The AFC North and NFC South are polar opposite divisions, and not only because of their cardinal directions and conference affiliations. Heading into Week 12, all four teams in the AFC North were over .500. Meanwhile, every NFC South team was at least two games under .500, presenting the very real possibility of a division winner with fewer than eight wins. Those two divisions have met all season in inter-conference play, and, even if you don’t already know, you can probably guess how those games have gone. Through 11 weeks, the AFC North was 9-1-1 against the NFC South. Perhaps the most surprising element about all of this is that the only win was by the Buccaneers over the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Two of those teams met each other on Sunday, with the last-place 6-4 Browns visiting the first-place 4-6 Falcons. Brian Hoyer threw three interceptions, but led the Browns on a successful two-minute drill, setting Billy Cundiff up for a game-winning 37-yard field goal in Cleveland’s 26-24 victory. However, we’re much more interested in the fantasy implications in this space, and there were a few big ones on the Cleveland side of the ball.
First and foremost, Josh Gordon made his predictably successful return to the field, catching eight of his 16 targets for 120 yards. Head coach Mike Pettine made some noise earlier in the week about Gordon being on a pitch count, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with coachspeak could see that as gamesmanship. Gordon was on the field for the majority of the snaps and was immediately Cleveland’s most dangerous offensive weapon, looking like the best receiver on the field in a game that included Julio Jones and Roddy White. We expected Gordon to be a WR1 right off the bat, and that was exactly the production he brought for his fantasy owners. He’ll easily be a WR1 for the rest of the season.
Gordon wasn’t the only offensive player to make a statement for the Browns on Sunday. Isaiah Crowell got the start in the backfield, and ran the ball 12 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Terrance West led the team with 14 carries, but ran for 26 fewer yards than Crowell. It wasn’t just Crowell’s on-the-surface production that should have his owners excited, however.
Crowell seemed to do damage every single time he touched the ball on Sunday, but it took him a few touches to get going. He ran for zero yards on his first carry and lost three yards on his second. Eight of his final 10 carries, however, went for at least six yards, and he finished with a long run of 26 yards. Both of his scores were for more than 10 yards, and his second score came from outside the red zone. And that formula (big-play ability and consistency) is exactly what fantasy owners look for in a regular starting running back. Both West and Crowell will be involved, but the latter is clearly the more explosive of the duo. Expect Crowell to post RB2 numbers for the rest of the season.
With that, let’s get to all the immediate reactions from Week 12 in the Fast Forward.
• Our latest case of the Patriots being the Patriots: Jonas Gray takes the world by storm in Week 11, shows up late to practice on Friday, gives way to new signee LeGarrette Blount, Blount promptly runs for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Just as with Gray after last week, don’t assume that Blount suddenly has a primary role in the New England offense. This week proved yet again that you can never trust the Patriots to follow any sort of predictable script in their backfield.
• After initially getting a shot in the arm from Calvin Johnson’s return, Matthew Stafford has struggled mightily over the last two weeks. He completed just 18 of his 46 pass attempts on Sunday for 264 yards and an interception in the Lions’ loss to the Patriots. Even with Johnson healthy, Stafford is far too inconsistent to be considered a regular starter in fantasy leagues.
• All things considered, the Vikings did a nice job against Aaron Rodgers. He threw for just 209 yards and two touchdowns, and wasn’t able to hook up with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb to the same degree as usual. That Rodgers put up 19.76 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues in a “down game” shows how dominant of a season he is having, though.
• Eddie Lacy had another big game on Sunday, running for 125 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. He also caught two passes for 13 yards and a score, showing up yet again in the passing game. Lacy has now scored at least seven points via his receiving numbers in four straight games, and has averaged 21.3 fantasy points per game in that span. After a very slow start to the season, he’s on pace to put up RB1 numbers.
• Despite both Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright all being active, Charles Johnson led the Vikings with 11 targets. He caught three of those for 52 yards and a touchdown, looking like the team’s best receiver for the second straight game. He’s worth a look in free agency this week, and has a WR3 ceiling for the remainder of the season.
• Ben Tate was active for his first game with the Vikings, but didn’t touch the football once. Jerick McKinnon ran the ball 15 times for 54 yards and caught three passes for nine yards. I’d expect Tate to have a decent role in the offense next week, but neither him nor McKinnon register as anything better than a RB3 going forward.
• LeSean McCoy had his best game of the season, running 21 times for 130 yards and a touchdown. He lost a short touchdown to Darren Sproles, but it had to be encouraging for McCoy’s owners to see him look like the guy we considered the top overall pick. Even though he hasn’t come close to living up to expectations this season, you should expect him to be, at worst, a high-end RB2 for the rest of the year. I’d bet on him being a top-10 player at the position.
• Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin each got eight targets, though Matthews was slightly more productive. The rookie caught six passes for 77 yards, while Maclin had six grabs for 59 yards. Matthews should continue to be a WR2 for the rest of the season now that he has a significant presence in the Philadelphia offense.
• Zach Mettenberger had the best game of his young career, throwing for 345 yards 8.85 yards per attempt and two touchdowns against one interception. Delanie Walker caught five passes for 155 yards, while Justin Hunter got back in the end zone, hauling in four balls for 64 yards. The rookie QB has some decent weapons in the passing game, and has played better and better with each passing start. Mettenberger may not be a reliable starter in traditional one-quarterback leagues, but give Walker, Hunter and Kendall Wright a bump in their respective values for the rest of the season, given the rookie’s improved play.
• T.Y. Hilton had the best touchdown celebration of the season, and it doesn’t really matter what anyone does for the rest of the year because he’s going to hold onto that honor. After being with his wife for the birth of their daughter on Sunday morning, Hilton rushed to the stadium and said that he wanted to get his new child a touchdown. He did just that, scoring on a 73-yard hookup with Andrew Luck. He finished the day with four catches for 122 yards and the score, as the Colts cruised to a 23-3 victory.
• Despite the easy win, Luck had one of his worst performances of the season, throwing for just 253 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked five times and lost two fumbles, but added to his value by running for 49 yards on eight carries.
• It appears to not matter who Richardson splits duties with in the backfield. No matter what, that guy is going to get more yards on less carries, but Richardson will vulture the touchdowns. Dan Herron ran for 65 yards on 12 carries and caught five passes for 31 yards, but it was Richardson who scored on a one-yard plunge. He had 42 yards on 13 carries, scoring 10.2 points in standard-scoring leagues. That volume, as well as his short-yardage work, should make him a low-end RB2 for the rest of the year.
• Giovani Bernard got back on the field this week, carrying the ball 17 times for 45 yards and catching two passes for 22 yards. On the plus side, that he was able to touch the ball 19 times in his first game back was good news for his owners. On the down side, Jeremy Hill looked great again, and has to have a big role in this offense going forward. He had 18 carries for 87 yards and a touchdown, and was clearly the best runner for the Bengals on Sunday. The Bengals aren’t going to get Bernard and Hill a combined 35 carries every game, but both project as RB2s for the remainder of the season.
• The Bears may have gotten a win on Sunday, but there was no more disappointing individual player than Jay Cutler. The Buccaneers entered Week 12 having allowed the eighth-most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks, yet Cutler threw for 130 yards, 4.81 yards per attempt and one touchdown in the Bears’ 21-13 victory. The Bears used three takeaways in the third quarter to put up 21 quick points, then rode a strong defensive performance to hold on for the win. That wasn’t the formula fantasy owners imagined going into Sunday. Matt Forte did show up with two touchdowns and 112 total yards, but he ran for less than four yards per carry as the Bears line really struggled to get any push against the Buccaneers.
• Doug Martin was active for the first time in nearly a month and led the Buccaneers with 11 carries. Meanwhile, rookie Charles Sims got just six carries and caught two passes for 11 yards, and Bobby Rainey got five total touches. At this point, no Tampa Bay running back can be trusted for fantasy purposes.
• Mike Evans was held below 100 yards for the first time in a month, but he caught a touchdown pass and got north of double-digit fantasy points. Vincent Jackson had five receptions for 117 yards, while Louis Murphy caught six passes for 113 yards. With Tampa Bay featuring a non-existent running game and weapons in the passing game, Josh McCown is a high-end QB2 with a QB1 ceiling for the rest of the year.
• I’ve been selling Russell Wilson as a regular fantasy starter because of his dependence on his rushing numbers, but it might be time for me to acknowledge that won’t necessarily hold him back. Wilson ran for at least 70 yards for the third straight game on Sunday, picking up 73 yards on 10 carries in Seattle’s 19-3 win over Arizona. He threw for 211 yards and a touchdown, as well, giving him 19.74 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. He has now had at least seven points via rushing stats six times this year. He may need that rushing production to be a fantasy starter, but he is getting it with consistency.
• On the other side, we nailed the downgrade for the entire Arizona offense in the wake of Carson Palmer’s season-ending knee injury. While this was admittedly a tough matchup, the Cardinals got just 204 yards of offense under Drew Stanton’s stewardship. Andre Ellington ran for 24 yards on 10 carries, and has been held under 50 yards in each of the last three weeks. Michael Floyd didn’t catch a pass, and John Brown had three receptions for 24 yards. Larry Fitzgerald’s absence didn’t help matters, but the bottom line is this is a substandard fantasy offense with Palmer done for the year.
• Robert Griffin III had another terrible game Sunday, throwing for 106 yards in a 17-13 loss to the 49ers. He clearly cannot be trusted as a fantasy starter, and may not be the starter in Washington for much longer. Few could have imagined Griffin’s career unfolding in this manner after his huge rookie season, but we could be looking at Kirk Cousins or Colt McCoy under center again at some point this season.
• Washington’s team-wide struggles have again dwarfed a great season for Alfred Morris. He ran for 125 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries on Sunday, and now has double-digit fantasy points in each of the last four weeks. He should go north of 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season, likely in the next two weeks. It has been another lost season in our nation’s capital, but Morris is a true RB1 in fantasy leagues.
• Anquan Boldin had another huge game on Sunday, catching nine passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Going back to the middle of October, Boldin has 40 catches for 522 yards and four touchdowns, good for an average of 12.7 fantasy points per game. He’s a WR2 for the remainder of the year.
• The 49ers couldn’t get their run game going at all on Sunday. Frank Gore had 36 yards on 13 carries, Carlos Hyde ran seven times for 16 yards, and Colin Kaepernick rushed nine times and picked up 14 yards. Gore has been up and down for most of the season, but he has really only shown up for his fantasy owners in games where he has had a ton of volume. He’s getting exactly four yards per carry on the season and has hit paydirt just three times. Hyde is clearly the more explosive runner, and the 49ers may have to start giving him more touches to add another element to the offense. If he’s available in your league, he’s worth a speculative add this week.
• Ryan Mathews looked great on Sunday, running for 105 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries. In two games since returning from a knee injury, he has 175 yards on 28 totes. He had runs of 17, 19 and 32 yards, and the Chargers had their best overall offensive game since the end of their five-game winning streak. Mathews should provide low-end RB1 production over the rest of the season.
• Philip Rivers had another mediocre game, throwing for 291 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the win over the Rams. That was good enough from a real-life standpoint, but it won’t get the job done in typical fantasy leagues. With matchups against the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos and 49ers looming, Rivers may not be worth starting again this season.
• Stedman Bailey had seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, but the takeaway here has little to do with his play. The Rams’ passing attack is nearly devoid of value, and is unable to support a fantasy receiver with any consistency. Kenny Britt, who popped up on the fantasy radar after a big game last week, had two catches for 37 yards. Quite simply, you don’t want to be in a position where you’re trusting this offense.
• Demaryius Thomas had his seven-game 100-yard streak broken, but his fantasy owners probably didn’t mind too much. That’s because he caught 10 passes for 87 yards and three scores in the Broncos’ 39-36 win over the Dolphins. Thomas now has 82 catches for 1,192 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, good for an average of 15.75 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. And remember, he had a total of 20.1 points through the first three games of the season.
• C.J. Anderson reminded everyone why having the Denver backfield to yourself is as good as fantasy gold. He got 27 carries on Sunday, running for 167 yards and a touchdown, and also caught four passes for 28 yards. It simply doesn’t get much better for a player than having a significant role in an offense led by Peyton Manning. That alone makes Anderson a low-end RB1 for the rest of the season.
• Ryan Tannehill had a monster statistical game, throwing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, while running for another in Miami’s loss to Denver. It wasn’t his most efficient game, as he completed 26-of-36 pass attempts and got 6.33 yards per attempt, but that only matters for fantasy owners in that a flaw or two may have been exposed that future opponents can exploit. He continued to make plays with Jarvis Landry, who caught seven passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns. Landry isn’t putting up big yardage numbers, but he’s getting a lot of looks -- he had 11 targets on Sunday -- especially in the red zone. He’s capable of WR3 numbers for the rest of the year.
• Odell Beckham Jr. made the catch of the year on Sunday night and in the process had a huge game for his fantasy owners. He caught 10 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns, the third time in the last four weeks he eclipsed 100 yards. In just seven games this year, he already has 41 receptions for 609 yards and five scores, averaging just short of 13 points per game. He should be thought of as a top-15 receiver for the rest of the season.
• Eli Manning and Tony Romo put up monster games for their fantasy owners on Sunday night, but Romo got the better of Manning and the Giants. He racked up 275 yards and four scores, while Manning threw for 338 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Romo connected with Bryant on two touchdowns, Cole Beasley on one and Jason Witten on the other. Most importantly, he looked healthy and didn’t show any ill effects of his previous back injury. Fantasy owners should feel comfortable deploying Romo as a QB1 more often than not for the rest of the season.