We are officially past the NFL's midseason point and heading into the fantasy stretch run, but this football campaign continues to show us it is still anyone's game.
Andre Ellington, Marvin Jones and Kenny Stills might not have been drafted in your leagues, but they are carrying fantasy teams right now.
Football is a game of redemption, so unless you're 2-6, you have to feel like you can find the next big thing off the scrap heap—or hope for a rebound from your star like Calvin Johnson had in Week 8—and make a run.
Let's pontificate on the biggest fantasy takeaways from another strange Sunday around the league.
1. Cards' Ellington is an ace
Bruce Arians needs to stop being worried about the stature of his star rookie out of Clemson, Andre Ellington. With Rashard Mendenhall out with an injured toe, Ellington carried the load against the Falcons and broke out with 154 yards and a touchdown.
In a season of disappointing fantasy running backs, Ellington is giving the position some hope. Bruce Arians would not commit to Ellington as his starter going forward, according to AZCardinals.com's Kyle Odegard, telling the team's official website:
I've got to go back and see how many snaps he really played, but it was about probably the same: probably 35-40. He scared me one time when he went down. We tried to keep him in space as much as possible.
Mendenhall is not likely to give up the starting role, or the short-yardage job, which fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor took on Sunday with 14 carries for 38 yards. Ellington would not be surprised to remain a change-of-pace guy.
"Not at all," Ellington told Odegard. "Rashard, he's our bell cow. He's our leader in the room. This guy earned that respect. I’m waiting for him to get healthy and get out there and make plays."
Ellington is being a good team guy and saying the right things, but Arians needs to step in and make Mendenhall Arizona's change-of-pace back. The Cardinals are in much more capable hands with Ellington carrying the ball a majority of the time.
The Cardinals head into their bye in Week 9, but they will come out of it facing some of the worst run defenses in the NFL. Week 10 versus Houston (27th), Week 11 at Jacksonville (32nd), Week 12 versus Indianapolis (28th), Week 13 at Philadelphia (10th), Week 14 versus St. Louis (30th) and Week 15 at Tennessee (23rd) are all favorable matchups before the Cardinals finish with the 49ers and Seahawks.
Ellington could be making a run for Rookie of the Year honors. Consider him a must-have in the second half of the season.
2. Brady is not himself
We have been bullish on the Pats' Tom Brady in fantasy, but even the returns of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola could not ignite him on Sunday as Brady slumped to just 116 yards passing against the Dolphins for his worst performance since 2009.
Only a few times in his career has Brady been worse than he was on Sunday—76 yards versus Miami in 2004, 78 yards versus Miami in 2006 and 115 yards versus Buffalo in 2009, according to The Boston Globe's Ben Volin, who intimates there is something wrong with Brady's throwing hand, "specifically his middle or ring finger."
Volin also reported that former Pats quarterback Scott Zolak said during the team's radio broadcast of the game, "It's got to be affecting his play. There's more to this Brady hand thing than we'll ever know."
The Pats are notoriously secretive on injuries, particularly as they pertain to their premier players. We likely cannot trust Brady or anything we get out of the Pats passing game in the near future.
Austin Collie agreed with Volin, saying something is hampering Brady more than mere lack of continuity with his receiving corps:
I think there's a difference between being injured and being hurt. No one in this league feels 100 percent healthy. You're going to get banged up. But the guy, he definitely has some grit. With the injury that he has, and to make some of the throws he made today was pretty impressive.
The Pats have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL with Pittsburgh next up on the schedule. The Steelers are consistently one of the best teams in fantasy against quarterbacks. You might have to sit Brady and his fringe fantasy targets in Week 9.
3. Bengals' Jones stealing the show
Chalk the Bengals' Marvin Jones up as the wide receiver version of Ellington. Jones is a second-year player and plays second fiddle to A.J. Green, but he needs to be considered a first-rate fantasy option going forward.
Available in more than 60 percent of CBS Sports leagues, Jones is a must-add after his four-touchdown breakthrough against the Jets on Sunday. He finished with eight catches for 122 yards, beating some solid Jets corners in single coverage opposite Green.
"It's fun when the offense is clicking," Jones told Coley Harvey of ESPN after his career-best performance. Andy (Dalton) did a great job distributing the ball, and it was great play calling. (Dalton) definitely trusts us, and it shows in the distribution."
The Dolphins, who the Bengals play next, finally allowed a touchdown pass to a wide receiver with New England's Aaron Dobson on Sunday for their first of the season, which is tops in fantasy. However, Jones is too hot to pass up right now, particularly with all of the injuries and the six byes that will plague fantasy lineups again in Week 9.
Jones is a must-start option for Thursday's night contest in Miami, regardless of the difficulty that the Dolphins secondary presents.
4. Dalton has arrived as a fantasy star
Few could have seen this coming for a Bengals team that was supposedly designed to play defense and pound the ball on the ground, but Dalton has become a fantasy monster. He has posted 325-plus yards and three-plus touchdowns in each of his past three games for fantasy MVP numbers.
A mere third of CBS Sports leagues had him active for this week, too.
Dalton has a slew of weapons to play off Green right now, including Jones and the combination of tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. We should even expect Mohamed Sanu to get more involved down the stretch, too.
The personnel that we have, and the different looks that we're getting with formations and the different things that we're doing, a bunch of guys are going to get involved in this offense. That's big for us. Everybody's going to know where A.J. is, but these other guys have to step up and make plays, and that's what they've done. It's been a lot of fun for me, just to be able to spread the ball around and have trust and confidence in the guys that they're going to be in the right spots.
Again, the Dolphins are not an overly favorable matchup on the road Thursday night, but Dalton is too hot to ignore.
5. Eagles' Vick felt a "pop"
Michael Vick tried to return before he was 100 percent, and now it might have cost him some more games for fantasy owners.
He left Sunday's game against the Giants in the first quarter after reinjuring his hamstring, leaving the Eagles to turn to rookie Matt Barkley as their quarterback the rest of the way. Nick Foles (concussion) was inactive for the game.
"I felt the same feeling that I had the first time," Vick told ESPN's Phil Sheridan. "I don't think it's as bad, but it did pop again. ... I've never had a hamstring injury this bad."
You will need to consider Foles in fantasy once again (ignore Barkley outside of two-quarterback formats). This has the makings of a multiple-week absence for Vick.
The Eagles, at the very least, won't rush him back next time. Vick told Sheridan:
I really can't say if I should have or shouldn't have played. I felt good going in. I felt like I did everything that I was supposed to do to reassure myself that I could go out and play. There's just nothing like actually being in the moment and having to move and having to react. I tested it plenty of times, but there's no simulation for guys coming at you, going to hit you.
6. Stills (and Moore) making an impact
Jimmy Graham's foot injury issues were supposed to help Marques Colston re-emerge as a fantasy star. Instead, Colston was held to another stinker (three catches for 18 yards), while rookie Kenny Stills (three catches for 129 yards) and veteran Lance Moore (three catches for 34 yards) each reached the end zone, with Stills scoring twice.
Stills is looking so good now that we might consider him the Saints' No. 1 fantasy wide receiver, even over Colston. His week-to-week consistency is what has impressed Saints coach Sean Payton, who told The Times' Nick Fontenot:
Some guys have a knack for that type of play. He has been consistent for a rookie. He is very smart and he has been at the tail end of a lot of big plays now. We've seen him get behind defenses and we have seen him make plays where he is equal. I think that consistency is important.
Stills, owned in just 12 percent of CBS Sports leagues, has three touchdowns in his past two games. Even Moore is a viable option in fantasy going forward, especially with Graham at something less than 100 percent and Colston almost a non-factor right now.
7. Welcome back, Run DMc
Yours truly needs to give up on calling the Steelers run defense an unfavorable matchup. Even Raiders running back Darren McFadden can find the end zone against them. McFadden's 24 carries for 73 yards on Sunday look a lot better for fantasy owners when they are topped with his two rushing touchdowns.
CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reports that McFadden is among the running backs being bandied about for a trade, but regardless of the rumors of McFadden being on the trade block in a contract year, you have to like the revival of McFadden—and Oakland—in fantasy.
A trade would only do McFadden good in fantasy terms. Heck, you might not even mind him remaining the main man in Oakland now either.
8. Broncos stay hot, but saying "ankle"
The Week 9 bye comes at a perfect time for Peyton Manning and Julius Thomas. Both are dealing with ankle injuries. Manning played through his on Sunday against the Redskins, but Thomas had his ankle twisted on a tackle and did not return to the game.
Vic Lombardi of CBS4 in Denver tweets:
Thomas himself is hoping to avoid a serious diagnosis, tweeting:
The silver lining here is that you would have had to find a tight end replacement for Thomas in Week 9 anyway.
9. Falcons' downward spiral continues
Matt Ryan was atrociously bad for fantasy owners on Sunday, throwing four interceptions. He got no help from the return of Steven Jackson (hamstring) and the running game either, as Jackson was stuffed for just six yards on 11 carries.
As tough as the Cardinals looked against the Falcons on Sunday, Arizona's next task will be tougher in facing the Panthers, who will have 10 days to prepare. The Panthers have one of the best defenses in the NFL right now. You have to be wary of all of your Falcons, particularly if Roddy White (ankle/hamstring) remains out.
10. Toughest bye week looms
As tough as Week 8 was with injury and byes, the worst is to come in Week 9. Six teams will be idle, and they are ones packed with fantasy options. Here are the players you will have to replace off waivers and in lineups in the coming days, team-by-team:
- Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning, Knowshon Moreno, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Matt Prater and the Broncos D/ST
- San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Phil Dawson and the 49ers D/ST
- New York Giants: Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Peyton Hillis, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Rueben Randle, Brandon Myers and Josh Brown
- Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Calvin Johnson and David Akers
- Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer, Andre Ellington, Rashard Mendenhall, Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and the Cardinals D/ST
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts
The good news is we get the likes of these stars back, by position:
- Andrew Luck
- Philip Rivers
- Jake Locker
- Joe Flacco
- Case Keenum or Matt Schaub
- Josh McCown
- Arian Foster (maybe/hamstring)
- Matt Forte
- Ray Rice
- Trent Richardson
- Chris Johnson
- Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead
- Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
- Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins
- Torrey Smith
- T.Y. Hilton (also Darrius Heyward-Bey and LaVon Brazill)
- Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown
- Kendall Wright
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game. You can also listen to him on his podcast that he deprecatingly dubbed the Fantasy FatCast.