For the fantasy owner, Week 17 either means the world or absolutely nothing. You're not likely to find a middle ground. Most leagues settled their championship Sunday to avoid the final week all together. The fear, of course, is that playoff teams with nothing to gain or lose shift into preseason mode in Week 17 and you wind up with Jim Sorgi facing Craig Nall to decide your league title.
You certainly don't want that – but it remains to be seen just how dramatic the drop-off in playing time will be for the likes of Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady and the other stars with nothing to play for but the fortunes of their fantasy owners. Since The Skinny realizes that many of you are tuning out after this week, this week's installment will reflect a bit on the season that was in addition to looking ahead to Week 17.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Need-to-know info from the past few days
- To say that playoff-bound teams have nothing at stake in Week 17 would not be entirely accurate. Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis needs 59 yards against Buffalo to reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the ninth time in his career. If Corey Dillon gains 81 yards against San Francisco, he earns an extra $300,000 in incentives and reaches all $2.25 million in contract bonuses. Donovan McNabb needs to find his go-to guy in Philadelphia. Atlanta would like to avoid limping into the playoffs with a two-game losing streak. LaDainian Tomlinson matches the NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown if he can find the end zone against Kansas City. The list goes on.
Rest matters. Health matters. But don't discount the role Week 17 plays as a tune-up for the playoffs. Continuity matters. So does momentum. Warrick Dunn still bemoans the way his Tampa Bay team coasted into the playoffs in 2001 with a meaningless loss to Philadelphia in the final week. Dunn didn't play. The next week the Bucs came out flat and never contended in a 31-9 loss. As a fantasy owner you have to prepare yourself for the worst by acquiring the necessary backups (Jesse Chatman, Verron Hayes, Dominic Rhodes, etc.), but don't count on having to use them. Listen closely to what coaches are saying in the week to come. They don't have much to lose by revealing how much they plan to play their starters. Keep a close eye on this space as well, as Yahoo! analysts Mike Harmon and Brandon Funston won't be taking the week off either.
- If you stick with it long enough – say, one season – fantasy football will eventually drive you crazy. Case in point: the performances of Willis McGahee and Reuben Droughns in Week 16. You had to be nuts to start either player with confidence. McGahee didn't practice all week and wasn't supposed to start against San Francisco. We knew Droughns would start, but with Tatum Bell breathing down his neck, how long would he be in there? Long enough, in his case, to rush for 91 yards and score three touchdowns. As for McGahee – he not only started, he rushed for 102 yards and two scores. For all the uncertainty surrounding these guys, it turns out the only question that mattered was: Do you have the guts to play them?
For The Skinny, the answer was no. I wouldn't make the same mistake in Week 17. McGahee looked unstoppable against San Francisco, showing no ill effects from the knee injury that sidelined him in Week 15. He even took the fourth quarter off, so he should be ready for 25-plus carries against Pittsburgh Sunday. The Steelers have nothing to play for, and with rain and near-freezing temperature on the extended forecast, you'd better believe their regulars will get plenty of rest. Droughns will face similar opposition against Indianapolis. While Denver is in must-win mode, the Colts have the No. 3 seed in the AFC locked up. Tatum Bell remains a threat, but between dropped passes and key fumbles, the rookie has made just enough mistakes to remain out of the starting lineup. Unlike last week, you'd have to be nuts to sit either McGahee or Droughns in Week 17.
- A few random season-ending observations: Looking back, I think my contention that running backs are overvalued on draft day was validated. Like they do every season, impact running backs surfaced all season. Of the top 10 running backs taken, three can be considered busts (Marshall Faulk, Fred Taylor, Clinton Portis). Jamal Lewis, Ahman Green and Deuce McAllister underachieved. The most popular wide receivers didn't disappoint. Of the top 10 drafted, only Santana Moss was a bust. Hines Ward underachieved but he has an outside shot at a 1,000-yard season. If you didn't grab the top wideouts early, you probably struggled all season at that position. The only difference-making receivers to go undrafted were Muhsin Muhammad, Brandon Stokely, Lee Evans and Eddie Kennison. As I said before the season started, if I had to walk away from the draft table thin at one position I'd select running back.
Consider me among the many who would take Peyton Manning with the first pick if 2005 leagues drafted tomorrow. The argument against drafting quarterbacks early has always been that the drop-off between the best quarterback and the 10th-best QB was negligible. Not so this year, of course. Manning out-scored the 10th best fantasy QB by almost 12 points per week when Yahoo! default scoring is applied. A repeat of his record-breaking season is unlikely, but with all the pieces returning next year, so is a huge letdown. I'm taking Daunte Culpepper second. That may surprise those of you who would take Shaun Alexander or LaDainian Tomlinson as high as No. 1, but Culpepper would likely have 45 touchdown passes of his own had Randy Moss not missed five games. Tomlinson, Alexander and Priest Holmes round out my top five, with a host of wide receivers to follow shortly.
BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues
- Houston Texans Defense
Can you dream up a better fantasy scenario than owning the Houston defense this week? It started in Week 14 when it made Peyton Manning look human. Now it is the hottest defense in fantasy football – having allowed only five points while scoring two defensive touchdowns of its own in the last two weeks. Houston simply manhandled Jacksonville on the road Sunday. The Jags could muster only six first downs and 126 yards of offense against in a game that meant infinitely more to them than their opponents. Next week the Texans have a dream matchup at home against a bumbling Cleveland offense. The Browns are allowing opposing fantasy defenses an average of 18 points per week when Yahoo! default scoring is applied.
- Ladell Betts, RB, Was
A chest strain doesn't sound all that serious, but the way things have gone for Clinton Portis this year, fantasy owners should prepare for the worst. "I hope the injury is not that bad, but who knows," Portis told the Washington Post shortly after leaving Sunday's loss with an injury between his chest and shoulder. He was replaced by Betts, who rushed for 43 yards on a season-high 13 carries against Dallas. Week 17 opponent Minnesota has allowed at least 100 yards or a touchdown to an opposing running back in seven of the last eight weeks and in 12 of 15 games overall.
- Eric Parker, WR, SD
Twice this season San Diego has lost a starter at wideout and twice Parker has elevated his game to fill the void. In Week 6 Reche Caldwell went down in the first quarter and Parker responded with 76 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks ago he had 118 yards and a touchdown in a game that saw Keenan McCardell sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's currently the team's No. 1 option at wide receiver and he's playing like it. Sunday he was targeted 10 times and he delivered seven receptions for 103 yards and a score. San Diego doesn't have much to play for in Week 17 but against Kansas City it doesn't take much. It has allowed 10 touchdowns to opposing wide receivers in its last four games.
MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values
Najeh Davenport, RB, GB – Davenport gained 40 yards on 11 carries Friday and figures to get even more work next week in a meaningless game at Chicago.
Michael Bennett, RB, MIN – For the first time since Week 7, the Vikings gave one back 70 percent of their carries Friday. The result – Bennett racked up 159 total yards and a touchdown.
Teyo Johnson, TE, OAK – For the second consecutive week, Johnson caught three passes and averaged at least 15 yards per reception. Once completely out of favor with the Raiders organization, Johnson now looks like the team's tight end of the future.
Kevan Barlow, RB, SF – A solid effort in Week 17 against New England would go along way toward restoring his credibility with the franchise.
Jesse Chatman, RB, SD – It remains to be seen how much LaDainian Tomlinson will play next week against Kansas City, but if San Diego takes the conservative route, Chatman (6.0 yards/carry) is a viable fantasy option.
Verron Haynes, RB, PIT – Jerome Bettis is just 59 yards shy of his ninth-career 1,000-yard season. Haynes, who has averaged 55 total yards in Pittsburgh's last two wins, should take over from there.
Daniel Graham, TE, NE – Welcome back, Daniel Graham. After going nine games without a score, Graham now has touchdowns in back-to-back games (2 rec., 30 yds., TD Sunday).
Anquan Boldin, WR, ARI – Larry Fitzgerald maintained his torrid touchdown pace, but Boldin was once again Luke McCown's favorite target. He was thrown to nine times and finished with 107 yards and his first touchdown of the season.
Peyton Manning, QB, IND – With the single-season touchdown record and a first-round home game intact, the Colts have little to play for next Sunday at Denver. The Broncos, on the other hand, will be fighting for their playoff lives at home, where they have allowed only eight touchdown passes in seven games.
Brett Favre, QB, GB – The Packers locked up the NFC North Friday along with the No. 3 seed in the conference, rendering next Sunday's game at Chicago meaningless. Favre will play, but how much? Downgrade Ahman Green, Donald Driver and Javon Walker in similar fashion.
Jerry Rice, WR, SEA – Koren Robinson didn't play a huge role off the bench in his return from suspension, but Rice was targeted only twice Sunday. He didn't have a catch for the first time since Week 6.
Plaxico Burress, WR, PIT – It was great to see Plax back in action and effective (3 rec., 97 yds., TD) Sunday. He and Big Ben still make good time together, but it will be Tommy Maddox and a whole lot of runnin' next week against Buffalo.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Eyebrow-raising numbers
64 Number of different receivers who have caught touchdown passes from Vinny Testaverde during his 18-year career. The 41-year-old set the new NFL standard Sunday when he connected with rookie Patrick Crayton, who was eight years old when Vinny made his NFL debut.