The state of any given NFL locker room entering into the last few weeks of the season is determined by the record of the given team. (ok- a little Captain Obvious I know)
For teams that have no chance of make the playoffs a lot of the players are simply counting the minutes till the last play of week 17. For these teams the season has been physically and emotionally draining with the only relief is to regroup and start over next year. In fact, I’ve been on a few teams whose records were so bad that after the last practice of the year players didn’t even wait to go to the bar but enjoyed their celebratory libations in their lockers with their pads still on.
As for individual players, most are trying to finish out the season healthy (so that they don’t have to spend the offseason in the training room) while at the same time making plans to go on vacation somewhere tropical.
Others are trying to make as many plays as they can to pad their stats and look better going into free agency. Either way, the focus still remains the same—get ready for next year.
In contrast you have teams who have clinched the playoffs and (depending how good their record is) can rest their starters and get geared up for the post season. I’ve been on a few of these teams as well and it is as fun as it gets during the regular season. Guys are sitting around their lockers, the training room, weight room, etc. trying to do the math to figure out what teams they might possibly play in the postseason.
Players are also making phone calls home to their families getting the accommodation ready for them to travel. Most importantly, the reality starts to set in that you are 3 or 4 games away from being World Champions (something I never got to experience but always dreamed about. And those dreams were never more real then when you clinched a playoff spot.)
The most difficult position to be in, in my opinion, is a team that could be in or could be out depending on how they do (or how other teams do). The atmosphere around these teams (unlike the other two scenarios) is normally really tense because for all intensive purposes the playoffs have already started. You HAVE to win. And as difficult as these situations can be mentally, I sometimes feel like these teams are best prepared going into the playoffs because they have been in a postseason mindset two or three weeks in advance. The prep, the sleeping at the facility, the extra treatment, everything that players do in the postseason these teams having been doing.
Week 1 of the playoffs isn’t that much different than week 16 or 17. On the flip side, these teams also have a tendency to run out of juice by the conference championship game because they have been running full throttled for a lot long than the other teams.
Honestly, I really enjoy being on teams in all three circumstances. Each one teaches you a lot but in all three cases you get to thank God for getting you through another 17 week NFL season.