Carolina @ Indianapolis
In their last six games, the Colts' defense has been shredded for a 15:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 1,463 yards on 174 throws (8.41 YPA), and a 73.6 completion rate by Matt Cassel, Matt Hasselbeck, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees. Not quite Murderers' Row. In the Lucas Oil Stadium dome, Cam Newton has the best fantasy matchup of any quarterback who will take the field in Week 12. ... Steve Smith's yardage has slowed down over the past few weeks, but he's maintained WR1 value with a touchdown in two of the last three. Smitty is too physical for Indianapolis' soft corners to handle over the middle and downfield. ... Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee are trading off weeks out-producing one another. While LaFell's snaps have risen, he's scored just once since Week 2 and is averaging under 30 yards per game over that span. Naanee remains a plodding possession receiver lacking any hint of big-play ability, but keep an eye on his health status. Naanee is battling Achilles' tendinitis, and LaFell would be an every-down player against a Colts defense routinely smoked by big receivers if Naanee can't play. LaFell is 6'3/211.
I anticipated personnel change during Carolina's bye two weeks ago, but it hasn't come to fruition. Neither DeAngelo Williams nor Jonathan Stewart has exceeded 14 touches in two games since, and D-Will's legs have appeared fresher with a 6.0 per-carry average compared to J-Stew's 3.75. Stewart remains the superior all-purpose back, but neither is better than a risky flex option. It's sad to say versus Indianapolis' No. 31 run defense. If I'm deciding between the two, my bet is still on Stewart. ... Whereas the Colts have been shredded by physical wideouts, they're one of the NFL's stingiest defenses to tight ends. Over the Colts' last six games, they've allowed 29 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns to tight ends -- a weekly average of 36 yards on under five receptions. The Colts have held Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, Jermaine Gresham all below 55 yards. The No. 9 fantasy player at his position, Greg Olsen is only a borderline starter for Week 12.
The Colts have elected to stay the course with Curtis Painter after contemplating a quarterback change during their Week 11 bye. Painter will be on a short leash. In his last five games, Painter has completed 84-of-146 passes (57.5%) for 697 yards (4.77 YPA) with a 1:7 TD-to-INT ratio and an eighth turnover on a lost fumble. He's been benched for Dan Orlovsky twice. It'd be a stretch to trust any Indianapolis pass catcher in fantasy football. Jacob Tamme led the Colts in receiving (6-75) in their last game, but it could just as easily be Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, or a running back against the Panthers. ... A matchup against Carolina is frothing-at-the-mouth good for any backfield, but there's no way to tell which Colts runner will lead the way in touches, snaps, or yards. Joseph Addai is still not quite 100 percent after the off week, and three different players have led Indianapolis in rushing over their last four games. It means nothing, but my tentative expectation is that Donald Brown will be the lead back for at least one more week, with Addai perhaps serving as the blitz-protection specialist. Delone Carter would be third string. Ultimately, none of the above is a confident fantasy starter. Brown would be the best bet.
Score Prediction: Panthers 23, Colts 16
Tampa Bay @ Tennessee
You can read Tuesday's chat for my thoughts on Chris Johnson after covering his Week 11 game at Atlanta. He is an awful, apathetic football player, and it's a shame he's put his organization in a situation where coach Mike Munchak has to throw the O-Line under the bus on a weekly basis in order to cover for the Titans' $55 million mistake. Fantasy owners just have to hold their breath that favorable matchups leave open running lanes for Johnson, because he refuses to create yards himself. The Bucs are 26th against the run, have allowed the second most rushing scores in the NFL, and will be without LE Michael Bennett (groin) on Sunday. The matchup is great. The player is terrible. Good luck. ... The Titans have deemed Matt Hasselbeck's sprained right elbow healthy enough to start. It's debatable whether that's a positive move for the offense. Whereas rookie Jake Locker led the Titans to 14 points in two possessions off the bench last week, Hasselbeck generated three points in six series. Hasselbeck is an immobile 36-year-old with well below average arm strength and lacks an explosive enough supporting cast to compensate. Locker is an aggressive, rocket-armed possible franchise quarterback with playmaking athleticism and at least the potential to make the players around him more effective and productive. Should the Tennessee offense start slow Sunday, do not be surprised if Locker starts the second half.
Here were the Titans' receiving stats with Hasselbeck under center for the greater portion of three quarters last week, against Atlanta's No. 26 pass defense: Nate Washington 5-47, Jared Cook 2-16, Damian Williams 1-16, Lavelle Hawkins 0-0. Tennessee's stats with Locker at quarterback for just over one quarter: Washington 4-68-2, Cook 3-35, Williams 0-0, Hawkins 1-32. Locker did have 19 attempts in what was essentially pass-heavy comeback mode, but Hasselbeck had 25. I'd feel uncomfortable using any Tennessee pass catchers with Hasselbeck starting games. ... In terms of matchups, Williams has the best one this week versus Bucs RCB Ronde Barber. Barber is getting routinely roasted this season, and despite Williams' underwhelming production against the Falcons, he did lead the Titans in targets. ... Cook could have a favorable matchup and it wouldn't matter because his playing time and passing-game role are incredibly inconsistent. ... Washington will have his hands full with Bucs top CB Aqib Talib. Talib has rebounded from a slow start to allow just two touchdown passes in his last six games, according to Pro Football Focus.
LeGarrette Blount ought to send a thank-you letter to the Falcons for softening up Tennessee's front seven with 30 touches, 124 yards, and a touchdown via Atlanta big backs Michael Turner (5'10/244) and Jason Snelling (5'11/234) last week. Tennessee was manhandled in the trenches, losing MLB Barrett Ruud (groin) and LE Derrick Morgan (ankle) during the course of battle. The Titans now rank 22nd against the run, and should be the first to go down during Blount's favorable stretch-run schedule. The 247-pound power back gets Carolina (30th vs. run) twice, a crumbling Jacksonville defense, and Dallas after this game. Don't forget that the Titans are the same team that waived Blount after a 2010 preseason he capped off with 114 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries (4.4 YPC) in his final three exhibition games. He won't lack for motivation, and Blount is an incredibly difficult runner to tackle with a full head of steam. ... Mike Williams has quietly strung together strong efforts in four of his last five games, racking up at least six catches four times and finding pay dirt last week for the first time since the opener. Unfortunately, Williams is going to square off with Titans RCB Alterraun Verner and slot CB Cortland Finnegan throughout Sunday's affair. Both Titans corners have been terrific in coverage this season. Williams is a low-end WR3.
As alluded to above, the Titans play stout pass defense, making this an unlikely matchup to get Josh Freeman back on track. While his two-touchdown, 342-yard Week 11 game at Green Bay did provide glimpses of promise, he's just a two-QB league starter. ... The Packers didn't take Kellen Winslow seriously last week, allowing him to run unguarded over the middle. Winslow's 132 yards were a career high. A return to Earth is most likely, but it's worth noting that Tennessee has consistently presented a favorable matchup for Winslow's position. Over the last seven games, the Titans have allowed six touchdowns to tight ends and 41 receptions for 557 yards. It's a nearly six-catch, 80-yard weekly average. ... Arrelious Benn had not topped 50 yards since Week 6 entering last Sunday's game, so his five-catch, 75-yard effort essentially came out of the blue. Continuing to rotate with Dezmon Briscoe, Benn is an extremely unreliable fantasy player. ... Preston Parker has found pay dirt once in the last five weeks and is averaging 2.5 receptions for 34 yards during that span. The Bucs' slot receiver can safely be dropped from fantasy rosters.
Score Prediction: Bucs 20, Titans 17
Cleveland @ Cincinnati
The Browns have scaled back Colt McCoy's pass attempts recently, and their passing game has become stagnant behind rookie wideout Greg Little. While McCoy's YPA has risen incrementally, he's averaged just 196 yards with three passing scores in his last five games. Cincinnati's pass defense is no longer a forbidding matchup following top CB Leon Hall's Achilles' tear, but McCoy simply isn't an effective enough passer to capitalize. With decreasing volume, he's not even a viable QB2. ... Little lacks potential for truly dominant performances because Cleveland's overall offense is devoid of explosiveness, but he's well worthy of a WR3 look in this matchup. Had Hall been healthy, he would have covered Little on all base-offensive snaps because Hall was a right corner and Little lines up to the left side of the Browns' formation. Instead, he will draw Pacman Jones outside and Nate Clements when Little kicks to the slot in obvious passing sets. Little has continued to dominate targets from McCoy, yet again leading Cleveland in the statistic last week.
Speaking of targets, here is McCoy's distribution since the Browns' Week 5 bye: Little 52, Josh Cribbs 27, Ben Watson 26, Evan Moore 13, Mohamed Massaquoi 12, Jordan Norwood 12. ... Cribbs came off the bench behind Norwood and Massaquoi in Week 11 to score his fourth TD of the year. He remains a return-yardage league option only. ... Moore has not been targeted in the last two games. ... Watson hasn't scored and is averaging under 30 yards a game since the off week. ... Coach Pat Shurmur announced that Montario Hardesty (calf) will return to the starting lineup after missing the last three games. Shurmur hinted at a timeshare with Chris Ogbonnaya, making the Browns' backfield a situation to avoid in a difficult matchup. Cincinnati's No. 3 run defense is allowing 3.41 yards per carry on the season, the second lowest average in the league.
Andy Dalton has exceeded expectations with an ability to make big-time NFL throws this season, settling in as a quality fantasy QB2. "He's got a little bit of moxie to him," observed avid game-tape watcher Greg Cosell of NFL Films on PFT Live this week. "He's a little bit of a gunslinger." Dalton's stats aren't off the charts, but he has eight touchdowns in his last four games despite tough matchups with the pass defenses of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Tennessee. "He's willing to stick the ball," added Cosell. "... You have to be willing to stand there and deliver the football in the face of pressure. And Andy Dalton has shown those two attributes very, very well." It usually bothers me when observers tag any undersized signal caller such as Colt McCoy or Kellen Moore as "the next Drew Brees," but I think it can apply for Dalton. I'd feel good about A.J. Green long term, and even Jerome Simpson if Green's balky knee holds him out of another game. ... Green's return to practice this week does bode strongly for his chances of playing. Joe Haden's coverage makes for a difficult matchup, but Green is difficult to sit as the No. 11 overall wideout in fantasy points per game. Truly receiver-rich owners can use this as a "wait-and-see" week for Green, citing his first game back from the hyperextended knee plus bone bruise, as well as the Haden factor.
Opposing tailbacks have diced up the Browns' defense for 657 yards and four rushing scores on 125 carries (5.26 YPC) across the last four games. Coming off a two-touchdown effort, Bengals contract-year running back Cedric Benson has a real problem on his hands if he can't capitalize on this matchup. Losing stretches of playing time recently to Bernard Scott, Benson has managed just 286 yards on his last 90 carries (3.18 YPC). If you're starting Benson, you're betting against the opponent, not on the player. ... Cleveland has presented an easier matchup for opposing tight ends with SS T.J. Ward out of the lineup for the past three games. During that span, the tight ends of St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Houston have combined for 17 catches and 157 yards. It's not an overwhelming clip in terms of yardage, but the catches and targets project to be there for Jermaine Gresham as a low-end TE1. Don't forget that Gresham racked up six grabs for 58 yards and a touchdown in his Week 1 meeting with Cleveland. And that was with Ward on the field.
Score Prediction: Bengals 23, Browns 14