As many of you who are playing into Week 17 as part of your league's schedule already know, at least six teams and as many as seven will be playing football on Sunday with their playoff fortunes already determined. With that being the case, there's a chance all of these teams will limit or even deactivate members of their first-team units. This obviously includes quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends -- the gears that make the Fantasy machine grind.
To help those of you setting lineups for Week 17, here's a glance at these seven teams, and what kind of playing time we could expect to see from the first-team offenses. Please keep in mind that past performance does not guarantee future results -- starting (or sitting) any of these guys comes with a significant element of risk. But this is why you play Fantasy Football into Week 17, right?
The Cardinals have the NFC West clinched and could play for the No. 2 seed if the Vikings lose to the Giants during their early game on Sunday. Of course, they would also need Philadelphia to lose to get that seed, but the Eagles will play at the Cowboys at the same time as the Cardinals host the Packers. So whether or not their starters will see significant minutes will depend on the result of the Vikings' game, something Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt confirmed.
"It's going to depend on what happens in the game before us, no doubt," Whisenhunt said. "We'll obviously make some decisions based on how the Minnesota-Giants game goes, not only with the health of our players but certain other players. That will factor into it. You have to be smart in this game and make sure you err to the side of having a healthy team heading into the playoffs."
Before the Cardinals entered Week 17 last year, they lost four of their last five games and still found a way to win the division. Looking to build some momentum heading into the postseason, most of Whisenhunt's first-team offense played three full quarters with running backs Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James playing the entire game and sealing the win. It was enough to propel the Cardinals into the Super Bowl.
This year the Cardinals enter Week 17 winning three of their last four with at least 30 points in all of their wins. Assuming the Vikings beat the Giants, there are two factors that could lead to the Cardinals resting their best offensive players: One, minor injuries to Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald might be worth nursing rather than having them risk aggravation. Two, the Cardinals might just host their Week 17 opponent -- the Packers -- next week in Wild Card Weekend. Why play hard against them when they'll get an idea of what you might do when the game really counts the following week?
If you own any Cardinals, your best bet is to secure a late-game replacement for them in case they don't play. So find someone playing in a 4 p.m. ET or 8 p.m. ET game to use in case the Vikings win. And you'll have to go with the word of Whisenhunt here because Arizona's inactives are due at roughly 2:30 p.m. ET, which means that Warner, Fitzgerald, etc. will likely be active for the game, but that won't guarantee significant playing time. If the Vikings win, the Cardinals' starters should rest. If the Vikings lose, it's a cinch that the Cardinals' starters will play -- and more than likely do well since the Packers will probably rest their top defensive players since they have nothing to play for.
With a New England win at Houston, the Bengals will be locked into the No. 4 seed in the AFC playoff picture before they even take the field. If that happens, there's nothing they can do to improve or regress their spot. If the Patriots lose, then the Bengals could choose to play for the No. 3 seed, which would mean having the luxury of not playing the top-seeded Colts until the AFC title game, if at all. Of course it also comes with the curse of playing No. 2 seeded San Diego in the Divisional Playoffs, and that's if they get by the Ravens, Broncos or Steelers in the Wild Card Game first (if they win, the Jets' playoff hopes would be dashed).
Head coach Marvin Lewis isn't tipping his hand much, telling the New York media that "the 45 guys that we suit up are all going to play," and telling the Cincinnati media that "we're going to go win the football game. ... You always want to be as high a seed as you can in the playoffs. Why would you want to be the fourth when you have the opportunity to be third?"
The last time Lewis led the Bengals to the postseason was in the 2005 season. With nothing on the line in Week 17, Carson Palmer played two offensive series and the rest of the first-team offense played anywhere from one half to three quarters, not that it did them much good with Jon Kitna under center. The Bengals were blown out in Dick Vermeil's final game as Chiefs coach.
There's a reasonable chance that Cincy's starters will play significant minutes if the No. 3 seed is available to them, but there's also a chance that the Bengals will try to find a way to match up with the Jets in the playoffs since they'd probably like to play against rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and a Jets team that has no choice but to give their all in their regular-season finale. By doing this, the Bengals would get a real good feel for the Jets.
But like every other team, health is the top priority. None of Cincinnati's offensive stars has more than bumps and bruises, but getting the team healthy into the postseason will be priority No. 1. Don't expect a full game from the Bengals' first teamers no matter what is at stake for them, but a half for all except Palmer might be reasonable.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have a wild-card spot sewn up -- they know they'll be on the road for the first week of the postseason. But they're not going to have an inkling as to who their opponent will be before kickoff of their game at Arizona in Week 17. Thus, rationalizing that the Packers will either play to win or lose just so they can get the opponent of their choosing is senseless.
"Our approach is going to be the same this week as it has been for the first 15," head coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "It's important for us to continue the way we have been playing the last seven weeks, and that's really the message to the football team. ... We're not in this situation to back off. It's important for us to continue our style of play. Our approach this week will be the same that it has always been. I think routine in your preparation and your approach is a big part of your success, so we're going to go out there and our goal is to go to 11-5."
Now while that sounds like we'll see his first-team units play a lot, McCarthy has changed his tune before. In 2007 McCarthy was so upset with the play of his offense in a Week 16 loss to the Bears that he had threatened to play them four quarters in their meaningless Week 17 finale against the Seahawks. However, the Packers' offense responded with three touchdowns in the first 16 minutes of play; McCarthy had seen enough and put the second-team in the game.
With nothing on the line for the Packers, and possibly for the Cardinals, there's no telling how much we'll see the Packers' starters play. But the argument for resting them is strong, especially since the Packers might play at the Cards next week in the playoffs and won't want to give them a physical taste of how they play. Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Grant, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley are all risky options.
Last week's disappointing benching of the Colts' starters followed by their first loss of the season all but guarantees minimal playing time for the first-team offense and defense.
"I think more so than anything else, we have to look at our preparation during the course of the week, which will not change," Caldwell said about the team's approach to their Week 17 game at Buffalo. "We'll work to make certain that we stay sharp in those areas. Obviously, we anticipate that we'll play that game much the same as we did the one yesterday; maybe not entirely, exactly, the same – some things could change – but obviously, right now, where we are is that we're in the playoffs, we have home-field advantage, and our next quest is making certain that we're in great position to do well in the playoffs."
The Colts are no strangers to resting players in Week 17 when the playoffs are around the corner. Here's what we've seen from them:
2004: Peyton Manning played one series and hit the bench. The rest of the first-team offense played four series before bailing.
2005: Manning played one series and got out of the game. The rest of the first-team offense played two series before exiting.
2007: Manning came out firing but ultimately played non-descript football until five minutes into the second quarter before departing, along with Joseph Addai. The rest of the first-team offense came off the field a series later.
2008: Manning went 7 for 7 on the Colts' first drive, hit Joseph Addai on a screen that he took 55 yards for a touchdown, and put on a sideline cap. Addai followed but the rest of the offense played until halfway through the second quarter.
Note: Colts played to win in Week 17 for playoff berths and/or a bye week in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2006.
Judging by the Colts' history, we expect Manning and Addai to see the least amount of time of anyone at Buffalo in Week 17, with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie seeing as much as one half of play. Still, nothing is promised to them and even if Wayne, Clark and Collie do see extra time on the field, it will be with Curtis Painter at quarterback, not Manning.
New England Patriots
You already know that Pats head coach Bill Belichick won't say anything about who's playing for how long. The Patriots are secured a home game next week with no chance at a bye. We're positive that the Patriots have weighed the pros and cons of playing for the No. 3 seed and whether or not they want to try and position themselves for a matchup with the Colts in the Divisional Playoffs or in the AFC title game (they might rather play the Colts than the Chargers, too), as well as the pros and cons of letting a dangerous team like the Texans (who host the Patriots in Week 17) into the postseason. Still, no competitive advantages are being given to the Texans here. But like the Colts, the Patriots have quite a history of how they prepare for Week 17. Unlike the Colts, they've played to win during the Belichick era.
2001: Needing to win in order to clinch the AFC East, the Patriots played the majority of their starters for all but one series of the entire game.
2003: New England locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC with their dominating 31-0 victory over the Bills. All Patriots played deep into the fourth quarter.
2004: The Patriots had nothing to play for as they were locked into the No. 2 seed but still played their first-team offense for three quarters and all except Brady three plays into the fourth quarter against the 49ers. The rest of the first-team offense sat for the rest of the final period.
2005: Locked into the No. 4 seed, the Patriots sat Brady and the rest of the first-team offense after three series and one touchdown. They bailed after the first quarter.
2006: The team didn't have much of a shot at getting the No. 2 seed and opted to bury their opponent, the Titans, costing them a playoff spot. Tom Brady played three quarters, the rest of the Patriots' offense finished the game.
2007: The Patriots finish the regular season 16-0, playing their starters in a fierce game with the Giants. They'd lose their first game to them in the Super Bowl a month later.
Like every other team, the Patriots' primary goal is to be healthy heading into next week's game. Citing what they did in 2006, we're inclined to believe that the Patriots are the most likely to play their starters for a considerable amount of time in Week 17 before pulling them.
One thing is for sure: The Pats are anything but predictable, so there's no telling what they'll do. But if it's up to Brady, the Patriots won't rest.
"Close game, blowout, we get behind, I'm expecting to play the whole game," the quarterback said this week. "I wouldn't see why we wouldn't. It's our job to prepare to play, and I certainly am. I want to play, and I want to do great against a team that's fighting for their playoff life and has a lot of great players and really challenges you in some different ways. It's a meaningful game for us. It's a meaningful game for them, too. It would be great for us to win on the road against a damn good team."
New Orleans Saints
The Saints don't come to mind when you think about playoff teams, but here they are with the No. 1 seed in their hot little hands. When they land in New Orleans after their trip to Carolina in Week 17, they won't leave the city again until the Super Bowl.
"It's important for us to play well this week," Payton said. "... I think it's a good time for us to go on the road and put a good week of work in and play a good Carolina team. So our plan is to play this game just like it would be the last game to get in or out of the playoffs, and that can't be any clearer. We have to play better, and certainly against a team that is playing better right now."
Don't be surprised to see Payton change his mind -- in fact he has added that it "may vary who goes in" to Sunday's game. In his first year with the team in 2006, Payton and the team had the No. 2 seed in the NFC sewn up before their Week 17 game, incidentally against the Panthers. He had the first-team offense on the field for one full series and the first play of the second series before he began making changes. Drew Brees was first off the field and the rest of the offense was gone before the halfway point in the second quarter.
True, the Saints offense (and defense) has struggled over the last two games and could use this game to build some momentum, but with the Panthers hungry to finish the season at 8-8 and always prepared for their games with the Saints, don't expect anything close to a full game from Brees & Co. Remember, they have the top seed to themselves and don't want to risk any injuries. In fact, injured players like Pierre Thomas (ribs) and Jeremy Shockey (toe) might not play at all.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers couldn't rest last year in their home battle with the Broncos for the AFC West crown. They couldn't rest the year before when they clinched the No. 3 seed in the AFC with a Week 17 win over the Raiders. And in 2006 they only pulled their starters once they had a Week 17 win in hand against the Cardinals en route to the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
So with the second-best spot in the AFC playoffs in their possession, there's a lot of uncertainty over what the Chargers will do this week against the Redskins.
"It's not a meaningless game," head coach Norv Turner said. "To me, playing and staying game-sharp and executing the things we need to do is big. ... I believe if you look back at different teams, teams that have continued to play and stayed sharp have had good success in the playoffs."
Turner added that limiting players with injuries would be a priority, but given that the Chargers pulled their starters in their game last week against the Titans once a win was in hand clearly represents that the team is willing to do such a thing. Count on it happening again -- in fact, it wouldn't be a surprise to see one or two high-profile starters listed as inactive on Sunday before kickoff. There's no telling how much playing time we'll see from those starters who are active, which makes them all the more dangerous for Fantasy owners come Sunday.
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