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Next Gen Stats: Week 17 fantasy football matchups

The fantasy season is largely in the books and many teams either have their eye on the playoffs or 2019.

The Saints, Cowboys, and Seahawks will positively rest starters in the season finale while it's largely expected Christian McCaffrey will not handle his normal workload after compiling 321 touches in 15 games. What's more, the Chargers may be locked in to the No. 5 seed if the Chiefs take care of business against the Raiders. Both L.A. and Kansas City play in the 4:25 (ET) window. The Bears and Rams are in a similar tug-of-war. If Los Angeles takes care of San Francisco, Chicago will have nothing to play for against Minnesota. We could see both the Bears and the Chargers take their foot off the gas in the second half if the Rams and Chiefs, respectively, build first-half leads.

Still, if you're making Week 17 fantasy lineup decisions -- like for a day or something -- let's break down the matchups and storylines that will define the slate using Next Gen Stats:

Matchup: Texans vs. Jaguars (1 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Win guarantees Houston home playoff game; loss drops Houston to No. 6 seed

A common theme in this space all year, this Week 17 bout between division foes will be partially decided by how well Deshaun Watson performs under pressure. Over the full year, Watson's passer rating drops by 81 points when he is under duress, the largest differential in the league. While Watson averages 9.2 pass yards per attempt and possesses a 121.4 rating when the pocket is kept clean, he's only put up 5.2 YPA and a 40.4 QB rating (second-worst) when pressured. For context, six of Watson's 9 INTs have come when pressured while only Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill have been sacked on a higher rate of their dropbacks (11.3 percent) than Watson (10.6 percent).

The Jags' are playing for nothing but pride at this point, but they can wreck Houston's AFC South aspirations with a win. The common narrative states the Jags defense has regressed severely this year, but that is far from the truth recently. Over the last six weeks, Jacksonville owns the league's sixth-highest pressure rate forced (29 percent), the fifth-lowest passing success rate allowed (45 percent), and the third-lowest passer rating (75.6).

Matchup: Patriots vs. Jets (1 p.m. ET)

*Storyline: Patriots must win to clinch AFC No. 2 seed *

If we truly are nearing the end of the Patriots dynasty, another season with 10-plus wins, a division title, and a possible first-round playoff bye isn't a bad way to go out.

While 41-year-old Tom Brady is trying to add a sixth Super Bowl to his already stellar resume, 21-year-old Sam Darnold has been playing lights out to close the season. Since returning from a foot injury in Week 14, Sam Darnold's completion percentage is 8.5 percent higher than expected (based on the difficulty of the throw) per Next Gen Stats. In fact, only Josh Allen and Jameis Winston (11.3) are averaging more air yards per throw than Darnold (10.3) in this span. As a result, Darnold's 106.3 passer rating is sixth-best over the last three weeks, trailing only Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield, Nick Foles, and Ben Roethlisberger.

New England presents a tough test for the rookie -- the Pats' own the NFL's sixth-lowest passer rating (79.8) over the last six weeks -- but after an up-and-down start to the season, Darnold has hit his stride late in the year. The Jets' arrow is firmly ticked upward.

Matchup: Browns vs. Ravens (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Ravens must win; Browns playing for pride

Since Lamar Jackson took over as the Ravens starter in Week 11, no team in the NFL has come close to running the ball as often (64 percent) as Baltimore. The Ravens extreme run-heavy approach isn't just milking the clock and keeping the ball away from opponents, they're actually a fairly efficient offense even though the only throw the ball on one-third of their plays. In this six week stretch, the Ravens have averaged 35.2 yards gained per drive (10th-best) while 45.6 percent of their possessions have ended in a score (sixth-best).

Now, the white-hot Browns get a chance to play spoiler in the season finale. While Cleveland's offense has taken flight with Baker Mayfield since Hue Jackson was fired after Week 8, their run defense has been extremely boom-or-bust. Over their last seven games with new coaching in place, the Browns have given up the fourth-highest rate of carries to gain 10 or more yards (16 percent). That's not ideal with a road date against the Ravens up next. However, on a significantly more positive note, only five teams have stuffed a higher rate of runs at or behind the line of scrimmage in this span than the Browns (24 percent).

Still, stopping the Ravens elite rushing attack begins with slowing down Lamar Jackson's horizontal, slashing rushing style on off-tackle runs. Over the full season, Cleveland has permitted 5.3 yards after a defender has closed on off-tackle QB runs -- the sixth-most in the NFL.

Matchup: Chargers vs. Broncos (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Bolts jockeying for playoff positioning

If the Chiefs somehow lose at home to the Raiders in Week 17, all the Chargers need to do is win against the Broncos and they would become the AFC's No. 1 seed. If L.A. and Kansas City both win, the Chargers remain the No. 5 seed and L.A. will play their entire playoff bracket on the road.

While Philip Rivers is in the midst of his career-best season and will look to bounce back after his worst game of the season in Week 16, the 'Bolts playoff hopes may be equally defined by L.A.'s elite pass rush. As evidenced by Next Gen Stats, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram's presence on the field together is monumental:


Now, Bosa and Ingram get to warm up their playoff jets against a quarterback that has supremely struggled against pressure as of late. Over the last six weeks, Case Keenum owns the NFL's fourth-worst passer rating under duress (39.6) while his completion rate is 10.2 percent below expectation when facing pressure in this span is third-worst Look out.

Matchup: Raiders vs. Chiefs (4:25 p.m. ET)

*Storyline: Chiefs trying to stay on top of AFC *

Since Andy Reid became the Chiefs head coach in 2013, Kansas City has absolutely smashed as large home-favorites. In this span, the Chiefs are 14-4 when at home and favored by seven or more points. This week, the Chiefs are massive double-digit favorites to win over the Raiders, who are playing (to lose) for draft seeding after beating the lifeless Broncos in Week 16.

The path to victory for Kansas City is simple in their season finale: Target Travis Kelce. When these two sides met in Week 13, Kelce had the best game of his stellar season -- nuking the Raiders for 12/168/2 on 13 targets. Oakland's talent-deficient defense has been the worst team in the league at defending the middle of the field, ceding a 148.4 passer rating (worst in NFL) and a monster 10.4 YPA (worst) to receivers aligned "tight" to the formation. That's precisely where Kelce takes 46 percent of his snaps, per Next Gen Stats. This is a dream spot for Kelce to end his regular season on, especially considering he only needs 54 yards to pass Rob Gronkowski (1,327) for most receiving yards in a single-season by a tight end.

Matchup: 49ers vs. Rams (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: L.A. full-go vs. San Francisco

Without Todd Gurley (knee) last week -- and likely again in the season finale -- the Rams changed their entire offense against the Cardinals. Sean McVay unwaveringly plays 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 1WR) on almost all of the Rams offensive snaps when they are at full health, but last week he did something drastic. After calling just nine rushing plays from 12-personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) all season long, the Rams used '12' on 27-of-39 (69 percent) rush plays last week in Arizona. Freshly plucked off waivers, C.J. Anderson proceeded to rip the Cards' for 167 yards on 20 totes, the second-most rushing yards recorded by a Ram in a single-game over the last decade.

(Insert "running backs don't matter" argument here).

Seriously, though -- the Rams use of 12-personnel in Week 16 shows McVay can not only create maximum deception by using one personnel grouping; but, showed flexibility in the face of a major roster change. Without Cooper Kupp, Todd Gurley, and behind an offensive line that has quietly struggled over the last month, McVay made Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee near full-time players. Both tight ends played on 75 percent of team snaps in Week 16, easily season-highs for each.

Now, the Rams spiked use of '12' may force the 49ers into their "base" 4-3 package to account for the extra tight end on the field. L.A. should find easy success. Per Next Gen Stats, San Francisco has coughed up the tenth-most yards per play when they are in their 4-3 defense over the last six weeks.

Matchup: Bears vs. Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Minnesota must win; Chicago fighting L.A. for No. 2 NFC seed

Kirk Cousins was one of the three-most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL for the first 13 games of the season, but that has changed drastically over the last two weeks. Under new OC Kevin Stefanski in Weeks 15-16, Cousins has been pressured on just 17 percent of his dropbacks after being under duress on an other-worldly 35 percent of his dropbacks in Weeks 1-14.

Granted, the Dolphins (Week 15) and Lions' (Week 16) respective front-sevens are about as fierce as a baby kitten, but the Vikes' improving protection is a welcome sight regardless of the opponent. A reason for the Vikings surge in pass pro may come down to a simple scheme change: more play-action. Per PFF's charts, Stefanski has spiked Cousins' play-action rate to 36 percent after Minnesota ran play-action just 19 percent of the time under former OC John DeFilippo in Weeks 1-14. By design, play-action naturally freezes the underneath coverage and creates easy-to-read throwing lanes for the quarterback.

Now, the true test comes in Week 17 against Chicago. Yes, the Bears can't fall out of the No. 3 seed with a loss and are likely going to be road-blocked from the No. 2 seed unless the 49ers pull off a miracle win in Los Angeles. Still, this is a brutal playoff-like test for the Vikings. Over the last six weeks, Chicago's defense has been white hot, forcing the NFL's third-highest pressure rate (32 percent) while stunning aerial attacks for the league's lowest passer rating (62.4) in this span.

Matchup: Bengals vs. Steelers (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Pittsburgh needs a win and help from Cleveland

The injury-riddled Bengals desperately need the offseason while the back-sliding Steelers desperately need a win. At the very least for Pittsburgh, this is about as good of a draw in a must-win game a team can get. Not only are the Steelers at home where Ben Roethlisberger's notorious home/road splits are in play, but they are also playing one of the league's worst defenses that will be further hampered without LB Vontaze Burfict (concussion) in the season finale.

Over the last six weeks, the Bengals defense has completely folded. In this span, Cincinnati has allowed the NFL's sixth-highest passer rating when QBs are throwing from a clean pocket, the fifth-highest passer rating when they force pressure, and the NFL's highest rating when they blitz (five or more pass rushers). Yikes. This goes without mentioning that Cincinnati has allowed a horrific 7.9 passing yards per attempt on the road (sixth-worst) while giving up eight top-12 (QB1) fantasy scoring weeks this year, tied for third-most. The Steelers aerial attack has a high floor and ceiling in Week 17.

Matchup: Eagles vs. Redskins (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Philadelphia must win and Minnesota must lose for the Eagles to make the dance

It's a small sample of just 26 attempts, but Nick Foles has absolutely excelled against the blitz this season. Per Next Gen Stats, Foles has completed 77 percent of his throws at 9.8 yards per attempt and a near perfect 145.5 passer rating when facing five or more pass rushers. Somehow, despite losing 4-of-5 starters in the secondary and Carson Wentz (back) again, the Eagles are right in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. And, once again, Nick Foles' poise under pressure is shining through. Washington is another team that desperately needs the offseason in the worst way and if their recent blitz-heavy tendency sticks in the season finale, the Redskins may be in some trouble. Over the last six weeks, Washington has sent five or more pass rushers on 36 percent of dropbacks -- the fifth-highest rate in the league. Look for Foles to work his magic against the blitz in Week 17.

Matchup: Colts vs. Titans (8:20 p.m. ET)

*Storyline: Winner advances, loser goes home *

While Marcus Mariota's (stinger) status is completely up in the air for Sunday night, the Titans will be without stud DT Jurrell Casey (knee; IR) in Week 17. It's a massive blow. Lining up as an interior lineman on 95 percent of his snaps this year, Casey leads the Titans in sacks (7), pressures forced (26), and run stuffs (16).

The Titans playoff hopes now rest on (perhaps) Blaine Gabbert's right arm and a Casey-less defense. While Gabbert could pop off for a decent game against a Colts' secondary that was just waxed by Eli Manning (76 percent completion rate, 309 yards, 9.4 YPA), replacing Casey is no easy task against perhaps the league's best interior offensive line. Per Next Gen Stats, the Colts guard-center trio has permitted the NFL's lowest pressure rate this season at a stiff 7.4 percent clip. For reference, the Patriots (7.9 percent interior pressure rate allowed) and the Browns (8.1 percent) are second- and third-best, respectively. The only Titan we can trust in Week 17 fantasy lineup decisions is Derrick Henry.

-- Graham Barfield is the managing editor of fantasy football content at Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBarfield.

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