Week 17 is a different animal than the 16 weeks before it. It's the only week of the regular season that features games that one might mistake for preseason action.
You know why and I know why. The prevailing thought among teams that are locked into their playoff spots is that they want to stay healthy. A significant injury in a game in which the outcome isn't vital would destroy a team's morale and chances heading into 'the tournament.'
Of course, it's not the only reason.
"It's really about us going out there and sharpening our swords, getting ourselves ready," Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke said. "Momentum is huge. Look at our team last year, I think we lost three of four games in December. We were on the downside heading into the playoffs. You want to be winning three of four heading into the playoffs."
This year, several teams have only the desire to stay sharp this week: The Giants (No. 1 seed) and Cardinals (No. 4 seed) in the NFC; the Titans (No. 1 seed), Steelers (No. 2 seed) and Colts (No. 5 seed) in the AFC. Every other spot is up for grabs in both conferences with only the Falcons and Panthers assured of a playoff berth (one will have the No. 2 seed, one won't). That means you can expect the best effort possible from those clubs still fighting: The Broncos, Chargers, Dolphins, Jets, Patriots and Ravens in the AFC and the Bears, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Vikings and most likely the Eagles (assuming they're not eliminated by kickoff of their 4:15 p.m. ET game and choose to air-mail in their effort against their bitter rival) in the NFC.
So all of the players on those teams should help Fantasy owners. What about the rest of the league?
Let's take a look at all the angles and get an educated idea of what we can expect this week.
This will be Jeff Fisher's first game where he can lose and suffer no consequences since 1999 when the Titans locked into the No. 4 playoff seed heading into Week 17. In their 47-36 win over the 6-10 Steelers that year, Fisher's Titans got out to a huge first-half lead thanks to their starters and second stringers -- and star players like Steve McNair and Eddie George had found the bench before the end of the first half.
That's a good example of what we can expect from Tennessee this week when they play at Indianapolis. Running backs Chris Johnson and LenDale White should give way to Quinton Ganther and Chris Henry, and it's a virtual certainty that Kerry Collins will take it easy at some point, giving Vince Young some playing time. Fisher has already said as much.
"I'd say there's a pretty good chance Vince is going to be in the ballgame," Fisher said. "How much I don't know, but I'd think there's a great chance."
Obviously, it's not a great week to run with the Titans' version of Smash and Dash.
|Week 17 might mean giving Peyton Manning the heave-ho from lineups. (Getty Images)|
"Whatever you do, if you win, it's the right thing and you were smart. And if you lose, you did the wrong thing and you weren't very smart," Dungy said of pulling his starters. "So we're going to do what we think is best. We thought (resting the starters) was best (in 2005 and 2007) and we still think it's best now, and hopefully we win and look smart at the end."
Fantasy owners won't care if the Colts win or not, but they can be confident in finding alternatives for Manning, Dominic Rhodes (who has already been ruled out), Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Dallas Clark. Anthony Gonzalez isn't guaranteed a ton of playing time, either, but depending on how many receivers the club makes active on Sunday, he could see extended reps.
Last season, Mike Tomlin's Steelers played a meaningless contest at Baltimore and went in a different direction than the Colts -- they didn't even bother playing some of their nicked-up key stars while going with everyone else for most of the game. Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu were all inactive while starting running back Najeh Davenport (Willie Parker was on IR) played into the third quarter and Santonio Holmes played the whole game. Most of the first-string defense played the whole game, too.
This season, it's the same story, but at home against the punchless Browns.
"We have an opportunity to sweep our division, and that hasn't been done around here since 2002," Tomlin said earlier this week. "We have an opportunity to play in front of our fans and put an exclamation point on what has been a solid season."
But between Tomlin's willingness to rest his starters last year and the common sense that you don't play your starters for a whole game and expose them to injury, expect Roethlisberger and most of the first-team offense and defense -- especially those with minor injuries -- to see limited action. Roethlisberger has a sprained right ankle, Willie Parker has been playing with shoulder and knee ailments and James Harrison has been bothered by a hip injury suffered last week. That trio likely won't play any more than three quarters of football. The rest of the prominent Steelers (Ward, Holmes, Heath Miller, Mewelde Moore) are gambles.
The Cardinals do have something to play for: Momentum. They've lost two games in a row in brutal fashion and, according to head coach Ken Whisenhunt, need to get rolling on the right track so they don't get crushed in the first-round of the playoffs. They've got the Seahawks coming to 'Zona on Sunday, which will help.
Expect the starters -- Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Tim Hightower -- to play at least a half and maybe even three quarters assuming they don't build a huge lead. The one question mark is Anquan Boldin, who has missed practice through Thursday and could be held out so he doesn't hurt his shoulder further. The Cardinals' players aren't expected to be nearly as useless to Fantasy owners as other players on playoff-clinched teams, but there is no promise as to how much time they'll have.
Like every coach, Giants boss Tom Coughlin says his team will play to win. And judging by last year's results, that could mean a near-full slate of work for his players.
You remember their Week 17 game last year, don't you? It was at home vs. the 15-0 Patriots. Both teams had their playoff spots clinched. But the Giants entered the game with little momentum or confidence heading into the postseason. They decided to play the full game and try and knock off the undefeated Patriots. They did -- five weeks later. New England knocked off New York in the finale 38-35, but the Giants were able to carry some momentum into the postseason because of the close game they played.
So while some Giants will surely be limited in their game against the Vikings in this season's Week 17 matchup, the prevailing thought is that the club will try and keep the momentum rolling from last week's big win over the Panthers right into the postseason.
"It is a long time before our next game, so that's why we are going in with this mentality," quarterback Eli Manning told the New York Daily News. "We're going in to play well and keep this thing going."
The only guy Fantasy owners should really worry about is Brandon Jacobs, who has a sore knee that's kept him out of two of the Giants' last five games and limited in another. If he does play, it likely won't be for a long time. Derrick Ward is a better fit.
What about the expectation of teams that have already made their tee times? How do they play in their regular-season finales?
A lot depends on where they are for the game and what they're up against.
In the last three years, non-playoff teams lost on the road 21 times, winning on the road just nine times, and some of those nine wins came against playoff teams that clinched their seeds and didn't want to risk hurting their starters.
Over the same period of time, 16 non-playoff teams won their last game when they were at home, losing 11 times on their own turf. Again, several of those 16 wins came with the road team resting their playoff-bound stars.
Ultimately, any non-playoff team playing in front of its home crowd should give forth a good effort. The 49ers, Bengals, Bills, Packers, Saints and Texans should produce some solid stats.
Subsequently, any non-playoff team playing on the road has a very good shot of laying an egg, especially if it's against a motivated home team. If you have any Browns, Chiefs, Jaguars, Lions, Raiders, Rams, Redskins or Seahawks, you better be concerned about the potential those players have for Sunday.
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