The New Orleans Saints kept two streaks alive Sunday: They won their 12th consecutive game to start the season, coming back in dramatic fashion to beat the Washington Redskins, but more importantly to fantasy owners, red-hot wide receiver Robert Meachem scored a touchdown for the fifth straight week.
Meachem was a one-man wrecking crew Sunday, finishing as the team's leader in targets (10), receptions (8) and receiving yards (142). What's more, Meachem will soon sit comfortably atop his position in fantasy points for the week (26), thanks to two touchdowns.
That's right, while Meachem hauled in one receiving touchdown, a key in the Saints' late-game rally, he also made a critical play earlier in the contest, stripping Redskins defensive back Kareem Moore of the football immediately after Moore had picked off Drew Brees. Meachem then returned the fumble for a game-tying touchdown at the end of the first half. Fantasy owners who might have been under the assumption Meachem would get credit for only the receiving score will be pleasantly surprised to learn he'll also be credited for the fumble-recovery touchdown.
Meachem's play was very similar to one Keenan McCardell made Oct. 6, 2003. McCardell picked up a ball that the Indianapolis Colts' Mike Doss had fumbled (just following an interception), and returned it for a score. The play will not be counted as an offensive or defensive touchdown (sorry, those of you who started the Saints' D/ST), but will count instead as a fumble return for a touchdown, basically a return touchdown. So Meachem will get credit for the six points and a touchdown, even though it won't be a receiving touchdown. Currently he's sitting at 20 points in our Live Scoring and FantasyCast, but that will be adjusted to 26 points in the system.
But the real story here is Meachem's swift ascent from little-used No. 4 receiver to one of the top targets in arguably the game's most potent offense. Even before this week, he had become more of a red zone option, with four targets in those situations from Weeks 9-12; as such, he was one of the hottest pickups in fantasy football. Expect his ownership, at 47.2 percent of ESPN leagues entering the week, to soar after this performance. Meachem got another look in the red zone, but he also got nine more looks at other points on the field.
The Saints' schedule is mighty favorable for their passing game the remainder of the season, including games against the Atlanta Falcons (Week 14, road), Dallas Cowboys (Week 15) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 16). The Saints have already clinched their division and are close to wrapping up a first-round bye, making them a candidate to rest their regulars. But the fact that Meachem hadn't been a significant factor before Week 9 might mean his role won't be as diminished as much as Drew Brees', Marques Colston's or Jeremy Shockey's. In fact, he might be as safe as a Saints player comes.
This is a very tough call this week with several strong candidates, but I'm going off the board and picking a lesser name: Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Here's why: If you took a chance on this guy, as several of us on these pages advised this week (and owners in 12.8 percent of ESPN leagues did), you likely won your week. Remember, it's often a no-name, out-of-nowhere, late-season stud who wins fantasy championships, and there's a very real possibility that Smith will be that guy in 2009.
Though his team lost a critical division game to the Seattle Seahawks, perhaps crushing its playoff hopes, Smith completed 27 of 45 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His 20 fantasy points were sixth among quarterbacks, ahead of such stalwarts with favorable matchups as Peyton Manning (14 points versus the Tennessee Titans), Donovan McNabb (14 at the Falcons) and Matt Schaub (10 at the Jacksonville Jaguars). It's also his third consecutive game with multiple touchdown passes and at least 17 fantasy points. Smith has been a star in the new spread offense in San Francisco, and suddenly the 49ers, a run-heavy team in the season's early weeks, are rather pass-happy.
Smith's schedule brings a little good and a little bad in the final four weeks, as he and the 49ers host the Arizona Cardinals, who do give up passing yards in bunches, in Week 14 before hitting the road for a treacherous matchup at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 15. But then he gets a home game versus the Detroit Lions and a road contest at the St. Louis Rams; those are standout matchups.
• Chad Ochocinco: Can we call him "El Ocho?" He caught nine passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, and after the score he donned a sombrero on the sidelines. The Cincinnati Bengals didn't throw the ball 50 times as Ochocinco demanded beforehand, but so what? He was once again Carson Palmer's most trusted target and predictably dominated a bad defense. Not that you should write off the performance due to the soft matchup, however; the Bengals finish the season with more favorable matchups versus the Minnesota Vikings (Week 14) and Kansas City Chiefs (Week 16).
• Vince Young: I'll add to my Vince Young pickup recommendation from last week's Instant Replay and point out that, coming off a game like this, he's absolutely a fill-in consideration in deeper leagues against the Rams in Week 14. Despite battling the stingy Colts defense, Young completed 24 of 43 passes for 241 yards, two scores and an interception Sunday, giving him at least 12 fantasy points in each of his past six games (16 in this one). Not only does he have that cozy Rams matchup upcoming, he has another favorable home game against the Miami Dolphins in Week 15. Take a look if you're hurting at quarterback, and consider red-hot Kenny Britt, too.
• Jonathan Stewart: If you're a DeAngelo Williams owner, you can't be happy about Stewart's Week 13 effort, because it's almost assuredly going to mean a hit to Williams' workload in coming weeks. Facing a shoddy Buccaneers front seven, Stewart ran for 120 yards and a score on 26 carries, marking his third career 100-yard rushing performance against his division rival. Stewart might not be about to overtake Williams, who by all rights might be back for Week 14, but a near-50/50 split of the rushing chores might be in order the remainder of the season.
• Santonio Holmes: Fantasy owners have been waiting a long time for Holmes to capture his crown as one of the best wide receivers in the game, and might that time have finally arrived? It's possible, considering he has 50 targets, 34 receptions and 490 receiving yards in five games since the Pittsburgh Steelers' bye week. Holmes caught eight passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in this one, and if I'd have any complaint about him, it's that he has shown us these glimpses of awesome potential before, then tanked the very next season when everyone hopped aboard the "Holmes breakout" bandwagon. A point in his favor: His remaining schedule includes the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Dolphins, not one of which is an especially poor matchup.
• Chris Jennings: So much for talk that Jennings had overtaken Jerome Harrison as the Browns' No. 2 running back well, No. 2 at the time Jamal Lewis was healthy, I mean. With Lewis on season-ending injured reserve, the talk in Cleveland was that Jennings would take over as the team's starting running back, but when Week 13 kicked off, it was Jerome Harrison who got the nod. Harrison was also the one with more touches (17 to Jennings' six), and truth be told, he probably is the guy with the the talent more suited to the lead-back role anyway. These two might duke it out down the stretch, with neither a guarantee to be the starter come 2010, but considering Harrison's receiving ability -- he had seven catches for 62 yards and two scores -- he's the one fantasy owners should get.
• Chicago Bears offense: With the possible exception of Matt Forte, who as you'll read below was more a product of his matchup than any great turnaround in his performance, this entire offense deserves criticism. A matchup with the Rams and all this offense can muster is 17 points and 248 total yards? Jay Cutler completed only eight pass attempts (in 17 tries) for 143 yards and a score, Greg Olsen was almost invisible, and let's not overlook Forte averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, hardly extraordinary. If a guy like Cutler, in particular, can't capitalize upon the league's weakest pass defense, how is he to be a trustworthy fantasy play facing any opponent?
• Justin Forsett: I'm still a bit shocked Seahawks coach Jim Mora was so eager to give the starting running back job back to Julius Jones after Forsett had run so effectively in his stead, but after Forsett injured his quadriceps in Friday's practice, at least then I understood the decision. The problem, though, is that it was poor timing for Forsett to get hurt; in addition to having Mora's wishes working against him, he also wasn't especially effective as a runner in a backup role, running five times for just 9 yards Sunday. Only an 8-yard score on a screen saved Forsett's day from being a total bust, but while his eight-point fantasy day did top Jones' six, it's probably not enough to earn him back the starting gig. That's a real shame.
• Vincent Jackson: His fantasy owners are not going to be happy to see that Philip Rivers threw for 373 yards and two scores, then scroll over to Jackson's stat line and realize Rivers' No. 1 wide receiver managed only two catches for 54 yards. It's easy for fantasy writers to tell you things like, "Oh, ignore it, he's still great," but a four-week span totaling just nine receptions, 147 yards and no touchdowns has to at least raise an eyebrow, no? Seems opposing defenses are focusing additional attention on Jackson lately, and those same defenses are ones who are weak over the middle, allowing themselves to instead be shredded by Antonio Gates (back-to-back 100-yard games). Jackson's owners have little choice but to remain faithful, but the Cowboys and Bengals might key on him as well the next two weeks.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Matt Schaub (shoulder): He departed Sunday's game briefly with a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury, later confirmed as a dislocation, on the Houston Texans' first drive after being sacked by the Jaguars' Derrick Harvey. Schaub did return four series later, although he didn't seem his normal self while facing a weak Jaguars secondary, completing 19 of 27 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Rex Grossman was 3-for-9 for 33 yards and an interception in relief of Schaub, and would be pressed into starting duty if Schaub suffers any setbacks this week. Fantasy owners have to be hoping that won't happen; it's a bad time of year for the injury-prone Schaub to miss time, not simply because of it coinciding with most fantasy leagues' playoffs but also because his next three opponents are the Seahawks, Rams and Dolphins, all favorable matchups. He has been remarkably healthy to this point, at least, with a career-high 12 starts, compared to 11 in each of the past two seasons.
• Devin Hester (calf): He left in the third quarter after running an end around play in which he fumbled, finishing the game with one catch on three targets for 48 yards. Hester's fantasy production has suffered greatly as a result of Cutler's erratic passing in recent weeks -- he has 11 fantasy points in his past four games -- and if he's forced to miss any time, Earl Bennett would see an increase in targets.
• Michael Vick (hand): The Eagles gave Vick more time at quarterback this week, and he did score two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing). However, the backup suffered a hand contusion and had to leave. It's unclear whether he'll miss any time, but since Vick is typically a backup who plays only a handful of snaps, Kevin Kolb might just slide in as the No. 2 with Donovan McNabb playing every down.
• Matthew Stafford (shoulder): He left with less than four minutes to play in the game after apparently aggravating his shoulder injury on a sack by the Bengals' Dhani Jones. Daunte Culpepper came in to play the Lions' final series. Those of you who watched the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game surely remember Stafford's grit and determination, playing that game in pain, but the rookie quarterback told the Detroit Free Press this time he might need to consider resting the injury. "I don't think I've injured it any worse or anything like that," said Stafford. "It's just, he hit me just right." Culpepper would presumably start in the rookie's place in Week 14 if necessary, in which case Calvin Johnson's value would take a hit.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Correll Buckhalter: Not that I have anything against Knowshon Moreno, who has impressed by scoring three touchdowns the past two weeks and averaging better than 4 yards per carry in each of his past four games, but Buckhalter has done an admirable job in a backup role. He managed 113 yards on 12 carries in Week 13, the second consecutive week he has earned double-digit carries. The game outcomes have largely been responsible for that -- back-to-back victories by a combined 70-19 score -- but then the Weeks 15 (Raiders) and 17 (Chiefs) matchups also play somewhat comparably to those. After all, this was a Chiefs matchup, and that regular-season finale is the rematch at home.
• Devin Thomas: I'm calling this one, "I guess, Part 1." Seemingly a career bust entering Week 13, Thomas exploded for seven catches, 100 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the reliable target for Jason Campbell the Redskins were hoping for when they picked him 34th overall in the 2008 NFL draft. One game won't erase the forgettable first 29 weeks of his NFL career, but Thomas did have 12 receptions in his previous five games, so perhaps he just needed a looooong time to get acclimated at this level. I say "I guess" because I'm not dying to buy all-in on him yet, but in these weeks, these are often the only guys -- the out-of-nowhere performers each week -- available for the taking. After all, I can say it took Robert Meachem awhile to get comfortable in the NFL, too.
• Louis Murphy: And I'll follow up Thomas with "I guess, Part 2." Murphy must get a little attention for what he did in the fourth quarter of the Oakland Raiders' astonishing upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He caught four passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, but most importantly, he caught a jump ball in traffic to put the Raiders in scoring position, then reeled in the game-winning 11-yard score. As with Thomas, I'm not ready to buy in on Murphy, not based upon one quarter's worth of highlight-reel catches, and certainly not based upon the anemic levels of the Raiders' offense all season. Still, he and Bruce Gradkowski flashed some brilliant chemistry late, and it should be pointed out that the Raiders face the Redskins -- who really need a healthy DeAngelo Hall to bottle up opposing pass attacks -- in Week 14 and the Browns in Week 16.
• Davone Bess: I'd say "I guess, Part 3," except that I actually believe in Bess as a worthy add in deeper leagues for a little matchup exploitation. Bess caught 10 passes (on 14 targets) for 117 yards and a score versus the New England Patriots, beating up what has been an overrated secondary, and now he'll draw the Jaguars and their sorry secondary in Week 14. Not only that, but Bess and the Dolphins draw the Titans in Week 15, so he might be a good multiweek option.
The matchups did the talking
• Wes Welker (10 catches for 167 yards at Dolphins): He typically excels against his former team, but especially so at Miami, where he has racked up 100-plus receiving yards in each of his three career return visits. Welker exploited a porous Dolphins secondary for his fifth double-digit-reception performance of the season, and he extended his NFL lead in the category with 95.
• Matt Forte (91 yards, 1 TD rushing versus Rams): One of the few bright spots for the Bears, Forte ran early and often against the Rams, 24 times to be exact. That was seven more touches than Jay Cutler had pass attempts, and interestingly, the Bears gave Forte a decent amount of goal-line work, with four carries in goal-to-go situations. Not that this should be read as a future trend, not with poor matchups versus the Packers, Ravens and Vikings due up the next three weeks.
and the flip side, so much for the matchups!
• Roddy White (9 catches for 104 yards, 1 TD versus Eagles): If there was any bright spot in the Falcons' miserable defeat at home, it was the Chris Redman-to-White connection, responsible for that last-second score to win in Week 12. These two hooked up again on a last-minute touchdown, but even outside of that, White was a consistent target for the fill-in quarterback. He has a dreadful matchup with the Jets and top cover corner Darrelle Revis in Week 15, but even accounting for that, it's hard to make the case to sit him in any remaining matchup.
• Bruce Gradkowski (308 yards, 3 TDs passing at Steelers): Who? Whaaaaaa? This might have been the shocker of the day, the Raiders behind little-known Gradkowski rallying for one of the season's biggest upsets. The Steelers are clearly a different defense when Troy Polamalu sits; they have averaged 13.8 points allowed in the five games he has played and 23.1 in the seven he has missed. But let's give Gradkowski a little credit here. He has turned around the seemingly "un-turnaround-able" Raiders, passing for 691 yards and six scores the past three weeks combined. It's not enough yet to make him a fantasy option except in the deepest of two-quarterback leagues, but it bears watching.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 14
• The Thursday night game is Steelers at Browns, and as has been the norm for weeks, load up on Browns opponents. The Steelers routed them for 27 points and 543 total yards in their Week 6 meeting, during which Ben Roethlisberger passed for more than 400 yards and Hines Ward had eight catches for 159 yards and a score. Ward, in fact, has a touchdown in six of his past eight games versus the Browns, catching seven or more passes in five. The Steelers continue to be lucky in scheduling during Polamalu's absence; even if the safety sits yet again, the defense shouldn't be overly challenged.
• Brees and the Saints battle the Falcons at the right time; the Falcons have allowed 115 fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks (19.2 per game) and 116 to opposing wide receivers (19.3 per) since losing cornerback Brian Williams for the season in Week 7. That includes a 16-point performance by Brees and 14-pointer by Marques Colston in their Week 8 battle.
• Red-hot Jamaal Charles -- he of the 61 fantasy points in his past four games -- gets the honor of the cozy matchup versus the Buffalo Bills' run defense, which has allowed an NFL-high 25.6 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs.
• Donovan McNabb threw for 240 yards and three scores in the Eagles' 40-17 victory over the Giants in Week 8, and fantasy owners by now surely know the way to attack the Giants' secondary is through the air. Since Week 6, the Giants have allowed 19.0 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks and 26.3 per to opposing wide receivers. Load up on members of the Eagles' passing game -- including DeSean Jackson if he's healthy -- in this important division affair.
• Fresh off his 125-total-yard performance in his return to the lineup, Cedric Benson gets the honor of a brutal matchup against the Vikings, in Minnesota at that. The Vikings have held three of five opponents' running backs to single-digit fantasy points at Mall of America Field.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.