Ryan Torain, RB, WAS – Making his first appearance since Week 8, Torain had 24 carries for 172 rushing yards Sunday, including a remarkable 121 yards on the ground in the first quarter. Keiland Williams was the only other Redskins back to get a rushing attempt, but he received just four totes on the day. Torain has clearly retaken the team’s featured role after last week’s performance. He has reached 100 yards rushing in each of the past three contests he’s been able to finish and is averaging an impressive 4.9 YPC on the year. Torain is a viable RB2 option down the stretch.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, NYG – Nicks returned to the lineup after a two-game absence and racked up seven catches for 96 yards against the Vikings on Monday night. Nicks’ 81.5 receiving yards per game average ranks fifth in the NFL and his nine touchdowns receptions are also tied for the fifth, even though he has played in just 11 games. With Steve Smith (knee) out for the season and Mario Manningham (hip) also banged up, Nicks will keep getting targeted heavily going forward. The Giants could wind up in a shootout with the Eagles in Week 15, although the likely return of Asante Samuel (knee) isn’t ideal.
Kenny Britt, WR, TEN – Britt managed just four catches for 39 yards in his return to the lineup last week, but it is worth noting it was his first action since Week 7. Britt started and played a full complement of snaps, so it is clear he has reclaimed his role as Tennessee’s No. 1 wide receiver. Britt scored seven touchdowns over five games before suffering a strained hamstring, so expect him to get a few red zone looks. In Week 15, Britt faces a Houston defense that has allowed the second most fantasy points to wide receivers this year. Start him with confidence
Tim Hightower, RB, ARI – Hightower ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries against the Broncos last week; and it’s clear he is the running back to own in Arizona’s backfield. Hightower has averaged 5.2 YPC this season and Beanie Wells hasn’t received more than eight touches in a game since Week 8, so Hightower should continue in the feature role for the rest of the year. Hightower is a fine start in Week 15 against a Carolina defense that has allowed the third most fantasy points to running backs this season.
Deion Branch, WR, NE – Branch hauled in eight catches for 151 yards Sunday against a Bears defense that entered having allowed an NFL-low 6.2 YPA and just nine passing TDs on the year. Over the past three games, Branch has racked up 328 receiving yards and four touchdowns. If you prorate his stats since joining New England over a full season, he would be on pace to finish with 78 receptions, 1,152 yards and nine scores. Branch had not reached 750 receiving yards or scored five touchdowns in a season since leaving New England in 2005, but at age 31, it is clear that he is not washed up just yet. All he needed was Tom Brady to throw him the ball.
Ryan Mathews, RB, SD – Mathews gained 65 yards on 16 carries Sunday in his first action since Week 9, and he also managed to find paydirt. Mike Tolbert received the same amount of rushing attempts; and while he is a better bet to score as the team’s goal-line back, don’t be surprised if Mathews starts getting the majority of the carries from here on out. As a nearly double-digit favorite at home against the 49ers on Thursday night, the Chargers should play most of the game with the lead and hand off a lot. There should be plenty of carries to go around for both Mathews and Tolbert. With Antonio Gates (foot) highly questionable and Malcom Floyd (hamstring) also banged up, Vincent Jackson deserves an upgrade as well.
Alex Smith, QB, SF – Smith completed 17-of-27 passes for 255 yards and posted a 3:0 TD:INT ratio in the 49ers' win Sunday, finishing with a 130.9 QB rating. Smith was starting for the first time since Week 7, but his performance made coach Mike Singletary look like a genius for switching back to him. Smith has averaged 7.9 YPA and thrown nine touchdowns in four home games this season, but he has a tough Week 15 matchup in San Diego against a Chargers defense that has allowed the fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks this season.
Pierre Thomas, RB, NO – Making his first appearance since Week 3, Thomas led the Saints with 12 carries Sunday. Although that resulted in a modest 39 rushing yards, Thomas did add four catches for 29 receiving yards as well. Chris Ivory was limited in practice this week with a hamstring injury; and if he misses Sunday’s game, Thomas would instantly become a viable fantasy option. However, keep in mid he will be facing a Ravens defense that has allowed the sixth fewest fantasy points to running backs this season.
Darren McFadden, RB, OAK – McFadden totaled 209 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 touches Sunday, helping many fantasy teams advance to Week 15 in the process. McFadden missed two games due to injury and totaled just 16 rushing yards over Weeks 11 and 12, but he is still on pace to finish the year with 1,760 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns. McFadden is tied for second in the NFL with 3.4 YPC after contact, and few runs in the league this season have been as impressive as this one. Fantasy owners have to be salivating at the thought of McFadden facing a Broncos team in Week 15 that has been gashed for the second most fantasy points by running backs this season.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB – Rodgers left last week’s game early after suffering a concussion. He managed just 4.2 YPA with no touchdowns and a pick against a porous Detroit secondary before departing, so fantasy owners have to feel cheated. It was the second concussion Rodgers suffered this season, so his status for Week 15 is in question. The answer may not be revealed until Sunday night since the Packers play the late game, making Rodgers a very risky proposition for Week 15.
Carson Palmer, QB, CIN – Cincinnati’s defense kept the Steelers out of the end zone last week, but the Bengals still lost 23-7, thanks mostly to two costly pick-sixes by Palmer. His nightmare season continued as he managed just 5.6 YPA and tossed three interceptions in all. Palmer’s 18 picks are the second most in the league, and his 6.4 YPA mark is a career low. The two interceptions the Steelers returned for touchdowns Sunday were simply inexcusable.
Lee Evans, WR, BUF – Evans is done for the season with a high ankle sprain, ending yet another disappointing campaign for the once promising wide receiver. Evans will enter 2011 behind Steve Johnson on the depth chart and is now mostly an afterthought in fantasy leagues.
Kyle Orton, QB, DEN – Over the past two games Orton completed just 40.6 percent of his passes, averaged a paltry 4.1 YPA, and threw zero touchdown passes while turning the ball over four times. His Week 14 performance was especially galling considering his 27.1 QB rating came against a middling Arizona secondary in perfect weather conditions. Orton has enjoyed a fine season – easily the best of his career – but he is slumping at the worst possible time for fantasy owners and is a risky play down the stretch.
Mark Sanchez, QB, NYJ – Sanchez completed just 17-of-44 passes and averaged only 4.9 YPA at home against the Dolphins in Week 14, and he’s lucky only one of his four fumbles was lost. Sanchez has committed six turnovers over the past three games after not committing one through the first five games of the year. In fact, he has been intercepted at least once in eight consecutive contests. While the Jets’ receivers have done him no favors by dropping 35 passes, the second most in football this year, Sanchez’s 53.3 completion percentage is the lowest in the AFC. Sanchez will remain in the Jets’ lineup, but that does not mean he needs to be in yours.
Steve Smith, WR, NYG – Smith returned to action Sunday for the first time since Week 9, only to suffer a knee injury (not the same injury that kept him out a while) that landed him on IR. While he had a decent year, Smith was nowhere near as productive as he was last year. Hakeem Nicks has easily become the team’s top wideout.