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NFL Football Column: Post-Season Fantasy Football Guide

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January 16, 2013
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Championship Week Rankings

Mike Clay
Writer, Rotoworld.com

Down to the final three games of the NFL season, only four teams remain.

This Sunday, the Ravens head to New England to take on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. The winner will take on the winner of the NFC title game between the Falcons and 49ers in Superbowl XLVII.

Down below are player rankings for this week’s two title games. Standard scoring is assumed.

Quarterback

1. Colin Kaepernick - SF (@ATL)
2. Tom Brady - NE (vs. BLT)
3. Matt Ryan - ATL (vs. SF)

Although I prefer Kaepernick from the bunch, the top-three quarterbacks are fairly interchangeable this week. Kaepernick figures to have to drop back more than usual in what should be a competitive game in Atlanta. That could cost him a designed run or two, but he’ll more than make up for that with additional passing and scramble yardage. The 49ers are averaging 3.5 offensive touchdowns-per-game over their last five games, including six scores against Green Bay this past week. In addition to the major damage he’s done with his legs, Kaepernick has thrown two or more touchdowns in three of his last four games. On the other hand, the Falcons are tough against the pass, having allowed a total of five passing scores over their last eight games.

The Patriots lead the NFL in two key offensive categories, both of which help boost Tom Brady into the elite fantasy quarterback conversation despite the fact that New England runs the ball more than you probably realize. The Patriots are tops in plays-per-game (74) and touchdowns per-game (3.8). Calling a pass on 57 percent of their offensive snaps, they rank as the leagues’ 12th run-heaviest team. Despite leading for most of the evening, the Patriots called pass on 63 percent of their snaps against the Texans this past week. Expect a similar mark with a tough Baltimore team in town this Sunday. The Ravens pass defense is one of the league’s toughest. They hadn’t allowed more than two passing scores in a game this season until Peyton Manning managed three on Saturday.

The Falcons call pass on 65 percent of their offensive snaps, which ranks them as the league’s eighth pass-heaviest team. An early lead meant a few extra running plays this past weekend, but Atlanta figures to have their hands full with San Francisco this week. Expect even more passing than usual. The Falcons are averaging 2.8 offensive touchdowns-per-game and have put three or more scores on the board 12 times in 17 games this season. Interestingly, Ryan has a 14:11 TD:INT ratio at home this year, compared to a 21:5 road mark. Teams drop back to pass nearly a half dozen more times than they do on an average week against San Francisco, which somewhat explains the strong numbers put up by opposing quarterbacks during recent weeks. The fact that they faced Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers during that stretch is an even better explanation.

4. Joe Flacco - BLT (@NE)

At 57 percent pass, Baltimore ranks as the league’s 13th run-heaviest team. The Ravens threw the ball quite a bit more often earlier in the year, but they’ve called pass just 47 percent of the time during their most recent four-game stretch, which saw them earn three wins. They rank last among the four remaining team in offensive touchdowns-per-game (2.5). The good news is that the Baltimore offense has put up three-plus scores in four of their last six games. The Ravens will hope to lean on the run again this week, but the more-likely scenario has them trailing New England much of the day, which means additional throws for Flacco. Despite this probable boost in pass attempts, Flacco’s ceiling remains relatively low. Note that he has an underwhelming 10:5 TD:INT ratio on the road this season.

Running Back

1. Stevan Ridley - NE (vs. BLT)
2. Ray Rice - BLT (@NE)

Ridley is a bit reliant on New England’s ability to build a lead, losing snaps when the team is playing from behind. Still, his team leads the league in offensive touchdowns and plays, which has allowed him to score 13 touchdowns and reach the 15-carry mark 14 times in 17 games this season. The Baltimore defense has been inconsistent recently, allowing a big day to Vick Ballard two weeks ago, before shutting down the Broncos rushing attack in the Divisional round.

Bernard Pierce has been eating into Rice’s snaps over the past month, but an injury knocked him out of this past weekend’s game after only 16 snaps. Pierce is expected to play this weekend, but his role is unclear. It’s worth noting that Rice had played just 24 snaps when Pierce left the game. Additionally, Pierce had been in on eight-straight plays. The Patriots sport one of the league’s toughest run defenses. They’ve gone seven-straight games keeping opposing rushing attacks below 4.2 yards-per-carry, and have allowed only one rushing score over their last five contests.

3. Frank Gore - SF (@ATL)
4. Michael Turner - ATL (vs. SF)

Gore had been ceding a few extra carries to backup LaMichael James during the tail-end of the regular season, but he handled 23 of the 27 runs by tailbacks during the 49ers win on Saturday. He’ll carry a majority of the load this week against a Falcons run defense that had an awful regular season, but has been better (and dare I say decent) over the last month or so.

Turner is now the No. 2 back in Atlanta, having played fewer snaps than Jacquizz Rodgers in six of the team’s last seven games. He remains ahead of Rodgers in the rankings, however, because he’s the favorite to lead the duo in carries, especially inside the 10-yard line. Turner ran the ball well against Seattle on Sunday, but don’t expect similar production against a tougher 49ers run defense. The San Francisco defense has allowed only eight rushing scores this season, three of which came in one game against New England.

5. Shane Vereen - NE (vs. BLT)
6. Jacquizz Rodgers - ATL (vs. SF)
7. Danny Woodhead - NE (vs. BLT)

Vereen exploded for three touchdowns in New England’s Divisional round bout with Houston, but he was mostly taking advantage of Woodhead’s injury on the game’s first play. Woodhead is expected to be active this week, but it’s fair to wonder if Vereen has earned a boost on the depth chart. Both figure to see a half dozen or so snaps, and will play even more at Ridley’s expense if New England is behind on the scoreboard…Rodgers’ figures to play more snaps than Turner, especially with the game expected to be competitive. He’ll see a handful of targets and a half dozen or so carries. His upside takes a major hit, however, as he rarely carries the ball near the goal line.

8. Bernard Pierce - BLT (@NE)
9. LaMichael James - SF (@ATL)

It sounds like Pierce will play this week despite leaving Saturday’s game early with a knee injury. With the game expected to be tight, it’s fair to expect Rice to see a bulk of the snaps, especially when Baltimore is in a passing situation. Consider that the Ravens have called a running play on 60 percent of Pierce’s snaps this season…James was seeing around eight carries each week during the later stages of the regular season. He carried the ball just four times on Saturday against Green Bay. Gore will handle most of the backfield touches and Anthony Dixon, not James, is the No. 2 goal line back.

10. Jason Snelling - ATL (vs. SF)
11. Anthony Dixon - SF (@ATL)
12. Vonta Leach - BLT (@NE)
13. Bruce Miller - SF (@ATL)
14. Mike Cox - ATL (vs. SF)

Wide Receiver

1. Julio Jones - ATL (vs. SF)
2. Michael Crabtree - SF (@ATL)
3. Roddy White - ATL (vs. SF)
4. Wes Welker - NE (vs. BLT)

The top-four wide receivers are fairly even this week. Jones has seen one-quarter of Ryan’s targets since Week 12. He’ll be covered primarily by Tarell Brown, who has had an outstanding season in coverage. White saw 27 percent of Matt Ryan’s targets during the team’s last three games. He’ll see plenty of Chris Culliver this week, who, like Brown, has been great in coverage this season. Both Atlanta wideouts figure to see 10 or so targets, which solidifies them as strong plays in fantasy leagues.

Crabtree has handled nine-plus targets in six consecutive games. He’s seen a whopping 39 percent of Kaepernick’s targets since Week 14, which equals Brandon Marshall’s enormous regular season rate in Chicago. Crabtree bounces around the formation, so he’ll see plenty of Dunta Robinson, Robert McClain, and Asante Samuel.

Welker has handled at least eight targets in 16 consecutive games. With Rob Gronkowski done for the year, Welker will see a slight boost in targets and has a better shot at find paydirt. New England’s slot man works inside on just under three-quarters of his offensive snaps. He should have a field day against Raven’s slot corner Corey Graham.

5. Brandon Lloyd - NE (vs. BLT)
6. Anquan Boldin - BLT (@NE)
7. Torrey Smith - BLT (@NE)

With Gronkowski out during Weeks 14-16, Lloyd totaled a whopping 36 targets in three games. Gronkowski is done for the year, which puts Lloyd back into position for a massive workload. He should see seven-to-nine targets and has a good chance to score, especially with Cary Williams and Chykie Brown in coverage.

Boldin has handled 18 targets during the Ravens’ first-two playoff games. That works out to 34 percent of Flacco’s throws. Smith has seen just 10 targets, but had a pair of long touchdowns against Denver. Both get a boost with Baltimore likely to throw more than usual this week. Boldin works the slot on 56 percent of his offensive snaps, which means he’ll go up against underwhelming Kyle Arrington quite often. Smith plays solely on the outside, but plays each side about evenly. He’ll hope to see more of struggling Aqib Talib than impressive Alfonzo Dennard.

8. Randy Moss - SF (@ATL)

Moss has handled exactly four targets in five of his last six games. He’ll start opposite Crabtree, but isn’t an every-down player anymore. Lining up wide to the left of Kaepernick about 60 percent of the time, he’ll see plenty of Dunta Robinson, who has been awful in coverage this season.

9. Harry Douglas - ATL (vs. SF)
10. Jacoby Jones - BLT (@NE)

Douglas and Jones will be lucky to combine for a half dozen targets, but they play enough to warrant their own tier. Douglas will be covered by Carlos Rogers in the slot. Jones is usually to Flacco’s right, which is usually where New England lines us Talib. If Talib chases Smith, as rumored, Jones will have his hands full with Dennard.

11. Ted Ginn - SF (@ATL)
12. Deion Branch - NE (vs. BLT)
13. Tandon Doss - BLT (@NE)
14. Drew Davis - ATL (vs. SF)

Before I move on, I wanted to share these snap distribution/matchup charts, courtesy of the fine work done at ProFootballFocus.com:

49ers 90% 53% 95%
  Tarell Brown Carlos Rogers Chris Culliver
  Right CB Slot CB Left CB
  vs. vs. vs.
Falcons Left WR Slot WR Right WR
  Julio Jones Harry Douglas Roddy White
  62% 71% 55%



Falcons 86% 69% 92%
  Dunta Robinson Robert McClain Asante Samuel
  Right CB Slot CB Left CB
  vs. vs. vs.
49ers Left WR Slot WR Right WR
  Randy Moss Michael Crabtree Ted Ginn
  59% 29% 46%



Ravens 87% 58% 91%
  Cary Williams Corey Graham Chykie Brown
  Right CB Slot CB Left CB
  vs. vs. vs.
Patriots Left WR Slot WR Right WR
  Brandon Lloyd Wes Welker Deion Branch
  54% 74% 44%



Patriots 66%* 66%* 71%*
  Alfonzo Dennard Kyle Arrington Aqib Talib
  Right CB Slot CB Left CB
  vs. vs. vs.
Ravens Left WR Slot WR Right WR
  Torrey Smith Anquan Boldin Jacoby Jones
  48% 56% 56%

*Includes only the games Talib played in full

Tight End

1. Aaron Hernandez - NE (vs. BLT)

Hernandez figures to play every snap this week with Gronkowski done for the year. He’s totaled 66 games over his last seven games, including a three-game span where he totaled 43 snaps while Gronkowski was out. He’s a safe bet to approach double-digit targets this week, and will be Brady’s go-to receiver in the red zone.

2. Tony Gonzalez - ATL (vs. SF)

Although Gonzalez’s targets have been down during the second half of the season, the good news is that he’s enjoyed seven-plus targets in four of his last five games. That includes a seven-target, six-catch, 51-yard, one-score performance against Seattle this past week. He’ll be heavily involved, especially with Jones and White dealing with Brown, Rogers, and Culliver on the outside.

3. Dennis Pitta - BLT (@NE)

Pitta has totaled just seven targets during the team’s two playoff games, but it will help that the team figures to throw more this week. He’s still Flacco’s third option in the pass game, which usually means five-to-seven looks. He’s a big step down from Gonzalez, but is a better option than either 49ers tight end.

4. Vernon Davis - SF (@ATL)
5. Delanie Walker - SF (@ATL) Walker has seen 12 percent of Kaepernick’s targets since Week 12. Davis has managed just nine percent. The good news for Davis is that he was targeted five times in the team’s win over Green Bay on Saturday. While promising, he’s too risky to use in playoff fantasy leagues. Walker leads the NFL in drop rate, which makes his expanded role a bit puzzling.

6. Ed Dickson - BLT (@NE)
7. Michael Hoomanawanui - NE (vs. BLT)
8. Michael Palmer - ATL (vs. SF)

Kicker

1. Stephen Gostkowski – NE (vs. BLT)
2. Matt Bryant – ATL (vs. SF)
3. Justin Tucker – BLT (@NE)
4. David Akers– SF (@ATL)

Team Defense / Special Teams

1. 49ers (@ATL)
2. Patriots (vs. BLT)
3. Falcons (vs. SF)
4. Ravens (@ NE)

Mike Clay is a football writer for Rotoworld.com and the Founder/Managing Editor of Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He can be found on Twitter .

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