Spending the last few days at MLB's Winter Meetings, I had an assistant GM from one baseball team see me and say, "Will, I thought you only did football now!" Um, no, thanks for reading. But with the fantasy playoffs starting and the real playoffs not far behind, the world is more focused on football, as it should be. It's fun to some to figure out who's going where and seeing which players will be part of the new 1 percent. But in NFL fantasy circles, it's not just bragging rights and smack talk, it's championships. Even when it's fantasy, the intensity is real, just like the injuries. Player availability is important all year long, but it's even more important now. There are some huge names on the injury lists, so let's take a look at who can help you win and who can't.
UPGRADE: Steelers DSTDOWNGRADE: Peyton Hillis, Colt McCoy
Pittsburgh is still trying to establish itself as the class of the AFC North. After last week's re-enactment with the Bengals of the Pistons-Bulls battles of the late 1980s, they've got an easier task against a banged up Cleveland team. Peyton Hillis has a hip strain that has to be thought of as a cascade from his still sore hamstring. Montario Hardesty is back at practice, but not 100 percent, either, so the Browns will likely go with some combo approach with Hillis, Hardesty, and Chris Ogbonnaya. Colt McCoy will play, but he's slowed by a knee issue, making him an easier target in the pocket. The Steelers have an extensive injury list, with 21 of 55 listed. The LB slots are still the biggest worry, with LaMarr Woodley the biggest question mark after reinjuring his hamstring. The rest of the probables, including James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, and Rashard Mendenhall, should play normally.
Is 70 percent of Adrian Peterson better than 100 percent of Toby Gerhart? That's the kind of decision that medical staffs and coaches have to make every game. On top of that, players like Peterson often try to push their way back into the lineup. Letting them back in is popular with coaches, teammates and fans, making it even tougher for trainers to be the voice of reason. Peterson is tougher than most, since he's been dealing with injury questions since he came into the league. The Vikings don't have anything to play for besides pride and figuring out next year. If they do let Peterson go, he's probably going to share carries beyond the worries about his functionality. It's hard to say "don't start Peterson" in any situation, but given any other options, starting him is very risky.
The Bears just need to hold on. Cutler could be back by the playoffs, and Forte could be back just a bit sooner. His knee sprain is one that could keep him out for just a couple weeks if everything goes well. Forte's MCL sprain is the biggest issue, though sources tell me there was also a minor ACL sprain and some possible other damage. Surgery is possible, but it should hold until the offseason and may not be needed at all. If Forte doesn't get an extension with the Bears, this shouldn't be a major issue for possible employers. We saw LaDainian Tomlinson come back from a similar injury in a similar time frame, though he also showed how risky it can be. Forte had a PRP injection in hopes of speeding up the recovery. Week 15 is possible, but I think we'll see Forte back by Week 16 or 17, depending on how the team plays the next couple weeks. Things are going well for Cutler, but we're still at least another week away from getting any real indication of when he'll be functional again. Look for reports on grip strength or increased mobility for the best indications.
Michael Vick's career isn't going to be defined by injuries, but if not for that whole prison thing, it might be. Vick is talented, but injury-prone due to his style and body type. Vick tends to come back from injuries with big games, in part because he's healed and rested, and in part to be able to say "I told you so." The ribs, now healed, shouldn't be an issue for him until he takes the next hit. Vick's not a sure thing on Sunday, but it sure looks like it's headed that way. He'll be a solid play in what could end up a high-scoring game against the Dolphins.
The Cowboys need to get Austin back. If you squint, you can see the Cowboys challenging the Packers in the playoffs. The Giants did it in Week 12 and now they're playing the Cowboys in what is a must-win for both teams. Austin is back at practice, running well, and if he's healthy, he'll improve the club. Laurent Robinson was a nice fill-in, but his shoulder injury was going to leave the team thin. Robinson is questionable for this week and less important if Austin is back. Austin's risky, as is anyone who comes back from a hamstring strain, but the Cowboys are going to be somewhat conservative, having already seen him reinjure himself. If he's in, he's worth a start.
Johnson filled in pretty well for Freeman, though he did manage to do a Martin Riggs impression. Like too many QBs, Johnson had his non-throwing shoulder injured on a tackle, popping it out and back in. It's been reported as Johnson "popping it back in," which would indicate a dislocation rather than separation, (where the shoulder pops back in on it's own). It's more likely the latter, though the former is the better story. Johnson is practicing and seems ready to play again in case Freeman isn't ready. While Freeman is throwing lightly, he'll need to show a lot of progress between now and Sunday to get the start. There is time, so this will be one to watch on Sunday morning. It's a decent matchup for either QB, so whoever plays will be a decent start for those scouring for upside.
Is anyone surprised that Johnson reinjured himself? No one? Good, you've been paying attention. The injury is to the opposite side of his serious hamstring strain, a common issue as the body unconsciously adjusts to any deficit. That kind of cascade is why Johnson is even more risky now. Remember, the Texans had him listed last week as having a knee problem, which is where I thought the cascade was leading. If limping a bit led to some knee swelling last week, it could get worse if he's dealing with a fresher strain on the other side. Johnson looked solid with T.J. Yates last week, so if he does play, he's not the worst option in the world, just one of the riskiest.
Dustin Fink checks in with concussion numbers on the season. They remain up sharply, which indicates reporting as much as it does incidence. There have been 122 concussions during the regular season and 168 since camp opened. Oddly, six teams have not reported any concussions. Defensive backs remain the most risky position ... Sam Bradford's ankle will be a GTD this week, but the Rams may be forced to push him out there if possible with AJ Feeley out. The pickup of Kellen Clemens tells you how bad it is for the Rams right now ... Kyle Orton's one-play day didn't end up with him in a cast. Like Matthew Stafford, he'll likely try to play through it, though there's still Tyler Palko in front of him ... Cedric Benson played through his foot injury last week. He'll do so again this week, with another tough defense in front of him ... Willis McGahee is getting some time off from practice, but he'll be in on Sunday. The knee issue is one of maintenance, not rest ... Ahmad Bradshaw came out of his first game back from his foot injury pretty well. Look for him to be rested through practice the rest of the year to keep it that way ... Kevin Smith played pretty well against the Saints until the inevitable re-injury he had after pushing back into the backfield. He was worth the risk, but probably not again this week ... Mark Ingram is very doubtful with turf toe. He's going to be dealing with this the rest of the season, so the Saints will have to figure out if rest will help ... Jeremy Maclin thinks he'll be able to play this weekend, but at best he'll be a GTD ... The Raiders aren't going to have Denarius Moore back this week. The foot injury is lingering much longer than expected ... All of the Falcons top three WRs have some minor injury, but all of Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Harry Douglas should play. Then again, Tony Gonzalez could see some additional work ... Dallas Clark is back at practice, but he won't be a good play this season ... Charles Woodson was cleared to return to play after a concussion ... Nice to see the Colts admitting that Peyton Manning won't play again this season. There have been some positive signs in Manning's rehab this week ... I'll be back to normal schedule, with Friday and Sunday chats this week.