In "Exploit or Avoid," we take a close look at some of the week's more favorable — and tough — matchups for skill-position players. Here's who we like on each side of the ledger in Week Nine:
Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (vs. Kansas City) — He had a sneaky-good game in the rain on Sunday at Cleveland, racking up 95 yards on 24 carries. Sure, he lost another fumble, but backup RBs Jackie Battle and Ronnie Brown combined for just seven carries, so it sure looks like the Chargers are going to stick with Mathews even if he encounters the occassional hurdle. The athletic, versatile Mathews provides a big challenge for a Kansas City defense that's allowing 4.6 yards per carry. Make sure to get him into the lineup on Thursday night.
Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe (at San Diego) — As the Chiefs' offense has sputtered of late, Bowe's production has fallen. In the past three games, he has caught just 12 passes for 150 yards and no TDs. However, I'd give him strong consideration in Week Nine, especially if you're starting three wideouts and can more easily absorb the risk that the K.C. offense is a smoldering mess once again. Note that when the Chargers beat the Chiefs in Week Four, Bowe hauled in seven passes for 108 yards and a TD on 12 targets.
Texans QB Matt Schaub (vs. Buffalo) — Here's my theory: the Bills' run defense has been horrible, and even if they significantly improve in their first game off the bye — which is probably a reach — their efforts could leave them vulnerable to the Texans' passing game. Also, the Texans' play-action passing game is a real strength. In short, I wouldn't be surprised if Schaub connects on some big downfield throws on Sunday.
Eagles QB Michael Vick (at New Orleans) — I mentioned him last week in this space, and it didn't exactly work out well (191 passing yards, one TD; 42 yards rushing). Also, his job security is no small story line leading up to Week Nine. Nevertheless, if he starts on Monday, he's a solid play against a New Orleans defense allowing more yards per pass (8.7) than any other team.
Browns RB Trent Richardson (vs. Baltimore) — In the event you had forgotten that the Ravens' defense isn't what it was, here's the rushing yardage they surrendered in their final three games before their Week Eight bye: 214, 227, 181. While the Ravens held Richardson to 47 yards on 14 carries on Thursday night in Week Four, he did score a TD, and the Baltimore run defense has been awful since. I would be inclined to start Richardson after his strong Week Eight performance (24 carries, 122 yards, one TD) vs. the Chargers.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco (at Cleveland) — It's not the matchup that scares me about Flacco, though the Browns are better vs. the pass than when the teams met in Week Four. It's simply the fact that he's playing away from home. In three road games in 2012, Flacco has completed just 56-of-112 passes for 566 yards with two TDs and four interceptions. If you're banking on Flacco shredding the Browns once again — he did, after all, throw for 356 yards in the first meeting — then you have to hope he's ready to deliver his best road game of the season. I'm not sure I'd take the risk.
Colts RBs Vick Ballard and Donald Brown (vs. Miami) — They essentially split carries in Week Eight, with Brown rushing for 80 yards on 14 carries and Ballard racking up 55 yards on 12 attempts. Ballard also scored the game-winning TD on a 16-yard catch-and-run in which he leaped backward from the 5-yard-line to reach the pylon. Overall, the Colts' 171 rushing yards were a season-high. However, while Ballard and Brown each have fantasy value, neither is an especially strong play on Sunday vs. Miami. The Dolphins are allowing a mere 82.0 rushing yards per game and just 3.5 yards per carry. Leaning on running backs who share carries when the matchup is less than ideal is risky business.
Titans RB Chris Johnson (vs. Chicago) — Would I bench Johnson this week? It would be tough. Uniess I had standout RB depth, I'd have no choice but to play him and hope for the best. However, he's facing a Bears defense that has allowed fewer rushing yards per game than any other (77.9), and Johnson has had some poor games against stout run defenses. I know that many fantasy owners are going to play Johnson regardless, and his playmaking ability must be respected. But he has beat up on two weak run defenses (Buffalo, Indianapolis) in succession, and now he draws an elite stop unit. I don't expect a banner game from him.
Packers TE Jermichael Finley (vs. Arizona) — The Cardinals have surrendered two TDs to tight ends all season. One was to the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, who had his usual productive game (6-75-1). The other was to the Rams' Lance Kendricks, whose seven-yard TD was his only catch of the contest. In the past three weeks, the Cardinals have held Bills TE Scott Chandler, Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph and 49ers TE Vernon Davis to a combined three catches for 38 yards. Finley hasn't exceeded 31 receiving yards in any of the past four games, and he hasn't caught a TD pass since Week One. He's not a surefire start by any means.