Around the AFC: Will Neal's loss affect LT?
What have the coaches been saying in their weekly news conferences? Tristan H. Cockcroft takes a quick-hitting look at the goings-on for each of the 16 AFC teams. All quotes are from Monday's news conferences (unless otherwise noted).
Buffalo Bills: Marshawn Lynch owners can't possibly like it, but with the Bills utilizing a one-two running back punch with tremendous results in Week 14, it appears Lynch will continue to share touches with Fred Jackson. "We really like this," said coach Dick Jauron, according to the team's official Web site. "We were talking about it coming in, and the way it worked, there's no reason why we wouldn't stay with this." Lynch ran 23 times for 107 yards in his first game back from a high ankle sprain, while Jackson collected 115 yards of his own on just 15 carries, marking the first time the Bills had two 100-yard rushers since 1996, when both Darick Holmes (122) and Thurman Thomas (107) did it against the Redskins. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, such time-shares limit the appeal of both players, particularly when the matchup is bad. The Bills' Week 14 matchup was favorable, making both Lynch and Jackson fantasy-worthy. But looking at their schedule past Week 15 (at Cleveland, a bottom-five run defense), things might not go as smoothly. The Bills finish the season with the Giants and Eagles, and both have top-10 run defenses. It'd be better for fantasy if one emerges as the clear go-to guy before Week 16.
Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins switched quarterbacks less than a quarter into their Week 14 contest, from John Beck back to Cleo Lemon, and it's unclear which one will get the start in Week 15. Coach Cam Cameron said he has talked to both quarterbacks individually and asked each to prepare as if he's going to start, but he won't announce his starter until Wednesday. "I think what we've done [with picking our starting quarterbacks] has been pretty consistent," said Cameron, according to the team's Web site. "We had a starter, then a backup, then a third. Then we were down to two guys, Cleo was starting, and we decided to make a change. We made a change with John, and we haven't been able to score like we would like to." Neither quarterback is a viable fantasy option the remainder of the year, but if Lemon returns to the starting role, it might be an indication that Beck's future as the 2008 starter is anything but assured. ... Samkon Gado could earn another start, having impressed Cameron by running 12 times for 52 yards and two scores in Week 14. "I think you can see the glimpses now of why we've put him in the position that he's in," said Cameron. "He's earned it. He does a nice job. He's still learning the system, to some degree, but he's a hard runner." Cameron failed to update the status of Jesse Chatman, out for Week 14 with an ankle injury, but if he sits, expect Gado to start and get a healthy number of carries. Of course, with games due up against the Ravens (Week 15) and at New England (Week 16), Gado would be a weak option, even from your flex spot.
New England Patriots: Although coach Bill Belichick failed to address the topic on Monday, the Boston Globe reports Jabar Gaffney served as the Patriots' No. 2 receiver in Week 14, earning the start ahead of Donte' Stallworth. Gaffney played 42 of the team's 57 snaps, just 11 snaps behind Randy Moss and two snaps behind Wes Welker. Stallworth, by comparison, played just 32. Gaffney caught seven passes for 122 yards and a touchdown in Week 14, earning nine targets, and he now has a touchdown in each of his past three contests, totaling 17 targets, 14 receptions and 217 yards during that span. Stallworth, meanwhile, has 15 targets, eight receptions, 121 yards and no scores in that time. With matchups against the Jets and Dolphins and then at the Giants rounding out New England's schedule, Gaffney is actually a viable No. 3 fantasy receiver. Go pick him up.
New York Jets: Both Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery came out of the Week 14 game relatively pain-free, and each had at least a respectable day; Coles caught seven passes for 48 yards and Cotchery six for 119. In Cotchery's case, that he was able to return so quickly following finger surgery was nothing short of remarkable. "We weren't sure really until pregame [that Jerricho would play]," said coach Eric Mangini, according to the team's Web site. "Both he and Laveranues Coles are battling through these things. I thought both of them did an outstanding job with some inherent challenges. It is a real testament to their toughness, their selflessness, their commitment to doing everything they could to get ready to play, but also their ability to mentally go through the reps they weren't able to get at practice." With Coles and Cotchery now both seemingly healthy, each warrants No. 2/3 receiver consideration the remainder of the season, even with the developing Kellen Clemens slinging them the ball.
Baltimore Ravens: Though we finally got a look at Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith in Week 14, don't expect the rookie to get a start in the near future. "Kyle is our starting quarterback," said coach Brian Billick, according to the Baltimore Sun. "It was nice to get Troy in a little bit and get his feet wet. If that presents itself going forward, that would probably be a good thing. But our best chance to win going forward is Kyle Boller remaining our starter." Smith completed three of five pass attempts for 33 yards and had a six-yard rushing touchdown in his NFL debut against the Colts, and might make a case to start for the team in 2008. Still, he'll remain in the backup role, presumably because he's not yet ready to take over starting duties. Smith might have to fight for a chance to start in the preseason next summer, and for now his primary value is in deep keeper leagues. Boller, meanwhile, isn't a fantasy option in these final weeks. He has averaged 203.0 passing yards, with five touchdowns and six interceptions in his past four starts. That's not enough of a track record to trust him in Week 15 at Miami. His Week 16 (at Seattle) and 17 (versus Steelers) matchups aren't at all appealing, either. ... Billick also said Todd Heap has not yet been ruled out for the season. "Todd will try to give it a go this week," said Billick. Even if Heap returns, between his lengthy absence due to hamstring troubles and the team's issues at quarterback, he isn't at all a trustworthy option for fantasy owners.
Cincinnati Bengals: Rudi Johnson rushed for a touchdown in Week 14, the third straight week he has scored. During that span, he has averaged 71.3 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. He's looking more productive now that his hamstring injury appears to be a thing of the past, and coach Marvin Lewis said Monday that he feels his running game is back to his former self. "We put some things back into our running attack that we had eliminated," said Lewis, according to the team's Web site. "We had eliminated some things due to changes in the offensive line. But we've looked at some things where we used to make a little hay and gone back to that a little more." Despite Johnson's rebound, his averages do leave a bit to be desired, which is of some concern when the matchup isn't in his favor. Fortunately, the Bengals face nothing but fantasy-friendly matchups (for a running back, anyway) the rest of the year; they play at the 49ers, host the Browns and finish at the Dolphins. None of those teams ranks better than 25th in the league against the run.
Cleveland Browns: Braylon Edwards caught a touchdown pass for the third consecutive game in Week 14. He's now third in the league in receiving touchdowns with 13, six behind the Patriots' Randy Moss and one behind the Cowboys' Terrell Owens. In a breakout year for the third-year receiver, Edwards is on pace for 80 receptions, 1,361 receiving yards and 16 scores, remarkable numbers. "To have a guy [with those numbers] also shows about his maturity level," said coach Romeo Crennel, according to the team's Web site. "That has shown in his play." Edwards has quietly established himself as a must-start fantasy option and a top-five receiver. One can only wonder how high he'll go in 2008 drafts. A case can be made he'll be a top-25 overall draft pick.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Though Santonio Holmes appeared to battle some ankle trouble during his Week 14 return to the lineup, coach Mike Tomlin seemed unconcerned during his post-game news conference. "At this point we don't have anything major from an injury standpoint," said Tomlin, according to the team's Web site. Holmes, who missed two cakewalk matchups in Weeks 12-13 because of a high ankle sprain, had one catch for 13 yards and no touchdowns this past Sunday, earning four targets in the contest. His health bears watching during mid-week practices, as the Steelers face nothing but bottom-half pass defenses the rest of the way (versus Jaguars, at Rams, at Ravens). At 100 percent, Holmes would be a solid No. 2/3 fantasy receiver.
Houston Texans: It doesn't appear Matt Schaub, who missed the Week 14 game with a dislocated left shoulder, will be ready in time for Week 15. "We're going to get a second opinion on Matt here in the next 24 hours and take a look at his shoulder," said coach Gary Kubiak at Monday's practice, according to the team's Web site. "Definitely we were kind of hoping maybe he would be available this week, but it sure doesn't look that way." With the Texans playing Thursday, Sage Rosenfels should earn a second consecutive start, with more playing time possible, depending on Schaub's status. Rosenfels passed for 209 yards and three scores in Week 14, and he actually made both Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter viable fantasy options in the process, despite a challenging matchup. Don't be so quick to dismiss these Texans while Rosenfels is under center. Johnson is a must-start, and the others do bring a little sleeper potential. ... Judging by Kubiak's comments, it also appears Darius Walker could earn a start at running back in Week 15. "Well, if we were playing [Monday], it'd be rough," said Kubiak. "Ronnie [Dayne]'s still very hobbled, his ankle. We'll just treat the heck out of him and see how much progress we can make with him in the next two days, but the plan is to go with Darius and Joe [Adimchinobi Echemandu] and give Darius the chance to step up again." With the Broncos ranked 29th against the run (138.8 ypg), Walker might actually be worth sleeper consideration from your flex spot in deeper leagues, assuming, of course, he starts.
Indianapolis Colts: Coach Tony Dungy was rather impressed with his team's performance on offense in Week 14. "Watching the tape, I was impressed with how hard our guys played," he said, according to the team's Web site. "We had a lot of young guys in, especially in the second half. The guys on defense played hard. Offensively, I thought we protected the ball well. It's very critical to play against them turnover-free. And we were able to do that." Among the Colts' most notable Week 14 performances: Rookie Anthony Gonzalez, who caught six passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns, being targeted nine times. In the past three weeks, all starting in place of Marvin Harrison, Gonzalez has 13 receptions for 261 yards, earning 19 targets total. He's now a viable receiving option for Peyton Manning, a No. 3 receiver for fantasy the remainder of the year and a promising keeper prospect. With rumors Harrison might retire, there's a chance Gonzalez could step in as the team's No. 2 receiver to begin 2008.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars' defense took a bit of a hit in Week 14, as defensive lineman Marcus Stroud, a three-time Pro Bowler (2003-05), injured his right ankle, the same one on which he had microfracture surgery in the offseason. Coach Jack Del Rio said Stroud suffered a "pretty good sprain," but that he won't know more about his status until Wednesday, according to the team's Web site. It was Stroud's first game back since serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's steroids and related substances policy; during his absence the Jaguars allowed 329.8 total yards and 18.0 points per game, but in Week 14 they allowed 149 yards and six points. Granted, that was against the Panthers, but without Stroud, and probably defensive end Reggie Hayward, whom Del Rio said would miss his second consecutive game in Week 15, the Jaguars' defense must be downgraded a tad. Jacksonville plays at Pittsburgh, a tough matchup if the team lacks any key personnel, then finishes against the Raiders in Week 16 and at Houston in Week 17, with the final two being the far more favorable fantasy matchups.
Tennessee Titans: Although defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth told the Nashville Tennessean that he might have aggravated his hamstring injury in the final minutes of Week 14, coach Jeff Fisher wasn't nearly as concerned. "Albert was much better today than he was a week ago," said Fisher, according to the team's Web site. Haynesworth had three tackles and a sack in the contest, and that the Chargers were able to mount a late rally could have a lot to do with his being limited late in the game. Keep tabs on his health, as the Titans, defensively speaking, are a much better unit for fantasy when Haynesworth is in the lineup. Keep in mind, too, that the Titans play at Kansas City and versus the Jets the next two weeks, favorable matchups to exploit if he's healthy. ... Vince Young is battling some rib soreness after taking a vicious hit by the Chargers' Shawne Merriman in Week 14. "He may be a little restricted on Wednesday, but I don't anticipate that to be a problem," said Fisher. Young isn't in jeopardy of sitting out Week 15, but if he did, Kerry Collins would get the start. That actually might not be a bad thing; Young has averaged 214.5 passing yards with four touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his past six games.
Denver Broncos: After activating him in Weeks 12-13 and watching him accrue one reception for seven yards on four targets in the two games combined, the Broncos deactivated Javon Walker in Week 14. "Any time you're gone as long as he was gone after surgery, it's tough," said coach Mike Shanahan, according to the team's Web site. "You want to go full speed; we had him in Chicago and it did not look like he got it loose ... He looked better Friday in practice but still wasn't full speed." Walker's absence was apparently a mix of both his being less than 100 percent and Brandon Stokley's performance while filling in for him. Stokley has 28 receptions for 457 yards and four touchdowns in his past eight games, earning 52 targets during that span. That's a No. 3 fantasy receiver's output, and with Walker now looking unlikely to be at full form the rest of the year, Stokley should be fine to use the remainder of the year. ... Shanahan also said that Travis Henry is "going through a tough time," though he's pleased with the performance of his backups, Selvin Young and Andre Hall. "You can never have too many backs," said Shanahan. It's unclear whether Shanahan's comments about Henry refer to his previous knee injury or the possible suspension wiped out by appeal, but with Young going off for 156 yards on 17 carries compared to Henry's 24 yards and a score on 10 carries in Week 14, it sure seems a timeshare is in order in Denver. That's going to make Henry, Young and Hall tough reads for fantasy, even as flex options.
Kansas City Chiefs: Despite Brodie Croyle racking up his fourth consecutive mediocre performance in Week 14, coach Herm Edwards provided him the infamous vote of confidence on Monday. "He's done a decent job," said Edwards, according to the Kansas City Star. "He's missed a couple of throws and you wish he'd made a better decision on some, but for what he's done and what we've asked him to do, he's done a decent job. He would have had a better day if some guys hadn't dropped some balls." In four starts, Croyle has averaged 152.0 passing yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, totaling an underwhelming 19 fantasy points. He's not to be trusted for fantasy in these important weeks, and unfortunately, his presence is limiting the appeal of Dwayne Bowe and Tony Gonzalez, too. Still, it appears Edwards is committed to Croyle the remainder of the year, perhaps only to get a sense of whether he's fit to start in 2008.
Oakland Raiders: Though he's undecided on his starter, coach Lane Kiffin said Monday that rookie JaMarcus Russell will play in Week 15, serving as the team's backup, according to the Oakland Tribune. "Because we're eliminated from the playoffs doesn't have anything to do with how we play the quarterbacks," said Kiffin. "JaMarcus will play this week. I [have been planning] on playing him when we got back here for this game. He'll play in some role. The length of that role I haven't determined yet." Kiffin said Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper will duke it out for the starting role during practice on Wednesday, with the loser serving as the No. 3 quarterback. None warrants fantasy attention, although Russell is probably going to be a factor in each of the team's final three games, putting him in contention for the starting role in 2008. Keep that in mind, keeper-league owners. ... Kiffin also took a wait-and-see approach to the status of Justin Fargas, who took a helmet to the ribs from the Packers' A.J. Hawk in Week 14. "He was moving around in the meetings [Monday]," said Kiffin. "We're going to continue to look at him and hope that he plays." LaMont Jordan had 11 carries for 21 yards in relief of Fargas in Week 14, and would likely start if needed, though he's a much weaker fantasy option of the two. A healthy Fargas, averaging 97.8 rushing yards per game with three scores in six starts, is well worth No. 2 running back consideration when healthy.
San Diego Chargers: Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman will miss at least one game and perhaps more after suffering a sprained ligament in his left knee in Week 14, although coach Norv Turner said the injury isn't season-ending. "I'm not going to speculate, but it could be a couple of weeks," said Turner, according to the Associated Press. With Merriman out, the Chargers' pass rush shouldn't be as threatening to Jon Kitna and the Lions in Week 15. ... Quarterback Philip Rivers, though, said he expects to play next Sunday despite suffering a sprained left knee in Week 15. "I'll leave that up to the coach and the trainer as far as giving you the information," said Rivers, regarding his long-term prognosis. He faces an excellent fantasy matchup in Week 15 if healthy, so keep tabs on him during midweek practices. Turner did not address Rivers' status on Monday. ... Fullback Lorenzo Neal is out for at least the rest of the regular season after suffering a broken right leg in Week 14. Remember, Turner credited much of LaDainian Tomlinson's success in Week 13 to Neal's blocking, so his absence could have a bit of an impact on Tomlinson looking forward. Not that LT's owners should downgrade him substantially, but if the Chargers turn to Andrew Pinnock in Neal's old role, there's a chance Tomlinson's numbers might be closer to his output in Weeks 9-12, when he averaged 15.0 fantasy points, than Weeks 13-14, when he averaged 29.5.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.