All four road teams won in the wild card round, and it was one of the least inspiring offensive weekends we’ve seen in some time. Don’t expect either of those trends to carry over into the divisional round. Daily fantasy owners will want investment in both Arizona and New England, while Pittsburgh and Kansas City appear to be teams to avoid, at least in my eyes. I break down why by going through each position for divisional weekend, capping it off with my ultimate lineup at the end of the column.
The eight starters this week are divided into three groups. Most people are going to be focused on the trio at the top, with good reason, but there is one in the last tier who could be the key to winning a tournament this week.
We begin with the three leading the position—Carson Palmer ($8,900), Cam Newton ($8,700) and Tom Brady ($8,600) were sixth, first and second, respectively, in points per game among quarterbacks this season. Palmer faces a Green Bay defense he carved up in Week 16, throwing for 265 yards—9.82 yards per attempt—and two touchdowns in a 38–8 Arizona victory. The Packers finished the regular season sixth in Football Outsiders DVOA against the pass, but Kirk Cousins delivered last week from a fantasy perspective. Palmer isn’t likely to run for a touchdown, but Cousins’s success and the fact that Arizona is the biggest favorite (-7) in the game with the highest over/under (50) should be instructive here. The Cardinals’ team total is 28.5, a number that Palmer will be responsible for hitting.
The other NFC divisional game is also a regular season rematch. Carolina won at Seattle back in Week 6, 27–23, but Newton had one of his worst games of the season, throwing for 269 yards, 7.47 YPA, one touchdown and two interceptions. He saved his fantasy day by running for 30 yards and a score, though his 65.6 quarterback rating in the game was his second lowest of the season. It’s awfully tough to know how much a team can take from a game in mid-October and apply it to one in mid-January, but Seattle has to feel like it has the blueprint for slowing down the likely MVP. Newton’s salvation, however, might be Greg Olsen. More on that later.
Meanwhile, it seems like the fantasy community is sleeping on Brady. By all accounts, Julian Edelman will be on the field this weekend, giving Brady the key he needs to unlock all the good within the New England offense. In nine games with Edelman, Brady averaged 25.5 points in standard-scoring leagues. In seven without him, he put up 17.37. To be fair, Brady also had Dion Lewis for six of those games (he was injured in his seventh game of the season), and he posted 23.3 points per game with Edelman, but without his running back. Kansas City’s defense has surged over the last few months, but the best passing offense they’ve seen by DVOA on their 11-game winning streak has been San Diego (eighth), and WR Keenan Allen was done for the year by the first meeting between the AFC West foes.
The next group of quarterbacks includes Russell Wilson ($8,400), Aaron Rodgers ($8,300) and Ben Roethlisberger ($8,100). I’m being largely agnostic in this column, but I will say that I won’t be pulling anyone from this tier. Let’s start with Rodgers. We need to be careful about trying to glean too much from a rematch of a regular season game, especially an inter-division one, but Arizona is simply a bad matchup for the Green Bay passing game. Tyrann Mathieu injured his knee the week before these teams played, and Rodgers still had a terrible day, throwing for 151 yards, 5.39 YPA, one touchdown and one pick. The explosiveness, quite simply, hasn’t been there for the Packers this season; couple the low floor with the opportunity cost, and Rodgers is a tough sell this weekend.
Seattle’s offense was a lot different when it played Carolina Week 6, but the fact remains that Wilson threw for just 241 yards and one touchdown, finishing the game with 18.9 points in standard-scoring leagues. Like Newton, however, he may have a saving grace. Doug Baldwin does all his damage from the slot., so will the Panthers move Josh Norman inside? He was on Baldwin for one of his four targets, and Jimmy Graham for one of his back in October. The good news? Both of those targets were completions. The bad? They went for -2 yards. If you roster Wilson, you should believe that the Seahawks will win this game.
The last quarterback in the tier is the easy to dismiss. Roethlisberger has a sprained AC joint and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. It appears he’ll be without Antonio Brown (concussion), and DeAngelo Williams (foot) could be out, as well. Then there’s the matter of his matchup with the league’s best passing defense. He’s maybe—maybe—worth a dart in GPPs this week, but nothing more.
Finally, we get to Alex Smith ($7,200) and Peyton Manning ($7,000). Smith does plenty for the Chiefs to win games in real life, but he’s a bad fantasy option this week. The Chiefs’ formula for advancing to the AFC championship game includes slowing down Tom Brady and keeping him off the field—not big throws from Smith. Manning, the cheapest of the QB option, is very intriguing. Pittsburgh has the worst pass defense of any team remaining in the playoffs, and Demaryius Thomas could be the best receiver in play if Brown is out. Manning’s still limited in the throws he can make, but he may not need to push the ball down the field too much to rack up fantasy numbers on this defense. His price gives you all the flexibility in the world, and his low ownership rate makes him a very attractive tournament play.
Here, the winning teams will feature the worthwhile fantasy running backs. Just look at last week. The best games at running back belonged to Spencer Ware, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Eddie Lacy, and all three are still playing football this week. Just like Woodward and Bernstein followed the money, we follow the winners for our much less noble cause.
I’m a fan of all four home teams this week, but I’m especially confident in the Cardinals, Patriots and Broncos. That leads me to David Johnson ($8,500), James White ($6,500), Ronnie Hillman ($5,900) and C.J. Anderson ($5,900). Of course, Johnson is the only one with a solid, bankable role, so he’s easily the most attractive of the bunch. It’s tough to pair a running back and quarterback together, but all my lineups will have at least one of the two. Johnson was the best running back in football over the final four weeks of the fantasy season, totaling 599 yards from scrimmage, 14 receptions and five touchdowns—good for 24.23 FanDuel points per game. Green Bay is 19th in rush DVOA and allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season, so Johnson should shine here. For what it’s worth, he had 127 total yards and a touchdown when these teams met three weeks ago.
Marshawn Lynch and DeAngelo Williams are in very similar situations this week. Both will run you $7,800. Both are attempting to return from injury, though Lynch looks like a better bet to be successful than Williams. Both have matchups with top-two rush defenses by DVOA (Denver ranked first, while Carolina was second). Again, savings aren’t quite as important in a week with just eight games, but Lynch and Williams remain risky because of all the factors listed here. The best thing either could have going for him is low ownership based on all the red flags. Lynch, however, is the only one of the two I’d even think about briefly in a cash game. Their backups, Christine Michael ($6,500) and Fitzgerald Toussaint ($6,200) don’t inspire much confidence in these matchups.
Jonathan Stewart ($6,300) is the player coming off injury who could be interesting. First of all, he seems to be in the best overall shape of the three, and is the only one who I expect to be part of a winning effort this weekend. Remember, the Panthers sat Stewart down for the final three weeks of the regular season with an eye on this weekend. They had the luxury to do so with the No. 1 seed all but assured at the time. If they needed Stewart in those last few games, they would have had him out there. The only downside for him is a matchup with Seattle, but he ran 20 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns against them in the regular season. The per-carry number may not be great, but the fact that he got 20 carries in a close game against certainly bodes well for his prospects on Sunday.
Spencer Ware ($6,100) is going to be a popular player this week, given that he’s the team’s primary back ahead of Charcandrick West ($6,300) and the fact that somehow many seem to think the Chiefs might win this game. Yes, they have beaten some bad teams convincingly (Detroit, Baltimore) during their win streak, but they also squeaked out wins over San Diego and Cleveland. Now they’re going to go into Foxborough and beat the Patriots, who are finally healthy, with the exception of Dion Lewis? Come on.
Finally, Green Bay’s duo of Eddie Lacy ($6,200) and James Starks ($5,800) was effective a week ago, but remember that both got as many carries as they did because the Packers were in control in the second half. That’s a luxury they aren’t likely to have this week. They also go from a Washington defense that was 22nd in rush DVOA to an Arizona one that is 20 spots better. Both are nothing more than GPP darts.
Just one of the fantasy community’s darling receivers remains alive in the playoffs, and he could be inactive due to a vicious hit in wild card weekend. If Antonio Brown is indeed out, there won’t be a dominant receiver available—not just relative to the rest of the position, but within the entire universe of active players this week. That’s an odd spot for 2015’s most lucrative position.
After Brown, a group of four receivers competes for the fantasy owner’s attention. Demaryius Thomas ($8,100), Larry Fitzgerald ($7,900), Julian Edelman ($7,800) and Emmanuel Sanders ($7,700) comprise that tier. Investing in the Arizona passing game makes all the sense in the world, but Fitzgerald took a back seat to Michael Floyd ($6,500) during the second half of the season. Both would likely be better dollar-for-dollar plays, however, than teammate John Brown ($6,700). As we discussed with respect to DeSean Jackson last week, the Packers have struggled with big, physical receivers this season, but have mostly handled speed guys. They held Jackson to two catches for 17 yards, while Jordan Reed burned them for 120 yards and a touchdown. Both Floyd and Fitzgerald fit that mold.
Edelman is the one who truly stands out. We already went over how much more productive Brady was with him on the field. Kansas City’s primary slot cover players were safeties Ron Parker and Eric Berry, and corner Tyvon Branch. Parker allowed a quarterback rating of 88.5, while Berry and Branch were both at 116 or higher. If the Chiefs move Marcus Peters inside, he won’t have much chance of slowing Edelman either. He was targeted just nine times in slot coverage, allowing six catches for 49 yards and two touchdowns. Edelman is one of my favorite players, regardless of position, this week.
There’s merit to both Thomas and Sanders, but mostly as GPP plays. You have to like the matchup, but it’s entirely possible Denver can win this game by letting its defense suck the life out of the Steelers. If Brown and DeAngelo Williams are out, we could be looking at a 20-6 Denver win, or something along those lines.
At this point, it would be folly to doubt Doug Baldwin ($7,400). He has 12 touchdowns in his last seven games, and is clearly the top option in Seattle’s passing game. Here, however is the question you need to ask yourself? Can he beat Josh Norman. The star corner could very well move inside to oppose Baldwin with Seattle’s lack of playmaking weapons on the outside. We covered earlier what happened when Russell Wilson targeted Norman inside the numbers in their regular season meeting. It wasn’t pretty for Seattle. As good as Baldwin has been, he’s no Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones, two receivers who gave Norman some trouble at the end of the year.
Our next tier of receivers features Martavis Bryant ($7,100), Jeremy Maclin ($7,000), Randall Cobb ($6,600), James Jones ($6,500), Ted Ginn ($6,500), and the aforementioned Arizona receivers Brown and Floyd. Volume could make both Cobb and Jones attractive, while Bryant and Maclin are in trouble. The latter may not play because of an ankle sprain, and would certainly be at less than 100%. The former will have a tough matchup regardless of Brown’s health, and would be the focal point of Denver’s secondary if Brown is forced to sit because of his concussion. Ginn, meanwhile, should be good to go after suffering a knee injury Week 16. Seattle, however, has made life miserable for speed receivers outside the numbers. Remember that Jones has been, by far, the team leader in targets since Mike McCarthy took over playcalling duties in Week 14.
The potentially usable players in the punt tier include a pair of Patriots in Brandon LaFell ($6,300) and Danny Amendola ($6,200), Seattle speedster Tyler Lockett ($6,200), a Steeler who could be in an increased role in Markus Wheaton ($6,000), and Carolina rookie Devin Funchess ($5,300), who starred in Week 17 with Ginn out. You really have to squint to find value in any of these guys. Remember, punting isn’t necessary with this few teams available. It’s not as though you’re paying up for two $9,000-receivers and need to skimp at a position.
One name immediately jumps off the page at tight end, and it isn’t the one at the top. This is always going to be the thinnest position, especially in a week with eight games, but the divisional round is particularly grisly. There might be just three usable options, regardless of whether you’re looking at cash games or GPPs.
I’ll start with the cheapest option, who I believe to be the best play. I’m going to have 100% exposure to Greg Olsen ($6,500) this week. The Seahawks have had trouble with tight ends all season, and were already burned by Olsen earlier in the year. He caught seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s Week 6 win over Seattle. All told, the Seahawks ranked 26th in DVOA against tight ends and surrendered the 10th-most fantasy points to the position. Olsen remains the most reliable weapon in the passing game for Cam Newton, and Seattle certainly has the horses to slow down Ted Ginn who, for all his exploits this season, remains Ted Ginn. Olsen is going to get double-digit targets against a defense that can’t cover tight ends in a game his team is favored to win. Remind me again why there are two tight ends with higher price tags?
Well, one of them is Rob Gronkowski ($8,300). Look, I’d never tell anyone to fade Gronkowski—he’s the best tight end in the game for a reason. If you choose to roster him, understand that the Chiefs are second in DVOA against tight ends and allowed them just 5.2 points per game, the fewest in the league. Tight ends found the end zone against the Chiefs three times this season, and Antonio Gates’s 76-yard game in Week 14 was the worst performance they had against the position. It’s also hard to use two players in the same passing game since only one of them can catch each pass that is thrown. We already talked about the great matchup Julian Edelman has with Marcus Peters, who struggles in the slot. If I can only have one New England pass catcher, I want it to be Edelman. That said, Gronkowski is always a strong play. You’ll just have to sacrifice elsewhere, and that likely starts with Edelman.
The other tight end here is Travis Kelce ($6,600), who hauled in eight passes for 128 yards in last week’s win over Houston, out-producing every receiver in action during wild-card weekend. I’m not a Kelce fan this week, because I think the Patriots win easily. Sure, Kelce’s volume could increase if Jeremy Maclin is out, but do you really want to bet on a tight end, who could be the only real threat in the offense, going up against a Patriots team that schemes better than any in the league? If I’m right about Chiefs-Patriots, no one on the former is going to be worthwhile from a fantasy perspective. That Kelce is somehow $100 more expensive than Olsen makes it all the easier to avoid him this week.
The rest of the position is worthless. You could potentially talk me into Luke Willson ($4,800) as a punt play, but you don’t need to punt at any position when there are only eight teams in action. The injury situations concerning Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are bad for Heath Miller ($5,400), and adding a matchup with Denver’s defense essentially makes him untouchable. Richard Rodgers isn’t good. Vernon Davis and Owen Daniels are worse. You’re choosing between three players at this position, and in cash games, you really might only be looking at Olsen and Gronkowski.
Beller’s ultimate FanDuel lineup
QB: Tom Brady ($8,600) vs. KC
RB: David Johnson ($8,500) vs. GB
RB: Ronnie Hillman ($5,900) vs. PIT
WR: Julian Edelman ($7,800) vs. KC
WR: Michael Floyd ($6,500) vs. GB
WR: James Jones ($6,500) @ ARI
TE: Greg Olsen ($6,500) vs. SEA
K: Brandon McManus ($4,700) vs. PIT
D: New England ($4,700) vs. KC