1. Chris Johnson — Good luck trying to solve this mystery on a weekly basis. After three putrid games to open the season, Johnson erupted for 141 rushing yards against a good Houston defense in Week Four. He went back into the tank the following weekend against the Vikings, and few fantasy owners had any hope that he would be able to do any business against the Steelers in Week Six. But Johnson carried 19 times for 91 yards in Tennessee’s 26-23 upset of Pittsburgh and added 23 receiving yards in a surprisingly successful outing (though some would argue that he left a lot of yardage on the table in that game). Johnson will now face a Buffalo defense that ranks dead last against the run, is giving up a whopping 5.8 yards per carry, and just managed to make RB William Powell and the Arizona running game look respectable. The range of possibilities for C.J. in this game is wide. He could run for 175 yards and his first touchdown of the season, or he could carry 15 times for 17 yards. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen.
2. Robert Griffin III — Guess he’s OK, huh? Perhaps the Redskins’ diagnosis that RG3 was merely “shaken up” against the Falcons the previous week wasn’t so silly after all. Nah … it was still an asinine way to describe a concussion. But Griffin was back to being his typically dynamic self in Washington’s 38-26 win over the Vikings, completing 17-of-22 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown, and running 13 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns, including a 76-yarder on which he did his best Usain Bolt impersonation. RG3 now faces a challenging road test against the Giants and their formidable collection of pass rushers, led by DE Jason Pierre-Paul.
3. Josh Gordon — Back in mid-July, before training camps opened, the Browns’ selection of Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft captured the attention of diehard NFL junkies and drew an avalanche of Twitter analysis from fantasy football experts because … well, because there was little other football news to analyze at the time. Fast-forward three months, and Gordon is now proving himself worthy of all that summer attention. He’s turning into a big-play specialist for Cleveland, with 181 receiving yards and three TDs in his last two games, including scores of 62 and 71 yards. With only 12 catches thus far, Gordon hasn’t exactly been a high-volume receiver, but he’s substituting quality for quantity by gaining 22.8 yards per catch. Browns QB Brandon Weeden isn’t shy about throwing downfield, and Gordon is establishing himself as Weeden’s favorite deep guy. With a paucity of decent pass-catching options at Weeden’s disposal, Gordon could be close to emerging as Cleveland’s primary receiver. We could see his role expand when the Browns travel to Indianapolis this week for a winnable game against the Colts.
4. Felix Jones — When starter DeMarco Murray sustained a foot injury against the Ravens last week, the Cowboys dusted off the oft-maligned Jones, and he picked up where Murray had left off, successfully gashing the once-formidable Baltimore defense. Murray ran 14 times for 93 yards. Jones ran 18 times for 92 yards, including a 22-yard TD run, his first rushing touchdown since Week One … of last season. It looks as if Murray is going to be out for at least a game or two, so Jones is suddenly a hot fantasy property in a week with six teams on bye. He gets to face a soft Carolina defense that ranks 23rd against the run and is yielding 4.4 yards per carry.
5. Arian Foster — With a pair of short TD runs against Green Bay last week, Foster now has eight touchdowns and has scored in every game. But the goal-line touchdowns aside, Foster was surprisingly impotent against the Packers, rushing 17 times for 29 yards. He didn’t have a single run of more than five yards. But surely no one expects the NFL’s premier running back to go into a Chris Johnson-esque nosedive, and Foster’s matchup against the Ravens this weekend suddenly looks downright inviting. Baltimore was steamrolled last week by a Dallas running game that had been ailing, and now the Ravens will be without their spiritual leader, LB Ray Lewis, who’s on injured reserve after tearing his triceps.
6. Matthew Stafford — We’re still waiting for Stafford to throw multiple TD passes in a single game this season, and if NFL games ended after three periods NHL-style, Stafford’s year would qualify as an unmitigated disaster. The Lions’ quarterback has struggled early in games only to meet fantasy quotas with a barrage of late-game completions — all four of his TD passes and 48 percent of his passing yards have come in the fourth quarter. On the bright side, Stafford has been chucking it with abandon: He’s averaging 43.6 passing attempts, ranking third in that category behind only Drew Brees and Andrew Luck. Expect Stafford to keep on winging it Sunday night in Chicago, as the Bears boast the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, and the Lions aren’t particularly committed to their running game anyway. But Chicago has only allowed five TD passes this season, so this might not be the week that Stafford ends his TD drought.
7. Frank Gore — Last week was a disappointing one for Gore, who carried only eight times for 36 yards in the 49ers’ 26-3 home loss to the Giants. Carries may be more plentiful this week, but resistance will be heavy as Gore and the Niners host a Thursday-night NFC West showdown against the Seahawks, who rank second in the league against the run. Seattle is allowing only 3.3 yards per carry and has given up just two rushing touchdowns. However, don’t discount the 49ers’ determination to reestablish their running game. The loss to the Giants demonstrated that offensive balance is the salt in San Francisco’s recipe for success, and without it, they won’t be able to coax adequate flavor out of QB Alex Smith.
8. Antonio Brown — If fantasy football is a game of survival, touchdowns are water, and Andre Brown owners are starting to feel parched. It’s downright strange that a receiver as talented as Brown finds his way into the end zone so rarely. He has scored one touchdown in five games this season after scoring only two TDs in 17 games (including Pittsburgh’s loss to Denver in the playoffs) last season. So in his last 22 games covering two years, Brown has 103 receptions but only three TDs. Lately, Brown hasn’t had many big plays of the non-scoring variety either. He’s gaining 11.9 yards per catch this season, with a long gain of 27 yards (in Week One). After last week’s four-catch, 20-yard clunker against Tennessee, Brown will try to bounce back Sunday night when the Steelers face the Bengals in Cincinnati. Brown had seven catches for 153 yards in two games against the Bengals in 2011, but no touchdowns (natch).
9. Drew Brees — Brees hasn’t displayed his typical pinpoint accuracy in the early stages of the season, though fantasy owners aren’t complaining about his overall results. He’s completing 58.9 percent of his throws, well below his career rate of 65.7 percent. But Brees has 14 TD passes this season, he has thrown for at least 300 yards in all but one of his first five games, and he has rung up 1,720 passing yards so far, putting him on pace for a second consecutive season with more than 5,000 yards. Brees has been lethal in recent outings, with 816 passing yards in his last two games and 10 TD passes in his last three. But did a Week Six bye cool him off? Don’t bet on it. With an extra week of prep time under his belt, Brees draws a Week Seven matchup against the Buccaneers in Tampa. The Bucs are allowing 312.2 passing yards per game, and Brees lit them up for 641 passing yards (but only three TDs) in a pair of games last season.
10. Hakeem Nicks — Nicks had a quiet day in his first game back from knee and foot injuries that had sidelined him for three weeks, catching three passes for 44 yards in the Giants’ 26-3 win over the 49ers. But the Giants built a big lead and didn’t throw much in the second half, so Nicks owners needn’t be especially concerned. The big receiver has an attractive matchup this weekend against the Redskins, who rank dead last in pass defense, giving up 328.3 passing yards per game. In two games against the ’Skins last year, Nicks had 12 catches for 195 yards.