In "Exploit or Avoid," we take a close look at some of the week's more favorable — and tough — matchups for skill-position players. Here's who we like on each side of the ledger in Week 14:
Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw (vs. New Orleans) — Get him into the lineup. The Saints are allowing 153.8 rushing yards and about one rushing TD per game. Bradshaw had a sneaky-good game in Week 13, rushing for 103 yards on 24 carries and catching two passes for 13 yards. Also of note: Bradshaw had all but five rushes that went to Giants players, with David Wilson carrying four times and Eli Manning having one attempt. Wilson just isn't the threat to Bradshaw's workload that Andre Brown was.
Packers WR Jermichael Finley (vs. Detroit) — There's plenty of reasons to like Finley in Week 14. For starters, he caught three passes for 66 yards at Detroit in Week 11. Moreover, he has followed that up with two solid games in succession (combined 9-111-0 on 12 targets). Finally, the Lions, after giving up the score to Finley, have surrendered a TD pass to opposing tight ends in each of the next two games. The Texans' Owen Daniels caught one on Thanksgiving, and the Colts' Coby Fleener hauled in a 26-yard score in Week 13.
Bills RBs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller (vs. St. Louis) — As the Bills' starting back and one of the NFL's top game-breaking threats at his position, Spiller is a must-start no matter the format. And Jackson should be in the bulk of lineups this week, too. The Rams have allowed at least 124 rushing yards in four of the past five games. While Jackson probably won't get the 25 carries he received in Week 13, he's likely a good bet to get more than the half-dozen rushing attempts of the previous week — an output that raised red flags for fantasy owners. Another point in Jackson's favor: he's likely to get short-yardage looks.
Panthers QB Cam Newton (vs. Atlanta) — In the Panthers' first 2012 meeting with Atlanta in Week Four, Newton rushed for a season-high 86 yards on just nine attempts. In addition to rushing for a score, he threw two TD passes and no picks. Newton has also been sharp more recently, too, throwing for 538 yards and five TDs and rushing for 130 yards and two scores in Weeks 12 and 13.
Seahawks WR Golden Tate (vs. Arizona) — In the past five games, Tate has 22 catches, 295 yards and four TDs — and this on just 26 targets. All told, he has caught nearly 85 percent of the passes thrown his way in this span. That's production that gets you more chances to produce, and Tate merits solid starting consideration from fantasy owners in all-important Week 14, particularly if Sidney Rice (concussion) can't go.
Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (at Pittsburgh) — Love Norv Turner or hate Norv Turner, the one constant of his long NFL play-calling career has been the way running backs have thrived in his system. Which brings us to the curious case of Mathews. He is one of the game's more talented backs; he made the Pro Bowl a season ago and has had moments where he looked on his way to stardom. However, his 2012 statistics (155 carries, 620 yards, one TD rushing; 36 catches, 244 yards, no TDs) are underwhelming — numbers of a capable starter, but not a back on his way to bigger and better things. Mathews is surely better than this, right? My gut tells me he is, that this is just a lost season for these stale Chargers. But would I start him in Week 14 in Pittsburgh with my fantasy football season on the line? Only if I lacked other good options, or only if I was in a league with a supersized lineup — three running backs or two flexes or something of the like. Only four teams are allowing fewer rushing yards than the Steelers.
Raiders QB Carson Palmer, WR Denarius Moore and RB Darren McFadden (vs. Denver) — Let's be frank: from a fantasy football perspective, the Raiders' appeal is that they are often playing from behind, and yards and touchdowns count the same whether they are scored when the outcome is in question or no longer in doubt. If you want to start Palmer or Moore using that thought process, go right ahead. I, too, believe the Broncos are likely winners in the rematch with Oakland. However, I wouldn't want to be depending upon the Raiders' offense on Thursday night. The Broncos held Oakland to just 237 yards and zero offensive TDs in the first meeting between the teams on Sept. 30. I also don't believe McFadden is a slam-dunk plug-and-play start in his return to the lineup, either. McFadden, who's gaining just 3.3 yards per carry this season, was held to 34 yards on 13 carries by Denver in Week Four.
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald (at Seattle) — Yes, we've reached this point. We've been headed this way for awhile. Maybe we have been here for a few weeks and couldn't bear to look around at our surroundings. But this is it, the point where the reality of Fitzgerald's sagging production in a bad offense has hit home. The numbers tell the story: In the past three games, Fitzgerald has just five catches for 65 yards. Moreover, 21 other passes thrown his way have gone incomplete. Experienced fantasy owners would never bench Fitzgerald without acknowledging the risk of such a move; he's been an outstanding player for so long. But many owners are crossing this bridge even if they haven't done so already. The Seahawks' secondary is outstanding, and the Cardinals' passing game … well, let's just stop right there. Larry Fitzgerald is very tough to start in most leagues in Week 14. You know it and I know it. It is what it is.
Jaguars TE Marcedes Lewis (vs. N.Y. Jets) — He likely will end up in some fantasy lineups in Week 14 after two nice games in a row (combined 8-124-0 in Weeks 12 and 13). However, the Jets are solid vs. the pass, and the Jaguars' passing game is far from reilable. I wouldn't rush to start him this week unless I lacked other good options.