There were a lot of exceptional running back performances in Week 14. Nine running backs eclipsed the 20-point plateau, the most in any week since Week 3 in 2016. Among those who hit that mark last week was Green Bay Packers’ rookie runner Jamaal Williams. Williams has filled in admirably following the losses of Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones to injuries. Williams has posted three consecutive top-seven fantasy performances and is third among running backs in fantasy points over the last four weeks. It will be interesting to see how Williams will be utilized now that quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back. I suspect that Williams will remain relevant, but it is almost certain that we’ve already seen his peak from a fantasy perspective.
The fantasy playoffs are not the time to get lazy when it comes to picking who starts in your lineup and who rides your bench. You certainly cannot rely on preseason draft status, and even year-to-date production doesn’t always tell the whole story. Oftentimes, the matchups will make the biggest impact in determining which players lead you to the championship round and which will leave you with an offseason of heartbreak and regret. Here are some of the most intriguing matchups for some of fantasy’s most debated Week 15 running backs.
REX BURKHEAD AND DION LEWIS, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis have emerged as the only relevant New England Patriot running backs for fantasy purposes. The tandem has posted a combined seven top-24 finishes during their last five games. Burkhead has led the way in touchdowns (6-2) and fantasy points (66.9-53.5) during that stretch, but Lewis leads in touches (69-62) and total yards (415-309). The duo should continue their recent exceptional play when the Patriots travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. The recent loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier was evident in Pittsburgh’s Week 14 victory against Baltimore. Ravens’ running backs combined for 158 rushing yards and three touchdowns last week. Pittsburgh has also struggled recently to control backs who can catch the ball, allowing the most fantasy points via receiving production to running backs over the last four weeks. Based on that, I would lean towards Burkhead if forced to choose. But I think each is a solid fantasy play in Week 15. I would rank Burkhead as a top-15 fantasy running back and Lewis as a top-20 option in this matchup.
LATAVIUS MURRAY, MINNESOTA VIKINGS VS. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Latavius Murray had totaled 323 rushing yards and four touchdowns from Week 10 through Week 13 before coming back to Earth last week. He rushed for just 14 yards in Minnesota’s Week 14 defeat in Carolina. Carolina poses a difficult matchup for running backs, so Murray’s pedestrian effort last week is something that should be forgiven. Murray’s Week 15 outlook is much more promising as he and the Vikings will host the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati bottomed out in an embarrassing 33-7 home defeat to the lowly Chicago Bears last week. The Bengals have seemingly mailed it in and should not put up much resistance against the Vikings in this game. Cincinnati has ceded the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing running backs on the year, and have allowed the second-most rushing yards to opposing backs over the last four weeks. Murray should have little trouble shredding Cincinnati’s beleaguered defense in this game. Murray’s backfield mate Jerick McKinnon was limited in practice on Wednesday with a shoulder issue. I like Murray regardless of McKinnon’s status, but he would obviously see an even bigger boost if McKinnon were to miss this game. Either way, I have Latavius Murray as a Week 15 fantasy RB1.
JAY AJAYI, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES AT NEW YORK GIANTS
Since coming over to the Philadelphia Eagles in a midseason trade, Jay Ajayi has found himself in a three-man committee in Philadelphia’s backfield with LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. In their five games together, Blount has seen a team-high 54 touches, compared to 50 for Ajayi and 37 for Clement. However, the trio’s fantasy production has gone completely the other way. Clement has totaled 48.4 fantasy points during that stretch, compared to 39.7 for Ajayi and just 24.0 for Blount. This has largely been a situation to avoid, but there is optimism for Ajayi owners heading into Week 15. Ajayi has averaged a whopping 6.98 yards per carry in his brief tenure as an Eagle, and that seems to have afforded him more opportunities going forward. Ajayi has received 28 touches over his last two games. Blount and Clement have combined for just 30. Ajayi’s Week 15 matchup is favorable against a New York Giants’ defense which has nothing to play for and has allowed the most total yards (2,059) to opposing running backs on the year. The loss of MVP candidate Carson Wentz to a torn ACL should only increase Philadelphia’s reliance on the running game, which would only benefit Ajayi further. I think Ajayi is a safe Flex play in this matchup and can easily end the week as a top-15 running back.
JAMAAL WILLIAMS, GREEN BAY PACKERS AT CAROLINA PANTHERS
Jamaal Williams has been the beneficiary of huge workloads as coach Mike McCarthy has employed a more conservative offensive approach with Brett Hundley at quarterback. Williams has seen at least 21 touches in five consecutive contests. That is not likely to continue now that Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to return. While I cautioned in my wide receiver matchup report that Jordy Nelson doesn’t automatically become a top-10 option, the fact is that Rodgers will be throwing the ball a lot more than Hundley did. Hundley attempted more than 26 passes in just three of seven starts. Rodgers should easily eclipse that mark. Despite his recent fantasy success, Williams has not been the most efficient runner. Williams averages just 3.64 yards per carry, and only one of his 106 totes this season has gone for more than 12 yards. Williams is reliant on volume, and I his workload taking a hit in this game with Rodgers back in the fold. His matchup is also far from ideal. The Carolina Panthers have allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs on the year. We saw Carolina stymie a red-hot running back in Latavius Murray last week, and I expect them to repeat that effort in this pivotal game. I would give Jamaal Williams nothing more than Flex consideration in Week 15.
LAMAR MILLER, HOUSTON TEXANS VS. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Lamar Miller is the quintessential good-but-not-great fantasy player. Miller enters Week 15 as a fantasy RB1 on the year with an overall ranking of #11. However, he has posted only three top-12 weeks this season and has eclipsed 100 total yards in only one game. Miller has finished 12 of 13 games with between 51 and 75 rushing yards. Miller is only an RB1 when he scores, and odds are against that happening in Week 15 when the Houston Texans will host the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville has really improved versus the run since their midseason acquisition of defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. They have not allowed a running back to rush for a touchdown since Week 9, and Miller has only run for three scores on the year. I just don’t see Miller getting into the end zone in this game. Houston is also one of the biggest underdogs on the board this week, so Miller will likely receive a slightly-reduced workload. I view Lamar Miller as a mere Flex play in this matchup.
FRANK GORE, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS VS. DENVER BRONCOS
Frank Gore had a very favorable matchup last week against the Buffalo Bills, and he paid dividends for his owners. Aided by blizzard-like conditions, Gore carried the ball a ridiculous 36 times for 130 yards and finished the week as the RB16 while posting a season-high 14.0 fantasy points. His massive workload was historic, as he became the oldest player in NFL history to carry the ball 36 times in a game. Gore and the Colts will host the Denver Broncos in Week 15. The game will be played on Thursday night, which unfortunately spells disaster for Gore owners. Gore has done yeoman-like work in attempting to hold off Father Time thus far in 2017, but I cannot see that continuing this week. Gore is a 34-year-old running back who will have three days to recover from a career-high workload going up against a Denver defense which is in the top-10 in terms of fantasy points surrendered to enemy running backs. There is no conceivable scenario in which I would start Frank Gore this week. I don’t think he finishes the week as a top-40 fantasy running back. Hard pass.
SLEEPERS OF THE WEEK:
KERWYNN WILLIAMS, ARIZONA CARDINALS AT WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Kerwynn Williams has started two games in the absence of future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson and has finished as the weekly RB26 each time. Williams should get the start once again in Week 15, as coach Bruce Arians said on Wednesday that he had no idea if (not when) Adrian Peterson would play again this season. Williams has an intriguing Week 15 draw against the Washington Redskins. Washington has allowed the most rushing yards and the second-most fantasy points to opposing running backs over the last four games. Washington seems to have lost focus as their playoff hopes have recently gone by the wayside. Following last week’s lost, safety D.J. Swearinger made some pretty damning comments, suggesting that Washington was not properly prepared for their game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Washington has the look of a team that is going through the motions until their season is officially over. Williams should see close to 20 carries in this game. The volume and matchup are reasons to consider Kerwynn Williams as a low-end RB 2 in this matchup.
MARLON MACK, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS VS. DENVER BRONCOS
Many observers believed that as 2017 wore on, Marlon Mack would be given more chances to see what he can do. That has not been the case. Mack has remained stuck begging for scraps behind Frank Gore in the Indianapolis Colts’ backfield. I believe Week 15 presents the perfect opportunity for the 3-10 Colts to see what Mack can do. As I mentioned earlier, Gore is an aging back on short rest and coming off a career-high workload. There is no upside in Indianapolis continuing to run Gore into the ground this week. Gore has carried the ball 210 times this season, with a long run of just 21 yards. Four of Marlon Mack’s 76 carries have gone for more than 21 yards. Mack offers explosive playmaking ability, a trait which Gore simply does not possess at this stage of his career. It’s time for the Colts to pass the baton and give Mack a chance to see if he can be their running back of the future. Depending on who is on your roster, it may be tough to trust Mack as a fantasy starter in Week 15. However, if you own both Frank Gore and Marlon Mack and need to start one, I would absolutely prefer to start Mack.