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Matthew Berry’s Love/Hate – Fantasy football picks, sleepers, busts for Week 14

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As soon as the Monday night game ended, the tweets came. They were fast, they were furious, and they all told a different but familiar story.

@shawnAM30177093: I thought I had the W and off to the playoffs. Instead, I lost when Wilson had to do the victory formation kneel-down, because of the yard he lost on that, I lost by 0.1! Missed out on the playoffs because of that. Gotta love FFB!!

@canescollector: Team in our league missed playoff spot by one-tenth of a point on fumble by Minnesota on kickoff return at end of game.

@king_doyle: Lost by 0.9 points in a full PPR league to miss the playoffs with Tyler Lockett putting up a zero. #MondayNightMiracle

Between Twitter, Instagram, texts and emails, I got thousands of these notes. All different but all the same, you know? Some awful, heartbreaking, really bad luck, improbable thing that happened to their team that caused their season to end. Starting with research in the offseason, too many mock drafts to mention, the draft, the waiver-wire scouring, the trade negotiations, the reading/watching/listening every week to folks while sweating start/sit decisions, living and dying with live scoring every week … fantasy football can be a many-month journey that consumes an embarrassing amount of hours for a now-dead dream.

I feel you, my friend. Truly. We’ve all been there. Every single one of us. Including Brian and Christine Hogan of Jersey City.

Brian is one of us, right? A longtime fantasy player, Brian plays in three leagues and is the commissioner of two of them, including a league he formed this year with his wife, Christine, and their extended family. The “Cuz We Can” league is a 12-team non-PPR league with, naturally, their cousins and siblings. And Brian’s team, Honey Badger, missed the playoffs in this league in part because he lost three games to his two sisters, neither of whom had ever played fantasy before in their lives.

Painful, right?

Not for Brian. Hold that thought and stay with me here. This’ll be worth it. We have to start at the beginning. Brian has been playing fantasy and running leagues for a long time, as he’s been the commish of the “Go Big or Go Home” league in New Jersey for more than a decade.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, Christine was having a party. So some mutual friends brought Brian along. They hung out at the party and reconnected a little. And then that July, Brian texted Christine to say he was going to a bar around the corner from where she lived with their friends to watch the U.S. World Cup match and she should stop by if she wanted. She did, and as Brian said to me, “We’ve been together ever since.”

As Brian added, “When Christine and I started dating in 2014, she wasn’t in any fantasy leagues. But she got invited to one that season, which I encouraged her to join based on your challenge to get just one person who’s never played before to play fantasy football. I promised I’d help with any questions she may have, but the team was all hers to control. She was hooked. She’s now in three leagues and I can’t remember the last time she asked me a fantasy football question.”

Christine fell in love with fantasy football that first year and soon after, fell in love with Brian. They got married in December 2017 and settled into a life together. Brian does tech support for a media company, while Christine is an e-commerce manager for a retail site. They both have leagues with friends, they both have work leagues, and together they started the family league I mentioned, each of them having his/her own team. Two jobs, six leagues and now, a baby. Declan Hogan came into the world about 8 weeks ago.

There were some minor complications during the birth and Christine had to have a C-section, but ultimately, mother and baby were happy and healthy.

Or so they thought.

Brian told me, “As the weeks went on, things seemed to get easier for me but more difficult for Christine. She was incredibly exhausted, so much so that every once in a while she would randomly drop things. She just didn’t have her strength anymore.”

Christine was also having trouble getting up in the middle of the night and then she got hit with such a bad headache it was hard for her to be around the baby while he was crying.

A few Saturdays ago, it was two days before Christine’s birthday and Brian had arranged for their good friend Carol to take Christine out for some much-needed non-baby time. Brian said, “When Christine and Carol returned they were laughing about how exhausted Christine is. Apparently, she was so tired that her glass kept slowly slipping from her hand and Carol had to keep pushing it back into place. But despite Carol’s best attempts, the glass eventually fell out of Christine’s hand and smashed on the ground as they were getting ready to leave. We all thought it was even funnier because it was the third thing that Christine had dropped that week.”

On Sundays, the two of them usually just watch football together, rooting for their leagues and their DFS lineups, but the day after Christine had gone out with Carol and dropped the glass, some of their friends and family came over to meet Declan for the first time. During the afternoon, when Brian came back into the room after changing Declan, Brian’s cousin Luke (an emergency room tech) mentioned that when he saw Christine smile, the left side of her mouth didn’t go up.

When Brian mentioned how Christine had been dropping things recently, Luke got concerned. With their permission, Luke called a doctor friend of his, explaining that Christine had just had a baby 5 1/2 weeks ago and was experiencing these symptoms. Brian said, “The last question Luke relayed to us was, ‘Is she experiencing any headaches’? Christine and I looked at each other and I said, ‘constantly, all week.'”

The response was immediate. “Get her to the nearest ER as soon as possible.” So Brian handed Declan with his bottle to his cousin Meghan and they headed to the closest emergency room.

After a number of hours, she was finally taken to get a CAT scan, and a little after that, the ER doctor came in.

“The results aren’t good.”

The doctor went on to explain that Christine had a large mass in her brain and that they needed to do an MRI to get more detail, but that it was in a bad spot and would need to be removed.

“Once the doctor left,” Brian said, “I put my ‘brave’ face on (which is oddly similar to my ‘do everything you can to hold back tears face’) and Christine looked at me calmly and in a very deadpan impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger she said, ‘It’s not a tuma.’ I laughed, but my darkest fears were taking over.”

The MRI confirmed that it was a brain tumor the size of an adult male’s fist that needed to be removed ASAP. The neurosurgeon in Jersey told Christine and Brian it was too big and located in too dangerous of a location for the entire thing to be removed, but that they would do what they could to get as much as possible.

I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Christine and Brian. They are in their mid-30s. They got married just two years ago, she’s a new mom and, oh, by the way, she just found out she has a large brain tumor that is most likely cancerous and can’t fully be removed.

What do you do?

What the hell do you do?

People will think I am off base for what I am about to say, and they are likely right, because it makes no logical sense and is far-fetched, but I believe there are things in this world that can’t be explained. And I believe that fantasy football is more than a game, more than a hobby. It’s a special language we speak, it’s a club, it’s something that brings us together and bonds us in a way that is deep and meaningful. It’s something that brought Christine and Brian closer together and helped cement a love that was all too critical.

As Christine told me when we spoke this week, “Brian was my rock. He was so calm, so steady and confident, I just leaned on him. I was just like, OK, it is what it is, what’s next?” She told me many times that without him she’d have been lost. She fell in love with him because of his personality, demeanor and kindness, but it was his inner strength that helped her deal with this in the moment.

And whatever you want to call it — the power of love, the karma of fantasy football, just dumb luck — it turned out that not only is the wife of one of Brian’s cousins an oncologist, but she’s a connected one. And she said, “(Christine) needs to see Dr. Fine at Weill Cornell. He’s the best neuro-oncologist in the world and I know him personally. We’ll get her transferred.”

Less than 24 hours later, Christine was transferred to New York. Brian said, “My cousin spoke to Dr. Fine, who spoke to Dr. Schwartz, the best neurosurgeon for the job, and got him to accept Christine as a patient. And less than 24 hours after that, the tumor was completely removed.”

What a wild roller coaster.

“So in less than 48 hours, we went from ‘Christine has a large brain tumor that is most likely cancerous and can’t be fully removed’ to … no more tumor,” Brian said, “I’m writing this to you on a Thursday. Thursday is the day we always make sure to set our lineups together. But it’s been four days since she found out she had a giant tumor in her brain and two days since she had brain surgery to remove the tumor.” Brian, understandably, had focused only on Christine and making sure Declan was taken care of (thank you to Brian’s sisters, parents and friends). He had forgotten all about fantasy football when he looked over at Christine.

And there she was, sitting in her hospital bed, setting her lineup!

Brian got a huge grin on his face. “That’s my wife!”

He couldn’t believe it. “There was my amazingly strong wife trying to recover from brain surgery, knowing she still has cancer in her brain that needs to be treated,” Brian said, “and she’s trying to make sure she remains in the playoff hunt!”

Brian explained that Christine has trouble with the dexterity in her left hand (the tumor was in the right side of her brain), so they turned it into a therapy exercise. He stood over her shoulder to help her concentrate on the task and she used her left hand to make all the changes to her lineups.

“She had a number of people on bye in each league, including Travis Kelce in all leagues, and no backup TE. So there was a lot of clicking around on her phone. She was getting frustrated at how long this fairly simple task was taking her, but she stuck with it and got her optimal lineups set for the week. Fantasy football has given us another common interest and has also helped in her recovery from a brain tumor that was so large it’s caused her to have to relearn how to do simple things like clicking on the ‘edit lineup’ button in the ESPN app.”

#FantasyLife, indeed.

She still has a long road ahead. Physical and occupational therapy are needed to get the left side of her body back to normal function. And this Monday they are scheduled to meet with Christine’s neuro-oncologist to find out exactly what the pathology of her tumor is to determine the best treatment for her cancer. But this is about as happy an ending as you could hope for, especially given where they were a few weeks ago.

Christine and Brian both made the playoffs in two of their three leagues. Christine finished the regular season in second place in her work league and third in the family league, but unfortunately in the league with her friends, her “Cruzin for a Brusin” team (named after Victor Cruz of her beloved Giants) missed the playoffs.

Just like all the people who tweeted at me Monday night and Tuesday.

You think she gives a damn?

So, should you?

As you may have seen, it’s Jimmy V week here at ESPN. ESPN does a lot of terrific things, but the support the company gives to The V Foundation for Cancer Research (V.org) is the best thing it does, and it’s not close. And it’s because of stories like Christine’s and Brian’s. Here’s the awful part. I knew I wanted to write about something this week related to cancer to try to do my part to publicize the great work The V Foundation does. So I have a public email (MatthewBerryTMR@gmail.com) and I went to it and just searched for the word “cancer” to see what would come up.

Hundreds of emails popped up.

It’s how I found Brian’s email, which he said he was inspired to write because he had read about Tracy Rudolph’s story earlier this year. And Tracy’s story came about because of Travis Anderson’s story from the year before. Which came about because of (at the time) 14-year-old Joe Andre. And so on. (By the way, last I spoke with Tracy, Travis and Joe, they are all doing well).

I’m thrilled for them, but it’s so awful. I could write nothing but stories about cancer for the rest of my life and still not make a dent. It’s why The V Foundation is very important to me, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to help raise a lot of money for it over the years. Our ESPYS day fantasy experiences always do well (thank you for that) and in the $100K charity Agbo Superhero League I’m playing in, I’m playing for The V Foundation and, thanks to some high-scoring weeks and making the playoffs, I’ve earned $5,000 for Jimmy V with another $32,000 still up for grabs.

In addition, my offer to unblock anyone I’ve blocked on social media in exchange for a donation to The V Foundation still stands. If you’d like to do that, just donate whatever you can afford to V.org, and then send me a copy of your receipt and your username to UnblockMe@espn.com, and I’ll unblock you. I can only promise myself, but I’m happy to ask others on your behalf if they’ll unblock you.

I want to thank Christine and Brian for sharing their story. They wanted the details out there so that maybe, hopefully, it can help others who may be going through the same thing or to detect if something is off.

For Christine, Tracy, Travis, Joe and everyone else, wherever you are in life, playoffs or not, remember: Don’t Give Up. Don’t Ever Give Up.

Let’s get to it. Thanks as always to Kyle Soppe and Damian Dabrowski for their help at various points in this column. This is written with the playoffs in mind, so my feeling is you have your starters set, so this is more risk-averse (except where noted) and the players may be better fits for those of you who don’t have a no-brainer starter at a position. The “hates” are a bit thin because we are in Week 14; you’re starting your best players, even if they have a tough matchup.

Quarterbacks I love in Week 14

Kirk Cousins, Vikings (vs. Lions): The Lions have allowed the second-most yards per completion this season, making this an inviting matchup for Cousins. Creating pressure at the fifth-lowest rate, Cousins should have plenty of time to throw, and that’s a good thing. When not pressured this season, Cousins is top five in the NFL in yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage and passer rating. Ten times this season a QB has scored 18 or more fantasy points against the Lions. On Sunday, Kirk makes it 11.

Carson Wentz, Eagles (vs. Giants): OK, fine, it was the Dolphins, but after getting all his pass-catchers back, he looked like the Carson Wentz we all drafted this year. As the only QB with at least 40 pass attempts in each of his past three games, Wentz’s volume should produce a lot of fantasy points against a Giants defense that allows opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at the sixth-highest rate and to throw a touchdown on 5.7% of passes, the fourth-highest rate. A QB has scored at least 20.5 points against the Giants nine times this season. I say Wentz makes it 10.

Sam Darnold, Jets (vs. Dolphins): He was on the “Love” list last week, and that, ahem, did not work out well. But I am back in on him again, as prior to last week Darnold was seventh or better among QBs in each of the past three weeks. Despite putting together a few wins recently, the Dolphins are still a terrible defense that allows a touchdown pass on an NFL-high 7.3% of attempts. They are also the second-worst team in the NFL in creating pressure, so Darnold should have a clean pocket to pick apart a Dolphins team that gives up the second-most fantasy points to opposing QBs.

Others receiving votes: For those in deeper leagues, don’t look now, but Ryan Tannehill has accounted for multiple touchdowns in six straight games, and you have to like the matchup with an Oakland team that ranks in the bottom five in opponent yards per pass attempt, yards per completion, pressure rate, red zone defense and goal-to-go defense. … I’m as surprised as you, but yeah, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the fifth-best QB in fantasy last week. With three different games of at least 23.1 fantasy points since Week 9 (only Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen can say that), Fitz certainly can be worth the risk. Miami can’t run the ball, DeVante Parker is playing great right now, and you know from the Darnold entry above that I believe the Jets put up points in this game. That makes Fitzpatrick a viable streamer this week.

Quarterbacks I hate in Week 14

Drew Brees, Saints (vs. 49ers): Since Week 3, no QB has scored more than 14.5 points against the 49ers without at least 30 rushing yards. Current rushing totals this season: Matthew Berry 0, Drew Brees minus-1. But it’s not just my commanding lead over Brees as a rusher that has me concerned here, nor is it just a great Niners defense that has been the best passing defense in the NFL the past four weeks. Both of these offenses rank bottom five in pace of play, so you’re looking at limited possessions for Brees against a San Francisco defense that allows just 2.2 red zone drives per game, second fewest in the NFL.

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers (vs. Colts): Man, I hope I’m wrong here. I need to use Winston in multiple playoff games this week, including the 16-team “ESPN War Room” league, in which I’m facing Christian McCaffrey. Yeesh. Anyway, the Colts play zone for the majority of opponents’ dropbacks, and that’s an issue, as only Mason Rudolph and Daniel Jones have a lower passer rating against zone defense than Winston this season. (For the record, Winston’s passer rating NOT against zone is higher than that of Aaron Rodgers, among others). Look, you never know with Jameis, and certainly, after last week’s fluky zero-touchdown game, he could easily go off here. There’s risk every week that you get Bad Jameis (four finishes as QB20 or worse this season, including last week), and masking it with pure volume isn’t likely against a Colts team that likes to run and control the clock. Opponents average the fifth-fewest snaps per game against Indy. I have Winston outside my top 10 for the week.

Running backs I love in Week 14

Todd Gurley II, Rams (vs. Seahawks): Sean McVay has decided to no longer be an idiot. That’s not me talking — I’m as big of a McVay fan as there is all the way back to his Redskins TE coach days. No, that’s McVay himself talking to our Lindsey Thiry, who does a great job covering the Rams for us. When Lindsey asked what’s gone into Gurley’s increased usage recently, McVay said, “Me not being an idiot.” In playing more than 77% of the snaps the past four weeks, Gurley has at least 20 touches, 100 scrimmage yards and a touchdown in two of his past three games. Now he gets a home game against a Seahawks defense that has allowed 13 rushing touchdowns this season (tied for third most) and has the second-worst red zone rushing touchdown percentage allowed. Gurley had 18 touches and two scores in the Week 5 heartbreaking loss to Seattle, and I have him as a top-10 play this week.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons (vs. Panthers): Fire Ron Rivera. Fire whomever you want. It’s not gonna bring back Kawann Short, Dontari Poe or make Gerald McCoy 100 percent for Sunday. (McCoy missed practice on Wednesday). The defense has been banged up all year, and it keeps getting worse: The Panthers have allowed a rushing touchdown in nine straight games and have actually allowed multiple rushing scores in five of the past seven. Poor tackling (a league-worst 2.2 yards per carry after first contact) and a bad red zone scoring defense (they allow red zone touchdowns at the sixth-highest rate in the league) all add up to a nice matchup for Freeman in his second game back. He got a pretty big workload in his first game back, as he had 21 touches, including 17 of the Falcons’ 23 RB rushing attempts.

Joe Mixon, Bengals (at Browns): Mixon has five straight games with at least 15 carries (the second-longest active streak in the league), and it was encouraging to see Mixon continue to get a big workload for Cincy in The Return of the Red Rifle (soon to be streaming on Disney+? An older, likable, redheaded but-not-super-accurate lawman in the Old West returns to try to save the town after the hotshot youngster can’t keep the outlaws at bay. I’d pay for that.). It helped the Bengals win, of course, but 23 touches is 23 touches (he had averaged 12 carries with Dalton under center this season previously) and a heavy workload against the Browns should pay dividends. Cleveland allows the fourth-most yards per carry before first contact this season and coughs up more than 22 points per game to RBs. Mixon has scored in two of the past three games, as well.

Others receiving votes: Now, I’m not expecting last week’s output, but I will say James White was in this section last week as a “love” and if you started him, well, I suspect you were happy with the results. A top-30 RB in 10 of 11 games this season, he leads the Patriots in red zone yards and leads the entire NFL in red zone receptions. Only the Cardinals allow more red zone drives per game than the Chiefs. KC also coughs up a pitiful 9.96 yards per catch after the reception to running backs this season. … James Conner returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday, so who knows, but assuming Conner doesn’t play in this game, you have to like Benny Snell Jr.‘s chances as a viable flex here. He has 64.9% of the Steelers’ RB carries over the past two weeks, including 10 of 13 RB red zone carries. I expect another run-heavy approach for Pittsburgh on Sunday with Devlin Hodges under center (since Week 6 they are seventh in rush percentage). Seven times this season a RB has gotten at least 17 carries against Arizona. Six of them scored at least 17 points. … Last week was a good one for my Fantasy Ride or Dies. My 2019 Ride or Die, Josh Jacobs, had another 100-yard game, even in a blowout loss. My 2018 Ride or Die, Derrius Guice, had 129 yards and two scores on just 10 carries. And My 2017 Ride or Die, Kareem Hunt, had 17.5 points, his fourth straight double-digit game. And I’m in on both Guice and Hunt this week as well. Sure, Guice has Adrian Peterson to deal with and Hunt has Nick Chubb, but I like both as high-upside flex plays this week. Guice has certainly earned more work and gets to face a Packers defense that allows the fifth-most yards per carry and the sixth-most points to opposing running backs. Meanwhile, Hunt has scored in consecutive games and has played 76 snaps to Chubb’s 80 the past two weeks. Hunt has at least five catches in three of his four games with the Browns, and the Bengals allow opponents to complete passes to RBs at the third-highest rate.

Running backs I hate in Week 14

Tevin Coleman, 49ers (at Saints): Coleman is averaging just 2.1 yards per carry the past three weeks, so it’s been a very cold stretch since his 4 TD game in Week 8. Coleman’s 8.3 points per game since Week 9 ranks him as RB45, and he’s coming off a game in which he was outsnapped by Raheem Mostert 37-10. It’s a tough matchup here, too, as since Week 4, the Saints have allowed 3.65 yards per carry (fourth best in the NFL), but my biggest concern is usage. Five different backs have been the leading weekly fantasy scorer for San Francisco this season, including fullback Kyle Juszczyk. It makes it tough to defend the Niners, but also tough to count on any one of them for consistent fantasy production in a playoff week.

Kenyan Drake, Cardinals (vs. Steelers): Did you know that since the official Arizona Cardinals Twitter handle trolled every fantasy player in the world (and then doubled down on it), they are winless, having lost five straight? That has nothing to do with Drake; I just like being petty sometimes. Anyway, it’s a tough matchup for Drake against a Steelers defense that, in the past four weeks, has allowed just one rushing TD and the fifth-fewest RB receptions. Since his big-team debut, Drake is just 33rd in rushing yards per game and is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. Plus, there’s a chance the Cards decide to use David Johnson and/or Chase Edmonds (no offensive snaps last week, but still, never know) a little more in this one. Drake is outside my top 20.

LeSean McCoy and any other Chiefs RB (at Patriots): With Damien Williams and Darrel Williams both absent from practice Wednesday and Kansas City bringing back Spencer Ware, you may think this is going to be the LeSean McCoy show on Sunday. And I believe that to be unlikely. Darwin Thompson will get mixed in some, as will Ware, potentially, since he knows the system and reportedly showed up in good health. Since Week 2, only once has a Chiefs RB gotten more than 15 touches in a game. This is most likely a RBBC. It’s a tough matchup against a New England team that has allowed just five rushing touchdowns (tied for the fewest in the NFL) and allowed more than 11 points to a RB just three times this season. With 75.4% of the Chiefs’ yardage coming through the air (fourth highest), it’s tough to see a useful day unless McCoy or someone falls into the end zone. The Pats have allowed the fifth-fewest RB receptions and the second-lowest completion percentage when the running back is targeted.

Pass-catchers I love in Week 14

Stefon Diggs, Vikings (vs. Lions): You know I’m in on Cousins this week, so makes sense I like the stack with Diggs, who had a 7-for-143 game against these same Lions in Week 7. The Lions are allowing a league-high 4.6 deep completions per game (the most since the 2012 Patriots), and after a slow start the first five weeks, Diggs has four weekly top-12 finishes at WR. Adam Thielen hasn’t run more than five routes since Week 6. Even if he is active for this game, I still believe Diggs is the Vikings’ No. 1 this week. Yes, there’s an expected shadow from Darius Slay and Diggs is coming off a tough game Monday night, but back home against the Lions’ 28th-ranked pass defense the past four weeks, I say Diggs gets loose for at least one big play.

DeVante Parker, Dolphins (at Jets): Since Week 6, the fourth-best WR in fantasy in total points has been … DeVante Parker. Let that sentence sink in. Repeat it to yourself. But it’s not a fluke. Not from the eye test, not from the volume. The Dolphins can’t play defense and can’t run the ball, but they have a competent professional QB, and as a result … Parker now has four straight games with double-digit targets. Only Julian Edelman has a longer active streak. In Week 9 against these same Jets, Parker had a 16.7% target share and wound up with a 4-57-1 line. Since that game, he has a 26.6% target share.

Alshon Jeffery, Eagles (vs. Giants): Much like Cousins/Diggs, I like Carson Wentz this week and I like his No. 1 receiver. The Giants have allowed 18 TDs to WRs this season (third most), including at least one wide receiver touchdown in five straight games (including multiple TDs in three of those games). Coming off a game in which he had 16 targets in his return to action, I like Jeffery to get into the end zone for a fourth straight meeting with the Giants.

Jack Doyle, Colts (at Buccaneers): No Eric Ebron, no T.Y. Hilton, no problem. Doyle set season highs in catches, targets and yards last week and even with the return of Parris Campbell, I expect more of the same. Dude, he had a 31.6% target share last week. He has 11 career games with eight or more targets and in those games he’s averaging 16.4 PPG. That would be TE2 on a per-game basis this season. Having scored in three of the past five games, the connection he showed with Jacoby Brissett in 2017 when he was TE7 has resurfaced just in time for a matchup with a Bucs team that allows the fifth-most points to opposing tight ends.

Others receiving votes: The Dolphins, well, they allow a lot, and high on the list is touchdowns on deep passes at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL. A league-high 26.8% of passes thrown against Miami have been of the deep variety (15-plus yards downfield), so yeah, off consecutive games of at least 17 points, gimme some Robby Anderson this week. … The people who saw Cole Beasley ball out on Thanksgiving and were surprised haven’t been paying close attention this year. Beasley has scored in five of the past seven games and 73% of Beasley’s catches have come out of the slot. The Ravens allow the fourth-lowest completion percentage to pass-catchers on the perimeter, but they allow completions to the slot at the 11th-highest rate. Beasley should be a busy flex or WR3 once again on Sunday. … Death, taxes and start your tight ends against Arizona, as the Cardinals allow more than 21 points per game to opposing tight ends. This week, Vance McDonald gets his turn. … With Eli Manning back under center (and an expectation that Golden Tate will be back in the slot), I like Sterling Shepard‘s chances at a nice day (since he would move back outside) against an Eagles secondary that’s ranked eighth worst over the past four weeks. If Tate is ruled out, however, I would back off this.

Pass-catchers I hate in Week 14

Tyler Lockett, Seahawks (at Rams): First, if you have Lockett and you are in the playoffs, congratulations on surviving THAT. Wow. Unreal. Since his amazing 40-point explosion in Week 9, here are his point totals: 5.9, bye week, 4.8 and 0. Since Week 10, on a per-game basis, he’s WR103. That’s not a misprint. He’s averaging 3.57 points per game. He has five total targets his past two games. And Seattle seems to want to run the hell out of the ball with Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Now, Lockett is very talented, as is his QB. So could he go off? Of course. But it’s the first week of the playoffs and this is an extremely risky play. Mike Clay, the godfather of WR/CB matchup analysis, believes we’ll see Jalen Ramsey on Lockett, which isn’t ideal. Since the Ramsey trade, the Rams are allowing the third-fewest yards per reception to WRs and have not allowed a TD to a WR in five of their past seven games. We all know the upside. Just understand the risk. How lucky do you feel?

John Brown, Bills (vs. Ravens): Super-talented receiver having a great season, but under 40 yards in consecutive games and now he gets a Baltimore Ravens defense that, as I noted above with Beasley, allows the fourth-lowest completion percentage to perimeter pass-catchers. With Brown’s speed and Allen’s arm, there’s always a chance he gets deep for one against his former team, but since Week 4, the Ravens are a top-10 defense in deep yards per completion and lowest deep touchdown percentage. I expect the Bills to try to run the ball against a Ravens defense that is 28th in yards per carry allowed the past four weeks and focus the pass game on dump-offs to the running backs and the slot.

Christian Kirk, Cardinals (vs. Steelers): I love the player and talent, but there’s some risk this week. Other than his huge week against Tampa Bay in Week 10 (many people have had big weeks against Tampa Bay), Kirk hasn’t even finished as a top-35 wide receiver in the past five weeks. The Steelers are the fifth-best pass defense the past four weeks, and since Week 4, they are allowing just 6.2 yards per pass attempt (fourth best in the NFL). Adding to the concern is Kyler Murray’s inconsistent passing production. Murray has six games this season without a touchdown pass (including last week) and four games with fewer than 175 yards passing (including the past two weeks). The Steelers are sixth in blitz percentage. When Murray has been pressured this season, Kirk has caught just four of his 15 targets.

Jared Cook, Saints (vs. 49ers): With three or fewer catches in seven of 10 games this season, Cook has caught 63.3% of his Drew Brees targets this season. Meanwhile, Brees to all other Saints: 78.6%. Cook is going to need a touchdown to pay off here, as he’s not a volume guy and the Niners give up a league-low 5.6 yards per pass attempt. San Francisco also gives up just four points per game to opposing tight ends, best in the NFL.

Matthew Berry — the Talented Mr. Roto — thinks you got this. Playoffs, baby. LFG.



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Former Eagles WR Harold Carmichael, Steve Sabol selected for Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial class

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Former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Harold Carmichael and former NFL Films president Steve Sabol were among six members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial class revealed Wednesday.

Others announced were former Chicago Bears tackle Jim Covert, former New York Jets tackle Winston Hill, Duke Slater, professional football’s first African-American player of the first half of the 20th century and former Bears defensive end Ed Sprinkle.

Sabol’s father, Ed, was enshrined in 2011.

The six were among the 13 enshrinees that will be revealed Wednesday. The Centennial class will include 15 enshrinees in all as Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher were announced this past weekend.

“I am numb right now,” said Carmichael on NFL Network, of getting the phone call telling him he made the Hall of Fame. “I had a flashback from 60-some year ago, thinking about the guys that helped me get here.

“This is the ultimate honor you get in the National Football League.”

The Hall’s Centennial class was selected by a blue ribbon panel in a meeting last week in Canton, Ohio. The class, which was named as part of the NFL’s 100th anniversary includes the two coaches, three contributors and the 10 senior players.

The blue ribbon panel, which included members of the Hall’s board of selectors, league historians, Hall of Famers, as well as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, chose the Centennial class from a list of 38 finalists during a meeting at the Hall of Fame this past Wednesday.

The 38 finalists were chosen from a list of almost 300 nominees over the course of the last five months.

The Hall of Fame’s Class of ’20 — comprised of modern-era players — will be selected Feb. 1 in Miami Beach, Florida, the day before Super Bowl LIV. The Hall of Fame announced the modern-era class will be enshrined in August as it usually is and the Centennial class will be a part of that enshrinement, as well as part of the league’s Centennial celebration in September in Canton.

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Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, 28, says retiring from NFL is ‘right thing to do’

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, fighting back tears in a video posted on social media, announced on Tuesday night his plans to retire from the NFL at age 28.

“There’s only one way to play this game since I was a little kid — play fast, play physical and play strong,” Kuechly said. “And at this point I don’t know if I am able to do that anymore. That’s the part that is the most difficult.”

Kuechly paused to gather his emotions.

“I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” he continued. “I thought about it for a long time. Now is an opportunity to step away with what’s going on here.”

Kuechly didn’t explain exactly why he can’t play fast, physical and strong at this point in his career. What is known is that from 2015 to 2017, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year missed seven games due to concussions.

He wore an experimental device named the “Q Collar” around his neck the past three seasons; the inventor claimed it reduced the risk of concussions. Kuechly was last officially ruled out for a concussion after he was carted off the field in tears during a Thursday night game in 2017. He did miss time during training camp for an undisclosed injury, but he later insisted that wasn’t a concussion.

Kuechly said his final farewell from his favorite place besides the field, the linebackers room at Bank of America Stadium where he watched countless hours of film to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

“I think now is the right chance for me to move on,” Kuechly said. “It makes me sad because I love playing this game — I’ve played it since I was a kid. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. The memories I have from this place and this organization and being on the field with these guys — they’ll never go away.”

Former Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who selected Kuechly out of Boston College with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft, expressed to ESPN.com via text that it was good Kuechly gets to “go out on his own terms.”

“One of the really good, young men to play the game, and I am proud to be able to say I got to coach him,” wrote Rivera, now the head coach of the Washington Redskins.

Rivera was fired with four games left in the regular season, and Baylor coach Matt Rhule recently was hired to replace him. Kuechly said his decision had nothing to do with the coaching change.

Owner David Tepper praised the “tremendous impact” Kuechly has had on the organization.

“In my two seasons with Luke, I quickly recognized how special of a person he is,” Tepper said in a statement. “The respect he gives and garners from others as well as the positive impact he has on his peers is second to none.

“It’s obviously going to be very difficult for all of us because we know that no player can replace what he’s been for this organization for the last eight years. His presence can’t be replicated.”

Tight end Greg Olsen was one of many teammates who expressed how they felt about Kuechly on Twitter.

Kuechly recently pulled out of the Pro Bowl, his seventh in eight NFL seasons. Nicknamed a “tackling machine” at Boston College, he finished his NFL career with 1,092 tackles, the most by any player since 2012.

But what made Kuechly one of the best all-around linebackers in the league was his versatility. His 18 interceptions are the most by a linebacker in the league since 2012 and the third most in franchise history. His 75 tackles for loss are tied for fifth among linebackers during that span.

Two plays he’ll be remembered for were interceptions returned for touchdowns in the playoffs against Seattle and Arizona en route to Super Bowl 50.

Whenever he made a tackle, fans in the stands shouted, “Luuuuuke!”

“While I wish we could have him for many more years, he has done everything the right way and we respect the decision that he’s made,” Tepper said. “Luke is a once-in-a-generation player and someone we want every member of this organization to emulate.”



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Luke Kuechly retirement signals total rebuild for Panthers – Carolina Panthers Blog

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was easy to see that the final weeks of the 2019 NFL season were tough on Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. The player who prided himself on being perfect was less than that for perhaps the first time in his career.

There were times he seemed a step slow.

There were times he missed a tackle that he never would have missed before, lost gap control that he never would have lost.

But it wasn’t so obvious that anyone could have anticipated the retirement bombshell Kuechly dropped on Tuesday night, announcing that at 28 he wasn’t sure he could play as fast and physical and strong as he was accustomed.

Until Tuesday night, the word “rebuild” and new coach Matt Rhule didn’t really stick because with Kuechly, there was the feeling the Panthers always had a chance — even when they were losing their final eight this past season and seven of their final eight in 2018.

Quarterback Cam Newton liked to take on the “Superman” persona. Kuechly was the “Man of Steel.”

“Luke is like going to a famous steakhouse, hearing about Wagyu steak,” veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy told me late last season as Kuechly approached 1,000 career tackles. “It’s been pampered all its life, played music, too, and wined and all this so it can be prime for you to enjoy. And then when you get to this famous steakhouse and you order the steak and bite into it, it’s like, ‘Wow, it is as advertised.’

“Like Luke Kuechly. Luke Kuechly. Prime steak. As advertised.”

Rhule would have enjoyed coaching Kuechly. Who better to build around than a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker who loved football as much as anyone, who exuded the kind of leadership and class that is the perfect example for young players?

Kuechly wasn’t just one of the best linebackers in today’s game. He was one of the best linebackers in league history, often compared to Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher.

He was one of the best people, too.

Now he’s no longer on the field, and whether it’s for fear of suffering another concussion, the overall wear and tear of eight NFL seasons or not wanting to be a part of a rebuild, it doesn’t matter.

The loss of Kuechly makes this feel as if Rhule is starting from scratch, as he did at Temple and Baylor. It makes it feel like 1995, when the Panthers were an expansion team looking for an identity.

Kuechly was a part of the core McCoy talked about when explaining why the new coach would inherit a team that has the ability to win immediately. McCoy also mentioned Newton and tight end Greg Olsen as part of that core.

But both of them could be gone, too. Newton’s health is uncertain at age 30 as he recovers from foot surgery and Olsen has indicated that at 34 he doesn’t want to be a part of a rebuild.

Take them out of the equation with Kuechly and that’s three of the six captains for much of the past six or seven years. That’s the core that former coach Ron Rivera turned into a team that went an NFL-best 15-1 and reached Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season.

Four years later, the window of contention for the Panthers has shut, and tightly.

Now comes the question: How long will it take Rhule to create a new window?

The cupboard is not bare. There’s Christian McCaffrey on offense, the third player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. There’s linebacker Shaq Thompson and his new, four-year, $54.2 million deal on defense.

Rhule is laying the groundwork for a strong staff. He reportedly has lured 30-year-old LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady to be his offensive coordinator and longtime friend and Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow to run his defense.

But great coaches need great players, and the loss of Kuechly takes away one of the greatest to wear a Panthers jersey.

Rhule likes challenges. He’s got one now. He’s got almost a clean sheet of paper to build this team anyway he wants, particularly if Newton is released or traded.

He’s got a chance to go from the basement to the penthouse the way he did at Temple, going from 2-10 in his first season to 10 wins in his third and fourth seasons. He did the same thing at Baylor, going from 1-11 in his first season to 11-3 in his third.

He’s done this with what he calls a process, and for the most part that has meant starting from scratch. That appears to be the process here, and the first hint might have been in the video before he was introduced as his first news conference.

“I look at the Panthers as an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, what kind of culture is going to be built here?’ What is the identity going to be? What’s our plan?’” Rhule said. “We’re just going to build. In uncertain times when there’s transition, you just take your two hands and start to build. Each and every year you build a new team. No matter what you do the year before, you start over from scratch and you build.

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