For most, the month of December is a joyous time filled with the blessings of the season, and a reflection on another year gone by. But for those who enjoy the addictive degenerate outlet that is fantasy football, it’s a conflicting time.

First and foremost, it’s a time when you can win all the monies, which is always nice because money can be exchanged for goods and services. This is a month when the demand for goods is high, especially from that special someone on your list this year who’s getting a hot dog toaster under the tree. But that only applies to a dwindling number of you now that most leagues are in the semi-final stage, while many others saw their fantasy dreams fade.

Here, have a song.


But really, even with the excitement of winning monies, it’s hard not to look ahead a little bit on the calendar and start to feel that shower cry urge. Win or lose, fantasy football is over next week (no, you have a problem).

So it’s on that gleeful note that I remind you this is the final Thursday night game of the season, which is actually a happy thing since they’ve mostly been horrendous. But this one game will determine a whole lot of fantasy outcomes, and who advances to the fantasy Super Bowl next week. Of course, there are also real-life consequences at stake between the Chargers and Broncos, with the former clawing for the playoffs, and the latter pursuing home-field advantage.

But we care little about that here. Here’s where our caring lies.

1. What does a Welker-less Broncos offense look like?

Well, it sure is a lot taller (here all night, try the fish, heyo?, my mom says I’m cool).

This is a central question, which is why I’m dealing with it first. Welker is out with a concussion for one week, and likely more, which re-jigs Peyton Manning’s target distribution. As is his nature, Welker gets a whole lot of short-yardage targets, so short that this stat exists: with 73 receptions through 13 games he’s currently just one catch behind Demaryius Thomas and two ahead of Eric Decker, yet he’s 310 receiving yards behind Decker and 371 off of Thomas.

That puts Welker nearly a full five yards per catch behind both of his top Denver position peers, which isn’t at all a bad thing. No, that speaks to both the nature of what Welker does and what he’s done well all these years, which is to consistently find space up the middle and gain yards after the catch. While it’s easy (and surely correct) to assume that the targets given to Thomas and Decker will rise in Welker’s absence, the more immediate beneficiary will be tight end Julius Thomas, as he can more closely mimic that description of Welker, and how he excels.

But with Thomas (the tight end one) often used on deeper routes up the seam, the leading upgrade with Welker out will be Jacobs Tamme, who’s also the leading sleeper at his position both tonight and this week. Tamme has all of 124 receiving yards this year, and 41 of them came during the second half this past Sunday after Welker went down. But here’s the most important number associated with Tamme’s sudden boom with Welker out: 45. That’s the number of snaps he played after Welker exited, meaning he was on the sideline for just one snap. Even better, he moved into an every-down slot role, a position that’s always been highly targeted by Manning.

If Tamme can log 33 percent of his yardage on the season in just one half with Welker out (he finished last week with four catches for 47 yards) and five of his 16 total targets, his potential over a full game against a weak Chargers pass defense (ranked 28th while allowing 8.4 yards per reception) is mighty high. Oh and hey look, even now after clearing waivers Tamme is available in 99 percent of ESPN leagues, and 86 percent of Yahoo leagues. Every now former Rob Gronkowski owner should be all over him, in addition to anyone who has room at their flex spot.

2. Will Montee Ball’s rise continue?

Here’s to hoping, because at minimum he’ll surely be flexed a lot tonight, as he should be.

With Knowshon Moreno banged up a bit of late, Ball has been seen much more precious field time, which could also be a product of Manning getting more comfortable with the rookie’s blocking. In the win over Tennessee Ball was featured in a season-high 43.8 percent of the Broncos’ offensive snaps, and the touch distribution between the top two backs was nearly even. Moreno had 109 total yards on 20 touches, while Ball accumulated 87 yards on 18 touches.

That wasn’t just a result of the secondary option getting some garbage time looks in a blowout game either, as it didn’t truly get out of hand until midway through the fourth quarter when Denver took a 44-28 lead, and at that time Ball had already been given 15 touches. Prior to Week 13 he was averaging 9.4 carries per game, a rate that’s now gone up to 14 over the past two weeks. Expect to see Moreno getting most of the passing down work with his superior blocking and receiving ability (he has 103 receiving yards over the last two games), while Ball brutes his way to easy yards against a defense giving up 4.8 per carry.

3. Keenan Allen vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie/Champ Bailey: who ya got?

This will be a fun matchup, with Rodgers-Cromartie on Allen for most of the night. Bailey enters the evening listed as questionable with his still persistent and determined foot injury, and will be limited at best if he plays.

Here’s how easy it is to measure the importance of Rodgers-Cromartie in the Broncos’ defensive backfield: in Week 12 against the Patriots when he went down at halftime with a shoulder injury, Tom Brady et all had been held to exactly zero points. Then in one half Denver gave up 34 points.

But Allen is of equal importance to Philip Rivers. The rookie has four double-digit target games, including two over just the past three weeks, a stretch in which he’s been given 23 looks in total. That number would be higher had Allen not left briefly last week with a shoulder injury. It was all good, though, as he needed only three targets to score twice.

With his leaping ability up the middle and trusted hands, Allen has five +100 yard games this season. Against an overall poor Broncos secondary (ranked 29th) and with Rivers still morphed back to the old Rivers while completing 70.3 percent of his passes (that leads the league among regular starters, and is easily a career high), Allen will be featured highly in a whizzbang shootout.

Decisions, decisions

Alright, so this isn’t nearly as scary as it seems. The list of studs who will lead you to either triumph or a fiery defeat in tonight’s game is lengthy, but most are easy sit/start decisions. Still, please have several bottles nearby while burning any roster spot on the Thursday of semi-final week.

No-brainers: Peyton Manning, Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen, Antonio Gates, and Knowshon Moreno. The only even sort of question here is with Rivers, and it’s not at all tied to tonight’s game. Given where they were both drafted back in August, there’s a very real chance that many of you have both Aaron Rodgers and Rivers rostered, and you’ve had your face planted in your palm all day. But you simply have to start Rivers, because although there’s been much more optimism around Rodgers this week, he’s still been limited in practice, and he still needs to pass a CT scan tomorrow. Benching Rivers and hoping for Rodgers to get cleared is a senseless and just dumb risk during these trying times.

Tweeners: Ladarius Green and Danny Woodhead. Green is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, because with his lanky frame and speed that shouldn’t be allowed with a man his size, he either catches booming deep balls, or quite literally nothing at all. That’s what happened last week when Green ran only five routes as the Chargers temporarily abandoned their two tight end sets while up by a wide margin. But prior to being blanked he had a +30 yard catch in three straight games (including a 60-yarder), a stretch when he totaled 206 yards with two touchdowns at an incredible pace of 22.9 yards per catch. With the Broncos among the worst defenses in the league while attempting to stop tight ends (75.8 receiving yards allowed per game to the position), Green is well worth a flex play.

As for Woodhead, he’s in flex territory too. He’s far more appealing in PPR leagues, especially against a run defense allowing only 3.9 yards per carry.

Sleepers: Tamme, for all the wonderful reasons gushed about above.

Stay away: Ryan Mathews. If he makes me eat this, I will gladly devour it whole. But even though Mathews has shown some burst of late with 227 yards from scrimmage over the past two weeks, and overall he’s shown us what a healthy Mathews looks like this year with his 885 rushing yards and five +100 yard games, I expect a pretty solid speed bump this evening. Again, the Broncos’ front seven generally hasn’t been kind while allowing 99.8 yards per game. However, Mathews could salvage his night with a touchdown, as red-zone ground defending has been a weak point in Denver (14 rushing touchdowns).