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Week 13 Fantasy Booms and Busts: Chargers and Bengals, learning to crawl

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Like any passionate NFL observer, I had Chargers and Bengals circled on my Week 13 watchlist. Both teams have second-year franchise quarterbacks, fantasy royalty at the running back spot, loaded receiver groups. This had pinball game written all over it. And both teams have designs on making the playoffs.

But to be fair, the Chargers and Bengals also symbolize a dirty secret about the 2021 NFL season. Consistency is elusive. And variance kicks us all in the gut.

Both sides showed good and bad foot in the Sunday match, which the Chargers won, 41-22. There were seven turnovers combined, and the young quarterbacks absorbed 10 sacks. Joe Burrow suffered a finger injury (pinkie, throwing hand), though he gallantly played through it. Austin Ekeler had two fumbles, and Joe Mixon lost one, too.

Justin Herbert was back in form for Los Angeles (26-for-35, 317 yards, three touchdowns), and that was largely about a willingness to throw deep. Mike Williams busted loose for a 5-110-0 game, and seldom-used Jalen Guyton (4-90-1) also got free, including a jump-ball touchdown catch of 44 yards. No one’s ever surprised when Herbert works the short area of the field; Keenan Allen had a pair of touchdown grabs inside the 10-yard line. But the success of Williams will probably determine how deep the Chargers go, and how dangerous they are.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws before an NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert posted 26.28 fantasy points behind three touchdowns and over 300 yards passing on Sunday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Ekeler’s never had a fumble problem before, so it was stunning to see him put two on the ground. He also had some ball-security issues on plays that were blown dead before the Bengals could legally take possession. Still, Ekeler’s versatile skill set rarely lets us down for fantasy purposes. Although he didn’t go bonkers against Cincinnati, he still racked up 104 total yards, five catches, and a touchdown plunge. That plays.

Missed opportunities for Bengals

Cincinnati’s ugly loss had two stunning components. The defense was a mess for most of the first half, and Mixon surprisingly went nowhere (19-54-1) against the Chargers' leaky run defense. Mixon didn’t get work in the pass game and lost a fumble; at least he posted a second-half rushing touchdown like Ekeler, applying deodorant to a less-than-stellar afternoon.

Burrow also took a sad song and made it better, tacking on a touchdown run to a so-so day throwing the ball (24-for-40, 300 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions). Full disclosure, he had Ja’Marr Chase open for a long touchdown in the first half and Chase flat-out dropped the ball.

Chase is a generational talent, and you have to live with the occasional drop; there’s never been any kind of study that suggests drops are sticky, year-over-year. He’s the type of asset you hold onto in a dynasty league, both hands. If someone makes you a Chase offer and it’s not an obvious yes, you say no. He wasn’t at his best Sunday (5-52-0, eight targets), but there’s no takeaway from that.

While Chase is the alpha in the Cincinnati passing game, Tee Higgins is a dynamic running mate. He secured a terrific 29-yard touchdown catch, looking like a power forward on the leaping leverage play, and racked up a juicy 9-138-1 line on 14 targets. If the Bengals can keep this offense healthy — and Burrow still takes too many hits at times — this could easily be a Top-5 passing offense for the next few seasons.

What's next for Bengals, Chargers?

If the schedule matters to you, the Chargers have the better upcoming draw. LAC plays the Giants, Chiefs, and Texans the next three weeks, while the Bengals face the 49ers, Broncos, and Ravens. Advantage, Chargers.

But when you hash it all together, these are two exciting, explosive teams, even if there are occasional growing pains. We’ll be starting plenty of these players, proactively, in the fantasy playoffs.

Tom Brady bolsters MVP case (thanks, Falcons)

Atlanta’s defense made it too easy for Tom Brady; if you sit in a shell and beg for death by 1000 cuts, he’s going to oblige. The 27-17 final score is misleading; Atlanta’s pick six at the end of the first half came from a play Tampa Bay never should have called in the first place. That late in the half, there’s no upside to a pass, just get to the locker room. (Jack Squirek, where are you?) Otherwise, Brady had an easy afternoon, throwing to his usual cast of superstar teammates.

Even Leonard Fournette’s off game was a playable fantasy game — he had 13 carries (no other teammate had more than one) and he caught seven short passes, one for a touchdown. There haven’t been a ton of season-long right answers at running back, but he’s one of them.

At this point I view Rob Gronkowski as not just the best tight end I’ve ever seen, but an obvious dunk in that discussion; it’s akin to the Jerry Rice separation at wide receiver (Randy Moss was amazing, but he's a distant No. 2). Gronkowski's forever a nightmare matchup downfield, and he revels in blocking, too (Tony Gonzalez was more of a hybrid receiver, seldom an impact blocker). Even if Gronk came into the NFL as a left tackle, he probably could have blocked his way to Canton, shoving guys out of the club.

How can Arthur Smith click so well with Cordarrelle Patterson, but get so little out of the rest of his offense? (To be fair, Russell Gage exploded Sunday as well, and he’s been on a solid run for the last month or so.) I don’t think every scout was wrong on Kyle Pitts; I blame the Atlanta infrastructure.

Speed Round

• I can’t remember the last time Kyler Murray ran with the reckless abandon that we saw at Chicago; maybe it dates back to September, and maybe it truly dates back to 2020. The Cardinals didn’t want to over-expose him in the poor weather, but he sure looked healthy to me.

David Montgomery is going to get as many touches as he can handle, and even on a below-average Bears offense, that’s gigantically important. The schedule isn’t easy, but opportunity is king in our backfield search.

Justin Jefferson is the most valuable receiving property from 2022 and forward. He’s young, he’s already putting up first-round numbers, and the Vikings have the narrowest usage tree in the league. About 90 percent of the time, we know where the yards and touchdowns are coming here, and Kirk Cousins is good enough. Alexander Mattison proved to be about 75-85 percent of Dalvin Cook; Mattison didn't carry teams, but he was an asset for everyone.

The Giants averaged 4.3 per pass attempt at Miami, and if you excuse two random second-level runs, the backfield had 15 carries for 51 yards. You can't sustain offense that way (it added up to 250 piddly yards). The New York defense generally shows up, but eventually its soul will be crushed by the punchless Giants offense. This will be a dam breaking. Start anyone you can against New York.

• Tua Tagovailoa has gotten comfortable with a short, rhythmic passing game, but if Miami can't throw over the top of a defense more often, teams are going to shut this offense down easily. It's a shame the Dolphins got nothing out of Will Fuller, who is exactly the type of player this offense needs. Miami only had 297 yards of offense itself, but with Mike Glennon and Co. on the other side, it hardly mattered. Seventeen points felt like 47 points.

You can argue that the Eagles haven't tailored their offense enough to fit Jalen Hurts's skills, but the passing game sure looked much crisper with Gardner Minshew. I know, it's the Jets, settle down. But you can't tell me Minshew isn't good enough to start for someone.

Philadelphia has an interesting choice in the offseason; pick one of these quarterbacks up front; set up a job battle; draft someone else; or perhaps a different route altogether. And the Eagles are also sitting on a ton of high draft choices. Maximum flexibility.

Minshew to Pittsburgh? I'd sign off.

Not that Brandon Aiyuk is the reason San Francisco lost to Seattle, but it feels like five years since the fantasy universe decided Aiyuk was a lead singer and Deebo Samuel was the background guy. The more we know sometimes, the more nobody knows anything. Samuel is just as important as George Kittle to the Niners.

The Texans were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday, the first team to lose all hope. Might as well let Davis Mills start the rest of the year; develop and evaluate. We already know what Tyrod Taylor's upside is.

Mills is a longshot, but he's looked good in spurts. The Texans should have beaten Bill Belichick and New England back in Week 5. Mills was excellent that day (312 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers, 141.7 rating).

To be fair, that was a different version of the Patriots defense. New England was also run ragged by Dallas in Week 6, but it's been a slaughterhouse since.

Baltimore desperately needs one more piece in its offense. It got unlucky with the J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards injuries, and Rashod Bateman has flatlined after a quick start; he had all of one target Sunday. Baltimore is always well-coached and has a puncher's chance in any one-game situation, but it doesn't feel consistent or sustainable enough on either side of the ball to be a major AFC threat.

Granted, to downplay Baltimore's chances, you have to play up someone else's. And every AFC contender has flags. Maybe someone will assert itself Monday at Buffalo.

• Dan Campbell either made his case with his offensive line or with the officials. After a parade of penalties on Thanksgiving — most of them holding calls — only three flags were marched off against Detroit on Sunday. The Lions have never quit on their head coach, and that's something. If the offensive line can avoid the turnstile show we saw a week ago, we can mine production from this receiving group.