1. Justin Blackmon — For a guy who has been widely panned as a rookie bust, Blackmon’s out-of-the-blue performance against the Texans last week (seven receptions for 236 yards and a TD) served as more than a mere rebuttal to popular opinion. This was Blackmon grabbing us by the lapels and shaking us. Hard. “See that?! You still think I’m terrible?” Blackmon’s coming-out party came with Chad Henne at quarterback in place of starter Blaine Gabbert, who went down early with an elbow injury. With Gabbert now on I.R., Henne will start going forward, including this weekend when they host the Titans and their 26th-ranked pass defense. Is Blackmon finally ready to live up to his lofty NFL draft pedigree, or was last week’s display a mirage?
2. Dez Bryant — One of the more baffling fantasy performers in recent memory, Bryant is coming off the sort of game that makes you wonder just how good he could be if only he more fully applied himself to his chosen profession. He had 12 catches for 145 yards and a TD in the Cowboys’ overtime win against the Browns, and Bryant’s owners are cautiously optimistic about his Thanksgiving Day matchup against the Redskins, whose pass defense has been softer than grandma’s yam casserole. But will Dizzy Dez dazzle us again, or will he fall into a tryptophan coma on a day known for turkeys? Bryant has been held to fewer than 20 receiving yards three times this season, though it happened against pass defenses ranging from good (Seattle, Atlanta) to fair (Carolina). It seems unlikely that the Redskins would be able to shut down Bryant; whether Bryant shuts down himself is another matter.
3. Andre Johnson — Just in case anyone had forgotten how good No. 80 can be at the height of his powers, Johnson offered an extraordinary reminder last week in what he later called the best game of his career, a 14-catch, 273-yard performance in the Texans’ overtime win against the Jaguars, capped off by a 48-yard TD on a screen pass that finally delivered Houston the victory. The game-winner was Johnson’s first touchdown since Week Three. Is he finally ready to start delivering the sort of week-to-week excellence that he provided just a few short years ago, before injuries began to take a toll? Here’s an encouraging sign: Johnson has had eight or more receptions in four of his last five games. He and his teammates kick off Week 12 with a Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, whose spirits might be flagging after last week’s home loss to the Packers dropped their record to 4-6.
4. Ronnie Hillman — Willis McGahee is expected to be out for up to two months after sustaining a knee injury last week, and Hillman is by far the most promising of the Denver running backs who’ll try to take up the slack. The slightly built rookie from San Diego State has 49 carries for 188 yards and one TD this season, but the modest numbers belie potential explosiveness. Though he’ll share carries with Lance Ball and perhaps Knowshon Moreno, too, Hillman is by far the most dangerous of the remaining runners in the Broncos’ stable. He stands a good chance of producing credible fantasy numbers this weekend against a Kansas City defense that ranks 25th against the run, allows 4.5 yards per carry, and just gave up 189 rushing yards to a mediocre group of Cincinnati running backs.
5. Matt Ryan — If Ryan has been waging a season-long campaign for league MVP, his zero-TD, five-INT performance last week in Atlanta’s ugly home win over Arizona was the rough equivalent of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” diatribe. Ryan did manage to throw for 301 yards against the Cardinals, extending his streak of 300-yard games to three, but he’s been held without a TD pass in two of those games. The Falcons will be in Tampa this weekend for an interesting divisional game against the rapidly improving Buccaneers. But one facet of the Bucs that isn’t improving so rapidly is their pass defense, which is allowing a league-high 312.6 aerial yards per game. But it may be tough for Ryan to exploit the Bucs if Julio Jones isn’t healthy. Jones injured his ankle in Week 10, then aggravated the injury last week.
6. Beanie Wells — Wells is due back in the Cardinals’ lineup for the first time since Week Three after spending an extended stay on the injury list because of turf toe. Given that Wells has been so erratic and so injury-prone over his career, and given that he runs behind perhaps the worst offensive line in the league, he might be viewed only as a panic-button option for truly desperate fantasy owners. But a spate of RB injuries has a lot of owners feeling desperate these days, and at least Wells figures to get a decent number of carries. The key question: How decent? Will the Cards slowly work Wells back into the mix? How much of a workload share has LaRod Stephens-Howling earned after running for 127 yards and a TD in Arizona’s loss at Atlanta last week? The Falcons now play host to the Rams, who rank a middling 17th against the rush and have given up 12 TD runs this season.
7. Eli Manning — We’re about to find out whether a Week 11 bye helped set Eli straight. Manning has been in a brutal slump. It’s been the kind of stretch you might see from a lower-echelon quarterback but certainly not from a bona fide star who owns two championship rings. Manning has gone three consecutive games without a TD pass, had he had only two TD passes in the two games before the drought began. He’s had only one 300-yard passing game in his last six outings. The oft-injured Hakeem Nicks appears to be fully healthy now, which helps. But can Eli summon his old form for a Sunday-night duel against Aaron Rodgers and the vengeance-minded Packers, whom the Giants ousted from last season’s playoffs?
8. A.J. Green — The Raiders have been scalded for 135 points in their last three games, having been lit up successively by Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco and Drew Brees. Think Andy Dalton is getting anxious to play a little game of catch with his good buddy A.J. Green when the Bengals host the Raiders this weekend? Oakland ranks 24th against the pass and has allowed 20 TD passes this season. Green punched in with six catches for 91 yards and a TD in a win over the Chiefs last week … just another routine day at the office. He hasn’t been held without a touchdown in a game since Week One. Anyone like the Raiders’ chances of keeping him out of the endzone this Sunday?
9. Tom Brady — Tom Terrific just lost his best red-zone target, Rob Gronkowski, to a broken forearm; his other stud tight end, Aaron Hernandez, has missed most of the season with an ankle injury and may or may not play this week; and WR Brandon Lloyd, expected to make the Pats’ downfield passing game this season, hasn’t made much of an impact. And yet Brady just keeps rolling along. He threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns last week in the Patriots’ 59-24 evisceration of the Colts. It was his sixth 300-yard game of the season, and he’s up to 21 TD passes. No matter the state of his pass-catching corps, Brady should be invigorated by a Thanksgiving-night matchup against his old friends the Jets.
10. Trent Richardson — The hard-charging rookie continues to churn out impressive numbers. Richardson’s physical maladies seem to be behind him for the moment, as he’s rushed for 322 yards and racked up 414 yards from scrimmage over his last three games. But there’s a daunting challenge dead ahead: Richardson is about to encounter the Steelers for the first time in his career. Pittsburgh ranks first in total defense and fourth against the runs, and the Steelers’ defenders might come to Cleveland in an ornery mood after Sunday night’s 13-10 home loss to the Ravens. Can Richardson defy the difficult matchup and continue to make his fantasy owners happy, or will his owners emerge from this weekend grateful that the Browns won’t face the Steelers again until Week 17, when most fantasy leagues have already shuttered their windows for the season?