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Fantasy & Reality: Five make-or-break lineup decisions

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Making the playoffs in a Fantasy Football league is an unrivaled joy. OK, maybe it's not as awesome as winning Powerball, having a child or even scoring free football tickets, but it's still pretty awesome. And there isn't a more important week than this one since for most of you it's the last week of the Fantasy regular season. Setting a good lineup is as vital as ever.

Earlier this week I asked my followers on Twitter to give me one name of a player who's causing some serious lineup headaches. Of the dozens of tweets I received, the following five names were the most received. After chewing up some film and crunching some numbers, here's my take on what to do with these five controversial Fantasy options.

Eli Manning, QB, Giants

Normally when a passer goes up against a defense ranked 30th in Fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, you start him with impunity. And that's what we did with Eli Manning when he played against the Redskins at home in Week 7. But Manning put up mediocre stats for the fifth consecutive time against Jim Haslett's Redskins defense. In those last five meetings with Washington Manning has maxed out at 15 Fantasy points and historically he's stunk against them, failing to throw multiple touchdowns in 15 of 16 career meetings!

That seems like a trend, and if that's the case then there's no way Fantasy owners should start him this week at those same Redskins ... right? After a review of three games -- Manning's win against the Redskins in Week 7, a loss at the Bengals in Week 10 and the win vs. the Packers in Week 12 -- I'm not so sure.

Manning didn't have that bad of a game against the Redskins the first time around, he just had one touchdown pass and it came late. But he almost had three. On two separate occasions Manning knifed into the Redskins red zone and completed passes on plays that ended near the goal line, not over it thanks to the Redskins' defensive principles given the short field (lots of defenders crowded the goal line). So the Giants ran the ball in both times taking touchdowns from Manning's stat sheet. On one drive the Giants tried a first-and-goal pass but it failed; the run came the next play. On another drive the Giants just punched it in on the ground and didn't bother trying to throw.

And it's not like the Redskins were playing stellar defense -- Washington's D was as bad as its stats suggest. Manning was fine throwing short with some mid-range stuff as the Redskins dropped safeties back to take away the big play. The drawback for the Redskins is that they couldn't put much pressure on Manning and that led to him completing his easy passes. When he did strike deep -- a 77-yard bomb to Victor Cruz in which he split defenders on a go route -- it counted big as it made the difference in the game, a Giants win.

Three weeks later, Manning tried the exact same play against the exact same coverage in Cincinnati but Cruz dropped the ball. It was one of the rare times in that game where Manning had a second to breathe in the pocket and fire off a long pass. Unlike the Redskins, the Bengals defense boasts a strong defensive line and pass rush and a smart, savvy secondary. That made the difference as Manning did not have a lot of time to throw and the Cincinnati defensive backs were able to contend with the New York receivers. It also didn't help that the Bengals' offense throttled the Giants and forced New York to become one-dimensional, making life easy for the Cincy D.

Last week Manning actually had a mediocre game as a passer but still had excellent stats versus Green Bay, who couldn't pressure him much. He has plenty of time to throw and accumulated 249 yards and three touchdowns, he barely completed half of his passes and left plenty of stats on the field. Nearly 25 percent of his yards came on a short screen pass to Ahmad Bradshaw that he took 59 yards to the Packers 2-yard line. Six of his other completions went over 15 yards but just two of those six traveled 20 yards. And he missed on some easy throws including two of three end-zone fade passes to Hakeem Nicks in single coverage against Packers cornerback Davon House (they picked on House all game and Nicks lined up on him a lot). About the only positives were that two of his three touchdowns were caught right at the end zone and got across the line. If that had happened against the Redskins in Week 7 I probably wouldn't be writing about Manning and you probably wouldn't be scared to start him.

So what about this week? Even though the Redskins' pass rush isn't anything special, the Giants' offensive line could be without a starter, maybe two, and hasn't been consistently strong to begin with. Probably not a major deal. But the Redskins secondary remains pretty poor and a unit Manning can take advantage of assuming he has time to throw. That's obviously good but the hunch is that many of those throws will be short and mid-range passes because of how the Redskins seem to play Manning (safeties deep to prevent the big play). That could mean a lot of first downs and a good amount of yardage, but what happens when he gets in the red zone and specifically inside the 10? That's the issue. Manning couldn't complete end zone fades last week and when he did connect on middle-of-the-field touchdowns they came against a Packers defense that didn't have quite the same principles as the Redskins. There's a chance the Giants might be more inclined to throw inside the 5 with Andre Brown not on the field but old coaching habits die hard and the team could opt for Bradshaw (or fullback Henry Hynoski) to carry the ball at the goal line.

But despite the concerns near the goal line and despite his history, I think he'll come out OK. And perhaps the biggest factor on how Manning will perform will be on the field when he's not: the Redskins offense. Washington's offense is in full-speed-ahead mode and should put some points on the board. If anything, it will force Manning to throw against a pass defense that can't handle even competent quarterbacks -- and Eli is more than competent. I wouldn't hold out hope for another big game like he had against the Packers, but if you're debating Manning between guys like Andrew Luck, Josh Freeman or Carson Palmer, you're probably safer going with the Giant.

Reggie Bush, RB, Dolphins

He might be universally owned but Fantasy owners have been hesitant to start Bush, really since he got benched against the Titans and laid an egg at Buffalo. But those who didn't start him last week -- and there were a lot of us -- missed his 82 total yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks. So now what?

First, the basics: Bush looks healthy and still has good acceleration. He displayed this the most on three edge runs last week, including one that went for a touchdown thanks to some shoddy Seattle tackling. He had two runs of over 20 yards, his first since Week 4. Between the tackles he wasn't nearly as effective, be it because he was dancing in the backfield or pushing for yardage behind his line, which didn't consistently pop holes open for him. But he has company in the Dolphins backfield in Daniel Thomas, who ran splendidly behind the offensive line and picked up a short-yardage touchdown last week, a role he won't lose. Thomas was every bit as nimble as Bush except he ran much better between the tackles and is a pro in zone running. Bush reminded me of Darren McFadden a little bit when it came to him running in the zone -- he didn't do as well over his last two games unless it was on those edges.

I could go on about the Dolphins' next opponent, the Patriots, and how the Jets gauged them between the tackles with the run last week, or how the Patriots have allowed 377 rush yards (5.1 yards per carry) to the Bills, Colts and Jets' running back tandems over the past three weeks. But the biggest factor facing Bush right now is Thomas' role and the team's decision to use two backs pretty much evenly. The snap count has been almost even over the past two games (since Bush's benching) at 56 for Bush and 61 for Thomas. And Bush hasn't had more than 14 carries in six straight games even though he averaged more than 4.1 yards per carry in four of those six (6.2 last week). When Bush played the Patriots last he totaled more than 130 yards but he wasn't sharing. The simple fact that he now is sharing takes the potential for a big game off the table. Now if he has a game like he did last week it's incredible. In fact, it was his first game with more than 12 Fantasy points since Week 2.

The Patriots' run defense isn't anything special, at least it hasn't been of late. Unless Bush can rack up more carries or break a few long runs, it's difficult to count on him to have a great game. This sounds like a cop-out but it really depends on your other running backs and their upside versus a player like Bush. There might be too much risk for not enough of a reward.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

There's nothing that says Fitzgerald is a bad receiver. However, there's something to be said for his quarterback and if it's Ryan Lindley then Fitzgerald's stats are in big trouble against the Jets. The Cardinals' game plan last week against the Rams reminded me of what they ran back when Kevin Kolb took over earlier this season -- a lot of short passes with designs on letting the receiver make the play after the catch. Lindley was good at that until the Rams started bringing a lot of blitzes and then he melted. The Jets can dial up their share of blitzes while keeping Fitzgerald under wraps with Antonio Cromartie and a safety behind them if they so choose. Lindley did throw to Fitzgerald when he was in single coverage but the passes were either way overthrown or way underthrown and subsequently picked off. There's a reason why this dude was the Cardinals' third string quarterback and with the Jets desperate for a home win, I can't see Arizona's offense snapping into shape with Lindley under center. Fitzgerald's stats are going to suffer.

Marcel Reece and Darren McFadden, RBs, Raiders

Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp announced this week Marcel Reece would remain the primary ball carrier for the Raiders as they ease Darren McFadden back into game shape. If you remember how poorly McFadden played before he got hurt and how effectively Reece played once he had an opportunity, it makes a lot of sense. The Browns' run defense stats aren't pretty but they held the Steelers to a collective 49 rush yards on 20 carries last week and the Cowboys to 53 rush yards on 19 carries the week before. Even with McFadden back the Raiders might not run any more than they have the past couple of weeks. Maybe the weather in Oakland this weekend forced the Raiders to run more than throw (we'll know more Sunday) but it's probably not a good idea to use either back unless your other options are really weak.

Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers

For Gates, I hit the vault and went back to a two-game stretch in 2009 where he caught 15 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs and Browns in consecutive weeks. Gates was smoother off of the snap, a smidge quicker and a heck of a lot more explosive than he is now. The guy we're talking about now has one 100-yard game in his last two seasons and this year has more than 50 yards receiving in just three games. Yet he plays just as much as he used to, he's just a little easier to defend. What also hurts his case is a Chargers offensive line that is as leaky as any in the league, and that puts a lot of pressure on Philip Rivers to throw efficiently under duress, which is not so easy. In those 2009 games he had a lot of time and made any throw he wanted. He can't do that now. If you read my notes on Eli Manning above you know what I think of the Bengals defense. With no more than five targets in each of his last five games and a Bengals secondary that has been OK against tight ends (and even contained Gates to 33 yards and a touchdown soon after he had those electric games back in 2009 -- the last time they played him), I wouldn't expect much from Gates. If you're starting him do it with limited expectations.

Some DST projecting

One of the secrets of loading up on Fantasy points is having a Defense/Special Teams that produces numbers. A lot of people don't see much science into picking a DST, either opting to play a "stud" DST (think Chicago, San Francisco or Denver) or playing the matchups by going with a team taking on a shoddy offense.

First, here's a look at the remaining schedules of the top DSTs left in Fantasy. Note that some of them don't have great schedules and that they're ranked in order of most favorable to least favorable.

Stud DSTs down the stretch
DST Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16 Week 17
Steelers @BAL SD @DAL CIN CLE
Bears SEA @MIN GB @ARI @DET
Broncos TB @OAK @BAL CLE KC
49ers @STL MIA @NE @SEA ARI
Patriots @MIA HOU SF @JAC MIA
Bengals @SD DAL @PHI @PIT BAL
Texans @TEN @NE IND MIN @IND
Seahawks @CHI ARI vsBUF SF STL

Not everyone can land a stud unit for the stretch run. In case you like to mix and match your DSTs, consider these choices (favorable matchups are in bold).

Mix-and-match DSTs down the stretch
DST Week 13 Week 14 Week 15 Week 16 Week 17
Bills JAC STL vsSEA @MIA NYJ
Dolphins NE @SF JAC BUF @NE
Jets ARI @JAC @TEN SD @BUF
Packers MIN DET @CHI TEN @MIN
Panthers @KC ATL @SD OAK @NO
Buccaneers @DEN PHI @NO STL @ATL

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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Player News
Colts involving their wide receivers more
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(7:26 pm ET) While running back Ahmad Bradshaw's role in the passing game has diminished the last two weeks, wide receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton have both been more involved. Each had his best performance of the season Week 4 against Tennessee, with Wayne catching eight passes for 119 yards and a touchdown and Hilton catching 10 passes for 105 yards.

Hilton seems to be the more reliable of the two -- he's had double-digit targets in three of the Colts' first four games -- but Wayne's best games have been better. Both figure to remain involved in Week 5. The Colts, who have relied much more on their passing game this year, recognizing the limitations of their running game, have every incentive to stay the course against Baltimore. The Ravens rank seventh against the run, allowing 82.5 yards per game, but 24th against the pass, allowing 260.3 yards per game. They've given up the ninth-most Fantasy points per game to wide receivers this season.

Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard both seem to prefer Wayne to Hilton this week -- especially Dave, who ranks him 18 spots ahead -- but they're about on equal terms for me. I'd treat them as low-end No. 2 wide receivers, which means I'd be starting them unless I was just loaded at the position.


Texans bring in Charles James, Kendall James
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:16 pm ET) The Texans have signed cornerbacks Charles James and Kendall James to the practice squad. 

Charles James was undrafted, but did make an appearance with the Giants in 2013. He recorded two tackles and induced a fumble. Kendall James was drafted by the Vikings this year, but did not make the 53-man roster. 


No sense choosing between Colts tight end duo
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(7:16 pm ET) Torn between Colts tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener? It's easy to see why. Both scored a touchdown for the second straight game Week 4 against the Titans, but neither stands out between the 20s. Allen had 64 receiving yards in Week 1, but otherwise, neither has topped 50 in a game.

Well, the good news is that in Week 5 against the Ravens, you probably don't want either. Through four games, the Ravens have allowed the fewest Fantasy points per game to tight ends and have yet to have one score on them.

Maybe one of Allen and Fleener reverses the trend this week, but which one? And what happens if he doesn't? I don't know about you, but I don't like the thought of getting two measly points from my tight end spot.

Owners in 12-team leagues can do better. With the emergence of Larry Donnell, Delanie Walker, Travis Kelce, Heath Miller and even Clay Harbor, tight ends aren't exactly in short supply.


Andre Ellington limited in practice Wednesday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:10 pm ET) Cardinals running back Andre Ellington was limited in practice Wednesday.

Ellington has been dealing with a foot injury all year, but has managed to play through it. With the team on a bye last week, Ellington should be a bit healthier entering Week 5. 


Status quo for Trent Richardson
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(7:07 pm ET) Prior to Week 4, you probably weren't the least bit excited about starting Trent Richardson in Fantasy. But then he scored a touchdown, which, combined with an uncharacteristic 52 receiving yards, led to a 15-point showing in standard CBSSports.com leagues.

But here's what he still didn't do against the Titans: run the ball effectively, which is saying something considering they rank 22nd against the run, allowing 127.0 yards per game. On a daring 20 carries, Richardson picked up only 47 yards for an average of 2.4 yards per carry.

I don't see him doing any better against the Ravens in Week 7. They rank seventh against the run, allowing 82.5 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry.

No one can predict whether or not Richardson will get a carry at the goal line -- for some reason, the Colts keep going back to him -- but if he doesn't, just like the first three weeks, you won't like what he does for your Fantasy team.


Time to shy away from Ahmad Bradshaw?
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:59 pm ET) Fantasy owners who had been relying on Ahmad Bradshaw since his two-touchdown effort against the Eagles in Week 2 lucked out when he found the end zone on a 15-yard pass from Andrew Luck in the fourth quarter Week 4 against the Titans. He hadn't played much of a role up to that point, finishing the game with just 11 touches.

Looking back, even when he seemed like such a find those first two weeks, he wasn't getting all that many touches. His value was largely a function of him playing a bigger-than-expected role in the passing game, but he has just two catches in each of his last two games.

Bottom line: I'm getting nervous about using Bradshaw in Fantasy. He played only 36 percent of the Colts' snaps in Week 4, down from about 60 percent the first two weeks. The Colts seem content with the plodding Trent Richardson carrying the load, using Bradshaw as just a change-of-pace guy.

Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard still like him for Week 5 at Baltimore, ranking him among their top 20 running backs, but I think his luck finally runs out. The Ravens rank seventh against the run, allowing 82.5 yards per game, and have given up the seventh-fewest Fantasy points to running backs this season.


Report: Mychal Kendricks unlikely to go Week 5
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:57 pm ET) Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks is unlikely to play Week 5, according to 94 WIP.

Kendricks has already missed two games due to a calf injury, and it appears he'll miss another Sunday. Kendricks has 10 tackles and one sack through two games. 


Cam Newton hoping to run soon
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:46 pm ET) Panthers quarterback Cam Newton expressed that he may run more soon, according to the team's website.

Newton is still dealing with the effects of offseason ankle surgery. A rib injury during the preseason has also impacted his ability to use his legs more. Newton stressed that he's looking to be more of a pocket passer, though, even when he's fully healthy. "I look at myself as a pocket passer with the ability to run," Newton said. He added, however, that he's feeling healthier and might be able to show off his running skills soon. "Hopefully I will be able to display my running talents soon," he added.


Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson risky for Week 5
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:41 pm ET) If the last two weeks are any indication, as quarterback Kirk Cousins goes, so go wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Both were complete busts in Week 4, when Cousins threw four interceptions in a laugher against the Giants.

The correlation is especially troubling with the Redskins set to host defending champion Seattle in Week 5. The Seahawks, in case you haven't heard, are pretty stellar on defense. Though statistically, they don't rank as high against the pass as you'd expect thanks to some tough matchups against Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning to begin the season, Cousins isn't of the same caliber. And not all of them did so hot anyway. Rodgers threw for just 189 yards in Week 1.

If you're going to pick one, Garcon is probably the better choice since his role as the possession receiver should theoretically make him a little more consistent than the boom-or-bust Jackson, but neither Jamey Eisenberg nor Dave Richard has either higher than 32nd at wide receiver this week.


No reason to trust in Eric Ebron yet
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(6:31 pm ET) Lions rookie tight end Eric Ebron scored his first career touchdown Week 4 at the Jets, which is nice and all, but frankly, given the circumstances surrounding the performance (star wide receiver Calvin Johnson hobbled by a sprained ankle, fellow tight end Joseph Fauria in a walking boot, etc.), I would have hoped for more.

He caught only three passes for 34 yards, and his four targets weren't even a season high. The Rams' Jared Cook has had more catches and targets in all three of the games he's played this season, and you don't see anybody rushing to add him.

The Lions host the Bills in Week 5, who rank 25th against the pass, allowing 266.3 yards per game, but I wouldn't consider Ebron any sort of sleeper yet, at least not in standard 12-team leagues.


 
 
 
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