At least the NFL's "Daily Show" doesn't go on a long, holiday vacation.
Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart showed up for his Christmas weekend assignment -- in the starring role in place of the injured DeAngelo Williams -- and proceeded to set a Carolina Panthers franchise record with 206 rushing yards while totaling a week-best (entering the Sunday night game) 27 fantasy points. What's more, he did it against a New York Giants defense that, in spite of its recent struggles, entered the week having allowed 99.8 rushing yards per game, the eighth-lowest average in the league, and 4.0 yards per carry (the 11th-lowest average).
Stewart also toted the rock a career-high 28 times, the third time in his past four games he has received 25 or more carries, demonstrating he's capable of handling the chores of a workhorse running back. He didn't seem slowed at all by the Giants' defense; in fact, once Steve Smith departed the game because of injury, Stewart seemed more than up to the task of running the ball on most every offensive play. Of the Panthers' final 20 plays, 11 were Stewart carries, as the team went to a one-wide-receiver set and let him run wild.
Might that be the arrangement in the season finale? Perhaps, though it depends on the health of Williams' ankle. It's impossible to tell what kind of arrangement the Panthers might employ right now, but Stewart's owners must feel confident in their chances and they should be. Even in a straight timeshare, Stewart would be a strong No. 2/flex option facing a New Orleans Saints defense that will more than likely be resting regulars.
It's the future, too, that has Stewart's keeper-league owners excited. It's too soon to officially declare him the Panthers' 2010 starter, especially not with Williams still under contract for one more season, but Stewart, who turns 23 in March, should be granted a chance to earn the role. One thing that might have a significant impact on that decision: The status of coach John Fox, who is historically reliant on the incumbent Williams. If Fox departs, a new coach might be more apt to turn things over to Stewart.
If Tom Brady's fantasy owners somehow hung in their playoff races this far, then they were finally rewarded with the kind of game they've come to expect from him over the years. Facing a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that entering the week had allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks, Brady capitalized as expected, completing 23 of 26 pass attempts for 267 yards and four scores. His 26 fantasy points Sunday topped his position, and more importantly, it snapped a string of back-to-back single-digit fantasy efforts (and three in his past four). That said, in crushing the Jaguars, Brady did ensure the New England Patriots the AFC East title and an opening-round home game, making it likely he won't play much (if any) of the regular-season finale. Hey, can't have it all!
• Matt Ryan: Apparently that Week 15 rally by Ryan to help his Atlanta Falcons defeat the New York Jets late wasn't a fluke; he followed it up with an even more impressive performance Sunday versus a Buffalo Bills defense that entering Week 16 had allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks, not to mention had the league's most interceptions. In Ryan's two games since returning from a turf-toe injury, he has completed only 49.3 percent of his pass attempts, but his completions have gone for 402 yards, four scores and no interceptions despite back-to-back brutal matchups. He'll finish off a not-too-bad sophomore season at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, and remember, the Bucs have allowed 26 passing scores this year.
• Jerome Harrison: Well, I was wrong in saying that he wasn't going to be an elite play in back-to-back weeks but 39 carries? Can you say "quantitative play"? One week after Harrison set the Cleveland Browns' single-game record for rushing yards, he set the franchise record for rushing attempts, and totaled 18 fantasy points to please the fantasy owners who bought into his 47-point Week 15 masterpiece. Now, let's not get too excited about his so-so 3.8 yards per carry, but what we can take from this is that coach Eric Mangini apparently trusts Harrison as his leading back. I called Harrison a flex play in Week 16; bump that status to "No. 2" in the season finale versus the Jaguars.
• Arian Foster: Like Mangini, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak is one of the more frustrating coaches to read when it comes to a backfield plan. One week after Kubiak gave Foster an early hook for losing a fumble, probably killing numerous fantasy teams' shot at a championship, Kubiak dished out 19 carries to Foster, who proceeded to scamper for 97 yards and a touchdown. Considering those came against a Miami Dolphins defense that had allowed the 12th-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs entering the week, Foster's output is all the more impressive. Perhaps it's not "safe" to declare Foster the Texans' Week 17 starter, accounting for Kubiak's whims, but if the gig is indeed his, he'll be facing a Patriots team that has already wrapped up its playoff positioning.
• Brent Celek: What a season he has had, and his fantasy owners have to like that he saved his top fantasy point total of 2009 for Week 16, the week many leagues hold their championship game. Celek hauled in a 47-yard touchdown pass and finished the day with 121 yards receiving, giving him 875 for the season, fourth most among tight ends (pending Jason Witten's Sunday night total). If you're a Celek owner, you're certainly rooting for the Dallas Cowboys to win Sunday night, as that'd make Week 17 imperative for the Philadelphia Eagles to win, since it'd mean they could do as well as earning a first-round playoff bye or as poorly as having to hit the road the first week of the playoffs.
• Jason Snelling: What a disappointing fill-in Snelling was. He again didn't "start" (Jerious Norwood did), but again he topped all Falcons running backs in touches (16 to Norwood's 14). Unfortunately, he didn't do much with them, totaling 74 yards without a score despite a favorable matchup versus the Bills, who coming into the day had allowed the most fantasy points to opposing running backs. While Snelling was stuffed but once, on nine occasions he was held to 3 yards or fewer, and not once did he break off a run greater than 17 yards. Even if Michael Turner is ruled out for the finale, Snelling hasn't been productive enough, or granted a large enough slice of the rushing pie, to be more than a low-level flex play.
• Michael Bush: So maddening, these running-back-by-committees can be. Bush, advertised as the Oakland Raiders' starter when Justin Fargas was declared a pregame inactive, didn't start after all. Darren McFadden did, and got all the rushing work during the Raiders' first two drives. Bush finished the day with 10 carries (11 touches) to McFadden's seven (and 11), rendering his 144-yard Week 15 effort meaningless. With a season-finale matchup with the Baltimore Ravens coming up, it's not like fantasy owners would have been wild about Bush anyway, but in a week in which anything goes, it'd have been helpful to have some clarity in Oakland.
• Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell: Colts fans can't be the only ones upset with Caldwell; fantasy owners must be most displeased after the coach gave his starters a quick hook in the third quarter of a game in which they led by a narrow 15-10 margin at the time. Naturally, the backups promptly blew the lead, and with it their perfect season. Joseph Addai had only six touches, but fortunately 10 fantasy points (he scored a touchdown); Peyton Manning had seven fantasy points; Reggie Wayne had three, and Dallas Clark five. What's worse, now that the Colts are no longer undefeated, yet have locked in the AFC's top overall playoff seed, they have no reason to play their regulars at all in Week 17. Expect even more rest for those four players.
• Knowshon Moreno: Though he did haul in a 16-yard touchdown pass, Moreno's mediocre rushing efforts in recent weeks have to be disconcerting. He managed only 18 yards on nine carries (2.0 average), marking the third consecutive week he has turned in a yards-per-carry average under 3.0. Meanwhile, backup Correll Buckhalter returned to action and averaged 8.4 yards per carry in Week 16, bringing his season number to 5.5. Perhaps Moreno is wearing down from a hefty workload as a rookie -- he's up to 233 rushing attempts -- which might lead the Denver Broncos to reduce his workload in Week 17 in spite of a soft matchup versus the division-rival Kansas City Chiefs. Don't be so hasty to declare him a top fantasy play.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Panthers' Steve Smith (broken forearm): He was injured on a 27-yard touchdown reception when he took a hard hit from the Giants' Michael Johnson, and coach John Fox told the team's Web site reporter after the game that Smith's arm is broken. With Smith sidelined, the Panthers went especially run-heavy, running on 18 of their next 20 plays following his departure, and that might be their strategy in the season finale. Kenny Moore might get a start and see a handful of targets, but Smith's injury virtually robs Matt Moore of having any chance at sleeper status.
• Pierre Thomas (bruised ribs): He didn't return to the field following halftime after suffering bruised ribs in the first half, but fortunately for his fantasy owners, he racked up 60 yards and a score on six carries before departing. With the Saints already guaranteed a first-round bye and only fighting to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- which would be guaranteed with a Minnesota Vikings loss on Monday night -- Thomas might be a prime candidate for a full week's rest in Week 17. We might see a lot of Mike Bell and Lynell Hamilton at Carolina.
• Tony Gonzalez (calf): A strained right calf bumped him from Sunday's game late in the first half, and he was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the day, which is never a promising sign. Gonzalez does have motivation to play in Week 17 -- he's four receptions away from 1,000 for his career -- but the Falcons have little reason to push him, having already been eliminated from the postseason.
• Marcedes Lewis (concussion): He suffered a concussion in the first quarter of Sunday's game, and the Florida Times-Union reports that he'll have to pass post-concussion testing as a result to be cleared to play in Week 17. Fantasy owners shouldn't be counting on Lewis to help them in general, but with this news, he should clearly be scratched off your list of fill-in candidates.
• Ricky Williams (shoulder): Though he departed initially in the third quarter because of a right shoulder injury, Williams did make a one-play reappearance in the fourth quarter, catching a 3-yard pass with 3:02 to play. He departed for good after taking a hit from the Texans' Brian Cushing, however, so keep an eye on Williams' status throughout the week. Lex Hilliard, who scored two touchdowns in relief of Williams, might get the start if the veteran is unable to play, though the matchup (versus Steelers) would be a poor one for any fill-in.
• Brandon Jacobs (knee): He left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter after a particularly miserable performance, totaling 1 yard on six carries, and told The (Newark) Star-Ledger afterward that his knee "took about as much as it could take." Since the Giants are eliminated from postseason contention, Jacobs might be shut down. Ahmad Bradshaw might enter the Week 17 game as the Giants' lead running back, so keep tabs on Jacobs' practices.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Sammy Morris: Though he had averaged only 6.8 touches from Weeks 12-15 and was given only 12 of the Patriots' 36 total carries in Week 16, Morris is an interesting name to track heading into the regular-season finale. After Laurence Maroney lost a goal-line fumble on the Patriots' opening drive, Morris got the bulk of the rushing work while the game was still in hand, including a 55-yard scamper and a goal-line score to put his team up 21-0 in the second quarter. The Patriots have little to play for in Week 17 and might rest their regulars, but it's possible they'll audition Morris for a short-yardage/goal-line role during the playoffs, which might be enough to make him flex-worthy against the Texans.
• Brandon Jackson: What's curious about Jackson's Week 16 performance is that while two of his three touchdowns came after the Packers had at least a three-score advantage, each of those came on drives in which he was called upon in a goal-to-go situation set up by Ryan Grant. Whether that paints Jackson as the new goal-line back, though, is irrelevant, as by clinching a wild-card spot (and therefore an opening-week road playoff game), the Packers ensured their Week 17 game has no stakes besides determining whether a No. 5 or 6 seed is more desirable (generally unimportant to most teams). I can't call Jackson a "goal-line back" or a "garbage-time product," but his performance does boost his appeal as a Week 17 fill-in, being that the Packers might give Grant, who has 271 carries, a rest.
• Donald Brown: If he was cut in your league and you're looking for a Week 17 sleeper, take a look at Brown, in spite of the Colts' having nothing to play for in the regular-season finale. He got the bulk of the rushing work after Joseph Addai got an early hook Sunday, totaling 22 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. One reason it makes sense for Brown, not Chad Simpson, to be the Colts' starting running back next week: He's the one who has missed a good chunk of time this season due to injuries. With a soft matchup versus the Bills -- who still have a poor run defense -- up next, Brown might be a worthwhile flex consideration.
The matchups did the talking
• Reggie Wayne (3 catches, 33 yards versus Jets): Ah, the infamous Darrelle Revis matchup, not to mention Caldwell gave Wayne the hook in the third quarter Sunday. We feared both of those factors heading into the week, and we hope you followed our advice. You can count on us advocating the same for Chad Ochocinco next week, by the way. After all, his Cincinnati Bengals are locked into a first-round home game and probably will also aim to rest their star wide receiver.
• Kurt Warner (313 yards, 2 TDs versus St. Louis Rams): Would you have expected anything less? He has now thrown for multiple touchdown passes in four of his past five games versus his former team, and three of those have been efforts of 300-plus yards. The Arizona Cardinals might now be tempted to rest Warner in Week 17, with their playoff seeding nearly wrapped up, but at least if your championship was this week, you had to be pleased with the results.
and the flip side, so much for the matchups!
• Roddy White (139 yards, 2 TDs versus Bills): Amazingly, the Bills entered the week having allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing wide receivers, but White on his own managed more fantasy points (25) against that defense than any other team did all season. We talk a lot on these pages about "Revis Island," but it seems once wide receivers escape that island, they seem to immediately explode facing almost any other cornerback in the league. Having a healthy Matt Ryan throwing him the football, of course, helped.
• Aaron Rodgers (237 yards, 1 TD versus Seattle Seahawks): Chalk this one up to his opponent's performing so miserably that Rodgers wasn't even needed to play a large role in the offense. The Packers focused on the run versus the Seahawks, though Rodgers does deserve a bit of the blame for his so-so numbers after getting off to a sluggish start. He's another sit candidate with his team clinching a wild-card spot, so don't be surprised if he doesn't play much in Week 17.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 17
• Fantasy owners can expect the Colts and San Diego Chargers to rest their regulars for most, if not all, of Week 17, seeing as those two teams have locked in their playoff seeds as Nos. 1 and 2. Other teams that are effectively locked into spots that increase the chances of their starters sitting: Bengals, Cardinals and Patriots, who will each host a first-round playoff game, and Packers, who will play a first-round road playoff game.
• The Eagles and Cowboys square off in Dallas with the NFC East title at stake, though much of that depends on how the latter fared in the Week 16 Sunday night contest. Each team will come into the week with the motivation to win, however, meaning fantasy owners shouldn't fear either team sitting regulars.
• The Jets know a wild-card spot is theirs if they can merely win, and for the second consecutive week they'll be facing a team that cares more about resting regulars than winning the game. They'll host the Bengals.
• The Broncos (8-7), Ravens (8-7), Texans (8-7), Steelers (8-7), Dolphins (7-8) and Jaguars (7-8) will all enter Week 17 with a chance to make the playoffs, so expect them all to be as motivated as any team in the regular-season finale.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.