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Fantasy Film Study: Breaking down Saints vs. Panthers

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The NFC South title is pretty much on the line in the highly-anticipated rematch between the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. But more importantly, if you're lucky enough to still be playing fantasy football, your fantasy title is likely on the line as well. This matchup features a number of troubling fantasy storylines, including Drew Brees' struggles on the road, the Panthers' stingy defense, and the frustratingly inconsistent production of each team's backfield.

Using Game Rewind, which you can try free for seven days by clicking here, I went to the tape to help you make the right calls in this marquee fantasy matchup to get that fantasy championship you've always wanted under your Christmas tree.

1) QB Quandary

Drew Brees and Cam Newton are No. 2 and No. 3 in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks, respectively, which means both are likely rostered on a number of teams still alive in the fantasy playoffs. Both have been incredibly consistent in 2013, with only three single-digit fantasy outings combined in their 28 games played. However, there are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to pin your fantasy hopes on their shoulders.

Most importantly, is their performance at home versus the road. The Saints as a whole struggle on the road, as all four of their losses have been outside the Superdome. They average 14.4 fewer points per game when on the road than at home -- a significant drop. Part of this might come from Brees himself, as his numbers drop noticeably in opponents' houses, where he averages just 16.39 fantasy points per game as opposed to 27.54 at home. Newton's fantasy production is a little more stable, averaging 17.65 fantasy points on the road while bringing in 20.73 fantasy points for his owners at home. If I had to pick between the two, I'd start Newton. Consistency is part of it, and I believe his ability to run could be a factor in the Panthers gameplan (see below). Here's why I'm slightly worried about Brees.

The Panthers had issues getting to Brees when these teams met in Week 14, and as a result, Brees picked them apart. That could be different this time around, after the Rams pressured Brees into two costly interceptions and sacked him four times. The Saints have since benched left tackle Chris Brown in favor of rookie Terron Armstead. This will be the rookie's first NFL start, and he has to face Greg Hardy, the third-best pass-rushing right defensive end according to Pro Football Focus. The Rams also found success blitzing Brees, which isn't easy since Brees has the second-best completion percentage in the league when under pressure with 65.8 (Peyton Manning leads with 71.6). The difference, at least from what I saw on the film, was that the Rams had a game-changing pair of defensive ends, much like the Panthers.

Here, the Rams line up in a nickel formation, and will send both James Laurinaitis and Alec Olgetree in on a blitz. This forces the left tackle to take on Quinn (highlighted) one-on-one. The result was not pretty (which is pretty much the case anytime Quinn is one-on-one with a tackle).

Quinn is in the backfield in the blink of an eye as the interior linemen focus on picking up the blitzers. Brees is dropped for an eight-yard loss and almost loses the football. The Panthers possess two outstanding linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who may find themselves blitzing a little more often than usual on Sunday.

Fantasy Impact: Now, don't get cute. It's the fantasy playoffs. If Brees has gotten you this far, he should be in your starting lineup. The only caveat to that is if you have a backup with a better matchup. Brees' underwhelming road performances are a concern (nine turnovers on the road versus just three at home), as is the angry Panthers defense. If you have someone like Jay Cutler or Philip Rivers waiting in the wings, start them over Brees. There are just too many factors stacked against the future Hall of Famer to trust him 100 percent with a championship on the line. You can start Newton with confidence, but the Saints are a tough draw against the quarterbacks, allowing just 16.14 fantasy points to them on the road. His ceiling is a little lower than usual, but he should still produce.

2) Busy backfields

Even though Jonathan Stewart is sidelined with a knee injury, this game features at least four backs who have produced for fantasy owners this season: Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles for the Saints, and DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert for the Panthers. Deciding what to do with these players week-to-week can be frustrating, but for Week 16 it's easier than you might think.

DeAngelo Williams is the only one worth starting. When the teams faced off in Week 14, the Panthers found success early with power runs, but had to focus more on throwing the ball when they fell behind at the end of the first half. Carolina handed the ball off to its backs 27 times last week against the Jets, and Williams rushed for 81 yards on 15 carries (5.4 avg), while Tolbert had 18 rushing yards on 12 carries. I expect the Panthers to stay committed to the run on Sunday, based on the success they had running the football against the Saints in Week 14.

Below, the Panthers are lined up in a 22 personnel package (2 RB, 2 TE) with both Tolbert and Greg Olsen in the backfield ahead of Williams, the deep back. At the snap, Olsen and left guard Travelle Wharton pull across the line and serve as the lead blockers for Williams.

The team executes the play very well, giving Williams a clear lane with Olsen leading the way. The play picks up nine yards, a gain any coach would be happy to have on first down. However, had Olsen been able to see Malcolm Jenkins coming from the backside, Williams may have been sprung for a whole lot more.

Carolina moved the ball effectively early and often against the Saints with a mix of power running schemes. They could to do the same thing at home on Sunday to keep Brees on the sideline, which means DeAngelo Williams could be in line for a monster day. They also ran Newton out of similar power formations, so Superman should deliver some rushing yards for your fantasy team as well. The Saints run defense has only allowed an opposing back to gain at least 90 rushing yards four times -- and each of those performances came when the running back was on his home turf. Tolbert, as usual, has touchdown vulture potential, but Williams should be the lead dog on Sunday.

Fantasy points scored, last three games
Player
@ SEA
CAR
@ STL
Sproles
2.1
2.8
8.3
Thomas
4.3
6.1
6.2
Ingram
2.2
0.4
4.4

As for the Saints crowded backfield, you've been living life on the edge if you have either Sproles or Thomas in your lineup week-to-week. Both have had their share of big games, followed by big disappointments. As a whole, though, the group has underperformed of late. Check out the table to the right. Between Sproles, Thomas and Mark Ingram, the three of them have combined to score 10 fantasy points just once in the last three weeks. That is a frighteningly low amount of fantasy production from such a versatile, talented backfield. It's a combination of each back cannibalizing the others' touches, as well as the Saints primarily focusing on the pass. Let's not forget that Terron Armstead will be making his first NFL start against one of the best front sevens in football, either. Greg Hardy may be pitching a tent in the Saints backfield all afternoon. Add into the mix the fact that the Panthers are allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs when they play at Bank of America Stadium, and you realize that a spot on your fantasy bench is in the future for the backs from the bayou.

Fantasy Impact: If you have Williams, he has to be in your lineup this week. Whether it be as a flex or RB2 depends on your depth. The Saints allow 18.56 fantasy poitns per game to running backs when on the road, and I fully expect the Panthers to put an emphasis on the power running game to slow the Saints pass rush and keep Brees on the bench. The rest of the bunch should not be trusted, especially with a fantasy championship likely on the line.

3) Sorting through the pass catchers

Start/Sit: Get the White out
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The Saints are loaded with talented pass catchers for Drew Brees to target, from Jimmy Graham to Marques Colston to rookie Kenny Stills. The Panthers, not so much. Steve Smith hasn't had a game without a reception since George W. Bush was in office, and Greg Olsen ranks eighth in fantasy scoring for tight ends in 2013, so it's not as if the Panthers pass-catchers are a talent wasteland. However, it's tough to trust any target in the Panthers passing offense. Unless, of course, you're trusting Ted Ginn Jr. to drop something. That's a sure thing.

The lone feasible options, Olsen and Smith, face tough matchups, so if you have better options at tight end or wide receiver, make sure they're in your lineup.

Back to the Saints, the pass-catchers to start are Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. Both found the end zone twice the last time these two teams met and had six and nine catches, respectively. The big-bodied targets create matchup issues for the Panthers over the middle, as they routinely exploited the weaknesses in the Panthers' zone coverages in Week 14.

Below, the Panthers threaten blitz with Kuechly and Davis lined up over the center. Graham is lined up by himself, off-tackle to the right.

Davis bumps Graham, but it's not enough to get the dominant tight end off-balance. Graham easily finds the soft spot behind the linebackers for a nice chunk of yardage.

Fantasy Impact:Graham will be the primary target in the offense, as he has been all season. Michael Fabiano suggests benching Colston in his latest Start 'Em & Sit 'Em, but the tape the last few games indicates Colston could still produce on Sunday. He's worth consideration as a WR3 or flex start. As for the Panthers, Olsen and Smith should really only be started as a last resort.

Conclusion

Week 16 gives us what should be a highly entertaining football, and fantasy football, matchup. The Saints and Panthers each field top fantasy performers at various postitions. Based on the tape, and numbers from this season, I'm worried about Drew Brees. Not enough to bench him for just anybody. But if you have a capable backup, swap him in, and rub it in your buddy's face that you beat him or her with Drew Brees on the bench.

You were likely starting Graham and Newton before you came to this article, so if you've read this far, thanks for hanging around! The shining fantasy star of this game should be DeAngelo Williams, however. He has a favorable matchup, and has been finding success recently in the Panthers power running game. That's a wrap on this week's Fantasy Film Study. Best of luck to those still lucky enough to be playing fantasy football! And for the rest of you, it's never too earlier to start thinking about 2014

- Alex Gelhar came to NFL.com to chew bubblegum and write about fantasy football. And he's all out of bubblegum. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar.

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