AFC North Preview – Josh Brickner @DFF_JoshB
What We Learned From Last Week:
The Slow, Painful March to 0-16
I’m not going to lie, as a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Browns, this one really hurt. ICYMI, the Browns carried a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter until giving up 20 unanswered points to GB in the final frame and OT to drop to 0-13. DeShone Kizer (20/28 214 yds, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) showed flashes of competent QB play but made a terrible decision in throwing the back-breaking INT in OT (check it out, below). Josh Gordon (3/69/1), Corey Coleman (5/62/1), and Duke Johnson (4/45/1) all found the end zone and had productive fantasy outings thanks to Kizer’s improved play. Isaiah Crowell (19 car/121 yds; 3 rec/10 yds) rewarded both the Browns and his fantasy owners on Sunday with his best rushing game of the season. Despite all these strong performances against the Packers’ 26th-ranked total defense, all Browns players besides Josh Gordon are dangerous flex options in Week 15 against Baltimore. Yes, the Ravens gave up 545 yards to the Steelers on SNF in Week 14, however, I don’t think anyone needs reminding that the Browns offense is inferior to the Steelers.
Winning a Sunday Night Shootout
Ben Roethlisberger (44/66 506 Yds, 2 TDs) played his best game of the season as both the Steelers and Ravens forgot to play defense in a 39-38 shootout won by Pittsburgh. Big Ben has come on strong for his fantasy owners during the stretch run, having thrown for 1446 yards and 12 TDs against only three INTs in his last four games. The Miami (OH) product is a rock-solid QB1 with upside in a home game with the highest implied Vegas total (53) of all Week 15 contests against a Patriots defense that just gave up 263 yards and 3 TDs to Jay Cutler on MNF. Le’Veon Bell didn’t do much damage on the ground (13/48) in terms of yardage, but his two rushing TDs along with a great receiving performance (9/77/1) helped solidify his RB1 fantasy day. Antonio Brown (11/213) had his best receiving yardage total of the season and was WR2 in PPR scoring right when his fantasy owners needed it most. Bell and Brown are must-starts every week, but both bring cautious upside to a matchup against the Patriots 29th-ranked total defense. Bill Belichick and the Patriots D will work to take away the offense’s best weapon so one of these two men MIGHT score below their projections.
A Season on the Brink
The Bengals were dominated by the Bears in all facets of the game losing 33-7 as their season continues to spiral. Andy Dalton (14/29 141 yds, 1 TD, 1 INT) could get nothing going all day as the fantasy stat lines of A.J. Green (5/64), Brandon LaFell (3/24/1), and Tyler Kroft (0/0) all suffered. The lone fantasy bright spot came from Giovani Bernard who put up 130 scoreless total yards filling in for the concussed Joe Mixon. Bernard will return to fantasy irrelevancy in Week 15 if Mixon is cleared to return. No matter, all Bengals offensive players not named A.J. Green should remain firmly planted on your bench for a road tilt against the Vikings third-ranked total defense in Week 15. Things are even complicated for A.J. Green this week, but more on that later . . .
What to Watch For:
Alex Collins Takes Control of the Ravens Backfield
Each week it seems as if the Ravens’ backfield becomes simultaneously clearer and more puzzling at the same time (see below). One thing is for certain: since Danny Woodhead returned from injury in Week 12, Alex Collins (69 car/304 yds/5 TDs; 10 rec/88 yds) has been extremely productive for both the Ravens and his fantasy owners. Over that same span, Collins is doing work close to the goal line, converting eight RZ carries into three TDs. Collins is a rock-solid RB2 with TD upside against a Cleveland run defense that has fallen off the last four weeks allowing the 8th most yards (441) to opposing RBs. If Danny Woodhead and Javorius Allen could morph into one player they would be a hell of a PPR RB2 with upside. Sadly, they both continue to cannibalize each other’s snaps and production limiting their fantasy value. Buck Allen has been highly efficient with his RZ touches turning six carries into three TDs over the last three games. Allen is a TD dependent flex play against the Browns, while Danny Woodhead can be safely dropped in all leagues.
The Steelers WR2 (A.K.A. The 3rd Option in the Passing Game)
With JuJu Smith-Schuster suspended in Week 14 due to his illegal hit on Vontaze Burfict, Martavis Bryant (6/33) underperformed despite getting 10 targets and playing 80% of the offensive snaps. It was TE Jesse James who was the real beneficiary in JuJu’s absence, converting his 12 targets into 10 catches for 97 yards. Bryant is a boom/bust flex option while James is a TE2 despite the projected fantasy-friendly game flow for one reason: JuJu. JSS has both out-snapped (83%-59%) and out-produced (13/161/1; 9/112/0) Martavis Bryant in their last three games on the field together, and I don’t expect this dynamic to change due to Smith-Schuster’s run blocking prowess. The So Cal rookie is a WR3/flex option with high upside, not only due to the projected game script but due to the chance the Patriots sell-out to stop Antonio Brown, which would be a huge boon for JuJu.
Who Drops the Boom:
Although it was in a losing effort, Joe Flacco (20/35 269 Yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT) posted another solid fantasy line in the Sunday night shootout in Pittsburgh. This gives the Delaware product 538 yards and four touchdowns against one interception the past two weeks. Flacco is not only a great under-the-radar streaming option against the Browns QB-friendly defense (5th most fantasy points allowed to opposing QBs), but he should be rostered immediately by all devastated Carson Wentz owners, as he also gets the Colts’ meek secondary in Week 16. If Flacco keeps up this sturdy play against those plus matchups, (I can’t believe I’m writing this!) he could be a key contributor on many Championship rosters.
Since his return from nearly a three-year hiatus, Josh Gordon has converted 17 targets into seven receptions, 154 yards, and a TD in two games. Those owners who stashed Gordon on their bench for weeks have been rewarded, and I believe their biggest prize is yet to come. JG is still getting back into game shape while adjusting to playing sober, and I believe this will be the week it all comes together for Gordon to have a monster game. The Ravens are not an ideal matchup, as they’ve given up the 5th fewest fantasy points to opposing WRs on the season, however, they lost star CB Jimmy Smith to injury/suspension, and just gave up 331 yards combined to Pittsburgh wideouts in Week 14. Start Gordon with confidence as he’s a solid WR2 with semifinal week-winning upside against the Ravens.
Who Drops the Ball:
This column has deemed A.J. Green a must-start every week that he’s healthy, however, Green owners in playoff matchups this week (hand raised!) need to lower expectations against the Vikings. The Georgia product is likely to be shadowed by Pro-Bowl CB Xavier Rhodes, who can ruin the fantasy day of even the best WR in the league (held Antonio Brown to 5/62 in Week 2). However, Rhodes is not invincible, as he was torched by Marvin Jones Jr. (6/109/2) on Turkey Day. Unfortunately for both Bengals fans and AJG owners, the Red Rifle Andy Dalton, and not Matthew Stafford, will be at QB for the Bengals. The Vikings will be in Dalton’s face all day, forcing him to make both quick throws and poor decisions (Dalton does this even without constant pressure), which could spell trouble for Green.
Both the present struggles of the Bengals offense and Green experiencing the Rhodes Closed treatment give me pause on the six-time Pro-Bowl WR this week. If you have another Top 20 option at WR with a good matchup on your bench, this is the week you consider playing them over Green. While it’s the Semifinals and you should “start your studs,” there’s a strong possibility that Green scores low single-digit PPR points ,which could derail your Championship dreams.
Pittsburgh Steelers 41, New England Patriots 34
Baltimore Ravens 27, Cleveland Browns 14
Minnesota Vikings 27, Cincinnati Bengals 20