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 13:
Giants QB Eli Manning (at Washington ) — After a three-game streak without a passing TD that likely landed him on a more than a few fantasy owners' benches, Manning bounced back in Week 12, completing 16-of-30 passes for 249 yards with three scores and no interceptions. He's a very good starting option Monday night at Washington. In the first meeting with the Redskins on Oct. 21, Manning threw for 337 yards, his second-highest output of the season.
Eagles RB Bryce Brown (at Dallas) — He's tough to sit no matter the matchup after he racked up 178 yards and two TDs in Monday's loss to Carolina. And if you're on the fence, note this: the Cowboys have allowed 103 rushing yards or more in five of the last six games. "Ah-ha! Gotcha!" you say. "The lone game in that span where an opponent didn't reach 100 yards rushing was the Cowboys' win at Philadelphia in Week 10." That's true, but the Eagles did rack up a respectable 91 yards on 23 carries (4.0 ypc), and LeSean McCoy did score a rushing TD. If McCoy (concussion, check status) misses yet another game, Brown will get the bulk of the carries, and he will be very startable. As I noted on Tuesday, the Eagles didn't bench Brown after his second fumble Monday night, which tells me that he's going to keep getting every chance to show the team what he can do.
49ers WR Michael Crabtree (at St. Louis) — Crabtree has given the Rams fits. In the last three meetings between the teams, Crabtree has 17 catches for 252 yards and four TDs in 21 targets. In two Colin Kaepernick starts, Crabtree has been targeted nine times, which is tied for the team lead over that span, and he has one TD catch. Crabtree is most appealing in three-WR formats but can be played in two-WR leagues, too.
Jaguars WRs Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts (at Buffalo) — The Bills have allowed at least one TD pass in all 11 games this season, and they have surrendered multiple scores in six games. Blackmon (12 catches, 298 yards, two TDs in the past two games with Chad Henne at QB) and Shorts (7-186-2 in the same span) must now be considered starter-caliber fantasy wideouts, and both can be played with confidence in Week 13.
Browns WR Josh Gordon (at Oakland) — The Raiders' defense is vulnerable on all fronts. They are struggling vs. the run, and they are being hurt by the pass, too. These issues go hand-in-hand when recommending Gordon. The Raiders have to deal with Browns rookie RB Trent Richardson on Sunday. If they can't consistently stop him, they could be vulnerable to field-stretching passes. This is where Gordon, the Browns' fleet rookie wideout, enters the equation, gaining 18.9 yards per catch this season.
Jaguars RB Rashad Jennings (at Buffalo) — Let's give the Bills' run defense some credit. For most of the season, the Bills have been awful stopping opposing ground games, but in the past four weeks, they have significantly improved in these efforts. To wit: In Buffalo's first seven games, opponents averaged 176.9 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry. However, in the past four contests, Bills opponents are averaging 95.5 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per attempt. Jennings, who figures to get most of the carries on Sunday, is a reasonable play if you lack other strong options, but I wouldn't bump him ahead of the marquee names at the position.
Rams RB Steven Jackson (vs. San Francisco) — The 49ers' defense can be run upon; why, the Rams showed this three weeks ago, gaining 159 yards on 37 carries in a 24-24 tie in San Francisco. Jackson, in a feat to be appreciated, ground out 101 yards on 29 attempts against the stout Niners, and he also scored a rushing TD. However, for as well as Jackson played, his longest rush was 10 yards. Moreover, the 49ers' run defense is back in strong form, allowing a combined 144 rushing yards on 49 carries (2.9 avg.) in Weeks 11 and 12. Ask yourself this: if offered even money on whether Jackson would meet or exceed 101 yards in this game, which side would you take?
Titans passing game players (vs. Houston) — While the Texans' pass defense has had some problems of late, its overall body of work is quite good, and with 10 days between the Thanksgiving win at Detroit and Sunday's game at Tennessee, I'm inclined to believe Houston will improve in Week 13. If CB Johnathan Joseph (hamstring) returns, I'd be all the more confident in this position. Now, let's look at the Titans' side of the ledger. They will have a new offensive coordinator, with QB coach Dowell Loggains replacing Chris Palmer. It's rare to see an in-season coordinator change. Were the Titans to be facing a less-formidable foe, I might start a Titans passing-game player without giving it much thought. However, it's Week 13, and such uncertainty is unwelcome, particularly against this caliber of opponent. In short, I'd start Titans RB Chris Johnson, but I'd take a wait-and-see approach on everyone else if I had the choice.
Falcons RB Michael Turner (vs. New Orleans) — In Week 10, the Saints held Turner to 15 yards on 13 carries. Even on a feet gained per carry basis, that's not flattering. If it weren't one of several other instances in 2012 where Turner has struggled mightily, we could chuckle and put him in the lineup Thursday without much thought. Well, Turner comes off a 13-carry, 17-yard performance in Week 12 vs. Tampa Bay. While Turner did score a rushing TD (giving him three TDs in the past four games), fantasy owners have to be pretty wary right now, especially with backup Jacquizz Rodgers (10-49-1) getting just three fewer carries than Turner on Sunday.