This is our first fantasy column of the week looking ahead to the fantasy championships, and our final Fact or Fiction of the year. The goal of this column all season has been to imbue fantasy analysis with a little real-life football context. Hopefully, the words and pictures contained in this column for the last four months have helped you look at fantasy football from a different, more thoughtful perspective.
At the same time, this column is about taking what has happened and using that to directly improve our chances of winning at fantasy football. Well, there’s only one week left this season, and there aren’t a whole lot of tweaks to cover. We’ll get down into the details in the start ‘em or sit ‘em column later this week. For now, it’s time to unveil the final fact of the 2014 season.
Fact: Le’Veon Bell, Matt Ryan and Odell Beckham will polish off their playoff MVP resumes in Week 16
If you own any of the three players listed above, chances are you’re heading to your league’s championship. All three have compelling playoff MVP cases after the first two rounds and all look set to put the capstone on those performances this week. Let’s take them one by one to determine who has the best chance to be on the most fantasy championship teams.
Bell could rightly claim the regular season MVP, but his combined performance in the last two weeks have him as the clubhouse leader for playoff MVP. He has been the No. 1 back for Week 14 through 15, piling up 232 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 122 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. Add that up, and you get 65.4 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. Broken down into individual games, he had 41.5 points in Week 14 and 23.9 points in the fantasy semifinals. It’s nearly impossible to lose when you have one player put up 40-plus points. I’d be willing to bet that 95-to-98 percent of Bell’s owners advanced out of the first round. A 23.9-point week from one player isn’t going to singlehandedly lift owners to victory, but it certainly is a nice start. Most Bell owners are prepping for a championship matchup this week. One thing they won’t have to worry about is their stud back’s prospects.
The Steelers play host to the Chiefs -- a crucial AFC showdown in Week 16. The Chiefs would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, while the Steelers’ hopes would take a huge hit if they dropped another conference game. The Steelers can do themselves a favor in this game by feeding Bell early and often.
Kansas City has somehow succeeded at keeping running backs out of the end zone, allowing just two rushing touchdowns to the position this year. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that the Chiefs have a strong run defense. Only the Titans have allowed more rushing yards than the Chiefs this year. They’ve also surrendered 5.1 yards per carry, which is the most in the league. In short, they’ve been the most run-friendly defense in the league.
Here’s one final stat that should have Bell owners salivating over this matchup. Seven different backs have had at least 15 carries in a game against the Chiefs. Only two – Shonn Green and Branden Oliver – failed to reach 100 yards. Bell is a tad better than those two backs, wouldn’t you say? He has also had at least 15 carries in all but three games this year, and has had fewer than 20 touches just three times. He could very well top 200 total yards again this week.
Meanwhile, it has been an up-and-down year for Matt Ryan, but he’s up at the perfect time for his owners. Ryan has been the No. 1 quarterback over the first two weeks of the playoffs. He finished second at the position last week, throwing for 375 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, finishing with 32.3 points in standard-scoring leagues. He followed that up by topping the quarterback charts in Week 15, posting 310 yards, two scores and a pick, as well as running for 27 yards. That was good for 22.1 fantasy points, and he accomplished that without the help of receiver and favorite target Julio Jones, who was out with a hip injury.
If Ryan gets Jones back this week, which appears more likely than not early in the week, he could have his best game yet in the fantasy playoffs. The Falcons visit the Saints in a hilariously important game between two sub-.500 teams. You probably recall the first time these two teams met. It was the first week of the season, and expectations for both were running high. That remained true after they combined for 71 points and nearly 1,100 total yards, as the Falcons scored a huge 37-34 overtime win on the road. If someone told you then their return matchup in Week 16 would go a long way toward determining the division championship, you would have said something dismissive like “Yeah, obviously.” You probably wouldn’t have expected both the Falcons to be 5-9 while the Saints were 6-8.You should really apologize for your flippant behavior three months ago.
Ryan was the true star of that first game, throwing for 448 yards and three touchdowns. Before Monday night's dominant win over Chicago and its out-of-sync offense, the Saints had allowed the fourth-most points to quarterbacks this season. Even if Jones is out again, Harry Douglas has proven himself a capable starter, making Ryan a slam-dunk fantasy play, regardless of the health of his best receiver, although he’ll likely need Jones healthy to keep pace with, and potentially surpass, Bell in the fantasy playoff MVP race.
Finally, Odell Beckham Jr. has made quite the case to be considered a top-five receiver in 2015. Remember, the rookie out of LSU was inactive for the Giants’ first four games of the season. From that time forward, he has been the No. 2 receiver in fantasy football, catching 71 passes for 972 yards and nine touchdowns (and, including, of course, that gravity-defying touchdown catch in Week 12. Taking his rushing yards and one lost fumble into account, that translates to an average of 15.37 fantasy points per game.
Beckham has saved some of his best work for the playoffs. He caught 11 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown against the Titans in Week 14, but that paled in comparison to what he had in store for the semifinals. Beckham piled up 12 receptions for 143 yards and three scores in Week 15, giving him 31.3 points for the week (including a lost fumble). Given all the stars who came up short a week ago, I’m willing to bet that any Beckham owner reading this is headed to a championship.
Unlike Bell and Ryan, Beckham doesn’t have an overwhelmingly great matchup this week. The Giants visit the Rams, who have allowed the 13th-most points to receivers this year. However, if you dig beneath the surface numbers, you’ll find out that the Rams have struggled against the best receivers they’ve faced so far.
The Rams have seen just five of the top 20 fantasy receivers this year: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Dez Bryant, Jeremy Maclin and Mike Evans. Only the rookie Evans failed to reach double-digit points, and that was way back in Week 2, or his second game of his NFL career. The other four put up an average of 13.75 points per game. Fantasy owners can bet on Beckham at least reaching that total this week.
While Ryan and Beckham should come through for their owners at the biggest moment of the season, it will be Bell who we will be hailing on Monday as the playoff MVP. He already has a head start over the other two heading into Week 16, and should carve up the soft Kansas City run defense. No owner who is heading into a championship game with any of these three players on his or her roster, however, will be disappointed.
Fiction: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton owners have nothing to worry about
Hilton left the Colts’ division-clinching win over the Texans last week early with a hamstring injury. MRI results came back negative and head coach Chuck Pagano said he expects Hilton to practice later in the week. While that’s good news immediately, Hilton’s owners, and, by extension, Luck’s, aren’t completely out of the woods. Hamstring injuries are notoriously fickle and tend to linger. Pagano may expect Hilton to practice later in the week, but that doesn’t mean that he A) will, or B) will do so in meaningful fashion.
The Colts are once again AFC South Champions, and that’s bad news for owners hoping that they might push Hilton this week. While they technically could still leapfrog the Patriots or Broncos in the overall standings and get a first-round bye, the chances are very slim. The Colts lost to both the Patriots and Broncos this year, meaning they’d end up on the wrong side of a tiebreaker with either team. As such, they have to win out and need New England or Denver to lose out to get one of the top two seeds on the AFC side of the bracket. The Patriots play the Jets this week. Denver hosts Oakland to end the season. Anything can happen in the NFL, but the Patriots or Broncos losing out is rather unlikely.
With that reality staring the Colts in the face, they have every incentive to rest Hilton this week if his hamstring is grabbing at him in even the slightest fashion. For all intents and purposes, they’re locked into the third or fourth seed in the playoffs. They can’t possibly know who they’d meet in the first round, or who they’d play in the second round, assuming they make it that far. If Hilton is banged up, there’s no reason to risk further injury for a game that really doesn’t mean anything to them.
Unfortunately for Hilton’s and Luck’s fantasy owners, this week means everything. Monitor Hilton’s practice participation all week. If he’s out, Luck’s fantasy value takes a huge hit, while Donte Moncrief and Hakeem Nicks would each receive bumps in their respective values. You’re almost certainly riding with Luck whether or not Hilton plays – after all, few Luck owners have a comparable second option – but if you want to advance, you have to hope that he will have his best receiver at his disposal.