Week 17 in the NFL is a weird mix of teams with nothing to play for but pride, others with plenty on the line and a few who have a little bit to play for but are more interested in answering the question of whether it’s more important to keep momentum going into the postseason or more important to give key players a week of rest.
In the NFC, there are some obvious teams who fall into these categories.
The Eagles are locked into the No. 1 seed and can decide whether to rest players or try to keep them focused knowing that they can rest the following week since they’ve earned a bye.
The Vikings are still working to clinch the No. 2 seed, and the easiest way to do that is to beat the Bears on Sunday. The Saints can clinch their division with a win over Tampa, while Carolina can steal the division instead with a win over Atlanta. The Falcons, too, can clinch a wild card spot with a win.
So the Vikings, Saints and Panthers have plenty to play for, while at least the Vikings and Saints opponents, the Bears and Tampa, have nothing but pride at stake.
In the weird middle, though, are the Rams. They’ve already clinched their division and sit at 11-4. With a win, they can lock up the No. 3 seed, but they can do no better than that. With a loss, they would fall no further than the No. 4 seed. In both cases, they’d have a home playoff game to start the postseason.
With nothing more than seeding at stake, it sounds as though the Rams are giving heavy consideration to resting a bunch of starters for Sunday’s finale against the 49ers.
“Being locked into that third or fourth seed — every single game is important — but I think it will provide an opportunity for us to potentially get some guys healthier, rest them, give some other guys a chance to step up,” head coach Sean McVay said Tuesday.
That decision could impact how the NFC playoff picture shakes out, and by extension could impact the Vikings.
A Rams win, as noted, would make them the No. 3 seed and put them on course to play either Seattle or Atlanta (the teams battling for the No. 6 seed) in the wild card round. If the Rams won that game, they would play the No. 2 seed in the division round — the spot that the Vikings will claim unless four different things go wrong Sunday. Even if New Orleans won Sunday, the Saints would be the No. 4 seed and would face Carolina in the wild card round. The winner of that game, assuming the No. 3 seed Rams won their game, would face Philadelphia.
But if the Rams lose and New Orleans wins Sunday, the Rams would be the No. 4 seed. New Orleans would be No. 3. And if both won in the wild card round, the Saints would play the Vikings (assuming they hold down the No. 2 seed) and the Rams would face the Eagles. The Rams could still defeat the 49ers Sunday even while resting players, but L.A. at full strength certainly has a better chance of doing that.
So McVay’s decision could be about giving players rest. It could also be about creating a potentially easier path in the playoffs. Who would you rather line up to face if you were the Rams: Carolina at home and Philly on the road or Seattle/Atlanta at home and the Vikings on the road? I’d pick the first one given how the Eagles have looked without Carson Wentz.
Either way, the Vikings would have a tough matchup in the division round if either New Orleans or the Rams advanced as the No. 3 seed. It’s entirely possible, of course, that one or both will lose, shaking up the seeding even more. Remember, the team with the worst remaining seed after the wild card round faces the No. 1 seed, while the better of the two faces the No. 2 seed.
And yes, the Vikings still need to secure that No. 2 seed. It’s worth noting on that front that the Rams’ decision could play a role in that as well. Though it shouldn’t come to this, the Vikings can still claim the No. 2 seed even with a loss to the Bears at home Sunday if New Orleans wins … or Carolina loses … or the Rams win.
If you thought the Rams game against the 49ers was a strong line of defense against catastrophe, it feels less like that if L.A. is resting a bunch of players.