By Chet Gresham - @ChetGresham
First off, let's get to the teams we don't want to mess with this week due to them likely resting starters:
New Orleans Saints
The Saints have the No. 1 seed wrapped up and will not play their starters enough to be useful fantasy assets. Sean Payton is giving some lip-service to playing their starters, but a series or two will likely be the extent of their playing time, if that. If you'd like to guess as to the backups and how much they will play against the Carolina Panthers, who look like they will rest some starters as well, go for it, but know the risk you are taking on. There is too much uncertainty to feel good about any players in this game.
Dallas is locked in as the No. 4 seed and play against the New York Giants on Sunday. Jerry Jones says the Cowboys will go all out to win and that they have work to do as they go into the playoffs, but that doesn't mean the starters are going to play the whole game. I seriously doubt they will, and there's no reason to take a chance on the Cowboys or their backups this week.
Ron Rivera says the Panthers will look to evaluate some young players in this game against the Saints, who won't be going all out as it is. Carolina also has third-string quarterback Kyle Allen taking over this week as the starter, so this game is going to be a glorified preseason matchup. Allen is probably the only player we can count on playing the whole game, and there are just better options out there this week.
Next, we'll check out the cream of the crop, teams that will play all out to win:
The Steelers and Ravens play at the same time, and Pittsburgh needs a win and a Baltimore loss to sneak into the playoffs, which means Pittsburgh will have all hands-on deck against the Bengals at home. Add in the fact that Cincinnati has an awful defense, and you can feel good about playing starters from the Steelers.
The Ravens control their playoff hopes, as a win over the Browns seals them a playoff spot. Baltimore could also lose and still get in if the Bengals beat the Steelers, but Pittsburgh is a 14-point favorite, so I doubt that scenario pops up.
New England Patriots
The Patriots need a win to clinch a first-round bye, so they won't let up in their home game against the New York Jets. The Jets have played better of late, but their defense is still awful, so there is a decent chance we get some fantasy points out of New England.
The Vikings play at the same time as the Eagles, who they are in competition with for a playoff spot. Minnesota needs to beat Chicago at home to clinch a playoff spot. Right now, it appears the Bears will go all out to beat the Vikings in hopes of a No. 2 seed.
The Eagles go to Washington and need a win and a Vikings loss to get into the playoffs. With the Bears playing to win, there is a real chance of that happening, so Nick Foles and company should be motivated.
Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans
These two teams matchup for a winner take all style rumble and both will bring their A team.
Next are teams with motivation to win, but could also rest starters a little earlier than normal:
Seattle plays at home against the Arizona Cardinals, and coach Pete Carroll says the Seahawks will play their starters, as he hasn't liked the results in the past when resting them. That isn't enough for me to go all-in on the Seahawks, but there are some slightly favorable scenarios for them if they hold onto the No. 5 seed over the No. 6, which is still on the line. The biggest difference would be that Seahawks would face New Orleans in the playoffs if they end up the No. 6 seed and would have a chance not to if they have the No. 5 seed. Is it enough to push the Seahawks to play their starters all game? Probably not, but Carroll's quotes and the fifth over sixth seed make me think Seattle will at least use its starters to secure a lead before anybody is rested.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams need to beat the 49ers at home to secure a first-round bye, or they could get the bye with a Chicago Bears loss in Minnesota. Sean McVay has no qualms with resting starters, but a first-round bye is too much of a prize to not go all out. If the Rams or the Vikings were to get a big lead, I'm sure McVay would rest key players, but I think this is a safe team to target with the Chicago-Minnesota game likely being close and played at the same time.
The Bears need a bit more to get a first-round bye, as they need to win in Minnesota and need the Rams to lose against the 49ers. Bears coach Matt Nagy says he is kind of glad they aren't in the position to rest their starters, as he wants to keep a rhythm going, but I would assume that if the Rams are up by 30 at halftime, those plans would change. The 49ers have been playing well enough to make it close, so maybe that scenario won't pop up. The Bears don't have many players I'd want to start in Minnesota as it is, but they should play to win.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers go to Denver and need a win there coupled with a Kansas City loss to Oakland at home to clinch the division and all the playoff scheduling perks that would ensue, but the chances of Oakland winning in Kansas City are slim. But that being said, I expect the Chargers to play to win until it looks like they have no chance of moving up.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs need to beat Oakland to clinch the No. 1 seed, which means they will play their starters until that goal has been accomplished, which could happen in the third quarter, but by then, Patrick Mahomes would likely have three touchdown passes. Kansas City could also get the No. 1 spot with a Chargers loss, but the odds are against that scenario.
The Texans have a playoff spot wrapped up, but they also have a wide range of outcomes in their seeding. If they lose to Jacksonville, they could fall to the No. 6 seed, while a win gives them the division and a shot at the No. 2 seed. They'll play all out, but would be inclined to rest their starters as soon as they felt a win was in hand
Now we'll check out teams that are out of the playoffs:
New York Jets
The Jets are feeling pretty good about their rookie quarterback right now, and I expect they'll give him another shot to develop in a big game in Foxborough that could hurt the Patriots' seeding. I don't see any reason other than injuries that will keep the Jets' starters out of this one.
The Browns are riding high right now and want to make some noise despite not having a chance to make the playoffs. I think they will go all out to beat the Ravens in Baltimore. Unfortunately, Baltimore's defense and motivation to win will make the Browns' fantasy players a tougher sell this week.
Green Bay Packers
Right now, Aaron Rodgers looks motivated to finish the season strong and playing in Lambeau Field against the Lions isn't going to change that, as he will want to have a good showing for the Packer Backers. Play their starters as usual.
The Bengals would love to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh to keep them out of the playoffs, but the Bengals are down to the dregs of their offense. They will play all out though.
I can't say for sure that a division game is more meaningful in a vacuum than a non-division game, but I would guess that playing a team twice a year builds up some familiarity and motivation to at least not get embarrassed, so the Redskins should play their starters at home against Philadelphia. They also get the incentive of keeping the Eagles out of the playoffs. But for fantasy, Washington is severely lacking in upside.
New York Giants
The Giants announced they will start Eli Manning, and this is a home game against a division rival. The Cowboys will likely rest their starters at some point, which can only help the Giants. The Giants' motivation levels might not be at an all-time high, but it looks like their healthy starters will go.
The Raiders probably used up most of their motivation last week on Monday Night Football, but this is a game against a division opponent and an upset that knocks Kansas City down in the playoff seeding would be a big win for Jon Gruden and company. I expect you can play Oakland starters as you would have all season, which hopefully wasn't too much.
Denver should have some motivation to beat the division rival Chargers and hurt their playoff seeding. Without their starting running back and receivers, the Broncos will need to get up for the home crowd.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers head to L.A. after playing the Bears close and beating both the Seahawks and the Broncos over the last three weeks. They could have been tanking for the No. 1 pick and did not, so I expect them to continue to play all out, and possibly well.
Miami heads to Buffalo this week with Adam Gase on the coaching hot seat. Gase mentioned that he'd rather go 8-8 this year and that Ryan Tannehill is starting. It looks like the starters will play, but is there anyone you want to start from Miami in Buffalo? Probably not.
The Lions are a husk of a team right now, as their whole offense is injured or gone, and they're heading to Lambeau to take on a somewhat motivated Aaron Rodgers. They will likely play their starters, but I could see them resting Matthew Stafford with his bad back. Kenny Golladay is likely the only player worth considering from Detroit.
Blake Bortles will make his triumphant return as the starter this week, but the Jaguars haven't shown that they have any consistent fantasy players and have also shown that they're willing to rest Leonard Fournette just for the heck of it. I'm staying away against a motivated Texans team.
The Falcons played strong last week in a meaningless game, but it was their last home game of the season. This week they'll head to Tampa Bay, where they'll likely play their starters, but could rest someone like Julio Jones, who is always hurting this time of the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay takes on a division foe at home. I'll give the Buccaneers the motivation edge here with the home game. They've been out of the playoffs a while and likely won't rest players unless they are on the injury report.
The Bills will take on a division team and are at home. Like the Buccaneers, I'll give the Bills the edge with the home game to finish off the season.
The Cardinals have a division game with a little motivation to hurt the Seahawks' playoff seeding, but this team has sunk into the depths of despair and the players are likely packing their bags for a vacation.
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