Pragmatism, Coaching Blunders, Epic Clashes, and Breakthrough Performances: Week 12 Had It All
Image Credit: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Pat Freiermuth.

“ROS: Why don’t you go and have a look?
GUIL: Pragmatism?! — is that all you have to offer?”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

My favorite line from the world’s most quotable play. I mention it here perhaps apropos of nothing or perhaps as an out-of-context reminder that we’ve reached the part of the fantasy season where our interventions are mostly reduced to starting the best lineup you have at your disposal and then exhorting those players to feats you wouldn’t otherwise expect — the deep catch through a double-team and flagrant pass interference, the goal-line plunge through multiple 300-pound defenders.

Did Travis Etienne get in? No, he did not. The second time? No. 

Although Week 14 confers the league title and Week 17 the million dollars, for my money, nothing really compares to Week 12 where you’re trying to get every team in. To have that chance, to maintain that variety.

It was a good week across the board from that regard, but Monday night is still the final arbiter. And you’re left rooting for miracles.

Blair and I could advance a Jonathan Taylor squad in the FFPC Main Event if Minnesota scores only a single point on defense. You might be asking yourself if Justin Fields has ever started a game in which the opposing team was held to that level, and I believe the answer is no. Fields actually has started a game in which he did not take a sack. That was 10 games ago in a December 2022 loss to Green Bay where he threw two picks. In the subsequent nine games, Fields has averaged more than four sacks per game. He also threw at least one interception in six of those nine appearances. (We can also advance if Alexander Mattison and Jordan Addison combine for 15 or fewer. Also a difficult ask.)

With fantasy as the backdrop, the NFL played a handful of epic contests. The Monday podcasts were more fun than ever.

Stealing Bananas

Can Ben and I advance a team deep into the FFPC Main Event tournament? Among our five teams, we have a squad that has clinched the No. 2 seed on points, a squad that has clinched the second points berth, and a Chasing Stolen Bananas squad with Pat and Pete that needs to hold off T.J. Hockenson and D.J. Moore tonight to clinch the No. 2 seed on points. We could get a fourth team in on record if Mattison scores 21 tonight.

Buffalo Bills @ Philadelphia Eagles

Ben referenced the shocking splits between point differential and win/loss record for the Bills at this juncture of the season in both 2021 and 2023. And not in a good way. Buffalo now has six losses but a better point differential (+101) than the three 8-3 squads in the AFC (Dolphins, +88; Chiefs, +75; Jaguars, +29).

Sean McDermott has started to take some heat for these results, even though you could certainly make the argument that he deserves credit for the point-differential dominance much more than the blame for all of the wild losses.

We discuss this on the show and reference the need for the Bucs to move on from Tony Dungy to win a Super Bowl, contrasted with Dungy’s own mixed track record once he moves on to the Colts. Is one Super Bowl title enough with Peyton Manning? How do you separate the coaching from the quarterback, always a complex discussion with Bill Belichick’s Patriots imploding and Sean Payton’s non-Brees Broncos getting off to a rough start before going on the big win streak.

You can begin by looking at the decisions made in crucial situations. And two obvious moments stand out in stark relief. If any team knows the danger of giving up a FG despite a short clock, it’s Buffalo. They notoriously allowed Kansas City to gain the necessary yardage with only 13 seconds remaining in the 2021 AFC playoffs.

Instead of preparing for that contingency against Philadelphia, they made the ludicrous decision to ice Jake Elliott on a 59-yard FG in the rain. They then kneeled the game out instead of using those final 20 seconds to craft a FG drive of their own.

The Bills then get the ball first in overtime and kick a go-ahead FG, only to have Jalen Hurts lead a TD drive noteworthy in its lack of stress. The Bills only force a single third down, an easy conversion almost the foregone conclusion. The performance brings back echoes of that Kansas City loss.

In that game, the Chiefs not only execute the late game-tying FG, but they score on six of seven second-half positions. On the winning drive in OT, the Bills force only a single third down, and that a third-and-1. Patrick Mahomes generates almost 450 yards of total offense to go with four combined TDs.

As a defensive mind, it’s difficult to be graded on your performance against Hurts and Mahomes, but those are exactly the games that matter most. The much-maligned Belichick is legendary for coming up with just those types of schematic trump cards in the biggest moments.

Which brings us back to accountability. The Bills recently fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. I can understand that decision and am excited to see what Joe Brady brings to the table over the rest of the season — the early results have been promising — but how much culpability does Dorsey have for the fluky fumbles and Allen picks? How much responsibility does he have for the team underperforming its point differential?

We can pull up Blair Andrews’ visual from this week’s Wrong Read to get a better feel.

  • The first thing that jumps out: the Bills defensive metrics are varied and interesting. Their pass defense allows a lot of separation, which has manifested in very poor ranks in both halves of the passing game equation. They’re poor in both success rate and boom rate allowed. They dominated Philadelphia in the first half but had few answers for DeVonta Smith after intermission.
  • Their run defense is also a study in contrasts. They don’t tackle well and give up a lot of big plays. With defenses trying to limit explosives at all costs in 2023, this can be a problem, and it was a problem against Philadelphia. Despite missing a FG that would have put them up 20-7, Buffalo appeared in control when the Eagles took possession, but everything changed on the next play, a 36-yard gain by D’Andre Swift. From that point Philadelphia was unstoppable, ripping off three consecutive TDs and scores on five of six drives, including the game-tying and game-winning possessions.
  • By contrast, the Bills passing offense ranked No. 2 in success rate and their rushing offense was one better at No. 1. They then piled up 505 more yards against Eagles. Did the backbreaking plays that have plagued this unit evaporate? No. Allen threw a brutal INT during the extreme momentum shift, while James Cook dropped a walk-in TD early on a drive where the Bills eventually punted. If Cook catches that pass and Tyler Bass makes even one of his two missed FGs, then the Bills are up 27-7 before Hurts begins his heroics. (That’s not really the case, of course, as everything that took place subsequently would have been different.)

Brady’s presence didn’t magically solve the mistakes just as Dorsey’s presence didn’t cause the point-differential conundrum. (Brian Daboll was calling plays in the 2021 when it was also an issue.) It’s likely that none of these coordinators deserve the credit for Allen’s brilliance, nor that any of them deserve the blame for the ill-timed mistakes.

It’s also very possible that McDermott deserves neither the credit nor the blame, although that in itself might be an indictment of the head coach.

McDermott came up as a defensive coordinator for Philadelphia and Carolina. Before arriving in Buffalo, he coached the Panthers defense from 2011 to 2016. Two of those defenses were dominant. In the Super Bowl campaign of 2015, McDermott’s defense finished sixth in points allowed, while the Cam Newton-led offense ranked first in points. The flip side is that in four of those seasons, the defense finished outside the top half, including the following year when his unit collapsed to No. 26. He was then off to Buffalo.

Most of the evidence suggests McDermott as a solid defensive mind but not a difference-maker in the way that many young coaches are currently changing the game and leading their teams to glory through innovation on their side of the ball. That’s been especially the case in big moments — Buffalo was also eviscerated (at home and in the snow) by Joe Burrow and the Bengals in last year’s playoffs.

The Bills go into their bye having lost four of six and facing a brutal remaining schedule where the next two opponents are Super Bowl contenders in Kansas City and Dallas. Buffalo has the talent to win either game, and they need to win at least one to stay the course and retain McDermott into 2024.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals

Fantasy managers are well aware of the Steelers’ epic 58-game streak without 400 yards of total offense. That came to an end against Cincinnati, the week after Matt Canada’s dismissal. And yet Pittsburgh only scored one TD and were in danger of losing to a Jake Browning-led Bengals squad before an ill-timed pick kept Cincinnati from extending their lead to multiple scores early in the second stanza.

Probable first-round bust Kenny Pickett came into the game on an unfortunate streak of his own. He’d failed to reach 250 yards passing in 16 consecutive starts.

Things had become untenable over the last month. He’d averaged just 116 passing yards per game. He generated only 143 air yards per game in that span and averaged a ridiculous -4.2 passing FPOE/G.

Although Week 12 broke the streak, it was still a tough performance from a fantasy perspective. The reality numbers were kinder. He ranked fifth on the week in EPA at the QB position and averaged 8.4 yards per attempt.

Week 12 — QB EPA Leaders

Player EPA Comp% Yards YPA TD AirYards PPR
Josh Allen 22.8 56.9 339 6.6 2 411 39.7
Dak Prescott 19.1 68.8 331 10.3 4 470 32.2
Matthew Stafford 12.7 75.8 229 6.9 4 192 23.4
Jordan Love 12.4 68.8 268 8.4 3 302 26.6
Trevor Lawrence 12 60.5 364 9.6 1 322 24.6
Kenny Pickett 10 72.7 278 8.4 0 279 11.6
Patrick Mahomes 9.1 79.4 298 8.8 2 167 20.8
Aidan O’Connell 4.3 69.7 248 7.5 1 159 13.9
C.J. Stroud 4.1 72.2 304 8.4 2 345 30.9
Russell Wilson 2.8 59.1 134 6.1 1 122 16.8

Reports suggested Pittsburgh would try to unlock Jaylen Warren and George Pickens with the coordinator change, but they weren’t the catalysts. (Pickens’ 43-yard reception did help the Steelers close the game late.) Pat Freiermuth became the breakout star in his return, catching nine passes for 120 yards.

This wasn’t guaranteed, nor is it a lock to continue. But it helps Pittsburgh exhale after the previous piece of the puzzle got diametrically opposite results. (Diontae Johnson’s return coincided with Pickett’s embarrassing month, even though Johnson was on the field for 92% of the routes and drew targets at a 27% clip from Weeks 7 through 11.) Freiermuth had been an abject bust over the season’s first month. He’d run a route on only 62% of dropbacks. The profile only got worse from there — 14% TPRR, 4.1 YPT. That was a stark contrast to his breakout 2022 campaign where no TE with as many routes (416) averaged a better TPRR than his 24%.

For at least one glorious week, we can dream about the next Hockenson-like breakout as Freiermuth led the position in air yards, yards after the catch, and EPA.

Week 12 Tight End Leaderboard

Player PPR EPA TargetShare RecYards RecTD AirYards YAC
Pat Freiermuth 21 10.8 34.4 120 0 105 46
Tyler Higbee 19.9 3.4 16.1 29 2 16 13
Sam LaPorta 17.7 -2.1 19 47 1 64 18
Travis Kelce 15.1 5.3 21.9 91 0 80 27
Gerald Everett 14.3 5.9 9.8 43 1 29 14
Trey McBride 13 -2.1 20.5 60 0 37 34
David Njoku 11.9 -1.3 23.1 59 0 67 18
Evan Engram 9.9 -5.4 21.6 49 0 51 16
Tucker Kraft 9.5 2.1 6.7 15 1 6 9
Dalton Kincaid 8.8 0.6 12.2 38 0 47 12

RotoViz Overtime

Colm and I drafted an ME together for the first time this year, and we need four points tonight from Joshua Dobbs to clinch the No. 1 seed. We could earn the sweep bonus if Dobbs can hold our 3.85-point lead in the points race against the combined forces of Hockenson and Greg Joseph. Run in the red zone, Mr. Dobbs!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Indianapolis Colts

Mike Evans came in tied for third in receiving TDs, but his Week 12 outburst was the first two-score performance, something he’d managed on six occasions over the previous two years.

His big week kept the Buccaneers close and pushed him to the brink of the top WR score on a week where 13 receivers crested 20 points.

Week 12 Wide Receiver Leaderboard

Player PPR EPA Targets RecYards RecTD AirYards YAC
Tyreek Hill 25.4 7.1 12 102 1 44 73
Mike Evans 25 1.3 9 70 2 121 5
Rashee Rice 24.7 7.6 10 107 1 43 69
DeVonta Smith 23.6 8 8 106 1 118 36
Nico Collins 23.4 4.9 9 104 1 97 50
Zay Flowers 23.2 1.1 8 25 1 38 27
Keenan Allen 22.6 -0.4 16 106 0 105 34
Gabe Davis 22.5 5.8 12 105 1 185 16
Deebo Samuel 22.4 5.2 9 79 0 73 43
Calvin Ridley 21.9 8.3 6 89 1 89 30
Michael Pittman 20.7 8 13 107 0 96 47
Christian Watson 20.4 6.3 7 94 1 140 8
Jakobi Meyers 20.1 5.5 7 79 1 62 28

Evans continues to flourish post-Brady with a much stronger air yards profile under Baker Mayfield.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Bucs/Colts featured the RBs. Rachaad White was coming off of a five-game stretch where he averaged 5.4 targets and 51 receiving yards per game. He was only targeted twice for 10 yards against Indy but rescued his fantasy week with a late 38-yard run that helped him reach 100 rushing yards for the first time in 2023.

Jonathan Taylor was coming off of a two-game stretch where he’d dominated the opportunities.

The Colts decided to reintegrate Zack Moss over the bye, and the elite backup siphoned eight carries and three targets. In fact, the Colts embarked on a four-drive, 24-play stretch to end the first half where Taylor only touched it once (a direct snap from the 2-yard line where he was stuffed).

Taylor did score twice and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt on his way to 91 rushing yards. While the usage is controversial, Colm and I discuss the strength of Shane Steichen’s game plan. The Colts got 13 targets each to Michael Pittman and Josh Downs, effectively passing to set up the run. Both of their RBs then averaged over 6.0 YPA against a Bucs rushing defense that came in ranked No. 1 in FPOE, No. 1 in boom rate, and No. 3 in EPA per rushing attempt.

If you gambled on Pittman’s depressed ADP and played the contingent upside of an Anthony Richardson injury opening up the Colts passing volume, the Indianapolis receiving leader is paying off nicely. He’s posted a 30% market share and ranks No. 8 overall in yards after the catch since the beginning of Week 3.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Las Vegas Raiders

Down 14-0 on the road at Las Vegas and with their Super Bowl defense suddenly on life support, Mahomes orchestrated three consecutive TD drives of 70-plus yards. He added a fourth after a punt, the score coming on a 39-yard catch-and-run from Rashee Rice that seemed to cement the rookie as Kansas City’s alpha.

Ryan Ramsarran has been tracking the uptick in Rice’s usage, but this was the true breakout game. It was the first time he’d reached double-digit targets (previous high was seven) and the first time he hit the century mark in receiving yards (previous high was 72).

Rice can now comfortably be deployed in your flex position, his emergence coming just at the right time for fantasy managers.

Isiah Pacheco notched his second game of the season with 20-plus, coming in for a short-yardage score one play after Clyde Edwards-Helaire was stuffed at the goal line. Pacheco has been notably improved after contact and with broken tackles this season, and yet the Chiefs lack of talent in the running game has still caused significant problems. They came in ranked No. 4 in yards before contact but only 24th in success rate. When the defense is giving you space — and daring Andy Reid to call pass plays into difficult looks — it’s imperative to make them pay. Pacheco struggled again on a per play basis as a runner, but scored twice and flashed in the passing game.

If the youngsters can take a little of the heat from Travis Kelce, the Chiefs are poised to go on their usual late-season run. The schedule is soft overall and especially for Pacheco.

Rest-of-Season RB Strength of Schedule (Weeks 13-17)

Good luck tonight, and make sure to check out the RotoViz Report, as Conor O’Driscoll joins Blair and Hasan for more on the Rashee Rice breakout.

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Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.

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