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Inside the Matchup
Week 9

By: Bill Andereson | Brian Thorne | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith




 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Smith 23 8 74.2
2 Caron 22 9 71.0
3 Thorne 16 13 55.2
4 Anderson 16 13 55.2

Bengals at Dolphins - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: When your quarterback only plays a few minutes into the fourth quarter something either very good or very bad is going on; for Andy Dalton and the Bengals everything was going right in week eight against the Jets. He set a personal best with five touchdowns, four of which went to WR Marvin Jones who set a team record for touchdown receptions in a game. Through the air the Bengals have been one of the best teams this season, ranking number seven in yards per game with 270. Marks for completion percentage (65.6) and touchdowns (16) rank similarly well. Despite not scoring a touchdown, star WR A.J. Green still totaled 115 yards on three receptions. Against what was thought to be a good Jets defense, the Bengals offensive line was nearly perfect allowing only one sack for two yards, and gave Dalton enough time to pick apart any defensive coverage he faced. The biggest knock on the third year quarterback has been his apparent problems throwing the long ball, but after hooking up with Green for two 50+ yard bombs it seems he may have a full complement of NFL tools.

Losers of four straight, Miami has had a variety of individual defensive problems but the theme which permeates all of their defeats is inconsistency. The same defense that gave up 413 yards and four TDs (no interceptions) to Drew Brees only gave up 116 yards and no TDs to Brady while also forcing an interception. For the season, the Dolphins are worse than average in most every passing defensive category except for touchdowns allowed. In general they don’t give up big plays through the air but they’ve been predominantly beaten on short to medium routes and slowly picked apart pass by pass. The Bengals have traditionally been just the type of team to exploit that type of defense, and with the solid play from the O-line and the development of the deep passing game it will be even more difficult for Miami to slow down the methodical Cincinnati passing attack.

Running Game Thoughts: Despite having a hard running veteran and a rookie who shows flashes of brilliance, the Bengals haven’t run the ball with great authority in 2013, ranking just below average in yards per game (99.8) and even closer to the bottom in yards per attempt (3.6). They’ve largely relied on defense and a strong passing game, as demonstrated in their most recent victory where they rushed 25 times for 79 yards, failing to meet even their own mediocre season averages. As has been the case for the majority of the season, RB BenJarvis Green-Ellis has seen the majority of the touches but Giovani Bernard has the better average as the change of pace back. At the halfway point in the season, the longest Bengals run has gone for 34 yards. Steady production from the running game and being able to grind out a few yards at a time is their formula.

On a short week of preparation the running game becomes more important. While Miami isn’t good against the run they’re not terrible, ranking just below the middle of the pack at 109.9 yards per game. The seven rushing touchdowns they’ve surrendered puts them in the bottom ten of the league, suggesting that in the redzone and in short yardage situations they are not able to get the defensive push they need to disrupt the offensive line and stop the rush. The Bengals are largely a team that gains yardage through quantity and not quality so the Dolphins may be in trouble in this area since they haven’t been able to consistently prevent their opponents from picking up yards on the ground. The run game should feature a fairly even matchup.

Andy Dalton: 290 yards passing, 2 TDs
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 40 yards rushing
Giovani Bernard: 30 yards rushing / 20 yards receiving
A.J. Green: 100 yards receiving, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: Week eight against New England failed to reach even the underwhelming standards the Dolphins have set for themselves up to this point in the season; QB Ryan Tannehill committed three more turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble), threw for fewer than 200 yards, and completed just over 50% of his pass attempts. On top of that, the offensive line gave up six sacks, bringing their season total to a league-worst mark of 32, worse than four surrendered per game. On the bright side, WR Mike Wallace was the team’s leading receiver, but unfortunately he made only three catches on ten targets and recorded just 41 yards, more than half of which came on one play. In the Miami offense, the star receiver has at times disappeared from the box score entirely and on more than one occasion has expressed his displeasure about his role in the offense. The Dolphins will continue to be limited by the inconsistencies of their O-line which ultimately limits what they feel comfortable trying to do on offense, especially in a passing game that is already lacking an abundance of star talent.

News came out this week that Bengals CB Leon Hall was placed on season ending Injured Reserve and while his presence will likely be missed on the field, even without him last week the secondary didn’t miss a beat. Hall missed week seven against the Jets and rather than filling in his position with only one player Cincinnati instead used a number of different players and a multitude of different packages and schemes. That versatility displayed by the defense is one of the reasons they give up only 225 yards per game (11th best) through the air. In terms of yards gained compared to passes attempted, only one team gives up fewer yards than the Bengals, so even when passes are being completed against them the yardage is minimal. Cincinnati’s defensive strength matchups up well with the Dolphins passing game and would suggest that the Bengals have a distinct advantage.

Running Game Thoughts: It’s the same song but a different verse for the Dolphins and their offensive line issues. Some teams are good at pass blocking but not at run blocking, or vice versa, but Miami appears to be lacking in both of those areas. In the same way that the O-line limits the production potential of Tannehill, so too do they cap the upside or their running game. Despite the explosive potential of the dynamic RB Lamar Miller the Dolphins are in the bottom quarter of the league in average rushing yardage and are just above the midpoint of the league in yards per carry. Low yardage and reasonable averages mean they’re either not running the ball enough to take advantage of the rushing opportunities or that they’re running the ball during a point in the game where the outcome has been determined. Even to fantasy players, those garbage time carries are of minimal importance since Miller only has two touchdowns on the entire season, both of which were scored when the game was still relatively undecided. As a team, Miami averages fewer than 90 rushing yards per game, so distributed between two running backs, there isn’t much yardage to go around and even fewer legitimate touchdown opportunities to bring their fantasy owners any real value.

Cincinnati surrenders fewer than 100 rushing yards per game and has given up only three touchdowns on the ground at the halfway point of the season. On their current four game winning streak they’ve given up 100+ rushing yards only once, and that was to the Bills who rushed 32 times without a single rusher over 55 yards. That was also the closest game they’ve played recently, needing an overtime field goal to win. If the Dolphins want to reverse their own losing trend and bring the Bengals winning streak to a close, they’ll need to run frequently and accumulate yards through a large number of attempts. Cincinnati gives up only 3.8 yards per rush, tied just outside of the top ten. Unless the Miami offensive line sees a miraculous turn around during this short work week, Miller and Thomas may be hard pressed to break of big runs which limit their fantasy upside.

Ryan Tannehill: 190 yards passing, 1 TD, 1 INT
Lamar Miller: 50 yards rushing
Mike Wallace: 50 yards receiving

Prediction: Bengals 27, Dolphins 20 ^ Top

Ravens @ Browns - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: Coming off a bye with two weeks to prepare for the Browns, Joe Flacco and company look to get a passing game going that has been up and down this season. The good news is that the Ravens offense may be healthier this week than they have been all year, especially with the extra week off. The bad news is that they must travel to Cleveland to face one of the better defenses in the NFL. Currently the Browns rank sixth in passing yards allowed per game, third in sacks, and first in passing yards allowed per attempt. In the previous meeting between these teams, in Week 2, the Ravens escaped with a 14-6 victory in a mostly defensive battle. In that game Flacco threw for just 211 yards (1 TD, 0 INT) but did a nice job of spreading the ball around to eight different receivers and did not turn it over. The difference for the Ravens between these two games, besides being away this week, are that Jacoby Jones will be playing in this game, wide receiver Marlon Brown has got a lot more experience, and the Ravens have had extra time to prepare for the Browns' elite defense. While these may be subtle difference, look for them to mean an overall improvement in the Ravens passing numbers.

Joe Flacco has been an up-and-down QB2 for fantasy purposes this year, and while I like his chances of improving in the second half, this is not shaping up to be one of his better games. I see Flacco as a mid-level QB2 this week who should put up decent yardage but will be hard-pressed to get many touchdowns. The Ravens' best receiver, Torrey Smith is having his best year yet, and despite probably seeing a lot of stud cornerback Joe Haden in this matchup, should catch a few long passes (he’s the best in average yards per catch in the NFL) to make him a reliable WR2 here. In their first matchup Smith caught seven balls for 85 yards, and I think that is attainable again this week. As for the rest of the Ravens receivers, none have stepped up enough to be a safe start in most fantasy leagues, as Flacco generally spreads the ball around a lot and therefore the receivers all eat into each others' fantasy values.

Running Game Thoughts: The Ravens run game in general has been far below what most people expected, both from a fantasy and real-world perspective. Ray Rice, a perennial first-round fantasy pick, has been one of the bigger busts this year, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry and being less involved in the offense than perhaps ever in his career. Part of this has been due to injury, part to game-plan, and part to bad blocking or bad matchups, but Rice must be held accountable, too. The good news, or at least the potentially good news, for Rice owners is that he now claims to be healthy; with the bye week to heal up Rice says his burst is finally back. Of course we must see it to believe it, and the Ravens must give him the ball to let him prove it before we start jumping back on the bandwagon.

While the Browns defense is solid, they are tougher in pass defense than against the run, and the Ravens probably will look to exploit this, especially playing in a road game. While Rice's numbers may not be huge this game, I believe this will be a telling game for him and the Ravens because, with an extra week to prepare and get healthy and with a realization that they must get Rice more involved, it will be time to put up or shut up. If Rice is able to carry a larger load and do so efficiently, maybe we chalk up the bad first half of the season to injury and bad luck and get back on the train. If Rice continues to look slow and ineffective, however, it may be time to jump ship and get what you can get for him in a trade. While his first game against the Browns this year was poor (13 car, 36 yds), I expect a bounce-back game for Rice here—not quite at that RB1 level, but as a solid RB2 in a tough but not impossible matchup. Bernard Pierce continues to be an excellent handcuff and occasional deep flex play in great matchups, but this is not one of them, and he should be firmly nailed to the bench this week.

Joe Flacco: 270 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Torrey Smith: 80 rec yds
Ray Rice: 75 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Jacoby Jones: 45 rec yds
Marlon Brown: 45 rec yds
Bernard Pierce: 20 rush yds, 15 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: While turning to your third quarterback on the year is usually a bad sign for most teams, quarterback Jason Campbell actually proved a lot of the doubters wrong last week, nearly upsetting the heavily favored and undefeated Chiefs. Campbell was efficient in throwing for 293 yards (2 TDs, 0 INT) and taking just one sack against one of the league’s best defenses, and perhaps the best pass rushing team in the NFL. Even better, Campbell helped to retain the fantasy value of the Browns' two best weapons, wide receiver Josh Gordon (5/132/1) and tight end Jordan Cameron (4/81/0), giving fantasy owners a big sigh of relief that the Browns would not totally collapse under their former third-string quarterbacks leadership. Personally I’ve always thought Campbell was a solid quarterback, he just had so many different offensive coordinators in his career that he never seemed to be able to settle down. While he is past his prime and nowhere near elite, he does have a big arm and looks downfield a lot, which is exactly what this offense calls for. As long as Campbell can continue to utilize his two best playmakers, the Browns' season, at least from a fantasy perspective, may be in good hands.

Speaking of his playmakers, Gordon continues to shine despite the carousel at quarterback and should at the least be seen as a solid, fairly matchup-proof WR2. Gordon was suspended the first time these two teams met this year, so the Ravens' defensive backs have only game tape to go off of. Gordon should continue to be the team’s leading target receiver, and while the Ravens defense is no pushover, it has let up the 13th most fantasy points to opposing WRs this year, making him a solid WR2 again this week. Cameron did play in the previous matchup and had a big one, putting up 95 yards on five catches, both team highs. The Ravens have actually been generous to opposing TEs this year, giving up the seventh most fantasy points and thus making Cameron a solid TE1 option this week. While I like Campbell to help retain the value of Cleveland’s receivers, his upside is not quite high enough to make him anything more than a low-end QB2 right now unless the matchup is amazing, and this one is not. Proceed with caution if you are thinking about starting him. No other Browns passing game player is worth a start this week, as the majority of targets go to Gordon and Cameron and no other player is talented enough to turn a few catches into big plays.

Running Game Thoughts: With one of the least effective run units in the league, the Browns now must face a Ravens run defense that has let up the eighth fewest rush yards and just one rushing touchdown, best in the league. The Browns lead runner, Willis McGahee, was expected to have some rust when he was signed back in Week 3, but instead of loosening up and contributing more as time went on, his production has stayed about the same or gone down each week. Last week McGahee managed just 28 yards on the ground (and no yards on two catches) and lost touches in the second half to the Browns second- and third-string running backs. On the year now McGahee is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry despite having a decent line in front of him. It is clear that he is on his last legs and that any fantasy owners who grabbed him hoping to perhaps find a diamond are now holding a lump of coal.

With the Ravens boasting the fourth toughest defense to opposing fantasy RBs, even a better running back than McGahee may struggle. But as one of the worst starting running backs in the game today, McGahee should be nowhere near you starting lineup this week. No other Browns running back is on the fantasy radar this week, either, although deep PPR leaguers may want to keep Chris Ogbonnaya stashed away because McGahee may lose his job soon, as the Browns will soon look fully to the future, one of which McGahee is surely not a part.

Jason Campbell: 280 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Willis McGahee: 35 rush yds
Josh Gordon: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Jordan Cameron: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Davone Bess: 45 rec yds

Prediction: Ravens 20, Browns 17 ^ Top

Bears @ Packers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: When a starting quarterback goes down with an injury, the chances are good that the whole offense will suffer under the control of the second-string quarterback. While this is almost certainly the case for the Bears, with Jay Cutler out and Josh McCown in, the effects may be felt a little less thanks to an array of nice weapons and a quarterback-friendly system and coach. Yes, it was against one of the league’s worst pass defenses, the Redskins, but McCown stepped in admirably two weeks ago when Cutler left with a groin injury, throwing for 204 yards (14/20, 1 TD, 0 INT) and just barely losing to the Skins 45-41. While McCown and company will face a tougher foe this week in the Packers at Lambeau field, the extra week to prepare should certainly help to alleviate the pressure that is certainly on McCown and the 4-3 Bears. While it is tough to predict how a backup quarterback with limited experience will fare in a starter’s role, we do know for sure that McCown has four great weapons to throw to in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte. Each of these players have had excellent starts to the year, and with an extra week of practice, the chemistry between McCown and his weapons has most likely improved.

As for the matchup, it is always tough to play in Green Bay, but the Packers defense is not exactly the Steel Curtain. Thus far they rank 21st in passing yards allowed per game, 23rd in passing yards allowed per attempt, and are tied for last with just three interceptions. The Packers have racked up 23 sacks on the year, tied for 10th, but their best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, is still out this week, so that is one thing going for the Bears. Fantasy-wise the Packers are average in terms of letting up points to opposing QBs (14th) and WRs (17th) and much more generous to TEs (3rd). While it’s possible this game could turn into a shoot-out, these division rivals usually play each other close, so I would not expect the final stats to be anything ridiculous. While you have to downgrade the entire offense with McCown under center, I would certainly not abandon the best Chicago players simply because a backup is playing quarterback. Marshall remains a WR1, even if he is probably not a top five option, as he usually is. Jeffery actually saw the most action from McCown two weeks ago, and I think he will get enough targets this week to make him a high-end WR3, with upside for a little more. Bennett has the best fantasy matchup of all the Bears receivers, and while he only caught one ball two weeks ago, he has been banged up and I expect that the week off did him some good. He is a high-end TE2 this week in a favorable matchup. As for McCown himself, I would be hesitant to start him in many leagues, but with a decent amount of teams on a bye week and a slightly above-average matchup, I could see some value in him as a low- to mid-tier QB2.

Running Game Thoughts: Matt Forte made his fantasy owners happy last time he played, scoring three touchdowns and totaling over 100 yards against the Redskins. While that touchdown number was fluky and likely a season high, Forte remains the centerpiece in this offense thanks to his ability to both run and catch the ball effectively and compete as a true workhorse running back. There is both good and bad news for Forte this week as he faces the Packers. On the bad side, the Packers are a fairly strong run-defending team, ranking fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and among the 10 toughest teams for opposing RBs to score fantasy points against. On the good side of things, not only can Forte contribute in all phases of the offense, but with Cutler out, the Bears may rely on him even more than usual on runs and short passes in order to take pressure off of McCown.

While the matchup means this will probably not be one of Forte’s best games of the year, he should have the same workload, or likely a bit more, meaning at worst case he will be a safe RB2, with the upside of being a top 12 RB if he can sneak into the end-zone a time or two. Forte will not carry your team this week but there is no reason to be worried about him losing it for you either.

Josh McCown: 255 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 10 rush yds
Brandon Marshall: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Matt Forte: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 30 rec yds
Martellus Bennett: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Alshon Jeffery: 70 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Make no mistake about it, the Packers are worse off without Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Jermichael Finley, all expected to be out again this week. But as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, this team will compete and continue to make fantasy owners happy. Last week against the Vikings, one of the NFL’s worst defenses, the Packers were able to go to a run-heavy attack and run the clock down in what was basically a blowout, despite their winning by only 13 points. Despite running more than usual and being without three of their key players, the Packers passing game was on fire, with Rodgers completing 24 of his 29 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns. The main recipient of these numbers was Jordy Nelson, who caught two touchdowns and racked up 123 yards on seven catches. Receiver Jarrett Boykin also contributed nicely with five catches for 89 yards and has now compiled 13 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown the past two games, starting in place of James Jones.

While the Bears usually provide the Packers with tough division-rivalry games, the numbers easily favor the Packers passing offense compared to the Bears defense. Thus far the Bears rank fifth worst in passing yards allowed per game, sixth worst in completion percentage allowed, and dead last in sacks registered. This type of defense against just an average passing team would make offenses drool, but against the Packers and Rodgers it is an absolute dream matchup. While the Bears' pride in playing a division rival should help keep this game from getting too far away, there is no way I’m benching any of the Packers' main players, and in fact, they all get a boost here. Rodgers is an easy QB1 this week and certainly in my top three at QB. Nelson is also an easy WR1 against a Bears secondary that let Antonio Brown (a less talented receiver in my eyes) go for 196 yards and two touchdowns a few weeks back. Boykin, who is making just his third start and would usually be a decent WR3 in many matchups, gets a boost to become a low-end WR2 in this game, as Rodgers has shown a high level of trust in him despite lack of experience. The only other guy I would consider this week for the Packers would be Myles White, perhaps as a deep league flex guy, who may be a lottery-ticket boom-or-bust for a fantasy team desperate for a win. While missing some of their key weapons puts a damper on the number of quality players you can start from the Packers, it certainly does not hurt the quality you should get from their remaining key guys.

Running Game Thoughts: While running back Eddie Lacy is not flashy and is not putting up a lot of scores or highlight-reel plays, he is something that is perhaps more valuable to fantasy owners: consistent. Lacy now has three straight weeks of 20 or more carries and 80-plus yards, adding a touchdown each of the past two weeks. In addition, his involvement in the passing game has improved, and it is clear that the Packers have faith in him as a workhorse. With an elite passing game behind him, Lacy has an excellent chance to contribute every game and see lots of holes in defenses that are more focused on slowing down a Pro-Bowl quarterback rather than a rookie running back. Other than absolute nightmare matchups, the only things keeping Lacy from being an every-week RB1 is the pass-heavy game plan the Packers use and the presence of James Starks, who the Packers like to use in a change-of-pace role (57 yards on seven carries last week).

The good news for Lacy this week is that the Bears are giving up the fifth most fantasy points to opposing RBs and have allowed 117 yards on the ground per game (25th in the NFL). While Lacy may lose a few touches to Starks and won't compile many catches the way some higher profile fantasy RBs do, there is little reason to believe his streak of 20 or more carries will end this week. For that reason alone I like Lacy as a high-end RB2, and perhaps a low-end RB1 considering that a fair amount of teams are on a bye week. While Starks had a nice performance last week in limited action, owners would really be reaching to start him this week as anything more than a low-end flex play, as it is hard to see why the Packers would mess with what is working, and that is feeding Lacy the ball on a majority of run plays.

Aaron Rodgers: 320 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 10 rush yds
Eddie Lacy: 100 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Jordy Nelson: 130 rec yds, 1 TD
Jarrett Boykin: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Myles White: 55 rec yds
James Starks: 35 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Prediction: Packers 33, Bears 27 ^ Top

Falcons at Panthers - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: With Julio Jones out and Roddy White unavailable last week against Arizona, Atlanta wideout Harry Douglas was the receiver in the spotlight, being targeted 18 times and catching 12 passes for 121 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan struggled though, and despite throwing for more than 300 yards, was intercepted four times. White may be out again this week which should mean another target-heavy day for Douglas and continued production for Drew Davis and Darius Johnson. I’d like to tell fantasy owners that Tony Gonzalez will have a big impact with White out but he’s been mediocre too often this season with only two games of at least 40 receiving yards. And facing the stout Panthers pass defense could mean limited fantasy production out of the Falcons passing game.

Carolina has been very good defending the pass this season and are tied for ninth in the league in pass defense. They are tied with two other teams for second-fewest touchdown passes allowed, are tied for 10th in interceptions and tied for 12th in sacks. The Panthers have yet to allow a quarterback to throw multiple touchdown passes in a game, and they are allowing the third-fewest FPTs/G to QBs while also holding WRs to the sixth-fewest FPTs/G and tight ends to the 11th-fewest FPTs/G.

Running Game Thoughts: The return of Steven Jackson was supposed to mean good things for the Falcons running attack but his return last week was a dud for fantasy owners. He carried the ball 11 times and gained a measly six yards while adding seven yards on three catches. Atlanta was forced to throw after getting behind in their loss to Arizona, but Jackson still wasn’t utilized enough. I expect a heavier dose of the brutish back this week, but I’m not encouraged enough to recommend him as more than a flex play against Carolina’s rush defense.

While the Panthers have been very good against the pass this season, they’ve been great against the run. Only the Jets are allowing fewer rushing yards per game, only the Ravens have surrendered fewer rushing scores and Carolina is yielding the seventh-lowest YPC average. No back has run for more than 62 yards against the Panthers since Week 2, but in part because they have given up the seventh-most receiving yards to RBs, they are tied for ninth-fewest FPTs/G allowed to players at that position instead of closer to the top.

Matt Ryan: 240 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Harry Douglas: 95 rec yds, 1 TD
Tony Gonzalez: 60 rec yds
Drew Davis: 40 rec yds
Darius Johnson: 35 rec yds
Roddy White: 10 rec yds
Steven Jackson: 40 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Jacquizz Rodgers: 25 rush yds, 20 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Panthers have scored 30 or more points in three consecutive games and it’s no surprise those points have coincided with Cam Newton not turning it over. He hasn’t thrown an interception in any of those games, and has risen up the fantasy ranks with six passing scores and two rushing scores during that time. The team still struggles to produce fantasy-worthy players at the pass-catching positions, with no wideout among the top-35 in FPTs/G and Greg Olsen ranking 17th in FPTs/G at tight end. Yet, I love Newton and would put Brandon LaFell and Steve Smith in my lineup this week against the Falcons’ poor pass defense.

The Atlanta defense has been shredded at times against the pass. Every quarterback they’ve faced has thrown at least two touchdown passes and the Falcons defense is tied for second-to-last in touchdown throws allowed. They are 22nd in pass defense, 26th in completion percentage allowed, tied for 25th in interceptions, and tied for 22nd in sacks. Atlanta is ninth in FPTs/G given up to QBs and 16th in FPTs/G surrendered to TEs, but is allowing the third-most FPTs/G in the league to WRs.

Running Game Thoughts: Jonathan Stewart has still not been cleared to play as of this writing, but he may indeed go this week. If he does not, the team will continue to go with the triumvirate of Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert. Williams scored for the first time last week and Tolbert caught his second touchdown pass of the season, which was his fifth score in five games. He remains the better fantasy option than Williams for that reason but his fantasy numbers will take a hit with the return of Stewart. Atlanta gives up lots of rush yards but not many rush scores, so I’m not inclined to go with any Carolina runner this week.

Though the Falcons are tied for sixth-fewest rushing scores surrendered, fantasy owners shouldn’t be fooled – this team gets run on plenty. Atlanta is 22nd in run defense and 27th in YPC allowed this season and only five teams have given up more rushing yards to running backs than they have. Yet because teams score touchdowns through the air against the Falcons, they are directly in the middle of the pack – tied for 16th – in FPTs/G allowed to RBs.

Cam Newton: 265 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT, 35 rush yds, 1 TD
Brandon LaFell: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Steve Smith: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Greg Olsen: 45 rec yds
Ted Ginn, Jr.: 25 rec yds
DeAngelo Williams: 55 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Mike Tolbert: 35 rush yds, 20 rec yds
Jonathan Stewart: 20 rush yds

Prediction: Panthers 27, Falcons 20 ^ Top

Colts at Texans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: Life without Reggie Wayne begins for Andrew Luck and the Colts this week, and how it plays out remains to be seen. As it stands now, some form of LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, and David Reed will attempt to become the team’s third receiver with T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey the team’s top two wideouts. Wayne scored only twice this year but he led the team in targets, receptions, yards, and first downs, so his absence will be felt. Wayne being gone also means a probable bump in production – and thus fantasy status – for Hilton and tight end Coby Fleener, starting this week against Houston.

The Texans may be underachieving as a team but they remain a tough team for opposing players to pile up big numbers on. They have the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL and are tied for 10th in touchdowns allowed, though they are also tied for fewest interceptions gathered. Still, Houston has allowed just one quarterback to throw for more than 200 yards and have given up the third-fewest FPTs/G to players at that position. No team has yielded fewer receiving yards or FPTs/G to WRs than the Texans, and while they’ve allowed the ninth-fewest FPTs/G to TEs, only the Raiders have surrendered fewer receiving yards to them.

Running Game Thoughts: Trent Richardson has continued his underwhelming career in the Indianapolis backfield, failing to run for more than 60 yards in his five games with the team and catching only two passes. Among players with at least 100 carries this season, only BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging fewer FPTs/G. Richardson does have a good match-up this week. The Texans haven’t stop the run much, especially lately, and that makes Richardson a flex play or low-end RB2.

Houston may be stymieing teams who attempt to throw but they can’t say the same about teams who run the ball on them. The Texans rank 28th in run defense, 20th in YPC allowed, and are tied for 18th in rushing scores surrendered. They have allowed a running back to gain 75 or more yards in five of their last six games and are giving up the 14th-most FPTs/G in the NFL to RBs.

Andrew Luck: 245 pass yds, 2 TD, 2 INT, 20 rush yds
T.Y. Hilton: 65 rec yds, 1 TD
Coby Fleener: 55 rec yds, 1 TD
Darrius Heyward-Bey: 40 rec yds
LaVon Brazill: 25 rec yds
Griff Whalen: 15 rec yds
David Reed: 10 rec yds
Trent Richardson: 55 rush yds, 1 TD, 15 rec yds
Donald Brown: 15 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Matt Schaub is apparently healthy enough to play, but Houston will continue to start Case Keenum at quarterback as they did two weeks ago (with a bye in between) against Kansas City. Keenum threw for 271 yards and a score without an interception against one of the best defenses in the NFL. His performance was encouraging, though not enough for fantasy owners to rush out and claim him. His top target remains Andre Johnson, who is still without a touchdown catch this season, though you have to believe that will change, especially with the team’s running backs being banged up. I like Johnson to finally find the end zone this week against an Indy pass defense that has been good this season, but can also be exploited.

The Colts are 13th in pass defense, tied for 15th in sacks, tied for 13th in interceptions, are eighth in completion percentage allowed, and tied for fifth-fewest touchdown passes surrendered. They allowed Peyton Manning to have a huge game in Week 7 (hey, who doesn’t?), and they are currently giving up the 14th-fewest FPTs/G to QBs after ranking higher early in the season. Indy’s struggles against the Denver receiving corps also hurt their overall fantasy defensive numbers and saw them drop to 14th-most FPTs/G allowed to WRs this year. Yet they remain solid against TEs, and are giving up the 10th-fewest FPTs/G to players at that position.

Running Game Thoughts: Both Arian Foster and Ben Tate are officially questionable for this week’s game, though we would expect each to suit up. Foster simply hasn’t gotten it done enough for fantasy owners this season, scoring only once on the ground and ranking 11th in FPTs/G among running backs. He still picks up plenty of total yards, however, and I would start him against the Colts with a double-digit point expectation in yards alone.

Stopping the run has not been the forte of Indianapolis this season – anything but. They have the fourth-worst run defense in the league, are tied for 12th in rushing scores allowed, and are 26th in YPC surrendered. The caveat is, that 30 percent of the rushing yards Indy has given up have come from players who are not running backs. The Colts have actually been solid against backs this year, having allowed the 10th-fewest rushing yards and eighth-fewest FPTs/G to RBs.

Case Keenum: 265 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Andre Johnson: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
DeAndre Hopkins: 50 rec yds
Garrett Graham: 40 rec yds
DeVier Posey: 25 rec yds
Lestar Jean: 15 rec yds
Arian Foster: 70 rush yds, 1 TD, 35 rec yds
Ben Tate: 30 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Prediction: Colts 27, Texans 17 ^ Top

Titans @ Rams - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: After missing Weeks 5 and 6 due to an injury, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker returned in Week 7 and got right back to being the productive fantasy QB we had seen through the first half of the season. Locker threw for a season-high 329 yards against a very good San Francisco defense. He also added 29 yards on the ground; his second highest rushing total of the year. Although he threw his first interception of the season, Locker also threw two touchdowns in the win, bringing his season total to eight scores in five games. Tight end Delanie Walker is coming off of the best fantasy day of his tenure in Tennessee as he caught three passes for 52 yards and a touchdown. Although Walker has been disappointing as a threat in the passing game, it does seem as if the Titans are beginning to work him into the offense a bit more. He has been targeted at least five times in three straight contests. Receiver Nate Washington also got back into fantasy consideration with the return of Locker. In the two games without Locker, Washington caught just four passes for 45 yards. Though his three catches for 62 yards line in Week 7 doesn’t exactly jump off the page, it does look decent when you consider that he was coming off back-to-back 100-yard receiving performances with Locker behind center. Washington remains as a low-end WR3 or FLEX play but he does have some value in this offense. Kendall Wright also looked good this past week when he caught a season-high nine passes for 98 yards. Although he has not yet eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 2013, Wright has been one of the most consistent producers in the league, particularly in PPR formats. He has not had fewer than five receptions since Week 1 and seems to be in line for another nice game against a St. Louis defense that is coming off of a disappointing loss on Monday night to the Seahawks.

St. Louis’ secondary has played significantly better in recent weeks than they did to start the season, but that could be due to the less-than-stellar play at quarterback from their past three opponents; Seattle, Carolina and Houston. The Rams had allowed multiple passing touchdowns in each of their first five games this season prior to holding their past three opponents to a total of just three passing touchdowns. It’s hard to be extremely optimistic about anyone in the Tennessee offense, but there are a few potential bye-week fill-ins here.

Running Game Thoughts: There’s no question that it has been an extremely disappointing first half of the season for fantasy owners of Tennessee running back Chris Johnson. A former 2,000-yard rusher just a few years ago, Johnson has descended to the level of barely being a fantasy consideration in most scoring formats. After seven games, Johnson has still failed to reach 100 yards on the ground or score a single rushing touchdown. With Jackie Battle on the roster, Johnson has been pulled out of the game near the goal line...and it could be getting worse this week with the expected return of the team’s original goal line back, Shonn Greene. With the Titans beginning to focus more on the passing game and the backfield situation in flux, it appears on the surface that Johnson may finish with his worst fantasy production as a pro this season.

Are better days actually on the horizon? Perhaps. If there’s going to be a time for “CJ2K” to break out, it might be this week against a St. Louis defense that has been absolutely thrashed by opposing backs. St. Louis has given up nine or more fantasy points (standard scoring) to opposing running backs in six of their first seven games this season. Some may point to the success that St. Louis had in holding Marshawn Lynch to just 23 yards on the ground a week ago, but history tells us that their play in that contest is more of a mirage than it is a trend. It’s hard to trust Chris Johnson at this point as his only real fantasy production all year has come on two lucky dump-off passes that went for long touchdowns, but given the number of teams on byes, it’s going to be tough not to put him in your lineup.

Jake Locker: 240 pass yds, 2 TD, 20 rush yds
Chris Johnson: 70 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Shonn Greene: 40 rush yds, 1 TD
Kendall Wright: 80 rec yds
Nate Washington: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Delanie Walker: 45 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: You get the feeling that St. Louis might have been able to pull of the upset over Seattle this past Monday night if they just had somewhat decent quarterback play. Kellen Clemens did his best in his first game, and to his credit, didn’t necessarily lose the game on his own. But his 15/31, 158 yards, two interception performance certainly wasn’t good enough to win it, either. With Sam Bradford on the IR and the trade deadline having passed earlier this week, Clemens is likely as good as it’s going to get for this team. Unfortunately that probably means a significant downgrade in the overall fantasy value of just about every player in the St. Louis offense...and most of them didn’t have a whole lot of value to begin with. No St. Louis receiver caught more than four passes (Chris Givens, 4-59) from Clemens in Week 8 and no one was targeted more than six times. This receiver group was wildly inconsistent to begin with and unless Clemens starts keying in on a single target, it’s unlikely that any of them are going to be serious fantasy considerations going forward.

After a tough matchup against the Seahawks, things don’t get much better for Clemens and co. this week as they host Tennessee and their fifth-ranked fantasy defense against opposing quarterbacks. The Titans have not allowed a passing touchdown in three straight contests and they’ve allowed only one passing touchdown each in three of their previous four games. Although they have given up some decent rushing production to opposing QB’s in recent weeks, Clemens isn’t exactly the most mobile signal caller and shouldn’t be relied on as anything other than a low-end QB2 this week.

Running Game Thoughts: Being without Steven Jackson has been a tough transition for the St. Louis Rams. They’ve been playing a game of musical chairs all season with the likes of Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham getting work. But it seems that they may have finally found some spark in the running game with rookie tailback Zac Stacy. Stacy took 26 carries for 134 yards and on Monday night. Not only was the performance St. Louis’ first 100-yard rushing day of the season, but it was the first time that any back had even been over 80 yards on the ground. What made Stacy’s night even more impressive was that it happened against a very good Seattle Seahawks defense that had allowed just 58 yards on the ground in their previous two games combined. Better yet, it wasn’t just a lucky long run that gave Stacy his nice stat line. 90 of the 134 yards came after contact, proving that he was running very hard.

Stacy did get pulled late from Monday night’s game due to an injury and had missed practice early this week, but was back on the field on Thursday and should be good to go in fantasy lineups against a Tennessee defense that is allowing the eight-most fantasy points to opposing running backs this season. Tennessee has allowed over 125 total yards to opposing running backs in six straight games and has been beaten up for five touchdowns by the position over their past three games alone. He may not be a sexy name or in a great offense but Zac Stacy is worthy of serious fantasy consideration this week. He’s bound to get near 20 total touches and any player who gets that kind of work has the potential for a very nice day.

Kellen Clemens: 190 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Zac Stacy: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 20 rec yds
Chris Givens: 40 rec yds
Austin Pettis: 30 rec yds, 1 TD
Tavon Austin: 30 rec yds
Jared Cook: 30 rec yds
Lance Kendricks: 25 rec yds

Prediction: Tennessee 24, St. Louis 20 ^ Top

Eagles @ Raiders - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: Quarterback Michael Vick will be out again with a hamstring injury as the Eagles head to Oakland to battle the Raiders. It is believed that Nick Foles will be back after missing Week 8 with concussion symptoms, which will be a nice upgrade from the bad performance we saw a week ago from rookie QB Matt Barkley. Foles was coming off of back-to-back multi-touchdown games prior to the concussion, but the Eagles offense has certainly sputtered in recent weeks since its hot start at the beginning of the year. Some would argue that it’s simply a case of opposing defenses getting some tape of this unique offense, but there’s also a school of thought that would say the offense is struggling in part because opposing defenses are no longer worried about the quarterback running the ball with Vick standing on the sidelines. Still, Foles’ six touchdowns and zero interceptions have been a nice improvement at least in terms of ball security and thus Foles has actually been a quality fantasy option when healthy. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has been his usual hot-and-cold self this season, but his overall production has made him one of the best fantasy receiving options in the league so far. The last time he got to play full games with Foles back in Weeks 5 and 6, he caught a total of 13 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns. He is one of the few players whose production is not likely to see a significant drop-off without Vick.

Oakland has been about middle-of-the-pack against opposing quarterbacks this season. Although they performed fairly well against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers a week ago when they forced two interceptions and allowed only one touchdown, they haven’t performed quite so well in most contests. They’ve failed to record a single interception in five of their first seven games, while allowing double-digit fantasy totals to every quarterback they’ve faced, except one (Alex Smith). Foles is probably still a QB2 in most leagues until we see that he is fully recovered but you could do worse if you’re in a bind. The only other player in this passing game who should be a real fantasy consideration would be DeSean Jackson. The Raiders have allowed at least one touchdown to an opposing receiver in four of their past five contests and Jackson looks to be a good bet to make it five of six.

Running Game Thoughts: After starting the season extremely hot as one of the top running backs in the league, Eagles tailback LeSean McCoy has trailed off in recent weeks. In his past two games, McCoy has totaled just 103 total rushing yards while adding 43 yards as a receiver. What’s been most frustrating for fantasy owners, is that McCoy hasn’t scored since Week 5 due to the Eagles struggling to move the ball as a team. Of course “Shady” is still an obvious RB1 against most opponents, but there is some concern that if Foles isn’t fully recovered from his concussion, that McCoy may not have the opportunities he otherwise would, especially in the redzone.

Thankfully he does have a fairly soft matchup against an Oakland run defense that has struggled to slow down opposing running backs as of late. The Raiders have allowed 12 or more fantasy points (standard scoring) to opposing teams’ running backs in five straight contests, including three games when they’ve allowed 20 or more fantasy points to the position during that stretch. One area where the Raiders have had problems slowing down opposing backs is in the passing game. They’ve allowed a total of 25 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown in their past three games. McCoy is one of the better threats in the league as a receiver out of the backfield and could have additional value this week, especially in PPR formats. Fantasy owners might be a little disappointed in McCoy due to his lack of touchdowns as of late, but there’s a good chance he turns that around here against the Raiders. Don’t get cute. Keep him in your lineup until otherwise noted.

Nick Foles: 255 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
LeSean McCoy: 80 rush yds, 1 TD, 50 rec yds
DeSean Jackson: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Riley Cooper: 40 rec yds
Jason Avant: 30 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Third-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor led his Raiders to a huge win over the Steelers in Week 8. More importantly, his fantasy owners had to be at least satisfied with his final point total against a tough Pittsburgh defense. Pryor continued his solid fantasy production on the year with his 15-point performance. That game extended his streak of double-digit fantasy totals to six starts in a row. While the final totals were fine from a fantasy standpoint, those who watched the game would likely tell you that Pryor’s Week 8 game was his worst of the season, particularly from a passing standpoint. He’s not known as one of the most accurate passers in the game, but Pryor was especially bad against the Steelers. He was just 10/19 for 88 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions as a passer. He made up for it on the ground as Pryor ran the ball nine times for 106 yards and his first rushing touchdown of the year. Pryor’s speed and athleticism is undeniable. But his inconsistency as a passer has made him a dangerous fantasy quarterback. If an opposing defense decides to take away his running lanes, we have not yet seen him show an ability to take over a game with his arm.

Pryor has now thrown five interceptions with only one touchdown pass over his past two games, but things do get a little easier this week as they host a Philadelphia defense that has conceded at least 12 fantasy points (standard scoring) to quarterbacks in seven of their eight games this season. They’ve also allowed multiple passing touchdowns in five of those contests. While the Eagles have done a good job of slowing down opposing quarterbacks as runners, the truth is that the only highly athletic QB they’ve played all year is Robert Griffin III and that was all the way back in Week 1. Receivers Rod Streater and Denarius Moore have been predictably tough to rely on from a fantasy standpoint and that obviously continued this past week with Pryor’s 88-yard passing day. Moore was held to just two receptions for 32 yards while Streater checked in with four receptions for 45 yards. For Streater, it was his sixth game of three-plus receptions and 40-plus yards this year, but he has not gone over 70 yards in any game and has only one total touchdown on the year. Moore, on the other hand, has been very productive this season. Prior to his ugly Week 8 performance, Moore had been on a great stretch where he had averaged 89 yards per game and scored three total touchdowns over his previous four contests. Pryor is a consideration as a low-end starter this week while Moore should probably be in most lineups against an Eagles defense that has allowed the second-most fantasy points per game to opposing receivers in 2013. Streater is a bargain-basement option but does have some value in PPR formats.

Running Game Thoughts: Although he averaged fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in Week 8, fantasy owners were ecstatic to see Raiders running back Darren McFadden get on the fantasy board with a nice two-touchdown performance against a tough Pittsburgh defense that hadn’t allowed a running back to score in either of their previous two games. As has been the case throughout most of his career, McFadden has battled the injury bug in 2013. He missed most of Week 4 and all of Week 5, but has stayed healthy since the team’s bye. Unfortunately he has lacked the explosiveness that has made him such a huge fantasy asset in seasons past and originally made him a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.

McFadden will look to pick up where he left off last week as he goes up against the Eagles and their 12th-ranked fantasy defense against opposing running backs. Philadelphia has done well when it comes to slowing down opposing runners in recent weeks, having allowed only one touchdown to the position over their past three games. Truthfully, though, they have not had the toughest schedule during that span, as they went up against the incompetent Tampa Bay offense, a DeMarco Murray-less Cowboys offense and a Giants offense led by Peyton Hillis. Earlier this season, the Eagles were exploited by the Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos running backs in three straight contests. They allowed 537 total yards and two touchdowns to opposing running backs during that stretch, which could mean good things for Pryor, McFadden and the Raiders who have used the read-option to catch defenses off guard and get their running game going in recent weeks. It’s always risky to trust McFadden, but after trusting him to take 24 carries a week ago, apparently the Raiders coaching staff believes in their running back. If he can touch the ball even 15 times, as he should in this one, McFadden has to be in all fantasy lineups.

Terrelle Pryor: 215 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT, 60 rush yds
Darren McFadden: 65 rush yds, 1 TD, 25 rec yds
Denarius Moore: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Rod Streater: 50 rec yds

Prediction: Raiders 23, Eagles 20 ^ Top

Buccaneers @ Seahawks - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s now well known that rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has thrown more passes in his first four starts than any other quarterback in NFL history. That’s what happens when your team is 0-8 and not very competitive in most games. Without Doug Martin, the team has had to rely heavily on the passing game, even if it hasn’t been very efficient. Glennon threw the ball 51 times a week ago but the Bucs got just 13 points to show for it. With all the passing, receiver Vincent Jackson has now been targeted more than any other receiver in the league this season. He could end up seeing more coverage coming his way with Mike Williams (hamstring) out, but Jackson is the kind of player who can beat double coverage using his superior size and strength. Look for Jackson to continue getting plenty of targets which makes him very difficult to sit. Even if he only catches half of the passes that go his way, he has the potential to be a top-10 receiving option.

Jackson hasn’t been the only player who has been seeing an uptick in usage in the offense. Quietly, tight end Tim Wright has been getting a lot of action and may be developing into a decent fantasy option. Wright has caught 19 passes over his past four games, including his first career touchdown reception this past week. With Williams out, Wright has an opportunity to step up and become the defacto “WR2” in the Tampa offense, even if it is from the tight end position. Certainly the Buccaneers are going to be offensively challenged which limits the potential of individual players, but with the team passing as much as they are, Jackson is an obvious starter in most fantasy lineups. Wright and Glennon could be nice bye-week fill-ins as we take an additional week to examine them before anointing them as fantasy starters.

Running Game Thoughts: With former first round NFL Draft pick and 2013 consensus top five draft pick Doug Martin on the sidelines with a torn labrum, it’s not too surprising that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have leaned away from their running game in recent weeks. Mike James has taken over as the team’s starting running back and instantly became one of fantasy football’s hottest waiver wire acquisitions, but has been less than spectacular in his limited work. James has rushed for just 84 yards in two games, including an ugly 39-yard performance against the Bucs’ division rival Panthers a week ago. Although he has been utilized some in the passing game with seven receptions during that span, he just hasn’t shown much to warrant the excitement that fantasy owners had when they picked him up. James has averaged fewer than 3.0 yards per carry and given how bad the Buccaneers are, it’s seems unlikely that he will suddenly see that number shoot up. Worse yet, with the Bucs losing games by so many points, it’s hard for them to commit to the run at all in the second half.

There have been reports that Doug Martin is feeling better and could be back in coming weeks, but with the Bucs already out of realistic playoff consideration, the team may just end up shutting him down to avoid furthering the injury. Either way, James does remain the team’s primary ball carrier without any real second option in the stable, he should be good for between 10-15 touches per week. This week Tampa has a very tough situation as they head to Seattle to play one of the NFL’s best defenses in the league’s most difficult stadium to win in. James will get some touches, but this isn’t likely to be a close enough game for him to have a real breakout performance. If you can make use of 50 or so yards and a couple catches, then James should be in your lineup. Otherwise look elsewhere for higher upside in Week 9.

Mike Glennon: 190 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INT
Mike James: 50 rush yds, 15 rec yds
Vincent Jackson: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Tim Wright: 60 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: It’s hard for fans to complain when the Seahawks are winning games by double digits, but Seattle’s near loss to the Rams in Week 8 has to bring some concern to those who previously viewed this team as unbeatable in the NFC West. The lack of passing production from Russell Wilson has been disappointing. Sure, the team is still winning games and he’s even thrown 13 touchdowns at the halfway point this season, but the yardage simply hasn’t been there. After his 139-yard performance against the Rams a week ago, the second-year quarterback has now failed to reach even 150 passing yards in three of his eight games. Perhaps worse yet, he hasn’t gone over 260 yards through the air since Week 1. Where Wilson has seemed to struggle most is when opposing teams send the blitz. He was continually pressured by the Rams’ front seven and he ended up completing just 4 of his 16 pass attempts against the blitz in Week 8. One player who has been a decent fantasy contributor despite the lack of production from Wilson is receiver Golden Tate. Tate has caught 19 passes in his past four games, including three touchdown receptions during that span. With fellow receiver Sidney Rice now out with an ACL tear and Percy Harvin still on the sidelines, Tate could see his role increase in the Seattle offense. Another player who could see increased playing time is Doug Baldwin, who has been an afterthought within the Seattle offense in recent weeks. We’ve seen him produce in the past but Baldwin simply hasn’t done much over the past couple of seasons. He’s not a must-add at this point by any means, but Baldwin is a player who fantasy owners should keep an eye on this week. If he can get things going, he could be a sneaky play down the stretch. With the Buccaneers unlikely to keep this game very close, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wilson come out of the game with another “okay, not great” fantasy day. Golden Tate is worth consideration as a low-end WR2, while no other player in the passing game is worth any serious fantasy consideration.

Running Game Thoughts: Owners of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch were licking their chops a week ago when their first round fantasy pick had what should have been one of his juiciest matchups of the season. Lynch had absolutely terrorized the Rams in recent years and St. Louis was one of the league’s worst run defenses coming into the game...but sometimes things just don’t work out how they “should” on paper. A bizarre coaching decision led to Marshawn Lynch taking only eight carries on the night, which he took for just 23 yards. Certainly a less-than-3.0-yards-per-carry average is not good, but the coaching staff has seen Lynch start off slow in the past, only to completely pummel the opposition in the waning minutes of the game. Given how often Wilson was getting hit when he tried to throw, it would have been wise to give Lynch some additional touches, but that just didn’t happen.

If there’s ever been a time to “make up” a lack of touches to a running back, it could be this week as Lynch and the Seahawks host a Tampa Bay team that hasn’t won a single game this season. Tampa has been surprisingly decent against the run, having allowed only one rushing touchdown, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. With games against the Jets, Patriots, Saints, Cardinals, Falcons and Panthers, the only top-level running back they’ve faced is LeSean McCoy; who embarrassed them to the tune of 171 total yards. Prior to his baffling lack of carries in Week 8, Lynch had taken at least 17 carries in every game this season. Expect him to get to that number and perhaps even into the low-20’s if the Seahawks get up on the Bucs early. With no other player in the backfield taking any significant number of touches, Lynch is a must-start in this matchup even after a despicably bad performance against St. Louis on Monday night.

Russell Wilson: 210 pass yds, 2 TD, 35 rush yds
Marshawn Lynch: 105 rush yds, 2 TD, 10 rec yds
Golden Tate: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Doug Baldwin: 50 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Seahawks 31, Buccaneers 13 ^ Top

Chiefs at Bills - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: The lone remaining undefeated team, Kansas City has been able to beat all of their opponents by first not beating themselves. For all of the critics of Alex Smith and the underwhelming passing game, they don’t make many mistakes and they use the skills available to them to their full extent. Only one team has thrown fewer interceptions than the Chiefs (who have thrown four, one every other game), so the yards they do gain aren’t wasted by careless turnovers. The passing game centers around short, quick, accurate strikes and giving the playmakers a chance to turn a short throw into a big open-field run after the catch. Smith’s yards per attempt (6.3) is well within the bottom quarter of the league despite his completion percentage (59.1) hovering right around the NFL average. The greatest hindrances so far have been the lack of a true receiving threat from the tight end position and the inability of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to overcome most double coverages. Fortunately the ball can be spread around to a number of other receivers or running backs to make up for the production that is sometimes taken away when Bowe isn’t contributing through the air.

Without a blueprint of how to beat Kansas City, the Bills will have to find a way to do something that eight other teams have been unable to do. Limiting the passing attack doesn’t seem to be in the cards, as Buffalo ranks in the bottom ten with respect to yards against per game. Facing the Chiefs will almost certainly help improve on their 263-yard average, but since their opponent doesn’t rely on an aerial assault, only giving up a few hundred yards to them wouldn’t really be limiting them at all. The greatest potential for success will come from rushing the passer; Kansas City has given up 24 sacks on the season, putting them in the bottom ten in that category, while the Bills have recorded 27 sacks for second best in the league. The offensive line has consistency issues, and if they’re unable to protect the quarterback from the Buffalo pass rush, Smith may be forced into mistakes that he has generally been able to avoid so far this season.

Running Game Thoughts: Like the successful Andy Reid teams of the past, the 2013 Chiefs certainly run the ball well, ranking in the top eleven of both yards per game and yards per rushing attempt. Their eight-game winning streak is largely due to their ability to run the ball and then turn those yards into points; they are tied for eighth most rushing touchdowns (7) and rank in the top ten of total points scored. Where the offensive line is less than ideal in terms of pass blocking, they’re able to create running lanes fairly well for Jamaal Charles, and he turns those lanes into consistent chunks of yardage while occasionally breaking through the defense for a big gain. His skills in the open field make him one of the most dangerous runners once he gets into space, so he often garners extra attention from defenses. Even with that, he is averaging 4.2 yards per carry on the season and has scored six of his team’s seven rushing touchdowns. The second leading rusher for the team is actually the quarterback, who is able to use the enhanced defense against Bowe and Charles to his advantage, taking off for first downs and big gains several times each game and averaging roughly 32 yards per game by way of improvisation.

In a parallel to how the Bills' pass rush could overwhelm the Chiefs' pass blocking, the tables will be turned when Buffalo tries to slow down the Kansas City rushing attack. The Bills rank well within the bottom ten in yards against, giving up nearly 118 per contest on the ground; their opponents average 3.9 yards per carry, right in the middle of the pack for NFL defenses. Generally teams see success in running against Buffalo when their game plan calls for a steady dose of ground-and-pound, much like the Chiefs do week in and week out—a formula that has led them to be the only undefeated team in the league. Most recently the Bills faced off against the pass-heavy Saints, but they still managed to give up 65 yards on 14 carries (4.6-yard average) to Pierre Thomas in addition to surrendering 332 yards through the air. While Smith won’t challenge the secondary like New Orleans did, the rushing game will be substantially more difficult for Buffalo to combat, and if Charles is able to approach his season averages, it will be hard to imagine the Chiefs not extending their unbeaten record to nine games.

Alex Smith: 180 pass yds, 1 TD / 30 rush yds
Jamaal Charles: 90 rush yds, 1 TD / 50 rec yds
Dwayne Bowe: 40 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: For three games Thad Lewis has been the quarterback for a Buffalo team who expected to have some growing pains at the position, but certainly not to this extent. With E.J. Manuel out (knee) and Jeff Tuel apparently unready for NFL action, the former practice squad player has led the team to overtime against the Bengals (they lost by 3 points), a road win over a division rival (Miami), and most recently a disappointing loss against the Saints in New Orleans. Despite at one time being the third or fourth quarterback on the depth chart, Lewis has held the Bills relatively steady as a team, allowing his experience to make up for the physical tools he doesn’t possess. Unfortunately, holding steady means leading one of the worst passing offenses in the league, averaging only 195 yards per game and the same 6.3 yards per attempt that their opponent records. The major difference between the Chiefs and the Bills is not the positives but the negatives, where Buffalo has fewer touchdowns, more interceptions, more sacks, and fewer yards per game, all leading to a 3-5 record rather than a perfect 8-0.

Defensively the Chiefs are superb at pressuring the quarterback, recording a league high 36 sacks; the next closest is Buffalo with 27, with one sack fewer per contest. Additionally, they have given up fewer touchdowns than they have recorded interceptions, and even at that, only four teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns. Only one other team has fewer touchdowns and more interceptions, putting the Chiefs in the same class as the vaunted Seattle Seahawks. As a team, they give up only 206 passing yards per game, fourth best in the league. Statistically, the Chiefs are near or at the top of every major defensive category, and that is the primary reason behind their unblemished record. The weakness of the Bills through the air and the strength of the Chiefs against it will likely be the story of the game come Sunday.

Running Game Thoughts: Team leading rusher C.J. Spiller has a high ankle sprain and is considered unlikely (officially Questionable) to play this weekend after missing Week 8; he will be a game time decision pending negative developments in his recovery process. Luckily for Buffalo they have Fred Jackson, likely the best backup in the league and the veteran half of the tandem which has led the Bills to the seventh best rushing offense, despite having one of the worst passing offenses. Even when defenses suspect a run, they still have a hard time keeping Buffalo contained, as the Bills average 4.0 yards per carry. More than 33 times per game they run the ball, a dedication to the ground game that has helped take some of the pressure off of whoever happens to be the quarterback that week. Only three teams have scored more rushing touchdowns than Buffalo, and of their eight scores, Jackson has recorded six.

While running the ball should prove easier than throwing it, the Bills still shouldn’t expect to see great success in this area of the contest. Kansas City surrenders only 103 yards per game and only one other team has given up fewer rushing touchdowns. The strength of Buffalo is certainly on the ground, but usually that's with their dynamic duo of running backs and not a one-man show, as they’ll likely have Sunday. For having such a good yards-against total, the Chiefs actually surrender 4.7 yards per carry, suggesting that teams don’t run on them often but that when they do they tend to be successful. If Jackson can shoulder the load like he did last year when Spiller was unavailable, the Bills ought to be handing him the ball early and often so that he can wear down to Kansas City defense. Without a consistent running game in Week 9, the Bills will have a hard time moving the ball. And because the Chiefs make so few mistakes, Buffalo will have a hard time capitalizing on any opportunities which may present themselves.

Thaddeus Lewis: 150 pass yds, 1 INT
Fred Jackson: 70 rush yds
Steve Johnson: 40 receiving yards

Prediction: Chiefs 20, Bills 9 ^ Top

Vikings at Cowboys - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: Of the Vikings' three potential starting quarterbacks this weekend, only Matt Cassel has been eliminated from the running, leaving Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman as the two possibilities for Leslie Frazier to decide between for his announcement on Friday. Considering how Freeman was brought in midseason after Ponder struggled on the field before missing time due to injury, the new acquisition is the more likely candidate, though neither carries with them particularly lofty expectations of success. While both have different strengths and weaknesses, the biggest hole in the passing game comes from the inconsistent play along the offensive line. They’ve given up 18 sacks (slightly more than the league average), but there has also been a great deal of pressure on the quarterback that has affected the play but didn’t necessarily end up in the box score. On the season, Minnesota quarterbacks are completing only 58 percent of their passes, putting them in the bottom ten of the league. Between his time in Tampa Bay and his one start as a Viking, Freeman is completing a league worst 42.9 percent of his attempts, including only 37.7 percent against the lowly Giants two weeks ago. The coaches love his arm strength (and improvement over Ponder), but without the accuracy to go along with it, Minnesota will see little if any success in their passing game regardless of who is under center.

The worst passing defense belongs to the Cowboys, so if Freeman is hoping to stake his claim to the starting role, this will certainly be the week to do it. For the year, Dallas has averaged 315 passing yards against per game, and injuries to the defensive line early in the season as well as recently having linebacker DeMarcus Ware unavailable have only made things worse, as their ability to rush the passer has diminished. Even so, Dallas should be able to blitz successfully, as both Ponder and Freeman have noticeably worse quarterback ratings and completion percentages when faced with five or more rushers. When it comes to defending the pass, the best defense may be a good offense in the sense that sending additional pressure and attacking the line of scrimmage ought to yield the best results for the Cowboys. Of the teams with more sacks (21) than Dallas, only four have as many or more interceptions (11) as well. The high-risk/high-reward defense has served the team reasonably well, allowing them to overcome the yardage they surrender by coming up with timely turnovers or drive-changing stops, something they hope to be able to continue against the Vikings this Sunday.

Running Game Thoughts: Coming off a career-best and nearly record-breaking season, Adrian Peterson is averaging only 81.5 yards per game rushing this year, and the remainder of the team has contributed about 22 more yards per contest, the majority of which have come from Ponder scrambles. Despite the relative disappointment of these rushing numbers, they still rank just outside the top half of the league, though with Freeman and not Ponder under center, the additional production may be lost and would put an increased burden on the star running back. The same offensive line troubles that create a hassle for the quarterback are responsible for some of the underwhelming rushing performances this season. Additionally, Minnesota has shown a propensity to favor the right side of the offensive line for their running plays (only 37.2 percent have been to the left), and if trend continues, it will be easier for defenses to prepare for them and further limit the rushing success that they’ve been able to find.

While the Cowboys aren’t stellar against the run, they come in right around the middle of the pack in yards per game, with 107.1 surrendered on the ground. When looking at the gains they give up per attempt, with 4.4 yards per touch, they dip back down in the rankings to the bottom ten. With so many teams having great success throwing against them, many don’t focus on running the ball, but when they do it tends to result in big gains that help move the chains. Minnesota doesn’t pose nearly as great a passing threat as most teams, and their running game has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Because of this, Dallas will likely be looking to stack the box against the run. With the injuries that have been suffered by their defense, the Cowboys may still have trouble keeping Peterson totally bottled up, but with linebacker Sean Lee at the heart of it, they should at least be able to prevent a monster game from the star running back.

Christian Ponder: 200 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Adrian Peterson: 90 rush yds, 1 TD
Greg Jennings: 50 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: While the story of the offense generally revolves around Tony Romo, for the first time in a long time, fingers are being pointed in a different direction. Numerous cameras caught wide receiver Dez Bryant on the sideline engaged in animated conversation with several players and even coaches; most of the press this week has centered around the team’s interpretation and handling of that particular display. On the field, offensive line issues still continue to rear their head, as Romo for the first time since 2009 has completed less than 50 percent of his passes, partially because of the pressure he is receiving. Dallas ranks eighth in passing yards with 261 per game and has the third highest passing touchdown total (18). The continued development and involvement of wide receiver Terrance Williams is a major factor in their passing success as defenses are being punished for paying too much attention to Bryant. In addition to those receivers, tight end Jason Witten still has the ability to hassle defenses and continues to be one of the most consistent contributors in history, this year recording at least two catches in every contest.

Stopping an aerial assault is not one of the strengths of the Minnesota defense; they give up 288 yards per game and are ranked as the fourth worst defense in the league, allowing 16 passing touchdowns while forcing only seven interceptions and recording 14 sacks. The strength of the defense is in their ends, with Jared Allen and Brian Robison each able to harass offensive lines and find ways to get to the quarterback. With the O-line troubles Dallas has experienced all year, they’ll have to be acutely aware of where each man is and find ways to slow them down without opening up holes along other parts of the line. If given enough time, Romo will be able to exploit the talented but young secondary just as most opponents have been able to do this season.

Running Game Thoughts: With DeMarco Murray out in Week 8, the Cowboys were able to muster only 62 rushing yards on 26 carries, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry and not scoring a rushing touchdown. On the season, Murray has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and has scored three touchdowns; clearly the Dallas rushing attack is much better with him in the game. Thankfully he has been able to participate in practice this week and is officially listed as Probable for Sunday. Even with Murray available, however, the offensive line is still a concern. But they have stayed mostly consistent all year, and as long as they don’t regress, Dallas will be able to count on their running game for decent yardage and good averages against most opponents. Defenses mainly focus on trying to slow down the Dallas passing attack, and that often creates opportunities that Murray is able to exploit as he gives Romo and the O-line a bit of a break.

Like the other parts of the Vikings defense, their ability to stop the run is somewhat limited. They rank in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed despite being in the top third in yards per carry average. Since the Minnesota offense has such problems moving the ball, the defense ends up back on the field more frequently and gives opponents more opportunities to run the ball. The pieces are in place to have a good run-stopping front seven, but having to play extra snaps wears on the defense, and other teams are able to make slow but steady progress on the ground. Only two teams have given up more rushing touchdowns, and the longest rush the Vikings have surrendered was 38 yards, showing that when teams get into the red zone, they are usually able to pound it in from close distance rather than being forced into kicking a field goal or committing a turnover. While Dallas passes more than most, they do utilize the running game as well, and if Minnesota isn’t cognizant of what’s going on, they could be beat in all phases of the game.

Tony Romo: 330 pass yds, 3 TDs
DeMarco Murray: 60 rush yds / 20 rec yds
Dez Bryant: 90 rec yds, 1 TD

Prediction: Cowboys 34, Vikings 20 ^ Top

Saints at Jets - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: In terms of passing statistics, there is only one team that might be better than the Saints; New Orleans is third in the league in completion percentage (67.5), second in touchdown passes (19), third in passing yards (2175) and yards per game (311), and tied for fifth in interceptions (5) thrown. The only real weakness is the offensive line, which has given up 18 sacks, but even that is better than half of the league. The top two receivers for New Orleans actually aren’t receivers in the traditional sense but rather are a tight end (Jimmy Graham) and a running back (Darren Sproles); together they have accounted for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, close to half of the total receiving production of the team. Because of the number of weapons available to Drew Brees, he often needs only to look for the biggest mismatch, and more often than not that comes from his big, athletic tight end or his quick, agile running back. In an offense that already uses wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore, the further development of Kenny Stills gives the Saints five legitimate pass-catching threats, making their passing attack nearly unstoppable.

Like his father, Buddy, and his brother, Rob, Jets defensive coordinator Rex Ryan prides himself on defense and keeping opponents under control, if not shutting them down entirely. This week will be quite the test for Rex and all of the New York Jets. On average, they give up 237 yards per game and have recorded only three interceptions while allowing 15 touchdowns. The defense is most gifted at getting to the quarterback, recording 25 sacks on the season, which ties them for fifth in the NFL. Additionally, they are one of only 11 teams to allow less than 60 percent completions to opposing quarterbacks. If New York is able to pressure Brees like they have been able to do to other quarterbacks this year, they may be able to limit the damage that he is able to cause through the air. But if New Orleans is able to execute in their quick passing game, the Jets secondary will be unable to match up against all of their receivers, let alone the two biggest matchups on the team, Sproles and Graham.

Running Game Thoughts: New Orleans is one of the few teams in the league, if not the history of the league, that views the running game as somewhat of a luxury. With Brees under center and a multitude of capable receivers on the roster, the Saints seem to run only for the tactical purpose of keeping the defense a little off balance. By the numbers, they fall into the bottom ten in terms of yards per game and they’ve scored more rushing touchdowns than only four other teams; at 85.3 yards per game they’ve demonstrated they can run the ball effectively enough to count on it when needed, but they truly need it only on rare occasions. Leading rusher Pierre Thomas has gained only 36 yards per game and has not scored a touchdown, though he does usually contribute multiple receptions and double-digit yardage out of the backfield.

The strength of the Jets defense is undoubtedly their ability to stop the run, ranking as the best in the NFL with 77.9 yards against per game. While their averages may technically improve by playing the Saints, that unfortunately will most likely be because their opponent chooses not to run the ball rather than New York continually stopping their rushing attempts. New Orleans is not a team that needs to run effectively, or even at all, in order to win, and encouraging them to throw tends to only hasten the demise of the defense. The more the Jets are able to take the ball out of the hands of Brees, the better off they should be as the game progresses. But allowing a team to rush against them just so they don’t pass is an incredibly fine line to walk, especially when it comes to baiting one of the best coach–quarterback combinations in recent history and counting on an elite passer to give over the reins of his offense.

Drew Brees: 310 pass yds, 3 TDs
Darren Sproles: 10 rush yds / 50 rec yds
Jimmy Graham: 100 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: In Week 8 against the Bengals, quarterback Geno Smith was pulled early in the fourth quarter after throwing his second pick-six of the day and his third in two weeks. Over that same time period, Smith’s passes have resulted in 18 points for his opponents and only six for his own team; 100 percent of his interceptions have been returned for touchdowns in that two-game span. On the season, the rookie has thrown for eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions, making the Jets one of only seven teams to have an inverted TD-to-INT ratio. The offensive line is partially to blame for those turnovers, as they’ve allowed 29 sacks on the season, which is tied for second worst in the league. In all, the Jets struggle to move the ball through the air because of a number of factors, and compounding those issues is the absence of a true No. 1 receiver. While having an approximately equal talent pool makes it difficult for the defense to key on any one man, it also makes it difficult for the quarterback to have a go-to guy, something that is critical for first-year signal callers.

Even though they tend to play from ahead and force other teams to throw against them, the Saints still have a top ten passing defense, giving up only 222 yards per contest. In a stark comparison to last season, New Orleans has forced more interceptions than they’ve allowed touchdowns (9 vs. 8) and have recorded the eighth most sacks in the league. The combination of pressure from the defense and pressure from the scoreboard has allowed the Saints defense to make gargantuan strides under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The most glaring weakness on defense is in cornerback Jabari Greer, who is giving up a quarterback rating of 95.3 whenever passes are thrown to the man he covers. The veteran defender isn’t as speedy as he once was, and that discontinuity between a young mind and an older body is predominantly what puts Greer in positions to be beaten with unfortunate regularity, something which Smith and the Jets ought to be able to exploit if the offensive line can buy enough time at the line of scrimmage.

Running Game Thoughts: This offseason running back Chris Ivory was traded from the Saints into a starting role with the Jets, and even though the trade has worked out well for all involved, there’s surely a bit of payback on his mind heading into this Sunday afternoon matchup. Ivory has been given more than 10 rushes only twice all year: in Week 2, when he took 12 carries for 52 yards, and in Week 7, when he rushed 34 times for 104 yards. Both games came against the Patriots, the one team that Rex Ryan wants to beat more than any other. The Saints may be a close second, however, considering that his twin brother will be on the opposite sideline. For the season, Ivory has recorded only one reception, a catch for a loss of two yards, so the likelihood of contributing in any other way than on the ground seems highly unlikely.

While the Jets rank in the top half with respect to rushing yards, the Saints are approximately equidistant from the midpoint in occupying the bottom half of the defensive rankings. That potential mismatch, combined with Smith's struggles passing and the potential for Ivory to have a big game all point to the Jets' need to commit to their running back and let him shoulder the load for the game. If New York is able to keep the game close or even play from ahead, the ability to run the ball and control the clock will further help to keep Brees under control. The greatest flaw in this strategy is how obvious it seems, so the Saints will almost certainly be looking to take away the run and force the rookie quarterback to make plays rather than let a veteran running back take control. The best weapon the New Orleans defense can use is the scoreboard, letting Brees get them an early lead and forcing the Jets to get away from the run, the biggest vulnerability in the surprisingly stout Saints defense.

Geno Smith: 200 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Chris Ivory: 60 rush yds
Jeremy Kerley: 40 rec yds

Prediction: Saints 28, Jets 10 ^ Top

Chargers at Redskins - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: Thanks to the resurgence of Philip Rivers, the Chargers are on the brink of their first three-game winning streak since December of 2011, verging on two full years. After a pair of largely disappointing seasons, Rivers is once again playing at a level on par with the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He leads the league with a 73.9 percent completion rate, is third in passing yards per attempt (8.6), and has a 15-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio, which includes an awful three-interception performance in a loss against the Raiders in Week 5. Since then he’s led San Diego in victories over Indianapolis and Jacksonville, throwing for 522 yards and two touchdowns on 74.6 percent passing with no interceptions. Coming out of the bye week should have given veteran tight end Antonio Gates time to rest and clear up any bumps or bruises, as well as allowing rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen additional time to further his development as an emerging receiver in the Chargers offense. Those two leading receivers, especially the rookie, got off to a slow start to the season but have played a larger and larger role as the season has progressed.

In any other year, being ranked with the Bears defense would be a good thing, but seeing as they’re floating near the bottom of defensive passing rankings, the Redskins shouldn’t feel too good about their co-cellar-dwellers. Washington surrenders 274 passing yards per game and has forced fewer than half as many interceptions as touchdowns allowed (7 vs. 15). The only redeeming statistic is that they’ve recorded 20 sacks, but even that isn’t good enough to be in the top half of the league. While in past years viewing Rivers as an elite quarterback seemed to be nothing more than recognition for past accomplishments, this season his numbers and the subsequent respect speak for themselves. The Redskins will have to shake off as much of the NFC East curse as possible if they hope to adequately defend against a quarterback who seldom makes a mistake and who is more than willing to complete the easy pass for guaranteed yardage. San Diego isn’t a high-powered offense, but being highly efficient is just as dangerous.

Running Game Thoughts: The biggest difference between the San Diego running game of 2013 and those of the past two years is simply the availability of their starting running back. Previously, Ryan Mathews was injured for large parts of the season, including last year when he had more broken collarbones (2) than touchdowns (1) despite playing in multiple games. This year has also seen the addition of running back Danny Woodhead, who plays a similar role as a Charger that he played as a Patriot, as a change-of-pace back who is good out of the backfield while not being afraid to pick up tough yards in the trenches. As the Chargers' offensive line continue to grow together and become more cohesive, their rushing output should also see improvements, but for now they’re an average O-line and an average running team. However, when combined with the precision passing of Rivers, they are more than enough to complement the aerial part of the offense and keep opposing defenses off balance and one step behind.

If San Diego decides to run the ball, it may be hard for the Redskins to stop them; giving up 123.4 yards per game puts them in the bottom three of the league, and their 10 rushing touchdowns surrendered makes them the second worst in that category. They may not have the worst rush defense of 2013, but they aren’t clearly better than many either. Opponents average 4.4 yards per carry against Washington, and that sort of production almost certainly leads to a victory for the opposition, as evidenced by the Redskins' 2–5 record. For a team that can’t stop the pass, and even more so the run, facing a team like the Chargers looks to be more than they can handle. Assuming Rivers is on his game and makes appropriate reads at the line of scrimmage, the mediocre offensive line should be able to neutralize the Redskins defensive line, leaving the linebackers to react to what the backs are doing or leaving the secondary out in space against a corps of ever improving receivers. Until players return from injury, the defensive outlook is bleak for Washington.

Philip Rivers: 270 pass yds, 2 TDs
Ryan Mathews: 70 rush yds, 1 TD
Keenan Allen: 60 rec yds, 1 TD

Passing Game Thoughts: He may be on the field, but it’s hard to believe that quarterback Robert Griffin III is actually back, even with seven games and a bye week under his belt. Despite showing marked improvement from the beginning of 2013 to now, he still isn’t the same quarterback he was as a rookie in 2012. The biggest difference is in his inability to throw the long ball as he did last year. He's completed only five of 24 long passes, with two touchdowns and three interceptions; last year he was 15 of 39 with seven scores and one pick on similar throws. Part of the blame likely falls on his surgically repaired ACL and the lack of complete trust he has in his knee. The offensive line is doing fairly well keeping defenders away, allowing only 14 sacks, sixth fewest in the league. Similar to last year, Washington has only one true threat at wide receiver, but between wideout Leonard Hankerson and tight end Jordan Reed, there has been enough of another receiving presence to prevent defenses from totally loading up against Pierre Garcon.

For Washington to earn its third win of the season, they’re going to have to exploit the Changers pass defense, which is allowing 273 yards per game and ranks as the seventh worst in the NFL. Additionally, they’ve surrendered 10 touchdowns while forcing only three interceptions, a ratio which certainly favors the Redskins, who are in the midst of overcoming their fair share of turnover issues. San Diego’s pass rush is average, or maybe a touch below, so the ability to protect Griffin will go a long way toward allowing him to trust his legs and find receivers down the field. Two weeks ago the Chargers were able to hold Andrew Luck to just over 200 yards despite sacking him only once, so while keeping their quarterback upright isn’t a guarantee of success, Washington will certainly depend on solid protection if they’re going to ask their second-year quarterback to outduel an opponent who is currently at the top of his game.

Running Game Thoughts: As Griffin continues to trust his legs again and uses them to attack defenses rather than only to protect himself, the Redskins will continue to improve in the running game. While he does many things well, it is the combination of his abilities that makes him such a threat. A loose trend that has played out during the season is that the more Griffin is willing to run, the more defenses have to try to cover, meaning that there are ultimately more holes in other areas which can be exploited. What makes the addition of a duel-threat quarterback so valuable to the Redskins is that running back Alfred Morris has been a consistent contributor for the entire season, averaging over 80 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. Washington has a top six rushing attack, with 137.3 yards gained per game, and if they can approach those season averages, they’ll be right with San Diego as the Week 9 game progresses.

The Chargers are right at the midline with respect to yards allowed per game, though they’ve given up only two rushing touchdowns all season, tied for second best. As a team strategy against the run, employing a “bend but don’t break” philosophy is dangerous, but so far it seems to be working. San Diego is tied for the league’s worst yards against per carry, meaning they’re either coming up with timely stops or their opponents are choosing to throw the ball despite having such great success against them on the ground. The more balanced Washington can be on Sunday, the more they will force the Chargers defense to be reactive rather than proactive, which will give the Redskins the edge and allow them to control the outcome of the game. It all depends on the health of Griffin’s knee, his ability to run and scramble as needed, and how consistently Morris is able to pick up yardage.

Robert Griffin III: 280 pass yds, 1 TD / 40 rush yds
Alfred Morris: 80 rush yds, 1 TD
Pierre Garcon: 70 rec yds

Prediction: Chargers 31, Redskins 27 ^ Top

Steelers @ Patriots - (Thorne)

Passing Game Thoughts: The ebb and flow of the Steelers season to this point has coincided with the performance of QB Ben Roethlisberger; their two wins came when he completed more than 71% of his passes and the five losses came when he failed to reach that mark. Those victories are also the only games in which he hasn’t thrown an interception. While his passing totals have been impressive in several of their losses, Pittsburgh is a better team when they can get production from other players and not just their quarterback. The key appears to be attempting 30 or fewer throws, completing a high percentage of them, utilizing the running game, and trying to win a close scoring contest. While it is tempting to rely on Roethlisberger to throw for 380+ yards, as he’s done twice already this season, the Steelers need to slow down their offense and trust their defense to keep them in games so long as the offense isn’t giving the ball away.

Shying away from the pass will be even more important against the fifth ranked Patriots defense who give up only 216 passing yards per game. The Patriots are one of three teams in the league have more interceptions than touchdowns allowed while; their nine TD, ten interception, 24 sack stat line puts them in elite company for the season. The deciding factor in the success of the Steelers passing attack will almost certainly be completion percentage, where Pittsburgh needs a highly efficient offense and the Patriots are second best in the league in limiting the effectiveness of opposing quarterbacks. Sacks and pressure will be a close second in determining the outcome of the game as the Steelers are tied for seventh worse in sacks surrendered and the Patriots are tied for tenth best. The Steelers offensive line will have its hands full with pass rushers despite New England being without some of their top linemen and linebackers.

Running Game Thoughts: Now that RB Le’Veon Bell has a quartet of games under his belt the Pittsburgh ground attack seems to now be taking shape. In the three games without Bell the Steelers were 0-3 and averaged 51.7 yards per game while scoring no rushing touchdowns. In four games with him they’ve gone 2-2, averaged almost 30 more yards per game and have scored three touchdowns. His presence in the backfield gives Pittsburgh the legitimate running threat they expected when they drafted him this offseason and had it not been for a preseason injury, they arguably would be in contention for the division lead or at least sitting comfortably in second place. The remainder of the season should see a steady dose of Bell, removing as much burden as they can from the shoulders of the quarterback. The Pittsburgh rushing attack currently ranks 30th in the league despite the presence of Bell, one thing that will certainly have to improve if the Steelers expect to make a turnaround.

Running the ball against New England has been relatively easy for most teams this season; the Patriots rank second to last in yards surrendered per game and their yards per attempt average ranks only slightly better, but still puts them in the bottom ten of the league. Their ability to stop the run has been diminished further by injury, with losses to the center of the defensive line and the heart of the linebacking corps. The biggest change for Week 9 will come along the defensive line, but this time in a positive way, after the Patriots acquire DT Isaac Sopanga from the Eagles. Philadelphia brought in Sopanga this off-season to eat up space and take on linemen in their 3-4 scheme, so while the transition to a 4-3 may take a little time, he will ultimately be playing a similar role. The Patriots shouldn’t have high expectations for him in week one and Pittsburgh should be more committed than ever to running Bell right at the new DT to challenge the center of the defensive line.

Ben Roethlisberger: 180 pass yds, 1 INT
Le’Veon Bell: 80 rush yds, 1 TD / 20 rec yds
Antonio Brown: 70 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Fans in New England aren’t quite sure what to think of their team or QB Tom Brady. The team keeps finding ways to win despite not playing up to their own standards. Brady is in the midst of one of his worst seasons as a professional and accordingly ranks in the bottom half of most statistical passing categories. His yards per game (209) are in the bottom ten, touchdowns (9) are just slightly better, interceptions (6) are right at the midline and he has the second worst yards per attempt average (5.9) in the league. While the Future Hall of Famer doesn’t look like his normal self, the receivers around him aren’t making things any easier. Between injuries, drops, and miscommunications the extremely young receiving corps has gone through its share of growing pains but seems to be finally finding their stride. The return of TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Danny Ammendola for week eight led to a win over the Dolphins and with them expected for week nine, a similar result should be within reach against the Steelers. In their absence, rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins began to establish themselves as decent targets for Brady and if that rapport continues, the Patriots could once again have one of the most complete passing attacking in the NFL.

One main weakness for New England has been giving up sacks; on the season they’ve surrendered 23, tied for tenth most in the league. That particular situation gets worse in week nine as RT Sebastian Vollmer will be unavailable (out for season, leg). The Steelers historically have been able to harass quarterbacks but this season they’re next to last in the league with only 10 sacks. Aside from that, their pass defense is stellar, ranking second in pass yards against per game (181) and fourth in yards per attempt (6.4). As a team they’ve only recorded four interceptions but have given up only five passing touchdowns, suggesting that teams have a hard time throwing against them and choose to try to move the ball on the ground. With Brady struggling, the Patriots are likely to lean on the running attack but ultimately the game will be put in the hands of the quarterback when the clock is running down or when they need a big play.

Running Game Thoughts: The key to Brady having such good passing numbers throughout his career has generally been the presence of an established running game and 2013 continues to follow that trend. While the aerial aspect of the offense may sputter at times the ground game is rather reliable. Their 120.6 yards per game ranks just outside of the top ten in the NFL. Despite sharing some of the same O-line woes as the passing game they’ve managed seven rushing touchdowns on the season and 4.2 yards per carry, both of which are better than the league average. In recent weeks the main workhorse has been Stevan Ridley but in particular games either LeGarrette Blount or Brandon Bolden have split the rushing responsibilities. While losing Vollmer for the season certainly won’t help improve the offensive line his loss may be mitigated by play calling at the line of scrimmage or any audibles that Brady may employ. How they’re able to run the ball after the bye (Wk 10) will go a long way to forecasting success at the end of the season.

There are exactly five teams that have a worse rush defense than Pittsburgh and only two that have given up more touchdowns on the ground. Given their relative strength against the pass and the inconsistencies that have affected the Patriots receivers, it stands to reason that the Week 9 matchup will see a steady dose of Ridley, Blount, and Bolden. The Steelers give up 4.0 yards per carry and teams have found it incredibly beneficial to run at them frequently. In their two victories they gave up 82 and 83 rushing yards total while not surrendering more than 45 to any one ball carrier. If New England can approach their season averages the game should remain under their control. By committing to the run they will wear down the Steelers defense and find better running opportunities as the game goes on. This will also open up the play action passing game for Brady to take advantage of a Pittsburgh defense

Tom Brady: 210 yards passing, 1 TD
Stevan Ridley: 90 yards rushing, 1 TD / 10 yards receiving
Rob Gronkowski: 70 yards receiving, 1 TD

Prediction: Patriots 24, Steelers 20 ^ Top