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The Rams are wrecking the NFL, and your fantasy title could be next

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Who are the biggest challengers to unbeaten Rams? (1:48)

Dan Graziano, Tim Hasselbeck and John Fox explain why the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings are two of the biggest challengers to the Rams. (1:48)

If your fantasy team is full of Los Angeles Rams players, you're probably pretty happy. Todd Gurley is the fantasy MVP after seven weeks. Los Angeles' three wideouts -- Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods -- each rank among the top 21 wide receivers in PPR standard scoring so far. Jared Goff is QB8. Kicker Greg Zuerlein has missed time with a groin injury, but the Rams otherwise have been a fantasy team manager's dream over the first seven weeks.

I'm worried, though, about a nightmare to come. The real-life Rams have been so good that the fantasy Rams might not be around when you need them most. Defending NFL Coach of the Year Sean McVay is a brilliant offensive mind and a critically rational thinker about keeping his players healthy for when he needs them most. These two things might conspire to produce a fantasy apocalypse.

There's a significant chance that the Rams will leave Gurley, Goff and the rest of their weapons on the sidelines for some (or most) of the fantasy playoffs. And unless you have another Gurley laying on your bench, well, that's probably something you're going to want to prepare for soon.


Rest control

McVay operates the Rams unlike any other team or offense in the NFL. As I mentioned earlier this year, the Rams aim to play essentially the same offensive personnel on every single snap. While other elite offenses rotate players in and out to keep their weapons fresh and dictate defensive looks, McVay would prefer to play his three wideouts, starting five offensive linemen, Goff, Gurley and either Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett at tight end all game. Gurley has missed time with cramps, and a knee injury kept Kupp out against the 49ers on Sunday, but when those guys are healthy, they're on the field more than 95 percent of the time.

When the Rams aren't playing competitive football, though, McVay has shown little interest in giving his guys any reps. The starters played a bit during the 2017 preseason as they learned McVay's scheme for the first time, but in 2018 McVay sat his stars for the entire exhibition schedule. Goff didn't throw a pass, none of his wideouts ran a route, and Gurley didn't touch the ball a single time in August. This might have hurt your preseason fantasy team's chances, but McVay rightfully wanted his stars to stay healthy and fresh for the regular season.

It wasn't the first time McVay rested his players in a relatively meaningless moment, either. When the Rams beat the Titans in Week 16 last season, they clinched the NFC West and guaranteed themselves a home wild-card playoff game. But in Week 17, Los Angeles still had something to play for, given that it would have fallen from the 3-seed to the 4-seed had it lost to the 49ers while either the Panthers or Saints won their games.

There was another motivator in play, too. Gurley had just finished up the best fantasy playoff (Weeks 14-16) stretch in NFL history to help push the Rams over the top in the West, and heading into the final week of the year he was a viable MVP candidate. Gurley also held a 13-yard lead on Kansas City's Kareem Hunt for the rushing title, a nod you think Gurley probably would have wanted on his résumé as he approached the negotiating table when he became eligible for an extension this offseason.

Nobody would have faulted McVay for playing his guys, particularly Gurley, to try to ensure that the Rams finished up with the 3-seed and Gurley made one final push for MVP. Instead, McVay sat anyone who had broken a sweat in a Rams uniform during the season. Goff, Gurley, L.A.'s three starting wideouts, and four of the five starting linemen all sat out on offense. Aaron Donald, Lamarcus Joyner, Alec Ogletree all sat on defense, while Robert Quinn and Trumaine Johnson played two series. The Rams lost 34-13, but they retained the 3-seed when the Panthers and Saints both lost.

There's certainly evidence that the Rams will rest their stars if they're playing games that don't materially impact their playoff chances. So what are the odds that we'll have to worry about that before Week 17?

The Rams are 7-0 and have a four-game lead on the second-place Seahawks in the NFC West when you factor in the tiebreaker. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) already thinks the Rams have essentially clinched a playoff berth and have a 99.4 percent chance of eventually winning the West. They're 1.5 games ahead of the 5-1 Saints for the top seed in the NFC, and they already hold the tiebreaker over the 4-2-1 Vikings.

Let's run with a conservative approach and just look at the Rams' chances of clinching the top seed in the NFC by week, per the FPI. Obviously, the Rams could find themselves with meaningless games at the end of the season while locking in as the 2- or 3-seed, but this is just the broadest possible look at when the Rams might start looking at a stretch of meaningless football.

The FPI suggests that there is an 8.6 percent chance the Rams will clinch the top seed in the NFC by Week 14, meaning that they would then have three meaningless games -- against the Eagles, Cardinals and 49ers -- to end their season. Two of those games, against the Eagles and Cardinals, would coincide with the final two weeks of the traditional fantasy playoffs. Here are the chances of the Rams clinching the conference outright by week:

Again, these numbers are conservative -- unpack the tiebreakers by the end of the year, and the FPI estimates that the Rams have an 87.2 percent shot at finishing with the top seed in the NFC. We're probably looking at a better than 1-in-3 chance that the Rams have nothing to play for come fantasy football championship week in Week 16.

A reprieve?

Would McVay change his mind and play his stars in meaningless games this time around? If you were looking to make the argument that the Rams haven't benefited from their decision to bench their stars, you could make a case. The 2017 playoffs didn't go especially well for them. A Falcons defense that ranked 22nd in DVOA during the season held the Rams to 13 points on four trips to the red zone while wiping away their historically great numbers after the catch. Gurley ran for 101 yards on 14 carries, but Goff averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt.

Could you argue that the Rams were rusty and it showed in a sloppy offensive performance? Maybe. The problem is that Los Angeles' two turnovers in that game came at the hands of Pro Bowl returner Pharoh Cooper, who muffed a punt and fumbled away a kick return. Not only was Cooper one of the few Rams who actually played in the Week 17 loss to the 49ers, but his role actually expanded. Four of Cooper's 19 targets on the season came during the final regular-season contest, when he caught two passes for 30 yards. We can never know whether the Rams would have played better if they had run their stars out in Week 17, but we also don't know whether Gurley or Goff might have suffered an injury that could have compromised the offense, as Wes Welker did when he tore his ACL in the final game of the 2009 campaign for the Patriots.

When I looked into the topic last year, I didn't find any significant track record of teams that rested their starters in Week 17 struggling in the subsequent postseason game(s) they played. For every team that disappointed, like last year's Rams, there was another like the 2012 Ravens, who rested their guys for most of Week 17 and then ran the table to win the Super Bowl. The only thing you can say with any confidence is that teams that leave their stars on the bench for meaningless games are much less likely to lose those players to injury.

To be fair, after sitting their offensive players for the entire 2018 preseason, the Rams also didn't play all that well in the first half of their season opener against the Raiders, who have started 1-5. Oakland actually led 13-10 at halftime. After halftime, the Rams scored 23 unanswered points. If they were rusty, they weren't rusty for long.

Is it possible McVay changes his mind and decides to start playing his weapons in meaningless games this December? Of course. Maybe the Rams clinch in Week 14 and McVay doesn't think it's smart to sit his guys for three consecutive weeks in December, and so he plays them through Week 15 and halfway through Week 16. Sitting players for two or three regular-season games is different than sitting them for one.

At the same time, though, McVay hasn't shown much propensity for half-measures in these opportunities before. With every reason to play Gurley in a Week 17 matchup that was quasi-meaningful for the team and incredibly meaningful for his star back, McVay sat him. In the preseason, McVay sat everyone he would be upset to lose to injury, barring the players who hadn't been on the 2017 team, such as Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh and Aqib Talib. Outside of individual players with injury histories like Rob Gronkowski, every coach in the league sends the vast majority of their starters out for at least a half of football in the preseason.

It takes a perfect storm for this to be a thing worth worrying about for your fantasy team. If the Rams weren't way ahead of the rest of the league, there wouldn't be any reason to fret about them facing multiple meaningless games in December. If McVay wasn't hyper-vigilant about resting his players, you wouldn't need to be forewarned about the Rams resting their guys. I don't know if I would be brave enough to do it myself, but if you're in a season-long fantasy league and expect to make it to the postseason, you have to at least give some thought to the idea of trading away your Rams.

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0:30

Clark says Saints are the biggest threat to the Rams

Ryan Clark says the Saints have the best chance of challenging the Rams for the top seed in the NFC.

The undefeated team that did rest its stars

There is a team that did something like this under even more controversial circumstances. The 2009 Colts were 14-0 and leading the Jets 15-10 early in the third quarter of Week 16 when first-year coach Jim Caldwell pulled Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. Third-stringer Curtis Painter came in and promptly ground the offense to a halt, losing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown while producing one first down over six second-half possessions.

The Colts lost, ruining their undefeated season. They inserted Manning back into the lineup for the opening quarter of Week 17 before removing him again for Painter, losing that game, too. The Jets, who were so close to being eliminated from the postseason after Week 15 that coach Rex Ryan cried in the postgame news conference and told the media that his team was "obviously out of the playoffs," beat the Colts and then the Bengals to make it into the postseason.

The Jets and Colts met again in Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game. This time, the Colts left in Manning and he was brilliant, throwing for 377 yards and three touchdowns against the league's best defense. The gambit worked: Caldwell benched his stars in the middle of an undefeated season to make it to Super Bowl XLIV and got there, although they lost to the Saints in Miami. McVay will have to weigh whether sitting his stars will give him a better shot of beating teams like the Saints on his own path to a Super Bowl.