Fantasy Football: Divisonal Round Matchups – Sunday
This Sunday’s games are the only playoff games to this point which will feature division winners facing each other. In each instance, the conference’s South division champion will travel to face the North division winner. Both games are also rematches of early-season contests. Here we break down the players who should be given serious consideration in your weekly lineups.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 17 POINTS
The first game on Sunday will feature the Jacksonville Jaguars traveling to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. Jacksonville trounced Pittsburgh 30-9 in a Week 5 game that put the rest of the league on notice that the Jaguars were a team to be taken seriously in the AFC. Jacksonville’s defense finished second in the NFL in both interceptions and sacks. Pittsburgh finished as the conference’s second-seed and finished with at least 10 wins for the fourth consecutive season.
Blake Bortles is the cheapest starting quarterback this weekend, and with good reason. He looked terrible in last week’s 10-3 victory against the Buffalo Bills. Bortles completed 12 of 23 passes for just 87 yards, missing several easy throws in the process. He did manage to salvage his day from a fantasy standpoint with 88 rushing yards. Bortles was equally as bad in Week 5 in Pittsburgh, posting a weekly QB27 finish. Bortles completed just eight of fourteen passes in that game for 95 yards and an interception. It is worth noting that Bortles has rushed for at least 300 yards in each of his four seasons, but he does not typically run enough for it to be an attribute to count on. Pittsburgh allowed the fifth-fewest passing yards this season and led the NFL with 56 sacks. Jacksonville will likely do their best to hide Bortles giving the matchup and his deficiencies. There is no real reason to gamble on Bortles in the divisional round. He should be safely parked on fantasy benches.
Leonard Fournette had an excellent rookie season in 2017. He finished the year as the overall RB8 in fantasy football despite missing three games. More importantly, he gave the Jaguars a much-needed centerpiece on offense. Fournette had great success in his prior matchup with Pittsburgh. In that game, he finished as the overall RB1 on the strength of 181 rushing yards and two scores. His numbers were somewhat inflated by a 90-yard touchdown run as Jacksonville was in clock-killing mode, but Fournette has similar upside this week. Pittsburgh’s run defense has really fallen off since the loss of Ryan Shazier. Over the last four weeks of the regular season, Pittsburgh allowed the third-most fantasy points and a league-high six rushing touchdowns to opposing running backs. Fournette is priced as the fourth-highest running back this weekend. It will be interesting to see how his ownership shakes out. He is not the PPR stud that Le’Veon Bell or Alvin Kamara is, but I believe his upside is higher than that of Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, and the like. I believe Leonard Fournette is a solid play this week.
The recent returns of Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns give Jacksonville added depth at the receiver position to go along with contributing rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. But the now-crowded group makes projecting individual usage and fantasy production a difficult task. Bortles’ continued struggles further muddle this situation. In last week’s victory against Buffalo, Westbrook led the way with five receptions, 48 yards, and eight targets. None of those numbers is particularly noteworthy, save for the fact that the other three receivers posted zeroes across the board, with each seeing just a single target. Westbrook and Lee led the quartet in snaps and routes run last week, but this is a situation to be avoided. Bortles simply cannot function at a high enough level to give anyone confidence in any of his wideouts. Marcedes Lewis also should be avoided in this matchup. Pittsburgh ceded a league-low two touchdown catches to opposing tight ends this year.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: VEGAS IMPLIED TOTAL – 24 POINTS
As bad as Bortles was in their Week 5 matchup, Ben Roethlisberger was actually worse. Roethlisberger had the worst game of his 14-year career in that game. Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions and averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt. His poor performance prompted him to joke about retirement following the debacle. Jacksonville has been a nightmare matchup for opposing passing attacks this season. Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to throw for 300 yards in a game against Jacksonville this season, but he needed 55 attempts to do it. Roethlisberger will certainly improve upon his Week 5 performance, but I do not expect him to hit value in DFS. He is only $800 cheaper than Tom Brady on both DraftKings and FanDuel. I cannot imagine needing the cap savings badly enough to warrant starting Big Ben in this game.
Le’Veon Bell was held to just 93 total yards by the Jaguars in Week 5. It was the last time in 2017 that Bell would be held below 10 fantasy points in standard scoring. Even on the rare occasions in which Bell struggles to gain a lot of yards, he is always a threat to contribute in the passing game. Over the last two seasons, Bell has averaged 5.93 receptions per game, a number on par with elite wide receivers. This makes Bell an incomparable commodity in PPR leagues. Despite Antonio Brown’s impending return from a calf injury, Bell’s role in the passing game should not change much in Week 19. Brown is coming off a four-week layoff and has a brutal matchup. Bell secured 10 catches in the Week 5 game, which vaulted his weekly ranking from RB17 in standard scoring to RB5 in PPR formats. I would not be surprised to see Bell approach double-digit receptions once again in this game. Oh, by the way, Bell has also been a top-five rusher in three of the last four seasons. Jacksonville is no sieve in the run game, but they are far more vulnerable on the ground than they are in the air. The Jaguars allowed a healthy 4.25 yards per carry to opposing running backs in 2017. Bell is the most expensive player on this weekend’s slate, but his floor and ceiling make him worth every penny.
Antonio Brown suffered a partially torn calf muscle in Pittsburgh’s controversial Week 15 loss to the New England Patriots. Brown has been out ever since, but he has practiced in full this week and should be close to full strength. Despite the optimism coming from the Steelers’ camp, I cannot confidently recommend Brown as a worthy DFS start this weekend. I do not trust players to immediately return to their prior form following injuries. This skepticism is amplified in this instance because Brown has the highest DFS salary of all wide receivers and has a brutal matchup against A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Both graded out as top-six cornerbacks this season according to Pro Football Focus. Brown did drop a 10-157-0 line on the Jaguars in Week 5, but Roethlisberger also threw three of his five interceptions on attempted passes to Brown. There are too many checkmarks in the “con” column for me to start Brown in DFS this week. I would much rather start Julio Jones, and I can make the argument for Brandin Cooks and Adam Thielen over Brown as well. None of Pittsburgh’s other pass catchers stand out, either. Rookie standout Juju Smith-Schuster and mercurial Martavis Bryant have too much downside in this matchup to garner serious consideration given their cost. Oddly enough, I’m a bit intrigued by Vance McDonald (not Jesse James) as a punt play at the tight end position. In each of the last two games in which McDonald has played and Roethlisberger has started, McDonald has had four catches for 52 yards. He can be an interesting cap-saving play for those who insist on having Tom Brady and Le’Veon Bell in their Week 19 lineups.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS AT MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The New Orleans Saints head north to face the Minnesota Vikings in Sunday’s second game. This is a rematch of the Vikings’ 29-19 Week 1 victory. The Saints’ offense looks a bit different than it did in September. Back then, New Orleans was still trying to incorporate Adrian Peterson into their offense. Once Peterson was jettisoned to Arizona, the Saints’ running game thrived behind Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Minnesota’s defense was flat-out dominant throughout 2017, particularly at home. The Vikings allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season, including giving up a mere eight touchdowns at home all season long. Their offense has been solid in spite of early season injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 21 POINTS
Drew Brees did not live up to his preseason fantasy stock, as he finished ninth in fantasy after being drafted third among quarterbacks. But it’s not as if he had a truly down season. Brees set the single-season completion percentage record for the second time in his illustrious career. He also graded out fourth, according to Pro Football Focus. Brees just did not have to do everything himself, as was the case so often in seasons past. Brees failed to complete 30 passes in any single game this season. Prior to this year, he had at least five games with 30 completions or more in four consecutive years. The Saints’ running game did the heavy lifting in 2017, but Brees proved last week that he can still carry the load if called upon. Brees decimated Carolina for 376 passing yards and two touchdowns in the Saints’ Wild Card victory. Brees seems unlikely to duplicate those numbers against a Vikings’ defense that is arguably the best pass defense in the NFL. Minnesota gave up league-lows in yards per pass attempt (5.95) and touchdown passes (12, including just seven over their last 13 games). The group also seemed to get better as the year went on. Over the last five weeks, no opposing quarterback has thrown for more than 178 yards against Minnesota. Since Week 11, Cam Newton has the highest fantasy finish among Vikings’ opponents, ranking as that week’s QB17, a place earned solely as the result of his 70 rushing yards. Brees is a first ballot Hall of Famer but is a tough sell as this week’s second-most-expensive quarterback. I cannot recommend starting him under these circumstances.
The duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara became the first set of running back teammates to each have at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage in a season. They achieved this lofty perch in part because both are much better all-around backs than given credit for. Ingram posted career-highs in nearly every statistical category, including receptions and receiving yards. Kamara led all running backs in receiving yards, but he was also incredibly efficient as a runner. His 6.07 yards per carry was the best mark of any running back with at least 100 carries since Jamaal Charles averaged 6.38 yards per tote in 2010. Whereas Jacksonville has shown vulnerability to opposing rushing attacks, Minnesota by and large has not. The Vikings gave up the fewest fantasy points, total yards, and total touchdowns to opposing running backs in the entire NFL. Minnesota has also stifled all starter-worthy running backs in 2017. In addition to shutting down Ingram (weekly RB30 in Week 1) and Kamara (RB44), Minnesota has limited Todd Gurley (RB19), Le’Veon Bell (RB23), Jordan Howard (RB23, RB67), Devonta Freeman (RB32), Christian McCaffrey (RB43), Alex Collins (RB50), and Tevin Coleman (RB49) to finishes much lower than their respective yearly finishes. I can certainly understand the desire to have some exposure to Ingram and/or Kamara given their prowess and multi-faceted skill sets, but I would much rather spend up for Le’Veon Bell or choose a lower-priced running back option this week.
Second-year receiver Michael Thomas is not quite a household name yet, but he certainly should be. Thomas set the all-time record for most receptions in the first two seasons of a career and finished as a top-nine fantasy wide receiver in each year. Thomas also graded out second among 120 qualifying wideouts according to Pro Football Focus. Many people will fade Thomas based on his individual matchup with Vikings’ cornerback Xavier Rhodes. While I do not love Thomas this week, I would not use Rhodes’ prospective shadow as the sole basis for benching Thomas. Rhodes is solid, but I think the public gives him slightly more credit than he is due. Rhodes has finished 28th and 29th in the last two years, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. His defense is certainly not impenetrable. I think that Adam Thielen and Brandin Cooks offer higher ceilings, but Thomas is certainly worthy of consideration in this game. Ted Ginn burned his former team for an 80-yard touchdown last week and finished Week 18 as fantasy’s top receiver. A repeat, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Ginn’s price is too high for my liking, particularly on DraftKings. Josh Hill seemingly came out of nowhere to post a 3-49-1 line last week, but he is not a realistic start in this matchup. In addition to their other strengths, Minnesota also gave up the fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 26 POINTS
Case Keenum took over after Sam Bradford was lost in September due to a knee injury. Playing for his fourth team in as many seasons, Keenum was not expected by many to provide much production for the Vikings upon his insertion into the lineup. But Keenum has thrived in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s scheme. Prior to 2017, Keenum had completed just 58.4 percent of his career attempts and sported a 24:20 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This season, Keenum completed 67.6 percent of his throws and finished with a 22:7 touchdown to interception ratio. New Orleans was an average fantasy defense against quarterbacks in 2017, though they did finish third in the NFL with 20 interceptions. Keenum seems fairly priced in this weekend’s DFS contests. He ranks fourth among quarterbacks in salary on DraftKings and fifth in FanDuel. Keenum certainly should be ranked ahead of Nick Foles and Blake Bortles, and Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger have brutal matchups. Matt Ryan and Marcus Mariota have potential, but are no sure things. Keenum’s outlook certainly is not hurt by playing in the comfortable confines of a dome, while the other three games this weekend will be played in freezing temperatures. Keenum may very well be the best quarterback value on the board in this weekend’s divisional round.
Minnesota started the year riding rookie running back Dalvin Cook. Cook ranked as the overall RB8 before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in Week 4. Once Cook was sidelined, the combination of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon filled Cook’s shoes admirably. From Week 5 on, Murray finished as the overall RB9 while McKinnon finished 13th among fantasy running backs. Unlike the Saints’ running backs, Murray and McKinnon have largely specific and complementary roles. Following Cook’s injury, Murray held a 16.83-11.75 per-game advantage in carries over McKinnon and was the overwhelming favorite for short-yardage and goal-line work. Despite barely seeing the field in the season’s first month, Murray finished tied for fifth in the NFL in carries inside an opponent’s 10-yard line. McKinnon was the preferred pass-catching option. His 43 receptions beginning in Week 5 were tied for seventh-most among NFL running backs. New Orleans has been a middle-of-the-pack defense against fantasy running backs. Ultimately, I think the decision on which Vikings’ running back to favor this week depends on how you envision the game going. If Minnesota jumps out early and plays from in front, Murray is likely to be the primary beneficiary. If New Orleans is ahead for a significant portion of this game, McKinnon may be the back who reaps the benefit. I lean towards Murray based on potential game script and his higher floor.
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs each finished 2017 as high-echelon fantasy options at wide receiver. Thielen finished the year as the overall WR11 and ranked fifth among all receivers in yardage. Diggs ended the season as WR17 and scored eight touchdowns, tied for seventh-best in the league. The formidable duo also finished among Pro Football Focus’ top-10 wide receivers in 2017, with Diggs ninth and Thielen 10th. They will face a tough test on Sunday against New Orleans. Saints’ rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has deservedly gained most of the headlines, but second-year corner Ken Crawley is no slouch in his own right. It will be interesting to see how the Saints deploy Lattimore in this matchup. I expect him to cover Diggs more often than Thielen. Thielen has played from the slot more frequently than Diggs this year, and Lattimore does not travel into the slot much. Diggs has been an important red-zone target, but the Saints allowed the seventh-fewest touchdown catches to opposing wideouts this season. Thielen is priced higher than Diggs on both main DFS sites, though the gap is more pronounced on DraftKings. Still, I prefer Thielen based on the matchup. I also believe that tight end Kyle Rudolph is an undervalued option this weekend. Greg Olsen exposed the Saints’ intermediate defense last week, finishing last week’s contest with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. Olsen also did so on a surgically-repaired foot. Rudolph struggled through a late-season ankle injury of his own, but should not face any limitations on Sunday. He does not have Rob Gronkowski’s upside, of course, but could be a nice cap-saving option in his stead.