Commentary

Instant Replay: Giants' backfield shift

Updated: December 5, 2010, 10:32 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

We say it often on these pages, but it's worth repeating: Just because you're a starting NFL running back doesn't guarantee you fantasy success. In fact, sometimes it doesn't even mean you're the No. 1 fantasy option in your own backfield.

For a good example, look no further than the New York Giants, who in the past two weeks, while missing their top two wideouts (Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith), have relied heavily upon the run, with a 62-49 combined run-to-pass ratio in Weeks 12-13. Brandon Jacobs was elevated to "starter" status in those two games, but if you were watching Sunday, you might have noticed he was hardly their "leading" back.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Bradshaw
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAhmad Bradshaw entered Sunday with just nine fantasy points in his past two games.

That honor instead belonged to their starter the first 10 games of the season, Ahmad Bradshaw, who rolled over the Washington Redskins' defense for 97 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. While Bradshaw's fumbling problems in the season's early weeks appeared to land him in coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse -- even if only to a small degree -- it's clear that he's still the running back that gives the team the best chance to win. And the most notable: Bradshaw got the bulk of the goal-line work, including five of the Giants' six carries within 10 yards of the Redskins' end zone, scoring on two of them. Plus, after halftime, Bradshaw was the team's workhorse as the team ran out the clock, handling 11 carries while Jacobs was practically invisible (he had only two carries after the half).

Maybe that won't change anything as far as "starts" are concerned, but if Coughlin is smart, he'll continue to use Bradshaw in the fashion he did this week. Bradshaw has more quickness than Jacobs, he's plenty capable of handling short-yardage work and he has the ability to wear down the defense at a time when Eli Manning could stand to have his load lightened a bit. The Giants now face a tough portion of their schedule (@MIN, PHI, @GB), but Bradshaw suddenly appears back on the fringe of the top 10 at his position. Time to hop back aboard his bandwagon.

Tristan's MVP

Adrian Peterson's owners entered the week concerned on two levels: One, that the ankle injury he suffered during Week 12 might cost him the juiciest matchup (at home versus the Buffalo Bills) on his entire 2010 schedule; and two, that the ankle injury might cost him future weeks as well, in the event he was unable to suit up for this one. (Feel free to throw in a third level if you were a Peterson owner who was unable to snag his handcuff, Toby Gerhart, as an insurance policy.) But Peterson, the No. 2 player selected, on average, in preseason drafts, and No. 10 in terms of fantasy points entering Week 13, showed Sunday why he's such a valuable player; he topped all running backs in fantasy points (28) despite questions about his health entering the day.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson racked up 28 fantasy points on just 17 touches Sunday.

Not that this means Peterson's owners should instantly shed Gerhart, though last week's "Instant Replay" did stress there are circumstances under which such a move would be understandable. Peterson, however, ceded few rushing chores to his backup, most notably handling three of the Minnesota Vikings' four goal-line (i.e. within 5 yards of the Bills' end zone) carries, including each of the first three before the game got out of hand. Considering the Vikings had shown a willingness to dish Gerhart an occasional goal-line carry at times that Peterson was clearly 100 percent in weeks past, the fact they didn't do so to ease the strain on Peterson's ankle this week tells us something important: They're confident in the health of their most valuable offensive weapon.

Best of all, Peterson made multiple cuts in a 43-yard touchdown run that beautifully demonstrated the strength of his ankle, and should inspire plenty of confidence in him looking forward.

Fantasy world turned upside down …

You know what I'm talking about. It's when fantasy football -- often an unpredictable sport -- takes unpredictability to epic proportions. Just ask Dr. Venkman from "Ghost Busters," who exclaimed, "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!"

• It's when Kyle Orton, the No. 3 fantasy scorer through the first 12 weeks of the season, endures by far his worst performance of the entire season: 9-for-28 passing for 117 yards, no touchdowns and just 2 fantasy points. Let's just throw this out there: The last time Orton's Denver Broncos battled the Kansas City Chiefs, in Week 10, Orton had a season-best 27-point fantasy performance, and the two quarterbacks in that game combined to attempt 87 passes and complete eight touchdown passes. In the rematch, the two combined to attempt 59 passes and complete one touchdown pass. Blame the cold -- temperatures were in the 30s -- and wind if you want, but it also bears noting that Knowshon Moreno continues to establish himself as an integral part of the Broncos' offense. Moreno ran 23 times for 161 yards, the second time in four games since the bye that he has had 20-plus carries. And don't overlook for a second how favorable his schedule is (@ARI, @OAK, HOU, SD). Orton's schedule is also cozy, so his poor outing shouldn't result in any significant value shifts, but Moreno might be every bit as apt to be the Broncos' star down the stretch.

• It's when Peyton Hillis, the No. 2 running back through 12 weeks, manages his worst game of the season, a seven-point stinker at the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins did stack the box with the intent of containing the Cleveland Browns' most reliable offensive weapon, and while his seven catches demonstrated his extensive involvement in the receiving game, his 22 receiving yards showed how fiercely the Dolphins focused upon tackling him. It's odd that more teams wouldn't have tried this before now, but if there's any recipe for a bounce-back performance, it's a light-as-cake matchup against the league-worst Bills run defense in Week 14 (not to mention another favorable one against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15). Chalk it up as just one of those days; Hillis should return to elite status soon enough.

Week 13 observations

• Consider Marshawn Lynch's three-touchdown performance more of a product of the favorable matchup -- the Carolina Panthers entered the week having allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs -- than a return to his formerly useful fantasy levels. It demonstrates that he has matchups appeal as a flex-to-low No. 2 option, as well as the fact he's still capable of serving as a dominant goal-line back. However, look at his remaining schedule: @SF, ATL, @TB, STL; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only team that ranks in the upper half in most fantasy points allowed to the position. There's only limited appeal here.

[+] EnlargeSidney Rice
AP Photo/Hannah FoslienWe have a Sidney Rice sighting!

• It was partly fueled by an increased opportunity with Percy Harvin (migraines) sidelined, but Sidney Rice's 22-point fantasy day was notable on two fronts: One, it was the best individual point total by any member of the Vikings' passing game this season; and two, it resulted partly from more snaps out of the "Z" spot, the position in which he thrived in 2009. Rice seemed more comfortable in a return to his former role, as well as working with relief quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, and perhaps this will serve as a stepping stone to a productive final month of the season. That said, he might return to the "X" role, which he occupied the previous two weeks, in Week 14, not to mention Brett Favre will probably be back at quarterback. Feel free to have some optimism, but don't get carried away.

Kerry Collins and the Tennessee Titans are going to have to do something to get their offense back on track, because if they don't, Chris Johnson is going to see a slew of stacked defensive fronts in the coming weeks. For the second consecutive game, the Titans stunk on offense, extending their streak without a touchdown to 13 quarters and turning the ball over two more times (to go with their three turnovers in Week 12). That led to a 67-total-yard performance for Johnson -- he had just 7 yards a week ago -- marking the first time in his career he has been held shy of 70 total yards in back-to-back games. Offer at least a little forgiveness to Collins, who might not have been fully healthy coming off a calf injury, but he's going to have to heal fully and straighten out his team quickly. Otherwise, that soft schedule the Titans have will be for naught.

• Apparently I was right about James Starks being more suited to serve as the Green Bay Packers' primary running back than Brandon Jackson, but I admit I was also wrong about how long it would take Starks to heal and prove it. Still, look at the division of backfield labor: Starks ran 18 times for 73 yards Sunday, while Jackson had only four carries for 13 yards, and considering their relative skill sets, it's possible Jackson will now morph into a passing-downs/short-yardage option, which isn't especially valuable in non-PPR leagues. Starks should be one of your top waiver targets this week, though top-20 potential might be asking a bit too much, being that the Packers have such a pass-heavy offense.

• In the first week of the post-Frank Gore San Francisco 49ers backfield, Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon evenly divided the carries (9 apiece), and don't overlook that Westbrook was targeted just once and didn't record a catch. It's the receiving numbers that are most disappointing, as Westbrook already figured to lose goal-line carries (Dixon got the 49ers' only opportunity Sunday and was stuffed). Their future matchups aren't as poor as this one was, but it seems neither back can be counted on as more than a flex option going forward.

One play makes your day

Chris Ivory's 55-yard touchdown jaunt, which capitalized on a mistake by Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe, who committed inside, transformed the New Orleans Saints running back's fantasy day from good to great. Ivory finished with 23 fantasy points, third-most among running backs entering "Sunday Night Football," but take out the lengthy run and he'd have been a 12-point performer with only a 4.4 yard-per-carry average (as opposed to his final 7.8 number).

Not to take anything from Ivory's effort; stats are stats. But before you regard his final stat line as reason to project him as the rest-of-the-year starter with 15-plus weekly carries, remember that Pierre Thomas (ankle) nearly suited up for the contest, and still figures into the backfield mix. Thomas might return for Week 14, which would continue to cloud things in the Saints' backfield. Ivory probably deserves to keep starting, but then the same thing was said of Mike Goodson of the Panthers recently.

Injury report

For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesIt's not looking good for Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant.

Dez Bryant (ankle): His was the most devastating loss of Week 13, as he suffered what the telecast reported was a broken ankle on a kick return during the fourth quarter. Bryant's season is finished if true, ending what was a somewhat hot spell in which he had six receiving touchdowns in his past eight games. He made an instant transition to the Dallas Cowboys' offense and should rank among the more attractive breakout candidates of 2011 with some luck in his rehabilitation, but for now, expect more targets for Roy E. Williams.

Brett Favre (shoulder): The Ancient One suffered yet another injury; toss this one onto the pile along with the ankle, back, elbow, foot, chin, ankle (again) and neck injuries he has suffered so far. Favre was knocked from Sunday's game on the opening possession after taking a hard hit from behind by Bills linebacker Arthur Moats. Favre was diagnosed with a shoulder injury, leaving him with precious few completely healthy body parts, but when it comes to the Ancient One, you know the drill: There'll be much hand-wringing over whether his consecutive-games streak (now at 297) might be snapped, he'll be limited in practice, but somehow he'll find a way to suit up come Week 14. Planning for anything different is foolish, not that it matters to fantasy owners; it's further evidence that Favre belongs nowhere near your lineup, between his injuries and diminished performance. Heck, the Vikings would probably be better off letting Tarvaris Jackson play the remainder of the year; despite his three interceptions in relief on Sunday, he completed 15 of 22 passes for 187 yards and two scores and flashed markedly better chemistry with Sidney Rice than Favre did.

Brian Hartline (finger): He left Sunday's game in the second quarter because of an injured finger, and despite starter Brandon Marshall's absence (hamstring), was unable to return despite attempting to during the second half. Hartline's injury, if serious enough to cost him additional time, would greatly deplete the Dolphins' depth; after Marshall, Davone Bess and Hartline, they have only Marlon Moore and Roberto Wallace at wide receiver.

Evan Moore (hip): He left Sunday's game in the second quarter because of a hip injury, not that his is a painful loss to fantasy owners -- he's owned in only 0.3 percent of ESPN leagues -- but any extended absence for Moore is a plus for Benjamin Watson, the Browns' No. 1 tight end. With Moore out, Watson led the team in targets (11) and receptions (10), and managed season bests in receiving yards (100) and fantasy points (16). It's relevant especially in that the Browns' next opponent is the Bills, and entering the week, they had allowed the most touchdowns to opposing tight ends (8) and the second-most fantasy points to the position (9.9).

Mike Williams (SEA) (ankle) and Ben Obomanu (wrist): Already dealing with a strained left foot that cost him Week 12 and had him questionable for this week, Williams suffered another injury to his left foot/ankle when teammate Justin Forsett rolled up on his leg on the Seattle Seahawks' first offensive possession. Obomanu, meanwhile, left later in the half because of a wrist injury. Obomanu stepped up with a standout Week 12 filling in for the injured Williams, but now it might be a race to see who can return quicker to serve as Matt Hasselbeck's No. 1 target.

Darren Sproles (concussion): He was knocked from Sunday's game after taking a blow to the head from Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain, and was unable to return. Sproles finished with one catch for 7 yards plus a lost fumble, the most notable impact of his absence on returns, where Antoine Cason finished the contest. Sproles' loss shouldn't be devastating for fantasy owners if he's unable to suit up for Week 14. Though he's owned in 57.2 percent of ESPN leagues, he's not an option outside of PPR leagues. In fact, it'd be a plus for Mike Tolbert, who is more than capable of handling all passing downs in Sproles' absence.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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