Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
Looking ahead (and not looking forward) to week 17
Posted Nov. 25 at 02:27 AM
Somehow -- impossibly -- here we are already. Thanksgiving week. Week 12. Just a month and a half from the end of the NFL's regular season.
I've been thinking about that a lot lately -- the end of the season. As well as some of my teams have done this year, I still have my old nemesis yet to come. I've never once had a good week in the last week of an NFL season. Week 17 -- when so many important players turn in early after their teams are locked into playoff position -- is always a mess.
So, no, it isn't too early to look that far ahead. I still have purchases left in every game, but they're starting to dwindle. As I burn through the last of them, I've vowed to add players who figure to help me not only short-term, but all the way through the stretch run.
Two questions dominate my Week 17 thinking. Of course I want to consider which teams are playing each other, same as always -- but before that, I need to decide which teams will really be playing and which will just be going through the motions. Lots of offenses figure to be toothless. Several otherwise solid defenses, too.
WHICH TEAMS FIGURE TO REST THEIR STARS?
The last two unbeatens, Indianapolis and New Orleans, are beyond obvious. Indy in particular; they're 10-0, and no other team in the AFC has a record better than 7-3. The Colts will clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs well before Week 17, and that means their big stars -- Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne most especially -- may not play at all. The only way that changes is if they stay unbeaten and really want to go for the perfect record, but even then I doubt the stars would play more than a half. For two reasons:
First, Manning appears to be uniquely egoless among superstars. My guess is that he wants a second Super Bowl ring a lot more than he wants to risk any part of his offense's playoff effectiveness on the novelty of 16-0.
Second, in Week 17 the Colts play at Buffalo. The weather will be bad enough to lessen any player's urge to stay on the field, and Indy can beat the Bills handily with just one half of work from its regulars. Maybe a this-is-our-Super-Bowl Bills team manages to hang with the Colts ... but if that's at all possible, it makes sense that Indy will already have lost a tougher matchup (maybe at Jacksonville, Week 15) before Week 17, no?
The Saints are a lot more likely to need a Week 17 win to clinch ultimate home-field advantage. Minnesota is just a game back of New Orleans' perfect record, and -- unlike the Colts -- the Saints are staring at one very difficult game between now and then. This coming Monday night, New Orleans hosts the Patriots. I happen to think this is the week the Saints take their first L.
And with that said?
I still figure Drew Brees and others -- Marques Colston for sure, perhaps one of the running backs depending on the others' health -- will sit for a good part of that last game (at CAR). It's not that the Vikings will force the Saints to play their usual game -- it's that the Vikings are going to be resting players, too.
However the home-field race shakes out in the NFC, I see Indianapolis, New Orleans and Minnesota as nearly sure bets to rest their QBs and one or two additional stars at the end of the season, and that's only the beginning of the problems we'll have.
Other teams likely to sit a player or two:
Arizona: At 7-3, the Cardinals haven't quite hung with the Saints or Vikes, but they've simply outclassed the 49ers and seem certain to win the West early. I've been very disappointed by San Fran, incidentally, which has come off its Week 6 bye at 1-4. The loss at Indy, which was close, is certainly forgivable. But losses at Houston and home to Tennessee have wrecked the team's chances of sneaking into the playoff chase.
New England and San Diego: Also 7-3, these teams might be jockeying with each other for a first-round bye, but like Arizona they are clearly the class of their respective divisions. New England is two games clear of Miami, and it takes a team as good as Indianapolis (and a call as questionable as you know which one) to beat the Pats right now. San Diego's just one game clear of Denver, but the Broncos are clearly finished. I'll be very surprised if they make the playoffs in a conference where several better Wild Card possibilities (Pittsburgh and Baltimore especially) are either even with them or within spitting distance.
Best case: New England and San Diego both need to win in Week 17, and San Diego -- playing in a late game -- still needs a win after New England finishes its early game. Worst case, and more likely: New England pulls ahead as Norv Turner's team (I say again: Norv Turner's team) loses a couple of its tough games in Weeks 14-15-16. Week 17 becomes irrelevant as both teams are locked into their spots.
WHICH OF THE REMAINING TEAMS FIGURE TO PLAY WELL?
So that's most of the bad news; I count six different teams as likely to be sitting stars come the end of the year.
And the remaining bad news?
All six are among the league's best offenses.
In terms of yards per game, I'm worried about the offenses ranked 1st (NO), 2nd (NE), 3rd (IND), 8th (MIN), 10th (ARZ) and 16th (SD).
In terms of points per game, the rankings are 1st (NO), 2nd (MIN), 3rd (NE), 4th (IND and SD, tied) and 10th (ARZ).
When you consider that there's a huge underclass in the NFL this year, with nine different teams scoring 18.1 or fewer points per week, we're basically picking Week 17 challenge players from just half of the league's teams.
And the good news? Is there any?
Indeed. A few teams (a) with good offenses, or at least a good player or two, (b) figure to need Week 17 wins and (c) have favorable matchups.
If you need passing and/or receiving stats ...
CHICAGO plays at Detroit, which is currently last against the pass. The Bears figure to need a win or (more likely) to have been eliminated from contention previously; either way, I don't see Jay Cutler sitting, and he may well have his best week of the season right at the end. But if the team has been eliminated, all bets are off as to whom Cutler may be targeting with his passes. I can certainly see the younger guys getting looks ahead of Devin Hester.
SEATTLE plays at home against Tennessee, which is next-to-last against the pass, but I don't much like the Hawks' passing game. Also: I can see Matt Hasselbeck either being hurt by then or sitting out in favor of Seneca Wallace (or even Mike Teel) as the team starts to think about how to use its draft picks. If QB is a possibility, why not sit Hasselbeck and try to gauge exactly how high they need to take one?
DENVER plays at home against Kansas City, fifth-to-last against the pass, and figures to need a win or to have been eliminated. If Kyle Orton is fully healthy, there are worse options. Like Chris Simms.
GREEN BAY plays at Arizona, sixth-to-last against the pass, but the game may not have its ordinary expected character if I'm right that a bunch of Cards will sit. This could be a real shootout with Kurt Warner (or Matt Leinart if Warner is dinged up) slinging the ball to the Cards' top three receivers ... but if playoff position can't be improved, they may use the game simply to tune up their running game. I can see this being a clock-is-always-ticking game, with both teams running about as much as you'd expect them to pass under ordinary circumstances. Which is why I hate Week 17, in a nutshell -- I actually like Jay Cutler better than Aaron Rodgers for the week.
JACKSONVILLE plays at Cleveland, seventh-to-last against the pass -- and Jacksonville is eighth-to-last itself. So if one game sets up as a shootout, this is probably it -- except that neither QB may be up for such a thing. The one guy I like without any hesitation in this matchup is Mike Sims-Walker. Otherwise, again, it looks like Cutler's the QB you really want.
If you need rushing stats ...
ATLANTA plays at Tampa Bay, which is currently last against the run. Here's hoping Michael Turner is back in action.
BALTIMORE plays at Oakland, third-to-last against the run -- but every contending team in every game is already using Ray Rice.
JACKSONVILLE, again, plays at Cleveland, fourth-to-last against the run, so Maurice Jones-Drew joins his fellow hyphenated Jag on my must-start list.
SAN FRANCISCO plays at St. Louis, fifth-to-last against the run, but Frank Gore is overpriced in most games, and even if he weren't, St. Louis is still playing hard. I can see the Rams stealing an ugly win by loading up against Gore and daring Alex Smith to throw downfield.
DENVER, again, plays at home against Kansas City, sixth-to-last against the run, and for once I'm confident Knowshon Moreno will see the vast majority of the touches. I carried Moreno to start the year in the Football Challenge, dropped him, repurchased him and last week dropped him again. If I have a buy left, I may just give myself another chance to get this right.
If you need kicking points ...
... you'd better have a purchase in reserve if you've been using Ryan Longwell.
Most of the other viable challenge kickers (and by viable, I pretty much mean cheap) look safe for Week 17. Shayne Graham, Matt Prater, Dan Carpenter, Lawrence Tynes -- at least none of those guys kick for the six teams that should be in get-and-stay-healthy mode.
But if I'm right that the Vikes will be resting offensive players, they don't figure to score many points (even at home) against a Giants team that may already be in de facto playoff mode.
As to which kicker you might burn for?
It's pretty much a coinflip at that point, no? Go with the player you can most easily afford, then keep your fingers crossed.
It's been a very good season so far, and I remain (mostly) optimistic about the rest of it. But after Week 16, I have to say I'd just as soon skip ahead to Wild Card Weekend. Maybe someday I'll look back on a Week 17 fondly. I will never look forward to one.
Posted by James Baker | Nov. 26 at 01:38 PM
Justin, with only three buys left should I buy Billy Cundiff to free up a mill in cap space? I have the likes of Lance Moore, Anthony Gonzalez, and Haushka on my bench. The extra cap space would get Turner in my lineup over ____________.
Posted by James Baker | Nov. 26 at 01:41 PM
Considering salary is R. Moss, D. Jackson, V. Jackson, or Sims-Walker worth benching for Andre Johnson. There's still a lot up in the air with Turner and __________ status up in the air.
Posted by PETER DEBIASE | Nov. 28 at 05:35 AM
Justin: (POINTS LEAGUE) I'm picking up Ricky Williams (a week late, of course) and starting him over Matt Forte vs. MIN. I'm also thinking of starting Schaub over Warner. I like Warner's matchup better and it would give me a competitive advantage in my league if Warner were to out-point Schaub, but I have a hard time starting a QB who was concussed (and questionable) over a productive healthy QB with a worse matchup. These moves will enable me to get Randy Moss back in my lineup (for Colston, who has not produced of late) and with the extra cap room, I was also thinking of starting R. White vs. TB over one of my cheapo WR's (S-W or D. Jackson). I'm leaning toward benching S-W since JAX is a much better team @ home and since D-Jack scored twice earlier in the season vs. WAS (and Hall is not playing). My starting WR's under this scenario would be Moss, A. Johnson, Fitz, V-Jax, White and D-Jack. Any thoughts on these moves would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Nov. 29 at 01:53 AM
Guys, sorry I didn't see these until too late. Thanksgiving is crazy on my end. Next week I promise to do better; here's hoping whatever you decided indeed works out.
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