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Monday Dinner: Ryan Mathews drops the ball again

Scott Pianowski
Roto Arcade

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It's more of a quick-hitter piece today than a thematic one, so let's load up the bulletry and see where it takes us.

• In a world where fumbles and injuries don't exist, Ryan Mathews is King. The maddening San Diego back has nine fumbles on just 345 pro touches, and he's missed time due to injury in each of the last five seasons — two at San Diego, three at Fresno State. This is the very definition of unreliable, friends. You can't hitch your offense up to a back like this, not in the current form.

I do believe you can cure a back of fumbling, though — look at what Tom Coughlin did for Tiki Barber. But I doubt the solution to the Mathews Matrix is currently on the San Diego coaching staff. If the Chargers don't completely clean house before the 2012 season, it's an insult to all of San Diego. (While you were reading this paragraph, Norv Turner wasted a couple of timeouts, then looked up at the sky with that "where did I park my car?" puzzled look on his face.)

Mike Tolbert should see an increased role down the stretch (against a mixed bag of rushing defenses), but the Chargers know he's really not suited to be a featured back. Assuming Mathews is back in town next year, look for the club to bring in a significant runner to challenge him for the starting gig. Players with multiple-year injury histories don't turn into Iron Men overnight. (The McFadden Youth is solemnly nodding along.) {ysp:more}

• There's no reason to throw a parade for Marshawn Lynch: a 3.8 YPC doesn't get you on the cover of a magazine (well, unless you're Jerome Bettis). Seattle's offensive line has some holes, too. But Lynch is becoming a fantasy force because of the play-calling and the workload he's seeing in Seattle. Lynch has scored a TD in six straight starts, and he's collected a crazy 90 touches over the last three weeks. When in doubt, follow the opportunity.

So long as the Seahawks want to keep feeding the beast, we'll play along. The Redskins aren't likely to run away from Seattle in Week 12, and Lynch looks good against the Eagles and Rams after that. Chicago and San Francisco (ouch) are in wait for the fantasy playoffs, but let's not look too far ahead. Lynch has a good thing rolling right now.

• The Bills gained five more yards than Miami but somehow lost by 27 points; that's almost impossible to do. I can't see things getting any better for Ryan Fitzpatrick down the stretch, as the book is clearly out on this offense. The Buffalo wideouts have trouble beating press coverage, and Fitzpatrick doesn't have the arm to consistently beat teams on intermediate and deep routes. If Fred Jackson isn't Superman, this unit goes nowhere. Jackson, health permitting, is the only Buffalo player I'll trust next week against the Jets (Buffalo's nightmare matchup).

• It's such a shame to see Jay Cutler hurt because I loved how he was playing the last month or so. I also felt that with a healthy Cutler, Chicago was essentially the third-best team in the conference. His pocket awareness has come a long way, Mike Martz has finally gotten proactive with protection schemes, and Cutler brings some much-needed swagger and confidence to the position. Lovie Smith insists that the offense won't change with Caleb Hanie under center, but I don't believe that for a second. All of the Chicago receivers get a major downgrade going forward.

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• John Skelton's snappy games against the Rams and Eagles generated some buzz, but if you watched the genesis of that production — if you watched and rewatched every snap — you could make out the fly in the ointment. Skelton's accuracy has been an issue in all three of his starts, and many of his biggest gains came because his teammates were bailing him out with terrific  catches on wayward passes. A quarterback doesn't deserve credit for every completion, from a scouting standpoint anyway; a poorly thrown ball that Larry Fitzgerald snags out of nowhere is not a point for the quarterback. Given what Skelton had already shown on tape, it wasn't surprising to watch Skelton turn back into a pumpkin during the ugly loss at San Francisco.

When you're trying to get a read on a quarterback, ask yourself these sorts of questions: Is the QB able to throw passes before his receivers make their breaks? Does the quarterback throw a ball that's easy to catch? Are the throws consistently put in an area where only the receiver can make a play? Does the QB hit his receivers in stride, allowing for sizable yards after the catch? There's a big difference between a competed pass and a perfect pass, and what works in college (or against a prevent defense) might not work against a base NFL defense. As one quarterback prospect put it (and I wish I could remember who's quote this is), "In college, everyone is open. In the NFL, almost no one is." You have to learn how to, as the wise Greg Cosell puts it, throw receivers open.

• The Jets offense looked better with Joe McKnight for one simple reason — more of the playbook is available when McKnight in the game. Even casual Jets fans can call out the likely plays when Shonn Greene is the tailback. Greene still has his moments where he's a decent inside runner, but he can't do anything else.

• The Eagles have a difficult decision on DeSean Jackson at the end of the year. We've all seen his big-play ability and he's the type of receiver that can help an offense even when he's not seeing the ball — defenses have to account for his deep potential on every snap. But Jackson is a horrible route-runner and he's almost worthless on patterns over the middle, and his lapses in focus and maturity consistently hurt the Eagles, too. At what point do you decide that it's not worth the bother? I'd never pay this wild card true No. 1 receiver money, and I wouldn't make him a keeper-league staple unless backed into a corner.

• Carson Palmer's quiet fantasy game at Minnesota underscores how game flow impacts our make-believe football world. Nursing a 17-point lead at the half, the Raiders decided to take the air out of the ball and control the clock. The Raiders had 23 runs and nine passes in the second half (compared to 18 runs and 14 passes in the first half), and Palmer only threw for 55 yards after intermission. If you want your fantasy QB to have a juicy day, you need the other guys to keep up.

• I'll be shocked if the Cowboys don't win the NFC East. The dash of DeMarco Murray balances the offense nicely, the offensive line has made significant strides since the beginning of the year, and Tony Romo is finally healthy again — and playing with supreme confidence. Romo's improvisational skills were the biggest reason the Pokes escaped Washington with a victory. All the Cowboys really need to do is split with the Giants — the upcoming New York schedule (murderous) will take care of the rest.

• In a perfect world, Kevin Smith would always be teammates with Daunte Culpepper and Randall Cunningham. And if I ran the Lions, I'd give Smith a healthy share of carries down the stretch, looking to ease the burden on Matthew Stafford. You can't ask your QB to drop back 40-plus times a week without him eventually getting the tar beaten out of him.

• The three interceptions killed Andy Dalton's rating at Baltimore, but I'm impressed at how the rookie posted 373 yards and a tasty 8.3 YPA against the nasty Ravens — without A.J. Green. Dalton might develop into a star someday as he and Green mature, but this sort of outing shows us that Dalton is going to be damn good no matter who he's playing with. Dalton reminds me a little bit of Drew Brees: undersized and an ordinary arm, but smart, constantly poised, and willing to pull the trigger on any throw. The Bengals are set at this position for 8-10 years.

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• You watch Victor Cruz jitterbugging all over the field and you wonder how the Giants could have buried him for so long. They have him in practice, right? Shouldn't they know how good he is? But the truth of the matter is that the structure of practice is vastly different than the conditions of a game, and sometimes it's difficult — close to impossible — for a team to recognize the special talent it has under its roof. And once the regular season gets underway, the focus is generally on preparing the starters more than developing the prospects. There are countless would-be-stars sitting on someone's bench right now, just waiting for a chance to shine. It's not going to happen tracking kicks on special teams.

• I spent the weekend in Vermont, home of green mountains, fresh air and awfully nice people. The ABC Rules of the Road apply: Always Be Charging. You don't want to be caught in the sports bar without a functional laptop, or on a plane without a juiced-up iPod. The Sunday set-up was so perfect at the Vermont Sports Grill, I was sad when I walked out the door. Not every sports bar knows how to properly cater to its fans and maximize television utility, but Erich and his staff at the VSG knew what they were doing. Many thanks, Catamounts.

• If you didn't have the names and the numbers in front of you, you'd swear that Sam Bradford must be some undrafted third-string quarterback who's playing because others are hurt. The Rams have a long Bradford rebuild in front of them — they need to rebuild his mechanics and his confidence. As ordinary as the pieces are on this offense, Bradford has clearly regressed in Year 2. The Rams have been a difficult watch all season.

• One MVP voter apparently felt that Jacoby Ellsbury wasn't one of the nine best players in the American League this year. Oops, I forgot the magic word, valuable . . . the vague cover that allows every voter the right to define the award for himself. I don't really care who wins these awards so long as most of the voting is logical. When I see Ellsbury getting a tenth-place vote from some anonymous scribe, it gets my dander up.

• Prefer your Dinner on Sundays? Follow me on Twitter: @scott_pianowski

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Images courtesy US Presswire

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