Bye weeks are upon us, which makes reading up on who to start, who to bench and who to plug in for spot starts that much more important. To aid your noble quest for a title, every week during the 2007 NFL season we’ll examine a few key fantasy matchups at all the positions that matter (sorry, no kickers allowed). For each roster spot we’ll spell out our Five Strong Plays, a few players to Temper Your Expectations for, one Sneaky Play of the Week, and one Dud of the Week.
These are not always the guys we think will score the most points or score the least points: there will always be obvious situations and choices we ignore. These also aren’t all sneaky plays. These are just the matchups that we feel deserve mention*.
Make sure to check back on these matchups the following week to see how each one of our picks actually fared. That way you can either marvel at the brilliance of ETB (likely) or chuckle at our incompetence (very unlikely).
Good luck. Do us proud.
Five Strong Quarterback Plays
Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers @ MIN: With the Minnesota Vikings nearly setting the record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game last season, teams took to the air– with strong results. The Viking D gave up 286.6 yards passing per game, worst in the NFL. Antoine Winfield is an extremely good, physical corner but his coverage skills deep can be exploited. That will be Donald Driver’s mission this week, should he choose to accept it. Former Packer Darren Sharper is a premier ballhawk who has had at least 4 INTs in each of the last seven seasons, but again, he can be beat in coverage by speedy receivers like Greg Jennings and James Jones. The Pack are one of the most lopsided teams in the NFL in terms of passing/rushing attempts, and that figures to continue on Sunday with a rejuvenated Favre benefitting by breaking the NFL record for most career TD passes.
Actual Output: 344 yards passing, 2 passing TDs.
Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys vs. STL: If the Bears pass defense can’t slow down Romo & Co. at Soldier Field, don’t think for a second the ragtag group who’ll be manning the Rams secondary stand a chance at Texas Stadium. Though their numbers betray it, on paper the Rams vie with the Bills (see below) for worst pass defense in football. Terrell Owens and Jason Witten should eat these guys alive, and anything less than 3 TDs would be a major disappointment from Romo this weekend.
Actual Output: 339 yards passing, 24 yards rushing, 3 passing TDs, 1 INT.
Chad Pennington, New York Jets @ BUF: You’re not going to hear us say anything positive about Pennington himself, but this matchup should be a cake walk. This is more about our faith in the ability of Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles to get open and make plays versus the raw and undermanned secondary. If you have an every-week starter, don’t go benching them for Pennington. But if you’re in a bye-week quandary and don’t know where to turn, he’s a strong plug-in option.
Actual Output: 290 yards passing, 1 passing TD, 2 INTs.
Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles @ NYG: As we mentioned yesterday, it usually takes a few weeks for a QB to adjust to the kind of knee reconstruction that Donovan underwent. If his performance against the Lions is any indication, he’s getting over it. The Giant’s secondary is laughable, but their offense can put points on the board. Expect Donovan to keep passing all four quarters in this NFC East matchup, especially if Brian Westbrook can’t finish the game (knee).
Actual Output: 138 yards passing, 0 passing TDs, 0 INTs, 12 sacks and 1 fumble lost. Ugh.
Eli Manning, New York Giants vs. PHI: Brian Dawkins could return this week from a neck stinger, but Lito Sheppard is unlikely to be out there. This is a defense that gave up 446 yards passing at home last week and finished as the seventh-worst unit in the NFL against the pass in 2006, so they’ll likely struggle on the road against another of the NFL’s top-10 passing offenses. We’ll be disappointed, though, if we don’t get at least one “aw shucks” look from Baby Eli as he shuffles to the sideline after one of his trademark three-and-out series.
Actual Output: 135 yards passing, 1 passing TD, 1 INT.
Temper Your Expectations
Jon Kitna, Detroit Lions vs. CHI: It’s almost impossible to bench the league leader in passing yards no matter who he’s facing, but we all know about the Bears defense and what it’s (usually) capable of. They’re giving up just 250 yards and 1 TD a game through the air, but Romo proved last week that they can be thrown on with success. Starting cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, as well as DT Tommie Harris, are out, and LB Lance Briggs might join them, so it’s not a totally bleak situation. Last year, Kitna did just fine against Chicago, averaging a 99 QB rating, 256 yards passing, and 1.5 TD passes.
Actual Output: 247 yards passing, 2 passing TDs, 1 fumble lost.
Carson Palmer, Cincinnati vs. NE: We know you’re going to start him either way. You can’t bench a stud like Palmer who’s averaging 327 yards and 32 TDs a game. Just don’t expect big things here. The Pats are only giving up 160 yards and 1.3 TDs per game to opposing QBs. The New England defense seems extremely capable of dictating what offenses do, and the unproven Kenny Watson may start over Rudi Johnson and his gimpy hamstring. Rudi has played poorly too though, so expect New England to dare the Bengals to run all day.
Actual Output: 234 yards passing, 1 passing TD, 2 INTs.
Sneaky Play of the Week
Brian Griese, Chicago Bears @ DET: Brian Griese could not have asked for a better opponent for his first start of the season. The Lions were eaten alive by Donovan McNabb after he struggled through the first two weeks. With just 1 passing TD coming into the game, McNabb put up 381 yards and 4 TDs on just 26 attempts, good for a near-perfect 158.3 passer rating. This is a situation where we’re obviously not advising you to bench your usual starter here, but 250 yards and a pair of TDs could be in the offing.
Actual Output: 286 yards passing, 2 passing TDs, 3 INTs.
Dud of the Week
Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals vs. PIT: Despite HC Ken Whisenhunt’s assurances that Leinart is still the starter, we’re not confident he can finish a game anymore. Warner outplayed Leinart last Sunday by a wide margin. They both attempted 20 passes, with Warner completing 15 for 258 yards and 2 TDs and Leinart 9 for 53 and no TDs. Whisenhunt said on Monday, “We’re going to try to find ways to keep Kurt playing based on how he played yesterday.” He went on to say that Warner will be the Cardinal’s “no-huddle” specialist. There you have it, folks, the first Quarterback By Committee situation of the season. Maybe any season. Oh, and the matchup is brutal as well.
Actual Output: 93 yards passing, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, may have lost his job.
Five Strong Running Back Plays
Willis McGahee, Baltimore Ravens @ CLE: We’re pretty much going to recommend you start anybody who faces the Browns, even a guy who’s never finished north of 4.0 YPC. McGahee has been pretty decent thus far in putting up 90.7 yards/game and a 4.1 YPC, but he hasn’t found paydirt yet. That should change against a team that’s giving up 176.3 yards a game on the ground. The unsettled QB situation in Baltimore could also mean more carries than usual for Mr. McGahee.
Actual Output: 104 rushing yards, 2 catches and 32 yards receiving, 0 TDs.
Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo Bills vs. NYJ: You can have the NFL’s bowling ball in Maurice Jones-Drew; we’ll take the absolute wrecking ball known as Marshawn Lynch. The Jets are as Calgon soft as any defense in the league, and reportedly asked the team bus be adorned with crochet doilies and stocked with Flirtini drink mix. With J.P. Losman sidelined, the Bills will keep the game plan simple and feed Lynch a steady diet of pigskin all day.
Actual Output: 79 yards rushing, 1 rushing TD.
LaMont Jordan, Oakland Raiders @ MIA: Jordan keeps putting up strong performances and he’s looking a lot more like the guy who was drafted in the first round in fantasy leagues last year than the guy who was selected in the eighth round this year. Dominic Rhodes is eligible to come off suspension after this week, so Jordan also has plenty of motivation to prove he’s the unquestioned starter. Against the third-worst rushing D in football (166 rushing yards allowed a game), Jordan posts 160 total yards and another score.
Actual Output: 74 yards rushing, 1 catch for 7 yards, 0 TDs (though after leaving the game with a back injury, replacement Justin Fargas put up 179 more rushing yards).
Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers @ ARZ: Fast Willie leads the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and sports a very healthy 5.0 YPC. Some people are disappointed he only has 1 TD so far, but those people are morons. The TDs will come: all you can ask for from your back is consistent production with potential for big fantasy points, and Parker is bringing that every week. With Parker averaging 122 yards on the ground and Arizona overachieving by giving up 102, he seems like a lock for 130 and yes, moron, a touchdown.
Actual Output: 37 yards rushing, 4 catches for 29 yards receiving, 0 TDs.
Marion Barber III, Dallas Cowboys vs. STL: Julius Jones suffered his second concussion of the season on Sunday night, so at the very least expect him to be limited. Meanwhile, Barber continues to prove he’s the better running back and the obvious option inside the 20-yard line. We see the Cowboys getting up big and running for much of the second half. The Rams flat out suck against the run, giving up 1.6 TDs and nearly 150 yards a game. Expect no less than 80 total yards, a couple of receptions and TD from Barber this week..
Actual Output: 50 yards rushing, 2 catches for 22 yards receiving, 0 TDs.
Temper Your Expectations
Cedric Benson, Chicago Bears @ DET: Last week we saw what an elite running back can accomplish against the learning-on-the-job Detroit Lions defense. In about three full quarters of action, Brian Westbrook put up over 200 combined yards and danced into the endzone not once, not twice, but thrice before giving way to his backups (who tacked on two more TDs). But Benson is no Westbrook, and he’s still worlds away from being an elite back in the NFL. In his first three games as the featured back Benson has posted just 63 yards a game and scored once. He should get a heavy workload and a score is very possible, but don’t think he’s suddenly going to awaken from his season-long malaise just because of the favorable matchup.
Actual Output: 50 yards rushing, 5 catches for 24 yards receiving, 0 TDs.
Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins vs. OAK: He did what he should have against the poor Jets rushing defense last week, but we’re not sold on him finally making good on the promise shown during his rookie season just yet. The Raiders showed some improvement against the ground last week in holding Jamal Lewis and the Browns to under 100 total yards rushing, and we feel they’ll continue to improve. Try to forget his performance last week, keep your hopes low, and be pleasantly surprised if he tops 100 yards and scores.
Actual Output: 134 yards rushing, 6 catches for 73 yards receiving, 1 rushing TD.
Sneaky Play of the Week
Sammy Morris, New England Patriots @ CIN: We fully expect the Patriots to punch one in on the ground Sunday, and as it stands Morris is the best bet to do it. He’s getting about 40% of the Pats carries as well, which should be good for decent yardage against a squad giving up 142 yards per to opposing running backs. For the smart owners out there who have both Maroney and Morris, start ’em both and know you’re going to get good yardage and at least 1 TD.
Actual Output: 117 yards rushing, 2 catches for 15 yards receiving, 1 rushing TD.
Dud of the Week
Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs @ SD: The Chargers have been rewarded for their 14-2 season last year with one of the toughest early schedules in the NFL, and head home after a tough loss on the road to the surprising Packers at Lambeau. They’re disappointed, admittedly a bit confused… and totally going to take out their frustrations on the hapless Chiefs. By now opposing defenses have figured out that if you stop Larry Johnson, you essentially stop the entire offense. Allowing just under 90/yds game on the ground, the Bolts will neutralize LJ like they did at home last year (19 carries, 84 yards, 0 TDs) and turn Johnson into a bigtime “buy low” player moving forward.
Actual Output: 123 rushing yards, 3 receptions for 23 yards, 0 TDs.
Five Strong Wide Receiver Plays
Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers @ MIN: We mentioned it above, but Driver will be facing off against a secondary that’s great at tackling but not so great in deep coverage. We also expect Favre to come out inspired in a game where the NFL record for passing TDs is for the taking, and don’t forget that Driver seems to always burn the Vikes (7.5 receptions, 145 yards, 0.5 TDs in two games last year).
Actual Output: 7 catches, 58 yards receiving, 0 TDs.
Terrell Owens, Dallas Cowboys vs. STL: You’d have to be some kind of idiot man-child not to start Owens this week. So instead of going on about why he’s a major stud against the Rams, let’s put our balls on the line with a bold prediction: 8 receptions, 165 yards, 2 TDs.
Actual Output: 3 receptions for 33 yards, 0 TDs.
Jerricho Cotchery, New York Jets @ BUF: The physical and underrated Cotchery will have his way with Buffalo defensive backs this week. He’ll force them to the ground, make them submit and take advantage of them. Oh, and he might catch some passes as well. Perhaps a touchdown, who knows.
Actual Output: 8 receptions for 106 yards, 0 TDs.
Kevin Curtis, Philadelphia Eagles @ NYG: No, we’re not just jumping on the bandwagon after last week’s monster effort, so shut your fat, supple mouth. We’ve been singing Curtis’ praises for weeks now, and this is a matchup made in heaven. The Giants are giving up an astounding 8 receptions, 150 yards and 1.3 TDs against WRs. Kevin Curtis is the WR1 here, and McNabb will be looking to him early and often all over the field. The Giants can be beat by the short pass, and Curtis can go over the middle or into the flat. The Giants also excel at getting beat deep, and Curtis can do that too. He’s going to find the endzone again and put up at least 80 yards. He’s a borderline WR1 in Week Four.
Actual Output: 2 receptions for 21 yards, 0 TDs. Thanks, McNabb.
Chris Chambers, Miami Dolphins vs. OAK: The Oakland pass defense was formidable in 2006 and Chambers will see a heavy dose of Nnamdi Asomugha. However, if Chambers continues to see such a high volume of looks he’s going to continue to produce no matter who’s checking him. He got 12 more targets in Week Three, bringing his total to 39 through thus far (third in the NFL). Trent Green is clearly comfortable feeding him and the Raiders are giving up nearly 200 yards and 1.6 TDs to wide receivers, so you have to roll with Chambers this week.
Actual Output: 2 receptions for 21 yards, 0 TDs. Thanks, Trent Green.
Temper Your Expectations
Ronald Curry, Oakland Raiders @ MIA: Curry’s overall numbers look pretty good, but let’s not forget that most of them came against the Browns and Lions. That’s where he scored his TDs, and when he had to face off against the Broncos he disappeared. The Dolphins aren’t world beaters against the pass, but they’re decent and we don’t like his chances of having a big impact.
Actual Output: 1 receptions for 16 yards, 0 TDs.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati Bengals vs. NE: Housh is arguably the second-best WR2 in the NFL, behind only Reggie Wayne, and is putting up WR1 numbers through the first three weeks of the season. He’s leading the league in receptions (29), in the top 20 for yards (260), and tied for third in TDs (4). As we mentioned above, however, the Pats field one of the league’s best secondaries and are bound to have a rock-solid gameplan for controlling, if not shutting down, Ocho Cinco and Houshmandzadeh. We wouldn’t be surprised if he scored, but don’t expect him to.
Actual Output: 10 receptions for 100 yards, 1 TD.
Sneaky Play of the Week
Andre’ Davis, Houston Texans @ATL: Every week we like to throw at least once curveball in here, and this week it’s Andre’. He hasn’t been on many fantasy radars since 2004, but Davis still has game-breaking speed, and Matt Schaub proved last week he’s capable of making some plays while Andre Johnson is on the shelf. In the absence of Johnson and Jacoby Jones, Davis becomes a starter against an extremely soft secondary. He put up 4 catches for 70 yards in limited action against the Colts last week, including a 41-yarder. You’ve probably got better options, but if not Andre’ Davis is available and he’s sneaky.
Actual Output: 5 receptions for 117 yards and 1 TD.
Dud of the Week
Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons vs. HOU: White seems to have taken that next step that so many receivers seem to do in their third full year in the league. Last week he looked a little like Larry Fitzgerald as he streaked his way down the field en route to a career day of 127 yards receiving and a touch. The Falcons are dying for someone to step up and help stretch the field, and he could very well be that guy. The main problem is that Joey Harrington is still the QB and struggles to string together solid back-to-back efforts. We expect him to come back down to earth after last week and drag White & Co. down with him.
Actual Output: 3 receptions for 64 yards, 0 TDs.
Five Strong Tight End Plays
Jeremy Shockey, New York Giants vs. PHI: We’re not fans of Shockey and his childish attitude (and even worse tattoos), but he’s been an effective safety valve for Little Eli and is catching at least five balls a game. He’d no doubt enjoy a lot more balls to drop in his lap, and that just might happen this week with Plaxico Burress still a little gimpy and the Eagles secondary not especially scaring anyone. He’ll finally find the endzone this week.
Actual Output: 1 reception for 17 yards, 0 TDs.
Owen Daniels, Houston Texans @ ATL: Daniels was our Sneaky Tight End Play of the Week and made us look relatively good by hauling in 7 passes for 56 yards. Those aren’t especially spectacular numbers, but they gleam a little more when you dig a little deeper and see that he only got seven looks all game and cashed in on every one of ’em. He’s Schaub’s most proven target this week because of ongoing injuries to the wideouts.
Actual Output: 5 receptions for 69 yards, 0 TDs.
Alge Crumpler, Atlanta Falcons vs. HOU: Steady, solid production is the name of the game with Crump, and that continues at home. The Texans are one of the weaker teams against the position, with opposing TEs averaging 5 receptions, .3 TDs and nearly 50 yards. Crumpler is coming off two strong weeks and “Checkdown” Joey Harrington is targeting him often, especially inside the 20.
Actual Output: 3 receptions for 34 yards, 0 TDs.
Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City Chiefs @ SD: The old guard meets the new guard in San Diego this week, and we like Gonzo to come out fighting. In his last two matchups versus Antonio Gates he’s averaged 6 catches for 96 yards. The Chiefs have been borrowing a play from the Chargers recently–lining Gonzalez up out wide–and it should help him get off the line and find open field. In an offense that doesn’t feature much deep, he already has 16 receptions but hasn’t scored yet. It changes this week against a defense that’s already given up a pair of scores to TEs.
Actual Output: 5 receptions for 71 yards and 1 TD.
Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts vs. DEN: Clark has had a fantastic start to the season, finding the endzone two weeks in a row and averaging 13.5/yds a reception. The Broncos’ excellent secondary figures to zero in on Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, which could mean more looks than normal for the former Hawkeye.
Actual Output: 6 receptions for 76 yards and 2 TDs.
Temper Your Expectations
Kellen Winslow, Cleveland Browns @ BAL: Winslow has been one of the most productive fantasy TEs thus far in ’07, with 16 catches for 271 yards and a TD. This despite a very fluid situation at quarterback with Charlie Frye starting the season–before being traded a week later–Derek Anderson taking over and playing better than anyone could have expected, and Brady Quinn waiting in the wings. Tha Soldja is nursing a shoulder injury, though, and the hard-hitting Ravens will no doubt relish the opportunity to unload on him over the middle. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make it through the game.
Actual Output: 4 receptions for 96 yards.
Sneaky Play of the Week
Greg Olsen, Chicago Bears @ DET: Olsen finally made his first NFL receptions last week and looks like a big target in the redzone. He’s still sharing time with incumbent Desmond Clark, so you have to think twice about plugging him in. Still, the Lions are weak over the middle and have a history of being generous to tight ends. We can totally see Olsen catching a short TD pass… or laying a big, fat goose egg. Feeling lucky?
Actual Output: 0 receptions for 0 yards and 0 TDs.
Dud of the Week
Vernon Davis, San Franciso 49ers vs. SEA: Vernon isn’t going to do anything against the Seahawks because Vernon is sidelined for the next few weeks with a knee problem. This displeases us to no end, as our preseason second-overall ranked TE looked like he was ready to start producing after stinkers in Weeks 1 and 2. For this, he’s our dud this week. Shame on you, Vernon.
Actual Output: Vernon Davis did not participate due to injury.
Five Strong Team Defense Plays
Green Bay Packers @ MIN: Kelly Holcomb or Tarvaris Jackson: does it matter? Either signal caller is going to make a number of questionable decisions, and neither one is striking much fear into the hearts of opposing secondaries right now. Of the Vikings 867 yards of offense, Adrian Peterson has 431. With Nick Barnett and AJ Hawk capable of chasing AP all over the field and absorbing his wicked blows, it’ll be up to the passing game to produce. They can’t.
Actual Output: 16 points allowed, 4 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FUM.
San Diego Chargers vs. KC: The San Diego defense is struggling right now, but that’s mostly due to matchups and their weaknesses in the secondary. We don’t think the Chiefs will be able to exploit San Diego in the passing game, so they’ll have to try and run on them and that’s easier said than done. Look for the Charger pass rush to force Damon Huard into some costly mistakes.
Actual Output: 24 points allowed, 2 sacks, 2 INTs.
Dallas Cowboys vs. STL: The Rams offense is scoring just 10.7 points a game and turning the ball over 2.7 times while the Dallas defense is averaging over 3 takeaways a contest. With Steven Jackson on the shelf and the offensive line in shambles, this is a good week to plug in the ‘Boys DEF and expect them to create some turnovers while giving up very few points.
Actual Output: 7 points allowed, 3 sacks, 1 INT.
Houston Texans @ ATL: It’s never a bad idea to start a team defense against Joey Harrington & Co., but the Texans have looked like a good play no matter what. A week after holding Peyton Manning to just one passing touchdown, it’s entirely likely they shut out the Falcons aerial game.
Actual Output: 26 points allowed, 2 sacks, 1 blocked kick.
Tampa Bay Bucs @ CAR: Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin is not to be underestimated. Coming into the season this looked like an aging, weary unit that would be taken advantage of. Instead, they’re only allowing 12.3 points and 310 total yards a game and have already forced 10 turnovers. With Jake Delhomme sidelined, expect the Bucs to get to David Carr.
Actual Output: 7 points allowed, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FUM.
Minnesota Vikings vs. GB: We keep talking about it, but Leslie Frazier has this team creating havoc all over the field. They’re hitting hard, getting to the QB, keeping points off the board, creating turnovers and even scoring some touchdowns. At this point you have to roll with them every week, but at home against the INT-prone Favre and a non-existent rushing attack they should have a very nice game.
Actual Output: 23 points allowed, 1 sack, 2 FUMs.
Temper Your Expectations
San Francisco 49ers vs. SEA: The loss of versatile playmaker Manny Lawson is going to hurt this defense. He was looking like a playmaker against the run and the pass, and without him the 49ers gave up 37 points last week. Nate Clements can keep up with Deion Branch, but we expect Nate Burleson and Shaun Alexander to have nice games against the rest of this mediocre D.
Actual Output: 23 points allowed, 2 sacks, 1 INT.
Sneaky Play of the Week
Detroit Lions vs. CHI: Even though The Mental Midget has been benched in favor of Brian Griese, we highly doubt the creaky Bears offense will miraculously awake from their slumber and light up the very (very) pedestrian Lions offense. The Eagles absolutely embarassed this squad last week, so they’ll come out this week with a chip on their shoulder with the knowledge that their opponent is no scoring juggernaut. If you’re in a severe bind, it doesn’t get much sneakier than this.
Actual Output: 27 points allowed, 6 sacks, 3 INTs, 1 blocked kick, 1 TD.
Dud of the Week
Philadelphia Eagles @ NYG: The Eagles are pretty tough against the run, but they’re getting beat in the passing game to the tune of 256 yards a game. That’s going to be a problem on the road against a strong passing attack. If he plays, as is expected, Plaxico Burress will give them matchup problems all over the field.
Actual Output: 10 points allowed, 1 sack, 1 INT.
Week 4 Fantasy Rankings for all positions coming Friday…
*Disclaimer: There are some players who are always must starts, and you should know who they are. To make things easy, we’ve picked a few guys at each position who will never be listed in our Top Matchups because it just wouldn’t be fair– they’re studs, simple as that. They are: QB Peyton Manning, QB Carson Palmer, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, RB Joseph Addai, WR Chad Johnson, WR Stevonne Smith, TE Antonio Gates, DEF New England and DEF Baltimore.