GET IT? BECAUSE THEIR BEST PLAYER HAS A SUBSTANCE-ABUSE PROBLEM AHAH HILARIOUS!
That “joke” will have 8,000 variations by the end of the day. Please, don’t be a statistic. Take a stand against Twitter banality. It may seem like a futile undertaking, but with a little team work, we can make the dream work.
Who’s ready for some football? A rundown of Week 9 action:
Last Week’s Record: 11-2
2013 Record: 81-39 (And still the top “clutch” picker! If that doesn’t woo the ladies, I’m not sure what will.)
Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills
The lowdown: I love Kansas City: Arrowhead Stadium has one of the best fan experiences in football, the barbeque is like kissing God and my body is still recovering from a weekend at the Power and Light District in 2011.
HOWEVAH…let’s tap the brakes on the Chiefs fervor as the NFL’s best team. Kansas City has yet to beat a club with a winning record, and even under the game-management perspective, Alex Smith hasn’t been particularly efficient (59.1 completion percentage, 81.1 QB rating). The Chiefs’ winning ways should continue on Sunday, as sore ribs could keep Thad Lewis on the sidelines, putting Tuel Time or Matt Flynn under center for Buffalo. Coupled with C.J. Spiller’s ongoing high-ankle sprain, I don’t see the Bills surmounting much of a charge against a KC defense surrendering a league-low 12.3 points per game. Simply be aware that this Kansas City squad is far from infallible.
In truth, Buffalo hasn’t been that bad this season, with four of its five losses coming by a touchdown or less. Head coach Doug Marrone has been impressive in his first year at the helm, and the Bills have the building blocks to be a playoff contender in 2014. Unfortunately, it’s hard to project much of substance when E.J. Manuel is in the infirmary. Cheer up, Buffalo. You’ve waited 14 years for a postseason berth. What’s shelving that payout one more fall going to hurt?
Key injuries: KC WR Dwayne Bowe – Groin (Questionable), KC RB Jamaal Charles – Knee (Probable); BUF QB EJ Manuel – Knee (Out), BUF RB C.J. Spiller – Ankle (Questionable)
Line: Kansas City -3, 40 points
Fantasy impact: Smith is a tempting play in Week 9 with six teams on bye and the KC QB facing a Bills defense that has allowed a league-high 20 passing touchdowns. Though it’s not the worst of moves, Smith only has two passing scores in his last four outings, and his receiving corps has not been much assistance. Only start in deeper formats.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Bills win if… The Buffalo defensive front hassles Smith, Spiller and Fred Jackson power the offensive attack.
The Chiefs win if… A battered Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel or Matt Flynn will be Buffalo’s quarterback. So…
Prediction: Chiefs 24, Bills 13
Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys
The lowdown: Can we get Adrian Peterson a serviceable field general before his prime is kaput? Watching AP work with the Ponder/Cassel/Freeman trifecta from QB hell is reminiscent of Mila Kunis dating Macaulay Culkin. Cat deserves better.
Minnesota’s quarterbacks have garnered the brunt of criticism for the squad’s 1-6 record, and that group certainly warrants condemnation. What has gone unscathed is the Vikings defense, odd since this detachment has been the catalyst for the team’s downfall. Harrison Smith’s injury and Antoine Winfield’s retirement have decimated the secondary, evidenced in the admission of 287.9 yards per contest (fourth-worst in the NFL). The rush resistance hasn’t been much better, giving up 113.7 yards per game (21st). These figures make it easy to understand how the Vikings are allowing 32.1 points per outing, third-worst in the league. If Minnesota hopes to salvage its season, its resistance will need to provide some semblance of hindrance.
It’s been a turbulent first half for the Cowboys. DeMarco Murray’s knee injuries reemerged, raising the question on the back’s long-term outlook. Statistically speaking, the defense is the worst-ranked unit in the league. Oh, and they’re coming off a loss in which, with a minute to go, they had a 99 percent chance of winning.
Not that the first eight games would be classified as a disaster. Dallas sits atop the downtrodden NFC East with a 4-4 record, Tony Romo has been one of the more proficient quarterbacks this campaign (277 yards per game, 18 touchdowns, five interceptions) and rookie wideout Terrance Williams is a fledgling star.
As for the Dez Bryant blow-up….hypocrisy is one of my pet peeves, right up there with marathoners who post “26.2” stickers on cars and media personalities laughing at unfunny jokes on pre-game sports shows. Yasiel Puig is chastised as a me-first player for showing emotion, yet when Matt Carpenter displays the same sentiment, it’s because he’s “gritty” and “passionate.” Not that I’m condemning someone like Carpenter celebrating, just that we’re becoming increasingly reliant on pre-existing stereotypes to label every action or deed.
Keeping that rant in mind, can’t say I’m down with the, “When Tom Brady yells at his teammates, he’s inspiring them, but when Bryant does it, he’s selfish,” discourse. You know what? Tom Brady CAN bark at his teammates without censure. Such clout is given to guys like Brady. Dude has five Super Bowl appearances. Dez has five babysitters keeping him out of trouble.
I’m not proclaiming that Bryant is a bad egg because of his reaction, yet he’s not blameless, either. Whoops, getting the “Joel, stay in your lane” signal, so back to our scheduled program…
Key injuries: MIN WR Greg Jennings – Knee (Questionable); DAL WR Miles Austin – Hamstring (Questionable), DAL RB DeMarco Murray – Knee (Probable)
Line: Dallas -11, 47.5 points
Fantasy impact: I don’t care if they’re taking on Christian Ponder. No way I’m backing a team that looked like a turnstile in its last game. In fact, pretty sure Calvin Johnson just hauled in another catch over Brandon Carr. Might seem like an astute play, but stay away from a Dallas unit giving up a league-high 422.5 yards per game.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Cowboys win if… Murray and Joseph Randle prove a viable complement to Romo, the Dallas D employs a bend-but-don’t-break approach on Peterson.
The Vikings win if… Ponder can minimize the mistakes, Peterson goes nuts.
Prediction: Cowboys 34, Vikings 24
Tennessee Titans at St. Louis Rams
The lowdown: Following a 90-yard outing against the Chargers in Week 3, it’s been tough sledding for Chris Johnson, with the Tennessee back averaging a scant 28 yards in his last four outings. The Nashville faithful may doubt the merit of its backfield, yet Johnson hasn’t faced the easiest of slates in that span, as the Jets, Chiefs, Seahawks and Niners, the past four opponents for the Titans, are all top-10 defenses. Look for Johnson to get things back on track against a Rams front seven relinquishing 116 ground yards per game (23rd in the NFL) this weekend.
A glance at the Rams’ offensive personnel explains the lack of damage on the scoreboard, and Sam Bradford’s injury hasn’t helped this cause. What’s head-scratching is St. Louis’ misfortunes on the other side of the ball. The Rams have a solid, engaging core in Robert Quinn, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Janoris Jenkins, yet the team ranks in the bottom third in most defensive categories. It hasn’t helped that the offense has occasionally put the D in compromising positions, but for St. Louis to stay above water in the second half, it’s imperative the Rams seal some of the gaping holes up front.
Key injuries: STL DE Robert Quinn – Illness (Probable); TEN S Michael Griffin – Quadriceps (Questionable), TEN WR Justin Hunter – Finger (Probable)
Line: Tennessee -2.5, 39 points
Fantasy impact: Owned in just 26 percent of FOXSports.com fantasy football leagues, Nate Washington is quietly on pace for a 1,000-yard campaign. The veteran wideout has been silent in October, yet that’s mostly a derivative of backup Ryan Fitzpatrick and an ailing Jake Locker under center rather than Washington’s personal struggles. For those looking for upside, Washington has been targeted at least eight times in four of the past five games, and Locker is inching closer to full strength. The Rams defense is not one that facilitates big fantasy days, but with six teams on bye, Washington is a good replacement play in Week 9.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Rams win if… Zac Stacy continues his strong display (344 yards in the last four games), Rams secondary pesters Locker.
The Titans win if… Kellen Clemens is still the Rams starting QB, right? Right…
Prediction: Titans 21, Rams 10
New Orleans Saints at New York Jets
The lowdown: The Battle of the Ryans! Not as soul-sucking as the Manning Bowl, and infinitely more entertaining than the Clash of the McCowns.
Without Darrelle Revis, the New York defense was expected to struggle mightily. Instead, the Jets are allowing just 315 yards per game, sixth-lowest in the NFL. This includes a rush resistance that is suffocating the opposition to a league-low 78 yards per contest and a secondary that, aside from Week 8’s no-show versus Andy Dalton, had kept signal callers in check. This defensive proficiency has given breathing room for neophyte Geno Smith to grow. A second-round pick out of West Virginia, Smith has been erratic under center, finding the end zone ten times but owning 16 turnovers. The rookie is coming off an especially rough outing, tossing two pick-sixes to the Bengals and accumulating only 167 yards of total offense. Inconsistency is to be expected, yet Smith will need to find some semblance of stability for the Jets to remain in the playoff hunt.
Smith won’t get a respite this week, as the Saints defense has been a formidable company in the first half of the year. Revitalized by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans is yielding a meager 17.1 points per outing, fourth-lowest in the NFL. The Big Easy defense has been particularly stout against the pass, with its admission of 222 yards per game the ninth-best in the league. An energized front seven has been the catalyst for this turnaround, with linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive end Cameron Jordan leading the way. While the Saints offense remains a juggernaut, the unexpected defensive dexterity makes this squad a nightmare matchup.
Key injuries: NO TE Jimmy Graham – Foot (Questionable), NO S Kenny Vaccaro – Concussion/Back (Questionable); NYJ WR Santonio Holmes – Hamstring (Doubtful), NYJ CB Antonio Cromartie – Hip (Probable)
Line: New Orleans -5.5, 45.5 points
Fantasy impact: Drew Brees hit pay dirt five times in Week 8’s victory over Buffalo, but the big surprise was the output from rookie Kenny Stills. Entering the day with a humble 198 yards on the season, Stills finished Sunday with 129 yards and two touchdowns. Stills remains a raw talent, as his route running leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, his speed gives the Saints a much-needed deep-ball component, one that could open even more room for the New Orleans receiving backfield of Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. With Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston having a down year, Stills could be a viable play in the second half of the season.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Jets win if… Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell keep Brees off the field, Jets limit Graham over the middle.
The Saints win if… Brees does his thing, Geno can’t secure the pigskin.
Prediction: Saints 28, Jets 14
San Diego Chargers at Washington Redskins
The lowdown: I’m sure America is well aware of this tune, but for those unacquainted with the goodness that is Captain Q.B. and the Big Boys, feel free set this song in the background for the following paragraph.
The Chiefs and Broncos have stolen the spotlight in the AFC West, yet the Chargers have quietly put together a solid resume, winning four of its past six games. Philip Rivers (more below) and Antonio Gates are in the midst of rejuvenation, Danny Woodhead has been a sturdy receiving complement and the defense, after stumbling out of the gate, is holding opponents to 16.6 points per game in its last five outings. Surpassing both Kansas City and Denver is likely too tall of an order, but as the season creeps into November, San Diego is clinging to the last Wild Card spot. With a manageable schedule ahead, don’t be surprised if the Chargers are still playing in January.
At 2-5, prolonging the season until that interval would seem like a reach for Washington. Luckily for the Fightin’ Shanahans, they play in the impotent NFC East, where such a record places them just 1 ½ games back of first.
Make no mistake, the defense has been dreadful, with only Jacksonville conceding more points than the Washington D. However, an about-face for Washington’s prospects lie with Robert Griffin III. In RG3’s breakout campaign, the former Heisman winner committed a sparse seven turnovers while finding the end zone 27 times. In 2013? Not so much, with 11 turnovers through seven games against nine scores. Moreover, Griffin is hitting just 59 percent of his intended targets, a sharp drop from last season’s 65.6 completion percentage. Griffin’s mobility was the chief concern entering this fall, but the enigma regarding his hands and arm will need to be solved for Washington to make a comeback in the second half.
Key injuries: SD S Eric Weddle – Toe (Probable), SD WR Eddie Royal – Toe (Questionable); WAS WR Pierre Garcon – Calf (Probable)
Line: San Diego -1, 51 points
Fantasy impact: How about these apples: the San Diego signal caller is on pace for 4,873 yards and 34 touchdowns, and only Peyton Manning has a higher QB rating through the first half of the season. Not bad for someone that went unselected in the majority of FOXSports.com fantasy football drafts.
Rivers should continue this aerial virtuosity against a Washington resistance that has been anything but, allowing a conference-worst 32.7 points per game. A young and inexperienced receiving corps, as well as the venerable-but-vulnerable Gates, may exude a perception of unsustainability toward Rivers’ success. The counter would be the Chargers running assault, or lack thereof, should translate to the passing game remaining the preferred method of attack for the Lightning Bolts. As a corollary, view Rivers as a top-five entity going forward. In a related note, congrats to Rivers and his wife for the birth of their seventh child. Mrs. Rivers is allegedly doing fi…wait, what? SEVEN CHILDREN?!?! I can’t even knot a tie, let alone take care of another human being. This dude has seven of them? Dang. Well done, sir.
TV: CBS – 1:00 PM EST
The Fighting Shanahans win if… RG3 replicates his terrain destruction from Weeks 6 and 7, the “West Coach team traveling East” obstacle.
The Chargers win if… Rivers keeps the good times rolling, Ryan Mathews takes advantage of Washington’s rush defense (30th with 123.4 ground yards per game).
Prediction: Fighting Shanahans 21, Chargers 20
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers
The lowdown: I’ll tepidly buy injuries as the catalyst for Atlanta’s offensive distress (Matt Ryan’s four interceptions last week, a league-worst 62.4 rushing yards per game). This excuse doesn’t fly for the defense, one that ranks 22nd in pass yards, rush yards and points allowed, including 27 points to a non-threatening Cardinals offense last weekend. Steven Jackson is back and Roddy White is nearing return, but unless the Dirty Birds find a way to plug up the gaping holes on defense, it will be for naught.
On the opposite end of the defensive spectrum sits Carolina. The Panthers have smothered the competition like a mother to a homeschooled kid, granting a conference-low 13.7 points per outing. Reigning Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly may be the only recognizable name on the defense, and certainly the linebacker is emerging as a superstar at his position. As good as Kuechly and the front seven have been, it’s the play of the secondary that has made the Panthers a terrifying foe. The group of Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell, Josh Thomas, and Captain Munnerlyn has recorded nine picks and given up just six touchdowns, equating to the seventh-lowest QB rating in the NFL.
Of course, the level of competition might have something to do with these figures. Few viewed Carolina as a winning team heading into the second half, and for that, kudos to the Panthers. Alas, Carolina’s four wins have come over teams with a collective 6-24 mark. With a tougher slate in the next two months, reality could set in for the Panthers.
Key injuries: CAR DE Charles Johnson – Groin (Questionable); ATL Roddy White – Hamstring/Ankle (Questionable), ATL DE Osi Umenyiora – Knee (Questionable)
Line: Carolina -9, 44 points
Fantasy impact: Not an auspicious return for Jackson in Week 8, totaling a whopping six yards on 11 carries. A lesser man would point out that he warned of a Jackson no-show on last week’s podcast while his senile and geriatric colleague endorsed the Atlanta back as a top-10 start. Luckily for him, I’m above such schadenfreude…
This weekend won’t offer a respite, as Jackson confronts a Carolina front seven that is holding adversaries to 79.3 yards per game, second-lowest in the NFL. In truth, considering the shabby state of the Falcons offensive line, Jacquizz Rodgers’ versatility and elusiveness best serves the team’s needs at the moment. If Jackson starts off slow, don’t be surprised if Rodgers siphons a majority of touches going forward.
TV: FOX – 1:00 PM EST
The Falcons win if… Ryan’s rapport with his targets improves, Jackson and Rodgers put forth a decent effort.
The Panthers win if… Let’s be honest: the D is a resilient bunch, but Cam Newton holds the fruition of Carolina. In wins – 71.6 completion percentage, 12 total touchdowns, one turnover. In losses – 58 completion percentage, three scores, five turnovers. Ball is literally and figuratively in Cam’s court. Against this run-down defense, I think he capitalizes…
Prediction: Panthers 23, Falcons 17
Philadelphia Eagles at Oakland Raiders
The lowdown: I remember seeing my face in the mirror when I was told Santa wasn’t real. I have observed a poor woman’s demeanor after she realized her dog had run away. Lloyd Christmas’ melancholy as he witnessed Harry Dunn dropping Mary off at her house. These looks of despondence are no match for the dread illustrated throughout the Eagles offense when Matt Barkley came in last week. I could have sworn a Sarah McLachlan song was playing in the background.
Fortunately for Philly, Nick Foles returns under center as the Eagles take on a feisty Oakland squad. On paper, the Raiders may lack intimidating qualities, yet the Silver and Black feature a dynamic 1-2 punch out of the backfield in Terrelle Pryor and Darren McFadden. Pryor has not exactly been a steady presence under center, owning six scores versus 10 turnovers. This shortcoming is somewhat negated by his ground prowess, as it adds another dimension for the opposition to account. The Ohio State product is averaging a league-best 7.4 yards per attempt on 53 carries. Combined with a relatively-healthy McFadden (24 carries, 73 yards, two touchdowns in Week 8) and a sound front seven (sixth in the league at 89.9 rush yards conceded), the Raiders are far from a pushover.
Key injuries: PHI QB Mike Vick – Hamstring (Out), PHI LB Connor Barwin – Back (Probable); OAK S Tyvon Branch – Ankle (Questionable)
Line: Oakland -2.5, 44.5 points
Fantasy impact: The Eagles are allowing 302.3 passing yards per game, second-worst in the NFL. Putting conviction in the Oakland passing game is a tough sell, yet for those looking for a flyer, Raiders wideout Rod Streater, owned in 1.3 percent of FOXSports.com fantasy football leagues, has a chance to shine. The second-year man hasn’t put up eye-popping stats, but he has been consistent, and with Philadelphia likely shifting its focus to stopping Denarius Moore, there could be room over the middle for Streater to roam.
TV: FOX – 4:05 PM EST
The Eagles win if… LeSean McCoy gets back on track after consecutive subpar showings, Philadelphia curb’s Pryor’s ground excursions.
The Raiders win if… The blueprint is fairly simply: get Barkley into the game. Has worked two weeks running for Eagles’ opponents.
Prediction: Eagles 30, Raiders 20
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Seattle Seahawks
The lowdown: On the way home from work on Tuesday, I heard the following tease for an upcoming segment on a AM sports show:
Is Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano on the hot seat? The boys break it down next!
And you wonder why radio is dying.
Things don’t get easier this week, as the Bucs confront a Seattle defense yielding 15.6 points per game, third-best in the league. Mike Glennon’s baptism by fire has been a disaster, with the rookie out of North Carolina State averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt, 32nd out of the 33 statistically-eligible quarterbacks. Mike James hasn’t delivered much from the backfield in the past two weeks, although given Doug Martin’s inauspicious performance before succumbing to a shoulder injury, little was expected behind Tampa’s permeable line. Throw in a disgruntled Darrelle Revis and its nothing but bad news for this Bucs team.
Seattle is swimming on the opposite end of the NFL pool, entering with a 7-1 record and its eyes on a Super Bowl crown. The ‘Hawks notorious defense has become the headliner for this franchise, and rightfully so, as only Seattle and Houston are holding opponents to fewer than 300 total yards per contest. It’s worth noting, however, that the Emerald City offense has become prolific in its own right. Marshawn Lynch’s careening talent coupled with the elusiveness of Russell Wilson have the Seahawks averaging 140.6 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL. Wilson’s ground work is especially impressive, upping his yards-per-game output by over 12 yards in 2013. This emergence of Wilson’s terrain deftness has taken some pressure off his passing game, evidenced in a decrease in picks. There is a caveat keep an eye on, as Wilson is putting the ball on the turf at an alarming rate with eight fumbles, five of which have gone as turnovers. For Wilson and the Seahawks to take the next step, this problem will need to be mended.
Key injuries: SEA RB Marshawn Lynch – Knee (Probable); TB S Mark Barron – Hip (Questionable)
Line: Seattle -18, 40 points
Fantasy impact: Sidney Rice is out for the season, and it appears Percy Harvin is not ready to return for the Seahawks this weekend. Golden Tate will be getting the most attention on the waiver wire, but take a gander at Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Both are safe bets to see six-plus targets this weekend against a Buccaneers defense ranked 19th against the pass. In PPR leagues, Baldwin is the safer bet, with Kearse getting the nod in standard formats.
TV: FOX – 4:05 PM EST
The Seahawks win if… Wilson protects the pigskin, Seahawks swallows Glennon alive.
The Buccaneers win if… At this point, if you’re a Tampa fan, do you want to win?
Prediction: Seahawks 21, Buccaneers 7
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
The lowdown: This AFC North rendezvous is more important than it appears. The Bengals may have a commanding lead in the division, yet the loss of tackle Geno Atkins to a defense already riddled with injuries leaves Cincinnati in a vulnerable state. Perhaps overlooked due to the small-market nature of the Queen City, Atkins is one of the best playmakers in football, with his absence leaving a Grand Canyon-like hole up the middle in the Who-Dey resistance. The winner of this Browns-Ravens contest has more than a viable shot at knocking the Bengals off their throne.
Jason Campbell was respectable in his Cleveland debut last week against a firm Kansas City secondary, connecting on 22-of-36 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns. Although the Browns have a sturdy offensive line, the rushing game is a non-factor, as Willis McGahee and Chris Ogbonnaya have done little of worth on the ground. Cleveland’s defense is as good as any unit in the conference, and should keep the Brownies in the mix heading into the latter half of the season. With weapons like Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon, Campbell merely has to be passable (pun intended) for Cleveland to be in the postseason mix.
The refurbished Ravens defense got a bad rap after Peyton Manning tore them up in Week 1, yet the group has been better as of late, allowing only 16.5 points per contest in its last six games. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil have been as good as advertised and James Ihedigbo has been a pleasant surprise in the secondary. As long as Ray Rice and the running game right the ship (currently 28th in total rushing), Baltimore will not be an easy out.
Fantasy impact: Few cornerbacks inspire fear from a fantasy standpoint like Cleveland’s Joe Haden. Despite this ominous matchup, keep Torrey Smith in your starting lineup. Joe Flacco needs to throw it to SOMEBODY in Baltimore’s receiving corps, and Smith, who leads the team by a wide margin in targets (62, with Dallas Clark in second with 39 looks), is the best candidate for this role.
TV: CBS – 4:25 PM EST
The Browns win if… Campbell utilizes a methodical dink-and-dunk approach, Haden prevents the big play to Smith.
The Ravens win if… Flacco stays away from one of those “Seriously, how did this guy win Super Bowl MVP?” type games, Baltimore defense contains Cameron over the middle.
Prediction: Browns 14, Ravens 13
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
The lowdown: That Boston crowd is a fickle bunch. Despite picking the Pats to win last week, I was inundated with angry comments and emails from the New England faithful for allegedly disparaging the ball club, with roughly 97.5 percent of the messages ending with a word that rhymes with “casserole.” What was the provocation? Simply stating the Patriots defense was vulnerable with the loss of Vince Wilfork (evidenced by 130.8 rush yards per game, second-worst in the league) and the rapport-in-progress between Tom Brady and his receivers. Apparently that’s on par with urinating on the Green Monster.
Brady will be put to the test this weekend against a Steelers defense giving up a stingy 181 yards per contest, second-best in the NFL. The return of Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski should lessen Brady’s aerial despair, and rookie Aaron Dobson is quietly asserting himself into the Patriots offense. Moreover, the beleaguered front seven gets a bit of a breather, given the Steelers have struggled mightily on the ground, ranking 30th in rushing offense.
Ben Roethlisberger can sympathize with Brady’s plight. The departure of Mike Wallace has taken a bigger toll on the Steelers receiving crew than imagined, and, outside of Antonio Brown, the complementary pieces have failed to fill this void. Nevertheless, the Steelers hope for an improvement in fortune starts with rookie rusher Le’Veon Bell. The Michigan State product has been respectable, but Pittsburgh will need a more consistent display from Bell to save its season. If he can’t take advantage of a depleted New England front, that may be all she wrote for the Steel City in 2013.
Key injuries: NE Danny Amendola – Groin (Questionable), NE CB Aqib Talib – Hip (Questionable); PIT LB Lawrence Timmons – Hand (Probable)
Line: New England -7.5, 44 points
Fantasy impact: New England is keeping opposing tight ends at bay, with the position averaging only 6.5 points in standard leagues against the Pats, and Heath Miller has posted consecutive stink-bombs for his owners. Perhaps he sees some red-zone looks to impede a total washout, but the Steelers’ offensive game plan will likely center on attacking New England’s helpless front line rather than challenge a pass defense allowing just 215.5 yards per game (fifth-lowest in the league). Don’t envision Miller as a top-10 play this week, even with a plethora of byes.
TV: CBS – 4:25 PM EST
The Steelers win if… Bell has a big day, Steelers secondary curbs Brady’s output.
The Patriots win if… Brady stops taking Ike Broflovski’s medicine. (For those unacquainted, search “Tom Brady South Park.” Matt Stone and Trey Parker are the best.)
Prediction: Patriots 30, Steelers 24
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
The lowdown: Case Keenum…not bad! That his debut came across the Chiefs without the full-strength assistance of Arian Foster or Ben Tate was particularly striking.
Keenum’s second start won’t be quite as arduous. Without a doubt, the Colts defense has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half, transforming from the team’s Achilles’ heel to a vigorous bunch, allowing just 18.7 points per game (eighth-best in the league). However, the Indianapolis D is battling some injuries and depth questions, bestowing Keenum a fighting chance. Also helping his cause is the return of Foster, who as of Friday was back at practice and set to start on Sunday. Conferred an ample amount of offensive artillery, don’t be shocked if Keenum works some magic.
Reggie Wayne’s injury (more on this in a moment) places the magnitude of the team’s running game in the spotlight. The rankings state Indianapolis has been sound in this aspect, slotted ninth with 129.3 yards per game. Unfortunately, early-season acquisition Trent Richardson has not been a part of this endeavor, posting a pedestrian 45.6 yards per game with the Horseshoes in five outings. Donald Brown has been adequate in his limited appearances, but he’s best-suited in a back-up role. Richardson will need to vastly improve his mark of three yards per attempt for Indianapolis to overcome the receiving corps’ impairment.
Key injuries: IND WR Darrius Heyward-Bey – Hamstring (Questionable); HOU RB Ben Tate – Ribs
Line: Indianapolis -2, 44.5 points
Fantasy impact: A matchup with the Texans looks portentous on paper, as Houston has been stout versus tight ends this fall. However, Houston’s protection over the middle has been severely weakened with the loss of linebacker Brian Cushing. Speaking of injuries, while many are eying T.Y. Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey or LaVon Brazill to see elevation in the Colts passing game in wake of Wayne’s absence, I’m looking at Coby Fleener as the most likely candidate for an increased role.
Also helping Fleener’s value is the growing concern over the efficacy of the Indianapolis rushing attack. The team has made a concerted effort to feature the ground game; alas, Richardson has been slower than HealthCare.gov (topical joke!). Don’t be surprised if Andrew Luck’s sky forays surge, correlating to an uptick in Fleener’s worth.
TV: NBC – 8:30 PM EST
The Texans win if… Foster has no lingering effects from his hamstring injury, Keenum stays within himself.
The Colts win if… Luck spreads the wealth around his targets, Matt Schaub puts on his helmet.
Prediction: Texans 26, Colts 24
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
The lowdown: Chicago’s 4-3, but all is not right in the Windy City, as the Bears enter Monday night’s matchup losing three of their past four contests. Jay Cutler is likely out until Week 12 with a torn groin, bequeathing the starting job to the immortal Josh McCown. Worse, the Bears defense, historically one of the more ferocious units in the league, is allowing 29.4 points per game (fourth-worst in the NFL). Whereas the offense can bank on the services of Matt Forte, the defensive foundation is in shambles thanks to its line. The Bears are last in the league in sacks with nine. To put that in perspective, four players have more sacks (Robert Mathis, Mario Williams, Justin Houston, Robert Quinn) than this entire Bears team. Pro Bowler Henry Melton suffered an ACL tear and is out of the year, and the revered Julius Peppers is a shell of himself. Even when Cutler returns, it’s hard to picture the Bears staying in the playoff conversation with the absence of defensive pressure.
Green Bay has also been bitten by the injury bug, with Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Bryan Bulaga and varying backfield parts all missing extended time. Unlike Chicago, this has not impeded the Cheeseheads, with Aaron Rodgers putting together one of his finest campaigns to date with a makeshift receiving crew, averaging a career-best 313 yards per game. Assisting Rodgers in this offensive venture has been rookie running back Eddie Lacy. Since returning from a concussion, Lacy has racked up 395 yards in four games, hitting pay dirt twice. With Lacy taking some of the opposing heat off Rodgers’ shoulders, the Packers offense may be more dangerous than ever.
Key injuries: GB LB Clay Matthews – Thumb (Out), GB WR James Jones – Knee (Questionable); CHI QB Jay Cutler – Groin (Out), CHI CB Charles Tillman – Knee (Questionable)
Line: Green Bay -11, 49.5 points
Fantasy impact: With a host of byes and unpromising matchups, somehow Josh McCown has jumped into the conversation as a possible starter in Week 9. In 2013. Crazy, I know.
While one Bears beat-writer proclaimed McCown was in for an “eye-opening” performance on Monday night, going to have to rain on that parade. Yes, the 34-year-old played well in replacement of Cutler in Week 7, and with Chicago on bye, McCown got an extra week of assimilation under Marc Trestman’s offense. Alas, McCown’s moderate success came against a weak Washington secondary. And though the Packers pass defense isn’t great, it’s not a pushover by any means.
Having Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery at his disposal helps, but it has to be a deep, DEEP format to consider McCown as a starting entity this weekend. Even then, implement McCown at your own peril.
TV: ESPN – 8:30 PM EST
The Bears win if… Forte keeps Rodgers and company off the field, Bill Swerski’s Superfans literally keep Rodgers off the field.
The Packers win if… Lacy pops off against Chicago’s vulnerable front, Josh McCown plays like, well, Josh McCown (41 career total touchdowns versus 58 turnovers).
Prediction: Packers 34, Bears 20
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