The NFC Championship will feature the Minnesota Vikings, fresh off last week’s Minneapolis Miracle, traveling east to take on the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles. Opposing quarterbacks Case Keenum and Nick Foles led the 2015 St. Louis Rams to a 7-9 finish while averaging just 17.5 points per game, which was 29th in the NFL that season. The duo started all 16 games for the Rams that year and combined to throw 11 touchdown passes. Fast forward to present day, and one of them will be starting in Super Bowl LII. What a time to be alive.
As we discussed in our AFC Championship game preview, this Sunday’s DFS slate is chock full of reasonably priced options. This is especially the case on DraftKings, where a “stars and scrubs” approach seems like it could be a profitable one. With that in mind, here are the players to watch in Sunday night’s NFC Championship game.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 21 POINTS
Case Keenum was a huge fantasy surprise in 2017. The journeyman was asked to hold down the fort in Week 2 following Sam Bradford’s knee injury. Keenum had decent success in three starts, highlighted by a Week 3 effort in which he threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Bradford was brought back to start Week 5, but he lasted just 26 snaps before his knee injury once again proved too difficult to play with. Bradford showed no mobility and took four sacks before Keenum once again took over. Keenum helped Minnesota win that game, which was the first in a string of eight consecutive Vikings’ victories. Bradford never saw the field again. Keenum finished the year 14th in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks, ahead of notable preseason favorites Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, and Derek Carr, among others. Keenum was not spectacular in last week’s victory, but he did finish the game with 318 passing yards, thanks in part to his game-ending 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. Lost in the euphoria of that finish was Keenum’s awful third-quarter interception which changed the momentum of the entire game and nearly cost Minnesota an NFC Championship game berth. Keenum has largely avoided such boneheaded plays this season, but that throw was a reminder that he can be rattled at times. Last week, Philadelphia held Matt Ryan to just 210 passing yards and one touchdown in the Eagles’ 15-10 victory, sacking the 2016 NFL MVP three times. Minnesota’s offensive line did a very good job of protecting Keenum this year. The Vikings’ signal caller was sacked just 22 times on the season. Minnesota usually tries to limit Keenum’s volume whenever possible. Keenum attempted more than 30 passes in just two of his last eight starts. Because of this and Philadelphia’s recent dominance defensively (just 529 total passing yards allowed in their last three games), I do not believe Keenum’s ceiling is as high as some. Even when considering salaries and the difficulty of Tom Brady’s matchup, I cannot endorse starting Keenum over Brady. I do not mind playing Keenum over Blake Bortles on FanDuel, where Keenum is just $400 higher. However, I would absolutely prefer Bortles at a $1600 discount to Keenum on DraftKings.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon are the Vikings’ two-headed monster at running back. The two were asked to fill in beginning in Week 5 once rookie Dalvin Cook was lost for the season. Murray is the early-down grinder, while McKinnon has been primarily used in passing situations. McKinnon’s role has diminished somewhat as the season has worn on. After seeing an average of 15 carries in games 5-8 of the regular season, McKinnon averaged 11.5 carries from games 9-12 and 8.75 carries in his final four regular-season outings. Both Murray and McKinnon managed to salvage their fantasy output by rushing for a touchdown last week, but neither was particularly effective on the ground. The pair combined for just 84 yards on 27 carries and added 23 receiving yards on five catches. This week’s forecast is bleak for the pair against Philadelphia. Philadelphia allowed a league-low 3.37 yards per carry to opposing running backs this season. They did allow five touchdown receptions to the position, which could benefit McKinnon. As was the case last week, I think the decision on which Vikings’ running back to play this week comes down to which scoring format your site uses and how you expect the game to play out. Murray is the more expensive back on both sites, but the gap is much wider on DraftKings. This presents a buying opportunity for McKinnon given that DraftKings is full PPR scoring, which would already seemingly favor McKinnon over Murray. I do not think either running back is a must-play this weekend, but I would definitely lean toward McKinnon on DraftKings, and possibly on FanDuel as well.
Adam Thielen finished the regular season fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and 11th among wide receivers in fantasy points. However, his production also seemed to tail off as the season continued. Thielen finished as a weekly top-25 fantasy wide receiver in just one of his final six games. He also totaled just 115 yards over his last three regular-season games. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings employ Thielen this Sunday. After playing in the slot on the majority of snaps this season, Thielen lined up inside on just over a quarter of the snaps last week. Slot cornerback Patrick Robinson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best corner this season. Minnesota may choose to use both Thielen and Stefon Diggs outside, ensuring that one of them will be covered by vulnerable second-year player Jalen Mills while the other deals with the more effective Ronald Darby. Thielen is the highest priced wide receiver on the board this weekend. I certainly do not mind using Thielen this week. But if forced to choose between the two Vikings, I would prefer Diggs. The hero of last week’s game finished the regular season as the overall WR17 and has picked up the slack for Thielen in recent weeks. Diggs has caught at least five passes in five consecutive games dating back to the regular season and has caught a touchdown pass in four straight. Diggs’ eight touchdown catches during the regular season were twice Thielen’s total. Given the incredibly difficult matchups and questionable quarterback play that many wide receivers will be forced to deal with this work, Diggs is as close to a must-start for me as there is at the wide receiver position. Third receiver Jarius Wright primarily manned the slot last week and is an interesting name to consider as a dart throw given his near minimum salary. However, I would expect his role to be more of a decoy and space eater than a consistent target in this game, especially if he finds himself in Robinson’s coverage. Tight end Kyle Rudolph finished 2017 as fantasy’s overall TE6, though he finished just 14th in receiving yards among tight ends. Philadelphia is a middle-of-the-pack defense against tight ends this year. Rudolph is certainly an option for those looking to bargain shop at the tight end position, but I would personally prefer Zach Ertz if forced to pivot off of Rob Gronkowski. Rudolph eclipsed 50 receiving yards in just two of 16 games this season and followed that with a 28-yard performance last week.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 18 POINTS
Nick Foles looked terrible in parts of four December games following the season-ending knee injury to star quarterback Carson Wentz. Foles’ 4.96 yards per attempt during that span was only better than that of Bryce Petty. Last week against the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia did a great job of putting Foles in the best position to be effective. Just four of Foles’ 30 passing attempts traveled more than 12 yards down the field, and over half of his throws were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Foles thrived on short throws and quick reads. Philadelphia used a lot of run/pass options, where Foles would either hand the ball off to a running back or throw a quick slant based on the behavior of the defense at the snap. Foles was the quintessential “game manager” last week, and it paid much greater real-life dividends for the Eagles than it did for fantasy owners. Foles failed to score double-digit fantasy points in the victory and has a much tougher matchup this week. Minnesota gave up a league-low 5.95 yards per attempt to opposing quarterbacks this season and held their last five regular-season opponents to under 200 passing yards each. Drew Brees found some holes in Minnesota’s defense in the second half last week, but Nick Foles is not Drew Brees. Considering the relative success Foles had last week combined with the dominance of Minnesota’s defense, I would expect Foles to continue to dink and dunk with great frequency in this matchup. Foles easily has the lowest ceiling of the four remaining quarterbacks, even when compared to Blake Bortles, who is the quarterback closest in salary to Foles on DFS sites. I cannot recommend starting Nick Foles in any format this week.
Last week, I was unable to recommend Jay Ajayi based on the fact that he does not receive the number of touches that a featured back typically receives. Technically I was right, but it was encouraging to see Ajayi get 18 touches last week, especially after he lost a fumble on his first carry. Ajayi has now lost fumbles in back-to-back starts, so that is something to keep an eye on. But his usage was a very good sign. His 15 carries were tied for his high-water mark as an Eagle, and his five receiving targets tied for the team lead and were the most Ajayi has seen all season long. Ajayi has not had a true breakout game as a member of the Eagles quite yet, but he does have over 70 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive games. Including the playoffs and regular season, Ajayi has now averaged 35 receiving yards per game in games in which Foles has started. Ajayi stands out as a pretty obvious bargain on DraftKings, where he is $2,000 cheaper than Leonard Fournette and $2,900 cheaper than Dion Lewis. As is seemingly the case at other positions as well, the gap is much closer on FanDuel, making the decision on Ajayi much tougher. I am still inclined to use him there, albeit more sparingly. LeGarrette Blount got the ball on the goal line and scored a touchdown last week, but I have zero interest. Even with the touchdown, Blount finished just 12th among fantasy running backs on a four-game slate. I would much rather start T.J. Yeldon or even (dramatic pause) Corey Clement. Clement, like Ajayi, benefitted greatly from Foles throwing short and checking down last week, which is likely to occur once again. Clement outscored Blount in PPR leagues last week despite carrying the ball just one time for five yards. If you need to start Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and are not in love with the running back choices, Clement is certainly not the worst choice as a punt play. Just keep in mind that his floor is extremely low.
Philadelphia’s conservative offensive approach with Foles at the helm has lowered expectations for their talented wide receivers. Alshon Jeffery finished as the overall WR15 this season, but his numbers have understandably taken a hit in recent weeks. Excluding his Week 17 game in which he played just 18 snaps, Jeffery has totaled just 17 fantasy points in Foles’ last three starts. Jeffery will also most likely have to line up across from Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes can be beaten, as Michael Thomas proved last week. But this is where the drop-off from Wentz to Foles will hurt Jeffery. I cannot trust Foles to throw into tight windows down the field against someone as talented as Rhodes. Jeffery is certainly no lock to score a touchdown, which he would need to do to hit value. For some odd reason, Jeffery is the second-most expensive wide receiver on FanDuel this week, just $100 behind Adam Thielen. This makes Jeffery an easy fade. He is more reasonably priced on DraftKings, but I am still not sure the upside is there. As I stated in my AFC Championship Preview, I would not recommend starting any Jacksonville wide receiver this weekend, but I would not be surprised at all to see one or two of them outscore Jeffery this Sunday. Slot man Nelson Agholor has also seen a dip in production since Foles has taken over. 2017’s overall WR22 has just 189 receiving yards in Foles’ four starts. (For the record, I included Agholor’s Week 17 numbers because he played over half of Philadelphia’s offensive snaps.) Agholor will match up against the ageless Terence Newman. I like Agholor more than Jeffery this week, particularly on FanDuel, where he is $1,100 cheaper than his Eagles teammate. Torrey Smith randomly showed up with 39 yards last week, but he is not an option. Tight end Zach Ertz remains Philadelphia’s most consistent receiving option with Foles at quarterback. Ertz had just 32 scoreless yards last week, but he has been targeted 28 times in the three games he and Foles have played a majority of snaps. Minnesota stymies tight ends better than any other team in football, but Ertz is as good a bet as anyone to lead Philadelphia in receptions and yards this week. Ertz may be especially useful in DraftKings’ Flex position, where his primary competition consists mostly of running backs in timeshares and receivers with varying degrees of risk.