1. Can't Andre Johnson owners catch a break? First, Johnson went down with a severe hamstring injury just as the bye weeks were kicking in, forcing all but the most well-stocked owners to scramble to find usable receivers. Then there was an achingly long recovery process that dragged on through the Texans' Week 11 bye. Just before Houston hit that bye, Johnson's partner in crime, Matt Schaub went down with a season-ending foot injury. Then Johnson was cleared to play in Week 12, and there was hope that Matt Leinart could do at least a passable left-handed imitation of Schaub. But then Leinart sustained a season-ending shoulder injury last week, leaving marginal NFL QB T.J. Yates as the man charged with getting the ball to No. 80. If there's a positive way to spin this latest bit of bad news for Johnson owners, only the most prolific P.R. firm would be able to figure out how.
It was tough to figure out where to slot Johnson in my position rankings for Week 12. The situation in Houston is bleak, but he's still Andre Johnson, you know? He ultimately landed in the mid-20s, and even that felt like a bit of a stretch.
And really, the QB situation in Houston is disheartening for any fantasy owner with a stake in the Texans. Even with the top-notch blocking he gets, Arian Foster is probably going to take a 10 percent statistical haircut (at least). Backup RB Ben Tate had been a viable flex option, but no more. TE Owen Daniels might now be unusable. WRs Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones are definitely unusable. Neil Rackers' point totals are bound to take a hit. Bad, bad, bad.
Stepping out of the fantasy realm for a moment, I feel terrible for fans of the Texans. For years they've watched their team futilely chase the Colts in the AFC South. Just when the Texans had assembled their strongest roster ever and the Colts were going down in a plume of flame, the QB injuries (coupled with the earlier loss of star defender Mario Williams) caved in the roof. That's some rotten luck right there. Condolences, Texans fans.
2. One additional thought on the plight of the Texans:
I've rolled my eyes at every Brett Favre unretirement rumor to surface since his disastrous final season with the Vikings ended last December, but I think it actually would have made some sense for the Texans to try to lure Favre off his lawnmower. He wouldn't have to coax his creaky body through a full season — only 4-5 regular-season games plus the playoffs. He'd have a terrific offensive line to protect him, not to mention a terrific running game on which to lean. He'd have a fine collection of targets, headlined by the aforementioned Andre Johnson. Favre would even have been playing somewhat close to home.
Jake Delhomme? Really? He's been in mothballs for longer than Favre and was beyond terrible the last time he played. Texans GM Rick Smith quickly shot down the Favre-to-Houston idea, telling SI's Peter King, "I don't want to bring the circus to town." Well, Rick, I'm not sure what sort of show you want to put on for the playoffs if you're anti-circus — Shakespearean theater? Improvisational sketch comedy? — but without a viable solution at quarterback, it's destined to be a one-night-only performance.
3. At what point are we allowed to bestow the "star" label upon Victor Cruz? What a playmaker this guy has turned out to be. His worst game since the Giants came out of their Week Seven bye was a 6-84-0 performance against the 49ers in Week 10. He's had more than 90 receiving yards in seven of his last nine games, and from Week Three on he's averaged better than 100 yards per game.
When a player lacks pedigree and turns out to be terrific nonetheless, we tend to be more hesitant to recognize greatness than we are with those who were ticketed for stardom all along. A.J. Green, for instance, is a highly drafted college star who made a fast, easy transition to the NFL and was quickly anointed a star. Cruz was an undrafted free agent who had a terrific rookie preseason in 2010 but then barely got on the field during the regular season. Rather than being a fluke, that preseason performance foretold the emergence of one of the NFL's better young receivers. If Cruz isn't officially a star yet, he's awfully close.
4. Those of you who've been visiting this column for the last year or two know that I'm not the world's biggest "Matty Ice" fan. And while I'm not prepared to launch a campaign for the presidency of the Matt Ryan Fan Club, I have to confess that I'm starting to warm up to Mr. Ice.
Over his last four games, Ryan has thrown nine TD passes against only two interceptions and has averaged 301 passing yards per game. But those aren't the numbers that interest me most. My primary complaint about Ryan has been that he's a glorified game manager masquerading as a playmaker. The best evidence of this was the number 6.5 - his average yardage per passing attempt in both 2009 and 2010. That's a backup-level number. But Ryan has boosted his yards per attempt to 7.3 this season, and over his last six games he's averaged 8.0 yards per attempt. That's a significant sign of progress, Perhaps Ryan is ready to consistently live up to what had been an overinflated reputation.
5. AMC has enjoyed a phenomenal run of success in recent years, but the cable network is having a year not unlike that of the Indianapolis Colts. (A disclaimer: I'm told that the critically acclaimed AMC show "Breaking Bad" was better than ever this season, but I don't watch "Breaking Bad," so in my little world, this supports the Colts analogy: AMC minus "Breaking Bad" = Colts minus Peyton Manning.)
Earlier this year, AMC debuted a promising new series, "The Killing," that focused on the investigation of a high school girl's murder. The setup was intriguing, the characters were compelling, and rainy Seattle served as a perfectly melancholy backdrop. The resolution, however, was ... well, there was no resolution. The plot holes became so gaping that the writers and producers apparently had no plausible way out, so they settled on one of the most catastrophically unsatisfying season finales in the history of television. (Since we're playing with TV/football analogies, let's try one that involves Seattle: The setup of the first season of "The Killing" = Brian Bosworth's college career. The resolution of the show's first season = Brian Bosworth's pro career.)
Then there's "The Walking Dead," AMC's zombie-apocalypse show. A gruesomely compelling first season whetted my appetite for the second season, which began this fall and just hit its midpoint break. Things remained suspenseful up to the point where a primary character took a dark turn, sacrificing a fellow survivor to a horde of pursuing zombies. But then the next several episodes right up through the half-season finale ... BOR-ING! I mean, really, how can a show about a zombie apocalypse be boring? I could understand lackluster special effects or nonexistent character development, but boring? I'm not yet ready to bail on "The Walking Dead," but I'm getting an itchy remote-control finger. (Tip for the show's creators: When in doubt ... more zombies.)
And finally there's the new AMC series "Hell on Wheels," a Western set around the building of a railroad to the Pacific after the Civil War. But, of course, it's a show about characters, not about railroad-building, and I'm not sure the cast is strong enough to hold my interest much longer. Colm Meaney is decent enough as a greedy railroad baron. The rest of the cast ... meh. It doesn't feel as if you're watching characters; it feels as if you're watching actors. Emotions and reactions often don't seem genuine. The strings are too visible.
Here's hoping the impending return of the best show on television, "Mad Men," early next year can help AMC right the ship. The show is the network's savior, so I suppose a new season of "Mad Men" to AMC = Andrew Luck to the Colts.
6. What's wrong with Mike Wallace? After a blistering start to the season, No. 17 has averaged 52.3 receiving yards in his last four games and has just one TD catch over that span, with a long gain of just 25 yards. This home-run hitter has been striking out like Rob Deer. What gives?
Maybe part of it is due to the emergence of Antonio Brown, but even though Brown is legit, he shouldn't have a permanent vampire effect on Wallace's numbers. Other than a dud 17-yard performance against the Chiefs last week, Wallace has still been grinding out halfway respectable yardage totals. But he and Ben Roethlisberger haven't had their deep-ball mojo working in recent weeks. Big Ben has overthrown Wallace on a few, and Wallace let an easy one clang off his hands. Hey, it happens.
Wallace is about to face a Bengals defense that held him to 54 receiving yards in Week 10, but Cincinnati will be without its best cornerback, Leon Hall, who tore his Achilles just before halftime of that game. This could be the week that Wallace snaps out of his funk.
7. Not to ruin a good storyline, but the idea that Alex Smith has matured into a good quarterback is basically hooey that's been falsely supported by the 49ers' 9-2 record, and any reasonably astute fantasy owner knows this. Smith has thrown a few less interceptions and bumped up his completion percentage by a couple of points in the Nines' uber-conservative offense, but otherwise it's pretty much the same old, same old. I've talked about this with a couple of people who own Smith in dynasty leagues, and they don't perceive Smith to be a valuable commodity. The myth of the "new" Alex Smith started to unravel on Thanksgiving night when Smith failed to get anything going in a 13-6 loss to the Ravens, and one suspects it's going to be completely unraveled when the Niners make an early exit from the playoffs.
8. Boy, Ray Rice is poised for a big fantasy finish. Here are the opponents he faces over the next four weeks, with their ranking against the run in parentheses: Cleveland (29th), Indianapolis (31st), San Diego (25th) and Cleveland again.
9. No fantasy season can ever be labeled "predictable," but this season seems more volatile than most. I'm sure there are plenty of leagues across the country in which the same teams that were pegged as top championship contenders early in the season are still considered the top contenders as the fantasy playoffs draw near. But that definitely hasn't been the case in most of my leagues. Instead, it's been a series of sea changes, with early-season powers falling by the wayside, and teams that were lightly regarded early on turning into powerhouses as the season wore on. Maybe it's just random variance, or maybe you've noticed the same thing in your leagues. Either way, I think it's kind of cool - an unpredictable league is an exciting league.
10. The Patriots are favored over the Colts by 20 points, and who doesn't think Sunday's game in Foxborough is going to be anything less than a complete tail-kicking? This is an epic mismatch. It's Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals, Franklin Delano Roosevelt vs. Alf Landon, lions vs. Christians, Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. And I'm thinking that when the Patriots start bayoneting the Colts in this one, rookie RB Shane Vereen is going to come in and start piling up the garbage-time numbers for New England. I have Vereen at No. 37 in my RB rankings for this week, and that might be a severe underestimation. The rook could make a sneaky-good flex play for this week. He's a good bet to get at least 7-8 carries in garbage time, with the potential for Vereen to run wild if (when) this one gets completely out of hand.
11. I've grown to hate the Michigan State football program. In fact, I'm going to start setting my alarm to go off 10 minutes earlier, just so I can hate Michigan State a little bit more.
I'm relishing the fact that my beloved Wisconsin Badgers get another crack at Sparty in Saturday's first-ever Big Ten championship game, with the chance to avenge a soul-crushing loss to MSU in the regular season. It's to the credit of Michigan State football that it has become a program worth hating. Before head coach Mark Dantonio got the Spartans back on track, no one other than University of Michigan fans bothered to harbor any ill will toward MSU football.
And by the way, how strange will it be if Georgia beats LSU in Saturday's SEC championship game, and then the inevitable LSU-Alabama rematch in the national championship game features a pair of SEC teams but not the SEC champs? It would certainly be additional cannon fodder for advocates of a national-championship tournament, and they're already sitting on quite the arsenal.
12. It's interesting that Michael Vick is considered a high injury risk because he runs with the ball so much (and rightfully so), but Tim Tebow isn't regarded as an abnormally high injury risk. In nine NFL starts, Tebow has run the ball 102 times. In nine starts this year, Vick has run the ball 65 times, and in 12 starts last year, he ran it 100 times. So Tebow runs far more often than Vick does, plus he takes a lot of sacks, and yet you rarely even see him get up slowly after a tackle. The guy seems virtually indestructible. Or maybe it's the work of ...
Um, never mind.
13. The actual stomping of Packers OL Even Dietrich-Smith was only the third-most-embarrassing part of Ndamukong Suh's meltdown on Thanksgiving Day. Suh's attack on Dietrich-Smith elicited any number of adjectives — stupid, immature, psychotic, etc. — but the act itself was no more embarrassing than a mugging is to a mugger. The second-most-embarrassing part of the whole episode was Suh's bizarre postgame rant in which he essentially denied any wrongdoing — unless you consider an apology for "allowing the referee to have the opportunity to take me out of the game" to be an admission of wrongdoing. The most embarrassing part: On the play that caused Suh to go into Charles Manson mode, he was pancaked like an IHOP customer. It appeared that Suh may have started to lose his balance when a blitzing teammate drove a Green Bay lineman into Suh's backside, but it's undeniable that Dietrich-Smith, playing in place of the injured Josh Sitton, finished the play by knocking Suh off his feet and driving him into the ground. Mauled by a backup lineman? Embarrassing.
14. Darren McFadden owners have to be crawling out of their skin. The guy is just so-o-o-o-o good, and this foot injury couldn't have come at a worse time for his fantasy owners. McFadden owners who were able to handcuff Michael Bush have come out OK, but the ones who weren't ...
15. As rough as Sam Bradford's season has been, I think he's a great bounce-back candidate for 2012. Yeah, take that with a grain of salt from the guy who thought Bradford was going to put up big numbers in 2011. But in Bradford's defense, he's gotten atrocious pass blocking this season. The Rams' linemen are lucky Bradford is still alive, because otherwise they'd be facing manslaughter charges. If the Rams are smart enough to make the reconstruction of the offensive line their top offseason priority, Bradford will have an excellent chance to turn into a valuable quarterback.
16. It's tough to tell whether Santonio Holmes' disappointing season is mostly attributable to the incompetence of Mark Sanchez, or if Holmes is overrated. In either case, the Jets have to be formulating a new QB plan, right? They've come close to the Promised Land the last couple of years, but it's becoming clear they can't go any further with Sanchez at quarterback. I'm thinking it's no better than 50-50 that Sanchez is still starting for the Jets in next year's season opener.
17. Musical note of the week: I've really been enjoying the self-titled release by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Gallagher, of course, was the lead guitarist and primary songwriter for Oasis, whose LPs "Definitely Maybe" and "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" were among the finest releases of the '90s (at least in my humble opinion). Oasis had an ugly split due to the toxic relationship between Noel Gallagher and his brother Liam, who no longer speak to each other. Liam is a fine singer but also a half-wit who provides near-constant fodder for the British tabloids. Measuring Noel's new release against the recent release by Liam's current band, Beady Eye, which includes two other Oasis members, it's pretty easy to discern which of the two well-medicated Gallagher brothers was truly the driving force behind Oasis. (Sorry, Liam.)
18. With Peyton Hillis returning to action last week after a five-game absence, it was somewhat surprising that the Browns immediately gave him such a heavy workload and cast Chris Ogbonnaya in a minor relief role. Hillis has been rebuffed in his efforts to get a contract extension from the Browns, so he'll have the opportunity to test the market in free agency at the end of the season. Ogbonnaya has arguably been the Browns' best running back this season and would be a more affordable option for 2012 than Hillis. That's why it seemed odd for Hillis to get 19 carries against the Bengals last week while Ogbonnaya got only three. Maybe the Browns are still open to the possibility of re-signing Hillis in the offseason. But if I were a Hillis owner, I'd be nervous about relying on the big sledgehammer in the weeks to come. For one thing, Cleveland still has to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice each — not very promising matchups. The less overt concern is that, with the Browns at 4-7 and already casting an eye toward 2012, the division of labor in the Browns' backfield could be subject to variables not visible to the fantasy owner's naked eye — a phone call to or from an agent, a discussion involving members of the front office, etc., etc. Who really knows whether it's safe to expect Hillis to get 20 carries a week the rest of the way?
19. Remember the days when the hapless Denver defense used to be an unconditional green-light fantasy matchup? The Broncos rank a respectable 18th in total defense and 22nd in points allowed. There's obviously room for improvement in both categories, but the Denver defense is no longer a pushover. Rookie LB Von Miller has been phenomenal, and with a couple more offseason additions, the Denver defense might actually turn into a coveted fantasy commodity.
20. Apparently I was off my game last week with my position rankings, as I plummeted from first place into a three-way tie for second in the FantasyPros.com accuracy rankings, thanks to an awful Week 12 performance. A chimpanzee would have had a better chance of correctly telling you which players to start in Week 12, so I apologize to anyone I led astray with bad advice. But, hey, I still have a few more weeks to redeem myself and prove that I am, in fact, smarter than the average chimp (though my wife has her doubts about that).
21. I could use your help this week, readers. I have a critical game coming up in my 16-team league. I'm 7-5 and face a fellow wild-card contender. I control my own destiny, so if I win this week and then knock off the league doormat in Week 14, I'm in. If I lose this week, I'm probably out unless about four different games go my way next week.
Matt Forté is starting for me at one RB spot, but I have a dilemma at the other spot — Jonathan Stewart or C.J. Spiller? Both have attractive matchups. Stewart faces a Tampa Bay defense that ranks 30th against the run and was steamrolled by Chris Johnson last week. Spiller faces a Tennessee defense that ranks 22nd against the run and just gave up 100-plus yards to LeGarrette Blount. I have Stewart rated slightly higher in my RB rankings for the week, but what do I know? I'm the guy who just crashed and burned in the FantasyPros.com accuracy rankings.
Got an opinion on this one? I'd love to have it. Drop me an email at the address listed on this page and tell me whom you'd start and why.