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Week 15 Fantasy Football Booms and Busts: Tony Pollard crushes in his big moment

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Sometimes it’s a simple thing, this fantasy racket. A big-name starting running back is hurt? Get the exciting understudy in there, repeat until rich.

It’s lovely when it works, anyway. And Tony Pollard certainly answered the call in Sunday’s 41-33 victory over San Francisco. He had a one-yard touchdown run early, a 40-yard touchdown gallop late, and rolled up 132 yards from scrimmage. Impressive work against a staunch San Francisco defense that entered the day ranked 10th in defensive DVOA and seventh in rushing DVOA.

Pollard’s snappy afternoon equaled 28.2 points in a half-PPR format, the highest score from the Dallas backfield all year. Pollard’s yard-from-scrimmage total also eclipsed Zeke’s best game of the year. As we put this B&B to post, Pollard sits as the No. 2 fantasy running back of the week, an eyelash behind rampaging David Montgomery.

For most of the season, Pollard has looked like the freshest back in Dallas. He entered Sunday with a 4.5 per-carry average, compared to 3.9 for Elliott. Both players have been ordinary in the passing game, though Pollard was a surprising 6-for-63 as a receiver in Week 15.

Pollard is almost two full years younger than Elliott, but given their career workloads, the odometers show a major difference. Elliott has already logged 1,614 touches in the NFL, to go along with the 650 he had at Ohio State. Pollard has 212 touches in the NFL, on the heels of a modest 243 at Memphis.

But as much as I’d love to have an Elliott-versus-Pollard discussion going forward, the Dallas balance sheet gets in the way. While Pollard is making the peanuts of a rookie deal, Zeke is currently locked to a $90 million contract that runs through 2026. Dallas could get out of the deal with a reasonable financial hit after the 2022 season, but not before; Elliott would drain over $24 million in dead money if the Cowboys cut him before next year. It’s not a realistic option.

So all Pollard fans can do is start him when Elliott is out, and play the waiting game if Elliott’s calf is healthy next week. The Cowboys host the Eagles in Week 16.

Bucs ride second-half surge

The backfield speculators had another easy hit with the Tampa Bay situation. Ronald Jones out, Leonard Fournette in. The mercurial Fournette managed just 3.5 yards per pop, but he handled 17 touches and had two 1-yard scoring plunges. Nothing like that touchdown deodorant. Good work if you can get it. (Todd Gurley was probably nodding from the other sideline.)

The Buccaneers scored all of their points in the second half, en route to a 31-27 victory at Atlanta. We’ve seen this Tom Brady/Matt Ryan thing before, not to mention the Falcons coughing up a big lead. Ryan couldn’t be faulted — he threw for 356 yards and three scores despite Julio Jones’s absence, keeping the offense afloat despite a stagnant rushing game. And Calvin Ridley (14-10-163-1) was outstanding throughout. But Brady shook off a terrible first half with a brilliant second half, finally starting to click with his new batch of receivers.

Antonio Brown (5-93-1) had his best game of the year, finally scoring a touchdown and narrowly missing a second. Chris Godwin (4-36-1) wasn’t much for volume, but he also had a touchdown, a rare occurrence for him in 2020. Mike Evans paced the team with six catches for 110 yards, but two of his receptions landed just short of the stripe. (Fournette managers, two timely Atlanta tackles set you up nicely.) Rob Gronkowski didn’t do much on seven looks (3-29-0), though the Falcons devoted heavy attention to him, including one blatant hold in the end zone. Any offense is better for Gronk’s presence, even when he doesn’t get receiving numbers.

The Buccaneers still run a wide distribution tree — 10 different players drew a target, and no one saw more than seven. But it was encouraging to see vintage Brady at a critical time. Tampa Bay should be ready to unleash fantasy fury on the struggling Lions next week.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 20: Antonio Brown #81 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates with Tom Brady #12 after scoring a 46 touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter in the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 20, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Tom Brady and Antonio Brown connected for a touchdown on Sunday — their first since the WR joined the Bucs. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Hapless Lions have no answers for Titans

Ah yes, the Lions defense. Matt Patricia is gone, but the stench remains. Detroit entered the day dead last in Weighted DVOA defense, with sorry ranks against the run and the pass. Everything works against this beleaguered unit.

The Titans did whatever they wanted against Detroit on Sunday, en route to 28 first downs, 463 total yards, and 46 points. Ryan Tannehill had the biggest chunk, three touchdown passes and two nifty touchdown runs. He’s validated his breakout 2019 season; Tannehill unquestionably looks like a plus quarterback now. For yearly December hero Derrick Henry, 152 total yards and a touchdown goes down merely as a par. Corey Davis had a long touchdown, A.J. Brown a short one. Jonnu Smith didn’t get over the stripe, but 5-52-0 from a tight end this year almost qualifies as heroic.

Tennessee OC Arthur Smith will be a hot commodity on the January coaching market. In the meantime, he gets ready for an intriguing Week 16 game at Green Bay.

Speed Round

• The Cardinals have their own Zeke/Pollard setup with Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds; the backup, Edmonds, has been the efficiency king. At least Edmonds was proactively used in the win over Philadelphia, getting two more touches and catching a short touchdown. But nothing short of an injury is likely to mothball Drake.

• DeAndre Hopkins (11-9-169-1) did anything he wanted against the injury-ravaged Eagles secondary. And maybe the Cardinals have something going with Dan Arnold, who offers touchdown equity and had a playable 54 yards Sunday.

• Doug Pederson wouldn’t name his Week 16 starter right after the Arizona loss. These coaches are adorable. As if Jalen Hurts left any doubt after throwing for 338 yards and running for 63 more, with four total touchdowns. Hurts didn’t play a perfect game by any means — he was lucky not to lose any of three fumbles, and he did absorb six sacks — but compared to Carson Wentz, Hurts looks like an MVP candidate. The Eagles are in their own salary pickle with the albatross Wentz deal, but Hurts isn’t giving up this job. He’s a slam-dunk fantasy starter against Dallas.

• Don’t be fooled by 295 passing yards; Dwayne Haskins had a passable day of volume, but went nowhere with efficiency (5.4 YPA). He threw two picks, was sacked four times, and fumbled once (self-recovered). At least he skimmed the ball where we wanted it — 29-of-38 completions went to Logan Thomas, Terry McLaurin, or J.D. McKissic.

• Seattle is winning with the unplugged offense it wants. Forget MVP candidate — Russell Wilson isn’t even a fantasy starter right now.

• Make it nine straight wins for Kansas City, but a push against the -3 spread. The Chiefs haven’t cashed a ticket since Week 8 against the Jets. Patrick Mahomes had another ordinary day — three touchdowns and no picks obscure 5.4 YPA, four sacks, and a fumble lost — but any win at New Orleans looks good on the resume. His MVP odds dropped significantly (as in, he’s now a heavier favorite) after Aaron Rodgers struggled Saturday. It’s probably too late for Josh Allen to crash the party.

• I had some Salvon Ahmed shares that went unused Sunday — I couldn’t solve the Miami backfield matrix. So it goes. I suspect Brian Flores and company probably knew their likely personnel situation long before the Sunday disclosures, but he’s not going to give up more information than he has to. Tua Tagovailoa books another win, but a 5.6 YPA and 73.4 rating won’t start any parades. The Dolphins have to be privately kicking themselves for not evaluating Justin Herbert differently.

• Three months ago, the rest of the league was chastised for letting the Patriots have Cam Newton on an inexpensive prove-it contract. So much for that story. Newton’s body has been through a ton of attrition, and he’ll likely be back on the market next spring.

• Although it shocked the world, there was nothing fluky on-field about the Jets beating the Rams — they were the better team for three hours. We’re used to the weekly fast start from New York — its now assembled a remarkable eight straight scoring drives to open games. But the offense continued to play smartly with a lead, while the pass defense confused Jared Goff. Sean McVay will never admit it, but he doesn’t have the quarterback he wants.

• It’s remarkable what Mark Ingram’s removal has done to the tidiness of the Baltimore offense. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards get enough work to be playable every week, and even Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews have popped the last two games. It helps that Lamar Jackson is healthy again, and perhaps most importantly, confident again. The AFC doesn’t want to see the Ravens in the playoffs, no matter how their defense looks.

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