1. Chris Johnson — Can we drop the “CJ2K” and “CJ0K” nicknames for this guy and just start calling him “Sybil”? Because we haven’t seen a single Chris Johnson this season; we’ve seen three Chris Johnsons. Early in the season we saw a completely ineffective running back who appeared unworthy of a roster spot on a CFL team (with all due respect to Montreal Alouettes fans). In the middle of the season we saw a superstar who appeared to be among the best backs in the league. And over the last three weeks we’ve seen a very ordinary starting running back: Say hello to CJ-meh-K. Johnson owners still in contention have reason to be concerned. This recent CJ persona is non grata in a critical playoff week. While he hasn’t stunk outright in his last three games, Johnson has been hewing much closer to early-season CJ than to midseason CJ, and last week’s 19-carry, 44-yard performance against a mediocre Colts run defense makes you wonder whether he’s beginning to shut it down early. If Johnson still has any fight left in him, he could conceivably return to midseason form in the final game of the Week 15 schedule, a home game against the Jets, who rank 29th against the run. A lot of fantasy playoff games could ride on which Johnson persona shows up for this one.
2. Alfred Morris — The uncertain status of QB Robert Griffin III after his knee injury last week raises questions about Morris and his prospects for success in the Redskins’ road game against Cleveland this Sunday. Will Morris get an extra-heavy dose of carries this week whether it’s backup Kirk Cousins starting at quarterback for the ’Skins or a wounded RG3? Would Morris still be as effective if RG3 weren’t there to trigger Washington’s read-option running game? And if RG3 does play, will the Browns key on Morris because they perceive RG3 to be less of a running threat than usual? Morris has rattled off three consecutive 100-yard rushing games and has run for a touchdown in two of his last three games. He now has 1,228 rushing yards and seven TDs for the season, along with an impressive average of 4.9 yards per carry. But the fate of Morris in Week 15 and the fate of his fantasy owners might be tethered to RG3’s sprained knee ligament.
3. Peyton Manning — Fantasy owners who had the courage to draft Manning this season and are now riding him into the playoffs should take a moment to pat themselves on the back. It seems hard to believe that Manning was considered a gamble back in August because of the neck issues that caused him to miss the entire 2011 season. Owners who believed that Manning would (or at least could) return to his usual form have been richly rewarded to this point, and perhaps further rewards are yet to come. After playing a Thursday-night game in Week 14, Manning, the consummate film-room rat, has had extra time to prepare for Sunday’s game in Baltimore. The Ravens rank 23rd in pass defense but have given up a mere 12 TD passes. Manning has 30 TD passes this season, but even if the Ravens prevent him from ringing up multiple touchdowns, he figures to produce ample yardage: Manning has thrown for at least 270 yards in 10 of his last 11 games (seven 300-yard games in that span).
4. Adrian Peterson — The amazing Peterson now has recorded seven consecutive 100-yard rushing games and has had eight TD runs over that span. He’s now at an even 1,600 rushing yards for the season after last weekend’s 154-yard outing against the Bears, and considering that the 7-6 Vikings are still in the playoff hunt even though their passing game went AWOL more than a month ago, Peterson has to be including in any sensible MVP conversation. In fact, AP has run for significantly more yardage over Minnesota’s last five games (825) than Vikings QB Christian Ponder has thrown for (653). Peterson is approaching Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, and he’ll continue his quest this weekend in St. Louis. The Rams rank 13th against the run but have allowed 15 rushing touchdowns.
5. Jamaal Charles — The last time the Chiefs faced the Raiders, in Week Eight, Charles carried only five times for four yards. Afterward, Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel seemed as mystified as we were about the star running back’s scanty workload that day. The Chiefs visit Oakland this weekend, and it’s a reasonably safe bet that Crennel will avoid a repeat embarrassment by demanding that Charles get the rock early and often. The speedy back has run for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games and four of his last five. Charles rushed for 165 yards and a TD against the Browns last week, and now he’ll attempt to exploit the holes in a sieve-like Oakland run defense that has yielded 17 rushing touchdowns and is giving up 22 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs.
6. Brandon Marshall — The Bears are staggering, but it certainly isn’t Marshall’s fault. Last week, he became the first receiver in the league to surpass 100 receptions for the season, and over his last six games he’s had four 100-yard days and five TD catches. Marshall also has caught 10 or more passes in three consecutive games, and in last week’s loss to the Vikings he had 10 receptions for 160 yards and a TD. The Bears host the Packers this weekend in a critical NFC North showdown. When the Packers beat the Bears at Lambeau Field back in Week Two, the Green Bay did [this] to Marshall, bracketing him on nearly every snap, which helped hold him to an uncharacteristically poor receiving line of 2-24-0.
7. Marshawn Lynch — Lynch needed only 11 carries last week to savage the hapless Cardinals for 128 yards and three TDs in Seattle’s 58-0 demolition job. Now, Lynch returns to play his old team, the Bills, whose fans are apt to give him a frosty welcome. The Bills rank 28th against the run and have allowed 18 rushing touchdowns, tied for the highest total in the league, but Buffalo has actually stiffened against the run in recent weeks. Lynch has 1,266 rushing yards and nine TDs this season. Perhaps the greatest concern for his owners this week is that the Seahawks might limit his carries, as they did against Arizona, if Seattle gets out to a comfortable lead. No team ever admits to looking beyond their next game, but the Seahawks have a potentially enormous game coming up against the 49ers in Week 16.
8. Reggie Wayne — Wayne seems to be slowing down just when his fantasy owners need him most. The veteran receiver managed to score a touchdown last week, but it was just his second TD since Oct. 7. After producing more than 70 receiving yards in each of his first 11 games this season, Wayne has been held to 51 and 64 receiving yards over the past two weeks. And despite continuing to be a high-volume target for rookie QB Andrew Luck, Wayne has had only one 100-yard day over the past nine weeks. The Colts will be in Houston this weekend to face the Texans, whose defense might be more ornery than usual after being embarrassed by Tom Brady and the Patriots on Monday night.
9. Darren Sproles — New Orleans hasn’t generated much of a running game this season with its RB-by-committee approach. The Saints currently rank 26th in rushing and aren’t likely to experience a breakthrough with their ground game this week against the Buccaneers, who are allowing a league-low 78.2 rushing yards per game. Tampa Bay threw a blanket on two-week phenom Bryce Brown last weekend, holding the rookie to just six yards on 12 carries. Drew Brees might throw half a dozen or more short passes to Sproles this week in lieu of an actual running game. Sproles had a TD catch in the Saints’ loss to the Giants last week and also had a TD run, which was a pleasant surprise considering that until last Sunday, he hadn’t taken a handoff since Week Eight. When the Saints faced the Bucs back in Week Seven, Sproles had four receptions for 32 yards and a touchdown (and 5-27-0 rushing).
10. Victor Cruz — The NFL’s premier salsa dancer has emerged from a brief October/November mini-slump (which coincided with QB Eli Manning’s maxi-slump) and has registered back-to-back 100-yard games, with a TD catch in two of his last three outings. Cruz now has as many TD catches (nine) as he had in his breakthrough season last year. He also topped the 1,000-yard mark last week. The Giants will be in Atlanta this weekend to take on the Falcons, whose pass defense was just chewed up by Cam Newton and the Panthers. Atlanta has allowed only 13 TD passes this season but gave up three to Carolina last week.