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Exploiting the Matchups: 'Tis the Season to Be Gurley

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for 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.

Last week the only advice I could offer for how to approach setting a championship lineup (fingers crossed!) was to go back to my Week 14 introduction and re-read those thoughts. Nothing has changed for this week. It’s just, you know, for all the marbles in most leagues. So no pressure. Just make the right decisions, put on your favorite ugly sweater and get merry while you watch the action unfold.

Simple. As. That.

As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are guys you wouldn’t roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you may want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.



Jameis Winston, TB at NO

Tampa Bay’s first meeting with the Saints just two weeks ago marked the only time all season Winston failed to produce a touchdown. The 26 passes he attempted in that contest were also the fewest he’s thrown in a game since October of his rookie year. With Drew Brees bringing his mojo back from the desert to the dome this weekend, Winston figures to have to bump those attempts up a bit. Against the 31st ranked New Orleans pass defense that could make Winston one of the heroes of Super Bowl week.

Matt Barkley, CHI vs. WAS

The Bears are seeing what they have in Barkley, and chances are they’re liking what they’ve seen. In his four starts he has two games with over 300 yards and multiple touchdowns passes, both of which nearly ended in double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks. Bottom line is he can make big time throws and is going to be given a chance to do so against a Washington defense that’s banged up in the back seven and just allowed Cam Newton’s first 300-yard effort since Week 6.

Sam Bradford, MIN at GB

Bradford is completing a league-best 71.6% of his passes. He’s only getting 6.92 YPA and has just 14 touchdowns on the season, but he also doesn’t turn the ball over and should see his efficiency numbers rise versus a Packers defense that allows a league-high 8.1 YPA. With as poorly as Minnesota has run the ball and as well as the Green Bay offense has played in recent weeks, this contest could require Bradford to sling it upwards of 40 times. While he’s normally at best a “safe” fantasy option, the ho-hum veteran may approach the ceiling he established in his first meeting with the Packers -- 282 yards and two TDs -- making him a quality play in two-QB leagues.

Running Back

Ty Montgomery, GB vs. MIN

An effective (6.5 YPC) three-down back for Aaron Rodgers? Yes, please. Sign me up. Who cares who he’s facing? Montgomery just burned the Seahawks and Bears (both top-10 defenses in total yards against) for 249 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns on 30 touches. Meanwhile, the Vikings formerly stout run D has allowed 289 yards and two TDs to running backs in that same stretch.

Todd Gurley, LA vs. SF

You’ve waited all season for this moment to finally arrive. Gurley will finally hit the century mark rushing versus the worst run defense in football and avenge a Week 1 beatdown that remains the 49ers’ only victory.

Ryan Mathews, PHI vs. NYG

The matchup doesn’t matter. Neither does the short week. In 11 games in which Mathews has more than two carries this year he’s run for at least 60 yards or scored in 10 of them. He has nine touchdowns on the season on just 149 touches and he no longer has to contend with Wendell Smallwood (knee/IR) for opportunities. Oh, and if you’re worried about the fearsome Giants defense, consider that Mathews blasted the Ravens’ previously top-ranked run D for 128 yards and a score just four short days ago.

Derrick Henry, TEN at JAC

Owners who stashed Henry all year are finally getting paid off. The rookie power back has waited in DeMarco Murray’s shadow all season but is finally getting meaningful touches as the Titans, on course for a division title, are trying to keep their veteran workhorse somewhat fresh for the playoffs. Facing a Jaguars team they dismantled in Week 8 when Henry scored his first career touchdown, look for the big guy to continue getting chances inside the red zone and extra touches late in a game Tennessee should win comfortably.

Kenneth Farrow, SD at CLE

Leading the San Diego backfield the past two weeks with Melvin Gordon (hip) sidelined, Farrow has racked up 39 touches for 131 scrimmage yards. He did that, however, in a tough road contest versus a proud Carolina defense and facing a Raiders group fighting for a playoff bye. The 0-14 Browns resemble something far different as a team and defense. Cleveland has given up an average of 166.8 scrimmage yards per game to tailbacks and has allowed 356 rushing yards and four touchdowns in just the last two weeks alone to the Cincinnati and Buffalo backfields. With Gordon heading towards another DNP, Farrow looks like as safe a source of yards as there is beyond the top 10-15 running backs.

Wide Receiver

Stefon Diggs, MIN at GB

Diggs has two touchdowns and three 100-yard games this season. The only contest in which he did both: way back in Week 2 when he went bananas versus this very Green Bay secondary for 182 and a score. He snuck up on them a bit in that one, but these days no one really needs to sneak. The Packers have allowed a league-high 21 touchdowns to wide receivers (tied with SF) and have given up the most fantasy points to the position. With the GB offense firing on all cylinders, the Vikings will need to throw it, and when they do, they’ll need their No. 1 target to take advantage of a secondary that loses receivers as frequently as someone with short-term memory loss loses his or her keys.

Cameron Meredith, CHI vs. WAS

Alshon Jeffery is back. That means the Bears’ No. 1 receiver will be seeing lots of attention from Josh Norman. Meredith, meanwhile, figures to remain a favorite target of Barkley, just like he was for fellow backup QB Brian Hoyer earlier this season. Those two reserve signal callers presided over all three of Meredith’s 100-yard performances this season, including the one he notched last week when he saw 13 targets versus Green Bay. In fact, with Barkley he’s seen 34 targets over four starts and has at least 67 yards in the last three, including a touchdown.

Tyler Lockett, SEA vs. AZ

The Cardinals could not even remotely keep tabs on the diminutive but rocket-powered Brandin Cooks on their home turf, allowing the blazer to torch them for scores of 65 and 45 yards. In his last two home games, Lockett has himself registered homerun scores of 57 yards receiving and 75 yards rushing. A near clone of Cooks (both 5-foot-10, 180-plus pounds with track speed), don’t be surprised when Seattle plays copy cat with their explosive weapon against an Arizona secondary that’s ready for the holidays.

Kenny Britt, LA vs. SF

Jared Goff is in concussion protocol, but it won’t really matter whether it’s the rookie or Case Keenum slinging passes to Britt this week. The eight-year veteran is very quietly putting together his first 1,000-yard season (he’s just 13 shy), as he’s produced at least 43 yards in all but one game but topped the century mark just twice. With a 49ers defense coming to town that’s allowed an average of 175.8 yards per game to wideouts and a league-worst 21 touchdowns to the position, count on Britt registering one of his louder performances of the season.

Marqise Lee, JAC vs. TEN

Even in a game when Blake Bortles only threw for 92 yards and Lee registered his first no-target contest of the season, the emerging third-year wideout got in the box score with a big play, returning a kickoff 100 yards for a score. The week prior Lee beat a very good Vikings defense for 113 yards receiving, giving him a TD or triple-digit receiving day in four of his last five. Facing a Tennessee defense that has allowed the second-most fantasy points this season to wide receivers, and with Allen Hurns fighting a hamstring injury, don’t be surprised to see Lee keep up his solid play.

Tight End

Kyle Rudolph, MIN at GB

How do you not take a chance on Rudolph on Christmas Eve? Santa needs a new fantasy championship!!! And this Rudolph has been guiding Sam Bradford’s passing attack of late. In his last six games the 6-foot-6 Viking tight end has at least 60 yards four times, has scored twice and has seen at least eight targets in five. He’s coming off a season-best 97 yards and will be playing with no ground game against a Packers team that is going to put up points. That means Rudolph will be needed, as he should be, to save Minnesota’s holiday.

Hunter Henry, SD at CLE

Not only does Hunter lead his own team in touchdown catches, but he also is tied for tops among all tight ends in the league with seven scoring grabs. He hasn’t been getting the yardage since he broke out earlier this season while Antonio Gates was sidelined, but Henry has padded his scoring numbers during a recent hot streak with TDs in four of his last five. Next up is a Browns defense that has allowed a league-high 12 touchdowns to tight ends.



Carson Palmer, AZ at SEA

Palmer threw for 342 yards in Arizona’s first meeting with Seattle, but 65 of those were accounted for by former Cardinal, Michael Floyd, the game was played in the desert and Palmer got a full extra quarter to work with in the 6-6 tie. Oh, and he failed to produce a single touchdown. Since that Week 7 slugfest Palmer has thrown for multiple scores in all but one contest and hit 300-plus yards four times. Unfortunately for the grizzled vet, the Seahawks have allowed a measly 25 points combined in their last three home games and Palmer has, quite frankly, neither the surrounding talent nor the motivation of a playoff run to support his cause.

Kirk Cousins, WAS at CHI

Carolina is dead last in passing yards allowed and in the bottom quarter of the league for passing touchdowns too. And yet Cousins failed to register a score versus them in his own stadium, with an extra day of preparation and with his team’s playoff hopes spiraling down the toilet. The donut in the touchdown column brought his most recent three-game total to just three scores. Now he must travel on a short week (akin to a Thursday game since the ‘Skins play Saturday) and battle the elements in the “Windy City” where the Bears just held Aaron Rodgers without a passing touchdown for the first time all year.

Matt Ryan, ATL at CAR

Prior to predictably shredding the Rams and 49ers, Ryan faced the competitive defenses of the Eagles, Cardinals and Chiefs in his previous three outings, throwing a pick in each while totaling just four touchdowns and failing to top 300 yards in any of them. His MVP-caliber campaign has been buoyed greatly by a handful of huge performances, including a ridiculous 503-yard, four-score dismantling of Carolina way back in Week 4. This time around, however, the game will be on the Panthers’ turf, with their young corners sporting 10 more games of experience and Julio Jones, Ryan’s 300-yard thoroughbred that day, potentially sidelined and at best limited by a toe injury. The proud defending NFC champions will want revenge and they will get it.

Running Back

Jay Ajayi, MIA at BUF

In three of his last four contests Ajayi has averaged 2.7 YPC or less while receiving at least 18 carries in each of those. In that span he only found the end zone versus the lowly 49ers. The powerful inside runner has struggled mightily after a midseason eruption for 529 yards in three games and it’s no coincidence that his slump has come with center Mike Pouncey -- arguably Miami’s best inside blocker -- out with a hip injury. So although Ajayi hammered Buffalo the last time he faced them with a monstrous 214-yard effort, trusting the first-time feature back to produce against a defense that will be keying on him is a scary proposition these days.

Thomas Rawls, SEA vs. AZ

In their first meeting with the Cardinals, the Seahawks were led in rushing by Christine Michael’s 52 yards on 16 carries. Rawls missed that five-quarter contest with a leg injury, but since returning to lead the backfield in Week 11, the 2015 wrecking ball of a runner has produced just two touchdowns and one 100-yard day. Coming off a dreadful 21-carry, 34-yard debacle versus the Rams, Rawls looks unlikely to help a team to a fantasy championship against a Cardinals defense allowing a league-low 3.4 YPC to tailbacks.

Lamar Miller, HOU vs. CIN

Miller has found the end zone in consecutive games for the first time all year, but not everything is pointing up for the Texans’ most productive offensive weapon. An ankle injury has hampered him in the season’s second half and really impacted him in the last four contests, as he’s averaged just 3.3 YPC during that stretch while failing to top 63 yards rushing three times. Although the Bengals are not a top run defense, they did just “hold” Le’Veon Bell to 131 scrimmage yards. Moreover, with Tom Savage now under center, Houston may actually be able to throw the ball effectively and not have to be so reliant on Miller. Less volume won’t serve his fantasy owners any better than his hurt ankle will.

Wide Receiver

Tyreek Hill, KC vs. DEN

Hill has been a remarkable weapon this season and his most impressive performance came four short weeks ago when he racked up three of his 10 total touchdowns in an all-purpose bonanza versus Denver. One of the most dangerous players in space, Hill has generated 10 touchdowns as a receiver, rusher and return man, but yet somehow only has 704 scrimmage yards in 14 contests, or in other words, roughly 50 yards per outing on average. In fact, he only had 55 scrimmage yards against Denver and it took him 10 touches to get there. This time around Jeremy Maclin will be in the mix to steal targets as a receiver and Hill will certainly be better accounted for by an elite Broncos defense.

Davante Adams, GB vs. MIN

Dez Bryant is the only wide receiver this season to produce more than 80 yards AND a touchdown against the Vikings secondary, and even he required a season-long 56-yard catch to get there. Golden Tate was the next closest (79 and a score) and it took him 11 catches, an overtime period and arguably the play of the year to get there. Adams is in the midst of a terrific season and is among the league-leaders in touchdown catches with nine, but he’s been complete boom-or-bust for six straight weeks, alternating between games with more than 100 yards and under 45. The return of Jared Cook and greater attention from defenses have found him notching no more than seven targets in the last five games, which if continued, is going to give him a bust instead of a boom this week to break his coincidental up-down pattern.

Rishard Matthews, TEN at JAC

In the last nine games in which he did not face the elite Denver corners, Matthews has produced at least 100 yards or a touchdown in eight of those. One of his worst outputs during this stretch, however, came in a Week 8 thumping of the Jaguars. While he saved his day with a score, Matthews’ 38 yards could have made his owners suffer. And unfortunately he could be on the same dangerous course this week. Jalen Ramsey has shut down No. 1 receivers all year and, but for a touchdown, did the same versus Matthews already. If negative game flow for the Titans’ passing game pops up again (and it figures to against the dumpster fire Jacksonville currently resembles), it would be best to have Matthews benched.

Tight End

Jimmy Graham, SEA vs. AZ

The Cardinals, who have been astonishingly stingy to tight ends this season (just 363 yards and one touchdown allowed), held Graham to 53 yards in five quarters of action in their last meeting. Since Graham has posted just one catch in each of his last two contests and only topped 67 yards once since Week 5, this feels like a heck of a good week to bench him.

Travis Kelce, KC vs. DEN

It took Kelce five full quarters and 15 targets to reach 101 yards in his last meeting with Denver. While the Chiefs’ top receiver will certainly be involved, chances are slim he sees anywhere close to that kind of volume again, especially with Maclin back in the lineup. And given that the Broncos have allowed only two touchdowns to tight ends all season and just held Martellus Bennett and Delanie Walker to a combined 65 yards, a repeat of Kelce’s last performance seems like a near impossible task.