Thursday Night Football
San Diego @ Denver
Thursday night's game is an easy one to get excited about because it projects as a shootout. Both clubs field top-four total offenses and bottom-eight defenses. While it's worth noting these teams' Week 10 meeting didn't quite meet those expectations -- Denver won 28-20 -- the most likely result remains high scoring with a 55.5-point over-under, the loftiest of Week 15. ... One of the most overlooked aspects of San Diego's season is Ryan Mathews' quiet breakout year. Written off as an injury-prone fumbler following his 2012 dud, Mathews has lost one fumble in all of 2013 while appearing in 13-of-13 games. He's gained 641 yards and scored four TDs on his last 140 carries (4.65), earning trust from his coaching staff. Mathews is getting more involved in the pass game, and over the last month has played 142 snaps to Danny Woodhead's 109. Coming off a season-high 32 touches in Sunday's thumping of the Giants, Mathews is a locked-in RB2 against a Denver defense that hasn't been the same since losing LE Derek Wolfe (seizures). The Broncos have coughed up 255 yards and four touchdowns on 47 carries (5.43 YPC) to K.C. and Tennessee the past two weeks. ... Woodhead's playing time is down, but he remains an every-week PPR starter and quality standard-league flex play. Woodhead is on pace for 80 receptions, and his week-to-week involvement as Mathews' change-of-pace complement has not wavered. ... Here is Philip Rivers' target distribution since San Diego's Week 8 bye: Keenan Allen and Antonio Gates 47; Woodhead 31; Vincent Brown 23; Eddie Royal 21; Ladarius Green 19; Mathews 16.
NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year will be a close call between Allen and Eddie Lacy. The Broncos held Allen to 41 yards in Week 10, but he's creeping toward WR1 value. Among receivers, only Josh Gordon, Eric Decker, Alshon Jeffery, Larry Fitzgerald and Julian Edelman have more fantasy points the past three weeks. ... Gates led San Diego in receiving in Week 10, and Denver allows the fifth most fantasy points to tight ends. Gates is a mid-range TE1. ... No threat to Gates' fantasy value, Green showed against the Giants that his role is up in the air week to week, and dependent on Royal's usage. When Royal is healthy enough to play in three-receiver sets, Green is a package-specific player. Green played 61 snaps in Week 13, with Royal (chest/toe) inactive. With Royal back last Sunday, Green's snaps fell to 30 and he ran just five pass routes with one catch-less target. Green is a TE2. Royal a WR4/5. ... Brown has been a bust in both real life and fantasy this year, failing to earn Rivers' trust by running sloppy routes and getting out-muscled all too frequently by opposing defensive backs in contested situations. The Chargers will likely look to replace Brown at No. 2 receiver this offseason. ... Although the Broncos held Rivers in check in Week 10 (218 yards, one touchdown), this game's high-scoring projection combined with Denver's recent pass-defense leakage makes Rivers an attractive mid-range QB1. The Broncos have allowed a weekly average of 260 passing yards with an 8:2 TD-to-INT ratio to enemy quarterbacks over the last month.
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While Rivers' Week 10 game was quiet, Peyton Manning's was not. The surefire 2013 NFL MVP eviscerated San Diego's No. 29 pass defense for 330 yards and four touchdowns. You don't need me to tell you to start Peyton against the Bolts. ... Manning's target distribution since Denver's Week 9 bye: Demaryius Thomas 48; Wes Welker and Eric Decker 39; Knowshon Moreno 22; Julius Thomas 17; Montee Ball and Jacob Tamme 13. ... Demaryius has at least 100 yards and/or a touchdown in seven straight games. Enemy No. 1 receiver stats versus the Chargers since San Diego's 8 bye: Pierre Garcon 7-172; Demaryius 7-108-3; Mike Wallace 4-39; Dwayne Bowe 5-51-1; A.J. Green 5-83-1; Hakeem Nicks 5-135. Only Calvin Johnson will be a superior Week 15 wide receiver play to Demaryius. ... Welker (concussion) is not expected to play, thrusting Tamme into Denver's primary slot receiver role. Per PFF's Mike Clay, Tamme played 45-of-46 snaps following Welker's Week 14 concussion, and lined up either out wide or in the slot on 100% of his downs. Desperate Rob Gronkowski owners should give Tamme a long look as a Week 15 TE1 streamer.
The Chargers are a middling 17th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, but only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis can be argued as better starts than Orange Julius this week. Thomas shredded San Diego for 96 yards and a touchdown in Week 10, and his 11 receiving scores this year rank third in the NFL behind only Graham (14) and Megatron (12). Confidently fire up Julius. ... Decker has a touchdown in three of his last four meetings with the Bolts, and Welker's absence can't hurt him, either. Red hot with 16 catches for 291 yards and five TDs over his last two games, Decker is back in the WR2 mix. ... The Broncos' backfield has morphed into a full-on two-man committee with Moreno handling 100 snaps and 39 touches the past two games, to Ball's 67 downs and 32 touches. Moreno remains an RB1, but Ball is pushing for every-week flex value after a slow start to his rookie season. Ball has more than earned the timeshare, rushing for 259 yards and three scores on 43 attempts (6.02 YPC) over his last four games. On the season, Ball's YPC is up to 4.43. Moreno's is 4.26. Ball isn't stealing Moreno's job, but he also isn't going away anytime soon. This is a favorable matchup for both Denver backs, as San Diego's defense ranks 19th versus the run. The Chargers are surrendering 4.84 yards per carry, the most generous clip in the AFC.
Score Prediction: Broncos 31, Chargers 27