Welcome to the wacky, wide, wide world of fantasy football.
Only in a game like this can the top point-scorer of the week be a guy who was barely owned and certainly a non-starter on almost all the rosters on which he resided. I present to you Jerome Harrison, who, despite being widely considered the No. 2 option in his backfield entering the week, not to mention owned in 10.0 percent and started in 1.4 percent of ESPN leagues, topped all fantasy players with 47 points. Amazingly, it was the best single-game fantasy performance of 2009.
Now, bitter fantasy owners -- presumably the ones who had to face Harrison's owner in those 1.4 percent of ESPN leagues -- might question the realism of a performance like that, but let's look at the real game for a parallel: How about JaMarcus Russell, whom the Oakland Raiders did everything possible to keep off the field this week, coming off the bench to not only rally his team to victory over the Denver Broncos, but to do so in a road contest? Let's face it, strange things happen in football -- and therefore fantasy football.
How many of you rolled the dice on a Chris Jennings or Arian Foster? Jennings was the guy expected to be the No. 1 option for the Cleveland Browns entering Week 15, after his standout performance the week before. He was started in a higher percentage of ESPN leagues (11.0) than Harrison is owned in, but at day's end he managed 18 yards -- less than 1/15th of Harrison's number. Foster, meanwhile, fumbled on the Houston Texans' first drive and didn't make a peep in the final 56 minutes.
Such things happen, and while this week's 20-point performers (entering the Sunday night game) shaped up as a whole bunch of no-names, a radical shift from the familiar faces that managed that many in Week 14, it only underscores how selective you must be when rolling the dice on sleepers. I wrote a week ago that above all else, play your studs, and a large part of the reason is how difficult it is to find consistency from the most unpredictable sources.
Back to Harrison: He finished with 286 rushing yards, the third most in a single game in NFL history, and three touchdowns. There have been only 10 instances since 1960 of a single-game fantasy performance of greater than the 47 points Harrison had, and surely that will have fantasy owners buying into the idea that he's a must-start in Week 16 versus the Raiders.
Don't. He'll be a red-hot pickup and should be, but take a look at Eric Mangini's backfield breakdown the past three weeks: Week 13, Harrison 10 carries and 17 touches, Jennings 5 and 6; Week 14, Jennings 20 and 20, Harrison 7 and 9 (not to mention Joshua Cribbs' 8 and 9); and now Week 15, Harrison 34 and 36, Jennings 7 and 7. While Harrison's exploits almost assuredly will earn him the Week 16 start, Mangini's backfield strategy has become somewhat maddening. Maybe fantasy owners should go ahead and call him "Shan-gini-han."
That's not to say Harrison can't have some starter appeal next week; he might be flex-worthy coming off a game like this. But that's as far as I'll go touting him, from the very same angle I took in last week's "Called Out" regarding a player like Jennings: "Somehow I tend to think of players like these as 'supporting cast,' the types who surround the studs who already carried your team this far. But when I think of the phrase, 'supporting cast,' I immediately think, 'flex play.'"
He wasn't the top scorer of the week, not by a long shot (he actually finished seventh), but there's a compelling reason to pick Jamaal Charles for the honor.
We say it often on these pages that some unheralded player seems to lift fantasy teams to league championships on an annual basis, and with two weeks to go, my nominee for 2009 is Charles. But he's a strong MVP pick for another reason: He's the kind of guy fantasy owners might call an "unpredictable source" as referred to above with Jennings or Foster, and therefore one you might think I'd advocate locking in as more of a flex play than weekly starter.
He's not, though, and it's because if you've been tracking Charles for the past month (and even earlier), as well as analyzing his matchups, you'd probably realize how reliable he has actually become of late. With 22 fantasy points in Week 15, he has back-to-back games with at least that many at a critical time in our season, he has 17 or more points in five of his past six games and he has a touchdown in each of his past six. What's more, he's averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his past six contests and has 19 receptions during that span, meaning even when he's not contributing as a runner, he's contributing as a pass-catcher.
Charles draws the Cincinnati Bengals and Broncos on the road the next two weeks, tougher matchups than his past two for sure, especially as he had nine points in Week 13 versus the Broncos. Hot as he has been of late, however, there's little doubt he's a solid No. 2 with top-10 upside, regardless of matchup.
• Beanie Wells: He recorded his first career 100-yard rushing effort, and while it's easy to dismiss that knowing his opponent was the terrible Detroit Lions, Wells' performance does hint at a great deal of future value (particularly future seasons). For the second consecutive week, he easily outpaced fellow Arizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower in terms of carries (17 to 6) and total touches (18 to 12), with Hightower seemingly serving as only that obnoxious-to-fantasy-owners touchdown vulture. Everyone knows Wells is the Cardinals' future, as he's the more explosive runner of the two, but right in time for those favorable Lions and St. Louis Rams (Week 16) matchups, it seems that future has arrived.
• Dwayne Bowe: I was wrong on this guy, at least with my early-week comments, but to be fair, it wasn't hard to tell that he'd be heavily involved when he spent the better part of the practice week working fully with the first-team offense. Bowe managed only four catches for 56 yards, which might seem like a forgettable fantasy stat line, but he was also targeted a team-high 10 times, compared to five for Chris Chambers, who was the statistical standout. With Matt Cassel coming off one of the best games of his career, albeit in a losing effort, expect Bowe's level of play to be right at his old norms in the season's final two weeks.
• Joe Flacco: A tough call, because while Flacco just threw for 234 yards and four scores, for an impressive 25 fantasy points, now he and his Baltimore Ravens hit the road for not-so-easy games at the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. Plus, his string of four single-digit fantasy performances in a five-week span from Weeks 9-13 might have his owners doubting his ability. So why the "Four Up" pick? Because Flacco did show the moxie as a rookie last season to lead his Ravens into the playoffs, and with the playoffs this year still a possibility, it's not unthinkable he's elevating his level of play at just the right time. Maybe he won't be a top-10 play in either game, but he's capable of it, and if he can string together three efforts like this, it'll also boost his stock heading into 2010.
• DeSean Jackson: He's amazing. Just amazing. One of the most exciting players in the league to watch, Jackson caught six passes for 140 yards and a score, giving him an eye-popping 49 fantasy points in two games since returning from a concussion. A great stat: His 19-yard touchdown reception was actually his shortest score of 2009; every other one was of 35 yards or greater and his average touchdown length is 57.5. Just 23 years old, Jackson has a heck of a career ahead of him and there's little reason to doubt his ability the rest of this year, either, not with his having already had good games versus the stout New Orleans Saints', Washington Redskins' and San Francisco 49ers' pass defenses.
• Tom Brady: Another week, another listing on "Four Down" for Brady. At what point should we start to sweat his recent funk? He now has three single-digit fantasy performances in his past four games, and he struggled with his accuracy this week, completing only 11 of 23 passes en route to only six fantasy points. If Brady's fantasy owners are still alive in their postseasons, they're surely pleased by his favorable matchups versus the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans the next two weeks, especially with the playoffs very much in his hands. Still, one must wonder how much his nagging injuries are truly bothering him.
• Arian Foster: I'm perplexed by Texans head coach Gary Kubiak's strategy managing his running backs this season. It seems that any time one of them fumbles, he loses his job along with the football. I present you Foster, who on the ninth play of the day lost a fumble on a 13-yard reception and never touched the football again. It's a real shame, because Kubiak had stressed in the past week he intended to give Foster a longer look in the offense, and facing that tasty matchup, all Ryan Moats could muster in relief was 46 yards on 13 carries. Heck, the Texans almost lost a "gimme" game! It turns out Eric Karabell was right when he said in "Called Out," "Gary Kubiak is the new Mike Shanahan."
• Calvin Johnson: Having Daunte Culpepper as his quarterback is obviously affecting Megatron's performance; how could it not? Culpepper is a vastly inferior passer to rookie Matthew Stafford, who is strong-armed and willing to take shots deep. Unfortunately, Stafford seems unlikely to be ready for Week 16, meaning even if it's not Culpepper throwing Johnson the football, it'll be untested Drew Stanton. Johnson's splits in Stafford and non-Stafford games are unmistakable: He's averaging 5.1 catches, 80.9 yards and 0.4 touchdowns in Stafford games, but only 2.7, 24.7 and no touchdowns in non-Stafford games.
• Greg Olsen: Part of the blame for his poor performance lately belongs on the shoulders (or more accurately, the arm) of Jay Cutler, but fantasy owners have to read the warning signs, either from the receiver or his quarterback. Cutler's season has become a mess, and Olsen now has five catches for 23 yards the past three weeks, partly a result of opposing defenses knowing he's about the only guy Cutler was able to locate with accuracy earlier in the season. The safe move is to just avoid this offense entirely, especially with a miserable matchup versus the Minnesota Vikings due up next.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Michael Turner (ankle): For the second time in four weeks, Turner aggravated his high ankle sprain, departing Sunday's game after only one carry. Considering the Falcons had already been eliminated from postseason contention, the team's critics will surely come out in droves about their pushing their star running back into action in a road game in a city belted by heavy snow overnight. It's unclear whether this ends Turner's season, but he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution afterward that he's not ready to shut it down. Still, with two setbacks, two games left and the Falcons already turning their focus to 2010, fantasy owners should formulate their plans under the assumption he won't contribute. Jerious Norwood (9 carries, 11 touches) and Jason Snelling (16 and 19) shared the workload in Turner's absence and should for the remainder of the year, with Snelling a slightly better fantasy choice due to his being better suited for goal-line work.
• Michael Vick (thigh): He left Sunday's game in the first quarter with a bruised thigh, appearing on only three plays before getting hurt. It's unclear whether this injury will affect his Week 16 status, but the only relevance to fantasy owners is that if Vick sits, Donovan McNabb won't have to worry about stepping aside for a handful of snaps, meaning more chances to generate points.
• Trent Edwards (ankle): Though he came on late in relief of a slumping Ryan Fitzpatrick, Edwards lasted only four snaps before suffering an ankle injury on a sack by New England Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Edwards wasn't likely to supplant Fitzpatrick as the Buffalo Bills' starting quarterback in Week 16 barring a huge late-game performance, and the injury only decreases the chance of it.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Maurice Morris: Apparently he's the go-to guy in the wake of Kevin Smith's season-ending knee injury. Morris ran 17 times for 126 yards and a touchdown and had a team-high five receptions for 35 yards versus the Cardinals, while Aaron Brown and Jerome Felton combined for 21 yards on six carries. Not that Morris' matchups are exceptional -- he and the Lions battle the 49ers and Chicago Bears the final two weeks -- but with him getting the bulk of the rushing work and proving a reliable pass-catcher, he's at least a flex-play candidate.
• Josh Morgan: The 49ers' move to the spread offense has certainly helped the team's receivers, and while the team's passing game was disappointing overall in Week 15, Morgan proved a bright spot. He hauled in seven passes for 61 yards and a score, the second time in his past three games he has a touchdown and the third time in his past four he has at least six receptions. Morgan has always had the skills but not so much the opportunity, but here's what's to like about him: He and the 49ers battle the Lions and Rams the next two weeks.
• Demetrius Williams: This one digs even deeper than Morgan, so unless you play in a deep league and have the bench room, you might not be able to afford the luxury. Still, Williams is the kind of deep-play threat the Ravens could use as they fight for a playoff spot, and perhaps his four-catch, 71-yard-plus-a-score Week 15 might earn him an expanded role in the offense. Keep tabs on the team's plans for him during the practice week, but if Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington miss further time, Williams could be a useful plug-in.
• Michael Bush: He's a member of another clouded backfield, but Bush did scamper 18 times for 133 yards and a score, only the third time in his career he has cracked the 100-yard plateau. Considering he now owns the team lead in yards per carry (5.0) and is tied with Justin Fargas for the lead in rushing scores (3), perhaps Bush deserves more of a look in the season's final two weeks. It's another case of needing to keep tabs on the midweek practice reports, but considering the Raiders battle the Browns in Week 16, Bush might yet have sleeper potential.
The matchups did the talking
• Justin Gage (43 yards, 2 TDs versus Miami Dolphins): Fantasy owners might have been onto Kenny Britt as a sleeper battling the Dolphins, who had averaged 21.3 fantasy points per game allowed to opposing wide receivers from Weeks 7-14, but who could've seen Gage stepping up? He didn't even start; Britt did. Gage also was targeted only three times, so don't read too much into this one.
• Roddy White (4 catches for 33 yards on 9 targets at New York Jets): Ah, the infamous Darrelle Revis matchup. Yet another star-caliber receiver held in check by the Pro Bowl-bound cornerback, and if you were under the impression Michael Jenkins might be left free to roam across the field, well, you were also wrong there: Jenkins finished with one catch for 20 yards.
• Alex Smith (177 yards, 1 TD, 3 interceptions at Philadelphia Eagles): He had been quite a find for fantasy owners who took a chance on him recently, but this was an out-and-out bust for Smith. His first half was a total disaster, including all three picks, but at least he showed improvement in the second half. It's easy to dismiss Smith's Week 15 numbers accounting for the brutal matchup, especially since he'll battle the Lions next, but it's outings like this that should serve as your reminder not to overinflate your expectations.
and the flip side, so much for the matchups!
• Knowshon Moreno (81 total yards versus Raiders): With Correll Buckhalter out and a matchup with the Raiders at hand, Moreno looked ready to explode with week-topping fantasy point potential. Unfortunately, after the first drive, in which he managed 40 of his 81 total yards, Moreno was held almost entirely quiet, rushing 15 times for 23 yards the remainder of the game. Toss in his mediocre Week 14 performance and his fantasy owners have reason for concern, especially with a road game against the Eagles up next.
• Vincent Jackson (108 yards, 2 TDs versus Bengals): This is a welcome sight for Jackson's fantasy owners, who struggled through recent weeks in which he was almost invisible. Despite being shadowed all day by Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, both of whom are in the midst of excellent seasons, Jackson managed five catches and made them count. Now he battles the Titans, a good matchup for a receiver coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 16
• Once you're finished unwrapping your Christmas presents and feasting on "roast beast," celebrate the holiday with Chargers-Titans on Christmas night. Though the Chargers have clinched a playoff spot and have almost locked up the No. 2 seed -- meaning sitting players (particularly aging LaDainian Tomlinson) becomes a concern -- this is an immensely critical game for the Titans. A loss means they're out of the playoff hunt, so expect Chris Johnson, whose matchup is most favorable on their side of the ball, to be at his best. This is, however, the one remaining poor matchup on Vince Young's schedule; he'll then play at the Seahawks in Week 17.
• Speaking of resting players, now that the Saints' quest for a perfect season has ended, expect them to give Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas or Marques Colston some much-needed rest. Their matchup at home versus the Buccaneers is favorable enough to continue to rely on their players -- barring any midweek hints that those (or other) players will sit entirely -- but remember that this team clobbered the Bucs 38-7 at Tampa Bay in Week 11. If there's a similar result in the rematch, Brees, Colston et al might tally enough numbers to be worth your while, but they will almost assuredly not finish the contest.
• Amazing to think that neither the Ravens' nor Steelers' defense ranked in the top five at their position in terms of fantasy points entering Week 15. Those two teams battle in Pittsburgh, and you shouldn't fear offensive players on either side. To refresh your memory: In their Week 12 battle, Joe Flacco threw for 289 yards and a score, Ray Rice had 155 total yards, Rashard Mendenhall had 117, Santonio Holmes had 74 yards and a score and Derrick Mason had 62 and a score. Oh, and Dennis Dixon was the Steelers' starting quarterback on that day.
• The 49ers get the honor of a fantastic matchup against the league's worst defense, the Lions, in a home game no less. Look at the Lions' average fantasy points allowed to the skill positions in their past five games: 18.0 to quarterbacks, 24.4 to running backs, 27.8 to wide receivers, 4.8 to tight ends (though the only fantasy-relevant tight end they've faced was Jermichael Finley). Need any more statistics to support Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis being standout starts?
• The honor of the dreaded Darrelle Revis matchup this week goes to the Colts' Reggie Wayne, as the Colts try to extend their perfect season in a game that matters much more to their opponent. Wayne might not be a strong bet to play the entire contest, let alone overcome the miserable matchup.
• Vikings-Bears is the Monday night game, and Jay Cutler might have nightmares in the rematch, after he was picked off twice and sacked four times in the teams' Week 12 meeting. The Vikings' defense stacks up remarkably well despite the road game, and Brett Favre and the offense should be in fine shape as well, weather permitting. The only real worries: Favre in a cold-weather, outdoor environment at his age, plus the health of his wide receivers.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.