The playoffs are here, but daily fantasy is still in full swing. For the Divisional round of the NFL postseason, DFS sites will stay open for those of us with the itch left to scratch.
Playing DFS in the playoffs is different than the endeavor we enjoyed in the regular season. NFL fantasy is already variance heavy, and it gets ramped up even more in the playoffs. With only four games on, it's harder to insulate yourself from that, and we all know that weird happenings just tend to take place in the playoffs, anyways. This is the time of the year when it matters most for players, and the outcomes become harder to project across the way.
Additionally, with an four game slate and a smaller pool of players to pick from, we can't count on our opponents to make sub-optimal decisions, a key in being a good DFS player. For that reason, if you're playing in the postseason, just enter tournaments and do this for fun. It's a nice way to get your fantasy fix in, and have a little something extra to root for while watching the games. Just don't think this is a situation where you can really gain a big edge over the field. Because of that lack of an edge, I won't split players into the different category as in the regular season like "cheatcodes" and "100 percent exposure". We'll just look at the positions in value based tiers.
With all that out of the way, there are certainly some strong plays to look at in four games that all don't feel completely clear. Let's have some fun.
Carson Palmer had one of his slower games of 2015 against the Packers just a few weeks ago when he scored "just" 17.6 fantasy points. However, that game was a 38-8 beat down where Green Bay's offense completely tanked and Palmer was taken out of the game early. While that same outcome is well within the range of possibilities in this rematch, Green Bay did find a far better groove last week against Washington in their road win. If the Packers keep this game more competitive than the prior meeting, Palmer will almost certainly throw more than the 27 passes he attempted in Week 16; his lowest mark since Week 5.
It's rather surprising that Cam Newton didn't end up as the top ranked quarterback across the DFS landscape, considering he failed to hit 20 points from the month of November on. Perhaps the fear of the Seahawks defense kept him below Palmer, but that would be misguided. Newton went for 299 total yards and two scores last time these two teams played, and that was both in Seattle and before Cam Newton went nuclear.
Being at home is a massive positive indicator for Newton this season. In homes games this year, Newton averaged 8.97 yards per attempt and 2.5 touchdowns per game on just 17.5 completions per game, compared to 6.78, 1.88 and 19.5 on the road. Much is made of Seattle's play on the road versus in their home stadium, but Carolina was just as throttling at home this season as the Seahawks ever were. Despite the specter of Seattle, Cam Newton is still the top quarterback play on the board for the Divisional round.
It's hard to justify Tom Brady as a ceiling play, especially when he's just a hair away from Newton in terms of value. Brady scored over 20 fantasy points just two times since the calendar turned to the month of November. That stretch of just solid games coincided with his supporting cast taking hits, and once again, Rob Gronkowski is on the injury report and not practicing this week. When you're completely chasing high upside in this format, it's hard to imagine Brady coming through any more than the two listed ahead of him.
Russell Wilson churned out just around 10 points in a painfully cold game in Minnesota. Expect Wilson to get back to solid play against Carolina. While the Panthers were lights out against quarterbacks this year, they did cede the 10th most passing yards in the last four weeks. Injuries to Charles Tillman and Bene' Benwikere left their pass defense in a bind. While many will point to the Green Bay at Arizona contest as the most likely shootout, this game has just as a good of a chance to turn into one. With the two hottest late season quarterbacks in tow, look for this to be less of a slugfest than the public projects.
Aaron Rodgers escaped with a cool 18.3 points against Washington, good for his highest mark since Week 14. However, the Cardinals will prove an entirely different challenge. Arizona ranked eighth in fantasy points allowed per pass attempt, and gave up a sub-60 percent completion rate to opposing passers. Take the plunge at other positons to get up to Wilson, Newton or Palmer while forgoing another week with Rodgers.
Perhaps it's worth tossing out Ben Roethlisberger in a contrarian fashion, but there's a craterous floor you're playing with. On his seven pass attempts after re-entering the Bengals game, Roethlisberger averaged just 1.7 air yards. You don't really need context to tell you how alarming that is, but Roethlisberger's season average was over 10.
Alex Smith is a safe floor option as always, but don't rule out that he hits a tangible ceiling this week. Smith might well have to open up his game a bit more against the Patriots, and for him that means more running. In the three games where he topped 40 yards rushing and/or scored a ground touchdown since November, Smith scored 18.34, 24.78, 27.6 and 17.4 points. If you want to grab a big-name tight end, David Johnson and Demaryius Thomas in one lineup, Smith provides the relief to do so.
It's hard to go back to the well that brought us a measly three games with more than 17 fantasy points this season, but Peyton Manning is squarely back in play as a tournament option. The Steelers pass defense is a middle of the road unit at best, and is weakest at defending perimeter wideouts where Denver's pass offense is the strongest. You may end up with a low-ceiling effort from Manning, and perhaps even a turnover filled disaster, but something about the narrative of him retaking this team feels like a strong game is on its way. At worst, he offers the value needed to stack with Thomas, while also chasing other high-end and mid-tier options.
None exist this week, unless Landry Jones somehow starts. Don't do that to yourself either way, though.
Probably the top play across the entire slate, David Johnson looks set to go berserk against the Packers. Last time these teams met in Week 16, Johnson took a measly 12 touches to earn 20.2 fantasy points. That touch mark, and the 14 in a blowout loss to Seattle in Week 17, were total outliers in terms of his workload. In the three games prior to the win over the Packers, Johnson averaged 27 touches per game as the Cardinals starter. The Packers gave up 5.47 yards per carry to the Washington running backs in the Wild Card round, which was even worse than the 5.29 mark they allowed the last four weeks of the regular season.
Many will naturally gravitate to James White due to his strong performance down the stretch, scoring double-digit points in five of his last six games. However, he still averaged just over six touches per game since Week 11, when his hot streak really began. The Chiefs also allowed the lowest catch rate to running backs this season and just 7.1 yards per catch. It's no less difficult to trust White now than it was in the regular season.
If Marshawn Lynch does sit out again, Christine Michael becomes an intriguing play, and one you likely get at diminished ownership. Michael handled a whopping 88 percent of the Seahawks running back touches against the Vikings. If he gets that kind of volume again, he's worth a look even in a tougher match up.
Somehow Jonathan Stewart's value fell back to its early season levels after missing a string of games, but he is all set to return for this contest. Stewart went for 78 rushing yards and two touchdowns on this same Seahawks defense in Seattle back in Week 6, and that started an eight game streak of handling at least 20 carries. It's hard to not like Stewart as a lineup anchor given his locked-in volume as a home favorite.
Fitzgerald Toussaint is a threat to see 10 catches on Sunday. With Ben Roethlisberger looking incapable of pushing the ball down the field when he returned against the Bengals last week, expect the Steelers to shorten the field of play against Denver. Toussaint looked solid in his first extended look against Cincinnati and handled most of the passing game work out of the backfield. Denver allowed 83 catches and five touchdowns over the course of the regular season. If the Steelers want to win this game, they need to ask a lot from their backs.
At this point, we have to regard Spencer Ware as the preferred running back in the Chiefs' offense. He outplayed and out-snapped Charcandrick West in each of their last two games together. Both were positive game scripts for a hammer running back to close out a game, but Ware played on several passing downs against the Texans last week. He's not as great of a play as he was just a week ago, but he makes some sense as a running back sure to see some touches at a good value.
If you know me, you know I love C.J. Anderson and am willing to cape up for him at any turn, so I'll have him in a few lineups this weekend. Pittsburgh had a strong run defense this season, but they did let both Bengals running backs top four yards per carry last week. He has the ability to break a touchdown run on any carry, as he showed multiple times this year. With Manning under center, it's not outside the realm of possibilities that the running backs split a 35 touch workload. I prefer using the better player in that scenario, always.
This does not look like a game where Steven Jackson will handle much work, but if New England can build a big lead, he could make some sense as a hammer to close the game out. It's a pure risk, but don't rule out that he finds the end zone, which he did in Week 17.
Jordan Todman arguably looked even better than Toussaint on Saturday night. He slashed by several defenders, and showed solid speed. He's far from the feature back type, and will undoubtedly fall behind Toussaint in the touches distribution. However, he could still push for 15 touches with Roethlisberger limited, and he showed the ability to break one in that scenario.
With Antonio Brown officially ruled out for this weekend, there's every reason to think that Demaryius Thomas is the top wide receiver play on the board. The Steelers rank 23rd in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers per target, and Thomas held far more upside with Manning under center. In his 10 games with Manning playing, Thomas averaged 93.3 yards and 7.3 catches per game, compared to 61.83 and 5.33 in the six without him. The Broncos should run much more short quick-passing concepts with Manning back in command, and Thomas' average depth of target is just 10.8, a full four yards shorter than Emmanuel Sanders. The #NarrativeStreet contingent is back out for Thomas this week, as his mom (who missed her first chance earlier this season) will watch him play live for the first time in his NFL career.
Some of the public might be off Larry Fitzgerald after he offered an extremely capped ceiling to end the season. From Week 12 on, Fitzgerald's average depth of target was just 6.2, but he was still second on the team in red zone targets. It might not be a bad idea to get on Fitzgerald in what should be a high scoring game.
All indications are that Julian Edelman should finally return to action this week. He took part in limited practice dating back to before their Week 16 game, which should negate worries about the long layoff. It's unlikely that the Patriots chuck the ball much into the deep portions of the Chiefs stellar secondary, meaning Edelman and the short passing game will be in focus, especially with Gronkowski's status in question. There's a strong chance Edelman racks up nine or more catches, and was tied for the team's lead in red zone targets in the first 10 weeks of the season.
Doug Baldwin is appealing, despite what some may perceive as a tough matchup against Carolina. Josh Norman did not follow big-time receivers like Odell Beckham or Julio Jones when they traveled into the slot this year, and Baldwin plays there on the vast majority of his snaps. Instead, Baldwin should square off with Cortland Finnegan, who was signed off the street late in the season and let it show. Look for Baldwin to continue his strong play in a game that quietly turn into a shootout.
Martavis Bryant is interesting as a potential target hog in the wake of Antonio Brown's absence. Of course, the matchup with Denver and Roethlisberger's injury are the ingredients for a disaster. However, you can at least tell yourself a story where Bryant still posts a good line at diminished ownership. Bryant's average depth of target was just 6.2 in the Steelers last five games, as they team tried to use his ability in space more. We also know that Bryant can be lethal after the catch, and he could always bust off a big play. It's a stretch, but it might be worth a look in a few lineups.
Both John Brown and Michael Floyd make sense in this spot, as well. Sam Shields should be back this week to man the left cornerback spot, but both Brown and Floyd should get chances to attack rookie Damarious Randall on the opposite side of the field. Per Pro Football Focus, neither receiver played more than 37 percent of their snaps at any of right, left or slot receiver. Both Floyd and Brown are big play threats, averaging 9.54 and 9.93 yards per target this season respectively. Either could crack the top-three scoring receivers this week.
It feels like Danny Amendola is destined to get overlooked with Edelman back, but he is playing for sure and has more upside than we think if Gronkowski sits. While LaFell at X-receiver and Edelman at flanker to square off with the stellar Marcus Peters and Sean Smith combination, Amendola draws the preferred matchup in the slot. He could crack 10 targets in this game and will come at a low ownership with touchdown potential.
There was not a ton to like about Tyler Lockett's outlook last week, but he's worth a look this time out. The Panthers rank a mediocre 18th on special teams, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA. The upside for Lockett to pop off a return score, and the hope he avoids Josh Norman for at least a handful of routes, makes him an intriguing tournament play.
Injury situations opened up several punt plays this weekend, none more so than in Kansas City. If Jeremy Maclin sits, both Albert Wilson and Chris Conley are worth getting exposure to. Conley caught two touchdowns in his rookie year, one in the win over Houston last week after Maclin went down, and the first against the Steelers in a game Kansas City's No. 1 receiver missed. Wilson was the starter across from Maclin all year, playing on 65 percent of the offensive snaps. He racked up four touches, two catches and two runs, early in the first half of the game against the Texans when it was still somewhat in question. In the words of my illustrious colleague, say it with us:
The second opportunity for a complete bargain punt play lies in Green Bay. With Davante Adams out for this game, Randall Cobb will slide to flanker so that second-year slot receiver Jared Abbrederis can assume a starting spot as a replacement. The Packers play with three wide receivers on the field on 69 percent of their snaps. Abbrederis has as good a shot of any of these receivers to have a big game. Patrick Peterson played just seven percent of his snaps in the slot this season, and will do most of his work guarding James Jones and a misplaced Randall Cobb. Look for Abbrederis to draw the best matchup with Tyrann Mathieu out of the lineup.
With the injury and a mid-week knee injection clouding Rob Gronkowski's outlook, it's hard to recommend playing him. If he goes, there's reason to at least throw him out in one lineup, but the chiefs defense boasts the second-best tight end stopping unit in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
Travis Kelce may end up as the highest-owned tight end on the slate after an eight catch, 128 yards game last week. Recency bias and public attention to big games often shift ownership the most. It's worth exploring Kelce if Maclin sits out. The talented tight end could push for 10 targets, a mark he reached only twice this season, and one was last week. However, the specter of Bill Belichick game planning to shut down the opposition's top threat looms large, and Kelce could well be that player this week.
For the value and matchup, Greg Olsen is the top tight end play of the week even if Gronk was 100 percent. Olsen averaged 7.8 targets per game this season and Seattle ranks 26th at defending tight ends in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Cam Newton could easily default to his most reliable weapon rather than hurling it into the teeth of the Seahawks secondary.
Heath Miller could easily be just another benefactor of Roethlisberger's compromised arm strength. As Pro Football Focus' Scott Barrett pointed out, Miller was a preferred short passing weapon all season anyway:
The Broncos allowed the 10th most yards to tight ends this season. With Brown out and Roethlisberger shortening the field, Miller could push for 10 catches in this spot.
The Broncos defense is the play of the week in this group, and frankly a unit worth going all-in on. They were the top fantasy defense this season, and we know Pittsburgh enters this fight with a hand, or three, tied behind their back. It's easy to at least one turnover and multiple sacks for Denver, in what should be a relatively low-scoring game.
Of all the games this weekend, Seattle and Carolina looks like the contest most likely to turn into a point trading event. I will avoid both of their fantasy defenses.
The Patriots and Chiefs defenses are in play in a game that should be relatively low-scoring. The projected weather in New England this Saturday should lend itself to a few mistakes from the offenses, and neither line is capable of preventing sacks. However, both offenses are short-passing teams, that won't look to force the issue.
If Green Bay's defense returns value against the Cardinals, even at their bargain tag, that would go down as one of the bigger shocks.