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Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades, Downgrades Week 17

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for Rotowire.com since 2011 and is most proud of recommending Victor Cruz as a starter in his breakout game against the Eagles. He's a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, the Packers and, unfortunately, the Knicks.

There's nothing left. One week. If you're alive, one shot. For leagues still going I always suggest playing your hottest players in Week 17. Maybe sprinkle in a player or two facing a defense that has clearly thrown in the towel (anyone remember the last time Tennessee, New Orleans or Washington even tried to stop someone?). Basically, it's a pretty simple recipe. No need to get too cute or overthink it. Set the lineups, cross the fingers and get ready to ring in the New Year with some real-life playoffs.

With that in mind, let's forgo any additional intro nonsense for some playoff predictions in no particular order:

1. The Bengals ride Jeremy Hill and an underrated secondary to an AFC North crown and their first playoff win since Ickey Woods was shuffling in the end zone on Jan. 1, 1990, against the Houston Oilers.

2. Aaron Rodgers doesn't throw for more than two touchdowns as Green Bay fails to win a playoff game.

3. The Cardinals defense and an inspired Larry Fitzgerald position Arizona for a road win only to fall short on a last-second field goal.

4. Justin Forsett remains Baltimore's offensive MVP with a 100-yard effort. It is for naught, though, as Cincy pulls off the three-game sweep of their division rivals.

5. Ben Roethlisberger throws another four touchdowns against Indy, giving him 10 for the year against the Colts.

6. Andrew Luck still finds a way to win.

7. Peyton Manning gets his revenge against Cincinnati.

8. Julio Jones torches Patrick Peterson again, while Steven Jackson plays the difference-maker in his first playoff victory since his rookie year.

9. Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson finally score touchdowns in the same game as they give Dallas all it can handle.

10. It doesn't matter, though, as Dez Bryant upstages them both with Tony Romo continuing his MVP-caliber play.

11. LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray plow the Patriots through the cold Foxborough weather all the way to Glendale, Ariz.

12. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch stampede their way to more than 600 combined rushing yards en route to a repeat championship.

With that out of the way, let's get on with it for one last beautiful football Sunday of regular season action. As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit column. Upgrades are players you wouldn't consistently start (or who have consistently underachieved), while those downgraded generally are lineup mainstays. The designations are simply a guide to make those close calls easier.

UPGRADE

Quarterback

Russell Wilson, SEA vs. STL

Wilson had a historic performance in his first meeting with the Rams -- 300-plus passing with two scores, 100-plus rushing with a score -- and he fell 12 ground yards shy of duplicating that ridiculous effort versus an even stingier Cardinals defense last week. He's really raised his play during Seattle's five-win game romp to the NFC's top seed, and with it all on the line he's ready to crush a defense that was just gashed by Eli Manning and the Giants.

Cam Newton, CAR at ATL

If Newton has proven anything this year, it's that he's one tough son of a gun. He's been battered, hobbled and survived a car wreck to get the Panthers within a game of an improbable division title despite the team going seven games between their third and fourth wins. He's tallied multiple TD in four of his last five outings and now gets a Falcons defense last in passing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed.

Eli Manning, NYG vs. PHI

Odell Beckham will save the back half of Manning's career. And he's already off to a great start, having helped Manning boost his numbers significantly the last five weeks. The superstar-in-the-making has accounted for 657 yards and eight TD by himself in that stretch while Manning has thrown for at least 250 and three scores in three of those. Now the pair faces an Eagles D that's allowed the fourth most passing scores this year.

Running Back

Jonathan Stewart, CAR at ATL

In case you missed it, Stewart has more than 20 carries in three straight games while amassing 352 yards on the ground and two total TD. In case you missed it, Atlanta has allowed a league-high 22 touchdowns to opposing running backs this year.

Daniel Herron, IND at TEN

The shining example of how bad Tennessee's run defense is? A combined 124 yards and two touchdowns allowed to Toby Gerhart and Jordon Todman last week on only 17 carries. Expect Herron to bounce back just fine from the complete and total stink bomb Indy laid in Texas.

Matt Asiata, MIN vs. CHI

Asiata's worst game in the last six weeks came against the Bears when Chicago dominated time of possession. In the other five contests, however, he's had no fewer than 57 total yards and piled up six rushing scores. In just the last four games since playing Minnesota the Bears have given up seven rushing scores. It's revenge time.

Doug Martin, TB vs. NO

Martin tallied 74 total yards in Tampa's first meeting with New Orleans, and it's no coincidence the Saints defense has gone on to allow the most total yards to running backs this season (2,498 to be exact). Prior to Green Bay dominating the clock and owning Josh McCown, Martin had rushed for 176 yards at 4.8 YPC and found the end zone once in the prior three games. He's reaching for that old "Muscle Hamster" and may finally find it this week.

Wide Receiver

Kelvin Benjamin, CAR at ATL

The behemoth rookie receiver has experienced an up-and-down second half of a stellar first season, but his peak in during that stretch came in the first meeting with Atlanta, when he owned its overmatched defensive backs for 109 yards and a score on nine grabs. The Falcons have allowed the most yards to opposing wideouts this season, and the Panthers may need a repeat Benjamin performance to claim the NFC South crown.

Golden Tate, DET at GB

Tate has not topped 100 yards in his last six contests and has just one touchdown all year in games opposite Calvin Johnson. That all has a strong chance to change this week. The Packers are averaging 41.1 points per game at home this season and likely will force Detroit to throw it plenty against a defense who's 21 touchdowns allowed to wide receivers are tied for most in the league.

Greg Jennings, MIN vs. CHI

Jennings has found the end zone in four of the last five weeks and has produced at least 52 yards or a touchdown in all but one of Minnesota's last nine games. That contest, a pathetic four-yard showing, came at the hands of the Bears. Sitting at 31st in passing yards allowed and last in TD through the air, Chicago will be hard-pressed to keep the savvy vet in check again.

Tight End

Antonio Gates, SD at KC

You were obviously playing Gates anyways, as he's tied for the most touchdowns among tight ends this year with 12. It's worth making the point, though, that Gates is flex-worthy in leagues that allow a tight-end option, as he's the de facto No. 1 target with Keenan Allen out. Moreover, with the playoffs on the line Gates needs 53 yards and one touchdown to hit the 10,000-yard and 100-touchdown plateaus for his career -- and it just so happens he's had at least 54 and a score in consecutive games.

Jason Witten, DAL

In three of the last four games the Redskins have allowed opposing top tight ends a combined 23 catches, 303 yards and four touchdowns. They simply don't cover the position. Witten has 159 yards and a score on 14 grabs the last two weeks and should have little trouble staying hot in this one.

DOWNGRADE

Quarterback

Philip Rivers, SD at KC

Since facing New England in Week 4, the Chiefs' swarming defense has limited Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and even Rivers himself to 220 yards or less passing and a combined five touchdowns in four games. Rivers is dealing with a serious back issue that likely will require surgery after the season and is again without Keenan Allen and likely Ryan Mathews. After huge road comebacks versus Baltimore and San Francisco in the last four weeks, Rivers' magic hat may be fresh out of bunnies when he takes the field in Arrowhead.

Running Back

Eddie Lacy, GB vs. DET

Lacy has been a bulldozing beast ever since Detroit's top-ranked run defense limited him to just 45 total yards and a lost fumble in Week 3. In the 12 subsequent games he's tallied 13 touchdowns and is riding an eight-game streak with at least 100 total yards. He's obviously a must-start. But this is also the week the fiercest front in football ends his streaking ways.

Tre Mason, STL at SEA

With just six touches prior to their first meeting, Mason's fresh legs were able to gouge Seattle for 85 yards and a score. Now that he's piled up 181 touches in 11 games he may not have the same juice against a Seahawks defense on a mission.

DeMarco Murray, DAL at WAS

While he's notched three TD the last two weeks, Murray has not been himself, as he's managed just 2.6 YPC in each contest. The surgically repaired hand won't keep him sidelined, but it may be making him tentative. The Redskins have given up the second fewest fantasy points to opposing tailbacks and are set up to drastically reduce the 221 total yards Murray blasted them with in their first meeting.

Wide Receiver

DeSean Jackson, WAS vs. DAL

The Cowboys have allowed just nine touchdowns to wide receivers this season, and four of those belong to the Cirque du Soleil act otherwise known as Odell Beckham. Dallas somehow just owned Andrew Luck and doesn't figure to have much trouble handling Robert Griffin, who was unable to throw a touchdown on the Eagles.

Sammy Watkins, BUF at NE

In two of the last three games Watkins has showings of 127 yards and 75 yards and a score. The third performance, however, was a measly 28 yards, or one more than he managed in his first showdown with Darrelle Revis and the Pats. As if that were not enough reason to bench him, the supremely talented rook managed just 105 yards in ALL of November. No bueno.

A.J. Green, CIN at PIT

Green played through an arm injury in the win over Denver, but that doesn't mean he should play in your fantasy lineup. Despite a prime matchup with a Steelers team that gives up big plays to wideouts by the truckload and let Green torch them for 224 yards just three weeks ago, the banged up star is too risky to chance with an injury that could limit his ability to snatch the ball.

Tight End

Travis Kelce, KC vs. SD

Only five defenses have allowed fewer yards to tight ends than San Diego this year, which has also given up just three TD to the position. Kelce has double figures in standard fantasy scoring in two of his last three games but managed just 33 yards in his first meeting with the Bolts.