Week 17, while the most worthless week of fantasy, is still set to decide some fantasy championships -- for better or worse. It is made more difficult by the amount of players shut down for the season or potentially resting for the NFL postseason.
With 10 of the 12 playoff spots already sewn up, there are more teams playing out the string than actually playing for something this week. Only two divisions (NFC East and West) and one wild-card (NFC No. 6 seed) remain in play and those teams that lose out there can still make it as wild cards.
BURKE: Actives/inactives for Week 17
We present the most in-depth Cheat Sheet of the season on SI.com with just about all the permutations possible and even chip in a bonus top-10 strategies for those weekly salary-cap games you might be playing in this week and through the NFL postseason:
1. Games with both teams playing for the postseason.
There are some games with both teams playing for huge stakes. Here are the games you should feel confident will be played until the final whistle on both sides:
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins: Regardless of whether the Redskins clinch at least a wild card before the Sunday night game -- they can if the Vikings lose at home to the Packers and the Bears lose at Detroit -- they will be playing for home-field advantage in the wild-card round as NFC East champs. Dallas must win to get in, while the Redskins will want that home game. This makes the following players must-starts in the season's final game and a great way to keep your championship hopes alive to the final fantasy whistle as well:
Cowboys: Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Sleeper: K Dan Bailey.
Redskins: Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and Pierre Garcon. Sleeper: K Kai Forbath.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: This will be the most-watched 1 p.m. game, because of Adrian Peterson's bid for the single-season rushing record, but the Vikings are fighting for the last remaining wild-card spot, while the Packers are playing for a first-round bye, too. Both can still make it with losses and help, but that help won't come until late in the day. Both are certain to be fighting until the end to leave nothing to chance. There are more sleepers than sure things here, so if you're looking for stopgap help, this is a good place to look.
Sure-thing, must-starts: Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson.
Solid starts: James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Packers D/ST (Packers); Kyle Rudolph and Blair Walsh (Vikings)
Stopgap options: Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Mason Crosby.
Question marks to avoid: Alex Green, Ryan Grant and Randall Cobb (ankle) (Packers); Christian Ponder, Jarius Wright and Vikings D/ST (Vikings)
2. Games with a playoff team versus one salvaging its pride.
These games below are good places to look for fantasy starts because one team is playing for its life, while the other has a significant reason (or two) to not fold completely on the other side.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: The Bears need a victory and a Vikings loss against the Packers, while the Lions coaching staff has their jobs on the line as much as Calvin Johnson's bid to be the first 2,000-yard receiver, so this one be played like there's no tomorrow.
Sure-thing, must-starts: Matt Forte (ankle), Brandon Marshall and Bears D/ST (Bears); Calvin Johnson (Lions)
Viable starts: Jay Cutler and Olindo Mare (Bears); Matthew Stafford, Mikel LeShoure, Tony Scheffler and Jason Hanson (Lions)
Question marks to avoid: Joique Bell, Kris Durham, Brandon Pettigrew and Lions D/ST.
Desperation/darkhorse sleeper: Alshon Jeffery.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: The Texans are playing for home-field advantage, or a first-round bye, and can get it with a loss, but they won't know that until after their game. They're sure to play this one full-go. On the other side, the Colts are playing for the return of cancer-surviving coach Chuck Pagano, even if their No. 5 seed is locked up. This is the Colts' Super Bowl and they vowed to play it all the way through. We should believe they will.
Sure-thing, must-starts: Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne.
Viable starts: Matt Schaub, Owen Daniels, Shayne Graham and Texans D/ST (Texans); Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Adam Vinatieri (Colts)
Risks best not taken: Justin Forsett, Kevin Walter, Keyshawn Martin and Lestar Jean (Texans); Vick Ballard, Delone Carter, Donnie Avery, Coby Fleener and Colts D/ST (Colts)
Desperation/darkhorse sleeper: Ben Tate.
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants: The Giants need a victory, along with losses by the Bears, Vikings and Cowboys. It is not impossible at the time of their 1 p.m. game, so expect them to play hard as they play out the string. They are difficult to trust, though, as they have struggled for fantasy owners for weeks. As for the Eagles, the coaching staff is a lame duck, but Michael Vick and the staff are fighting for their careers. They should give a good effort to end a season full of terrible ones.
You should expect good efforts from: Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Alex Henery (Eagles); Victor Cruz and Lawrence Tynes (Giants)
You should be wary of: Bryce Brown, Riley Cooper, Jason Avant, Brent Celek and Eagles D/ST (Eagles); Eli Manning, Ahmad Bradshaw, David Wilson, Hakeem Nicks, Martellus Bennett and Giants D/ST (Giants)
3. Games where one playoff-bound team will dominate to secure a better seed.
There are four games where a playoff team is playing a team with nothing to gain except higher draft position. Expect blowouts here and potentially load on the players on the right side of these results.
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: The Pats will already host a playoff game, but they can win and go up to the No. 2 seed (with a Texans or Broncos loss) or the No. 1 seed (with a Texans and Broncos loss). It is reason enough to expect Bill Belchick to keep the foot on the gas pedal against a division rival that somehow plays them tough. It will be very un-Miami-like weather, though, for the Dolphins. It is forecasted to be windy, in addition to snowy (potentially) and cold.
Must-starts: Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Stephen Gostkowski.
Viable starts: Stevan Ridley, Reggie Bush and Patriots D/ST.
Risks best avoided: Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski (Patriots); Ryan Tannehill, Lamar Miller, Brian Hartline, Marlon Moore, Armon Binns, Anthony Fasano, Dan Carpenter and Dolphins D/ST (Dolphins)
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: The Cardinals coaching staff faces the axe, while the 49ers need a victory or Seattle loss to the Rams (doubtful) to win the NFC West. Expect a great effort here out of the 49ers, at least.
Must-starts: Frank Gore and 49ers D/ST.
Solid starts: Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree.
Sleepers: Randy Moss, Delanie Walker and David Akers.
Sits: Vernon Davis (concussion), Beanie Wells, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd and Cardinals D/ST.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have the No. 5 seed locked up, but they can rise all the way to No. 2 and a first-round bye. They need a victory and a 49ers loss to win a home playoff game (imagine how important that is for Seattle with its 12th man). If they win the division and the Packers loss, the Seahawks might even get a bye and a second-round home game. That's ostensibly a berth in the NFC Championship game, potentially at home. Expect the Seahawks best against a Rams team that has played tough all season. It's not a Jeff Fisher team's DNA to fold.
Must-starts: Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Seahawks D/ST.
Viable starts, as needed: Steven Jackson, Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Steven Hauschka.
Risks best not taken: Robert Turbin, Zach Miller, Sam Bradford, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Chris Givens, Lance Kendricks, Greg Zuerlein and Rams D/ST.
Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Not only is Denver one of the toughest places to play, but the Broncos will need a victory to clinch a first-round bye because there is very little chance the Dolphins beat the Pats in their 1 p.m. game. This one should get out of hand. You will want to have your Broncos active for this tail-kicking.
Must-starts: Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Matt Prater and Broncos D/ST.
Viable starts: Knowshon Moreno and Jamaal Charles.
Risks best avoided: Ronnie Hillman, Brandon Stokley and Joel Dreessen.
Guys you shouldn't even wish on your opponent's lineup: Brady Quinn, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin, Dexter McCluster, Jacob Tamme, Ryan Succop and Chiefs D/ST.
4. Games where one playoff team has nothing at stake.
The next two are games where it actually benefits a playoff-bound team to do nothing but rest their stars. These are the dangerous games that represent the reason(s) your league made a mistake deciding its champion in Week 17. There are some great players here that might play very little, if at all. We try to guide you on whether to trust the stars here, or ride some backups.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Doug Martin will be polishing off his Rookie of the Year resume, even if it's a losing battle against the rookie QBs (RGIII, Wilson and Luck), while the Falcons will be deciding whether to keep their offensive continuity or preserve their health as they head into their postseason bye as the clinched No. 1 seed. The fact(s) this game is being played in front of the home fans, against the worst pass defense in the NFL and the Falcons will already have the wild-card weekend to rest, help slightly in trusting some of your elite Falcons. For instance, we expect Matt Ryan to play at least a half with his primary targets and post around 180 yards and two TDs. Those are good enough numbers for many fantasy owners to keep him and his leading receivers active. The Falcons vowed to plan to play this game to win, and they should get it in the bag early before calling off the dogs.
Must-starts: Doug Martin and Matt Byrant.
Start if you don't have great alternatives: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Tony Gonzalez, Connor Barth and Falcons D/ST.
Consider only if you are desperate or expect the starters to play very little: Josh Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, Mike Williams, Harry Douglas and Dallas Clark.
Avoid: Luke McCown and Michael Turner.
5. A game where two playoff teams have nothing to play for.
There is actually a game to be more worried about in fantasy than that Bucs-Falcons matchup. At least the Falcons are playing for continuity heading into the bye. The Falcons game is akin to a dress rehearsal like a preseason Week 3 game. This one is akin to a preseason Week 4 where the starters might play just a series, if they don't sit entirely.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: The Ravens are already certain to host the Colts next week, while the Bengals are certain to be going on the road to New England, Denver or Houston -- three awful places to play. The Ravens and Bengals have far too many reasons to sit everyone and let the backups get some work just in case they're needed in the postseason. They need this rest more than any other teams in the NFL.
Starters too elite to sit: Ray Rice and A.J. Green.
Viable fantasy plays who won't be rested for next week: Justin Tucker and Ravens D/ST (Ravens); Josh Brown and Bengals D/ST (Bengals)
Sit these guys if you have viable alternatives: Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson (Ravens); Andy Dalton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Peerman, Brian Leonard and Jermaine Gresham (Bengals)
Desperation/darkhorse sleepers if you're expecting the reserves to take over: Bernard Pierce (Ravens); Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones (Bengals)
6-15. Some insider guidance on those weekly salary-cap games.
Fantasy isn't turning away from the classic league-based format, but those weekly/daily salary-cap games are gaining steam and will be about the only way to play fantasy through the NFL postseason. Websites like FanDuel.com, DraftDay.com, DailyJoust.com, DraftKings.com and 365fantasysports.com are great places to keep fantasy football alive in January and Week 17, if your league has a brain and doesn't decide its champion when NFL teams are mailing in their season.
We picked the brains of some of DraftDay.com's top money winners and cobbled together some advice on how to determine your weekly lineups. Here are the top 10 highlights from their strategies, some of which you can use (loosely) to help your set your traditional fantasy game lineups, too, perhaps:
1. Pay attention to the oddsmakers.
Arguably the best advice gleamed from the professional fantasy players we surveyed was that of DraftDay.com's $100,000 fantasy championship winner John Lowery. He gave us this pearl of wisdom this fantasy writer has long kept in the back of his mind but might turn to a partial focus of 2013's weekly analysis:
"I look at NFL odds to get a feel for high-scoring games or perhaps risky plays due to blowouts," Lowery says.
If you use that advice this week, look to the Panthers at Saints game with the highest over-under number set around 54 points. There are some obvious players to love in Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Marques Colston, Steve Smith, Jimmy Graham and the kickers. You might also consider the running backs like Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram (especially with Pierre Thomas out) and DeAngelo Williams (especially with Jonathan Stewart out).
The next highest numbers come from the following fantasy gems of games: Dallas-Washington (49) and Houston-Indianapolis (46.5). On the contrary, the bad games to consider fantasy starts from are these expected low-scoring tilts: Cleveland-Pittsburgh (off the board due to Cleveland's QB uncertainty), New York (Jets)-Buffalo (39), Oakland-San Diego (39), Arizona-San Francisco (39).
As for the blowout games, they were all matchups we previously warned about: Kansas City-Denver (-16.5), Arizona-San Francisco (-15.5), St. Louis-Seattle (-10), Miami-New England (-10) and Cleveland-Pittsburgh (-10).
2. QB or not QB, that is the question.
We already lead with this in the Week 16 Fantasy Football Fast Forward, but we reiterate that the high-scoring QB position should be where you start your fantasy team. It is here where you score the most points, even if RBs might have traditionally generated the most of our fantasy attention.
One of DraftDay.com's top money winners Keith Beaulieu explains: "I like to take a solid to premier QB. The lower tier QB's salary lets you build a strong team around them, but I feel like it's a losing method. I'd rather take a QB I consider to be in the top 5 and build around that."
3. Gather the wisdom of the crowd.
Fantasy analysts don't want you in on this secret, but you're best served by weighing the advice of several different sources. Our fantasy pros respondents almost universally agreed it is wise to compare projections, news and injury information from multiple sources.
Kevin Kelly of Irvington, N.Y., starts with this one in his successful salary-cap strategy. He said he gathers the projections from multiple sources and then compares them to the weekly salaries determined by the host site (his being DraftDay.com).
Fantasy calls the multiple-source strategy the wisdom of the crowd. Believe it or not, the masses of fantasy users get us closest to reality than any one fantasy analyst over the long haul. For this reason, average draft positions, ownership percentages and starting percentages generally guide much of this fantasy analyst's weekly advice.
4. Make an algorithm to determine undervalued players.
OK, most of the fantasy public has no idea what an algorithm is, much less how to make or use one. It is basically just formulating an objective way (something without personal bias) to compare players on a weekly basis.
This is how one Cory Albertson puts around $10,000 in play on DraftDay.com on a weekly basis and doesn't lose his house. It also shouldn't surprise you that he is one of that website's top money winners.
"I use an algorithm I created to determine which players I deem favorable relative to the salary price at DraftDay," he says. "Then, due to the variance of any one week of fantasy, I enter 50-100 unique lineups, built around the players I like, into as many contests as I can find. It takes about 4-6 hours but makes for a fun Sunday and Monday night."
(You thought your fantasy play was an addiction? Explain Albertson's psychoneurosis to your significant other. He or she won't think you're so bad off.)
5. Focus on players with the best opportunities.
Finding inefficiency in the fantasy marketplace (to borrow a fantasy baseball phrase made popular by Moneyball) can be done in three ways: Touches, injuries and matchups.
"Injuries play a big factor," Beaulieu says. "Anytime a starter goes down an opportunity arises for his backup to shine."
It's not just analyzing the status of the injured guy, but you must look at the opportunity he potentially gives to someone else, too.
Touches, injuries and matchups represent a three-pronged strategy where most fantasy analysts focus their efforts, but it still has to be mentioned here. The players who get the most touches, gain touches due to injuries to starters and have favorable matchups obviously make for the best plays.
"I look at defensive rankings versus run and pass to try to pick on certain teams and their weakness with their opponents," Lowery says.
6. Set many different lineups to protect yourself against players potentially going bust.
Here is a strategy you cannot necessarily employ in traditional fantasy games, save for getting into as many yearly fantasy leagues as possible.
"I have learned the importance of protecting yourself from the variance of fantasy sports by putting together different combinations of the players you like, since there will inevitably be some who underperform and ruin your lineup," Albertson says in his weekly games.
Even with a lot of good advice and strategies, the best-laid plans can go bust in fantasy any given week or season. The more games you can play with good, sound decisions and strategy, the more likely you are to come out ahead.
7. Play in games that reward solid, but not necessarily great scores.
This one is a bit of abstract idea, but Kelly says his bread-and-butter in DraftDay.com games are those that pay out winners to half of the field.
"I aim to choose players for 50/50 games that perform consistently (i.e. low variance) and provide good value," he says. "I do this because you don't need to hit the home run in these games, since all you have to do is score higher than half of the players in the game."
For that reason, you should lobby your commissioner to change your yearly league's pool payouts to guarantee a playoff team their money back at least. Sure, it means the champion isn't going break the bank, but your fantasy championship rarely winds up being the year-long strongest fantasy team. The one that wins the championship is more likely merely the one got the luckiest at the end.
Spreading the wealth to the strongest half of your league (say the top six in a standard 12-team format) is the most fair and the best way to guarantee a solid fantasy player a piece of the pie.
8. Throw your hat into some large-field games and hope to get lucky.
Lowery won the Week 15 $100,000 Championship at DraftDay.com, while Kelly also likes to hit on large-field games for the promise of a big prize. There are no guarantees when you play against a lot of players, because someone is bound to be luckier than the most-skilled players, but more players contributing to the pool means more money and, potentially, more bad money.
You can play the large-field games on the daily sites, or petition to expand your yearly league to 14-, 16- or even 18-team format. The more guys you play against, the more likely you are to capitalize on bad players.
9. Watch, and record, the games and take copious notes.
This one is fairly obvious, if you have the time. The more you watch, listen and read, the more knowledgeable you are going to be about all aspects of the fantasy game and the NFL teams.
"This is the best way to prepare for the next week in my opinion," Lowery says. "I make notes of some of what I see and add that to next week's study sheets."
If you can't take the time to do this yourself, just trust yours truly will do it every week for you (smiley face).
10. Kickers are least important.
All veteran fantasy-leaguers know this, but it needs to be re-emphasized for the salary-cap game neophytes, even if they're veterans of the fantasy game. Many tend to buy a pricier kicker for the presumed certainty he provides, but, as we learned above, there are no sure things in fantasy. The cheapest kicker has just as much potential in any given week as the highest-priced one.
Beaulieu works backward when setting his lineup.
"It's the one position where their production is more dependent on game situations than their actual performance," he says. "For this reason, I generally start with the cheapest kicker, once the rest of my lineup is set, I use what is leftover to upgrade my kicker but never worry too much about that slot."
This kind of advice would have been useful months ago, but you can also clip and save it for 2013 use. In the meantime, good luck in the final week of the NFL regular season.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. Come back Sunday night for his final Fantasy Football Fast Forward, where you gives you a real early look at a 2013 draft. You find also him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice or challenging him to a head-to-head fantasy game @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).