I should have known better than to recommend a former 2,000-yard rusher against one of the worst run defenses in the league. What was I thinking? Clearly, playing Chris Johnson is a mistake. But such a mistake can easily be remedied by playing any of the other running backs listed in this column. Though none of them have rushed for 2,000 yards in a season before, they are all at least running with more effort and energy than the back formerly known as CJ2K.
So with that mini rant out of the way, let’s take a quick look at how the rest of last week shaped up. En route to an 11-15 record, I called Laurent Robinson’s big game and Brent Celek’s best outing in a year and a half with Michael Vick, while three of my four favorites came up a bit short. Fortunately my top pick, Christian Ponder, didn’t disappoint and managed the 15 points needed for a W.
In Week 9, two more teams are in action than the past three bye weeks, with only Carolina, Detroit, Jacksonville and Minnesota getting a rest. Now that we’re into the crucial back stretch of the regular season, with two more teams available for the bye week, I’m looking for the safest replacements to keep the W’s needed for that playoff run within reach. It’s with that mindset that I’m pinpointing Matt Cassel, Shonn Greene, Brandon Lloyd and Sidney Rice as my four favorites—three former Pro Bowlers and a true feature back.
At this point in the season, it’s always important to remember the maxim “play your best players.” And when those players are unavailable this late in the year due to bye or injury, play it safe, pick your matchups carefully and stake your flex starts on those most likely to see the ball.
Miami @ Kansas City
Matt Cassel (QB) for Chiefs – The Dolphins defense has allowed a miserable 14 touchdown passes while intercepting only two balls, good for the league’s worst ratio. Throw in the 271 yards they’re allowing per game and you have the formula for a very nice day for Cassel.
Jon Baldwin (WR) for Chiefs – With his tremendous size (6-4, 230) and 4.4-speed, it’s quickly becoming apparent why the Chiefs took Baldwin with their first round pick. He is a matchup headache for any defense, as he can beat corners up physically or beat them downfield.
Atlanta @ Indianapolis
Matt Ryan (QB) for Falcons – The Colts defense is allowing the highest passer rating in the league (111.2) to opposing quarterbacks and has given up a league-worst 15 touchdown passes. Ryan is next in line to mess them up, so he needs to be started accordingly, especially if Julio Jones returns from injury.
Dallas Clark (TE) for Colts – The beating in the Bayou aside, Clark has woken up from the dead recently. His games in Weeks 6 and 8 totaled 17 targets, 12 catches 130 yards and a score. With Curtis Painter and Clark finally exhibiting some nice chemistry, he has become a solid tight end play again.
Tampa Bay @ New Orleans
LeGarrette Blount (RB) for Buccaneers – Blount is back and ready to smoke the Saints shaky run defense. In his absence in Week 6, Earnest Graham burned New Orleans for 109 yards on only 17 carries. The bigger, stronger Blount should do likewise against a defense allowing the league’s worst yards per carry (5.5).
Dezmon Briscoe (WR) for Buccaneers – Coming off a career game that saw Briscoe targeted 10 times, the young possession receiver is primed for another strong outing. Don’t be surprised when he again leads the Bucs in receiving.
New York Jets @ Buffalo
Mark Sanchez (QB) for Jets – Sanchez has quietly had at least two touchdowns in all but one game this year. That kind of consistency begs to be started.
Shonn Greene (RB) for Jets – The shutout of the Redskins was more an indication of a Washington offense in disarray than an impenetrable Buffalo defense. Greene should have no trouble churning up yards against a Bills run defense that’s giving up nearly five yards per carry.
Seattle @ Dallas
Sidney Rice (WR) for Seahawks – With Tarvaris Jackson back at the helm, Rice is almost unbenchable. In three games that the two have played at least three quarters together, Rice has 18 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown, with at least 100 yards or a score in all three.
Doug Baldwin (WR) for Seahawks – Striking the Charlie Whitehurst Experiment in Cleveland from Baldwin’s stat record—since it might as well have been a bye for all Seahawks receivers—Baldwin has totaled 18 catches, 293 yards and a touchdown in his last three outings. So since the Seahawks will be passing their blanks off in Big D, get him in the lineup.
Cleveland @ Houston
Chris Ogbonnaya (RB) for Browns – Peyton Hillis (hamstring) should be no better than limited this week, if he plays at all in Houston, which opens up the door for Ogbonnaya to be the feature back against his former team. A highly-motivated performance should result from this versatile former Texas Longhorn.
Owen Daniels (TE) for Texans – With 302 yards and a touchdown in the last five games during Andre Johnson’s (hamstring) absence, Daniels has been the leading receiver for the Texans (discounting Arian Foster’s 310 receiving yards since he’s just a freak), which means that with or without Johnson this week, he should be in your lineup.
San Francisco @ Washington
Alex Smith (QB) for 49ers – Smith has been quietly productive this season, and now has 763 yards passing with seven touchdowns and only one interception in his last four games. Against a Washington team that is falling apart, that nice run should continue for the former No. 1 draft pick.
Michael Crabtree (WR) for 49ers – Crabtree now has 24 targets in his last two games with 131 receiving yards and a touchdown. He’s become the team’s clear No. 1 receiving option and is finally starting to play like the high draft pick he was.
Cincinnati @ Tennessee
Cedric Benson (RB) for Bengals – For all the knocks Benson receives for not being a particularly dynamic runner, he’s still a feature back averaging just shy of 4.0 yards per attempt. Coming off a one-week suspension, he should be well rested and ready for a big day versus one of the league’s worst run defenses.
Damian Williams (WR) for Titans – Williams has compiled 16 targets, 10 catches, 126 yards and a score in two of three games (he missed most of Week 7 with headaches). As the team’s replacement for Kenny Britt, those numbers should not only continue to come but get even better.
Denver @ Oakland
Tim Tebow (QB) for Broncos – Don’t give up on Tebow yet. He’s just the type of gritty competitor to have his best game on the road after a stinker that’s left everyone doubting him.
Michael Bush (RB) for Raiders – If Darren McFadden can’t start this week, Bush becomes a must-start. In four games without McFadden dating back to last year, Bush has 476 total yards with two touchdowns.
New York Giants @ New England
Victor Cruz (WR) for Giants – Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) may miss the game or at least will be limited. Mario Manningham could be slowed by an illness that has him missing practice time. And even with them active Cruz may still be the team’s most dynamic receiver. Against the worst pass defense in the league, he’s in the must-start stratosphere.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (RB) for Patriots – The Giants run defense has allowed primary running backs from the opposition to rack up 588 rushing yards and six touchdowns over the last five games, with no back going for less than 98 yards. So despite the toe issue, The Law Firm should be the gavel for the Patriots high-powered offense and hold court just fine.
St. Louis @ Arizona
Brandon Lloyd (WR) for Rams – Lloyd has gotten 25 targets over the past two weeks since joining St. Louis and should continue to post good numbers against a terrible Arizona pass defense whether those looks are coming from Sam Bradford or A.J. Feeley.
Early Doucet (WR) for Cardinals – Doucet has 27 targets in the Cardinals’ last three games and has posted two scores in that stretch as the clear No. 2 receiver for Arizona. Whether it’s Kevin Kolb or John Skelton under center against the Rams, Doucet is sure to get his opportunities.
Green Bay @ San Diego
Philip Rivers (QB) for Chargers – Rivers’ recent play has been so far off from his usual Pro Bowl numbers that he’s been relegated to a questionable fantasy start EVERY week. But don’t discount the fact that Green Bay gives up the second-most yards to opposing QB’s in the league. Keep Rivers active this week for possibly his last chance to turn it around.
Mike Tolbert (RB) for Chargers – If both Ryan Mathews (groin) and Curtis Brinkley (concussion) are ruled out, there’s really no way you can bench The Round Mound of Touchdown. The Packers defense has given up at least 100 total yards or a touchdown to an opposing feature back in four straight.
Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
Rashard Mendenhall (RB) for Steelers – Pittsburgh was smashed the last time they met the Ravens, and my guess is the Steelers have been itching since Week 1 to return the favor. So though Mendenhall has struggled most of the season, expect him to be at the top of his game for the league’s best rivalry.
Heath Miller (TE) for Steelers – Miller is coming off his best two games of the season with 11 catches, 144 yards and a score between them and should continue to be a go-to chains mover for Ben Roethlisberger in the grudge match against Baltimore, especially if Emmanuel Sanders (knee) and Hines Ward (ankle) are at all limited.
Chicago @ Philadelphia
Jay Cutler (QB) for Bears – If the Philly pass rush doesn’t kill Cutler, he should be slinging it a bunch in a game that could see a lot of Eagles scoring. With the best pass-catching back in football in Matt Forte and plenty of underneath options, he should have a strong game despite the terrific Eagles corners.
Brent Celek (TE) for Eagles – Celek has led the Eagles in targets each of the past two weeks with nine in each game. He is quickly becoming a go-to option for Michael Vick and could make it three straight weeks with a score against the Bears’ 28th-ranked pass defense.