The NFL Playoffs are finally upon us. For those of us who cannot give up on fantasy football quite yet, there are a plethora of playoff options and formats available out there. This column will focus on the two Wild Card games taking place this coming Saturday. Sunday’s games will be discussed in another post that will be going live tomorrow.
TENNESSEE TITANS AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The first game on Saturday will pit the Kansas City Chiefs against the Tennessee Titans at 4:20 PM EST. Both teams had almost diametrically opposing paths to the playoffs. Tennessee started out 2-3, then won six of seven, then lost three in a row before finally salvaging a Week 17 victory to earn them a playoff spot. Kansas City started out 5-0 before losing six of seven to fall to 6-6. However, they won each of their last four games to win the AFC West and the conference’s fourth seed. This season’s Chiefs became just the second team to have a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, and 1,000 yards receiving from both a tight end and wide receiver. This balance makes defending the Chiefs a very difficult task.
TENNESSEE TITANS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 18 POINTS
Tennessee’s quarterback is former number-two overall draft pick Marcus Mariota. Mariota was a breakout candidate heading into the season, but he largely disappointed fantasy owners with an overall QB18 finish. Mariota posted just three weekly top-12 finishes on the year and was never a top-five finisher in any week. Kansas City did surrender the fourth-most passing yards to opposing quarterbacks in 2017, but it would take a leap of faith to trust Mariota in this matchup.
Derrick Henry figures to be in line for another huge workload with the absence of backfield mate DeMarco Murray due to a torn MCL. In the four games in which Henry has seen at least 15 touches, his worst fantasy performance was a 12.80 point, RB16 finish. The Chiefs rank 13th in fantasy points allowed to opposing backs, but just 21st in yards per carry allowed. I think Henry is an excellent value on DFS sites, where he is being priced as the ninth-highest running back, though I’d ding him a tad in PPR formats. Henry has caught just 24 passes in 31 career games.
None of the wide receivers’ matchups particularly stand out as favorable for Tennessee. Rishard Matthews was the Titans’ most productive wideout, but he will likely face off against ball-hawking Marcus Peters. Eric Decker has the best individual matchup against middling slot corner Steven Nelson, but he is no sure bet to take advantage. Corey Davis can win his matchups with veteran Darrelle Revis, but he has lacked consistency in his rookie season. Delanie Walker led the Titans in receiving for the third time in four seasons and will match up against a Chiefs team that allowed the third-fewest receptions to tight ends in 2017. Ultimately, I would not recommend starting any Tennessee pass catchers in this matchup.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 26 POINTS
Alex Smith looks to continue his breakthrough 2017 campaign that saw him set or match career-highs in passing yards, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns, interception percentage, and quarterback rating. He now will face a Tennessee Titans pass defense that has struggled mightily against upper-echelon quarterbacks this season. In the three games in which Tennessee faced a top-12 quarterback, Tennessee has given up top-two finishes each time. Those three quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jared Goff) combined to throw for 973 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. Half-year fantasy studs Deshaun Watson and Jimmy Garoppolo had similar success against Tennessee, combining for 664 passing yards and six total touchdowns against the Titans. I think the only thing potentially keeping Smith from being the weekend’s top fantasy quarterback is Tennessee’s inability to put up enough points to force Smith to continue to air it out.
As valuable as Smith has been, it is no secret that as dynamic rookie running back Kareem Hunt goes, so go the Chiefs. In Kansas City’s 10 wins, Hunt has averaged 132.8 total yards and 1.1 touchdowns. (Bear in mind this includes Hunt’s one-touch effort in Week 17.) In the Chiefs’ six losses, Hunt has averaged just 75.7 total yards and has not scored a single touchdown. Led by elite run-stuffing linebackers Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee has allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards, the fourth-lowest rushing average, and a league-low four rushing touchdowns to opposing running backs. However, they have been extremely vulnerable to dual-threat running backs. Tennessee allowed far and away the most receiving yards (967) to opposing running backs in 2017. When Todd Gurley faced Tennessee in Week 16, he became the first player since Herschel Walker in 1986 to post at least 100 rushing yards and at least 150 receiving yards in the same game. I expect Hunt to finish with at least 100 total yards and finish as a top-five running back in this slate.
Tyreek Hill continued his meteoric rise among the ranks of wide receivers in 2017 as he finished the season as the overall WR4, and WR1 among Wild Card Weekend wideouts. He is an electric playmaker who can take the lid off any defense. This ability will be tested against a Tennessee defense that has allowed the fifth-lowest yards per reception (11.84) to opposing wide receivers this year. If you plan to fade Hill based on that stat, please note that Hill faced the top four teams in that stat on four occasions this year. He finished as the WR15 or better in three of those four games. Hill also has a good individual matchup against Titans’ cornerback Logan Ryan. None of the other Chiefs’ wide receivers should be considered fantasy options. Tight end Travis Kelce finished the 2017 season as the number-two fantasy tight end, finishing with 1,038 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The Titans are essentially an average defense against tight ends. Kelce is as good a bet as any this weekend to find his way into the end zone and finish as the week’s highest scoring tight end.
ATLANTA FALCONS AT LOS ANGELES RAMS
The nightcap will feature the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons traveling to Los Angeles to take on the upstart Rams. It truly is amazing what Sean McVay has been able to accomplish in such a short time with the Rams. A year ago at this time, Jared Goff was considered a bust, Todd Gurley was coming off what was arguably the most disappointing season in all of fantasy football, and the wide receiving corps was, at best, nondescript. Goff now looks to be every bit the potential franchise quarterback the Rams thought they were getting when they drafted him first overall in the 2016 draft, Gurley is the likely league MVP, and Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Sammy Watkins are all top-34 fantasy wide receivers on the season. The Rams were the lowest-scoring team in 2016, and the highest-scoring team in 2017. Still, the Falcons will surely be a tough out against a Rams’ squad that lacks playoff experience.
ATLANTA FALCONS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 21 POINTS
The Falcons’ offense has not been as prolific as it was last season, but they have plenty of talent at the skill positions, and that starts with 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan. Ryan’s 2016 season looks like a potential outlier after a 2017 regular season that saw his numbers drop dramatically across the board, including finishing just 15th among quarterbacks in fantasy points. Still, Ryan finished sixth in the NFL in passing yards this season. Ryan posted better numbers on the road this season but will face a tough test this week. The Rams allowed just one top-six weekly finish to opposing quarterbacks this season. Ryan is an intriguing Wild Card round play whose floor is lifted by Atlanta’s underdog status, but it will be tough to consider him an elite option this week.
The Rams figure to see a healthy dose of Devonta Freeman in this game. Freeman finished 2017 as the overall RB13 despite missing essentially three games due to a concussion. Since his return to the lineup, Freeman has 97 touches in his last five games. Meanwhile, the Rams struggled to defend the run this season. Los Angeles posted bottom-five rankings in total rushing yards allowed, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns permitted to opposing running backs. As the seventh or eighth highest salaried running back in DFS, Freeman should be a massive value. Tevin Coleman nearly matched Freeman’s fantasy input on the season but is nothing more than a touchdown-dependent contrarian play in this weekend’s slate. Since Freeman’s Week 13 return, Coleman has not eclipsed 52 total yards in any game.
Julio Jones will, of course, be Ryan’s primary target in the passing game. Jones had what many considered an underwhelming campaign. However, that narrative is largely based on unrealistic expectations heading into the season. Jones still ended 2017 second in receiving yards and sixth in fantasy points. Jones should match up primarily against Trumaine Johnson in this game. Johnson has played well of late, but that will not stop Ryan from targeting Jones as much as possible. As usual, Jones’ upside is unmatched and may be lower-owned than usual on DFS sites. All things being equal, I prefer Jones over Hill this week. Slot receiver Mohamed Sanu faces a difficult matchup against Nickell Robey-Coleman, and tight end Austin Hooper is a middling option who has not scored four fantasy points in any game since Week 10. However, without a lot of elite options in action this week, he does make for an interesting punt play. No other playoff team allowed more fantasy points to opposing tight ends in 2017 than the Rams.
LOS ANGELES RAMS – IMPLIED VEGAS TOTAL: 27.5 POINTS
Jared Goff started his rookie season in 2016 on the bench behind Case Keenum for a Rams team which went 4-12 and averaged 14 points per game. Upon Goff’s insertion into the lineup, he looked overmatched. Goff went winless in seven starts and threw for just five touchdowns and seven interceptions. This season, Goff broke out in new head coach Sean McVay’s offense. Goff averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per attempt while throwing for 28 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. Atlanta was below average in terms of fantasy points given up to opposing quarterbacks, but they were by no means a cakewalk matchup. They allowed just 22 passing touchdowns this season, and Aaron Rodgers was the only quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Falcons. As the highest-priced quarterback in DFS, I believe Goff is a Week 18 fade.
Todd Gurley was the best running back in fantasy in 2017, and it was not particularly close. He led all running backs in rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns, and only failed to lead all backs in both rushing yards and receiving yards because he sat out in Week 17. Atlanta gave up the fifth-fewest fantasy points to enemy backs, but Gurley is just in a land by himself right now. Also working in Gurley’s favor is Atlanta’s propensity to cede catches out of the backfield. The Falcons gave up the most receptions to running backs for the second consecutive season. Gurley is so highly priced that the argument can be made against him, but he should be started in all instances in which salaries are not a factor. Gurley has upside like no other player in this weekend’s slate.
Robert Woods was the most productive Rams’ wide receiver, but slot receiver Cooper Kupp and talented Sammy Watkins were not far behind. All three finished with over 100 fantasy points this season. Woods is the fourth-highest priced wide receiver in DFS this weekend. This makes him a tough start considering he will face the most difficult individual matchup against Falcons’ cornerback Desmond Trufant. Kupp is my favorite Rams’ receiver on this weekend’s slate. He led Los Angeles in receiving yards and should find plenty of room to operate against Brian Poole. Watkins is largely touchdown dependent. Fifty receivers finished with more receiving yards in 2017. Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee are bit players and should remain off the fantasy radar.