Arizona @ Tennessee
The 6-7 Titans are losing their way out of playoff contention with Ryan Fitzpatrick as a primary culprit. The streaky journeyman has completed 34 of his last 61 passes (55.7%) for 373 yards (6.11 YPA), two touchdowns, and four picks with a fifth turnover on a lost fumble. I'd rather start Arizona's defense than Fitzpatrick in the fantasy semifinals. Over the last six weeks, the Cardinals have limited enemy signal callers to 140-for-246 passing (56.9%), 1,338 yards (5.44 YPA), and an 8:9 TD-to-INT ratio. DC Todd Bowles' blitz-happy defense has nine sacks over its last two games. ... Fitz's target distribution this year: Kendall Wright 60; Delanie Walker 39; Nate Washington 38; Chris Johnson and Justin Hunter 31; Kenny Britt 10. ... Wright has averaged six catches for 73 yards in Fitzpatrick's seven games of extensive play. Sunday's matchup sets up perfectly for Wright, as Cards top corner Patrick Peterson plays outside the numbers, whereas slot receiver Wright plays inside. Arizona lost slot cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to a Week 14 ACL/LCL tear. Shake off Wright's last-week clunker and start him as a WR2/3. ... Arizona has allowed the most receptions (83), yards (1,111), and touchdowns (14) in the league to tight ends. Although I'd prefer Dennis Pitta, Walker is a viable plug-and-play TE1 for beleaguered Rob Gronkowski owners.
Hunter has registered stat lines of 0-0, 6-109-1, 1-9, and 4-114-1 over the last month. So if the trend holds, Hunter is now due for a weak game. Hunter is a perimeter receiver who may wind up in Peterson's coverage on most of Sunday's snaps. Purely in terms of coverage, Darrelle Revis is the NFL's only corner with a higher Pro Football Focus grade. ... Washington is also in danger of commanding Peterson's attention. Washington has scored a touchdown in 1-of-13 appearances this season and is 56th in fantasy receiver points over the last five weeks, so he shouldn't be on semifinals-week radars anyway. ... Johnson deserves credit for turning his season around after a painfully tough start -- he has 486 yards and five TDs on his last 109 attempts (4.46 YPC) after managing 334 yards and one score on his first 108 runs of the season (3.09 YPC) -- but this isn't a week to feel comfortable trotting CJ?K out. The Cardinals' No. 3 run defense is holding opposing rushers to 3.57 yards per carry, the third stingiest clip in the league. They've allowed just five rushing touchdowns through 13 games. In the fantasy playoffs, I would not want to rely on Johnson as an RB2. He's been a predictable flop in virtually every difficult matchup this year.
On the strength of a kick-started pass offense and arguably the NFL's most underrated defense, the Cards enter Week 15 having won five of their last six games. Carson Palmer has completed 156 of his last 220 throws (70.9%) for 1,837 yards (8.35 YPA) and a 13:4 TD-to-INT ratio, feeding Larry Fitzgerald to the extent that Fitz ranks fifth in the NFL in receptions over the last five weeks. Although Tennessee was dismantled by Peyton Manning last week (397 yards, four touchdowns), the Titans have played stout enough pass defense this year that Palmer is just a QB2 despite his red-hot play. ... Palmer's target distribution during the 5-1 run: Fitz 53; Michael Floyd 39; Rob Housler 30; Andre Roberts 29; Andre Ellington 12; Jim Dray 11; Rashard Mendenhall 6. ... The Titans excel in perimeter pass coverage, where LCB Jason McCourty and RCB Alterraun Verner are both having All Pro-caliber seasons. Playing the old Hines Ward/Reggie Wayne role under coach Bruce Arians, Fitzgerald does his damage in the slot and on in-breaking routes, where he will challenge safeties Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin, and slot corner Coty Sensabaugh. Fitzgerald has played his way back into every-week WR1 value. Already battling a bum ankle, Floyd will run his routes against McCourty and Verner, and is a boom-or-bust WR3 for Week 15.
Third receiver Roberts also plays on the outside and has cleared 50 yards just once over his last dozen games. He isn't roster worthy in 14-team leagues during the fantasy playoffs. ... Injury-prone Housler has a favorable matchup against a Titans defense allowing the 13th most fantasy points to tight ends, but missed practice time this week with a groin pull and has struggled for production all season. Housler has scored one touchdown and cleared 60 yards twice. He's a clear-cut TE2. ... The Titans are more vulnerable on the ground than in the air, ranking 20th in run defense with an AFC-high 18 rushing touchdowns allowed. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined for 155 yards and two TDs on 29 carries (5.34 YPC) against Tennessee in Week 14. Despite the plus matchup, Mendenhall's outlook has not changed. He lacks big-play running ability and isn't used in the passing game, and will only pay fantasy flex dividends if he scores a red-zone touchdown. Ellington will be the higher-ceiling flex option because he does contribute as a receiver, where Arians can get him into space. And Ellington is capable of breaking long runs.
Score Prediction: Cardinals 24, Titans 17
New Orleans @ St. Louis
Back on a tear after shredding Carolina's No. 1 scoring defense for 313 yards and four TDs in last week's win, Drew Brees gets a far more favorable matchup indoors against St. Louis' No. 22 pass defense. Among Sunday and Monday's games, Brees is the No. 1 fantasy quarterback for Week 15. ... Brees' targets since Marques Colston returned from a knee injury four games ago: Jimmy Graham 43; Colston 42; Pierre Thomas 26; Darren Sproles 22; Lance Moore 14; Kenny Stills 13; Robert Meachem 12; Ben Watson 7; Josh Hill 6; Mark Ingram 5. ... Graham leads the NFL in touchdowns (14), and ranks ninth in catches (74) and 11th in receiving yards (1,046). This is the last year he'll make it to the late second and third rounds of fantasy drafts. With Rob Gronkowski on I.R., Graham is fantasy football's rest-of-season No. 1 tight end. ... Colston has shaken off a disappointing first half of the year to rank No. 11 among fantasy wideouts over the last five weeks. He's a WR2 against the Rams. Notable enemy receiver stat lines coughed up by St. Louis this year: Brandon Marshall 10-117-1; T.Y. Hilton 7-130; Golden Tate 5-93-2; Justin Blackmon 5-136-1; Cecil Shorts 5-74-1; Larry Fitzgerald (twice) 8-80-2 and 12-96-1; Dez Bryant 4-38-1; Julio Jones 11-182-1; Steve Smith 5-69-1; Andre Johnson 7-88; Anquan Boldin (twice) 5-90-1 and 9-98.
Moore, Stills, and Meachem form a value-draining No. 2 receiver committee. None can be trusted in fantasy's playoff semifinals. ... Although New Orleans' run game has generally proven to be an unreliable source of production this season -- even Thomas' numbers have gone in the gutter the past two weeks -- this is a game the Saints should mostly control, allowing coach Sean Payton to lean on his rushing attack, particularly in the second half. Thomas is still 21st in fantasy running back scoring on the year and worth serious flex consideration against the Rams. St. Louis poses a middling matchup for opposing rushers, ranking No. 13 versus the run with 15 rushing scores allowed, fifth most in football. Arizona backs combined for 129 total yards and two touchdowns against the Rams last week. ... Sproles' start-ability is less apparent because his snap count has dropped in three straight weeks and he's hit pay dirt in just one of his last eight games. Saints beat writers believe Payton is attempting to preserve a banged-up Sproles for the playoffs. They don't need him to whip the Rams. ... Since his faux-breakout game in Week 10 against Dallas, Ingram has carried a combined 26 times for 83 scoreless yards (3.19 YPC). He is safe to drop.
The Rams have built their offense around the run game since Sam Bradford's ACL tear, a logical approach considering their quarterback situation, but one that is extremely limiting. They don't have a competitive passing game. And the team goes in the tank when it can't or isn't in position to pound the rock. Having managed 100 yards with one touchdown on his last 34 carries (2.94 YPC), Zac Stacy isn't so much hitting a Rookie Wall as being eliminated by defenses. The Saints are a favorable run-defense matchup -- they're 17th versus the run and permit the fourth highest yards-per-carry average (4.69) in football -- but the strong possibility of St. Louis falling behind big on the scoreboard limits Stacy to mid-range RB2 value. ... In full-on 2014 evaluation mode, the Rams distributed Week 14 wide receiver snaps in the following manner: Tavon Austin 32; Brian Quick 31; Stedman Bailey 28; Chris Givens 28; Austin Pettis 15. Austin is the only Rams wideout worth flex/WR3 discussion in fantasy semifinals week, and he's just a boom-or-bust crapshoot. ... New Orleans is allowing the sixth fewest fantasy points to tight ends, giving Jared Cook a matchup to avoid after he couldn't capitalize on his most favorable matchup all year in Week 14. Facing an Arizona defense allowing the most fantasy points to tight ends, Cook laid a 3-49-0 egg.
Score Prediction: Saints 30, Rams 13
Sunday Night Football
Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh
This week's Sunday nighter projects as a low-scoring slugfest between division rivals whose quarterbacks have historically struggled versus this particular opposition. Steelers DC Dick LeBeau has unfailingly had Andy Dalton's number, as Dalton is 89-of-168 (52.3%) for 968 yards (5.76 YPA) passing with a 5:5 TD-to-INT ratio in five career bouts with LeBeau. Dalton deserves credit for a lights-out Week 14 game against Indianapolis, but he's a middling two-quarterback-league play against Pittsburgh's top-seven pass defense at chilly Heinz Field. ... Dalton's target distribution since the Bengals' Week 12 bye: A.J. Green 15; Marvin Jones and Jermaine Gresham 7; Giovani Bernard, Tyler Eifert, and Mohamed Sanu 6; Andrew Hawkins 5; BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2. ... The Steelers have routinely utilized Ike Taylor in shadow coverage of Green, which is a matchup that plays directly into Green's hands this time around. Taylor has hit the career wall in his age-33 season, grading out 107th among 111 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' cornerback ratings, and dead last purely in pass coverage. ... Far less confident fantasy bets are Jones and Sanu, who continue to form a near-even rotation at X receiver with Green at Z and Hawkins in the slot. Jones dropped a 3-60-1 line on the Colts, but had totaled 29 scoreless yards in his three games prior. The way Jones is used locks him into inconsistency. Sanu has one touchdown and hasn't cleared the 70-yard mark all season. Sanu isn't even worth rostering in 14-team leagues.
Neither Eifert nor Gresham is a top-20 fantasy tight end on the year, and Pittsburgh is 21st in fantasy points allowed to their position. ... Although Hawkins possesses explosive playmaking ability, he hasn't played more than 20 snaps in any game since returning from short-term I.R. six weeks ago. ... The Bengals have played balanced to run-first offense since the bye week, rattling off 73 rushing attempts compared to 58 passes the past two games. The philosophical switch has been kind to plodder Green-Ellis, who's executed on three goal-line plunges in two weeks. Start Green-Ellis if you're willing to hang your hat on short TDs, because he offers zero long-run ability and doesn't play in the pass game. He's a limited-ceiling, low-floor flex option even against Pittsburgh's No. 24 run defense. ... Bernard is a far higher-upside flex option whose role has become more consistent due to OC Jay Gruden's increased commitment to the run. Gio has 15-plus touches in four straight games, and found pay dirt twice in these teams' Week 2 meeting.
Ben Roethlisberger has underwhelmed in recent tilts with Bengals DC Mike Zimmer, who in 2013 is fielding a top-eight pass defense despite numerous critical injuries. Over his last three meetings with Zimmer, Roethlisberger has completed 61-of-102 throws for 749 yards, three touchdowns, and five turnovers with nine sacks absorbed. It's worth noting Cincinnati will play this game without LCB Terence Newman (knee), and has already lost RCB Leon Hall (Achilles') to injured reserve. Roethlisberger is a higher-end QB2 than Dalton in Week 15. ... Big Ben's target distribution over his last five games: Antonio Brown 51; Heath Miller 34; Emmanuel Sanders 32; Le'Veon Bell 31; Jerricho Cotchery 23; Markus Wheaton 7. ... Cincinnati held Brown to six catches for 57 yards on nine targets in these clubs' Week 2 game, but containing him will be far more difficult without Newman or Hall. The Bengals will turn to 2012 first-round disappointment Dre Kirkpatrick opposite Pacman Jones, with 33-year-old converted safety Chris Crocker in the slot. Brown is a WR1 in PPR and locked-in WR2 in standard leagues. ... Cincinnati is 24th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, creating a sub-par matchup for Miller. Miller has one touchdown on the season and is averaging a four-year low in yards per catch (10.7), not surprising considering he's coming back from January's triple-knee ligament tear. Miller is a low-end, low-upside TE1.
Sanders has a touchdown in three consecutive weeks, a fluky run that can't be trusted during the fantasy semifinals. After 13 games in his first season as a full-time player, we know what Sanders is. 29th in fantasy receiver scoring, he's a low-end WR3. ... Cotchery is dealing with a shoulder injury, which could be a convenient excuse for the 5-8 Steelers to begin playing Wheaton more at their 31-year-old slot receiver's expense. Roster Wheaton in your Dynasty league, and aim higher than Cotchery for your Week 15 WR3. ... Le'Veon has and will continue to be utilized as a true bellcow workhorse. He's appeared in ten games as a rookie, and has yet to dip below 18 touches in any of them. Bell is the No. 12 overall fantasy running back in per-game scoring, though he's far more RB2 this week than those RB1ish numbers indicate. Whereas Cincinnati's defense has the potential to be vulnerable versus the pass, it is nails against the run. The Bengals rank fifth in the NFL in run defense and have permitted four rushing touchdowns, tied for third fewest in football.
Score Prediction: Steelers 21, Bengals 17
Monday Night Football
Baltimore @ Detroit
Making his 2013 season debut in last week's thrilling win over Minnesota, Dennis Pitta instantly reasserted himself as a locked-in fantasy TE1 by playing 36 snaps and securing 6-of-11 targets for 48 yards and a touchdown. Expect Pitta's snap count to rise into the 50s against a Detroit defense allowing the seventh most receptions to tight ends. Keep in mind Pitta was headed for a monster contract year before fracturing and dislocating his hip in July. According to Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun, Joe Flacco "locked into Pitta during OTAs, sometimes too much." ... Although the arrow is pointing up on his two-QB-league value with Pitta back, Flacco simply hasn't been productive enough this season to warrant confident QB1 streamer start-ability. Flacco is 18th in fantasy quarterback scoring. The Lions' defense has 11 sacks over its last three games and has limited enemy signal callers to 21-of-42 passing (50%) for 318 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions the past two weeks. ... Here is Flacco's target distribution since Baltimore's Week 8 bye: Torrey Smith 49; Jacoby Jones 32; Ray Rice 28; Marlon Brown 26; Ed Dickson 22; Dallas Clark 13; Pitta and Tandon Doss 11; Deonte Thompson 8; Brandon Stokley 5. ... With Pitta in the lineup last week, Clark was a healthy scratch. Dickson is now able to focus on blocking.
Smith has 70-plus yards and/or a touchdown in five of his last six games and is worth teeing up as a high-ceiling WR2 indoors against a Lions defense that's been generous to No. 1 receivers all year. Shake off last week's 1-11 clunker and start Smith at Detroit. ... Inconsistent complementary receivers, Jones and Brown are capable of playing productively in given games, but their week-to-week roles and stats are too unreliable for fantasy playoffs usage. ... Prior to getting dismantled by LeSean McCoy last Sunday, Detroit had held enemy backs to 228 scoreless yards on 108 carries (2.11 YPC) over its previous six games. One rough week doesn't suddenly make the Lions an attractive opponent for Rice and Bernard Pierce. Rice's workloads are stable enough that he's a formidable flex play at Ford Field, but he'd be a weak RB2 behind poor blocking and averaging 2.97 yards per carry on the season. The Lions still rank No. 6 in run defense. ... Pierce has been among the most disappointing second-year players in the league, failing to find running room en route to a 2.74 YPC average. That's down over two full yards from his rookie-season clip (4.93).
A vicious Philadelphia snowstorm torpedoed Detroit's passing offense in Week 14, but the Lions return home to their dome for fantasy semifinals week at full strength or close to it. After last Sunday's pre-game setback with his calf strain, Reggie Bush is on track to start against Baltimore's No. 8 run defense. Although the matchup is difficult on paper, Bush has gained 428 yards on his last 82 rushing attempts (5.22 YPC) and registered 100-plus total yards and/or a touchdown in seven of his 11 appearances this season. He'll be an RB1 if he starts. If Bush suffers another calf injury recurrence, Joique Bell will be a plug-and-play RB2. ... Although Peyton Manning's seven-TD opener skews their stats a bit, the Ravens' defense has been slightly softer against the pass than on the ground. The Baltimore secondary is particularly vulnerable deep, allowing 40 completions of 20-plus yards and an NFL-high 16 passes of 40 yards or more. Challenging vertically just so happens to be cannon-armed Matthew Stafford's bread and butter. Shake off last week's fumble-filled clunker in the snow and start Stafford as an elite QB1 Monday night. ... Stafford's target distribution in Nate Burleson's six 2013 starts: Calvin Johnson 59; Burleson 42; Bell 33; Bush and Kris Durham 23; Brandon Pettigrew 22; Joseph Fauria 8.
Aside from his 7-77-1 line in Week 12 against a Bucs defense that gets shredded weekly by slot receivers, Burleson has been a disappointment in his three games back. His other two box scores read 0-0 and 2-18. Burleson is a 32-year-old possession receiver who doesn't warrant the benefit of the doubt. He's an unappealing WR3. ... The snowstorm helped limit Megatron to three catches for 49 yards in Week 14, and he's still fantasy's clear-cut top receiver. Start 'em. ... Reduced to Detroit's third receiver since Burleson's return, Durham has done nothing to suggest he's even a worthy deep-league fantasy option. He's coming off a catch-less game on three targets. ... The Ravens are 20th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, and tied for second to last in receptions. This is an unfavorable matchup for Pettigrew, who hasn't been a big part of Detroit's pass game all year. Fauria is a touchdown-dependent TE2. Avoid Lions tight ends in the fantasy semifinals.
Score Prediction: Lions 27, Ravens 23