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NFL Week 14 rundown

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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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2013 season record: 125-66-1
Last week: 8-8. Week 13 laid the Rock Bottom on my chances of finishing first in the experts’ rankings, although still maintain a first-place standing in the “clutch” picks. I know there's really nobody to blame for this but myself, well, I don't know, maybe the Buffalo Bills, the Boston Red Sox, or Mr. T or, or the Jets...

Who’s ready for some Week 14 action?!?! A rundown of this weekend’s slate:

Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati Bengals

The lowdown: The winner of this Queen City showdown will be in the driver’s seat for the AFC’s No. 3 seed. Considering the consolation prize is a date with Kansas City or Denver in the Wild Card round, securing this position is paramount.

Good luck trying to evaluate the Bengals. The Who-Deys have knocked off Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers this season, yet have come up empty against Brian Hoyer, Ryan Tannehill and Joe “Woah, I have more turnovers than touchdowns? Good thing the Ravens didn’t franchise tag me! LOLOL JK!” Flacco. (That’s his nickname, right?) At times, Andy Dalton looks like a CFL backup, but the mastery of A.J. Green and a solid running game negates Agent Orange’s carnage. Moreover, thought to be on their death bed with season-ending injuries to Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, the Cincinnati resistance has been better than ever, conceding a modest 50 points in the last three ballgames.

It’s this defensive dexterity that will carry Cincinnati in December against middling offenses like Baltimore, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and, yes, Indianapolis. They certainly have flaws, and Dalton’s, um, Dalton-ness will need to level out. However, a path is set for the Bengals to attain a 12-4 record, one that could vault them to a No. 2 seed.

While the Bengals maintain a two-game lead in the AFC North over the defending Super Bowl champs, the Colts have the benefit of a bit more breathing room, up three in the South division against a Tennessee team working with a backup quarterback. Not to say the Horseshoes are without their issues. The Indianapolis offense has been stagnant as of late, scoring 14 points or less in three of the past four games. And a resistance that proved tough in the first half of the season now ranks 22nd in the league in total defense.

The Colts are in definite need of shot of life heading into the postseason. A win in Cincinnati can go ways in that endeavor.

Line: Cincinnati -7, 43.5 points

Fantasy impact: The good: the long-awaited demotion of fantasy assassin Trent Richardson correlates to an uptick in opportunities for Donald Brown. The bad: Brown didn’t knock anyone’s socks off with 54 yards on 14 touches last week, and things don’t look much better this Sunday versus a Bengals defense surrendering the third-fewest points to backs. The ugly: following the Cincinnati tilt, Indianapolis faces a Houston squad that ranks third in total defense and a Kansas City defense that’s handing over just 17.8 points per game (fourth-best in the NFL). The uglier: without Reggie Wayne, the Colts passing attack has become stagnate, transferring the adversarial focus to shutting down Brown. Only start in deeper leagues as a flex play.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Colts win if… Brown can shoulder some of the offensive responsibility, the Indy secondary keeps Green in check.

The Bengals win if… The Cincy defensive front harasses an exploitable Indianapolis front line, Dalton’s Red Rifle persona shows up.

Prediction: Colts 28, Bengals 27

Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers

The lowdown: How bad are the Falcons? Green Bay is giving 3.5 points…without Aaron Rodgers. That bad.

In the wake of Gary Kubiak’s firing, the ax spotlight has turn to Atlanta’s Mike Smith. No doubt the Falcons have been the NFC’s most disappointing club, but getting rid of Smith would be absurd. Until this fall, the franchise had averaged 11.2 wins under Smith’s reign, including last season’s conference-best 13-3 record. Granted, Smith’s struggles during the playoffs (1-4) deserve scrutiny, and he’s not blameless for this year’s tribulations. Yet bouncing Smith from the A-T-L will postpone, not promote, turnaround for the Falcons in 2014.

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As for the Packers…poor Cheeseheads. There’s not enough beer and bratwurst in the state of Wisconsin to drown the sorrows that come with watching Matt Flynn. On the bright side, kudos to Green Bay for erring on the side of caution in regards to Rodgers. Easy to get lost in the now-now-NOW landscape of sports, and to a greater extent, society, but the Packers are clearly keeping the best long-term interests of Rodgers and the franchise in mind. As displayed in Washington, this is not always the case.

Line: Green Bay -3.5, 42 points

Fantasy impact: Envisioned to light up the sky in an already-explosive Falcons offense, injuries and a defective line have made Steven Jackson a dud in Atlanta in 2013. Although it’s been a disappointing fall for Jackson, value can still be derived from the Dirty Birds back in December. In his last two games, the 30-year-old has hit pay dirt three times, and while his efficiency is modest (3.8 yards per carry) the workload volume has translated to 163 total yards. Green Bay’s defense has not put forth much of a fight on the ground (125.9 yards per game, 26th in the league). He won’t post astonishing numbers, but Jackson warrants a Flex play in your lineup.

TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST

The Packers win if… Eddie Lacy goes nuts on Atlanta defense surrendering the third-most rushing yards in NFL, Matt Ryan is careless with the rock.

The Falcons win if… Did we mention Matt Flynn is starting for Green Bay?

Prediction: Falcons 23, Packers 20

Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots

The lowdown: Cleveland, Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo. That’s all that stands in the way of New England finishing the season at 13-3. Factoring in the inexperience of the Patriots receiving corps and losses of All-Pros Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, not too shabby.

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While the Patriots offense is hitting its stride, the defense is in scramble mode to alleviate it’s maligned front seven. The absence of Wilfork and Mayo has translated to 138.2 rushing yards allowed per game, second-worst in the league. In a sense, this figure’s severity is lessened by New England’s concession of 21.8 points per contest, 10th in the NFL. Unfortunately, if opponents can control the clock, that’s less time for Tom Brady and company to operate. A surge up front is crucial for the Pats’ chances in January. (One positive residual effect of New England’s run-stopping troubles: the camera shots of Bill Belichick cursing up a storm after allowing a rushing first down. Here’s a fun game: anytime such an event transpires, imagine Belichick dropping non-expletives in these situations. “That’s a bunch of malarkey, fellas! Sweet Moses, what a knuckleheaded course of actions!” WAY more entertaining than it should be…what’s that? Yes, I am single. How did you guess?

The Brownies might be 4-8, but actually a somewhat positive campaign for Cleveland. The team was able to unload the rotting carcass of Richardson for a first-round pick, and the Browns were delivered a lucky break that no team felt like taking a chance on Josh Gordon, a receiver who has emerged as a blue-chip performer. (Remember, Cleveland was making Gordon available during the trade deadline.) True, switching the 2012 third overall pick for a 2014 selection in the 20s would be viewed as a colossal blunder for most franchises, and the Browns are in desperate need of a field general despite using a first-round choice on the position just a season ago. But this is Cleveland we’re talking about, so certain concessions have to be made.

Line: New England -11.5, 44.5 points

Fantasy impact: Lining up across the Pats defense will be a coming-back-from-concussion Jason Campbell or trick-shot artist Alex Tanney. That is all. (Actually, it’s not. Is Tanney’s gig strictly a byproduct of said video? WhatIfSports.com Digital Content Coordinator Jake Westrich believes it is: While at Monmouth, Tanney set the NCAA record for passing touchdowns with 157 and the DIII record for passing yards with 14,249, but if you’re like me, you only know that from Googling his college stats five seconds ago. Fact is Tanney’s trick-shot video did more to market him than a prolific college career. Can’t help but wonder if he would have landed multiple mini-camp invites after going undrafted in 2012 if not for the trick-shot heroics.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Patriots win if… Brady keeps the ball away from Joe Haden, Gordon is kept under wraps.

The Browns win if… At this point, Cleveland’s shooting for losses, right? The second overall pick is still in reach. I’m assuming that’s why Tanney and Caleb Hannie were brought in.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Browns 13

Oakland Raiders at New York Jets

The lowdown: Selfishly, I’m hoping for the Jets to spiral into irrelevancy this December, a route that could cost Rex Ryan his job. Given the way Geno Smith is playing, not out of the question. Why this schadenfreude? Because Ryan would make for a hell of an addition to the FOX pregame crew. A genuinely witty, self-deprecating guy who also happens to be one of the best defensive minds in the game? Sign him up!

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If the Jets do come out on top, it will be a derivative of their front seven’s performance. Gang Green is holding opponents to a league-low 77 yards per game, a force that will come in hand against Oakland’s top-five rushing attack (133.1 yards per outing). Matt McGloin remains under center for the Raiders, yet will not be a threat in the passing game, putting all the more focus on stopping Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings.

Look for the Raiders to employ a similar defensive tactic against the Jets. For Oakland, losers of four of its past five, putting the kibosh on Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell is the primary goal. Considering Smith’s erraticism (more on this in a moment), taking the ball out of the backfield’s hands should correlate to success.

Speaking of Smith, what’s the deal with all this Jay-Z animosity? He gets raked over the coals for the questionable contract he secured Smith and the Robinson Cano-Seattle temporary impasse, and rightfully so. Yet when he hooks up Cano, he’s labeled as simply a figurehead in the signings? Haters gonna hate.

Line: New York -1.5, 40 points

Fantasy impact: The Silver and Black are playing the Jets this Sunday. The Jets have a man by the name of Geno Smith at quarterback. Geno Smith has 11 touchdowns and 23 turnovers this season. See where we’re going with this?

I suppose there’s a tad of reservation starting a Raiders defense that ranks 18th on the year in fantasy points and was smacked for seven touchdowns just a month ago. Also, the “West Coast team traveling East” postulate serves as a monkey wrench to this play. My counter: Geno Smith is the Jets starting quarterback. Available in 91 percent of FOXSports.com Fantasy Football leagues, feel free to start the Oakland D.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Raiders win if… McGloin runs an efficient game, the Oakland defense bends but doesn’t break.

The Jets win if… Oakland struggles under the “West Coast team traveling East” obstacle, Ivory and Powell minimize Smith’s role.

Prediction: Jets 13, Raiders 10

Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles

The lowdown: For you fantasy folks, this matchup is a gift from the gridiron gods. Matthew Stafford, rocking a conference-high mark of 319 passing yards per game, against a Philadelphia defense ranked last against aerial raids (296.8 yards per contest). On the other side is Nick Foles, he of 21 touchdowns and one turnover, facing a Detroit secondary that’s been exploitable, allowing 262.3 yards per game (26th in the league). This one should produce fireworks.

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Helping McCoy is the winter rejuvenation of LeSean McCoy. Following a strong six-week stretch to start the year, Philly’s up-tempo offense took its toll on McCoy at the season’s mid-point. However, since a shaky three-game stretch against the Cowboys, Giants and Raiders, McCoy has regained his mojo, ripping off 311 yards in the last three weeks. Foles has been remarkable for the Eagles, yet the catalyst for Chip Kelly’s scheme is the running game. With McCoy back in the saddle, Philadelphia will be a tough offense to tame.

Detroit’s assault has also been aided by recent revival on the ground. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have given Stafford a backfield threat for the first time in his Detroit tenure, and though the overall numbers don’t jump off the page (115.2 yards per game, 15th in the NFL), Bush and Bell have been efficient at 4.2 yards per rush. Moreover, both are proficient in the receiving arena as well. The duo does need to work on ball security, as the Lions lead the league with 11 fumbles (six lost). If these protection issues can be fixed? Watch out.

Line: Philadelphia -2.5, 54 points

Fantasy impact: Multiple inquiries on Twitter and email have concerned a “Foles or Stafford” dilemma. Not often we dissuade owners from starting an entity with 20 scores and only one turnover, and certainly won’t condemn such actions; nevertheless, Philadelphia is allowing a league-high in fantasy points to quarterbacks, and although Stafford has been prone to the pick as of late, remains a top-five fantasy arm. And if it’s any solace, I’m in a similar Stafford/Foles predicament in two leagues, so when I say this, I mean it with certitude: go with Stafford. The Philly field general has been good, but Stafford offers the higher ceiling of the two.

TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST

The Lions win if… Stafford and the passing game light up the sky, Detroit front seven keeps McCoy from doing too much damage.

The Eagles win if… At least two turnovers from Stafford, Foles and McCoy keep the Lions offense on the sidelines.

Prediction: Lions 33, Eagles 27

Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers

The lowdown: The Dolphins notched just their third win in the past 10 weeks to start the December festivities off. Unfortunately, their next opponents – Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady – likely won’t be as generous as the duo of Geno Smith and Matt Simms. Miami is still tied for the last Wild Card spot, and Mike Wallace has shaken off a rough first half to show signs of life (12 catches, 207 yards, two touchdowns in the last two weeks). For the Dolphins to stay in the playoff hunt, the team will need more from Lamar Miller (17 yards or less in three of the past four games) and Ryan Tannehill (four straight games with a pick.)

Pittsburgh is behind the eight ball, still in the Wild Card mix but on the outside looking in at the moment. Le’Veon Bell is finally showcasing his projected talent, racking up 234 total yards in the last two weeks, and Ben Roethlisberger’s rapport with his targets has noticeably improved throughout the season. Additionally, though it was abused at the beginning of the fall, the Steelers secondary has put to rest signs of age, ranking 11th in pass protection.

Regrettably, it’s just not there for Pittsburgh this year, as the Steel City has not risen to the challenge of other top teams. (The Steelers have a lone victory over a winning squad – a Week 11 victory over 7-5 Detroit.) The remaining slate is not the hardest of tasks: Miami, Cincinnati, Green Bay and Cleveland. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh will need to run the gamut in order to prolong its season past New Year’s.

Line: Pittsburgh -3, 41 points

Fantasy impact: This might run counter to your intuition, believing Big Ben’s recent exploits (289 yards per game, 13 touchdowns in five November games) versus Miami’s struggles (three victories in the past 10 weeks) would present an advantageous matchup. Digging deeper indicates otherwise: in spite of their woes in the win column, the Fins have been stout versus the pass, ranking ninth in the league at 221.7 yards per game and relinquishing the fourth-fewest fantasy points to QBs. Furthermore, Miami’s vulnerability up front (121.8 rushing yards per contest, 25th in the NFL) means Pittsburgh will keep it on the ground with Bell.

Sticking with Roethlisberger, many owners have inquired about the ramifications on dropping the Steelers quarterback. While he’s played well this campaign, his December forecast is worrisome, with trysts against top-10 resistances in Cincinnati and Cleveland. His name recognition makes parting a hard call, but one that should be made.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Steelers win if… “It's been shocking to me that my actions could have been perceived or have been perceived in any way as intentional in regard to my action on that play," Mike Tomlin said. "I would never do such a thing. I would never consider doing such a thing." Guys, next time your lady accuses you of doing something you clearly did, drop that dandy on her.

The Dolphins win if… Tannehill is safe with the pigskin, the Miami D restrains Bell.

Prediction: Steelers 24, Dolphins 13

Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The lowdown: The 3-9 Buccaneers welcome the 4-8 Bills into Tampa. Thank the Lord this game isn’t in London; it would have restarted the Revolutionary War.

Mike Glennon had a bit of a rough showing last week, although Carolina’s defense will do that to most opposing signal callers. The rookie quarterback has been impressive with his accuracy, and for the most part, has avoided the big mistake. Additionally, the loss of Doug Martin hasn’t helped his development. What I would like to see in this final month is the Buccaneers taking the training wheels off the N.C. State product. Glennon has been almost too safe with his passes, utilizing a dink-and-dunk approach rather than going downfield. This outlook is seen in Glennon’s 6.77 yards per attempt, 28th in the NFL. Given the franchise may venture an early-round pick on a quarterback in April, the next four weeks will be a tryout of sorts for Glennon’s 2014 prospects.

With an injury cutting into his freshman season in Buffalo, December can be a training tool for EJ Manuel as well. Manuel has decent in return, with five scores versus one interception, but he hasn’t been spectacular either, averaging just 203.3 passing yards per game. The Bills need to restock their receiving corps, but a strong backfield and a decent offensive line bestows a nice foundation for Manuel to foster growth. If Manuel can live up to his first-round forecast, Buffalo could be in the playoff conversation in 2014.

Speaking of Buffalo, how do we not have more Rob Ford stories emitting from Sunday’s Falcons-Bills date in Toronto? A hard-partying mayor plus one of the NFL’s best tailgating contingents should have produced at least six TMZ-esque stories, or at least one Winnebago going up in flames. Instead, all we get is Ford throwing down some wings. If that’s not enough conviction to keep the Bills in Buffalo over relocation up north, I don’t know what is.

Line: Tampa Bay -2.5, 42.5 points

Fantasy impact: Tim Wright is a hot waiver-wire add this week due to his matchup against the Bills, who have labored against tight ends this year. Don’t misconstrue the favorable platform as a thumbs-up for Wright as starter. In three of his last four games, the rookie out of Rutgers has finished with 19 receiving yards or less, and has crossed the goal line only twice on the season. I like his prospects for 2014. This week? Not so much. There are enough viable tight ends available to stay away from this flyer during playoff time.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Bills win if… Bobby Rainey is contained, C.J. Spiller carries over last week’s strong showing (149 rushing yards, touchdown).

The Buccaneers win if… It’s been awhile since Greg Schiano did something newsworthy, hasn’t it? Seems like we’re due for a fight with the team trainer or stealing his assistants’ children’s Christmas lists.

Prediction: Bills 21, Buccaneers 14

Kansas City Chiefs at Washington Redskins

The lowdown: Try not to read too much into the Chiefs’ three-game skid. Playing Peyton Manning twice in two weeks will do that to ya, and Philip Rivers is performing at a career level this season. True, the defense has struggled mightily in that span, but considering the unit’s stats were inflated by a five-game stretch against Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Fitzpatrick, perhaps it wasn’t fair to label the resistance as a top squad in the first place. Luckily for the Chiefs, the remaining schedule isn’t too daunting, putting some juice back in their step heading into January.

Little on the sunny side for Washington this season. A majority of the clouds have hovered over the health of Robert Griffin III, hiding the plethora of other roster deficiencies. The defense is sorely lacking in depth, and it’s supposed playmakers somewhat plateaued their aptitude this season. The running game has been strong (a league-best 150.4 yards per game), yet the offensive line has struggled in pass protection. Moreover, while RG3 has scuffled with accuracy (60.9 completion percentage, 20th in the league), his receiving ranks haven't helped. For Washington to compete for the NFC East next season, major overhauls are needed.

By the way, special thanks to referee Jeff Triplette. Sure, your crew’s blunder at the end of Sunday night’s game cost Washington dearly. On the bright side, the mistake saved us from another week of RG3 nonsense, and in that regard, we are deeply indebted to your ineptitude.

Line: Kansas City -3, 44.5 points

Fantasy impact: From a positional matchup standpoint, Dwayne Bowe against a Washington secondary giving up 281 receiving yards per tilt seems enticing. Alas, while Bowe has been adequate as of late, Kansas City will likely keep it on the ground. Only play in deeper formats.

TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST

The Chiefs win if… Alfred Morris can’t get going, forcing RG3 to pass; Kansas City goes back to its run-first offense (Alex Smith has averaged 42 attempts per game in the last three weeks.)

The Fightin’ Shanahans win if… Morris keeps Jamaal Charles off the field, Smith can’t get the offense going.

Prediction: Chiefs 30, Fightin’ Shanahans 16

Minnesota Vikings at Baltimore Ravens

The lowdown: The Ravens control their own destiny as the final Wild Card. Holding this spot won’t be easy, with Baltimore’s final three games against Detroit, New England and Cincinnati, putting the onus on this weekend’s battle with three-win Minnesota. Naturally, the Ravens should make this look much harder than it should.

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Which begs the question: what type of leeway is Flacco conferred? He was the stimulus for Baltimore’s Super Bowl triumph last season, and this year’s offensive problems are mainly a result from the offensive line and backfield. The counter: I’m expecting slightly better production from my $100 million investment than a 59.8 completion percentage (25th), 15 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and seven fumbles (two lost). Flacco’s proponents point to his knack in the big-game atmosphere. This facility will be needed for the Ravens to continue their title defense into the postseason.

Minnesota, Minnesota, what can we write about Minnesota…hey, are you guys aware of this Adrian Peterson cat? He’s pretty good…um…former Pro Bowler Matt Cassel will likely start for the Vikings this weekend, so there’s that…man, this team is something awful.

Line: Baltimore -7, 42.5 points

Fantasy impact: Even with Torrey Smith’s footing as the clear-cut Option A for Baltimore, there’s more than enough love to go around for Jacoby Jones to merit starting consideration. The Ravens running game is officially running on fumes at a league-worst 2.9 yards per attempt (R.I.P. Fantasy Ray Rice – Some stars shine so bright that they burn out before their time), which should mean an amplified amount of air forays against a credulous Vikings defense. Targeted 13 times in the past two weeks, Jones is a sneaky start in deeper formats.

TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST

The Ravens win if… Baltimore’s defense eats up Cassel and company, Ray Rice takes advantage of a Minnesota D allowing 120.6 yards per game.

The Vikings win if… At least Christian Ponder’s not playing.

Prediction: Ravens 31, Vikings 23

Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos

The lowdown: Nice to see John Fox is back on the sidelines. Jack Del Rio did a commendable job in Fox’s downtime, and by all accounts Del Rio is an agreeable, pleasant man, but it couldn’t have been reassuring for Broncos fans to see a guy who was fired by the Jaguars running the show. Of course, Fox got the boot from Carolina and apparently that Belichick guy was terminated by the Browns, so what the hell do I know.

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No need to wax poetic on Peyton Manning and the Denver offense, if only to mention that the attack added a dynamic component in the development of back Montee Ball. The Broncos defense is another matter. Von Miller is starting to show semblance of his former self, but the Denver D remains a work in progress. A case could be made to belittle the elevated amount of yards allowed, in the sense that Denver often finds itself in a prevent state thanks to its juggernaut offense. There’s virtue to this perspective. What can’t be depreciated is the unit’s 26.4 points per game, 26th in the league. Most of this stems from Denver’s beat-up and beleaguered secondary, though the front seven hasn’t been a paragon of strength. The overall play of the defense will need to be raised in order for the Broncos to reach the Meadowlands in January.

Tennessee is in the playoff hunt in the same way I have a shot at Jennifer Lawrence. Technically it’s true…but c’mon. The Titans have won twice since September ended, and any strides made by Jake Locker have been impeded by his season-ending injury. I wish I could give Tennessee fans more hope, because Nashville is one of my favorite cities in the country; alas, I can’t envision the Titans making this one a contest.

Line: Denver -13, 49 points

Fantasy impact: Thanks a lot, Denver. After keeping the reins on him the entire season and subsequently slaughtering thousands of fantasy drafts, you let Ball loose in Week 13. With Knowshon Moreno’s ankle problem still present, owners now are weighing the risks and rewards of rolling with Ball in the playoffs. Damn you, Denver. Damn you!

Proprietors of Moreno should insert him in the lineup as usual. In deeper leagues, give Ball the go ahead, but keep him on the bench in most standard formats.

TV: CBS – 4:05 PM EST

The Broncos win if… Manning does his thing, Moreno and Ball dominate over a middling Tennessee rushing defense.

The Titans win if… Chris Johnson turns back the clo…sorry, I’m just blowing your bagpipe…

Prediction: Broncos 38, Titans 17

St. Louis Rams at Arizona Cardinals

The lowdown: Be honest – did last week’s loss to San Francisco change your stance on the Rams? No, right? Good! Let’s just run-back last week’s synopsis on St. Louis to see if it still applies: Think what this Rams team could be capable of with a decent field general. The defense is loaded with studs like Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis, Chris Long and Janoris Jenkins. Zac Stacy is looking like highway robbery as a fifth-round pick, averaging 88.6 rushing yards in his past seven games. Tavon Austin is starting to live up to his preeminent reputation, and the receiving corps is extremely deep. I know Sam Bradford wasn’t terrible before going down this season, although I doubt he’s the one to lead the Rams into the future. With such a talented roster, hopefully St. Louis snags one of the plethora of college QBs coming out this spring.

Arizona’s four-game tear was cooled off in the City of Brotherly Love last weekend. Worse, Carson Palmer’s elbow is giving him all types of problems. Palmer is expected to start, but word out of the desert says the Cardinals quarterback may be unable to finish. A shame, too, as Arizona was starting to find its mark with the development of neophytes Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. The Cardinals defense is one of the best in the league, helping calm the choppy waters the offense could find itself in. Nevertheless, just a game out of the final NFC Wild Card position, getting Palmer healthy is critical for the Cards.

Line: Arizona -7, 41.5 points

Fantasy impact: Considering Jared Cook averaged just 38.8 yards per outing in the subsequent 11 games, it’s fair to label his tour de force in the season opener (seven receptions, 141 yards, two touchdowns) as a one-week wonder. Luckily for Cook, St. Louis travels to the desert to take on Arizona, the club that facilitated his bountiful harvest in Week 1. The Cardinals’ subjection at the hands of Cook was not an anomaly, for Arizona is giving up the most fantasy points to tight ends on the season. Slated to start in only a quarter of FOXSports.com Fantasy Football leagues, make sure Cook is implemented in your TE spot.

TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST

The Cardinals win if… Arizona’s top-five rush defense (83.3 yards per game) stops Stacy, Palmer’s elbow holds up.

The Rams win if… “Now warming up on the Arizona sidelines is Drew Stanton…”

Prediction: Cardinals 17, Rams 14

New York Giants at San Diego Chargers

The lowdown: New York has won five of its last six games. San Diego has lost four of the past five. Nevertheless, it’s the Chargers who are gunning for a playoff spot and the Giants who will likely be left out in the cold. The NFL, she is a fickle mistress.

The rejuvenation of Philip Rivers has been the story out of San Diego, with the 32-year-old (Happy Birthday, Phil!) owning career-bests in completion percentage and yards per game. Moreover, the combo of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead has been an efficient effort. The success on the ground and in the air has equated to 401.6 yards per game, fourth-highest in the league.

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Unfortunately for the Chargers, this has not connected to touchdown excursions. Despite the yardage accrual, San Diego is averaging a pedestrian 23.3 points per game (16th). The Chargers need to take advantage of their red-zone opportunities to harbor hopes of punching a playoff ticket.

The Giants have held their own scoring ordeals - the G-Men’s 19.8 points are second-lowest in the NFC. Eli Manning has not been on the same page with his receivers all season, and injuries have taken their toll on the harvest of the backfield. However, with Andre Brown serving as a pulse to the dormant unit, New York is better than its numbers indicate. Coupled with the team’s experience, the Giants are more than armed for taking down the Chargers.

Line: San Diego -3, 47 points

Fantasy impact: Owned in scarce 4.3 percent of FOXSports.com leagues, Ladarius Green is steadily making a name for himself with the Lightning Bolts. The second-year tight end out of Louisiana-Lafayette has become a factor with the venerable Antonio Gates dealing with a hamstring injury, and Green is making the most of the opportunity, snagging nine balls in the last three games for 206 yards and two touchdowns. With Gates far from full strength, Green will be leaned on again this weekend versus a Giants team that ranks 24th against fantasy tight ends, making him a top-15 play.

TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST

The Chargers win if… Rivers’ good times continue, Manning fails to prey on the 28th-ranked San Diego pass defense.

The Giants win if… New York contains Woodhead in the receiving game, Manning keeps the turnovers to a minimum.

Prediction: Chargers 27, Giants 17

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers

The lowdown: Following consecutive losses at the start of November, San Francisco has regained its mojo with wins over Washington and St. Louis. Moreover, in a year riddled with parity more than ever, there’s nothing aberrational concerning eight wins heading into the final month. HOWEVER, one can certainly question the Niners’ chances, or lack thereof, in January. For a look at the game log showcases a startling trend: San Francisco can’t beat the big boys, losing to Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and New Orleans. In fact, the Niners’ only triumph against a winning team came versus divisional foe Arizona. This weekend’s rendezvous with the Seahawks, a squad that laid the smackdown in the teams’ first meeting of the season, will be a litmus test for San Francisco’s postseason odds.

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Some semblance of consistency from Colin Kaepernick will improve the team’s prospects. The defense has been the foundation for San Francisco’s fortunes the past few seasons, and the return of Aldon Smith cements this unit’s reputation heading into the winter. Likewise, in a pass-happy league, the 49ers remain one of the few attacks that can successfully move it on the ground (130.6 yards per outing). Alas, as Kaepernick goes, so go the Niners. In wins this season, the third-year signal caller owns 16 total scores versus three turnovers, averaging 227 passing yards per game and a 62.1 completion percentage. In losses? Not so much: a 2-to-8 TD/TO ratio, hitting just half of his intended targets for a scant 124 passing yards per contest. For San Francisco to challenge Seattle for the division throne, it’s imperative for Kaepernick to be at his best.

Seattle’s signal caller is proof that such security woes can be alleviated. Known for his proficiency as a game manager, Russell Wilson didn’t fit the bill in the Seahawks first seven games, plagued by Butterfingers Syndrome. Wilson was guilty of eight fumbles in that span, with five recovered by opponents. Given the Wisconsin product also had four picks in said time frame and it was fair to wonder if Wilson’s development had arrested.

The past four games have put those fears to rest. In the past month, Wilson has not put the pigskin on the ground. Better yet, Wilson has found the end zone 15 times in the past six contests, showcasing the aptitude needed to take his club to the Meadlowlands in January. Coupled with the ground stylings of Marshawn Lynch (80.8 yards per game), the Seahawks have more than enough firepower to be a threat on offense.

Line: San Francisco -2.5, 41 points

Fantasy impact: An auspicious 2013 debut for Michael Crabtree last week, at least in terms of yardage production (68 yards). Unfortunately, that’s where the positivity ends. Mindful of suspensions to Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, the Seattle secondary does not spur candidacy for wide receivers, holding the position to the third-lowest output in fantasy. Crabtree finished with a scant two receptions last week on four targets, numbers that won’t necessarily inflate thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s inconsistency. Also, I just don’t like the guy. Keep him on the pine. (Kidding about my feelings toward Crabtree, but you would be amazed how many emails/comments accuse me of personal vendettas directed at players, teams and/or cities. All nonsense, there’s no hate in this heart. Well, aside from people who play with their phones behind home plate. They’re the worst, and may a foul ball or spilled beer find its way onto their mobile devices.)

TV: FOX – 4:25 PM EST

The Seahawks win if… Wilson and Lynch control the clock, Seattle forces Kaepernick into ill-advised ventures.

The 49ers win if… San Fran defense keeps Wilson on his toes, Gore shakes off the three-game rust.

Prediction: Seahawks 23, 49ers 21

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

The lowdown: Winner takes control of a No. 2 seed, loser is looking at a Wild Card spot. Drew Brees vs. Carolina’s league-best defense, Cam Newton against a New Orleans resistance allowing just 19.2 points per game. Riverboat Ron facing Sean Payton. In the Big Easy, meaning more Rob Ryan post-game Bourbon Street photos. This should be a dandy.

FANTASY 15 PODCAST

John Halpin hosts his fantasy baseball podcast throughout the 2014 MLB season on iTunes and SoundCloud.

New Orleans is looking to bounce-back from Monday night’s 34-7 shellacking at the hands of Seattle. Most of the game bordered on aberrational for the Saints, who looked uncomfortable early and failed to get out of that funk. However, it had to be a tad disconcerting for Saints fans to see Brees’ struggle with the deep ball. Kenny Stills, while showing flashes of brilliance, has been inconsistent in his rookie year, while Lance Moore and Robert Meachem haven’t been much to right home. With Marques Colston not producing at his historical pace, someone in the New Orleans receiving corps needs to step up to complement Jimmy Graham. If this partner in crime fails to manifest, the Saints’ January stay could be short.

Riding an eight-game winning streak, the Panthers simply need to follow their game plan. Mainly, keep the ball on the ground and let Newton do his thing. The defense’s performance has granted a level of creativity and comfort for the third-year signal caller, room that has been severely lacking in his first two years in Carolina. This breathing room negates the lack of weapons in his receiving arsenal and taken the focus off his air enterprises. Still viewed with skepticism by a large contingent of the football community, this game could provide the platform for the Panthers to announce their presence.

Line: New Orleans -3, 45.5 points

Fantasy impact: No WAY Brees delivers consecutive stinkbombs. Even in deeper leagues, the juice is not worth the squeeze with the Panthers defense.

TV: NBC – 8:30 PM EST

The Panthers win if… Newton puts forth one of those video-game type performances, the Carolina running game keeps Brees on the sidelines.

The Saints win if… Again, just don’t see Brees falling in back-to-back weeks on the big stage. Or it could just be my desire to see Ryan partying hard on Bourbon, one of the two…

Prediction: Saints 28, Panthers 21

Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears

The lowdown: Hate to apply “must-win” status with three weeks left in the season, yet the label holds true for both crews. A Bears loss could possibly give Detroit a two-game lead in the division, and while the consequences are not as dire for the Cowboys, the ease of Philadelphia’s schedule puts a burden on winning this ballgame.

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Coming off a three-score game, DeMarco Murray’s contributions are needed more than ever. Injuries to Chicago’s front line have made the Windy City atrocious against the run, conceding a league-high 153.6 yards per game. The Cowboys back is on a bit of a hot streak, averaging 79.3 yards per outing in the last three weeks. Although Dallas is a pass-happy offense, look for the Cowboys to hop on the back of Murray.

Josh McCown is likely starting on Monday night as Jay Cutler continues to be plagued by an ankle woe. McCown has been solid in relief of Cutler, and has posted impressive numbers in the box score. Nevertheless, like Dallas, Chicago is placing its aspirations in its running back. Matt Forte is on pace for career-bests in rushing and receiving yards this season, and has been a sound rock in the absence of Cutler. The Cowboys defense ranks last in yards per game, including its pursuit of opposing backs (126.7 yards per game, 27th in the league). A consistent performance from Forte will not only fuel Chicago’s attack, but also keep Tony Romo and the explosive Cowboys offense off the field.

Line: Chicago -1, 48.5 points

Fantasy impact: Hell, if McCown comes down with the flu, I would endorse third-stringer Jordan Palmer. That’s how fantasy-friendly the Dallas secondary has been to opposing signal callers this season, evidenced in a concession of 294.9 passing yards per game (second-worst in the NFL). McCown, available in a majority of FOXSports.com leagues, gets the starting nod.

TV: ESPN – 8:30 PM EST

The Cowboys win if… The defense doesn’t completely collapse against Forte, Romo stays strong in potentially-rough weather.

The Bears win if… Chicago receivers take advantage of Dallas’ susceptibility over the middle, McCown’s security with the ball continues.

Prediction: Cowboys 35, Bears 24

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Packers, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Vikings, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Chargers, Texans, Reggie Wayne, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Josh McCown, Carson Palmer, Antonio Gates, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Steven Jackson, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Alex Smith, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Lance Moore, Reggie Bush, Jay Cutler, Jordan Palmer, Leon Hall, Robert Meachem, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Chris Long, Matt Ryan, Jerod Mayo, Matt Flynn, Mike Wallace, Jared Cook, Matthew Stafford, Michael Crabtree, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy, Andre Brown, Joe Haden, Ryan Mathews, Geno Atkins, Sam Bradford, Joique Bell, Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson, Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Torrey Smith, Mike Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Ladarius Green, Robert Griffin, Matt Simms, Case Keenum, Alex Tanney, Josh Gordon

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