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Sunday, December 13, 2009
Instant Replay: Marshall motivated

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

All sorts of records were set in Indianapolis on Sunday. The Indianapolis Colts -- now 13-0 after a 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos -- set a record for consecutive regular-season wins with 22 (breaking the one set by the New England Patriots from 2006-08), not to mention another for most wins in a decade with 114 (breaking the one held by the San Francisco 49ers, who had 113 in the 1990s). Neither of those, of course, was a record fantasy owners cared about; we were more wowed by the record-setting 21 receptions by Brandon Marshall.

That's right, Marshall had 21 receptions, breaking Terrell Owens' record set nearly nine years ago to the day (his came on Dec. 17, 2000). Marshall's 200 yards and two touchdowns earned him 32 fantasy points (tops among wide receivers entering the Sunday night game), and if you were Marshall's owner in a PPR league, he'd have netted you 53 points. To put that number in perspective, it's more than any receiver has had in a game all season, even besting Miles Austin's breakout 47-point Week 5, and overall trails only Chris Johnson's 54 points of Week 2.

Brandon Marshall
We can't show you all 21 catches, but here's one!
Marshall was targeted on 28 of Kyle Orton's 41 pass attempts, including almost every Orton throw in the fourth quarter as the Broncos recognized his chance at history. Having the undersized Tim Jennings as his shadow was mostly responsible for Marshall's epic effort, but give the man some credit, as he has seven double-digit fantasy performances in his past 11 games during what has been an up-and-down season for his team. With a hot streak like that, he's certainly improving his value for 2010, when he'll be a free agent, restricted or unrestricted depending on whether there's a new collective bargaining agreement (the former if there isn't one).

Either way, expect "new contract" to be the focus of Marshall's offseason, be it a contract from a prospective new team or one from his own. He shouldn't have any trouble staying motivated down the stretch.

That helps alleviate any worry about his next two matchups versus the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles, which fantasy owners traditionally fear are poor ones. We always stress that you stick with your studs in the fantasy playoffs, and that's as true for Marshall as anyone. One strong point in favor of that strategy: Of the 13 players who finished with 20-plus fantasy points (again, heading into the Sunday night game), Jamaal Charles, Quinton Ganther and the Tennessee Titans defense were the only ones who didn't enter the week among the elite at their respective positions ("elite" being defined here as the top 15 for running backs and wide receivers and the top eight for all other positions).

They don't call 'em "studs" for nothing!

The flip side

Of course, there's the flip side of that "stick with your studs" strategy. From time to time, even the studs can let you down. Using the same criteria (top 15 at running back or wide receiver, top eight elsewhere), check out this "studly" fantasy lineup that might have earned you an early playoff exit:

QB: Aaron Rodgers, first among quarterbacks entering the week, 7 points

RB: Steven Jackson, seventh, 4

RB: Rashard Mendenhall, 14th, 6

WR: Randy Moss, first, minus-1

WR: Reggie Wayne, third, 4

RB/WR: Roddy White, 6th, 4

TE: Visanthe Shiancoe, 7th, 1

K: Matt Prater, 7th, 3

D/ST: Saints, 1st, 2

Tristan's MVP

If it's not Marshall -- and for me it's not -- it's the other PPR beast of Week 14: the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson. He hauled in 11 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns for 31 points (42 in a PPR format), doing to the Seattle Seahawks all by himself what most teams' entire wide receiver corps do in a typical week. Two things stand out in leading me to pick Johnson over Marshall: One is that he was active in 98.3 percent of ESPN leagues, compared to 84.6 for Marshall, meaning everyone in fantasy football was counting on the guy to carry them in their playoff matchups. Again, my theme this week: "play your studs."

The other is that Johnson's quarterback, Matt Schaub, entered with some questions about his shoulder, which might have had the receiver's fantasy owners sweating a relief appearance by the erratic Rex Grossman. Well, no one needed to worry; Schaub stepped up with 336 yards passing in the first half alone, connecting with Johnson for both of their scores and showing every bit of the upside the two had during their red-hot early-season run. With road matchups versus the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins ahead in the next two weeks, numbers like those must have Schaub's and Johnson's owners drooling about their playoff possibilities.

Four up

Ricky Williams: With his 108-yard, one-touchdown performance, he now has four 100-yard efforts in his past five games, and three out of four as a starter after Ronnie Brown's season-ending injury. Who says Williams was entirely a product of the Dolphins' Wildcat-heavy offense? Heck, since Williams took over as a starter the team has actually shifted somewhat away from the Wildcat, freeing up the veteran to serve as a workhorse, 20-carry-a-game dynamo. Though he's 32 years old with more than 2,000 carries on his legs, Williams did miss all of 2006 and practically all of 2007, so he's not running quite as "old" as his age. He battles the Titans and Houston Texans in the next two weeks, and that's not so bad, as they've averaged 18.3 and 15.6 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs since Week 9. Williams, at this point, is a clear top-tier starter.

Laurence Maroney: Isn't it time we declared him a solid weekly No. 2/flex? Maroney might have been overshadowed in the Patriots' pass-happy offense of 2007 and struggled throughout a down 2008, but since taking over as the team's go-to running back in Week 6, he has done nothing but show he's capable of a leading-man, 15-carries-per-week role. Even with the team's passing game looking completely out of sync this week, Maroney dashed for 94 yards on 22 carries, giving him a 4.1 yards-per-carry average and eight touchdowns in his past seven games. Even better: He faces the Buffalo Bills -- with the worst run defense in the game -- the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Texans in the next three weeks.

Reggie Bush: This ties closely into the health of Mike Bell, whose knee injury by some accounts wasn't expected to sideline him, but did at the last second entering Week 14. If Bell misses further time, Bush benefits, but even if Bell returns in a week, how can the Saints not recognize this kind of performance? A week after barely using him, the Saints got 79 total yards and two receiving touchdowns -- one a 6-yarder and the other a 21-yarder -- out of Bush. He has always been a valuable pass-catcher out of the slot, and Drew Brees has given every indication he's willing to spread the ball around in the passing game. If you're in a PPR league, you surely want to use Bush in your flex spot the remainder of the year.

Fred Davis: Though Jason Campbell seemed to take a step backward in terms of performance this week, Davis was as productive as ever, hauling in two touchdown passes to finish second at his position in fantasy points (17). It's the third consecutive week he has scored, and all five of his touchdowns have been for 17 yards or fewer, a sure sign he's a clear red zone consideration for Campbell. Another sign: He has eight red zone targets in the past three games combined. Amazingly, in spite of his hot streak, Davis remains available in 93.1 percent of ESPN leagues.

Four down

Tom Brady: Yes, you read that right: Tom Brady. In "Four down." It might seem crazy, but compared to his usual "studly" self, Brady was a relative disappointment in Week 14, a bad time of year for him to let his fantasy owners down. He entered the week with considerable questions about his rib, shoulder and finger, and he exited the week with considerable questions about his rib, shoulder and finger. Brady's inclusion on the Patriots' weekly injury report has become routine, but these days he belongs on the injury report because he's actually, you know, injured. He struggled with his accuracy, he clearly frustrated Randy Moss, and he and the Patriots have another bad matchup versus the Buffalo Bills in Week 15 (entering Week 14, the Bills had allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks). That's not to say Brady is a must-sit, but he'll be a top name to monitor during midweek practices.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Another case of "I can't believe Tristan put this guy in this section," but I have some concerns that Jones-Drew might be wearing down at a rather inopportune time. With his 18 carries in Week 14, he's on pace for 309, which would obliterate his previous career high of 233 (set last year), not to mention he's on pace for 363 touches, 50 more than he had in 2008. Jones-Drew has been held to fewer than 100 total yards in three of his past four games, and he's averaging 3.4 yards per carry in his past four contests, compared to 5.1 in his first nine. He's too talented to sit, but it bears watching.

Steven Jackson: Another case of a player potentially wearing down. Jackson has practiced precisely once in the past three weeks due to what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports is a herniated disc in his back, with that limited practice this past Friday. He might have performed fine in Weeks 12-13 despite playing at less than 100 percent, but battling a so-so Titans defense this week he managed only 47 yards on 19 carries, a very un-Jackson-like performance indeed (with a season-worst 2.5 yards per carry). With the Rams having long since given up their playoff hopes and Jackson already hinting that he might not participate in a full practice the rest of the year, the veteran might see a reduction in his workload in the season's final weeks. And remember, one of the primary reasons he's fantasy-worthy is that he has averaged 21.9 carries per game.

Marion Barber: Another case of … oh, you get the idea. Here's the problem with Barber: His thumb probably won't be 100 percent healed until he gets a winter's rest, and it's preventing him from pass blocking, which means he can't play a full set of downs. The Dallas Cowboys have two other capable running backs behind him in Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, who combined for 12 carries to Barber's 14. With Jerry Jones chirping that Barber should be used as more of a closer, and two less-than-appealing matchups ahead -- the Saints might not afford the Cowboys the chance to use Barber as a closer, and the Redskins entered Week 14 allowing the sixth-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs -- fantasy owners could justifiably leave Barber out of their starting lineups for the rest of the season.

Injury report

For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.

Correll Buckhalter (ankle): He departed in the first quarter with an ankle injury, snapping his streak of games with double-digit carries at two. With Buckhalter out for the better part of the day, Knowshon Moreno ran the football 23 times for only 63 yards, probably not enough to build a case for him swiping the bulk of the rushing chores looking forward. Expect Buckhalter to resume his backup/short-yardage role if he's healthy come Week 15.

Kevin Smith (knee): Perhaps the most distressing news of the week, as Smith was carted off the field in the fourth quarter. The Detroit News is reporting that his season is probably finished. He will undergo an MRI exam Monday, but Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said after the game that Smith suffered a "significant" knee injury, which sounds ominous. In the event Smith is out for the season, Maurice Morris would be the obvious choice to take over as the Lions' starter, but it's entirely possible rookie Aaron Brown might share the chores with him.

Vince Young (hamstring): A question mark for his fantastic matchup versus the Rams entering the week, Young began Sunday's game but departed early after pulling a hamstring on a 44-yard run in the second quarter. He was on quite a roll before exiting, completing 6 of 8 passes for 132 yards and a score. He was replaced by Kerry Collins, who similarly capitalized upon the soft matchup by completing 11 of 19 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. The Titans, up 14-0 at the time of Young's departure, were able to survive his injury thanks to an easy matchup, but they might struggle in coming weeks if they are forced to turn back to Collins at quarterback. Keep tabs on the midweek practice reports.

Bruce Gradkowski (knee): Speaking of offenses that might take a significant hit if their Week 14 starting quarterbacks miss future weeks, the Raiders lost Gradkowski -- who had been performing decently since taking over the job -- to a knee injury late in the first half of Sunday's contest. That pressed JaMarcus Russell into duty once again, and the bust-of-a-No. 1-pick completed 10 of 16 passes for 74 yards, no scores and an interception in relief. Not that fantasy owners should be eagerly using members of the Raiders offense in any week, but there's no way anyone can chance them if Russell is the starter under center.

DeMarcus Ware (neck): The Cowboys' top pass rusher was carted off the field in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game after colliding with a San Diego Chargers lineman. The team termed the injury a sprained neck, and added that Ware was "aware and alert with full movement and strength in his extremities." The severity of his injury is unclear, but if he misses any time it would be a hit to the Cowboys' pass defense. Keep tabs on him throughout the week.

Go get 'em!

As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:

Quinton Ganther: We've already been advising you throughout the week to pick this guy up, and after his two-touchdown day in Week 14, Ganther will surely top most fantasy owners' lists of waiver claims. He had 17 total touches and managed 93 yards, capitalizing upon the opportunity he earned with back-to-back games of better than a 5.0 yards-per-carry average in relief in Weeks 12-13. Ganther looks the quickest and most explosive of the Redskins' healthy running backs and has some flex appeal, despite challenging matchups versus the New York Giants and Cowboys the next two weeks.

Arian Foster
Another unannounced Houston RB
Arian Foster: It's once again anyone's game in the Texans' backfield, and with the team only holding out slim hopes for a playoff spot, it might yet turn the page to 2010 before the season's conclusion. If that happens, Foster will almost assuredly get a longer look, especially coming off a game in which he managed 88 total yards on 17 touches. Most notably he caught four passes for 54 yards, which seems to paint him into the Steve Slaton 2009 role, playing all passing downs and getting a smaller cut of the rest of the rushing pie. Foster faces the Rams in Week 15, which might seem to hint at flex-play appeal, but we'd have to get a glowing report about his workload from coach Gary Kubiak during the week first. More likely this is a piece of pickup advice more relevant to those of you in dynasty leagues.

Jason Snelling: Count me among those who believe that Michael Turner doesn't have a lot to offer fantasy owners the rest of the year, because a high ankle sprain is no laughing matter and the Falcons' season is pretty much done. Snelling has seemed fine in a short-yardage/goal-line role to date, and he managed 37 yards and a score on 10 carries in a timeshare with Jerious Norwood in Week 14. Considering he'll have favorable matchups in Weeks 16 (Bills) and 17 (Buccaneers), Snelling might be a flex play in either if Turner continues to be held out.

Take a seat?

With their respective victories in Week 14, the Colts clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and the Saints clinched a first-round playoff bye. That leaves no regular-season motivation for the Colts and little for the Saints, with one notable exception: a perfect 16-0 season. Fantasy owners always sweat playoff teams that have already clinched their spots, especially those specifically locked into one specific seed; the lack of motivation usually means starters (and therefore the most trusted fantasy options on the roster) sit for either most or all of their team's remaining games. But if I'm an owner of Colts or Saints players, I'd root for them to run the table; most likely they'd keep their starters in for as long as needed to seal their weekly wins. The Colts play the Jaguars, New York Jets and Bills in their final games and the Saints play the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers in theirs, and those are all winnable games.

The matchup did the talking …

Willis McGahee (78 total yards, 2 TDs versus Lions): Garbage time, garbage time, garbage time. That's all this was. McGahee, whom some might fear has become a goal-line vulture, actually didn't touch the football until the third quarter, when his Baltimore Ravens were up 20-3, and 10 of his 12 carries plus 68 yards and both scores came after his team extended its lead by another touchdown. Ray Rice got an early hook after obliterating the Lions' defense, so don't take this performance as a trend. More likely, McGahee will go right back to his traditional little-used role come Week 15 against the Bears.

… and the flip side; so much for the matchup!

Calvin Johnson (four catches for 37 yards at Ravens): This one comes as a bit of a surprise to Megatron's owners, as most expected him to stand out in a game in which Ed Reed was notably absent for the Ravens. Chalk this one up more to Johnson's quarterback than to his failing to capitalize upon the matchup; it's clear he lacks the rapport with Daunte Culpepper that he has with Matthew Stafford. To that end, Johnson has five catches for 39 yards and no scores in the two games both he and Culpepper have started. By comparison, he has 46 catches for 728 yards and four scores in the nine games started by him and Stafford.

Flash forward

A quick preview of what's in store for Week 15 …

• Saturday football begins as, in addition to Thursday's Colts-Jaguars game, we have Cowboys-Saints on Saturday night. That's right; the pursuit of perfection continues in prime time before Sunday action arrives, and I can say I'm not worried about either team sitting regulars as early as Week 15. For one thing, it would be a foolish strategy to have players resting for four full weeks.

Chris Jennings, seemingly the Cleveland Browns' new leading running back, gets the benefit of that juicy matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, who have allowed 24.5 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs in the past six weeks. Fantasy owners should take a look at Jennings as a flex consideration.

• The Arizona Cardinals get the benefit of favorable matchups against the sorry Lions defense, and (pending the result of their Week 14 Monday night game) might be able to clinch the NFC West division title as well as a first-round home game.

• The Falcons' Roddy White has the unfortunate "honor" of being matched up with Jets cover corner Darrelle Revis. Ask Antonio Bryant how much fun that matchup was in Week 14; he managed only two catches on six targets for 22 yards and no scores. Meanwhile, Revis had an interception, his sixth this season.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.