Conference Championship weekend is upon us and with that comes our final opportunity to partake in some NFL DFS over on DraftKings until the preseason. There’s only two games and four teams to dig into, but within those two matchups reside a ton of different possibilities for our lineups.
We’ve become well aware of the challenges of a short slate of NFL games over the past two weekends. Not only do we need to basically nail every position to have a fighting chance, but we also need to try to find that one diamond in the rough – ala Jeff Janis from last weekend – that has the potential to explode for a monster performance.
We have a few candidates to fulfill that role this week, which we’ll get to in a bit. With only two games on tap, we’ve decided to combine The Contrarian and The Fade into one column for this week. We’ll attack this short slate from both angles and provide the top candidates for both lines of thinking. Let’s get started by taking a look at the Conference Championship games with an eye towards where the general public’s interest will lay – and won’t lay.
Games at A Glance
New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos
Patriots -3, 44 ½.
We get the privilege of beginning our day with Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning XVII. Brady leads the all-time series 11-5, while the duo is tied up at 2 apiece in the playoffs with Manning taking the last two. A meeting between two surefire first-ballot hall of famers aside, we’re in for a treat to determine who will be standing and holding the Lamar Hunt Trophy at the end of the game.
By taking a glance at last week’s games, we can get a pretty good feel for where we can expect plenty of interest to fall for DFS purposes. On the Patriots side, both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski offered solid production against the Chiefs as the team basically abandoned the running game. With the Broncos essentially holding the Steelers ground game in check last week as well, we may be looking at more of the same and can expect Edelman and Gronkowski to find plenty of support in DFS circles.
The Broncos struggled to move the ball through the air overall, but Emmanuel Sanders was able to haul in five of his eight targets for a solid 85 yards. C.J. Anderson looks like he has put his early season struggles behind him. He toted the rock 15 times for 72 yards – a solid 4.8 yards per carry and a score. Anderson will probably be one of the more popular choices on the Broncos this weekend, but many will find Sanders appealing as well for his potential in full PPR scoring.
From a contrarian perspective, we need to look no further than where both teams had their greatest struggles last week. Not many will roll the dice on the Patriots running backs this week – and who can blame them. The Patriots are inherently unpredictable in the distribution of carries. That being said, Steven Jackson received the most work last week – albeit only six carries – and James White was targeted three times in the passing game.
Both of these backs represent picks of the boom-bust variety, just make sure you’re comfortable with the risk before selecting them for your rosters. There’s a pretty good chance that Peyton Manning will be the lowest owned quarterback for the championship games and as such, a quarterback we can look to from a contrarian perspective.
Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers
Panthers -3, 47 ½.
The top two seeds in the NFC square off in the nightcap with a trip to Santa Clara hanging in the balance. The Cardinals needed overtime to settle things with the Packers last Saturday Night, while the Panthers dominated early and held on and withstood a furious rally from the Seahawks on Sunday.
Same as the early matchup, we can look back to last week’s standouts to find some of the week’s chalk plays. For the Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald put the weight of the Cardinals on his back in overtime and finished the game with eight catches for 176 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Michael Floyd was a popular play heading into last week’s action and responded by finding the end zone twice.
The Panthers had an absolutely dominant first half performance last week and rolled into halftime with a 31-0 lead. Jonathan Stewart was one of the few running backs to have some success against the Seahawks in the regular season and delivered an encore in the playoffs with 111 combined yards and two scores. Greg Olsen hauled in all six of his targets for 77 yards and a score.
All four of the players mentioned above will be among the most popular selections this week and can be considered for the fade list, but with such a limited player pool we’ll need to pick our spots wisely. For a little contrarian thinking, we’ll have to dig a little deeper on both sides. Both teams feature workhorse backs, which relegates the other backs from these teams to the status of GPP fliers and extreme salary savers – i.e. probably not the kind of risk we want to take, absent playing a boatload of lineups.
The contrarian flavor from this game may come in the form of the wide receiver position. For the Cardinals, we know that Fitzgerald and Floyd will receive plenty of attention from DFSers – and the Panthers secondary – which could point us to a slightly lesser-owned target. On the Panthers side, Ted Ginn had some solid games in the regular season – despite his propensity for the dropsies – but was not a factor last week. Could he bounce back this week or is the knee injury that forced him to sit out Week 17 part of the reason he was only targeted once last week? If it’s the latter factor, we’ll have to dig into the more heavily targeted Panthers wideouts from last week to see if we can find a hidden gem.
Let’s take a look at the top players to keep in mind from both lines of thinking for the Conference Championships, starting with the top fade candidates.
This Week’s Fade Candidates
QB Cam Newton, $7,200
When a team scores 31 points in the first half, the general rule of thumb is that the quarterback will have delivered some solid fantasy output while the festivities were ongoing. That wasn’t the case last week for Cam Newton, who had a pretty quiet day against the Seahawks and finished up with 10.74 points. The game simply got out of hand quickly and didn’t provide the script necessary for Newton to inflict extensive damage. Most are expecting a different story against the Cardinals on Sunday as evidenced by the miniscule three-point favorite status for the Panthers. Add in the potential upside of production on the ground that Newton brings to the table and we are likely looking at the week’s most popular quarterback and a player we can look to pivot off of for some differentiation.
RB David Johnson, $6,500
David Johnson enters this week of the playoffs the same way he entered last week: as the consensus top running back play on the board. His output of 13.8 points was slightly disappointing, but there’s not a large enough player pool for that to be a deterrent. Quite simply, he’s a workhorse, pass-catching back in a high-powered offense in what projects to be a tight game. The Panthers certainly have the defensive capabilities to slow him down, but too much attention focused on Johnson could force the Cardinals to shift to full-on air it out mode, which is not something most opposing coaches would look forward to seeing. With so few options this week, we can be certain that Johnson’s ownership percentage will be enormous. We can consider him as a fade candidate, but I would only consider fading him if employing the strategy of entering a boatload of lineups.
WR Julian Edelman, $7,500
The Patriots running game was nonexistent last week and there’s a chance that occurs again this week against the top-notch Broncos defense. In lieu of a running game – or even if they happen to get something going on the ground – Julian Edelman will be in line for a healthy dose of targets as always. He hauled in 10 of his 16 looks last week for 100 yards and enters the week as the most expensive wide receiver. We could also make a case for fading Fitzgerald and Floyd from the Cardinals, but Edelman fits the bill as the top fade candidate at the position and allows for plenty of options to pivot to if we choose not to include him in our lineups.
TE Greg Olsen, $7,100
There’s Greg Olsen and Rob Gronkowski at tight end and not much else this week. It’s a tossup as to which one will be more popular, but we’ll give the edge to Olsen as the top target in the Panthers passing game and assume many will get their Patriots fix by looking to Edelman. We covered last week’s disappointing output by Newton earlier, but even with that, Olsen still found his way to 19.7 points. There’s a pretty solid chance that Olsen produces this week as well, but he deserves at least some consideration as a fade candidate.
Defense is a veritable tossup this week in terms of ownership percentage and output. For fade purposes, we could look to the two favorites – Patriots and Panthers – and assume they receive a slight bump, with an edge to the Panthers due to their playing at home on Sunday. Fade candidates out of the way, let’s move on to some of the week’s potential diamonds in the rough.
This Week’s Contrarian Candidates
QB Peyton Manning, $5,500
Of the four quarterbacks on the slate, Peyton Manning appears to be the most unappealing for DFS purposes. As such, he becomes the top contrarian selection at the position. With only four quarterbacks to choose from, he’ll find some support in this week’s GPPs, jut likely at a lower level than the other three. For an added bonus, he comes in at a much lower price point than the other three signal callers, providing us with the flexibility of doing what we wish at the remaining positions. The risk here is plainly obvious: Manning is simply not the force he once was and the Broncos will likely implement a run-heavy, ball control game plan to keep the Patriots off the field. But if the game by chance devolves into a shootout – does Manning have a few more bullets left to keep pace with his biggest rival? Should make for some compelling TV, perhaps that can carry over onto the leader boards as well.
RB James White, $4,600
Public service announcement: rostering Patriots running backs comes with a ton of risk. But as we’ve seen all season, just the right amount of well-played risk can make a ton of difference in GPPs. Does White fit the bill as that kind of player this week? Unfortunately, the answer is it depends. Will the Patriots follow a similar script to last week and employ the running game only as needed? Or will we see them completely flip the script – which they tend to do very well – and zig while everyone else zags? Time will tell, but either way White should have a role on Sunday. Whether it resembles the boom of his output in Week 13 (30.9 points) or Week 15 (20.7 points) or the bust of last week (6.4 points) remains to be seen.
WR John Brown, $5,200
As outlined earlier, we can fully expect John Brown’s teammates – Fitzgerald and Floyd – to receive a ton of attention this weekend. That points us to John Brown for just a hint of uniqueness – and plenty of upside. While Fitzgerald put the game away and Floyd found the end zone twice last week against the Packers, Brown quietly had a hand in the festivities to the tune of five catches for 82 yards. It’s uncertain who the Panthers Josh Norman will be glued to the majority of the time this week, but we know that will afford some extra opportunity for the other two – with Brown likely a member of that pair.
TE Owen Daniels, $2,300
Once we get past Gronkowski and Olsen on the tight end salary charts, the cupboard is pretty bare. We could make a case for Darren Fells and his three touchdowns this season, but it wouldn’t be much of a case as the tight end position is simply not much of a factor in the Cardinals offense. That points us the Broncos. Vernon Davis has not found a role as of yet and it’s pretty tough to expect that to change with a conference championship on the line. Owen Daniels has not been much of a factor of late either, but if we get even the slightest glimpse of some Manning magic on Sunday, he could get a few extra looks – both of the Manning boys like to involve the tight end quite a bit.
For some contrarian thinking at defense on this limited slate, we’ll have to look to the underdogs – the Broncos and Cardinals – and give a slight edge to the Cardinals playing on the road for some very slight against the grain thinking. Fade and Contrarian candidates behind us, let’s see if we can zero in on a receiver that could come out of nowhere and pull a ‘Jeff Janis’ this week. By digging into last week’s targets just a bit, we can find a few clues that just may lead us in that direction.
This Week’s ‘Jeff Janis’ Candidates
Keshawn Martin, $2,600
Martin was targeted four times last week and hauled in two of them for 57 yards – which included a 42-yard gain in the second quarter that helped set-up the Patriots second touchdown of the day. His four targets were good for fourth on the team behind Gronkowski, Edelman and Brandon LaFell – who hauled in three of his five targets for a paltry six yards. If the Broncos manage to contain either Gronkowski or Edelman on Sunday, Martin could receive a few more looks – likely more than LaFell, who is simply not producing.
Bennie Fowler, $2,300
Quick – who was the third most targeted receiver on the Broncos last week behind Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas? It was actually a tie with four targets apiece for Jordan Norwood (one catch for 10 yards) and Bennie Fowler (two catches for 35 yards) – one of which was a 31-yard gain that helped set-up the Broncos lone touchdown of the day. It was only a single long reception, but it really stood out to me – here’s a first-year wide receiver who has been targeted a total of 24 times in the regular season hauling in one of the Broncos longest pass plays of the day – in a playoff game. Something tells me a certain senior signal caller has been spending some time with the rookie in practice – as Peyton Manning is apt to do – and may have found himself another target for when Sanders and Thomas are blanketed. Could be food for thought, could be a reach – but Fowler is a name to keep in mind in your search for under the radar wideouts.
J.J. Nelson, $2,000
For the Cardinals, we have to dig a little deeper. After getting past the top three of Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown – plus a pass-catching back in Johnson – there simply aren’t many targets to go around. J.J. Nelson gets the edge over Jaron Brown for the Cardinals against the grain wideout due to the fact that he actually received a target last week – which he hauled in for an 8-yard gain. If employing the plethora of lineups strategy, consider Nelson or Brown to fulfill your hidden gem at wide receiver needs.
Jerricho Cotchery, $2,400
Cotchery was targeted four times last week and hauled in three of them for 22 yards. With the Panthers having such a huge lead for much of the day, there wasn’t much of a need to air it out. That could change this Sunday when the high-powered Cardinals come to town. If by chance the game turns into somewhat of a tit for tat affair, the veteran – and reliable - possession receiver could see a solid amount of targets, which can add up in a hurry in full PPR scoring. He only found the end zone three times in the regular season so a multi-touchdown game is a bit of a reach, but a 5x return on a $2,400 salary puts us at only 12.0 points – certainly doable at six catches for 60 yards. Add a touchdown on top of that and we just might have the week’s tournament wrecker at wide receiver.
That takes care of The Contrarian and The Fade for the Conference Championships – plus some bonus under the radar picks at wide receiver. Enjoy what are hopefully two stellar games on Sunday and best of luck with your lineups!