Week 12 Booms and Busts: Saints and Buccaneers lead Southern scoring parade

It’s getting late in the fantasy season. The playoffs for most leagues are just two weeks away. We need things we can trust. We need things we can hang our hat on.

Go South, young man. Specifically, the NFC South.

And bring some quarters, because the NFC South is all about pinball. Explosive offenses and playmakers, erratic defenses, free-flowing yards and points. Even the venues play along nicely — two domes, and two other teams in warm climates. The track is always clear. Sit back and watch the numbers roll in.

Sunday’s first stop was New Orleans, where the Saints outlasted the Panthers, 34-31. The Saints offense was tidy and narrow for our purposes, focusing on the playmakers we rely on. Drew Brees chucked for 311 yards and three scores, feeding unstoppable Michael Thomas (10-101-1) and rebounding Jared Cook (6-99-1) nicely. Alvin Kamara was sluggish for a while, but he rallied late and finished with 102 total yards (and nine juicy PPR catches). Latavius Murray had 7-64-1 in his secondary role, not bad if you were in a pinch. We know where the Saints bread is buttered (and in New Orleans, butter is a food group).

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - NOVEMBER 24: Michael Thomas #13 of the New Orleans Saints catches a 3 yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees #9 against the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter in the game at Mercedes Benz Superdome on November 24, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
The Panthers know as well as anyone, you can't guard Mike Thomas. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Carolina’s offense also has a narrow tree, though most of the branches say McCaffrey on them. Christian McCaffrey probably can’t win MVP given how the voting slants to quarterbacks on playoff teams, but he’s putting together a strong Offensive Player of the Year case. Even though the Saints limited CMC to 2.9 yards a carry, he still scored well through volume — 133 total yards, two touchdowns. McCaffrey is as matchup proof and game-script proof as they come.

Kyle Allen had a much-needed comeback game (three touchdowns, no picks, 112.7 rating), which allowed Carolina to keep the match competitive. DJ Moore was constantly open, scoring two touchdowns and racking up 126 yards. Greg Olsen was handy (5-44-0), and although Curtis Samuel couldn’t find room in the passing game, he did run four times for 40 yards. The Panthers don’t always win, but they usually fight back.

The other NFC South game wasn’t quite as fun, though it also featured a bunch of big plays. Tampa Bay had one of its cleaner days, as Jameis Winston threw more to his guys (313 yards, three scores) than the other guys (two picks). Chris Godwin had a field day against Atlanta’s secondary (7-184-2, including a 71-yard score), while Mike Evans was tepid with his chances (4-50-0). That’s how the Tampa offense usually rolls; one of the alpha dogs goes off, the other guy is a mild disappointment. The Bucs were in control throughout the 35-22 victory.

Ronald Jones still has to share with Peyton Barber, though Jones continues to look like the more efficient and versatile back. And forget the Tampa tight ends — Cameron Brate had just one target (after 14 the previous week) and O.J. Howard a mere two. The Bucs haven’t unlocked that position all year.

After two glorious weeks of upsets, the Falcons took a gigantic step backwards. The running game went nowhere, that’s no surprise (3.0 YPC as a team; no one over 20 yards). Julio Jones hobbled through another ordinary game (5-68-0, no scores since Week 3). Matt Ryan took six sacks and couldn’t even manage 6.0 YPA. Matt Schaub mopped up in the fourth quarter.

What happened to the resurgent Atlanta defense? And can they fix it on a short turnaround? The Falcons host New Orleans, a juicy rematch game, Thanksgiving night. Could be another case where the first team to 30, wins.

The Panthers might get a challenge, hosting the pesky Redskins — at least the Washington defense is solid — before visiting Atlanta in Week 14. The Buccaneers head to Jacksonville, up against a Jaguars defense that was embarrassed at Tennessee on Sunday.

No individual or team matchup is ever foolproof, but I’ll keep starting these NFC South guys proactively. Good work if you can get it. They sure play a mean pinball.

Harry and Meyers needed and ready

Had things gone according to plan, Jacob Meyers and N’Keal Harry would likely be redshirts in New England this year, guys learning on the sidelines, at practice, in the meeting rooms. Instead, they’ve forced to play, and they’re learning to crawl.

Harry had just one catch on his four targets against Dallas, but it was a grown-man catch, a dynamite touchdown against tight coverage. Meyers made a couple of splash plays, and easily tops 100 yards if not for one perfectly-timed crushing hit from the Dallas secondary. This offense desperately needs downfield elements; perhaps Meyers or Harry, or both, can step into that void.

Of course, it’s never easy to figure out New England’s usage. Julian Edelman is the fulcrum of the passing game, especially on third down, and Sony Michel has a key role, and always is a good touchdown bet. But James White, for as much as the Patriots like him, can disappear any week. And Rex Burkhead is one of those fantasy disruptors; he doesn’t have enough projectable volume to play in fantasy, but he gets in the way of somebody else. And you know how the Pats roll — a different game plan every week.

Quick Hits

• Ryan Tannehill deserves a reexamination. His time in Miami was better than many realize; despite a nightmare supporting cast, he got to eight wins three times, and was above the league-average in QB rating in three seasons. He’s comfortable working through progressions, and has enough athleticism to extend a play or win one with his legs. Obviously context is gigantic for any football player; heck, Steve Young couldn’t get out of his own way in Tampa Bay. Tannehill has earned the right to be Tennessee’s 2020 starter.

Derrick Henry has been one of the most underrated players in the league for multiple years, a power back with a surprising breakaway gear. Henry understands spacing and leverage so well, which is how those 20-yard runs sometimes turn into 70-yard runs. My buddy Frank Schwab put it into perfect perspective today:

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• Mike Tomlin won’t win Coach of the Year, but I hope he’s at least in the discussion. Not many coaches have the guts to pull the QB cord like he did at Cincinnati. Despite a lost year from Ben Roethlisberger and messy ones from James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers are still in the playoff hunt. Sure, it’s a watered-down AFC, but this team just hangs around, alligator blood. And even without Maurkice Pouncey, this is a dominant offensive line. No one will ever enjoy playing Pittsburgh.

• It’s frustrating to watch Carson Wentz struggle like this. He’s playing like someone who doesn’t trust his offensive line or any of his wide receivers; heck, he doesn’t even trust himself right now. Zach Ertz is a dynamite tight end, a Pro Bowl staple, but your offense needs additional things on the menu. Even with a gettable schedule on the way, Wentz can’t be seen as an automatic fantasy starter.

• I wish the Raiders would pick a lane. The 3-0 homestand probably was misleading, featuring three games the Raiders easily could have lost. Oakland played poorly against the Chargers for 55 minutes, showed little against Cincinnati, and the Detroit game was a coin flip.

I get that Sunday’s match at New York was an early body clock game, but the Raiders never got off the bus. The Oakland passing game has a lot of support players, but there isn’t a true No. 1, someone who commands the ball and tilts a defense. Even if Oakland creeps into the playoffs, there’s no upside here.

• The Jets offense turned around the moment Sam Darnold went to the team and specified the plays he likes. Okay, being completely healed from mono didn’t hurt. Darnold deserves credit for taking what was available in the Oakland blowout, but also accept how wide the usage was —nine players were targeted, and no one saw more than five passes. Darnold’s maturity as a passer could make this offense a tricky one to decipher.

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• After a year of comical bad luck around the goal, Leonard Fournette finally got some love from the touchdown gods. But two things have turned his fantasy season into an excellent one — good health, and a consistent, heavy role in the passing game. Maybe he hasn’t been a true league winner, but Fournette certainly goes down as one of 2019’s right answers.

• It’s shocking to see Saquon Barkley so ordinary as a runner and so lost as a receiver, though the second thing could blamed on Daniel Jones or offensive design. I’m not saying Barkley is a bad player, but he hasn’t looked like the generational star this year, someone worthy of his draft slot.

The Giants did click on rookie wideout Darius Slayton, a heck of a value at Pick 171. And I’m willing to give Jones the benefit of the doubt, though it’s an open question if he can get the pocket awareness he needs to improve. You can’t concede at least one lost fumble to the other guys every week.

• The two best fantasy things you can say about Jeff Driskel is that he’s willing to run and he always focuses on his two best receivers, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. But six sacks and three picks can’t be tolerated against a good-not-elite Washington defense. Detroit can compete against most teams, but it can also lose to anyone. The Matthew Stafford injury might be a blessing in disguise for Matt Patricia; maybe he buys him another season. It’s a convenient built-in excuse.

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• Bo Scarbrough looked like a player, even with a lost fumble. But’s he’s also a nothing in the passing game, at least right now, and it’s hard to bank on a ton of goal-line volume. He’s handy in a pinch as an RB2, sure. But a strong fantasy roster likely has better options. The upside appears capped.

• DeVante Parker isn’t always an efficiency darling, but he gets volume every week and he does something with it every week. And Ryan Fitzpatrick at least gives this offense a chance to do something, he keeps competing, he’s smart enough and athletic enough to make a few plays. Miami’s offense will get a shot in the arm the moment it accepts Kalen Ballage can’t play.

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