If you choose to sit this week out, no one will blame you. Normal two-game slates are difficult to profit on consistently in the first place due to the inevitable roster overlap with your opponents. This week’s slate is further complicated by tight pricing on players from both Vegas favorites (the Patriots and Vikings) and the sheer difficulty of creating a unique lineup in a week where only two NFL games exist. At least on regular season Sunday-Monday or Monday-Thursday slates, entrants usually have other slates to concern themselves with.
Still, it’s the last multi-game slate of the NFL season and we have no choice but to try making the most of the hand we’ve been dealt. Following our John Lee’s advice on the importance of scripting games worked well in this space last week (I came one Minnesota miracle away from predicting the final scores of two Divisional Round games), so I’ll be following the same format below. Thanks for reading this season and best of luck in the Conference Championship Round!
Jacksonville @ New England
Vegas-implied outcome: Patriots (27.75) over Jaguars (18.75)
My predicted outcome: Patriots (28) over Jaguars (13)
Game script thoughts: Ask yourself what the spread would be if Jacksonville hadn’t gone into Pittsburgh last week and dropped 45 points on the Steelers, who had been exploited on defense by Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, and DeShone Kizer since Ryan Shazier’s season-ending injury. The only correct answer is closer to the 13.5 points New England was favored by last week when the Titans visited Foxborough.
The Patriots have the talent up front and in their defensive backfield to fluster Blake Bortles in a high-pressure spot the same way Buffalo did in the Wild Card round. New England boasts the top scoring offense in the league (29 points per game) and the highest average scoring margin (+10.8). One of the Patriots greatest strengths on offense -- passing to their running backs -- happens to align with a primary weakness of a Jacksonville defense that has been getting by on reputation over substance recently. Since Week 12, the over-hyped Jaguars have allowed 27 points to Blaine Gabbert and the Cardinals and 44 points to the 49ers, before the Steelers scored 42 on them last week.
Anything but a second consecutive lopsided New England win over an outgunned AFC South opponent would qualify as shocking. Load up on Patriots players as much as possible to build your core, particularly Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and the running backs.
Tom Brady - Provided the injury to Brady’s throwing hand turns out to be nothing severe, he’s the easy choice to lead all quarterbacks in fantasy scoring and ownership. Ben Roethlisberger (469-5-1) laid to rest all notions the Jaguars pass defense is one to avoid for quarterbacks. Prior to last week, Jacksonville had allowed at least 240 passing yards and 2 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks three times since Week 12. While those might be modest numbers most weeks, they’re close to the bottom of Brady’s range of possible outcomes and could easily be enough to lead the position in scoring given the other quarterbacks on the slate. As long as he’s able to get the ball out ahead of the Jaguars pass rush, Brady should be able to challenge last week’s numbers (337-3-0) with a fully healthy group of pass catchers.
Dion Lewis - Lewis is the most expensive player on the slate, but not necessarily overpriced considering he’s achieved a multiple of at least 3x his current salary in the Patriots’ last three games. Of course, Rex Burkhead missed each of those three games and he’s expected back this week, putting Lewis’ monstrous recent workloads in question. But given Lewis’ high-end RB1 production since assuming the bell cow role, it would be surprising if he saw less than 20 total touches, making him the safest of the three Patriots running backs. Safety is not what we’re usually after in GPPs, but Lewis also has big-play upside as both a runner and pass catcher and the implied game script favors running back production. He deserves to be near the top of your exposure list at running back.
Rex Burkhead - As of this writing, there’s no guarantee Burkhead will suit up, but he did practice on Thursday and Friday, suggesting he’s healthy enough to put a kink in our plans for coming in overweight on Lewis and James White. When Burkhead was healthy in Weeks 8-14, he averaged about 12 total touches per game and handled seven of the team’s nine goal-line opportunities. Burkhead’s versatility makes him an attractive play against Jacksonville given their struggles defending pass-catching running backs, but it’s hard to project him for more than 25% of the snaps. If he’s only on the field enough to get single-digit touches, you’re rostering Burkhead with the hope he catches a touchdown and runs in a goal-line score -- very low probability, but not impossible.
James White - Opponents targeted running backs vs. the Jaguars on 22% of their plays during the regular season -- tied for the eighth-highest rate in the league. Jacksonville also ranked as a bottom-half defense in pass success rate and yards per pass attempt allowed to opposing running backs, and the problem only seems to be escalating. Since Week 16, the team has given up between 44 and 88 receiving yards to a single running back in all four of their games. No one has ever accused Bill Belichick of failing to do his homework on an opponent, so we can expect White on the field for at least 30% of the Patriots snaps. The big question is whether he’ll resume a featured role in the red zone with Burkhead back. White’s touchdowns last week came from five and six yards out, respectively.
I have the Patriots running backs listed in the order of suggested exposure, but due to the importance of making your lineups look different than everyone else’s, don’t be afraid to use two of them together on the same roster (with and without Brady).
Chris Hogan - Hogan caught his third touchdown in as many playoff games last week, which should have come as no surprise. From Weeks 1-5 (the only stretch of the season in which he was fully healthy), Hogan led all Patriots pass-catchers with nine red zone targets and four red zone touchdowns. He’ll have to contend with cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey when he’s lined up outside, but Hogan ran 23 routes from the slot last week, which is where he was targeted on his red zone touchdown. Neither Hogan nor Cooks are standout plays in this matchup, but it’s worth noting Cooks only has one game with more than 17 fantasy points when Hogan has been active this season.
Danny Amendola - Rostering Amendola may feel like point chasing after last week’s 13-11-112-0 receiving line, but if we’re going to target a Patriots wide receiver, we may as well make it the one who won’t be covered by Bouye or Ramsey. Jaguars slot corner Aaron Colvin is no slouch in coverage either, but with Brady all but required to get the ball out quickly, there’s a chance Amendola is his top target for a second straight week. It’s just a shame his price jumped $1,400 from last week.
Rob Gronkowski - Gronkowski will be my top overall exposure for a second straight week. The Jaguars ranked top-five at limiting tight end yards per pass attempt during the regular season, but they only faced three top-10 fantasy tight ends. Delanie Walker 4-61-0 and Jack Doyle 4-44-0 were able to hit their median projections against Jacksonville early in the season, and they held Jimmy Graham -- who averaged only 3.2 targets per game over the final five games -- to zero catches in Week 14. Gronkowski is a mismatch for any defense, including the Jaguars, and the Patriots will need him at his best to approach their projected point total.
Blake Bortles - Bortles is the only viable quarterback priced below $6K (sorry Nick Foles). While I fully expect “Bad Bortles” to make the trip to Foxborough, we can’t ignore the fact he ranged from awful to not-so-bad in the last two games and exceeded a 3x multiple of his current salary in each game. And of course, there is potential for a game script where the Patriots go up big and Bortles is forced to throw 40+ times, leading to some sweet garbage time stats. Pairing Bortles with two of his wide receivers is the easiest path to create a lineup that doesn’t look disgusting (outside of the Bortles super stack, that is).
T.J. Yeldon - Last week, I recommended going way overweight on Leonard Fournette, which went rather swimmingly. This week, I’m going nowhere near him. Fournette re-injured his ankle against the Steelers, and while he came back in the game and is practicing this week, it’s clear he’ll be playing at less than 100% against a defense that held Derrick Henry to 2.3 yards per attempt last week. Yeldon is a great leverage play for a number of reasons -- he’ll be low-owned, you’ll be fading Fournette who will be chalky, the game script favors Yeldon’s pass-catching ability, and if Fournette aggravates his nagging ankle injury early in the game, you’re likely to need Yeldon to have a shot at first place.
Marqise Lee - Lee saw his snap share and target share increase in his second game back from a three-week injury layoff, but still couldn’t make anything happen against the Steelers shaky secondary (6-3-28-0). Things won’t get easier this week, as Lee will face shadow coverage from Stephon Gilmore. On a normal slate, we’d be able to look right past Lee, but if the Patriots go up big and a Jaguars wide receiver racks up catches and yardage in garbage time, it could decide tournaments. If we follow the playing time and targets, it leads us to Lee and one other candidate...
Dede Westbrook - Westbrook continues to see the most snaps of any Jacksonville receiver and he leads the team in targets and air yards since coming off injured reserve ahead of Week 11. He comes way too cheap for a player who could realistically see 8-10 targets. If you want to go further contrarian to differentiate your lineups, Allen Hurns has the best individual matchup against Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe, but Hurns was down to just 28% of the team’s snaps and a measly two targets last week. Keelan Cole is splitting time with Hurns as the team’s third receiver but has become a forgotten man with only three targets in the two games since Lee’s return. Like Hurns, Cole is a low-exposure dart, but there’s nothing to suggest a return to his late-season production is coming.
Jaguars D/ST - While I fully expect the Jaguars to get trucked in New England, that doesn’t necessarily mean their defense can’t lead the slate in fantasy points. Jacksonville wasn’t the top scoring defense on DraftKings during the regular season by accident. They finished second in the league with a 9.1% adjusted sack rate and have the ability to rush four successfully, a recipe that has rattled Brady in the past. In tournaments, we’re after upside and no team had more defensive touchdowns during the regular season than the Jaguars. They managed to score eight fantasy points while giving up 42 actual points to Pittsburgh last week, putting them very much in play as the lowest-priced defense.
Patriots D/ST - They’re the biggest home favorite on the slate and matched up against Bortles. There’s no further analysis needed, though it’s worth noting the Patriots have now scored at least nine fantasy points in 9-of-12 games since Week 6.
Minnesota @ Philadelphia
Vegas-implied outcome: Vikings (20.75) over Eagles (17.75)
My predicted outcome: Vikings (23) over Eagles (10)
Game script thoughts: Much like Jacksonville, Philadelphia is being overrated due to their surprising win in the Divisional Round. How is it possible Minnesota -- easily the best team in the NFC since Carson Wentz was lost for the season -- is only favored by the same three points the Falcons were in Philadelphia last week?
Sure, Atlanta is a solid team, but their defense doesn’t hold a candle to Minnesota’s. The Vikings allowed the fewest points per game in the league this season (16.2) and had the second-rated overall DVOA defense (for context, the Falcons ranked 22nd). Nick Foles is not going to have the same success Drew Brees did against Minnesota last week. In fact, he may not have any success at all. Prior to last week’s outlier 76.7% completion rate, Foles had completed a pathetic 47% of his passes in his previous two starts, for a dismal 5.04 yards per attempt. Further complicating matters for Foles is the struggles of backup tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has been thrust into a starting role and now must contend with stud defensive end Everson Griffen on the left side.
Philadelphia also fields one of the top defenses in the league, but the Vikings match up with them well. On the season, the Eagles have allowed the 10th-most normalized fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers and that ranking declines to bottom-five over the last five weeks. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen both have decisive advantages on Philadelphia’s cornerback group, and Case Keenum has to be playing with confidence after pulling off an actual miracle last week.
Despite the Eagles home field advantage, this has the makings of a squash match. Don’t be surprised if Philadelphia fails to find the end zone in this game. Load up on Vikings and use Eagles sparingly.
Case Keenum - The Eagles played a great game against Matt Ryan and have generally been one of the toughest matchups for opposing quarterbacks over the second half of the season, especially at home. Under normal circumstances, Keenum would be a clear stay away, but on a slate where Bortles and Nick Foles are the only other options below Brady at $7,700, we have to consider him. The biggest reason to go overweight on Keenum is the edge his wide receivers have over Philadelphia’s defensive backfield. If you believe Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen can get over on cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby on the outside (you should), Keenum rides their coattails to a big day by extension.
Latavius Murray - I’m likely to push all in on Murray this week. I wasn’t buying a ceiling game last week even though the Vikings were favored because I didn’t agree with the spread. I don’t agree with this spread either, but now my implied game script is in Murray’s favor. Nick Foles stinks and if he can’t move the ball against arguably the best defense in the NFL, the Vikings are going to kill the clock with Murray. It isn’t always pretty to watch, but Murray flashed a 27.4 ceiling in a convincing victory over the Bears as recently as Week 17. 20 carries for Murray seem more likely than not and he has a realistic chance at two touchdowns.
Jerick McKinnon - McKinnon has the chunk play ability we’re looking for in GPPs, but the matchup makes it unlikely this is a great week to use him heavily. The Eagles have the speed in their linebacker corps to contain McKinnon after the catch. During the regular season, they allowed the ninth-fewest receiving yards to opposing running backs and they held Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman -- both accomplished pass catchers out of the backfield -- to a combined six catches for 40 yards last week. It’s worth the extra $600 to pay up for Murray, but McKinnon warrants a spot on about 20% of your entries.
Stefon Diggs - The man who will never have to pay for another meal in Minnesota for the rest of his life is likely to be the highest-owned wide receiver on the slate. We shouldn’t go into this one expecting another 61-yard touchdown, but Diggs’ 10 targets last week are encouraging, as is his advantage over Jalen Mills, who should cover him about 60% of the time. PFF has Mills as the second-lowest-rated cornerback on this week’s slate. You certainly can’t fade him completely, but I plan on coming in below the field on my exposure to Diggs due to his inflated ownership.
Adam Thielen - Thielen will be overshadowed by Diggs for obvious reasons, but if not for the once-in-a-lifetime miracle touchdown, they would have put up near-identical stat lines last week. When you combine Diggs going Hollywood with Thielen’s price ($500 more than Diggs), it’s clear which of the two is the better tournament option. Both Thielen and Diggs both have about a 25% probability of scoring more than 25 fantasy points in any given game, yet Diggs will find his way onto at least 20% more rosters this week, and probably more. Thielen’s primary matchup on the outside against Ronald Darby isn’t much worse than Diggs’ and he’ll work out of the slot on about a quarter of his routes. Slot wide receivers smashed Philadelphia late in the season, including ceiling performances from Cooper Kupp in Week 14 (5-118-1) and Sterling Shepard in Week 15 (11-139-1).
Jarius Wright - Wright makes the most sense of all the low-probability contrarian plays I’ve seen mentioned this week (guys like Corey Clement, Hurns, Cole, and Marcedes Lewis to name a few). He was on the field for 47% of the Vikings offensive snaps in the Divisional Round (more than twice as many as teammate Laquon Treadwell) and ran 92% of his routes from the slot, where we know the Eagles have had problems. Wright (3-56-0) came close enough to a 3x multiple on his minimum salary last week and has a chance to pay off even bigger in this matchup.
Kyle Rudolph - Rudolph was quiet last week, but was still targeted eight times. Despite battling a lower-leg injury late in the season, Rudolph still tied Thielen for the team lead in red zone targets (16) and led the Vikings in red zone touchdowns with seven. He’s one of the few players on the slate with legit multi-touchdown upside and he’s priced alongside the Eagles top receivers, who have difficult individual matchups and will be catching passes from Foles. I’d rather flex Rudolph than both Alshon Jeffery or Nelson Agholor.
Alshon Jeffery - I’m going way thin on my Eagles exposure, but Jeffery seems underpriced relative to his upside at $4,600. If Philadelphia scores exactly one touchdown, as I believe they will, it has a strong chance of landing in Jeffery’s hands. Sure, he’ll have to deal with coverage from Xavier Rhodes, but so did Michael Thomas, who found the end zone twice last week. Jeffery finished the season second on the team in red zone targets behind Nelson Agholor, but converted his opportunities into touchdowns at a 47% clip compared to 22% for Agholor. Especially if Minnesota -- who allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends this season -- can take Zach Ertz out of the game, Jeffery is the clear top play among Eagles pass catchers.
Vikings D/ST - Not much to report here except the Vikings dominant defense is going to tee off on Foles. While they only finished 14th in cumulative DraftKings points during the regular season, Minnesota has a pair of 15+ point games in their last four contests. The aforementioned mismatch on the left side of the line between Griffen and Vaitai should keep the pressure on Foles throughout. Foles’ QB rating when under pressure was a laughable 23.8, which out-ranked only T.J. Yates among quarterbacks who saw significant playing time. Yikes.
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