The Cincinnati Bengals practiced with heavy hearts today after learning of the death of teammate Chris Henry, who had been placed on injured reserve in November after suffering a left forearm fracture. Our thoughts are with Henry's family and the Bengals at this difficult time.
As challenging as it can be to forge ahead through difficult circumstances such as this, it is what humans do. The Bengals will do just that when they take the field Sunday. In terms of game preparation, the Bengals are otherwise fortunate in that they do not have an extensive injury report, and their key players are healthy. Some other teams around the league are dealing with lengthy injury reports, however, and face the potential absence of several key players as they approach the playoffs.
So who will be on the field for your fantasy playoff roster heading into Week 15? Here's what we're hearing so far this week ...
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Ryan suffered a turf-toe injury in Week 12 that has sidelined him the past two weeks. Ryan did not practice Wednesday, which was not a surprise. But his return to practice Thursday was a surprise. Although the extent of his practice work is unclear, the fact that Ryan was present at least raises the possibility that he'll play Sunday. Stay tuned.
Vince Young, Tennessee Titans: I outlined Young's latest injury setback Tuesday. By Wednesday, Young was strongly suggesting to reporters that he would be back on the field with the team in Week 15, telling the Nashville Tennessean that his hamstring was feeling "way better," and adding, "I definitely want to play. I am taking it easy just to be on the safe side." Taking it easy refers to the fact that Young didn't practice Wednesday. Since rest is the best medicine for hamstring injuries, this is not a big surprise. Expect Young to try to increase his activity late in the week in preparation for this week's game. He likely won't be 100 percent healthy, meaning his ability to make big plays on the run could be affected, but it sounds as if the Titans expect him to perform.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots: Brady caught our attention last week when he missed practice for the first time all season. Brady was (and still is) nursing three injuries: He has ongoing issues with his throwing shoulder (which was aggravated in the preseason); he recently injured the ring finger on his throwing hand (which, though noticeably bruised, did not appear to affect his accuracy in Week 14); and, most significantly perhaps, he suffered a rib injury, which might be affecting his performance to some degree.
Rib injuries for quarterbacks are not easy to play through. Just ask Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb or Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, both of whom have missed time this year because of broken ribs. The location of the rib injury, though, might have much to do with why Brady is able to persevere. A lower left-sided rib injury such as the one McNabb suffered is particularly problematic for a thrower because of the attachment there of the large abdominal oblique muscles. Contraction of those muscles, which are responsible for trunk rotation, can pull at the injured rib, aggravating it with each effort. Although all rib injuries are painful, a same-sided rib injury for Brady (on the right side for a right-handed thrower) could allow him to function a bit better.
Of course, this takes nothing away from his toughness. Brady's successful rehabilitation and return from a challenging knee injury has already proved his mettle. For the record, let's be clear that his knee is not one of his injury concerns at this point. He has already demonstrated that the knee issue is well behind him. In fact, Brady's leg strength is one of the variables likely helping him endure his current upper-body injuries. Brady will continue to play with these injuries and, after resting Wednesday, was back in practice Thursday to prepare for Week 15. Fantasy owners should expect Brady on the field Sunday to face the Bills.
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets: Sanchez missed Week 14 after suffering a posterior cruciate ligament injury the week before. Sanchez returned to limited practice on Wednesday, and he worked with the first team on Thursday, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. Although Sanchez has not officially been named the Week 15 starter, all signs are currently pointing in that direction. Coach Rex Ryan said that Sanchez "looked good" and "moved well" and that the team will see how his knee responds to the workout. The Jets likely will announce their starter decision Friday. It is worth noting that Sanchez likely will have braces on both knees, which could slow him a bit. But as long as he can escape defenders, it looks as if he will play.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: Stafford is not expected to play in Week 15 as he continues to nurse a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder. Coach Jim Schwartz indicated that Stafford is "still a ways away," according to the Detroit News. Although Stafford says surgery is not currently an option, it normally takes several weeks before scar tissue can settle in and provide stability to the AC joint after this type of injury. Given that Stafford has already had one setback, it sounds as if the Lions are being more cautious now. And why not? Stafford is a long-term player for a franchise that is not headed into the postseason this year. Expect Daunte Culpepper to start again. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson's value might take a hit here, not only because of the switch at quarterback but also because Johnson is again facing injury issues of his own.
Michael Turner, Falcons: Turner did not practice Wednesday, which seems to be par for the course of late. Turner's right ankle has kept him out of action since Week 12, when he suffered a setback, although he has not been fantasy productive since Week 10. In the past week, Turner has maintained that he has been making progress, and to that end, he did return to practice Thursday. Although it's unknown at this time just how much Turner actually participated, this is clearly a good sign in terms of his recovery. Fantasy owners should not get too excited just yet; there is still no definitive indication that Turner will be ready to play in Week 15. Naturally, what Turner does in practice toward the end of the week will dictate our level of confidence in him if he does return.
Brian Westbrook, Eagles: The good news is that Westbrook has been able to progress his activity as he recovers from his second concussion, including returning to practice with the scout team last week. The not-so-good news is that Westbrook still has not met the targets that would allow him to receive medical clearance to return to play. Coach Andy Reid told the Philadelphia Daily News that Westbrook is, "better, but not all the way completely cleared. We're still doing [testing] as his exercise increases. They'll keep testing him until they're comfortable with where he's at." Reid reminded everyone that despite eagerness on the part of Westbrook and the team to have him back, the Eagles will continue to do what's in the best interest of the athlete, which is as it should be. It sounds as if Westbrook will not be available in Week 15.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: After Stewart suffered an injury to his toe in Week 14, his routine nonparticipation in Wednesday practice raised a bit more concern. That concern was alleviated, though, with the news that Stewart was a full participant in Thursday's practice. It will be important to see how Stewart responds to Thursday's activity before determining his Sunday availability, but the situation is looking good so far.
Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: Jackson has been pressing through a back injury for the past few weeks, and it has now been revealed to be a herniated disk, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The diagnosis does not change anything, though; much of what determines whether Jackson can play is simply how his back feels.
In the case of a herniated disk, as long as the symptoms remain localized to Jackson's low back, there is not necessarily a huge level of concern. Many people are quite functional despite the presence of disk problems, although when the disk is inflamed, the pain itself can be debilitating. The concern grows, however, if the disk is causing associated neurological problems, such as numbness or weakness in the leg. This was the case last season for the aforementioned Matt Hasselbeck, who was having weakness in his leg as the result of a herniated disk in his back. Hasselbeck's season came to an early end, but he recovered nicely in the offseason and, after undergoing a rigorous rehabilitation and conditioning program, has been able to return strong this year.
This week likely will be a repeat of the past few weeks, with Jackson's availability to be determined at game time.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: Fitzgerald's owners can breathe a bit easier now that tests have revealed that Fitzgerald did not suffer a season-threatening injury Monday night. He did sustain a bone bruise, though, along with a mildly sprained medial collateral ligament. Bone bruises, which often occur in conjunction with major ligament injuries, can be painful, and Fitzgerald clearly is experiencing some discomfort. Nonetheless, he was back in practice Wednesday on a limited basis, and the Cardinals were sure to keep him from overdoing it. As coach Ken Whisenhunt told the Arizona Republic, "We're going to be as conservative as we can early in the week with hopes that he will be able to do more on Friday and obviously play on Sunday." For his part, Fitzgerald insists he will play Sunday, but the Cardinals will monitor his progress throughout the week before making their final decision.
Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions: Johnson didn't practice Thursday, causing the red flags surrounding his knee injury to reappear. Although there have not been many details provided, there must be some concern about Johnson's Sunday availability, given this midweek downgrade. Fantasy owners should have a backup plan in place.
Percy Harvin, Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are understandably getting a bit nervous about the status of their star rookie receiver, who missed Week 14 because of ongoing issues with migraine headaches. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Harvin is continuing to be medically evaluated related to the migraines to ensure that the headaches do not represent another more serious underlying issue. As the Star-Tribune outlines, one of the concerns is that although Harvin has been dealing with headaches since childhood, the frequency of their occurrence seems to be increasing. Although migraines are often unpredictable in nature, many patients learn to identify (and therefore avoid, to the extent possible) the triggers that can set them off. When the triggers are hard to identify, the problem becomes even more challenging. The hope is that the expert consultation will help here.
Although Harvin participated in elements of Wednesday's walkthrough, he became ill and did not take part in practice. Any plan for his return to physical activity is unclear, and this appears to be a day-to-day issue. Harvin's fantasy owners should make alternate plans for this weekend because his status appears to be in jeopardy.
Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers: Ward is still recovering from a hamstring strain and did not take part in team practice Wednesday. Ward usually has Wednesdays off anyway, so this is not a major development. Ward played last Thursday despite clearly not being able to run at full speed. Nonetheless, Ward told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he is "getting better every day," and the team expects him back on the field Sunday. He might not be completely recovered, but he should look better than he did last week.
Jeremy Maclin, Eagles: Just as DeSean Jackson was returning to the field for the Eagles after an injury, Maclin exited the field with an injury of his own. Actually, Maclin suffered a setback of a left foot injury he was already nursing when he partially tore the plantar fascia.
Originally coach Andy Reid suggested that Maclin would miss one or two weeks, but on Wednesday, Reid refrained from ruling Maclin out for this week's contest against the San Francisco 49ers. The Philly News reports that Maclin, despite missing practice Wednesday, was not seen in his protective boot in the locker room. Although that's an encouraging sign, it's a far cry from running, planting and pivoting. It's hard to envision Maclin's suiting up this week. Teammate Kevin Curtis might well be back on the field to add depth to the receiver corps; a return from Curtis would mark his first appearance since Week 2. Curtis has been on the mend from knee surgery, and although he has been practicing on a limited basis, he likely isn't ready to take on a full load. Thus, Maclin and Curtis should not be in fantasy lineups in Week 15.
Mike Sims-Walker, Jacksonville Jaguars: Sims-Walker is listed as probable and is expected to play Thursday night against the Colts, but don't expect him to be at full health just yet. Remember, Sims-Walker was downgraded midway through last week because of a left calf injury that eventually kept him out of Thursday and Friday practice. Despite being listed as doubtful, he managed to persuade the team in pregame warm-ups that he was capable of playing, but he did not post great numbers. Sims-Walker has been playing despite a knee ailment that was then complicated by the calf strain and has not been especially productive of late. Although the news that Sims-Walker is expected to play this week is encouraging, it would not be surprising if he is not yet 100 percent. Fantasy owners should temper expectations as a result.
Brent Celek, Eagles: Despite a drop here and there in the past two weeks because of an ongoing thumb injury, Celek has consistently put up fantasy points each week. But now Celek is also dealing with a back issue that kept him out of Wednesday practice. Apparently, the back began bothering him before Sunday. According to the Philly News, coach Andy Reid said, "They worked on him and were able to get him ready for the game." True, Celek was ready, and again he put points on the board, but he was seen walking gingerly after the game and is still dealing with stiffness. Nonetheless, Reid says that Celek "should be ready to go this weekend," so barring a downturn, fantasy owners can plan on his availability.
Be sure to check back Saturday for post-Friday NFL injury report updates on all your fantasy players heading into the weekend.
Also, see you at the injury chats (Tuesday 11 a.m.-noon ET, Friday 11 a.m.-noon and Sunday pregame (10-10:30 a.m.). And check out Fantasy Football Now on Sundays at ESPN.com from 11:30 a.m. ET to kickoff for last-minute inactives, rankings and more!