Week 17 is like summer school. Only a few people are actually around to care about it, but for those people, it's the most important time of the year. Despite the fact that most of their peers have moved on to more rewarding, less frustrating tasks, owners in Week 17 championship leagues are still desperately trying to join their peers who achieved their success earlier.
Of course, the "faculty" aren't as reliable in this version of summer school. Some of them have given up and are just waiting for next season to begin. Others just won't bother to show up at all, calling in sick 10 minutes before their shift is ready to start and ruining your day in the process.
Enough of the tortured metaphor. Crazy things can happen in Week 17 games. Lee Suggs had four 100-yard games in his career. Two of them came in Week 17. Steven Jackson ran for 142 yards and four scores against a great Vikings defense in Week 17 of the 2006 campaign back when St. Louis didn't have the E-Z Bake Oven of NFL offenses. Things will happen this week that no one expects, gimmicks out of the "Let's run Cedric Benson 38 times and throw nine passes" playbook. Trying to chase them down is a fool's errand. You might end up with the magical Suggs or Benson game, but you could also very well end up playing a guy who never sees the ball.
More so than any other week, good scouting and information gathering wins in Week 17. That half-hour before the 1 p.m. games is never more important, as inactive lists get posted and the news about playing time comes spewing out of so many locker rooms. That isn't just for the guys in your lineup, mind you; the status of players like Justin Tuck and Kareem McKenzie, to pick a team, could dramatically affect the matchups your roster will face this week. We'll be making more assumptions than normal this week, and we'll try and note them where applicable.
Our primary assumption, of course, is that the Lions will still be embarrassingly bad on defense.
Aaron Rodgers (Packers, plus-22 percent)
We don't really buy the whole "it's their last chance, the Lions will turn it on now" logic. It's not as if the Lions just realized this week that they have been winless this season. They could've turned it on at 0-3, 0-7, or 0-12 just as easily as they can now. They'll also face one of the league's best passing offenses this week. Rodgers threw for 328 yards and three scores against the Lions in Week 2. That sort of day isn't by any means an unreasonable expectation.
Matt Ryan (Falcons, plus-14 percent)
There's a little hidden advantage in Week 17 for players who you absolutely, positively know are going to play the entire game. We suppose that Ryan could sit if the Falcons go up 40 points on the Rams by the third quarter, but there's better than a 99 percent chance he plays the full 60 on Sunday. Can you say that about guys like Eli Manning, Jake Delhomme, Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner? Nope.
Jay Cutler (Broncos, plus-13 percent)
Even without the shove to success Ed Hochuli gave the Broncos, Cutler had an enormous day against the Chargers in Week 2. He's unlikely to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns again, but the lack of a Chargers pass rush (Cutler was sacked only once in 51 dropbacks in that game) should allow the Broncos' receivers to get open down the field just as easily as they did in September.
David Garrard (Jaguars, minus-20 percent)
Once revered for his magical interception-avoiding touch, Garrard has thrown six picks in his past six games. His offensive line remains in shambles, so in those six games, he's been sacked 19 times and has fumbled four times, losing one. Last year, in 13 games, Garrard threw only three picks, fumbled three times and was sacked 21 times. All season. We're sure the Ravens will take pity on him.
Bruce Gradkowski (Browns, minus-18 percent)
If you are starting Gradkowski in your league's championship game this week, take a screenshot of your roster and make sure you back it up in several places. Take one of those backups and put it in a time capsule. One hundred years from now, humans will open up that time capsule and know that you lost your fantasy championship game with Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. They will not be impressed with you. That's why you need to make sure you doctor the screenshot so it has your buddy's team name. Gradkowski on the road against the Steelers' practice squad would be a bad idea, let alone their starters.
Jim Sorgi (Colts, minus-13 percent)
Alas, Sorgi forgot to petition the schedule-makers for an easy matchup in his yearly start. They will not be blessed. Tennessee showed how good their backups can be last week, with Jason Jones ruining Ben Roethlisberger's day. We predict a big day for Stanford Keglar, future Titans star linebacker. Not for Sorgi.
Michael Turner (Falcons, plus-20 percent)
Turner's outside hopes at an MVP nod depend upon his rushing for 250 yards and four touchdowns against the Rams. In his games against defenses of a similar vintage (Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland and Denver), Turner's accrued 544 yards and seven touchdowns. Two TDs against St. Louis seems like an inevitability.
Ryan Grant (Packers, plus-19 percent)
Would you believe that Grant has rushed for nearly 1,100 yards this year? He's at 1,097 and, after playing the Lions this week, will probably be at better than 1,200 on the season. Does that make his year the most disappointing 1,200-yard campaign in NFL history? If he has another 15-carry, 20-yard game, as he did against the Lions the first time these teams faced in 2008, he might go undrafted in fantasy next year. He won't on both counts.
Matt Forte (Bears, plus-15 percent)
Forte, meanwhile, gets to be the sensational rookie running back in the NFC North this year. (Grant wasn't really a rookie, but you get our drift.) He's guaranteed to play the entire game and will do so against a Texans run defense that was awful when they had something to play for. Now that their motivation is merely to save their defensive coordinator's job? Or hey, maybe they want him fired, too. Either way, Forte should be the focal point of the Bears' attack and put up 150 all-purpose yards with a score.
New England Running Backs (Patriots, plus-9 percent)
Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Robert Edwards, Craig James whoever gets out there for the Pats should be able to run through the wasteland of the Bills' defense. Again, check the news a half-hour before gametime to see who's in and who's out for the Pats and act accordingly.
Jamal Lewis (Browns, minus-20 percent)
We've mentioned it before, but a team's running game is actually affected more by losing its starting quarterback than it is by losing its starting running back. Lewis has lost his quarterback three times. Bruce Gradkowski may very well make Ken Dorsey look like the Derek Anderson of 2007. Hopefully that won't encourage the Browns to turn down a first-round pick for him and sign him to a deal with virtually no upside.
Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars, minus-19 percent)
MJD is banged up after a nasty hit last week, has nothing to play for, has a line in shambles in front of him and has to face the Ravens. He could hit the Powerball and it still wouldn't be his week.
Joseph Addai (Colts, minus-10 percent)
We're almost positive Addai will get the start over Dominic Rhodes, but against Tennessee, it shouldn't amount to much.
Steve Slaton (Texans, minus-10 percent)
It might feel blasphemous to bench the year's best sleeper, but the Bears have a very good run defense, one that matches up very well against the Texans' offensive scheme. That extends to the performance of Slaton, who won't see the same sort of creases he saw in other weeks.
Greg Jennings (Packers, plus-20 percent)
For those of you who haven't noticed, Jennings (130 targets) has taken over from Donald Driver (108 targets) as the team's No. 1 receiver and Rodgers' primary target. Detroit has allowed the opposing team's top guy an average of nearly 78 yards per game; No. 2 guys average only 44 yards per game. The aged Driver might rest some, but Jennings should play most of the game and do very well.
Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals, plus-13 percent)
Nothing to play for, but with Anquan Boldin possibly out, Fitzgerald will get the bulk of the targets in the desert.
Roddy White (Falcons, plus-10 percent)
It's the Rams. They don't have anyone to cover White. Heck, they couldn't cover their own faces with paper bags. They have less range than Chris Klein. Worse ball skills than you get the idea. White should get open plenty.
Braylon Edwards (Browns, minus-13 percent)
We advocated that Edwards could save fantasy seasons last week with a monster game. He ended up being responsible for virtually half of the Browns' receiving yards; unfortunately, they threw for only 76 yards on the day. This week, we're just going to suggest that you move on and check in with Edwards in 2009.
Dennis Northcutt (Jaguars, minus-13 percent)
Northcutt had a nice game against the Colts, which makes him one of the more appetizing players available on the waiver wire in most leagues. Don't bother; the Ravens will shut him down.
Lance Moore (Saints, minus-12 percent)
The Panthers are allowing only 29 yards per game to the opposition's No. 2 wideout. On the Saints, that's clearly Moore. He'll do better than 29 yards, but he's not going to go too far above 60 or so.
Daniel Graham (Broncos, plus-13 percent)
Graham has matched his reception totals for the first 12 weeks of the season in his past four. Against a Chargers team that struggles mightily against tight ends, he could be a sneaky target for a touchdown and 70 yards.
Owen Daniels (Texans, minus-13 percent)
Daniels has to face Lance Briggs & Co. this week, who do an excellent job against tight ends. Chicago has the third-best DVOA in the league against tight ends. Daniels will probably spend a lot of time blocking Sunday. Even if your league has points for blocks, Daniels isn't a good pickup.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.