- The fantasy playoffs are here, but if your team is still standing, know that the players that got you through the regular season may disappoint you in crunch time. Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice discuss who to be wary of and much more.
Pat Fitzmaurice: Well, Beller, the fantasy playoffs are upon us. How many playoff berths did you earn, and how many misses were there? To be honest, I'm more curious about the failures than the successes. It's sort of boring to hear about people’s prosperous teams. It’s the disasters that make for better storytelling. So, what went awry with the teams of yours that will be heading to the golf course rather than the playoffs?
There’s a league in which I have a do-or-die regular season finale in Week 14. If I miss the playoffs in that one, it will be because the second, third and fourth WRs I took in my zero-RB draft were Allen Robinson, Alshon Jeffrey and Sammy Watkins. Funny thing is, I was elated to get all of those guys where I got them. (It’ll be interesting to see what the 2017 ADPs are for A-Rob, Alshon and Sammy.) Even my No. 1 receiver in that league, Odell Beckham Jr., has been frustrating at times. I didn’t exactly hit home runs on the swings I took at RB either: I’ll be rolling out Tevin Coleman and Devontae Booker in Week 14.
Overall, though, it’s been a pretty good fantasy year. After a horrific 2015 in which I got only one team into the playoffs, it’s possible that I’ll only miss with one team this year. Alas, the one sure miss comes in my favorite league, a 16-team, 25-year-old league in which I serve as commissioner. I’m 6–7 in that league despite being 2.7 points off the league lead in total points. Remarkably, none of my 13 opponents scored less than the weekly league average point total against me. Some years you’re the hammer, some years you’re the nail, and I spent my season in that league embedded in a two-by-four. Not that I made all the right moves, of course. My earlyish-round pick of Jeremy Maclin was a whiff. I probably took Antonio Gates a little too high. My RB2 goulash of Isaiah Crowell, Kenneth Dixon and Wendell Smallwood needed more salt and perhaps a bit of thyme. But for the most part, this team was doomed by opponent-points-against misfortune.
On that subject, I’ve been hearing a lot of bad-beat stories this week from owners whose records didn’t match their point totals. In response, some people have suggested that the all-play format is the way to go. Rather than face one opponent every week, you face everyone, so your record will be a much truer reflection of your point total. I have nothing against the all-play format, but I’ll forever be a head-to-head guy. There are inevitably some unlucky binary outcomes, but I love the personal dimension of head-to-head leagues among friends and acquaintances. Last week, we talked at length about the element of luck in fantasy football, but I’m not sure if you told me how you feel about the all-play format. We’re in an all-play industry league together, a “Going Deep” league organized by Mike Clay in which we have to start 13 of our 18 players every week. Roster management is a fascinating challenge with that setup. But do you like the all-play dimension, or do you wish it were head-to-head?
And obviously, Beller, this is just a setup so that you can tell the tale of your Monday-night miracle in that league. You’re welcome.
Michael Beller: Haha, why thank you, Fitz. And I didn’t even have to bribe you for that setup. You are a true friend.
As Fitz said, one of the industry leagues he and I are in together is a “Going Deep” all-play league organized by ESPN’s Mike Clay. It has 12 teams, and the typical lineup—though this can differ because of a flex spot—is two quarterbacks, three running backs, six wide receivers and two tight ends. I entered Week 13, the last week of the regular season, in the sixth and final playoff spot, two games ahead of Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus. Of course, I could have been safely in the playoffs had I just set my lineup Week 1, but I thought it was a best-ball league. Instead of going 4–7 that week, which I would have had I set my lineup, I went 0–11. Lesson learned.
Anyway, I’m two games ahead of Thorman for the final spot in the playoffs. And then Thorman puts up a monster, scoring 186.1 points when his season-long average was 164.13 per game. Going into the Monday night game, he was sitting at 11–0 for the week and I was at 6–5. I had 127.5 points and still had Andrew Luck and Dwayne Allen remaining. The exact total I would need from the two was a bit of a moving target, which is the nature of an all-play league, but clearly I was going to need to make up serious ground. My best bet to make the playoffs was to move up a handful of spots and also have at least one of T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief owners pass Thorman, as well. I figured I needed at least 50 points between Luck and Allen to have a chance. How could I know the game of Allen's life was on the horizon?
By time Fitz and I were done recording our podcast on Monday night, Allen already had his first touchdown of the game. When he scored his second, I thought something special might be happening for me. When he hit pay dirt a third time in the first half, after having two touchdowns all season going into the game, I knew the fantasy fates were smiling on me. Luck’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, this one to Moncrief, pushed me to third place and a 9–2 record for the week, while simultaneously knocking Thorman into second with the Moncrief owner vaulting into first. All told, Allen scored 31.2 points, and he and Luck gave me a total of 58.1. Thorman still beat me in Week 13, but he picked up just one game, which kept me a game ahead of him in the standings, and in the sixth and final spot in the playoffs. Dwayne Allen, I will always love you.
As for all-play in general, it’s definitely a fun wrinkle, and I like having one league that uses it. When you play in as many leagues as we do, it’s nice to have a few totally different formats. But there’s no doubt that head-to-head is the best way to play fantasy football, or any fantasy sport, for that matter. Fantasy isn’t about coolly calculating the best teams. It’s about having fun with your friends. Taking away the pure head-to-head element might be fairer and better reflect who the best teams in the league truly are, but it also takes away some of the fun, and no one should strive to do that.
I’m in six traditional season-long leagues. Three are industry, including Going Deep, and three are with friends. I made the playoffs in all three of my industry leagues, and took home the regular season crown for the third straight year in our Chicago Media League. Of course, all that regular season success has resulted in zero playoff wins the last two years, so I’m hoping I can turn that around this season. Congratulations are in order to The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan, who made the playoffs in that league in her inaugural season. SI went 3-for-4 in that league, with you joining Emily and I in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Joan Niesen couldn’t make us a perfect, Kris Bryant-like 4-for-4.
What’s even more unfortunate, at least for me, is that I missed the playoffs in all three of my friends leagues, including the one nearest and dearest to my heart, the Skokie Fantasy Football League, which my closest friends and I started in 1998. That team was undone by nothing other than my players falling short of expectations. I took Lamar Miller in the first round, Jamaal Charles in the third round (I did handcuff Spencer Ware, but he didn’t produce at a third-round value), Sammy Watkins in the fourth and Randall Cobb in the fifth. I believed in the Jeremy Hill bounceback. I took a shot on Josh Gordon. By time I was able to package a few players for Devonta Freeman, it was too late. This is a superflex league and, interestingly, the only thing that worked out for me was waiting on the quarterback position. I was one of the last people to jump in at QB, and ended up with Philip Rivers and Marcus Mariota. Alas, they were not enough to make up for my many draft-day misses.
O.K. Fitz, enough rehashing of the regular season. Let’s look ahead to the playoffs. We discussed players we believe are in for big playoff performances on this week’s podcast, and I wrote a column on potential surprise playoff heroes. Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Are there any players responsible for their owners being in the postseason who you believe could tank over the next three weeks? It was just two years ago that Andrew Luck was the No. 1 fantasy quarterback and the model of consistency all season, only to put up 2.4 points in Week 16. Is there anyone you see destined for a similar downfall?
Fitz: The first guy who comes to mind is Travis Kelce. (And by the way, I wrote that on Thursday afternoon, before Kelce caught five passes for 101 yards against the Raiders.) What vexes me is the potential effect that Jeremy Maclin’s return could have. In the four games Maclin has missed with a groin injury, Kelce has averaged 9.5 targets, 6.5 catches and 95.0 yards. In the eight games before Maclin went down, Kelce averaged 6.5 targets. 4.9 catches and 54.4 yards. There aren’t that many balls to go around with Alex Smith triggering the offense, and with Maclin and Tyreek Hill also staking target claims, I’m concerned that the mighty “Zeus” could become less involved down the stretch.
We talked about this on our podcast: I’m nervous about LeGarrette Blount’s prospects in the coming weeks. He’s averaging 19.2 carries this season and has had double-digit carries in every game, but I worry that the Patriots might be pass-heavy against the Ravens this week and again in Week 16, when they face a Jets defense that’s been staunch against the run and a sieve against the pass. There are also some troublesome variables here. How will the loss of Rob Gronkowski affect New England’s run blocking? Will the Pats start to ramp up the workload of Dion Lewis now that he has played a few games and remained intact?
I’m worried that some owners might be walking into a DeVante Parker trap. Just as he was finally starting to earn our trust, he injured his back. Parker played through it in Week 13 and gave his owners a TD catch, but he was targeted only four times and had three receptions for 34 yards. Although we have less than two full NFL seasons to go on, it seems that Parker doesn’t play particularly well when he’s banged up. Julio Jones’s turf toe injury is another potentially troublesome development. The timing is unfortunate, not only because we’re into the fantasy playoffs, but also because Julio is hitting a very favorable stretch of schedule, with games against the Rams, 49ers and Panthers. All three of those teams rank in the bottom five in schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed to opposing wide receivers, according to 4for4.com.
What about you, Beller? Anyone who concerns you as the playoffs begin? I also want to get your take on some quarterbacks. I found it extremely hard to rank the QBs this week, and I’m curious to see where you put some of the guys I struggled to assess. Where do you have Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston, Dak Prescott and Cam Newton? I was initially bullish on Ryan but dropped him to QB8 due to the Jones injury (even though Julio is expected to play). I have Jameis at QB10 and just couldn’t bring myself to put him any higher despite the scrumptious home matchup against the Saints. It seems like a lot of people are off Dak this week, but I couldn’t drop him any lower than QB11 as good as he’s been all season. And I have Newton QB14, which seems criminally low, but I’m finding it hard to work up enthusiasm for a guy who has completed less than half of his passes in three consecutive games.
Beller: I’m looking for a big name who might come up shy of what his owners need in the playoffs and keep coming back to DeMarco Murray, all because of his toe injury. If he comes out on Sunday and is completely healthy, this is going to look foolish. His injury history, however, is well known to all fantasy owners. He missed eight games over the first three seasons of his career, and handled just 193 carries last season despite playing 15 games. What's worse, if he's the slightest bit compromised, the Titans can turn to Derrick Henry and not lose much off the full potential of their rushing attack. Barring another injury, we'll know exactly what Murray we're getting for the playoffs on Sunday. If he looks like himself against the Broncos, this call will be incorrect. If he doesn't, his owners could have a short stay in the playoffs. But, of course, they likely wouldn't be here without him. So all Murray owners, if he lets you down in the coming weeks, don't forget what he did to get you to this spot.
I’ll start with my rankings for those QBs, then get into why I slotted them where I did. I’ve got Winston ninth, Ryan 10th, Newton 13th and Dak 18th. I like Winston against the Saints. I think there’s some top-five upside here, and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t give us numbers that typically get a quarterback into the top 10. He has been efficient of late, the run game hasn’t produced much in the way of yards per carry since Doug Martin’s return, and I don’t see any way the Saints slow down Mike Evans to a meaningful degree. Cameron Brate’s emergence is great news for Winston, as well. I wouldn’t consider him over the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger, but I think he’s an easy starter this week.
Julio’s health has me concerned about Ryan. I’m still likely playing him if I own him, but his ceiling comes down significantly if we’re looking at an 80% Julio. I think Ryan owners also need to be worried about the Falcons’ ability to go heavy with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and beat the Rams to the tune of, say, a 20–10 score. I mean, can’t they do that? Can’t they control this game with their backs and get out of L.A. with a relatively comfortable victory, giving Julio an off-week of sorts? Remember, the Falcons are in a battle with the Buccaneers for the NFC South crown. Why risk Julio if you can win this game without his usual contributions?
You know what’s possibly an even greater concern for Newton owners than his scattershot accuracy this last three games? His rushing numbers in that same timeframe. Newton has picked up 25 yards on the ground on 11 carries in his last three games. He previously had one stretch in his career so anemic on the ground, and that came at the beginning of the 2014 season. Remember, though, that he missed the first game that year because of a hairline fracture to his ribs. He made a concerted effort to not run early that season, making sure his ribs were fully healthy before he started exposing himself to the extra hits one takes as a runner. Similarly, we haven’t seen the same run threat since Newton suffered a concussion in October. His rushing ability is what makes him a special fantasy quarterback, and that’s just not showing up the way it normally does.
I think this week sets up poorly for Prescott. He’s going on the road in a hostile environment in a game the Giants could really use. Prescott has been nothing short of excellent this season, but it’s not always going to be so easy. I know we hate to lean on feel in the fantasy world, but I don’t think the Cowboys are going 15–1 this season, and this is definitely a losable game, even with the Giants missing Jason Pierre-Paul. If the Giants do indeed win this game, they’ll likely make Prescott’s life tough en route to the victory. I’m picking the Giants to win, which means, by extension, that I can’t have much faith in Prescott as a fantasy option.
You know who I like more than all those quarterbacks this week? Kirk Cousins. Of course I do. Why is it still so hard for such a large segment of the fantasy community to trust this guy? I’m also picking the Browns to win and am expecting big games from both Isaiah Crowell and Terrelle Pryor. There’s too much talent on this offense for them to go 0–16, but this might be their last best hope of a victory. Are you on the Browns train this week? If not, are there any teams you think can pull off an upset?
Fitz: There aren’t a lot of upset candidates, since 11 of the 16 games on the slate have spreads of less than four points. I’ve given up on trying to peg the Browns’ first victory. It would be fantastic to see them get one, but it’s hard to imagine a rusty Robert Griffin III playing well enough to push the Browns past the Bengals.
The upset pick I like this week is Houston over Indianapolis. The Texans are six-point dogs, which I believe gives the Colts far too much credit for their easy Week 13 victory over the uninterested Jets. Yes, Andrew Luck vs. Brock Osweiler is a QB mismatch. The Houston offense ain’t pretty, but neither is the Indianapolis defense, which is giving up 6.1 yards per play, ranking ahead of only Oakland in that category. The Texans’ defense is still respectable even without J.J. Watt, and Osweiler had one of his better showings of the season the last time he played the Colts, with Houston prevailing in overtime, 26–23, in Week 6. I don’t believe in the Colts any more than I believe in Santa Claus, so I’ll be taking the six points and wagering some milk and cookies on the Texans. (I might even put a little gingerbread on the money line.)
I’m in a DFS slump, so it’s possible I’ll take a one-week break and stick to conventional NFL betting this week. But I know you’re going to be making out some lineups this week, Beller. Why don’t you wrap this up by sharing a couple of your favorite DFS plays for this week? And since we often end on a musical note, what’s your favorite Pink Floyd album? I find it hard to choose, but I’ve always been partial to Animals. How about you?
Beller: Fitz, you better hope your kids don’t read this with that flippant Santa Claus talk! I love this time of year. I know it’s en vogue to dog Christmas music, but I love it. My favorite is probably “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee. That sax solo is something even the great Bobby Keys—who has now been gone two years, but whose music will never leave us—would be proud of. I can also get on board with Sinatra singing the classics. Anyway, back to football.
I’m shocked the Colts are laying nearly a touchdown in that game, but I do think they come away with a win. Andrew Luck isn’t getting enough credit for how great he has been this season. His offensive line remains a problem, the defense is terrible, and there have been injuries to key players at the skill positions. Luck still chugs right along, keeping the Colts in the AFC South race. Whoever wins the division will have their hands full in the wild-card round, likely with the second-place team from the AFC West, but Luck deserves a lot of credit for the Colts even being in the discussion.
I assume you’re looking for my favorite DFS plays other than Cousins, because that’s a given. Outside of the obvious Le’Veon Bell, who I just can’t get away from, I’ve got a lot of exposure to Emmanuel Sanders this week. The Titans have allowed a receiver to put up at least 18.5 full PPR points and 15.5 half-PPR points in all of their last seven games. I think either Sanders or Demaryius Thomas will continue that trend this week, and Sanders seems to have better mojo with Trevor Siemian. I’m also taking the plunge on Todd Gurley, who can’t possibly go the entire season without a 100-yard game, right? Plus, the Falcons have been burned by backs as receivers this year, and Benny Cunningham is going to be out or limited due to injury this week. I think we finally get a big Gurley game on Sunday.
Fitz, are you going to hate me after I tell you that I’m not the biggest Pink Floyd fan in the world? I like ’em, sure, but they’re just not totally my thing. I'd probably go with Animals, as well, just because of its unique qualities. Plus, I’ve always been partial to “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” among Pink Floyd songs. I do like plenty of their songs, from “Fearless” to “Time” to “Money”, but they're an outer-ring band for me. What’s on the inner rings, you ask? Well, anyone who reads this with regularity knows the Rolling Stones and The Band are my two favorite bands. They're followed, in no particular order, by CCR, Led Zeppelin, Sam Cooke, Cream, The Who, Chuck Berry and two of the most underrated bands of all-time, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Faces. And that, my friends, is what we call impeccable taste in music.
Until next week, Fitz.