For the first time in a long time, Week 17 won't be the typical parade of backup players finishing the regular season. There are actually a lot of meaningful football yet to be played. Even if you don't play into Week 17, you can feel good about having a lot of fun games to watch.
In fact, there's exactly one game involving at least one playoff participant that isn't likely to feature starters. That's the matchup between the Chiefs and Chargers in San Diego.
Kansas City has locked into the AFC's No. 5 seed. They can't do any better or any worse. Twice before in Andy Reid's coaching history has he been in such a situation, and twice before he rested a number of starters. He rested starters for a game in 2001 and again in 2004 for not one game, but two. And in 2010, Reid also rested top playmakers in Week 17.
So go ahead and guess who's going to suit up in a track suit on Sunday? You'll probably see Jamaal Charles there, even if he is within 20 yards of 2,000 total on the year, and chances are pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will also sit as they're very important defensive guys for the Chiefs. If Alex Smith plays it won't be for long, and if he sits then chances are Dwayne Bowe will also sit. In fact, Bowe hurt his neck last week but stayed in. Maybe he'll end up sitting out too.
This is all very good news for the Chargers, who are the only team in the NFL that will know their playoff fate before kickoff. If either the Ravens (at the Bengals) or the Dolphins (vs. the Jets) win, the Chargers cannot clinch a playoff berth. But it's highly unlikely the Chargers will call in their starters and play the backups if such a situation were to occur, so you'll probably see them play all out, which against a bunch of Chiefs backups isn't such a bad thing.
Are there any other games where backups could see significant playing time and potentially cost Fantasy owners? It's always possible the teams with nothing to play for could do it, but it's rare. Teams with first-year head coaches like the Browns, Jaguars, Bills and even the Chargers could opt to "get a look" at some of their younger players, but it might not happen unless the game is out of hand. It's also possible we could see teams headed to the playoffs like the Broncos, Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Seahawks, Panthers and 49ers pull their starters once they feel they have wins secured. It's not nearly enough to consider sitting players from those rosters, but the key contributors could play three-and-a-half quarters instead of four.
All told, this is good news for those Fantasy leaguers who insist on playing all 17 weeks.
On running backs and Round 1
Much will be written about the benefits and pitfalls of taking a running back in the first round of a draft. On average in 2013, there were nine running backs drafted in Round 1. Of those nine, four finished in the Top 12 but none of the other five finished even in the Top 24! This year, you either nailed it with your first-round pick or you whiffed. There's no happy medium.
That shouldn't be a surprise given the nature of the position and how teams tend to use their backs. Nor should it be a surprise that the running backs that finished in the Top 12 this season will be on the radar for Fantasy owners picking in Round 1 next season, even though the turnover is so steep.
I'll never fight to take a running back with my top pick, but I will stand by this statement: Unless I can get a back with 20-touch potential including goal-line work or an elite difference-maker at receiver or tight end, I'm taking the safe way out. If that means getting a quarterback, even though the position is deep, then so be it.
There were a lot of people who drafted Trent Richardson or C.J. Spiller or any other bust first-round pick and still won the crown, but that's not the point. I don't want the headache of taking a back without the promise of a big workload and big stats when I can get a quarterback with weekly 30-plus-point potential, especially if it's someone in a weak division. We talk all the time about how Jimmy Graham is a differentiator among tight ends but won't say the same about Peyton Manning?
The reason for it is because it's easier to find a reliable quarterback off waivers than it is a reliable tight end. But it's also hard to find a player who consistently posted 20-plus Fantasy points with a number of games into the 30s, 40s and 60s. All things being equal, if I can't get my hands on a running back I feel really good about in Round 1, I'll wait until Round 2 to get him.
We already know there will be a minimum of seven running backs to start most drafts next year. All the big-ticket guys you've come to know as reliable "stud" workhorses will be there, and that list will include rookies from this year and a couple of veterans too. That will push any possible quarterback selections to the back of Round 1, which makes waiting for a running back a breeze since you'll pick again soon in Round 2. Starting a draft with Manning and Giovani Bernard or Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Mathews wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Fantasy & Reality
Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) from around the league.
Fantasy: The Chiefs are a dangerous team. You already know that Kansas City's offense is a lot of Jamaal Charles and a little bit of everyone else. The Chiefs a team that is not built to play from behind -- they need to stay in close games in order to come out ahead. The key to their defense is the play of pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. When they're on, the rest of the defense looks great. When they're out of not hot, their defense is absolutely pedestrian. I had a hard time coming to grips with that earlier this year but after watching the Colts take aim at them and benefit from their poor tackling, I just can't see this team getting far in the playoffs. Keep it in mind if you're in Playoff Challenge leagues that limit transactions.
Reality: Andy Dalton's success has come in threes, not fours, and has not come against the Ravens. For Dalton to do well this week in Fantasy he'd have to buck two trends: Play well for a fourth straight week and play well against a tough divisional opponent. Last year, Dalton had two stints with three-straight games with 25-plus Fantasy points before coming back down to earth in his next game. This year he's already had one trio of games with 30-plus points before fading, and has hit the 23-point mark in each of his last three. Asking for a fourth against a defense that has not only allowed just four quarterbacks to post 20-plus points against them this season but one he's never had 20-plus points against in his career seems just too risky.
Fantasy: The Cowboys are doomed without Tony Romo. I've seen a lot of Kyle Orton's games and while I won't call him a great quarterback he certainly isn't nearly as bad as 90 percent of the backup passers out there. Dallas' decision to pay him to back up Romo will come in handy this week as he'll at least give them a chance to win against Philadelphia. Orton has a 81-to-57 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has averaged 6.6 yards per attempt throughout his career. When he was at the helm of the Broncos back in 2010 he had some downright awesome games thanks to a very good group of receivers. I'd give him a chance in this one -- he's not a horrible replacement for Romo owners in Week 17.
Reality: The Fantasy game can be improved upon. One of the best parts about writing about Fantasy has been the overall simplicity of how you keep score. You're either in a standard league or a PPR, your passing touchdowns are worth either 4 or 6. We all tend to keep track of players the same way and follow the same basics as it comes to lineups.
I'm starting to wonder if we as game players are ready to start branching out into new scoring systems and sets of rules. More two-quarterback leagues with the rise of so many good passers. More points for the little things like breaking tackles, first downs, longer field goals and players winning their real-life games. More roster flexibility including automatic in-game replacements from the bench in case of an injury to a starter (real life coaches can replace players when they get hurt, why can't we?). The game is already evolving as more and more people get into PPR leagues and dynasty/keeper formats. It's only a matter of time before we start asking more from our commissioners to make the game even more fun.
Reality: The Fantasy season isn't over. It's never over. It took me three years as a frustrated Fantasy loser back in 2000 to realize that if I really wanted to win at Fantasy Football I needed to pay attention year-round. Ever since then Fantasy Football has been a 12-month-a-year game for me. I might not draft (much) between now and late August but keeping up with the news, the coaching carousel and the numbers from last year and what they might project out to in 2014 is vital if you want to dominate. If only there was a website that treated Fantasy like the year-round obsession it's become.