The Breakdown: Week 4
Houston Texans (2-1) at Atlanta Falcons (0-3)
The Matt Schaub Bowl will feature carnival games in which young Falcons fans fire cream pies at likenesses of Schaub wearing a 10-gallon hat, use remote-control miniature tanks to storm a replica model of Schaub's Houston-area McMansion and win ASPCA-approved plush toys depicting Joey Harrington befriending a pit bull.
Fantasy Up: Houston RB Ron Dayne injured his chest at the end of the Week 2 Carolina game, and missed last week, but it looks like he'll start against Atlanta's generous rush defense this week. You can use him as a flex player, or even a No. 2 RB is you're desperate. Losing starting center Steve McKinney for the year hurts, but veteran Mike Flanagan can step in and be effective. So far the season carry totals look like this: Warrick Dunn, 46; Jerious Norwood, 20. All the speculation that Bobby Petrino would prefer Norwood's skills has proven to be so much hot air. Not that Dunn's been good, but he can be a flex play this week. Alge Crumpler caught six passes for 63 yards and his first score last week. Keep starting him. PetrinoBall notwithstanding, I think you can start the Houston defense in a pinch. Atlanta's offense has allowed the third-most fantasy points to opposing defenses.
Fantasy Down: Roddy White caught all seven passes sent his way last week, for 127 yards and a score. He deserves to be picked up in a lot of leagues, but don't start him yet. Dunta Robinson probably will be on him this week. Ahman Green sounds like he'll be out, as will Andre Johnson. And with Jacoby Jones out with his separated shoulder, you probably have to sit Schaub, simply because he doesn't have many folks to throw to. Thanks for playing, DeAngelo Hall. A pass interference and two unsportsmanlikes basically handed last week's game to Carolina. He won't be suspended this week, but with Rod Coleman out again, Atlanta's D isn't worth using.
New York Jets (1-2) at Buffalo Bills (0-3)
It's hard to keep track of the carnage on Buffalo's defense, which makes the Omaha Beach sequence in "Saving Private Ryan" look like "Superbad." Terrence McGee should be back, sending the disastrous Jabari Greer to the bench, but second-rounder Paul Posluszny is out for the year with a broken forearm. Linemen, linebackers, defense backs: They're missing guys at every level. Start your Jets.
Fantasy Up: Thomas Jones didn't post electric stats last week (25 carries, 110 yards), but he looked very good. The smart, tough, downfield rusher the Bears enjoyed the past couple seasons is entrenched in the Meadowlands. He could have a huge day Sunday. Use Chad Pennington if you don't have a better option. He's 14th on my quarterback list. His receivers, Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery, both need to start in all leagues. Marshawn Lynch is an every-week play, and the Jets have allowed the second-most points to fantasy rushers this year. Lynch barreling over the Pats' James Sanders to get in the end zone last week was impressive. As sketchy as the Jets D has been, CB David Barrett has been a very good IDP option (he's fourth in the NFL in solo tackles), as teams are already staying away from rookie Darrelle Revis. There's an awful lot of talent on this defense, especially in the back four. The defensive line and outside linebackers have looked shaky, but against Buffalo, I can see starting this unit.
Fantasy Down: J.P. Losman's out, Trent Edwards is in. That's not great news for Lee Evans, who was supposed to use Game 4 as a springboard to better performances, now that the Bills are out of the Murderers' Row beginning to their schedule. Evans can be a No. 2 WR or flex this week if your regulars are on bye, but I might wait and see. If he can't do anything this week, it might be a long year.
Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (1-2)
Cleveland's secondary, formerly a strength, is struggling. Rookie CB Eric Wright has given up four TDs in three games and shouldn't be starting. FS Brodney Pool is overmatched, and the team wants to use Gary Baxter there once he's healthy. The Browns are the 10th-most-generous team against fantasy rushers this year, but the most generous against receivers. Meanwhile Baltimore's been eaten up via the air in parts of all three games, and will be without CB Samari Rolle again. This could be a higher-scoring game than you think.
Fantasy Up: Willis McGahee heads the list; he hasn't broken out yet (4.1 ypc, no rushing scores), but the Browns made LaMont Jordan look like Marcus Allen last week. Jonathan Ogden might play, which would help the run game quite a bit. Braylon Edwards is an every-week start, but don't fear the Ravens this week. Anquan Boldin scored 30 fantasy points against Baltimore last week (while Larry Fitzgerald amassed 85 yards), and Jerricho Cotchery racked up 165 yards the week before. Heck, by that logic, No. 2 Cleveland man Joe Jurevicius could be a sneaky play in very deep leagues. Kellen Winslow has a partly dislocated shoulder, and is questionable. I think he'll play, as should Todd Heap (concussion).
Fantasy Down: I wish I could recommend Steve McNair, but while he'll start, I don't trust his groin (OK, that sounded a little wrong). Kyle Boller has been very good in relief, and might see time Sunday. Avoid 'em both, despite the tastiness Cleveland's secondary offers. Jamal Lewis is making noise about revenge against his former team. That will motivate Ray-Ray and the gang. Like Lee Evans, Mark Clayton is on a short fantasy leash. The desperate among us can use him as a flex this week, but I'd rather wait. Now his problems are in his calf? At the rate his woes are climbing, tonsillitis can't be far off.
St. Louis Rams (0-3) at Dallas Cowboys (3-0)
Believe it or not, statistically speaking the Rams have been one of the most effective defenses against the pass this year: They're allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to QBs. Of course, why pass when you can run? Opponents also have attempted the third-fewest number of passes against St. Louis, while rushing the fifth-most times. I'm not overawed by the Rams' secondary even when Tye Hill's in there, let alone when he's not. Against this unit, I think you can just pick your poison. The Cowboys will pick passing.
Fantasy Up: The Rams have registered just five sacks and zero interceptions, and their DBs have defended an NFL-low three passes. That means Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten, already easy starting decisions, should run free if they want to Sunday. Turn it around, and I think you can play Marc Bulger and Torry Holt, too. Sure, the Cowboys have a league-high eight picks, but raise your hand if you think Rex Grossman had something to do with that. Dallas will score a lot of points, which means Bulger will throw a lot to catch up. Brian Leonard takes over for the injured Steven Jackson. Leonard wasn't even the feature back on his college team (Ray Rice was), but it'll be good for the rookie that Richie Incognito should return at guard, since the team just lost Mark Setterstrom for the year. Leonard isn't a No. 2 RB starter just yet, but as a flex, he's got upside. As much trash as I talk about the Dallas D, they're a must-start this week. Yes, I think the Rams will score some fantasy points on offense, but if they're coming from behind, they'll also make some mistakes.
Fantasy Down: Randy McMichael admitted his hamstring is bothering him, and while he'll play Sunday, you don't want to use him. Patrick Crayton was a fantasy darling when Terry Glenn got hurt, but Sam Hurd has been a better player so far. Crayton's broken finger can't be helping, but the kid's got the dropsies. Stay away for now.
Chicago Bears (1-2) at Detroit Lions (2-1)
I think I figured out Rex Grossman's problem. Someone told him to "pass the football," and he gave the pigskin the once-over, put a napkin under his chin and said, "You got it, coach. If I can eat it, I can pass it." Har. Anyway, the under-the-radar story of this game is the Chicago defense, and its injuries. Dusty Dvoracek and Mike Brown are already gone. Tommie Harris might miss a month with his sprained knee. Starting corners Nathan Vasher (at least a month) and Charles Tillman (at least two weeks) will miss Sunday's game. (Ricky Manning Jr. and Trumaine McBride are your starting corners for the Monsters of the Midway.) And while Lance Briggs should play, he may be limited by his groin injury.
Fantasy Up: And all this is why I'd expect Jon Kitna to be extremely fantasy-worthy Sunday (I have him sixth among QBs). Yes, he'll continue to make mistakes, but the Lions are going to score. Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson (provided he plays; check the wires for news about his back), Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald are all worth considering. Only Furrey has yet to break out this year. Lost in this talk about the bucket-kicking Bears D is the historically bad defensive performance the Lions submitted in Philly. The Eagles scored five TDs on their first five drives, and could've named their final point total. The Cover-2 doesn't work when you don't have quick enough safeties, and the Lions don't. Cedric Benson is a must-start.
Fantasy Down: Pardon me if Brian Griese doesn't light my world ablaze. His issues in Denver and Tampa had to do with arm strength. While he can be a better caretaker than Grossman, he'll be hard-pressed to be a consistent fantasy threat. Detroit's defensive badness hikes Griese to 15th on my QB list, but I probably wouldn't start him. And his weak hose could spell trouble for deep threat Bernard Berrian. Muhsin Muhammad could benefit. Kevin Jones wants more carries, but other than a short TD plunge last week, KJ didn't do much. Expect a continued split between Jones and Tatum Bell.
Oakland Raiders (1-2) at Miami Dolphins (0-3)
According to ESPN's John Clayton, Josh (The Toe) McCown is out for a month because of his fractured foot digit, and Daunte Culpepper is the new starting QB for Oakland. No word on whether Jason Taylor hired a henchman to do a Gillooly on Trent Green's feet.
Fantasy Up: LaMont Jordan has been excellent in Year 2 of his Raiders career, and the Dolphins' latter-day Downy softness against the run bodes well for another productive week. It's hard to make the argument Jordan's a top 10 back every week, but he's a top option on South Beach, despite injuries to Robert Gallery and Jeremy Newberry on the O-line. Ronald Curry and Chris Chambers are making claims to every-week starter-hood as well. I like Curry more than Chambers, but the somewhat-vaunted Raiders pass defense has been shredded three weeks running. Fabian Washington hasn't panned out yet, and I have to be honest, I don't know a lot about his replacement, Stanford Routt. Here's guessing that you'll hear his name a lot if you watch this game, because teams are staying away from Nnamadi Asomugha. If Ronnie Brown got to face the Jets every week, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame. Suddenly Brown is tied for fourth among all fantasy RBs, but that's what a 40-point day will do for you. Still, he's my 11th-best RB option this week.
Fantasy Down: Culpepper isn't a start just yet, but he's worth grabbing. His issue even before his knee injury was handling blitz pressure, and Miami will oblige on Sunday. Still, there will be chances to produce against the Fins' shaky secondary. Browns and Broncos flameout Gerard Warren is starting along the Oakland defensive line, which isn't a good sign. He had a sack last week, but the shuffling going on with this defense is an indication Lane Kiffin isn't happy. The unit needs to be benched until further notice. Trent Green has resuscitated Chambers' fading career, and Green played a far headier game against the Jets than he did versus Dallas. Still, he's a weak-armed caretaker, and I wouldn't want to use him in my starting lineup this week, though if you're desperate, it's a (surprisingly) good opponent.
Green Bay Packers (3-0) at Minnesota Vikings (1-2)
Hey, did you hear Brett Favre is kind of playing well? I know the national media is barely paying attention, so I thought I'd draw your attention to the matter.
Fantasy Up: Yup, use Favre. As I said in this week's Big Rotowski, the defense might be Favre's fantasy owners' best friend. As long as the Pack is holding opponents in check, Favre might feel less pressure to be a hero. I still worry about him, but he made a liar out of me against the Chargers. Minny's rush defense is great, so Green Bay will throw this week. Greg Jennings scored on a long run-after-catch last week, and deep-leaguers can use him in Week 4. But make sure his hammy's okay. As of this writing, he'd missed practice. I have both defenses in the top six this week.
Fantasy Down: Adrian Peterson owners have to worry about Chester Taylor's return. It sounds like Taylor will play, and Brad Childress went on record saying Taylor's the starter. (My updated rankings Friday will reflect this.) Even more worrisome was the end of Minny's game in Kansas City. Realizing Kelly Holcomb was never going to beat them, the Chiefs abandoned their Cover-2 scheme and used their linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage. After that move, Peterson had four yards in the game's final 20 minutes. I'd have a hard time sitting Peterson, but here's guessing the Packers were watching. Vernand Morency sounds like a "go" for Sunday, which could mean DeShawn Wynn won't play. Morency and Brandon Jackson will split carries. Don't start either against Minny's rush defense. Tarvaris Jackson is out. Holcomb is in. It doesn't matter.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) at Carolina Panthers (2-1)
The fact that David Carr probably will start this week just adds to the psychodrama unfolding four hours down the road in Atlanta. Matt Schaub returns as a Texan to haunt the Falcons, while the man Schaub replaced also gets a first return shot at glory? Where's Don DeLillo to craft a whip-smart parable/novella on this?
Fantasy Up: Jeff Garcia is one of the very few players in football making me look smart; at ESPN's player-ranking summit this summer, I battled hard for him. Clearly, he doesn't have a big arm, and most of the damage he and Joey Galloway are going to do this year will be the result of long runs after catches. But Garcia can pass in tight quarters, and nobody runs a pure West Coast offense better. Carolina has been crushed through the air in two straight; Ken Lucas got humbled on Roddy White's long TD last week, and Richard Marshall hasn't played much better. DeShaun Foster looked terrific last week, and his over-the-shoulder TD catch was awesome. The Bucs are eighth-worst in allowing fantasy points to RBs. It was a little disconcerting to see Cadillac Williams benched after his late-game fumble, but his ribs were hurting, too. I don't see Earnest Graham as a huge threat to Caddy. Tight end Jeff King gets another mention. The Panthers look his way a ton. Who else wants to know what Steve Smith said to DeAngelo Hall?
Fantasy Down: The Carolina defense has disappointed, but it's at least in part been by design. They rarely blitzed last week against Atlanta, as the Falcons used three- and five-step drops. Still, Mike Rucker and Lucas are two guys not getting it done. I wouldn't use the Panthers this week. No thanks, Mr. Carr. Been down that road too many times. There's a lot of noise about Tampa's defense being "back." LB Barrett Ruud has been stupendous making tackles, but the team has still allowed 17, 8 and 12 fantasy points to lead backs (and has been lucky not to yield more TDs).
Seattle Seahawks (2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
I mentioned this in the Big Rotowski this week, but it bears repeating: Frank Gore eats the Seahawks alive, while Shaun Alexander struggled with a worse Niners defense last season. Gore's numbers against Seattle in 2006: 53 carries, 356 yards, 60 yards receiving and a TD. Alexander's against San Francisco: 40 carries, 110 yards, 2 yards receiving and a TD. In his record-setting 2005 season, Alexander was very good against the 49ers (three TDs, two 100-yard games), but still, this bears watching.
Fantasy Up: Matt Hasselbeck has had three weird games; he can look just terrible on consecutive drives, out of rhythm, inaccurate, then all of a sudden get on a roll and be unstoppable. Deion Branch makes a big difference, because Hasselbeck hasn't had many quick receivers he knew would be where they were supposed to be. I'd start him this week, though he'd better figure out where Walt Harris is. Nate Clements is playing as well as any corner in the league. Manny Lawson's ACL injury makes the Niners' pass rush less intimidating. Darrell Jackson played well in garbage time last week, but isn't making an impact. Mostly it's San Francisco's unwillingness to open things up. He's probably only a No. 3 WR, but he does have 21 targets.
Fantasy Down: Neither of these defensive lines are good against the run. The Niners' 3-4 isn't working well because neither Aubrayo Franklin nor Isaac Sopoaga holds up well at nose tackle. Seattle might be better off letting rookie Brandon Mebane start, because Chuck Darby has looked shot through three weeks. Gore, in particular, should be big this week against Seattle. ... Vernon Davis is out with a partially torn ligament in his knee. ... Alex Smith is one of the more disappointing QBs in fantasy so far. Captain Tinyhands (Smith actually claims his hands are normal-sized) has a 51.8 completion percentage and a woeful 5.6 yards per attempt. He can't be started. ... The Niners have been kind to tight ends. Maybe Marcus Pollard has a breakout game? Naw, probably not. Two words: Patrick Willis.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) at Arizona Cardinals (1-2)
Pot? Meet kettle. Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm want this one badly, after they felt jerked around by the coach-hiring process in Pittsburgh. Neither of these offenses try much finesse; you'll see a lot of running between the guards, a lot of jumbo formations, and some running backs breaking through to second levels.
Fantasy Up: Willie Parker and Edgerrin James start every week, though clearly you should expect more out of Parker. The Cardinals allow a respectable 16.6 fantasy points to opposing backs. The Steelers allow 8.3. In fact, when he played for Indianapolis, James was the last back to rush for 100 yards on Pittsburgh. That was 28 games ago. ... Anquan Boldin's hip seems sound enough to play Sunday. He's coming off a 14-catch, 181-yard effort, and would love a permanent switch to Kurt Warner. Play him every week; I've got him slightly ahead of Larry Fitzgerald. ... With Hines Ward out, Santonio Holmes gets a bump up. Holmes only has 12 targets this year to Ward's 18 (boy, the Steelers haven't had to throw much), so increased attention would be appreciated. Nate Washington should start, and is worth considering in deeper leagues.
Fantasy Down: You can't start Matt Leinart, even if the Cardinals are. Leinart gave "shaky" a bad name against Baltimore, looking harried in the pocket, apparently losing track of his receivers, and throwing wildly on several occasions. Warner was scads better, and the notion that Arizona went to their backup because he's "better in the no-huddle" is laughable. The Steelers don't have quite the defensive personnel the Ravens do, but they'll unleash heck on Leinart. ... One thing Arizona's defense does very well is guard the tight end. They've allowed 2.1 fantasy points per game to that position this year, Heath Miller owners.
Denver Broncos (2-1) at Indianapolis Colts (3-0)
Funny to head into a big AFC showdown involving the Colts and not be fixated on their passing game. Peyton Manning and his receivers are starts every week, but the huge-upside possibility seem to be Joseph Addai. Denver's defensive line and middle linebacker D.J. Williams (a converted outside linebacker who's moving way too much laterally) have allowed big games to Marshawn Lynch, LaMont Jordan and Fred Taylor (backed by David Garrard).
Fantasy Up: Addai's my top back of the week. Sam Adams is playing like a beer keg in the middle, and Simeon Rice is making Tampa look smart for ditching him. Frankly, the Broncos have some nice pass rushers, but run-stuffing isn't a strength. ... Travis Henry and the zone-blocking Broncos will be a nice test for the newly-stout Colts rush defense, which allowed 40 total rushing yards in Houston. Mike Bell racked up 136 yards last year against Indy; Tatum Bell and Reuben Droughns had their way with the Colts in 2004, too. ... Champ Bailey on Marvin Harrison is always fun, but discretion being the better part of valor, assume Manning will look at Dre' Bly covering Reggie Wayne. Wayne lit up Denver for 138 yards and three scores in Denver last season.
Fantasy Down: Jay Cutler is going to be good, but he's not good yet. His ankle is healthy enough and he'll play, and he's proven what kind of upside he has. But he throws into coverage way too often, and one wonders if he's got the patience it takes to throw in the gaps of a strict zone defense. He'll rack up pass attempts, but I worry interceptions will follow. I'd stay away. ... Javon Walker's health sounds concerning. His knee is hurting, and if he can't practice Friday, he might not play. That would make Denver's day even uglier; Brandon Marshall's been a good story, but I'm not sure he's ready to lead an offense.
Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) at San Diego Chargers (1-2)
These teams have split home-and-home the last two seasons, so is there reason to believe the Chiefs can come to SoCal and shock the Chargers? Maybe. These teams are alarming mirror images of one another. Each has a stud back who's been penned in, an underperforming O-Line, a relatively conservative game plan and a quarterback who'll make a big mistake, and a secondary that can be had. You keep expecting San Diego to have one of those patented "downhill" games, where they take a lead and it snowballs. Herm Edwards' teams tend to avoid those.
Fantasy Up: Shane Olivea will return to the Chargers' O-Line, which should help. But teams simply might not be willing to let LaDainian Tomlinson beat them anymore. We know the same is true of Larry Johnson, who I expect will recover from his hamstring issue to start Sunday. Tomlinson is a better start this week than LJ, though you have to play both. ... Vincent Jackson made a couple sweet catches last week in Green Bay, and if Norv Turner's really going to throw it 36 times compared to 27 runs every week, Jackson is a beneficiary. I have to admit I'm skeptical that'll happen, but Jackson borders on No. 2 WR value. ... Tony Gonzalez got free a bunch in the second half against Minnesota, to the tune of six catches and 82 yards. The Chiefs have to keep defenses honest and throw more to have a chance.
Fantasy Down: Philip Rivers had a three-TD, one-pick day against the Packers, and was mistake-free for much of the first three quarters (including starting the day 16-for-17). But boy, he gagged big-time on Nick Barnett's pick. As he did twice against New England, Rivers never looked for the linebacker in coverage. If I thought Turner trusted Rivers more, I'd recommend starting the QB. But I think we're going back to "Heavy LT." ... Damon Huard had a 312-yard and a 288-yard game in his nine starts last season, but those reins aren't coming off. Dwayne Bowe is an interesting talent who made the game-winning catch last week and Eddie Kennison is still out, but you can't start anyone in the Chiefs' passing attack other than Gonzo.
Fantasy Up: Convenient, a week after Donovan McNabb threw four TDs I've got him fifth among QBs, but that would've happened anyway, because the Giants are that easy to throw against. (Did you know McNabb hasn't thrown a pick against the Giants since Week 7 of 2003?) Aaron Ross wasn't tons better than Corey Webster last week, and the safeties are undistinguished. Both QBs can start here. Brian Westbrook should be a strong play if his abdominal strain lets him go. You worry "abdominal strain" is code for "sports hernia," but for now, I'm assuming he's all right. Check to see if he practices Friday. Kevin Curtis is killing Reggie Brown in targets (29 to 16). You have to put Curtis higher, though as with Mark Clayton and Lee Evans, I'm giving Brown this one last sweet matchup to get his stuff together.
Fantasy Down: Brandon Jacobs is making all kinds of noise about trying to play. I'm skeptical, but given that Derrick Ward is also banged up, we could be looking at a running back by committee for the week. This is a Sunday night game, so it might be better to avoid the situation entirely. Lito Sheppard still will be out at corner for Philly, meaning William James continues to start, and that really changes the complexion of the Eagles D. They're so much more subject to getting caught in major blitzes, especially against a guy like Eli Manning who's making better decisions this year. Plaxico Burress' ankle is still killing him. I rated him 10th among receivers, so it's not like I'm advocating sitting him, but this has bothered him through the entire preseason, and now through a month of the regular season.
New England Patriots (3-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)
The big news here, of course, is Rudi Johnson missing the game with a bad hammy. The Bengals really didn't mess around, making the announcement Thursday, and giving Kenny Watson (who'd probably be their fourth choice, behind Johnson, Chris Perry and Kenny Irons) the starting gig. Could this mean Rudi's out for a while? Maybe. As it is, it's exceedingly hard to imagine Watson having any running success, though he's a good receiver.
Fantasy Up: There's no sense waxing poetic any longer over Tom Brady's chin cleft or Randy Moss' fabulous dreads. But Wes Welker and Sammy Morris deserve your attention, too. While Donte' Stallworth has been a victim of a knee injury and some skill-duplication with Moss, Welker has gotten 24 targets (to Stallworth's seven), and is the clear second receiver in New England. I only have him rated as a third fantasy wideout, but there's an argument to be made Welker should be started in all leagues against a Cincy secondary that just waived its fourth corner (Keiwan Ratliff). Meanwhile, Morris has 33 carries to Laurence Maroney's 54, and not all in garbage time. Morris makes a good flex play. ... I think Carson Palmer throws it 50 times Monday night. He'll have to. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are his best chance, and the Patriots' secondary isn't as good as the front seven. Palmer has 93 pass attempts in the past two weeks ... All those folks who said Adalius Thomas wouldn't be as good a player outside Baltimore's scheme, have you watched these games? Thomas has been unbelievable. He's devastating in coverage, against the run and rushing the QB. I know the Bengals will exert pressure, but I'd still start New England's defense.
Fantasy Down: There aren't a ton of bad options in this game. You don't need me to tell you not to start the Cincy D. I just told you to avoid Kenny Watson and his presumptive backup, DeDe Dorsey. The reemergence of David Thomas doesn't help Ben Watson's value, but Watson's a red-zone threat, and needs to play. Not to be too much of a shill, but ESPN's had some really fun Monday night matchups so far.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.