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Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades, Downgrades Week 15

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.

Week 15 means if you're still playing there's money and pride on the line. And that the hard part is over. Your decisions should be less difficult at this point. It's play-your-best-guys time, the guys who got you here.

If your opponent looks to have the better of you, I'd opt for talent over opportunity, but you certainly want to pair the two as much as possible, and, of course, lean on the optimal matchups where you can. Since there's really no other advice to offer, I'll throw out two examples of decisions I'm making this week that could be crucial to getting me to a couple Super Bowls.

In the Simpsons-themed league I've referenced before, I'm stuck choosing between Tre Mason and Lamar Miller for a flex spot with Eddie Lacy and Justin Forsett penciled in as my top backs. I'll be taking my chances with Mason despite what you'll read below. In this case my decision comes down to my opponent forcing me to push for more upside. Miller has barely sniffed a 20-carry game this season, with just one with more than 15 attempts. While he's efficient and safe, he needs a touchdown to give me the type of performance I need to combat a lineup that features Peyton Manning, Arian Foster, Rob Gronkowski and an obscene set of receivers. While I'd put my choices on par as far as ability, I have to consider that Mason's opportunity should be greater and his matchup is better overall. While Arizona is the second stingiest defense to opposing running backs, it's also not a team that has a shot of getting up big on St. Louis and taking the Rams away from the run. New England could certainly do that to Miami in Foxboro. Miller, this week, is an upgrade more so for his safety than his upside. In this case, I definitely need upside.

In a league in which I'm comfortably favored, however, I want the safe plays. That's why I'm choosing Ben Roethlisberger over Matt Ryan in their head-to-head matchup. I'd go Ryan if Julio Jones wasn't dealing with a hip injury, but given that circumstance, I like Roethlisberger against an Atlanta defense that doesn't scare anyone. He's having a career year and will need to produce some big plays to get Pittsburgh a crucial road win. Ryan's recent rise in play will actually help me in this case by keeping the score close. But I believe the Steelers will have more scoring opportunities ultimately because of the huge Le'Veon Bell factor. As much as his stealing Big Ben's passing scores with his legs concerns me, Bell's play excites me more because he also will give Roethlisberger more red-zone trips and chances at hitting paydirt. It's likely a call I can't truly go wrong on, as both should be productive, but given my circumstances I have to go with the lower risk option.

I considered numerous factors with each of these decisions, but the moves ultimately come down to gut calls as well. I recommend weighing the various influences that will impact the players you're choosing between, but letting the final call come down to your gut on those close ones.

Same as always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit column. Players that are upgraded are the guys you wouldn't consistently start, while those being downgraded generally are lineup mainstays or have been hot of late. The designations are simply a guide to make those close calls easier.

UPGRADES

Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT at ATL

There are many statistics to throw out for why the Atlanta defense has no chance of slowing the Steelers offense, but first and foremost are the names Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, who have each staked their claims as the best in the league at their positions. Roethlisberger won't have to fight too hard for yards and scores in this one.

Matt Ryan, ATL vs. PIT

The Steelers have allowed 11 touchdown passes over their last four games, including two each to Michael Vick and Zach Mettenberger. Just because I said it last week doesn't make it any less true. With eight TD the last three weeks, Ryan is riding hot and won't cool off much even with Jones banged up.

Eli Manning, NYG vs. WAS

Manning had one of the best statistical games of his career in the first meeting with Washington - 300 yards and four TD passing and a rushing score. Since then he's actually upgraded his receiving corps by replacing Victor Cruz with Odell Beckham. Also since then, and more specifically JUST the last four games, the Skins have allowed a ridiculous eight touchdown throws of at least 30 yards.

Joe Flacco, BAL vs. JAC

Flacco is riding consecutive games with at least 225 yards and two scores passing and a rushing TD. Now he draws a Jacksonville defense with a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and the 28th-ranked run-stopping unit. A great Baltimore ground game will only give Flacco more chances to keep up his scoring binge.

Johnny Manziel, CLE at CIN

Manziel might prove the NFL's version of Allen Iverson - undersized, tough, brazen, a gamer. His improvisational ability allows him to extend plays with his legs, whether that's picking up chunk yardage or scrambling until he finds an open man, a la a poor man's Russell Wilson. In two-QB league's he's a great upside option.

Running Back

Joique Bell, DET vs. MIN

Bell has piled up 240 total yards and four touchdowns over the last two games while the Vikings have allowed a massive 623 total yards to running backs in four games since their bye week. Bell is dominating touches in the Detroit backfield and about to dominate a Minnesota D that cannot contain the run.

Latavius Murray, OAK at KC

Anybody ready for an encore? Before suffering a concussion in the first meeting with KC, Murray torched the Chiefs for 112 yards and two scores on only four carries. Although that line is unrepeatable, the Chiefs are still last in the league allowing 4.9 YPC and Murray is officially the team's bell cow after turning 25 touches into 85 yards in the upset over San Fran.

LeGarrette Blount, NE vs. MIA

The Dolphins have allowed 661 rushing yards in the last three weeks. Blount saw 20 carries last Sunday while no other back had more than two. Bill Belichick's bruiser is averaging a league-leading 3.7 YPC after contact and is about to show a tenderized Miami defense just what that means.

Lamar Miller, MIA at NE

Aside from a game in which a dinged up Miller barely played versus Detroit, his lowest fantasy output in standard scoring going back to Week 2 is 6.7 points, and that was against Denver's second-ranked run defense. New England is a terrific pass defense, but they can be run on and Miami will need plenty of Miller time to keep in striking distance.

Chris Johnson, NYJ at TEN

Johnson ran for 50 touchdowns and produced just shy of 10,000 total yards in six seasons in Tennessee and got no hometown love in the offseason after six straight 1,000-yard campaigns. He's averaged a healthy 4.5 YPC for Gang Green and has at least 17 touches in consecutive games. Oh, and the Titans have the worst run defense in football. That too. The tailback formerly known as CJ2K might make a cameo this weekend on his old stage.

Wide Receiver

Sammy Watkins, BUF vs. GB

November was not Watkins' month -- just 105 yards in four games -- but he sure got off to a great start in December with seven catches for 127 yards versus a good Denver defense. Now he gets an encore shot versus a Packers team that Buffalo will have to throw against and a defense that's allowed the most TD to wideouts (20).

Kelvin Benjamin, CAR vs. TB

Benjamin had 92 yards and a touchdown on six catches versus the Bucs in his professional debut. It just so happens that was with Derek Anderson, who will once again start in place of an injured Cam Newton (back).

Vincent Jackson, TB at CAR

Jackson is coming off a season-high 10 catches for 159 yards and has hit triple digit yardage in two of the last three games. Carolina did just completely shut down the Saints offense, but sadly that's not saying much these days. Moreover, it's not like Tampa can run the football, so Jackson's targets should remain high.

Marqise Lee, JAC at BAL

Lee has emerged as Jacksonville's most effective receiver in recent weeks with at least 50 yards in three straight and more than 70 total yards in the last two. The Ravens are the stingiest defense to opposing running backs, but they're the most fantasy friendly to wideouts. Expect plenty of passing and opportunities for Lee.

Eric Decker, NYJ at TEN

The Titans have allowed an opposing wide receiver to hit at least 75 yards in EVERY contest this season, with seven topping 100. With Percy Harvin (ankle) likely out, that leaves Decker -- coming off a season-high 89-yard showing -- to get the job done.

Tight End

Delanie Walker, TEN vs. NYJ

The Titans are almost out of wide receivers. Justin Hunter (spleen) is on IR and Kendall Wright missed last week with a hand injury. That leaves Walker the top target versus a Jets defense that's surrendered the most touchdowns to tight ends in the league (12).

Larry Donnell, NYG vs. WAS

Donnell dominated the Redskins in their first meeting, snagging three of his six scores on the season. He's been less involved lately, but that should change against a defense that has been owned by tight ends the last two weeks -- 188 yards and four touchdowns combined by Coby Fleener and Jared Cook.

Jared Cook, STL vs. AZ

No defense has allowed more yards to opposing tight ends than Arizona. Cook hit it for 84 yards and a score in their first meeting and is coming off his best game of the year. Moreover, the Cardinals have given up 206 yards and two TD to the position over the last three weeks, and that included the lowly tight ends for Atlanta and Seattle catching scores.

DOWNGRADE

Quarterback

Ryan Tannehill, MIA at NE

A midseason swoon for Tannehill saw him produce 17 touchdowns in eight games and rise to a legitimate starting option in deeper leagues. However, after peaking with four total TD versus Denver, he's tossed just one score over the last two weeks against bad pass defenses. Now Tannehill has to go to New England and deal with that secondary.

Running Back

C.J. Anderson, DEN at SD

In four games since their bye week the Chargers have not allowed a single touchdown to a running back. Anderson has five in his last three as well as a pile of yards, but he averaged just 2.8 YPC last week and is nursing a sore ankle. The 86 touches he's had in that span have also got to have him hurting after no prior experience as a feature back.

Tre Mason, STL vs. AZ

Aside from an untouched 89-yard scoring burst versus the Raiders, Mason has averaged just 3.4 YPC on his other 111 carries in the last six games. Granted, he's produced solid yardage totals thanks to volume, but the efficiency leaves a lot to be desired, especially when facing a top-10 run defense that held DeMarco Murray to his only single-digit fantasy day of the year (standard scoring).

Ryan Mathews, SD vs. DEN

In four games since returning from a knee sprain, Mathews has totaled at least 75 yards or scored in three. His touches have been limited, however, and without the volume he has little chance of producing a quality stat line against a Broncos defense allowing a league low 3.0 YPC.

Wide Receiver

A.J. Green, CIN at CLE

Joe Haden has had Green's number the last two years. His last three games versus Cleveland, Green has totaled just 81 yards on 12 catches (6.8 yards per grab). So even though he's demolished eight other defenses this year with 887 yards and six scores, the expectations have to be dropped for this one.

Josh Gordon, CLE vs. CIN

Rookie quarterback; elite pass defense versus receivers; recipe for risk.

DeAndre Hopkins, HOU at IND

Hopkins is surely having a breakout year, but his worst performance of this 1,000-yard campaign came at the hands of Vontae Davis and the Colts. He turned in a miserable 12 yards in that one, and if Andre Johnson sits with a concussion this time around he may even find it harder to get open.

Mike Wallace, MIA at NE

Wallace beat Darrelle Revis and New England for 81 yards and a score in Week 1, which has turned out to be his best game all year. Since that time though Revis has been on another level. Meanwhile, Wallace has topped 60 yards just once since Week 6.

Tight End

Coby Fleener, IND vs. HOU

Houston has allowed just three scores all year to tight ends. Although one of those was to Fleener in their previous meeting, he produced just 11 yards in the process, and now must contend for targets with Dwayne Allen, who's back from an ankle injury.