Divisional Round Primer: Analyzing All Four Games (Fantasy Football)
The first round of the playoffs wasn’t exactly what we expected, was it? It seemed like all was going as expected, as the Chiefs were pouncing the Titans 21-3 prior to allowing 19 unanswered points. It shouldn’t really be all that shocking, either, as Andy Reid’s play-calling throughout the entire year was somewhat shoddy. Knowing they led by 18 points and that Kareem Hunt finished with just 11 carries is inexcusable, especially when Travis Kelce was forced to miss the final two and a half quarters.
That set the stage for the next two games, which were somewhat boring, though the Falcons and Jaguars got the job done. Lastly, the Saints and Panthers delivered the best game of the weekend, as both teams brought their ‘A’ game, and it seemed like the better team won. We now move forward to divisional round of the playoffs, as we’re down to just eight teams left.
As we always do, let’s discuss every player from every game, though as mentioned last week, it’ll be from a DFS standpoint. If you’re playing in a playoff league, you’ll still have a solid idea as to how I feel about each player when you’re done reading. Because of the smaller slate, it’ll likely be even more detailed than before. Let’s go.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
Line: ATL by 2.5
Matt Ryan: The playoff experience from last year seems to have paid off for Ryan and the Falcons offense, as they controlled the clock throughout the entire game, finishing with almost 38 minutes of possession, while the Rams wound up with just over 22 minutes. They’ll have a bit tougher time doing that against the Eagles, who boast one of the better run defenses in the league. To win this game, they’ll have to move the ball through the air, which might seem like a tough task in early January while playing in Philadelphia, but the forecast as of right now is saying the temps are likely to be around 50 degrees. Should there be rain, it’s a slight downgrade for the passing game. The Eagles weakness on defense is their secondary, as they don’t have that shutdown cornerback who can remove Julio Jones from the game. There were five quarterbacks to play against them this year who finished with at least 291 yards through the air, including 434 yards to Eli Manning in Week 15. He was also the fourth quarterback to throw for three touchdowns against them. The only quarterbacks who failed to throw at least one touchdown against them were Mitch Trubisky and Dak Prescott in Weeks 11 and 12. The issue is the pass-rush of the Eagles, as they have one of the better front-sevens in football, while the Falcons lost one of their better offensive lineman Andy Levitre right before the playoffs. It’s really difficult to recommend Ryan knowing that he’s still yet to score more than 18.4 fantasy points this season (without bonuses), but if the Falcons are going to have a chance, he needs to step up. He can be considered for cash-games, but I’d avoid in tournaments.
Nick Foles: Remember when everyone wanted to say that the Eagles would be okay after watching Foles throw for 237 yards and four touchdowns against the Giants? That was fun. In the two games after that, Foles completed just 23-of-49 passes (46.9 percent) for 202 yards (4.1 YPA) with one touchdown and two interceptions against the Raiders and Cowboys. It’s quite amazing what the Giants defense can do for a quarterback. There are actually rumblings that if Foles struggles, the Eagles won’t be shy about pulling him for Nate Sudfeld. Yep, this is the 2017 NFL Playoffs. The Falcons defense looked good against the Rams, and it was an extension of what we saw from them to close out the season. Over their last three games, they’ve held Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Jared Goff to just 226.0 passing yards per game, with each of them throwing just one touchdown. This is the combination of a cold quarterback and a hot defense, leaving you with an easy decision to not play Foles.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman: The duo played well against the Rams, but they were also one of the worst run defenses in the league this year. The Eagles are the exact opposite, as they allowed just 949 rushing yards the entire season, which amounts to just 59.3 yards per game to opposing teams, the lowest in the NFL. That combined with the fact that Freeman struggles to score on the road is cause for concern with him. Over the last two years of regular season play, he’s scored 16 touchdowns in 15 home games, while scoring just six touchdowns in 15 road games. It’s one of the more fascinating stats, because his yardage is very similar both at home and on the road. The Eagles allowed just six rushing touchdowns on the season this year, too, though they did allow five of them through the air to running backs. The 91 receptions they allowed to running backs ranked as the 10th-most in the league, so that’s where you should hope for the Falcons backs to do their damage. The reason for a sliver of hope is that the Eagles seemed to struggle a bit down the stretch, allowing three of the last four running backs they played to total at least 95 yards on the ground. I wouldn’t consider either of them for cash-games, and would limit exposure in tournaments.
Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement: Now that the trio has had essentially two weeks off, they’ll likely be heavily relied on against the Falcons, who have played for their life over the last few weeks. Just last week, they held Todd Gurley in check, though that game was played on a very sloppy field. Prior to being rested in Week 17, Ajayi had totaled 15, 12, and 14 carries, taking the clear starting role for the team, while Blount totaled just 19 total carries in those three games. The wildcard here is that Clement is obviously viewed as an important piece to this backfield, because he was rested in Week 17 as well (one touch), while Blount touched the ball 10 times in their meaningless game. But the harsh reality is that none of them are safe plays against a Falcons defense that allowed just four rushing touchdowns to starting running backs this year. They really struggled against pass-catching running backs, as they allowed a league-high 110 receptions to them (no other team allowed more than 99 receptions). Ajayi did see 13 targets in his last five games played, which is easily the most in the backfield, so he’s the one to play if you really want a part of this backfield. He’s also extremely cheap, so the discount you get going down to Clement isn’t really a determining factor. The reason you’d consider Clement is because he’ll be the lowest-owned option. When playing any of them, you’re just looking for a big play, as it’s very unlikely they’ll be in scoring position very often.
Julio Jones: So, he waits until the postseason to start scoring, eh? After scoring a ridiculously-low three touchdowns during the regular season, Jones found his way into the endzone despite an extremely sloppy field last Saturday night. He played extremely well against a Rams team that had shut down opposing wide receivers seemingly all season. This week he’ll look to improve on that against a lesser secondary, as the Eagles allowed 13 different wide receivers record five or more receptions against them, including five wide receivers who went for more 115 or more yards. He’ll see Ronald Darby the majority of time, and while he’s their top cornerback, he’s not a shutdown one. There’s no reason to fade Jones in either cash or tournaments, considering the Falcons are going to have to move the ball via the air.
Mohamed Sanu: Any time you can get a wide receiver on your team who’s seeing anywhere from 5-11 targets over the last month and a half at a discounted rate, it’s a good idea to look a bit closer. With Taylor Gabriel playing through a bad hamstring, Sanu has racked up lines of 4/75/0 and 7/71/0 over the last two games while seeing a combined 19 targets. His average depth of target is lower than Jones’ (14.5 to 7.6), which could prove to be a good thing if the Eagles get pressure on Ryan early, forcing him to get the ball out. Sanu will primarily see Patrick Robinson in coverage, and although he’s been solid this year, he’s still had some major hiccups, including late in the season, allowing Cooper Kupp 5/118/1, and Sterling Shepard 11/139/1 in Weeks 14 and 15. Because of that, Sanu is in-play for cash and tournaments.
Taylor Gabriel: He’s a player I’m okay avoiding, simply because he’s playing through a hamstring injury that limited him to just 17 snaps in their win over the Rams. Granted, he’ll likely play more this week, but he’s a major risk. If you want to use him at all, tournaments are the only thing you should consider.
Alshon Jeffery: Moving to Nick Foles has turned out to be pretty disastrous for Jeffery, as he’s totaled just one catch for eight yards over the last two games. He only saw four targets as well, which is a huge problem. Going back to Foles’ first game as the starter against the Giants, he targeted Jeffery 10 times, connecting four times for 49 yards and a touchdown. If he didn’t catch that touchdown, fantasy players would be even more concerned. The Falcons have Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford guarding the perimeter, an above-average duo, though not one that cannot be beat. In the end, he needs targets to be productive. The concern is that the Eagles don’t want the pass-game to win the game, but rather rely on their run-game with solid defense. Even if the Falcons pull out in front, they’re very likely to play very close to the vest, meaning there won’t be garbage time for Jeffery. Because of all these factors, he’s off the cash-game radar for me, though being the red zone presence he is, you don’t want to completely fade him in tournaments.
Nelson Agholor: He’s the Eagles receiver that you’ll want to roster this week, as his matchup is the best on the field. After seeing 16 targets in the two full games he played with Foles, Agholor played just 30 snaps in Week 17, leaving him with some meh overall numbers. But the matchup he has in the slot with Brian Poole is a phenomenal one. As mentioned in the Cooper Kupp write-up last week, Poole has allowed an 83 percent catch rate in his coverage this year, which is easily the highest in the league among starting cornerbacks. By comparison, the highest catch rate outside of him was 78 percent. Quarterbacks now have a 108.8 QB Rating when targeting him in coverage. If Agholor continues to see anywhere from 7-12 targets like he has in the last four games he played, he should return plenty of value. He’s one of the players you should be plugging into cash lineups, and you might want to consider having a little bit of tournament exposure as well.
Torrey Smith: It’s been another disappointing season for Smith, who saw more than five targets just three times all season. In his starts with Foles, he’s seen 11 targets in three games, totaling just three catches for 22 yards and no scores. It’s safe to say that you shouldn’t be targeting Smith in any cash lineups. Smith is the type of player who can take one pass to the house, so you don’t want to cross him off your tournament list on such a short slate.
Austin Hooper: As it’s been the last few months, Hooper saw five targets during their win over the Rams, though they amounted to just 15 yards. He’s now gone eight straight games without topping 38 yards or scoring a touchdown. Keep in mind that he’s seen 29 targets during that span. He’s a tight end, so one touchdown can make him a great value, but I don’t see that happening against the Eagles. They allowed just five touchdowns to tight ends all season, the 12th-lowest number in the league. Any tight end can snag a touchdown, but I won’t be betting on Hooper this weekend.
Zach Ertz: Once Carson Wentz went down, most were worried what it would do to Ertz, but if you were here for The Primer, we talked about how Ertz had played with him for the first two years of his career. In the two full games he played with him in Weeks 15 and 16, Ertz saw a team-high 23 targets, hauling in 15 of them for 137 yards and a touchdown. It’s clear that this offense is built around Ertz, and knowing that he’s healthy going into this game is huge. The Falcons were solid against the tight end position this year, but this is a similar team to the one that really struggled last year. There have been eight tight ends who have totaled at least four receptions against them, including two of them with seven receptions. It’s not an ideal matchup, but on such a short slate, it looks better. Ertz is in-play for cash and tournaments, but I’d really try to pay up for Rob Gronkowski in cash.
Prediction: Falcons 20, Eagles 17
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots
Line: NE by 13.5
Marcus Mariota: What in the world happened last week? Mariota went from a really bad game, to a really good one from a fantasy perspective in just one play. His final total was 25.4 fantasy points against the Chiefs, but 47 percent of his points came on one play that should have been an interception, but resulted in a six-yard pass to himself for the touchdown. Yes, he received six passing yards and receiving yards, a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. His matchup with the Patriots isn’t much better than his one against the Chiefs last week. After starting out the year horribly, the Patriots went from a team that was primarily playing zone, to one they used to be playing man coverage. It helped immensely, as they had allowed six straight quarterbacks throw for 300 yards to start the season, to not allowing any quarterback throw for more than 281 yards over the final 10 games, including seven of them with less than 240 yards. They did, however, allow five different quarterbacks to run for at least 20 yards against them, likely a result from their injuries to the front-seven, as well as playing man coverage. The hope with Mariota is that there’s some garbage time, as oddsmakers think with a line of almost two touchdowns. We saw what that could look like against the Chiefs. Don’t play Mariota in cash, but if you’re playing multiple tournament lineups, maybe throw him in a few. He’s one of the few mobile quarterbacks left, and rushing yards equal a lot of fantasy points.
Tom Brady: I think it’s safe to say Brady is the top quarterback on the board this week, even with his recent struggles. “But Mike, Brady isn’t done. You’re an idiot, start watching football.” First off, I never said Brady was done, but if you cannot see a decline in his play over the five games, you’re never going to. He’s averaged just 240.6 yards per game in that span, while throwing six touchdowns and five interceptions. With that being said, Brady shows up when it matters most. Playoff time. On top of that, he’s at home as a double-digit favorite against a team that had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Had Travis Kelce not gotten hurt, we might have seen another 300-yard passer against them, as there was in two of the last three games in the regular season (Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff). Alex Smith just played them and finished completing 24-of-33 passes which included four drops. If you include them in his completions, the Titans just allowed an 85 percent completion rate to the Chiefs weak receiving corps (minus Kelce). Brady should be in play for cash and tournaments, and no, I’m not worried about high ownership – there should be.
Derrick Henry: You’ve got to give the Titans credit for sticking to the run against the Chiefs, despite being down 18 in the first half. Henry saw more than 14 carries for the third time this year, and finished with 23/156/1 on the ground. In the other two games he totaled at least 15 carries, Henry posted lines of 19/131/1, and 28/51/0 (though he did total 66 yards and a touchdown through the air). When guaranteeing a player like Henry 15-plus touches, you have to be worried about playing against him. The fact that he’s 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds means that he shouldn’t be able to move as fast as he does. All season long, he’s been a big play waiting to happen, but will he get the opportunities against the Patriots? They are on the road as a heavy underdog, something Henry overcame last week, but do you want to bet on lightning striking twice? The Patriots have only faced four running backs all year who finished with more than 15 carries, and they lost two of those games, while the other was a close 27-24 win over the Steelers. The Patriots did, however, allow the second-most yards per carry on the season (4.7 YPC). Henry is not someone I’d use in cash-games with the way the game-script is likely to go, but he’s absolutely someone I’d take a shot on in a tournament.
Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White: Welcome back to the Patriots backfield, where we’re never surprised (insert sarcasm font). We joke, but in reality, the Patriots backfield has been rather easy to predict this year. Once Mike Gillislee went to the bench, it’s been Lewis in between the 10’s the majority of time, while Burkhead takes all of the work inside the 10. Burkhead has also been getting a majority of the passing-down work, while White is the one who lost a lot of his snaps to him. In the six games prior to getting hurt, Burkhead totaled 24 targets from Week 8-14 while White saw 22 targets during that time. This is a game where they should have plenty of attempts, though the Titans do have one of the best run defenses in the league. During the regular season, they allowed just 3.4 yards per carry with four touchdowns on the ground. So, in short, you’re going to need touchdowns, or work in the receiving department in order to hit tournament value. The logical one to play would be Burkhead in tournaments. White isn’t the worst tournament play because it shouldn’t shock anyone to see the Patriots use him in an extensive role out of nowhere (as we did in last year’s Super Bowl). As for Lewis, he’s going to get enough carries that he should be considered in cash (though I’d still likely lean Burkhead there as well) and tournaments. He’s the starting running back for a team that’s at home as a 13-point favorite? Yeah.
Rishard Matthews: It hasn’t been a great few weeks for Matthews, as he’s seen just four targets over the last two games, catching just two of them for 22 scoreless yards. Even going back three weeks ago, he saw just four targets. Meanwhile, rookie Corey Davis and Eric Decker have become favorites for Mariota, as Davis has racked up 18 targets in the last three games, totaling 10/126/0, while Decker has seen 21 targets for a line of 11/112/1. Has Matthews been passed up on the depth chart? It’s possible, but it’s also possible that he catches a long touchdown, as he’s done multiple times this year. With the recent state of targets, he belongs nowhere near a cash game, but knowing what the game-script should look like, as well as recency bias in ownership, Matthews makes for a solid tournament play. All it takes is one long play for him to smash value.
Eric Decker: As mentioned in the Matthews paragraph, Decker has been Mariota’s go-to target over the last three games, totaling a team-high 21 targets at the wide receiver position. He’s dropped four passes over the last two games, so there’s a chance that the targets start going back to Matthews at some point. This week, however, is one where the Titans should attack the slot, as it’s the weakest area off the Patriots defense. Going back to Weeks 14 and 15, they allowed Jarvis Landry to rack up eight catches for 46 yards and two touchdowns, and then allowed JuJu Smith-Schuster to total six catches for 114 yards. Mariota has been checking down quite a bit, maybe as a way to build confidence, and it just so happens that Decker and Delanie Walker see most of those shorter targets. There isn’t a game-script that would knock Decker out of the game, and in fact, he’ll play more snaps if they’re down, forcing the Titans to go three-wide almost exclusively. Because of that, Decker is in-play for cash games, especially given his cheap price. I’d rather play Matthews in a tournament, though.
Corey Davis: After not having any time to work with Mariota in the preseason, and then missing essentially two months of the season, Davis appears to be working his way into the trust circle. It was only a matter of time, as Davis is too talented to not be involved. In fact, his best work is done after the catch, so don’t be surprised to see them try and involve him in the shorter areas of the field. We don’t know if it will be Stephon Gilmore or Malcolm Butler on him just yet, but as of this moment, I’d suspect more Gilmore, as he’s the bigger cornerback. With Davis’ increase in targets, he’s a very interesting tournament play in a game where we should be expecting Mariota to throw the ball close to 40 times. Due to his lack of production to this point, we cannot play Davis in cash.
Brandin Cooks: This game should be interesting for Cooks, who is going to see Adoree Jackson the majority of time, a cornerback who possesses just as much athletic ability as Cooks does. Jackson has been beat in a variety of ways this year while still learning the speed of the NFL game, but getting beat deep hasn’t been one of them. Still, the way to beat the Titans is through the air, so don’t give up hope on Cooks just yet. There were 13 wide receivers who were able to post 15 or more PPR points against them during the regular season, which is essentially what you need out of Cooks in order to hit value in cash lineups, as he’s rather expensive. Because of that, he’s strictly a tournament play this weekend, but one you should definitely have some exposure to.
Chris Hogan: It’s difficult to trust a player who’s played 55 snaps since Week 14, but Hogan is someone who deserves a good long look this week, as the Titans will ask LeShaun Sims to cover him the majority of time. During the season, Sims had allowed over a 110 QB Rating in his coverage, including a 74 percent catch-rate. Prior to going down with his shoulder injury, Hogan was step-for-step with Cooks in terms of production, performing near a WR1 level. After playing eight games, he was on pace for 68 receptions, 878 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Oddly enough, he’s still tied for the team-lead in red zone targets (12) among wide receivers, despite missing seven full games. He did practice on a limited basis in Week 17, so it’s very likely that he’ll be on the field for a full workload now that we’re two weeks out from that. If he’s practicing in full as the week goes on, consider him a solid play in cash games, as well as tournaments. If he continues to be limited, he’s a tournament play only.
Danny Amendola: The player who saw the biggest snap increase with Hogan out for the second half of the season was Amendola, though he only finished with more than 43 yards twice over the final 11 games. That makes him somewhat of a dicey option, though you never want to cross him off, as we’ve seen him be the focal point of the offense when that’s what the defense gives them. He’ll see former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan in the slot, and he’s been somewhat of a disappointment in Tennessee. He’s allowed a rather-high 12.1 yards per reception in coverage, as well as five touchdowns on 75 targets. Still, he’s one of the more experienced cornerbacks on the team, so it’s not as if he’s got a target on his back. Amendola is cheap enough to consider for cash, especially if we hear that Hogan still isn’t practicing in full. As is the case with the other starting Patriots wide receivers, you should have some exposure to Amendola in tournaments.
Delanie Walker: If you’ve been reading The Primer throughout the year, we always aim for tight ends who see volume. At fantasy football’s most volatile position, you want to eliminate as much risk as possible. Walker has now seen at least five targets in each of the last 15 games, including seven games with eight or more targets. His yardage hasn’t quite been what you’d like with that many targets, as he’s finished with 42 yards or less in four of his last five games. The Patriots have shown some weakness against tight ends at times this season, allowing at least five receptions to six different tight ends. With that being said, the Patriots are a defense that will change their strategy based on opponent, as it’s fair to say that Walker is their best weapon on offense. He’s still going to get targets, making him worth consideration in DFS, though you should be paying up for the tight end on the other sideline in this game.
Rob Gronkowski: There are still some DFS players who are “mad” at Gronk for not catching a single pass in Week 17, so maybe his ownership will be down? Wishful thinking… Similar to Travis Kelce last week, Gronkowski is worth every one of your DFS dollars. The Titans were well on their way to allowing a monster game to Kelce, and that was while knowing he was their biggest weapon on offense. While Gronk fits the same category, the Patriots have a lot more playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Coming into that game, the Titans had allowed nine different tight ends rack up double-digit PPR points against them, one of the higher marks in the league. Of the eight tight ends who saw at least five targets against them, seven of them finished as a top-10 tight end. Pay up for Gronk, or lose money.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Titans 20
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Line: PIT by 7.5
Blake Bortles: Did you watch last week’s game? If you did, you’re likely left wondering how the Jaguars aren’t a bigger underdog than they already are. Bortles looked like the quarterback most thought he was when the season started, and that was despite the Bills completely selling-out to stop the run-game. This game against the Steelers has already taken place before, though the Steelers defense will be without linebacker Ryan Shazier. In their Week 5 meeting, Bortles threw the ball just 14 times, completing eight passes for 95 yards. There are wide receivers who laugh at that number. But still, it’s the only way the Jaguars win this game – running the football. The Steelers pass defense did trend downward as the season went on, as they allowed just six passing touchdowns over the first eight games, but then 14 of them over the final eight games, including at least one to every quarterback. Still, they finished the season with 16 interceptions, the ninth-most in the league. This is a road game in Pittsburgh in the middle of January, which should tell you all you need to know. Bortles should be reserved for tournament lineups only, though I’d even limit my exposure there. Why have any shares at all? Well, we’ve seen him get hot for stretches before.
Ben Roethlisberger: When we see Roethlisberger at home in the playoffs, we naturally want to play him. There’s just one issue here, and it’s the Jaguars straight-up nasty defense. Roethlisberger has already felt the wrath of them, as he threw five interceptions against them in their Week 5 meeting. Keep in mind that was with a 100 percent healthy Antonio Brown, and while at home. There was something quite different about that performance than the rest of these games:
This list consists of every one of his home games since Week 9 of 2015. As you can see, the Jaguars are the only team who held him to less than two touchdowns and 17 fantasy points. Can they do it again? While I don’t expect another zero-touchdown, five-interception game, I don’t expect Roethlisberger to come out firing as he always does at home. Because of the risk associated with playing a quarterback against the Jaguars, he’s not a recommended play in DFS this week. He’s not safe enough in cash, and likely doesn’t offer enough upside in tournaments, as the Jaguars allowed just two quarterbacks to score more than 17 fantasy points this year. Russell Wilson and Jimmy Garoppolo, who both scored at least five points with their legs (wouldn’t have topped 17 points without their legs).
Leonard Fournette: What an incredible disappointment by Fournette last week, though watching that game, it was tough to see anyone producing behind that offensive line. Watching the Jaguars this season, you realize that they need serious help on the offensive line. The Bills sold-out to stop the run during wild-card weekend, but will the Steelers do the same? In their Week 5 meeting, Fournette had the best game of his short career, totaling 181 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. That was while the Steelers had Ryan Shazier, one of their leaders on defense. Since losing Shazier, they have allowed 546 yards on 110 carries (5.0 YPC) with six rushing touchdowns in five games. Knowing how poor Bortles has played the last three weeks, the Steelers may decide to provide extra support to their front-seven in order to stop Fournette, similar to the way the Bills did last week. But here’s the thing – don’t let one game destroy your belief in Fournette. When a running back as talented as him gets 20-plus touches, big things are going to happen more often than not. Because of that, consider him a solid-play in cash-games seeing there aren’t many obvious plays on the slate. Knowing what he did to this defense last time they played with Shazier, you can also plug him into tournament lineups. You’re also likely to get lower ownership after last week’s letdown.
Le’Veon Bell: It’s now been three weeks since Bell last played, and it likely did him more good than anyone else in the league. His 406 combined touches were 63 more than the closest running back, and that’s with just 15 games played. Knowing about Roethlisberger’s struggles against the Jaguars, they’re likely to rely heavily on Bell in this game. We saw a less-than-100-percent LeSean McCoy produce against the Jaguars defense last week, so there’s little reason to doubt Bell. The Jaguars aren’t a team to target with running backs by any means, as they’ve now allowed just 771 yards on 219 carries (3.5 YPC) with just three touchdowns over their last 10 games. The bonus here is that Bell contributes more in the passing game than most receivers, and the Jaguars have now allowed 223 receiving yards to running backs over their last three games, including 66 to Derrick Henry and 76 to Kyle Juszczyk. On such a short slate, Bell is looking like a must-play even in a semi-tough matchup. He simply offers too much stability to pass up, especially knowing that Antonio Brown may not be 100 percent.
Dede Westbrook: It was apparent that Marqise Lee was not quite 100 percent last week, leading to Westbrook seeing a team-high eight targets, and turning them into five catches for 48 yards. Some may be concerned about Lee getting healthier, but Westbrook has played much better when Lee is in the lineup. Over the final three weeks of the season while Lee was hurt, Westbrook totaled just seven receptions for 104 scoreless yards in those three games combined. The Steelers play a lot of zone coverage, so there isn’t one specific cornerback who’ll cover each of them. The collapse of Bortles is more worrisome than the matchup, though that isn’t great either. Should the Steelers sell-out to stop Fournette, that would leave Westbrook with a big opportunity to win one-on-one, but the Jaguars haven’t targeted him deep on many occasions, which is likely due to their subpar offensive line. He’s the type of player who can hit value on one play, so keep him in mind for tournaments, but cross him off in cash-games.
Marqise Lee: Are you looking to take massive risks this week? If so, you’ve found a player to bet on. After missing essentially three weeks, Lee returned to the lineup against the Bills only to see one target come his way. He did tie Westbrook for a team-high 35 snaps at wide receiver, but it’s concerning to see him not involved in the gameplan. We have to pay attention to his practice participation throughout the week, but the fact that he played as many snaps as any other wide receiver says a lot. Expect him to be more involved this week, and the game-script should help him in that way. Oddsmakers are expecting the Steelers to win this game by more than a touchdown, which means Bortles will throw the ball more than the 14 times he did in their first meeting. Of those 14 attempts, four went to Lee, who secured two of them for 49 yards. You don’t want to play him in cash at the risk of re-aggravating the ankle injury, but if he’s practicing in full, he’s a great tournament play as the No. 1 receiver for a team who is likely to trail.
Keelan Cole: We heard rumblings before the Bills game that the Jaguars aren’t exactly thrilled with Cole, as he’s dropped some passes, as well as run the wrong routes at times. He did play two more snaps that Allen Hurns did during last week’s win, but that could also have to do with getting Hurns re-acclimated. Cole saw just one target in the game, forcing you to wonder if he’ll even be a factor against the Steelers. He’s nothing more than a punt-play in tournaments.
Antonio Brown: Here’s the biggest impact on the slate. Will Brown be healthy? And if so, can he beat Jalen Ramsey in coverage? In their first meeting, Brown finished the game with a ridiculous 19 targets, which led to 10 catches for 157 yards, though that game didn’t end well for the Steelers. Brown is recovering from a semi-serious calf injury that knocked him out of their Week 15 game, and he didn’t practice with the team until this week. There are rumors out there that he looks good, but what else do you expect? Can you imagine a Steelers beat writer leaking, “Brown looks like a shell of his former self in practice. Jaguars likely to catch a break”? He isn’t going to miss this game, even if it means going out there as a decoy to open up things for Bell and the run-game. Brown was the only player all season to total more than 90 yards against the Jaguars, which tells you just how good they were against players who didn’t see 19 targets. Because of all the question marks, it’s safe to fade Brown in cash games, especially with his hefty price-tag. With that being said, if you don’t have some exposure in tournaments, you’re playing with fire.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: The last time these two teams played, Smith-Schuster was just another rookie who made some plays here and there. That’s not the way teams look at him anymore. He finished the regular season with 917 yards and seven touchdowns on just 79 targets. His 11.6 yards per target was more than any other wide receiver who had at least 25 targets. He’ll Aaron Colvin the majority of time, the Jaguars slot cornerback who played better than most imagined he would. Still, he’s the weakest link in their trio of cornerbacks, allowing a 73 percent catch-rate in coverage, though he didn’t allow a single touchdown on his 62 targets in coverage this year. He’s the type of player to allow the underneath stuff, but hasn’t allowed anyone get over the top on him, which is where Smith-Schuster has done a lot of his damage. Due to his late-season surge, Smith-Schuster’s price has gone up to the point where he’s tough to play in cash, as he’s the third option in the passing game behind Brown and Bell. Knowing that Brown isn’t 100 percent, it’s possible that he’s a bit more involved, which is why I won’t completely rule him out for cash games. He’s absolutely playable in tournaments.
Martavis Bryant: Despite seeing five more targets than Smith-Schuster on the year, Bryant finished with 314 fewer yards and four fewer touchdowns. With that being said, he’s played much better as of late, finishing with at least 59 yards in each of his last three games. That could have something to do with the disappearing of Antonio Brown from the offense, though, so don’t get too excited. On top of that, he’ll see A.J. Bouye, who has played just as well as Jalen Ramsey this year. In the first meeting, Bryant saw eight targets, catching five of them for just 21 yards. Now coming up as fourth in the pecking order, Bryant is strictly a tournament option, and not one that I’d be overweight on.
Marcedes Lewis: While the Jaguars targeted Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and Allen Hurns just three times combined last week, Lewis saw three targets himself, though he didn’t do much with them. This is sadly his ceiling, as he’s failed to see more than three targets since way back in Week 13. Most of his targets this season came while Allen Hurns and/or Dede Westbrook were out of the lineup, so knowing that both of them are healthy and available, don’t expect much out of Lewis in this game. The only way you’d play him is in search of a touchdown, something the Steelers allowed just two of this season, which was a league-low. I’d place my bets elsewhere.
Jesse James: I’ve learned my lesson with completely fading Roethlisberger’s tight end while he’s at home, simply because he throws at least two touchdowns in essentially every game, and any one of them can go to his tight end. The issue with betting on James to be the one is that Vance McDonald is also involved, though he doesn’t play near the amount of snaps that James does. James has been extremely boom-or-bust all season, totaling 13.1 or more PPR points in three games, but 7.0 or less points in every other game. The Jaguars were right there with the Steelers as one of the better teams in the NFL against tight ends, though the Jaguars did allow double the touchdowns. James is strictly a tournament option, as is McDonald if you’re looking for a less-than-one-percent owned option.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Jaguars 16
New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Line: MIN by 3.5
Drew Brees: Something tells me that Brees won’t light up the Vikings the way he did the Panthers last week. If you were to ask my opinion, the Panthers played that game exactly as they should of, though they just got beat by a better team. Truth be told, the Panthers defense had been struggling for quite some time. The Vikings, on the other hand, they’ve allowed just one quarterback to score more than 17 fantasy points against them this year, and that was Kirk Cousins who rushed for two touchdowns (he wouldn’t have scored more than 17 points without his rushing). While Brees may sneak in a rushing touchdown here and there, you aren’t going to project him for one. These two teams actually played each other back in Week 1, where Brees threw for 291 yards and one touchdown, though that was prior to their run-game taking off. Since the start of Week 7, there’s been seven games where Brees has thrown one or less touchdown passes. As I’ve said before, Brees still has it, but the Vikings defense is legit. In order to beat them, the Saints are going to have to run the ball. They say that playing in the Vikings new stadium is one of the toughest places for road teams to play, so it’s fair to say that Brees should be avoided in cash-games. Both teams have firepower on offense, so I wouldn’t completely cross him off my tournament list, though I also wouldn’t have much exposure.
Case Keenum: As the Vikings got down the home-stretch of the season, they started asking Keenum to do less and less, as he finished with less than 240 yards passing in four of the last five games. The Saints have been a much better defense than most would have thought, but they’ve had some lapses as of late, allowing Kirk Cousins 322/3 in Week 11, Jared Goff 354/2 in Week 12, Cam Newton 183/2 in Week 13, and then 363/1 to Jameis Winston in Week 17. Because of that, we don’t have to completely shy away from Keenum, though it’s likely the Vikings will try to grind this game out on the ground. It doesn’t hurt that his top weapon (Adam Thielen) will not have to worry about Marshon Lattimore in coverage. The implied team total for the Vikings sits at almost 25 points, so oddsmakers are expecting them to score three touchdowns in this game. It took some great throws from Cam Newton in order to throw for 349 yards and two touchdowns against them last week, something we’ve seen Keenum do on multiple occasions this year. He’s not the ideal cash-game quarterback, but he’s playable in tournaments.
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram: It wasn’t the game most wanted against the Panthers, but you were warned that it wasn’t a great matchup here last week. The best fantasy duo of all-time totaled just 45 yards on 19 carries (2.4 YPC) against the Panthers last week, something they’ll try to correct against the Vikings this week. The issue is that the Vikings have been almost as good as the Panthers against running backs, allowing just five running backs total 70 rushing yards against them, and just one who rushed for more than 100 yards. The combination of Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley turned in just 124 yards on 42 attempts (2.95 YPC) with one touchdown. The Vikings also didn’t allow much through the air to running backs, as the 499 yards they allowed was the second-fewest in the league. It wasn’t due to a shortage of targets, either, as they allowed just 4.26 yards per target to running backs, the lowest in the league by a longshot. The one receiving touchdown they allowed was also a league-low. They are road underdogs, making them less-than-ideal cash-game options, especially when you see their prices. Kamara is a great tournament play, however, as he offers game-breaking potential every time he touches the ball. Ingram cannot be ignored, either, but knowing the unlikelihood that the Saints have tons of goal-line opportunities, he’s a lesser option than Kamara.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon: Some still look at this duo as a timeshare, but that’s far from the truth. After seeing 96 carries from Week 5-12 (13.7 per game), McKinnon totaled just 44 carries from Week 13-17 (8.8 per game), while Murray has averaged 16.8 carries per game since Dalvin Cook went down for the year. The issue with relying on Murray too much, though, is that he’s almost non-existent in the passing game, as he’s totaled more than one reception just four times all season. So depending on how you see this game going, that’s what will tell you the direction to lean. If you have the Vikings winning, you’ll want to get more exposure to Murray, whereas if you see them losing, McKinnon may be the better bet, as he’s heavily involved in the passing game, totaling at least five receptions in six of the last 12 games. The Saints were not what you’d call a good run defense, as they allowed five different running backs go for 90-plus yards on the ground. Every one of those running backs totaled at least 17 carries, so it’s unlikely that McKinnon reaches that territory. But as we mentioned before, he’s the go-to option in the passing game, and the Saints have allowed eight different running backs rack up 40 or more yards through the air. If you’re playing on a site like FanDuel, you may want to lean Murray, because touchdowns are heavier-weighted. If you’re playing on DraftKings, you likely want to lean McKinnon, as their scoring favors pass-catching running backs, and he’s cheaper.
Michael Thomas: This is going to be a matchup to pay attention to, as Thomas will likely be forced to match-up with Xavier Rhodes much of the game. This is not a good thing. Outside of one game against the Lions, he’s been shutting down opposing No. 1 wide receivers all season, allowing just a 55 percent catch rate in his coverage. In the first meeting between these two teams, Rhodes didn’t shadow Thomas when he ended the game with just five catches for 45 yards. It’d be a major surprise if that didn’t change this week. Despite Rhodes not shadowing him, that was just one of the three games all season where Thomas failed to record at least 65 yards. His price is still way too elevated to consider him in cash games, and it’s likely best to at least limit your exposure in tournaments as well. If he were to finish with 80 yards and a touchdown, you’d consider that a major success, and likely his ceiling.
Ted Ginn: If Rhodes does follow around Thomas, as we’re expecting him to, that leaves Ginn matched up with Trae Waynes. At this point in their careers, Waynes is likely faster than Ginn, taking away the best portion of Ginn’s game. It’s not to say that he can’t beat Waynes a time or two, he can, because Waynes isn’t a world-class cornerback. But when playing in cash-games, you aren’t looking for those one or two plays, you’re looking for players who make plays consistently. Ginn has finished with 44 yards or less in 7-of-15 regular season games, which is far from consistent. Because of that, avoid Ginn in cash, but play him in a couple tournament lineups.
Adam Thielen: Did you know that Thielen finished right behind Michael Thomas and Julio Jones in PPR scoring this year? Yep, they were No. 6 and 7, while he was No. 8 despite scoring just four touchdowns on the season. Not bad for a former undrafted free agent, right? He slowed down as the season went on, but that had a lot to do with the Vikings asking less and less of Keenum. With two weeks to prepare, the Vikings should have Thielen as the centerpiece of the gameplan against the Saints, whose biggest weakness is covering the slot. From starting the season with Sterling Moore, to cutting him and moving on to Kenny Vaccaro, who then got hurt, forcing them to bring Moore back (who was bad again), and then plugging P.J. Williams into the slot. Over the last two games, Williams has been targeted 15 times in coverage, allowing 10 receptions for 114 yards. Some will be concerned about Marshon Lattimore, but he doesn’t travel into the slot, which is where Thielen plays over half of his snaps. It was also part of the reason Thielen finished with 9/157/0 in their first meeting. Thielen’s matchup gives us the green light to use him in cash as well as tournaments.
Stefon Diggs: If there’s a Vikings wide receiver to worry about Marshon Lattimore with, it’s Diggs. He plays the majority of his snaps on the perimeter, which is where Lattimore will shadow him. Diggs dominated the matchup back in Week 1, finishing with seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns, but that was also back before Lattimore shadowed No. 1 receivers. Here’s the thing – Diggs is equally as talented as Lattimore, but do the Vikings have to go there? No, not with Thielen’s matchup. Because of that, it’s impossible to say that you should use him in cash. Diggs has posted at least 60 yards in five of his last eight games, including touchdowns in each of his last three games, but is that enough to win you a tournament? Similar to Michael Thomas, I’m going to have some exposure to Diggs in tournaments, but he’s by no means my favorite play.
Josh Hill: If you were here last week, there was a line on Hill saying, “he’s yet to see more than three targets in any one game. In fact, he hasn’t reached 30 yards all season and has scored one touchdown. Feel free to move on to a different tight end, unless you believe Brees will return to his old targeting tight end ways. There is no evidence suggesting that he will, or should for that matter.” So naturally, Hill would record season-highs in targets (4), catches (3), yards (49), and touchdowns (1). We also saw the Saints go a bit more pass-heavy than they had most of the season. In the first meeting with the Vikings, the Saints targeted Coby Fleener six times, hooking up five times for 54 yards and a touchdown, so it’s possible they found a hole in the defense. Four targets still aren’t nearly enough to consider him in cash, but if you’re building a lot of tournament lineups, maybe include Hill in a few of them.
Kyle Rudolph: It wasn’t a good season for Rudolph, no matter which way you slice it. Sure, he scored eight touchdowns, but he finished the year with just 532 yards. In fact, he had nine games with less than 40 yards, including each of his last three games, which netted just 26 yards combined. There was a part of the season where he was seeing a consistent 7-9 targets, but it coincides with the time that Diggs was dealing with some injuries. Since Week 12, Rudolph has averaged just 3.3 targets per game. Unfortunately, his DFS price doesn’t reflect the lack of production, as Rudolph is still a household name. He did score in the first meeting against the Saints, which was one of the six they allowed this season. Greg Olsen‘s 107-yard performance last week was just the third-time this season where the Saints allowed more than 48 yards to a tight end, so it’s not what you’d call a great matchup. Because of that, Rudolph is nothing more than a touchdown-dependent tournament play.
Prediction: Vikings 24, Saints 20