Fantasy leagues that play through Week 17 always run the risk of having the player pool drained just a bit with playoff teams that are locked into seeds giving their stars a rest. That could very well be the case this week for two high-profile teams with stud quarterbacks, the Patriots and Colts.
Let’s start with New England, who clinched home-field advantage in the AFC by dint of their win over the Jets and the Broncos’ loss to the Bengals last week. The Patriots feature a number of players who could doubtlessly use a rest. Julian Edelman sat out last week’s game because of a concussion, and had been playing through a thigh injury for a couple weeks. Brandon LaFell and LeGarrette Blount are each nursing minor injuries, too, with Blount missing the win over the Jets because of his shoulder issue. Fantasy owners can survive absences from any of those three players this week. It’s another story for the other two fantasy-relevant players on the Patriots.
Rob Gronkowski is not currently dealing with any injury problems, but one wrong move could crush the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes. Gronk has had a way of getting injured at the worst possible times, and Week 17 of a season in which the Patriots have already locked up the top seed would qualify as such. The Patriots don’t stand to gain anything this week, and this isn’t an offense that needs to find a rhythm heading into the postseason. They found it three months ago. Don’t be surprised if Gronk ends up a spectator for a large chunk of this week’s game against the Bills.
Then there’s Tom Brady, who could join Gronkowski on the sidelines for much of this game. Brady, too, is as healthy as he could be heading into Week 17, but only bad things could happen to him by playing in a game that is essentially meaningless for the Patriots. It would be foolhardy to predict what Bill Belichick is going to do, but it would be a small shock if we didn’t see Jimmy Garoppolo for at least part of the final game of the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Colts will be the No. 4 seed on the AFC side of the playoff bracket, win or lose against the Titans this week. Andrew Luck will almost certainly be without his best receiver, T.Y. Hilton, who is still working his way back from a hamstring injury. The Colts likely aren’t going to start Matt Hasselbeck under center, but it would not be surprising if he made an appearance in this game. Luck and Brady have been two of the best fantasy quarterbacks this season, but they can’t be trusted for fantasy purposes in Week 17 because of the situations, in reality, for their respective teams.
So to whom can you turn if you need an emergency replacement at quarterback this week? Teddy Bridgewater has a great matchup with the Bears, who have allowed the second-most points to quarterbacks this season. Bridgewater seems to be figuring things out as the season progresses, and he really has something budding with receiver Charles Johnson. Bridgewater remains widely available, and is worth a look if you’re unsure of playing Brady or Luck.
You could also look to the quarterback who will be opposing Bridgewater’s Vikings. Jay Cutler may have been thrown back into the waiver wire dustbin in your league after the Bears started Jimmy Clausen last week. Clausen suffered a concussion in that game, so it will once again be Cutler at the helm when the Bears’ nightmare season mercifully comes to an end. In the Bears’ 21-13 win over the Vikings last month, Cutler completed 31 of his 43 pass attempts for 330 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. If he’s available in your league, he’s well worth starting over Brady or Luck.
Week 17 appears safe for most owners
Other than the above-mentioned Patriots or Colts, most of the league’s stars should be handling their normal duties this week. That is thanks, in part, to a still-murky playoff picture, at least in terms of where the teams will be seeded.
Ten of the 12 total playoff spots have been locked up, with one earmarked for the Falcons or Panthers. However, of the teams that have clinched a playoff spot, only the Patriots and Colts are locked into their current seeds. The late slot on Sunday afternoon features games between the Lions and Packers, Rams and Seahawks, Panthers and Falcons, and Cardinals and 49ers. All of those games have significant playoff implications. The winner of the Lions-Packers game will get a bye, and could even be the top overall seed if the Seahawks lose to the Rams. The loser, meanwhile, will be playing on the road, likely at Dallas, in the first week of the playoffs. That’s a huge reward for taking the NFC North crown.
The Seahawks need to win to lock up home-field advantage in the NFC. They’re already among the hottest teams in the league, with Russell Wilson playing his best football of late. If they can ensure the road to the Super Bowl runs through Seattle, they’d likely enter the postseason as the favorite to again hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
It all wraps up Sunday night, with the Bengals and Steelers meeting in Pittsburgh with the AFC North title on the line. At the very least, the winner will get a home game against the No. 6 seed. It’s improbable that the Broncos lose to the Raiders, but if that does happen, the winner would then get a first-round bye.
Then there are the Chargers, Ravens, Texans and Chiefs, all of which are still alive for the final spot in the playoffs in the AFC. The Chargers are in the driver’s seat. If they beat the Chiefs, they’re in the postseason. If they lose, that opens the door for the other three. The Ravens would move into pole position with a Chargers loss. If both San Diego and Baltimore lose, control devolves upon Houston, which would then qualify for the playoffs with a win over the Jaguars. It all circles back to the Chiefs, the team that would kickstart this craziness by beating the Chargers. If they do so and the Ravens and Texans both lose, the Chiefs would be the sixth and final seed on the AFC side.
This was all an elaborate way of saying that Week 17 doesn’t take too big a bite of the fantasy apple this season. You only need to worry about your Patriots, Colts and maybe Cowboys, who still have an outside shot at getting a first-round bye.
Devonta Freeman -- Check back on this over the weekend before putting Freeman in your lineups. Steven Jackson is dealing with a quad injury and could very well sit out of the NFC South play-in game against the Panthers. Even if he does play, he could be limited. Freeman would certainly take on a larger role if that were the case. He racked up 84 yards on just eight touches last week, and could thrive against a bad Carolina run defense.
Charles Johnson -- Johnson had his breakout game against the Bears, catching six passes for 87 yards. He has had at least seven fantasy points in three of the five games since, twice breaking into double digits. The Bears present nearly as good a matchup for receivers as they do for quarterbacks. Johnson makes a solid flex play in 12-team leagues.
Toby Gerhart -- Gerhart surged back into the fantasy consciousness last week, running for 53 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. Of course, that came against the Titans, one of the worst rush defenses in the league. On top of that, he suffered a rib injury that held him out for the entire fourth quarter. Gerhart should not be trusted against the Texans this week.
Martavis Bryant -- After his ridiculous touchdown streak to start the season, Bryant has been completely silent. He had a 94-yard touchdown late in Pittsburgh’s win over Cincinnati in Week 14. Remove that from the equation, and Bryant has a total of 10 catches for 124 yards and zero scores in his last five games. Fantasy owners shouldn’t have any confidence in him for Week 17.