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Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades, Downgrades Week 9

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for Rotowire.com since 2011 and is most proud of recommending Victor Cruz as a starter in his breakout game against the Eagles. He's a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, the Packers and, unfortunately, the Knicks.

In Week 4, I wrote a similar introduction about the impact of the week's bye schedule. It's a good news/bad news story. On the plus side, there are pretty much zero matchups this week that would make you contemplate benching a weekly starter. Even a stud like Demaryius Thomas - who has to deal with Darrelle Revis - cannot be downgraded so far. He's simply too good and too hot. On the flip side, though, there is an awful lot of star power getting the week off.

For the second time this season, six teams are taking a break. With the absence of the Packers, Bears, Lions, Bills, Falcons and Titans, wide receiver is hit hardest. The duos in Green Bay, Chicago and Atlanta are generally rolled out every Sunday while rising stars Golden Tate and Sammy Watkins have become true must-starts in recent weeks. Fortunately, only two of the 10 worst pass defenses are on bye, so strong matchups for deeper wideouts can be found all over. In that same vein there are also quaterbacks in many of those same matchups that should exploit bad coverage units enough to make up for the losses of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan.

By this point in the season it should be relatively clear what direction your team is heading. For many, though, the next two weekends - when six teams will go on bye each week - are pivotal and could launch a playoff run or sink a season. These are the weeks more than ever to really dig into the matchups that should yield the most fantasy points. There are plenty of safe plays and upside dice rolls that can be made. Your league opponent should dictate which route you take. If your lineups generally look even, opt for Andrew Hawkins to replace that Packer or Bear wideout and take the consistent production. Staring in the face of a stacked opponent with byes hamstringing you, swing for the fences with a hit-or-miss option like Brandin Cooks. Prey on those bad defenses and start this two-game season off on the right foot this week. A 2-0 record during these brutal byes could make all the difference.

As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit column. Upgrades are players you wouldn't consistently start (or who have consistently underachieved), while those downgraded generally are lineup mainstays. The designations are simply a guide to make those close calls easier.

UPGRADES

Quarterback

Alex Smith, KC vs. NYJ

A 22:1 TD:INT ratio. That. Is. Absurd. The Jets pass defense is absurdly, embarrassingly bad. Just ask Kyle Orton and Sammy Watkins, who toyed with it last Sunday. Smith may be dinged up and not in the most pass-heavy system, but this is his week to slice and dice.

Carson Palmer, AZ at DAL

Few quarterbacks have been as consistent as Palmer this year. He now has hit at least 250 yards and two TD in all four of his starts, and last week he didn't even need Michael Floyd to post his biggest day yet. The Dallas D has overachieved, but it's also yet to face a passer as hot. Advantage Palmer.

Russell Wilson, SEA vs. OAK

Wilson followed an historic performance with a total stinker last week, in part because Seattle does not travel well. At home. Versus the winless Raiders. No way. Unless the Seahawks pummel them into submission on the ground, Wilson will fly again.

Eli Manning, NYG vs. IND

Sometimes the name of the game is just volume. The Giants can't slow Andrew Luck and Indy, so Manning will pitch it plenty. The G-Men aren't deep at receiver like Pittsburgh, but with Odell Beckham maturing quickly they should be able to burn a Colts pass defense that's reeling.

Brian Hoyer, CLE vs. TB

Hoyer is a safe bye-week option. At least 200 yards in every game and only one without a scoring strike. The Buccaneers are 30th in passing yards allowed per game and have allowed multiple TD through the air in five of seven games, with 16 on the year.

Andy Dalton, CIN vs. JAC

The Jaguars defense has been stiffer in recent weeks, allowing just two passing touchdowns in four games. Nevertheless, a turnover prone Jacksonville offense will set up Cinci for easy scores and Dalton should get A.J. Green back. Check and mate.

Running Back

Denard Robinson, JAC at CIN

Robinson has slashed his way to almost 6.0 YPC on 40 attempts the last two games, flashing the nifty footwork, vision and acceleration that made him the NCAA's all-time leader in QB rushing yards. Now he gets a Bengals D that's allowed a massive 729 total yards and six touchdowns to opposing backfields over four weeks.

Ronnie Hillman, DEN at NE

Hillman is in that must-start stratosphere, but worth mentioning here for those who haven't realized it yet. He's topped 100 on the ground in two of three and gashed a good 49ers defense for 5.3 YPC and two TD. That New England has allowed consecutive 100-yard rushers is just gravy for this matchup.

Jonathan Stewart, CAR vs. NO

Stewart tallied an impressive 94 total yards against the Seahawks while averaging 4.9 YPC. Opposing backfields have topped 100 total yards in all but one game against New Orleans, and with Stewart yielding only two touches to his backfield mates last week, he's set up nicely for an encore.

Lorenzo Taliaferro, BAL at PIT

In three games with Bernard Pierce sidelined, Taliaferro has four touchdowns and at least 58 yards in each. After Pierce was a healthy scratch last week it seems the once clouded Baltimore backfield has been sorted out. Forsett between the 20s, Taliaferro within scoring range.

Bobby Rainey, TB at CLE

The Browns have given up at least 83 yards and a score to opposing No. 1 backs in four of seven contests and are 30th versus the run (143.4 yards per game). With Doug Martin in a walking boot, Rainey and his 4.6 YPC will take advantage.

Wide Receiver

Stevie Johnson, SF vs. STL

Quickly developing into one of Colin Kaepernick's favorite targets, Johnson has at least 100 yards or a touchdown in four of San Fran's last five games. The first meeting with the Rams is actually the only one in which he didn't, but he can certainly rectify that versus a weak St. Louis secondary.

Andrew Hawkins, CLE vs. TB

The Bucs allowed five touchdowns to Baltimore wide receivers a few short weeks ago and just let Cordarrelle Patterson go for 28.8 percent of his receiving yards for the season. Hawkins, who's coming off 200 yards and his first score of the year the last two weeks, is a sneaky good start.

Brandin Cooks, NO at CAR

After weeks of disappointing play, Cooks came alive versus the Packers, easily tallying his best pro performance on the strength of a 50-yard TD bomb. Next up is a Carolina defense that's tied for the most passing scores allowed to receivers (12). Keep the good times rolling!

Martavis Bryant, PIT vs. BAL

No one was prepared for what Pittsburgh would do to a previously stingy Colts defense. And no one really saw the speedy Bryant bursting onto the scene with three touchdowns in his first two pro games. Now he gets a good chance to better last week's 83-yard day versus a Baltimore defense that's given up more yards than anyone to wideouts (201.5 per game).

Tight End

Travis Kelce, KC vs. Jets

Kelce has cooled since the KC bye with 78 yards in two games, but the Gang Green secondary is a cure-all for any team's top receiving options. After all, the Jets have given up a league-high nine scores to tight ends this year.

Larry Donnell, NYG vs. IND

The Giants are not going to slow the high-powered Indy attack. That means more passing. As the clear No. 3 option, Donnell should find success against a defense that's allowed the fourth most yards to tight ends (65.9 per game).

DOWNGRADES

Quarterback

Philip Rivers, SD at MIA

The Dolphins held Aaron Rodgers to 24-of-42 passing (even if he did get three scores) and significantly limited Jay Cutler and Tom Brady. Rivers has been red hot this year but could be cooled in South Beach.

Running Back

Giovani Bernard, CIN vs. JAC

The usually electric Bernard has been about as potent the last two weeks as the shock one gets after shuffling socked feet on a carpet and touching a doorknob - 62 yards on 23 carries (2.7 YPC) and one yard on four catches. Now he's dealing with a hip injury and facing a Jags D that's yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.

Le'Veon Bell, PIT vs. BAL

While you're obviously not benching a guy who has topped 100 total yards every week, expectations should be tempered versus the league's stingiest rush defense. Ahmad Bradshaw has the best individual rushing effort versus the Ravens (68 yards) and it was the only time he failed to find the end zone since Week 1. Just saying.

Wide Receiver

Larry Fitzgerald, AZ at DAL

In two of the last three, Fitzgerald has racked up 258 yards and two TD. That third game saw him tally just 21 yards, though. Against a Cowboys D that's given up only four scores to wide receivers, Fitz's numbers might be closer to that third outing.

Allen Robinson, JAC at CIN

Robinson has found the end zone in consecutive weeks and is getting targeted heavily. Don't jump the gun to playing the rook, though, as the Bengals are the league's toughest versus wideouts. They even "limited" T.Y. Hilton to just 107 yards in two games in which he racked up 378 and two TD.

Vincent Jackson, TB at CLE

This has nothing to do with the Browns defense, since it's middle of the road versus receivers. Jackson simply isn't himself this season. And it's not for lack of opportunities. Nagging injuries could be a factor, but he's simply not connecting with Mike Glennon - in four Glennon starts Jackson has caught just 16 of 40 targets.

Tight End

Heath Miller, PIT vs. BAL

Don't be too quick to start Miller after he chewed up the Colts for 112 yards and a score. That was a byproduct of a magical Ben Roethlisberger performance. Miller notched just 35 yards and lost a fumble in his first meeting with Baltimore, and all they've done since is limit tight ends to the fourth fewest fantasy points per game.

Zach Ertz, PHI at HOU

The preseason hype still has some believing in Ertz as a starting tight end. It's time to give up on that. He hasn't reached 50 yards since Week 2, and it just so happens the Texans allow only 47.6 yards per game to the position.