Instant Impressions: Week 14
Murray, Jennings injuries among biggest stories as fantasy playoffs begin
• DeMarco Murray was just cruising early Sunday night: 25 yards on five carries, the last of which brought praise from Cris Collinsworth for its ferocity. Unfortunately, it's the last Murray carry we'll see in 2011. He broke his ankle in the first quarter against the New York Giants and is out for the season. It was a meteoric rise and an even more precipitous fall for Murray, who was known as a leg injury waiting to happen at Oklahoma (though it's rather uncharitable of me to compare a fractured ankle to the strains and sprains that dogged him in Norman). Murray can obviously be dropped in re-draft leagues, while Felix Jones should be added in all leagues. Jones had 137 yards from scrimmage on 22 touches Sunday night, and while he hasn't exactly been Mr. Durability in his NFL career, he's the only guy the Cowboys have left. Phillip Tanner was placed on IR last week with a hamstring problem, so Jones was literally the only healthy tailback left on the Dallas roster for three quarters Sunday night. The Dallas Cowboys will no doubt add a veteran backup, but they'll sink or swim with Jones the rest of the way. He's available in nearly 30 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
• Greg Jennings also suffered a devastating injury for fantasy owners. A play after he nearly caught a TD (with the Green Bay Packers winning 31-0), Jennings caught a short pass and appeared to go down harmlessly, but apparently he messed up his right knee pretty good. As of this writing, it was unclear whether this is a ligament tear or a sprain, but either way, there's a significant chance we won't see Jennings again during the fantasy playoffs. Harsh. Jordy Nelson obviously ascends to the No. 1 receiving job, and one might imagine that the uber-disappointing Jermichael Finley might get involved some, too, though you'd never know it by his zero catches versus the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. The real question is which other wideout might benefit. Believe it or not, Donald Driver was more involved in Sunday's win than James Jones, and don't forget that rookie Randall Cobb is on hand, too. Jones is available in around 40 percent of leagues, Driver is available in about 80 percent, and Cobb is available in about 95 percent. Jones has been so incredibly up and down lately that I'm loath to recommend him as a must-add. I don't think we have a clear direct beneficiary to Jennings' injury just yet.
• Ahmad Bradshaw reportedly violated team rules heading into Week 14, and was benched for the first half of Sunday night's comeback victory over the Cowboys. Terrific. I suppose the good news is that Bradshaw's absence wasn't related to his broken foot, and he did play in the second half. But he wound up with a miserable 12 yards on eight carries, while Brandon Jacobs severely outplayed him for a second straight week (19 carries, 101 yards, two TDs). One imagines the workload will be a bit more evenly distributed if Bradshaw can de-knucklehead himself in advance of next week's tilt versus the Washington Redskins, but it's impossible to consider him a No. 2 fantasy back right now. He and Jacobs both live in flex-land for the moment.
• Jimmy Graham played through a painful back injury Sunday, and while Rob Gronkowski was busy shrugging off Redskins tacklers and setting a single-season record for TD receptions by a tight end, Graham was hobbling around to the tune of five catches for 55 quiet yards. The good news is that Graham was able to play through what he told reporters was severe pain, and he promised to be out there again versus the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15. Unfortunately, some of his fantasy owners might not be alive for that game to matter.
• So now we can let up a little bit on the whole "Chris Johnson is back" movement, right? CJ1K had 23 yards on 11 carries Sunday against a New Orleans Saints run defense that according to my calculations should've been a slightly favorable matchup for him. That's not to say Johnson looked awful; honestly, I haven't watched the tape yet. But the results clearly weren't there, and Jake Locker vultured a 6-yard TD run. If you survived this terrible statistical output as a CJ1K owner, there's good news ahead, because Johnson plays against the Indianapolis Colts next week, and he's shown he's still capable of taking advantage of spectacular matchups like that one. But after that comes a Jacksonville Jaguars D that's been better lately against the run than you think, and he ends in Week 17 versus a very difficult Houston Texans run D.
• I can tell you one thing: Calvin Johnson will not be my No. 1 wideout for Week 15. It's mostly not Megatron's fault, but he's devolved to the point where Matthew Stafford pretty much uses him as a highly-paid decoy. Johnson gets so much attention from opposing defenses, it's borderline comical, especially in the red zone. We're not talking about a safety rolling in his direction. We're literally talking about two players lining up across from him at the line of scrimmage. (Call it the Antonio Gates treatment.) There's a reason Titus Young was that open Sunday versus the Vikings. Johnson had four targets Sunday, after seeing eight the previous three weeks. The problem with this strategy for NFL defenses is that it doesn't work: Stafford is eminently capable of taking advantage of playing 10-on-9 and killing you. The problem with this strategy for fantasy owners is Megatron hasn't exceeded 90 yards receiving in five straight games, and has only one TD in that time.
• All Larry Fitzgerald needs is to get the heck rid of Kevin Kolb. Kolb suffered a concussion early in the Arizona Cardinals' upset of the San Francisco 49ers, and in marched John Skelton, who made that otherworldly 49ers defense look entirely mortal. Skelton went 19-of-28 for 282 yards, three TDs and two picks Sunday, and threw several lovely deep passes to Fitz that the all-world wideout corralled for a huge day: 149 yards and a score on seven grabs. It's not often a consistently aesthetic masterpiece when Skelton is in there, but he's the anti-Kolb, in that he takes shots. The kid has guts, and that's what Fitzgerald needs. Of course, when it goes bad for Skelton, it goes bad for Fitz, too (he had six catches for 96 yards and one score combined in Skelton's final two starts before Kolb's return last month), but I don't care. I want Skelton in there if I'm a Fitzgerald owner. We'll have to wait and see whether Kolb can play in Week 15 versus the Cleveland Browns.
• For one week, anyway, everyone stressing about the triumvirate of Giants and Cowboys receivers could exhale. Hakeem Nicks (a beastly 154 yards on seven grabs), Victor Cruz (seven catches for 83 yards and a couple of hellacious drops) and Mario Manningham (two catches for 62 yards and a score) produced, as did Laurent Robinson (four catches for 137 yards and a TD), Miles Austin (four catches for 63 yards and a score) and Dez Bryant (one catch for 50 yards and a TD). Obviously, though, when only Nicks has more than four catches, you can understand the concern. There's only so much work to go around, and in any given week, you can get bitten. Certainly, owners of Bryant and Manningham must consider themselves fortunate, as each man scored a long TD on an impossibly blown coverage, salvaging his fantasy day. The Giants receivers at least had 10 (Nicks), 9 (Cruz) and 8 (Manningham) targets. The Cowboys receivers had 7 (Austin), 5 (Robinson) and 2 (Bryant). I'm not sure exactly what my ranks will look like yet for Week 15, but this is a mess.
• Speaking of messes, it was looking like such a nice afternoon in Denver for Marion Barber. He was cruising to a win in his first start with the Chicago Bears, he'd found the end zone -- thereby validating the fantasy owners who started him -- he'd produced 99 yards on the ground and he was about to seal the game late. Then on the first play after the two-minute warning he inexplicably ran out of bounds, stopping the clock for a Denver Broncos team that had no timeouts left. A little Tim Tebow magic later, and suddenly the game was in overtime. The Bears won the toss and drove right down the field behind a nice 16-yard reception by Barber, and suddenly Chicago was on the Broncos' 38. Barber got one last handoff. He was inside the Denver 35 when he fumbled. Broncos' ball. More Tebow magic. Game over. The heartening fact, of course, is that Barber played very well, and Kahlil Bell (14 touches, 64 yards) didn't negate the Barbarian's fantasy value. The crushing fact, of course, is that there's no telling how Barber or the rest of the Bears' offense will react to this kind of meltdown. They get the Seattle Seahawks at home in Week 15. Barber will probably be ranked near my top 20 fantasy backs. But we don't really know anything for sure.
• Thanks for making me look like a chump, Ryan Grant and Nate Washington! I spent much of last week bloviating on various TV and radio outlets about how Grant is no better than Brandon Saine, how his legs look cooked, how he's ready to be put out to pasture. And then boom! On the Packers' first play from scrimmage, Grant bursts up the middle and goes 47 yards for a score. Was it a courageous effort from the Oakland Raiders defense? It was not. But according to my propaganda last week, Grant shouldn't have been capable of such a mad dash to glory. And then there's Washington, whom I've been "selling" on Sunday morning "Fantasy Football Now" telecasts since the Carter administration. Washington played through an ankle sprain Sunday and produced 130 yards on six grabs, and showed some nice chemistry with young Jake Locker. Do I trust either of these guys going forward? I do not. Do I look like a fool for doubting them in Week 14? I surely do.
• I didn't hear it, but apparently Phil Simms let the cat out of the bag on Darren McFadden's injury during Sunday afternoon's telecast of the Packers/Raiders tilt. Simms revealed that Run-DMC has a Lisfranc injury, and not a "mere" mid-foot sprain. After the game, Raiders coach Hue Jackson confirmed that this is the case, but conflated the two injuries by way of dismissing the fact he's been calling McFadden's problem a sprain for six weeks. Now, I'm not saying this automatically means McFadden is out for the season, because nobody has said he actually needs Lisfranc surgery yet. But anyone who's paid attention to the NFL over the past decade knows that a Lisfranc problem is not a mere sprain. Run-DMC hasn't practiced, and now we know he has a more severe injury than we previously believed? All beat reporter speculation that Week 15 versus the Detroit Lions is McFadden's target return date aside, I find it entirely believable that we've seen the last of this guy for the regular season. Don't drop him in a fantasy league. I'm not dealing with inside information. But it never made all that much sense that McFadden would be this hobbled for this long with a sprained foot. Suddenly things seem clearer. Jackson says he expects to have his star RB back before the playoffs. To me, that sounds like he ain't playing in Week 15.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.
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