Reluctantly endorsing CJ2K, Tim Tebow
Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, we're changing up our usual Hard Count format. Your usual in-depth look at interesting rankings irregularities and matchup notes will return in Week 13. In lieu of research-based items, here are some fantasy thoughts on each NFL game this weekend.
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets. The Bills are a total (and predictable) mess right now, and given that Fred Jackson was placed on IR because of a broken leg, there's a very real chance you want to start nobody from that Buffalo offense. Steve Johnson is banged up and will often be matched up against Darrelle Revis. C.J. Spiller has yet to prove he can handle a heavy workload, and Tashard Choice is a late addition to the Bills' roster. And Ryan Fitzpatrick's new contract might have been a bit premature. Going the other way, Shonn Greene sounds like he'll be able to play despite sore ribs, but LaDainian Tomlinson might not play. The Jets would be better off; Joe McKnight gave the team a spark last Thursday versus the Broncos. Greene comes recommended because Buffalo has allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs over the past five weeks. But I have Santonio Holmes ranked a season-low 26th among wide receivers. Wake me when he exceeds 100 yards or catches more than six passes in a game. (He hasn't done so yet this year.)
Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns have been lit up by opposing running backs all year, so while he's nothing special, Cedric Benson belongs in the thick of the No. 2 RB discussion Sunday. The excellence of Joe Haden and the rest of the Cleveland pass defense is probably getting overstated right now; it's often a case of teams not needing to throw. Still, the Browns haven't allowed more than the league-average amount of fantasy points to a quarterback (which is 14.2) since Week 4, so those enamored with Andy Dalton -- and you have every right to be -- should pump the brakes in Week 12. That's doubly true if A.J. Green's knee keeps him out again. As of this writing, it was unclear whether Montario Hardesty would be able to return from his calf injury, and potentially replace Chris Ogbonnaya on early downs (Peyton Hillis definitely won't play). Assuming both Hardesty and Ogbonnaya play, neither belongs among the top 30 running backs. If Hardesty is out, Ogbonnaya is a potential flex play.
Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons. Adrian Peterson will miss at least this game because of his high ankle sprain, and the Vikes have little reason to rush "All Day" back. That's a crusher for Minnesota, though it could conceivably help Percy Harvin, the only above-average skill player left on this bereft roster. Harvin had five carries versus the Raiders last week after AP's injury, so while Toby Gerhart will shoulder most of the rushing load against the Falcons, Harvin will be used in diverse ways. Unfortunately for Gerhart, Atlanta has allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs of any defense over the past five weeks. That means you'd much rather play Harvin than Gerhart. Meanwhile, will Julio Jones play? If his injured hamstring(s?) keeps him out again, expect another massive day from Roddy White. The Vikings actually clamped down on Carson Palmer a bit last week even without Antoine Winfield, but they still represent a plus matchup for opposing passing attacks.
Carolina Panthers at Indianapolis Colts. The next time these teams face one another, it'll probably be Cam Newton versus Andrew Luck. For now, though, Indy will continue to be held hostage by Curtis Painter, which means you shouldn't play any of your Colts. There's a chance Joseph Addai returns to start this game, pushing Donald Brown and Delone Carter to the periphery, but Indy is so tight-lipped about injuries that we won't know for sure until this weekend, and even then nobody would be surprised to see some kind of split. So hold off. For the Panthers, matchups don't get much dreamier than this; the Colts have given up the third-most fantasy points to opposing QBs and RBs over the past five weeks, a combination I can truly never remember seeing in my years doing this. Newton and Steve Smith are no-doubt starters, and it's not hard to make an argument for both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams as favorable flexes. D-Willy streamed to the forefront with strong rushing work against the Lions last week, but Stew Beef was tough in the receiving game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans. It sounds like Matt Hasselbeck will be able to play in this one despite the injured throwing elbow that forced him from last week's loss in Atlanta. But should he? Hass is OK, but he hasn't surpassed 272 passing yards since Week 3, a span in which he has averaged 204 yards with a 56.7 percent completion rate, 9 TDs and 6 INTs. Feh. I suppose I get the logic, since the Titans are only a game out of wild-card contention, but that will change soon, and I'd expect to see a few games of Jake Locker before season's end. The real Tennessee question is what fantasy owners should do with Chris Johnson, who continues to glide and give up at the first sign of tackling. I've warned for a couple of straight weeks that while I've seen some improvement, CJ0K isn't close to being "back." But in a matchup against the league's shakiest run defense (with Gerald McCoy out for the year and rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers having to play tackle along with castoff Albert Haynesworth), can you sit Johnson? I ranked him No. 12 among RBs. I think he can still take advantage of a good situation. LeGarrette Blount should be in most lineups here, too.
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars. Can Matt Leinart play caretaker? Arian Foster, Ben Tate and the league's nastiest offensive line should be enough to dominate the NFL's lesser lights, even when opposing defenses know the ground game is coming, provided Leinart can just be competent. Andre Johnson's return from hamstring surgery should help, and AJ is too talented for me to leave outside my WR top 10 in the longer term, at least until I see Leinart be truly awful. But I'm not sold Johnson plays a full slate of snaps this week, so I ranked him as a No. 2 WR. Going the other way, Maurice Jones-Drew has quietly had fantasy's No. 8 season for a running back, which is pretty amazing considering this anemic squad's passing game. MJD is on pace for a career-low 222 receiving yards (and remember, Fred Taylor was around for this cat's first three seasons) because Blaine Gabbert just isn't ready to be an NFL quarterback, and yet Jones-Drew is still digging and grinding, and could get his first 1,500-yard rushing season. This is a touch matchup for MJD; the last time these squads played (in Week 8), he had 19 touches for 74 yards, but he got into the end zone to salvage his fantasy day.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams. Man, can the grossness of the NFC West be overstated? How these teams even have five combined wins is beyond me, and only wives, girlfriends and fantasy owners will be watching this contest. Just three weeks ago, these squads set back offensive football a decade, only to have rookie corner Patrick Peterson win the game for Arizona on an ill-advised overtime punt return for a touchdown. Listen, Sam Bradford wasn't as good as the average pundit contended last year when he was rarely asked to throw downfield, and he's not as bad as his numbers (54.5 percent completion rate, 5 TDs, 5 INTs) make him look in '11. His offensive line is injury-depleted and terrible. But that doesn't mean his first season with Josh McDaniels hasn't been revolting. Brandon Lloyd and Larry Fitzgerald start in most leagues here, and Steven Jackson did have 29 carries for 130 yards versus the Cards in Week 9. Beanie Wells also gets a weak No. 2 RB nod (though he had 10 carries for 20 yards in that Week 9 contest). But Bradford and John Skelton? Oy.
Chicago Bears at Oakland Raiders. The Bears hoped to grab Kyle Orton off waivers, but the Chiefs beat them to it, so Caleb Hanie has free rein, with only recently signed Josh McCown and rookie Nathan Enderle behind him. But Hanie won't be asked to do much initially. He'll be a throw-first quarterback only if his team gets down big, and as such, I'm comfortable using the Raiders' defense this week as a desperation play. Matt Forte and Michael Bush will carry their respective teams' loads here, and Hanie and Carson Palmer will be asked not to make mistakes. Certainly, I don't feel comfortable starting any Chicago pass-catcher here, and after Denarius Moore did a whole lot of nothing in a plus matchup versus Minnesota in Week 11, there's reason to be skeptical of him, too. But with Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford both out, Moore does figure to see some extra looks. I ranked him 29th among WRs this week, though you should keep an eye on his health status -- he sprained an ankle last week -- to make sure he's at full strength.
Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks. Give Pete Carroll some credit. He may look like a goofball sometimes hooting and hollering on the sidelines, and his eternal sunshine of the spotless mind when it comes to injuries and his players' abilities can wear thin, but the man can coach defense. A Seahawks secondary which looked like a plus matchup throughout September and October has relinquished little of late. Granted, the Browns, Bengals, Ravens and Rams don't feature elite pass attacks (and the Cowboys did eat 'em up in Week 9). Still, when you're down to Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman as your starting corners, you can be expected to give up pass yards to everyone, and Seattle hasn't. Rex Grossman is coming off a nice game versus Dallas, but using him isn't advisable. Marshawn Lynch is the only no-doubt fantasy starter in this game, and I can't help feeling like even he has a stinker looming. Yes, he has a TD in six of his past seven games. Yes, he has three consecutive contests of at least 88 yards rushing. But his O-line is decimated and his per-carry average is routinely awful (3.4 and 3.3, respectively, the past two weeks). Beast Mode needs a touchdown to make his fantasy day, and if he's unlucky, he'll disappoint.
New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles. As of this writing, it was unclear whether Michael Vick's rib injury would allow him to take advantage of what should be a sweet matchup against an inexperienced Pats secondary. Certainly, if Vick plays, he's a fantasy start on most teams. But Vince Young isn't far off. Yes, he threw three interceptions versus the Giants and didn't max out his yardage (though that 50-yard grab DeSean Jackson threw away by taunting the New York bench would've helped). But VY looked solid, and completed 63.8 percent of his throws. (Vick's season rate is 60.3 percent.) He'd be a fantasy starter in 12-team leagues, with the upside for more, and the mercurial Jackson looks like a no-brainer start regardless. Jeremy Maclin also has a chance to return to the lineup, and would also be a great start. Wes Welker's slump might end Sunday, as the Eagles have had trouble matching up with slot receivers (see also: Victor Cruz torching them for a second time this season), though you'd have to imagine that Philly will give Welker the kind of extra attention the Chiefs did Monday night. I bumped Welker down to No. 8 in my WR rankings this week, but that doesn't mean you bench him.
Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. There. Now I've given you some sense of what CBS's coverage of this game will be like. My opinion on Tim Tebow for "real-life" football (that he will not succeed long-term without being able to complete more than 44.8 percent of his passes) doesn't much matter, because for as long as he's the Broncos' starter, he's in the discussion as a top-10 fantasy option. His running is just that valuable. He's already third in rushing attempts among quarterbacks (behind Cam Newton and Michael Vick), and his 6.9 yards per carry is second only to Vick. Despite Philip Rivers' continued season-long ice cream headache, Ryan Mathews is the most vexing Chargers fantasy player; after beginning the season with five consecutive double-digit fantasy days, Mathews hasn't exceeded eight since (and has averaged five). I dumped him to 17th in my RB rankings this week, his lowest mark since Week 4. With so many other awful backfield situations around the NFL, Mathews is somehow still in starter consideration. But I don't feel good about it.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs. This one is a double-reverse lock. The Chiefs looked so bad with Tyler Palko at quarterback Monday night, and the Steelers are so rested and ready to take control of the AFC, that of course KC wins here. Ahem. Truthfully, I can't see it. Palko was so awful that the Chiefs paid about $3 million for a couple of months of Kyle Orton, though right now I'm guessing Orton won't be ready soon enough to play in Sunday night's game. As I contended last week, Dwayne Bowe's value is just crushed with Palko in there (he's a season-low 23rd in my WR rankings this week); he could find the end zone or break a big one after a short catch in any given week, but typically it's going to be rough sailing. He'll be rescued by Orton. Jackie Battle no longer looks like a good option, having been outplayed by Dexter McCluster and/or Thomas Jones the past few weeks. I know Arrowhead is a tough place to play. But I think you load up on your Steelers and take your chances. The variable is the crack in Ben Roethlisberger's thumb, but I'm sorry, I've heard this story before. Every year, Big Ben has something cracked or torn, and he hobbles around and plays great. I can't shy away from using him, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.
New York Giants at New Orleans Saints. The good thing about owning Eli Manning in a fantasy league is he tends to throw it a lot and far enough down the field that he limits his own downside. He hasn't posted a single-digit fantasy game once this year. But the bad thing is for all the hype surrounding Manning's supposed "elite" season, he has posted above-average fantasy points in six of his 10 starts, and has eclipsed 21 points just once. Yes, you use him (and his weapons) here because it's hard not to picture this as a shootout. But the good thing about owning Drew Brees in a fantasy league is he's been above average in eight of 10 starts, and has exceeded 21 fantasy points four times. That's what an elite QB looks like, though outside of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, you really can't feel great about using his receiving weapons. Unless you count Darren Sproles. Which you should, because the dude catches six passes per game.
[Editor's note: the following Thanksgiving games previews have been moved to the bottom of this article for reference purposes.]
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions. There's no drama when it comes to these two passing games. You can make an argument for starting both quarterbacks, both starting tight ends and many of the wide receivers, though apparently I'm a weirdo for continuing to think Greg Jennings is a better start than Jordy Nelson (in 10 games, each man has led the other in fantasy points five times, though Nelson does have three in a row but punishing Jennings for having a hurt leg last week seems a bit draconian). Detroit's Nate Burleson is coming off a fine game and is an OK deeper-league flex. But the running backs have question marks. James Starks looks like a game-time decision because of an injured leg. Ryan Grant could take over the primary rushing gig, but the Packers now seem committed to John Kuhn as their goal-line halfback, so one must wonder how useful that role will be for Grant. And while Kevin Smith has clearly taken over the top job in Detroit, he doesn't seem likely to hold up under the kind of extreme workload he got versus Carolina last week, plus this is a much tougher matchup. I didn't rate any running back in this game as better than a flex option in standard leagues.
Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys. How much longer can Reggie Bush keep this up? He has between 15 and 20 touches from scrimmage in four straight games, the kind of workload that broke him during his New Orleans days. Truthfully, his rushing has been borderline awful in consecutive games, but it has been salvaged by the fact that the Fins are using him in the red zone; he has punched in two of his scores from inside an opponent's 5-yard line. Hey, I ranked the guy No. 14 among RBs this week, so I'm buying, if only because his job description looks pretty clear. But I have to admit I'll be shocked if this lasts the rest of the season. Going in the other direction, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray are obvious starts, and Laurent Robinson is making enough plays to easily be a No. 3 fantasy WR Thursday. Don't get carried away, though: He has seven catches for three TDs the past couple of games, a ratio that won't continue. But Robinson did see 11 targets against the Redskins last week, so as long as Miles Austin is out, Robinson is a fantasy starter.
San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens. Ray Rice and Frank Gore? Check. Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree? Yup, especially after Crabtree went for 120 yards receiving against the Cardinals last week. Vernon Davis? Absolutely, because he has quietly put together strong back-to-back weeks and now ranks seventh in fantasy points among tight ends in 2011. However, despite all this skill-position goodness, the reason you still roll with the Niners' and the Ravens' defenses are the quarterbacks. Alex Smith actually scares me on behalf of the Baltimore defense more than Joe Flacco does on behalf of the 49ers' D. Smith hasn't made many self-immolating mistakes this season (though this is a step up in weight class), while head-clutching errors seem to be mostly what the 2011 version of Flacco subsists on. The 49ers rank first in defensive fantasy points this year and the Ravens rank third, and each is capable of fantasy-game-changing big plays. I can see Rice, Gore, Boldin, et al, producing some fine efforts. But I don't see a high-scoring game overall, and I can imagine a defensive touchdown or two. Don't be scared to start either fantasy defense Thursday night.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.
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Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, there will be no chats scheduled for Thursday or Friday.