This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
Opportunity is king. We've hit that point in the fantasy season when, beyond the small contingent of established stars left standing, we have to think strategically about who is going to touch the football the most at every position and who is in position to produce efficiently with those touches. What quarterbacks will be attempting the most passes due to game flow? And who is throwing to the best receivers these days? How is a team using its backfield and is their opponent equipped to limit tailbacks? Who is actually getting targets, and against what secondaries?
These questions in August, September and October all had significantly different answers. And although the answers to who is touching the football and being most effective with it may unnerve many owners these days, the fact is the football world can be a very fluid story. It's not like I could've predicted in my wildest dreams that I'd feel confident starting JuJu Smith-Schuster, Robert Woods and Orleans Darkwa over Davante Adams, Kelvin Benjamin and Doug Martin down the stretch. But like all good stories, there are plenty of plot twists. It's like Ferris Bueller said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are players you wouldn't roll out every week while Downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you might want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let's get to it.
Blake Bortles, JAC at CLE
Bortles has surprisingly been the model of consistency over the last month during a four-game stretch in which he's thrown for at least 240 yards and a touchdown in every contest while also averaging 21 rushing yards. The steady play has set a nice floor that figures to go even higher against a Browns team that's allowed multiple scores to all but one quarterback they've faced this year and whose 21 scores given up to the position are tied for the most in the league.
Blaine Gabbert, ARI at HOU
One could do worse than Gabbert in two-quarterback or superflex formats. In his last 13 full games dating back to 2015, the former first-round pick generated 18 total touchdowns with only one scoreless appearance, and that stretch included 357 rushing yards. If he could do that with the 49ers when his best receiver was a mostly washed-up Anquan Boldin, it's a safe bet he can step up his play with a clearly not-washed-up Larry Fitzgerald against a defense that's been torched for 1,115 yards and nine passing touchdowns in its last three efforts. Oh, and in that stretch Jacoby Brissett threw for 308 yards and two scores on 30 attempts to little resistance. Yeah, Houston has been that bad since losing J.J. Watt (leg) and Whitney Mercilus (pectoral) to season-ending injuries.
Jay Cutler, MIA vs. TB
In his last 12 quarters of action Cutler has thrown for 813 yards and nine touchdowns. With a glut of weapons at his disposal now that DeVante Parker is healthy, Cutler has quietly started clicking. With the Dolphins defense on tilt and a Buccaneers defense coming to town that's allowed the fourth most passing yards in the league (276.8 per game), it's hard to imagine Gase's reclamation project falling off track this weekend.
Eli Manning, NYG vs. KC
The Giants are going to be losing and they're going to be losing early. With a New York defense that's quit facing a talented offense coming out of its bye week, Manning likely will be playing catch-up most of the game. That means his attempts, which have been at 36 or higher in the Giants' last six losses, will remain high. Playing against a Chiefs defense that's given up 1,377 passing yards and 13 total touchdowns to quarterbacks in their last five outings will allow Manning to make it three straight games with at least 220 yards and multiple scores.
Samaje Perine, WAS at NO
Perine has flashed noticeable improvement on his last 30 touches after a dreadfully slow start to his rookie season. He turned those opportunities into 143 yards (4.8 yards per touch) and a score, with gains of 16 and 25 yards as a receiver. With Robert Kelley (ankle) now in injured reserve, Perine and his improved play will be needed more than ever to keep things close with a red-hot Saints team. Fortunately for his owners, the Saints have allowed a combined 354 yards to Aaron Jones, Jordan Howard, Peyton Barber and LeSean McCoy over their last four games, with each registering at least 54 scrimmage yards.
Austin Ekeler, LAC vs. BUF
With a nice blend of vision, quick feet and explosive acceleration, Ekeler has garnered double-digit touches in two of his last three games while amassing 184 scrimmage yards on 29 touches (6.3 average). What has made him flex worthy, however, is his nose for the end zone, as he's found paydirt on three of 10 catches in that stretch, including last week's breakout two-score, 119-yard day. Melvin Gordon remains the bell cow as a rusher, but Ekeler has carved out a role as a dynamic complement that will not go away. Facing a Buffalo defense that hemorrhaged 526 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns to tailbacks in just the last two weeks, Ekeler must be considered a strong flex option.
Doug Martin, TB at MIA
The game that was meant to be for Week 1 will be the very thing that saves the mojo for the Buccaneers running back who wouldn't have been able to play in it. When Hurricane Irma forced Tampa Bay and Miami to reschedule, it gave the then-suspended Martin a chance to take advantage of one of the best matchups he'll face this year. In the last two weeks the Dolphins have decided not to tackle running backs. First Marshawn Lynch found his groove by rumbling for 57 yards and two scores on 14 carries, after he'd generated just 145 yards on his previous 42 carries (3.5 YPC). Then another vet, Jonathan Stewart, gashed them on Monday Night Football for 110 yards at a clip of 6.5 YPC, after he had managed an absolutely pathetic 120 yards on 62 carries with two fumbles in his last five contests. So for Martin, who has at least 18 carries in three of his last four outings, the table is set to shrug off his recent struggle with efficiency and come through with his most complete game since Week 6.
Latavius Murray, MIN vs. LAR
Though Murray's performance has teetered on wildly erratic over the last few weeks, it's impossible to ignore his usage, which means that regardless of his efficiency the Vikings believe in his value. Four straight games with at least 16 touches is evidence of that. In that stretch he's ridden a performance rollercoaster alternating awful stat lines with impressive ones: two games totaling 181 yards and two scores, two others totaling just 85 yards on 36 touches. A Rams defense riding into town can keep him on the right track this week, however, as he shouldn't struggle to find holes against a group giving up a generous 4.5 YPC to running backs.
Duke Johnson, CLE vs. JAC
Johnson, Cleveland's leading receiver, has registered at least six catches in four of the last seven games and at least three in every contest since Week 1. He remains best suited for use in PPR formats, but facing a Jaguars team that just allowed five grabs for 77 yards and two scores to fellow receiving specialist Austin Ekeler, this is a week when Johnson may excel in any format. After all, he's coming off 88 yards on a season-high 16 touches, including 10 carries, and should remain a focal point of a Browns offense that's improved lately.
Sterling Shepard, NYG vs. KC
It's very simple, really. The Chiefs lead the league in touchdowns allowed to wide receivers and have also given up the third most yards to the position. The Giants will easily be playing from behind and Shepard is not only fully healthy after missing two games with an ankle injury, but he's also thriving. In the two games since returning from the injury he's hauled in 16 of a team-leading 22 targets for 212 yards.
Jeremy Maclin, BAL at GB
Maclin aggravated a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter prior to Baltimore's bye week but the injury came on the heels of him producing at least 98 yards or a score while fighting through soreness in two straight games. With the extra time off to rest he should be fine to suit up against the Packers and take advantage of a secondary that's recently been in disarray. After getting torched by the Lions and letting two wideouts top 100 yards, Green Bay gave up 57 yards and a score to Chicago's Joshua Bellamy while also giving up consistent chunk yards to Dontrelle Inman en route to six grabs for 88 yards in his first game active as a Bear. Maclin and his veteran wiles should have little trouble beating this defense.
Amari Cooper, OAK vs. NE (in Mexico City)
Cooper has done nothing of note since exploding for 210 yards and two scores in a Thursday night divisional showdown with Kansas City. In fact, that game remains the only time this season he's exceeded 62 yards. It's not for lack of opportunities of late, however. In two contests since his monstrous showing he's seen nine and 10 targets, respectively. Coming off their bye week at a major turning point in their season, the Raiders will need to get the pass attack humming to beat the Patriots, and Cooper figures to be a featured part of that. After witnessing the Denver duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas burn the New England secondary for 181 yards and a score, Cooper owners should be encouraged that his second-best effort is on its way.
Nelson Agholor, PHI at DAL
Prior to Philadelphia's bye week, Agholor went quiet in two blowouts of the 49ers and Broncos at home, but visiting a divisional rival fighting to keep pace in the loaded NFC playoff race, the Eagles should take a bit longer to separate in this one. If that's the case, you can bet they'll be calling on the services of their slot receiver. The last time the Cowboys faced a similarly shifty slot weapon was Week 8 when Washington's Jamison Crowder torched them for 123 yards off nine grabs. Agholor has yet to produce a 100-yard effort, but he did find the end zone in five of Philly's first seven games, and the Cowboys have allowed more scores to receivers than all but three teams.
Cameron Brate, TB at MIA
Brate has easily been a top-10 fantasy and real life tight end this season, but you sure wouldn't know it if just observing his last two box scores. With Jameis Winston (shoulder) hurt and Ryan Fitzpatrick struggling, Brate lost a streak of five straight games with at least 60 yards, producing 19 measly yards while catching two of seven targets the past two weeks. That will all change this week when Brate returns to dominating the middle of the field and the red zone against a Dolphins defense that's allowed at least 125 yards or a touchdown to a tight end in five of their last six, including scores to the likes of Phillip Supernaw, Ben Watson and Ed Dickson.
Tyler Kroft, CIN at DEN
The Broncos are giving up league-high 82.9 yards per game to tight ends, which is more than Travis Kelce averages per game (69.9). Coming off his only game since September with less than 79 yards and fewer than four catches, Kroft is poised for a bounce back. While the Broncos are stuffing the Bengals' last-ranked ground game and blanketing A.J. Green with double coverage, Kroft will exploit soft spots in the middle of the field and keep the trend alive.
Drew Brees, NO vs. WAS
The 533 pass attempts Brees is on pace for this season would be the second fewest of his tenure in New Orleans. The only other time he even threw under 635 in the last decade, the Saints won the Super Bowl. In 2009, they relied on an opportunistic defense and versatile ground attack to go the distance while Brees tossed only 514 passes. This year's rushing attack and defense are even better than the Saints team that brought home a title, and as a result Brees has only needed to throw 13 touchdowns in nine games. A Redskins defense whose strength is in its secondary is only going to keep Brees – who has three passing scores in his last four outings – uncharacteristically quiet.
Matthew Stafford, DET at CHI
The Bears are one of three defenses that have yet to allow double-digit touchdowns to quarterbacks on the season. And the nine they've given up included four by Aaron Rodgers. That means Chicago has held eight other signal callers to a combined five (none of which had more than one). In some cases that can be misleading, but it's not like they've played a bunch of slugs. Some of these passers may be having down years, but to limit the likes of Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton and Drew Brees to a combined three touchdowns says a lot about a defense. So although Stafford has been hot recently with either 400 yards or multiple scores in five straight, the odds are not in his favor in the frigid cold of Soldier Field.
Marcus Mariota, TEN at PIT
On the road, on a short week, banged up and playing poorly. Things are not looking good for Mariota entering a pivotal matchup that will dictate whether or not Tennessee even has a chance to earn a first-round playoff bye. With nearly as many ailments in his last four games – ankle, shoulder, hamstring – as touchdowns (four), Mariota is clearly feeling the effects of a rough season wearing him down, and a Steelers D tied for the second-fewest scores allowed to quarterbacks is not going to make it any easier on him.
Adrian Peterson, ARI at HOU
Few players have suffered as badly from Jekyll and Hyde syndrome as Peterson has in an Arizona jersey. In his four games with the team his carries/yards have looked like this: 26/134, 11/21, 37/159, 21/29. Based on the trend, he should go off again this week. Unfortunately, however, he must visit a Houston squad that does nothing well except slow down the run. The Texans have allowed a league-low one rushing touchdown to the tailback position, and only five teams surrender less than the 76.6 rushing yards per game they allow to running backs. Given Peterson's lack of involvement as a receiver, it's fair to expect some struggles in what portends as a defensive battle.
Alfred Morris, DAL vs. PHI
Slated to take over the lead rushing role in Ezekiel Elliott's absence, the former three-time 1,000-yard rusher figured to at least carry weekly flex value behind an excellent offensive line. Three things transpired to derail that somewhat last week: 1.) a Sean Lee hamstring injury made the usually bend-but-don't-break defense break; 2.) Tyron Smith's groin injury prevented the passing attack from keeping Dallas in the game and able to run; 3.) Rod Smith proved to be a capable complement. Those factors remain very much in play for at least another week to put a cap on Morris' touches, and an Eagles defense that has given up by far the fewest rushing yards per game to tailbacks (42.6) is going to make whatever touches he does receive amount to very little.
Joe Mixon, CIN at DEN
Although Mixon has managed steady flex numbers lately – at least 100 scrimmage yards or a touchdown in four of five outings – he's done so while rushing for just 86 yards on 33 carries in the last three contests. That won't translate to much production against an even average defense, and while the Broncos have struggled in their last two games, the Bengals offense is a far cry from that of Philadelphia or New England, and Denver's top-five run defense won't be relenting enough to keep Mixon's owners content.
Davante Adams, GB vs. BAL
Adams has overtaken Jordy Nelson as the team's No. 1 wide receiver. At least, he has with Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. Adams was completely shut down by Marshon Lattimore and the Saints (who hasn't been?), but in three other games with Brett Hundley leading the way he's seen at least eight targets and produced 53 years in each, with two scores to boot. After reaching 90 yards for just the second time all season, Adams is about to come way back down to Earth. Led by a trio of talented corners in Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and first-round rookie Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens are in the top six for fewest catches (87), yards (113.1 per game) and touchdowns (five) allowed to wideouts.
Sanders is coming off a six-grab, 137-yard route-running clinic versus New England, and Thomas has scored in two straight games with Brock Osweiler under center. That strong play will hit a snag this week, however. The Bengals have allowed one receiver all season to top 75 yards, and that was way back in Week 3 when Geronimo Allison of all people notched 122 due to an absolute perfect dime Aaron Rodgers threw him on a 72-yard overtime completion. Cincinnati held both Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson to 60 yards or less in that same contest, and since that time the top performances against the Bengals have been Antonio Brown's 65 yards and a score on 10 targets and Marqise Lee's 75 yard and a score on 12 looks. So with all due respect to the talented Denver duo, Cincy is going to make Osweiler look like the bumbling chucker of a quarterback he's proven to be.
Dez Bryant, DAL vs. PHI
Even if Bryant fights his way through a knee injury that noticeably slowed him versus Atlanta, the struggling wideout – who has only one game over 75 yards this year – is going to fight a losing battle versus a Philly D that's allowed no 100-yard wide receivers and given up just two scores to the position since Oct. 1. Moreover, once a bye-week rested Carson Wentz and Co. open up a sizeable lead like the Falcons did last Sunday, Bryant may find himself on the sideline to protect that gimpy knee.
Delanie Walker, TEN at PIT
Despite fighting through nagging injuries in recent weeks, Walker has strung together three straight games with at least five catches and 63 yards. But the streak is in dire jeopardy with a short turnaround and a trip to Pittsburgh on tap. The Steelers have allowed the third fewest yards in the league to tight ends and only one touchdown to the position since September. With Marcus Mariota also less than 100% healthy, it could be a long night for the Titans' pass attack.