Houston @ Indianapolis
Gary Kubiak's firing last Friday locked in Case Keenum as the Texans' starting quarterback for the rest of the year. Kubiak had benched Keenum twice across Houston's previous four games, and not without reason. Thursday night's loss to Jacksonville included, Keenum has completed 63 of his last 121 attempts (52.1%) for 777 yards (6.42 YPA), two touchdowns, and four interceptions. While Keenum maintains an intriguing blend of athleticism and aggressiveness, he is far more streetballer than defense dissector at this stage of his career. Even indoors against Indianapolis' No. 18 pass defense, Keenum is just barely a two-quarterback-league option based on recent performance. ... Ben Tate's contract year has been such a disappointment that I suspect he'll be quite underwhelmed by his 2014 free-agent market, and perhaps wind up settling for a one-year, prove-it-type deal. That said, he's a worthwhile flex play in the fantasy semifinals against a Colts team whose primary vulnerability is versus the run. Indy ranks 29th in run defense and shells out 4.39 yards per carry, the NFL's ninth highest clip. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard combined for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 29 runs (5.07 YPC) against the Colts this past week. ... Keenum's 2013 target distribution: Andre Johnson 66; Garrett Graham 52; DeAndre Hopkins 32; Tate 22; DeVier Posey 17; Keshawn Martin 10; Dennis Johnson 6 and Ryan Griffin 6.
The primary beneficiary of Keenum's playing style has been and will continue to be alpha receiver Johnson, whose stat lines in Keenum's seven starts are 4-89; 9-229-3; 5-37-2; 10-116; 2-36; 8-121; 13-154. That is a 7.3-catch, 111.7-yard per-game average. The 9-229-3 line came against these same Colts in Week 9. ... Even if his future remains bright, Hopkins has been much less effective in both real life and fantasy. Averaging under six targets per game in Keenum's starts, "Nuk" was held to 54 scoreless yards on three receptions in these clubs' midseason tilt. Hopkins isn't worth rostering in 12-team leagues through the fantasy playoffs. ... The NFL's target leader among tight ends over the past five weeks is Graham, with 50. (Garrett; not Jimmy, who is second at 43.) Although Graham's efficiency hasn't been great, he is clearly the No. 2 option in Houston's passing game, ahead of Hopkins. The Colts are 25th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends and don't necessarily offer up an outstanding matchup for Graham, but the heavy targeting keeps him in the low-end TE1 mix. ... With Tate reasserting himself as Houston's feature back, Dennis Johnson has faded into the background and is a mere handcuff for Weeks 15-16. Tate has 38 touches over the past two games. Johnson has eight, managing 38 scoreless yards.
Are Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill "for real"? In terms of playing ability, the answer is an emphatic Yes. I recall watching Rogers play at Tennessee as a sophomore and his game reminded me of Brandon Marshall's. More of a vertical threat than YAC beast Rogers, Brazill's forthcoming blowup game has been hinted at in this space for weeks, though it was always going to be impossible to pinpoint. It occurred in last week's loss to the Bengals, as Brazill turned four targets into 53 yards and two touchdowns. Brazill and Rogers remain dice-roll WR3s only, but they are now prominent parts of an Andrew Luck-quarterbacked passing game who'll play indoors in Week 15. This was last week's wide-receiver snap distribution for the Colts: T.Y. Hilton 45; Brazill 42; Rogers 41; Darrius Heyward-Bey 23. ... Luck's target distribution last week: Rogers and Coby Fleener 9; Trent Richardson and Donald Brown 6; Hilton 5; Brazill 4; DHB 3; Weslye Saunders 2; Jack Doyle and Chris Rainey 1. ... The target numbers suggest Rogers is a superior fantasy gamble to Brazill. Their snap totals are already similar, and because Rogers is utilized more underneath where he can create physical mismatches, Rogers has a better chance to rack up receptions and offer box-score consistency. Throw in Brazill's foot injury and there's little doubt Rogers is a more compelling fantasy bet. ... The Texans are 14th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, giving Fleener a somewhat attractive matchup. Fleener has proven to be a low-upside fantasy TE1, but his target numbers have not wavered. Over the past five weeks, Fleener is tied with Charles Clay for third among NFL tight ends in targets (42), behind the two Grahams.
Hilton owners are frustrated with his month-long yardage drought, but the emergence of Indy's young receivers will inarguably help him going forward. As is often discussed in this space, these things tend to come full circle, and having other dangerous weapons to command defensive attention will open things up for Hilton, who recently has been the focus of all opponents. I would continue to start Hilton over Rogers and Brazill in Week 15, ranking them as T.Y. > Da'Rick > LaVon against the Texans. Don't forget Hilton scorched Houston for a season-best 7-121-3 stat line in these clubs' early-November meeting. He singlehandedly took over the game in the second half of Indy's 27-24 comeback victory. ... The Texans' defense is fairly soft on the ground, where it ranks 21st in rushing yards allowed per game and 22nd in yards per carry (4.23). Unfortunately, Indianapolis' backfield remains a two-man committee as Richardson's role grew in Week 14 after Brown appeared to overtake him the Sunday prior. On the season, Brown has rushed 75 times for 389 yards and four touchdowns. 37.3% of Brown's carries, 34.4% of his rushing yards, and 75% of his scores have come in the Colts' two games against the Titans. Brown has managed 255 yards and one score on 47 carries in his other 11 games combined. So I wouldn't view Brown as a viable flex play in fantasy semifinals week. Richardson is still not playing as much as Brown, though his 88-total-yard Week 14 performance could earn T-Rich increased looks going forward.
Score Prediction: Colts 24, Texans 20
4:05PM ET Games
Kansas City @ Oakland
Peyton Manning is the 2013 NFL MVP and it isn't close, but Jamaal Charles has an awfully good case for runner-up. He's been an offense carrier in Kansas City, on pace for career highs across the board and leading all running backs in fantasy points. Charles' Week 15 matchup is improved by the Raiders' loss of DT Vance Walker (concussion), a core run defender. Only LeSean McCoy is a better fantasy running back play than Charles this week. "J-Chuck" dropped 128 total yards and two touchdowns on Oakland in their Week 6 meeting. ... Alex Smith continues to earn QB1 streamer consideration with multiple touchdown passes in four consecutive games. Smith has completed 132 of his last 213 passes (62.0%) for 1,322 yards (6.21 YPA), and an 11:2 TD-to-INT ratio. The Raiders rank 23rd in pass defense and allow the fourth highest passer rating (98.8) in football. They can't cover in the back end or generate up-front heat. ... Smith's target distribution over his last five games: Dwayne Bowe 44; Dexter McCluster 33; Charles 26; Donnie Avery 21; Anthony Fasano 15; Sean McGrath 10; Anthony Sherman 7; A.J. Jenkins 5; Junior Hemingway 4.
Bowe's stats over his last five games: 5-51-1; 4-57-1; 7-67; 3-56; 4-69-1. Bowe's upside is always capped by his talent-deficient quarterback and generally unaggressive offense, but he's played himself into high-end, every-week WR3 discussion. Notable opposing No. 1 receiver stats against the Raiders since Oakland's Week 7 bye: Antonio Brown 9-82; DeSean Jackson 5-150-1; Andre Johnson 10-116; Kendall Wright 6-103-1; Dez Bryant 7-61-1. ... Kansas City's fantasy-viable pass catchers end at Bowe. McCluster has a somewhat sizable role in Andy Reid's offense, but it's very difficult to imagine investing a WR3 spot in a gadget-type slot receiver without a game above 70 receiving yards all season. Add in an ankle injury and McCluster isn't a tempting Week 15 sleeper in re-draft leagues... Avery has been a fantasy non-factor for months. ... Oakland allows the ninth fewest receptions and 11th fewest yards in the league to tight ends. And they're about to become stronger at safety via the return of SS Tyvon Branch (fibula/ankle) from short-term injured reserve. Scratch banged-up Fasano and bearded mountain man McGrath off your Week 15 streamer list.
After a roughly six-game lull, an energized Chiefs defense came alive in last Sunday's demolition of Washington, hitting Redskins quarterbacks ten times with six sacks, and combining for seven tackles for loss. Previously hampered by a debilitating mid-ankle injury, OLB Tamba Hali keyed the onslaught with team highs in tackles (6), TFLs (3), sacks (2), and QB hits (4). Long on talent and highly aggressive under Rex Ryan disciple Bob Sutton, Kansas City's defense should be considered an imposing matchup for enemy skill-position players until proven otherwise going forward. It certainly helps that OLB Justin Houston (11 games, 11 sacks) has resumed practicing. ... The Raiders are playing in-game quarterback musical chairs. Although Terrelle Pryor handled just one full possession in last week's loss to the Jets, it's entirely possible he plays more this Sunday after leading a 58-yard field-goal drive. Neither Pryor nor Matt McGloin is anywhere near the two-quarterback-league radar versus the Chiefs. Kansas City ranks second in sacks (43) and seventh in interceptions (15), and no NFL defense permits a lower completion rate (55.3) to enemy passers. ... McGloin remains the Raiders’ "starter" and is likely to play the most, so his presence is more relevant for the rest of Oakland's offense. This is McGloin's target distribution through five appearances (four starts): Rod Streater 31; Andre Holmes 26; Marcel Reece and Mychal Rivera 19; Rashad Jennings 14; Jacoby Ford 12; Denarius Moore 9; Darren McFadden 1.
The return of Moore (shoulder) throws a wrench into the Raiders' pass-catching corps. Moore led Oakland in all receiving categories before going down, starting over Holmes at X receiver. With so little clarity in an already bottom-six passing offense against a difficult opponent, I think the best approach in fantasy semifinals week is to avoid Oakland's receivers. ... Getting Jennings back is a more exciting fantasy development. The up-and-down Chiefs No. 16 run defense is coughing up 4.53 yards per carry, the sixth most generous clip in football. While Reece likely earned a more prominent change-of-pace role by shredding the Jets' league-best run defense for 161 total yards and a touchdown in Week 14, Raiders beat writers anticipate Jennings retaking the clear-cut lead back role. Jennings will be a quality RB2/flex option versus Kansas City. In five starts this season, Jennings has averaged 18.8 touches for 92.2 total yards per game with three TDs. Reece had been so sparingly utilized before last week that he can't even be trusted as a Week 15 flex play.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 21, Raiders 13
NY Jets @ Carolina
Cam Newton delivered a respectable 15.2 standard-league fantasy points in last week's loss at the Superdome, but expectations are raised for Week 15. Already a tire fire in the back end, the Jets' secondary may be minus No. 1 CB Antonio Cromartie (concussion), and on the season ranks 24th versus the pass. Newton has been dynamite in six home games this year, amassing an 11:5 TD-to-INT ratio and 65.8% completion rate with three rushing scores. The Panthers' lone home loss is to Seattle, which barely beat Carolina 12-7 on Opening Day. Fire up Newton as a top-five QB1. ... Cam's target distribution over the last month: Greg Olsen 36; Steve Smith 26; Brandon LaFell 24; Ted Ginn 22; DeAngelo Williams 8; Mike Tolbert 7; Jonathan Stewart 4. ... Emerging as Carolina's No. 1 option in the passing game, Olsen is returning from a 12-target Week 14 and is the No. 9 overall fantasy tight end on the season. Facing a Jets defense that coughs up the ninth most fantasy points in the league to tight ends, Olsen is a mid-range TE1 in the fantasy semifinals. ... LaFell has cleared 60 yards in 2-of-13 games and is a fantasy WR4.
Not heavily targeted and running more possession routes than ever under new OC Mike Shula, Smith is a low-ceiling WR3, albeit with a favorable Week 15 matchup. "89" is just 38th in fantasy receiver scoring on the season. ... Stewart's MCL tear leaves Panthers backfield chores to Williams and Tolbert, with plenty of Newton mixed in. Williams has a shot to handle 20 carries per game going forward, but isn't a particularly enticing flex play in Week 15. Although the Jets have sprung some leaks the past two weeks, they're still No. 2 in NFL run defense and permit 3.14 yards per carry, the stingiest clip in football. Throw in the fact that Williams will likely get all red-zone work vultured by Newton and Tolbert, and his upside is capped in spite of the increased open-field workload. On the season, Williams is averaging 4.04 yards per carry with two all-purpose touchdowns. He has a high-volume, low-scoring outlook in fantasy semifinals week.
The Jets' offense looked passable in last week's 37-27 romp over the hapless Raiders, but their Week 14 performance likely isn't a sign of things to come. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's unit now gets a road test with a Carolina club that ranks No. 2 in total defense, No. 1 in points allowed, No. 1 versus the run, and No. 5 versus the pass. ... Chris Ivory is the only remotely start-worthy Jet, and he's always at in-game risk of reduced carries based upon game flow because he gets pulled for Bilal Powell in all passing situations. Ivory has rushed for 411 yards and three touchdowns on his last 71 carries (5.79 YPC), but he's no better than a flex play in this matchup. ... Geno Smith's target distribution with Jeremy Kerley back in the lineup in Week 14: Kerley 7; Kellen Winslow 6; Santonio Holmes 5; David Nelson 4; Tommy Bohanon 2; Powell 1. ... Kerley registered a 4-41-1 line in his Week 14 return from a subluxed elbow and is the best bet to lead the Jets in receiving this week. He's still an unattractive WR3. ... Still battling a balky hamstring, Holmes' week-to-week playing time has been unreliable. He's hit pay dirt once this season and exceeded 55 yards in 2-of-8 appearances. ... Carolina is 19th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, and 28th in yards. There are several better TE1 streamer options than Winslow in Week 15.
Score Prediction: Panthers 27, Jets 14
4:25PM ET Games
Green Bay @ Dallas
The Cowboys have struggled mightily to establish a 2013 offensive identity, but oftentimes playing a bad defense can cure what's ailing a team. Green Bay ranks 21st versus the pass and 25th against the run, and has allowed 26-plus points in six of its last seven games. It can't hurt that this game will be played beneath JerryWorld's dome. The one truly trustworthy Dallas skill player of late has been DeMarco Murray, who has an enticing matchup. Over the past six weeks, Green Bay has been gashed by Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Andre Brown/Brandon Jacobs, Adrian Peterson/Toby Gerhart, Reggie Bush/Joique Bell, and Steven Jackson for 874 yards and five touchdowns on 166 carries (5.27 YPC). The Packers are shelling out 4.42 yards per carry, the NFL's eighth highest clip. Murray is a mid-range RB1. ... Although the yardage numbers haven't been there for Tony Romo due to run-first game plans and supporting-cast woes, he's still piled up a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio over the past six weeks. Expecting Romo to suddenly resume dropping 300-yard games might be overly optimistic at this point, but the matchup and game setting make him an awfully enticing Week 15 play. I'd start Romo over Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andy Dalton this week, even though all three have scored more fantasy points on the season. ... Romo's target distribution in Miles Austin's six starts this year: Dez Bryant 56; Jason Witten 36; Austin 33; Murray 32; Terrance Williams 18; Cole Beasley 11; James Hanna 6; Dwayne Harris 5.
Since returning from his latest hamstring injury three games ago, Austin has pathetically secured 4-of-12 targets for 54 scoreless yards. The Cowboys need to stop wasting snaps on this player when they could be giving them to upstart youngsters Williams and Beasley. The Packers are shutting down slot receivers with Tramon Williams playing inside, holding Nate Burleson catch-less on Thanksgiving and Harry Douglas to a 2-20 line in Week 14. Avoid Austin at all costs, and neither Beasley nor Williams can be played, either. ... Witten has fallen victim to Dallas' pass-game drought, managing a 32-yard average over his last four games. He still has four touchdowns over his last five. The Packers allow the 15th most fantasy points to tight ends, so this isn't an imposing matchup. Perhaps downgrade him from mid-range to low-end TE1 based on recent stats, but I would still consider Witten a locked-in fantasy starter. ... Same goes for Dez, who has at least 80 yards and/or a touchdown in three straight games, even if he's a disappointing 21st in fantasy receiver scoring over that span. Bryant's talent hasn't suddenly evaporated. He's a dynamic playmaker with a favorable matchup. Start Bryant as a fantasy WR1 against the Packers.
I'm approaching this Packers Matchup breakdown as if Matt Flynn will start. There were signs late Thursday that Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) has a chance to play at Dallas, albeit less than 50:50. Upgrade the entire Green Bay skill-position corps if Rodgers indeed gets the nod. ... Flynn's target distribution through three 2013 appearances as a Packer (two starts): James Jones 16; Jarrett Boykin and Eddie Lacy 15; Andrew Quarless 13; Jordy Nelson 12; Brandon Bostick 6; John Kuhn 3; James Starks 2. ... Despite Dallas' pass defense woes -- the Cowboys rank last against the pass and have allowed the second most passing touchdowns (26) in football -- the Packers' pass game simply isn't a steady source of fantasy value whenever Flynn starts games. And that shows up in the awkward target numbers above, with clear-cut top receiver Nelson a ridiculous fifth in line for Flynn's pass attempts. Playing time and talent are the only controlled factors we can hang our hats on as it relates to Green Bay's receivers with such a massive quarterback downgrade. Thus, I'd continue to rank the Packers' wideouts as Nelson (boom-or-bust WR3) > Jones (low-end WR3) > Boykin (WR4). Nelson has a very good chance to get open frequently as Green Bay's slot receiver taking on rookie B.W. Webb and young journeyman Sterling Moore inside the numbers. Whether Flynn can get Nelson the football has been and will continue to be a weekly conundrum.
Dallas allows the seventh most fantasy points to tight ends, but Quarless is a plodding, check-down pass catcher who wouldn't even be a fantasy TE1 were Rodgers healthy. ... The Packers will keep playing Hide the Quarterback if Rodgers can't go, leaning on Lacy as the centerpiece of their offense. Due to his left ankle injury and the possibility Starks' playing time could rise some based on the ailment, Lacy is more high-end RB2 than RB1 this week, but he remains a locked-in fantasy starter against the Cowboys' sieve-ish run defense. ILB Sean Lee (hamstring/stinger) clearly wasn't himself last week as Matt Forte steamrolled Dallas for 175 total yards and a TD on 27 touches. Dallas DC Monte Kiffin's unit has hemorrhaged 634 yards and six TDs on 116 carries (5.47 YPC) to Saints, Giants, Raiders, and Bears tailbacks over its last four games. ... In the event Lacy is declared inactive Sunday morning, Starks would immediately slide in as a strong RB2 in this cakewalk. Starks has proved himself capable of handling large workloads over short stretches, and on the season is averaging 5.32 yards per carry with three touchdowns on just 65 attempts. Starks is also useful in the pass game, though not quite to the extent of "Fat Eddie."
Score Prediction: Cowboys 27, Packers 20