Have you ever seen Barack Obama fill out his NCAA tournament bracket? It’s all chalk. The man doesn’t pick upsets. Last year he picked two No. 1 seeds to meet in the championship (Kansas and North Carolina), which wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.
I can only assume this bland, paint-by-numbers approach to picking is why we invented terms like “sleeper” and “dark horse.” It’s the sports world’s way of spicing things up. Plus it gives us more to talk about. “The Patriots Are Good … The End” would not be a New York Times bestseller.
I picked two sleepers at the start of the year. One was Jacksonville (facepalm) and the other was Oakland. So I’m batting .500.
The Raiders, as I’ve stressed endlessly in these Power Rankings, are the real deal. My hypothesis was confirmed Sunday when the Raiders cruised to an easy 30-20 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. That victory catapulted Oakland to first place in the AFC West, a division the Raiders haven’t won since 2002.
Oakland didn’t even need to bring out the big guns to beat Denver. MVP candidate Derek Carr attempted a season-low 31 passes while taking a backseat to linebacker-sized running back Latavius Murray (114 rushing yards, three touchdowns).
The Raiders are in no way a perfect team. Their passing defense remains far too generous, yielding over 283 yards per game (fifth-most in the NFL). But with only three games left against teams with winning records (including a rematch with Denver in Week 17), Oakland has an excellent chance to secure one of the AFC’s top two seeds. Now let’s dig into the rankings …
1. New England Patriots
Last Week: 1
Might this be the week we finally see Dion Lewis? The Pitt alum was a fantasy behemoth last year, averaging 89.4 yards from scrimmage with four touchdowns in only seven games. A healthy Lewis would be a nice luxury but as the team’s record shows, the Pats have done just fine without him. Sunday night’s game against Seattle will be a rematch of Super Bowl XLIV, which means you’ll probably see this highlight quite a few times.
Fantasy Tidbit: The Patriots are 4-0 since Tom Brady’s return to the lineup. They’ve won those games by a combined 65 points.
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2. Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 2
Dak Prescott followed up the worst game of his career in Week 8 with a gem against Cleveland in Week 9 (21-of-27, 247 yards, three touchdowns). Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to get Dez Bryant going (one catch for 19 yards). In Bryant’s five games with Prescott, he’s caught just 39 percent of his targets. That would be a lot more concerning if Dallas wasn’t on a seven-game winning streak.
Fantasy Tidbit: Cole Beasley averaged 69.8 yards with no touchdowns in his first four games this season. In four games since, he’s averaged 55 yards with four touchdowns.
3. Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 8
Oakland’s offense is a well-oiled machine. You already know about the Carr/Cooper/Crabtree trifecta but how about Latavius Murray’s resurgence? He’s hit pay-dirt five times in only three games since coming back from turf toe. Murray is tied for third in the league in rushing touchdowns with eight despite logging only 89 carries, which ranks 23rd among running backs.
Fantasy Tidbit: Khalil Mack has recorded six sacks over his last four games. In five games prior to that, he had just one sack.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 6
A knee injury limited Julio Jones to three catches for 29 yards in Week 8. Four days later against the Bucs, he was good as new (eight catches, 111 yards, one TD). I bet you didn’t see this coming: Taylor Gabriel has caught eight passes for 120 yards and one touchdown over his last two games. Gabriel couldn’t even make Cleveland’s 53-man roster out of training camp. It’s all clicking for the Falcons right now.
Fantasy Tidbit: Matt Ryan leads the league with 23 touchdown passes. That’s more than he threw all of last season.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 5
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Chiefs Sunday against Jacksonville. Their best receiver (Jeremy Maclin) left after one series, their Pro Bowl tight end (Travis Kelce) got himself ejected and third-string running back Charcandrick West was just flat-out awful. Not to mention that Nick Foles was getting the start at quarterback for Alex Smith, who may or may not have been concussed. Luckily the Jaguars are so pitiful that none of it even mattered.
Fantasy Tidbit: Kelce has totaled 435 receiving yards this year. That’s the fifth-most among tight ends.
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6. Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 7
The Seahawks got away with one in Week 9. Maybe they would have won anyway, but shame on Walt Anderson and his crew for botching what should have been an easy call against Richard Sherman for roughing the kicker. Controversy aside, Jimmy Graham continues to be a freak of nature while Russell Wilson finally ended his touchdown drought with three scores (two passing, one rushing) on Monday night.
7. Denver Broncos
Last Week: 3
The Broncos have dropped three of their last five and while much of the blame will be placed on their anemic offense, the real culprit has been a non-existent run defense. The Broncos have allowed 100-yard games to Latavius Murray and Melvin Gordon in consecutive weeks and now rank 29th out of 32 teams in rushing yards allowed (128.6 per game). Last year, the Broncos were third in that category (83.6).
8. New York Giants
Last Week: 17
Sunday was Eli Manning’s third game with three or more touchdowns this season. He’s also had three games where he hasn’t thrown any touchdown passes. Odell Beckham was held under 50 yards for the second straight week but kept fantasy owners happy by scoring a pair of touchdowns. He’s followed up a five-game touchdown drought by scoring five times in his last four contests.
Fantasy Tidbit: Sterling Shepard’s touchdown Sunday against Philadelphia was his first since Week 3.
9. Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 4
What can we expect with Pat Shurmur running the show on offense? A whole lot of Stefon Diggs. The second-year wideout delivered a PPR game for the ages with 13 catches for 80 yards Sunday against Detroit. Diggs has now seen 27 targets over his last two games. That’s almost as many as he had in his previous four games combined (29).
Fantasy Tidbit: The Vikings have scored a combined 36 points during their three-game losing streak.
10. Detroit Lions
Last Week: 18
Was this flip by Golden Tate necessary? Probably not, but it sure made for a great highlight and a dramatic conclusion to Sunday’s overtime win over the Vikings. Speaking of Tate, the seven-year veteran has now seen double-digit targets in three of his last four games. He’s averaged 94.8 yards per game while leading the Lions to a 3-1 record during that span.
Fantasy Tidbit: Marvin Jones has caught just eight passes for 132 yards during his three-game touchdown drought.
11. Washington Redskins
Last Week: 13
The Redskins were off last week but that didn’t stop them from shaking up their backfield. Rob Kelley will draw the start against Minnesota on Sunday with Matt Jones shifting into a backup role. Jones has had a rough month, getting benched against the Lions in Week 7 and then missing the next week with a knee injury. Once considered a weekly RB2 in fantasy, Jones is quickly falling off the RB3 map.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jamison Crowder has nabbed 16-of-22 targets for 215 yards and one touchdown over his last two games.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 9
Ben Roethlisberger laid an egg in his return from a torn meniscus, though he salvaged the afternoon for fantasy owners with a couple of late touchdowns. Sammie Coates also fell flat against Baltimore, failing to haul in any of his five targets. He’s caught just one pass for four yards over his last three games. To make matters worse, Chris Boswell did this on Sunday. Call it the butt fumble of onside kicks.
Fantasy Tidbit: Le’Veon Bell has caught at least five passes in every game this season. He’s also tallied at least 30 receiving yards in each game.
13. Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 12
David Johnson, the league’s top fantasy running back, faces the 49ers, at home, coming off a bye week. Can you imagine the carnage? They should have the Jaws theme playing in the background. It’s almost TOO good of a spot. But seriously, if DJ can’t muster at least 150 yards against this punching bag of a defense, the whole week’s a failure.
Fantasy Tidbit: Larry Fitzgerald is on pace for 162 targets this year, which would be his most since 2010.
14. Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 14
After treading water for the first two months, the Bengals are set up well for the second half of the season. Tyler Eifert is finally 100 percent and A.J. Green has been arguably the best receiver in football this year. Plus the Bengals have a cake schedule coming up with only two games left against teams with winning records. The Bengals don’t have a winning record themselves, but the needle is definitely pointing up in Cincy.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jeremy Hill is seventh in the league in yards per carry (5.0). That’s way up from last year when he ranked 45th out of 47 qualifiers at running back (3.6).
15. Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 10
The Packers certainly weren’t expecting to be 4-4 at this juncture but they haven’t lost much ground in the NFC North and they’re starting to get healthy. James Starks (knee) should be only a week or two away while Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery both returned in Week 9. The Packers are also getting good production out of Jordy Nelson, who has registered 11 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns over his last two games.
Fantasy Tidbit: Aaron Rodgers has led the Packers with 103 rushing yards over the last two weeks.
16. Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 11
Coach Doug Pederson finally confirmed what had already been true for weeks: Darren Sproles has supplanted Ryan Mathews as the lead back. It will be interesting to see what the pint-sized veteran can do with a full workload. Sproles has never logged more than 93 carries in a season. Carson Wentz set a career-high with 364 passing yards in Week 9, but also threw a pair of interceptions. Four of his five picks this year have come over his last three games.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jordan Matthews’ 88 yards on Sunday were his most since Week 1 against Cleveland (seven catches for 114 yards).
17. Houston Texans
Last Week: 15
Houston’s secondary was surprisingly stingy in the first half. Led by A.J. Bouye (third-highest PFF grade out of 117 qualifiers at cornerback), the Texans have allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game (190.5) this season. Coming off the bye, Lamar Miller should be ready to roll in Week 10. He was limited by a shoulder injury in his last game against Detroit.
Fantasy Tidbit: At home, Brock Osweiler has completed 64.2 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and an 83.2 quarterback rating. On the road he’s connected on just 52.4 percent of his passes with only one touchdown and a 58.9 rating.
18. San Diego Chargers
Last Week: 19
The NFL’s most improved player this year has to be Melvin Gordon. MG3 has cruised to 416 yards from scrimmage while averaging 5.58 yards per carry over his last two contests. He’s now tied with LeGarrette Blount for the league-lead in rushing touchdowns with nine. Meanwhile Tyrell “The Gazelle” Williams enjoyed another productive game, gashing the Titans for 65 yards and a touchdown in Week 9.
Fantasy Tidbit: Antonio Gates has seen at least nine targets in three straight games. The 75 yards he posted in Week 9 were a season-high.
19. Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 22
Mike Wallace’s #RevengeGame against Pittsburgh did not disappoint. He lit up the Steelers for a season-high 124 yards while helping the Ravens halt their four-game losing streak. Wallace contributed his first touchdown since Week 2 on this beauty, which now stands as the longest play from scrimmage in Ravens’ history. The eight-year veteran is on pace for 1,228 yards, which would be his most since 2010.
Fantasy Tidbit: Terrance West has averaged 1.35 yards per carry with no touchdowns over his last two games.
20. New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 20
If you didn’t know about Michael Thomas before last week, well now you do. The second-round rookie is on pace for over 1,100 yards receiving with double-digit touchdowns. Mark Ingram went bonkers in Week 9 (171 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns) but it came against the league’s worst run defense and he was still out-touched 24-17 by Tim Hightower. Expect New Orleans to ride the hot hand again Sunday versus Denver.
Fantasy Tidbit: Willie Snead has averaged 49.8 yards with no touchdowns in five games since coming back from a toe injury.
21. Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 24
It wasn’t 200 yards but Jay Ajayi was still plenty productive in Sunday’s win over the Jets (111 rushing yards, one TD). He’s averaged 176.3 rushing yards during the Dolphins’ three-game winning streak. Unfortunately Ajayi’s emergence has come at the expense of Ryan Tannehill, who has thrown just three touchdown passes over his last five games.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jarvis Landry has averaged 58.2 receiving yards during his five-game touchdown drought.
22. Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 16
The Bills have lost three straight following a four-game winning streak. That’s not what you want heading into a bye week but at least LeSean McCoy played well in his return from a hamstring injury, ripping the Seahawks for 120 yards on 25 touches. We’ve been waiting years for Robert Woods to break out. It finally happened on Monday night (10 catches for 162 yards on 13 targets).
Fantasy Tidbit: Tyrod Taylor leads all quarterbacks with 362 rushing yards this season.
23. Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 23
Greg Olsen has cooled off considerably over his last few games. A drop in targets might be the culprit. Olsen averaged 10.6 targets over his first five games this year but has only averaged 5.7 over his last three contests. Olsen’s falling target share could be tied to Kelvin Benjamin’s emergence. Benjamin has totaled at least 70 yards in four straight games, though he hasn’t found the end zone since Week 4.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jonathan Stewart has logged at least 15 carries in four of five games this year.
24. Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 27
Donte Moncrief hasn’t been a yardage monster in 2016 (42.3 yards per game) but the touchdowns keep coming. Sunday’s end-zone visit was his third in four games. Frank Gore made quick work of the Packers on Sunday, gashing Green Bay’s top-ranked run defense for 71 yards (60 rushing, 11 receiving) and two touchdowns. It was Gore’s first multi-touchdown game since Week 15 of last season.
25. Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 21
It’s officially time for us to start paying attention to Rishard Matthews. Tennessee’s big free-agent splash has caught fire with five touchdowns over his last five outings. Matthews enjoyed his third career two-touchdown game this past Sunday while earning a season-high 10 targets. Marcus Mariota’s touchdown bonanza continued with four more TDs (three passing, one rushing) in Week 9. He’s turned into a weekly QB1 in fantasy.
Fantasy Tidbit: Among tight ends, Delanie Walker is tied for the league lead with four touchdowns.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 25
The good news is that Mike Evans and Jameis Winston are both fine after suffering injury scares on Thursday night. The bad news is that Tampa Bay is down to its fourth-string running back after losing Doug Martin (hamstring), Charles Sims (knee, I.R.), Jacquizz Rodgers (foot) and Antone Smith (knee, I.R.) to various injuries. Undrafted rookie Peyton Barber is set to lead the backfield for the second week in a row, but he’s only a last-ditch RB3 in fantasy.
Fantasy Tidbit: Evans leads the NFL in both targets (103) and touchdown catches (eight).
27. New York Jets
Last Week: 28
Ryan Fitzpatrick plans to play through a sprained MCL but at this point, wouldn’t the Jets be better off seeing what they have in Bryce Petty? He couldn’t possibly be any worse than Fitzpatrick, who has thrown just five touchdowns with 12 interceptions over his last seven games. He’s completed only 54.8 percent of his passes during that span.
Fantasy Tidbit: Matt Forte has averaged 91.3 rushing yards with five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) over his last three games.
28. Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 26
Case Keenum looked sluggish Sunday, even in a mouthwatering matchup with Carolina’s overmatched secondary. The Rams don’t plan on unveiling Jared Goff until they’re safely out of playoff contention, which won’t be for a few more weeks. L.A.’s intolerable quarterback play would be easier to swallow if they were getting anything at all from Todd Gurley, but that hasn’t been the case.
Fantasy Tidbit: After going his first five games without a touchdown, Kenny Britt has scored three times in his last three outings.
29. Chicago Bears
Last Week: 29
The Bears should feel a sense of optimism coming out of the bye week. Alshon Jeffery ended a lengthy touchdown drought in Week 8 while showing renewed chemistry with Jay Cutler. In that same game, Jordan Howard asserted himself as the Bears’ clear lead back with 202 yards from scrimmage in an upset win over Minnesota.
Fantasy Tidbit: Among rookies, only Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for more yards than Howard this year (505).
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 30
Allen Robinson finally showed up in Week 9, contributing a season-high 76 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Kansas City. He also matched season-highs in both catches (seven) and targets (11). Robinson could see even more targets this week if the Jags are without Allen Hurns (concussion). Chris Ivory’s 107 rushing yards in Week 7 were a season-best but his goal-line fumble killed the Jags’ fourth-quarter rally. No, Gus Bradley has not been fired yet.
Fantasy Tidbit: Marqise Lee has already set a career-high in yards this season (442) but has yet to score a touchdown.
31. San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 31
Just when we thought San Francisco’s run defense couldn’t sink any lower, Week 9 happened. Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower gobbled up 245 yards and two touchdowns as the Saints handed the 49ers their seventh straight loss. As far as bye-week fill-ins go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than DuJuan Harris. The 142 yards from scrimmage he tallied in Week 9 were more than Carlos Hyde has totaled in any game this year.
Fantasy Tidbit: Colin Kaepernick’s 398 passing yards on Sunday were his most since Week 1 of 2013 when he threw for a career-high 412 yards in a win over Green Bay.
32. Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 32
It looks like the Isaiah Crowell ship may have finally sailed. Crowell rushed for a season-low four yards on six carries Sunday and has failed to clear 30 yards rushing in four of his last five games. Corey Coleman’s return from a hand injury was uneventful (three catches for 41 yards) but that’s to be expected after a six-week layoff. The Browns take a 12-game losing streak into Thursday night’s game at Baltimore.
Fantasy Tidbit: Jamie Collins played all 73 defensive snaps in his Browns debut Sunday against Dallas. He played on just 61.5 percent of snaps in his last game for New England.
Biggest Rise: Giants9
Biggest Fall: Bills6