Broncos QB Peyton Manning passed for 253 yards and two second-half touchdowns on Sunday, his first bout of official NFL action in 20-plus months (neck injury).
To kick off another season of Sunday fantasy revelations, here are 10 AFC-based observations from a crazy Week 1:
1. Peyton Manning needed only one game to reclaim his spot among fantasy's top 10 quarterbacks.
A quick glance at the Sunday box score details how Manning (253 yards passing, two TD) fell short of my QB-elite threshold of 275 total yards or three touchdowns. And yet, a promotion is still in order.
Peyton's pedestrian preseason ranking (No. 11) was never a referendum of his talent or age (36). It was a legitimate concern about Manning not yet having the requisite arm strength, durability and/or stamina to direct an offense in high altitude for four quarters—just months removed from four separate surgeries on his ailing neck.
But Manning passed all the arbitrary tests with flying colors, connecting with Demaryius Thomas (110 yards, one TD) and Eric Decker throughout the evening and helping the Broncos collect the vast majority of their 346 total yards in no-huddle or four-minute-offense situations. For an opening act, for an event that ended Manning's 20-month dry spell of official NFL action, it was a superb performance.
And for that, Manning has crept back into the top 10 players of his position, displacing former division rival Matt Schaub for the final spot.
2. Andre Johnson is still the Andre Johnson you loved back in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
There may be little defense for the argument that Andre Johnson is prone to injury at age 31—especially in the realm of hamstring maladies. But there's also no finding fault with the following stats.
Extrapolating Johnson's per-game averages over the 2010 and '11 seasons (20 games total), it would result in 96 catches, 1,366 yards and eight TDs for the 2012 season. And in his five healthiest games last year (Weeks 1-3 and Houston's two playoff games), Johnson caught 34 balls on 56 targets for 517 yards and three touchdowns—with per-outing averages of 11.1 targets, 6.9 receptions, 103.4 yards and 0.6 TDs.
The clear message: When healthy, Johnson is still a top-five receiver in standard-scoring situations. And for those in points-per-reception leagues, Johnson's eight catches, 119 yards, one touchdown and 10 targets from Sunday were remarkably similar to games from the glorious 2008-10 seasons—when Johnson was essentially a lock for double-digit targets, triple-digit yards and 0.7 touchdowns every week.
You know who else is still a fantasy machine with the Texans? Arian Foster. The same Foster who was universally hailed as the No. 1 player heading into the season (although I had him No. 2, behind LeSean McCoy). The same Foster who amassed 75 total yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins.
The same Foster who inexplicably rode the pine in a few fantasy leagues for Week 1...because his owners were scared off by a random report of knee soreness during midweek practices.
Bottom line: If you cannot find a way to squeeze a reasonably healthy Foster (probable or questionable on injury report) into your starting lineup for 16 weeks, do yourself a favor and auction him off right away, via trade. A player of Foster's elite-level caliber brings no value to a fantasy bench.
3. There shall be no plausible excuses for benching Reggie Wayne in PPR leagues this season.
Wayne deserved a badge of honor (or something like that) for keeping his sanity in 2011, a miserable Colts season that didn't include one Peyton Manning snap...but 534 pass attempts from the unfortunate trio of Dan Orlovsky, Curtis Painter and Kerry Collins.
Yes, Wayne encountered a significant reduction in catches (75), receiving yards (960), touchdowns (four) and targets (132) last year, compared to 2010, but I'll take the sunny side of that factoid.
Wayne's rock-solid finish of 16 catches, 25 targets, 179 yards and one touchdown last December (Weeks 16 and 17) was enough to indicate a return to elite form in 2012—especially with Andrew Luck now running the show in Indy.
In Sunday's defeat at Chicago, Wayne collected nine catches and 135 yards and was targeted an NFL-high 18 times—or 40 percent of Luck's 45 pass attempts.
NFL history will remember this game for Luck's passable numbers (309 yards passing, one TD) or even rookie tight end Coby Fleener's mini-breakout (six catches, 10 targets, 82 yards). But to me, it was sweet confirmation of how Wayne is once again a comfortable lock for 85 catches and 1,000 yards in a stable Colts offense.
4. Chris Johnson gets a probationary "free pass" for his mediocre outing against the Pats.
In fairness to Johnson (51 total yards on Sunday), the Titans were down 21-3 at halftime and essentially had to abandon the running game in the second half.
In fairness to Tennessee's offensive coaches, they had every right to expect more than four rushing yards (on 11 carries) from their biggest star, while playing against one of the NFL's highest-profile clubs at home.
In fairness to CJ2K fantasy owners, I have no reassuring words to talk you off that proverbial ledge, other than saying Johnson should have wider rushing lanes for Week 2, when receiver Kenny Britt (271 yards, three TDs in Weeks 1 and 2 last year) returns from suspension and marks his official comeback from a major knee injury (last September).
If you want to explore the notion of immediately trading Johnson, presumably at full value, that's fine.
If you've already lost hope that neither QBs Jake Locker (229 yards passing, one TD) nor Matt Hasselbeck (filled in for the injured Locker) are proficient enough to keep opposing defenders off balance and honest, that's fine.
And if you're worried that Britt, Nate Washington (two catches, 53 yards, one TD) and tight end Jared Cook (four catches, 64 yards) may end up stealing a good chunk of Johnson's red-zone opportunities this season...that's fine, too.
But I cannot waver from my hubris-based prediction of 1,700 total yards by season's end.
5. Stevan Ridley merits your full attention in trade circles.
So, this is where we are with the high-powered Patriots—precious Revelations space devoted to a running back?
To the untrained eye, this stanza seems like a ho-hum response to the fantastic fantasy exploits of QB Tom Brady (236 yards, two TD, one bloodied nose), wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (five catches, 69 yards, team-high eight targets) and tight ends Rob Gronkowski (six catches, 60 yards, one TD) and Aaron Hernandez (six catches, 59 yards, one TD).
But what did you expect from this group, which is now taking direction from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels?
That aside, Ridley deserves every bit of his top billing from Sunday, when he notched 152 yards (127 rushing) and one touchdown. And of the 23 touches, I cannot recall many instances when the first would-be Titans tackler pulled Ridley down, without incident.
To say that Ridley could be New England's next great fantasy back—off one stellar game—is a tad presumptuous and misleading. After all, the Patriots have scored 17-plus rushing touchdowns in each of the last six full seasons (thanks to Fantasy Football Index for that incredible stat).
But Ridley is certainly worth his fantasy weight in gold from this point forward, as an RB2 or favored-nation flex play in 12-team leagues.
6. C.J. Spiller didn't need no stinking garbage time to pile up monster fantasy numbers.
Forgive the slang-based, double-negative tribute to Sierra Madre. It was a fitting way to describe C.J. Spiller's sublime output against the Jets—169 rushing yards, one touchdown and two catches for 25 yards.
In one of the most forgettable outings in Bills history—at least of the last 20 years—Spiller was the only Buffalo beacon who didn't resemble a lifeless statue before the outcome was truly in doubt. Granted, he only garnered full-time touches after Fred Jackson went down with a leg injury, but Spiller's single-game greatness won't be accompanied by a footnote-worthy asterisk, either.
That honor goes to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who orchestrated three scoring drives, including touchdown receptions to Steve Johnson, Scott Chandler and Donald Jones, after the Jets sprinted to a 41-7 advantage.
Therein lies the beauty of fantasy football: Ryan Fitzpatrick (195 yards passing, three TD, three INT) might have been the worst thing going for Week 1 (in the entire NFL), but that late flurry of touchdowns—albeit meaningless in real-world circles—likely cemented his standing as a top-20 quarterback heading into Week 2.
Maybe he'll even get a handful of starts at home next week—against an injury-ravaged defense (Chiefs) that's not always keen on touting its own offensive stars.
7. It's OK to feel skittish about Jamaal Charles' PPR prospects.
The Chiefs aren't good enough to survive a game against a high-flying opponent—like the Falcons—when Jamaal Charles (16 carries for 87 yards) and receiver Dwayne Bowe (three catches, six targets, 53 yards) garner fewer than 20 combined touches.
By extension, it's tough for fantasy owners to claim victory in most weeks when Kansas City chooses not to ride Charles (first game back from ACL tear) in the passing game. Yes, I know hybrid back Dexter McCluster registered six catches and 82 yards, but how does Charles (1,935 total yards in 2010) go an entire afternoon without one receiving target—especially with Matt Cassel (278 total yards, one TD) at quarterback?
Obviously, it's too early to make definitive judgments about the Chiefs offense, just one game into the Charles/McCluster/Peyton Hillis experiment in the backfield. But I bet we'll see a greater commitment to Charles, Bowe and Hillis (24 total yards on 10 touches) in the coming weeks.
They're simply too gifted to be long-term window dressing for Shaun Draughn and Kevin Boss.
8. Stephen Hill may have morphed from fantasy "afterthought" to "overhyped" asset in a New York minute.
I am genuinely shocked that others were genuinely shocked over Mark Sanchez's excellent outing against the Bills (266 yards passing, three TD, one INT).
After all, the man accounted for 32 touchdowns last season (six rushing) without the assistance of a vibrant receiving corps (minus the always-underrated Santonio Holmes)...or an extremely average backup quarterback pushing him for starter's reps this summer.
(In one hand, we have a strong-armed, pocket-friendly passer and his 32 touchdowns. In the other, a guy who tallied four games of nine or fewer completions with Denver last year.)
But enough about quarterback debates that seemingly never end, despite having a clear winner.
On Sunday, rookie receiver Stephen Hill (five catches, 89 yards, two TD) wasted little time in announcing his NFL presence with authority, beating the Bills defenders down the field—or across it—for a pair of scores. For someone of Hill's supreme but raw physical gifts, this outing may have accelerated his development curve in fantasy circles.
Of equal relevance, it may have heightened Hill's level of seasonal expectations with a notoriously patient fanbase (sic) in the New York/New Jersey area.
Is Hill a stronger fantasy play than Holmes (four catches, eight targets, 68 yards vs. Buffalo), Jets tailback Shonn Greene (94 rushing yards, one TD) or teammate Dustin Keller? Probably not. Is he a better waiver-wire pickup than Cowboys receiver Kevin Ogletree (eight catches, 114 yards, two TD against the Giants) this week? At this juncture...probably not, as well.
But the lightning-fast Hill is certainly an intriguing Plan B for fantasy owners—just like Sanchez has once again become in the land of fantasy backups.
9. Maybe Maurice Jones-Drew didn't require training camp to be in rushing-king shape.
Leading up to NFL Week 1, I got the sense most fantasy owners were inclined to wait one or two games before committing to Jones-Drew (38-day contract holdout during preseason) as an RB1 or RB2 in 12-team leagues. Well, even if Rashad Jennings' knee injury isn't of a serious nature, the Jaguars should still have no restrictions for MJD (95 total yards vs. Minnesota) next week against the Texans at home.
Yes, Blaine Gabbert (260 yards passing, two TDs) finally resembled a first-round commodity, and Laurent Robinson (five catches, 66 yards, club-high nine targets) and rookie Justin Blackmon (three catches, 24 yards) serve as big-time upgrades at receiver for the Jaguars.
But the ultimate success (or failure) of the Jacksonville offense still runs through Jones-Drew, the NFL's reigning rushing king—even on days when he may not be ready for that physical challenge.
10. Antonio Brown can only carry fantasy owners so far with his between-the-20s receiving prowess.
I have no complaints about Brown's four catches and 74 yards against the Broncos. The quick math extrapolates to 64 catches and 1,184 yards by season's end.
But Sunday's effort did reiterate one notable gripe about this under-25 dynamo with great hands and extraordinary speed: He doesn't score touchdowns—and in standard-scoring leagues, that's a problem.
Yes, Brown incurred a serious jump in targets, receptions and receiving yards last season, compared to 2010. And yes, he's probably far from fully developed as a Steelers wideout.
But in a Pittsburgh-Denver clash that could have major AFC playoff implications come January, Steelers tight end Heath Miller (four catches, 50 yards, one TD) and receiver Mike Wallace (four catches, 37 yards, one TD) were more viable options for QB Ben Roethlisberger (249 total yards, two TD) in the red zone.
And Wallace (contract holdout) didn't have the luxury of one preseason snap—or ample practice time during training camp—to get acclimated to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's complex schemes.
For PPR owners, it's probably not a big deal that Brown only has two touchdowns in 26 NFL games. But for the rest of us, it's a dicey problem to encounter at the flex spot, week after week.
Jay Clemons can be reached on Twitter, day or night, at @ATL_JayClemons.