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 17:
49ers QB Colin Kaepernick (vs. Arizona) — He's poised to have a strong Week 17. For starters, the Cardinals' defense had no answers for the 49ers' offense in the first meeting between the teams. Also, the 49ers need the game to secure first place in the NFC West. What's more, they need Kaepernick to enter the postseason on a positive note. The 49ers have been a little more inconsistent than I believed they would be, but they are capable of quickly and easily overwhelming Arizona.
Eagles RB LeSean McCoy (at N.Y. Giants) — In his return to the lineup in Week 16, McCoy racked up 122 rushing-receiving yards on 24 utilizations (13 rushes, 11 targets). He's a tough matchup for a Giants defense that has allowed 702 rushing yards in four December games. It's a leap of faith to be high on any skill-position player on a team with nothing to play for, but the Eagles have played reasonably well in December, and I believe they will play hard in the season finale against the sliding Giants.
Saints WRs Marques Colston and Lance Moore (vs. Carolina) — Both Moore (two catches, 30 yards) and Colston (three catches, 49 yards) were held in check in the first meeting with Carolina back in Week Two. Moreover, the two players combined for just nine targets. All told, 27 of the Saints' 49 passes that day went to RB Darren Sproles and TE Jimmy Graham, who combined for 20 catches, 199 yards and a TD. Sproles and Graham are strong Week 17 plays, but so are Colston and Moore. I have to think they'll be more involved this time, particularly if the Panthers work to take away Sproles and/or Graham a little more.
Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon (at Tennessee) — With Cecil Shorts (concussion) out for the season, Blackmon is the Jaguars' clear-cut No. 1 receiver. He already has one productive game vs. the Titans to his credit, a five-catch, 62-yard, one-TD outing back on Nov. 25.
Steelers defense (vs. Cleveland) — The Browns might have to start third-string QB Thaddeus Lewis with Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy both ailing with shoulder injuries. No matter the quarterback, the Browns' offense is a very shaky proposition for fantasy owners in Week 17. The Browns' last two losses have been their worst of the season. Also, RB Trent Richardson (ankle) is also on the mend. The Steelers' defense is comprised of both proud veterans and eager younger players, and Pittsburgh is in range of finishing No. 1 in yards allowed for the second consecutive season. I would be stunned if the Steelers do not play well on Sunday.
Raiders skill-position players (at San Diego) — With QB Carson Palmer (ribs, lung) out for Week 17, the Raiders will turn to either Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Palmer's absence makes WRs Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Rod Streater tough to call upon, and the same goes for TE Brandon Myers. Likewise, it's also difficult to play RB Darren McFadden with much confidence. The Chargers are allowing just 95.1 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL. McFadden is playable simply because of his featured-back status, but there's not much else working in his favor in the season finale, I'm afraid.
Rams skill-position players (at Seattle) — The Rams are No. 24 in yards gained and No. 26 in points scored. What can we reasonably expect from their offense at Seattle on Sunday? RB Steven Jackson and WR Danny Amendola are startable if necessary, but neither has an ideal matchup. Nor do QB Sam Bradford, WR Brandon Gibson or TE Lance Kendricks.
Cardinals skill-position players and defense / special teams (at San Francisco) — WR Larry Fitzgerald is the only Cardinals player I would strongly consider in Week 17, and only in leagues that start three wideouts or more. The Cards have a terrible matchup at San Francisco, and they are changing quarterbacks yet again, with Brian Hoyer replacing Ryan Lindley. With the exception of Fitzgerald, I'd stay away from the Cardinals' other skill-position players (RB Beanie Wells, WR Andre Roberts, etc.) unless I had no other options, and I wouldn't be rushing to start their defense, either.
On the subject of defense: if you haven't given that part of your lineup any thought in recent weeks, it's probably time to give it a once-over entering the season finale. Some defenses that were strong plays in previous weeks aren't so attractive in Week 17. The Cardinals, Browns and Giants are three defenses that stand out in this regard.