Fantasy
Navigating Week 17
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's Week 17! When the Matt Flynns of the world get a chance to lock down big money free agent contracts against defenses who just want to go home.

Unfortunately, that often means superstars are on the bench, looking towards the playoffs while fantasy points are still being tallied.

And resting players isn't exclusive to the NFL's big winners. Teams that have already been eliminated often use minor injuries as a major excuse to give players an early start to the offseason.

But there are those fantasy owners out there who play until the final regular season whistle is blown, so there is still a lot riding on what is really a glorified fifth exhibition game for most teams.

For all the Week 17ers out there, let's take a look at what you can expect in the final week of the NFL regular season.

Nothing to play for: Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs

Yes, 21 of the 32 teams have nothing to play for in Week 17, including playoff teams Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis (all are locked into its playoff seed regardless of the Week 17 results) and Baltimore (who can move up to the No. 3 seed).

Atlanta went 13-3 in 2010, but both the division title and first-round bye were still on the line going into Week 17 so the Falcons had to play their regulars. However, quarterback Matt Ryan sat out the fourth quarter after the Falcons went up 31-3. I expect Ryan and the rest of Atlanta's stars to be on the bench relatively early this Sunday versus Tampa Bay with the NFC's No. 1 seed already sewn up.

The Bengals have already clinched a playoff spot and cannot advance from the No. 6 seed in the AFC. Cincinnati faced a similar situation in 2009 and decided to call a vanilla game plan early before sitting its starters in a 37-0 loss to the Jets. We could see Andy Dalton and A.J. Green sitting down in the second half.

The Baltimore Ravens can claim the No. 3 seed with a win and a Patriots loss, but that might not be enough of an incentive to play Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin a full game since they will have a home playoff game in round one regardless of Sunday's results.

If any of these three teams has the incentive to go "all in" Sunday despite having nothing on the line, it's the Colts. Resilient coach Chuck Pagano will make his triumphant return to the sideline after missing most of the season while receiving treatment for leukemia. Pagano didn't quit (the cancer is in remission), and I don't expect his team to do so either this Sunday against Houston (though Donnie Avery could sit with a shoulder injury that worsened during the week).

For the other 17 teams above, the biggest names that could or will miss the season finale are Cleveland's Trent Richardson (ankle), Brandon Weeden (shoulder) and Colt McCoy (shoulder), Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace (hip) and Heath Miller (knee), Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (ankle), Carolina's Jonathan Stewart (ankle), New Orleans' Pierre Thomas (knee), Kansas City's Dexter McCluster (illness), Oakland's Carson Palmer (ribs), New York's Dustin Keller and San Diego's Ronnie Brown (hamstring).

Montario Hardesty will start at running back and Thad Lewis at QB for Cleveland, making Pittsburgh's D/ST a must-start. With Wallace and Miller out, Antonio Brown should be started as a WR1 and Emmanuel Sanders could make for a decent flex option.

Lions tight end Tony Scheffler has received 78 targets this season but only has one touchdown so he's nothing more than a TE2, while Oakland's Terrelle Pryor has only thrown two NFL passes but will start Sunday against San Diego. He can't be much worse than Matt Leinart was last week but neither Pryor nor the rest of the players tied to Oakland's passing game should be started this week.

With Pierre Thomas out, Mark Ingram should have more value. Ingram has scored a touchdown in four of the last six games.

Teams that either have a playoff spot or playoff positioning on the line Sunday include the New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

Houston will clinch a first-round bye with a win but could fall out of the top two if it loses and New England and Denver win. The Texans play in the first slate of games so look for them to play all their starters. Running back Arian Foster will be a risky play after running for just 15 yards before leaving with an irregular heartbeat in Week 16, but coach Gary Kubiak said Foster is 100 percent. Foster has rushed for 231, 158 and 165 yards against Indianapolis over the past two seasons.

The Patriots and Broncos will still be fighting for the second AFC bye even if the Texans win so they should also play all of their relevant players in the second slate of games. A report Saturday from Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet said that tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm) is expected to play in a limited role after missing five straight games. While we wouldn't play Gronk on Sunday in fantasy leagues, his return could take targets away from Tom Brady's other weapons, most notably Brandon Lloyd.

The three NFC East teams will play all their relevant players, as will Minnesota and Chicago with playoff spots on the line. And Seattle still has a shot at the NFC West with a win and a San Francisco loss. Both teams play at 4:25 p.m. ET and won't rest anyone you care about (Vernon Davis could miss the game with a concussion, but he hasn't been relevant in fantasy leagues since Week 11).

The Packers also play at 4:25 p.m. ET and can lock down a bye with a victory. That will give them the incentive to play everyone, especially after they rested Aaron Rodgers in Week 17 and then came out flat in a second-round playoff loss to the Giants last January. Everyone doesn't include Randall Cobb, however, who is questionable with a knee injury. Green Bay has the luxury of resting Cobb since Jordy Nelson (hamstring) will return from a three-game absence on Sunday.

It could be as tough a task as ever trying to predict what these NFL coaches will do since they'll be looking to the future while you're still thinking about the present, but you knew the stakes when you joined a fantasy league that plays all 17 weeks. Hopefully this will make navigating the tough terrain of the final week of the NFL regular season a bit easier.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Thomas Harrigan at tharrigan@sportsnetwork.com.