Tuesday December 29th, 2015

Being a fantasy owner whose season goes through Week 17 is kind of like being the honeydew in a fruit salad—there’s no shortage of love for a fruit salad, but the honeydew in it is always forgotten and left behind. Everyone refers to Week 16 as championship week, not Week 17. When Week 17 owners are looking for lineup advice, most of the fantasy coverage they can find is focused on wrapping up the current season and looking ahead to the next one. Week 17 owners need start/sit advice, and yet all they can find is columns about fantasy MVPs and early takes on 2016 rankings.

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But good news, Week 17 fantasy owners! SI.com is your salvation this season. We’ll help you get ready for the final week of your season with the advice you need. The logic for wrapping up leagues in Week 16 is sound: Teams at both the bottom and top of the standings have nothing to play for. As such, they may end up resting players. For the good teams, it’s their starters they need healthy for the playoffs; for the bad ones, it’s the insignificantly injured players who stand to gain nothing by going out there for one more game at 80 or 90% strength. That’s why the vast majority of fantasy leagues stay away from Week 17 altogether.

But not you, kind reader and Week 17 owner. You’re brazen and daring. You’re irreverent and have no use for conventional wisdom. You need some help navigating the Week 17 minefield. When setting your lineups this week, make sure to have the following points in mind.

Just one team is an obvious candidate for benching starters

The Carolina Panthers are 14–1 and have been in control of the NFC all season. The Cardinals are right behind them at 13–2 and may very well be the Super Bowl favorites heading into the postseason. The Patriots have already clinched their 13th AFC East title in the last 15 seasons. The Seahawks were arguably the hottest team in football before losing to the Rams last week. All of them, however, have something to play for. There is, in fact, just one playoff team with absolutely nothing on the line in Week 17, and that team resides in the nation’s capital. Yes, Washington, a team some believed would be the worst in the NFL this season, is locked into the No. 4 seed in the NFC, and has the luxury of resting its starters, if it so chooses.

Whether or not the brain trust chooses to do that remains to be seen. The one guy who will almost certainly be inactive is DeSean Jackson. The receiver has dealt with a couple of leg injuries this season and is absolutely crucial to Washington’s chances to advance in the playoffs. There’s no way they’ll risk his health in a meaningless game. Kirk Cousins and Jordan Reed could play a half, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either of them, especially Reed, sit this one out. Even if they do play, you can’t count on them as fantasy starters. Jay Gruden hasn’t come out and said it, but there’s no chance either plays more than a half.

Colt McCoy will likely take over for Cousins, either as a one-week spot starter or in relief after Cousins gets in some work against the Cowboys. Even if he does get the nod, he is not a fantasy option.

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Pierre Garcon could be in line for more targets with Jackson and Reed expected to get some rest. Chris Thompson and Jamison Crowder could also get additional work as the secondary options in the passing game. All are still low-level fantasy targets. Washington could also choose to rest some of its defensive regulars, but it could trot out an entire team of third-stringers, and Darren McFadden would still be the only Cowboy worth playing in any fantasy format. Nothing changes on Dallas’s side of the ball due to Washington’s playoff status.

One player you still won’t see is Robert Griffin III. The much-maligned quarterback’s contract becomes guaranteed for 2016 if he is injured this year, and that’s a risk Washington, wisely, is not willing to take.

All your Panthers, Cardinals, Chiefs, Broncos and Seahawks are safe to play

The NFL did a great job using its flex scheduling ability to make Week 17 as compelling as possible. The Panthers and Cardinals are still competing for home field advantage on the NFC side of the bracket. The AFC West crown still hangs in the balance, and the Broncos are also a win away from securing a first-round bye (even if the Bengals lose to the Ravens, the Broncos still need to win to get a bye). Seattle enters Week 17 as the No. 6 seed in the NFC but can move up to No. 5, which would bring a seemingly more favorable matchup against Washington instead of the NFC North champion. All five of those teams kick off at 4:25 p.m., with the Vikings and Packers meeting at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football. That means none will have the benefit of seeing what their direct competition does this week before taking the field. It also means that the fantasy community can safely expect all those teams to play this Sunday as they normally would, even though they’re already headed to the postseason.

That’s great news for fantasy owners, especially when you consider the details of these rosters. Cam Newton, Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson are top-five quarterbacks this season. David Johnson has turned himself into a legitimate RB1. These five teams give us seven regular starters at wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, Jeremy Maclin, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Doug Baldwin) and two more at tight end (Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce). All should be deployed as usual this week.

That doesn’t mean they’ll be completely tweak-free

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Just because 11 of the 12 playoff teams still have something to play for doesn’t mean their fantasy outputs will be right on the straight and narrow on Sunday. The Panthers host the Buccaneers, a team they should be able to beat without Jonathan Stewart’s services. You can expect him to sit again, giving him a full month off to nurse his foot injury. If the Panthers indeed take care of the Buccaneers and have the NFC’s top seed well in hand in the second half, you can bet on Carson Palmer and the rest of his fellow Arizona starters getting an early trip to the sidelines. Seattle would likely prefer a trip to Washington over one to Green Bay or Minnesota, but it’s not as though that will make a huge difference to them. After all, they just destroyed the Vikings in Minneapolis less than one month ago. The Seahawks would certainly rather be fully healthy in the upper Midwest in the Wild Card round than down a key player in the mid-Atlantic. They, too, could take their foot off the gas pedal.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have already guaranteed they’ll be resting comfortably at home during the wild-card round. They need either a win over the Dolphins Sunday or a Broncos loss to the Chargers to earn home field advantage. Should they get out to a big lead, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski could give way to Jimmy Garoppolo and Scott Chandler a bit earlier than their fantasy owners would like. That, of course, is no reason to avoid this pair of stars. If they do build that lead to a point where they could get a third-quarter trip to the showers, Brady and Gronkowski will have had a lot to do with it.

Extenuating circumstances matter more than ever in Week 17

Lamar Miller is likely on his way out of Miami, while Matt Forte probably has just one game left in a Bears uniform. Both teams could have their successors on the roster already, and both players would submarine their free agency attractiveness with an injury. They could be two of the many players who will be circumstantially driven to less playing time than expected.

Marcus Mariota is dealing with a knee injury that he could probably play through if there were something worthwhile at stake. There isn’t for the 3–11 Titans. In fact, a loss guarantees them the top pick in the 2016 draft. Don’t bet on seeing Mariota on Sunday. The same goes for LeSean McCoy, upon whom the Bills will be relying next season. He’ll likely give way to Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee again this week. Tyler Eifert’s concussion may not keep him on the sideline if the Bengals needed a win to get in the playoffs, but with their spot secure the team should give him another week to recover and get ready for the postseason. In addition to seeing more of Jeremy Langford, the Bears aren’t going to force Alshon Jeffery onto the field in a meaningless coda against the Lions. In other words, if you’re banking on a slightly injured player on a team with nothing to play for, you might want to prepare other options.

Awards and records watch

Julio Jones and Antonio Brown will finish this season first and second in receptions and receiving yards in some order. That order is still to be determined. Jones has 127 catches for 1,722 yards. Brown has racked up 129 grabs for 1,698 yards. Jones has the cushiest matchup possible for a receiver, going up against the Saints to end his 2015 season. Brown and the Steelers are desperate for a win against the Browns and will need some help from the Bills to get into the playoffs. The Falcons can afford to force the ball Jones’s way, while the Steelers and Brown are playing for something bigger.

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Jones and Brown both also have outside shots at setting records this season. Calvin Johnson owns the single-season record for receiving yards with 1,964 in 2012. Marvin Harrison, meanwhile, has the record for receptions, catching 143 passes in 2002. Both of those are in play, especially for Jones, who has that great matchup and a team that could be motivated to get him a record or, at the very least, a receiving title.

They aren’t the only ones with some individual glory on the line. Adrian Peterson leads Doug Martin by 64 yards for the rushing title. Peterson has 1,418 yards, while Martin has 1,354. Peterson obviously has a huge advantage, especially when you consider that Martin is going up against a motivated Carolina defense on Sunday. Still, you can expect the Buccaneers to try to put Martin in a position to lead the league in yards. Unless one of the two has a monster game, it will be the lowest output by a rushing leader since LaDainian Tomlinson’s 1,474 yards in 2007. It could also be just the sixth time since 1980, not including the 1982 strike season, that the rushing champion had fewer than 1,500 yards.

Allen Robinson and Doug Baldwin are tied for the league lead with 14 receiving touchdowns. Devonta Freeman and DeAngelo Williams are tied for the league lead on the ground, with each hitting pay dirt 11 times. Tom Brady (36) and Blake Bortles (35) could both reach 40 passing touchdowns, but it appears unlikely that any quarterback will throw for 5,000 yards this season.

All of these milestones bear watching on Sunday, especially those where the team could be motivated more by the individual goal within reach than coming away with a win. In other words, don’t be surprised if Julio Jones gets 20-plus targets on Sunday.

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