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Week 17 NFL Picks: When to Sit the Starters

Even with an unusually high number of playoff spots and seeds already locked, postseason participants still face a tricky dilemma. These guidelines can help.

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

Week 17 is always weird, because the scenarios are always convoluted. This year, for example, it makes sense for the Lions and Packers to try to tie to ensure that they both make the playoffs, a scenario we’ve seen before in soccer but that’s rarely presented itself in the NFL.

But nothing seems more complicated at this point in the season than figuring out whether it makes sense for playoff-bound teams to rest their starters. This is a particularly interesting year for that dilemma, because so much has already been decided: The Cowboys could lose three times on Sunday afternoon — you might think it’s impossible, but the Jets have done it — and still be the top seed in the NFC. The Patriots can fall and still hang on to their first-round bye. The AFC West and NFC North remain up for grabs, and some seeding shifts could occur as well, but there’s no potential for the kind of the unhinged, last-day shake-up that’s occurred in previous seasons. That means that several teams have the opportunity to take it easy — but should they?

Teams sit starters primarily because they’re worried that key guys will get hurt on plays that don’t really matter. No team wants to end up like the Raiders, who lost Derek Carr to a broken leg in Week 16 in the fourth quarter of a game that they’d already won. Often, however, keeping players as healthy as possible can come at the cost of their getting rusty on the bench. It’s one of the hardest decisions in football, but these three guidelines can help teams find clarity:

1. Don’t Mess With Greatness

Aaron Rodgers was incredible during the 2011 season: He posted a 122.5 quarterback rating, the highest in NFL history. He dipped below a 100 rating in just two of the 15 games he played in during the regular season and delivered his fourth mark of 140 or better in Week 16. And then he sat against Detroit in Week 17 with the then-14–1 Packers having clinched their playoff spot and seed. He didn’t even take a snap. It was a boon for Matt Flynn, who played well enough in spot duty to earn a $10 million guaranteed deal with Seattle that offseason, but the results were less positive for Rodgers, who went on to play his worst game of the season in the playoffs, a 37–20 loss to the Giants.

I’m not saying that sitting Rodgers in Week 17 had everything to do with his subpar playoff showing, but his 20-day layoff certainly didn’t help him stay sharp. We may not know if “momentum” in sports is real, but teams should know enough not to mess with a good thing.

This is particularly notable right now for the Cowboys. Over Ezekiel Elliott’s past eight games, he’s averaged 5.1 yards per rush attempt and 12.5 yards on his 17 receptions, and scored 11 total touchdowns. Fellow Dallas super-rookie Dak Prescott, meanwhile, posted a 148 rating in Week 16. It’s reasonable for the Cowboys to want to avoid running Zeke into the ground, as he’s already leading the NFL in carries by more than 30 this season, but stopping him cold carries risks of its own. There’s a way to keep the rhythm going without a massive injury risk: Give Elliott nine or 10 carries in the first half to dominate a bit, then put him in street clothes before the touches, and injury risk, mount. Keeping Elliott and Prescott sharp by playing them on Sunday won’t guarantee postseason success, but giving them 20 days off won’t, either.

2. Know the Situation

This is the most obvious guideline but also the most important: Get creative only when it’s safe to do so. This season, it probably doesn’t matter if the Patriots get jumped for the 1-seed by the Raiders, the only team that can still knock them out of the top position. No AFC team other than New England is very good, so if the Pats have to go on the road to face the Raiders, it would actually be a nice problem to have, because it would mean they were a win over Matt McGloin away from reaching the Super Bowl. Last year, things were different: The Patriots did a “resting without resting” bit against the Dolphins in Week 17, going as vanilla as possible by having Tom Brady throw just 21 passes — by far his season low — and not opening up their typical high-flying offense against Miami. They scored just 10 points, another season low, and lost the 1-seed in the process. Because of that result, a month later the Pats wound up in Denver as the Broncos hosted the AFC title game. You know the rest.

This should affect how Atlanta, for one, approaches Week 17: While dropping a seed position might not matter for New England, it could mean everything for the Falcons, who, if they get too conservative against New Orleans, could lose and cost themselves a bye in a tight NFC race where every edge counts.

3. Choose the Talent Wisely

This week, Bill Belichick pointed out another challenge facing coaches who need to decide whether to start or sit their guys: There are only 46 active players on an NFL roster, and since real games aren’t Madden, guys can’t just go around switching roles. “I’m not saying I’m a great mathematician or anything, but the numbers just don’t add up,” Belichick said. And while multiple positions do have enough depth to allow a starter to sit out, that can cause problems too: Putting in subpar players can lead to mistakes, which can lead to injuries — the exact thing coaches are trying to avoid in these situations in the first place. Hell, there’s a reason the Cowboys, who are thinking of resting some offensive linemen, don’t want to put a fragile Tony Romo, let alone Dak Prescott, behind those backups. Doing so can be dangerous — which is why Mark Sanchez is around.

So where does that leave everyone? The Pats can afford to sit whomever they want, given the weak competition that awaits in the AFC field and the absence of any out-of-the-ordinary hot streaks that could end. (Brady plays like this all the time.) The Dolphins and Chiefs can sit a star or two, but they need to try to win, because the worse of those two teams will get Pittsburgh instead of Houston in the first round, a large difference in quality of competition. The Falcons and Seahawks are playing for the bye, which could be big in this NFC field, so sorry, fellas, but you really should play the whole game. The Giants don’t have to worry about seeding, but they may not want to sit Odell Beckham Jr. for an entire game, since he’s coming off a 150-yard outing and looks poised to rip off a string of huge games. The Steelers and Cowboys can sit guys if they want, but in doing so they’d risk putting some rust on their biggest playmakers (Antonio Brown and Elliott, in particular). The Texans can rest their stars — wait, who are their stars again? The Raiders — oh, the poor Raiders; they need a time machine for this exercise. The Redskins, Lions, and Packers are in do-or-die scenarios. They don’t have anything to think about.

And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)

PITTSBURGH (-7) over Cleveland

I didn’t know that we needed the Terry Bradshaw–Mike Tomlin feud, but now that we have it I never want it to end. In case you missed it, Bradshaw called Tomlin a “great cheerleader guy,” as opposed to a great coach, and Tomlin responded by saying: “Terms like ‘cheerleader guy,’ to me, maybe fall outside the bounds of critique or criticism. They probably fall more into the area of disrespect and unprofessional.”

OK, fine. Decent feud so far. But then Tomlin upped the ante by admitting that he grew up rooting for the Cowboys (a big reveal for a Steelers coach, by the way) and was “particularly a Hollywood Henderson fan.” There should be a Reddit thread devoted to this burn, because it has as many meanings as a Westworld plot. Henderson was a Dallas linebacker and Bradshaw rival back when the Cowboys and Steelers loathed each other, and as students of football history may recall, Henderson relentlessly mocked Bradshaw’s, uh, intellect, famously saying that Bradshaw “couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the c and the a.”

As for Cleveland:

INDIANAPOLIS (-4.5) over Jacksonville

Tom Coughlin, who interviewed for the Jaguars’ head-coaching vacancy, is reportedly not a Bortles fan.

Does that even need to be said, though? If you were interviewing to be the CEO of a car company whose vehicles kept exploding, you wouldn’t feel compelled to say, “I do not like these exploding cars.” It would be a given.

Meanwhile, don’t tell Chuck Pagano that this game between two dramatically underachieving teams is meaningless, because he’s in full cliché mode:

He also accidentally indicted himself in an effort to build up the Jaguars. Whoops:

PHILADELPHIA (-3.5) over Dallas

The Cowboys, by far the most complete team in the NFC, are the underdogs here because it’s assumed that they’ll rest their starters. Whether that makes a difference in whom you pick here depends on how many missing starters you think it will take for Dallas to be worse than Philadelphia. As mentioned, the Cowboys have hinted that Romo may not even be active because they don’t want to risk his getting hurt with inexperienced players around him. If Dallas plans on switching out so many offensive linemen, running backs, and wide receivers that it wouldn’t feel comfortable giving Romo a look, that tells us a lot about the caliber of player likely to be on the field against Philly.

No matter who’s out there in the silver and blue, the Eagles will want to win. Their season has been a disappointment ever since the Wentz Wagon tipped over, and head coach Doug Pederson is taking heat, most recently for letting Carson Wentz be a lead blocker. It’s unclear how Wentz’s gift to his linemen will affect the game, however:

MINNESOTA (-6) over Chicago

John Fox said this week that the Bears are “closer than people think,” which is interesting, because I haven’t thought about the Bears in a very long time, and I suspect that’s the case for many others. People are, however, talking about another out-of-the-hunt NFC North team: the Vikings, who looked like Super Bowl contenders in October and have since nosedived into a maybe-mutiny that included defensive backs ignoring head coach Mike Zimmer’s game plan for Packers receiver Jordy Nelson for at least a few early plays last week. Minnesota is branding it a “miscommunication,” but regardless of the label, the affair is a fitting punctuation mark on a season that slipped away stunningly quickly. Oh, and Nelson recorded 154 yards last week, so it appears that neither Zimmer’s game plan nor the defenders’ alternate approach were very good. They get Matt Barkley this week, though, so any plan will work.

MIAMI (+10) over New England

I’m in Miami this week, and I’ve noticed that Dolphins head coach Adam Gase seems absolutely miserable when discussing this game. While he’s surely thrilled about making the playoffs, he appears frustrated that the postseason could distract some of his players from the Week 17 matchup with the Patriots: “They know exactly who we’re playing,” Gase said. “If you look past them, they will embarrass you.”

While the Patriots need this win to lock up the no. 1 seed, ensuring home-field advantage throughout the playoffs seems much less important when the only team it’s possible to face on the road would be led by Matt McGloin. Tom Brady didn’t practice Wednesday, and Belichick will surely find a way to give some relief to his quarterback, who has been banged up for weeks and based on all logic shouldn’t play the whole game. Gase, meanwhile, will likely keep some of his key guys in there since he seems so intent on not getting wrecked by the Patriots. I like the Dolphins to win this one.

Baltimore (even) over CINCINNATI

This is Steve Smith’s last game (maybe!), but it won’t be the last for John Harbaugh, who’s widely expected to return next season, or Marvin Lewis, who after weeks of speculation said this week that he’d be back in 2017. None of that means much when trying to predict who will win this irrelevant game, though. Like college bowl games, which often come down to which side actually wants to be there, inconsequential Week 17 games often depend on which team is slightly more motivated. In Smith’s last NFL outing (again, maybe!), the Ravens will likely try to give him the parting gift of a win, especially against a team he really doesn’t like.

Carolina (+4.5) over TAMPA BAY

The Bucs are still alive, but we’re using that term very loosely. They need seven results to go their way to make the playoffs, one of which is a tie between the Giants and Redskins. ESPN puts the odds of everything breaking right for the Bucs at 60,000-to-1, which are, coincidentally, the same odds of Mike Glennon, the Bucs’ backup quarterback, being a good signing for any team at the $13 million to $15 million per year he’s reportedly set to command this offseason. I don’t see the playoffs or Glennon’s production panning out.

Buffalo (-3.5) over NY JETS

I’d like to draw some attention to the guy who asked the Bills to block him on Twitter because he was sad. The Bills obliged.

As for the matchup, it’s a big one. The Jets need to do something surprising to reclaim the title of most dysfunctional AFC East team, because the Bills seem to have an insurmountable advantage after imploding late. In recent days they’ve fired Rex Ryan, named offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn interim head coach, and benched quarterback Tyrod Taylor for the finale. Lynn’s take on the controversial QB decision?

Great stuff, Buffalo. The Taylor benching is because of a contract clause that guarantees the QB $30 million if he picks up an injury this year that is severe enough to make him miss time next year, which means that Lynn gets the pleasure of starting E.J. Manuel in his audition to earn the permanent job. Hey, at least he has Reggie Bush:

Houston (+3) over TENNESSEE

SAN FRANCISCO (+10) over Seattle

This should be the type of season in which the Seahawks do well in the playoffs: There’s only one complete team in the NFC, so a run to the NFC title game should be a given. Except things are kind of weird in Seattle right now. The Seahawks have morphed from a dominant, scary entity that always got hot at the right time into another plain old good team. Though the defense is still talented, its four-year run as the league’s top scoring unit is about to come to an end, and on the other side of the ball they’ve dropped from fourth to 15th in total offense, including from third to tied for 22nd in rushing offense. Richard Sherman, once the best interview in the league, has even canceled his press conferences. I guess there are also some problems with the offensive line:

Kansas City (-5.5) over SAN DIEGO

The Chargers might be playing their last game in San Diego, but it’s tough to get too emotional because they did the “our last game” thing last year, too, and are still there. Awkward.

They’re not the only ones deciding not to overthink things: Kansas City coach Andy Reid has realized that he needs to get the ball to Tyreek Hill. Two weeks ago, Hill didn’t touch the ball after a 68-yard touchdown; last week against the Broncos, though, he had four carries for 102 yards in the first half alone. Now, pundits are heaping praise on Reid’s offensive design. Don’t outsmart yourself, Andy!

NY Giants (+7.5) over WASHINGTON

First of all:

Second, this is another one of those “will the good team rest enough guys to be bad?” games. Even if the Giants, who are locked into the 5-seed, sit a lot of their starters, I think the Redskins will make enough mistakes to keep this close. In his past four games, Kirk Cousins has posted two quarterback ratings above 100 (that’s good) and two under 80 (that’s bad). Washington isn’t the type of machine that ruthlessly takes care of business and snags the playoff spot that’s there for the taking. Plus, the Giants are not only pretty good, but also pretty clearly feeling themselves, with Victor Cruz talking up another Patriots-Giants Super Bowl and saying, “They don’t want to see us.” I see the Redskins pulling away late and getting that playoff spot, but without ever making it easy on themselves.

DENVER (-1.5) over Oakland

Lots of confidence in McGloin this week:

The best part of McGloin’s first week as the starter following Carr’s injury was realizing that McGloin has blocked just about everyone in the Oakland media on Twitter. He blocks anyone who sends mean or sarcastic tweets about the Raiders, which must mean that he’s blocked just about everyone in the media, because he’s played for the Raiders since 2013, and until this season, the Raiders were bad enough to net plenty of rude tweets. At least this is a less severe approach than Colts tackle Anthony Castonzo’s, who not only blocks all haters, but has someone else do it so he never sees the shade.

This game will be a nice, non-digital test for McGloin, who has plenty of confidence but not a lot of recent game experience after appearing in just six games the past three seasons. Here, he’ll get to face a Denver defense that is still pretty good, and still has Von Miller. While that’s useful experience ahead of the playoffs, having to adjust to regular-season NFL game speed against one of the fastest defenses in the league will be trouble in Week 17. That could push the Raiders into the wild-card round, which could in turn end their season early — if it didn’t already end when Carr went down.

ATLANTA (-7) over New Orleans

Atlanta needs a win here or Seattle and Detroit losses to earn the 2-seed and the bye, which means Matt Ryan’s potential MVP season should get a boost this week. Assuming he doesn’t get pulled early, he’ll get to pad his stats late. Ryan already leads the NFL in yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and quarterback rating, and now he gets the gift of ending against a Saints team that allows the third-most passing yards in the NFL. If Elliott, the only MVP candidate with a better chance than Ryan, according to oddsmakers, sits for the Dallas game, Ryan could do enough here to clinch a first-round bye and gain an edge in the MVP race.

LOS ANGELES (+6) over Arizona

DETROIT (+3.5) over Green Bay

The Lions staff sort of looks like a list of candidates for an uninspiring college coordinator job: Randy Edsall, who’s signing up for a second stint as UConn’s head coach, was the “director of football research,” and Al Golden and Ron Prince are also in the organization. Even head coach Jim Caldwell used to be Wake Forest’s head man.

Anyway, this is the biggest game of the weekend. If the Redskins beat the Giants, they’ll lock up the second wild card, leaving the winner of this game as the division champ and the loser out of the playoffs. Yes, there’s the tie scenario, but that’s unlikely to play out given how rare ties are and that the league would have to respond to a mutually beneficial tie with 10 times the fury it brought to Deflategate. Assuming there’s an actual victor, this will be a win-or-go-home matchup for two narratives: Either Aaron Rodgers completes one of the best midseason turnarounds in NFL history or Jim Caldwell confirms that he’s a good coach. (The first one seems more likely.)

The Lions will cover, but the Packers will win, probably on the final possession via some Rodgers magic. The Packers pass defense is still a disaster, but the Lions have been struggling to pass the ball so much that it won’t matter much in this one. Packers opponents have posted a 95.9 passer rating on average, 26th in the league, but Matthew Stafford hasn’t posted a passer rating above 72 in four weeks. If a secondary is bad but no one’s around to throw the ball, is it actually bad?

Last week: 6–10
Season: 115–112–10