Welcome to the second half of my Wild Card Weekend preview column. We touched on the Saturday matchups earlier. This edition will focus on the Sunday matchups.
BUFFALO BILLS AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Sunday’s first game will see the Jacksonville Jaguars hosting the Buffalo Bills. Neither team has made the playoffs in a decade. The Bills finished the year at 9-7 in a weak AFC, and their record was bolstered by sweeping four games against the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. Particularly with star running back LeSean McCoy’s health a huge question mark, Buffalo has the feel of a one-and-done playoff team. Jacksonville hadn’t won more than five games in a season since 2010, and finished 2016 at 3-13. But they have turned things around on the strength of their defense. They won the AFC South with a record of 10-6. Jacksonville ranks second in the NFL in both points and yards allowed on defense.
BUFFALO BILLS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 15.5 POINTS
Tyrod Taylor will make the start for Buffalo. Taylor is the lowest-priced DFS quarterback on this weekend’s slate. He is actually cheaper than two backup quarterbacks on DraftKings. Only Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone thinks less of Taylor. All kidding aside, Taylor’s price point is understandable. He accounted for just 18 total touchdowns in 15 games this season and did not record a single 300-yard passing game. Meanwhile, Jacksonville held opposing quarterbacks to the lowest total number of fantasy points of any team in the NFL over the last three seasons. However, there is an argument to be made as to why you should at least consider owning some stock in Taylor this weekend. First, Buffalo is a nine-point underdog in this game. This would imply that Taylor may have to throw the ball more than he usually does. The likelihood of more volume should raise his floor to some degree. There is also the possibility that Taylor is asked to run more, especially with McCoy’s status in doubt. Despite the pedestrian passing stats, Taylor is adept at protecting the football. His interception rate was the lowest in the NFL this year. If given more volume, he is not likely to cost you many points by turning the football over. I would not put too many eggs in the Tyrod Taylor basket, but he could provide some salary cap relief and sneaky value this weekend.
LeSean McCoy finished seventh among running backs in total fantasy points this season. He started the season slowly, but really picked things up following Buffalo’s Week 6 bye. McCoy remains the focal point of the Bills’ offense, but he might have a tough road to hoe this week in Jacksonville. Since Week 4, Jacksonville has not allowed any running back to finish in the top 10 in weekly fantasy points. Buffalo is a huge underdog in this matchup and has the lowest implied team total this weekend. This season, McCoy averaged 14.62 fantasy points in Buffalo victories compared to just 10.43 fantasy points in losses. McCoy is also nursing an ankle injury that forced him to leave last week’s game on a cart. Still highly priced on DFS sites, McCoy makes for a logical fade in this spot. If McCoy is forced to sit out, Marcus Murphy, Mike Tolbert, and Travaris Cadet would form a committee and should be avoided.
There really is no legitimate reason to use a Bills’ wide receiver other than as a strictly cap-saving contrarian play. Deonte Thompson led Buffalo wide receivers in yards despite joining the team in Week 6. Another in-season acquisition, Kelvin Benjamin, is Buffalo’s best receiving threat, but he has been inconsistent and is dealing with a knee injury. Rookie Zay Jones has caught a grand total of two balls in his last four games. None of Buffalo’s wideouts threaten to make any noise against Jacksonville’s outstanding secondary. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye both finished the year with top-five cornerback grades, according to Pro Football Focus. The only Bills pass catcher I would consider is tight end, Charles Clay. Clay could be an option for those who do not want to pay up for Travis Kelce and do not want to be stuck with an Austin Hooper type. Clay started off the year hot before a knee injury took him out of action for several weeks. He struggled upon his return, but he does have 15 catches for 169 yards over his last three games. Still, Jacksonville allowed the fifth-fewest receiving yards to tight ends in 2017.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 24.5 POINTS
Blake Bortles leads the charge for the Jacksonville Jaguars in this matchup. Bortles is a better fantasy than real-life quarterback, finishing as the QB13 on the season after finishing third in 2015 and eighth in 2016. For fantasy purposes, Bortles is usually at his best when the Jaguars are playing from behind, which occurred with less frequency this season. It also does not figure to be the case this week. Buffalo allowed just 14 passing touchdowns on the season. Bortles feels properly priced as the third-lowest salaried starting quarterback this weekend. I would look elsewhere for a fantasy quarterback this week.
The Jaguars made an interesting decision to play their starters in what was essentially a meaningless Week 17 game in Tennessee. They decided to play their starters, including star running back Leonard Fournette. Many questioned the move, as Fournette has dealt with a troublesome ankle injury since midseason. The injury forced Fournette to sit in Week 15, and conventional wisdom would have suggested Jacksonville use Week 17 to get him some additional rest. Not only did Fournette play, but he touched the ball 23 times, which was right in line with his season average. He escaped Week 17 unscathed and should expect a similar workload on Sunday. Assuming relative health, Fournette has massive upside this week. Buffalo has been a turnstile for opposing running backs this season. They have permitted a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns to opposing backs this year. A high-volume running back on a team that is a prohibitive favorite facing a defense which struggles mightily against the run is a match made in fantasy heaven. Todd Gurley and Kareem Hunt may have more upside, but Leonard Fournette may be the best running back value on the board this weekend.
Forecasting the Jaguars’ receiving corps is a tough task this week. It is likely that one or two of Jacksonville’s wideouts makes an impact in this game, but figuring out which one will be a little tricky. A lot will depend on the status of leading wideout Marqise Lee. Lee led the Jaguars with 56 receptions this season but has not caught a pass since Week 14. With both Lee and Allen Hurns sidelined recently, rookie standout Keelan Cole has picked up the slack. Cole recorded double-digit fantasy points in four consecutive games from Week 13 through Week 16. Fellow rookie Dede Westbrook has played on 96.7% of offensive snaps during the last two weeks ,but he has not yet paid fantasy dividends. Lee is hoping to return this week but has still not practiced. Hurns is also in the mix after returning to the lineup last week. He also has the best matchup, as he is most likely to square off against burnable slot corner Leonard Johnson. Hurns is also the cheapest of the Jaguars’ quartet, making him a potential value.
CAROLINA PANTHERS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
In what many will view as the most interesting matchup of the weekend, NFC South rivals clash for the third time this season when the New Orleans Saints host the Carolina Panthers. New Orleans swept the season series, scoring a combined 65 points in the process. The sweep earned the Saints’ the NFC South division crown, as both teams finished with identical 11-5 records. The game will be played in the cozy confines of the Superdome, which always boosts a game’s shootout potential. Of the seven Saints’ games with a combined total of at least 50 points, five of them were played in the Superdome.
CAROLINA PANTHERS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 20.5 POINTS
Carolina is led by 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton. Newton got off to a slow start this season following offseason shoulder injury. In Week 3 against the Saints, Newton threw for just 167 yards and three interceptions. He also did not run the ball as often or as efficiently early in the year. Through five games, Newton totaled just 90 rushing yards on 29 carries. Since then, however, Newton has gotten back to the form we are accustomed to seeing, especially on the ground. Newton averaged 60.4 rushing yards per game over his last 11 games, which catapulted him to an overall QB2 finish in 2017. Newton is the second-most expensive quarterback in DFS this week behind Jared Goff. New Orleans is an average fantasy defense against quarterbacks. A bet on Newton this week is basically a bet on a rushing touchdown and/or a shootout. It’s certainly possible that he exceeds value this week, but I would personally rather take my chances on Alex Smith, weather permitting.
Running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey shared backfield duties for the Panthers this season, albeit in very different roles. Stewart is Carolina’s early-down plodder, leading the team with 198 carries. McCaffrey is the team’s short-yardage receiving threat, leading the team with 80 receptions. McCaffrey led Stewart in fantasy points in each matchup against New Orleans this season, posting top-20 weekly finishes in each instance. Stewart is a low-ceiling, touchdown-dependent option this week. McCaffrey is the more viable option, particularly in PPR leagues. Still, he lacks the ceiling that similarly-priced Devonta Freeman and Derrick Henry provide.
Devin Funchess had his best season as a pro in 2017, finishing with 840 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He has struggled of late as he deals with a shoulder injury but will make the start on Sunday. He will most likely face off against outstanding rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Funchess posted yardage totals of 58 and 60 against New Orleans this year, and caught a touchdown in their Week 13 matchup when he beautifully high-pointed the football and raced down the sideline. He makes for a very viable option for those not willing to pay up for Julio Jones or Tyreek Hill. Greg Olsen is a huge wild card (pun intended) this weekend. Since his return from a broken foot, he has posted fantasy totals of 1.0, 0.0, 17.6, 2.7, and 1.0. Still, he is priced as the second-highest tight end behind Travis Kelce. Given his inconsistency and the fact that New Orleans allowed the fewest receiving yards to opposing tight ends in the entire NFL, Olsen seems to be a logical fade. However, Olsen has the potential to blow up at any point in time. He is also likely to have low ownership due to the factors I just mentioned. I like Olsen as a contrarian option this week.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 27.5 POINTS
Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees finished fourth in the NFL in passing yards this season. However, his 4,334 passing yards and 23 passing touchdowns were the lowest totals he has posted as a member of the New Orleans Saints. Brees threw for 300 yards in a game just three times this season. He had averaged nine such games per season in his Saints career. Brees also threw for three touchdowns in a game just once in 2017. That one, however, was against the Panthers in Week 3. Brees has a relatively safe floor, but his ceiling is in question as New Orleans has relied on the running game this year. Brees averaged over 42 pass attempts per game last season, but he hit that mark in one of only 16 games this season. As is the case with Newton, I would prefer to have Alex Smith than Brees given their price points.
While Brees is still the face of the franchise, he is not the sole reason the Saints’ offense has thrived this season. The dynamic duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara have formed a 1-2 punch in the Saints’ backfield which ran over and around opposing defenses in 2017. Each had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage and at least twelve touchdowns. They each ended the year in the top-six among running backs in fantasy points. In their matchups this season, Ingram totaled 208 yards and one touchdown, while Kamara finished with 168 yards and three scores. Both Ingram and Kamara are exceptional pass-catchers, raising each of their floors in PPR leagues. However, neither did much damage receiving against the Panthers in their two meetings. The two combined for 138 scoreless receiving yards in the two games. Carolina has also allowed the third-fewest fantasy points and fourth-fewest rushing yards to running backs in 2017. I would not completely fade either Saints’ running back, but I also don’t consider either a must-start in salary cap leagues in this matchup.
Second-year star Michael Thomas leads New Orleans’ receiving corps. After finishing ninth among wide receivers in fantasy points in 2016, Thomas finished eighth in 2017. He has faced the Panthers four times in his young career. In each game, he has recorded at least five catches and had at least 68 receiving yards. He has also caught three touchdowns in those four games. Only Tampa Bay allowed more receptions to opposing wide receivers this season than Carolina. None of the Panthers’ cornerbacks are a threat to contain Thomas in this matchup. I have Michael Thomas as my No. 1 wide receiver in this weekend’s slate. The only other viable receiving threat New Orleans has is former Panther, Ted Ginn. Ginn continues to be a boom-or-bust option, but he did set new career-highs in receptions per game and receiving yards per game. His DFS cost makes him a risky option, but he can easily hit value based on one big play against the vulnerable Carolina secondary.