In general, how do you approach key playoff scenario games late in the NFL season versus teams with nothing to play for on the postseason front? Does it function as a tiebreaker, something more, or nothing at all?
Along those lines, one critical game on the main slate is the Patriots as short road favorites over the Steelers. What is your favorite stack in this game? Who is the best value among the running backs?
James Brimacombe: I try to avoid bad teams late in the season because the player timeshares are so unpredictable. Bad teams seem to get even worse near the end of the season and on the flip side the good teams are becoming even better and with the playoffs in reach will be putting it all on the line.
The Patriots vs Steelers is always one of the must-watch games whenever they square off and with both in a late-season battle with the playoffs ahead of them you have to want to load up on players in this game. My favorite stack in this game is Tom Brady and Josh Gordon and running it back with JuJu Smith-Schuster on the other side. I am looking for touchdowns this week and hoping for a back and forth type of game with both Gordon and Smith-Schuster battling for the end zone.
Phil Alexander: While I would start worrying more about this next week, placing a premium on players from teams still in the playoff hunt does make sense as the season winds down. Difficult-to-project playing time swings for veterans on teams with nothing to play for are commonplace this time of year, as coaching staffs begin evaluating their younger players. If you're playing cash games, you'll want to be especially cognizant of what is at stake for each team before rostering their players.
Rob Gronkowski proved he can still get over on weaker opponents by dropping an 8-107-1 receiving line on Miami last week. The Steelers have allowed 28% more fantasy points than league average to enemy tight ends in 2018, most recently a combined 10 catches, 148 receiving yards, and 3 touchdowns to the Raiders triumvirate of Jared Cook, Lee Smith, and Derek Carrier in Week 14. Historically, Pittsburgh has never had an answer for Gronkowski. In six career games against the Steelers, he has averaged 6.5 catches, 111 receiving yards, and 1.3 touchdowns per game. If there was ever a week to stack Gronkowski and Brady, this is the one.
As of this writing, James Conner's status for this game is unknown. Assuming he's not ready to return, Jaylen Samuels remains fairly priced for the PPR floor he showed last week. If Samuels had converted on a carry from the two-yard-line at the end of the first half last week, this probably doesn't even become a question worth asking.
The Steelers are a tough team to run on and New England doesn't have a clear-cut top option in their backfield. James White's snaps are down, Sony Michel is losing goal-line work to James Devlin, and Rex Burkhead is there to confuse matters even further.
Justin Howe: I’m not particularly swayed by big late-season matchups, no. As James pointed out, though, I tend to skew in the opposite situation (a bad team with unpredictable distributions). I don’t think a 3-10 team will necessarily tank or pull its starters, but I do plan for their personnel moves to get less projectable. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I also think about coaching decisions for staffs likely to be fired in the offseason. This is the time of year for coaches of the Bills, Jaguars, Jets, Browns, etc. to start polishing their resumes for their next rounds of interviewing.
One of Bill Belichick’s calling cards is punting - that is, selling his defense out to stop whomever he judges as the scariest threat and allowing everyone else to run wild. Against Kansas City, they gave Tyreek Hill 142 yards and 3 touchdowns, but no other Chief wideout topped 19. Marquez Valdes-Scantling got loose deep for 101 yards, but Davante Adams and Randall Cobb combined for just 64 on 15 targets. Last week, Kenny Stills caught 8 for 135, but no other Dolphin registered more than 23 (not counting the final-play free-for-all). I’m not sure which Pittsburgh receiver he’ll allow to roam free Sunday, but either Antonio Brown or JuJu Smith-Schuster is likely in for a ton of single coverage.
Devin Knotts: I don't put so much into motivation, but instead look at recent trends. The reason for this can be explained by the Panthers, Eagles, and Vikings. These are teams that have had motivation for weeks, yet can't seem to get out of their own way. Motivation is a tough one as there are still teams that are out of it such as the Browns and the 49ers that are playing hard. The one area that I do try to avoid are teams that at one point were in the race and have since been eliminated. The Broncos could be one of those teams that fit that criteria as well as if some of these NFC teams fall out of the race.
The Patriots vs Steelers game is always a great one. At the running back position, the player to have is Jaylen Samuels assuming that James Conner is out. Even though he was not overly effective last week, Samuels still caught 7 passes and the team seems committed to him while Conner is out. The problem on the other side of the ball is that now that New England has Rex Burkhead back, it's gotten back to the traditional New England defense that we can not trust on a given week.
As far as stacks go, the most popular stack will be Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and while it is not a bad one as Pittsburgh has allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends, it is not my favorite one. My favorite stack in this game is Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Looking at the receivers that have given New England trouble has primarily been big plays to opposing receivers. Smith-Schuster provides the deep threat that the Steelers will look to in order to beat the Patriots as he has caught a 35 yard or longer pass in four of his last five games and in seven games this season.
Will Grant: I think motivation is more than a tiebreaker but less than something to target. Take the NFC - the Saints and the Rams are both already in the playoffs and have won their division, but both are playing for a bye week and home field advantage as well. So with the Eagles facing LA on Sunday night, the Rams passing game looks like a great stack. The Saints are playing on Monday against the division rival Panthers who are in free fall, so if the Rams win, you can expect that the Saints will be playing a little harder in order to keep pace.
James Conner is still not practicing as of Wednesday Night, which means Jaylen Samuels will get the bulk of the carries against a soft New England defense that has given up a ton of fantasy points to running backs over the last two weeks. Brandon Bolden, Kenyan Drake, and Frank Gore racked up over 250 yards from scrimmage and 3 touchdowns last week against New England and the week before, the Minnesota backfield posted over 130 yards from scrimmage. Samuels is priced right and should see almost all the action if Conner can't go this week.
For the Patriots, I think I'm off of James White until further notice. He has just 35 touches over the last four games and hasn't reached the end zone since back in week nine against Green Bay. Sony Michel is seeing the bulk of the rushing attempts, but he's a non-factor in the short passing game and he hasn't scored a touchdown in the last two weeks as well. He might be worth a small ownership percentage in GPP but he's a poor choice for cash game plays.