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Fantasy & Reality: How to navigate Week 17

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Oh Week 17, you little devil! On one hand, you provide us with our last full slate of NFL games for seven months, and for that we're grateful. On the other, you create even more problems for Fantasy owners than the other 16 weeks of the season, and for that we're frustrated.

This year is better than most final Sundays, thanks to a number of upsets and playoff implications forced by Week 16. Not many teams will go into their games planning on benching their starters. But many teams might start games with their first-team units and then pull them once they know their playoff fates. In other words, a player who might start a Week 17 game is not promised to finish based on circumstances that won't be known until hours after lineups lock on Sunday afternoon.

Wonderful.

If you're in a league that plays its championship in Week 17, don't bemoan it. You knew it was coming all along and now you have to play it. I'm still decidedly against league trophies being handed out solely on the results from the final week of the regular season, but I understand why commissioners do it. Because it's football, and why waste a good week of football?

You can remind yourself of that when you see Brian Hoyer jog on the field on Sunday in place of Tom Brady.

The Patriots

New England has clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, rendering their home matchup against the Dolphins Sunday completely and utterly useless. They had the exact same situation last year when they played at Houston. They ran their starters out on the field and took a death blow to their playoff hopes when Wes Welker suffered major knee ligament damage when he tried to cut on the Reliant Stadium turf. He barely made it back on time for the 2010 season.

Have they learned their lesson? As far as solely playing starters in a meaningless game, probably not. All indications out of New England are that the prominent Patriots will play at least a half with some banged-up veterans taking a seat. That might mean a week off for Deion Branch, who has been on the injury report for two weeks with a knee injury but has played on Sundays, or a week off for Aaron Hernandez, who was inactive last week with a hip issue. But it's not a week off for Brady, Welker, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead. Expect them to play a decent amount, though Pats coach Bill Belichick has been known to appease some veterans in his final regular-season contests. In the 2005 season, Doug Flutie drop kicked an extra point, a year later Vinny Testaverde became the first player to throw a touchdown in 20 NFL seasons. In the 2008 campaign LaMont Jordan scored his last NFL touchdown, and who could forget how the Patriots' 2007 regular season ended?

With vets like Sammy Morris, Alge Crumpler and Fred Taylor on the roster, who knows if Belichick has something in store for them. Moreover, what Fantasy owner would start any of those three? What Fantasy owner would risk his season on any other Patriots player knowing that a major personnel overhaul could happen at any point in the game? Be careful with any Patriots in Week 17.

The Steelers and the Ravens

The Steelers will lock up the No. 2 seed with a win at Cleveland. A loss jeopardizes that, so rest assured, Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace & Co. will play to win. At the same time, the Ravens will play at home vs. the Bengals, and if they win and the Steelers lose, they'll win the AFC North and get the No. 2 seed.

Here's the issue: If the Ravens look up at the scoreboard and see the Steelers winning 28-0 in Cleveland in the fourth quarter, will they continue to play their starters? A rational hunch suggests they won't since a loss won't change their current seeding at No. 5 in the AFC.

The Jets

The Jets are locked into a wild-card berth and will be on the road next week no matter what they do. For them to move into the No. 5 seed (and a potential playoff rematch at Indy), they'd have to beat the Bills at home and have the Steelers lose and Ravens win. Rex Ryan might consider a matchup at Kansas City to be more favorable and tell Mark Sanchez to put his feet up on Sunday. Ryan has already waffled on how much time he'll give his quarterback, and by extension could do the same with several of his veterans. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Jets call off the dogs in this game (and thus get a powerful performance out of the Bills' key skill-position players).

The Chiefs

Kansas City has clinched a home playoff game (but no chance of a bye), and head coach Todd Haley already said this week that he's playing his starters in the home finale vs. Oakland. Here's their predicament: If they win, they lock up the No. 3 seed and likely will get a Jets visit to Arrowhead as a prize. If they lose and the Colts win, they fall to the No. 4 seed and welcome the Ravens instead. Big difference. It seems sensible that the Chiefs' starters will play until (and if) they build an insurmountable lead. There is a chance they could freeze Jamaal Charles after maybe 14 or 15 carries since he's their most potent offensive weapon.

The Colts and the Jaguars

Both teams are expected to play their hearts out because a win means a lot to both. With a win vs. the Titans, the Colts clinch the AFC South and at worst the No. 4 seed (at best the No. 3 seed if the Chiefs lose). Suffice to say, Peyton Manning won't get pulled for Curtis Painter like he did after 18 pass attempts in Week 17 last year.

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The Jaguars need a win at the Texans and a Colts loss to the Titans to land the division title and no better than the No. 4 seed. Good luck with that. Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said it best on Sunday: "We can't count on Tennessee for anything next week in Indianapolis." A loss by the Jaguars would put their season at 8-8 and potentially Del Rio's career in Jacksonville on the chopping block, so expect the first-team offense to play the whole game.

The Falcons, the Saints and the Buccaneers

The only thing standing in the way of the Falcons earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC is the 2-13 Carolina Panthers. If (snicker) the Falcons can find a way (hee haw) to get past the Panthers (chortle), they'll lock up the division. Can't say I like the Panthers' chances. That should mean a good amount of playing time for the Falcons' starters.

That leaves the Saints with a home showdown against the playoff-minded Buccaneers. New Orleans would win the division and get a bye (potentially the No. 1 seed) with a win and a Falcons loss. But something tells me that's not going to happen. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Saints were in a situation much like the Ravens could be in and pull their starters once the scoreboard shows the division rival they need to lose as winners. Face it: If the Falcons are up big on the Panthers in the second half, the Saints will have no reason to keep their starters out there.

That would benefit the Buccaneers greatly. Tampa Bay's playoff hopes are slim; if they beat the Saints and the Giants and Packers both lose, they're on their way to the playoffs. Both the Giants and Packers play after 4 p.m. ET while the Bucs roll at 1 p.m. ET., so it all starts with a win at New Orleans, a place they won last season when their team was awful. The Bucs will go full-bore.

The Bears

Chicago has won the NFC North and has a first-round bye clinched thanks to the Eagles loss on Tuesday. The only way the Bears can go from the No. 2 seed to the No. 1 seed is if the Falcons and Saints both lose. Atlanta and New Orleans both play at 1 p.m. ET, Chicago plays at 4:15 p.m. ET, so the Bears will know their standing just before they take the field.

That makes their situation interesting. Obviously if the Saints and Falcons both lose, the Bears will play for the No. 1 seed. If either NFC South team wins, then the Bears technically have nothing to play for. In the past under Lovie Smith, starters have rested when there's nothing on the line in Week 17, and it's worked for the Bears and hurt the Bears: In 2005 the starters rested, the Bears had a bye and then the Panthers beat them in the Divisional round. In the '06 season the Bears rested their starters, enjoyed a bye and then narrowly beat the Seahawks in overtime en route to Super Bowl XLI.

"I think by resting a few guys, I don't think you all of a sudden -- if guys get 20 less plays or something like that in a game -- that all of a sudden they stop playing good football," Smith said earlier this week. "I just don't see it that way. [If] we were in a position where we didn't play our guys the entire game, I don't think that has a whole lot to do with what would happen that next week."

That should tell you everything you need to know about Smith's mindset. We could (and likely will) see several key Bears take a rest.The only way Smith will play his starters the entire game is if they persuade him to, or if Smith thinks he could do his team and the rest of the NFC a favor by knocking off the Packers. That's something Bears fans would love, but is it best for the team?

The Packers and the Giants

The Packers clinch a playoff spot with a win vs. the Bears. Pretty straight-forward, and it could be a cakewalk for them given that Chicago's starters might check out. The starters will play on.

That's bad news for the Giants, who need a win at Washington and a Packers loss to clinch a wild-card berth, which means they won't rest anybody either.

The Eagles

Thanks to their Week 16 loss to Minnesota, the Eagles are locked into the No. 3 seed and their game against the Cowboys on Sunday is meaningless. The Eagles have had no problem resting their starters in the past and it seems very likely that we'll see a lot of Kevin Kolb, Jerome Harrison, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant, not Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, come Week 17.

The NFC West

The Rams will play at the Seahawks on Sunday night to determine the NFC West champions and the No. 4 seed in the NFC. No one's getting benched in the game, but aside from Steven Jackson no one should be considered a desirable Fantasy starter.

The rest of the league

Every team will try and find some motivation, but be warned starting players on road teams with nothing to play for and no one to upset in Week 17. We could very easily see mail-in jobs (particularly defensively) from the Bengals, Cardinals, Chargers, Dolphins, Titans and Vikings. Not surprisingly, all but the Cardinals and Chargers could have new coaching staffs in place come 2011.

Fantasy & Reality

Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) during the week's action.

Fantasy: Rashad Jennings and Kevin Boss will help owners clinch Fantasy titles. No incorrect picks I made all year have me as upset as these two. Jennings, who I started in one of my own league finals, got no help from his offensive line and was seemingly running in place all game long. Even Jack Del Rio said as much after the game -- it makes me think that had Maurice Jones-Drew played he would have also done poorly. As for Boss, three targets and no catches against a defense that had been porous against opposing tight ends. I'm pretty sure the Packers' game plan heading into the game wasn't to shut Boss down at all costs, but the stats sure look like it was.

Reality: Reggie Wayne caught a case of the Asomugha. I know it would have been hard for Wayne's owners to sit him in Week 16, but if there's one thing we know about how Peyton Manning operates (and how most quarterbacks operate), it's that he plays the matchups. With stud cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha on Wayne for most of the game, Peyton threw his way six times vs. nine for Jacob Tamme, eight for Pierre Garcon and five for Blair White. The same that happened to Wayne happened to Anquan Boldin, too.

Fantasy: The Jets-Bears game will be low scoring. I had a feeling Jay Cutler would have a pretty good game, but with four total touchdowns he overachieved past any thoughts anyone had. The difference in the game? Mike Martz opted to change strategies in the second half and send his receivers deep when the Jets played man coverage. Cutler's three touchdowns all came from 25 or more yards out. With seven total touchdowns in his last two games, he's peaking at just the right time.

Reality: I won a Fantasy league with Tim Tebow as my quarterback and Adrian Peterson on my bench. In a long-running 14-team PPR league where I drafted well and then made tons of mistakes (traded Joe Flacco for Austin Collie, cut Jay Cutler for Matthew Stafford when Stafford came back, traded Thomas Jones and Steve Johnson for Dwayne Bowe), I made these two huge decisions and at least one (Tebow) paid off. Really, Tebow's game was awful against the Texans as his mid- and deep-ball accuracy is really bad. But he threw a ton of short screens and rumbled for his second rushing touchdown in as many weeks and wound up with over 300 yards passing and two total scores (his other touchdown was a screen pass that Correll Buckhalter weaved into a touchdown). Starting him over Shaun Hill and Jon Kitna, my other lowly options, was the biggest move I made. Want to know why it paid off? Because I played the matchups.

At some point this offseason, I won't tell you when, I promise to recap my team in this league and in it you'll see all the things I did to pull off the championship. I should probably save my deepest, darkest trade secrets for a book (whaddya think, Simon & Schuster?) but I might spill the beans when I write about this team. The only way to know when I do it is to keep checking with CBSSports.com during the offseason -- something you should do anyway if you care about Fantasy Football.

Pre-Parting shot

• It's almost the end of the year, which means you're a week away from reading what is now my annual "Letter From The Future." I'm in the business of projecting and predicting, but even last year's letter was pretty amazing. And I don't mean amazing in a bad way, haters, I mean amazing in a "I-can't-believe-I-wrote-that-and-it-kinda-sorta-came-true" way.

Wait and see what's in store in next week's column -- not just predictions from the future but playoff predictions and guesses on who will coach where next year (those were amazing in a bad way last year). It's a good read and I would hate for you to miss it.

Parting shots

• I'd like to congratulate the Chargers secondary on a fantastic season, assuming season means first 15 games. Not sure what happened in Week 16, but the Chargers looked like the Chuggies (I dunno, sounds funny) against the Bengals on Sunday. I've never been a Jerome Simpson fan, but holy moly did he look like a superstar. Also, last week's game is all the proof you need that Carson Palmer's arm is FINE.

• Did Peyton Manning's 27-yard run-turned-slide hurt your Fantasy teams? If you lost by six or less and Manning was your starting quarterback it did. Manning pulled a Maurice Jones-Drew/Brian Westbrook and effectively took a knee at the Raiders 1 late in the game Sunday, costing the Colts another six points and costing Fantasy owners the same.

A lot of people think that the points should count since the player clearly would have scored in every instance of taking a knee to kill the clock and end the game. Maybe such a setting should exist for commissioners to consider in CBSSports.com leagues?

• It would only be icing on the Panthers' 2010 cake if Andrew Luck decided to stay in school.

• Peyton Hillis, meet The Wall. The Wall, meet Peyton Hillis. Well, you two sure have lots to discuss, so I'm going to move on to another point now ...

• Rex Grossman is who I thought he was. Can't believe he was that good against Dallas, can't believe he was that bad against the Jaguars.

• No one is more guilty of having a preseason man-crush on Dexter McCluster than I am, but just imagine how ludicrous the Chiefs offense would be if he had a bigger role?

• LOL Chad Henne.

• Can't believe the Vikings knocked off the Eagles. Can believe that Joe Webb has a future in this league and certainly in Fantasy Football.

• The Rams are winning the NFC West. Book it.

• I know Bill Cowher is happy as a clam working for CBS and he's not interested in talking about coaching jobs. But let's just say that if I were 49ers President Jed York, I'd call him up Monday morning and ask him how many zeroes he likes after a one on his checks. That team is a quarterback, an offseason of rehab and a coaching staff away from being very, very good. Cowher would be a perfect fit there as a culture-changer, a ticket-and-suite seller and as a full-authority coach.

• Where has this been all year, Jacoby Jones and Owen Daniels? You seriously couldn't pull out some big games before this late point in the season? I bet Coach Kubiak is wondering the same thing.

• I don't have to announce a Super Bowl XLVI prediction for another 200 days or so, but Tampa Bay's in the mix.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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