The Shadow Knows Week 16

By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport


Neither the Washington Commanders nor the New York Jets will receive the gift of a playoff trip this year. Next year is shaky at best. But even bad teams have good players, and the Commanders and Jets have at least two in Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin and New York cornerback Sauce Gardner.

While speaking to reporters recently, Gardner said he feels like he’s fared pretty well this season, regardless of the Jets’ disappointing campaign as a team.

“I feel like I’ve had a pretty good season, so far. It’s not over yet,” Gardner said. “So far, I feel like I’ve had a pretty good year. I still wish I could get the interception from Dallas back because I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be having that many targets later in the season. Besides that, I had a pretty good year going against the top dogs. I feel like in my first two years, I feel like I’ve gone up against the best receivers.”

Gardner’s right. He hasn’t disappointed. Not individually. The numbers back it up. But the number fantasy managers should really be concerned with in this must-win week has nothing to do with Gardner or the Jets.

That number is 30.

That’s McLaurin’s ranking in PPR points this year—tops among all Commanders wide receivers. Sam Howell is eighth in fantasy points among quarterbacks and seventh in passing yards…and his No. 1 wide receiver is 30th in fantasy points. And he gets Gardner in coverage, because Merry Christmas.

Want to give yourself a migraine? Imagine Patrick Mahomes with McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel. Santa knows Eric Bienemy does all the time.


Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans (Denzel Ward vs. Nico Collins)

The Browns are a 9-5 team with Joe Flacco as the starting quarterback that has been without Nick Chubb most of the year. I didn’t make any of that up. Jim Schwartz’s defense has been incredible most of the year, either shutting teams down entirely or at least keeping the team in the game. Per Browns Digest, Cleveland’s starting cornerbacks have been…the numbers speak for themselves.

“Talking specifically about the top three guys, they have been more than good, they have been elite. According to NFL's NextGen Stats, Ward, Newsome, and Emerson have three of the top five rankings of Coverage Success Rates,” they said. “Emerson leads the league with a 67 percent coverage success rate while Ward and Newsome are tied for second with a 66.7 percent success rate. Furthermore, opponents have a -157 Expected Points Added (EPA) on pass plays against the Browns. That stat is the third lowest by any defense since 2016.”

It's good for the 8-6 (not making that up either) Texans that it appears Collins will return from injury this week. But the Browns lead the league in total defense and pass defense. Only the New York Jets have allowed fewer PPR points to wideouts than the Browns. After returning to action last week, Ward appears healthy for the stretch run. And Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol.

Other than that, everything’s fine.


Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings (Cameron Sutton vs. Justin Jefferson)

After handing Sutton $11 million a year in the offseason, it was probably only a matter of time until he became Detroit’s No. 1 corner. That time is now. Jerry Jacobs has received the hook, and Sutton is back outside working against top receivers. Edge-rusher Aidan Hutchinson told CBS Sports Sutton’s teammates are confident he’s up to the new challenge.

"Cam's been unbelievable, man," Hutchinson said. "He's such a steady force in our locker room and on our team. He's kind of an old soul. I feel like guys just naturally look to him because everyone loves that old soul vibe. It's very calming. That's kind of how I describe Cam. Calm, but man, he's intense come game time. And I love having him in my corner, as my corner, come game time. It's great."

Sutton is an excellent slot cornerback. But moving him to the boundary is a risky play. Last week against Denver, it worked out. But if all Nick Mullens does is chuck semi-accurate 50/50 balls at a healthy Justin Jefferson, he’s going to win more battles than he loses. Sutton just doesn’t have the size and strength at 5’11” and 180 pounds to compete physically with bigger wideouts. Not consistently.


Indianapolis Colts at Atlanta Falcons (Michael Pittman vs. A.J. Terrell)

With the Saints already losing this week, the NFC South’s status as the division no one wants to win is secure. Meanwhile, the Colts are one of three AFC South teams with eight victories. However, Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell insisted after last week’s 9-7 loss to Carolina (no, really) that Atlanta is still a team in the postseason mix.

"We had opportunities to make plays, and we let some of them slip," cornerback A.J. Terrell said. "Those are things we can control. We played a good game but not good enough to get the 'W,' That's where we go back to the drawing board and as a defense, as a team, (and) handle those situations differently."

Um, OK. The Falcons have been a tough matchup for wide receivers this season, allowing the fifth-fewest PPR points to the position. But Pittman appears on track to clear the concussion protocol after Damontae Kazee’s cheap shot (it was) last week, and if he’s active Pittman’s target and reception numbers of late—someone has to be Keenan Allen in Week 16.


Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers (Tee Higgins vs. Joey Porter Jr.)

Superstar wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has already been ruled out for Week 16, which makes Tee Higgins the No. 1 wide receiver for the surging Bengals. That means coverage from rookie Joey Porter Jr., who has wasted no time establishing himself as the best corner on Pittsburgh’s roster. Shadow coverage or no, Michael Florio of is banging the drum for Higgins in Week 16.

“It has been a bit of a lost season for Higgins, but he can still make it up to fantasy managers down the stretch,” he said. “He reminded everyone that he’s still that dude on Saturday against the Vikings, with one of the best touchdown catches you will see all year. He finished the game with two scores and 22 fantasy points. With Ja’Marr Chase banged up and expected to miss time, Higgins should be the top target for Jake Browning, who has averaged 318 passing yards per game over the last three weeks -- with multiple scores in each of the last two. Volume alone has Higgins in play if Chase is out.”

To be clear, the coverage aspect here is no joke—no team has allowed fewer PPR points to wide receivers over the last month than the Steelers. But Higgins is playing for more than just Cincinnati to make the playoffs—he’s playing for the megadeal he’s getting somewhere in 2024. Even in a tough matchup, he could crack the top-15 this week.


Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (Davante Adams vs. L’Jarius Sneed)

The Kansas City Chiefs are going to win the AFC West for the eighth consecutive time. Can’t rule them out of the Super Bowl given that they have played in three of the last four. But these Chiefs are different. These Chiefs might be better on defense than on offense (I said it). And as Mike Clay wrote at ESPN, L’Jarius Sneed’s ability to shadow No. 1 receivers has been a key for that defense.

“He shadowed in 12 consecutive games (prior to Week 15), tracing back to Week 2,” Clay said. “That stretch included showdowns with Calvin Ridley, DJ Moore, Garrett Wilson, Justin Jefferson, Jerry Jeudy, Joshua Palmer, Courtland Sutton, Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Adams, Romeo Doubs and Stefon Diggs. Sneed shadowed those 12 on a combined 222 (or 90%) of their 246 perimeter routes and has had plenty of success. That includes helping limit Diggs to 24 yards on 11 targets in Week 14.”

Sneed had triple-digit tackles last year because no one was afraid to throw at him. He apparently took that personally, because his coverage numbers are significantly more impressive in 2023. Frankly, most teams that anchored their wideout corps around Adams are likely already bounced. But if you’ve somehow weathered this storm of a season, batten down the hatches—things aren’t getting better in Week 16.