Mike Smith greets Gonzo (USAT Sports)
Those of you who choose to settle fantasy championships in Week 17 understand the pitfalls, no doubt. A few of the NFL's better teams have already clinched everything they can clinch, so there's a risk of shutdown. It's the usual end-of-year worry.
If you've been riding various Falcons this season, for example, then you're probably a little panicked about their availability in title week. Atlanta has already locked up home field advantage throughout the post-season in the NFC. Thus, the risk-reward calculation gets tricky for head coach Mike Smith. A win versus Tampa Bay means little, and an injury to a key starter would be disastrous. But Smith probably doesn't want to see his team stumble into the bye-week, either; it's not as if the Falcons have an impressive playoff resume. They're 0-3 in the post-season in the Matt Ryan era.
As Week 17s go, this year actually isn't the worst. Both byes are unclaimed in the AFC, the No. 2 seed is still undecided in the NFC, and a pair of division titles remain unsettled. (Click here for updated playoff scenarios). Most of the league's elite offenses have something significant on the line this week ... but not all of 'em.
Let's review the four playoff qualifiers that might choose to sit starters for at least some portion of Week 17...
Atlanta Falcons, clinched the top seed and home field advantage in the NFC - Earlier this week, Smith had this to say about the Week 17 match-up with the Bucs: "We're going to play the game to win." Smith sounds like he intends to adjust his team's bye-week schedule, too. "We are not going to do anything like we did last time," he's said. Because last time — and the time before that, and the time before that — did not end well.
It's still tough for me to imagine that we won't see Luke McCown at the controls for Atlanta at some point, despite the play-to-win talk. I'll be ranking most Falcons as if they're going to be part-timers. But even if Matt Ryan only sees the field for 2-3 quarters against the Bucs, we should note that he'll be facing the league's No. 32 pass defense (303.0 YPG). He can still deliver a decent fantasy number, even in a partial game.
Baltimore Ravens, clinched division title but can't earn a bye - Baltimore can still get the No. 3 seed in the AFC, should the Pats lose to Miami. But do they care? Should they care? No matter what happens over the weekend, the Ravens will host a game in the Wild Card round.
These are a few of Coach Harbaugh's Week 17 thoughts, via the Baltimore Sun:
The Ravens are trying to strike a balance between getting as healthy as possible for the playoffs while not squandering the chance to improve their postseason status.
"It's definitely a consideration," coach John Harbaugh said when asked whether he would substitute players against Cincinnati due to injuries or if the game is one-sided for either team. "The biggest thing is that you can't play this game half-speed. You have to play this game full-speed. Our guys are going to play the game full-speed to win the game.
So he clearly hasn't ruled out the idea of sitting a few key assets. All we really know is that whoever plays for Baltimore this week will be playing at max speed. I'm not bullish on these guys. It's reasonable to fret about your Ravens, for a variety of reasons. They're facing a respectable Cincinnati defense this week, a unit that ranks eighth in the NFL against the run and tenth versus the pass. Of course the Bengals are also locked into their playoff spot...
Cincinnati Bengals, clinched the No. 6 seed in the AFC - Marvin Lewis' team can't actually improve its playoff position by winning in the finale, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll let anyone rest. He's had no success with Week 17 shutdowns in the past.
"How'd that turn out for us?" Lewis asked Monday, rhetorically.
Not well, Coach. Check his recent comments regarding end-of-season plans:
“I don't really have any beat up guys. So, the only thing that is at stake is you go out and play to win the game every time we go, win,” Lewis said on Monday. “It's a different team, different group, different people. Playing different teams, different situations, different circumstances.”
When asked what is left to play for, Lewis said: “Improvement. Each and every time we go out. We're finishing off the month of December and we need to have a better January than we did December. If we do that February will be very nice.”
Cincinnati has young players at key spots, and they'd clearly like to carry some momentum into the postseason, even if a daunting match-up awaits. It seems safe to deploy your Bengals as you normally would.
Indianapolis Colts, clinched the No. 5 seed in the AFC - The Colts are locked into the fifth spot, and they're hosting Houston in Week 17. It's a huge game for the Texans, who need a win to secure home field in the AFC. Ostensibly, the game's result doesn't matter much to Indy. But as Reggie Wayne said on Monday...
“We’re too young to rest,’’ veteran receiver Reggie Wayne told the Indianapolis Star on Monday. “We probably need to put everybody out there and have them continue to play. I don’t we can afford (to rest).
“I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m built to play.’’
Indy's head coach just returned to the team this week, and it's not as if the Colts have been a flawless team in recent weeks. They needed a late fourth quarter TD to edge KC last Sunday, they dropped a game at Houston the week before, and they eked out wins against bad teams in Weeks 12-14.
In the Manning era, Indianapolis routinely rested stars at the end of the regular season, but it would be a mild surprise to see the club take the same approach in Andrew Luck's first year. I'll be ranking Colts as if they're good to go in Week 17. As OC Bruce Arians puts it, "We're going in to win. We gotta keep rising."