NFL Week 17 Actives/Inactives: Julio Jones ready for NFC South title bout; Rob Gronkowski resting
Who's in and who's out for the final week of the NFL regular season? We're tracking all the key actives and inactives for this Sunday's action.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Denver Broncos (foot): Hillman has been out since Week 10 with a foot injury, but he's set to return against the Raiders. Whether Hillman sees a lot of reps in this game is relevant to a degree, but it will certainly matter in the playoffs -- the Broncos' offense has changed a great deal over the second half of the season, as Peyton Manning's arm strength becomes more and more of an issue, and Denver turns to a power running game (led primarily by C.J. Anderson) to compensate.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (oblique): Jones has been blowing it up recently, despite various injuries, and he'll start in the Falcons' regular-season finale against the Panthers. The winner claims the NFC South title and a playoff spot, despite having a losing record. Last Sunday against the Saints, he caught seven passes for 107 yards despite an abdominal injury that kept him out of practice. Jones was held out again this week, but given the importance of this game, he'll likely be a highly targeted option for Matt Ryan. Over the last three weeks, only Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants has more receiving yards than Jones' 366, and Jones has reached that on just 23 targets and 18 receptions.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (ankle, hamstring): Charles will go against the Chargers after practicing all week, and he should see a pretty heavy workload with Chase Daniel starting in place of Alex Smith (lacerated spleen). Charles has run for 979 yards and nine touchdowns despite occasionally questionable usage patterns by head coach Andy Reid. He's on pace for his third-straight 1,000-yard season, and his fifth in six years.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts (hamstring): Hilton sat out the Colts' loss to the Cowboys in Week 16, and the effect on Andrew Luck's passing game was obvious and severe -- Luck completed 15 of 22 passes for 109 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions, and he was pulled in the third quarter. Luck had been one of the most effective and consistent deep passers in the NFL in the four weeks before that game, throwing six touchdowns to no interceptions, and Hilton has been the difference. Expect Luck to test Tennessee's pass defense early and often as the Colts try to round into shape for the playoffs.
Max Unger, C, Seattle Seahawks (ankle, knee): Unger has missed the last few weeks with a high ankle sprain and twisted knee, and he will miss Seattle's game against the Rams -- the Seahawks have a very good chance of grabbing the NFC's one-seed with a win. Patrick Lewis is likely to start in Unger's stead, and though he's played well of late, it will be a struggle going against St. Louis' hyperactive defensive line -- especially rookie tackle Aaron Donald. This will be a key matchup for Seattle's option run game.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns (team decision): It wasn't just Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon who found themselves in head coach Mike Pettine's doghouse this week -- first-round CB Justin Gilbert was late to a team meeting on Saturday, and he'll be inactive against the Ravens. While Baltimore is chasing a postseason spot today, the Browns are playing for nothing but a merciful end to a season where the drama on the offensive side of the ball has hidden the Browns' decent defensive this year. Gilbert, however, has been the exception -- selected with the eighth overall pick out of Oklahoma State, he's played just 373 snaps this season and has allowed an 83.6 opposing quarterback rating. Last Sunday against the Panthers, Gilbert saw fewer opportunities than fourth-round cornerback Pierre Desir, and undrafted players were also sent in. At this point, Cleveland's 2014 first round selections -- Manziel and Gilbert -- can only be seen as disastrous.
Bradley Fletcher, CB, Philadelphia Eagles (hip): It was too little, too late for the Eagles, who are out of the playoffs after a defensive meltdown late in the season, and Nolan Carroll will start in Fletcher's place in the season finale against the Giants. Fletcher has been a hot mess this season, but defensive coordinator Billy Davis has been at fault as well, rolling Fletcher out against Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson in recent weeks with limited safety help. This season, he's allowed nine touchdowns with just one pick. The hip injury is legitimate, to be sure, but one wonders how much this was a team decision.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots (team decision): The Patriots have sewn up the AFC's top postseason seed, and with nothing to play for against the Bills today, they'll rest Tom Brady's top target. It's a wise move, as a Patriots offense with a totally healthy Gronk could cut a fairly devastating swath through the playoffs. Tim Wright will likely see more time against a Buffalo pass defense that is among the NFL's best.
Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills (concussion) / Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills (knee): Then again, that defense will be a little less stout without Gilmore and Dareus -- especially Dareus, who has been a flat-out beast all season. Bill Belichick, who will be very happy that Dareus isn't ripping his questionable offensive line apart, said this about Dareus this week:
"Makes a lot of plays in chase, where you don’t really think he’s going to be in the play but he runs it down and makes a play -- screen passes, things like that. He runs well and plays with good effort. He’s strong and quick, so when he’s on the move he’s hard to block. When he’s not on the move he’s hard to block and he has the quickness to work the edges in the pass rush but he also has the power to power rush those guards and centers or if he gets in a gap, he can put his pads down and kind of move the line of scrimmage back and get into the pocket. He’s pretty good at everything, does it all. He’s a really good player."
Gilmore has had an up-and-down season facing a lot of the best receivers Buffalo's opponents have to offer. The Bills have a great defense to look forward to next season, but they won't see two of the primary cogs on Sunday.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, New Orleans Saints (team decision): There may be no more pressing example of how far the Saints' defense has fallen in a year than the fact that Vaccaro, who was one of the league's most dynamic rookies in 2013, will be a healthy scratch in the Saints' '14 season finale -- at least, he wasn't on the injury report, so we have to assume this was a team call. Vaccaro is a dynamic player who has played out of place for a lot of the season, and given reports that head coach Sean Payton is less than happy with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, it's fair to expect some changes in the team's coaching staff. Hopefully, Vaccaro can have a bounce-back season in '15 -- he's certainly got the talent for that to happen.