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Greetings and welcome to the Conference Championship round! What follows is a weekly strategy guide covering the main slate of FanDuel guaranteed prize pools (GPPs). It will be available every Friday from now until the Super Bowl.
Conference Championship Notes
Presumably due to weather, the Chiefs and Patriots over/under has fallen to 55.5 points after opening at 58. Temperatures are expected to drop into the teens—and potentially lower—by kickoff. That might give the crowd worry about each offense and tempt them to put their chips on the Rams/Saints contest instead. But neither wind nor precipitation is expected, and the field is heated, which means we should treat this matchup as normal and not fear the weather (unless it drastically changes).
With only two games, building contrarian lineups presents a difficult challenge. The chalky plays are the best plays, but in order to win a large-field tournament, you’ll need to risk a few low-floor options and hope they hit. Guys like Mark Ingram II, Josh Reynolds, Josh Hill, and Chris Hogan all fit the bill. They play enough snaps and get enough looks to turn around a decent box score. But keep in mind that building unique rosters doesn’t always require plugging it full of low-owned players. You can acquire uniqueness with untraditional stacks. Pairing James White with Sony Michel, for example, should be rare enough that even though both players figure to draw a lot of popularity, that particular construction likely won’t be popular. The same goes for stacking quarterbacks with their running back or starting a pair of tight ends. So, as you navigate this week’s slate, look for ways to differentiate without sacrificing too much of your roster’s floor.
New Orleans Saints vs. L.A. Rams
Most lineups will feature quarterbacks from the Chiefs/Patriots tilt, which puts both Drew Brees and Jared Goff into consideration as contrarian plays. Goff, especially, profiles as such, but his floor is dangerously low and has been all season thanks to the Rams dedication to running the ball. We shouldn’t expect that to change against the Saints, but we should expect the Rams to get knocked off of that game plan even though it was super successful last week. The Saints feature a run defense that was better than the Cowboys’ in 2018 both on the ground and against pass-catching backs. They didn’t allow a single running back to eclipse 100 rushing yards all season, and allowed only three to gain 100 or more total yards, despite facing Todd Gurley (79 total yards, one touchdown), Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey (twice), as well as a few other notable rushing attacks such as the Browns and Steelers. In the end, they allowed the fourth fewest FanDuel points per game to running backs.
Needless to say, Goff seems destined to be forced into attacking the Saints downfield where they’re most vulnerable. He shredded this defense with 391 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception back in Week 9. But he was QB17 in FanDuel scoring from Week 11 to Week 17 despite logging two games of four passing touchdowns each. He also scored the eighth most points per game from Week 8 on in 2018, suggesting that there is a ceiling here worth chasing. The question is, is his $8,000 salary low enough to justify the risk considering the other quarterbacks available on this slate? The matchup at least hints at a better chance of him hitting his ceiling than his floor (Saints were the second-friendliest defense for quarterbacks).
Drew Brees continued to demonstrate elite efficiency last week when he completed 73.7% of his 38 passing attempts. His final box score doesn’t look great from a tournament perspective (he finished as QB3 with 19.04 FanDuel points), but had the Eagles managed to score even once after gaining an early 14-0 lead, his fantasy outing surely would have been much more rewarding. The good news is that he attempted 20 of his 38 attempts in the second half with the game still close. So, as long as Goff and Co. can keep pace, we should see plenty of Brees on Sunday. When he met this defense in Week 9, he dumped 346 yards and four touchdowns on them. But it required Goff to turn in his second-highest fantasy day of the season. Both of these defenses have improved since then. And like Goff, Brees’s salary barely makes sense. He’s only $300 less than Patrick Mahomes II, who has a much better chance of being the highest-scoring quarterback on the slate.
All things being equal, if you’re going to select a passer from this game, Goff should be the choice. His salary allows you to build in a high floor and if he happens to go off against this defense like he did in Week 9, and the Chiefs/Patriots quarterbacks somehow fall flat, you’ll climb the leaderboard.
The Saints could fully utilize their running backs in this game and take advantage of a Rams’ defensive front that had more downs than ups on their way to allowing the fifth-highest yards per carry and ultimately finished ranked 28th in Football Outsiders’ rush DVOA. Alvin Kamara should, once again, dominate snaps. He handled 69% of them last week and touched the ball 20 times (16 carries, four catches) for a meager 106 yards. With a much softer matchup on tap, he should repeat those numbers against the Rams and stands a good chance of scoring a touchdown. No team attempted more rushes in the red zone last year than the Saints, and only Gurley had more carries than Kamara in that area of the field.
But don’t overlook Mark Ingram II as a salary-saving contrarian option. He managed only 36 total yards on 10 touches against this defense in Week 9, but if the Saints return to their run-heavy ways this week, he could get enough action to easily pay off his $6,100 price tag. His 14 carries inside the 5-yard line last year were only two fewer than Kamara’s, though the latter managed nine touchdowns and Ingram managed only four. Together, they’ll claim 23.6% of the salary cap and require a nearly 40-point output to be successful, making their combined floor too low to chase. Obviously, Kamara is the best play here, with Ingram representing a low-floor dart that could swing tournaments if he finds the end zone or if something happens to Kamara.
Last week, the Rams decided to hide their quarterback and instead fed both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson a combined 39 times. Anderson shocked the world by trampling an otherwise solid defensive unit with an efficient 123 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns. The Rams ran 19 plays in the red zone, and he handled 11 of them, while Gurley claimed only one. But Gurley won the snap battle overall, logging 57% to Anderson’s 43%, and he looked good doing it:
Todd Gurley didn't seem bothered by his knee injury today.@TG3II averaged 12.08 MPH at the line of scrimmage on his rushes, his fastest in a game this season.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 13, 2019
He had 6 carries reaching 15+ MPH, a season high.#RamsHouse #DALvsLAR pic.twitter.com/7ps6jcjTn0
It’s unlikely that Anderson gets the same amount of usage, especially if the Rams fall behind. And if he does, it’s even more unlikely that he repeats last week’s success. But his presence may be enough to keep the crowd shy and present us with an opportunity to roster Gurley with lower-than-normal ownership levels. The matchup isn’t great, but Gurley represents multi-touchdown upside every week regardless of opponent. Expect Sean McVay to figure out a way to successfully utilize his best player in a matchup that desperately needs him.
Only Mahomes has a higher salary than Michael Thomas, who turned in a monster day last week with 12 catches for 172 yards and one touchdown on 16 targets. And now he gets an opponent that allowed him to turn 12 catches into 211 yards and a touchdown in Week 9. The Rams didn’t face a lot of wide receiver targets during the regular season, but allowed the third-most FanDuel points per target to the position, the seventh-most touchdowns, and a healthy 66.9% completion percentage. They sold out to stop the run last week against the Cowboys and surrendered 266 passing yards in the process, 184 of which went to Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper. Selling out to stop the run against the Saints won’t work out for them, but thanks to the Saints dynamic offense, neither will throwing double-coverage on Thomas. He’s a good bet to end up as the highest scoring wide receiver, especially if he spends a lot of time in Marcus Peters’ coverage, who, according to Pro Football Focus, gave up the 12th most yards, six touchdowns, and a 109.9 passer rating in 2018. He was charged with allowing the most yards last week and permitting an 85.7% catch rate.
Ted Ginn Jr is also in a good spot. He drew seven targets last week and could have had a big touchdown early in the game that ended up being intercepted. If the Rams push this one into a shootout, both Ginn and Thomas figure to log healthy box scores. Ginn’s $5,300 salary makes him the best bet to “do the most with the least” since he’s the obvious deep threat of the Saints’ offense. On the contrarian side of things, Keith Kirkwood logged 69% of snaps but saw only two targets. He faces a tough matchup against Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot but could see added volume in a high-scoring game. Tre'Quan Smith has a floor low enough to avoid but registers low-priced as a GPP-dart.
UPDATE: Kirkwood has been ruled out, which leads to two important items: 1) Thomas could end up spending more time in the slot (he lined up there a little over 30% of the time in 2018 and played 35% of his snaps there last week). Even though Robey-Coleman is no slouch, it's worth noting that the Rams permitted the eighth-most yards along with eight touchdowns to that area of the field. And 2) Smith immediately becomes a cheap contrarian option as the player most likely to see a bump in both playing time and targets. But overall, this might be the best news for Ginn since he now figures to see a lot of Peters--a corner he'll have no trouble dusting on deep plays.
There’s a case for making Robert Woods one of our top players. Dallas did an excellent job of limiting him, but he managed 69 yards on eight catches and nine targets. Considering he spends the majority of the time in the slot, he gets one of the best matchups on the board against P.J. Williams, who allowed the fifth-most yards among slot corners in 2018. Pro Football Focus charged him with 43 yards and a touchdown last week, with a healthy 122.9 passer rating overall. Brandin Cooks also jumps off the page as someone who can take advantage of his former team’s leaky secondary. He saw only five targets last week but still turned in 65 yards. Similar to Tyreek Hill, Cooks has the skillset to blow open a big play with a single touch. Stacking Goff with both Cooks and Woods makes a ton of sense. Josh Reynolds tied Woods for a team-high in targets against Dallas and will get plenty of chances in this one if the Rams fall behind. If Marson Lattimore shadows Cooks, Reynolds figures to take on an inconsistent Eli Apple and could easily pay of his affordable salary. The Saints allowed more yards to wide receivers than any other team during the regular season and looked plenty beatable last week against a much weaker group of receivers. Be sure to get at least one of the Rams wide-outs in your lineup.
There’s not much to love on this slate regarding tight ends. Last week, this column noted that Gerald Everett was more productive than Tyler Higbee over the last five games of the season, despite playing fewer snaps. The two combined for six targets, two catches and 30 yards last week, with Everett contributing zero fantasy points and playing only 42% of snaps. Neither has a floor worth considering.
The same goes for all Saints tight ends, who combined for four targets, four catches, and 19 yards. The only upside here is that the Rams allowed the second-most receiving yards to tight ends on the season, and the ninth-most FanDuel points. With that in mind, you’re welcome to throw some Josh Hill shares out there. He hogged 62% of snaps and drew three targets while running 19 passing routes (Ben Watson ran 15). For $4,600, he’s a fine punt play that might pay off, but he saw exactly one red zone look in 2018 and managed over 26 yards in only one game. With target distribution likely going Thomas, Kamara, Ginn, Ingram (who saw more targets than Hill in 2018 despite missing four games), Kirkwood… there’s not much left for Hill or Watson.
UPDATE: Watson seems highly unlikely to play, which adds value to rostering Hill. But there's also a chance he splits time with Dan Arnold, effectively keeping his ceiling in check. Still, with Watson out of the picture, Hill's floor becomes a lot safer.
Keith Kirkwood is out for the Saints on Sunday.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) January 18, 2019
Benjamin Watson is officially questionable after being limited Friday, but @Kat_Terrell reported he won’t play due to his appendicitis.
Everyone else practiced in full and is good to go.
The Saints will likely hog the most ownership, and they make the most sense on this slate considering how Goff has played recently. The Rams’ defense boasts the most talent, and there’s a least a small chance Brees makes a mistake and it turns into a defensive touchdown. But considering his efficiency and the fact that his offense turned the ball over only 16 times in 2018 (third fewest), we’re best avoiding his defensive opponent. In fact, neither of these teams coughed up the ball often or allowed their passers to get sacked, making both of them low-floor options. Unfortunately, options are limited, and it makes sense to roster one of the home teams.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. New England Patriots
Like so many weeks, the key to this slate comes down to Patrick Mahomes II. He didn’t throw a single touchdown last week but saved his day with a rushing score. Still, it was his second-lowest fantasy output of the season. Folks are going to point to his box score against the Patriots from Week 6 and highlight the 352 passing yards and four touchdowns as a means to justify his salary. They’re not wrong. Even though the Patriots permitted the third-lowest completion rate to quarterbacks in 2018, they still allowed the 12th-most FanDuel points per game. Philip Rivers completed only 49% of his 51 passes last week, yet dumped 331 yards and three scores on them and finished as the highest scoring passer of the slate with 26.24 points. Mahomes, as you’ve probably noticed, is deadly accurate and has an absolute cannon of an arm, and it’s unlikely that it won’t be needed this week. Fading him and still finding a successful lineup is possible, but it’s a tall order.
The Chiefs permitted the most passing yards and fifth-most FanDuel points per game to quarterbacks in 2018. But we’ve seen them hold their own at home, including last week when Andrew Luck managed only 203 yards, one touchdown, and completed only 52.7% of his passes. Tom Brady dropped 21.8 FanDuel points on this defense back in Week 6, but those points included a rushing score—an unlikely event in this week’s game. On the season, he ranked 18th in FanDuel points per game despite ranking 12th in passing yards and tossing 29 touchdowns. Not that he couldn’t reach his ceiling in a contest that projects to provide a ton of offense, but the Patriots ground game is so good that it effectively hurts his upside. If you’re going with a passer in this one, go with Mahomes and don’t overthink it.
Damien Williams parlayed 30 touches into 154 total yards and a touchdown against a decent Colts’ run defense last week. He’ll face a defense that allowed the ninth-fewest FanDuel points per games to running backs in 2018, and held Melvin Gordon III to just 15 rushing yards last week. But they also permitted the third-highest yards per carry and gave up over 700 receiving yards to running backs. In Week 6, Kareem Hunt crushed this unit with 80 yards on 10 carries and 105 yards and one touchdown on five catches. The only way Williams doesn’t manage at least 15 FanDuel points is if Mahomes steals all of the touchdowns and Spencer Ware comes back and immediately earns the majority of work. Only one of those is a likely scenario, making a Mahomes/Williams stack a solid bet to return lots of points.
On the other side of the field, Sony Michel stole the show last week with three touchdowns and 129 yards on 24 carries. Meanwhile, James White carried the ball zero times but drew an astonishing 17 targets, catching 15 of them for 97 yards (he has good chance to see double-digit targets again as Brady navigates the Chiefs’ nasty pass-rush). And even Rex Burkhead got into the action with a rushing score. Of the three, Michel clearly has the advantage and should once again claim a good 18-20 carries while White soaks up a heavy target count. The Chiefs defense is friendly enough to support big games for both backs. They allowed the fifth-most receiving yards and the fifth-most rushing yards to the position in 2018, and the third-most total touchdowns. They took care of business against the Colts last week, but the Patriots bring a much stronger rushing attack that can take full advantage of this matchup. It’s an expensive endeavor, but rostering both Michel and White with Mahomes looks like a great way to hog as many fantasy points from this game as possible. There’s also sneaky potential for Burkhead to turn in a big day as the Patriots attempt to disguise their intentions on offense with Michel the obvious ball carrier and White the obvious receiver. He can fill both roles and is trusted in goal-to-goal situations. But he played only 13% of snaps last week and handled only five touches, indicating a floor that could sabotage your lineups.
All eyes will be on Tyreek Hill who, in their first meeting, ripped the Patriots’ secondary for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Over half of those yards came on this play:
That was a huge gaffe by a defense that was otherwise decent against the pass this season. They held wide receivers to the third-lowest catch rate and ranked 18th in yards per game. You can bet that Bill Belichick will have this crew ready for Hill’s deep speed. Whether they can successfully defend it will come down to execution (pardon the coach speak) and if they can eliminate the many other wrinkles the Chiefs’ offense has in store. Per usual, Hill registers as a typical boom/boost play but is more tempting than usual given the short slate. He’ll likely draw shadow coverage from Jason McCourty, who matches up quite well given his 4.3 40-yard speed, suggesting Hill might be headed for an unflattering box score. That said, Andy Reid has committed to lining Hill up all over the formation and utilizing him on running plays, sweeps, deep balls, short concepts and pretty much every route combination in the book.
Sammy Watkins offers a great way to save some salary while grabbing a piece of the Chiefs’ offense. He drew eight targets last week, parlaying them into six catches for 62 yards and Kansas City’s longest play of the day (34 yards). Unfortunately, he’ll face a tough challenge should he draw shadow coverage from Stephon Gilmore, who allowed only 466 yards during the regular season, and a 46.6% catch rate. He also allowed five touchdowns and was charged with another one last week, so there’s a chance Watkins survives this matchup, especially if it approaches the over. His $5,600 salary fits nicely in most builds. The next most expensive receiver (Cooks) requires a $1,300 jump, placing Watkins at the top of the bottom shelf.
In a game where Brady attempted 44 passes—well above his season-long rate of 35.6 per game—30 of them went to two players: Julian Edelman and White. It’s highly unlikely White draws 17 targets again, but Edelman drawing double-digits is pretty much guaranteed. Unfortunately, his chances of scoring a touchdown feel low, since the Patriots have shown a commitment to running the ball when in scoring territory. In fact, only the Saints had more rushes inside the 5 and 10-yard lines in 2018 (note, that the Chiefs came ranked third in both cases). He does, however, have a great matchup against slot corner Kendall Fuller, who, despite playing better recently, allowed more yards than any other player at his position during the regular season. Edelman played 61.4% of his snaps from the slot last week and drew 65 targets from that position. He’s a high-floor option who proved last week that he doesn’t necessarily need a touchdown to pay off in half-PPR scoring. However, he projects to closely trail Thomas in ownership, making him a decent fade candidate if you expect the Patriots to run the ball early and often in an attempt to keep Mahomes sidelined.
The rest of the Patriots receivers represent low-floor, “good luck” plays. Phillip Dorsett scored last week while drawing five targets but played only 46% of snaps. If you have confidence that Brady can still throw the deep ball, you should have confidence that Chris Hogan’s consistent presence on the field will finally pay off. Thanks to a big Week 17, he’s drawn 16 targets over the Patriots’ last two games, five of which came against the Chargers and resulted in only 13 yards. Should the Patriots fall behind, Hogan sets up as a decent low-salary option against a secondary that allowed the fifth-most yards to wide receivers in 2018. Per Next Gen Stats, he ranked second in average yards of separation. With White unlikely to see as many targets as he did last week, it stands to reason that Hogan, whose snap counts ballooned after Josh Gordon left the team (83%, 94%, and 92% last three games), will pay off his salary, so long as Brady has time to throw against this wicked pass-rush.
It’s safe to say that Travis Kelce ends up on well over 50% of rosters, and potentially over 60% since he’s the safest option by a longshot. The Patriots held tight ends to a 61.7% catch rate—the fifth-lowest among all teams—during the regular season, but they also allowed eight touchdowns to the position and ranked 16th in FanDuel points per game. Kelce had a fine game against them in Week 6 with five catches for 61 yards. He should return a similar game this week, and if he adds a touchdown to it, you’ll be glad you joined the masses if you roster him.
There’s a good chance the rest of the crowd turns to Rob Gronkowski despite his low floor. Over his last four games, he’s logged five catches for 70 yards on 11 targets. He did run 38 routes last week, which was third-most of the team, and he could turn in a big game against the Chiefs’ defense considering how bad their safeties and linebackers are in coverage. Only the Rams and Colts allowed more yards in 2018, and only the Bengals allowed more touchdowns and FanDuel points per game. Gronkowski smashed this unit in Week 6 with three catches on four targets for 97 yards. His floor may be dangerously low, but his salary is lower than it has ever been and the matchup is worth chasing, especially with his touchdown upside.
While coaching typically overcomes lack of talent for the Patriots, they’re a tough draw against Mahomes and Co. despite ranking fifth in takeaways. You could throw them in as a cheap contrarian play and hope that the young quarterback makes a few mistakes that turn into touchdowns, but it’s a lot to ask of a road team that made its money against teams like the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins.
Conversely, the Chiefs could offer a solid option thanks to a unit that consistently pestered the Colts last week and features Justin Houston, who has seven sacks in their last five games. If they can figure out how to play run defense, the Chiefs stand a good chance of keeping a lid on this game and forcing the under. But they’ll likely need a special teams touchdown or a lucky tipped pass returned for a score to swing tournaments.