We have reached the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. It is arguably the best weekend of NFL action, as the seven best teams (plus the Tennessee Titans) battle it out for the right to earn berths into next Sunday’s conference championships. Both top seeds will be in action Saturday. Let’s take a closer look at these games to find out which players make the best plays this weekend.
ATLANTA FALCONS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
The top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles enter the Divisional Round as underdogs to the sixth-seed, the Atlanta Falcons. Philadelphia is the first top seed in divisional round history to be underdogs in their first playoff game. This, of course, is largely due to the recent loss of MVP candidate Carson Wentz. The drop off from Wentz to backup Nick Foles is certainly significant, especially based on Foles’ recent play. The Falcons are still the defending NFC Champions, as well as the only NFC team to make the playoffs in each of the last two years. Their relative experience compared with Philadelphia’s, coupled with the injury to Wentz, make this a tighter matchup than people anticipated six weeks ago.
ATLANTA FALCONS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 22.5 POINTS
Matt Ryan played solid if not spectacular football in Atlanta’s 26-13 Round 1 victory against the Los Angeles Rams. Ryan attempted just 30 passes in Atlanta’s win and will likely be asked to shoulder more of the load this week. Philadelphia gave up just 227.3 yards per game in 2017. They also ranked third in yards per passing attempt allowed this season, permitting just 6.46 yards per attempt. However, those numbers rose substantially when facing quarterbacks who threw for 4,000 yards this season. In those four games, the trio of Philip Rivers, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith combined to average 285.3 yards per game and 7.82 yards per attempt. The 2016 NFL MVP looks like a value on DraftKings, where he is the third-cheapest starting quarterback on this weekend’s slate. He is priced as the fourth-highest on FanDuel, which seems more in line with his expected output. The Falcons will need to throw to beat Philadelphia, and I believe Ryan will put up numbers similar to those of Rivers, Cousins, and Smith in this matchup.
Much like Ryan, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman did not do anything special in last week’s win. The duo combined for only 106 rushing yards on 32 carries and added just 31 combined receiving yards. Atlanta employed a much more even backfield split than they had in recent weeks. Freeman finished with 17 total touches for 69 yards and a touchdown, while Coleman totaled 68 scoreless yards on his 15 touches. Philadelphia permitted a league-low 79.2 rushing yards per game this season, so it will likely be tough sledding for Atlanta’s pair of running backs. This just does not seem like a good spot for either back. There are other running backs with much greater upside this weekend. I would not start Freeman or Coleman this week in DFS.
Julio Jones turned in a very efficient game last weekend against the Rams. Jones averaged just 10.4 yards per catch, well below his season average of 16.4. However, he caught nine of 10 targets, as Matt Ryan consistently targeted him underneath. He also caught a touchdown pass, finishing as the overall WR2 for last week’s Wild Card round. In last year’s matchup with Philadelphia, Jones was a target monster, racking up 16 targets on his way to a 135-yard receiving day. I would imagine the Falcons employ a similar strategy on Saturday. It is difficult to put too much stock in Jones’ performance in that game when it comes to breaking down individual matchups since the personnel in the Eagles’ secondary has turned over so much since that game. Jones did square off against cornerback Jalen Mills on occasion, catching four of six targets for 48 yards in his coverage. Mills has a tendency to gamble, so Ryan and Jones could look to take advantage of Mills on double-moves. On the other side of the field, Ronald Darby is a much more steady and poised cover corner. He excels when he plays off his receiver. I would expect a lot of underneath routes when lined up against Darby, with potential shot-plays in Mills’ coverage. Either way, Jones will be targeted early and often in this matchup. All told, Jones is my No. 1 receiver this weekend. Slot receiver Mohamed Sanu has a difficult matchup against Patrick Robinson. Robinson finished 2017 as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest graded cornerback. However, Sanu looks like a solid value on FanDuel, where 14 other wide receivers have higher price tags. Tight end Austin Hooper can be ignored, as there are several excellent tight ends in action this weekend.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 19.5 POINTS
Eagles’ fans were sent into a state of panic when quarterback Carson Wentz was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Some held onto the hope that backup Nick Foles could regain his 2013 form. In that season, Foles averaged a monstrous 9.1 yards per attempt and a then-NFL record 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio. Unfortunately, it looks like those days may be behind him. After taking over for Wentz, Foles completed just 53 of 97 passes for only 481 yards. His brutal 4.96 yards per attempt does not inspire much confidence in his ability to lead Philadelphia to the Super Bowl. On the bright side, Atlanta led only Cleveland and Oakland in interceptions this season, and head coach Doug Pedersen and his staff have an extra week to gameplan. I expect Foles to dink and dunk underneath, especially early in the contest in an effort to help boost his confidence. This strategy may help the Eagles, but it will not help your fantasy team. I do not want any part of Nick Foles this weekend.
Jay Ajayi has led the Eagles’ backfield since coming over in a midseason trade from the Miami Dolphins. But Ajayi has simply not yet been given an opportunity to be a true workhorse. In seven games as an Eagle, Ajayi has averaged just 11.4 touches, compared to 21.7 as a Dolphin in an equal number of games. Atlanta was the fifth-best fantasy defense against opposing running backs in 2017, but Ajayi lit them up for a season-high 130 yards as a member of the Dolphins in Week 6. Atlanta’s susceptibility against pass-catching backs might be something Pedersen tries to take advantage of, particularly with a shaky quarterback situation. However, it remains to be seen whether Ajayi (or anyone else in Philadelphia’s backfield) can be a dual threat. Ajayi has never caught more than 27 passes in a season. Still, as a relatively cheap option on DraftKings ($4700, 11th highest among running backs), Ajayi is worthy of a speculative roster spot. The upside is certainly there if he is given enough work.
The Eagles had an extremely balanced receiving attack in 2017. Three different pass catchers had at least 750 receiving yards and eight touchdowns for Philadelphia. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor lead the way against a stout Falcons’ secondary. Of the two, I prefer Agholor in this game. He is the cheaper receiver in DFS and has the best individual matchup. Fellow slot man Cooper Kupp finished last week with eight catches for 69 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. Agholor will likely face off against Brian Poole, who is an average cornerback by Pro Football Focus’ standards. Jeffery may have a tougher time against the combination of Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, though Robert Woods did hang a 9-142 line on the Falcons last week. Tight end Zach Ertz is also likely to be a primary target of Foles and is my favorite option among all Eagles’ pass catchers. Ertz led Philadelphia in receptions and yards for the second straight season. Foles has been known to target tight ends with great frequency, a tendency which bore itself out in his starts against the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. In those two efforts, Ertz had a massive 30.3 percent target share. Many fantasy owners will choose to pay up for Rob Gronkowski, and with good reason. But Ertz should not be ignored, particularly in PPR formats.
TENNESSEE TITANS AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The nightcap will feature the AFC’s top seed, the New England Patriots, hosting the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee is coming off a dramatic, come-from-behind victory in Kansas City last week. New England had another ho-hum 13-3 season and is a nearly two-touchdown favorite to host the AFC Championship for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
TENNESSEE TITANS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 17 POINTS
Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota finished Wild Card weekend as the leading scorer among quarterbacks in many formats. However, it should go without saying that the largest of asterisks must accompany that designation. Mariota became the second quarterback in NFL history to catch his own touchdown pass. If the batted ball had simply hit the ground, he would have finished no higher than fourth. Still, his effort and awareness arguably saved his team’s season, and he deserves credit for that. Mariota now gets to face a Patriots team that allowed quarterbacks to throw for an NFL-high 4,319 yards this season. Much of that is due to game script, of course. But negative game script is likely to be a factor in this game as well. Enhancing Mariota’s outlook is his recently increased role in the running game. In the two games running back DeMarco Murray has missed, Mariota has chipped in for a total of 106 rushing yards. Mariota is not my favorite quarterback play on the board this week, but you could certainly do worse.
Derrick Henry had arguably the best game of his brief career in the Titans’ Week 18 victory. Henry led the way with 191 total yards and a touchdown. I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating that every time Henry has been featured and seen at least 15 touches, he has produced double-digit fantasy points. The Patriots were above-average (14th best) in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs, but ranked just 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric against the run and 31st in yards per carry allowed to enemy backs. Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey deserves credit for staying committed to Henry despite an early deficit last week against an equally-vulnerable Kansas City run defense. The strategy paid huge dividends, as Henry ran for 85 yards in the decisive fourth quarter. Tennessee must keep that commitment this week as well. For DFS purposes, it looks like the decision on whether or not to play Henry depends on where you play. Henry has vaulted all the way up to the third-most expensive running back on DraftKings but is criminally underpriced on FanDuel, where he is just the ninth-highest priced back. I have him somewhere in the middle, which means he is a likely fade for me on DraftKings and a start on FanDuel.
No Tennessee wide receiver is among the top-14 at the position as far as DFS salary is concerned this week. That may seem strange given the problems New England has had defending wide receivers and the likelihood of Tennessee facing negative game script. But no Titan wideout has the look of a prohibitive value, either. Rishard Matthews led Tennessee in touchdown receptions for the second straight year, but he seems to have fallen out of favor in recent weeks. Matthews has just four catches for 70 yards on eight targets over his last three games. Slot receiver Eric Decker caught the game-winning touchdown last week, but he had just one touchdown catch during the regular season. He does have at least five targets in six consecutive games, but his ceiling is extremely limited. Decker has a 2017 high of just 8.1 fantasy points. Rookie Corey Davis also has not had a single game with double-digit fantasy points this season, as he remains without a touchdown catch. This is not all Davis’ fault. Mariota missed a wide-open Davis last week on what would have been an easy score. Davis and Matthews will be tested against the Patriots’ combination of Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler. If pressed, I would probably lean towards Matthews, but I don’t feel good about it. Tight end Delanie Walker led Tennessee last week in receptions, yards, and targets. Walker is always a good bet to lead Tennessee in any given week. I would probably prefer to pay up for Rob Gronkowski or Zach Ertz, but I have no issue using Walker this weekend.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL – 30.5 POINTS
Tom Brady is the most expensive quarterback in DFS this weekend, and with good reason. Of the quarterbacks remaining in the NFL Playoffs, Brady easily outpaced the others in fantasy points this season. He averaged over two points per game more than his closest competitor, Drew Brees. Brady led the NFL in passing yards in 2017, and he begins his quest for a sixth Super Bowl with a relatively easy matchup this week. Of the eight teams still left standing, only Brady’s own Patriots allowed more passing yards this season than the Tennessee Titans. Tennessee also allowed the most touchdown passes (27) of remaining playoff teams. Especially when considering the difficult matchups that Brees and Ben Roethlisberger face on Sunday, Brady is easily the top quarterback play of the weekend. Fantasy owners should not overthink this one. Plug Brady in and enjoy the 20+ points.
Dion Lewis was quietly one of the best running backs in all of fantasy football during the 2017 season, finishing as the overall RB12. This is quite a feat for a player who scored just 46.9 fantasy points through the season’s first nine weeks, as Mike Gillislee was still earning starters’ reps until New England’s Week 9 bye. But following the off week, Lewis was given the leading role and was an absolute beast from that point on. He finished as at least an RB2 in six of eight games, including four top-10 finishes.
From Weeks 10-15, Lewis produced at a high level despite averaging just 13.83 touches per game. Lewis’ workload rose exponentially following Rex Burkhead’s Week 15 exit. Lewis saw an average of 30.5 touches during the season’s final two weeks. With Burkhead scheduled to return for the playoffs and Tennessee allowing just 3.44 yards per carry to opposing running backs, Lewis is not likely to see more than 15-20 touches on Saturday. But he has already proven that he can do a lot with a little. He is a high-upside option as the fifth-most expensive option on DFS sites. Burkhead and James White are on track to play, but both are risky options as they return from multi-week layoffs. Fantasy players may be enticed to play Burkhead and/or White based on the fact that Tennessee has allowed the most receiving yards to enemy backs in 2017. However, I find it difficult to trust either one without knowing how the backfield touches will shake out. I would prefer to take a wait-and-see approach with both Burkhead and White this week.
Brandin Cooks finished his first season as a Patriot as the overall WR7 in fantasy. He accomplished this despite cracking the 100-yard mark in just two games in 2017. Cooks is a home run threat who can really stretch a defense. His 16.6 yards per catch was fourth-best in the NFL among receivers with at least 50 catches. It will be interesting to see if he can make splash plays against Dick Lebeau’s defense. Tennessee allowed just 11.84 per catch to opposing wideouts this season, second-best among remaining playoff teams. Cooks has a low floor, as he finished with less than four fantasy points in three of his last five games. However, his upside is huge. I can see him getting past former Patriot Logan Ryan for a big score in this game. Especially when considering the cost, I would rather roll the dice on Cooks than Antonio Brown this week. Chris Hogan started the 2017 season on fire, finishing with at least 12 fantasy points in four consecutive games from Weeks 2 through 5. However, he hurt his shoulder in Week 8 and has essentially been out ever since. He briefly returned in Week 14 but was forced out once again. He is also scheduled to return on Saturday, but as with Burkhead and White, is not worth starting unless you are throwing multiple lineups out there. Rob Gronkowski led all tight ends in fantasy scoring once again in 2017. He also has an excellent matchup this week. Tennessee is the worst remaining playoff team in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends. Travis Kelce lit up Tennessee for 66 yards and a touchdown in just one half of football last week before being forced out due to a concussion. A Brady-Gronk stack is likely the most effective way to exploit this game, though it will also be the most obvious. Gronkowski’s ceiling is unmatched among fantasy tight ends this weekend.