Unconventional Wisdom: Worst may be past for Chargers, Cowboys
Both Chargers and Cowboys players have disappointed fantasy owners
Cowboys face middling or worse pass defenses for the rest of the season
Return of Antonio Gates to lineup should open field for Chargers receivers
Odds are, if you targeted only players on the NFL's best offenses during draft season, you have one of the best teams in your league. The Packers, Saints, Patriots, Eagles, Texans and Giants, six offenses every single football fan expected to be good this season, are all in the top 10 in scoring. Check out the team yardage leaders and it's more of the same. The Eagles, Saints, Patriots and Packers -- in that order -- are the top-four teams in yards. Houston is seventh while the Giants are just on the outside looking in at 11th.
There are two teams missing from the previous paragraph most of us thought would be right there among the league's elite. On the surface and in the standings (at least for their fans), the Cowboys and Chargers have been two of the more frustrating teams this season. In a typical draft, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Felix Jones, Ryan Mathews, Vincent Jackson, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Antonio Gates were all off the board by the fifth round at the latest, with Jason Witten and Mike Tolbert not too far behind. Through eight weeks, only Mathews is performing at or above his draft level. Neither Romo nor Rivers are top-10 quarterbacks. Jackson and Bryant are barely inside the top-20 receivers and Austin is 24th despite all being viewed in the top-10 or top-12 options back in August. Jones has been one of the biggest busts this year.
If you're invested in those teams, you've probably had an aggravating season. Luckily, I'm here to tell you should feel just as good about the ability of the Cowboys and Chargers to light up the scoreboard as you did back when you drafted your team. First of all, these teams have a scoring problem, not a yardage problem. While both are outside the top 10 in points, the Chargers are sixth in yards per game and the Cowboys are eighth. As we discussed in the preseason, chase the yards and the points will follow. But digging even deeper, there's plenty of reason for optimism. Let's start down in Dallas.
The Cowboys' passing attack has given fantasy owners four useful games, but hasn't really got on a roll this season outside a flourish from Romo to Austin in the second half of their comeback win against the 49ers. They looked horrible on national TV in a 34-7 drubbing at the hands of the Eagles, but that game got away from them right from the start and isn't indicative of who they truly are. This remains one of the most dangerous passing games from week to week in the league, and things are about to get a whole lot easier. Not only are Austin and Bryant both looking healthy for the first time since Week 1, the Cowboys don't face a team the rest of the season that currently ranks better than 17th (Philadelphia) in passing yards per attempt against. Three of those games are cushy matchups with Miami, Arizona and Tampa Bay. If you can buy any of these guys cheap, do it. If you've held onto them, don't lose faith now.
As for the running game, there's no logical reason to use anything but a Jones/DeMarco Murray timeshare. While Jones may be incapable of being a 20-25-touch back, he has always been reliable as part of a committee. Murray showed enough in his outburst against St. Louis to remain a vital part of the offense, but Dallas can't trust him with the entire game just yet. Late on Thursday, Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News reported Jones will likely start when he returns, but the two backs will split carries. You know what that means. Both are useful, but neither is a star.
Out west in San Diego, you can still set your watch by the Norv Turner-era Chargers. Through eight weeks, they're 4-3, albeit sputtering in October this season instead of September. They're in a three-way tie with the Chiefs and Raiders for first despite having easily the most talented team on paper, especially given on the Chiefs' injuries on offense and defense. And we already have enough shots of a hapless-looking Turner on the sidelines to use for "Is Norv on the hot seat?" TV segments. Honestly, they're as consistent as the sunrise.
Rivers has been the team's biggest disappointment. After becoming a consensus top-five quarterback toward the end of draft season with Peyton Manning's shaky status, Rivers is the 16th-ranked quarterback in a standard scoring league, behind Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Matt Hasselbeck. After catching 10 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns against the Patriots, Vincent Jackson has been a letdown. He did have 108 yards and a score against Miami, but has just 12 catches for 161 yards and no touchdowns in his other four games since torching New England. The dreaded plantar fasciitis nightmare has once again crept into Antonio Gates' dreams.
Just like Dallas, there have been mitigating factors for this passing game. Gates' injury, for one, has had an adverse affect on everyone. Not only is he one of Rivers' best weapons, he occupies so much space in the middle of the field that he opens up the sidelines and draws safety help away from Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Further, he offers Mathews and Tolbert room to operate in the flats. In the last five weeks, Jackson has faced elite corners Brandon Flowers (twice) and Darrelle Revis, and other upper-tier talent Champ Bailey and Vontae Davis.
While they still have a number of strong pass defenses left on the schedule, including Baltimore and Detroit in the fantasy playoffs, the fact that Jackson is done with the heavy-hitters will help matters. In fact, I expect him and Rivers to both get it going this week against the Packers, a team that is a very friendly pass defense for fantasy purposes. The guys at Yahoo! have Rivers ranked seventh this week and Jackson 17th, Over at ESPN, Rivers is 10th while Jackson is 11th, thanks to Tristan Cockroft placing him at No. 2. I've got Rivers pegged for the top five and Jackson the top 10. The Packers are allowing 7.8 YPA, 23rd in the league, and have given up 12 touchdowns through the air, the seventh most. If they have any hope of keeping up with Aaron Rodgers and company, especially with Mathews looking iffy, Rivers and Jackson will have to connect all day.
Speaking of Mathews, he has been closer to what everyone expected last year, but despite my previous excitement, it's impossible to view him among fantasy's elite until he proves he can avoid the little nicks that plague him. That doesn't mean I'm down on the guy. Sitting out this week wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, as he could get fully healthy with two great matchups on tap against the Raiders and Bears. I still say he finishes inside the top 10.
Before we get to this week's Replacements, a quick word on Ravens-Steelers. Everyone knows the history between these two teams. These teams don't like each other, lots of hitting, defensive struggles, we all get it. With that said, it might be tempting to get cute with your lineups and bench someone from either team you might normally start. I think that would be a bad idea, and that is why I have to disagree with CBS's Jamey Eisenberg's ranking of Rashard Mendenhall and Antonio Brown.
The only person I can see having his fantasy start-or-sit status affected is Ben Roethlisberger, and that's because a Roethlisberger owner is likely to have another strong option with a better matchup. It should go without saying, but Ray Rice, Mike Wallace, Anquan Boldin and even Mendenhall are guys you start every week. So is the Ravens defense. Flacco is a borderline starting option at best from week to week, and with only four byes and quarterbacks out of action, including unlikely fantasy options Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert, odds are Flacco is a backup anyway. Depending on receiver depth, Brown could be a decent play this week, but even his stock had already slipped just a bit with the likely return of Hines Ward.
Don't overthink your fantasy decisions because of all the talk around what is always a great game. Start the Ravens and Steelers you'd normally start, and bench the ones you usually keep on the pine.
Quarterback: Matt Cassel, Jay Cutler
Running back: Michael Bush, Jackie Battle
Wide receiver: Malcom Floyd, Sidney Rice, Darrius Heyward-Bey
Tight end: Jared Cook
Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.
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