There’s a case being made in many smart fantasy circles that Philip Rivers is a bad play this week. Over on FantasyPros, a clearinghouse of people like me who rank and write about players from a fantasy perspective for a living, Rivers has a consensus rank of QB17 this week, which has him comfortably outside the QB1 class. This anti-Rivers case appears to rest on the matchup—the Chargers visiting the Texans on Sunday. Anyone who makes matchup the be-all, end-all, and benches Rivers this week, will be sorely disappointed.
Let’s start first with this seemingly impenetrable Houston pass defense. The Texans have allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points per game to quarterbacks this season. The only teams that have been stingier against the position are the Vikings, Cardinals, Giants and Broncos. That’s certainly great company, and the Texans have earned their way into that group. I’m not saying the numbers lie or that Rivers has a sneaky-good matchup in Houston this weekend. I am saying, however, that the importance of the matchup is being significantly overrated.
First, the Texans are far from infallible. They’ve allowed three of 10 quarterbacks they’ve faced this season to score at least 18.6 points in standard formats. Those quarterbacks range in skill from Sam Bradford to Derek Carr and Andrew Luck. Carr and Luck both racked up more than 22 points against the Texans. A good quarterback with a strong, pass-first offense can attack the Texans’ secondary successfully. That’s a check in Rivers’s favor.
Houston’s lofty ranking against the quarterback this season was built largely on shutting down six quarterbacks: Alex Smith, Jacoby Brissett, Trevor Siemian, Marcus Mariota, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. Their performances against Mariota and Stafford were no doubt impressive, but let’s not give them too much credit for the other four. They weren’t the only defenses to dominate Smith, Brissett, Siemian and Cutler this year.
Rivers has already had two games this year against a defense better vs. the pass than Houston. In the Chargers’ meetings with the Broncos this season, Rivers threw for 445 yards, 5.85 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 13.4 standard-league points per game. Those are awful numbers, to be sure, but a matchup with Houston won’t be quite as tough. You don’t have to fade Rivers the way you did those two weeks.
Melvin Gordon has been great this season, but the San Diego offense still runs through Rivers. In fact, Gordon’s presence as a legitimate threat has made Rivers’s life easier. Matchup is meant to be a tiebreaker, not the basis of a start/sit decision. Rivers captains a pass-heavy, high-volume Chargers offense. He may not be a top-five quarterback this week, but he will show up inside the top 12.
Kirk Cousins (at Dallas)
Cousins is coming off his best game of the season, a masterpiece on Sunday night against the Packers. He threw for 375 yards, 12.5 YPA and three touchdowns in the game, and is now the No. 7 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues this season. I owe both him and Washington an apology, as I thought both player and team would take major steps back this season. Yes, the Cowboys present a tough matchup, and their ball-control offense could limit possessions for both teams, but at this point you need a good reason to bench Cousins. You don’t have one this week unless you’re stacked at quarterback.
Tyrod Taylor (vs. Jacksonville)
Taylor enters every game he plays with a higher-than-expected floor because of his rushing production. The Buffalo signal caller leads all quarterbacks with 401 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground this season, which comes out to 6.41 points per game via his legs. That’s more than 1.5 passing touchdowns, which helps Taylor survive without any great receiving threats in his offense. The Jaguars have been strong against the pass this season, but Taylor’s skill set presents them with an entirely different challenge. If LeSean McCoy (thumb) is out, Taylor could be called upon even more in a running capacity.
Colin Kaepernick (at Miami)
Speaking of rushing floor, Kaepernick is making a living in fantasy leagues thanks to his. In five games as the 49ers’ starter, Kaepernick has 260 rushing yards and one touchdown, which has him right in line with Taylor’s ground production. Kaepernick is behind Taylor by the slightest of margins, scoring 6.4 points per game with his legs. Just like Taylor, Kaepernick doesn’t need to be a monster through the air when he’s scoring more than six points per game on the ground. So long as he isn’t a trainwreck throwing the ball in Miami this week, he’ll be a mid-tier QB2.
Carson Palmer (at Atlanta)
After an excellent 2015, the 36-year-old Palmer has fallen off a cliff this year. Through nine games, he has 2,642 yards, 7.16 YPA, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, well off the pace he set for himself while leading the Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game last season. The Falcons aren’t a tough matchup, but Palmer is off the QB1 radar. He’s my No. 15 quarterback this week.
Matthew Stafford (vs. Minnesota)
As I’ve written time and time again this season, efficiency is the driver of fantasy scoring for quarterbacks. It’s incredibly tough to be efficient against the Vikings. They’ve surrendered 6.18 YPA this season and have the same number of interceptions as passing touchdowns allowed (12). Detroit’s offensive scheme has them better suited to attack Minnesota with short passes, but that’s not exactly going to bump up Stafford’s efficiency numbers. We could very well get a low-scoring game to start Thanksgiving, with Stafford being the day’s greatest fantasy disappointment.
Carson Wentz (vs. Green Bay)
Months two and three of Wentz’s career weren’t quite as successful as the first, with the Eagles quarterback throwing four touchdowns and six interceptions in his last six games. He’s showing up back inside the mid-tier QB2 class this week thanks to a matchup with the scuffling Packers, but don’t let that influence your decision too much. Wentz has struggled mightily since the league has gotten a better look at him, throwing for fewer than 6.5 YPA in all of his last five games, and fewer than 5.0 YPA in four of them. Again, it’s all about efficiency for quarterbacks. Wentz shouldn’t be in your plans this week.
Tevin Coleman (vs. Arizona)
Coleman is expected to be back on the field for the Falcons after missing the team’s last three games with a hamstring injury. Now back at full strength, as evidenced by his return to practice on Monday of this week, Coleman should get back into the dual-threat role that made him such a great fantasy weapon early in the season. This is the sort of player you lock into a starting lineup, not one who needs the benefit of a good matchup. Coleman is comfortably in RB2 range this week.
Theo Riddick (vs. Minnesota)
This is another opportunity to drive home this week’s theme, which is don’t put too much stock into matchups. Yes, Minnesota is about as tough a draw as a running back can get this season. What’s far more important, though, is Riddick’s central role in the Detroit offense. He has had at least 12 touches in every game he has played this season, and he gets the ball in his hands 15.25 times in an average contest. He’s still not ideal for using between the tackles, but he gets more than a token number of carries and is one of the league’s most dangerous receivers out of the backfield. Riddick is an easy play this, and almost every, week.
Wendell Smallwood (vs. Green Bay)
Ryan Mathews suffered a sprained MCL last week, while Darren Sproles cracked a rib in the Eagles loss to the Seahawks. All indications are that Sproles will be able to play through his injury, but the chances of Mathews going are a lot more unlikely. That would open the door for Smallwood to serve as the team’s primary runner. In three games with double-digit carries this season, he has totaled 197 yards on 43 totes. All things considered, running for 48 yards on 13 carries and catching four passes for 31 yards against the vaunted Seahawks defense after being foisted into action is an impressive showing. This is a bit complicated because the Eagles and Packers play on Monday night, but Smallwood should be in line for a heavy workload. Think of him as a low-end RB2.
Rashad Jennings (at Cleveland)
I guess I have to relent. I’ve had Jennings in the sit section of this column for at least two weeks in a row, and the Giants back has made me look foolish, running for a combined 172 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries in his last two games. He also has eight catches for 66 yards the last two weeks, making them by far his two most productive games of the season. The fact that he’s finally dominating the snap and touch counts out of the Giants’ backfield is most encouraging. In a matchup with the Browns, you shouldn’t have any qualms about using him.
Isaiah Crowell (vs. New York Giants)
On the other side of that game in Cleveland is a running back trending in the opposite direction. In Crowell’s last seven games, he has a paltry 167 rushing yards on 68 carries. He does have two touchdowns and 194 receiving yards in that same timeframe, but that still has him at 6.87 standard-league points per game over those seven games. Crowell made last week’s Droppables column for a reason. If you still own him, he should not be in your starting lineup.
Terrance West (vs. Cincinnati)
West was also part of that Droppables column, and while you’d need to be a bit stronger at running back to cut ties with him than with Crowell, it’s still worth noting the way his fortune has turned over the last four weeks. He has fewer than 10 touches in two of those four games and has picked up 138 yards on the ground on 52 carries. West is a volume-based player, and with Kenneth Dixon in the fold there’s little guarantee he’ll get the volume necessary to show up in meaningful fantasy fashion. He’s no more than an RB3 this week.
Jerick McKinnon (at Detroit)
McKinnon was back in command of the Minnesota backfield last week, playing 31 snaps and carrying the ball 16 times. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in anything that really mattered from a fantasy perspective. McKinnon ran for 44 yards and caught one pass for a loss of three yards. He’s averaging fewer than 3.0 yards per carry and has been completely non-existent in the passing game. Resist the temptation to start him just to have someone playing on Thanksgiving. McKinnon does not belong anywhere near a fantasy starting lineup.
Chris Ivory (at Buffalo)
Ivory is going to get more attention this week after T.J. Yeldon left Jacksonville’s Week 11 loss to Detroit with an ankle injury. Ivory didn’t do much with his opportunity last week, running 17 times for 39 yards and fumbling for the fourth time this season. He did catch six passes for 75 yards, but we know that’s not a part of his game that shows up consistently. Ivory has struggled individually all year, and the Jaguars have been one of the worst rushing teams as a whole this season. You can’t have any confidence in him this week, even with the added volume.
Jamison Crowder (at Dallas)
The nature of Crowder’s production a week ago isn’t bankable for a player with his skill set. He had just three catches, though two of them were big plays, including a 44-yard touchdown. That’s not what we typically see from Crowder, so while it was welcome, we must acknowledge that it was anomalous. At the same time, it was his third straight game with a touchdown, his third 100-yard game in his last four, and the seventh time this season he had at least 100 yards or a touchdown (second time with both). Crowder is locked in as a fantasy starter.
Rishard Matthews (at Chicago)
One day we’ll all look back and laugh at the Titans taking away snaps from Matthews to give them to Andre Johnson. Matthews did his job again last week, catching nine passes for 122 yards. He’s averaging 10.84 standard-league points per game over his last eight, totaling 35 catches for 507 yards and six touchdowns. With a great matchup against the Bears on tap, Matthews remains a great fantasy play in Week 12.
Steve Smith (vs. Cincinnati)
The ageless Smith keeps on doing exactly what we’ve come to expect of him over his remarkable 16-year career. Smith caught eight passes for 99 yards and a touchdown in the Ravens loss to the Cowboys last week, giving him 44 catches for 516 yards and three touchdowns this season. If you take away the game in which he injured his ankle, and his first game back after missing nearly a month, he’s averaging 10.33 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He still doesn’t seem to get the respect he deserves in fantasy circles, but there should be no doubt he’s a WR2 this week. The Bengals have allowed 7.36 YPA and 19 passing touchdowns this season.
Tyrell Williams (at Houston)
If I want to bet on Philip Rivers this week, it stands to reason that I’d like at least one of his receivers. Williams has turned into the de facto No. 1 receiver in San Diego with Keenan Allen out almost the entire year and Travis Benjamin dealing with a lingering knee injury. Williams has a couple of dud performances over his last six games, but he has been a star in the other four, racking up 23 receptions for 447 yards and three touchdowns. He has at least 100 yards or a touchdown in all of those games, and has averaged 15.68 points per game in his four standout performances. If you like Rivers, you can’t help but like Williams, as well.
Tyler Boyd (at Baltimore)
Boyd was one of the most popular players on the waiver wire this week after A.J. Green suffered a hamstring injury that will cost him at least a few weeks. While Boyd was unquestionably a worthy add, he should not be in starting lineups this week. For one thing, the ceiling of the Cincinnati offense crashes down without Green and Giovani Bernard, who tore his ACL in the Week 11 loss to Buffalo. For another, Baltimore’s defense has thrived this season, and is set up well against a limited Cincinnati offense.
Marvin Jones (vs. Minnesota)
With all due respect to Isaiah Crowell, no one has fallen harder from a hot start to the season than Jones. Through three games this year, Jones had 18 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns. In seven games since, he has 20 catches for 268 yards and two scores. He averaged 18.93 points per game over the season’s first three weeks, and 5.54 over the last seven. On Thanksgiving, he’ll deal with one of the two most challenging matchups for a receiver in the NFL this season. Jones should be firmly on your bench this week.
Emmanuel Sanders (vs. Kansas City)
Sanders hasn’t found the end zone since Week 4, and has fallen short of the 100-yard mark every game since Week 3. He does have three 80-yard games since then, but that doesn’t move the needle much when you’re touchdown upside is low. Trevor Siemian has had his moments, but he simply isn’t consistent enough to make the best use of Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. That limits Sanders’s ceiling at the WR3 level, and has him on the wrong side of the start/sit debate this week.
Eric Ebron (vs. Minnesota)
Tight ends typically take a few years to adjust to the NFL game, and it appears that Ebron is the latest example of that axiom. Ebron, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft, disappointed his first two years in the league. Through seven games this year, he has 35 catches for 451 yards and one touchdown, comfortably on pace for new career highs in receptions and yards. The Vikings have been susceptible to tight end scoring this season, allowing the 11th-most points per game to the position, but that’s just an added benefit for Ebron. He can be relied upon as a fantasy starter more often than not.
Zach Ertz (vs. Green Bay)
Ertz impressed against the Seahawks last week, catching six of his 11 targets for 35 yards and a touchdown. He also had a would-be 53-yard score taken away because of a careless illegal formation penalty by Nelson Agholor. Over his last three games, Ertz has 26 targets, 20 receptions, 187 yards and a touchdown, good for 8.23 standard-league points per game. The Packers have allowed the fifth-most points per game to tight ends on the year.
Kyle Rudolph (at Detroit)
Rudolph was a favorite of the fantasy community in the first meeting between the Vikings and Lions in Week 9. The Lions have struggled against tight ends all season, and Rudolph’s role in Minnesota’s offense seemed sure to lead to a big game against a team that appeared ill-equipped to handle him. He caught just one pass in that game for one yard. Thankfully, it went for a touchdown. That same logic applies this week, however, and makes Rudolph a top-10 option at tight end.
Jason Witten (vs. Washington)
Here’s a lesson in how stats can be deceiving. Jason Witten is the No. 12 tight end in standard-scoring leagues this season, which, technically, drops him into the season-long TE1 class. At the same time, he has scored more than seven standard-league points in just two weeks this season, with 30.3% of his fantasy production coming in one game, his 134-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Browns three weeks ago. Witten is integral to the Dallas offense, but he is not a fantasy option.
Cameron Brate (vs. Seattle)
Even though we’ve stressed that matchup isn’t everything throughout this column, it is more important to some players than others. Mike Evans, for example, has an even tougher matchup than Brate going up against Seattle’s corners this week, but you aren’t benching one of the best receivers in the league because of matchup. A fringe starting tight end, however, is another story. Brate’s the sort of player for whom matchup can be the deciding factor. You don’t want to trust him with Seattle’s defense on the other side of the line.
Coby Fleener (vs. Los Angeles)
The only argument for Fleener is entirely based on Drew Brees and his prowess at the Superdome. That is, admittedly, a somewhat-convincing argument. Brees is undoubtedly going to get his against the Rams this week, and that makes Fleener and Willie Snead, in addition to the obvious Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas, attractive for fantasy purposes. Still, Brees has gotten his pretty much every week this season, and Fleener is averaging 5.82 points per game. He’s a high-end TE2 who’s a better play than Witten, Brate, or C.J Fiedorowicz, but the ceiling and floor are both low.
Defenses to stream
Tennessee Titans (at Chicago)
When the Bears first-team offense takes its first snap at Soldier Field on Sunday, it will likely be without its first-team starters at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, right tackle, right guard and left guard. They will definitely be missing Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery, Zach Miller, Kevin White and Kyle Long. Matt Barkley is in line to start for the Bears, with Cameron Meredith and Eddie Royal as his top two receivers. This could get ugly in a hurry. The Titans are the best streaming defense this week.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. Cincinnati)
It’s a thin week for defense streamers, which is why we have to turn to the Ravens here. They’re undoubtedly a great play, but they’re owned in nearly 50% of leagues, which means it’s going to be hard for many of you to stream them. If they’re available, though, they’re nearly as good a play as the Titans. With A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard out, a Cincinnati offense that has had trouble scoring all season will be without two of its key players, including one of the best receivers in the league. The Bengals already-low ceiling just got even lower, and the Ravens defense has scored the seventh-most points in standard-scoring leagues this year.