Twelve years ago, I started playing season-long fantasy football.
Seven years ago, I started taking fantasy football more seriously - actually taking time to research players, make smart decisions, and try to win.
One of those first years when I was paying closer attention, I rode eighth-round pick Jamaal Charles to the playoffs. The Chiefs were awful that year, and all down the stretch, I kept thinking, “I hope they don’t rest Charles over the last few games to keep him healthy for next year.”
That same season, I had Maurice Jones-Drew on my roster. I had the same concerns about him. “If these guys get pushed to the sidelines the last few weeks of the season, I’ll have no chance in my league.”
Then, I realized: What? Teams that are out of the playoff race don’t just randomly sit players down the stretch to “keep them healthy for next year.” Heck, if teams did that, the Jaguars would have been playing second-stringers for about 40% of their games over the last ten years!
This is obvious, if you think about it. And yet, people freak out each year during Weeks 15, 16, and 17 of the NFL season, fearing that every key player is going to be sitting.
Listen: This is not how things work.
With that said, however, there are some teams at risk of resting players this week. And there are some teams that seem to have “checked out” already. These are NFL players, and these are fierce competitors, and every team enters each game with a strong desire to win, but if players do not practice during the week with that “strong desire to win,” they are far more likely to come out flat on Sunday. We have a few teams at serious risk of doing that.
And so, I am going to step away from all the noise.
Come on - step away with me.
We are going to take a closer look at what each team this week has to play for, and at whether or not any teams are at risk of resting players or being “checked out.”
This will provide a great springboard for your Week 17 FanDuel research - toward what will be your best NFL weekend of the season as you finish things strong.
Jaguars at Texans: The Jaguars have nothing to play for, but they have continued to play hard throughout the NFL season - seemingly showing improvement each week in various facets of the game. The matchup, of course, is a concern, but the fear that the Jags “won’t show up to play” can almost certainly be set aside. The Texans are a curious case. They are probably the AFC South champion even with a loss, as they hold the “strength of schedule” edge over the Colts. I expect the Texans to show up to play - especially as they will have a Wild Card game the next weekend and will want to maintain momentum - but there is certainly some risk that the Texans sit on a lead down the stretch if they jump out in front of the Jags, resting guys in the fourth quarter (or even the second half). This is a risk potentially worth taking in tournaments, as many will be scared off Texans players and Bill O’Brien is the type of coach who could conceivably play his players the whole game even in a meaningless contest, but I would probably stay away in cash games.
Steelers at Browns: The Steelers need a win and a Jets loss to make the playoffs. Because the Steelers are playing at the same time as the Jets, they will not know their fate throughout the game; expect the Steelers to play this game like the do-or-die contest it is. I would fully trust Steelers players this week - with the only caveat, of course, being that they might grab such a big lead against the Browns they do not need to remain aggressive. The Browns players seem to have been reinvigorated by the move to Johnny Manziel, as they can at least feel that their games mean something as they prepare for the future. That does not take away from the fact that the Browns are fundamentally awful, but they should come to play in their last game of the season.
Jets at Bills: The Jets need a win to make the playoffs. On the other side of the ball, the Bills have continued to play hard, and Rex Ryan is unlikely to allow them to let up during practice this week, which means they should come out ready to play on Sunday as well. This is great news for targeting this game, as it should remain competitive throughout (the Jets are currently favored by three on the NFL odds board). The only concern for the Jets is that division games are always tougher to predict, as the two teams know each other so well (just ask the Steelers how their game against the Ravens went…or ask the Seahawks how their game against the Rams went…or ask the Panthers how their game against the Falcons went), but you should be able to fully expect the Jets to come with their best stuff, and for the Bills to counter as best they can.
Patriots at Dolphins: The Patriots need to win this game to gain the number one seed. Let me repeat that: The Patriots need to win this game. There will be a lot of talk this week about “concerns the Patriots will rest players.” They will not. The number one seed in the playoffs is extremely important, and no one knows this better than Bill Belichick. The Patriots need to win this game (whoever wins on Monday Night Football between the Bengals and Broncos will take the number one seed in Week 17 with a win and a Patriots loss), and they will play like a team that needs to win. The Dolphins, on the other hand, are about as “checked out” as I have ever seen a team. If not for this being a division game, I would comfortably predict a massive Patriots blowout. Even with this being a division game, though, I like the Pats - in a “must win” game - to easily smash this team that has been on offseason vacation for weeks.
Titans at Colts: The Titans are pretty checked out as well. This seems to happen when a team is playing under an interim coach who is not expected to be around the next season. I expect a poor effort from them with the head coach of the future still somewhere else and the quarterback of the future on the sideline. Delanie Walker is always a strong play, of course, but in general, I would have a hard time rostering Titans players this week. The Colts theoretically have something to play for, as they could make the playoffs with a win, a Texans loss, and a million other things happening to give them the “strength of schedule” tie-breaker edge, but the Colts have been playing very bad football for a while. If Andrew Luck comes back, there is some defense for going here in tourneys, but in general, I expect the same poorly-functioning Colts team we have seen for a while.
Ravens at Bengals: The Ravens are not a team that lets up - we have been seeing that for weeks, as they have continued to play competitive football in spite of not having Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, or Justin Forsett. The problem, of course, is that they don’t have Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, or Justin Forsett. If the Bengals win on Monday night against the Broncos, they will play to win this game, as they could take down the number one seed with a win and a Patriots loss (though there is some slight risk of the Bengals’ coaches doing some scoreboard watching, and of them pulling players in the third or fourth quarter if the Patriots have a big lead in Miami). If the Bengals lose on Monday Night Football, they could still get a first-round bye with a win and a Broncos loss. Either way, I expect the Bengals to come out to play (though I don’t expect them to rush back Andy Dalton, so take that for what it’s worth).
Redskins at Cowboys: The Redskins are locked into the fourth seed in the playoffs. This means they play a home game in the first week of the playoffs, and I feel they are likelier to get guys healthy before that game than they are to “play to keep momentum.” Regardless of what coaches in D.C. say this week (we may hear some “We are not going to do anything different - we are going to play to win” talk), I would be very cautious with Redskins players. The Cowboys are still playing hard, though they also have Kellen Moore at quarterback, and they may hold Dez Bryant out again in order to have him healthy for next year. I expect the Cowboys to play to win, and I bet they really want to grab a win against their division rival, but I’m not sure that matters a whole lot from a fantasy perspective.
Saints at Falcons: Neither team needs this game, but the Saints have been out of the race for a while and have continued to play hard (heck, Drew Brees played through a torn plantar fascia last week in a meaningless game), and Dan Quinn does not strike me as the type of coach who will allow his team to let up during the last week of the season; I think the Falcons do a good job finishing strong here. There is concern, of course, about the Saints’ struggles away from the Superdome, but I don’t think there will be any “effort” concerns in this one, and I don’t see any risk of any players being rested. Hopefully some DFSers will stay away from this one since it is a meaningless game for each team, and we can get some of these guys at lower ownership.
Lions at Bears: The Lions have - for all intents and purposes - been out of the playoff race for two months, and they have gone 5-2 during that span. They are playing like a team building toward a competitive season next year, and I think they come out playing well in this one yet again. I don’t expect their deployment of players to change at all (i.e., they’re not suddenly going to give Ameer Abdullah a full workload to build toward next year), but we can expect them to continue along the path they have been on thus far. The Bears have also continued to play hard, though I don’t expect them to push players who are injured. If Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte miss Week 17, there will be some great opportunities available for other players; if those guys play, I would probably stay away from them due to concerns over workload as each guy heads into free agency. My hope is that the Bears try to play this game with their offense as it will look next year (with Jay Cutler, Jeremy Langford, and Zach Miller being focal points - and with Alshon and Forte kept out of action), but if Alshon and Forte take the field, I’ll probably have to stay away completely.
Eagles at Giants: Neither team is playing for anything in this one, but I expect each team to finish strongly. Each of Chip Kelly and Tom Coughlin is the type of coach who brings it each day and pushes his players to bring it each day as well. These are not good teams, but this could very well be a good game for fantasy purposes - with a pair of bad defenses, and a pair of talented offenses, in a game each team will want to win in order to finish strongly.
Rams at 49ers: The Rams are working to get back to Jeff Fisher’s comfort zone of 8-8. They have continued to play hard, while continuing to have very little talent on the offensive side of the ball. The 49ers have also continued to play hard, though the spark they seemed to gain from the early days of Blaine Gabbert wore off a while ago, and they are now nothing more than a team with little talent that is still trying to win games. In theory, this is a sneaky spot for fantasy goodness, as each team should be playing hard in a game most will overlook, but the Rams generally play much worse on the road and the 49ers have played much better at home, so tread carefully.
Buccaneers at Panthers: The Bucs have nothing to play for, though that does not matter, as they are a team in development, and they have continued to play to win all season long. What matters more, in this one, is that they are playing the Panthers, which is a tough path to fantasy relevance. I have seen a lot of talk already expressing fear that the Panthers will rest players, but the Panthers need this game in the same way the Patriots need their game. With a win, the Panthers lock up the number one seed. With a loss and a Cardinals win, the Panthers would fall to the number two seed. This makes the Panthers a great spot for fantasy goodness, as plenty of people will move away from them, making the upside of guys like Cam Newton, Ted Ginn, and Greg Olsen well worth rostering.
Raiders at Chiefs: The Raiders have nothing to play for, but they do have a very strong core of players that will be together again next year, and they can definitely be expected to finish strong under Jack Del Rio. The matchup against the Chiefs, however, is an issue. The Chiefs are another team over whom I have seen concerns that they will rest players. The Chiefs, however, still have a shot at a division title - and a home playoff game - with a win and a Broncos loss on Monday Night Football or in Week 17 against the Chargers. Because nothing will be settled until the Chiefs game wraps up, I expect them to come out to play - with all their starters on the field. The only concern will come into play if the Broncos win on Monday night and then grab a big lead on Sunday against the Chargers. If this happens (much like the scenario with the Bengals), the Chiefs could rest players down the stretch of the game if the coaches are scoreboard-watching. If the Broncos lose on Monday Night Football, the Chiefs are strong plays in cash games and tourneys; if the Broncos win on Monday night, the Chiefs are still strong plays in tourneys, as many people will stay away, and the greatest likelihood is that the Chiefs play hard all game.
Chargers at Broncos: The Chargers, of course, have nothing to play for, but they have continued to play competitive football…or, at least, they have continued to play as competitively as their talent deficiencies allow. The Broncos will have something to play for no matter what, as regardless of what happens on Monday Night Football and regardless of what happens with the Patriots and Bengals in the early games, the Broncos will need a win in order to ensure their division title (if they win on Monday night, they could still win the division with a loss and a Chiefs loss, but because the Chiefs are playing at the same time as them, they still need to come out to win this game).
Seahawks at Cardinals: The Seahawks do not strike me as the type of team that would take a week off, but they also have nothing to play for, making them a risky bet. Sure, they would like to win and have a shot to take on the Redskins in D.C. in the first round, rather than having to travel to Green Bay or Minnesota, but ultimately, this game means nothing for them, and they are guaranteed to be hitting the road a week later for a playoff game. This makes them an extremely risky bet from a fantasy perspective, as they are at risk of resting key players down the stretch in this game or taking a very cautious approach with any players who happen to get nicked up in this one. The Cardinals, on the other hand, still have a shot at the number one seed in the unlikely event the Panthers fall to the Bucs. Because the Panthers game is scheduled at the same time as the Cardinals’ game, the Cardinals will be coming to play in this one, as they aim to keep momentum and aim to take down the number one seed.
Side note: When we speak of teams “resting players,” we need to also remember that there are only 46 players active on the day of a game. In other words: most key players will be playing, and matchups do not change a ton for the opposing team. Don’t expect “Seahawks Defense” to suddenly be an easy matchup for the Cardinals just because the Seahawks might rest some players toward the end of the game; the Cardinals are as matchup-proof as things come and their offense is still full of potentially solid plays, but just realize that this will still be pretty much a full-strength Seahawks Defense, even if the Seahawks decide to take a cautious approach in a pretty meaningless game.
Vikings at Packers: Home games matter in the NFL. Division crowns matter. The winner of this game not only boasts the NFC North crown, but they also get to host a playoff game in the first round instead of hitting the road. Of course, it might be preferable to hit the road and take on the Redskins over playing at home against the Seahawks, but this is not how NFL teams think, and even though I would prefer for my team to lose this game if I were a fan of either team, each team will certainly be trying to win. Some of the drama is removed from this game given the fact that each team still makes the playoffs, but in this “winner take all” game, you can fully expect each team to come out trying to win, and you can fully expect any viable fantasy plays to remain viable from wire to wire.
Keep a tab on your Internet browser open this week with this article, and reference it as you decide whether or not certain players are at risk of resting or playing in a “done with the season” manner. Then go out there and dominate - and let’s meet up one last time at the top of the leaderboards.