Houston @ Jacksonville
With Matt Schaub done for the year, the Texans will turn to Matt Leinart for the final six games. What should we expect? "This team has a terrific run game," observed NFL Films' Greg Cosell on PFT Live this week. "It's clearly the foundation of everything they do. They seem to run the ball well against everybody." Cosell anticipates coach Gary Kubiak using the ground attack to "manipulate" and protect Leinart, probably asking him to throw no more than 18-22 times a week. Schaub wasn't throwing often in the first place, averaging 23 pass attempts in his previous four games. Expect heavy doses of Arian Foster, an increased role for Ben Tate, and Leinart to operate strictly as a "game manager." The Texans' new quarterback lacks fantasy appeal. ... All signs point to Andre Johnson (hamstring) playing extensively against the Jaguars after a full practice week. Johnson is as good a bet as any wideout to lead the NFL in "target rate" (player targets divided by team targets) the rest of the way. The conservative, run-dominated offense may cap Johnson's upside slightly, but I'd guess that when Leinart drops back there will be roughly a 40% chance his throws will be intended for Johnson. With top CB Rashean Mathis on injured reserve, it's hard to imagine the Jaguars keeping Johnson covered. Start 'em.
UPDATE: The Jaguars placed CB Derek Cox on injured reserve with a knee ailment Friday, ending his season. They've now lost both of their starting cornerbacks for the year, making it even more likely that Johnson will be open frequently in Sunday's game.
Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones, and even Owen Daniels will struggle for consistent production with Johnson back. Daniels will likely spend long stretches on the line blocking, while Jones resumes his situational deep threat job and Walter reverts to seldom-targeted possession wideout. I'd have trouble relying on any of the above as a stretch-run fantasy starter. ... The Jaguars opened the season playing above-average run defense, but it's no longer an intimidating unit after being decimated by injuries. NT Terrance Knighton has a high ankle sprain, LE Matt Roth is coming off a concussion, and WLB Clint Session joined Mathis on I.R. this week. With those players all sidelined last Sunday, Jacksonville allowed Chris Ogbonnaya to rack up 134 yards, a touchdown, and average 5.48 yards per carry. Foster will smoke this defense, and Ben Tate could too if the Texans jump out to an early lead. The latter is a solid bet considering the Jaguars' inept offense.
Remember when Oakland was a fantasy wasteland? Jacksonville has taken its place. "No. 1 receiver" Mike Thomas hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 3 and is averaging 14 receiving yards in his last five games. ... Jason Hill might be the worst starting wideout in the league. He had a game-blowing end-zone drop with :03 left against Cleveland in Week 11 and should be on fantasy rosters nowhere. ... Blaine Gabbert turned in his best game of the season against the Browns. Obviously, that's not saying much. He has the poorest pocket presence in football and is a lock to struggle against Houston's No. 1 defense. ... Marcedes Lewis set season highs in receptions (7) and yards (64) against the Browns. He needs to string together at least two more decent games to even be roster-able. ... Maurice Jones-Drew is the Jaguars' lone shining light, somehow maintaining productivity despite an embarrassing supporting cast. Even against the Texans' top-four run defense, MJD is a strong RB2 because he gets the rock 23 times a game.
Score Prediction: Texans 30, Jaguars 7
4:05PM ET Games
Chicago @ Oakland
Caleb Hanie is an intriguing prospect with plus arm strength and athleticism, but his move into the starting lineup in place of a previously red-hot Jay Cutler bodes poorly for Chicago's passing game. Hanie's drawbacks have been accuracy and decision making, so OC Mike Martz will be sure to minimize the new quarterback's impact on games. Martz hasn't been a Hanie supporter from the start, carrying washed-up 39-year-old Todd Collins as Cutler's primary backup -- ahead of Hanie -- throughout last season. Earl Bennett was the lone Bears receiver on the fantasy radar. The beneficiary of a longtime rapport with Cutler, Bennett should be on benches until Hanie proves capable of getting him the football and moving the offense with his arm. Hanie has tried 14 career passes in the regular season, so all bets are off until we see him play at least four full quarters.
Without Cutler through Week 16 at least, coach Lovie Smith has made it clear that the Bears will lean heavily on contract-year tailback Matt Forte during the 5-6 week interim. "Offensively, we’re going to rely on our running game a little bit more," said Smith on Monday. Defenses may stack the box against Chicago going forward, but they were doing that already, and Forte is on pace for career highs in rushing yards (1,482) and yards-per-carry average (4.98) while leading the league in yards from scrimmage. He also has the stretch-run schedule to compensate for any increased defensive attention. Forte's next three games are against the Raiders (No. 25 run defense), Chiefs (28), and Broncos (16). In Week 16 -- fantasy championship week -- Forte will square off with a Packers defense he's averaged 131 total yards against in the clubs' past three meetings.
The Bears are playing the toughest pass defense in football during their five-game winning streak. Over that span, Chicago has limited quarterbacks to 132-of-225 passing (58.7%) for 1,362 yards (6.05 YPA), five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Opponents have included Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, and a healthy Michael Vick, so the Bears aren't preying on chump passers. Carson Palmer drops from QB1 to clear-cut QB2 because of the forbidding matchup. Oakland's passing game also relies heavily on vertical strikes, plays Smith's Cover-2 zone is precisely designed to stop. ... After rolling his ankle in last week's win over the Vikings, Denarius Moore showed up at the Raiders' facility in a protective boot Wednesday. The injury and mismatch should give fantasy owners plenty of reason to keep Moore on benches for Week 12. There will be better days ahead.
Moore, Jacoby Ford (foot), and Darrius Heyward-Bey (concussion) are all either banged up or out for this game, making it conceivable that the Raiders' three-receiver set against the Bears will be comprised of Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The drop-off in terms of explosiveness would be dramatic. Expect Hue Jackson to unleash Michael Bush for a fourth straight week. While Chicago's No. 10 run-defense ranking looks rough on paper, the Bears are beatable on the ground on a per-play basis. Across the NFL, only the Lions, Saints, and Raiders are allowing a higher yards-per-carry average to opponents than the Bears' 4.94 clip. Averaging 29 touches per game in his last four starts under Jackson, Bush is a legit RB1 in Week 12. ... Kevin Boss may be worth a desperation start due to Oakland's receiver shortage and Chicago's tight end-friendly defense, but he offers very little upside. He's cleared 40 yards once as a Raider.
Score Prediction: Raiders 20, Bears 17
Washington @ Seattle
No Redskins running back will be a Week 12 fantasy option against the Seahawks' top-eight run defense, I will take this time anyway to examine Mike Shanahan’s confounding backfield usage. Whereas "backup" Roy Helu has racked up 246 yards on his last 50 carries (4.92 YPC), "starter" Ryan Torain has 67 yards on 36 attempts (1.86 YPC) since his flash-in-the-pan Week 4 game against the Rams. The last rushing touchdown scored against Seattle occurred on October 2, so this is an easy matchup to avoid for such a befuddling backfield. But if the stats are right -- and they usually are -- the Redskins might have been a bit more competitive during their six-game losing streak had Helu been the starting running back, and not Torain. ... Perhaps one positive sign for Helu could be gleaned from Shanahan's comments about newly signed Evan Royster, who spent the season's first 11 weeks on Washington's practice squad. Shanahan praised Royster's improvement in pass protection, a job performed primarily by Helu on game days since Tim Hightower tore his ACL. It's pure speculation, but maybe Royster will be mixed in on passing downs moving forward, with Helu's early-down role expanding at Torain's expense. But that's probably just wishful thinking.
Santana Moss will return from his fractured hand at Seattle, becoming a WR3 candidate to watch for the stretch run. As mentioned previously in this space, Moss led Washington in targets when Rex Grossman was starting early in the season. I'd use this week to monitor Moss, sit him against Darrelle Revis' Jets in Week 13, and perhaps start him versus the Patriots, Giants, and Vikings in the fantasy playoffs. ... Jabar Gaffney's 7-115-1 game in Week 11 is sure to prove a mirage with Moss back. Seattle presents a favorable matchup in terms of pass defense, but Gaffney won't be seeing double-digit targets again anytime soon. ... Moss' return figures to hurt Fred Davis in the long run, but the Redskins' tight end is set up for success in this particular matchup. Over the past three games, Seattle has been dusted for 21 catches, 219 yards, and three touchdowns by tight ends. When re-watching Seahawks games, it often appears as if there is no one left in coverage over the middle from down to down. I would bet on Davis leading the Skins in receiving this week.
The Seahawks square off Sunday with a Redskins defense that leads the NFL in sacks and ranks in the top ten versus the pass. Washington has allowed only 11 TD passes in ten games. Tarvaris Jackson has a 1:6 TD-to-INT ratio since returning from his strained right pectoral four games ago, and his yardage has dropped in four straight weeks. I think the Seahawks can beat the Skins, but not with their passing game. Avoid Doug Baldwin, Big Mike Williams, and Ben Obomanu. Sidney Rice is a dicey WR3, especially after he missed practice time with a knee injury this week. Rice has had knee problems since entering the league. ... I've never been a Marshawn Lynch believer, but he appears to be in the best physical condition of his career, and the volume is hard to argue with. The Seahawks are force feeding him the rock with a league-high 90 touches in his last three games. Washington can be run on, so this isn't a prohibitive matchup. Lynch is a worthy RB2/flex.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 17, Redskins 16