The Week 17 dilemma
How will playoff-bound teams handle their fantasy stars in final week?
If you play in a standard ESPN.com fantasy football league, Week 17 will test your guile.
All year long, you've resisted the temptation to overreact and have played your studs. Hopefully after Week 16, you've got a healthy lead in your two-week fantasy championship game. But now all bets are off. Some NFL teams will rest their stars on Sunday while others will go all out to make the playoffs or improve seeding. As a result, some of the most reliable NFL players won't see more than a series or two, and you need to be ready.
I don't have definitive word on which teams will rest which players. These are closely guarded state secrets. But below I'll list 10 situations about which there are sneaking suspicions that Week 17 may not look like its 16 predecessors.
1. Green Bay Packers. The Packers are locked in as the NFC's No. 1 seed and have absolutely nothing to play for. It's possible Aaron Rodgers gets a ceremonial series or two at the game's outset, but it's also possible Matt Flynn starts outright. Certainly, I expect Flynn to play most of the game. Unfortunately, when he's out there, Flynn isn't likely to have many of the elite receiving weapons fantasy owners have grown to know and love. You already know Greg Jennings won't play. Jermichael Finley has a sore left knee, which probably wouldn't limit him under normal circumstances, so he might not suit up at all, either. Randall Cobb, who looked like a good candidate to get some end-of-rookie-season work, hadn't practiced as of this writing because of a groin injury and might get some precautionary rest. (That's by no means certain, however; if you were thinking of using Cobb as a sneaky play; stay tuned for late-week news.) That leaves WRs Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones on the game-day roster, and I have a hard time imagining the Packers risking Nelson's health. Maybe Green Bay activates a kid from its practice squad (Tori Gurley?). Or maybe the Packers just run it a whole bunch.
That brings us to the backfield, where James Starks reinjured his ankle in Week 16 and almost certainly will sit. Ryan Grant will probably start and get a bit of work, but he's been such a nice surprise in December that I'm guessing the Pack view him as their best RB option in the playoffs and therefore won't risk him for long. That probably means Brandon Saine will be the top rusher Sunday, though John Kuhn will probably see significant halfback work, too. (Saine suffered a concussion in Week 14, but returned against the Bears last week.)
Bottom line: Jones is probably the best WR option on this team because there are really no other young and able bodies the Packers will want to risk. (Check back in on Cobb this weekend.) Saine makes a sneaky flex in a game where Green Bay will want to keep the clock running. And Flynn is a deeper-league option at QB.
2. New Orleans Saints. Sean Payton told reporters Wednesday that he won't be scoreboard-watching this week and that he plans to play his starters the entire game. I remain somewhat skeptical. The Saints will be the NFC's No. 3 seed unless the San Francisco 49ers lose at the St. Louis Rams, which isn't likely. If Payton looks up at halftime and sees a 28-0 San Francisco lead, how can he not pull his starters? The last thing the high-octane Saints need is a Wes Welker situation. That said, there's little reason to doubt Payton's intention to begin the game with Drew Brees rolling at full speed, and there's also a not-insignificant possibility that the Niners don't have a massive lead, so Brees could keep playing. If Breezy has gotten you this far, you should probably just roll with him. Even if Chase Daniel winds up getting action in the second half, it's unlikely he'd throw it enough to rack up significant fantasy points.
The Saints backfield presents similar questions. Darren Sproles has been a fantasy revelation, and no doubt he'll be in there as long as Brees is. He's still my highest-ranked Saints RB right now for Week 17. But he comes with more playing-time risk than usual, as does Pierre Thomas. The guy I think will benefit most here is Chris Ivory. Given Mark Ingram's toe injury, Ivory is the big-back complement to Sproles and Thomas, and Payton won't be concerned about running Ivory into the ground, since Ingram could return for the playoffs. I don't hate the idea of relying on Ivory this week; I think he'll get you 15-plus touches, as he'll be the guy who stays in there if and when Payton relents with Brees.
And the pass-catchers? Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston have been the only two worth relying on in fantasy leagues all season, and I continue to rank them as fantasy starters, under the assumption that a minimum of one half with Brees tossing them the rock should give them significant upside. Lance Moore reinjured his hamstring last Monday night and figures not to play at all. And Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson have already been too inconsistent to rely upon most weeks.
Bottom line: There's more risk with Brees and Co. than usual. Payton pulled his Week 17 starters back in '09 but left everybody in until halfway through the fourth quarter in '10. I give some credence to Payton's Wednesday comments because he tends to be fairly cozy with the media, though I have a funny feeling word of a Niners blowout will somehow filter its way to the Saints sideline. But you probably roll with Brees, Sproles, Colston and Graham, and give Ivory a bit more consideration than usual.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger sat out last week, but the Steelers reportedly don't want him headed into the playoffs rusty, so they'll use him for about a half on Sunday. With a victory and a Baltimore Ravens loss the Steelers would claim a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs, but it's clear that Big Ben will be on the pitch count, meaning some portion of the Steelers brain trust has reconciled itself to a road wild-card game at the AFC West winner. They're facing the Cleveland Browns, who are significantly easier to run against than throw against, so one half of Roethlisberger might not be worth enough to risk playing him. He's probably only a desperation (or two-QB league) option.
I'm less certain about Rashard Mendenhall's workload. Certainly, at the first sign of the Steelers/Browns game getting out of hand or if Ravens/Bengals is a blowout, there's a chance Mendy sits in favor of Isaac Redman. But this is such a plum matchup for Mendenhall, I'd have a pretty hard time sitting him. He's a No. 2 fantasy back in my book, even with the specter of limited second-half playing time looming. Redman is only a deep-league option.
As for Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, I'm less sanguine. Wallace is reportedly dealing with an ankle issue that probably won't be severe enough to keep him out, but my guess is he'll be out of the game once Roethlisberger is. Brown might last longer, but realize that Emmanuel Sanders is expected to return and play some, and Hines Ward has a milestone looming: He's currently at 995 career receptions, so you can bet your bottom dollar one of Pittsburgh's primary missions Sunday will be to make sure the wily veteran catches at least five passes.
Bottom line: Mendenhall smells like the safest guy here. The Steelers have a built-in excuse (Big Ben's ankle) to pull the ripcord at halftime, almost regardless of what the scoreboard says. I'd be hard-pressed to consider the speedy Wallace anything more than a flex and probably wouldn't use Roethlisberger in a standard league at all.
4. Houston Texans. No matter what happens Sunday, the Texans will be the AFC's No. 3 seed and will host a wild-card game. They have nothing to gain by playing their stars for a full contest Sunday. But Gary Kubiak has said he plans on treating Week 17 like any other. That surprises me, but I'm going to take him at his word, which is good news for owners of Arian Foster. As of this writing, my expectation is that Foster will get in at least one half of starting time, and it's possible he could see more than that. If Kubiak leaves his big hoss in during the fourth quarter, I think he's crazy, but by then Foster will probably have done enough damage for his fantasy owners. Start him. Ben Tate is in the land of attractive flexes, as he'll pick up some work for Foster, but beware Derrick Ward, who could vulture from both Foster and Tate in the second half.
In the passing game, what's most interesting is that Andre Johnson is finally expected to return from his second hamstring injury of the season. The Texans want to see him run in game action before they enter the playoffs. Unfortunately, he'll be playing on a severely limited snap count, so AJ probably isn't much of a fantasy option, either. Owen Daniels played through a hyperextended knee in Week 16 and could see some rest Sunday, too. Maybe this leads to a Jacoby Jones renaissance, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. Joel Dreessen will be involved, Kevin Walter might sit some; heck, there's a pretty decent chance we'll see young WRs like Juaquin Iglesias and Jeff Maehl in the second half, and they could eventually be catching passes from Jake Delhomme, not T.J. Yates.
Bottom line: Like the Packers, the Texans have nothing to gain by placing their stars at risk Sunday, but unlike Green Bay, Houston apparently is going to roll the dice playing their stars in Week 17. That makes Foster a must-use, and Tate is a possibility. I'd rather stay away from everyone in this passing game if I could, though.
5. Detroit Lions. The Lions have clinched a playoff spot but still have something to play for: If they beat the resting Packers, they'll be the NFC's No. 5 seed and will avoid the No. 3 seed, which will likely be the Saints. I fully expect Matthew Stafford to be under center for as long as Sunday's game is competitive, and as such I still find him an attractive fantasy option. Calvin Johnson figures to be slightly dicier: He didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday, reportedly because of an injured Achilles. This is probably the team giving Megatron extra rest, but don't rule out the possibility that Johnson will play fewer snaps than normal. You probably still use him, but I didn't put him in his customary No. 1 WR spot in my ranks this week.
Kevin Smith scored two TDs against the Chargers last week but also missed time in the second half, as his ankle injury continued to bother him, and this would figure to be a pretty decent time for Smith to catch up on his rest. However, Lions beat reporters indicate Smith has fully practiced, so I have to be honest: I'm not sure what to expect. There are mixed signals here. The Lions signed Joique Bell off the Saints practice squad, which seemed to be a sign that Smith might rest and Bell would team with Maurice Morris in the backfield. All this makes the Lions RB spot extremely fluid, which injects a perhaps intolerable level of risk into your fantasy decisions.
Bottom line: If I've ridden Stafford and Megatron all year, I'm starting them. The Lions may win big against the Green Bay second string. I suppose Brandon Pettigrew is also an acceptable start. But Smith, Morris and Bell carry too much uncertainty to be used.
6. Atlanta Falcons. Like Sean Payton, Mike Smith told reporters Wednesday that he has no plans to rest his starters. If the Falcons win in Week 17 and the Lions lose, Atlanta moves up to the NFC's No. 5 seed and avoids the Saints in the wild-card round. However, unlike Payton, Smith will know whether his nearest competitor has won or lost. The Lions-Packers game has an early start time, whereas the Falcons-Tampa Bay Buccaneers tilt begins late. So there's every chance that Atlanta will be locked into the No. 6 seed by kickoff.
I do think Matt Ryan and Roddy White will start regardless of the Lions' outcome. But Smith's words notwithstanding, if the Lions win, we might be looking at mere cameos for the Falcons stars. I'm especially worried about Michael Turner and Julio Jones. Turner has been a shell of himself for the past five weeks: He's averaged 3.6 yards or fewer per carry in each of his past five contests and has scored once in that span. A groin injury is the suspected culprit, and given the fact that Turner had groin surgery last winter, this is nothing to sneeze at. I have every suspicion that the erstwhile "Burner" will ride pine for most if not all of this contest, which would give Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers extended looks. And Jones has been battling hamstring, back and ankle issues for half a season and could probably use a bit of rest, too.
Bottom line: If the Lions win, there's no safety in the Falcons studs. Chris Redman could see more snaps under center than Ryan, and the likes of Harry Douglas, Eric Weems, Kerry Meier and Kevin Cone may be catching passes. Turner has an unbelievable matchup against the putrid Bucs defense, and maybe Smith is telling the truth and the Burner will stay in there for a while. I have to say, though, that I think I'd be planning alternatives.
7. New England Patriots. The Pats are a show-no-mercy kind of squad anyway, and they actually do have something to play for Sunday. If they win versus the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots will be the AFC's No. 1 seed and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Tom Brady has generated some injury buzz this week because of a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury, but make no mistake: He's playing. Counting on any Patriots running back these days is a terrible idea (I have Stevan Ridley ranked ahead of BenJarvus Green-Ellis this week), but Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez should be full steam ahead.
8. Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens clinch the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a victory in Cincinnati on Sunday, so they'll be playing everyone. Ray Rice and (usually) the Ravens D are the only must-start entities on this roster; Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson are better suited as bench fodder most weeks. Of course, by my metrics, the Bengals have been the second-easiest defense to throw against over the past five games, so the Flacco-Smith connection could convert a few attempts into some big numbers.
9. San Francisco 49ers. The Niners need to beat the Rams and they'll lock up the NFC's No. 2 seed. If they lose and the Saints win, the 49ers would host a wild-card game next week. Needless to say, this is a potent motivator. Under different circumstances, Frank Gore might actually sit out Week 17 because despite scoring a TD in each of the past three weeks, Gore looks slow and possibly injured. He's averaging a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry since Week 10 and reportedly is nursing an ankle problem. But Gore will tough it out here in a plum matchup against the Rams. He's a must-start, and his backup, Kendall Hunter, will probably see lots of work, too, especially if the contest gets out of hand. Michael Crabtree is a fine start as well.
10. New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys. If you own healthy players on these seven squads at least you know they'll be on the field. Each of these teams needs a win to make the playoffs and will be playing all out.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.
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