Every year going into Week 17, it's the same thing. Some teams have "nothing to play for." Other games are "meaningless."
As a former player, it drives me crazy every time I hear pundits and fans say these things, because there's no such thing. Any time you set foot inside the white lines of an NFL game, there's a lot to play for: your personal pride, your teammates and, most importantly, your job. NFL players are paid professionals, and while I'm not naive enough to think there have never been guys whose preparation wasn't quite the same at the end of a lost season, by and large most players still realize what's at stake.
The truth is the end of a disappointing season is really when a player needs to play their best so that when the inevitable changes come, they are either kept on the roster and are part of the solution or play well enough that if the team does decide to move on from them they can put themselves in the best position to land a job elsewhere moving forward.
This played itself out all over the NFL on Sunday with the lowly Buccaneers beating a Saints team that was playing to be NFC South champions at the time, even though they ended up backing into that title after their loss because the Panthers lost.
The Cardinals likewise went to Seattle and took down a Seahawks team that needed a win and help to clinch a playoff berth. The Seahawks couldn't even hold up their end of the bargain thanks to an inspired Cards bunch that got the victory in what turned out to be Bruce Arians' last game as head coach.
Nowhere, however, did a "nothing to play for" group have more of an impact than in Baltimore, where all the Ravens had to do was win against a disappointing Bengals squad in order to punch their ticket to the playoffs. The Ravens couldn't get it done, however, as the Bengals scored the game-winning touchdown in dramatic fashion with less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter.
That win set off an epic celebration by Bills fans and players, as it enabled the Bills to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. As a former Bills player, I was very happy for those fans and long-time members of the organization but also kept thinking about the pride of the guys in the Bengals locker room to go out there in frigid conditions and play to the best of their ability. And, just as importantly, to prepare all week in order to give themselves that chance at a victory.
That, in my mind, is pro football.
The shame of it is that it always gets lost this time of year because the focus is always on which teams made the playoffs and which coaches are getting fired. We seem to gloss over the fact that teams with "nothing to play for" in "meaningless" games went out and in most cases played valiantly.
Were there some teams that used the game with an eye toward the future like the Dolphins playing quarterback David Fales or even the Eagles giving extended playing time to young signal caller Nate Sudfeld? Definitely. And that is the right of those teams and others like them. But even those games ended up being one-score contests despite those choices.
Should paid professionals be applauded for preparing and playing hard in one of their 16 contests each season? Absolutely not. That is their job. But their efforts should be recognized, if for no other reason than so that members of the media and others don't repeat the same mistake a year from now in Week 17.