San Francisco @ Tampa Bay
The Bucs have stayed committed to a ground game featuring Bobby Rainey amid ups and downs, and it paid off when Rainey took his opening carry of Week 14 80 yards to the house. The Bills held Rainey to 43 combined yards on his final 24 touches (1.79 average). Although Rainey would be a weak Week 15 bet against San Francisco's top-ten run defense, he'll reappear on the high-end flex radar in fantasy championship week at St. Louis. ... Continuing to be utilized as a game manager by OC Mike Sullivan, Mike Glennon hasn't topped 25 pass attempts since October. He deserves credit for an outstanding rookie season overall, but is no better than a low-ceiling QB2 against the 49ers' No. 4 pass defense. San Francisco has permitted an NFC-low 13 passing TDs this season. ... Glennon's 2013 target distribution: Vincent Jackson 100; Tim Wright 47; Tiquan Underwood 33; Brian Leonard 29; Rainey 11; Chris Owusu 10. ... Underwood has made six starts since Mike Williams landed on I.R., registering box-score lines of 2-29-1, 3-64, 1-20, 3-108-2, 3-51, and 0-0. No thanks. ... The Niners allow the fourth fewest fantasy points to tight ends, leaving Wright off the Week 15 streamer radar. ... V-Jax is the lone Buccaneers pass catcher worth using in fantasy semifinals week. The matchup is difficult, so you're betting on Jackson's ability to win vertically and in traffic, on top of the reality that he's an every-week lock to lead Tampa in targets.
No member of San Francisco's offense has a particularly attractive Week 15 matchup, either. The Bucs are the best 4-9 club in recent NFL memory and have a lot of talent on defense, where they are a top-11 team in points allowed and top 13 in yardage. In what projects as a potentially low-scoring affair -- the 41-point over-under is tied for second lowest of Week 15 -- Colin Kaepernick is more high-end QB2 than QB1 streamer. It should be noted that Kap is playing well of late, with 13 all-purpose TDs compared to four turnovers across his last seven games and a passing attack finally picking up with its weapons back. ... Kap's target distribution with Michael Crabtree back in the starting lineup the last two weeks: Anquan Boldin 18; Crabtree 12; Bruce Miller 9; Vernon Davis 8; Mario Manningham 4; Frank Gore 3. ... The Bucs haven't consistently used Darrelle Revis to shadow top wideouts, but it would still likely be in Crabtree owners' best interest to wait for San Francisco's Week 16 game against Atlanta before plugging him into fantasy playoff lineups. I don't think he'd be a poor WR3 -- he's running superb routes and remains dangerous after the catch -- but this is an imposing matchup for a player still working back from a torn Achilles’. ... The Bucs are 16th in receptions and tenth in yardage allowed to tight ends, giving Davis an above-average matchup. Davis is fourth in yards (726) and tied for second in touchdowns (11) among tight ends. With Rob Gronkowski on I.R., only Jimmy Graham is a better TE1 among Sunday and Monday's games.
Boldin is least likely to experience Revis' coverage because he runs so many slot routes, while Revis plays outside. The Bucs have been shredded by slot receivers like Harry Douglas (7-149-1, 6-134-1), Nate Burleson (7-77-1), Rishard Matthews (11-120-2), and Doug Baldwin (6-75-1). Bills primary slot man Stevie Johnson led his team in targets, catches, and yards against Tampa last week. Over the last three weeks, the only receivers with more fantasy points than Boldin are Josh Gordon, Eric Decker, Larry Fitzgerald, Alshon Jeffery, Julian Edelman, and Keenan Allen. I like Boldin as a high-end WR3, and Crabtree as a lower-end one. ... Gore quelled concerns about a late-season slowdown in last Sunday's win over the Seahawks by ripping off 110 yards on 17 carries, and averaging a chain-moving 3.7 YPC even if you leave out his 51-yard cutback run in the fourth quarter. Gore is used sparingly in the passing game and is no longer an RB1, but he's more than earned an RB2 start in fantasy crunchtime, even against Tampa's No. 9 run defense.
Score Prediction: 49ers 21, Bucs 17
Seattle @ NY Giants
The Giants weren't playing great defense with Jason Pierre-Paul in the lineup earlier this season, but they've unraveled without him the past two weeks. Shredded by Philip Rivers and Robert Griffin III for 45-of-60 passing (75%), 456 yards (7.6 YPA), four touchdowns, and no interceptions, New York's pass defense is a sitting duck for Russell Wilson. Despite last week's clunker at Candlestick, Wilson is back in the mix as a top-eight fantasy QB1 against the G-Men. ... Pro Football Focus had graded Pierre-Paul (shoulder) more favorably as a run than pass defender this season, so it should be no surprise that New York's run defense has also been shaken by JPP's absence. Griffin/Alfred Morris and Ryan Mathews/Danny Woodhead have tagged the Giants for 259 yards and two touchdowns on 59 runs (4.39 YPC) over their last two games, quite a ways above New York's season averages. This isn't a great matchup for Marshawn Lynch against the league's No. 11 run defense, but it isn't a worrisome one, either. ... Wilson's target distribution with Percy Harvin (hip) back on the shelf for Seattle's last two games: Golden Tate 13; Zach Miller 11; Doug Baldwin 9; Jermaine Kearse 8; Luke Willson 5; Lynch 4.
Nothing has changed in Seattle's pass-catching corps, even with Sidney Rice (ACL surgery) out for the season and Harvin shelved indefinitely. The Seahawks play low-volume passing offense -- they're 31st in the league in pass attempts -- and Wilson throws to the open man rather than peppering an alpha-type No. 1 receiver with targets. Therefore, Tate and Baldwin are no better than risky WR3 crapshoots week to week. The Giants' secondary is vulnerable both in perimeter (Tate) and slot (Baldwin) coverage, so neither Seattle receiver's Week 15 matchup particularly stands out. ... Miller has scored a touchdown in three of his 11 appearances this season. He's averaged 27 yards in the other eight games. New York is tenth in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, but Miller is never a recommended TE1 streamer. ... Jump-ball specialist Kearse is another touchdown-dependent fantasy commodity who will drill a hole in your lineup if he doesn't score.
With pass-protection woes and a scuffling quarterback, the Giants' best approach this week would be to hammer home the run game and avoid Seattle's NFL-best pass defense. The Seahawks are good but not great against the run, ranking 14th in rushing yards-per-game allowed and 15th in yards per carry (4.18). The Seahawks also lost stud SLB K.J. Wright to a fractured foot in Week 14. The fact that Andre Brown lost a goal-line opportunity to Peyton Hillis last Sunday is frustrating, but Brown scored twice the week before, including from one yard out. So Hillis is not necessarily a designated goal-line back. Brown is a solid RB2 in the fantasy semifinals with a better matchup than you might think. ... Not only do the Seahawks rank No. 1 versus the pass, they're third in interceptions (17) and hold opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating (69.4) in the league. This is a brutal matchup for Eli Manning and the Giants' entire passing game. Truly not playing well, I'd avoid Eli in two-quarterback leagues wherever possible. ... Manning's target distribution since Brown returned from short-term I.R. five weeks back: Victor Cruz 38; Brown, Rueben Randle, and Brandon Myers 21; Hakeem Nicks 18; Jerrel Jernigan 9; Bear Pascoe 7; Hillis 3.
Nicks whipped San Diego's low-grade cornerbacks for 135 yards on five catches in last week's loss, but will encounter an entirely different animal Sunday. New RCB Byron Maxwell has proven to be an upgrade on Brandon Browner (groin), while shutdown All-Pro LCB Richard Sherman lurks on the opposite side. I wouldn't want to trust roller-coaster Nicks in the fantasy playoffs, and certainly not against Seattle. ... If you've found a tell on how to forecast Randle's productive and unproductive games, let me know. I haven't a clue. A talented but limited-snap No. 3 receiver in a borderline-dysfunctional passing offense, Randle is a boom-bust weekly proposition with zero predictability factor as far as I can tell. And he doesn't have a good matchup this week. ... Cruz was a fantasy bust (5-42-0) at San Diego, as the Giants attacked the Chargers outside looking for chunk plays rather than letting Cruz eat up first downs in the slot. Eli was ineffective, and the G-Men were dominated in time of possession (37:23). I apologize for recommending Cruz so strongly in this space last week. He's just a WR2/3 against the Seahawks. It is worth noting for Cruz's cause that 49ers slot man Anquan Boldin dropped six catches and 93 yards on Seattle last week. ... Myers has caught a touchdown in three straight weeks. On the season, Myers is 21st among tight ends in receptions (38), 19th in yards (423), and 17th in fantasy scoring. Seattle is 23rd in fantasy points allowed to tight ends. Chase Myers' fluky touchdown run at your own risk.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 27, Giants 17
New England @ Miami
The Patriots ranked second in the NFL in scoring with Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, and 22nd without Gronkowski (back) over the season's first six games. So losing Gronk to ACL and MCL tears is inarguably a big concern for New England, both in terms of running and passing offense. While Tom Brady has earned QB1 status based on recent performance -- he's 148 of his last 217 (68.2%) passing for 1,876 yards (8.65 YPA), 12 touchdowns, and three picks -- New England's red-zone efficiency and overall offensive outlook has taken a blow. Not helping Week 15 matters is a matchup with Miami's top-13 pass defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks and has limited enemy signal callers to a combined 15:16 TD-to-INT ratio. I'd confidently start Nick Foles, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan over Brady this week. ... The Pats will play three- and four-wide offense with Gronk on the shelf, featuring Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and whoever else can muster up enough health to get out there Sunday. This was Brady's wide-receiver target distribution with Gronk sidelined for the first six games: Edelman 59; Kenbrell Thompkins 50; Aaron Dobson 38; Amendola 27. ... Over the past three weeks, the only NFL receivers with more fantasy points than Edelman are Josh Gordon, Eric Decker, Alshon Jeffery, and Larry Fitzgerald. Edelman should be treated as a locked-in WR2 in PPR and high-end WR3 in standard leagues.
Coming off a 4-36-1 line against Cleveland, Amendola will be an every-down player going forward. He's a solid WR3 with some upside against a Miami defense that excels in perimeter coverage (LCB Brent Grimes), but is vulnerable inside after losing slot corner Dimitri Patterson (groin) to I.R. this week. ... Thompkins (hip) and Dobson (foot) are too unreliable from a health perspective to be trusted in fantasy semifinals week. Josh Boyce was New England's X receiver in Week 14 with Thompkins and Dobson both inactive. ... Shane Vereen has emerged as the Patriots' clear lead back. He's been targeted a whopping 45 times since returning from short-term I.R. four games ago, leading New England. Vereen is an every-week RB1 in both standard and PPR leagues at this point. ... Stevan Ridley is a viable cheap FanDuel plug-and-play and flex option if you're desperate. The Pats need him more than ever. Miami's run defense has allowed 845 yards and five TDs on 190 carries (4.45 YPC) to enemy tailbacks over its last seven games. After being a healthy Week 13 scratch for fumbling, Ridley played 16 snaps off the bench against the Browns and didn't make any on-field errors. LeGarrette Blount played 22 downs, but Ridley is the superior "big back" option and the Patriots know it. Ridley is a Hail Mary flex. Blount isn't worth rostering.
11th in the NFL in pass attempts and 29th in rushes, the Fins fancy themselves a quarterback-centric team and generally adhere to a pass-heavy formula. It's helped Ryan Tannehill quietly ascend to No. 11 among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring. Tannehill will be a high-end QB2 play against New England's No. 16 pass defense, but it's worth noting Bill Belichick has historically had his number. In three career meetings with the Pats, Tannehill is 55-of-106 passing (51.9%) for 613 yards (5.78 YPA), two touchdowns, and three interceptions. Tannehill has been sacked a whopping 16 times in those three games, losing a fumble in each. If Tannehill plays well against New England, this'll be the first time he's done so in his career. ... Tannehill's target distribution since Brandon Gibson tore his patellar tendon: Brian Hartline 58; Mike Wallace 53; Charles Clay 50; Rishard Matthews 42; Lamar Miller 20; Daniel Thomas 7; Michael Egnew 6. ... The Patriots have allowed the 12th most fantasy points and fifth most receptions in the league to tight ends, including a team-high five to Clay in these clubs' October 27 meeting. With at least seven targets in five straight games, Clay is pushing for mid-range TE1 value. ... These are Hartline's last four stat lines in New England games: 4-72; 5-84; 5-69; 4-37. Aim higher in the fantasy postseason.
Aside from perhaps only Clay, Wallace has the premier matchup in Miami's pass-catching corps with Patriots top CB Aqib Talib (hip) struggling mightily. Enemy No. 1 receiver stats against New England the past three weeks: Andre Johnson 8-121; Demaryius Thomas 4-41-1; Josh Gordon 7-151-1. Wallace remains a boom-or-bust WR3 just as he's been all year, but his matchup raises the eyebrow when simply viewing it on paper. ... With Thomas coming off arguably the best game of his career and Miller cleared from his Week 14 concussion, the Dolphins' backfield figures to revert to a two-way timeshare without a clear lead back on a team that doesn't value the run game in the first place. Although New England's Achilles' heel has been on the ground -- they're 31st in run defense and surrender 4.47 yards per carry, the seventh most generous clip in the league -- the Dolphins under OC Mike Sherman don't devise opponent-specific game plans. In these clubs' Week 8 meeting, for instance, Tannehill racked up 49 dropbacks. Miller and Thomas combined for 27 rushing attempts. Throughout the season, Sherman has demonstrated a willingness to abandon the run at the drop of a hat. Chase Thomas' Week 14 box-score stats at your own risk.
Score Prediction: Patriots 23, Dolphins 20
Washington @ Atlanta
With Roddy White back near 100% and an O-Line finally beginning to form some continuity, the Falcons' offense is trending in the right direction entering a Week 15 cupcake date with the left-for-dead Redskins. Every year, a fistful of NFL teams call it a season before the season is officially through, and Washington appears to be the most prominent 2013 example. Playing passably enough to warrant serious QB1 consideration in such a picturesque matchup, Matt Ryan has completed 81 of his last 127 throws (63.4%) for 905 yards (7.13 YPA) and a 5:2 TD-to-INT ratio. At home in the Georgia Dome where weather isn't a concern, I'd start Ryan over Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger this week. The Redskins rank 27th against the pass and have allowed the third most touchdown passes (25) in football. ... Looking better every week, Steven Jackson has rushed for a respectable 218 yards and three touchdowns on his last 54 runs (4.04 YPC), quite an uptick from his midseason production. S-Jax displayed enough power and burst in last week's loss to Green Bay to be a quality RB2/flex play against Washington's No. 18 run defense, which performed much worse than that ranking indicates in its Week 14 devouring by the Chiefs. Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis combined to tag the Skins for 181 yards and two TDs on 30 carries (6.03 YPC). If the Falcons grab an early lead or so much as keep this game competitive, S-Jax shouldn't struggle for 20 or more touches.
Ryan's target distribution since Roddy's Week 10 return from a hamstring injury: Harry Douglas 50; White 39; Tony Gonzalez 32; Darius Johnson 22; Jacquizz Rodgers 17; Jackson 15; Jason Snelling 8; Antone Smith 3. ... Running savvy routes and commanding targets again, White is a legit WR2 against Washington's walkover defense. ... Look for a bounce-back Week 15 effort from Douglas, who ran into Tramon Williams' shutdown slot coverage last Sunday and emerged with a 2-20 line one week after Williams held Nate Burleson catch-less on Thanksgiving. As Anquan Boldin (5-94-2) and Victor Cruz (6-80) can attest, the Redskins are as vulnerable in slot defense as anywhere else. Douglas is a solid WR3. ... Washington allows the seventh most fantasy points to tight ends, making Gonzalez an attractive play in semifinals week of the fantasy playoffs. Gonzo has found pay dirt in back-to-back games. ... Third receiver Johnson has topped 40 receiving yards in 1-of-8 appearances this season, and isn't a viable Week 15 sleeper. ... No. 4 wideout Drew Davis caught a 36-yard touchdown pass on a crossing route last week, where Ryan "threw open" Davis with tight-window placement. It was Davis' only reception of the game. White's primary backup at Z receiver, Davis has been limited to single-digit snaps in four straight weeks.
The Redskins announced Wednesday they will start Kirk Cousins at Atlanta in an effort to ensure Robert Griffin III enters the offseason at 100% health. Make what you want of Mike Shanahan's decision, but strictly from an on-field perspective Cousins isn't necessarily a surefire downgrade from RG3 in terms of passing. Griffin is far more talented, but has been an up-and-down thrower of the football throughout 2013. In Cousins' lone career start against a solid Browns defense last December, he completed 26-of-37 passes (70.3%) for 329 yards (8.9 YPA), two touchdowns, and one pick, adding 22 rushing yards. Fantasy owners shouldn't expect similarly lofty production this week, but the matchup is far more favorable indoors against Atlanta's No. 20 pass defense, which ranks 29th in sacks and allows the highest passer rating (104.3) in football. Cousins has some upside as a cheap FanDuel and two-QB-league start. ... Although his mediocre touchdown and yardage totals have frustrated standard-league fantasy owners at times this year, Garcon is on pace for 104 receptions and has at least five grabs in 13-of-13 games. Garcon paced Washington in targets (12), catches (6), and yards (65) in last winter's Cousins start. I like him as a WR2.
Also working in the favor of Washington's passing attack is the absence of FS Thomas DeCoud (concussion), forcing seventh-round pick Zeke Motta into the starting lineup. The Falcons will start three rookies in the secondary: Motta, RCB Desmond Trufant, and LCB Robert Alford. They're scaling back usual LCB Asante Samuel's snaps down the stretch of a lost season. ... Atlanta has allowed the eighth most fantasy points to tight ends. Unfortunately, Jordan Reed (concussion) is being shut down for the rest of the season. The Redskins will turn to a rotation of lumbering in-line tight end Logan Paulsen and Fred Davis, who has five grabs for 38 yards in three 2013 starts. ... Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, and Aldrick Robinson are down the pecking order in Washington's passing game and unworthy of fantasy roster spots in semifinals week. ... Atlanta's defense has hemorrhaged 922 yards and nine TDs on 158 carries (5.84 YPC) to Pierre Thomas, Marshawn Lynch, Bobby Rainey, Carolina's backfield, Andre Ellington, C.J. Spiller/Fred Jackson, and Eddie Lacy over its last seven games. Alfred Morris totaled 93 yards and two TDs in Cousins' 2012 start and has a cake Week 15 matchup. I'd be very hard pressed to keep Morris out of an RB2 slot.
Score Prediction: Falcons 28, Redskins 20