This week, we'll discuss the following topics:
The staffers we talked to this week are Phil Alexander, Chris Feery, Devin Knotts, and Keith Roberts.
Hester: Last week, all four games were won handily by home favorites. Are we going to see closer games this week? Might we even see an upset? Pick a game and tell us a story about how you see it playing out.
Alexander: According to Vegas, Green Bay going into Dallas and beating the top-seeded Cowboys would qualify as an upset, but it's not tough to imagine the Packers advancing to the conference championship round. The NFL, you see, is a quarterback's league and despite Dak Prescott's stellar rookie season, he's walking into a mismatch.
In Green Bay's corner, we have the best quarterback in the world, who has been playing like the best quarterback in the world down the stretch. The last time Aaron Rodgers threw for fewer than 300 yards and four touchdowns in a game was back in Week 15, in what was touted as one of the coldest games in the history of football.
The Packers may be without Jordy Nelson, which obviously hurts. But this year's version of Davante Adams (75-997-12 and another 8-125-1 in the Wild Card Round) is worlds better than last year's, and it would certainly seem Randall Cobb is back healthy after an explosive three touchdown performance against the Giants last week. Rodgers also has seam-stretching tight end Jared Cook at his disposal. Cook's presence is especially noteworthy in this matchup, as the Cowboys were eviscerated by tight ends over the final five weeks of the regular season. Since Week 12, Dallas allowed a staggering 335% more fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends than the league average.
In Dallas' corner, we have a rookie quarterback (albeit an impressive one) making his first career playoff start. Taking nothing away from Prescott, Rodgers is not only the best quarterback in the world, but he has 15 career playoff games and a Super Bowl ring under his belt. He'll have none of the pregame jitters that Prescott will.
It will take a heroic effort from Prescott to keep up with the white-hot Rodgers. And while the Packers abysmal secondary will give him a boost, I don't see a Prescott-led team besting Rodgers while he's in the zone, especially since Dallas' middling defense isn't especially intimidating.
Is this story over-simplified and bursting with narrative? Probably. But think of it this way – if I told you before the season started you'd be getting 4.5 points to take Rodgers in a playoff game against a fourth-round rookie quarterback, how quickly would you have emptied your wallet? Sometimes the best answer is the easiest one.
Feery: We should see closer games in three of this weekend’s four matchups, but one game stands out as a potentially epic mismatch. That would be the game between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots, and we need to look no further than the fact that the Patriots are 16-point favorites for confirmation. Add in the fact that Bill Belichick and company have had an extra week to rest up, and it doesn’t appear that things will work out too swimmingly for the Texans.
Brock Osweiler showed signs of life in last week’s victory over the Raiders, but the clock will strike twelve shortly after kickoff on Saturday Night. Belichick is a master at devising game plans that confuse and rattle inexperienced signal callers, and that points us to a rough day for Osweiler. The Texans are an offensively-challenged squad to begin with, and they simply have not shown anything to suggest they will be able to keep pace - or catch-up, for that matter - to the Patriots.
For those reasons, I’m quite high on the Patriots defense this week. It’s not too hard to envision a scenario in which they force several turnovers, rack up several sacks, and limit the number of points the Texans put on the board. As for the Patriots offense, the Texans defense is an imposing matchup on paper, but an experienced signal caller such as Tom Brady can still pick them apart. I’ll look for Brady to do some damage in the first half before ceding way to LeGarrette Blount in the second half.
In order, my top three plays are the Patriots defense, Blount, and Brady. As for a stacking option with Brady, that’s a little tricky as always. You can make a case for the safety of the highly-targeted Julian Edelman, but an under the radar, low-cost option such as Malcolm Mitchell or Michael Floyd could be a game-changer if they go off on this short slate. As for the Texans, the best hope for DFS success comes in the form of DeAndre Hopkins seeing a boatload of garbage time targets, but the whole team screams avoid to me.
Roberts: After a blowout victory against the Lions in the Wildcard round, the Seahawks will head south to face #1 seed Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons opened up this week as 3.5-point favorites, and as of Wednesday night, the line is up to -5 as the public appears to be all over the well-rested Falcons at home. However, I will have to take a different stance as the Seahawks have a great shot at pulling off the upset.
The Falcons defense has been well below average this season, allowing the sixth-most points per game (25.4) and eighth-most yards per game (371.2). They have been particularly inefficient at defending against the run, ranking 29th using DVOA while allowing the fifth-most fantasy points per game to running backs. This bodes well for Thomas Rawls, who is coming off a career game last week that blew everyone in the DFS industry away. While that level of performance may have been an outlier in the grand scheme of things, his heavy usage and favorable matchup could make for a lethal combination. Rawls also has shown the ability to catch passes out of the backfield this season, which is another weak point of the Falcons defense after seeing them allow the league’s most receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns to running backs in 2016.
The Falcons offense will be tested, as the Seahawks defense will be the best they have faced since Denver in Week 13. While losing Earl Thomas was definitely a big blow to that secondary, they still have Kam Chancellor (#2 overall graded Safety according to PFF) in addition to some of the best cornerbacks in the league to challenge the Falcons receivers. The Seahawks have also been extremely proficient against the run, limiting opposing running backs to only 17.2 fantasy points per game (4th lowest) while absolutely shutting down pass-catching backs like Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
Earlier this season, Seattle actually topped the Falcons 26-24 in a scrappy game led by their dominant defensive performance in the first half. Seattle’s defense has been solid this year and was obviously on their game last week as they held the Lions to only 231 yards of total offense with zero touchdowns. I see the Seahawks establishing the run early while their defense gives the Falcons fits in a relatively low scoring affair, contrary to the Vegas odds.
Knotts: Well that leaves the Steelers and the Chiefs as the last game that has not been discussed. All signs are pointing to this game being the best game of the weekend; Vegas has this spread as just a one point game, but I'm here to say, "not so fast." This game will be won in a blowout by the Chiefs.
The x-factor in this game is the coaching staff, particularly Andy Reid. In games that he is coming off of a bye week (including first-round playoff byes), his teams are 19-2, a truly remarkable record.
Now onto how the game will be played, Matt Moore looked terrific last week against the Steelers, and if he did not turn the ball over three times, that game could have been much closer than the score indicated. Excluding the last drive, Moore was 25-29 passing, which bodes tremendously well for Alex Smith and his terrific playoff history. Smith is averaging 261 yards passing yards, 39.6 yards rushing, and 2.2 passing touchdowns in his five playoff games. This is a situation where the Chiefs spread the ball out with Travis Kelce and Jeremy Maclin and throw the ball on this Pittsburgh secondary that gave up 289 yards last week to Moore and company.
On the other side of the ball, Le'Veon Bell will struggle to break 100 rushing yards in this game. The Chiefs have had two weeks to prepare for his incredibly unique running style. The reasons it works so well as it throws the defense off, but Kansas City will be prepared. Last week was one of the best matchups that Bell had all season, which should put his ownership in DFS contests will be through the roof. Bell is an easy GPP fade this week as there are a lack of solid cheap options. Going with a balanced approach in this matchup is preferred. Reid will be game planning the entire week to contain Bell. This will be the second time that the Chiefs have seen Bell this season, a big advantage to the defense.
Zero to Hero
Hester: Last week, we saw players like Paul Richardson Jr and Randall Cobb have impacts on their games (and on DFS contests) despite not really being discussed too often in DFS circles leading up to their games. Who do you see on this week's slate that could produce a big game despite little-to-no fanfare during the week?
Alexander: It's Terrance Williams in what should be a shootout against Green Bay. If there's one thing that stood out in the Packers wild card win against the Giants (besides Aaron Rodgers' dominance), it was New York's receivers consistently getting behind Green Bay's struggling secondary.
Dallas' offense isn't exactly known for taking lots of deep shots, but they'll get their opportunities this week. Dez Bryant is the most likely candidate to burn Green Bay's corners for long gains, but the Packers know that very well and are likely to roll extra coverage to Bryant's side. It should leave Williams – who accumulated about a third of his total yards this season on receptions of 20+ yards – to run free.
Williams has established a ceiling of 6x his current salary on DraftKings and 3.5x on FanDuel this season. No wide receiver seeing 70%-80% of the snaps against the Packers should be minimum-priced these days, especially Williams, who has reached double-digit PPR points in three of his last four games.
Feery: I’m going with a player who has been a flat-out disappointment for fantasy purposes during the regular season, and that player is Jeremy Maclin. He entered the season as the unquestioned number one receiver in Kansas City, but he has slogged through an injury-plagued season in which he hasn’t been able to produce as expected. Maclin has clearly been bypassed by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in the pecking order of Chiefs offensive priorities, but this game may just set up well enough for him to get back on track.
For starters, an extra week of rest is always a welcome sight at this stage of the season, and it bodes well for Maclin’s chances to get as close to 100% as he has been in some time. Hill and Kelce have both delivered some explosive performances in recent weeks, but that fact has not gone unnoticed by a Steelers squad that is underrated defensively. The days of Hill sneaking up on anyone are over. While he can break free at a moment’s notice, you can be certain he’ll receive some extra special attention on Sunday.
As for Kelce, the Steelers have done a nice job against opposing tight ends throughout the course of the season, and there’s nothing to suggest that they will not be able to mitigate the damage he does against them. Add it all up, and Maclin could find himself with a lot less attention than he should receive. The Steelers are vulnerable against opposing team’s top wideouts, and Maclin can still claim that designation on his resume, despite the emergence of Hill. It’s not too hard to envision a scenario in which he can rip off a long gain or two - and perhaps a trip to the end zone for one of them.
Roberts: One name that has been rarely mentioned this season is Mohamed Sanu. This is a bold one for sure, but just think about how low his ownership will be on this short slate. In a matchup against the Seahawks with both Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel overshadowing him, Sanu should be a safe bet for below 5% as most will opt for Gabriel in tournament formats (as long as he is healthy).
While Sanu is not the big play threat that Jones or Gabriel are, he has some potential for big volume here. It is no secret that Matt Ryan has loved to spread the ball around this season, and Sanu finished the season second on the team in targets with 81. Jones should be shadowed by Richard Sherman, while the Seattle safeties will be consumed by helping Sherman along with defending against those pesky big plays that Gabriel has been akin to in recent weeks. Other potential targets for Ryan include his running backs. But the Seahawks have been wildly proficient at defending pass-catching backs this season. They have held opposing running backs to only 535 receiving yards and 65 receptions despite these backs receiving 100 targets (that's good for the second-lowest catch rate allowed to running backs this season). In addition, running backs against the Seahawks have yet to score a single receiving touchdown.
Let’s consider what will happen when the Falcons get into red zone situations on Saturday. Jones is the top threat in terms of talent, but the Seahawks know this and will almost certainly have at minimum two pairs of eyes on him any time there is a chance for a red zone look. Gabriel is tiny, so he is not a big factor when that close to the goal line. Seattle has been dominant against the run and equally if not more dominant in defending the pass-catching back. This leaves the 6’2’’ Sanu—the Falcons’ leader this season in red zone looks with 13. Sanu has had at least one red zone look in 12 games this season compared to Jones receiving at least one red zone look in only four games. Furthermore, Sanu also scored one of his four touchdowns this season against Seattle back in Week 6.
As the cheapest starting wide receiver for the Falcons here, Sanu only needs a few receptions and a touchdown to meet and exceed value. I think he has as good a chance at that as you could want of guy at this expected ownership level, making him a solid dart to throw for some cheap, under-owned upside.
Knotts: When looking at this slate, the key here is going to be finding value to construct your lineups. This is a difficult thing this week as there are only four games. And multiple teams playing (Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Dallas, for instance) have heavy usage with their main stars. The player that I like this week is Chris Hogan to have a big impact on the Texans vs. Patriots game.
If we were to go back and look at snap counts over the course of the last six weeks, Hogan has out-snapped Julian Edelman in every week dating back to Week 12. If you were to look at which wide receivers have had success against the Texans, it has not been the slot receivers such as Edelman, but instead has been the receivers that play on the outside such as Rishard Matthews, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Lafell. Hogan is the biggest New England receiver at 6'1'' 210 pounds, and with Malcolm Mitchell still not 100% healthy, Hogan is in a great spot in this game.
Hogan has shown upside in several games this year, going over 100 yards twice, and makes for the perfect GPP play on this slate and even a cash game play if you need to punt on a receiver.
Rust vs. Rust
Hester: Four of the teams playing this weekend earned a bye week for the Wild Card round, meaning they will have had two weeks off since their last game. Dallas rested many of its key players for the majority of their Week 17 game as well. Do you have any concerns for those teams in terms of the by perhaps being a "momentum-breaker" and impacting their performance?
Alexander: Personally, I see the added rest as a good thing for players – especially those who were struggling with an injury prior to the bye week. We just saw how two weeks of rest allowed Lamar Miller to return to his early-season role as the Texans' workhorse, and I wonder if it could do the same for Spencer Ware with the Chiefs.
Long time DFS players have been conditioned to chase workhorse running backs on home favorites. Ware qualifies this week, but he won't be very popular with Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, Devonta Freeman, and Thomas Rawls hogging the running back ownership.
After ranking inside the cumulative top-12 fantasy running backs through the first half of the season (FanDuel scoring), Ware was the picture of mediocrity in the second half, failing to rush for more than 70 yards in a game after Week 7. Maybe Ware hit a wall after a career-high workload. Maybe he lost some of his work in the short passing game to Tyreek Hill. But maybe a Week 8 concussion, followed by a Week 12 rib injury he played with through Week 16 were the culprits behind Ware's precipitous decline in production.
If there is a possibility Ware is back to full health, he projects as a great point per dollar value – particularly on DraftKings, where he's priced below a hobbled and underutilized Ty Montgomery. Much like Thomas Rawls last week, Ware could be the home favorite running back with poor recent production who makes all the difference in GPPs.
Feery: While I’m very mindful of momentum throughout the course of the regular season, I’ll approach it on a case-by-case basis when it comes to the playoffs and first round byes. We’ve all seen teams come out flat after an extra week off and see Super Bowl aspirations quickly go by the wayside, but hindsight typically reveals that to be a coaching issue or lack of seasoning in the case of the players.
For this week, I have zero concerns that the Patriots or Chiefs will come out flat. This is not the first rodeo for Bill Belichick or Andy Reid, and you can rest assured that both clubs will come in well-prepared and in line to hit the ground running. For DFS purposes, I’m quite high on LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots defense, but I’m not overly enthusiastic about anyone on the Chiefs.
For the Falcons, I have middling concerns simply because this is Dan Quinn’s first go-round in the playoffs as a head coach. That being said, he carries a Super Bowl win as defensive coordinator for the Seahawks on his resume, so he knows what it takes to succeed in the postseason. I expect Matt Ryan to carry over his strong play into the postseason and think we could see a sneaky good performance from Devonta Freeman as well.
My biggest concern on the four clubs coming in off of a bye lies with the Cowboys, but that’s mainly due to the inexperience of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. While I don’t expect them to come out flat at all, it would certainly be one of those situations in which hindsight would reveal the experience factor to be the reason for the Cowboys poor performance.
Roberts: I have a similar take as Chris here, in that the only team that would remotely concern me as being affected by the bye this week is the Cowboys. With such a rookie presence at the heart of that team, it is a big unknown not only as to how they will handle the bye but as to how they will handle playoff football in general. The Cowboys as an organization have not shown up in the playoffs over the past couple of decades so it will be up to the rookies to help carry them to their first Conference Championship appearance since 1995.
However, in all reality, the Cowboys have a great chance at shaking off any butterflies or rust associated with the break. The Packers have the worst defense left in the playoffs, sporting a secondary ranked in the bottom half of the league that has allowed quarterbacks to score the seventh-most fantasy points per game and wide receivers to score the most fantasy points per game during the regular season. Elliott is one of the most consistent backs in the league and showed that he can decimate the Packers even while they were playing well against the run earlier this season as he ran all over them 28 times for 157 yards. Even if one facet of the offense struggles, the other should easily be able to put up points against this suspect Packers defense.
While the question remains as to whether the Cowboys defense can defend against Aaron Rodgers, their offense should have no problem keeping up in what Vegas projects as the highest scoring game of this round.
Knotts: I am a big fan of rest in these situations, as the teams that have won their first playoff game often had to fight and claw their way into the playoffs. Then once they get their first win, they have to face a team that has had two weeks of preparation and rest in order to face them. This is especially critical when you have certain coaches such as Andy Reid, who is 19-2 when coming off a bye week in his career.
Over the last three seasons, teams who did not get the bye in the playoffs are 2-10 in the divisional championship round. This stat fluctuates year to year, but there definitely has been a trend over the last few seasons which have favored the teams that have had a few extra weeks to prepare.
Looking at this season, all of the teams that played last weekend are underdogs in their games this week, which supports the theory that rest ultimately is more meaningful than rust. These are some of the best-conditioned athletes in the world so getting a week off can only help them. It is for this reason that Elliott is my number one overall running back (ahead of Bell). While Bell should still perform, Elliott getting that rest against a Packers front seven who had a tough game last week should help Elliott and the offensive line control things.
Hester: Fill in the blanks below for each of the four games:
- The winner of the game will be ________.
- The final score will be _______.
- The best DFS plays of the game will be _______ and _______ because/due to the fact/etc [this thing/these things happened].
Seattle at Atlanta
- Thomas Rawls and Julio Jones because Rawls is running angry against a suspect rush defense (29th DVOA), and Jones should be back to full health.
- Matt Ryan and Thomas Rawls because Seattle's secondary is not what it once was, and Atlanta can be sieve-like at times against the run.
- Matt Ryan and Julio Jones because Richard Sherman will not get away with the physicality that he got away with in the first matchup, and Jones will absolutely dominate this matchup. I fully expect Jones to have an even bigger game than the 7 receptions and 139 yards that he had in Seattle earlier this season.
- Thomas Rawls and Julio Jones because Rawls is in a magnificent matchup with the confidence of his coaches after 28 touches and a career outing last week; Jones is simply one of the most dynamic receivers in the game who put up a massive outing against the Seahawks earlier this season.
Houston at New England
- New England
- Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis because Edelman should lead the entire divisional round in targets, and Lewis was being prepped for a significant playoff workload down the stretch (16.6 touches per game over the last three games).
- New England
- LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots Defense/Special Teams, because Bill Belichick will call the dogs off after halftime, and Brock Osweiler is in line for a very long day.
- New England
- DeAndre Hopkins and LeGarrette Blount, because the Patriots will get out to an early lead and run the ball while the Texans will be forced to throw from behind a significant amount and will be focused on targeting their top option who has improved after a very poor start to the regular season.
- New England
- Julian Edelman and the Patriots Defense/Special Teams because Edelman has been one of the most statistically consistent wide receivers of the season, and the Texans offense is led by the turnover-happy Brock Osweiler, who will have absolutely zero confidence after being benched for Tom Savage this season.
Pittsburgh at Kansas City
- LeVeon Bell and Travis Kelce because the Kansas City run defense is sneaky-bad, while Bell is not-so-sneaky-good; and Kelce should be able to take advantage of a defense that struggled to cover tight ends down the stretch.
- LeVeon Bell and Jeremy Maclin, because Bell will produce against any defense at this point, and the Steelers will devote a ton of energy to stopping Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.
- Kansas City
- Travis Kelce and Jeremy Maclin because Alex Smith will use his most reliable weapons in this game to control the game from start to finish with the Steelers focusing on shutting down Tyreek Hill.
- LeVeon Bell and Travis Kelce because Bell has been unstoppable this season with his multi-faceted talents while Kelce is the top target for the Chiefs and safest option at the tight end position this week.
Green Bay at Dallas
- Green Bay
- Aaron Rodgers and Jared Cook because the Dallas defense won't be able to slow Rodgers down, and Dallas has been destroyed by tight ends recently.
- Ezekiel Elliott and Davante Adams because the Cowboys will play ball control as much as possible, and Adams will receive a boatload of targets.
- Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant because Elliott is well rested and should be in a nice spot here against a team that he absolutely dominated against earlier this season; and Bryant is taking on a secondary that has been banged up for most of the season; if not for a few dropped passes, Green Bay would have given up big numbers last week to the Giants.
- Green Bay
- Aaron Rodgers and Terrance Williams because Rodgers is playing at an extremely high level (and he's without question the safest quarterback on the slate) while Williams is a near-minimum priced value option who plays plenty of snaps and should be able to easily reach value against the Packers very exploitable secondary.
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