If you're still alive in your fantasy playoffs, your new year is getting off to a good start. With a full slate of games on New Year's Day, you have 32 teams that could help crown you champion. Or, you could have 32 teams that combine to sink your season by resting their star players, particularly those who are at less than 100 percent health (who is at 100 percent health at this stage anyway?), in advance of the real playoffs or because they have no hope for the playoffs. Whom can you count on? We are in search of that answer as the final games of the 2011 regular season approach. Here's what we're hearing midweek.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: This is the biggest nonstory story of the week. Brady took a number of hits to his nonthrowing (left) shoulder last week, and Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England reported that Brady underwent X-rays to rule out a shoulder separation. Apparently there were no significant findings, and after sitting out practice Wednesday (noninjury related, according to the Patriots), Brady was at least present for the portion of practice open to the media Thursday, although how much activity he did is unclear. It sounds as if the team is understandably conserving his stamina for Sunday, when the Patriots are playing for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Brady has played through far worse, including, as many longtime fantasy players might remember, a sore throwing shoulder that had him on the injury report for record time. He will play Sunday, and while he perhaps would prefer not to take hard hits on his left shoulder, it should not affect his game.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain got an extra week of recovery when he sat out Week 16, and he now appears on track to play this Sunday. Roethlisberger was listed as a full participant in practice both Wednesday and Thursday, and acknowledges that while he still has pain in the ankle, he is improving. Expect Roethlisberger to play Sunday, barring a setback. Whether he will play the entire game is impossible to predict at this stage, and it might ultimately depend on how his ankle responds that day.
Tony Romo, QB, and Felix Jones, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Both players are on track to play Sunday night in the game against the New York Giants that will determine who lives to play another week. Jones benefited from the rest he got in Week 16 (he was removed from the game after just four carries) and has been practicing on a limited basis. Of course, the ultimate test for his hamstring will come in the demands of a full game, but his issue was only ever described as "tightness," never a true strain. Romo meanwhile has been working on getting the swelling down in his bruised right hand. The less swelling, the less there are any issues with functionality of the hand that would affect grip and, ultimately, ball control. Romo's presence in practice throughout the week indicates the team is fully expecting he will start.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans: Johnson has missed three games since suffering his second hamstring injury of the season and made it clear he wanted to get back into a regular-season game before heading into the playoffs. It appears he will get his wish, as Johnson has practiced this week and coach Gary Kubiak indicated he is in line to play Sunday. It appears the Texans do not plan to use Johnson the entire game, as Kubiak suggested they would aim for 15 to 20 plays. Who can blame them after the spate of severe injuries their key players have endured this season? So while they will support Johnson getting some in-game work, they are not likely to take excessive risk. The question for fantasy owners is whether a limited appearance from Johnson will translate to significant point production.
Roy Helu, RB, Washington Redskins: After being a pregame scratch in Week 16 because of a painful toe, Helu has returned to limited practice this week. He says he expects to play, but the combination of his being less than 100 percent and a nice performance last week by Evan Royster makes this week's outlook unclear.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants: Bradshaw has settled into a routine of not practicing early in the week but returning Friday and playing Sunday. It appears that could be the case again, and the Giants have everything to play for Sunday night.
Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders: You probably are not in your fantasy championship if you were counting on McFadden to be back, since he now has gone 67 days without practicing. He is not headed to injured reserve, so there still is an opportunity if the Raiders make the playoffs. However, fantasy owners are left hoping for a full offseason recovery.
Jacoby Ford, WR, Oakland Raiders: Ford now is back in practice on a limited basis. His participation on back-to-back days is encouraging, but it is not yet clear whether he will be in the lineup Sunday.
James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers: Starks did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, and his status for Sunday is looking grim. At this point, it's more important for the Packers to have him healthy for the playoffs, so do not plan on seeing him in Week 17.
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints: Uh-oh. Not good news here for the Saints. Ingram has missed the past three games with a turf toe injury but in the past week had appeared to be making some progress. Unfortunately, his return to light practice Wednesday resulted in a setback, one the New Orleans Times-Picayune suggests could keep him out of the playoffs. Wise fantasy owners probably already made the move to secure Chris Ivory, who is expected to play again this Sunday.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jones-Drew had an ankle injury heading into last week's game and managed to play through it. He has not practiced yet this week, but there seems to be little doubt that this is just rest in advance of Sunday's game.
Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins: Bush has had a resurgence of his career in Miami and wants to finish the season strong. His absence from practice both Wednesday and Thursday is a bit worrisome, considering he downplayed last week's injury to his right knee. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Bush is walking without a limp, but a knee injury to a running back with a history of knee issues is still concerning. If Bush is not practicing Friday, fantasy owners should be making alternate plans.
Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, WRs, New York Giants: On Saturday, Nicks aggravated the hamstring he injured earlier this season, and it kept him out of practice Wednesday and Thursday. He made it clear he plans to play, however. According to ESPN New York, Nicks said, "It is all or nothing. It is playoffs now." That's not to say he'll be completely past it. Nicks and teammate Manningham both present some risk in that neither is expected to be completely beyond his injuries by the time Sunday rolls around. Manningham's struggles with swelling in his knee have been ongoing, but he turned in some limited work Wednesday and Thursday. Coach Tom Coughlin seems encouraged that Manningham will be available for this critical matchup.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: Finally, Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin are off the injury report, but McCoy gets added this week. McCoy hurt his ankle in Week 16 and was given Wednesday off. Eagles coach Andy Reid expressed optimism early in the week that McCoy would be fine, and his return to limited practice Thursday seemed to support that statement. McCoy is expected to play Sunday.
Kevin Smith, RB, and Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions: Smith's ankle is still in recovery mode, but he has turned in full practices this week. As noted Tuesday, the Lions signed Joique Bell from the practice squad, so it is difficult to assess just how Sunday's lineup will shape up. Johnson is listed on the injury report with an Achilles injury and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. There has been no indication that there is anything major to be concerned about regarding his health but his status for Sunday is unclear. While the Lions have made it sound as if it will be business as usual, it's hard to imagine their starters not being removed early at the very least, as this game does not hold much value (they're playing to keep the 5-seed in the playoffs).
Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, RBs, San Diego Chargers: Not what fantasy owners want to see -- both Chargers running backs returned to the injury report. Mathews, again listed with a calf injury, sat out Wednesday but was back to limited practice Thursday, suggesting he'll be available Sunday. Tolbert, however, was out both Wednesday and Thursday with a hamstring injury, and his status is less certain.
See you at the injury chat Friday at 11 a.m. ET, and we'll have the latest injury updates affecting Week 17 in the Saturday morning blog.