The final weekend of the NFL this Sunday is the most unique weekend of the season. It’s unique because outside of a few games, it lacks the general sense of urgency from the players as they look ahead to the offseason.
When the season is over and you don’t make the playoffs, players often scatter from the facility to their offseason locations and get their time to rest and relax. Time to spend with family and friends, recharge, and get away from the grind of the NFL season. It’s hard to not think ahead to that moment when you’re preparing for your Week 17 game that doesn’t matter to the team. Most players in this situation are already planning moving dates, dealing with shipping companies, and booking flights home. Most importantly, players DO NOT want to get injured in their final game of the season, or their offseason can be ruined.
So how do players manage playing in a Week 17 game that does not matter to them or the team?
As a player, I’ve been in almost every situation in Week 17, including being in a play-in game, which felt like an early playoff game. I’ve identified three other types of games that teams will play this weekend.
1) The best case is you’re a playoff team locked into your playoff spot.
This season, we have a few in this situation. The Baltimore Ravens are locked into the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They are already not dressing several starters, including future MVP Lamar Jackson. The Buffalo Bills have clinched the fifth seed, while the Texans could officially be the fourth seed by kickoff. In the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings will be the sixth seed, as the Seahawks have the tiebreaker if they end with the same record.
These teams locked into playoff spots normally rest their big dogs, but they can only sit so many. Remember, the inactive list is only seven players. So the rest of the team is playing, or at least dressing.
I’ve been in this spot before with the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs. We were locked into the fifth seed as we headed into San Diego. Andy Reid sat everyone he could, but I had to dress and play. Even though I was the starting right guard, I played right tackle that week. Reid attempted to sit as many players as possible, but because our team was good, we still played hard. Backups don’t often get an opportunity to play when your team is good (the starters are normally healthy most of the season), so this is a great chance to get some film.
In 2013, we had multiple players getting their first career start, including quarterback Chase Daniel. He wanted to win. The right guard I was playing next to started his first and only game in the NFL. It was a big deal to most of the roster, and we played like it. We played hard, gave effort, and attempted to win.
It meant something to the guys on the team, even the players who didn’t dress. They were into the game, cheering on teammates getting their first run, and trying to coach up the young guys. The loose attitude is easy when you know you’re already in the playoffs.
2) When you’ve been eliminated before Week 17 and play a team resting its starters.
This happened to me in 2009. Our Carolina Panthers hosted a Week 17 contest against the No. 1 seed New Orleans Saints. The Saints were just there because it was required. If they could have forfeited the contest, they’d have done that. Everyone on the field knew the goal of the game was no one getting hurt on either side.
Looking at the drive chart in the fourth quarter is awesome. We were up 23-10 and both teams just bled the clock. We ran the ball with our fullback, Brad Hoover, five times in a row. The Saints ran the ball on third-and-9, and let the clock run down to 0 before snapping it. But one distinct play stands out from that game.
We were running a zone play to the right side, where I was playing. Early in the game, I was blocking my defensive lineman (a backup, btw), and I saw a linebacker get a free run at our running back, Jonathan Stewart. The collision was loud. Like a car wreck. And as I’m blocking my defender, I said some form of “oh f$$$.” I didn’t see the hit, but I could hear it and it was painful. When I uttered my phrase, the defensive lineman looked at me and said, “sorry bro” and stopped playing. I was clearly not hurt, but he was making sure that I wasn’t. I can promise that’s never happened in another game.
The entire game was mostly like that in the trenches. We hit each other, but nothing too crazy. No one tried to finish each other, and we attempted to stay on our feet. We know that falling big fellas = leg injuries. The game ended, we went home with a win, and the Saints eventually won the Super Bowl.
3. The third type of game is the one where both teams are out of the playoffs.
I’ve never played in this situation, but I’ve asked my NFL friends who have, and this is what they told me. This game is the most interesting, because unlike an entire team playing hard, or an entire team understanding there are some protections taken to avoid injury, these games feel like everyone is on their own.
Some older players with contracts intact for the following season are just attempting to make it out alive with no injuries. Younger players might be getting a continued opportunity to play, and they are going hard. Some players, young and old, are playing for incentives, or possibly putting more film on tape for free agency.
To add another layer is the looming cloud of a coach firing. It’s just a weird environment in the locker room that week, knowing this is the end for everyone. Everyone who’s not tied down is gone.
Week 17 is an odd one for most everyone in the NFL. I hope this shined a light on what it’s like playing in a Week 17 contest where there’s not much at stake.