Fantasy Football: Week 14 Care/Don’t Care

Five things I care about

The Eagles aren’t the same

I’m probably not the guy to call it a Super Bowl loss hangover but the 2023 season hasn’t given much ammo to those who want to avoid such clichés. Even when they’ve won games, so much about the Eagles of this year has left plenty to be desired despite retaining a large chunk of their core on both sides of the ball.

At times this season, I’ve simplified the equation for this team: the Eagles have a great record because they have some of the best players. As some areas of the roster regressed, the wins kept coming because they had high-caliber stars at premium positions. That’s all well and good … when those players operate at their peak. Week 14 was a reminder of what happens when those guys play a tick below expectation.

A.J. Brown’s end-of-game stat line looks fantastic; you’ll take it for fantasy football. But there’s no denying Stephon Gilmore got the better of that one-on-one matchup in critical portions of the game. Brown and DeVonta Smith both had downfield misses that some will chart as drops, others as missed throws by the quarterback. Whatever your eye beholds on those plays, they’re missed opportunities. The kind of whiffs we don’t associate with this team.

All three of Brown, Smith and Jalen Hurts fumbled the ball to crush a potential momentum-boosting drive.

The Eagles, usually so brash and dripping with confidence, didn’t play with that attitude in this game. Even head coach Nick Sirianni, usually the king of such adjectives, didn’t excuse that energy. I’m not one for the body language psychology but there’s something about this Eagles team that seems to know they aren’t all the way there right now.

Hurts isn’t playing at the same level he did in 2022. That’s just an objective fact. The film is the film and the stats don’t lie in this case. The running game is not even a ghost of what it was last year, but it at least carries some recognition of the once-living entity. The defense is so far gone that fantasy managers are actively circling the Eagles when their players get to run against that secondary or digging for sleepers.

So when the receivers who are so often a trump card tandem play at even just 80% of full capacity, you suddenly look at this well-built roster without rose-colored glasses and see a lot of red flags.

The Eagles had a chance to rebuff a resume that includes a dominant Super Bowl run from last season these past two weeks. Instead, they were outscored 75-32 by the 49ers and Cowboys, their direct competitors for the No. 1 seed.

The cold hard truth is: that’s a perfect reflection of where this team is right now.

The Bills’ rushing game

There have been two clear points of emphasis since Joe Brady took over as the offensive coordinator for Buffalo. Both involve the running game, in a sense.

The first is obvious: just to take the chains off Josh Allen as a rusher. You can feel in the big games surrounding the bye week that Allen has been given more authority to break contain and put the game in his own hands via scrambles. They’ve also designed a small handful of quarterback keepers for Allen in high-leverage moments.

It truly is a bind for Buffalo because you don’t want to put Allen at risk more than you need to. The problem is no play is needless for the Bills right now. Everything matters to the degree that if Allen has to go into cyborg mode and put the whole unit on his back as a rusher, it has to be done. The Bills need all of these wins. One more loss and it’s pretty much over. So the full advantage of Allen’s rushing ability must be expressed, all risk taken into account.

The second point is making James Cook a central figure in the offense.

We’re always talking about a receiver or tight end stepping up to be a counterpunch to Stefon Diggs when defenses key on him. The Chiefs certainly did that in Week 14, but it wasn’t Gabe Davis or Dalton Kincaid who were put in position to make the plays.

Cook will never dominate red-zone work or completely take over the backfield. He’s not that type of back, which will always damage his fantasy output. Just have to live with that. However, you can tell Joe Brady understands what Cook brings as the lead rusher and as a receiver. Allen dictating his wheel route on the above play to win a matchup is proof of the faith Cook earned.

The second-year back has hit 100 yards from scrimmage in every game since Brady took over the offensive coordinator gig. That’s not a coincidence and it’s something that shouldn’t change any time soon.

Lamar Jackson’s eruption game

I’ve been saying this for a while but there is no better disconnect between real-life football and fantasy than the Lamar Jackson discussions at portions of the season. Every week, Andy Behrens and I would find his name submitted to The Yahoo Fantasy Football Show’s “The People’s Panic Meter” episode.

Which, without a doubt, is absolutely hilarious.

Jackson has been playing excellent football this season but that’s not all that goes into fantasy football. The Ravens have run the ball well this season, especially in the red zone, and their defense is so uniquely good they have not always needed to push the scoreboard. That always made it a tough fantasy football conversation because the eruption game was always right around the corner — because there’s nothing wrong with the player himself. Week 14 was proof.

Lamar Jackson was the highest-scoring quarterback in Week 14 prior to Sunday Night Football. His 32.6 points in Yahoo’s scoring was his second-best fantasy output of the season. Going to overtime slightly helped but this was a perfect reminder of Jackson’s ceiling.

There are not many quarterbacks who can clear 300 yards, throw three touchdowns to three different receivers and sprinkle in a casual 70 yards rushing. Jackson is one of those unicorns.

The game script called for the Ravens’ passing game to win a shootout with Matthew Stafford and the Rams offense, who solved plenty of the problems Baltimore’s defense so often presents to an opponent. We haven’t seen that often this season but when it was required on Sunday, Jackson stepped up to the plate.

Seeing that version of Jackson is critical for both real and fake football. There’s no question the Ravens will require this kind of output against a quality opponent during, what they hope is, a run to the Super Bowl. This is the proof of concept that their offense can hang in big games against quality opponents.

In other words, all the work they did this offseason was justified.

Joe Flacco is the best 2023 Browns QB

In one of the wildest stories of the season, Joe Flacco has walked off the couch to give Cleveland the best quarterback play they’ve enjoyed all season the last two weeks. I don’t even see how it’s remotely worth an argument.

The Browns know it too, and Kevin Stefanski was quick to name him the starter for the rest of the season, despite playing coy at times leading up to this game.

Flacco has been far from perfect but he’s been aggressive and intentional in pushing the ball down the field. Prior to Sunday Night Football, Joe Flacco had the third-most passing yards in the last two weeks with 565. Only Matthew Stafford has more touchdowns than Flacco’s five.

Inserting Flacco into the lineup has revealed something that was sleeping in the Browns offense all along. This unit has legitimate dudes at multiple positions.

I strongly believe that Amari Cooper has had the best two-year stretch of his career in a Browns uniform. Stats be damned, throw all that out; watch him play. Cooper hasn’t been healthy during Flacco’s run but the veteran has still given his No. 1 receiver a chance to make big plays and be the engine of the offense. The talented David Njoku didn’t clear 50 yards in the first month of the season and then was pigeon-holed in a short-target role with the P.J. Walker/Dorian Thompson-Robinson games.

Flacco, on the other hand, has ripped it downfield to Njoku and got him in space against the Jaguars. Flacco has history with Elijah Moore and he’s been the only quarterback all season to take the open vertical routes to his former Jets teammate this season.

When they can get anything out of highly drafted young wideouts like David Bell or Cedric Tillman, then they’re really cooking.

Trust me, it feels weird to type but Joe Flacco is doing the best job we’ve seen so far of getting these guys activated. Everything is a little awkward with the Browns because their $230 million quarterback wasn’t getting this done even when he was healthy, but this is just where we are with Cleveland. It’s an insane story.

Watching this game, you could even see how Flacco’s play sparked joy in Kevin Stefanski, who has been on the ropes at times this season. Again, I think that’s because Flacco is running the offense as designed, taking the throws that are there and letting the under-the-radar playmakers sing. With the way their defense is capable of playing, that’s enough to make the Browns a verifiable playoff team.

The Bengals are back in play

Has anyone stepped up to unironically craft a “Jake Browning equals Nick Foles” take yet? I’m not there yet, but I bet we’ll see it somewhere out there if Browning continues to play well as the Bengals win games.

Browning wasn’t perfect in the Bengals Week 14 win over the Colts. He threw one interception and a chunk of his 11.5 yards per attempt is boosted by YAC plays by his teammates. However, he does more than enough to keep his team competitive, plays within himself and he’s willing to push the ball when the defense gives it to him. When he’s asked to be a caretaker, he can keep the train on the tracks. When the Bengals need a shot play, as they did last week, he’s mostly delivered.

As good as the quarterback has played, Browning’s time as the starter has been a big feather in the cap of the coaching staff.

The Bengals offense the last few seasons has just been the Joe Burrow and “Our guys are better than your guys” offense. They play in so many empty formations and run aggressive downfield route combinations because it’s what Burrow wants and they have the talent to do it. They’ve even struggled to marry some of the outside zone, under-center run game that Zac Taylor majored in under Sean McVay and the Rams with the Burrow offense.

Obviously, they’d rather live in that world.

Forget blending offenses and dialing up good plays, you just take the elite quarterback every time. Still, this moment in time has required Taylor and Co. to scrap some of what they’ve run on a regular basis and get back to the basics they know. You’ve seen Browning take shots under center, run play action and integrate screen passes far more than the Bengals’ QB1.

This is a very different offense. Doesn’t make it better but it’s what’s needed for this quarterback in this moment.

The fact that the Bengals have pulled off this midstream switch without Burrow is a great testament to Taylor and Brian Callahan’s chops as offensive coaches and perhaps some of their most critical work to date in Cincinnati. Without it, the Bengals aren’t sitting in striking position to sneak into the postseason.

Five things I don’t care about

The old Dak Prescott

The heater that Dak Prescott is on right now is simply sublime. We just don’t see extended stretches of near-flawless brilliance like we’re getting out of the Cowboys quarterback right now.

Ever since the Week 5 loss to the 49ers, Prescott has done everything in his power to put that disappointment in the rearview mirror. The Cowboys went 6-1 in Weeks 6-13 and Prescott was darn near perfect. He completed 70.5% of his passes with a 121.5 passer rating and an outright ludicrous 9.97 adjusted yards per attempt. You don’t quarterback better than that.

The Cowboys offense went for an extended stretch where punting wasn’t on the menu. Before Sunday night, they hadn’t punted since you were carving into your Thanksgiving turkey.

Taking out the Eagles in an authoritative fashion was simply the exclamation mark on Prescott’s brilliant stretch. We haven’t seen a Terminator-like version of the man wearing No. 4 for Dallas before now. But that’s the quarterback every objective measure and simply the trained eye is screaming at you to acknowledge.

The broadcast had a note in the second half that really sold me on why I’m letting go of my preconceived notions of Prescott to accept this version as the man behind the mask. Cris Collinsworth and Mike Tirico talked about how Prescott was almost evangelically selling them on the idea of how the West Coast offense and its emphasis on footwork had changed his approach to the position. Paraphrasing here but he essentially told them he couldn’t believe everyone didn’t play quarterback this way, much less that he’d never done it himself. Collinsworth said he felt like a preacher.

This isn’t an out of nowhere storyline. Yahoo Sports’ own Jori Epstein wrote about how the quarterback’s footwork was to be the rug that tied the room together for the entire offense in August. “This is the first year we’ve really had to key in on how many steps he’s taking so we know how fast the ball is coming out. They harp on that every day,” Michael Gallup told Jori in training camp.

Mike McCarthy sent Kellen Moore out the door so that he could take full ownership of the offense and despite a wave of public skepticism at best and ridicule at worst, it’s worked to an astounding degree. The head boss decided he was going to do things his way and the whole unit would fall in line.

Not only have these players we thought we knew like Dak Prescott fallen in line with the West Coast offense, but they’ve universally become the best versions of themselves as the season has gone on.

No player represents that more than the quarterback.

Hope for the Chiefs’ passing game

There was some rhetoric this week that if the Chiefs just narrowed the passing tree down to Travis Kelce and Rashee Rice, that would be enough. Get the ball to your good players. It makes all the sense in the world. I get it.

Well, those two accounted for 20 of Patrick Mahomes’ 43 pass attempts. No one else saw more than four. Realistically, you can’t get it much tighter than that, especially with the defensive attention paid to Kelce and where Rice is in his developmental curve. If it feels like the Chiefs are playing one man short, it’s because they are.

Plain and simple, one other passing-game player needs to step up. And at this point, who in their right mind would think that will happen? Every week it’s at least one of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore or Kadarius Toney making a mind-numbing mistake in a critical moment. It was Toney’s turn in Week 14, who followed up a mid-game drop by lining up offsides on what would have been the go-ahead, late-game touchdown.

The Chiefs players and anyone else can miss me with any hurt feelings about that being called when it’s been a point of emphasis this year. It impacts the play, he’s so clearly offsides and never checked with the ref.

That last one is part of the gig if you’re the on-the-line receiver and I can’t think of any more mistake-prone player who deserves less of a benefit of the doubt.

Week 14 was especially problematic because, with Isiah Pacheco out, the Chiefs felt like they were down two players: A starting-caliber back and that theoretical receiver. Pacheco isn’t a perfect back, but he’d been setting a strong tone as a pure rusher the last few weeks. If you thought Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jerick McKinnon was about to fill that void or be a strong fantasy plug-and-play in this version of the Chiefs offense down the stretch, think again.

This is who the Chiefs are this season; accept it and live with it. No reinforcements are coming and whittling it down to Rice and Kelce isn’t close to enough. Mahomes is good enough to win with this receiver group, but it will take an assist from the run game and near-flawless execution.

Neither thing happened this week and they lost. It’s that simple.

If C.J. Stroud struggles the rest of the season

If you wanted proof of how good Tank Dell and Nico Collins have been this season, look no further than C.J. Stroud’s 91 yards on 23 attempts against the Jets in Week 14 before leaving in the concussion protocol.

Dell was lost for the rest of the season last week and Collins left this game after one catch with a calf injury. He was ruled out quickly after heading to the locker room, which could be an inauspicious sign of his availability going forward.

And suddenly, Stroud has a supporting cast that looks an awful lot like what Bryce Young has dealt with in Carolina: full of rotational NFL players who struggle to get open.

So whatever happens with Stroud the rest of the way doesn’t really matter. We know what he looks like when he’s on and surrounded by plus-NFL starters. That’s what Collins and Dell are; they have been some of the best wide receivers in the league this year, full stop. Neither is a Stroud creation and while these guys are alright players, the drop to Robert Woods, Noah Brown, etc. is steep.

I have enough faith in Stroud to believe, when healthy, he can problem-solve and have some positive moments the rest of the season. You especially feel that way when the matchups are more manageable than the Jets in a bad-weather game.

His rookie season, when his guys were out there, was already enough of a proving ground for where he stands on the NFL quarterback pantheon.

The Lions at home

I do not always love walking down Narrative Street, but the Jared Goff splits are hard to ignore. We know he can carve up a defense in Detroit within the safe confines of the dome. Unless they thump one of the true NFC contenders at home — such a game doesn’t exist on their remaining schedule — no win at home would actually count as a victory that moves the needle for them.

The Lions will draw a matchup with the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 17. Dallas’ stadium doesn’t present a possibility for an outdoor cold-weather type of game that has so often haunted Goff. He struggled on Sunday in those exact conditions, checking in with a 4.6 yards per attempt mark and a pair of picks. But it sure feels like a long time ago when we were (prematurely) talking about the Lions possibly leaping into the top tier of teams in the NFC. Even in a road game with favorable conditions like that upcoming Week 17 matchup, the Lions are just not in that class.

The biggest issue for the Lions isn’t really Goff, though; the defense has completely fallen apart amid massive cluster injuries to the secondary. Coming into this week, they ranked 32nd in dropback success rate allowed since Week 8. A front four that was playing good football to start the year has had its ups and downs since.

That defensive decline has made it a non-negotiable necessity for the Lions to get something close to the best version of Goff every week to win games. History shows us that is not something we can bank on, especially in very particular and unavoidable conditions this time of year.

Drake London’s 2023 fantasy stats

At least once per season, there is an instance of a verifiably good young wide receiver who sinks in fantasy football through no fault of their own. No wide receiver can fully overcome their environment, no matter how talented they are.

Drake London spent Week 14 reminding you how good he is and why you should care about that, not his current standing outside the top-35 fantasy receivers on the season.

The Buccaneers had been giving it up to outside wide receivers recently, and London took advantage of the excellent matchup. He caught 10 of 11 targets for a season-high 172 yards. London recorded multiple catches of 20-plus yards and showed off his route diversity.

The Falcons are a strange operation, as we all well know. Quarterback uncertainty has haunted the team throughout the season. Even if Desmond Ridder enjoyed one of his better days as a downfield passer in Week 14, the volatility and low moments are challenging for any offense to overcome. This is the destiny the Falcons chose. It’s hard to feel too bad for the brain trust when no actual competition was added in the offseason.

After a loss today, the Falcons now have a 25% chance to win the NFC South, per the New York Times prediction model. That would go down as a pretty brutal bag-fumbling for Atlanta. Missing the playoffs in Year 3 of the Arthur Smith/Terry Fontenot regime may create the need for some changes or at least necessary, aggressive moves at quarterback. Such new conditions would be a welcome change for London.

If those changes do happen, remember and care about the talent in your fantasy drafts next season and when making dynasty decisions. Situations aren’t forever but player ability is sticky.

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