1. Julio Jones — OK, so maybe the young Mr. Jones hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty expectations fantasy owners had for him after Jones made the preseason look like child’s play. But he certainly hasn’t had a bad season, and maybe he can still carry some of his fantasy owners to titles. Jones owners who were involved in playoff games last week got two TD catches out of their athletic young pass catcher, along with six catches for 74 yards in the Falcons’ rout of the Giants. Jones, who has had three TD catches in his last two games (four TDs in his last four games), now gets a Saturday-night date against the Lions in Detroit. The Lions appeared disinterested (pondering last-minute Christmas shopping, perhaps?) during their dispiriting road loss to the Cardinals last week. With Roddy White still nursing a sore knee, Jones figures to play a central role this weekend, as the Falcons zero in on home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
2. Robert Griffin III — Fantasy owners hoping to start RG3 this week will be giving search engines a workout in the days leading up to the Redskins’ road game in Philadelphia this weekend, checking for news on whether the rookie will suit up. Griffin’s sprained knee kept him out of Washington’s Week 14 game in Cleveland, but backup Kirk Cousins led the ’Skins to victory, pulling them into a three-way tie with the Giants and Cowboys for first place in the NFC East. Although Cousins threw for 329 yards and two TDs against the Browns, the Redskins would undoubtedly love to have RG3 make the start this weekend. A lot of RG3 owners have Cousins as a handcuff, and while his success last weekend makes Cousins more palatable as a potential championship-game option for those owners, there’s little doubt that even a slightly hobbled version of RG3 would be better able to exploit an Eagles defense that has given up 26 TD passes this season.
3. Arian Foster — Odds are that Foster and Adrian Peterson will be the first two players selected in most 2013 fantasy drafts, and though Peterson is currently the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the majority of next year’s drafts, Foster can make his case this weekend when the two über-backs go head to head in Houston. With 1,313 rushing yards this season, Foster is well behind Peterson’s 1,812-yard overture, though Foster has 16 total touchdowns to Peterson’s 11. Foster wasn’t able to find the endzone in the Texans’ win over the Colts last weekend, but he racked up 165 rushing yards on 27 carries. The Texans remain highly motivated at this late date, still seeking a first-round playoff bye, so we can expect Foster to get plenty of opportunities to test Minnesota’s 13th-ranked run defense.
4. Doug Martin— The “Muscle Hamster” fell off his exercise wheel last weekend. Despite a seemingly easy matchup against a woebegone Saints defense that has been gashed by opposing running games all season, Martin generated only 16 rushing yards on nine carries in New Orleans. He had fewer rushing yards than his backup, LeGarrette Blount, who had 25, and fewer than Buccaneers DB Keith Tandy, who ran for 18 yards on a fake punt. Martin had amassed 122 yards from scrimmage plus a TD run against the Saints in Week Seven, so it was hard to see last weekend’s shipwreck coming. Martin owners who managed to survive are hoping the rookie can turn things around this week in a home game against St. Louis, which has given up 17 rushing touchdowns.
5. Calvin Johnson — At 4-10, the downtrodden Lions have little left to play for other than pride and whatever morale boost they might get if Johnson is able to break the NFL’s single-season record for receiving yardage. Megatron is up to 1,667 receiving yards, leaving him just 181 yards short of Jerry Rice’s 1,848-yard record with two games remaining. It seems a foregone conclusion that Johnson will get there. He has had more than 100 receiving yards in seven consecutive games, gaining 147 yards per game over this remarkable stretch. Matthew Stafford has targeted Johnson at least 17 times in three of Detroit’s last four games and will undoubtedly keep feeding his main man. But can ’Tron kick in a touchdown or two for his fantasy owners? After catching a TD pass in four consecutive games from Weeks 10-13, Johnson has been held without a TD in his last two. The Lions host the Falcons on Saturday night, and Atlanta has allowed only 13 TD passes in 14 games.
6. Trent Richardson — The good news for Richardson’s fantasy owners is that the rookie runner has scored six TDs over his last four games, including two in each of the past two weeks. The bad news is that T-Rich has been held to fewer than 75 rushing yards in three consecutive games and managed only 28 rushing yards on 11 carries against the Redskins last weekend. Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress has openly discussed the possibility of reducing Richardson’s carries down the stretch, which isn’t exactly music to the ears of Richardson owners who are playing for trophies this week. And after facing Washington’s tough run defense, Richardson now must contend with a Denver defense that ranks second against the run and has allowed only five TD runs.
7. Tom Brady — Brady can’t be in the merriest of moods after throwing two interceptions last Sunday night in a rare December home loss to the 49ers. But Brady threw for 443 yards and a TD against San Francisco while leading a valiant second-half comeback attempt, so his fantasy owners didn’t exactly walk away empty-handed. Brady owners who won last week should be pleased with the QB’s Week 16 road matchup against the Jaguars, who rank 24th against the pass. TE Rob Gronkowski, recovering from a broken arm, has been practicing again, and it’s possible he could return to action this week, which would make Brady that much more dangerous.
8. Eric Decker — After a brief disappearing act in which he had fewer than 25 receiving yards in three out of four games, Decker emerged from hibernation with eight catches for 88 yards against the Raiders in Week 14, then went off for eight catches, 133 yards and a TD against the Ravens last week. Is Decker awake for good? Fantasy owners who plan to start him this week certainly hope so. With a first-round bye and perhaps even home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs on the line, the Broncos still have plenty to play for. On Sunday they have a date with the Browns, who rank 25th against the pass and were lit up for 329 passing yards by Redskins rookie backup Kirk Cousins last weekend.
9. Marshawn Lynch — Lynch has been in full “beast mode” over the past two weeks despite getting a less-than-full workload. He ran 10 times for 113 yards and a TD in Seattle’s demolition of Buffalo last week after rushing 11 times for 128 yards and three TDs in a blowout win over Arizona a week earlier. Lynch’s per-carry average over the past two weeks: 11.5 yards. Defensive resistance is apt to be stiffer for Lynch this weekend, as the Seahawks will host the 49ers Sunday night in a divisional showdown. The Niners are giving up just 91.1 rushing yards per game and have allowed only six rushing touchdowns this season. No doubt the Seahawks will lean heavily on Lynch, who ran 19 times for 103 yards in Seattle’s 13-6 loss to the 49ers in Week Seven.
10. Ben Roethlisberger — The 7-7 Steelers are on the ropes in their fight for a playoff spot after an overtime loss in Dallas last week, but two consecutive wins would still get them into the playoffs, and their game this weekend against the division-rival Bengals, who stand at 8-6, is obviously a do-or-die affair. Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards and two TDs against the Cowboys, and the rib injury from which he returned a week earlier no longer seems to be a concern The Steelers’ ground game vanished in Dallas, and it’s hard to imagine it successfully resurfacing against a Cincinnati defense that ranks ninth against the run, so expect Roethlisberger to chuck it early and often on Sunday. In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 win over Cincinnati in Week Seven, Roethlisberger completed 27-of-37 passes for 278 yards and a TD. It seems like a reasonably good bet that he’ll be putting it up more than 37 times in this weekend’s rematch.