Last week, we used this space to talk about the injury sidelining Andy Dalton and likely costing most of his fantasy owners their championship hopes. Now that we’re really in the heart of holiday season, though, there’s too much good cheer to focus on the negative. Instead, let’s salute this season’s real-life and fantasy playoff MVP. In case you need a hint, his team is undefeated.
Cam Newton wasn’t really in need of another signature game. Against the Saints in Week 3, he threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns, while running for another. In Week 9, he racked up 297 yards and three scores through the air and ran for 57 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Packers, another one of the leading contenders in the NFC. He has reached a quarterback rating of at least 104.4 in six of his last seven games and has thrown for five touchdowns in three of the past five weeks. The most recent of those three came on Sunday, in what was likely the most significant hurdle standing between the Panthers and a perfect regular season.
Newton carved up the Giants in the fantasy semifinals, piling up 340 yards and five scores through the air, and also notched his first 100-yard rushing game since last October. After the Panthers let a 35–7 lead slip away in the span of 20 minutes of game clock, Newton led an eight-play, 49-yard drive in 1:46 to set up Graham Gano for a game-winning 43-yard field goal, which the kicker nailed to help carry the Panthers to their 14th straight win. In a season filled with marquee games, Newton put together his finest statistical game of the season, scoring 43.6 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues.
Realistically, Newton moved into pole position in the MVP race a few weeks ago with his second five-touchdown game of the season, in which he commanded an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in four minutes and 15 seconds to lead the Panthers to a 41–38 win in New Orleans that nosed him ahead of Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. The Panthers don’t need to be undefeated for Newton to win the MVP, but with the Giants out of the way, Carolina very well could be the second team in NFL history to go 16–0.
The Panthers visit the Falcons next week, then host the Buccaneers in Week 17. A win over Atlanta next week will lock them into the NFC’s top overall seed. They would, of course, face the inevitable deluge of questions about resting players in Week 17 in that scenario, but it’s impossible to envision them actually sitting Newton and the rest of the regulars with a perfect season within reach. No matter what, however, the NFL MVP race, while far from settled, has a clear leader. Given Newton’s average draft position and his performances in the past two weeks, he’s this year’s fantasy MVP, as well.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the takeaways ahead of next week’s fantasy championship.
Can you trust an RB1 if his real-life team seems to hate him?
Lamar Miller entered Week 15 as the No. 5 running back in standard-scoring leagues, a fact made all the more remarkable by his bizarre usage for the second straight season. Miller had fewer than 10 carries in five of Miami’s first 13 games this season, meaning that for all fantasy intents and purposes, he played in just eight games. In those eight games, Miller averaged 17.4 points. If he carried that average all season, he’d be the No. 1 back in standard-scoring formats, almost a full point ahead of Devonta Freeman and two points clear of Adrian Peterson. Of course, Joe Philbin and Dam Campbell seem determined to limit his free-agent earnings (just a joke), so Miller had totaled 35 carries in his other five games. His owners had to deal with another one of those games at the worst possible time.
Miller got just nine carries in a loss to the Chargers, picking up 12 yards. He also caught two passes for 12 yards, meaning he had all of 2.4 points in the fantasy semifinals. That likely submarined many of his fantasy owners’ playoff hopes. If you survived Miller’s faultless no-show, can you trust him next week? His matchup with the Colts won’t be a bad one, but neither was the one he had in San Diego on Sunday. The Chargers entered the game ranked 31st in rush defense in Football Outsiders DVOA. Miller couldn’t get anything going early, and then the Dolphins decided to squeeze their best player out of the game plan once they fell behind by two scores in the second quarter.
There’s always a risk that happens, even though it would seem the only way for the Dolphins to come anywhere near salvaging positives from a lost season would be to feed their best player. What’s more, Miller is heading into free agency, meaning that his health has to be even more at the front of his mind. That’s not to say he’d pack it in, but anyone would likely be thinking about that in his situation. In other words, one of fantasy’s top overall running backs may not be entirely trustworthy in championship week.
That makes Charcandrick West the anti-Miller.
West has been back on the field for three weeks after missing one game with a hamstring injury. He has improved with each passing game, starting out at nine carries and 35 yards, progressing to 10 totes and 54 yards a week ago, and then picking up 76 yards and a score on 16 carries in the Chiefs’ 34–14 win over the Ravens on Sunday.
To be fair, West definitely took advantage of Spencer Ware’s absence. Ware was technically active for the Chiefs, but he didn’t get any carries while nursing a rib injury suffered last week. Even if he’s back at full strength or something resembling it next week, West figures to be the workhorse. Let’s not be prisoners of the moment, or at least of last week’s moment. No one is Jamaal Charles, but West is the closest the Chiefs can get to him this year, and he proved that in his first month without Charles.
After a quiet outing in his first start, West racked up 276 rushing yards, nine catches, 136 receiving yards and four touchdowns in three games. His 16-carry, 76-yard, one-touchdown effort against the Ravens was a sign that he is indeed over that hamstring injury and back to being the man in the Chiefs’ backfield. That’s great news for his owners, especially when you consider that the Chiefs host the Browns next week. The Browns entered Week 15 29th in DVOA against the run this season, then let Christine Michael run over them for 84 yards on 16 carries. Altogether, the Seahawks ran for 182 yards on 36 carries, good for 5.1 yards per carry. West is set up to be a championship week hero.
Speaking of Christine Michael, has his long-rumored breakout arrived?
The prodigal son returned to Seattle, and not a moment too soon for the Seahawks. Michael’s fantasy breakout has been nothing more than a unicorn during his three seasons in the league. He was always ready to take over for Marshawn Lynch, or at least take on a larger role in the offense, according to the loudest person in every fantasy circle. That, of course, never happened, and the Seahawks ultimately let him go to Dallas earlier this season. The Cowboys eventually cut him, too, a development that paid off for the Seahawks after Thomas Rawls broke his ankle. The Seahawks added Michael to an uncertain running back situation, though no one could be sure if he or Bryce Brown would or could be a workhorse.
Michael racked up 84 yards on 16 carries in the Seahawks’ 30–13 win over the Browns. Bryce Brown ran the ball well, too, picking up 43 yards on nine carries, but it was Michael who easily led the backfield. That has proved to be one of the most lucrative spots in the league this year. Not including instances in which the starter left due to injury, Seattle has had a running back score at least 10 points in standard-scoring leagues in all but two games this year. The Seahawks have a tough test next week, however, against the Rams and their 12th-ranked defense in rush DVOA. Michael won’t enter championship week as a locked-in starter, but he will certainly be in the RB2 discussion. That’s more than anyone could have thought for him as recently as a week ago, and it speaks to the state of the running back position in 2015.
Photos: Michael Reaves/Getty Images (Newton), Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images (Miller), Larry French/Getty Images (West), Stephen Brashear/Getty Images (Michael)