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Run 'N' Shoot: The NFC Stinks

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

What the heck is going on in the NFC? After going 39-25 against the AFC in 2012 (with an average margin of victory of 15.1 points in the 39 wins), the NFC went 2-6 against the AFC in Week 3, with the only wins against hopeless doormats (Jaguars and Steelers). The Giants and Redskins look lost at 0-3. The 49ers, Packers, and Falcons are 1-2. 11 of the NFC's 16 teams have a losing record, while 11 of the 16 teams in the AFC have a winning record. The Colts beat the 49ers in SF. The Dolphins beat the Falcons. The Bills beat the Panthers. Is this just sample size variance?

What makes the AFC's sudden resurgence so weird, for me, is that the NFC has many more elite quarterbacks (the reason for its 2012 domination). Yes, the young AFC signal-callers have exceeded expectations (Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith, EJ Manuel, Jake Locker, and Terrelle Pryor have all played better than most would have predicted), but the story I see is that the NFC is suddenly filled with crummy defenses. The Redskins, Giants, Packers, Vikings, Falcons, Eagles and Lions can't stop anyone. Other than a small handful of teams, it seems nobody in the NFC can play defense.

When you're evaluating defensive performance, don't get stuck on name brands. To illustrate, check out the two teams tied for last in the NFL in sacks - the Steelers and the Giants. It's not 2010 any more, folks - these defenses stink. Things are particularly dire for the Steelers, as they're not only last in sacks, they're also the NFL's only team to have not forced a turnover. While we sometimes think of turnovers as random, the Steelers were inept at forcing turnovers in 2012 as well. It's rare that a team with an elite quarterback has been this far from being good.

The Steelers and Giants aren't the only big-name defenses not making plays. The 49ers (2 INTs, 1 FR, 7 sacks) and Texans (1 INT, 0 FR, 8 sacks) are on par with teams like the Chargers (1 INT, 0 FR, 6 sacks), Raiders (0 INTs, 1 FR, 10 sacks), and Jaguars (1 INT, 2 FR, 6 sacks). Yikes. SF apologists would note they've played three good offenses (Packers, Seahawks, and Colts), but if they can't whoop up on the Rams this week, then it's time to stop treating them as an every-week fantasy defense.

Aldon Smith entering rehab certainly doesn't help the 49ers cause. In fact, any script with the 49ers missing the playoffs probably included something like Smith morphing into a cross of Pacman Jones and Lindsay Lohan. That's a big reason why, of the 1-2 NFC teams that made the playoffs last year, I'm much more concerned about San Fran than I am about the Packers and Falcons.

Forgive the 49ers theme, but after watching them struggle so badly at home against the Colts two weeks after destroying the Packers, I'm not sure what to think. Are the Packers just that bad on defense? Are the Colts that good? Is Vernon Davis really that important to the 49ers offense? These are fascinating questions because it's rare to have any team have such a wide range of possible outcomes. After all, right now, anything from winning the Super bowl to finishing 6-10 wouldn't be surprising for the Niners.

It's a good time to be named Jordan Cameron. Or Cameron Jordan. Either way, you're good. You know all about Jordan Cameron - the young Browns tight end who is suddenly top-five in fantasy circles. But how about his reverse namesake, Cameron Jordan, the Saints young defensive end? With two sacks Sunday, he's the best reason I can give for the Saints shocking turnaround from a historically bad defense (they set the NFL record for yards allowed in 2012) to third in the NFC in scoring defense. Well, that and Rob Ryan joining Sean Payton on the sidelines (h/t Salfino). Say what you will about the Ryan brothers, they know how to coach defense. It's not just Rob's Saints, of course - the Jets defense under Rex Ryan is the best the NFL has to offer west of Seattle. I do expect some regression to the mean in New Orleans, but we all need to stop assuming the Saints defense will revert to its 2012 ways.

It's a good thing the fantasy industry is so obsessed with drafting early-round running backs, as there are never serviceable running backs for cheap in the middle or end of your auction/draft or on waivers. You know, guys like Joique Bell, Bernard Pierce, Knowshon Moreno, Jason Snelling, Bilal Powell, Brandon Bolden, Fred Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw and DeAngelo Williams. Seriously, can we all please learn our lesson for 2014? The Cleveland Browns are the new role model for fantasy football - running backs are fungible, get hurt constantly, and anyone can plod for 3.5 YPC, so there's no sense spending a first round pick on one.

More proof of the gradual phasing out of running backs in the NFL: no RB had two rushing TDs in Week 3 (yet Christian Ponder did), while seven guys had at least two receiving TDs. Of course, we all must start at least two running backs each week, so we have to figure out who to target in fantasyland. A few thoughts:

Buy ugly: CJ Spiller
Buy uglier: Stevan Ridley
Buy ugliest: David Wilson

If you've been snakebitten by one of these guys, spare me the sob stories - on one team, I have all three. Anyway, I remain bullish on these guys. Spiller's schedule will get better (his last two opponents, the Jets and Panthers, will each finish in the top five in run defense), the Giants can't play any worse, and more holes will open for Ridley as the Patriots offense opens up (esp. when Gronk returns). Of the three, I'm most concerned about Ridley, as the Patriots seem best-equipped to replace his expected production.

My top 10 fantasy running backs: Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Chris Johnson, Eddie Lacy, CJ Spiller.

If you woke from a ten-year coma before Week 1, didn't know Tom Coughlin had two Super Bowl rings, and could fire only one coach, would it be Coughlin or Greg Schiano? I don't know what's going on behind the scenes in Tampa, but at least Schiano went for it on fourth down on consecutive drives this past Sunday - a welcome change from his typical, caveman ways. Of course, the Bucs failed to convert both times and are facing a lost season. The Giants, meanwhile, look like they need a change, in much the same way the Eagles needed to move on from Andy Reid last year. Coughlin is 67 and doesn't seem to be getting through to his players.

I'm not ready to live in a world where Kenny Britt keeps his head on straight but can't produce on the football field.

The tip of my middle finger broke off while writing this article, leaving the bone exposed, but I'm not going to stop writing.

Admit it. Now that I mentioned the Saints DE, you're now unsure if the Browns TE is named Jordan Cameron or Cameron Jordan.

Have you checked out the Cowboys schedule? @SD, Den, Wash, @Phi, @Det, Min, @NO, BYE, @NYG, Oak, @Chi, GB, @Wash. Lots can change over the course of an NFL season, but it's hard to find a way to spin that schedule as anything but a dream for owners of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Of course, I suppose we can say that about anyone playing in the NFC East. This is why I'm bullish on all Giants despite the egg they just laid.

How do any defenders ever bite on a play-fake from Peyton Manning? Every Broncos run is a gift to the defense - you want them to run. Yet two Raiders crashed the line as Peyton faked a handoff, leaving nobody within 7 yards of Eric Decker for an early touchdown. Inexcusably stupid.

I'm not buying Santonio Holmes off one good game against a Bills secondary without three starters - that will be Holmes' best game of the season. I am buying Stephen Hill and Bilal Powell, though. Hill is a weekly fantasy starter as a WR3 in most formats, and Powell is the rare feature back with Christopher Ivory hurt again. Their upside isn't huge on the Jets, but you need floor in your lineup sometimes, too.

The Packers didn't have a 100-yard rusher in about 5,435 games before James Starks and Johnathan Franklin both did it in a backup role in successive weeks. Oddly, I think this bodes well for Eddie Lacy. The Packers look like they can run-block and they prefer one back, not RBBC. As he gets healthy after the Packers Week 4 bye, expect Lacy to keep the feature role and to finish as a top-10 fantasy running back. I wouldn't trade him for Ray Rice.

For me, Jason Snelling is an RB2 for as long as Steven Jackson is sidelined. If it's even close to a 50/50 timeshare with Jacquizz Rodgers, as it has been, then Snelling will get the better of it because his size ensures he's the better goal line option.

Peyton Manning has been nearly perfect through three weeks and it's not going to change. The Broncos not only play in the AFC West (with the bad Raiders and Chargers defenses, discussed above) but they also face the NFC East this year. I'm not selling high, here - I'm holding, even targeting, all Broncos. Heck, I might hold Matt Prater through the Broncos bye - he's going to lead the NFL in scoring, perhaps by a wide sum.

The Broncos and Seahawks are 3-0 ATS, while the Jaguars are 0-3. I'm sure Vegas is getting killed on all three teams; let's see if Vegas adjusts.

Follow me on Twitter, @MarkStopa, and don't forget to submit fantasy questions to me on Twitter via hashtag #stopalawfirm. I will give away five Rotowire subscriptions (one year) over the course of the NFL season to those who submit such questions. The first winner will be announced in next week's article, here.