 touches compared to Snelling's 21. Rodgers has played 81 snaps to Snelling's 66. Snelling may be the slight favorite for red-zone carries, but I'm taking my chances with the guy playing more and getting the football more if I'm deciding between the two. Coming off a 22-touch, 93-yard game, Quizz is a solid flex play in all formats against New England. Snelling is a touchdown-dependent, low-end flex with scant upside.
Score Prediction: Patriots 28, Falcons 24
Monday Night Football
Miami @ New Orleans
The Dolphins head to the Superdome undefeated, but at significantly less than 100% health. Star LE Cameron Wake (MCL sprain) may only be available for passing downs, and NT Paul Soliai (knee) is week to week. Slot CB Dimitri Patterson (groin) suffered a setback last week and didn't play against Atlanta, allowing Julio Jones (9-115) to light up RCB Nolan Carroll. Drew Brees is catching fire again following a slightly slow start, and has a plus matchup on Monday night. The Dolphins currently rank 20th in passing yards allowed. ... Playing 59% of his snaps split outside or in the slot, Jimmy Graham leads all tight ends in targets (by seven), receptions (by three), yards (by 89), and standard league fantasy points (by nine). The Dolphins get heated up frequently by tight ends because coordinator Kevin Coyle is a believer in blitzing, and tight ends are often the quarterback's hot read. Coyle may blitz Brees even more than usual in an attempt to compensate for a banged-up Wake. As usual, Graham is the No. 1 fantasy tight end play in Week 4. ... Brees' target distribution through three weeks: Graham 38, Marques Colston 21, Darren Sproles 20, Pierre Thomas 15, Lance Moore 11, Kenny Stills 8, Ben Watson 5, Robert Meachem 3. ... Graham has hogged early receiving production, but it's only a matter of time before double teams begin benefiting Colston. Colston also started slow last season (4-71, 3-49, 3-40 in Weeks 1-3), only to finish as the No. 12 fantasy receiver. He's probably the best buy-low wideout in fantasy.
Brees has eight straight 300-yard games, the second longest streak in NFL history and one short of his own record. He's set up for a lot of yards Monday night. After Graham and Colston, Sproles is the favorite for targets, catches and yards in New Orleans. Like Colston, Sproles is off to a slow start, but is a recommended RB2/flex against Miami and should be on all buy-low radars. ... Though effective real-life players, Moore and Stills are canceling each other out of weekly box scores. Moore hasn't cleared 25 yards in any game yet. Stills' yardage totals have dropped in back-to-back weeks, and he went catch-less against the Falcons. They're both fantasy WR5s. ... Normally one of the league's stoutest defenses, Miami is shelling out 4.72 yards per carry to enemy ball carriers, the sixth highest average in the league. Soliai's absence is hurting here, and Wake's limited role won't help. With Mark Ingram (toe) not expected to play Monday, Thomas is squarely in the flex mix. Thomas racked up 17 touches in last Sunday's win over Arizona, his highest touch total in any game since December of 2010. I noticed Thomas' Week 4 pricetag on FanDuel is only $5,400, 37th among running backs. He's a nice, cheap gamble in daily leagues.
Friday Update: Moore (wrist) missed practice on Thursday and Friday and may not play Monday night against the Dolphins. If he doesn't, rookie Stills could be a deep Week 4 sleeper.
Until they begin springing leaks, it's time to take Saints DC Rob Ryan's defense seriously as a tough fantasy matchup for enemy skill-position players. Ryan has built a unit with which to be reckoned. The Saints rank fourth in total defense, and only four clubs have allowed fewer points. New Orleans is No. 4 versus the pass. Ryan Tannehill has carried the Dolphins' offense through offensive-line talent shortages and run-game inconsistency, but is likely to face a lot of pressure on Monday night. The Saints are a top-seven team in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing metrics, blitzing in an efficient and responsible manner. Tannehill only ranks 23rd in fantasy QB scoring. He could still pay off as a two-quarterback-league start if this game turns into a shootout. ... Miami is more likely to have rushing success at the Superdome, as Ryan's defense ranks 20th versus the run and second to last in yards-per-carry allowed (5.30). Unfortunately, the Dolphins' coaching staff has refused to commit to a feature back. Starter Lamar Miller has played 94 snaps on the season, but is struggling in pass protection and averaging 12 touches for 50 yards a game. He had a bad drop in last week's win over Atlanta, costing the Fins a long gain. Daniel Thomas has played 93 snaps and is averaging eight touches per game. In pass pro, Thomas has allowed a sack in back-to-back games. He got Tannehill hit repeatedly last week.
Tannehill's target distribution: Brian Hartline 28, Mike Wallace 21, Brandon Gibson 20, Charles Clay 19, Miller 6, Rishard Matthews 4, Thomas 3. ... Resistant to bracket coverage as a press-man believer, Ryan's defense has shown some vulnerability to opposing No. 1 receivers. Julio Jones touched up the Saints for a 7-76-1 line in Week 1. In Week 2, Vincent Jackson registered a 5-77 spot that would've been much larger had a 73-yard TD not been called back. Coming off a debilitating hamstring injury last week, Larry Fitzgerald caught 5-of-6 targets for 64 yards against New Orleans. Wallace dropped 95 yards on Ryan's Dallas defense last December. He's a strong WR2 on Monday night. ... Hartline has been the beneficiary of Wallace's attention-commanding presence, leading Miami in targets and ranking 14th in fantasy receiver scoring through three games. I'm very skeptical Hartline keeps up those numbers, but he's worth a WR3 start in a potentially pass-happy affair. ... H-back Clay is a chain-moving possession receiver underneath and gets random goal-line carries. Clay's upside is minimal, but you could do worse in a crunch. Clay is playing 85% of Miami's offensive snaps and does far more route running than blocking.
Score Prediction: Saints 30, Dolphins 24