Week 8 was the week the playoff races finally took shape in the NFC. The Giants may be only a Dez Bryant fingertip better than Dallas, but that fingertip is the difference between being tied with the Cowboys in the loss column (and losing the tiebreaker) and a 2.5 game lead on the entire NFC East. The Falcons and 49ers distanced themselves in their respective divisions, and the Bears and Packers snuck past inferior teams. As a result, five of the six NFC playoff teams seem clear - Falcons, Giants, Bears, Packers and 49ers, in some order. Oddly, this clarity emerged on a week in which three NFC mainstays - the Giants, Packers and Bears - were all soundly outplayed yet won anyway. The Panthers nearly doubled the Bears in yardage (416 to 210), had fewer turnovers, committed fewer penalties and had 13 more minutes of time of possession, yet Chicago still won. The Packers went into a shell on offense from the opening snap (or even before, if you consider Jordy Nelson's week off), and it showed in the boxscore, where the Jaguars outgained them soundly. The Giants are lucky the NFL rulebook considered Dez Bryant out of bounds, as that's a touchdown in my book. The theme of all three games - aside from how good teams win games they shouldn't - is that it's really hard for the underdog to win when the favorite gets a return touchdown.
• I openly wondered a few weeks ago who would be the AFC's sixth seed, but with five clear NFC teams and then a mess, who fits that bill in the NFC? The Vikings are 5-3 but face a brutal upcoming schedule (Bears twice, at GB, at SEA and Det next five weeks) and seem like a 7-9 type of team. The Saints are 2-5 and look done. (In retrospect, NO was done the moment they lost to the Chiefs at home.) Ditto Philly. After Thursday night, I could actually see the Bucs as a playoff team. Yes, they're 3-4, but all four losses were by one score, their point differential looks like that of the NFC playoff teams and they get the Raiders, Chargers and Panthers the next three weeks (and Atlanta in Week 17, which may be resting starters). Doug Martin would be a Rookie of the Year candidate in a universe without RGIII or Luck, and Josh Freeman again looks like he'll have a solid, 10-year NFL career. I'm not burying Dallas yet, either, as it has only two remaining games against winning teams.
• The AFC is a mess after the top three teams, but Houston, New England and Denver are the only ones with realistic Super Bowl aspirations anyway. So much for the window to bet on the Broncos to win it all at 25:1.
• The Dez Bryant non-TD is getting all of the publicity, but why the heck did the Cowboys pass on fourth and one on the previous drive when the Giants had just six men in the box? Fourth and one, game on the line, six defenders in the box and you throw? That's a big failure not only by Jason Garrett, but Tony Romo has to be able to audible to a run in that situation. I have zero doubt that's what Peyton Manning would have done.
• Thought to be sure-fire bets to finish in last place, the winner of this week's Dolphins/Colts game will be 5-3. If one of those teams makes the playoffs, the head coach may be Coach of the Year.
• Watching Rob Gronkowski's touchdown celebrations in succession was funny, as he went from a classy, premeditated version of "Changing of the Guard" to a spontaneous, 3 a.m. strip club dance routine. Seriously, though, was there anything more exciting for Gronkowski owners than watching him score a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter with the Patriots already ahead 38-7? That's the Gronk for whom I paid a premium at the auction table. I still see Gronk and, yes, Jimmy Graham as late first-round draft choices for a hypothetical, rest-of-season draft starting today. You want Walk DMC or Ryan Mathews or DeMarco Murray, you go ahead - I'll take the young, established studs with no fleas and stud quarterbacks. After all, if Chris Liss was right in his East Coast Offense last week, and the tight end position isn't as deep as we thought, that makes Gronk and Graham that much more valuable.
• Randall Cobb is having a fine season, and his fantasy owners (who, sadly, don't include me) have certainly profited on him given the acquisition cost. In real-life terms, though, I don't understand why the speedy Cobb doesn't run more downfield routes.
• Cecil Shorts is becoming relevant. Justin Blackmon, meanwhile, is becoming an inferior version of Dez Bryant.
• As my colleagues heaped praise on Denarius Moore via Twitter - @scott_pianowski, @YahooNoise - I immediately re-assessed Moore, thinking about what I'd want in a one-for-one trade. My thoughts? I love how Moore has at least eight targets in each game (since sitting out Week 1 with an injury), and Oakland's remaining schedule is juicy. Oakland can't run, either, and even if it could, it's not the type of team that will have the luxury of sitting on leads very often. Add it all up and I'd rather have Moore over any Steelers WR, any Cowboys WR or the Smiths (that's Torrey and Steve).
• Everyone knows DeAngelo Hall is an assclown, but Antonio Brown backpedaling into the end zone from the 15-yard line on a punt return was equally idiotic. As a small receiver, maybe Brown realizes his touchdowns are few and far between.
• Somewhere, Romo is saying "I know how to finish a big game, and I proved it again this week." Ummmm, I'm talking about Sergio Romo, not Tony.
• When Louis Murphy recovered Cam Newton's fumble in the end zone, Newton should have been jumping on Murphy, congratulating him and commending him for the effort. That's what leaders do. What did Newton do? Ignored Murphy, jogged to the sideline, and made Murphy approach him. Criticize Newton's off-the-field demeanor all you want, but ignoring Murphy in that situation was much worse.
• It's pretty crazy that the season is half over and Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have been healthy yet haven't connected for a touchdown. (Johnson's lone touchdown this year came from Shaun Hill in Week 3.)
• With an insane 9-2 split between the 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. games, Browns-Chargers couldn't fit onto the eight-game screen on Channel 702, so I watched none of that game. Judging from the highlights and the recap - Ryan Mathews fumble, Robert Meachem a soul-crushing drop and Philip Rivers unable to come through in clutch - I don't think I missed anything I hadn't seen before. Rivers looks broken, and while trading or cutting him isn't an option, that team needs a complete overhaul.
• I'm not sure which was more ridiculous for Jason Pierre-Paul, the interception return for a touchdown or the ensuing slam dunk over the goalpost. We see that regularly from tight ends, but that's a defensive end, folks. Sick.
• When the Redskins dropped their 10th - tenth! - pass on Sunday, Robert Griffin III complained to Mike Shanahan "I can't catch it, too." Naturally, Shanahan responded by sending RGIII out for an ill-advised pass. Sorry, Shanahan, Griffin can do it all, but you need to find someone else who can catch.
• As a Jonathan Dwyer owner (and someone who, you may recall, profiled him in detail in my first article of the year), I might be hopelessly biased. That said, I don't see why Dwyer can't keep the job over a healthy Rashard Mendenhall. I mean, it's Rashard Mendenhall, not Adrian Peterson. If that's not enough analysis for you, Dwyer's 5.2 YPC is higher than every NFL running back except Darryl Richardson (5.4), Frank Gore (5.8) and C.J. Spiller (7.3!!).
• The concept of throwback uniforms is cool. I like being reminded of the uniforms we saw on our favorite teams from 10-20 years ago. But what's the point of the Steelers wearing throwback uniforms from 1934? Is anyone even alive to remember those god-awful, bumble-bee uniforms? Or did karma just find a way to put Ben Roethlisberger in prison garb?
• The Texans, Bears, 49ers, Eagles, Lions, Dolphins and Seahawks have allowed a total of 13 rushing touchdowns this year. The Bills have allowed that many all by themselves - as many as seven NFL teams combined.
• I gave Alex Green a pass after his first poor performance because he got 20-plus carries. But Green now has three straight disappointing games despite such usage. Last week, Green was actually the focal point of the offense, John Kuhn was inactive and Green still couldn't muster a big play or score a touchdown. It often feels like there should be upside for the Packers starting running back, but it's starting to feel like the run-blocking is so bad that none of those running backs are anything but a flex play for deeper leagues.
• Peyton Manning had three interceptions in the first half of his Week 2 game against the Falcons, and I ripped on him mercilessly in this column the following day. He has just one other interception the entire rest of the season. I'm sorry I doubted you, Papa John. I mean Peyton.
• Jamaal Charles finished sixth in rushing Sunday - on his own team. Yes, Charles finished with fewer rushing yards than two other running backs, a receiver and two quarterbacks. As if that weren't bad enough, Romeo Crennel said he "wasn't exactly sure" why Charles had just five carries. Somehow, I think the fans could all go onto the field and start a melee, mid-game, right in front of him, and Crennel wouldn't notice that, either. Can't you just see Crennel calmly pulling out a sandwich while half the stadium is fighting?
• Living in Florida, and enjoying shorts and short sleeves most of the year, I feel guilty a hurricane is hitting the northeast. We're the ones who are supposed to deal with that stuff, not the notherners. Anyway, be safe, all.
• Here are my Week 9 waiver suggestions.
Michael Vick, Nick Foles, QB, Eagles: At this point, it seems like a good bet that both will start games for Philadelphia this year. The schedule is tasty, and there's a lot of talent on offense, so while I may be burying Philip Rivers, I'm not ready to ignore Vick. Even Foles has some upside if he gets the job.
Donald Brown, RB, Colts: Brown returned from knee surgery and immediately looked like the Colts' best running back, despite Vick Ballard's high-flying act for the winning touchdown. If Brown was relevant in your fantasy league before he got hurt, he's certainly relevant now.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins: Thomas would definitely be a fantasy starter if Reggie Bush got hurt. In fact, Thomas is borderline relevant even with Bush playing, as he's the preferred option at the goal line. Plus, with Miami playing better than expected but preferring to run the ball, Thomas racked up 15 carries last week. With the Colts, Titans and Bills on tap the next three weeks, and Bush struggling to stay healthy most of his career, there are few backup running backs I'd rather own than Thomas. Stash him in favor of the bye-week fill-ins
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos: If your league is deep enough that you've been scrambling to claim the Patriots second running back, whoever that might be (Brandon Bolden, when he was hot, or Shane Vereen more recently), then Hillman is probably worth owning in your format, too. Yes, Hillman is still backing up Willis McGahee, but Denver averages more points per game than everyone except New England. With a great schedule ROS, there are points to go around in Denver. Plus, if McGahee were to get hurt - not unreasonable for any 31-year old running back - Hillman would really be a hot commodity. Stash Hillman, cut Peyton Hillis (which I said like 6 weeks ago, mind you) and, if you're stashing upside, any backs on Arizona or Carolina.
Joique Bell, Kevin Smith, RB, Lions: I'm not sure what's going on in Detroit, with conflicting reports that Mikel Leshoure was benched or hurt. Either way, with that situation apparently in flux, it's worth taking note of Bell and Smith until we get some clarity.
Danny Amendola, WR, Rams: Amendola is still recovering from injury, and the Rams are entering their bye. However, it seems Amendola came close to playing last week, and he's good enough to be rostered even during the bye in most formats. What seemed like a 6-7 week wait now looks like just one more week. Go get him.
Cecil Shorts, WR, Jaguars: Every time I see Shorts' name, I envision a Bart Simpson joke ("eat my shorts"). With Shorts' on-field production far surpassing that of fellow wideout Justin Blackmon, though, I'd rather make Blackmon the butt of all jokes. Seriously, Shorts has double-digit targets in both games since the Jaguars' bye, and I thought Blaine Gabbert looked fairly good last week against Green Bay. For some perspective, I'd rather own shorts than Donnie Avery, who, despite consistent targets from Andrew Luck, averages less than six yards per target in Indy.
Brandon LaFell, WR, Panthers: The Redkins are last in passing yards/game and last with 19 passing touchdowns allowed. Carolina plays Washington this week. LaFell plays for Carolina. Do you really need more analysis than that?
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals: I've seen Gresham on waivers in many leagues, with Cincy coming off its bye. Expect Andy Dalton to be chucking it early and often against a Denver team that seems a sure bet to score 30 points.
Chargers D/ST: The Chargers are at home against the awful Chiefs on a short week. If that's not enough for you, Romeo Crennel has already said Brady Quinn will start if he's healthy. Plus, at some point, this Chiefs team is going to quit on Crennel (think Raheem Morris, 2011), so what better time than on national television?
DEAD TO ME:
Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers: I've seen enough. It's time to cut bait. If you disagree because the Chargers schedule is favorable, look at it this way - the favorable up to this point was juicy, too, yet Rivers has just 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. I do think Rivers can return to the fantasy elite, but it will take a coaching change and an infusion of offensive talent. That's obviously not happening this year. Rivers is still in the 17-19 range for fantasy QBs, but that makes hima clear backup, and since we're moving past the bye weeks, there is little reason to hold a backup quarterback with limited upside.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers: As bad as Rivers has been, Williams has been worse. I see only two scenarios in which Williams could be relevant this year - a trade (the trade deadline is this Thursday) or a coaching change (as a new coach might realize Williams is being under-utilized). I'm not optimistic enough in either of those possibilities to justify stashing Williams over the running backs mentioned above.
Donnie Avery, WR, Colts: When you continue to average less than six yards per target, and we're getting through the bye weeks, you're dead to me.
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