Fair warning: It’s going to get ugly on Sunday. You probably already suspect this, but it’s funny how often a full season of football can make fans forget just how brutal the final, sometimes-meaningless, sometimes-critical games of the season can get. Weird things are going to happen. Star players are going to sit — or start, then play a little bit, then sit, which, for our purposes is even worse.
Coaches with nothing to play for but their jobs (or in the case of coordinators, better jobs) are going to call strange plays they have had in their back pocket all year but haven’t had a chance to use. Coaches who already know they’ll be playing next week will go to great lengths to avoid calling their best plays, lest a playoff opponent get them on film. And coaches with their seasons on the line are going to bust out every trick in the book and run with any hand that gets even lukewarm.
If you’re playing fantasy football this week, you shouldn’t be — but just know that however much luck you typically think is involved in determining a weekly winner, you can safely up it by 50 per cent.
If you’ve got a pick ’em pool to play, be ready to make some choices that look bad–like, hilariously bad–on paper, and hopefully you’ll reap the benefits later.
We won’t pretend to know how this week will unfold. We can’t predict Week 7, let alone Week 17. But between the playoff scenarios and the reports from practice and our own inexhaustible appetite for football, we’ve put together a list of 17 items that should leave you as prepared as it’s possible to be for whatever the hell is about to happen on Sunday. Good luck.
1. Above all else in Week 17, know which teams actually control their own destiny and need only a win, with no help in other games, to secure their position. This week, that’s New England, Denver, the New York Jets, Houston, Carolina and — of course — Green Bay and Minnesota, who will vie for the NFC North title on Sunday night.
2. Almost as important is knowing which teams are absolutely locked into their playoff seedings and have no reason to risk injury or commit their best plays to film. On Sunday, that group will include only Washington and Seattle — though it’s also hard to imagine Arizona and Cincinnati going all out for 60 minutes considering that they both have clinched spots and now have relatively little control of where they end up.
3. It’s been nine years since Tom Brady lost consecutive division games. The Patriots lost to the Jets last week and get the Dolphins on Sunday. Brady also needs 364 passing yards to hit 5,000 for the second time in his career. The foot is staying on the gas pedal in this one, is what I’m saying.
4. Without Dez Bryant and Alshon Jeffrey, Terrance Williams and Zach Miller saw 10 and eight targets, respectively, for the Cowboys and Bears last week. Both Jeffrey and Bryant were placed on IR this week. In Week 17 of fantasy football, opportunity is all you’re looking for. These two will have it.
5. Need a random running back this week? Denard Robinson has been mostly bad in relief of T.J. Yeldon, and the Jaguars say they want to “get a good look” at Jonas Gray.
6. The Indianapolis Colts, with the tiniest sliver of playoff life heading into Week 17, will almost certainly be starting one of Stephen Morris, Josh Freeman or Ryan Lindley at quarterback. But they’re facing a horrendous Titans team that will also be starting a backup quarterback so Indy should still manage to come away with a win.
7. What the Colts situation does kill, however, is the fantasy value of any Colt except perhaps Frank Gore. Gore has 891 yards this year and says he wants 1,000. Tennessee is a nice matchup on the ground and, as mentioned above, the Colts cannot do anything through the air. Sit T.Y. Hilton and every other Colts pass catcher. Start Gore.
8. Teddy Bridgewater’s last three games? Six touchdowns, 734 yards passing, no interceptions and a rushing touchdown. Aaron Rodgers last three games? Four touchdowns, 573 yards passing and two interceptions. Just saying.
9. Adrian Peterson has more rushing yards this season than Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined. Just saying.
10. The Vikings defence is ranked 14th in the NFL by yards per game. The Packers are 19th.
11. It’s going to be hard to go into a prime time game for a division title and not back Aaron Rodgers at home. That’s a scary prospect, and we’re not necessarily suggesting you must take the Vikings. But as you make your decision, keep this in mind: by almost every measure, Minnesota has been the better team in 2015, especially over the last month.
12. Ryan Fitzpatrick is healthy and ready to go for the Jets, the Buffalo Bills are a huge mess and have already let slip that Mario Williams, one of their defensive captains, will be cut in the off-season and as much as Rex Ryan has talked up this Sunday’s tilt against his old team as their Super Bowl…it’s not. The Jets have everything to play for and with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, now have veterans who can close the deal with the playoffs on the line.
13. If Rams super rookie Todd Gurley (last seen missing practice and wearing a walking boot) can’t go against the 49ers, then you almost certainly want to grab Tre Mason or Benny Cunningham off the wire and plug them in. The reports are that Mason will start, but those in PPR leagues should take note that Cunningham has been more effective than Mason and will likely gobble up all the backfield targets. The 49ers have one of the worst run defences in football, and the Rams can’t really pass and…well, it’s Week 17, neither of these teams is going anywhere and when everyone is playing out the string, the little-used guy who gets the surprise start might be the most motivated man on the field.
14. It sounds like the Eagles offence won’t be changing drastically in their first game without Chip Kelly calling the plays.
What does that mean for fantasy? It means Sam Bradford, Zach Ertz (quietly becoming a top-five TE) and Jordan Matthews are all eminently startable in a plum matchup against the Giants. If you want to get cute (or are just tired of having him rotting on the bench) it may be interesting to see if DeMarco Murray gets his lead dog status back now that Kelly’s gone.
15. Peyton Manning will be healthy and active for the Broncos this week, but he won’t be on the field. Unless, of course, Brock Osweiler takes a few more sacks and everyone gets nervous. This doesn’t mean much for fantasy or gambling, but how strange will it be to see a healthy Peyton Manning as a backup quarterback?!
16. As the Saints playoff hopes have slipped away, Drew Brees has found his game again. Inconsistent early in the year, it’s now been more than a month since Brees threw for less than two touchdowns or fewer than 282 yards — and he’s averaging 2.75 TDs and 337 yards in his last four games. The Falcons will be looking to end coach Dan Quinn’s season on a positive note and should play hard, but since the Saints defence makes every game a shootout anyway, we’d fire up Brees as one of the week’s most solid daily fantasy plays.
17. This isn’t a fact, just a final reminder not to lean too much towards predictable outcomes. If you look at your fantasy lineup or your picks against the spread and see conventional wisdom across the board, you’re doing Week 17 wrong. Good luck.