Thursday, August 30, 2012

Looking Ahead to Week One

Want to know a secret?

Fantasy football is a stupid game of luck and randomness.  No amount of information or strategy can make you win your league.  I've been beaten by goofballs who know less about fantasy football than I know about the Jaguars' backup tight end. It all comes down to luck of the draw.

(You may have seen ... Bill Barnwell recently wrote an article with the same premise over on Grantland. But his article ends up in a totally different direction than mine, thus I don't feel bad about plagiarizing his first couple sentences).

All that said, there is a reason why the same guys usually tend to do well in your league, just as the same guys end up at the final table in the World Series of Poker every year.  Preparation and knowledge come in handy; it's better to be prepared than to pick guys you've never heard of. But when you understand and truly embrace the fact that fantasy football is a game of random chaos, then you can finally figure out the best strategies to operate inside that world of sheer unpredictability. As Tyler Durden would say "It's not until you hit rock bottom, that you experience evolution."

A good comparison is the card game euchre. I've played against some of the biggest numskulls I've ever met, and they've whooped me because they got nothing but jacks and aces for 10 straight hands.  It happens.  But the odds always favor the more experienced, more savvy, more strategic euchre player.  The same is true in fantasy football.  You can't control injuries or drug suspensions or crazy fluke plays; you are dealt a hand each week, and it might be a hand full of crap.  But there is a way to weather the storm and give yourself a fighting chance.  The best fantasy football advice I have is: take it one week at a time.

In other words, play the matchups.

Back in the day, "play the matchup" was a nice euphemism for "your team sucks."  But now, with every offense operating the RBBC and "dink-and-dump" offenses, there are no sure things.  Andre Johnson might catch 12 balls for 180 yards one week, and 1 ball for 8 yards the next week.  Head coaches have basically given a giant middle finger to fantasy football owners everywhere, while Bill Bellichick sits silently in a dark office and smiles.

So that's why I play the matchups.  If you can't predict anything from week to week, you might as well give yourself the best chance by playing a guy on a team that's likely to rack up some points.  Of course, there are exceptions; don't ever bench your stud players.  You know that.  But who really is a stud player?  Just because you drafted a bum in the 2nd round (like me with DeSean Jackson last year), don't destroy your season by trotting him out there week after week. That's Jim Leyland logic.  Instead, find the sneaky free agent receiver that nobody say coming, and boldly leave DeSean on the bench.

Playing the matchup is far more intricate than simply picking on the worst defenses.  It's about analyzing each week as its own animal.  Looking at injuries, trends, weather, all that stuff.  For example, teams always score more points on turf, especially in the passing game.  If a particular coach is on the hot seat and his team is about to quit on him, go against that defense; they'll be giving up 6 TDs.  If a historically bad secondary emerges, like the Lions of a few years ago, pick on them week after week. Guys will come out of the woodwork for 70 yard TDs against them.

But realize, some defenses are wretched statistically (like the Packers last year), but not nearly as bad on the field as they are on the stat sheet.  On the other hand, some defenses are actually wretched, but land in the middle of the pack statistically, because opposing offenses don't run up the score. Don't be deceived by "yards allowed."  Pay more attention to talent and personnel.

That said, there is a place for garbage points.  If Oakland is playing New England, you want Heyward-Bey in your lineup, because once the Pats go up 28-0, the Raiders will be chucking the ball all over the place.

When it comes to injuries, be a little bit craftier than the rest of your league, and take risks on unknown guys.  When the #2 and #3 receivers are hurting on a good offense, consider adding the #4 guy as he tries to make a name for himself (that tactic worked for me a few years ago when I was one of 1% of who played Miles Austin during his 250 yard game).  If a starting RB is hurt and you've never heard of his backup, do a little Youtube research and you'll be able to tell if the guy is legit or not.  If he is, pick him up and enjoy the "surprising' 150 yard game that nobody else saw coming. But here's a surefire tip - if a guy stinks on Youtube, he indisputably stinks in real life.

Also, don't just look at offensive injuries.  If a typically strong defense has key injuries at DT and MLB, consider picking on their run defense.  Pay attention to key CB injuries too; if a middle-of-the-road CB (say, Chris Houston) is out, pick on that team, because you can be assured that the guy replacing him will get picked on. And when a CB gets picked on, that is usually reflected in the red zone.

So to summarize, don't be afraid to take risks.  Just because somebody is unknown and unproven doesn't mean they can't put up crazy numbers.  Playing the matchup is a week by week process that doesn't necessarily require tons of time, but does require some thought.  Two caveats:
-If you have a stud QB, avoid playing the matchup at that position, unless he's playing against an extremely staunch defenses and/or in terrible weather.  But the elite defenses of 3 years ago (Jets, Steelers, Ravens) probably aren't the elite defenses of 2012. Not sure which defenses to avoid, other than probably San Fran.

-Always play the matchup with kickers and defenses.  The minute you become attached to a kicker or defense, you're done.  None of them deserve your commitment; they are completely flaky from one week to the next.  Especially kickers.  This is why nobody should ever draft a kicker in anything except the last round.

For this point, I have proof.

Last year, in one of my leagues I switched kickers every week.  Never played the same guy more than 2 weeks in a row.  I played the matchup - and by that I mean not only did I pick on bad defenses, but I gave preference to indoor games or warm weather games, and I aimed for kickers on teams that would be able to move the ball, but might not be able to punch it into the endzone.  Obviously it's all guesswork, but at the end of the season, my culmination of kickers combined for 148 points.   The top kicker was David Akers with a freakish 186, but second was John Kasay (who went undrafted because he wasn't even supposed to be the starter) with 151.  My assortment of kickers ranked 3rd, ahead of Gostkowski, Crosby, Janikowski, and whoever else got drafted 4 rounds too early.  So in other words, boo-yah.

As for defenses, I wasn't quite as awesome, but playing the matchup is a lot tougher.  I opted mostly to go against lousy quarterbacks (often Gabbert or McCoy), or lousy offensive lines (Arizona and St. Louis come to mind).  It's tough because often you have a good analysis, but then your fantasy DST gets smoked by garbage time points.  My shuffling of DSTs in that same league netted me 185 points; again, never playing the same defense more than twice in a row, and often playing a defense that nobody would have dared to play.  This only ranked 8th among defenses, but was within 1 point per week of the #3 defense in terms of points.  Also, the top defenses drafted were the Jets and Steelers (going as high as the 7th round), and these defenses ended up ranked 6th and 14th in fantasy points.  The top 2 fantasy DSTs in 2011 (San Fran and Chicago) were drafted somewhere between 8th and 12th among DSTs.

So all that said, I'll be vying for the same strategy this year, in all 4 leagues I care about, and in the 7 or so other leagues that I'll be vaguely checking throughout the season.

Here are my initial thoughts regarding week one:

Wednesday - September 5 (Less than one week away!!)
Cowboys @ Giants - Predicted Line: NYG by 3.5

All the talk will be about Dez Bryant's strip clubs, Jason Witten's rib injury, Miles Austin's new girlfriend, and of course the color of Tony Romo's shoelaces.  But it's the Giants who are reigning champs, and they'll relish the role of the forgotten underdog once again.  However, I think Dallas is the more talented team now that they've furbished the secondary.  With stud CB Brandon Carr likely on Nicks, it'll be rookie Morris Claiborne matching up with Victor Cruz, which makes Cruz a nice play. Claiborne's a stud in the making, but he's a rookie and Eli Manning knows how to school rookies.  I'd play Cruz with confidence, but I'd sit Nicks if I had a better option.  Ahmad Bradshaw should have a solid game too; Dallas has work to do on their front 7.

For the Cowboys, I'd take the wait-and-see approach with the receivers.  For one thing, the Giants' pass rush is insane and might give Romo no time for the deep ball. For another, we don't know if Austin or Dez will be Romo's favorite target, or if they'll end up with some kind of 50/50 split.  The safest Cowboy in this game is DeMarco Murray, as the Boys will try to neutralize JPP and the pass rush by running the ball.

I'd avoid both defenses, though the Giants might rack up some sacks.  Both kickers are good plays.

Sunday - September 9
Colts @ Bears - Predicted Line: CHI by 6.5 

Andrew Luck's first game is at Soldier Field ... against Peppers, Briggs and Urlacher ... that kind of sucks. Still, I don't expect him to get destroyed.  I think this game will be low-scoring, with Forte carrying the heavy load and leading the Bears to a slim win (but wait, I'll make my official picks later).  For the most part, Brandon Marshall should be started every week; however, he'll be facing stud CB Vontae Davis in this contest (his Dolphin teammate from last year).  That Davis-to-Indy trade didn't get nearly enough attention.  It might have shaken up the entire AFC South.  Anytime you add a top-5-at-his-position guy to your terrible defense, it changes things.  Just like when Houston added Jonathan Joseph last year.  A shutdown corner might be exactly what the Colts needed to rejuvenate the Freeney/Mathis machine.  Also worth noting: the Bears' O-line probably stinks, so this might be an upset in the making... maybe...?  I hope...? Okay, probably not.

So I'd play Marshall hesitantly; same with Cutler.  Forte is a stud.   For the Colts, stay away.  Luck will be spreading the ball around and trying to figure out how this NFL thing works.  Expect lots of screens, tight ends, scrambles, broken plays.  Not that you were thinking of playing many Colts anyway.  Although I wouldn't hate the idea of playing Coby Fleener in week one; he might be Luck's security blankey.

The Bears' DST is a solid play; even once-in-a-generation rookie QBs make mistakes.  Don't get cute and play the Indy DST.  Neither kicker is a good idea in the windiest stadium in the league. While we're on that topic, don't ever play a kicker in Pittsburgh either; Heinz Field is a muddy surface and kickers can't ever get their footing.

P.S. The Bears have officially surpassed Pittsburgh as my least favorite team in the NFL. Mainly because they're in the NFC North, but also because I detest the Cutler/Urlacher/Marinelli combo and I'm starting to warm up to Pittsburgh, thanks to the always adorable Pirates. My 2nd least favorite team is probably the Jets for how they're handling this stupid Sanchbow situation, and Pittsburgh comes in at #3.

Falcons @ Chiefs - Predicted Line: ATL by 2 

I think Julio Jones takes over the #1WR mantle in Atlanta this year, and I think it starts right away. I expect KC to put their stud CB (Brandon Flowers) on Jones, not Roddy White, and I think that sort of thing will happen all season.  And, I think Julio will still have a monster game, and a monster season, while Roddy declines.  I'd play Julio no matter what, but there's a chance Flowers misses this game with a broken foot, which makes Julio an even better play.  I'd stay away from Matt Ryan and Michael Turner as KC's defense is really solid up front, but I'd definitely recommend Tony Gonzalez, who played 12 seasons for KC and will be the most beloved player in the stadium.  Gonzo could score 3 TDs and the Arrowhead crowd would love every one of them.

For the Chiefs, I would probably rest anyone on their offense.  If you drafted Jamaal Charles you probably have to play him because you don't have a better RB option, but it doesn't sound like his ACL is totally better and this might end up being a long season of game-time decisions.  Definitely don't play Cassel, and probably not Bowe who draws a tough CB matchup.  Maybe Peyton Hillis solidifies his role as the goal-line guy, but wait and see.

Atlanta's defense is a good play here; KC will be looking to discover their offensive identity, and the Falcons should capitalize on a few Matt Cassel miscues.  Either kicker is worth a play too; KC should kick a few field goals, while Bryant should rack up 4 or 5 XPs for Atlanta.

Eagles @ Browns - Predicted Line: PHI by 5 

With DeSean Jackson drawing the tough matchup of CB Joe Haden, that makes Jeremy Maclin a pretty enticing play. You obviously want to play LeSean McCoy every week, and you might as well roll out Vick as long as he's healthy, especially against a poor defense such as Cleveland.  The injury of LT Jason Peters is going to cripple Philly's season and probably Vick's health, but Cleveland doesn't have the personnel to make much of a difference this week.

In Brandon Weeden's first game, the Eagles DST makes an obviously great play. Trent Cole will be limited by All Pro Joe Thomas, but that opens up Babin for a multiple sack game. It will be interesting to see if the much-maligned Eagles' "wide nine" defense is improved by the changes they made, particularly 1st round pick Fletcher Cox, who will start from week one at DT. Asomugha should easily shut down ... oh wait, never mind, the Browns don't have any receivers ... as for Trent Richardson, if you drafted him, you've gotta give him a shot. The Browns will be trying to play catch up late, but that probably just means Weeden checks down to T-Rich for a bunch of screen plays.

Patriots @ Titans - Predicted Line: NE by 5.5 

Jake Locker gets a lucky break: beginning the year at home against a bad secondary.  New England's defense did make a few adjustments and will be a little better, but they'll still give up lots of yards, particularly late in games.  Their favorite strategy is to score a lot early, then fall apart and watch the defense blow the game.  It worked in the Super Bowl, so they'll probably keep rolling with that gameplan.  (Just kidding - I still have them going 19-0, but I do hate how their defense can't even hold on to a 3-touchdown lead).

Brady, Gronk and Welker are obvious ... and I'd give Lloyd the start since Tennessee doesn't have a shutdown CB. Hernandez is an easy play too.  Unless you are a nihilist who enjoys suffering, don't ever play a Patriots' running back.  And if you drafted their kicker in the 5th round like an idiot, go ahead and play him and enjoy the 5 XPs.

Chris Johnson is another no-doubter ... other than that, you may want to try out TE Jared Cook and WR Nate Washington ... it is likely (though not official) that WR Kenny Britt will begin the year with a 1 or 2 game suspension. Don't ever play a defense against Tom Brady (duh), and if you can pick up a kicker who goes against New England, it's usually a good move as they try to play catch up.

Jags @ Vikings - Predicted Line: MIN by 3.5 

With MJD holding out and AP recovering from ACL surgery, this could be the worst NFL game in history.  Play Harvin, but that's probably it. Rashad Jennings will likely carry the ball for Jacksonville, and I've not been impressed by him. Same goes for Gerhart for the Vikings. Both teams have better defenses than people think, so this should be a punt-a-thon.

I drafted the Vikings defense in almost all of my leagues. Picking on Blaine Gabbert on the road is a pretty safe deal.

Redskins @ Saints - Predicted Line: NO by 5

RG3 versus Bountygate ... two of the most overhyped topics of the offseason. This line will end up being a few points too low because people can't wait to bet on RG3.

Play Brees and Graham no matter what ... and Colston and Sproles in this instance.  Guys like Mark Ingram and Lance Moore and Devery Henderson will make interesting matchup plays later on ... but this early in the season, there aren't enough injuries to make those guys valuable. They're too inconsistent and should only be used against godawful defenses.  The Saints D is a risky play, but should pan out against the rookie on the road.

On the flip side, I would probably not play RG3 ... but I wouldn't blame you if you did.  Don't ever play a Redskins running back as long as Mike Shanahan is there.  Seriously, ever.  And take your chances on Garcon or Santana if you want, but don't expect a whole lot.  TE Fred Davis is the best Redskin to play; he got a vote of confidence when the team released Chris Cooley, and he'll be Griffin's checkdown.

A few simple rules: don't play a DST against Brees, and do play the Saints' kicker in the Superdome unless they're playing an elite defense.

Bills @ Jets - Predicted Line:  NYJ by 1.5 

Over/under for how many times the announcers say the word "Tebow" in this game - 4,265.  I'll take the over.

Revis will shut down Steve Johnson, making him unplayable.  That probably means a good game from Fred Jackson as the Bills keep the ball on the ground.  CJ Spiller is a decent play too, as he should handle the 3rd downs. If you're feeling crazy or if you want to pick on the deteriorating Jets' defense, try Donald Jones, who seems to have secured the #2WR job. He's not overly talented, but when Revis takes away half the field, the other receivers tend to step up.  Fitzpatrick isn't a bad option, but you can surely do better.

For the Jets, it's really iffy.  Santonio Holmes is a bum in more ways than one; Shonn Greene has repeatedly proven himself to be mediocre; and Dustin Keller is as unspectacular as you can get.  Clearly, you don't want to play Sanchez,  Truly, Tim Tebow might be the best fantasy option for the Jets this week, as he'll probably handle the goal-line stuff and run for a TD.

I don't know when Tebow will take over as the starting quarterback, but my guess would be somewhere around week 6.

I'm starting to fade a little bit on my early offseason love for the Bills (my new darling teams are actually Tennessee and San Diego, for what it's worth), but I think the Jets are just too much of a mess to be taken seriously.  Stupid hype has replaced a good deal of talent and this team is ready for a complete overhaul.  This should be the first of many Jets' losses.

Rams @ Lions - Predicted Line: DET by 8.5

The addition of Cortland Finnegan gives the Rams a legitimate CB to stick on Megatron, but it won't make any difference.  They'll still double team him and he'll still put up 15+ fantasy points. My guess is the Madden Curse won't strike this early.

Stafford and Pettigrew need to be in your lineup, and either Titus or Burleson will have a nice game, but I'm not sure which one.  I drafted Titus in most of my leagues, so I'll be rolling him out against the Rams' awful defense and expecting something like 4 catches for 50 yards and a score.  With Best on the PUP list and Leshoure suspended, it'll be Kevin Smith who ... wait, never mind, he's hurt again ... it'll be Keiland Williams who carries the ball for Detroit.  Hmm ... thank goodness we can just throw the ball 60 times.  Let's hope Backus can keep Chris Long from disrupting the pocket, though Stafford has become so good at going through his reads and getting rid of the ball quickly, I don't think there's any way the Rams contain our offense whatsoever.   It'll just come down to executing on third downs, and not settling for field goals.

The Lions' D is an enigma.  We still don't know who will start opposite Chris Houston at CB (probably Jacob Lacey ... blah), and we don't know what the D-line will look like, with Willie Young playing a lot better than Kyle VandenBosch these days, but Schwartz being loyal to KVB since their Tennessee days. (Interesting side-story: Schwartz's former boss, Jeff Fisher, will be making his debut for the Rams. Fisher might be the only NFL coach that Schwartz has one ounce of respect for.)    Any contribution we get from Pothead Fairley will be a surprise, and the safeties are a huge liability, especially in coverage.  It'll be up to Stephon Tulloch to anchor the run defense, which I think he's capable of doing.

The key to the game will be containing Steven Jackson and forcing Bradford to throw ... mainly because he has no play-making receivers. We should do a decent but not excellent job in that area; I'll gladly start Jackson but expect a modest 80ish yards and 1 TD.  No other Rams should even be considered at this point.

Hanson and the Lions D are both very solid plays.   When's the last time we went into week one expecting to win by double digits?  Amazing.

Dolphins @ Texans - Predicted Line: HOU by 13 

By trading Vontae Davis and Brandon Marshall, the Fins are proving their commitment to be utterly noncompetitive. By starting Ryan Tannehill, they've given themselves even less of a chance.  Why not just fire Joe Philbin now and get it over with?

Houston won't have the elite defense they had last year, but for this week they're the top fantasy D.  Miami has no receivers to bail out Tannehill, and they won't be able to rely on the run game to keep him out of passing downs, because Reggie Bush can't run between the tackles and Daniel Thomas is barely as fast as a fullback.  No Miami players should even be considered, except Bush in PPR leagues.  I highly doubt they'll score more than 1 touchdown.

For Houston, you've gotta have Andre and Foster active.  Miami's D is pretty good (though it got a lot worse by trading Davis), so I wouldn't fully endorse Schaub.  Also, Houston's O-line lost two starters, so we'll see what effect that has.  Houston will go up early and then be content to run the ball, which is why I love Ben Tate (the league's best backup RB) and will play him in multiple leagues.

49ers @ Packers - Predicted Line:  GB by 5.5

League's best offense against league's best defense?  Perhaps.But the Niners don't have the secondary to contain Rodgers, so don't even think about benching him, or Jennings, Jordy, or Finley.  And if you drafted the Niners D way too early, you probably want to pick up someone else for this week.No Packers' RBs should be played pretty much ever. Crosby is solid.

On the other side, I expect San Fran to try to control the clock by using their trio of backs: Gore, Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James (Brandon Jacobs is out with a knee).  Frank Gore has slowly slipped into a RBBC situation, but he's still the guy to own there.  In the passing game, you definitely want to start Vernon Davis ... but between Crabtree and Manningham, I don't expect much.  Let's see if either guy distances himself from the other, or if a 3rd WR emerges.  Alex Smith, if you're desperate, could rack up numbers against the pass defense that allowed a league-worst 300 yards per game in 2011.  But you're probably not that desperate.  Akers set an NFL record last year with something like 42 field goals, so play him if you have him.

Seahawks @ Cardinals - Predicted Line: ARZ by 3

Let's see ... the undersized rookie QB who was taken with the 75th overall pick ... or John Skelton, the pride of Fordham College, with a career passer rating under 67.   Perhaps the best fantasy players in this game are the defenses.

It'll be interesting to see if Russell Wilson pans out.  I am very impressed with him on Youtube, but the speed of the NFL often catches up with scrambling QBs.  He certainly shouldn't be starting for your fantasy team, but he's worth adding if you have a free roster spot.  I wouldn't bet against him having 50 rushing yards and 15 fantasy points in this game.

Fitzgerald is the only stud in this game, unless you trust a no-longer-motivated Marshawn Lynch, which I don't. Seattle's passing offense will be mostly nonexistent, and Arizona's running game will be a timeshare between Beanie and Ryan Williams.  Neither guy should be played yet; wait and see which guy gets hurt first, and then the other guy has some value.

Panthers @ Bucs - Predicted Line:  CAR by 1.5

Though Tampa had the splashiest free agency with Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson, Carolina is the darling of the NFC South thanks to Cam Newton, who exceeded all expectations last year.  His game log, however, shows a steady decline throughout the season. Do you realize he threw for 299 yards per game in his first 8 contests,and 207 per game in the last 8?  That's a pretty serious ebb.

Tampa's D got a little better with rookie safety Mark Barron, plus CB Aqib Talib somehow avoided prison, and Gerald McCoy is finally healthy.  But the pass rush still stinks, and the linebackers are below average. So Cam should have a huge game.  Steve Smith is a bit of a risk against Talib, and no Panthers RB can be trusted.  A guy I like this year is WR Brandon LaFell, who appeared on pretty much every list of fantasy sleepers this summer. He should have a breakout season and might start to replace Smith midway through the year.

For the Bucs, I'm not among the Vincent Jackson supporters, even against this porous Panther secondary.  A guy who just wanted to get paid even if it meant going to a crappy team ... is not someone I trust to play at a consistently high level.  I actually prefer Mike Williams, who dogged me and countless others last year. Now that he becomes the possession receiver he should be more reliable. Arrelious Benn is a breakout candidate, but a longshot. The Carolina D is pretty easy to run on, so Blount and Doug Martin should each have 50 or 60 yards, with Blount probably handling the goal-line and Martin the 3rd downs, which makes neither guy very valuable.  Freeman is not a relevant fantasy QB at this point.  Neither defense is a good play, but both kickers are useable.

Steelers @ Broncos - Predicted Line:  Pick Em 

All the questions about Peyton Manning's status should be answered.  He played fine this preseason:  a few TDs, beat up on the Niners vaunted D, and threw deep to his right, which a lot of doubters said he couldn't do because of his neck.  He's back.  The Steelers will find that out Sunday night.

The question is, how rusty will he be?  Has he kept up with the game mentally?  His biggest asset was always  superior preparation and strategy - does he still have that?  He'll need it against the league's most instinctive defensive player (Poalmalu) and a ferocious band of pass rushers.  Denver's O-line is nothing special, and their run game probably won't be a factor.  Peyton is going to utilize a combination of Decker, Demaryius, Stokley, Tamme, and Dressen, and I doubt Willis McGahee will be anything of a fantasy factor this year, nor will any Broncos' RB.  If it were me, I would play Peyton week one, despite a myriad of concerns..  The Steelers D is dominant, for sure, but Manning has faced them a million times in the past and he's almost always been successful.

The Steelers' offense is in flux.  Rashard Mendenhall just came off the PUP list, but he won't play week one. Backup Isaac Redman (whom I drafted a bunch of times) is questionable with an ankle.  If Redman is out, I will be picking up Jonathan Dwyer and playing him with confidence in a few leagues. He's basically a power back with good speed.  If Redman plays, he'll probably split 50/50 with Dwyer.  I think Redman probably plays, but who knows.

Then, the receivers.  Mike Wallace just reported to camp, finally, after a 35 day holdout which didn't help him at all with his contract.  Antonio Brown has become the #1WR for Roethlisberger now. Actually, you could argue he became that last season.  Wallace had more yards and catches in his first 3 games (21 for 377) than in his last 6 games (19 for 271), and that was while still healthy.  Big Ben just started preferring Brown, who wasn't bitching about a contract but just running great routes and making great catches.  If you extrapolate Brown's receiving yards and catches from week 8 onward and make that an entire season, it's 88 catches for 1,488 yards, basically Larry Fitzgerald type numbers.  Brown didn't find the endzone much, but that'll change this year.  He's a legit #1 fantasy receiver.  But, having Wallace back on the field complicates things. He's still the deep threat, assuming he's as fast as he was last year.  The interesting thing will be, who does Champ Bailey line up against?

The Steelers young O-line will struggle against Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.  Rookie guard and stud-in-the-making David DeCastro is going to miss 8 week or so with an MCL, which doesn't help their cause.  But that's okay - Big Ben can just keep doing his patented "let the defensive line run into me and I'll just stand there" routine, while he miraculously converts 3rd and 30 like it's no big deal.  I hate that guy.

It's tempting to play the Steelers defense, since they have so many stud playser.  But my philosophy is always to play the matchup, and you probably don't want to go against Peyton Manning if you don't have to.

Monday Night
Bengals @ Ravens - Predicted Line: BAL by 6.5 

It turns out that Terrell Suggs might not miss the entire season. But he'll definitely miss at least 6 weeks, and likely more.  Baltimore still has a great defense, but it's pretty impossible to replace the reigning Defensive MVP. That said, I still don't like Andy Dalton and think he suffers a slump similar to what we saw from Bradford and Freeman last year.  The main difference is, of course, Dalton has AJ Green.

Green is a definite stud who should always be in your fantasy lineup, but Baltimore's Lardarious Webb is one of the best corners in the league and will limit Green quite a bit.  Webb was the only starting CB who didn't give up a receiving TD last year, and he allowed an average QB rating of 55.6 on passes thrown in his direction.  Dang. Start Green in trepidation.

Benjarvus is a risky play against Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis and that front 7, but he should amass a large enough workload to pay off.  Something like 25 carries for 80 yards, maybe a score.  No other Bengal is a very good play.

Ray Rice is a must-start guy every week ... but the rest of Baltimore's offense is very blah.  Will Torrey Smith emerge as a go-to receiver?  Does Anquan Boldin have anything left?  Nah, my guess is Baltimore tries to mold into a "spread the ball around" offense, heavily utilizing their young tight ends (Pitta and Dickson), in an effort to copy the Pats.  But of course, Rice will still carry the heavy bulk of the offense.

Also on Monday Night 
Chargers @ Raiders - Predicted Line: SD by 2.5 

This has all the makings of a barnburner.  Both teams like to throw early and often and deep.  There will be a good mix of running (certainly you should start McFadden and Matthews if he's healthy), but it's a good bet that both QBs throw for 400 yards.  I love Rivers for a bounceback season, largely because of an easy schedule but also because of low expectations.  Last year he was everyone's pick for MVP, including mine.  This year, everyone has written him off and dropped him below Stafford/Eli/Newton and others on the QB hierarchy.  My guess is, a fiery competitor like Rivers is taking that personally.

Further, last year he dealt with V-Jack's holdout and Gates' countless injuries, plus the departure of his safety valve, Darren Sproles.  Now, he has a healthy Gates (supposedly), a new slot receiver (Eddie Royal), a new weapon who knows how be part of a high-octane, spread-around offense (Meachem), and an old buddy who knows the offense (Floyd).  I love Rivers this year, not necessarily to win 10 games, but to possibly throw for 5,000 yards.

The Chargers defense is probably going to suck.  They got a steal in the draft with Melvin Ingram falling to them at pick #18, and they have a couple of solid young players in DT Corey Liuget and OLB Larry English, but the secondary is in rough shape, as is the run defense.  Carson Palmer will rack up the numbers in one of his typical 2 TD, 3 INT games.  Get both kickers in your lineup, and both defenses out.

That's all the games. Hope it was 6,000 words worth reading.  My week one picks will be up shortly.  GO LIONS!! 

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