Heading into the Thursday night game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are, thankfully, only a couple of fantasy question marks. For the Browns, running back Peyton Hillis appeared on this week's injury report with a hip strain. He is listed as questionable after practicing on a limited basis this week, but the general sense in Cleveland is that he will play. Teammate Montario Hardesty returned in Week 13 to active status but never touched the ball. Hardesty was only in for a few snaps but claims the calf injury is behind him. After practicing fully earlier in the week, Hardesty is listed as probable and is expected to be available. If Hillis ends up not being able to go, Hardesty would get the start.
For the Steelers, there were a number of players listed on the injury report but all were able to practice. From a fantasy perspective, running back Rashard Mendenhall (back), quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (thumb) and safety Troy Polamalu (knee) are all listed as Probable and all are expected to play.
Not Practicing Thursday:
Here is a list of players who are worth monitoring based on the fact that they are not practicing as of Thursday afternoon:
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans: Johnson injured his non-surgical (left) hamstring in Week 13 and while the injury is reportedly mild, the Texans will not take any chances by rushing him back too soon. According to the Texans' website, coach Gary Kubiak said of Johnson, "The key here right now is that when we get him back, we need to make sure we get him back for the long haul." Not only is caution warranted to avoid risking a setback with this latest injury, but there is no reason to chance overloading Johnson's right side. He needs to be running uninhibited with even strides before taking the field. The Texans have said he will be a game-time decision but it appears likely he will rest this week.
Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit Lions: Smith returned in Week 13 just 10 days after suffering a high ankle sprain and it did not yield a good result. Smith struggled in his outing, then left the game after aggravating the ankle. Given the setback (and Smith's long history of injury issues), it appears Smith will not be participating this Sunday. Maurice Morris would get the start in his place.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants: At this time last week, Bradshaw had not tested his foot in practice and seemed unlikely to play. Then Friday came, he had a solid practice and then played Sunday. While he did not post stellar numbers, most importantly Bradshaw emerged with his foot no worse for the wear. His absence from practice on Wednesday and Thursday of this week might have signaled concern, but the New York Daily News' Ralph Vacchiano reports that coach Tom Coughlin says he expects both Bradshaw and Jacobs (who has been out with a sore hamstring) to return to practice Friday. Both backs are in line to play Sunday night in a big divisional matchup in Dallas.
Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders: In what now sounds like a broken record, McFadden is still not practicing with the team. Even Raiders coach Hue Jackson seemed at a loss for words on the subject Wednesday when he told reporters he has given up on guessing when any of his injured star players will return. Expect McFadden to be out again in Week 14, with Michael Bush continuing to carry the load.
James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers: Starks aggravated his ankle injury yet again in Week 13 and this time it looks as if he will be forced to miss a game. Starks has not practiced this week but still has a shot to return to practice Friday, although that appears unlikely. If he does not practice Friday, it is expected he will sit Sunday.
Willis McGahee, RB, Denver Broncos: McGahee did not practice Wednesday or Thursday but has told reporters he plans to play. He was listed on the injury report because of his knee, but there has been no news of anything new and significant. Recently, McGahee has dealt with a strained hamstring (the result of hyperextending his knee) along with hand surgery to address a fractured metacarpal (long bone of the hand). He has been remarkably resilient, missing only one game and has performed well since suffering those injuries, including rushing for more than 100 yards rushing last week. The rest during the week may go a long way towards helping him perform on Sundays. Barring a surprise, McGahee is expected to face the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints: Ingram has a case of turf toe (injury to the ligaments anchoring the big toe at the ball of the foot), which has kept him off the practice field this week. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Ingram's toe injury appears to be mild, but Ingram says he will let what's in the best interest of the team take precedence. "If I feel like I can bring my best to the table, I'm gonna go," Ingram said. "If I can't, I'll sit if that's what's best for the team. But I always wanna try to go." The Saints are in a much better position with the overall health of their running backs now compared to the same time last year. Chris Ivory hasn't been active recently only because he's the fourth guy in a stable of healthy backs. If Ingram does not go -- and at this point it would not be surprising if the Saints rested him with the playoffs looming -- then Ivory will likely take his place.
Here is a list of several key fantasy players who were back in the mix by Thursday.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Peterson has now been out of commission for two games since suffering a left high-ankle sprain and the question now is whether he will miss his third game Sunday. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Peterson rated himself at 70 percent health early in the week, yet is eager to show he can play. As much as fantasy owners would love to have him available for their playoffs, most would agree his long-term health is the primary concern, and it only makes sense the Vikings would see it the same way. Peterson said he would know after testing the ankle running and cutting whether he would be able to play. The first step in that direction came Thursday when he returned to doing individual drills in practice, including making some cuts. How Peterson's ankle responds to the increased activity will be critical and whether he can put in back-to-back practice workouts may prove the determining factor. The progress is encouraging, but the decision to play has not been made as of yet.
Michael Vick, QB and Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Vick has missed three games with two broken ribs but can now throw the football without cringing. Vick graduated from throwing the football Monday to returning to full practice, and he plans to start Sunday. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Vick insists he plans to alter his style to slide more and avoid some contact, but that is no guarantee of avoiding a setback. After all, this latest rib injury happened in the pocket when Vick was hit as he threw the ball. Vick's fantasy value has come largely in the form of supplementing his throwing yards with plays made on his feet, so it will be interesting to see how this new strategy shakes out. The first step is getting him back under center, though, and it appears that will happen in Week 14. Meanwhile, teammate Maclin may join Vick on Sunday if he continues to feel as he did Thursday. Maclin has now put in back-to-back practices, an important step after last week's practice attempt resulted in a setback with his hamstring. The concern naturally will be if Maclin has not tested the leg at full speed whether he can survive a game situation without the threat of re-injury.
Miles Austin, WR, Dallas Cowboys: After missing four games with his second hamstring injury of the season, Austin now appears on track to rejoin his team. Austin returned to route running last week, but given his health challenges thus far, the team was not going to force him back into service too soon. Not to mention, teammate Laurent Robinson has been filling in more than ably in his absence. However, Robinson has a mild shoulder separation, which he suffered but played through last week. He has not practiced yet this week but maintains he will play on Sunday. This week Austin returned to practice on a limited basis and, barring a setback, he is expected to return. The Cowboys tentatively expect to have both receivers available Sunday night but how the workload will be divided is unclear.
Mario Manningham, WR, New York Giants: Manningham sounded discouraged about the status of his knee last week, even hinting at a possible early end to his season. Well, things are looking up in Week 14, as Manningham has been able to practice on a limited basis for two days. While he is no lock to play Sunday night, coach Tom Coughlin sounded encouraged saying Manningham looked "good, sharp, quick," according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. Stay tuned, but it looks as if Manningham has a chance to be on the field against the Dallas Cowboys. Manningham's knee will likely not be fully healthy again this season and he may yet need surgery once the season is over, but the key question has been whether the swelling would be manageable enough to allow him to continue.
Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Freeman sat out the Week 13 contest after injuring his shoulder late in the game one week earlier. Freeman reportedly suffered no major injury other than bruising in the shoulder, but acknowledged that it was extremely painful even at rest. The rest appears to have paid off, however, as Freeman's pain eased up, his range of motion has improved and he returned to limited practice this week. On Wednesday, Freeman only did light throwing with backup Josh Johnson handling most of the reps with the first team. On Thursday, the Tampa Tribune reported Freeman was back "making all the throws" in practice, a somewhat stronger indication that he is likely to start Sunday.
See you at the injury chat Friday at 10 a.m. and we'll have the latest injury updates affecting Week 14 in Saturday's blog!