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You love to read it when you somehow had the foresight to start or avoid these players, you hate to read it when it's time to figure out how that could have happened: It's The Week In Confounding Fantasy Football! The COVID-addled Texans shook the Chargers down for their lunch money, Joe Burrow broke the slate for the Bengals, and Matthew Stafford fell apart in a smash spot against the Vikings.
Joe Burrow wrecks shop against beleaguered Ravens secondary
How did this happen? Well, the Ravens defense was ripe for the picking, and Burrow had demonstrated the talent to do this time and time again -- including the last time he played the Ravens when they had a healthier secondary -- but it was still surprising to see the game end with 500 yards. The Bengals are generally a pretty conservative team when winning. I think the answer probably has a lot to do with Wink Martindale's philosophy:
Burrow said after the game that the comments were "disrespectful" and, well, when you have the matchup advantages that the Bengals enjoyed over the Ravens today and the schemes that Martindale aggressively brought, you had all the elements for this to blow up in Baltimore's face. Burrow has always had the talent to make this happen. But they also ran it up on the Ravens, as they were ahead by 17 at halftime and Burrow had only (only!) thrown for 299 yards at that point. The disrespect narrative played out in a gruesome way as Burrow would finish with 525 yards and four touchdowns, boosting Tee Higgins (12/194/2), Ja'Marr Chase (7/125/0), Joe Mixon (6/70/1 receiving, 18/65/1 rushing) and even Tyler Boyd streamers (3/85/1) into prime playoff win position.
Who can we blame for this? Well, the Bengals have had the talent to do stuff like this all year but rarely get to it in the name of playing as Zac Taylor desires -- I think at least 80% of this falls in Martindale's hands. He poked the bear and got clawed in the face for it. Baltimore lost even more members of their defense as Calais Campbell went out with an injury early and Anthony Averett was carted off in the first quarter. They were already without Chris Westry, Jimmy Smith, Mustin Madubuike, and Justin Houston. It just accentuated the talent gap, and Bengals were already running open all over the field.
What's our takeaway? I would start most of my Rams next week despite their blow-up (we'll talk about it in a few hundred words) against this beleaguered Baltimore defense. Once they stopped playing the offensively-challenged AFC North teams, it became very clear that there were real issues that were left unsolved.
Burrow and company will draw a tougher matchup in the hot Chiefs, but there's no way you're benching a main member of the Bengals offense at this point. You might -- might -- make Burrow a QB2 because of it. I think that'd be harsh, but the Chiefs are playing extremely well on defense at the moment.
Davis Mills (and Rex Burkhead) find fantasy competency against the Chargers
How did this happen? That's ... a great question. It sure didn't feel like there was much of a reason to expect the Texans to play well without Brandin Cooks. It certainly didn't seem like there was a reason to believe the Chargers defense would crush in this game either, though. They were 31st in run defense DVOA coming into the game, and they didn't play Joey Bosa or Derwin James, their two best defensive players. But Houston has not played well against any non-Jaguars team all season, and they were forced by COVID to start Cole Toner at left guard. And ... well, it turns out Cole Toner is better than we all thought?
The Chargers got toasted by Mills for a rare couple of good deep balls, but Mills was consistent on third downs -- even third-and-long -- and then the Chargers run defense was just pantsed by the backup Texans line and Burkhead, who came out of nowhere to win DFS and fantasy slates alike. Mills finished with 254 yards and two touchdown throws, while Burkhead had 149 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including some chunk runs late in the game to seal the win.
Who can we blame for this? I think it's fair to believe that Mills has taken a step forward. He's no longer the default non-Lawrence/Wilson dead-last superflex starter. This game did have a bit of a perfect storm feel to it for Burkhead, with the Texans perhaps taking a better step forward with some offensive line personnel changes in future weeks after watching what happened in this game. But I do believe Mills is reaching the point where we can't shut it down with "fluke!" or anything of the like, even if he still throws deep just once in a blue moon.
What's our takeaway? That 49ers stack you were holding for Week 17? Suddenly a little bit less valuable. It's hard to recommend starting Texans in fantasy football because David Culley makes them absurdly conservative at times, but they have now upgraded from desperation plays to contrarian plays. The Chargers defense is in trouble without Bosa.
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Isaiah McKenzie steals the show in Buffalo
How did this happen? The Bills kicked the Patriots around for the better part of four quarters on Sunday, and the unexpected part wasn't that this was in the realm of possibilities despite how good New England's defense was, but that Isaiah McKenzie would come out of nowhere to eclipse Cole Beasley's production in a real way.
Beasley had just three games all season with more than 64 receiving yards and had been dinged up badly enough that while he was still playing (and laboring) through a long-term rib injury, he wasn't playing well. McKenzie's flashed on the fantasy radar a couple of times in the past few years, most recently when he went for 65 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins in Week 17 of the 2020 season. But while he'd always been impressive in limited opportunities, he'd never really had a chance with this new-look offense and Josh Allen (who sat that Week 17 game) before today, when he ran by New England's slot defenders like Myles Bryant.
With Gabriel Davis also sidelined on the COVID-19 list, the targets flowed to McKenzie early and often, and the speed remained undeniable. He was a major mismatch for the Patriots stout defense in man coverage. He finished with 11 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets.
Who can we blame for this? For keeping McKenzie hidden for years? How about the guys who continually put John Brown on the field last year and who limited Davis' playing time all this year for more veteran receivers? Oh, no, you meant the game itself. Well, I actually think McKenzie just outplayed the coverage most of the time. He might just be that good. And that's not a thought that the rest of the AFC needs to know about with the Bills getting hot at the right time because it's not like the Buccaneers didn't just look sloppy for all of October and November 2020 before winning the title last year.
What's our takeaway? No. 1 waiver wire target Isaiah McKenzie. Say it with me. That's how it is going to go for (most leagues) championship round this week. I am not enough of a mind reader to understand if Beasley or Davis will clear COVID protocols before next Sunday, but playing the Falcons? It doesn't get much better than that. Even the potential of a high wind game would be negated by how easily McKenzie separates underneath.
Matthew Stafford crumbles against the Vikings
How did this happen? The catalyst behind the Rams' collapse against Minnesota is offensive line injuries. Surely you didn't think much about Andrew Whitworth being placed on the COVID-19 list on Christmas, but with Joseph Noteboom also on the list, the Rams were suddenly starting David Edwards at left tackle and backup guard Coleman Shelton inside. The Rams still scored 30 points, so, you know, it wasn't like we were all wildly off-base that it was still smart to play Stafford. But then he also lost center Brian Allen in-game, and then it became a tough scene.
Shelton moved to center, Edwards back to guard, and rookie UDFA Alaric Jackson played left tackle. Pressure was a big part of the reason behind both of Stafford's initial two interceptions. And while he was hassled plenty during the game, he also had a fairly inaccurate day that helped drag down the overall rating even further. The Rams stalled out in the red zone a few times, and seven of those 30 points came on a punt return touchdown by Brandon Powell. Against a Vikings defense that had been ripe for the picking for weeks -- even with a game script lead for most of it -- it was tough for every non-Cooper Kupp Rams passing game player. Stafford finished with just 197 yards, one touchdown, and three picks. He didn't get sacked, but it was clear that the offensive line changes had an impact.
Who can we blame for this? Stafford comes first. He hasn't been immune to poor stretches of play this year, but he all but admitted that he "made the game interesting" in post-game comments. I still see no reason to really talk up the Vikings defense. I think two of the three picks had some element of randomness to them as far as Stafford playing out of control and throwing into guys who didn't have to make big plays on the ball so much as cover their areas competently. The third was a tipped pass.
What's our takeaway? I already told you above that I'd still be confident rolling with Stafford as a starter for the finals, but he's never been as bulletproof as the true QB1s of the year have, and you know that if you've had him in season-long. The Ravens defense? It does help a lot in my feeling that way, but Sony Michel has also made a big impact and the Rams may be less interested in proving something to Wink Martindale, so don't expect 500 yards next week or anything.
Despite the interceptions, I'd be confident starting Aaron Rodgers and the rest of GB's main weapons against Minnesota next week.