- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
I'm writing this on Wednesday but with an eye toward Thursday, because on Friday, a lot of unhappy fantasy owners will ask some variation of the following question: "Wait, there was an NFL game last night?" Why yes, there was -- ahem, will be -- and based on the Week 10 rankings, I'm expecting big things from San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and his top two running backs as well as from Michael Bush on the Oakland Raiders side.
First of all, most of you can wait until Sunday morning to finalize lineups, but I am aware that in some leagues, they lock after the first game begins. Well, the first game is Thursday until Week 17, when many of you will have already started talking fantasy baseball (or, we hope, fantasy hoops!). But I have to admit that quite a few of these Thursday tilts don't have much surprise fantasy appeal. For example, how many Seattle Seahawks will you trust against the Philadelphia Eagles (Dec. 1)? Any Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh (Dec. 8)? How about those Jacksonville Jaguars in Atlanta ((Dec. 15)?
But this week, there are many decisions, and I think they begin with Bush. As of this writing, Raiders starting running back Darren McFadden, a star when healthy but not regularly healthy enough to be a full-season star, has not been officially ruled out for the game. That could change any minute. Regardless, I don't think he will play through his foot injury. McFadden last saw significant work in Week 6. Bush is arguably one of the top two or three handcuff running backs around, owned in nearly all leagues, and as we saw in Week 9, he's fully capable of handling a large rushing load. In fact, Bush has four double-digit fantasy performances this season. Meanwhile, the Chargers aren't particularly adept at stopping anything, making Bush a solid RB2 option this week.
Then there are the Chargers' running backs, who have been an ongoing soap opera this season. Ryan Mathews missed Week 9 because of a groin injury, and he hasn't done much for fantasy owners since Week 5 at Denver. Well, I expect him to do plenty on Thursday. He's listed as probable, which is good enough for me to return him to safe RB2 status. Mike Tolbert, no bastion of durability himself, is a strong flex choice. He missed Week 8 because of various ailments, but he scored the week before and the week after. He's more of an all-or-nothing option than Mathews, though.
When it comes to the wide receivers in this tilt, be careful overrating what you did -- and didn't -- see in Week 9. We have the interception kings slingin' it in this game, so don't be surprised if the football keeps changing hands. Nobody in the NFL has thrown more picks than Rivers this season, although I still believe he's a top-10 guy. Carson Palmer has thrown six interceptions in a game and a half on 56 attempts. Wow! I don't trust Palmer as anything close to a fantasy starter, especially in a week without byes, nor am I totally giving up on Darrius Heyward-Bey, the talented young wide receiver who was ignored in Week 9. "Hey-Bey" averaged more than 10 fantasy points per game from Weeks 4-7, then there was the bye week, and in Palmer's first start, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore were the busy ones. It's one game. I ranked Ford and Moore a bit worse than the staff average and was the only one to keep Heyward-Bey ranked, although it was down at No. 47. I just can't take a one-game sample size and presume it's the new Oakland hierarchy.
One other Thursday night thought: I still use my best fantasy options regardless of day or time they play. I know some people want to watch their players -- and can in national telecasts Thursday, Sunday night, Monday -- so they tend to activate them over better statistical options. I never understood that. Others feel that "getting 15 points from Palmer out of the way Thursday" is some advantage and scares their opponent into silly Sunday morning decisions. Yeah, I'm not buying that, either. I think Rivers and Jackson, Bush and Mathews, Antonio Gates and both kickers -- yikes, did I just use the word "kickers"? -- are good choices. When the game is played doesn't matter for lineup decisions when it comes to Thursday games.
Loving the Cowboys: What exactly about the Buffalo Bills' defense scares opponents or fantasy owners? I think even if Felix Jones is recovered from his ankle injury and plays this week, DeMarco Murray is the lead running back. He's averaging 3.14 yards after contact this season and 6.7 yards per rush in all, each the best marks in the league, and I don't think the Bills can change that for the better. I was the only one to rank Murray in the top 10, and I appeared to be cautious, in relation to others, in ranking Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson. I don't assume Bryant explodes into Larry Fitzgerald territory this week just because Miles Austin is out. Three of us, including yours truly, have Jason Witten as the top tight end.
Titan in name only: Three rankers have Chris Johnson at No. 11. And I have him 18th. Look, it wasn't that great a performance in Week 9, and I think the Tennessee Titans underachiever is setting us up for disappointment again. It is a favorable matchup against the Carolina Panthers, who are allowing the most fantasy points to opposing running backs, but didn't Johnson manage four fantasy points against the equally awful Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago? This is a not a guaranteed double-digit fantasy performance pending.
Phailing: It's a wise time to deal for underachieving Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, but I didn't rank him among my top 20 wide receivers for the week despite a juicy matchup with the Arizona Cardinals pending. Jackson has eight catches in the past three games and for the season has fewer fantasy points than Early Doucet and Nate Washington, among others. You likely drafted Jackson as a weekly start, thinking the contract push would ignite him, but he has disappointed. I like Jeremy Maclin more, although I didn't join colleagues in making him a top-10 choice in Week 10. This is mainly the LeSean McCoy show, in my mind.
Eric Karabell analyzes this week's rankings decisions, including where to rank the resurgent Chris Johnson, the slumping DeSean Jackson and a few fringe Chargers and Raiders options.