Baltimore TE Dennis Pitta is finishing the season strong and makes a strong play in fantasy championships this week. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The Giants and Buccaneers rank sixth and 10th, respectively, in points per game -- and they combined for zero points last Sunday in what was a do-or-die weekend for fantasy owners. Pretty awesome, huh?
At least the Giants were facing a decent defense in Atlanta, but the Bucs put up the goose-egg against the NFL's worst defense in New Orleans. There's no way fantasy owners could have seen that coming, but that obviously won't console owners of Doug Martin or Josh Freeman.
Unfortunately, there are no real lessons here. Owners who started guys like Danario Alexander or even David Wilson can at least be mad at themselves for trusting relatively “unproven guys” (though that's really not fair either), but owners who got burned by guys like Freeman, Victor Cruz or even Detroit's Matthew Stafford, who we'll talk about in a minute, can really do nothing but shake their heads and curse all offseason. If you managed to survive your semifinal despite having one of those guys on your team, you're likely wary of them heading into your championship game.
That's justified, but you shouldn't react too strongly to one bad performance. Obviously, if players are riding a cold streak or have some other external factors that might be affecting their performances, there's nothing wrong with benching them. But it's unlikely that you're going to have significantly better options than Cruz, Martin or Hakeem Nicks on your roster.
And, again, just ask owners of “breakout” guys like Bryce Brown and Josh Gordon how benching proven stars for players with upside can work out. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't; but if you're going to lose in the fantasy championship, it's always worse to lose with your normal starters on your bench.
Let's look at more players who improved or hurt their stock at each offensive position in Week 15.
Russell Wilson (41.4 fantasy points), Colin Kaepernick (33.44), Aaron Rodgers (30.94) and Drew Brees (37.38) all put up monster games after poor-to-mediocre performances last week, but fantasy owners are probably more interested in Peyton Manning (14.16) and Andy Dalton (14.88) turning in their second-straight lackluster games.
Manning is too good to sit this week, especially against Cleveland, so there's nothing to worry about there, but Dalton is a different story. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt for his performance against the Eagles (short week, on the road), he still didn't look good, and this week he has to go to Pittsburgh. Even though the Steelers just got lit up by Tony Romo, they've had success against Dalton in his brief career, allowing just 136.7 passing yards per game in three contests. All of the guys mentioned above are good enough to start in a fantasy championship game, but owners should be able to do better than Dalton.
Notable Riser: Matt Ryan, Falcons. Ryan seemed to get back on track two weeks ago when he put up 25.7 fantasy points against Carolina, but most of that production came in the second half against a softer defense. Last week, though, he put up 28.7 fantasy points against the Giants, striking early and often. Roddy White's knee injury seemed to limit him, which could ultimately slow down the Falcons' passing attack, but Ryan still has a solid stable of playmakers, which should him finish the season on a high note.
Notable Faller: Matthew Stafford, Lions. Stafford threw 50 times against the Cardinals on Sunday, yet he only finished with 3.8 fantasy points. It was Stafford's first single-digit performance in a full game since his rookie campaign, but it's not the first time he's disappointed this season. Because of his high number of pass attempts and Calvin Johnson, Stafford will always have upside, but the Lions' dearth of other legitimate receiving options is clearly hurting his value. He's not a great option against a strong Falcons' pass defense this week.
Fantasy owners are probably happy that Ryan Mathews (shoulder) is done for the year, as now they won't ever be tempted to start him again. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that San Diego's “next man up” (probably Curtis Brinkley if Ronnie Brown is still hurt) will have much fantasy value.
Of bigger concern is whether New England's Stevan Ridley will continue to get the bulk of the carries after having trouble hanging onto the ball last week. Danny Woodhead looked good when he took over for Ridley, and it's entirely possible that he'll continue getting more playing time.. Owners will be tempted to start guys like Beanie Wells, DeAngelo Williams and possibly even Mark Ingram ahead of Ridley after last week, but Williams is really the only one who deserves it. Wells took advantage of a couple Detroit turnovers, converting them into short touchdowns, and Ingram took advantage of the Saints' big lead to pile up garbage-time carries and yards. Unless we hear otherwise, Ridley should still be treated as the Patriots' feature back.
Notable Riser: Vick Ballard, Colts. Ballard ran for over 100 yards for the first time in his career last week, but he was once again passed over for goal-line duties despite the absence of Donald Brown and Delone Carter, both of whom are out for the rest of the regular season. Mewelde Moore lost a fumble on the one-yard line, though, so Ballard should be in line for short TD chances next week. As it is, with three straight double-digit fantasy-point performances, he's already an RB2 with RB1 upside.
Notable Faller: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs. For the third time this year, Charles inexplicably received single-digit carries and produced fewer than 11 rushing yards last week. Perhaps even more inexplicable is that two of those three performances came against the Raiders, who rank just 21st against the run (the other came against Buffalo, who rank 30th). Charles has as much upside as any back on a week-to-week basis, but owners will understandably be leery of him next week in another good matchup against Indianapolis. For what it's worth, in his previous five games, Charles had scored at least 10.7 points, averaging 14.96 points per contest. He's still a good starting option.
It was a strange week for receivers, with Demaryius Thomas (13 yards) yielding almost all of Denver's receiving production to Eric Decker (133 yards, TD), and several big-name players, like Marques Colston (60 yards), Wes Welker (56 yards), Greg Jennings (50 yards) and Roddy White (16 yards), struggling while a teammate did significantly better.
Random poor performances are par for the course with receivers, so owners shouldn't get overly concerned about any of these stat lines. Jennings has struggled since returning from injury, so he's definitely the least dependable of anyone on this list, but the other four should all bounce back (provided that White is closer to 100 percent next week). Guys like Alexander, Gordon,
The good news is that several other receivers in precarious situations -- namely Pierre Garcon (6-65) without Robert Griffin III, Dez Bryant (4-59, TD) playing through a finger injury, and Mike Wallace (4-95) and Antonio Brown (8-76, TD) playing with a not-100-percent Ben Roethlisberger -- all looked good. Garcon had the least impactful day, but his 12 targets were a good sign if Griffin is forced to miss another game.
Notable Riser: James Jones, Packers. Has their ever been a wide receiver who led the league in touchdown catches but was started less frequently in fantasy leagues than Jones? After three TDs last week, he's up to a dozen for the season, but because he's been the very definition of a “boom-or-bust” player (nine of his TDs have come in four games), he's found himself on fantasy benches more often than not. His borderline-starter status really isn't any different even after his big game. Remember, in his previous four games, Jones averaged four fantasy points. Jones obviously has more upside than most other borderline WR3's, but he's not an automatic start just because of his high touchdown total.
Notable Faller: Reggie Wayne, Colts. Wayne had by far his worst performance of the season, a three-catch, 14-yard performance against Houston last week, and it just highlighted the fact that he hasn't been truly great since his 212-yard game back in Week 5 against Green Bay. In the 10 games since, he's averaged 8.23 fantasy points, only once topping 11.9. After last week's dud, owners might be tempted to sit Wayne for a late-season breakout guy with a good matchup, but we know that doesn't always work out. Wayne is second in the NFL in targets (171) and remains a safe starter, even if he's more of a WR2 than a WR1 right now.
Jimmy Graham was held out of the end zone for the fourth straight game last week, but he still had a team-high nine targets. There's no reason to sour on Graham at this point, even though his production has dropped off from last year.
Someone like Brandon Myers, who's been targeted just six times in the past two games, or Kyle Rudolph, who also has just six targets in his past two games, are suddenly shakier plays, though. However, because of the lack of good, reliable TEs this season, you're unlikely to find a clearly better option on the waiver wire.
Notable Riser: Dennis Pitta, Ravens. Pitta has taken advantage of very favorable matchups (and, last week, garbage time) to post back-to-back big performances. It's possible that Pitta can continue having success the next couple weeks, as his 16 targets over the past two games is solid. Still, he's a risky option next week against the Giants, who rank in 21st in fantasy points per game allowed to TEs (7.1). Fantasy owners shouldn't get too excited because Pitta went off against two teams that haven't stopped tight ends all season.
Notable Faller: Vernon Davis, 49ers. Over the past four games, Davis has 2.9 fantasy points. That's it. He put up 10 yards in a favorable matchup against the Patriots last Sunday night and received just three targets (though, to be fair, he was overthrown in the end zone when he was wide open). He still has upside, but with Kaepernick throwing to wide receivers more than tight ends, Davis shouldn't be started in fantasy leagues right now.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.