Championship weekend is here, and that means this is our last chance to play daily fantasy football for the 2015–16 NFL season. It also brings the final two fantasy football columns we will publish here at SI.com this season. We just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for being with us all year, and let you know we can’t wait to pick things up again, starting with the NFL draft.
With that, let’s get to the DFS positional breakdown for the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
There may be four quarterbacks in action this weekend, but there are only three realistic options from a daily fantasy standpoint. You should immediately forget about Peyton Manning ($6,700), whose only virtue is that he costs $1,000 less than the next cheapest quarterback. Of course, that doesn’t mean much when finding savings isn’t all that crucial, and more importantly, there’s an immeasurable gulf between the player in question and the rest of the field. Forget about Manning. There are, however, compelling reasons to roster any of the other three quarterbacks.
Let’s start with what should be obvious. In the regular season, you can choose a quarterback even if you think his team is going to lose. That’s a lot harder to do in the playoffs, where the quarterback who plays better frequently leads his team to a win. Your daily fantasy quarterback should be on one of the two teams you think will win this weekend. That leads me to Carson Palmer ($7,700), who I believe will play in his first Super Bowl in a few weeks. The Panthers are rightful favorites in this game, but few, if any, expect the defenses to dominate. The over/under is a robust 48.5, and the Cardinals’ team total sits at 23. Carolina’s secondary, meanwhile, has struggled over the last month. It allowed Eli Manning to throw for four touchdowns, three of which came in the second half, back in Week 15. Matt Ryan racked up 306 yards and 10.2 yards per attempt against Carolina in its only loss of the regular season. Last week, Russell Wilson shook off a terrible first half to finish with 366 yards, 7.63 yards per attempt and three touchdowns.
Palmer was a bit shaky against the Packers last week, perhaps because of his dislocated finger, but the numbers (349 yards, 8.51 YPA, three touchdowns, two interceptions) were still great. As good as David Johnson has been this season, Arizona needs a big game from Palmer to move on to the Super Bowl. The weapons he has at his disposal, from Johnson to Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, make it hard for any defense, no matter how good, to fully clamp down. They scored 39 points against the Seahawks, 34 against the Bengals, 27 against the Rams, and 40 against the Eagles. This offense is as matchup-proof as it gets, and the expected game flow would be in Palmer’s favor.
In my estimation, Palmer and the Cardinals will meet Tom Brady ($8,100) and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Remember last week when the Patriots were going up against the big, bad Chiefs, and one of the few places you could find telling you to roster Brady was right here? Yeah, we’re going back to that well. Brady did what Brady does, which is control the action from start to finish. He threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns, while running for another, against the defense ranked No. 6 in the league and No. 5 against the pass by Football Outsiders DVOA. Denver’s defense is a better version of Kansas City’s, but this is Brady and the Patriots. Recall, too, that Brady torched this same defense for 280 yards and three touchdowns without Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola about two months ago. If Palmer is matchup-proof, we might need a new term altogether to describe Brady. All of my lineups will have one of these two at the helm.
Finally, Cam Newton ($8,500) is the most expensive quarterback for championship weekend. Again, the dollar values don’t matter too much when you have just four teams in action. A few hundred dollars here or there isn’t likely to make a difference in your lineup with limited options on the table. Carolina can win without a stellar game from Newton, as it did against Seattle last week. Arizona can’t say the same with respect to Palmer. As great as Newton has been this season, Carolina’s offense is still built around the run, and that means Jonathan Stewart is going to get his 20 touches. Think of it this way: In a game that is, by all accounts, a toss-up between the two best teams in the NFC, would you rather have the quarterback of a pass-first offense that includes Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown, or the one in a run-first unit with Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr. and, well, I guess Devin Funchess as his top-three weapons?
Let’s get this straight right off the bat. There are six rosterable running backs this weekend. If you want to pay up for Rob Gronkowski or some of the top receivers, you may have to eliminate one of the two most expensive running backs from consideration. In most situations, I’ll be pairing one of those running backs with one of the two in the next tier.
David Johnson ($8,000) is the most expensive running back, and with good reason. Of all the backs left in the playoffs, he likely has the highest ceiling while also sporting a safe floor. He was, however, a major disappointment last week, running for 35 yards on 15 carries and catching six passes for 43 yards. His ability as a receiver, not as a runner, is what keeps the floor so high, especially in a matchup with the Panthers. You have to love that in a game in which he was completely ineffective on the ground, he still got 21 touches. Carolina had one of the best run defenses all season, and the Panthers’ high-powered offense can force opponents to go away from the run sooner than they would like. That wouldn’t be ideal for Johnson, but it wouldn’t kill his fantasy prospects, either. It is worth mentioning, however, that his worst games as a runner came against the Packers, both in the regular season and playoffs, and the Seahawks. Carolina’s run defense might be the best he has seen to date. Recall, too, that in Carolina’s one loss this season, Matt Ryan threw for 306 yards and 10.2 YPA, while Devonta Freeman ran for 73 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. If Arizona beats Carolina through the air, will Johnson be worth the investment compared with, say, Julian Edelman, Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Gronkowski?
I have a slight preference for the running back on the other side of the NFC Championship Game. While I do think the Cardinals will win, I also believe this is going to be a very close game that comes down to the wire. In other words, neither team should have to abandon what it wants to do every time it takes the field. For Carolina, that means getting the ball in Stewart’s hands 20 times. They did so last week against the Seahawks, and he rewarded them, as well as his fantasy owners, with 106 yards and two touchdowns. That marked the first time the Seahawks allowed a running back to top 100 yards since Jamaal Charles achieved the feat in November 2014, a span of 26 games. In other words, Arizona’s defense shouldn’t scare anyone away from Stewart. More importantly, however, is the simple fact of Stewart’s consistency this season. Over his last 10 games, he has posted an average of 15.17 fantasy points, including FanDuel’s 0.5 points per reception. For comparison’s sake, Adrian Peterson averaged 15.73 FanDuel points per game. If this game follows the script everyone expects, with both teams pushing into the mid-to-high 20s in points, Stewart will get to that average.
The next tier at running back includes a pair of intriguing options from the AFC Championship Game. James White ($6,400) wasn’t much of a factor in the Patriots’ win over Kansas City last week, catching two of his three targets for 39 yards and running once for five yards. The silver lining, though, was that he was on the field for 42 of the team’s 58 plays, running 32 routes. Put another way, he was a potential receiver on 55.2% of New England’s total plays and three-quarters of Tom Brady’s dropbacks. At the very least, White is locked into his role in the offense, and that role isn’t diminishing, given how New England likely plans to win this game. It is worth noting, however, that White had just three touches for six yards when these teams met in the regular season.
On the other side of this game is C.J. Anderson ($6,300), who ran well against Pittsburgh last week, racking up 72 yards and a score on 15 carries. Going back to the first week of November, Anderson has been one of the most effective running backs in the league on a per-carry basis. In his last 10 games, including the divisional round win over the Steelers, Anderson has averaged 6.1 yards per carry, totaling 612 yards and six touchdowns on exactly 100 totes. In his last three games, he has carried the ball 39 times for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Not only has he been more effective than Ronnie Hillman over both the short and long term, he’s likely Denver’s surest route to pulling off the upset this weekend. Peyton Manning can no longer outgun Tom Brady. If the Broncos are going to win, they’ll need major contributions from Anderson and the defense. If it ends up requiring 27 or more points to win this game, the Patriots are going to the Super Bowl. If the teams are in the low-20s, however, Denver has a chance. That sort of script would be to Anderson’s benefit.
The last two players on the DFS radar at the position are Ronnie Hillman and Steven Jackson, both of whom check in at $5,700. They are this week’s punt options, meaning the only way you should be considering either is if you’ve spent exorbitantly at every other position. The only way I could see going after either of these players is if I also have Rob Gronkowski, two of Larry Fitzgerald, Julian Edelman, and Michael Floyd, and either David Johnson or Jonathan Stewart. Even in that scenario, you could still find ways to afford Anderson or White. Jackson got six carries last week, picking up just 16 yards. It’s hard to imagine him having a better showing against Denver. Hillman, on the other hand, should get plenty of volume. He had 16 carries last week, but ran for just 38 yards. The final week of the regular season, however, he had 117 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Anderson has been much better on a per-carry basis, but the Broncos insist on keeping Hillman heavily involved in the offense. When the Broncos and Patriots met in the regular season, Hillman ran 14 times for 59 yards and a score. Anderson, meanwhile, rumbled for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
It’s useful to think of the wide receivers playing this weekend in three groups. The tier at the top ranges from $7,400 to $8,000, and almost everyone is going to have at least one of these five players. Many owners will have more than one. The next group goes from $6,000 to $6,500, though only two of the four players within that group have done enough to inspire confidence during championship week. The final group is everyone else. Depending on what you do at the other positions, you might have to pluck someone off of this scrap heap. The salary breakdown is such that we might be forced to go $5,300 or cheaper for one receiver.
Let’s get back to that first tier, however, and write off two of its five inhabitants. I cannot in good conscience recommend either Demaryius Thomas ($7,600) or Emmanuel Sanders ($7,400) in any format other than a big tournament. Even in a league of, say, 50 people, I wouldn’t go down this road. A bet on either of them is a bet on Peyton Manning, and that’s not a route I want to travel this week. To be fair, wind was definitely a factor last week, and that’s not expected to be an issue on Sunday. Having said that, the floor is very low for both of these players, and the opportunity cost is high. Rostering one likely precludes you from getting Larry Fitzgerald ($8,000), Julian Edelman ($7,800) or Michael Floyd ($7,500). You want investment in both the Arizona and New England passing games this weekend, and not just via Carson Palmer or Tom Brady. If you’re a Cam Newton-Greg Olsen stacker, grabbing at least one, if not two, of those receivers is a must, making it even harder to go for Thomas or Sanders.
Fitzgerald had a great performance last week, catching eight passes for 176 yards and a touchdown. Let’s recall, however, that at the end of regulation, he had just six catches for 96 yards. Carolina presents a much tougher matchup, but his role as a slot receiver means he should avoid Josh Norman for most of the evening. Remember, too, that Bené Benwikere, Carolina’s primary slot corner during the regular season, suffered a broken leg last month. That means either Cortland Finnegan or Roman Harper will draw Fitzgerald most of the time. That’s a big advantage for the Cardinals.
Fitzgerald ran 57% of his routes out of the slot, while Floyd was inside just 29.9% of the time. Given Floyd’s role, size and recent performance, he’s the most likely candidate to draw Norman’s attention most often. Just 35 of Seattle’s passing yards (as well as the fluky, broken-play touchdown to Jermaine Kearse) were on Norman. Atlanta racked up 80 yards on Norman, but that was all Julio Jones. The Giants burned him for one touchdown, but it was Odell Beckham Jr. on the receiving end. Floyd has been Arizona’s most productive receiver since the middle of October, but he has the toughest assignment on Sunday. With all due respect, he’s not Jones or Beckham. That’s not a reason to fade him entirely, but it is something to keep in mind.
Just like last week, Edelman is one of the easiest players to plug into your lineups. All he did in his return to the field was get open constantly, catching 10 passes for 100 yards and dropping three more. Chris Harris has a shoulder injury that could very well limit him Sunday the same way it did against the Steelers. Either way, no one is as quick as Edelman in short space, and he showed last week that he can cut both ways, proving that the foot injury is totally behind him.
Our next tier includes John Brown ($6,500), Ted Ginn Jr. ($6,200), Brandon LaFell ($6,100) and Danny Amendola ($6,000). You’re betting on pixie dust if you go with LaFell and Amendola, a couple of receivers who, for all intents and purposes, haven’t done a thing this season. Ginn had a remarkable touchdown run at the end of the regular season, but this is still Ted Ginn Jr. That he isn’t good enough to be shadowed by Patrick Peterson should tell you all you need to know. Brown, however, warrants consideration this week. This is Arizona, after all, where receivers go to thrive. Brown had five catches for 82 yards in the win over Green Bay last week. Two of Brown’s doppelgängers in terms of stature and skill set, DeSean Jackson and Brandin Cooks, burned this Carolina secondary. Jackson got them for five catches, 87 yards and a touchdown, while Cooks totaled 13 grabs, 183 yards and a score in the Saints’ two games against the Panthers. Brown could present them with similar challenges, and he represents the cheapest way to get invested in Arizona’s passing game.
The Carolina trio of Corey Brown ($5,300), Jerricho Cotchery ($5,200) and Devin Funchess ($5,100) headline the punt tier, with Keshawn Martin ($5,100) the only other possible option here. If you have to go with one of these guys, Cotchery has the surest role in his team’s offense.
There are but two choices at this position, and you’ll have to pay for both. No one would doubt that, all things being equal, Rob Gronkowski ($8,900) is the superior player to Greg Olsen ($7,000). What you have to ask yourself, though, is whether he’s worth an additional $1,900 of your budget. If you roster Gronkowski, you almost certainly cannot afford both David Johnson and Jonathan Stewart. If you take him and one of those running backs, you’ll likely have to reach into the punt tier at wide receiver. Is he worth it, or are you better off dropping down to Olsen and using the savings on a better receiver or running back? For me, this is the hardest decision of the weekend. I’ll likely be building lineups both ways, but my preference is to go with the Olsen lineup.
I typically don’t want to punt at any position, but it’s worth it to get Gronk. You know what he did last week, but remember that he also had six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown when the Patriots lost to the Broncos in the regular season. You’ll be sacrificing Gronk for the ability to use John Brown instead of, say, Jerricho Cotchery. He could also help you fit Larry Fitzgerald alongside Julian Edelman without a punt at receiver. Is that definitely worth it, given the bankability of the league’s best tight end? I’m not so sure.
The Cardinals locked down tight ends all season, but that was mostly thanks to Tyrann Mathieu. They’ve been lucky to not see a threatening tight end since his injury, but that ends this week. They’ve played just two teams since losing Mathieu, and Green Bay and Seattle didn’t feature a tight end as a significant weapon in the passing game. Olsen doesn’t have Gronkowski’s ceiling, but he is nearly as consistent and just as important to Carolina as Gronk is to New England.
That both guys are such good options is why I’ll be constructing two different lineups this weekend. For our purposes here, though, I present you with my favorite lineup for championship week.
QB: Tom Brady ($8,100) at Broncos
RB: Jonathan Stewart ($7,000) vs. Cardinals
RB: C.J. Anderson ($6,300) vs. Patriots
WR: Larry Fitzgerald ($8,000) at Panthers
WR: Julian Edelman ($7,800) at Broncos
WR: John Brown ($6,500) at Panthers
TE: Greg Olsen ($7,000) vs. Cardinals
K: Chandler Catanzaro ($4,600) at Panthers
D: New England Patriots ($4,600) at Broncos