This time next week, we’ll know which players served as fantasy championship heroes, bringing owners bragging rights for the next year. Some of the candidates, like Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell, are obvious—owners know to start those players. Others are less obvious, and could end up on your bench. Our goal here is to make sure that those soon-to-be playoff heroes are where they belong. As has been the case for much of the season, our focus for the Week 16 intro to start/sit turns to a quarterback becoming a star in Nashville.
In just his second year in the league, Marcus Mariota has the Titans in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. If they win their next two games—at Jacksonville this week, home vs. Houston next week—the team will win the AFC South. We’ll likely have to wait until next week to learn whether Mariota is a division champion in real life, but he’s set to make his fantasy owners champions by time the sun rises on Tuesday.
Some of Mariota’s owners are likely a bit skittish after his struggles the last two weeks. True, it would have been encouraging to see him light up the Broncos and Chiefs in his last two games, but his poor stat lines in those games should not force him to your bench this week. For one thing, those are tough draws for any quarterback. The Broncos have the best pass defense in the league, and the Chiefs have made Arrowhead a nightmare spot for quarterbacks. His play the last two weeks was disappointing, but understandable.
An emphasis on those two games, furthermore, ignores what Mariota did in October and November. After a slow start to the season, Mariota was one of the league’s premier real-life and fantasy quarterbacks in the middle of the year. For eight games from Week 4 through Week 11, Mariota threw for 2,073 yards, 8.57 yards per attempt, 21 touchdowns and three interceptions. He was effective as a runner in that span, too, totaling 238 yards and two scores on the ground. Mariota was consistent, throwing at least two touchdowns in all eight games, scoring 19.9 or more standard-league points in seven of them, and putting up an average of 24.97 points per game. By comparison, Aaron Rodgers, this year’s top-scoring quarterback, has an average of 22.97 points per game on the year. For eight weeks, fully half the season, Mariota played like the league’s No. 1 fantasy quarterback.
One of those eight games was against the Jaguars. In that 36–22 Titans win, Mariota completed 18 of 22 pass attempts for 270 yards, 12.27 YPA and two touchdowns. Had the game not gotten out of hand early—the Titans took a 27–0 lead into the locker room at halftime—Mariota likely would have had an even bigger day. He threw just three passes in the second half and eventually gave way to Matt Cassel.
Mariota and the Titans need this game. A loss on Saturday coupled with a Texans win over the Bengals would clinch the division for the Texans. You can bet the second-year quarterback out of Oregon will be up to the challenge. Mariota will put the Titans on the doorstep of their first division title in eight years and help his fantasy owners to ultimate glory.
Jameis Winston (at New Orleans)
In the first round of the fantasy playoffs a few weeks ago, Winston didn’t exactly take advantage of the Saints in the way we were hoping, throwing for 184 yards and zero touchdowns in the Week 14 matchup. I’m not backing off him this week, though, with the teams meeting again as the Buccaneers make the trip to New Orleans. What’s great about this game is the potential for a shootout. Betting on Drew Brees in the Superdome typically pays dividends, and you do that indirectly by starting Winston. If Brees has the Saints offense humming, Winston will have to do what he can to keep up. That creates a great environment for fantasy scoring.
Russell Wilson (vs. Arizona)
Wilson made his fantasy owners sweat, but he eventually came through with a big game last week, throwing for 229 yards, 8.81 YPA and three touchdowns in Seattle’s 24–3 win over the Rams. He has a tough draw with the Cardinals this week, a team that held him to 225 yards, 6.08 YPA and zero scores the first time they met. The Cardinals, however, got blitzed by Brees last week. This isn’t the week to reach down a tier because you don’t like Wilson’s matchup. Trust his ability and that of the Seahawks’ offense as a whole.
Derek Carr (vs. Indianapolis)
Like Mariota, Carr has struggled over the last two weeks, which has been an inopportune time for fantasy owners. If you’ve survived with him as your starter, or if you’ve wisely gone in another direction and placed him on your bench, he’s going to reward you this week. The Raiders are 3.5-point favorites over the Colts, and the game features an over/under of 53, likely to be the highest on the board. Carr’s touchdown and interception totals are essentially even at home and on the road, but he has been more efficient in Oakland, completing 65.7% of his passes for 7.46 YPA, compared with 61.5% and a 6.58 YPA everywhere else.
Matt Barkley (vs. Washington)
At the very least, Barkley has shown he’s a capable backup quarterback while filling in for Jay Cutler over the last four weeks. In that time, he has thrown for 1,082 yards, 7.36 YPA, six touchdowns and five interceptions, posting strong fantasy performances against the Titans and Packers. With Washington coming to Chicago on Saturday, Barkley has the look of a top-20 quarterback.
Matthew Stafford (at Dallas)
Stafford is an easy sit for me this week. First of all, Lions-Cowboys is going to be played at a glacial pace. The Cowboys love to run the ball, while the Lions make their way down the field entirely via short and intermediate passing routes. The over/under for the game is at 43, which seems high given the styles of these two teams, and could come down leading up to Monday. Stafford has been great for the Lions from a real-life perspective, but without a true downfield threat, it’s hard to get excited about him in the fantasy world. The context of this game makes it nearly impossible to do so.
Eli Manning (at Philadelphia)
Backing Manning in a short week with the Giants playing a divisional game on the road feels incredibly uncomfortable. Starting him seems even less attractive when you take into consideration that the Giants defense likely won’t need Manning and the offense to put up 30 points for the team to come away with a victory against the Eagles. This has all the makings of a rock fight, with the Giants favored by 2.5 points and the game total sitting at 42, tied for second lowest on the Week 16 board. Manning may do all the Giants need him to for them to get a victory, but it won’t be a meaningful fantasy performance.
Dak Prescott (vs. Detroit)
You could copy and paste here a lot of what I wrote for Stafford, and it would hold true. Prescott is a bit more palatable given his ability as a runner and the fact that the Cowboys are favored in this game, but it’s not enough to push him into most fantasy starting lineups. The expected pace and likelihood of Ezekiel Elliott dominating greatly lowers Prescott’s floor. He’s my No. 16 quarterback for championship week.
Tevin Coleman (at Carolina)
Coleman’s output against the 49ers was a disappointment considering he got 14 carries, but I’m coming right back to him this week. The bottom line here is environment, and I want a guy who’s likely to get at least 12 touches in Atlanta’s offense in my lineup. The Falcons have been one of the most reliable “over” teams in the league this season, and the game total for Falcons-Panthers is 52 points. If I tell you that game is going over, would you want Coleman in there? Of course you would.
Ryan Mathews (vs. New York Giants)
Mathews had the Philadelphia backfield to himself last week and put up his best game of the season, running for 128 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. The degree of difficulty in a matchup with the Ravens is high, but that didn’t slow Mathews down one bit. So long as the Thursday night game doesn’t get out of control, a likelihood with the Giants offense topping out most weeks at “good, but not great,” Mathews will be a fixture for the Eagles. He’s an RB2 for championship week.
Thomas Rawls (vs. Arizona)
A good deal of Rawls owners may be out of the playoffs after his performance the last two games. His no-show against the Rams last week, when he ran for 34 yards on 21 carries, was particularly concerning. If you’re still alive, don’t let that sour you on him this week. A clear bellcow back is a luxury these days at any point of the season, but especially now when injuries have thinned the herd. No fantasy owner playing in the championship should turn his or her nose up at a back likely to get a minimum of 16 touches.
Kenneth Dixon (at Pittsburgh)
Just when I thought I convinced myself I was done trying to predict Baltimore’s backfield usage, here I am recommending Dixon as a start. We’re used to the Ravens and Steelers playing low-scoring, knockdown drag-outs, but this Steelers team is a different animal. So long as Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger are on the field, especially at home, few defenses are going to slow them down. The Ravens are going to need Dixon’s explosiveness, particularly in the passing game, to have any hope of remaining alive in the AFC North race.
Adrian Peterson (at Green Bay)
Peterson returned last week with the thud many expected, running for 22 yards on six carries and losing a fumble. It’s true that game script worked against him. The Colts went up 27–0 in the blink of an eye, and the Vikings ran the ball just nine times as a team. Still, it’s hard to have much confidence in a 31-year-old with a recently repaired knee running behind the Vikings porous offensive line. Plus, the Packers could make this game just as much of a laugher as the Colts did a week ago.
Rashad Jennings (at Philadelphia)
Jennings was mostly bad for 18 carries last week. Paul Perkins was mostly dynamic and exciting for 11 carries. Jennings may not give up the majority role to Perkins, but the Giants have to get the rookie out of UCLA more involved in the offense. Jennings has rushed for more than four yards per carry in two games this season. He’s a touchdown and volume-depending running back, and that’s not the sort of player you want to trust in championship week, unless you’re hands are tied.
T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory (vs. Tennessee)
You might be able to talk me into Yeldon or Ivory as a high-end RB3 and possible flex option if either had the backfield to himself, especially if it were Yeldon because of his ability as a receiver. With both backs healthy and set to split the workload, however, you can’t have any confidence in either. The Jacksonville backfield barely produces enough for one back to post strong fantasy numbers. When that backfield work is divided between two players, it’s a stretch to expect either to be in the top 30 at the position.
Dontrelle Inman (at Cleveland)
Inman’s touchdown streak came to an end last week at three games, but he still gave his owners a respectable five receptions and 68 yards on eight targets. Inman’s likely going to get a minimum of seven targets in a game where the Chargers have an implied team total of 25 points. The Browns have allowed the 11th most points to receivers on the season and aren’t likely to be much of an impediment for Philip Rivers.
Rishard Matthews (at Jacksonville)
Matthews hit on another big play last week, hauling in a 46-yard pass from Marcus Mariota en route to his second 100-yard game over the last four weeks. Matthews is the big-play receiver in the Tennessee offense, and with the Titans significant favorites against the Jaguars this week, it stands to reason that he could get behind the defense again on Saturday. This is as much a bet on the Titans generally as it is on Matthews specifically. If they win on Saturday, he’s going to play a big role.
DeSean Jackson (at Chicago)
Washington’s offense laid an egg against the Panthers last week, but no one should blame Jackson. He caught seven of his 10 targets for 111 yards, his third 100-yard game in Washington’s last four contests. Jackson has turned it on in the second half of the season, totaling 19 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games, good for 12.42 standard-league points per game. It took longer than his owners would have preferred, but Jackson has played his way into the WR2 range where so many expected him to be this year.
Davante Adams (vs. Minnesota)
If you believe in patterns, Adams is due for a big game on Saturday. He has alternated between good and bad performances nearly the entire season (seriously, check out his game log), and he had two catches for 25 yards last week. More importantly, though, the Packers offense is clicking and Aaron Rodgers has the playoffs trained in his sights. Minnesota’s defense has taken a significant downturn late in the year. If you have a line of investment in the Green Bay offense, you likely want to tap it.
Sammy Watkins (vs. Miami)
We’re done trusting injured guys, right? We’re not going to buy into injury optimism anymore, are we? Somehow, Watkins carried a consensus rank on FantasyPros last week that suggested he was an easy WR2 even though he has been dealing with a foot injury since July. He predictably caught one pass for 10 yards. If Watkins proves next summer he’s healthy, I’ll be driving the bandwagon for him in 2017. The key words in that sentence are “next summer” and “in 2017.”
Jordan Matthews (vs. New York Giants)
Matthews once again had a ton of opportunities last week, with 11 passes thrown his way. He caught six for them for 27 yards. Matthews hasn’t topped 100 yards since the first week of the season, and he hasn’t put up a double-digit fantasy day in standard-scoring leagues since the last week of October. Even if Janoris Jenkins is out on Thursday night, the Eagles bring a low-value passing game into a contest with one of the league’s best pass defenses. Matthews belongs on your bench.
A.J. Green (at Houston)
See: Watkins, Sammy. You’re not going to find a bigger Green fan than me, but he has been out for a month because of a serious hamstring injury. Now we’re supposed to trust him in championship week against a defense that has allowed the fourth-fewest points to receivers? How many examples of injured players returning with lackluster results do we need before we write off this class of players entirely?
Tyreek Hill (vs. Denver)
Any playoff contender built on the foundation of a passing game wants to see the Broncos miss the postseason. As many issues as this team has, the pass defense is still a sight to behold. The Broncos allow 12.9 points per game to receivers. Not to the top-scoring receiver on the other team, but to the position as a whole. Hill has been a revelation for the Chiefs this season, but he’s going to have a lot on his plate this week.
Martellus Bennett (vs. New York Jets)
Bennett’s lack of targets since Rob Gronkowski went on IR is, admittedly, disconcerting. In three games without Gronkowski on the field, Bennett has 12 targets, getting exactly four in each game. Still, the bottom of the TE1 class features players with significant fleas every week. Bennett keeps on finding his way into the right side of this column for one simple reason: All things being equal, do you want to bet on someone on the Patriots or someone on another team? This week, it helps that the Jets have allowed the eighth-most points to tight ends.
Antonio Gates (at Cleveland)
I will be the first person welcoming the Hunter Henry takeover next season. For the time being, however, we must acknowledge that Gates is still the primary tight end in San Diego. He has at least nine targets in five of his last eight games and remains one of Philip Rivers’s most trusted weapons. The Browns, meanwhile, have allowed the most points to tight ends this season.
Ladarius Green (vs. Baltimore)
A lot of the logic that applies to Bennett applies to Green, too. All things being equal, it’s nice to have investment in the Pittsburgh scoring machine. Green bounced back with five catches for 72 yards last week. Since really getting his legs under him a month ago, he has at least 60 yards or a touchdown in three of four games. Once you get beyond the obvious stars at the position, you’re better off betting on a team rather than a player, and the Steelers have what it takes to hang a big number on the Ravens.
Eric Ebron (at Dallas)
Ebron’s touchdown dependence remained intact last week. He caught four of seven targets for 36 yards, marking his fourth straight game with fewer than 40 yards. He has just two games this season with more than seven points without scoring a touchdown, and he hasn’t hit paydirt since the first week of the season. Add in the expected slow pace between the Lions and Cowboys, and Ebron becomes a high-end TE2 at best.
Hunter Henry (at Cleveland)
Henry has developed a nose for the end zone, scoring in four of his last five games despite getting no more than five targets in any of those contests. In essence, he’s a better version of Ebron, without quite as much yardage upside. Neither is going to give you a strong fantasy performance without a touchdown, and Henry has proved more adept at finding the end zone. That doesn’t change the fact that touchdown-dependency is a bad trait for any player.
Jared Cook (vs. Minnesota)
With tight end a trouble spot for many owners, I can already see some of them talking themselves into Cook this week. He’s coming off a six-catch, 85-yard performance, and the Packers offense is rolling. It should be noted, however, that last week was the second time this year that Cook had as many as 32 yards in a game. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery hog nearly all the touches in the Green Bay offense, with Randall Cobb most likely to be the fourth option. Jared Cook cannot avoid his fate in the fantasy world. This is just another setup for him to let down those who believe in him.
San Diego Chargers (at Cleveland)
The Chargers defense turned a corner when Joey Bosa got a few games under his belt and, despite a disappointing season for the team on the whole, the defense ranks fifth in fantasy points. They’ll visit the Browns this weekend, one of the friendliest offenses for defense streamers. The Chargers are the best streaming defense this week, and they’re available in seven out of 10 Yahoo! leagues.
Green Bay Packers (vs. Minnesota)
Coming in a somewhat distant second in attractiveness among streaming defenses for championship week is the Packers. If you’ve read these start/sit columns this season, you likely know where I’m going. The Packers are playing at home and are favored by a touchdown. That’s a great formula for success for any defense. Plus, the Vikings offensive line is a mess. If you can’t get the Chargers, take your chances with the Packers.