In his Tips & Picks column last week, our John Lee made a great point about the importance of game scripting on short slates:
“Because there are only four games from which to choose, my best advice this (and next) week is to mentally determine how you envision the games playing out and building your rosters accordingly...Minimizing your player pool, particularly for mass multi-entry (MME), is essential for maximizing your likelihood of a top 10% finish in tournament play.”
John’s advice holds water on tournament slates of all sizes, though to his point, the edge you gain by taking a strong stand on how each game will play out is amplified on short slates. With this in mind, I won’t be breaking down each fantasy relevant player and categorizing them according to projected ownership as I did last week. Instead, I’ll share my script for each game and offer some detail on only those players who will appear on my actual rosters. For context, I plan on putting around 15-20 unique lineups in play this weekend.
If you’re looking for more tips on playing short slate GPPs, check out the bullet points at the beginning of last week’s edition.
Atlanta @ Philadelphia
Vegas-implied outcome: Falcons (22.5) over Eagles (19.25)
My predicted outcome: Falcons (20) over Eagles (13)
Game script thoughts: Philadelphia has a tough defense (second overall DVOA), an extra week of rest, home-field advantage, and could be playing with a chip on their collective shoulders after they were named home underdogs despite finishing as the top seed in the conference. Unfortunately, having Nick Foles as their quarterback overrides everything else going in the Eagles favor.
Foles has looked progressively worse in each game he’s started this season. Yes, he threw four touchdowns against the Giants’ lackadaisical and depleted defense in Week 14, but he also averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt in that game, which would rank bottom-10 from a season-long perspective. Since then, Foles has completed a pathetic 47% of his passes for a total of 202 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. If he could barely pull the Eagles past a Raiders team that was begging to roll over in Week 16, Foles has little chance of leading Philadelphia to a win against a much better Atlanta team, even if their defensive front makes things difficult for Matt Ryan. This profiles as a low-scoring game you’ll generally want to limit your exposure to.
Jay Ajayi - Despite projecting the Eagles for the fewest points on the slate, I’m still interested in Ajayi at $4,600. Philadelphia gave away their game plan for the Divisional Round when they rested Ajayi fully in Week 17 while the rest of their key players at least got limited work. As long as the Falcons don’t win in a blowout, which seems unlikely given their inconsistency on offense and the strength of the Eagles defense, Ajayi should see as many as 20 touches -- a potential workload too large to ignore at his salary on a short slate. Due to his lack of involvement as a receiver and the possibility he will get pulled for LeGarrette Blount at the goal line, however, I’ll have much more Jerick McKinnon at only $300 more.
Nelson Agholor - I’m sure Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson would love to run the ball 35 times in this game, but Foles will have to make some plays and Agholor is the most likely Eagle to be on the receiving end. Foles has targeted Agholor 16 times in his two starts, which trails only Zach Ertz for the team lead, and the Rams reminded us last week Atlanta’s Brian Poole is terrible in slot coverage. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods combined to catch 7-of-10 slot targets for 82 yards and a touchdown vs. Poole, who has allowed the most fantasy points per route defended on this week’s slate, per PFF.
Zach Ertz - I’m less enthusiastic about Ertz, but it’s impossible to ignore his 23 combined targets (massive 31.5% market share) in Foles’ two starts. The high-end WR1 volume resulted in a pair of 17-point games for Ertz, but if you’re willing to invest top-10 WR salary at tight end, why not pay up to Rob Gronkowski? Sure, Ertz will be lower-owned, but he’s priced at his ceiling with Foles behind center, and he’ll be the focus of an Atlanta pass defense that allows the seventh-fewest yards per pass attempt to opposing tight ends. Prioritize Agholor if you want a piece of the Eagles passing game.
Devonta Freeman - Year-to-date, the Eagles have allowed the second-fewest normalized fantasy points per game to opposing running backs. But as the quality of their offense has suffered in the absence of Carson Wentz, teams have been able to run the ball more often and with more success against them. Since Week 13, every running back who has touched the ball at least 14 times vs. Philadelphia has reached or exceeded 80 yards from scrimmage. Freeman will get his usual 60% of the Falcons offensive snaps which normally equates to 15-18 carries, a handful of receptions, and goal line work. He’s a nice stack with Atlanta’s defense.
Julio Jones - When the Falcons last traveled to Philadelphia to take on Pederson’s Eagles in Week 10 last season, Jones racked up 16 targets, 10 catches, and 135 receiving yards. A similar finish is well within Jones’ range of possible outcomes against Eagles outside corners Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. Mills lacks the talent and size to cover Jones, while Darby -- the best cornerback on the team -- has been burned on a few big plays during an injury-marred season. With Antonio Brown facing the Jaguars highly-touted pass defense and Michael Thomas dealing with shadow coverage from Xavier Rhodes, expect Jones to be the highest-owned wide receiver on the slate. He makes sense as a building block in at least 25% of your entries.
Atlanta D/ST - It would be nice if they weren’t short road favorites, but let’s not be greedy. The matchup against Foles all but guarantees two-to-three sacks and at least one interception. The floor and ceiling are both high for Atlanta’s defense, fresh off back-to-back double-digit fantasy point performances in a pair of must-win games.
Philadelphia D/ST - The Eagles didn’t become the fourth-highest scoring defensive unit on DraftKings this season by accident. They have the highest-adjusted sack rate in the league, rank third in rush defense (DVOA), and fourth in both opponent points per game (18.4) and takeaways per game (1.9). If it weren’t for the likelihood of Foles setting the Falcons up with short fields, Philadelphia may have been the top D/ST play on the board, despite Atlanta allowing the fewest schedule-adjusted fantasy points per game to opposing defenses during the regular season. They can still hang a decent number on the Falcons in a close loss.
Tennessee @ New England
Vegas-implied outcome: Patriots (30.25) over Titans (16.75)
My predicted outcome: Patriots (35) over Titans (14)
Game script thoughts: Vegas has this spread right and they’re probably being a little too kind to the Titans after their stunning come-from-behind win over the Chiefs last week. Tennessee was able to have their way in the second half against Kansas City’s struggling secondary and 32nd-ranked run-stopping unit (DVOA). The challenge will be decidedly more difficult as they head to Foxborough to face the defending Super Bowl champions.
This game has the smell of lopsided Patriots wins in years past -- think the 45-10 shellacking they put on the Broncos in 2011 or their 34-16 decimation of Houston in the 2016 Divisional Round. New England just has too many edges -- experience, coaching, quarterback play, and the overall quality of their defense to name a few. Tom Brady should have no trouble picking apart Tennessee’s weak group of cornerbacks and safeties. The Titans only hope of keeping it remotely close is a hot start by Derrick Henry and their (admittedly solid) pass rush successfully rattling Brady. Even then, it’s a near-certainty Belichick will devise a scheme to keep Mariota off balance. Load up on Patriots players.
Tom Brady - Brady will be the highest-owned quarterback on the slate by a significant margin, which is justifiable given the context. The remainder of the quarterbacks are either terrible or matched up against top defenses. New England has been favored by at least 13 points in a playoff game three times in the Brady-Belichick era -- the aforementioned wins against the 2011 Broncos and 2016 Texans -- and way back in a 24-21 win over the Chargers in 2007. Brady’s stat lines in those games were 363-6(!)-1, 287-2-2, and 280-2-3. While we shouldn’t go in expecting six touchdowns, 280 yards and 2 passing scores seem like a floor projection against a defense that has given up 365 yards to Tom Savage, 381 to Jimmy Garoppolo, and 301 and 4 touchdowns to Jared Goff since Week 13.
Dion Lewis - Lewis helped win GPPs in Weeks 16 and 17 as the Patriots three-down back, and with Rex Burkhead declared out, he should once again challenge for 25 touches. At a still reasonable $6,600, Lewis should be a core play in your lineups, even in a difficult rushing matchup against the Titans seventh-ranked rush defense (DVOA).
Chris Hogan - Is Brandin Cooks completely out of my player pool? Probably not. But Hogan -- who finally doesn’t carry an injury designation -- is the leverage play in the Patriots passing game. The last time Hogan didn’t appear on the injury report or suffer an in-game injury was Week 5. From Weeks 1-5, he scored at least 17 fantasy points in all games but one, averaging 7.4 targets, 4.6 receptions, 57.6 yards, and 1 touchdown per game. In those games, he led all Patriots pass-catchers with nine red zone targets and four red zone touchdowns. By contrast, Cooks topped 17 fantasy points just once in the games Hogan has been active this season. We also know Brady trusts Hogan in big spots after he piled up 17 catches, 332 yards, and 2 touchdowns in last year’s playoffs. Hogan comes cheaper, lower-owned, and with similar upside as Cooks against a terrible secondary. If he ends up 20% owned (a generous projection), you’ll still want more than the field.
Rob Gronkowski - Tennessee allowed 15% more tight end fantasy production than the league average over the last five weeks of the regular season and would have been eviscerated by Travis Kelce (4-66-1) if he hadn’t taken a scary helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter of last week’s game. Gronkowski has a strong chance of being the top overall scorer on this week’s slate at any position and is fairly priced at just $100 more than Cooks. He’ll be popular, but there will be no helping your rosters if you fade him and he hits his 30-point ceiling. Make him your top exposure.
Derrick Henry - Similar to my feelings on Ajayi, I don’t hate Henry even if the Titans are the losing side. In fact, I like the idea of using him in a contrarian game stack with Tom Brady and the Patriots’ pass catchers. If you’re worried about game script impacting his workload, look no further than last week’s game in which Henry still saw 23 carries despite the Titans trailing by 18 at halftime. Mike Mularkey is going to run the ball no matter what in hopes of wearing down New England’s defensive front, making it entirely possible for Henry to reach the 100-yard bonus and score a touchdown regardless of a potentially lopsided score. The Patriots will get back defensive tackle Alan Branch, which is a boost for their run defense, but Henry -- who has fresher legs than most players this time of year due to his limited regular season workload -- remains plenty capable of busting up New England’s smallish defenders for several long gains.
Corey Davis - Davis is more of a cash game play, but his near-minimum salary doesn’t reflect his recent target volume. Per airyards.com, Davis led all Tennessee pass catchers in air yards over the last four weeks of the regular season and his seven targets last week against the Chiefs were the most of any Titans wide receiver. Maybe he’s not quite ready for primetime as a 23-year-old small school rookie, but if he continues to see substantial target volume, his athleticism is going to win out sooner or later. While low-double-digit fantasy points are possible (and acceptable at his salary), New England Stephen Gilmore should have something to say about this being the game Davis finally flashes a high-ceiling.
Eric Decker - For fantasy purposes, Decker is essentially Davis with more touchdown upside, though he gets a far better matchup in the slot against cornerback Eric Rowe. Per PFF, Rowe has allowed the third-most fantasy points per route defended among active cornerbacks on this week’s slate. Decker won’t win you a GPP, but he should come close enough to a 3x salary multiple to act as adequate roster filler.
New England D/ST - New England’s defense is a value relative to the other units on the slate at just $3,200. What’s not to like about a 13.5-point home favorite playing against the Titans, who rank 25th with 1.6 giveaways per game? Almost quietly, the Patriots have scored at least nine fantasy points in 8-of-11 games since Week 6.
Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh
Vegas-implied outcome: Steelers (24) over Jaguars (16.5)
My predicted outcome: Steelers (27) over Jaguars (24)
Game script thoughts: Blake Bortles is coming off a game in which he passed for only 87 yards and lacked the touch to complete easy screen passes. The public (and Vegas) are writing off the Jaguars as a result, which I see as the best contrarian opportunity on the slate.
Since Week 12, the vaunted Jacksonville defense has given up 27 points to Arizona, 24 points to Seattle, and 44 points to San Francisco. The offenses they shut down over that span were the Colts (10 points), Texans (7 points), Titans (15 points), and Bills (3 points). All of those performances came at home against lousy quarterbacks and three out of the four were division rematches. Is the Jaguars defense a tough test for the Steelers? Of course. But are they the impregnable fortress the media portrays them to be? It’s at least up for debate.
Assuming Ben Roethlisberger can accomplish at least Arizona/Seattle level success against the Jaguars (the Steelers average 28.2 points per game at home), Jacksonville’s offense will be forced to do much more than they did in their win against the Bills last week. Fortunately for Bortles, Leonard Fournette, and company, Pittsburgh’s defense has not been the same since losing Ryan Shazier. They’ve been gashed by running backs and pass catchers alike since Week 13, most notably allowing 38 points to Joe Flacco and the Ravens at Heinz Field. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh starting cornerback Artie Burns injured his knee in Wednesday’s practice, putting his status for Sunday up in the air.
Under normal circumstances, I would never side with a Bortles-led team covering any spread in a playoff game, but this line feels inflated. Bortles is awful, but not quite as bad as last week’s performance against the Bills would suggest. With the pressure of getting his first playoff win behind him, he can be competent enough to make this depleted Steelers defense pay if they stack the box to stop Fournette. And of course, Jacksonville's defense -- though not as dominant as they receive credit for -- is confident going into Heinz Field after making Ben Roethlisberger live through a waking nightmare back in Week 5. Maybe the game won’t turn out as high-scoring as I’m predicting, but it won’t be an easy Steelers win unless Bortles completely implodes.
Blake Bortles - In the game before Shazier was injured, Brett Hundley went into Heinz Field and scored 22.4 fantasy points (245-3-0). Since the game Shazier got hurt, Pittsburgh allowed 19.26 fantasy points to Andy Dalton (234-2-0) and 17.76 to Joe Flacco (269-2-1) before putting up a solid showing against Tom Brady (298-1-1) and squashing T.J. Yates -- arguably the worst quarterback to start a game this season (we can probably throw out DeShone Kizer’s 314-2-1 passing line from Week 17). In short, the matchup isn’t scary for Bortles, who is both the same player who could barely complete a pass last week and the one who scored 4x his current salary in six games this season. Even if I’m wrong on the Jaguars making it a close game, Bortles can still rack up his trademark garbage time stats or create points with his legs like he did last week.
Leonard Fournette - I’m going way over the field on Fournette after he disappointed in a seemingly great matchup last week. Bortles inability to complete a forward pass did Fournette no favors against an inspired Bills defense that stacked the box to stop him. Assuming Bortles can put forth at least a middling effort, Fournette should find plenty of running room against the Steelers. When normalized for strength-of-schedule, Pittsburgh has allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs over the last five weeks, which not surprisingly coincides with Shazier’s absence. At the very least, we can safely project Fournette for about 24 total touches in any game script, which makes him the top dollar per projected touch value on the slate now that his price dropped by $500 from last week.
Dede Westbrook - In last week’s article, I made the case for Westbrook as the best play among Jaguars receivers due to his recent target volume. It ended up the right call since Westbrook led Jacksonville with eight targets, but he was still a poor play with only 5 catches and 48 receiving yards. Assuming Westbrook -- who leads the Jaguars in both targets and air yards since debuting in Week 11 -- continues to be Bortles’ preferred option, a 5x multiple on his $4,400 salary is in play. Since Week 8, Pittsburgh has allowed 35 pass plays of 20+ yards, which trails only four other teams.
Ben Roethlisberger - Everyone is talking about Roethlisberger throwing five interceptions the last time Jacksonville played in Pittsburgh, which should ding his ownership. But after the lousy performance back in Week 5, Roethlisberger resumed his usual dominance in home games with fantasy totals of 17, 29, 36, 32, and 19 fantasy points in his next five starts. Antonio Brown’s healthy return and Juju Smith-Schuster’s emergence as the next great Steelers wide receiver give Roethlisberger all the weapons he needs to go toe-to-toe with a Jaguars defense that was below average at limiting quarterback fantasy production over the last five weeks of the regular season.
Le'Veon Bell - It would be shocking if Bell doesn’t touch the ball at least 25 times in this game making him the safest bet for 25 fantasy points on the board. But like Todd Gurley last week, the question with Bell is whether or not jamming him in at $9,600 (when no other player is over $8,100) allows us to maximize total points scored in our lineups? While I won’t come up empty on Bell this week, he probably won’t appear in more than 20% of my builds. There is enough talent at running back this week in the $5K-$7K range to fit two solid backs with Gronkowski and a high-priced wide receiver, which is the route I’ll take most often.
Antonio Brown - We’re getting a solid discount on Brown, who is priced $1,900 below his season-high salary due to the perceived difficulty of his matchup and the fact he’s coming off a multi-week calf injury. The calf doesn’t appear to be much of a concern since Brown has been practicing without restrictions since Monday. His matchup against top cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, on the other hand, could very well cap his upside. But Brown is the best wide receiver in the game and those cornerbacks will have to prove they can approach his level, not the other way around. Even in one of the worst games of Roethlisberger’s career in Week 5, Brown still went for 28.7 fantasy points against these very Jaguars. I want heavy exposure to Brown any time he’s at home and this week is no exception, especially considering his deflated price.
JuJu Smith-Schuster - Smith-Schuster is also in play despite the difficult matchup, simply because he’s one of about five wide receivers on the slate with an established 30+ point fantasy ceiling. Like Brown, Smith-Schuster’s price has been overcorrected due to the matchup, putting him in the same tier as lower-ceiling options like Mohamed Sanu and Alshon Jeffery.
Vance McDonald - McDonald is one of my favorite players likely to be sub-10% owned. He exceeded a 3.6x multiple of his site-minimum salary in three consecutive games to end the regular season (not counting the Landry Jones game in Week 17) and was a big part of the Steelers game plan in Weeks 14 and 16 (11 combined targets). The Jaguars are stingy against opposing tight ends (fifth-fewest yards per attempt allowed) but as great as their secondary is, they’ll have their hands full with Brown, Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant, which leaves McDonald free to roam the seam.
New Orleans @ Minnesota
Vegas-implied outcome: Vikings (24.5) over Saints (20.5)
My predicted outcome: Saints (24) over Vikings (23)
Game script thoughts: This one is by far the toughest game to call and getting it right could decide GPPs. Minnesota has been dominant on their home field, winning seven-out-of-eight games and allowing a league-low 12.5 points per game. On paper, the Vikings have an answer for just about everything the Saints do well on offense. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are fast and strong enough to contain Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara. Stud cornerback Xavier Rhodes is capable of erasing Michael Thomas from the game plan. And safety Harrison Smith -- who has played out of his mind this season -- can prevent Ted Ginn Jr from going over the top.
New Orleans struggles most to defend slot receivers and pass-catching running backs in space. Adam Thielen was elite from the slot this season and Jerick McKinnon is exactly the type of receiver out of the backfield that has given the Saints defense fits.
While it appears pretty bleak for New Orleans, the one edge they have on Minnesota is a significant one -- Drew Brees’ greatness. If you believe, as I do, quarterback play trumps all in the playoffs, it’s awfully hard to place your chips on Case Keenum over Brees, who was masterfully efficient in his age-38 season. Brees proved last week he remains capable of getting his team over 30 points when the run game gets shut down, and while Minnesota’s secondary is a much tougher test than Carolina’s, I see him making just enough plays to knock off a tough Vikings team. It’s worth noting, however, there has been reverse line movement in favor of the Vikings. The spread opened at -3.5 and has risen to -5 despite 64% of the tickets coming in on the Saints, suggesting sharp bettors are behind the home team.
Drew Brees - I’ll be using more Brady, Bortles, and Roethlisberger than Brees, but if I have the final score correct, Brees is in play for two touchdowns. He’ll have to overcome a terrifying defense that plays lights out at home (no quarterback has passed for more than 225 yards vs. the Vikings in Minnesota since Week 3), but Brees is playoff-tested and has executed the Saints game plan with surgical precision all season, leading the NFL in completion percentage (72%) and yards per pass attempt (8.1). 275 yards and 2 touchdowns are probably close to a ceiling projection, but it’s well within his range of possible outcomes and could be enough to make him the second-highest scoring quarterback behind Brady.
Michael Thomas - As previously mentioned, Thomas draws Xavier Rhodes in coverage this week, which hasn’t typically worked out well for opposing WR1s this season. Rhodes held Thomas to a 5-45-0 line in their Week 1 meeting and was largely responsible for shutting down Antonio Brown (5-62-0), Mike Evans (7-67-0), Julio Jones (2-24-0), and A.J. Green (2-20-0), among others. There are better high-end wide receivers out there this week, but Thomas’ standing as Brees’ clear favorite target (29% target market share) makes him a requirement in Brees stacks.
Mark Ingram II - Ingram had trouble getting going in a similarly tough matchup last week against Carolina, which should put the crowd off him despite a $1,300 drop in price from last week. At such a low salary ($2,700 below his season-high), we’re after about 20 fantasy points from Ingram, a mark he’s cleared in 50% of his games since Adrian Peterson was traded. While that obviously doesn’t give him a 50% chance of exceeding value in this difficult matchup, Ingram’s ownership percentage will not reflect his upside, making him an ideal contrarian pivot.
Alvin Kamara - The Vikings speedy linebackers have limited opposing running backs in the passing game this season (third-fewest receiving yards allowed), but Kamara’s exceptional talent supersedes just about any matchup. Going lighter on Kamara than the field has been a bad idea more often than not this season, and I don’t see this week much differently. If the Saints are able to put up points on the Vikings, Kamara’s big play ability will be a key reason why. Stack him with Michael Thomas and Drew Brees in hopes of monopolizing the Saints passing touchdowns.
Jerick McKinnon - We saw Christian McCaffrey finally break a big play against the Saints, who have sorely missed injured linebackers Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein. McCaffrey’s success in space was hardly an isolated incident for New Orleans. The Saints have now allowed at least 30 receiving yards and a touchdown to a single running back four times since Week 13. On the season, they rank bottom-10 in both pass success rate and yards per pass attempt to running backs. I’m sure the Vikings would love to run Latavius Murray 20+ times to keep Drew Brees off the field, but their offense will need to generate big plays if they hope to win and Murray (3.9 yards per attempt) rarely gains more yards than what the offensive line opens for him. Don’t be surprised if offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur emphasizes McKinnon
Adam Thielen - Thielen runs more than half his routes from the slot where he’ll line up opposite P.J. Williams -- easily the weakest link in the Saints defensive backfield. Slot receivers against New Orleans since Week 11: Jamison Crowder (7-72-0), Cooper Kupp (8-116-0), Mohamed Sanu (6-83-1), Adam Humphries (7-102-0). Thielen -- this year’s cumulative WR9 on DraftKings -- is more dangerous than each of those receivers and should see a voluminous workload with Stefon Diggs tied up by Marshon Lattimore on the outside. Expect a monster yardage game from Thielen with the possibility of a touchdown.
Kyle Rudolph - Rudolph appears healthy and is worth considering as the tight end with the highest touchdown probability on the slate outside of Gronkowski. New Orleans was solid defending tight ends this season (sixth DVOA) but they’re missing safety Kenny Vaccaro and were just shredded by Greg Olsen (8-107-1). Consider Rudolph a worthy flex play in two tight end lineups alongside Gronkowski.