FanDuel GPP Plays: Championship Edition

A look at tournament fades and contrarian plays for the Championship Round of the NFL playoffs.

Welcome to the final four. Playing the short slate tournaments is difficult due to clustered ownership percentages and the lack of options. There are a couple of things we need to do in order to be successful.

The first is identifying game scripts and following them for every team. Play out the scenarios in your head. Who do you think is going to win? How are they going to win? Who benefits the most in this win? Once you’ve got a feel for what you think might happen, stack your lineups accordingly.

The second is ignoring our desires to use up all of the salary cap. If you build a lineup you love that has $1,000 unused, let it go. The reason you have salary left over is because you identified a game script you like and designed your roster accordingly. This week may not be the greatest example since we have several high-priced players to choose from (compared to Prime Time games during the regular season) but don’t sweat left over dollars.

Just like last week, the spread, over/under and projected team total will be displayed for each contest, but keep in mind those numbers can and will change. The number in parenthesis represents each team’s seed. I’ve broken down both games and pinpointed players that will be the most owned and a few that will be under-owned. We have a remarkable set of matchups this week that feature the three highest scoring offenses (in order by points scored: Panthers, Cardinals, Patriots), and four top-10 defenses. We also have the first ever playoff matchup between two Heisman winners (Cam Newton and Carson Palmer). So as sad as it is to see the season come to a close, Sunday is going to be a blast. The only thing that can make it better is winning a little (or a lot of) cash.

New England Patriots (2) @ Denver Broncos (1)

Spread: Patriots -3

Over/Under: 44

Projected Team Totals: Patriots 23.5, Broncos 20.5

Let’s jump right into the narratives surrounding this game and get it over with. First, there’s the whole “Peyton Manning can’t play in cold weather”:

Then we have his $2 million incentive to win the AFC title:

Lastly, we have the fact that Tom Brady apparently sucks in Denver:

Not a single one of these narratives will sway our process. Instead, we should focus on the facts. For example, in his first start since Week 10, Manning completed just over 56 percent of his passes on 31 attempts. None of those passes were completed for a touchdown or an interception. At times, he forced the ball into tight windows like vintage Manning; at other times, the ball fluttered like it slipped out of his hand. It didn’t help that his receivers dropped seven passes, most of which would have kept their respective drives alive and, at the very least, would have accounted for 80 or more additional yards.

But drops aside, the Broncos offense looked clunky and mistimed. If not for a forced fumble midway through the fourth quarter, we would probably be talking about the Steelers road game here. This is no secret. It won’t be surprising if Manning is the lowest owned quarterback.

We’ll pay no mind to that. The reason we’re fading Manning is because he’s a statue, and with a short slate of players, we don’t need to take a discount at the quarterback position—even if it means missing out on the opportunity to go contrarian. What we do need to pay mind to is how his efficiency relates to the players around him, specifically Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

Both of those receivers were popular plays last week. Neither returned value despite a soft matchup. After seeing how the Manning and Co. performed against the Steelers, I would expect the crowd to shy away from this offense as a whole. But we should at least consider the fact that the Patriots allowed the second most yards to wide receivers during the regular season. On average, receivers combined for 186 yards per game against this defense. Last week, Chiefs’ receivers combined for 174, mostly via Jason Avant and Albert Wilson. Thomas and Sanders are a lot better than Avant and Wilson (at least for now). With that in mind, Sanders is our best bet. When these teams met back in Week 12, he caught six of his nine targets for 116 yards. Granted, that was with Brock Osweiler under center. Last week Thomas and Sanders each saw eight targets from Manning. Thomas is the best bet to score, but Sanders has the highest floor.

If you’re looking for a contrarian play and want to save a bunch of cap space in the process, Jordan Norwood is your man. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots ranked 28th against “other types of wide receivers”. Norwood is a low-volume, high-risk option at $4,500 who caught just one of his four targets last week, but he played the third most snaps—just as he has all season. While there’s implied risk with plugging him into your lineup, there’s also the advantage of going completely contrarian with a Manning receiver who needs only four catches for 70 yards to hit 2x value. That’s a long shot, to be sure, but it helps that he’ll likely be returning kicks and punts with Omar Bolden out. Not that we should put a lot of stock in this, but the Patriots allowed the 11th most punt return yards during the regular season. The more snaps Norwood plays, offensively or on special teams, the better chance he has at lucking into a touchdown and returning tournament value.   

Of all Denver players, C.J. Anderson will probably have the most exposure. His goal line usage gives him an edge over Ronnie Hillman. As does the fact that Anderson is a better fit for Gary Kubiak’s system. It’s logical to expect them to hide Manning a bit with the running game, which means more work for Anderson. The Patriots, however, were excellent against the run during the regular season. Even if the Chiefs found some success on the ground against them last week, this is not a matchup worth challenging. If Anderson had a clear lock on the lead role, we’d be more aggressive. Even though he was clearly the better runner last week, he split snap counts almost 50/50 with Hillman.

Brady’s struggles in Denver, as the narrative would have us to believe, mean nothing because we don’t care if he wins or loses the game. We only care about how many touchdowns he is going to throw. While the matchup isn’t a cakewalk defensively speaking, we can at least look back to Week 12 and gather some comfort from his 280 yards and three scores. The difficulty with this game is guessing which player the Broncos sellout to stop. Julian Edelman didn’t play in Week 12, so we don’t have any evidence of what his role might be other than to say it will be a heavy one. Whether or not the Broncos attempt to shut down the middle of the field is another question, especially when Rob Gronkowski lines up all over the place and is basically unstoppable. If they double Gronkowski, Edelman is going to end up tons of targets and receptions. If they sellout to stop both players, suddenly James White becomes solid value. He played 72 percent of offensive snaps last week. Of course, in true Patriots fashion, he managed just three touches.

All things being equal, it’s worth noting that the Chiefs defense was a challenging matchup as well, but Edelman and Gronkowski still combined for 17 catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns. Edelman saw 16 targets despite missing two months of action. There is no rust to his game. This leads us right back to where were last week: a Patriots power stack of Brady/Edelman/Gronkowski. If you want to diversify, drop either of those players and plug in White, which ultimately exposes your lineup to the entire Patriots offense. As random as it may be, the Broncos allowed 14 total touchdowns to running backs in the regular season—11th most—including five receiving touchdowns.  

Outside of the skill position players, I don’t have much interest in this game. The Broncos defense isn’t worth rostering considering how they’ve played lately and who they’re playing against. Conversely, the Patriots defense, thought exploitable, is a great play against Manning and his clunky offense. They also happen to be the cheapest defense available to us, which will also make them the most exposed.

Arizona Cardinals (2) @ Carolina Panthers (1)

Spread: Panthers -3

Over/Under: 48

Projected Team Totals: Panthers 25.5, Cardinals 22.5

There’s a lot to like about this game considering Vegas is crediting each team with three touchdowns per their project totals. During the regular season, the Panthers lead the league in offensive scoring and the Cardinals were second. As such, we can expect the most DFS exposure to exist in this contest.

There is some contrarian value to selecting Carson Palmer. I can see the crowd being bearish regarding his finger and how the Cardinals offense underperformed last week at home. This week they’re traveling East to take on a much tougher defense. But over the last four games, the Panthers have allowed an average of 392 total yards and 22 points, with most of those yards and points generated by quarterbacks. Here’s a visual summary:

Player

Week

Comp

Att

PassYd

PassTD

Int

Rsh

RshYD

RshTD

FantPt

Salary

Russell Wilson 19 31 48 366 3 2 3 32 0 27.84 8400
Jameis Winston 17 29 47 325 0 2 3 14 1 18.4 7000
Matt Ryan 16 23 30 306 1 0 6 1 0 14.34 6800
Eli Manning 15 29 46 245 4 1 1 4 0 25.2 7200
Total   112 171 1242 8 5 13 51 1 85.78  

It’s not unreasonable to expect Palmer to reach the average 21.4 FanDuel points allowed per the above table. And it helps that his salary dropped $1,200.

It also helps to have Larry Fitzgerald, who turns into the Incredible Hulk in the playoffs:

He’ll likely avoid Josh Norman’s coverage since Fitzgerald moves all over the field and plays a lot of time in the slot. If Silva is correct and Cortland Finnegan is tasked with covering him, then we should expect another huge day. But also expect the crowd to be all over him. He’ll challenge Gronkowski as the highest owned player of the weekend.

Michael Floyd was the second highest owned wide receiver last week, and it looked like he’d be well on his way to awarding owners with a monster day after he scored an early touchdown, but he fell silent for most of the game, only to remerge with a tipped-pass touchdown. In the end, he was good enough for 16 FanDuel points. He’s the most likely candidate to wander into Norman’s coverage for most of the day. Regardless, he’ll still see a moderate-to-high ownership percentage simply because the crowd won’t like many receivers outside of Fitzgerald and Edelman. That said, the crowd will be spooked by the way the Cardinals played last week and will probably place all their money on the Patriots and Panthers offenses.

Should that be the case, stacking Palmer with John Brown makes for a nice contrarian combo this weekend. Brown converted his nine targets—second most—into five catches for 82 yards. The Panthers will likely stick Norman on Floyd to take away one outside receiver, and move Luke Kuechly around to help cover the middle of the field where Fitzgerald runs most of his routes. This would leave Brown in single coverage against Robert McClain, who allowed seven of 14 passes thrown his way to be completed for 63 yards and a touchdown. Let’s put it this way, if he struggled against Jermaine Kearse, he has no shot against Brown.

David Johnson was the highest owned player last week and ended up being a huge disappointment. But I doubt the crowd gets totally spooked and moves away from him. There just aren’t enough running backs to justify fading the guy that’s a lock to soak up virtually every touch out of the backfield. The concern here is how well the Panthers defense plays this position. They allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards during the regular season and allowed just two players to rush for more than 100 yards. The only area where they might be vulnerable is via the pass. Only one other team allowed more receptions to running backs and the Panthers 780 receiving yards ranked as 10th most. This, of course, could be the margin of victory they had over their opponents, which would logically lead to more passing all around—something Footballguy Phil pointed out. But if we’re to stick with the theme of how the Cardinals might attack this defense, it makes sense to expect Johnson to be heavily involved in the passing attack, particularly if the Cardinals fall way behind as so many Panthers opponents have. Johnson excels as a receiver. Just over 44 percent of his FanDuel points came via the pass. His 457 receiving yards ranked eighth among running backs, despite not starting a game until Week 13. It’s a tough spot this week, but with ownership down somewhat, and his usage expected to stay the same, there’s not enough to justify a Johnson fade.

If you paid up for Cam Newton last week, you probably didn’t win any tournaments. With the Panthers well in control of the Seahawks, he wasn’t asked to do much and finished the day with his lowest fantasy output since Week 8 of the 2014 season (which, incidentally, was against the Seahawks). We can expect a lot more in Week 20 with the Panthers facing both a softer defense and a harder offense. Not that the matchup is exactly promising either. The Cardinals come to town having allowed the fifth fewest yards and seventh fewest points. We have to wonder if their defensive ranking, mixed with a poor showing offensively last week, will keep his ownership compressed to a certain degree. He will, obviously, divide the chalk play with Brady. Every analyst and lineup optimizer out there will favor Newton. He’s a tough fade but I’m happy to take the discount, from both a salary and exposure perspective, that Palmer provides.

The bigger question is how much does the crowd like Jonathan Stewart? He took the very first offensive play of the game last week for 59 yards and finished the day with 111 total yards and two scores. All of it versus the league’s best run defense. We can expect the crowd to be all over him. Stacking Stewart with Johnson will almost certainly be the chalkiest combo of the weekend. Like Johnson, Stewart is the only back this weekend with no threat to his touches. At least not where running backs are concerned. The biggest threat, as we’ve seen all season, is Newton playing the vulture role in goal-to-go situations. Note, that the Cardinals allowed the fifth most rushing yards to quarterbacks this season but only one rushing score (Colin Kaepernick in Week 3). It would make sense for them to play containment rather than try to pressure Newton, so Stewart should be in line for a lot of work as a runner and receiver. But if the Cardinals offense puts up the fight we expect them to, Stewart’s role will be the first to shrink.

Playing containment rather than blitzing Newton—assuming the Cardinals take this approach—will allow his receivers a smidge more time to break separation. Even though Ted Ginn was nonexistent last week, he’ll be a lot more involved in a potentially high-scoring matchup this week. He’s the only deep threat the Panthers have and their most targeted wide receiver of the season. Unfortunately, he’s also inconsistent from week to week. Most of his production came during a three-week stretch towards the end of the season when he put together 285 yards and six touchdowns. His per game average, however, was 10.8 FanDuel points. The good news to all of this is that the crowd won’t touch him this week. The bad news is that he saw only nine red-zone looks during the regular season. Both Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess saw more.

Really, the only player we’d want to stack Newton with is Greg Olsen, which comes as no surprise. He, in fact, is the only reason to fade Gronkowski. By playing Olsen we’re getting the No. 1 receiver on the No. 1 scoring offense in the league for $7,000. But stacking the two of them is will be a popular play. If we had a flex option, I’d be all for starting both Olsen and Gronkowski. Note, that it’s possible Olsen ends up as one of the highest owned players this weekend.

Summary

We can reasonably expect the crowd to divide Newton and Brady as the most owned quarterbacks. Newton being the highest owned overall. The most contrarian look is Manning, but Palmer will be the third highest owned and has the weapons to outscore three of the four.

Building a roster around Johnson and Stewart sets up a nice floor since they’re the only two running backs with guaranteed touches. But that stack will be the chalkiest stack outside of maybe Brady and Gronkowski. Instead, rolling out one of those guys with White gives us exposure to two of the three highest scoring offenses while also limiting how exposed our roster is in comparison to the crowd. Personally, I favor a Johnson/White stack with either Palmer or Newton as my quarterback. Palmer’s price allows us to load up on Brady’s weapons like Edelman and Gronkowski.

Speaking of Gronkowski, we can confidently say he’ll be the highest owned player this week. But Olsen won’t be that far behind him. Given the choice, the best play might be to stack Newton with Gronkowski so you have exposure to all three of those players. Building a lineup around Newton, Stewart and Gronkowski could prove to be a tournament winner. Pinning the Panthers defense to that trio, if you truly believe the Cardinals offense will struggle, is a nice way to round out your roster.

I’ll be fading the Broncos offense altogether. Even if they clean up the drops, I don’t have a lot of confidence in their ability to move the ball. Last week they faced a soft secondary and didn’t score a single touchdown via the pass. This week they face a tougher opponent that will force them into more passes, which isn’t a good thing for Manning and his broken body. Their defense may prevent this, though I wouldn’t bet against Touchdown Tom. That said, Steven Gostkowksi is great play if you don’t start Brady. Graham Gano is the answer if you don’t start Newton. (not that it’s a terrible idea to stack a quarterback with his kicker)

It seems likely that Newton and Brady will finish as QB1 and QB2 in some order. If you want to get both of them into your lineups you can do it by stacking Newton with a bunch of Patriots players (e.g. Edelman, Gronkowski and White), or stacking Brady with a few Panthers players (e.g. Olsen, Stewart and Ginn). Since the Patriots offense is a little more predictable, as in, most of it will go through Edelman and Gronkowski—a high ceiling combo, I prefer the Newton/Patriots offense stack.