1:00PM ET Games
Atlanta @ Carolina
Back on a statistical tear as the No. 4 per-game fantasy QB scorer over the past five weeks, Cam Newton should be licking his chops for this home date with Atlanta's pushover defense. Over their last six games, the Falcons have allowed Carson Palmer, Mike Glennon, Geno Smith, receiver-depleted Tom Brady, Ryan Tannehill, and Sam Bradford to combine to go 131-of-203 (64.5%) for 1,531 yards (7.54 YPA) with a 14:3 TD-to-INT ratio. With Peyton Manning on a bye, you could argue Cam is fantasy football's top quarterback play this week. ... Newton's target distribution during his five-game hot stretch: Steve Smith 37, Brandon LaFell 27, Greg Olsen 26, Ted Ginn 20, DeAngelo Williams 14, Mike Tolbert 8. ... Smith is running more possession routes than usual under first-year Panthers OC Mike Shula, resulting in a career-low 10.5 yards-per-catch average. He's just a WR3, though a solid one in this game. Smith is the No. 21 overall fantasy receiver the past three weeks. ... LaFell has three touchdowns this season, but two have come on blown coverages and he's been held under 55 yards in 7-of-8 games. LaFell isn't worth a fantasy roster spot. The target numbers don't reflect it, but LaFell has been outplayed by Ginn all year.
Olsen is back in play as a low-end TE1 coming off a long week to rest his balky foot. Carolina last played two Thursday nights ago. Olsen's ceiling is limited by his integral role as an in-line blocker, but he's also ordinarily Carolina's No. 2 passing-game option when healthy. And per Pro Football Focus, Olsen ran 35 pass routes at Tampa Bay, a high for him since Week 5. Olsen's last three stat lines against Mike Nolan's Falcons defense: 4-55-1; 6-89-1; 2-53-1. ... Ginn is playing excellent football this season and was a gem find by rookie GM Dave Gettleman on a one-year, $1.1 million deal, but he is a third receiver on a run-minded team and not a recommended fantasy investment. He's playing just 45% of Carolina's offensive snaps. ... The Panthers' backfield is about to become a three-headed rotation even before factoring in Newton's increasing rushing role. Off the PUP list, Jonathan Stewart will make his season debut versus Atlanta, quite possibly cutting DeAngelo Williams' carries in half. Williams was already a volume-dependent, low-scoring fantasy back, and will now lose volume. Tolbert is entrenched as Carolina's red-zone specialist. One of these three backs will likely have a worthwhile fantasy game against the Falcons' 22nd-ranked run defense -- Atlanta is submitting 4.62 YPC -- but the predictability factor has evaporated. If forced to choose from the trio, I'd probably trot out Tolbert because he's the best bet to score. Williams would be the second best fantasy gamble, with Stewart a close third.
Friday Update: Panthers coach Ron Rivera stated Friday he expects Stewart to handle 6-10 touches against the Falcons. Williams is averaging 18.1 per game, so losing 6-10 to Stewart would be a major blow to DeAngelo's fantasy outlook. He's a poor flex option even in this favorable matchup.
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Atlanta's talent-deficient offense received a Week 8 wakeup call in the desert, exposing their Week 7 demolition of Tampa as fool's gold. This is a team with major pass-protection problems, few or no passing-game weapons, and a quarterback with limitations that become far more glaring when Matt Ryan isn't surrounded by All Pro-caliber wideouts. In Week 9, Ryan & Co. get an even tougher matchup on the road versus Carolina's defense, which ranks No. 1 in points allowed, No. 2 in yards, and No. 9 against the pass. Enemy quarterbacks have managed an anemic 6:9 TD-to-INT ratio on the Panthers this year. Ryan is the fantasy QB2 we all knew he'd be when Julio Jones and Roddy White went down. ... Even more troubling than Ryan's four picks for the future fate of the Falcons was Steven Jackson's sluggish Week 8 running. There were signs of Jackson's decline in the preseason. They were borne out at Arizona as S-Jax managed 13 yards on 14 touches, looking stiff and lacking any hint of burst. It's as if his quick-twitch athleticism has vanished. Judging by that game alone, the Falcons might be better off using Jacquizz Rodgers in a more prominent role. The Panthers rank No. 2 in run defense and have permitted two rushing touchdowns through seven games. If Jackson is going to get on track -- and I have my doubts -- this probably won't be the week. S-Jax is a shaky Week 9 flex option.
Ryan's target distribution over Atlanta's last two games: Harry Douglas 25, Rodgers 14, Darius Johnson and Tony Gonzalez 12, Drew Davis 8, S-Jax 5, Levine Toilolo 3, Chase Coffman 2. ... Douglas is a recommended sell high. Never an explosive talent, Douglas' two weeks of top-end statistics have been the strict product of injury-induced opportunity. And that's rarely a sustainable long-term fantasy recipe. Roddy White (hamstring/ankle) is likely to return for the stretch run, and defenses will begin focusing more attention on Atlanta's slot receiver. Douglas remains a solid WR3 at Carolina, but owners would be smart to bail with his value at its peak. ... Gonzalez will do battle Sunday with a Panthers defense allowing the 14th most receptions to tight ends. Carolina served up a 5-48-1 line to Bucs TE Tim Wright in Week 8, eight catches to Rams tight ends in Week 7, and an 11-109-1 number to Vikings TEs in Week 6. Despite his 2013 inconsistency, I can't see benching Gonzo this week unless you have Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, Antonio Gates, or Jason Witten. ... Coming off a career-best 5-77-1 line at Arizona, Davis will be a shot-in-the-dark WR3 if White is inactive against the Panthers. If Roddy does play, Davis will be Atlanta's third or fourth receiver. Johnson is playing Julio Jones' old "X" position.
Friday Update: Falcons beat writers expressed optimism Friday that White would play at Carolina after returning to practice on a limited basis. White's return is going to throw a wrench into the fantasy potential of Douglas, and especially Davis. If White returns as a full-time player, I'd look for Atlanta's two-receiver package to be Roddy and Douglas with Johnson entering at "X" in three-wide sets. Facing such a strong Panthers pass defense, Douglas is the only Atlanta receiver I'd consider as a WR3.
Score Prediction: Panthers 27, Falcons 17
San Diego @ Washington
The Chargers return from a Week 8 bye rested and poised to light up Washington's 29th-ranked defense, which has allowed the second most points in football. The Skins are getting shredded by the pass, allowing a 15:7 TD-to-INT ratio and the fifth highest passer rating (100.7) in football to enemy quarterbacks. The No. 5 fantasy QB in per-game scoring, Rivers is a high-ceiling start in D.C. ... Bolts-Skins has the highest over-under of Week 9 at 51 points with a one-point spread, meaning the Vegas prognosticators anticipate both teams scoring 24 or more. It's a great week to invest in San Diego pass-game members. ... Rivers' target distribution over his last four games: Antonio Gates 34, Keenan Allen 33, Danny Woodhead 25, Vincent Brown 23, Eddie Royal 16, Ryan Mathews and Ladarius Green 5. ... It's during that four-game window that Allen stepped forward as San Diego's No. 1 wideout. He's a top-ten fantasy receiver over that span and a WR2 with upside at Washington. ... The Redskins are playing weekly musical chairs at safety, causing communication issues that lead to blown coverages down the seam and in the red zone. Broncos tight ends tagged Washington for a combined 6-53-1 stat line in Week 8, and Martellus Bennett found pay dirt against them the week before. There's nothing imposing about Gates' Week 9 matchup. He is San Diego's target leader on the season, with ten more than any other Charger.
Now the No. 4 option in the Chargers' passing game, Brown would be a weak WR3 despite this attractive on-paper matchup. ... Slot receiver Royal is playing 63% of San Diego's offensive snaps and lacks playmaking ability. A WR5, Royal is essentially waiver-wire fodder at this point in the season. ... Run-defense matchups don't matter much for Woodhead because the Chargers get him into space and his role is locked in as a passing-down back averaging 14 touches per game since the season opener. On pace for 92 receptions, Woodhead is an RB2 in PPR leagues and every-week flex starter in standard settings. ... Matchups are far more relevant for Mathews, who is utilized strictly as an on-the-ground ball carrier and has gone catch-less in four of San Diego's past five games. This one's a doozy. Washington's No. 30 run defense is one of just two teams that has served up double-digit rushing touchdowns on the season, and is permitting 4.39 yards per carry, the ninth most generous clip in football. Fire up Mathews as an RB2/flex this week.
Robert Griffin III's fantasy owners need to shake off his Week 8 clunker and start him in this likely shootout. The Chargers' defense is 23rd in yards allowed and brings little pressure, ranking 21st in sacks and 22nd in Pro Football Focus' team pass-rush metrics. RG3's accuracy has been a year-long problem, but quarterbacks' ball location tends to improve dramatically in clean pockets. He should have them on Sunday. There are only six QB1s I'd play over Griffin in Week 9: Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson. ... Griffin's targets since Washington's Week 5 bye: Pierre Garcon 34; Jordan Reed 29; Leonard Hankerson 14; Santana Moss 10; Roy Helu 9; Aldrick Robinson 4; Josh Morgan 3; Alfred Morris 1. ... Garcon's touchdown shortage has been disappointing, but it's only a matter of time before he rediscovers pay dirt. He's fourth among all NFL wide receivers in targets the past three weeks, and seventh in catches. Both starting San Diego corners -- RCB Derek Cox and LCB Shareece Wright -- rank in the bottom dozen of PFF's cornerback grades. Garcon is a player to target in buy-low trades before Sunday's game. His usage in the passing game suggests a hot stretch is coming.
Reed is the real deal. No tight end in football has been targeted more over the last three weeks, and only Vernon Davis has scored more fantasy points during that span. Reed is a top-six tight end going forward. ... Z receiver Hankerson and slot man Moss aren't big enough components of Washington's passing attack to warrant serious fantasy start-ability. Hankerson has settled in as a touchdown-dependent, low-ceiling WR3. ... Helu torpedoed fantasy games for owners who tried to chase his Week 7 three-touchdown fluke into Week 8, managing six touches for 25 scoreless yards against the Broncos. Helu is a good football player and will remain involved as a passing-down specialist, but this is Morris' backfield. Helu would be a poor Week 9 flex play. He needs a Morris injury to become reliably start-able in fantasy leagues. ... Morris was re-confirmed as Shanahan & Son's bellcow against Denver, tallying a game-high 17 carries for 93 yards and a score. Morris' lack of passing-game usage demotes him from RB1 to high-end RB2, but he's an every-week fantasy starter regardless. Morris has 525 rushing yards on his last 97 runs (5.41 YPC). I've written it in this space before and will again: Alf is playing better than he did as a rookie, even if the fantasy production hasn't fully caught up. The Bolts' defense is silver plattering 4.79 yards per carry, the third highest clip in the league. This is a great week to start Morris.
Score Prediction: Redskins 30, Chargers 28
Kansas City @ Buffalo
Andy Reid is the obvious frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year at midseason. Not just for turning a 2-14 embarrassment into an 8-0 postseason lock. For dragging Alex Smith to all eight wins, essentially copying Jim Harbaugh's Hide Your Quarterback formula with a top-five defense and running back on pace to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton also merits a major hat tip. The Chiefs haven't been in a shootout or faced a large deficit all year long. ... Smith hasn't hit 300 yards in any game yet and has failed to throw a touchdown pass in four of the last six weeks. He's the No. 21 fantasy quarterback in per-game scoring. Smith is a low-upside two-quarterback-league option. ... Smith's target distribution since Anthony Fasano returned from injury two games ago: Dexter McCluster 15, Jamaal Charles and Dwayne Bowe 11, Donnie Avery 9, Anthony Sherman 7, Sean McGrath 4. ... Laughably, 26 of Smith's 36 throws in Week 8 (72.2%) were intended for running backs and tight ends. Kansas City's quarterback and the style of offense the Chiefs are playing simply aren't conducive to wide receiver production. Smith refuses to throw outside the numbers or downfield. Bowe has become fantasy trash.
Buffalo's defense has given up a lot of passing-game production this season -- the Bills rank 24th against the pass and have allowed a league-high 20 passing touchdowns -- but matchups don't really matter for Kansas City's passing "attack." Because they don't attack. Held under 40 yards in 6-of-8 games, Avery is waiver-wire material. ... Buffalo has been stingier in tight end coverage, where it ranks 20th in fantasy points allowed. Lumbering in-line TE Fasano isn't on the radar. ... McCluster saw a season-most ten targets in last week's win over the Browns, securing seven for 67 yards and a touchdown. McCluster's previous target high was five. The score was McCluster's first of the season. There is a one-game sample size that suggests McCluster might be fantasy relevant, and about six others that shout to ignore him. Chase last week's box score at your own risk. ... As is unfailingly the case in the Hide Your Quarterback formula, the Chiefs will attempt to beat Buffalo on the back of Jamaal Charles. Charles has at least 120 total yards and/or a touchdown in every game this year, and is a no-brainer top-three running back play against the Bills' No. 26 run defense. ... Forward thinkers should note that Charles is on pace for a whopping 388 touches, and his previous career high is 320. Knile Davis is worth stashing for the stretch run as an RB5. Reid's offense has been decidedly running back-centric in Kansas City.
Thad Lewis' tendency to get the ball out quickly should theoretically help mitigate the ferocious Chiefs pass rush, but there is little else working in his Week 9 favor. Despite Lewis' efficient delivery, he's still managed to absorb at least four sacks in all three of his starts and committed five turnovers with six fumbles. He's now battling an illness and rib injury. Even when 100%, Lewis has shown himself to be a clearly-backup-caliber player, and he's now taking on the NFL's most intimidating defense. He's not a recommended two-QB-league play. ... Lewis' target distribution: Stevie Johnson 24; Scott Chandler 18; Fred Jackson 14; Robert Woods 13; T.J. Graham 12; Marquise Goodwin 8; C.J. Spiller 5; Tashard Choice 4. ... Keep in mind Johnson missed one of Lewis' starts. He's the heavy favorite for targets in Buffalo and the only Bills pass catcher worth serious Week 9 fantasy consideration. A precise enough route runner to get the better of top Kansas City corner Brandon Flowers, Johnson is a solid WR3. ... Keyed in the back end by red-hot SS Eric Berry, the Chiefs have allowed the fewest fantasy points in the league to tight ends. This is not an appetizing matchup for Chandler. ... Hitting a rookie wall, Woods is on pace for just 44 receptions this season and has been an afterthought in the passing offense with Lewis under center. The otherwise impressive rookie has failed to clear 25 yards in three consecutive games.
Friday Update: Despite mid-week national reports Lewis would play through his rib injury Sunday, he was listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report, giving Lewis a 25% chance -- at best -- of fulfilling normal duties against the Chiefs. It's a big concern for the entire Buffalo offense, particularly in such a daunting Week 9 matchup. If Lewis can't go, the Bills will start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel at quarterback. Tuel is 8-of-20 passing for 80 yards and an interception on the year. The Bills already passed up one opportunity to start Tuel when E.J. Manuel (knee) went down, promoting Lewis off the practice squad instead. It's telling. The coaching staff doesn't have faith in Tuel.
Leave out Kansas City's Week 3 tilt with Philadelphia where LeSean McCoy went off, and these are the anemic stat lines of enemy tailbacks in the Chiefs' other seven games: Maurice Jones-Drew (15-45-0), Arian Foster (4-11-0), DeMarco Murray (15-25-0), Ben Tate (15-50-0), David Wilson (13-55-0), Chris Johnson (10-17-0), Darren McFadden (16-52-0), Willis McGahee (9-28-0). This is a brutal matchup for fading Jackson, who's managed 179 yards on his last 57 carries (3.14 YPC) and is obviously wearing down in his age-32 campaign. Jackson has become a touchdown-dependent week-to-week fantasy commodity, meaning he's likely to hurt you if he doesn't find pay dirt. I'd bet against F-Jax scoring on the Chiefs. Particularly with Spiller due back after a week off, Jackson is just a flex option in Week 9. ... As a gap-jumping slasher, Spiller will be a better bet to break a long run versus Kansas City's stout defense than inside grinder Jackson. Still, Spiller is a boom-or-bust flex due to his uncertain workload and mostly head-scratching usage by Buffalo's rookie coaching staff. It is worth noting, however, that Doug Marrone and OC Nathaniel Hackett had begun calling more screens and outside runs just as Spiller's ankle injury popped up, after fruitlessly banging him off guards' backsides all too often in the season's initial month. Ultimately, I'd be hard pressed to keep Spiller's week-winning run skills out of my Week 9 fantasy lineup.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 20, Bills 13
New Orleans @ NY Jets
If the 4-4 Jets intend on continuing to be a competitive ballclub -- and not the 2012ish dumpster fire that lost 49-9 to Cincinnati in Week 8 -- they'd be smart to take a page out of Andy Reid's Hide Your Quarterback playbook. Geno Smith's performance has been far too inconsistent and error prone to shoulder an offensive load, committing 16 turnovers through eight games and absorbing 28 sacks to rank second in the NFL behind Ryan Tannehill. While there are no guarantees on OC Marty Mornhinweg's Week 9 game plan, a reasonable approach would be recommitting to power back Chris Ivory as the offensive focal point. The Saints' defense is vulnerable on the ground, where it surrenders a league-high 4.83 YPC and lacks point-of-attack-holding gap pluggers. Ivory remains a shot-in-the-dark flex option because this is all hypothetical. But smashing the football down New Orleans' throat would also be a way to keep Drew Brees off the field. ... Ivory was reduced to a six-carry back in Week 8, while backup QB Matt Simms pathetically led the Jets in rushing after replacing a benched Smith. Bilal Powell gained 39 scoreless yards on 14 touches. On the surface, the Jets seem to be adhering to a Belichickian backfield that morphs from week to week based on opponent-specific game planning. Fantasy owners are left to guess. I'd rather play Ivory than Powell in a Week 9 fantasy lineup, but avoiding both likely is the best approach.
The Jets were incredibly banged up in the pass-catching corps this week. Stephen Hill (foot) and Jeremy Kerley (illness) missed practice time, while Santonio Holmes (hamstring) still isn't ready to play. This team is badly in need of a bye, but doesn't get one until Week 10. TE Jeff Cumberland (concussion) will be inactive against the Saints. ... Geno's target distribution since Holmes' multi-week hamstring injury: Kerley 27; Hill and David Nelson 22; Cumberland 18; Powell 13; Ivory and Zach Sudfeld 2. ... Coming off a 12-target game, Nelson is an interesting desperation WR3 play in Week 9. The Jets will be without their starting tight end, and Nelson is essentially built like a tight end at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. ... The Bengals smothered Kerley in Week 8, deleting Smith's most reliable target. It's not crazy to think Saints DC Rob Ryan will copy that approach considering how well it worked in Cincy's blowout win. Kerley is a risky, low-ceiling WR3 option. ... Hill seems to be playing hurt. He was held under 70% of the offensive snaps against the Bengals, as Nelson checked in at 79.1%. Hill needs to be on benches until he demonstrates full health. ... Look for Sudfeld to start in Cumberland's place. "Dudfeld," as the fantasy community has nicknamed him, has caught two passes for ten yards through six games. He's just a Dynasty league prospect.
The Jets have played stout defense most of the season, but Rex Ryan's back half is beginning to spring major leakage. And that's not good with New Orleans' top-three passing offense coming to town. Antonio Cromartie has taken a huge step back from his shutdown 2012 season, while Dee Milliner has been banged up and even more ineffective when on the field, getting benched for the second time this year in Week 8. Andy Dalton roasted New York for 325 yards and five scores last Sunday, only taking one sack. With a 13-1 TD-to-INT ratio over his last four games, smoking-hot Drew Brees is a top-three QB1 in Week 9. ... Playing through a partial plantar fascia tear, Jimmy Graham only needed 18 snaps to score two touchdowns in the Saints' Week 8 win over Buffalo. Rather than regress, Graham will likely become more comfortable and effective playing in pain. Don't panic; keep starting Graham as an every-week difference maker. The Jets have allowed the 13th most fantasy points to tight ends. ... Rookie Kenny Stills' snap counts have risen in four consecutive weeks, and against the Bills he popped off a career-best 3-129-2 line on only four targets. Because his playing time is still limited and he's not a player peppered with targets in the Saints' scheme, consider Stills a boom-or-bust WR3 against the Jets. The matchup is favorable enough that in this instance I wouldn't discourage anyone from chasing Stills' last-week points.
Fantasy owners can downgrade Marques Colston from WR2 to WR3, but I'm still not convinced he's "done." Colston came within inches of two touchdowns against Buffalo; the first was broken up on a fierce hit by S Jairus Byrd and the second was narrowly batted away by CB Nickell Robey. Most troubling, the box scores have gotten worse, not better for notorious slow-starter Colston. He topped 60 yards in each of New Orleans' first four games, but has averaged 14.7 yards in three games since. I still think he's headed for a much better second half of the season. ... Back from a five-week wrist injury, Lance Moore caught a 15-yard touchdown in the first quarter against Buffalo, but played behind Colston, Stills, and Robert Meachem. Moore is a WR4. ... Like Colston, Darren Sproles is likelier to pick it up than go in the tank despite a zero-yard Week 8 game. On pace for 83 receptions and 1,107 total yards, Sproles remains an every-week RB2 in PPR leagues and solid flex play in standard formats. The Jets struggle in linebacker and safety coverage, giving Sproles an attractive Week 9 matchup. ... Enemy lead back stats versus the Jets' No. 1 run defense this season: Doug Martin 24-65-1; Stevan Ridley 16-40-0; C.J. Spiller 10-9-0; Chris Johnson 15-21-0; Jacquizz Rodgers 14-43-2; Le'Veon Bell 16-34-0; Ridley 11-50-1; Giovani Bernard 5-18-0. They've combined to average 2.52 yards per carry. Especially with Mark Ingram due back, this probably isn't the week to throw fantasy support behind Pierre Thomas.
Friday Update: Colston missed practice Friday with a knee injury and is listed as questionable on the injury report. Saints beat writers consider his status up in the air. Colston should be withheld from fantasy lineups based on a combination of poor to-date production and the likelihood he won't be 100% even if he suits up. If Colston does not play, we'd likely see more Nick Toon in the slot role, and Sproles getting increased touches.
Score Prediction: Saints 23, Jets 14
Minnesota @ Dallas
If you actually took time to listen to the audio of Dez Bryant's Week 8 sideline rant, you heard a confident player offering his quarterback strong words of encouragement. A player who wanted to win, not someone complaining about targets. Either way, look for the squeaky wheel to get greased as Dallas hosts Minnesota's doormat defense in Week 9. Notable enemy No. 1 wideout stats against the Vikings: Brandon Marshall 7-113-1; Josh Gordon 10-146-1; Antonio Brown 12-88; Steve Smith 5-21-1; Jordy Nelson 7-123-2. With Calvin Johnson on a bye, Bryant is fantasy's premier receiver play. ... Perhaps the most underrated element of Dallas' 2013 passing-game success has been the performance of an O-Line widely expected to be a weakness entering the season. Instead, the Cowboys have graded out as a top-ten pass-blocking team in Pro Football Focus' metrics while permitting the ninth fewest sacks in football. Expect a clean pocket for Tony Romo against a Vikings defense that ranks 29th against the pass and 27th in sacks. ... Romo's target distribution since Terrance Williams became a big factor five games ago: Dez 40; Williams and Jason Witten 23; Cole Beasley 19; Joseph Randle 10; Miles Austin 7; Dwayne Harris 4; DeMarco Murray and Phillip Tanner 3. ... Williams' target total has risen in three straight games, and only Dez, Megatron, Marvin Jones, Wes Welker, and Alshon Jeffery have outscored him among fantasy receivers over the past five weeks. I think in an ideal world you would be starting Williams every week as a WR3, but he'll likely keep scoring at WR2 levels the rest of the way.
Slot receiver Beasley is a high-efficiency, low-ceiling player worth rostering as a WR4/5 in PPR leagues. He lacks standard-league value. Beasley has one touchdown this year and is averaging 9.2 yards per catch. ... The going has been slow for Witten the past three weeks, but he remains a critical component in Dallas' passing attack and has a get-well Week 9 matchup. The Vikings have allowed the 11th most fantasy points to tight ends and are dealing with injuries at both safety positions. FS Harrison Smith (turf toe) is on I.R./designated for return, while SS Jamarca Sanford missed practice this week with a groin injury. ... The Cowboys strongly considered letting DeMarco Murray (MCL sprain) play last week against the Lions, but scratched him at the last minute. He will start against Minnesota. Although there are no assurances on Murray's going-forward health -- he is an inherently injury-prone player -- Murray is worth firing up as an RB2/flex versus the Vikings' No. 21 run defense. Minnesota was gashed by Green Bay last Sunday night for 182 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. ... Despite underwhelming on-field play, Randle has established himself as Murray's handcuff. Randle handled 17 touches at Detroit, playing 33 snaps. Change-of-pace back Lance Dunbar only played seven downs and carried the ball five times. Tanner is a blitz-protection specialist at this point. He has touched the football just 12 times all season.
Friday Update: After Friday's practice, coach Leslie Frazier ruled out Sanford (groin) and top CB Chris Cook (hip), leaving Minnesota without three of its starting defensive backs for Sunday's bout with Dallas' top-eight passing offense. Romo shouldn't have any trouble finding open receivers in this game. The matchups for Dez, Williams, and Witten are ripe for the picking.
Despite a wholly ineffective Week 8 game against Green Bay, Christian Ponder handled the bulk of first-team reps in practice this week and is expected to start at Dallas. As inept as Ponder is as a signal caller and passer, his running ability gives him two-QB-league appeal in a game where Minnesota figures to be trailing, creating playmaking chances. He is not a viable QB1 streamer. ... Ponder's target distribution: Jerome Simpson 24, Greg Jennings and Kyle Rudolph 22, Adrian Peterson 15, Cordarrelle Patterson 10, Jarius Wright 8, John Carlson 7, Toby Gerhart 6. ... Dallas has allowed the fifth most fantasy points to tight ends. Rudolph's production with Ponder just inspires zero confidence. He's at 2-27, 3-42-1, 5-28, and 4-51 in Ponder's four 2013 starts. Rudolph is a shaky bye-week TE1. ... The Vikings will attempt to play low-volume passing offense with a struggling quarterback on whom they've already internally thrown in the towel. So the fact that the Cowboys rank dead last in pass defense could just as easily be a mirage for any fantasy owner looking to invest in Simpson, Jennings, or Patterson. The QB isn't good and the team doesn't want to throw. This creates a very difficult situation for all members of the pass-catching corps.
Patterson's offensive snaps (15) last Sunday were his fewest since Week 4. OC Bill Musgrave remains resistant to committing to Patterson as a significant part of his passing game. The rookie's big-play ability still went on display on Patterson's 109-yard kickoff return. Patterson now leads the NFL in kick returns of 40-plus yards, with five. He's brought back two for TDs. ... There was worry in fantasy land about Peterson following Week 7, where he played through a hamstring injury and truly did not look his usual explosive self against the Giants, unable to burst up field or make defenders miss in space with his typical vicious cuts. Although the Week 8 stats don't fully reflect it, I felt better about Peterson after watching him against Green Bay. Peterson looked as spry as he has since early in the season, and is quietly on pace for a career-high 44 receptions. In Week 9, Peterson will face a Dallas defense allowing 4.41 yards per carry, the eighth highest clip in football. Lock in Peterson as a top-three fantasy back against the Cowboys.
Score Prediction: Cowboys 33, Vikings 17
Tennessee @ St. Louis
Quietly the No. 13 fantasy quarterback in per-game scoring, Jake Locker returns from a Week 8 bye to heal the hip injury that cost him two early-season games. Flourishing in first-year OC Dowell Loggains' controlled, quarterback-friendly offense, Locker has an 8:1 TD-to-INT ratio and is averaging over 25 rushing yards a game. Locker is a sneaky QB1 streamer for fantasy owners with Peyton Manning or Matthew Stafford on a bye. Though St. Louis can bring edge pressure, Jeff Fisher's defense has allowed a 14:5 TD-to-INT ratio and NFC-high 67.7 completion rate to enemy passers. The Rams' defense is vulnerable in second- and third-level pass coverage. ... Slot man Kendall Wright has been Locker's favorite 2013 target and has a plus Week 9 matchup versus washed-up Rams slot CB Cortland Finnegan. Through seven games, Wright is on pace for 92 receptions and 990 yards. He could flirt with WR2 value in PPR leagues the rest of the way and is a recommended standard-league WR3 this week. Noteworthy opposing wideout stats against St. Louis' leaky secondary: Golden Tate 5-93-2; Justin Blackmon 5-136-1; Cecil Shorts 5-74-1; Anquan Boldin 5-90-1; Dez Bryant 4-38-1; Julio Jones 11-182-1; Steve Smith 5-69-1; Larry Fitzgerald 8-80-2; Andre Johnson 7-88. ... Nate Washington has topped 62 yards in just 2-of-7 games and scored a touchdown in 1-of-7 this season, but he's at least worth a look for WR3 desperados. Locker targeted Washington ten times against San Francisco before the bye week.
Locker's full target distribution this year: Wright 39, Washington 36, Delanie Walker 23, Kenny Britt 18, Damian Williams 13, Chris Johnson 9, Justin Hunter 5. ... The Rams have allowed the third fewest fantasy points to tight ends, making Walker an undesirable play. ... The Titans are using Britt as a fourth receiver. Williams is now No. 3. ... Hunter played 11-of-62 downs against the 49ers and is fifth through the rotation. ... A large contingent of fantasy land has been hoping CJ2ypcK's favorable stretch-run schedule will turn his season around. Painfully ineffective to this point, Johnson has gained 111 scoreless yards on his last 48 runs (2.31 YPC), and his carry totals have fallen by the wayside since the start of the year. Based on Johnson's declining rushing usage and coach Mike Munchak's Wednesday pledge to hand Shonn Greene 15 carries per game going forward, it should surprise no one if the Titans concluded during their Week 8 bye that Greene is simply their best ball-carrying option. Matchups column readers know this has been hinted for weeks now. ... Because we've yet to see Munchak & Co. put Greene's increased role into action, he'd be a crapshoot flex play against St. Louis' No. 23 run defense. Greene, however, is worth rostering in all leagues as a potential lead runner behind a Titans O-Line that Pro Football Focus has graded as a top-14 unit this year. ... Johnson owners can try hanging their Week 9 hats on the plus matchup and his rising passing-game involvement. It's worth noting St. Louis has shown susceptibility to long runs, allowing the third most 20-plus-yard rushes in football. Those are Johnson's specialty. He's still a dicey RB2/flex at this point, with less value in standard leagues than PPR. Johnson's carries are in decline, and he definitely won't get goal-line work.
Overcoming last week's fourth-quarter ankle scare, Zac Stacy returned to Rams practice in full on Thursday and will start against the Titans. Tennessee's defensive weakness is on the ground, where they rank 24th versus the run and have submitted eight rushing scores through seven games. Stacy is the clear-cut offensive centerpiece in St. Louis now, with his weekly touch totals increasing in four straight games. He's a high-end RB2 play this week. ... St. Louis' pass game has become a true fantasy wasteland. I think you could make a good argument Tim Tebow would be a better option under center for the Rams than Kellen Clemens. Clemens was that bad in last Monday night's loss to Seattle, despite a seemingly half-hearted defensive effort from the traveling Seahawks. The Titans are playing top-seven pass defense with a 6:6 TD-to-INT ratio allowed to enemy signal callers. I expect to see backup QB Austin Davis play sooner rather than later. ... Just in case you're desperate enough to consider any Rams wideout or tight end, here is Clemens' target distribution on the season: Jared Cook 8; Chris Givens 6; Lance Kendricks 5; Austin Pettis 4; Brian Quick, Tavon Austin, and Stacy 3; Daryl Richardson 2; Cory Harkey 1.
Score Prediction: Titans 20, Rams 14
4:05PM ET Games
Philadelphia @ Oakland
The Raiders followed their Week 7 bye with a Week 8 win over the Steelers that reinforced their offensive mentality under first-year OC Greg Olson. Oakland registered a 38:19 run-to-pass ratio, never veering from the run-heavy strategy even as Pittsburgh scored the game's final 15 points. On the season, the Raiders rank ninth in rushing attempts per game and 30th in passes. Expect another smash-mouth effort featuring Darren McFadden, who looked quick and explosive when he had space against the Steelers. Although the Eagles play better run defense than credited for, McFadden is a strong RB2 based on volume, big-play potential, and his stranglehold on goal-line work. DMC is averaging 20 touches in the five games he's played start to finish. ... Noteworthy enemy wideout stats against the Eagles through eight weeks: Donnie Avery 7-141; Malcom Floyd 5-102; Hakeem Nicks 9-142; Eddie Royal 7-90-3; Terrance Williams 6-71-1; Demaryius Thomas 9-86-2; Leonard Hankerson 5-80-2; Wes Welker 7-76-2; Rueben Randle 6-96-2; Vincent Jackson 9-114-2; Dez Bryant 8-110; Victor Cruz 7-86. Philly is porous to be kind in the defensive back half, ranking 31st against the pass and 26th in sacks. Denarius Moore is a recommended WR3 play versus the Eagles' burnable cornerbacks. I also noticed Moore costs only $4,900 in FanDuel's Week 9 game. I like his chances of getting behind RCB Cary Williams once or twice on Sunday.
Terrelle Pryor is a quality QB1 streamer versus the Eagles, and an every-week two-quarterback-league start. He's the No. 14 fantasy QB in per-game scoring. ... Pryor's 2013 targets: Moore 41, Rod Streater 32, Mychal Rivera 16, McFadden 15, Brice Butler 13, Marcel Reece 12, Jacoby Ford 10, Rashad Jennings 5. ... Streater has scored one touchdown over his last 11 games. Streater also has a more difficult on-paper matchup than Moore because he runs most of his routes at left cornerbacks. LCB Bradley Fletcher has been Philly's top corner this year. Williams is the weekly whipping boy. ... There are no realistic fantasy options on Oakland's roster beyond the ones discussed in detail above. Reece had three carries for ten yards and wasn't targeted in the first game since the Raiders' Week 7 bye, which is telling. Olson isn't making an honest effort to get Reece touches. ... Seventh-round rookie Butler has been a disappointment since an eye-catching August. Butler dropped 2-of-3 targets in last Sunday's win over the Steelers and wound up playing a season-low eight snaps. Butler is only deep Dynasty league material.
Nick Foles is back in the quarterback saddle for Philadelphia, as Michael Vick's latest hamstring injury will sideline him indefinitely and Matt Barkley didn't appear ready to play in the NFL coming off the bench in last week's embarrassing home loss to the Giants. Although Foles faceplanted terrifically in his last start, there is still a three-appearance body of work that suggests he can function effectively in Chip Kelly's attack. Foles maintains a 6:0 TD-to-INT ratio on the season with a 101.3 passer rating. He's worth firing up in two-QB leagues, although I'd stop short of crowning Foles a QB1 streamer. He was stunningly inaccurate in the Week 7 game against Dallas, looking genuinely confused. ... Albeit to varying degrees, Foles and DeSean Jackson are attractive Week 9 fantasy investments because the Raiders' defense is so much more vulnerable in the air than on the ground. Enemy passers have posted a 10:5 TD-to-INT ratio on Oakland and the third highest completion rate (67.6%) in football. Pro Football Focus grades the Raiders as a bottom-three team in pass rush. These are D-Jax's stats in the three games Foles has attempted at least 25 passes this season: 7-132-1; 6-64-2; 3-21. Week in and week out, Jackson remains the focal point of Kelly's passing attack. The Eagles move Jackson all around the formation and find ways to manufacture him touches. At very worst, D-Jax is a high-ceiling fantasy WR2 in the Black Hole.
Foles' 2013 target distribution: DeSean Jackson 19; Jason Avant 16; Riley Cooper and LeSean McCoy 11; Zach Ertz 9; Bryce Brown, Brent Celek, and Jeff Maehl 6. ... You're asking for trouble trying to paper over a WR3 hole with any of the Eagles' wide receiver alternatives. Cooper will run most of his routes against Raiders RCB D.J. Hayden, who's come on strong since a slow start to his rookie year. Avant is just a guy. Maehl plays in four-receiver sets and spells Cooper on some intermittent downs, based on personnel packages. ... Kelly's offense was billed coming into the league as tight end friendly. The tight ends do play a lot of snaps, but they're not big parts of the passing game. Neither Ertz nor Celek has cleared 60 yards in any game this season. ... The Raiders are playing legit top-six run defense -- they bottled up Le'Veon Bell in Week 8 and submit just 3.55 YPC -- but Shady can never be benched in fantasy. Even during McCoy's three-week touchdown drought, he's averaged 23.3 touches per game and is essentially due for a long run after topping out at 10 yards the past two weeks. McCoy is struggling slightly and has a difficult Week 9 matchup, and he's still an RB1. ... I noticed Bryce Brown was dropped in one of my re-draft leagues recently and quickly grabbed him. Although Brown's workloads have been minimal as the "breather back" behind McCoy, there still isn't a more valuable handcuff/stash in fantasy. I’d always rather roster a high-upside backup like Brown than a WR5, particularly during the fantasy stretch run.
Score Prediction: Eagles 23, Raiders 20
Tampa Bay @ Seattle
The on-field effort of Tampa Bay's roster began to shown signs of diminishing a few weeks back. This is an 0-7 club obviously headed nowhere with mutinous potential under a coach who's lost all respect nationally and likely the locker room of his team. The Bucs have dropped 12 of their last 13 games under Greg Schiano, and opponents have begun to light up the Bucs' defense despite impressive paper talent. Over its last three games, Tampa has been shredded by Nick Foles, receiver-depleted Matt Ryan, and Cam Newton for a combined 65-of-89 passing (73%), 790 yards (8.88 YPA), and an 8:0 TD-to-INT ratio with two more scores on Foles and Cam scrambles. Fire up Russell Wilson. ... Wilson has been on fire the past six weeks. His target distribution during that span: Golden Tate 45, Sidney Rice 27, Doug Baldwin 21, Zach Miller 16, Luke Willson 14, Marshawn Lynch 13, Jermaine Kearse 11, Robert Turbin 4. ... Schiano told reporters this week the Bucs have "looked hard" at using Darrelle Revis in more man coverage as opposed to zone. While disturbing it took so long on Tampa's end, a change in defensive scheme that allows Revis to eliminate opposing No. 1 wide receivers would be really bad news for Tate. As usual, Tate will be a risky WR3 option in Week 9. He plays in a run-first offense and could be on Revis Island.
Percy Harvin suffered a setback in his hip recovery and may not play before Week 11. We'll have more info next week. ... Rice's ACL tear frees up Z receiver to Kearse and perhaps Baldwin. The likeliest three-wide package against Tampa would have Tate at X, Kearse at Z, and Baldwin in the slot. If Revis indeed takes Tate, Kearse would likely see rookie Johnthan Banks on most of Sunday's snaps, with Leonard Johnson on Baldwin inside. Kearse and Baldwin would both have favorable matchups. Wilson throws to the open man rather than target-peppering any singular receiver, so Baldwin and Kearse remain dice-roll bye-week filler WR3s. I'd lean toward Kearse if forced to decide between the two. I think his body control along the sideline is impressive, and Kearse has demonstrated a knack for scoring. He has two end-zone trips among eight receptions this season and had two more touchdowns in the preseason. ... Miller has made six appearances this year. He's averaging 22 yards per game and is unworthy of a fantasy roster spot. ... Lynch expressed understandable displeasure with his inexplicably diminished role in last Monday's near-loss to St. Louis, venting both during the game and after. Back at home versus a pushover opponent, look for the squeaky wheel to get greased. Although Tampa has historically played stout run defense under Schiano, that wasn't the case last game, perhaps because the front seven has packed it in for the year. The Panthers imposed their will on the Bucs, banging out 129 yards and two TDs on 27 carries (4.78 YPC) in a 31-13 victory. Seattle has running-game personnel to copy and execute Carolina's approach. Lynch is a top-five RB1 in Week 9.
Seattle's defense is all but impenetrable at home, where it allows a smothering average of 8.7 points per game and is genuinely capable of eliminating both run and pass games. The lone Bucs skill player I'd feel remotely confident about starting in this matchup is Vincent Jackson, who moves around the formation enough to avoid stationary LCB Richard Sherman's shutdown coverage. On base downs, V-Jax runs the majority of his pass patterns against right corners (RCB Brandon Browner), and in three-wide packages over 50% of Jackson's targets have come on inside routes (slot CB Walter Thurmond III). With Mike Glennon forcing him the ball, lock in V-Jax as an every-week WR2. ... Replacing Mike Williams (torn hamstring/I.R.) as the Bucs' Z receiver, look for Tiquan Underwood to experience the bulk of Sherman Island. Underwood isn't even worth owning in 12-team leagues despite his injury-induced promotion. ... Glennon's target distribution on the year: Jackson 60; Tim Wright 24; Williams 17; Brian Leonard 13; Underwood and injured Doug Martin 10; Mike James 9; Chris Owusu 7; Tom Crabtree 5; Eric Page 3.
Wright is worth a look for desperate TE1 streamers. The undrafted rookie played a season-high 54 snaps in last week's loss to Carolina and has a chance to be the primary box-score beneficiary of Williams' loss. Wright is built like Williams (6'3/220) and has been extraordinarily efficient (20 catches on 28 targets), although the Seahawks have allowed the fourth fewest fantasy points to tight ends. Again, Wright is a desperation play. ... In two games since Martin's shoulder tear, rookie James has amassed 117 scoreless yards on 31 touches. Versatile but lacking burst, James is averaging 3.55 yards per carry. Volume keeps James on the flex radar, but he's definitely toward the back end in this particular matchup. Owners running back needy enough to start James -- admittedly, I am in one of my re-draft leagues -- can optimistically point to Zac Stacy's 26-134 game against the Seahawks in Week 8. It's also worth noting Seattle is playing on a short week following its Monday night win, although all of these are very rose-colored takes. In all likelihood, James will receive something like 17 touches, gain about 65 total yards, and fail to find pay dirt.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 24, Bucs 13
4:25PM ET Games
Baltimore @ Cleveland
Jason Campbell kept the chains moving and connected on a handful of shot plays in Cleveland's Week 8 loss at Arrowhead, though it's worth noting 39 of his yards and one of his two touchdowns came on a second-quarter flea flicker. His second score came on a poorly defended swing route to Fozzy Whittaker. And playing well in one game as a journeyman spot starter is much different than sustaining week-to-week success. The Browns get another forbidding pass-game matchup in Week 9 against a Baltimore defense that ranks second in sacks per game and has held enemy quarterbacks to a combined 4:4 TD-to-INT ratio since Week 1. Campbell has very little two-QB-league appeal and isn't a remotely viable QB1 streamer. Unfailingly sack prone, Campbell will have Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil breathing down his neck. ... Campbell's target distribution on the year: Josh Gordon and Davone Bess 10; Jordan Cameron 5; Chris Ogbonnaya and Greg Little 4; Willis McGahee and Whittaker 2. ... Gordon was Cleveland's Week 8 target leader and has consistently produced amid quarterback turmoil. He's cleared 70 yards in 5-of-6 appearances. Campbell has many limitations, but arm strength isn't among them, and Gordon wins against defensive backs downfield. He's an every-week WR2. Look for Gordon to get the better of Ravens RCB Jimmy Smith Sunday. Smith is 88th of 108 qualifiers in PFF's cornerback coverage ratings.
Bess' target total is deceptive because the Browns recently demoted him out of the starting lineup for dropping passes. And he dropped two more against the Chiefs. An ineffective player at this point in his career, Bess is not a fantasy option. ... The Ravens have allowed the eighth most fantasy points to tight ends, and Cameron touched up this same Baltimore defense for a 5-95 line in Week 2. Cameron is a respectable mid-range to low-end TE1 this week. ... Another reason for Campbell skepticism is he's always been a quarterback who needs a stick-moving, foundation run game to have success. The Browns can't offer that, especially this week against Baltimore's top-13 run defense, which has allowed one rushing touchdown all year and surrenders 3.82 yards per carry. Cleveland's blackhole backfield has devolved into a three-way timeshare, with dead-legged McGahee at the forefront, fullback Ogbonnaya working in as a change-of-pace ball carrier and sometimes passing-down specialist, and Whittaker chipping in as a receiver. None of the three reached double-digit touches in Week 8, and nor is any of them a fantasy option in Week 9.
The Ravens return from a Week 8 bye, which historically has translated to wins under coach Jim Harbaugh. Since 2002, Baltimore is 10-1 following open dates, good for the NFL's best record during that span. In Ray Rice's last four post-bye games, he's averaged 28 touches for 139 total yards and scored two touchdowns. Rice claims his poor 2013 performance can be traced directly to an early-season hip injury. On tape, it certainly appears he's lost cutting ability and burst. If Rice's self-diagnosis is on point, he shouldn't have trouble paying RB2 dividends, even against the Browns' top-12 run defense. I expect to find out a lot about Rice's future in this game. ... Bernard Pierce's stash appeal has diminished due to Baltimore's poor run blocking, though he'd still be an every-week RB2/flex if Rice went down. Keep an eye on Pierce's Week 9 usage. If the Ravens believe Rice has reached his decline phase, it's entirely possible Pierce's role will expand after two weeks of coaches' film study. ... The Browns are playing top-six pass defense, surrender the NFL's lowest yards-per-attempt average (6.0), and rank third in sacks. In these clubs' Week 2 tilt, Joe Flacco was limited to 211 yards and a touchdown on 33 attempts. He's a low-end QB2.
Flacco's target distribution since Marlon Brown returned from a hamstring injury two games ago: Brown 11; Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, and Dallas Clark 10; Tandon Doss and Rice 9, Pierce 3; Ed Dickson 2. ... First in the NFL in yards per reception and 11th in receiving yards, Smith comes off the bye as an every-week WR2. Joe Haden's coverage is an obvious obstacle, but Smith dropped a 7-85 line on Cleveland in the Week 2 game and got the bulk of his stats versus Haden. ... Harbaugh stated publicly prior to Week 7 he wanted Jones more involved in the pass offense. Flacco followed through in the last game, sending a team-high eight targets Jones' way despite weak efficiency (4-32). Jones started over Brown, though both were heavily involved with the latter playing slot receiver on most snaps. In a difficult matchup, the lack of No. 2 wideout clarity makes Brown and Jones Week 9 fantasy players to avoid. Jones just isn't a very good receiver, and Brown has been bumped down the pecking order, even if it's only slightly. ... The Browns have allowed the 16th most fantasy points to tight ends, creating a middling matchup for 34-year-old Clark and underachieving two-tight end set partner Dickson. Clark is a TE2. Dickson is a TE3. ... With Jones and Brown back to 100% health, Doss has settled in as Baltimore's No. 4 receiver.
Score Prediction: Ravens 20, Browns 17
Pittsburgh @ New England
Implicitly acknowledging pass-game difficulties have stunted their offense, the Patriots turned to a decidedly run-heavy approach in last week's 27-17 victory over Miami. Despite falling behind 14-0 early in the first quarter, OC Josh McDaniels leaned on his ground game with Stevan Ridley most prominently featured in the second and third frames, putting New England's offense on his back. Ridley has turned his last 56 runs into 278 yards (4.96 YPC) and four TDs, and over the past three weeks only Knowshon Moreno, Jamaal Charles, and Frank Gore have scored more fantasy points among running backs. Indeed, fantasy owners who bought low after Ridley's slow start are now raking in wins. Expect another Ridley-centric, run-dominated approach against Pittsburgh's No. 27 run defense in Week 9. ... LeGarrette Blount handled the bulk of last week's first-quarter carries for what were believed to be disciplinary reasons tied to Ridley's Week 7 end-zone celebration. Look for Ridley to reclaim his usual first-quarter job this week, rendering Blount a lightly used late-game clock killer at best. ... Brandon Bolden executed a giftwrapped goal-line carry for the second straight week against Miami, but remains a package-specific player who hasn't received more than 11 touches in any game this year. He's an undesirable flex option. ... Tom Brady's target distribution since Rob Gronkowski returned two games ago: Gronk 22; Aaron Dobson 12; Julian Edelman 9; Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins 6; Austin Collie and Bolden 5; Ridley 2.
Brady's low pass attempts total (36:22 run-to-pass ratio) and measly 116 yards were to blame for New England's lack of Week 8 pass-catcher production. Only Dobson (4-60-1) turned in a mildly valuable game, and his snaps week to week have been inconsistent. Because of the "X" receiver position he plays, Dobson will face off with Steelers RCB Ike Taylor on most of Sunday's downs. Of course, it could just as easily be Thompkins back in the X role this week, making this a fantasy situation to avoid. ... Amendola still paced the team in Week 8 targets and is the best fantasy bet among Pats wideouts. Amendola will spend most of Week 9 in the coverage of William Gay, who's having a good season but historically has been a whipping boy for pass games. ... Edelman is the No. 3 receiver now, and needs Brady's production to come up for his own to follow suit. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely against a Steelers defense that is much stinger in the air than on the ground, ranking No. 2 against the pass and permitting a 5:4 TD-to-INT ratio to enemy quarterbacks. Brady is not a recommended QB1 this week, although I still think he's going to pay dividends for patient fantasy owners in November and December. Edelman would be a poor WR3 gamble. ... Collie didn't see any Week 8 targets, but keep his name in mind. He's worth rostering in 16-team leagues. Collie's snaps are on the rise; he played 33-of-65 against Miami. ... Gronkowski wound up with a slow Week 8 game, but had a 40-yard touchdown catch negated by LT Nate Solder's holding call at the line of scrimmage. Expect a rebound week against the Steelers. Gronkowski has faced a Dick LeBeau defense twice in his career, teeing off for stat lines of 5-72-3 and 7-94.
With NT Vince Wilfork and WLB Jerod Mayo on injured reserve, and DT Tommy Kelly still nursing a multi-week knee injury, opponents are predictably attacking the Patriots on the ground. The Jets fired up a whopping 52 rushing attempts in their Week 7 upset of New England, before the usually pass-happy Dolphins followed up with a season-high 31 runs against the Pats last week. Although game flow sometimes works against them, the Steelers by identity are a run-minded club. Expect heavy doses of Le'Veon Bell versus New England's No. 31 run defense. ... Ben Roethlisberger's target distribution since Le'Veon joined the lineup four games ago: Antonio Brown 43; Emmanuel Sanders 27; Heath Miller 25; Bell 16; Jerricho Cotchery 14; Felix Jones 6; Derek Moye 2. ... Pats shutdown CB Aqib Talib's expected return from a strained hip is concerning for Brown's Week 9 outlook, although there are reasons for optimism. It's entirely possible Talib won't be 100%, and if not the Patriots may be loathe to use him as a true shadow defender. The Pats also think highly of Sanders, whom they tried signing to a restricted free agent offer sheet this past spring, only for the Steelers to match. And Brown moves around the formation so often that he's not an easy wide receiver for corners to mirror. I still think Brown emerges from this game as Pittsburgh's leader in targets and receptions. On pace for 128 catches, Brown is a PPR machine and every-week WR2.
Although I'm skeptical Talib will eliminate Brown coming off a nearly three-week injury, it stands to reason Sanders could be more heavily targeted in the event that does happen. Sanders' role also has grown the past few weeks. Returning from a triple-knee ligament tear, Miller isn't moving as well of late, thrusting Sanders back into No. 2 pass-option duties. Sanders is a reasonable, if low-ceiling WR3 in Foxboro. ... I was excited about Miller after his first two of four appearances, but the past two have been rough. Miller has never been a speed merchant, but looked particularly plodding in last week's loss to Oakland. He's probably going to be a touchdown-dependent TE1/2 the rest of the way. The Patriots are 19th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, and tied for 26th in TDs permitted. ... Rookie Markus Wheaton (finger) still isn't ready to play, depriving Roethlisberger of his most explosive offensive weapon. Primarily due to Talib's relentless contract-year coverage and much-improved pass rush, New England has been substantially better in pass than run defense this year. The Patriots rank fifth against the pass, are tied for eighth in sacks, and have allowed a 9:10 TD-to-INT ratio to enemy quarterbacks. Big Ben is a mid-range to low-end QB2 in this road affair. The combination of Pittsburgh's porous offensive line, run-heavy mindset, and a glaring weapons shortage has made Roethlisberger look like an average player all season long.
Score Prediction: Patriots 21, Steelers 17
Sunday Night Football
Indianapolis @ Houston
T.Y. Hilton has a shot to be a stretch-run monster in the absence of Reggie Wayne. The Colts had a Week 8 bye to reshape their offense, pinpointing ways to paper over the loss of a wideout commanding 26% of Andrew Luck's targets. That is an awful lot of opportunity to distribute, with Hilton at the forefront to get it. Look for Hilton to leap from a 63% player to nearly 100%, and perhaps most critically inherit Wayne's old slot snaps, where he will run high-percentage routes like a souped-up Victor Cruz. I don't think there's a slot corner in the league capable of covering Hilton one on one. If the Colts follow through on using Hilton in this manner, I think he's capable of producing like a rest-of-season WR1. ... Coach Chuck Pagano stated this week Darrius Heyward-Bey's role won't change. Wayne's loss could translate to a few more per-game targets for DHB, but he will continue to run possession-type routes and remains the Colts' top perimeter blocker. Heyward-Bey has not been used as a deep threat this season. Now battling a hamstring injury, Heyward-Bey is a fantasy WR4 at Houston. DHB will see solid outside CBs Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson in coverage on Sunday night, while Hilton takes on struggling slot defender Brice McCain. ... Less-established Colts wideouts to monitor are LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen. A 5-foot-11, 197-pound second-year UDFA, Whalen knows OC Pep Hamilton from Stanford and opened the season on the active roster before being demoted to the practice squad. He's back on the 53. Though plagued by off-field drama, Brazill flashed an ability to win at the second and third levels as a rookie last season. He could take Hilton's old third receiver/situational deep threat role.
Friday Update: Heyward-Bey (hamstring, questionable) was held out of practice Friday after going down during Thursday's session. Pagano says DHB is going to play against the Texans, but he's not a recommended fantasy start at less than 100%. Look for Hilton to be the new go-to target in Indy's passing attack.
Luck's target distribution since the Trent Richardson trade: Wayne 42; Hilton 37; DHB 26; Coby Fleener 23; Donald Brown 10; T-Rich 7. ... So even before Wayne's injury, Fleener was the Colts' No. 3 pass-game option at best. It's conceivable his role will grow, but ultimately Fleener has been a disappointment in both real life and fantasy. He's getting destroyed as a blocker and runs routes tentatively, fearing contact. The Texans have allowed the fewest receptions and yards in the NFL to tight ends. ... Hamilton also had time during the bye to reevaluate his usage of Richardson, who's been ineffectively banged between the tackles behind poor run blocking in easy-to-read running situations to this point. Richardson's lack of pass-game usage has telegraphed the Colts' intentions whenever he's been on the field. Hamilton also seems high on Dammit Donald Brown, however, so there are no guarantees Indy's playcalling will change. Facing the Texans' bottom-five run defense, Richardson is just an RB2/flex, albeit one with a high touchdown probability. Brown remains fantasy bench fodder. ... The No. 10 overall fantasy quarterback in per-game scoring, Luck is a mid-range to low-end QB1 versus a depleted Texans defense that has lost critical ILB Brian Cushing (knee) and SS Danieal Manning (fibula) to year-ending injuries. Luck compiled a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio in last year's two meetings with DC Wade Phillips' group.
Friday Update: Colts OC Pep Hamilton told reporters Friday the coaching staff reevaluated Richardson's usage during the bye, with an emphasis on increasing T-Rich's in-space opportunities. It's a potentially promising step for a disappointing to-date player who maintains plenty of long-range potential, both in the second half of 2013 and years ahead. Richardson is going to get the ball a lot in a consistent offense, and the Colts remain intent on kickstarting him and making him a featured offensive component. He remains a recommended buy-low trade target.
Case Keenum's first NFL start went better than anticipated two weeks ago at Arrowhead. The former Houston Cougar demonstrated poise in an incredibly difficult environment and got the ball to his playmakers. Keenum did absorb five sacks and lost a game-ending fumble, so it's probably too early to crown him. In Week 9, Keenum will take on the Colts' No. 13 pass defense, which has held enemy quarterbacks to a combined 8:8 TD-to-INT ratio and is keyed by NFL sack leader Robert Mathis (11.5). Keenum would be a poor two-QB-league play against Indy. ... Keenum's target distribution against the Chiefs: Garrett Graham 8; Andre Johnson 6; DeAndre Hopkins 4; Ben Tate 3; DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean 2. ... Coming off an open date, Keenum has now had two weeks to engineer the Texans' first-team offense after receiving little to no practice reps in the season's initial six weeks. So expect less involvement from backups like Posey and Jean going forward, and more emphasis on first-stringers. ... All Johnson needs is adequate quarterback play to reel off WR1/2 stats week in and week out. The sample remains small, of course, but thus far Keenum has appeared adequate with some potential to upgrade on Matt Schaub. Among six targets, Keenum and Johnson hooked up for four completions and 89 yards against the Chiefs. Johnson doesn't have an easy Week 9 matchup versus on-fire Colts RCB Vontae Davis, but will continue to be the focal point of Houston's passing attack. He's an every-week fantasy starter.
Graham's Week 7 target total seems promising at surface level, but these are his stat lines in three starts since Owen Daniels' cracked fibula: 3-15-0; 2-25-0; 3-38-0. To-date numbers suggest Graham is better suited for a No. 2 tight end role than No. 1. The Colts are allowing the 18th most fantasy points to tight ends, giving Graham a below-average matchup. ... No. 3 pass-game option Hopkins caught Keenum's lone touchdown pass against Kansas City, but isn't a recommended Week 9 fantasy investment due to his low positioning in the pecking order of a low-volume pass game. ... I'll have an update below this paragraph on Houston's backfield by Friday night. As of Thursday evening, there was very little clarity on what's going to happen with Arian Foster (hamstring), Ben Tate (ribs), and the three running backs the Texans signed early in the week. Foster did return to practice Thursday, albeit in limited fashion. Coach Gary Kubiak hinted afterwards that how Foster responds Friday may determine his Week 9 availability. Tate is going to be limited on game days regardless because he has four cracked ribs. Also in the hunt for tailback snaps and touches are Deji Karim, Ray Graham, and Dennis Johnson. It would be a good sign for Foster's chances of facing the Colts if one of the latter three is waived Friday or Saturday.
Friday Update: Coach Gary Kubiak told reporters Tate (ribs) will play against the Colts, while Foster's status will come down to a game-time decision. This is shaping up as a fantasy situation to avoid without any role clarity in the final game played on Sunday. If you have earlier-game alternatives, use them.
Score Prediction: Colts 24, Texans 17
Monday Night Football
Chicago @ Green Bay
I'm optimistic about the Bears' chances of generating offense during Jay Cutler's (groin) 4-6 week absence for some of the same reasons Brian Hoyer had success in Cleveland. In QB Whisperer Marc Trestman's scheme, the quarterback's job description is to get the ball out quickly, delivering with timing and anticipation. Although he lacks Cutler's physical tools and Chicago will lose big-play pass-game potential, I think Josh McCown can function in that kind of offense. It doesn't hurt that the Bears' defense is a sieve, which will force Chicago into situations where they need to rack up yards and points. McCown is a sneaky two-quarterback-league start Monday night. ... Matt Forte is still likely to be the Bears' offensive foundation moving forward. Already averaging 22 touches a game, Forte should be treated as an every-week RB1 despite Cutler's loss. ... Whereas the Packers rank fourth in run defense, they're 21st against the pass with a 12:3 TD-to-INT ratio permitted through seven games. They're also expected to be without All-Pro OLB Clay Matthews (thumb) for at least one more week. Coming off the bench in Week 7 at Washington before Chicago's Week 8 bye, McCown completed 14-of-20 throws for 204 yards and a touchdown with a 119.6 passer rating. The Packers' defense is better than the Redskins', but hardly impenetrable. I like Brandon Marshall's chances of maintaining WR2 fantasy value with McCown at the controls.
McCown's target distribution against Washington: Marshall 6, Alshon Jeffery 5, Forte and Earl Bennett 3, Martellus Bennett 2, Marquess Wilson 1. ... The good news for Chicago's skill-position corps is the roles are so defined. There is no No. 2 tight end threatening for targets. Third receiver Bennett is a decent real-life slot receiver, but has never really been a fantasy asset. It's Marshall, Jeffery, Forte, and Martellus, and they all get the ball pretty consistently week in and week out. ... Jeffery can no longer be viewed as the every-week WR2 he was producing like with Cutler at quarterback, but remains a big, physical presence who commands targets. He's a mid-range to high-end WR3. ... The Packers have allowed the third most fantasy points in the league to tight ends. So from that standpoint, Martellus has a favorable matchup. And the Bears are still going to sling it around the yard under pass-first Trestman. Bennett will stay in the low-end TE1 mix.
Sixth in fantasy running back scoring the past three weeks, Eddie Lacy will enter Monday night's game on a roll with another cakewalk matchup. Depleted on the defensive line and now starting two rookie linebackers, the Bears are getting hammered on the ground, where they rank 25th in run defense and have coughed up eight rushing touchdowns through seven games. In Weeks 6-7, Alfred Morris, Roy Helu, and washed-up Brandon Jacobs combined to shred Chicago for 242 yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries (4.65 YPC). Lock in Lacy as an RB1. ... "Breather back" James Starks came off the bench with Green Bay up two touchdowns against the Vikings last Sunday night and ripped off a 25-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Lacy handled a season-high 33 touches, so it's not surprising his backup was needed to give Green Bay's beastly workhorse a blow. Starks remains a handcuff only. ... The Packers have begun motioning Jordy Nelson around the formation in an effort to prevent rolled coverage and brackets. Nelson responded with two touchdowns on slot routes in the win over Minnesota, scorching the Vikings for a 7-123-2 line. Among NFL wideouts, only Calvin Johnson is scoring more fantasy points per game than Jordy.
Aaron Rodgers' stats in his last four Bears meetings: 94-of-135 (69.6%) for 1,090 yards (8.07 YPA) and a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio. And he's never faced a Chicago defense as weak as it is now. Rodgers is a top-two quarterback start in Week 9. ... James Jones (knee) is expected to miss one more game, clearing the way for Jarrett Boykin to start at Z receiver. With Nelson taking on more slot snaps, Boykin is playing outside the numbers and will spend most of Monday night's game in diminutive LCB Tim Jennings' coverage. Boykin has a six-inch, 34-pound size advantage in that matchup, though Jennings is no slouch. I'd view Boykin as a mid-range WR3 against Chicago. ... . UDFA Myles White is filling in as Green Bay's third wideout. Short on playmaking ability, White secured 5-of-7 targets for 35 yards in the Packers' win over the Vikings last Sunday night. He's only on the radar in 14- and 16-team leagues. ... With Jermichael Finley (spine) likely done for the season, the Packers are employing a timeshare at tight end. Andrew Quarless is primarily an in-line run blocker. Athletic onetime basketball power forward Brandon Bostick is developing. Bostick played 23 snaps against Minnesota, but was not targeted. This is a fantasy situation to avoid.
Saturday Update: Jones (knee) bounced back well enough from a "limited" Friday practice to participate in Saturday's session and now appears on track to start against the Bears. The likeliest three-receiver package from Green Bay would have Jones, Nelson, and Boykin on the field on all passing downs, with White as the No. 4. Jones is a dicey fantasy investment coming off a multi-week injury and not certain to be 100% or play a full complement of snaps, but he's definitely worth WR3 consideration. He is an appealing long-range hold, as well, due to Rodgers' overall pass-catcher shortage. Jones could score a lot of touchdowns down the stretch.
Score Prediction: Packers 30, Bears 23