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Running games burst to forefront

If you have followed this space this season, you might recall the stubbornness with the prediction running backs would pay us back. It hasn't really happened to the extent we thought, but they sure did come through this week.

Chris Johnson has rewarded his patient owners in recent weeks, leading his fantasy teams to the postseason with 153 yards and two scores. Marshawn Lynch has taken Skittles Beast Mode to a new level. And even Shonn Greene and Rashard Mendenhall found the end zone multiple times for their frustrated fantasy owners. Throw in the RB-like efforts of Cam Newton and Tim Tebow and the old-school running games are finally putting the pass-happy NFL to the back burner.

It is no coincidence this RB breakthrough has come as the month flipped to December. It is the time for the backs to carry the load, in the real NFL and fantasy.

If not for the injuries to elite backs Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Matt Forte (this week), Fred Jackson and Jamaal Charles, we could really be getting some great production out of the all-important fantasy position in the all-critical weeks of the fantasy season.

We break down all the week from a fantasy perspective in the Week 13 Fantasy Football Fast Forward:

• So, just maybe, Philip Rivers has saved his best for last. With Malcom Floyd now healthy, Rivers has four legit targets (excluding his running backs) in Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson, Floyd and Vincent Brown, who didn't get a lot of throws but at least found the end zone. All of these guys should be solid options against the Bills next week. Rivers is going to win a lot of games, if not fantasy leagues, for owners in December.

• Maurice Jones-Drew might be hamstrung with the awful quarterback play for the Jags with rookie Blaine Gabbert, but he is still proving to be a must-start, regardless of the matchup. He draws the suspect Bucs run defense next week.

• Gabbert just cannot get the ball down field, but at least the Jags are smart enough to get the ball in the hands of their best weapon in MJD. Marcedes Lewis and Mike Thomas would be viable receivers if Gabbert wasn't so ineffective. As it is, they aren't worth using.

• Ryan Mathews has taken the lions share, er, Chargers-share, of the carries since proving healthy. It makes him a must-start against the Bills next week. Even Mike Tolbert, who did vulture a goal-line score Monday night, can be a flex option. Mathews doesn't get the short touchdowns with Tolbert healthy, but he does plenty of other things, including working as a receiver out of the backfield. Mathews can make himself a fantasy first-rounder going into next season.

• Mark Ingram wasn't great, but he has at least taken over the bulk of the carries since proving healthy. It should help you trust him as a starting against the Titans next week. Pierre Thomas, not so much. Darren Sproles is still the receiving back, but Ingram can be good for 60 yards and a score in each week down the stretch.

• In typical Saints fashion, after weeks of silence, Drew Brees went back to Robert Meachem out of nowhere. Meachem isn't a great fantasy option, despite the big week, because they just rotate the ball so much. Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston are pretty good bets, but Lance Moore, Meachem and Devery Henderson are sketchy week to week. Moore did at least reel in a touchdown in his few targets, making him at least the lesser of those three evils in fantasy.

• Kevin Smith looked good before leaving with an injury again. He isn't a viable starter against the Vikings, because the risk is so great. Smith should be a great option in Week 15 against the Raiders if he can prove healthy, though. Maurice Morris' fate is tied closely to Smith, so consider Morris is Smith is ruled out later this week. If Smith plays, Morris is too risky, too.

• With Matthew Stafford going more to the backs of late, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler have slid down the tight-end charts. Pettigrew is no longer a viable starter and Scheffler is no longer worth owning.

• Aaron Rodgers was outstanding again, spreading the wealth around equally to Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson and even Donald Driver with two scores. Driver's big effort made James Jones silent. It will be tough to trust either Driver or Jones as a starter. The Packers just juggle them week-to-week.

• James Starks left with an ankle issue again. If he cannot play against the weak Raiders run defense next week, Ryan Grant would be a great sleeper for needy fantasy owners. Grant is a decent early week pick-up just in case.

• Ahmad Bradshaw returned and it actually helped keep Brandon Jacobs fresh. Neither back is a great play against the Cowboys run defense next week, but both are options if you are desperate.

• Hakeem Nicks finally played long and well enough to keep up with Victor Cruz. Mario Manningham doesn't look like he is going to help fantasy owners here on out, so both Giants receivers are must-starts. Eli Manning should remain a solid fantasy starter, too.

• Travis Beckum made a huge early play, but it was only his second catch of the season and he should be left on the waiver wire.

• The Giants defense got more pressure on the passer, but they still don't have a schedule favorable to use them as a D/ST in fantasy.

• Michael Crabtree has emerged as a consistent force and a fantasy starter. He is as healthy as he has been and Alex Smith's emergence has made him someone to use regardless of the matchup. The same cannot be said for Vernon Davis, who is a bit of a marginal fantasy option.

• Kyle Williams broke the 56-yard score, but he won't be a viable fantasy pick-up.

• Frank Gore got the bulk of the rushing duty with Kendall Hunter doing nothing with the scraps. With the division locked up, expect Hunter to spell Gore more in the final games to stay fresh for the postseason.

• Steven Jackson was bottled up against the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL, but things won't be much easier with the Rams' schedule in the next three weeks -- particularly if A.J. Feeley remains the QB.

• Brandon Lloyd failed us with the backup QB in. He will be a risky start if Bradford cannot go against the Seahawks next week.

• The Ravens abused the Browns on the ground, getting Ray Rice over 200 yards and making Ricky Williams productive, too. Both backs should be solid plays next week against the forgiving Colts run defense.

• The Browns continue their solid play against QBs and WRs, shutting down Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. All three should be much better against the Colts.

• As expected the Browns didn't have a good fantasy option in the bunch. Peyton Hillis is at least healthy, but the schedule doesn't get any easier against the Steelers next week. The Cardinals are the matchup to follow, and they aren't bad against the run either.

• Kevin Kolb was solid in his return, but not quite fantasy-worthy. He didn't really make much out of Larry Fitzgerald. Andre Roberts was busy and La'Rod Stephens-Howling had the OT game-winner. Kolb is going to make the secondary options better, but it still won't be consistent production. Fitzgerald still is the only one to trust.

• Beanie Wells had a solid game against a good run defense, but starting him against the 49ers run defense is probably not a good idea.

• Demarco Murray struggled against the Cardinals run defense and it could open the door for the Cowboys to go back to Felix Jones. It should be Murray in lineups against the Giants next week, though.

• Miles Austin didn't return, so Laurent Robinson stayed moderately productive. Dez Bryant snapped out of a funk as Tony Romo's primary target at least.

• Cam Newton isn't a great QB yet, but he is a great fantasy QB with his record-setting rushing TD totals. His next couple of matchups is tough, though. You are fine starting him if your backup is not viable. He is a touchdown vulture.

• The Panthers rushed for four TDs, but three came from Newton and the other went to Jonathan Stewart. D'Angelo Williams was a bust here and shouldn't be used against the Falcons or Texans the next two weeks. Those are too great run defenses. Stewart should sit, too.

• Steve Smith's rebound season has slowed badly and he can no longer be considered a must-start, especially with those upcoming matchups. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey haven't been good since the start of the season. Now is a bad time to go back to them.

• LeGarrette Blount was stuffed against a bad run defense, surprisingly. It didn't help the Bucs had to go with Josh Johnson at QB. It allowed the Panthers to load the line of scrimmage to stop the Bucs' primary weapon. Blount won't be a bad play next Sunday against the Jags.

• Mike Williams has shown more consistency and is a decent option in deeper leagues for the fantasy postseason.

• Mock Tim Tebow's throwing all you want, but there is something to be said for a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also happens to be a pretty good runner, scoring a two-point conversion, and leader, going 6-1. Fantasy-wise, he has a favorable schedule down the stretch.

• Demaryius Thomas rose up to relegate Eric Decker to being a non-factor in fantasy. It will be hard to trust any Broncos receivers apparently.

• Toby Gerhart filled in nicely for Adrian Peterson for fantasy owners and he should do so in the coming weeks, too. There is no reason for the Vikings to rush A.P. back.

• Christian Ponder made the big mistake in the game, but he had his best performance as a pro, going for 381 yards and three touchdowns. He still isn't a real fantasy option, but he has at least made Percy Harvin into the receiving star he should be. Harvin went eight for 156 and two TDs.

• The Bears very clearly need Donovan McNabb. Caleb Hanie was a disaster and Matt Forte left early with a knee injury. If Forte is out, the Bears are going to struggle mightily. Hanie cannot get anything done, outside of a few balls out to Johnny Knox.

• Marion Barber is going to be a must-start against the Broncos if Forte is out. He is a decent sleeper anyway because of the Bears' commitment to the run.

• Tyler Palko wasn't good, but he avoided the mistakes Hanie made. The Chiefs receivers are not that intriguing outside of Dwayne Bowe, but Steve Breaston did outproduce him.

• Dexter McCluster has steadily gained steam as a back and receiving threat. He gets less touches than Thomas Jones and the now-worthless Jackie Battle, but McCluster is the best of the fantasy options there because of the receptions.

• T.J. Yates wasn't good, but he avoided the big mistake and allowed the Texans to do what they do best: pound Arian Foster and play defense. Foster is a must-start in all matchups and he managed to score well against the third-best team in fantasy against RBs. Tate got 11 carries and 41 yards, too. He will be a viable flex option in the coming weeks (CIN, CAR and IND).

• Andre Johnson was looking good before having to leave the game in the third quarter with an injury to his other hamstring. It looks like he will be out for the fantasy postseason now. It is time to consider Owen Daniels or Kevin Walter in deeper leagues in Johnson's wake.

• Matt Ryan struggled against an elite defense, slowing his hot streak. He was able to keep Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and the returning Julio Jones productive for fantasy owners, though. They should remain active in all leagues down the stretch.

• Michael Turner wasn't good against an elite run defense, but he has to remain active.

• Chris Johnson's patient owners have rewarded. He goes for another 153 yards and two scores against a suspect Bills run defense. The Saints, Colts and Jaguars don't pose much of a threat. Johnson should be active in all formats.

• Damian Williams continues to emerge as Matt Hasselbeck's top fantasy receiver. He is a viable stopgap in deeper leagues.

• C.J. Spiller came through for fantasy owners in Fred Jackson's place. He stands to be a solid start against the Chargers, but Week 15 against the Dolphins is a tough one for him.

• Stevie Johnson came through with a touchdown, but with Donald Jones out for the season, Brad Smith has been playing a lot more receiver. He has become a viable option in deeper leagues, particularly PPR formats.

• The Steelers weren't overly impressive offensively, but they were efficient. Rashard Mendenhall found the end zone twice and two of Mike Wallace's three catches go for Ben Roethlisberger's two touchdowns. This is a must-start trio down the stretch.

• Andy Dalton has struggled against elite defense, but he at least didn't make big mistakes. The benching in the fourth quarter was a coach's decision and not related to injury. It won't get much easier for Dalton or Cedric Benson against the Texans' defense.

• As projected, A.J. Green was the only Bengal immune to this tough matchup. We should expect the same against the Texans next week.

• Shonn Greene finally has the day we have long waited for. It figures it comes as the calendar turns to December. Expect him to be ridden hard against the Chiefs, Eagles and Giants.

• Roy Helu has not only taken over as the starter, he is the Redskins' only back. He held up well against the Jets run defense, going for 100 yards and a score on the ground and another four catches and 42 yards. The lost fumble is a repeated issue with him, though. The Redskins went right back to him though, and stuck with him throughout. Helu should be solid against the Pats, Giants and Vikings.

• Mark Sanchez cooled off considerably here, but at least he didn't give the game away. You should have better starting QB options available to you.

• The Pats' inability to run out the clock with the running game nearly cost them here. BenJarvus Green-Ellis only got six carries and 14 yards, but he did at least get a score before giving way to rookie Stevan Ridley.

• Dan Orlovsky revived the Colts passing game, making a Week 13 star out of Pierre Garcon and making Austin Collie a factor again. Very often we see a backup receiver have something going with the backup QB that comes on. Collie is a legit sleeper now.

• Donald Brown and Joseph Addai split carries, but it was Brown who got the red-zone score. It makes Brown a potential sleeper even if there are multiple Colts backs to compete with.

• The Dolphins have the old-school formula of running the ball and stopping the run, something the Raiders were unable to do here. Reggie Bush has been a consistent force and even Daniel Thomas got involved with 73 yards. Bush and Thomas are both solid plays against the Eagles, Bills and Pats during the fantasy postseason.

• Michael Bush was stuffed by the Dolphins here and he will be a bad play against the Packers next week, with or without Darren McFadden available.

• Carson Palmer salvaged his fantasy day late with touchdowns to Darrius Heyward-Bey and T.J. Houshmanzadeh. It is receiver roulette trying to figure out which receiver will be productive with Palmer. Chaz Schilens has been fairly consistent with him, though. Schilens is a sleeper in PPR formats.

• Marshawn Lynch gave new meaning to beast mode. He is having a career year and should be a Skittles-eating beast against the suspect Rams run defense next week. The matchups in the next two fantasy postseason games are tougher with the Bears and 49ers, but Lynch has already produced through a tough stretch of decent run defenses. He is a must-start now.

• With Sidney Rice out for the season, Golden Tate might finally make good on some promise. He registered a touchdown here and is a sleeper in deeper leagues, just in case he takes over as a No. 1 receiver. He is at least as intriguing as Doug Baldwin, Ben Obomanu or Mike Williams.

• Vince Young has proved far too error prone to trust in fantasy during the postseason. He clearly makes Riley Cooper his go-to target, so consider Cooper a solid sleeper. Michael Vick might not be back any time soon.

• DeSean Jackson is no longer worth waiting on. Young just isn't consistent enough and Jackson was erratic even with Vick. If you made it through Jackson's worst and lived to play in the fantasy postseason, find a better option. The same goes for Brent Celek.

• LeSean McCoy was great despite playing banged up. If the Eagles decide to rest him in the meaningless games down the stretch, you will want to have Ronnie Brown stashed on your roster. Brown won't do anything if McCoy plays, but his value as a potential starter makes him worth stashing.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com, including the Start 'Em, Sit 'Em, the Weekend Fantasy Watch List and his Sunday night staple: Fantasy Football Fast Forward. If you need a further clarification on lineups this week hit him up on Twitter. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy.

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