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 16:
Panthers WR Steve Smith (vs. Oakland) — Forgive me if I'm skeptical of the Raiders' ability to hold him in check for four quarters. Opponents have gashed Oakland with the run and the pass all season, and the Panthers' offense is in top form. The Raiders pushed around a Kansas City offense in shambles in Week 15, but now they have to travel cross-country to play a much, much stronger attack. Smith looms as one of the toughest matchups the Raiders will have to deal with Sunday.
Cowboys QB Tony Romo (vs. New Orleans) — Romo's situation is similar to Smith's. The Saints' defense, on balance, has been horrid, but it comes off a shutout of fading Tampa Bay. That said, New Orleans surrendered nearly 400 yards despite holding the Buccaneers off the scoreboard. Romo, WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and TE Jason Witten figure to give New Orleans fits. Romo could make a lot of fantasy owners very happy in Week 16.
Lions RB Mikel Leshoure (vs. Atlanta) — The Falcons are vulnerable vs. the run, allowing the third most yards per carry of any defense. Leshoure has thrived in the red zone this season and surely benefits from defenses worrying about superstar WR Calvin Johnson. The Lions come off an embarassing loss at Arizona and should be a little bit sharper on Saturday night against the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Patriots RB Stevan Ridley (at Jacksonville) — Ridley's fumble in Week 15 frustrated a lot of fantasy owners. The owners still playing for a title in Week 16 might be hesitant to trust him. That's reasonable — if you have tremendous RB depth. If you don't, you might have no choice to roll with him with the season on the line. And you know what? That may be the right call. No team has surrendered more rushing TDs than the Jaguars (18). Ridley's a solid start, in my view.
Packers TE Jermichael Finley (vs. Tennessee) — Here's why I like Finley: the Titans have had problems against opposing tight ends all season. What's more, this is the Packers' final regular-season home game. After the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Finley was likely in his last season with the club, Finley told ESPN that he wants to be "a Packer for life." The matchup and circumstances are favorable for Green Bay's talented tight end.
Jets skill-position players (vs. San Diego) —If you must start a Jet in Week 16, RB Shonn Greene is the best option for fantasy owners. However, he's facing a Chargers defense that's allowing just 97 rushing yards per game. Considering that Greene will share carries with Bilal Powell, Greene's upside already looks a little reduced. And then when you consider the club will start rookie QB Greg McElroy, the outlook seems even more bleak. As for the Jets' pass-catchers: I'm done trying to figure out how they are utilized after newly signed Braylon Edwards had as many passes thrown his way as Jeremy Kerley (five) in Week 15. Finally, did I mention that it could be windy in New Jersey on Sunday?
Chargers skill-position players (at N.Y. Jets) — I'm leery of starting QB Phillip Rivers, WR Danario Alexander (even with Malcom Floyd out for the year) and TE Antonio Gates because of the weather and the Jets' strength vs. the pass. Also, I'm not quite sure what to make of the Chargers' RB situation, as Jackie Battle, Ronnie Brown (if healthy) and Curtis Brinkley could all see playing time in place of the injured Ryan Mathews, who will miss the final two games. Overall, this just doesn't look like an offense with a lot of obvious upside for fantasy owners on Sunday.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton (at Pittsburgh) — It's impossible to start Dalton with confidence with your fantasy season on the line. In three career starts against Pittsburgh, Dalton has never exceeded 170 yards passing, and he's thrown multiple TDs just once. Look for more QB-friendly matchups in Week 16.
Eagles RB Bryce Brown (at Washington) — Brown probably helped some fantasy owners into the postseason with his ridiculous production in Weeks 12 and 13 (43-347-4). I say "owners" because there's at least one he helped — yours truly. Well, Brown found far less rushing room in his next two outings, gaining just 40 yards on 28 carries against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. Now, it may be time to take him out of the lineup. The Redskins, like the Buccaneers and Bengals, are stout vs. the run. With starting RB LeSean McCoy (concussion) returning in Week 16, it's an even easier decision to bench Brown. Let's not dwell on the last two weeks and remember the good times.