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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 ProFootballFocus.com, 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.