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Inside the Matchup
Conference Championships

By: Andy Swanson | Jason Katz | Nick Caron | Jake Gordon


- Green highllight indicates plus matchup (top eight)
- Red highlight indicates negative matchup (bottom eight)

Jaguars @ Patriots - (Gordon)

Passing Game Thoughts: I’m not sure if I am more surprised that the Jaguars defense allowed over 40 points to the Steelers offense or that the team scored 40+ points in Pittsburgh. By the time the Steelers realized they had a game on their hands they were playing catch up. Blake Bortles not only didn’t implode but he thrived at making the simple, small plays. The Patriots know Jacksonville doesn’t need Bortles to throw for four touchdowns to succeed but they do know it will only take a couple of turnovers for him not to succeed. That’s where this game will ultimately be decided and that doesn’t bode well for the Jaguars. Naysayers to the Patriots current “dynasty” love to point out how the NFL caters to Brady and company but more often than not, opposing teams simply do not play their best football game against the Patriots. The young brash defense that took stupid penalties a week ago needs to grow up quick to give Bortles and the offense a fighting chance against one of the most successful franchises in the NFL.

Jacksonville has done a good job all season by creating an environment that decreases potential turnovers and their quarterback has accepted the challenge of not trying to do too much. That recipe has brought them to the AFC Championship but it hasn’t helped fantasy owners in playoff pools.

Bortles has not thrown an interception in two post-season games but he also completed only 53-percent of his passes. The Jags’ passing attack has been a tough sell thus far, but I’d take a shot on them this week. New England will do everything in their power to take away the running game. If the Jags are to win this game, they will need to throw the ball and take advantage of what the defense offers. If the Jags are losing, an ineffective running game will likely be to blame and more passing should ensue.

If you take out the 50-pass outlier against the 49ers in Week 16, Jacksonville has thrown an average of 34 passes in their losses this season. I bring up passes because that has been a limiting factor for the fantasy prospects of everyone else in this passing game. More passes against the 7th friendliest defense for fantasy quarterbacks this season not only gives Bortles a puncher’s shot at exceeding 20 fantasy points in this game, but it makes each of the Jags receivers a boom or bust fantasy option. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement but it is given the smaller pool of available fantasy players this week.

Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee and even the ancient Marcedes Lewis could be an unexpected source of fantasy production if the running game stalls out. There is considerable risk to be sure but depending on your format a guy like Hurns might be a cheap option in PPR, whereas Cole or Lewis could be super low-cost options that won’t need to do much to return a profit in salary cap environments.

Meanwhile, Lee continues to play through a foot injury despite being the top receiver when healthy. The guy getting the most playing time is Westbrook but a lack of consistency prevents him from being the odds-on favorite to finish as the team’s leading receiver. It’s a crapshoot to be sure, but at least it’s a gamble worth considering.

NE FPts Allowed vs. QBs: No.7
NE FPts Allowed vs. RBs: No.17
NE FPts Allowed vs. WRs: No.4
NE FPts Allowed vs. TEs: No.20

Running Game Thoughts: The running game will not only be the focal point of the Jaguars’ offense but for the entire game. Bortles might have decent luck if Jacksonville is forced to throw but that will only happen if the Patriots can slow down Leonard Fournette.

That almost happened off the field this week after the rookie was involved in a minor car accident. Thankfully, NFL fans will not have to imagine what might happen if Fournette was unavailable to play in this game as Fournette was able to drive himself home and didn’t miss any practice time.

After adding three touchdowns last week, Fournette comes into this game with 13 total touchdowns on the year. Defensively, New England has only given up nine total touchdowns to opposing running backs. I don’t think the Patriots will stuff Fournette all game long but I do think they will keep more players near the line of scrimmage and use the run-blitz more often. The resulting numbers game makes me very nervous about using Fournette this week despite having a good shot at leading all running backs in touches this week.

T.J. Yeldon only had five carries last week but was still able to factor into the scoring and chipped in with three receptions to give him a nice fantasy day. His current role should suit him well again this week where I believe his touches figure to increase to about 10 if the team has to throw the ball more often-especially in the second half.

Value Meter:
QB1: Blake Bortles
RB1: Leonard Fournette
WR3: Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook
Flex: T.J. Yeldon
Bench: Marcedes Lewis, Chris Ivory

Passing Game Thoughts: New England will inject plenty of quick snaps, sugar-huddles and other adaptations of the “hurry up” offense in effort to get the defense tired. Longer sustained drives that lead to scores, be it field goals or touchdowns, will suck the confidence right out of the Jags.

Tom Brady (hand) is always a treat for fantasy owners but when there is a clear path to attack using his TE, it’s a recipe for a lot of fantasy points. Rob Gronkowski usually “gets his” regardless of what the competition does because he can simply catch the ball where it can’t be defended. As a result, the Patriots had the fourth highest-scoring fantasy points at the TE position and will clearly be a handful for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville has not faced many good tight ends (sorry Delanie Walker and Jack Doyle) and even then, they didn’t have a Hall of Fame quarterback throwing them the football. Gronk will be a completely new obstacle for the Jacksonville secondary and I suspect the Patriots will force the issue with him early and often until the Jags show they can stop him. On this matchup alone, I’m giving both Gronkowski and Brady a green light.

Brandin Cooks closed out the regular season with an eleven-target day and he picked right back up with another nine targets against the Tennessee Titans last week. Unfortunately, targets do not always translate into production for Cooks. Add in a healthy dose of Jalen Ramsey lining up against him and Cooks is far from a sure thing for fantasy owners this week. I’d rather roll with a guy that fits into Brady’s comfort zone of short timing patterns like Wes Welker and Julian Edelman.

Enter Danny Amendola. He caught 8 of 11 passes in last year’s Superbowl and another 11 of 13 last week. I like the Jags secondary but defending the combination of Amendola and Gronk over four quarters is a monumental task. Add in a water bug like Dion Lewis and there is little reason to believe the Patriots won’t find success with the pass in this game.

Despite last week’s touchdown grab, Chris Hogan hasn’t find his timing within the offense. Unless an injury forces one of the starters out of action Hogan will not see enough work to justify a place on your playoff lineup.

JAC FPts Allowed vs. QBs: No.31
JAC FPts Allowed vs. RBs: No.21
JAC FPts Allowed vs. WRs: No.32
JAC FPts Allowed vs. TEs: No.22

Running Game Thoughts: Dion Lewis has delivered when asked to lead the way in the backfield for the Patriots. It is easy to see why he was one of the best fantasy running backs coming into the playoff season and he has done nothing but deliver solid stats for those who have invested in him thus far. The only problem with owning a running back on the Patriots is that one guy is never “the guy” for too long. Lewis’ 20 plus touches appear to be safe this week, but as James White’s touchdown catch from last week proves, the backfield rotation can be a negative factor for fantasy managers to consider.

That becomes even more apparent considering Rex Burkhead (knee) practiced Thursday and could potentially play this weekend. Burkhead practiced all of last week too but wasn’t in uniform against the Titans. I would think the Patriots will want to assure they have the best talent and depth at running back for this game. If so, look for him to handle a useful role if he indeed is given the green light. He won’t unseat Lewis as the starter but he could steal a few attempts away from White and likely be the second-best fantasy option on the team. If he remains out, White would be a bargain fantasy flex for PPR leaguers. However, I wouldn’t feel good about trusting White if Burkhead is hanging around, so be sure to check for the latest update before kickoff on Sunday afternoon.

Value Meter:
QB1: Tom Brady
RB1: Dion Lewis
WR1: Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola
TE1: Rob Gronkowski
Flex: Rex Burkhead (if healthy), James White (if Burkhead does not play)
Bench: Chris Hogan

Prediction: Patriots 34, Jaguars 20 ^ Top

Vikings @ Eagles - (Swanson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The divisional game between the Saints and the Vikings will be remembered as one of the most exciting finishes in playoff history, as Stefon Diggs scored on a 61-yard touchdown pass as time expired to give Minnesota the chance to play Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game.

The extraordinary play by Diggs helped save the season for the Vikings and salvaged a relatively ordinary fantasy performance by Case Keenum, who ended the day with 318 passing yards and one touchdown, to go along with one interception. It was somewhat surprising that Keenum was unable to find more success in the passing game against a New Orleans team that allowed the 13th-most points to opposing quarterbacks in the regular season. Without the last second pass to Diggs, Keenum would have finished with a pedestrian 257/0/1 against a below average pass defense at home.

The No.4 ranked Eagles defense, playing at home before a raucous home crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, will present a more difficult challenge for Keenum and the Vikings passing game. Although the Eagles finished seventh in total offense in route to securing home-field advantage as the No.1 seed in the NFC, it was their defense that proved to be the difference maker for second-year head coach Doug Pederson.

The Eagles held opposing quarterbacks to one or fewer touchdown passes in 10 of 16 regular season matchups. Philadelphia finished tied for 4th with Detroit for most interceptions, and their 38 team sacks placed them tied for 15th with Dallas.

Keenum’s ability to move the ball through the air and convert critical third downs in the passing game will be vital to the success of Mike Zimmer’s Vikings, as running the ball against the Eagles has proven to be an exercise in futility for opposing running backs. Only Zimmer’s Vikings allowed very points to opposing running backs than the Eagles, and Philadelphia is the only team in football to allow fewer than 1000 rushing yards on the year.

Wide receiver Adam Thielen is the only Eagles offensive player listed on the team’s injury report after missing Wednesday’s practice with a lower back injury. The injury is not expected to be serious, and he is fully expected to play on Sunday.

PHI FPts Allowed vs. QBs: No.19
PHI FPts Allowed vs. RBs: No.31
PHI FPts Allowed vs. WRs: No.12
PHI FPts Allowed vs. TEs: No.19

Running Game Thoughts: One of the reasons why Keenum threw for only one touchdown against the Saints is the fact that both Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon found the end zone. Murray rushed for a pedestrian 50 yards and 19 carries, while McKinnon carried the ball eight times for 34 yards, including a 14-yard TD scamper.

Aside from the two touchdowns, it was a disappointing performance for the Viking tandem when you consider that the Saints allowed the 18th-most points to opposing running backs. Murray and McKinnon will find it significantly more difficult to find running room against the Eagles, a team that allowed the fewest rushing yards to opposing running backs and the second-fewest fantasy points to RBs in the regular season.

McKinnon catching passes and making plays in space might be the best course of action for Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Of the nine opposing running backs who managed to reach double figures in fantasy points vs. Minnesota, four of them did so by beating the Eagles through the air in the passing game. The remaining five were elite running backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, and Kareem Hunt.

The defensive line of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan vs. the interior line of Mike Remmers, Pat Elfein, and Joe Berger will be a critical matchup to watch in the run game for the Vikings. Remmers is a tackle by trade who was forced to move inside when starting left guard Nick Easton broke his ankle earlier in the year. Elfein is a third-round rookie center who has played well in his first year, but he has struggled at times against powerful interior defensive linemen like Cox.

Value Meter:
QB1: Case Keenum (Low-End)
RB1: Latavius Murray (Low-End)
WR1: Adam Thielen (High-End)
WR1: Stefon Diggs (Low-End)
TE1: Kyle Rudolph (Low-End)

Passing Game Thoughts: Aside from a four-touchdown performance against the Giants Week 15, Nick Foles has been less than impressive in relief of injured starter Carson Wentz. The former fantasy darling from 2013 completed only 56% of his passes for 537 yards and five touchdowns in three full games as a starter in the regular season, including a dud at home against the Raiders on Christmas in which he managed just 163 yards against one of the worst defenses in the league.

Foles and the Eagles skill position players in the passing game will have their hands full on Sunday against a Vikings team that allowed the fewest points to opposing quarterbacks, tight ends, and running backs in 2017. Wide receivers faired the best against the Vikes, but only six opposing wide receivers scored more than ten points in a game against Mike Zimmer’s defense.

Leading wide receiver Alshon Jeffery will likely be shadowed by cornerback Xavier Rhodes on the outside, while Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz will patrol the middle of the field against a talented linebacker and secondary corps. The Vikings play an aggressive style of defense that at times can be beaten deep when safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo overcommit to the run. Of the three wide receivers on the Eagles who may take advantage of the Vikings deep, veteran Torrey Smith opposite of fellow veteran Terrance Newman may be an option for Foles and the Eagles.

Only three tight ends reached the end zone versus Minnesota this season, and no opposing tight end has scored a touchdown since Zach Miller in Week 5. History tells us that expecting Foles and Ertz to post big numbers on Sunday may be a stretch, but the Eagles will no doubt look to try and get their talented tight end involved.

Sendejo suffered a concussion against the Saints and has been limited in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. Head coach Mike Zimmer feels confident that his starting safety will clear concussion protocol and be available in the championship game. If Sendejo is in fact out, his absence would be a shot in the arm for the Eagles run game.

MIN FPts Allowed vs. QBs: No.32
MIN FPts Allowed vs. RBs: No.32
MIN FPts Allowed vs. WRs: No.24
MIN FPts Allowed vs. TEs: No.32

Running Game Thoughts: The stable of Philadelphia running backs, led by Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, combined to score the 13th-most fantasy points in the 2017 regular season. Ajayi led the team in both rushing attempts and yards in last Sunday’s win over the Falcons. The former Miami Dolphin posted a pedestrian 54 yards on 15 carries while losing a costly fumble in the first half.

Ajayi will need to be more effective on Sunday against the Vikings to open up the play-action passing game for Foles and keep the Vikings pass rush in check. Finding success will be easier said than done against a Minnesota defense that allowed the fewest fantasy points of any team in the league. Only six opposing running backs were able to top double digits in points and only one running back found the end zone via the pass vs. Minnesota.

Although the Vikings are an aggressive unit, they are skilled at identifying screen plays and limit the production of opposing running backs in the passing game. The battle inside between all-pro center Jason Kelce and Vikings nose tackle Lival Joseph will be a critical matchup in determining the Eagle’s success and running between the tackles. Kelce finished the season as the No.1 center according to, while Joseph finished just out of the top ten as the No.11 ranked nose tackle as is one of the top short-yardage stuffing interior defensive lineman.

The weather for Sunday’s championship game looks to be unseasonably warm for a late January game in Philadelphia, with highs in the low 50s and a low chance of precipitation. The weather should allow both teams to utilize a full playbook and not rely too heavily on the run. But in a game that pairs the two top run defenses in the league, whichever team finds the most success on the ground will likely come out on top.

Value Meter:
QB1: Nick Foles (Low-End)
RB1: Jay Ajayi (Low-End)
WR1: Alshon Jeffery (Low-End)
WR2: Nelson Agholor (High-End)
TE1: Zach Ertz (High-End)

Prediction: Vikings 21, Eagles 14 ^ Top