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 15:
Chargers RB Ryan Mathews (vs. Carolina) — Mathews has had a disappointing season, but he can help fantasy owners in Week 15. The Panthers have surrendered at least 121 yards rushing in 8-of-13 games, and opponents averaged 176.3 yards on the ground in Weeks 11-13. While the Falcons rushed for 35 yards in Sunday's loss at Carolina, Atlanta attempted just 11 rushes and played from behind throughout. Give the Chargers credit — they put together a strong performance in victory Sunday at Pittsburgh. They have shown that they will play hard for head coach Norv Turner, and their offense could give the Panthers some real problems.
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman (at New Orleans) — For Freeman owners, this is a dream setup. Let's count the ways. One, the Saints have a horrible defense. Two, the Buccaneers are likely to have problems stopping the Saints, meaning this could be a high-scoring affair. Three, Freeman already has shown he can give the Saints fits, as he lit up New Orleans for 420 yards and three TDs in the first meeting in October. Four, the Buccaneers desperately need the game. Five, the game will be played indoors. I would NOT want to be playing against a fantasy team with Freeman this week.
Saints RB Darren Sproles (vs. Tampa Bay) — For Sproles owners, this is a dream setup. Yes, the Buccaneers are outstanding vs. the run, but Sproles isn't an in-between-the-tackles grinder. In a game where the Saints figure to be throwing quite a bit, Sproles (four catches, 32 yards, one TD in the first matchup with Tampa Bay) is the Saints' back to prefer, especially after a two-TD effort at the Giants on Sunday.
Packers RB Alex Green (vs. Chicago) — Green merits a look as a flex play in most formats and even at running back in deeper leagues. The Bears have allowed 114 rushing yards or more in seven consecutive games, and the Packers' ground game is in good form (136.0 rushing yards per game in Weeks 12-14). The Packers' reputation for excellent passing is no secret, but they are also committed to rushing the ball on a consistent basis. Note that they have attempted at least 24 rushes in 11-of-13 games. Green, who's getting the bulk of the carries with James Starks (knee) out of the lineup, will be valuable in the final weeks of the regular season.
Rams WR Chris Givens (vs. Minnesota) — Givens, who has five catches of 40 yards or more, is an intriguing sleeper play in three-WR formats. The Vikings have surrendered at least 283 passing yards in three of the last four games.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (at Dallas) — I just don't like the matchup. The Steelers' offensive line could struggle with the Cowboys' pass rush (five sacks at Cincinnati in Week 14), and the Cowboys have the CB play needed to match up with WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. There's certainly a case to start Roethlisberger, who has thrown two TD passes or more in six of the nine full games in which he's played in 2012. But I don't think he's a slam-dunk play.
Colts QB Andrew Luck (at Houston) — As with Roethlisberger, there is solid logic to support starting Luck. For starters, the Texans have allowed at least 265 passing yards in the past four games. Also, Houston has surrendered 11 TD passes in those four games, compared to just 12 in the first nine games (with half of those allowed in one game vs. Green Bay). Nevertheless, I can't endorse Luck with great confidence in Week 14. This is his first game against a Wade Phillips-coached defense — and it's a defense that figures to be smarting after struggling vs. the Patriots. Moreover, the Texans are at home.
Bills passing game (vs. Seattle) — I wouldn't be confident starting WR Stevie Johnson, TE Scott Chandler or QB Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday. The Seahawks have allowed 12 TD passes in 13 games, and just three opponents — New England, Detroit, Chicago — have thrown for multiple scores in the same game against Seattle. The Patriots and Lions have strong passing games. The Bears' performance should give fantasy owners depending upon the Bills the most hope; QB Jay Cutler threw TD passes to RB Matt Forté and WR Earl Bennett, and blue-chip WR Brandon Marshall caught 10-165 on 14 targets. However, circumstances just don't look favorable for Buffalo's offense on Sunday.
Jaguars RB Montell Owens (at Miami) — Owens is playable if you need RB or flex help; he's likely to get the majority of the carries for Jacksonville in Week 15, and he rushed for 91 yards and a TD on 14 carries in Sunday's loss to the Jets. However, Owens faces a Miami defense that's allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. While the Dolphins gave up 155 yards and three rushing scores to San Francisco in Week 14, the Niners' running game is one of the NFL's best and most versatile. Don't be surprised if the Dolphins' run defense gets back on track Sunday.