Even though Week 17 is ignored by a large portion of the fantasy community, I really like it. It’s like the Jon Snow of football slates: Fire and ice united, the wolf and the dragon come together. (Yes, I just watched Game of Thrones. Winter is here. What do you do with your family on Christmas?)
Week 17 offers a unique combination of high- and low-stakes games. It’s the playoffs and preseason rolled into one 16-game slate. Some playoff teams have nothing to play for. Some playoff teams are competing for a first-round bye or improved seeding. Some non-playoff teams need a win to make the postseason. Some non-playoff teams are playing hard out of a sense of pride or a desire to build for the future. And some non-playoffs teams have either given up or could rest their starters in order to evaluate their younger players.
Here’s a conference-based look at each team with an eye to answering this general question: “What, if anything, is this team playing for in Week 17?”
American Football Conference
Right now there are four AFC teams locked into the playoffs, four teams fighting for playoff spots, seven non-playoff teams with minimal motivation, and one non-playoff team with all the ignominious motivation in the world.
1. New England Patriots (12-3)
The Pats are the AFC East champions for the 14th time in 15 years. They have locked in a first-round bye and need either a win against over the Jets this week or a loss by the Steelers to clinch the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots and Steelers both play at 1:00 pm ET, so the Pats are playing to win.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3)
No Antonio Brown, no problem. The Steelers are the AFC North champions and have clinched a first-round bye. If they beat the Browns and the Patriots lose to the divisional Jets, the Steelers will get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. The Steelers are playing to win.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5)
Even though they suffered an embarrassing 44-33 defeat last week to the 49ers, the Jags clinched the AFC South thanks to a loss by the Titans. Because of their 9-2 conference record they can’t fall below the No. 3 seed even if they lose, but they also have no way of overtaking the Pats or Steelers with a win. So the Jags have nothing practical to play for, but they might choose to play anyway: With a win, they might knock the divisional rival Titans out of the playoffs. (As it happens, if the Titans win they’d probably play the Jags the next week in the Wildcard Round.) Also, the Jags could play to win in order to rinse the bad taste of the Week 16 loss out of their mouths before the postseason. Still, the Jags could easily choose to rest running back Leonard Fournette and the rest of their starters so they enter the playoffs healthy.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-6)
The Chiefs have clinched the AFC West. They’re unable to take the No. 3 seed from the Jags, but they can’t fall below the No. 4 seed. As a result, the Chiefs have nothing to play for.
5. Baltimore Ravens (9-6)
The Ravens are 5-1 since their Week 10 bye. Having played on Saturday this past week, they’ll enter their Week 17 game against the unmotivated Bengals with an extra day of rest. If they win, they’ll clinch the No. 5 seed. The Ravens can also make the playoffs if either the Titans or Bills lose, but all three teams play at 4:25 pm ET, so the Ravens can’t count on external help. The Ravens are playing to win.
6. Tennessee Titans (8-7)
Even though they’ve lost three straight games, the Titans (instead of the Chargers or Bills) are slated to be the No. 6 seed thanks to their superior 7-4 conference record. They can clinch a wildcard spot with a Week 17 victory over the potentially unmotivated Jags. The Titans can also make the playoffs if both the Bills and Chargers lose, but all three teams play at 4:25 pm ET. The Titans are playing to win.
7. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7)
To make the playoffs, the Chargers need to beat the unmotivated Raiders, and they need the Titans to lose and Ravens to win. They could also get in with a Titans loss and a Bills loss. The Chargers are playing to win.
8. Buffalo Bills (8-7)
To make the playoffs, the Bills need to beat the unmotivated Dolphins, and they need losses from either the Ravens or the Titans and Chargers. The Bills are playing to win.
9. Miami Dolphins (6-9)
Last year the Dolphins opened the season 1-4 before going on an epic Jay Ajayi-fueled 9-2 run to make the playoffs in head coach Adam Gase’s first campaign with the team. This year they opened 4-2 and then went 2-7 as they traded away Ajayi and temporarily benched quarterback Jay Cutler for Matt Moore, only to remember that Moore’s the reason they signed Cutler in the first place. Gase is unlikely to be fired, but Cutler is gone after this year, and wide receiver Jarvis Landry is entering free agency. The Dolphins have nothing to play for. On the positive side, in Week 17 we might get to see more out of play-making wide receiver Jakeem Grant, who over the last three games has turned 25 total snaps into 11 targets, seven receptions, two carries, 172 yards, and two touchdowns.
10. Oakland Raiders (6-9)
One year after finishing 12-4 thanks to seven game-winning comebacks in the fourth quarter, the Raiders have regressed. They are 25-21 under defense-oriented HC Jack Del Rio, whose defenses have been outside of the top-20 in yards and points allowed for the past three years. Del Rio might be coaching for his job, and running back Marshawn Lynch might be playing for pride in what could be his last NFL game, but the Raiders are playing for nothing, not even the city of Oakland: They’re not moving to Las Vegas till 2019 at the earliest.
11. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9)
The longest-tenured head coach in the history of the franchise, Marvin Lewis has stabilized a team that prior to his hiring had gone 55-137 with not one winning season under four different HCs in the 12 years since the death of the team’s founder, owner, president, and first coach, Paul Brown. There’s nothing special about Lewis’ 124-112-3 record — and his 0-7 playoff record is downright horrifying — but Lewis has just five losing seasons over the last decade and a half. It’s probably time for Lewis to leave Cincy, but don’t be surprised if 15 years from now Bengals fans look back and wish their team could’ve gone 124-112-3 with seven postseason trips in the post-Lewis era. The Bengals have nothing to play for — except for Lewis. His players reportedly like him, and this will almost certainly be his last game with the team.
12. Denver Broncos (5-10)
First-year HC Vance Joseph isn’t guaranteed to return, and the Broncos almost certainly don’t have a starting quarterback of the future in Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch. They might not even have a backup of the future. The Broncos have nothing to play for, although Joseph might be coaching for his job.
13. New York Jets (5-10)
Even though he has won only 10 games over the last two seasons, third-year HC Todd Bowles has done enough with what he’s been given to keep his job in 2018. Backup quarterback Bryce Petty is playing for the right to be on the roster next year, and with a win the Jets could keep the divisional rival Pats from getting the No. 1 seed. The Jets have nothing to play for — but that’s been the case basically all year. They very well might be playing for pride.
14. Houston Texans (4-11)
HC Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith reportedly don’t have a great working relationship, and three straight 9-7 campaigns followed by a winless season might not endear him to the team’s decision makers, but O’Brien still seems likely to return, and next year’s core of quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller is inspiring. The Texans don’t have their 2018 first-round pick, so they have very little incentive to lose. The Texans are playing for the future.
15. Indianapolis Colts (3-12)
After overseeing three straight 11-5 seasons and then two consecutive .500 campaigns, HC Chuck Pagano has limped to a massively winless Andrew Luck-less campaign this year. A holdover from the Ryan Grigson regime, Pagano is almost certain to be fired by GM Chris Ballard after the season ends — “but they can’t eat you,” as the saying goes. Facing the Texans, the Colts have nothing to play for.
16. Cleveland Browns (0-15)
In the modern era, only four NFL teams have gone winless for an entire season: The 1960 Cowboys (0-11-1) in their first season, the 1976 Buccaneers (0-14) in their first season, the 1982 Colts (0-8-1) in a strike-shortened season, and the 2008 Lions (0-16), who just sucked for no reason in particular. Since the league expanded the regular season from 14 to 16 games in 1978 only two teams have started 0-15: The aforementioned Lions and this year’s Browns. HC Hue Jackson and the Browns are playing not to become the second 0-16 team in history. Although owner Jimmy Haslam and new GM John Dorsey have expressed their support for Jackson, it’s hard to imagine a winless coach keeping his job.
National Football Conference
There are five NFC teams locked into the playoffs, two teams fighting for playoffs spots, and nine non-playoff teams with minimal motivation.
1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2)
With their Week 16 victory over the Raiders, the NFC East champs have clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. The Eagles have nothing to play for. Even still, their backups are probably capable of beating the Cowboys in Philly.
2. Minnesota Vikings (12-3)
The Vikings have clinched the NFC North, but they’re only one game ahead of the Rams, Saints, and Panthers in the standings. They play at 1:00 pm ET, and the other three teams play at 4:25 pm ET. The Vikings are playing to win. With a victory over the Bears, the Vikings will win the No. 2 seed.
3. Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
The Rams have won the NFC West for the first since the Mike Martz-Marc Bulger era, but they have lost to the Vikings and so cannot earn a first-round bye. They will host a home game in the Wildcard Round as either the No. 3 or 4 seed. The Rams are playing to win just in case the Eagles and the No. 2 seed both lose in the Divisional Round, which would give the Rams a home game in the NFC Championship — if they make it there.
4. New Orleans Saints (11-4)
The Saints are locked into a playoff spot and currently hold the tiebreaker for the NFC South by virtue of their two head-to-head victories over the Panthers. With a win over the Buccaneers they’ll earn a home game in the Wildcard Round and could be the No. 3 seed with a Rams loss. They can fall no further than the No. 5 seed, but the Saints have something to play for.
5. Carolina Panthers (11-4)
Oh my, oh my, do the Panthers have a lot to play for. They are locked into the playoffs as at worst the No. 5 seed. If they win and the Saints lose then the Panthers will be the NFC South champions — and if the Vikings also lose the Panthers will then be the No. 2 seed due to their Week 14 victory over the Vikings.
6. Atlanta Falcons (9-6)
Last year’s Super Bowl
champions runner-ups, the Falcons can clinch a wildcard spot with a win over the Panthers. Even if they lose they can make the playoffs with a Seahawks loss, but the Falcons and Seahawks both play at 4:25 pm ET, so the Falcons can’t count on external help. The Falcons are playing to win.
7. Seattle Seahawks (9-6)
The Seahawks need to win to make the playoffs, and they also need the Falcons to lose. As -7.5 home favorites, the Seahawks could very much still make the postseason.
8. Detroit Lions (8-7)
The Lions have been eliminated from the playoffs, but they are 35-28 under HC Jim Caldwell and are locked into their third non-losing season of the past four years. Many Lions fans are dissatisfied with Caldwell, but the team was 77-163 in the 15 years before his arrival. The team could definitely do worse than Caldwell. The Lions have nothing to play for, but this could be Caldwell’s last game with the team: The players could compete for him.
9. Dallas Cowboys (8-7)
HC Jason Garrett has the support of owner Jerry Jones, so he’s likely to return for his eighth season as the (cough) ‘leader’ of the Cowboys. Garrett has made the playoffs just twice while coaching the team: It’s amazing he’s lasted this long. The Cowboys have nothing to play for — but they pretty much always play as if they have nothing to play for anyway.
10. Green Bay Packers (7-8)
Mike McCarthy has been with the Packers since 2006, and he has only one season beneath .500 in that time. The Packers have nothing practical to play for against the division rival Lions — especially with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (collarbone) on Injured Reserve — but they probably would like to avoid a losing campaign. There have been some rumblings about McCarthy’s effectiveness, but it’s doubtful that this will be his last season in Green Bay: Super Bowl-winning coaches aren’t particularly easy to find.
11. Washington Redskins (7-8)
After a 4-12 campaign in his first year with the team, HC Jay Gruden has a chance of leading the Redskins to their third straight non-losing campaign. That might not sound great, but Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, and Mike Shanahan had a 66-94 record with the team in the decade before Gruden arrived. The Redskins have nothing to play for, but there’s talk that Gruden could be out in Washington after the season. He — as well as perpetual franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins — could have some extra motivation in what might be a final game with the Redskins.
12. Arizona Cardinals (7-8)
After going 34-14 in his first three years with the Cardinals, HC Bruce Arians is 14-16-1 over the past two years and at risk of finishing below .500 for the second straight season. The Cardinals have nothing to play for, but Arians might leave after this season due to health issues, and future Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald might retire. The Cardinals have struggled this year without quarterback Carson Palmer and running back David Johnson, but they’ve yet to give up. With a victory they can keep the division rival Seahawks out of the playoffs. They will likely give their full effort.
13. San Francisco 49ers (5-10)
After starting 0-9, the 49ers have won five of six games and are 4-0 with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. The 49ers are playing for the future. If they manage to close the season with a road victory over the NFC West champions, that will just be the icing on a cake that somehow turned out not to be made of sh*t.
14. Chicago Bears (5-10)
HC John Fox never should’ve been hired by the Bears. Three years later, he’s almost certain to be fired after the season ends. His 14-33 record doesn’t do justice to just how uninspiring his teams have been. The Bears hope that they have their quarterback of the future in Mitchell Trubisky, but that future looks bleak. The Bears have nothing to play for except pride — and they have little to be proud of.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11)
I guess they didn’t eat enough Ws. Offensive coordinator-turned-HC Dirk Koetter seems likely to be fired after Week 17, and former HC Jon Gruden is reportedly interested in the possibility of returning to Tampa Bay. They’d probably enjoy beating the playoff-bound and divisional rival Saints to close the year, but the Bucs have nothing to play for.
16. New York Giants (2-13)
HC Ben McAdoo is already gone, as is GM Jerry Reese. Quarterback Eli Manning will start in Week 17, but third-round rookie Davis Webb seems likely to see significant playing time. The Giants have nothing to play for, but this could be Manning’s last game with the team. At home against the divisional rival Redskins, the Giants could have extra motivation to win one last game for the quarterback who won two Super Bowls for the franchise. A loss, though, would guarantee them the No. 2 pick of the 2018 draft. The future is now.
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