First, the good news: Unlike most seasons, we're going to see actual first-string Colts in action in Week 17, and they're going to give us more than just one series.
That's not how they usually script things in Indianapolis, but the team has played its way into this predicament. The Colts need a win in the final week (vs. TEN) to secure a division title, which is rarely the case. So Peyton Manning(notes) is a perfectly safe fantasy start, as are the members of Indy's receiving corps. We won't see the Curtis Painter(notes) formation on Sunday.
Now, the bad news: Several of the NFL's elite offenses have absolutely nothing on the line in the final week of the regular season, and thus they're likely to sit a few top-tier fantasy assets. This happens every year; it's why we recommend that you settle your fantasy title in Week 16.
Below you'll find the full list of teams that have either qualified for the playoffs or that remain in the race, with a brief description of their Week 17 start/sit plans. Not every coach has declared his intentions just yet, so you'll find speculation where necessary. Let's begin at the top of the AFC…
New England Patriots (vs. MIA, 1:00 pm EST) - Everything is clinched: The AFC East title, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, Tom Brady's(notes) MVP. Everything. There's no need for the Pats to put anyone at risk in a fairly meaningless match-up with Miami. However, as of this writing, Bill Belichick hasn't really tipped his hand, except to say this: "Certainly we'll do what's best for the team, but there's some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys."
This team lost Wes Welker(notes) to a severe knee injury in the final week last year, in a game that really didn't matter, so perhaps they'll play it conservative this time around. Of course they also routinely leave Brady on the field late in games in which they hold insurmountable leads, so you never really know. Still, we're likely to see a healthy dose of QB Brian Hoyer(notes) in Week 17. The Pats may also elect to rest Welker and the ambiguously injured Deion Branch(notes) (knee). Don't be shocked if Julian Edelman(notes) and Brandon Tate(notes) see a decent number of snaps.
Pittsburgh Steelers (at CLE, 1:00 pm EST) - They need to play, they need to win. The No. 2 seed and a postseason bye is at stake. All of your healthy Steelers are safe.
Kansas City Chiefs (vs. OAK, 1:00 pm EST) - The Chiefs locked up the AFC West crown when the Chargers collapsed, and this team can't play its way into a No. 2 seed. They certainly have the option to rest starters — perhaps the de-appendix'd Matt Cassel(notes) could use a week off — but Todd Haley clearly wants to close the regular season on a positive note:
"We’re a transitioning team," Haley said. "Maybe some teams can look at games differently, but I know our group right now, with where we are in our development, we need to approach them the same way, which is get ready to win."
Indianapolis Colts (vs. TEN, 4:15 pm EST) - As we mentioned above, the Colts can't rest. They'll take the AFC South with a win, but they'll get bounced if they lose and the Jaguars beat Houston. Indy and Jacksonville both play late afternoon games, so nothing will be decided at kickoff.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. CIN, 1:00 pm EST) - This team still has a shot at a division title and a first-round bye if they can win and the Steelers somehow lose. The Ravens are safe. Play 'em. Enjoy.
New York Jets (vs. BUF, 1:00 pm EST) - New York will have either the No. 5 or the No. 6 seed, and they're looking at a winnable road game in the first round. Rex Ryan has waffled on his Week 17 plans, but Mark Sanchez(notes) is dinged (shoulder), Santonio Holmes(notes) has turf toe, and LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) is a thousand years old. This team could obviously benefit from rest.
Then again, they were miserable on defense in the Week 16 loss at Chicago, so there's a case to be made for reclaiming swagger. From a fantasy rankings perspective, I'm going to approach this team as if certain key starters will play only a quarter or two. Mark Brunell(notes) should get time behind center; Shonn Greene(notes) seems safer than Tomlinson.
Jacksonville Jaguars (at HOU, 4:15 pm EST) - The Jags need to win, and they need a loss by the Colts. Jacksonville's skill players certainly aren't resting, not this week. Maurice Jones-Drew's(notes) knee is the ongoing worry here (still not practicing), and David Garrard(notes) (finger) will reportedly be sidelined following surgery. In a must-win, the Jags may have to roll with Trent Edwards(notes) at quarterback, and the immortal Rashad Jennings(notes) in the backfield.
And now for the NFC, where the Vikings just simplified the playoff picture, upsetting this gentleman in the process…
Atlanta Falcons (vs. CAR, 1:00 pm EST) - Atlanta could have clinched a division crown and homefield advantage with a win on Monday, but the Saints wrecked those plans. Thus, the Falcons need to compete in Week 17, in a game that should be a layup. Start these guys with confidence. Carolina's defense allows 125.5 rushing yards per game, so Michael Turner(notes) should be particularly useful (a week after I needed him).
Chicago Bears (at GB, 4:15 pm EST) - OK, this gets complicated. Chicago has already clinched a first-round bye, because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Philadelphia. The Bears technically still have a shot at the top seed in the NFC, but they would need the Panthers to beat Atlanta and the Bucs to win or tie at New Orleans. So that's a long shot.
By the time they kickoff at Lambeau, Lovie Smith will know if the No. 1 seed is still a possibility. If it's not, then the Bears won't really have anything meaningful to play for — unless they legitimately care about knocking the Packers from the playoffs. Which they might. Earlier this week, Smith had this to say:
"I think it does help you keep your focus of playing your best ball (by playing the rival Packers)," Smith said. "I think naturally you could let up a little bit if you weren't playing for anything. I am talking about if you had home field (in the playoffs) wrapped up or if there was nothing you could gain from that last game. I guess some teams could let that hold them back a little bit. But for us, there is just so much going on this week. For us, it just seems like we have to play our best ball this week in Game 16. Number one, I mean, it's the Packers and the Bears. That in itself really makes you play your best ball."
Asked again if he would consider resting his starters Sunday if the game does not impact the Bears' playoff situation, Smith said, "Right now, we plan on playing our guys."
He's left himself some wiggle room in those comments, and, again, the most likely scenario is that Chicago will not be able to improve its playoff position. I'll be ranking Bears skill players as if they'll only play partial games in Week 17. It's tough to imagine the team putting essential starters at risk with nothing to clinch, no matter what Smith said early in the week. (It should be noted that local writers seem to think the Bears will not rest).
Philadelphia Eagles (vs. DAL, 4:15 pm EST) - Andy Reid used the word "pathetic" to describe Tuesday's home loss to Minnesota, and that term might not be strong enough. It was an utterly horrendous effort, in basically all phases. (Hat tip to Joe Webb(notes), who was substantially better against Philly than he was against Chicago. Appeared to be comfortable, and he was hardly pressured. Dude can run).
The fantasy fallout from the Eagles' loss is this: They have nothing to gain from a win in Week 17. Philly is the No. 3 seed. The team can't earn a bye. On Tuesday night, Reid wasn't yet prepared to discuss his start/sit plans for the final week, but it's worth noting that Michael Vick(notes) limped away from the defeat. He took a beating against the Vikings (six sacks, many hits and hurries). DeSean Jackson(notes) (foot) doesn't appear to be 100 percent, either. We could see plenty of Kevin Kolb(notes) and Jerome Harrison(notes) on Sunday. Expect Vick to rest.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks (8:20 pm EST) - Only one of these NFL juggernauts can advance to the postseason. So that's a shame. The winner is in the playoffs, the loser is not. Everyone plays, of course. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) (hip) sounds like he intends to take the field, for better or worse.
New Orleans Saints (vs. TB, 1:00 pm EST) - The defending champs still have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC, so of course they'll roll out the full arsenal against the Bucs. If the Falcons lose and the Saints win — both teams play early in the afternoon, for the record — then New Orleans takes the NFC South title.
Green Bay Packers (vs. CHI, 4:15 pm EST) - It's a simple scenario for the Pack: If they win, they're in the playoffs. If they lose, then the door is open for either the Giants or Bucs. Obviously, Green Bay's skill players are safe.
New York Giants (at WAS, 4:15 pm EST) - The Giants definitely need to beat the Grossmans. They'll also need help from Chicago, a team that could potentially go into shutdown mode. So it's not looking good for New York, but they're still alive. Bad news here, however: Hakeem Nicks(notes) has a broken big toe, so he's no lock to face Washington in Week 17.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at NO, 1:00 pm EST) - All sorts of things need to fall into place for Tampa Bay to sneak into the playoffs, but it's possible. All your Bucs get the green light (except the injured Arrelious Benn(notes)), although the match-up is tricky. The Saints defense ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed (305.5) and sixth in points per game (18.9).
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