There’s never a good time for injuries to strike. There are times that are better than others, however. Week 14, the first week of the fantasy playoffs in most leagues, is one of the worst times for an injury to happen. Andy Dalton’s owners learned that lesson all too well on Sunday.
Dalton’s fantasy owners were likely just a little upset when he attempted an ill-advised middle screen to Giovani Bernard early in the red zone in the first quarter, resulting in an interception. While that cost them a few points, as well as the chance for a touchdown, Dalton still had about 55 minutes to take advantage of an unimposing Pittsburgh defense, right? It turned out that was not the case—Dalton dove to chop out Stephon Tuitt’s legs after the pick, fracturing his right thumb in the process.
The injury likely ended the season for most of Dalton’s fantasy owners—present company included—given that he contributed 59 yards and that interception before leaving the game. If they managed to advance, however, they likely won’t have Dalton’s services in the semifinals. The Bengals have yet to make it official, but early reports are that Dalton will be out for at least the rest of the regular season. The best-case scenario appears to be a return in the playoffs, assuming the Bengals make it that far. We’ve had them penciled in for the entire season, but it’s still possible for them to fall behind the Steelers in the AFC North, along with both the Chiefs and Jets in the wild-card standings. That, however, doesn’t much matter to Dalton owners. They were able to steal him this season, either with a late-round draft pick or off the waiver wire early in the year, and then ride him to the fantasy postseason. Now, they’ll have to look elsewhere in Week 15.
So where, exactly, should you find your replacement? Ryan Fitzpatrick is the best quarterback with an ownership rate of less than 50%. He entered Week 14 as the No. 12 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues, then carved up the Titans to the tune of 263 yards and three touchdowns. He and the Jets visit Dallas in our first Saturday game of the season. Make Fitzpatrick your first priority if you just lost Dalton.
If Fitzpatrick is already owned in your league, turn to Brian Hoyer. The Texans’ signal-caller has been steady for most of the year, heading into Week 14 22nd among quarterbacks in points per game, ahead of Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins. Hoyer and the Texans visit Indianapolis in a game that could very well decide the AFC South next week. The Colts, as you likely know, have surrendered 96 points in their last two games, losses to the Steelers and Jaguars. Ben Roethlisberger and Blake Bortles combined for 614 yards, 8.9 yards per attempt and seven touchdowns. Bortles even added a rushing score for dramatic effect. Hoyer can take advantage of Indianapolis.
As for those left behind in Cincinnati, everyone’s stock takes a hit with A.J. McCarron taking over as the starter. Having said that, A.J. Green should remain locked into your lineups. He caught six of his nine targets for 132 yards and a touchdown in the loss to the Steelers last week, most of which came with McCarron under center. The ceiling and floor aren’t nearly as high, but Green remains one of the best receivers in the game. Tyler Eifert left the game with a concussion, so he needs to be monitored all week. If he’s good to go against the 49ers, he should start for all of his fantasy owners. It’s a bit of a different story for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. They were already RB2s at best with Dalton on the field. Without Dalton, the ceiling for the Cincinnati offense comes crashing down. Fewer scoring opportunities for the team means enough of a value decrease for Hill and Bernard to put them on a lot of fantasy benches.
Let’s take a look at three more of Week 14’s teachable storylines.
Thomas Rawls Breaks Ankle, Fantasy Owners' Hearts
Dalton wasn’t the only fantasy star to leave early with a damaging injury on a day he was ticketed for big numbers. Rawls started hot in Seattle’s eventual rout of Baltimore, picking up 44 yards on just six carries. That final carry, however, proved to be his last of the year. Rawls, who has galvanized Seattle’s rushing attack all year while Marshawn Lynch has dealt with various injuries, suffered a broken ankle, ending his rookie season.
The undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan had been one of the best real-life and fantasy running backs on a per-game basis this season. He got his first significant playing time in the team’s Week 3 win over Chicago, running for 104 yards on 16 carries. He basically hasn’t stopped since, save for a four-game stretch in which Lynch was back in the starting lineup. Heading into Week 14, Rawls had rushed for 712 yards and four touchdowns in the six games Lynch missed either most or all of. Add in his receiving numbers, and Rawls was averaging 17.98 points per game in standard-scoring leagues as a starter. For comparison’s sake, Devonta Freeman, who leads all running backs in points per game, started Week 14 with a 17.7-point average. Rawls was justifiably receiving Offensive Rookie of the Year buzz. Now the Seahawks, and his fantasy owners, will have to make due without him.
Like Dalton’s injury, Rawls’s likely cost a number of fantasy owners in the first round of the playoffs. There’s really no good answer to his owners’ lineup questions for the remainder of the season. DuJuan Harris led the team in carries after Rawls’s injury, but he got just 42 yards on 18 totes and also lost a fumble. Fred Jackson will likely mix in, as well, but he had a paltry 15 yards on seven carries after Rawls left the game Sunday and is really no more than a bit player at this stage of his career. You simply cannot replace a player like Rawls, especially at this point of the season. However, there is one possible route to salvation still on the waiver wire in many leagues. For that, we head down to New Orleans, where an old friend emerged in a new role, for our next lesson ahead of the fantasy semifinals.
Tim Hightower’s Big Day
In a matter of hours last Wednesday, Mark Ingram went from potential fantasy playoff star with a great matchup against the Buccaneers, to suffering from a possibly serious shoulder injury, to out for the season. That left Hightower and C.J. Spiller as the only viable running backs in New Orleans. Spiller may have been the shiny off-season acquisition, but it was Hightower who seemed the better fit, especially with Spiller failing to catch on with Sean Payton all season. Indeed, Hightower emerged in practice this week, finding himself atop the depth chart when the Saints took the field in Tampa. It appears safe to bet that he’ll remain there for the rest of the season.
The Saints fed Hightower 28 carries in their win over the Buccaneers, and he responded with 85 yards and a touchdown. The efficiency may not have been great (just 3.04 yards per carry), but the volume, as well as the lack thereof for any other Saints back, was a major encouragement. Spiller got just three carries and three targets, totaling nine yards from scrimmage. Marcus Murphy, the rookie out of Missouri, got exactly one carry. It’s the Hightower show in New Orleans for the rest of the season.
That’s all well and good, but what is Hightower’s realistic outlook? The Saints’ next two games are at home against the Lions and Jaguars. Both could prove to be tough tests. The Lions ranked 13th in rush defense DVOA heading into Week 14, according to Football Outsiders, but they got torched by Todd Gurley for 140 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. No offense to Hightower, but he’s no Gurley. Even after Gurley’s big game, the Lions are allowing 4.2 yards per carry, just barely more than league average. The Saints, however, should be favored in that game, especially with it in the Superdome. Hightower will likely slot as a low-end RB2.
The championship week matchup with the Jaguars could be a different story. Jacksonville has allowed just 3.6 yards per carry to backs this season and began Week 14 ninth in rush defense DVOA. We’ll have another game with which to evaluate Hightower before then, so we’ll hold off on making any predictions about where he’ll fit in the overall running back puzzle that week. For now, any owner still alive in his or her playoffs would be wise to put in a claim for Hightower, if for no other reason than to block their league-mates from securing his services.
Eddie Lacy is Trustworthy Again, We Think
Lacy’s disappearing act in Week 13 likely cost more than a few fantasy owners playoff berths. After running for 100 yards in two straight games, it appeared we were in the middle of yet another Lacy second-half surge. In that dramatic Thursday night win over the Lions, Lacy failed to score a full point for all those owners who finally bought back in on the third-year running back out of Alabama. It was one of the more puzzling no-shows of the season, even though the game flow didn’t really work in his favor.
It was hard to fault Lacy’s owners who did advance to the playoffs for having cold feet with him this week. A Week 13 disappearance meant just a regular season loss. The same letdown in Week 14 could mean the end of a fantasy season. When James Starks got a goal-line carry in the first quarter, only to be rebuffed, you could almost hear the sound of thousands of Lacy owner fists hitting coffee tables around the world. The move, however, would ultimately pay off.
Starks did more than his fair share in the Packers’ win over the Cowboys, but it was Lacy who once again led the team on the ground. He ran for 124 yards on 24 carries, getting north of 100 yards for the third time in four games, and capped it off with the final touchdown in the 28–7 victory. What’s more, he looked like the strong runner that we’ve seen in the second half of the season in both 2013 and ’14. That Lacy helped lead his fantasy owners to championships. This one might be able to do the same.
The Packers’ next two games are against the Raiders and Cardinals. No matter the matchup, though, Lacy is back in the saddle for the Packers. For real this time. He’ll likely be ranked inside the top 20 at the position in Week 15 and 16, meaning you’ll have to be very deep at running back to consider benching him.
Photos: Frank Victores/AP (Dalton), Al Bello/Getty Images (Fitzpatrick), Rob Carr/Getty Images (Rawls), Rob Foldy/Getty Images (Hightower), Joe Robbins/Getty Images (Lacy)