The hardest part about the playoffs, where DFS is concerned, is identifying positive matchups. The Broncos, Seahawks, Panthers, Chiefs and Cardinals all represent solid to elite defenses that we mostly avoided throughout the regular season. Only the Cardinals have a cushion this week. The over/under for that game is the highest of the playoffs. All other point totals for the Divisional Round are 44 and below.
This does a number of things for us. First, it gives us a lot defenses to choose from, though one or two clearly standout. Second, it makes it easier to identify where the crowd is going to put their money and snake together contrarian lineups accordingly.
There are also a lot of injury situations to keep an eye on. Saturday pregame information is going to be valuable, so be ready to adjust lineups as necessary before roster lock.
Just like last week, our approach for the Divisional Round won’t be all that different from the regular season. We won’t have hard ownership data to rely on, but we will have intuition. The process, as it has been for 18 weeks, remains intact: fade obvious plays where possible while identifying better, less obvious plays. Rather than splitting this into two separate articles like we did with The Fade and The Contrarian, we’re going to combine everything here and break down each game individually and in chronological order. 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.
Kansas City Chiefs (5) @ New England Patriots (2)
Spread: Patriots -5
Projected Team Totals: Patriots 23.5, Chiefs 18.5
If you didn’t have the Chiefs defense last week, you didn’t win any tournaments. But despite blowing up for 29 points, the price of the Chiefs’ defense dropped $600. This, of course, is what happens when a team faces Tom Brady and Co.
The Patriots should have a more complete offense with the presumable return of Julian Edelman. Before suffering a broken foot in Week 10, Edelman was our sixth highest scoring wide receiver. He was tied with Calvin Johnson for the 10th most targets and only Odell Beckham Jr. had more touchdowns (eight versus seven). His impact on fantasy football is only dwarfed by his impact on real football. In the nine weeks he was healthy, the Patriots averaged 33.7 points per game. During his seven-week absence, they averaged 20.9 points per game. Not that Edelman is solely responsible for their drop off—they lost multiple players during that stretch—but the Patriots ability to take full advantage of their playbook was clearly handicapped without him. Thankfully for them, he is back at practice this week and all indications point to him playing his full role. Whether or not he’ll immediately pick up where he left off after not playing for two months is another question. For that matter, how effective he can be against a solid Chiefs’ defense is also questionable. His credibility in this situation make us leery of paying his $7,800, though it’s worth noting that he might have low ownership.
In fact, this game might see low exposure overall. Rob Gronkowski is hobbled with an ongoing knee and back injury and hasn’t practiced. Not that the crowd is going to pay much mind. If he’s going to play, they’re going to flock to him. The Chiefs have been outstanding defensively against tight ends. Only the Cowboys allowed fewer FanDuel points. But, as always, Gronkowski is matchup proof. That said, it might be hard to squeeze in his $8,300 salary and still build a competitive roster, especially if his status is questionable.
This game does have the second lowest over/under of the week, which means it might provide a great contrarian opportunity with the crowd planting their flags elsewhere. Plugging in a Brady/Edelman/Gronkowski power stack should be plenty unique. Conversely, if you expect the Patriots gain control and remain in control, Steven Jackson is the contrarian play you are looking for. Last week Alfred Blue banged away 99 rushing yards on 17 carries in a blowout against the Chiefs. Jackson, who joined the Patriots in Week 16, managed 70 total yards and a score in his last game. He will be the goal line option for Brady and Co., albeit against one of the league’s best run-defenses.
On the other side of the field, it’s hard to imagine any Chiefs receiver being highly owned or highly recommended. But it’s not an overly threatening matchup. The Patriots allowed the second most yards to wide receivers during the regular season. Unfortunately, our best option, Jeremy Maclin, is dealing with a sprained ankle leaving him questionable to play and unlikely to be effective even if he does play. That opens the door for Chris Conley to see more action as the primary big-body, red-zone threat. From a metrics standpoint, he's a dream (hat-tip to PlayerProfiler.com):
The Patriots 16 regular season touchdowns allowed rank as third most among the eight remaining teams. Conley is a risky contrarian play but a solid value look should Maclin be ruled out.
Alex Smith is an intriguing option simply because if he’s forced into volume, he’ll have to shed the game manager label and put the team on his back. Without Maclin, this may be more than we should ask. Smith finished the regular season with the 20th most passing yards and 15th most FanDuel points—hardly encouraging numbers. At the very least, he’ll have a big tight end target in Travis Kelce, who had a monster game last week, and a solid pass-catching back in Charcandrick West. West is in an interesting position should Spencer Ware not be available. If that ends up being the case, West immediately moves to the top of the list as a clear-cut No. 1 in the Jamaal Charles role. The Patriots have allowed more total yards to running backs than any other remaining team.
In general, stacking Smith with Conley or West provides a unique lineup the crowd won’t even consider. But we would only do this if we know for certain that Gronkowski is going to play. And there’s always the chance that his injury status is being overblown as a form of gamesmanship.
Green Bay Packers (5) @ Arizona Cardinals (2)
Spread: Cardinals -7
Projected Team Totals: Cardinals 28.5, Packers 21.5
Back in Week 16, the Cardinals hosted the Packers and rolled to an easy 38-8 victory. We can expect things to be a lot more competitive in the playoffs, especially after an encouraging performance from the Packers’ offense last week.
Without question, this game will have the most DFS exposure of the weekend with most of that exposure on the Cardinals. Carson Palmer will likely be the highest owned quarterback. He has no shortage of options in the passing game, and after Kirk Cousins managed 329 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing), there’s not much to push us away from the Packers’ defense. One of the most popular stacks will come in the form of Palmer and Michael Floyd. After a slow start, Floyd climbed to WR19 in FanDuel scoring from Week 6 on, with 745 yards and six touchdowns over that span. His 41 targets over the last five weeks of the season led the team and ranked 15th among all receivers. He’ll be popular, but that’s the only thing to dislike about his $6,500 salary.
The trouble with stacking Cardinals is that any one of them could have a huge game or the offense could be completely spread out. John Brown is second in team targets but a lot of those came in the first half the season when Floyd was underperforming. Larry Fitzgerald leads the team in targets but is more of low-yardage chain-mover. Over the second half the season—from Week 11 on—he ranked as WR27 in FanDuel scoring with just 379 yards and two scores during that span. The best way to take advantage of all these guys, as you might guess, is with their quarterback.
Where we can’t be sure if Palmer will be the most exposed quarterback, we can definitively say David Johnson will be the most popular running back, if not the most popular player overall. He didn’t have a lot of carries against the Packers in Week 16 but he made it up for it with three catches for 88 yards. The Packers have allowed more yards and more touchdowns than all remaining teams. He is the most obvious play of the weekend, and the best way to build a unique roster should you choose to fade him. I would not. In fact, the best Cardinals’ stack might be Palmer/Johnson, which gives us full exposure to the entire offense.
The Cardinals defense has been above average in nearly every category, ranking eighth in passing yards, sixth in rushing yards and eighth in total points allowed. The crowd will surely recognize this and fade the Packers’ offense to some degree. Aaron Rodgers finished as QB1 last week, albeit against a bad Washington secondary. He’ll have a lot more difficulty moving the ball against the Cardinals, but for what it’s worth, the Seahawks exposed this defense in Week 17. So this is not a hands-off situation for those interested in Rodgers. In fact, there may be some contrarian quality to his services given the crowd’s likely discomfort and the game’s over/under. For the record, here is how the Cardinals have been treated by quarterbacks this year:
It’s not pretty but not prohibitive either. Their 16.1 FanDuel points per game allowed is just below Rodgers’ 19.3 points per game scored. As it stands, he is priced as QB5 and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he’ll finish higher than that.
Some of that evidence can be taken from the Packers inability to run the ball, especially when faced with stiff competition, such as what the Cardinals field. Granted, in their Week 16 meeting, Eddie Lacy managed five yards per carry, and found the end zone on a 28-yard touchdown reception. But this contest favors James Starks much more than Lacy. Both backs played well last week in a soft matchup. They’ll have a hard time moving the ball through the tackles, which is why Starks is the better play. Of all remaining teams, the Cardinals have allowed the most receiving yards to running backs and the most fantasy points per touch. If we are to take Vegas at their word, it’s reasonable to expect the Packers to be playing from behind and just as reasonable to expect to see Starks play more snaps as a result. Despite outscoring Lacy last week, Starks’ salary hasn’t moved ($5,800). Lacy’s increased $200.
The Packers’ wide receivers are the hardest to gage. Randall Cobb moves all over the field, which promises a high-volume, high-floor evening, but he’s also likely to run into Patrick Peterson a great deal in this game. And it’s not like Cobb has done a lot to give us hope against this secondary, despite scoring last week. James Jones is the most promising option. He caught seven of his team-high 10 targets for 81 yards. His salary also jumped $800…. to a reasonable $6,600. He’ll be the most popular wide receiver for the Packers. But like the Cardinals, we’d much rather stack Rodgers with Starks, though investing a lot in this offense—even in a potentially high-scoring game—is risky.
Perhaps the most contrarian play of this contest is Jared Abbrederis (ab-bruh-DAIR-is). If Davante Adams is ruled out, Abbrederis will see a major bump in playing time. Even if Adams isn’t ruled out we still like Abbrederis to be featured should the Packers fall behind and forced into a high-volume passing offense. He wasn’t needed much last week and didn’t do much. But he did put this nice little shimmy on his defender for a 2-point conversion. Not that we need much salary relief, but if you want to get someone like Gronkowski in your lineup, Abbrederis, and his $4,900 salary, gives us a lot flexibility.
We’re not too keen on either defense. But Chandler Cantanzaro looks like the top kicker play and will be the highest owned kicker accordingly. The only problem is we’d rather invest in the rest of their offense and hope for touchdowns instead of field goals.
Seattle Seahawks (6) @ Carolina Panthers (1)
Spread: Panthers -1.5
Projected Team Totals: Panthers 22.25, Seahawks 21.75
The Panthers and Seahawks feature two exciting young quarterbacks and two vicious defenses. The Seahawks have allowed the fewest total points in the league. The Panthers are not far behind, ranking sixth in that category, and neither team gives up much on the ground or through the air, ranking second (Seahawks) and sixth (Panthers) in total yards allowed.
Meanwhile, their quarterbacks have been nightmares for defenses and sweet joy for fantasy owners. Cam Newton finished the season as our highest scoring player and Russell Wilson finished third overall. In short, this matchup is a tough one to project.
The most obvious advantage favors Newton. He has been great everywhere this season, but averages 3.1 more points per game at home than on the road. Home field advantage shows itself in a team’s ability to maintain an effective fast pace:
31% no-huddle rate at home, 8.1% on road. Cam no-huddle: 105.3 QBR (vs 97.3). Better comp%, YPA, INT% from no-huddle https://t.co/y98E5cMvQG— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) January 14, 2016
If the Panthers do roll out an up-tempo game plan on Sunday, we have every reason to think Newton will pick up right where he left off. The only question here is whether he is a better start than Palmer. At the very least, Newton’s ownership should see a bit of a discount with the crowd likely nervous about the Seahawks defense.
One area where their defense is penetrable is via the tight end, assuming the opposing offense features one. The Panthers not only feature a tight end, they feature one of the best in the league. Greg Olsen finished the season as TE5, and proved back in Week 6 that the Seahawks struggle against his kind of offense (he pounded them with seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown). Expecting that kind of performance to be repeated against an elite defense would be foolish. Unfortunately, there’s a short list of usable tight ends this week.
Jonathan Stewart was just getting hot before suffering a foot injury in Week 14. From Week 10 to that injury, he was our fifth highest scoring running back. He averaged 20.6 touches per game while compiling 484 total yards and four touchdowns during that stretch. He is now back healthy and practicing in full, but his matchup on Sunday looks daunting. The Seahawks have allowed the fewest total touchdowns and fewest total yards in the league to running backs. On a positive note, Stewart’s highest scoring game of the season came against this defense, on the road no less—mostly thanks to a pair of touchdowns. If nothing else, we can expect his ownership to stay in check given the difficult matchup, but it’s also hard to trust his chances of a multiple touchdown game (Week 6 was the only one he had this season) when his quarterback usually takes care of those himself.
In order to really trust Stewart, we have to hope Wilson and Co. come out flat like they did last week. A late lead for the Panthers would go a long way towards volume. But this is the closest game of the weekend slate, per Vegas. And expecting the Seahawks to flop two games in a row is bad process. If Marshawn Lynch, for example, ends up playing everything changes. He’ll be hard to trust in tournament lineups, but his overall effect on the game script is worth paying attention to. In any case, we certainly can’t recommend going to Christine Michael two weeks in a row.
Nor can we recommend any Seahawks receiver. Doug Baldwin found the end zone last week on the one drive the Seahawks actually managed to move the ball into the red zone. He also saw seven targets—most of any player—but his five receptions went for only 42 yards.
Tyler Lockett might be the most exciting player on the field not playing quarterback. He took his one reception and cut around defenders down the sideline, coming up just short of the end zone. But he failed to catch his other four targets.
All told, it’s hard to imagine either defense in this game keeping pace with the opposing offense. So it’s logical to expect this one to hit the over. But it’s also difficult to pinpoint which players are best to fit into a tournament lineup. To me, there are only three players I want exposure to: both quarterbacks and Stewart. Stewart gives me less confidence. There’s also something to say about kickers that play on explosive offenses in matchups where the opposing defense is capable of at least holding them out of the end zone. Graham Gano will probably be the third highest owned kicker, and maybe the highest scoring when it is all said and done.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6) @ Denver Broncos (1)
Spread: Broncos -7.5
Projected Team Totals: Broncos 23, Steelers 15.5
Bad news out of Pittsburgh: Antonio Brown has been ruled out (still waiting on Pacman Jones’s apology). His absence is going to make it very difficult for Ben Roethlisberger and Co. to stage a road upset. And that’s assuming Roethlisberger even plays. As of a now, all indications are that he’ll take the field on Sunday. But his effectiveness as a passer remains to be seen. If we are to assume he is at about 75 percent, then we can logically say both Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton stand to benefit the most with Brown out. It’ll be a long time before we forget about Bryant’s touchdown reception last week:
That’s just an incredible play. But he’ll need a full four-quarters of incredible on Sunday against a Broncos’ defense that allowed the fewest FanDuel points per reception and the second fewest touchdowns (seven) to wide receivers during the regular season. And with Roethlisberger a fraction of his normal self, we can expect passes to stay short and tight. This bodes well for Bryant, who has the ability to make plays after the catch. It also leads us to think that both Wheaton and Heath Miller will see a smattering of short targets. But scoring might be rare in this contest.
The most effective game plan for the Steelers would be to pound the ball and hide their quarterback (and their weak secondary). Both Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman had nice box scores last week. Toussaint was especially impressive with 118 total yards on 21 touches. His eight targets were second to only Brown, and he played 66 percent of snaps compared to Todman’s 19. While the Broncos were tough to run on during the regular season, having allowed the third fewest yards, they were a little easier to beat with pass-catching running backs. Their five receiving touchdowns allowed to running backs was tied for third most. His salary climbed $500, but he’s still a reasonable $6,200 and the crowd won’t touch him.
There are three basic questions we need to answer before taking advantage of Peyton Manning’s $7,000 salary: How healthy is he? How much strength does he have in his arm? How much will he be needed? We won’t question his football IQ. Obviously, he can read a defense better than probably anyone in history. But can he execute his reads, even if he has recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him for most of the season? He hasn’t played a full game since Week 9, and yet, despite limited playing time, he finished the season with the second most interceptions. When he was healthy at the beginning of the season, his mechanics looked imbalanced and his long-ball just fluttered with no zip. The good news is that it’s unlikely the deep ball will be needed thanks to a wounded Steelers’ offense. The great news is that the Steelers’ defense hasn’t been able to stop quarterbacks all year. They finished the season having allowed the third most passing yards and 12th most touchdowns.
Where they have been effective is against running backs. They allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards in the regular season and their six rushing scores ranked as the second fewest. So even though C.J. Anderson finished strong, he’ll be hard to trust against this defense. Where he could become hugely valuable is if the Broncos get a big lead and wisely force the run. But even if that happens, he won’t get the backfield to himself. Ronnie Hillman has looked every bit as good as Anderson this season and routinely played more snaps as a result. Trusting either of these players, even if the Broncos do coast to an early lead, doesn’t make much sense from a tournament perspective (though their exposure should be low). Anderson should at least get the benefit of goal line carries, which could lead to multiple scores as the Broncos move down the field via the pass.
The last time these teams met, Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas combined for 242 yards and three touchdowns. Sanders contributed a 10/181/2 stat line on 16 targets. That game exploded into one of the best we saw this season with a combined 762 yards and 61 points—well above the 45.5-point over/under. But that was four weeks ago with a healthy cast of players. As much as we like the chances of either Sanders or Thomas having a big day, if the Broncos aren’t forced into volume, it’s hard to recommend stacking this game.
The good news is, thanks to injuries and underdogs, this contest is ripe for a contrarian lineup. The crowd will likely stay far away from it, with the exception of the Broncos’ defense, who will be one of the highest owned of all positions. So if you want to build a reverse game script, stacking Toussaint with Manning and one of his receivers is a good way to swim upstream. Manning is the cheapest quarterback on the board outside of Landry Jones. His QB8 pricing is very tempting. But don’t throw your bankroll at it. If you’re fading this game, Brandon McManus is for you.