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Fantasy Week 14 lessons: Le'Veon Bell delivers a historic playoff performance

Are you a Le’Veon Bell owner? Congratulations on advancing to your fantasy league’s semifinals.

Of course, a lot of you were already there before Week 14’s action. After Bell ran for 817 yards, caught 63 passes for 501 yards and scored four touchdowns in nine games, posting 17.1 points per game in standard leagues, many of his owners earned first-round byes. Those that didn’t almost certainly still made the playoffs, and, after the best game of Bell’s career, joined the owners who had this week off in their league’s semifinals.

Bell had a game for the fantasy ages, running for 236 yards and three touchdowns and adding 62 yards through the air on four receptions. His 298 yards from scrimmage in a single game rank 11th in NFL history, tied with Jerome Harrison who did it for the Browns in 2009. Bell racked up 47.8 points in standard-scoring leagues and 51.8 points in full PPR formats. When one player gives you that much production, it’s nearly impossible to lose a fantasy game. That it came in the playoffs only adds to the legend of the league’s best fantasy player.

It was not, however, the best running back performance we’ve seen, even in recent memory in the playoffs. Going back to 1999, there have been seven instances of running backs outscoring Bell’s 47.8-point day. Three of those came in the typical fantasy postseason. In Week 14 of the 2000 season, Mike Anderson ran for 251 yards and four touchdowns, adding one reception for five yards, totaling 49.6 standard-league points. Three years ago, Jamaal Charles ran for just 20 yards on eight carries, but caught eight passes for 195 yards and found the end zone five times, translating to 51.5 points in the fantasy semifinals. The modern day record for single-game fantasy scoring by a running back in the playoffs belongs to Clinton Portis, who ran for 218 yards, caught two passes for 36 yards, and scored five touchdowns in Week 14 of 2003. The then-Bronco piled up 55.4 points for his owners, the most for any running back, regardless of time of year, in the last 18 seasons.

So, sure, Bell has been outdone in the playoffs. Still, consider Sunday a rebuke to anyone who has suggested that David Johnson is the best fantasy player in the league. Bell now has 1,053 rushing yards, 67 catches, 563 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games. That comes out to 105.3 rushing yards, 56.3 receiving yards and 161.6 total yards per game. That puts Bell on a 16-game pace for 2,585 yards from scrimmage (rounded down to the nearest whole number), which would be an NFL record. Unfortunately, because he missed the first three games of the season due to a suspension, he doesn’t really have a shot at Chris Johnson’s record of 2,509 total yards. If he remains on this pace, he’ll be the 44th player in NFL history to total 2,100 or more yards from scrimmage in a single season.

Here’s another way to consider how lethal a fantasy player Bell is: Before stepping foot in the end zone, he’s scoring 16.1 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. If he didn’t have a touchdown all season, he would still rank sixth among running backs in points per game, ahead of the likes of Latavius Murray, LeGarrette Blount and Devonta Freeman. With the touchdowns, he’s at 20.36 points per game. He’s a one-man wrecking crew whose presence makes his owners a favorite in their leagues.

With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 14 fantasy takeaways.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in Pittsburgh

Bell carried the Pittsburgh offense on Sunday, helping the Steelers to a more-comfortable-than-the-score-suggests 27–20 win. The Steelers are 8–5 and, depending on the outcome of Ravens-Patriots on Monday night, possibly in command of the AFC North. Not everything is perfect in the Steel City, though, especially since the team still has one road game remaining in the regular season.

Ben Roethlisberger struggled yet again on the road, throwing for 220 yards, 7.1 yards per attempt, zero touchdowns and three interceptions in the snowy conditions in Buffalo. Coming into the game, Roethlisberger’s home/road splits were the starkest of any quarterback’s in the league. In five home games, Roethlisberger has completed 70.5% of his passes for 1,636 yards, 8.48 YPA, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. After his dud performance in Buffalo, he now has a 59.5% completion percentage, 1,618 yards, 6.55 YPA, eight touchdowns and eight picks in seven road games. It was the fourth time that Roethlisberger scored single-digit points in standard-scoring leagues on the road this season.

Here’s the problem for Roethlisberger owners. The Steelers’ eighth and final road game of the regular season is next week at Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t exactly been a shutdown unit against the pass this season, but matchup hasn’t mattered when Roethlisberger has been away from Heinz Field. In short, as good as he is individually, and as good as the Pittsburgh offense is as a whole, it will be hard to trust Big Ben next week. At the very least, Roethlisberger owners will need a contingency plan.

Looking ahead to Week 15 stream options, Roethlisberger owners will want to consider Colin Kaepernick against the Falcons, Alex Smith against the Titans and Trevor Siemian against the Patriots. They could also look to a new starter in Miami.

Ryan Tannehill is out for the season

The Dolphins moved back into playoff position on Sunday with a 26–23 win over the Cardinals, but it may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. Tannehill left late in the third quarter after taking a hit to his lower left leg. The early diagnosis is a torn ACL that will have Tannehill out until the 2017 season.

Tannehill has been up and down again this year, but he was having the best season of his career in year one with Adam Gase. Heading into Sunday, Tannehill was on track for career highs in completion percentage and YPA, and he was playing his best football of the season over the last month. He was adding another game to that strong run Sunday before the injury, completing three-fourths of his passes for 195 yards, 9.75 YPA and three touchdowns against one interception. It’s an unfortunate development for a young player who seemed to be turning a corner and has his team as a surprising playoff contender.

The one silver lining for the Dolphins and their fantasy-relevant players is that they have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league. Matt Moore led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, completing three of five pass attempts for 47 yards. He hasn’t played more than two games in a season since 2011, when he was the Dolphins’ primary starter. He threw for 2,497 yards, 7.2 YPA and 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions in 13 games.

There’s no doubt that the floor and ceiling of every player on the Dolphins’ offense comes down with Tannehill on the shelf. The Dolphins’ next two games are divisional road games at New York and Buffalo. If you regularly start Jay Ajayi, you’re likely going to continue rolling with him. Jarvis Landry and DeVante Paker could be in a different boat. Both of them are regularly on the start/sit border, and the move to Moore from Tannehill could be the difference that lands them on the wrong side. That will be something we monitor closely this week and revisit when we’re making Week 15 start/sit decisions.

Donte Moncrief is not trustworthy

Touchdown-dependent players make up the most confounding subset in the league. They grab our attention because they regularly do the one thing that is most important in both real-life and fantasy contexts, but if they don’t find the end zone, they aren’t likely to deliver on their fantasy owners’ expectations. That makes them hard players to trust, as Moncrief learned on Sunday.

Heading into the Colts’ Week 14 matchup with the Texans, Moncrief had played seven games this season. We’ll eliminate the one game during which he suffered a shoulder injury, giving him six games that he started and finished. In those six games, Moncrief has put up an average of 10.47 points per game, which would place him ninth among receivers who have played at least six games this season. The only issue? Thirty-six of his 62.8 points, or 57.3%, came via touchdowns. That’s simply no way to sustain fantasy production. For example, Antonio Brown, who entered Week 14 first among receivers with 11 touchdowns, got 38.3% of his points from finding the end zone. Yards are predictable, and a better indicator of future fantasy success. That’s where Moncrief has struggled this season.

Moncrief had just 277 yards heading into Sunday’s action. He got four targets in the Colts’ 22–17 loss to the Texans and didn’t catch any of them. Even if we don’t count the week when he hurt his shoulder, he’s averaging 39.6 receiving yards per game. That’s on par with the likes of Jeremy Kerley and Adam Humphries. A lot of fantasy writers projected a breakout season for Moncrief, and it’s entirely possible that the shoulder injury completely derailed his progress. Still, he has been back for six games and has yet to total more than 55 yards in any of them. At this point, he cannot be considered anything more than a low-end WR3.

Latavius Murray’s projected playoff heroism is off to a great start

Quick, can you name the four running backs who have scored the most standard-league fantasy points over their last five games? I don’t think any of them will be a surprise, especially since the one who might be tough has his name as the header of this section. The top three are Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott. That should be obvious given that they’re probably the top three across every five-week sample this season. The fourth is Murray.

In Oakland’s last five games—four of which have been wins—Murray has rushed for 377 yards, caught 12 passes for 138 yards and scored seven touchdowns. That comes out to a total of 93.5 points in standard-scoring leagues, which is good for 18.7 points per game. To give you a better idea of just how good that is, only Bell, Johnson and Elliott have a superior average over the entire season.

Murray has turned into a true workhorse for the Raiders. Over his first six games this season, he averaged 11.5 carries, topping out at 18, which was the only time in that stretch that he had more than 15 carries in a game. In his last five games, he has averaged 18.6 carries per game, hitting the 20-carry mark three times while toting the ball 19 times all but once. In that one game he came up short of 19 carries, he still had 17 touches, thanks in large part to five receptions. In other words, the Raiders have done away with their committee approach from earlier in the season, concentrating their backfield workload in favor of the player who is clearly the best runner on the team.

Last week, I wrote a column highlighting 10 possible surprise playoff heroes. Murray was included, and his 16.3-point performance against the Chiefs has him off on the right foot. He has matchups ahead with the Chargers and Colts, two defenses that have struggled against the run all season. Murray is set to be a league-winner.

Our latest reminders that one unlucky week is all it takes to end a season

In one of our recent fantasy roundtables, Pat Fitzmaurice posited a theory that 25% of all fantasy owners are destined to be undone by bad luck before the season even begins. Whether it’s injuries, a high points-against total, or a bad record in close games, some owners are simply going to be on the wrong side of the game’s coin flips every season.

The same theory holds true in the playoffs. If Fitz’s 25% mark for the full season is right, then one or two owners in every fantasy league will bow out of the playoffs due to poor luck. There’s a good chance that those owners were identified this week. They likely owned at least one of Julio Jones, Melvin Gordon and Matt Forte.

The loss of Jones to turf toe was a tough blow for all of his owners, but at least it was something they could plan for all week. There’s no good answer for replacing Jones, but his owners likely had someone who played all four quarters in that spot on Sunday. Such was not the case for Gordon and Forte owners. Both running backs suffered first quarter injuries and did not return. Gordon ended the day with five yards on three carries, while Forte picked up eight yards on his three carries. Forte owners had the added insult of watching Bilal Powell total 179 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, 29.9 points that could have been theirs had Forte remained healthy all afternoon.

Such is life in the fantasy football world. Sometimes your running back racks up 300 total yards and three touchdowns. Sometimes he suffers an injury that ends his day in the first quarter. Hopefully the former happens in the playoffs, and the latter doesn’t. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. The good news for those of you moving on to the semifinals, other than the obvious? Thanks to the Jones, Gordon and Forte injuries, the tough-luck losers in the 2016 fantasy playoffs have already emerged.

Photo credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images