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Exploiting the Matchups: New Year, New Running Backs

Luke Hoover

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

This year marked the second time in the nine-year history of my favorite home league that I failed to make the playoffs. One of my favorite aspects of our keeper format, however, is that teams that miss the playoffs continue to play for the top draft spots for the next season. Although my team barely missed the playoffs (seriously, I can attribute three losses to a grand total of four decisions), I really didnít like my chances of winning the Leonard Fournette sweepstakes, a.k.a. the first pick. After all, a team with David Johnson, Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi also came up just tie-breaking points shy of the playoffs. So yeah, I wasnít feeling too good about things when last weekend I had to face him for the right to draft what Iíve deemed is the mythical love child of Eric Dickerson, Bo Jackson and a centaur mixing DNA.

Quick side story: the owner of said loaded team had perhaps the most epic fantasy freakout meltdown of all time when a new rule enacted prior to our draft caused him to lose the playoff tiebreaker with by far the best roster heís had in nine years. This owner was a co-founder of the league, a tri-commissioner and the most active fantasy owner Iíve ever met. Fortunately for everyone thatís ever graced my beloved league, he also makes the most horrendously bad coaching decisions you could imagine. So when he lost it and in true childish-tantrum form dropped every player on his team when we would not reverse the tiebreaker rule and put him in the playoffs, it was bittersweet to boot him from the league for good.

Getting back to the pointÖ waitÖ there is no point. Getting back to the conclusion of the story, here I was sitting at the cigar bar my brother bartends at with one of my closest friends on Christmas Eve watching the two of them go head-to-head for our league championship and feeling pretty darn good about winning the Bo Dickerson (as I will forever refer to Fournette as) sweepstakes. I was puffing a high-quality cigar and sipping some scotch in a Green Bay Santa hat feeling pretty damn merry. And then the onslaught happened. You see, Aaron Rodgers, Allen Robinson and Cameron Meredith had given me a huge, nearly insurmountable lead in the early games (side note: we set the owner-less teamís roster based on highest projections and Mark Ingram was projected to outscore Ajayi by 0.1). Of course, as we know, Ingram and Johnson combined for five stinking touchdowns in the late games, with Doug Baldwin also torching my merry ass. Just as quickly as I had the lead, it was gone and when Spencer Ware was injured in the second half the next day, I officially secured the No. 2 pick for 2017 as the second-highest scoring team of the week.

Bah. Freaking. Humbug.

On a much happier note, I was extremely pleased to see my brother get a Christmas miracle that brought him his first league title despite being the second-lowest scoring team of the week. Congrats go out to him for not only ousting the resident league loony (my bro beat him in the tiebreaker), but for also FINALLY getting his preseason prediction right that heíd win it all. Weíll see about next year, of course.

And as for the rest of us, next year is one week away. If youíre still playing for something, my advice to you is to count on players that have recently been hot and those who have extremely favorable matchups. Avoid guys who may lose snaps to stay healthy for the playoffs and donít be afraid to take chances.

Best of luck and happy New Year to all! What better way to kickoff a new year than with a day full of NFL games that should conclude with a Packers destruction of the Lions and an NFC North title?

As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are guys you wouldnít roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you may want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, letís get to it.



Matthew Stafford, DET vs. GB

In his last nine outings Stafford has more games with zero touchdown passes than he does with multiple passing scores. So you can bet heíll be very glad to see a Packers secondary thatís been burned for the second-most passing touchdowns (30/tied) in the league. In a meeting for all the marbles in the NFC North, the Lionsí leader will be doing his best to keep pace with a high-flying Packers offense. A similarly red-hot Aaron Rodgers put Detroit in a big hole in Week 3, resulting in a season-high 385 yards and three TDs for Stafford in a comeback effort. Considering Sam Bradford nearly put up those exact numbers just last week against the Green Bay secondary, it seems Stafford is destined to bust out of his fantasy slump.

Matt Barkley, CHI at MIN

This is a high-floor QB2 in two-quarterback formats, even with the slew of interceptions. In three of his last five games, Barkley has pitched it for over 300 yards and multiple scores. Of course, his picks have exceeded his TDs, as he threw 10 in those three prolific outings. Heís ideally suited for leagues that only dock one point for an interception, but regardless he has the weapons -- namely Alshon Jeffery and Cameron Meredith -- and the moxie to keep putting up good yardage numbers against a Vikings D that has allowed at least 250 yards passing in three straight.

Tom Savage, HOU at TEN

In his 65 attempts over roughly six quarters of action, Savage has yet to throw a touchdown, but heís also managed not to throw any interceptions, something Brock Osweiler certainly struggled with this year. Chances are strong, however, that Savage rectifies that TD issue versus a Titans defense that has given up the second-most passing yards in the league. At a minimum, a quarterback thatís averaged 216 yards per game against two defenses ranked in the top 12 in passing yards allowed is primed to move the chains enough to give him a solid fantasy floor.

Running Back

Jerick McKinnon, MIN vs. CHI

The Bears minus starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman (ankle/IR) have been destroyed on the ground the last two weeks, having given up 434 yards (at 7.5 YPC) and seven touchdowns to the Packers and Redskins. Two of the scores belong to Kirk Cousins, but the other five touchdowns were claimed by Ty Montgomery, Christine Michael, Mack Brown and Chris Thompson, with the latter adding a receiving score for good measure. Robert Kelley even added 82 scrimmage yards before leaving with an injury last week. Bottom line is, Chicago canít stop running backs right now. McKinnon hasnít exactly been lighting the world on fire, but he has quietly produced at least 69 scrimmage yards in four of his last five, and he found the end zone in the fifth. This could be the week he wins someone a championship.

Bilal Powell, NYJ vs. BUF

Forte is on the shelf with a shoulder injury. His 100-yard, three-touchdown effort versus the Bills in Week 2 remains his most productive day of the season. Though that was a long time ago, one thing that remains the same is Buffaloís inability to slow down running backs. In their last four outings alone the Bills have given up 847 scrimmage yards and seven scores to tailbacks, and that included a meeting with Cleveland. Powell, who has 415 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns of his own in the last three games, must be licking his chops to face this defense.

Thomas Rawls, SEA at SF

Yes, Rawls has sucked of late. His last two games -- 29 combined carries for 42 yards (1.4 YPC) -- have been putrid. But 49ers. Thatís the argument, plain and simple. If youíre still playing for something in Week 17 then youíve watched at least some football and most likely seen someone terrorize San Fran on the ground.

Darren Sproles, PHI vs. DAL

Ryan Mathews (back), Wendell Smallwood (knee) and Kenjon Barner (hamstring) have all landed on IR. That means the backfield workload rests primarily on the Speedy Gonzales-like feet of the 33-year-old Sproles. In case you were wondering, Sproles was the lead back in Phillyís first meeting with Dallas when he averaged 5.7 YPC en route to 103 scrimmage yards. Heís also scored in three straight games and will look to continue that streak versus a Cowboys group that just allowed Zach Zenner to rumble for 67 yards and two touchdowns at 5.6 yards per clip.

Paul Perkins, NYG at WAS

In their last five games, the Skins have allowed at least 60 yards rushing to every lead tailback theyíve faced, with the last two going for 135 and 119 respectively. Washington has been banged up in their front seven and itís showed. Perkins has tallied double-digit carries in three straight games while increasing his yardage in each as well. The most dynamic runner in the Giantsí backfield will continue to get the ball as they try to develop a ground game Big Blue will sorely need in the playoffs.

Jalen Richard, OAK at DEN

A loss could cost the Raiders the second seed in the AFC, so as they face Denver minus Derek Carr (leg) for the first time in the young quarterbackís career, chances are high Oakland will employ the same game plan that saw them beat the Broncos in Week 10. In that contest all three of the Raidersí top tailbacks saw at least eight carries as they trampled Denver for 211 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Sure, Latavius Murray was the big beneficiary as the goal line back and primary runner, but Richard still tallied 72 scrimmage yards as he averaged 7.8 YPC. Against a Broncos defense thatís 29th versus the run, Richard, and possibly DeAndre Washington, could both be useful flex options.

Darren McFadden, DAL at PHI

It would be a risky move to play a clear backup unless Dallas announces prior to kickoff that Ezekiel Elliott is going to sit out or be pulled early, but the odds are in favor of McFadden seeing double-digit carries for the second consecutive week. Versus Detroit, he received 14 carries due to a lopsided second half score. Against an Eagles defense thatís allowed 440 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns to the Redskins, Ravens and Giants backfields in the last three weeks, McFadden will likely take over even earlier for Elliott given that Dallasí playoff seed cannot change.

Fitzgerald Toussaint, PIT vs. CLE

Toussaint has 12 touches on the season. He may get to double that against the second-worst run defense in football when LeíVeon Bell is likely sidelined for most, if not all, of the game. The Steelers are locked into the No. 3 seed in the AFC and after not having Bell for the playoffs in two straight years you can bet theyíre not about to take any chances with their team MVP. Toussaint, for what itís worth, brings more to the table than just a premium matchup. Facing two tough defenses as the starter in last yearís playoff run, he notched 118 scrimmage yards versus Cincinnati and then 41 yards and a touchdown against Denver. Translation: he could be the one-week play of the year, particularly if youíre a Bell owner.

Wide Receiver

Pierre Garcon & DeSean Jackson, WAS vs. NYG

Garcon has at least 78 yards or a touchdown in four straight and six of the last seven. Jackson has three straight 100-yard games and double figures in fantasy (standard) in five of his last six. This quietly productive duo (both should hit the 1,000 yard plateau this week) has been a model of consistency down the stretch, and a Giants defense that cannot change their playoff seeding and will likely be minus Janoris Jenkins for one more week is not going to change that, especially with Washington in a win-and-their-in scenario.

Adam Thielen, MIN vs. CHI

It may be time for everyone to pay more attention to Thielen. His quietly solid season just became a heck of a lot louder after exploding versus Green Bay for 12 catches, 202 yards and two TDs. After leaving the Indianapolis game the week prior with a neck injury, the third-year Viking responded with a massive career showing. That means in his last three full contests Thielen has 389 yards on 23 catches. The Bears have quietly been a top-10 pass defense, but they also just allowed two Redskins wideouts to have at least 94 yards each on only nine total receptions.

DeAndre Hopkins, HOU at TEN

Only the Eagles and Cardinals have allowed more yards to wide receivers, and after Tennessee just gave up 147 yards to Allen Robinson when the massively disappointing third-year wideout had totaled a pitiful 105 in his last five games, itís safe to say that any No. 1 receiver must be started versus this defense. Hopkins, who is aided by the replacement of Osweiler with Savage, is set up nicely for his second 100-yard game of the season.

J.J. Nelson, AZ at LA

Nelson is riding a four-game scoring streak (five total TDs) into a matchup with a Rams defense that has allowed 19 scores to wideouts, good for the fourth-most in the league. With Michael Floyd gone, Nelson has emerged as the teamís No. 2 wideout and top deep threat. Heís seen 18 targets the last two weeks and has a 56-yard rushing touchdown in the last three games to sweeten his hot stretch, one that figures to stay hot into the offseason.

DeVante Parker, MIA vs. NE

If Parker draws Malcolm Butler in coverage, things could be ugly, but otherwise he has the talent and should have the opportunity to turn in a nice flex day. In five of his last seven contests Parker has at least 64 yards or a touchdown. If the Patriots jump out to a lead and Miami has to throw more, count on the second-year wideout making it six of eight.

Tight End

Charles Clay, BUF at NYJ

All four of Clayís touchdowns this season have come in the last three games, as both his targets and yards have increased in each of those three (23 total targets, 209 yards). Facing a Jets D thatís allowed 10 to the tight end position this year -- one of only four teams to do so -- Clay could extend his scoring streak to four even with E.J. Manuel likely replacing Tyrod Taylor under center. After all, a tight end is often a quarterbackís best friend when he hasnít been on the field in a while.

Jared Cook, GB at DET

Itís a risky move to start a tight end that has just 321 yards and one score on the season, but it could also be the perfect time to do so. Cook boasts substantial upside as a major mismatch weapon for Rodgers, and of his 321 yards this year 190 have come in two games. When heís featured, he can post big totals. With 13 targets over the last two weeks itís clear Green Bay wants to get him more involved. If they do this week that spells trouble for a Detroit defense that is one of just four units to have allowed both 800-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns to tight ends.



Dak Prescott, DAL at PHI

Itís very simple. The Cowboys have home field locked up in the NFC as the top seed. Thereís no reason to expose Prescott to four quarters of hits and the chance alone that he doesnít play beyond the first or second quarter makes him a must-sit.

Philip Rivers, SD vs. KC

Rivers very well may be playing his final game in Qualcomm Stadium, with a potential offseason move to Los Angeles still very much a real possibility. The proud and highly-prolific gunslinger will surely want to give the fans one last exciting showing, but unfortunately the Chiefs are not prepared to let that happen. The Chargers offense is as depleted as any in the league, Kansas City is vying for a possible first round playoff bye, and a San Diego offense with no threat of a rushing attack is going to make things awfully tough on Rivers. His eight-game streak of multiple touchdown passes is in serious jeopardy.

Eli Manning, NYG at WAS

The Redskins have allowed four straight 300-yard passers, including the likes of Carson Wentz, Cam Newton and Matt Barkley. In that same stretch, however, Manning has thrown for less than 200 yards three times and required 63 attempts last week to top 300 yards in a game that also saw him toss three interceptions. Considering that the outcome of this game does nothing to impact the Giantsí playoff seed, Manning may not even suit up for this entire contest. Even if he does, consider him likely to continue underwhelming through the air, as New York has gone ground heavy of late and has no reason to risk Manning before their playoff run.

Running Back

Jay Ajayi, MIA vs. NE

The Patriots have given up the third-fewest rushing yards (72.7 per game) and fewest rushing touchdowns (four) to running backs. Theyíve done this, in large part, because they force teams to abandon the run in the second half of games while they protect leads. In fact, New England has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, and that includes meetings with some of the leagueís top backs, such as David Johnson, LeSean McCoy and LeíVeon Bell, among others. The most scrimmage yards to be registered against them (153) came from C.J. Prosise and that required more than 80 yards receiving to do so. Unfortunately, Ajayi, with just 131 receiving yards this season, is far from a major weapon in the passing game.

DeMarco Murray, TEN vs. HOU

The last three quality starting running backs to face the Texans have been Latavius Murray, Melvin Gordon and Frank Gore. That trio rushed for a combined 144 yards on 39 carries with Gordonís 70 topping the bunch. Now Murray and the Titans will host Houston with nothing at stake and their star quarterback on IR. Murray is coming off his worst game of the season (60 total yards) and his only two-game scoring draught of the year. The chances of him bouncing back donít look too hot given the matchup and the odds of Tennessee either struggling in general as an offense or giving rookie power back Derrick Henry more chances to showcase his immense potential.

Rob Kelley, WAS vs. NYG

Kelley is not only dealing with a sprained knee this week, but heís also facing a Giants defense whoís strength lies in their front four. That Big Blue defense in the second half of the season managed to hold the top three tailbacks they faced -- Ezekiel Elliott, LeíVeon Bell and Jordan Howard -- to 302 yards rushing on 70 carries with none finding the end zone. Moreover, both Chris Thompson and Mack Brown shined with their limited opportunities last week, so if Kelley is hampered by his injury in a must-win game, coach Jay Gruden may want fresher legs on the field.

Wide Receiver

Amari Cooper & Michael Crabtree, OAK at DEN

Cooper and Crabtree have racked up a combined 2,066 yards and 12 touchdowns as one of the leagueís top wide receiver duos. They did that, however, with MVP candidate Derek Carr under center, not career backup Matt McGloin. And in their first meeting with Denverís elite cornerback tandem of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, the Raidersí studs registered 83 yards between them. McGloin may take some downfield shots, but donít count on either of these two doing much with them.

Sammy Watkins, BUF at NYJ

Watkins is coming off by far his best game of the season with over 150 yards and a touchdown. When healthy, heís shown great chemistry with Tyrod Taylor dating back to a monstrous second half of last season. The problem for Watkins this week, however, is very simple: He wonít be playing with Taylor. With Rex Ryan ousted and dollars influencing upper managementís feelings on Taylor, veteran bust E.J. Manuel will be running the show. In five games together spread out between 2014 and early 2015, Watkins has caught touchdowns in three but failed to top 50 yards in four of them. While Watkins is immensely talented and seemingly back to or at least close to full strength, heís awfully hard to trust with a subpar passer throwing the ball.

T.Y. Hilton, IND vs. JAC

When the Colts met Jacksonville in London in Week 4, Hilton, the current league-leading receiver, was able to find the end zone versus the ultra sticky coverage of rookie stud corner Jalen Ramsey, but it took him 10 targets and seven catches to generate just 42 yards. That output marks Hiltonís second lowest yardage of the season and the only time he was held to less than 10.0 yards per catch. Hilton may be vying for the receiving yardage crown, but Ramsey is out to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year and has one more chance to state his case.

Tight End

Antonio Gates, SD vs. KC

Gates is coming off his best performance of the season and could be playing his last game in the city of San Diego, but that extra motivation wonít be enough to keep him hot this week. The Chiefs are playing for a possible bye week and Eric Berry is having an All-Pro season at safety. They wonít shut out the future Hall of Famer, but they will limit Gates to table scraps as the Chargers struggle in general to move the football.