JMToWin's NFL Edge: Conference Championships
Each week this NFL season, JMToWin will break down every game on the NFL slate from top to bottom, with a look at game flow, player matchups, coaching tendencies, DFS strategy, and anything else that shows up in his research that might give you an edge on the slate. Widely regarded as the most in-depth, DFS-specific article in the industry, this top-to-bottom breakdown is just what you need in order to conquer the slate and take home money each week!
Jaguars at Patriots
Vegas-Implied Total: Patriots 27.75, Jaguars 18.75
Patriots Run D – 30th DVOA / 31st Yards allowed per carry
Jaguars Run O – 12th DVOA / 9th Yards per carry
Patriots Pass D – 21st DVOA / 25th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Jaguars Pass O – 15th DVOA / 13th Yards per pass attempt
Jaguars Run D – 26th DVOA / 26th Yards allowed per carry
Patriots Run O – 3rd DVOA / 12th Yards per carry
Jaguars Pass D – 1st DVOA / 2nd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Patriots Pass O – 1st DVOA / 3rd Yards per pass attempt
Wait. What? You really think the Patriots are going to relentlessly attack the Jaguars not only through the air, but with wide receivers?
This is, I think, the greatest value of this article each week during the NFL season. By going game-by-game and looking at things from a research-driven, deeper-thinking perspective (rather than from a knee-jerk perspective), we enter each weekend with a better idea than most have of how each team is likeliest to attack their opponent. Sure, things don’t always play out exactly as we expect (wouldn’t it be nice if they did…), but far more often than not, the approach of each team plays out similarly to what we expect.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from that Stephen A. Smith video (which, mercifully, I did not bother to watch) was a great, short article on Pro Football Talk that broke down the following numbers:
After Brady’s 53-attempt performance in the Divisional round of the playoffs, he has 28 games in his career (regular season and postseason) with at least 50 pass attempts – the most such games in NFL history. In those games, Brady is 19-9.
Drew Brees has the second-most games in history with 50+ pass attempts. He is 4-15 in those games.
Peyton Manning has the third-most games in history with 50+ pass attempts. He is 4-13 in those games.
Dan Marino has the fourth-most games in history with 50+ pass attempts. He is 5-11 in those games.
(Credit to Michael David Smith at PFT for that research.)
This is not an indictment against those quarterbacks, but is instead a perfect example of how the Patriots play football.
Most teams only reach 50+ pass attempts when they fall way behind – therefore, quarterbacks tend to have a losing record when throwing 50+ times. But the Patriots don’t box themselves in and “only throw a ton when they fall behind.” They also throw a ton when their opponent is weak against the pass and strong against the run. The Patriots aim to identify an opponent’s greatest weakness, and then they aim to relentlessly attack that weakness.
Seems obvious, right? Why more NFL teams do not do this is beyond me, but more central to the discussion of this week’s particular game: The Jaguars finished the regular season ranked first in DVOA against the pass and 26th against the run. How should we expect the Patriots to attack?
Through the air this week, the Patriots will design concepts aimed at creating some separation between the Jaguars’ All-World corners and the combination of Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan. This will likely come in the form of some pick/rub routes, some wide receiver screens, some bunch patterns, and some crossing routes designed to create enough chaos in the middle of the field for good things to break their way. But we should expect this to be more in the vein of teams “running the ball to set up play-action.” The Patriots are not necessarily expecting to win through Cooks and Hogan; instead, they should be looking to keep the defense honest through Cooks and Hogan, in order to get the most out of the play variations that build off of the threat Cooks/Hogan provide. Last week, I made a case for Antonio Brown as one of the top plays on the slate. This week, I’m looking at Cooks/Hogan completely differently – expecting them to instead see in their normal range of targets (five to eight targets is a reasonable expectation for each guy), with either guy needing an unpredictable (and unlikely) big play or touchdown in order to pay off.
The Patriots should focus more heavily on the backs – though Rex Burkhead is expected to return this week, which massively complicates things from a DFS perspective.
It is probably worth noting that Dion Lewis had never touched the ball 20 times in an NFL game until this recent stretch – with Burkhead on the sidelines. And while Lewis has been fantastic during this stretch, Burkhead also played extremely well throughout the season – earning the featured role in this backfield before his injury. The Patriots would optimally like to run the ball over 30 times, and if each back is active, those carries should be divided fairly evenly between the two. Each guy should also be “schemed the ball” in the pass game (i.e., these passes should be more than just third-read dump-offs, but should instead be the primary read a decent amount), with the Patriots aiming to take advantage of the hybrid skill set each guy brings to the table against linebackers who are not used to covering backs like these two. Burkhead is the favorite for goal line work, but we should also expect a lot of no-huddle as the Patriots look to tire out the front seven of the Jags – which means Lewis will get opportunities near the goal line as well if he is on the field when the Patriots march inside the five and hurry up to the line. On a slate this small, both guys stand out as excellent plays, and can be played together – though Lewis’ price is a bit of a joke on DraftKings if Burkhead plays. (Naturally, on a two-game slate, that matters less. You need to get the best plays wherever they exist. But a tourney fade of Lewis makes a lot of sense on DK, from a strategy standpoint, if Burkhead is active.)
There is an alternate scenario in which the Patriots will try to feature James White more heavily, though we wade into serious guesswork with this one. White’s role in the Divisional round is apples to this week’s oranges, as Burkhead was inactive last week. The safest assumption is that White will return to his strict third-down role – which will yield a couple carries and around four targets. But there is also a chance the Patriots see something in the matchup this week that makes them want to feature White – a potential situation that makes him an intriguing tourney piece: a guy who could get you only a few points, but could also get you a great score at low ownership.
If Burkhead is a surprise inactive this week, Lewis becomes the top running back play on the slate, and White’s stock will go up a bit as well.
As we have explored this year: the Jags are not the Broncos (a team that is great vs WRs but awful vs TEs), as only six teams allowed fewer receptions to tight ends, and only four teams allowed fewer yards. Part of this was the Jags’ pass rush not allowing plays to develop downfield – and since “downfield” is where Rob Gronkowski is most dangerous, there is a clear path here to a disappointing game. With that said: He is Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots are going to give him some shots. He’s not a guy I would move around salary to “make sure I have,” as his chances of hitting his upside are lower than normal. The actual upside itself, however, is still there.
After all that, we still have Danny Amendola – who lit the Titans on fire last weekend with his first 100-yard game since Week 1. The Patriots’ deployment of Amendola is typically “game plan specific” (i.e., they see something in the opponent that causes them to think Amendola can take advantage), so rostering him the week after a big game always feels like chasing points. On the other side of that, however, is the fact that Amendola – in a still-very-difficult matchup in the slot against Aaron Colvin – does have a better matchup than Hogan and Cooks. Personally, I expect the Pats to focus more on “keeping the defense honest with Cooks/Hogan” than on funneling targets to Amendola, but there is room for me to be wrong on that one. I prefer Cooks/Hogan over Amendola (and I don’t actually want to roster any of them), but feel free to take a different approach there.
The Jaguars’ offense is far less of a mystery, as this team ranked 32nd in the NFL in passing play percentage and will aim to run, run, run, and throw with play-action. The focus for the Patriots in practice this week will surely be on everyone “doing their job,” and not trying to pitch in on the run if their job is the pass. This should prevent straight up breakdowns on the back end, but there are still winnable matchups for the Jags through the air – especially if this game plays out the way Vegas expects: with the Jags falling behind and having to pass to catch up.
While the Patriots finished the regular season ranked fifth in points allowed, they ranked 29th in yards allowed. As we have explored for several consecutive weeks, this is largely by design, as the Patriots wait for their opponents to make mistakes, knowing they can tighten up in the red zone if needed. With Blake Bortles under center for the Jags, we can feel confident the Patriots will focus on stopping the run, and will “make Bortles beat them” – which should lead to bankable passing volume as the game moves along. The Jags may have a difficult time scoring points, but yards and short completions should be there.
The target distribution madness continued on the Jags last week, with wide receiver looks breaking down like this:
I pointed out on Twitter on Sunday that the four remaining teams in the playoffs all rank in the top five in the NFL in points allowed. Looking through the lens of DFS, that’s also like saying: This is the worst possible set of teams for a two-game DFS slate. This is further complicated by the fact that this weekend presents no Antonio Brown or DeAndre Hopkins or A.J. Green – no receiver who is the clear lead guy. Last week, we explored the fact that all four of these Jags receivers split snaps fairly evenly in the Wild Card round, but I also cautioned that just because Dede saw the most looks (by far) that week did not necessarily mean this would remain a trend. I’ll reiterate what I said last week: Bortles has a lengthy (quality) history with Lee and Hurns, he has a short (quality) history with Cole, and he has a short history with Dede – in which Dede has been a preferred target, but has yielded little in the way of results. We have very little to work with, in terms of predictive data points. Basically, expect all four guys to play equal amounts. Expect Hurns to play primarily out of the slot (giving him less upside, outside of touchdowns). Expect Lee and Westbrook to be the guys likeliest to top the team in targets. And expect Cole to carry big upside if he sees enough looks. The slate is thin enough – and value is thin enough – that you’ll probably end up with one of these guys. I would target Lee first, Cole second, Westbrook third, and Hurns fourth, but it’s close enough that you could rearrange that in any order and not be “wrong” on paper. I would simply prefer to side with the history/rapport/touchdown-talent of Lee myself, with Cole’s big per-play upside standing out to me after that.
Finally (and it is, indeed, “finally,” as I am incapable of shortening up my writeups when I have only a couple games to play around with), we have the Jags’ backfield – which will be the point of emphasis for both the Jags and the Pats. Last week, we hypothesized that the Patriots would focus on Derrick Henry first and foremost, and would force Marcus Mariota to beat them. This should go doubly for this week – so plan accordingly. To put it as simply as possible:
Leonard Fournette should carry the ball 20+ times – with three to five receptions mixed in – and with his talent and the Jags’ ability to effectively run the ball, this gives him massive upside. At the same time, the Patriots are “bad against the run” because they allow teams to scoop up short gains between the 20s, which is unlikely to be their approach with Fournette this week. The Pats should be expected to make Fournette a priority – especially early in the game, in an effort to squeeze Blake Bortles out of his comfort zone and force Nathaniel Hackett to adjust his play-calling. So while Fournette does, indeed, have a very high ceiling (hey – there’s a reason he was one of our favorite plays on the slate last week), his floor is a bit lower in this spot than it would be in others. View him as a road underdog with a bigger pass game role than Derrick Henry carried last week, but still with risk of falling out of the game plan if the Jags fall too far behind. If Fournette does fall out of the game plan, third down back T.J. Yeldon should step into four to six receptions with a few carries mixed in – which is at least worth something on a slate this small, with running back options so thin.
Vikings at Eagles
Vegas-Implied Total: Vikings 20.75, Eagles 17.75
Eagles Run D – 3rd DVOA / 6th Yards allowed per carry
Vikings Run O – 18th DVOA / 23rd Yards per carry
Eagles Pass D – 7th DVOA / 3rd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Vikings Pass O – 3rd DVOA / 11th Yards per pass attempt
Vikings Run D – 5th DVOA / 5th Yards allowed per carry
Eagles Run O – 17th DVOA / 4th Yards per carry
Vikings Pass D – 4th DVOA / 1st Yards allowed per pass attempt
Eagles Pass O – 5th DVOA / 14th Yards per pass attempt
One reason we spent so long on the Patriots and the Jags (besides just my inability to curb my enthusiasm once I get going on these games) was the simple fact that this second game sucks, from an offensive perspective.
If you have been reading this article all season, you know that I am not a big fan of two-game slates. These slates are far more about strategy than about “predicting what is likeliest to happen,” as there are simply fewer opportunities to identify “something likeliest to happen that everyone is overlooking” (which is something we are able to find week in and week out during the regular season). In fact, we have never had an NFL Edge for Championship weekend before – and the only reason we have one this week is because the contests on the sites are so huge. Really, though, this is an awful weekend for DFS play.
The starting point is Nick Foles against the Vikings’ defense – which finished the year first in yards allowed and first in points allowed, while ranking fourth in DVOA against the pass and fifth in DVOA against the run. The Vikings do not boast the dual shutdown corners that make Jacksonville so absolutely lethal, but they are a more complete defense – with no major holes. The Jags are the only team that allowed fewer passing yards. The Eagles are the only team that allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs. Put simply: If you purposely rostered offensive players against the Vikings’ defense throughout the season, you lost money doing so. And now, this Vikings defense will be taking on a quarterback in Nick Foles who has completed 76 of 127 passes since Carson Wentz went down (59.8%), for 727 yards – “good for” 5.7 yards per pass attempt, which would have ranked 29th in the NFL – ahead of only the Ravens, the Browns, and the Hundley-led Packers. The Vikings allowed only 5.6 yards per pass attempt – the second-best mark in the NFL. If this were a regular season game – on a normal-sized slate – you would not go anywhere near the Eagles’ offense.
Last week, we expected the Eagles to keep the ball on the ground and slow down the game – knowing the best way for them to win was through a low-scoring, defense-first setup. This week, things are a bit tougher to figure out, as there is no clear way for the Eagles to attack Minnesota.
For starters, the Vikings are going to look to clog up the underneath routes that Foles lived off of last week – forcing him to hand off the ball on his RPOs, or forcing the Eagles to beat them with more difficult throws than he had last week (when we finally saw the “schematic coaching gap” between the Falcons and superior staffs catch up to them). Generally speaking, the Vikings are comfortable filtering targets to the middle of the field, but they’ll likely aim to push Foles out of his comfort zone by taking that away this week.
This should lead to a few more targets to the outside – where already last week, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith saw nine combined targets, to only three for Nelson Agholor. Alshon will be matched up with 2017 All Pro corner Xavier Rhodes. As we explored last week, Rhodes is a very good corner, but is not an absolute shutdown force; at the same time, we explored that in the context of Drew Brees throwing the ball to Michael Thomas. Outside of his freakish physical attributes, Alshon is not an elite wide receiver, and Rhodes holds a big edge over a “Foles to Alshon” connection.
While this is not a play we would ever consider on a larger slate, it is noteworthy that Torrey Smith saw four looks last week. If we expect the Vikings to force Foles away from the middle of the field, and if we expect Rhodes to turn Alshon into a less appealing target, it should not surprise us if Smith sees five or six targets this week. He had three games this year with five targets, but only two games with more than five targets, so he obviously remains a thin play. But he will be matched up with Trae Waynes, who ranked 72nd (out of 86 qualifying corners) in yards allowed per coverage snap. There are plenty of reasons why we never look to roster Torrey Smith, but he has an outside shot at being a difference-maker this week.
If the Vikings have a weak link on defense (they don’t), it’s their tight end coverage, as they ranked “only” 11th best in receptions allowed to the position. Even though 10 teams allowed fewer tight end catches than the Vikings, only two teams allowed fewer yards to the position, and only one team allowed fewer touchdowns. Zach Ertz has averaged 9.3 targets per game during Foles’ full starts – at a target share of 26.4%. If Foles throws around 30 times once again, a good seven to nine looks should flow toward Ertz – though that’s really the end of the good news here. The Vikings are unlikely to allow a big play or a touchdown to this connection.
The Eagles were able to execute the prescribed game plan last week (allowing Foles to manage the game, rather than relying on him to win), which led to the backfield distribution breaking down exactly as we expected: with Jay Ajayi seeing “around 16 touches, with a few catches mixed in.” Ajayi carried the ball 15 times and received an additional three receptions, which is where the Eagles have maxed out his workload this year (since joining the team, Ajayi has no games with more than 15 carries, and no games with more than three catches). LeGarrette Blount mixed in for nine carries of his own, while Corey Clement handled third-down work to the tune of one carry and a season-high five receptions.
As with everything else on this offense, we would not go near this backfield on a larger slate. There is no reason to expect Ajayi to suddenly top 18 touches, and the matchup is awful against a Vikings defense that not only allowed the second-fewest rushing yards to running backs, but also allowed the sixth-fewest receptions, the third-fewest receiving yards, the fewest receiving touchdowns, and the sixth-fewest rushing touchdowns to the position. Ajayi is a “small slate special” – the kind of guy you play because there are no other quality options, rather than because you actually want to play him. Blount is nothing more than a touchdown-driven flier – vs a Vikings defense that has been near the top of the league in preventing running back touchdowns.
Things don’t get much better for the running backs on the other side of the ball, as the Eagles are the only team in the NFL that has allowed fewer rushing yards than the Vikings. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon will continue to split work – with Murray seeing 16+ carries and one or two catches, while McKinnon mixes in for a few receptions and a handful of carries of his own. Neither guy would be recommended on a slate with even four or five games – though on a slate this small, there is at least something to be said for Murray’s workload and McKinnon’s upside. Some ugly plays have to be made on a slate like this.
There is relative beauty to be found in this slate as well, though, with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph all fringe plays on a larger slate, but firmly in play on this slate – given what else is available. As highlighted last week: the Eagles finished seventh in DVOA against the pass and third in yards allowed per pass attempt, but because teams are so reluctant to run on them, they allowed the sixth-most receptions to wide receivers. This came with a completion rate of only 56.1%, but purely based on volume, teams are able to move the ball through the air against the Eagles – and while the Vikings will stay more committed to the run than other teams have been able to against Philly, there should be enough volume for Diggs and Thielen to matter on a slate this size. To reiterate: each guy would merely be a fringe play on a large slate (for that matter, the Patriots’ running backs are the only plays on this slate we would have serious, research-driven interest in if the slate were larger), but we can comfortably pencil in eight or more targets for Thielen (before a weird stretch to close out the season, he had eight or more targets in nine straight games to begin the year), while Diggs should see six to eight looks of his own. At this point, Thielen’s floor is only slightly higher, while each guy has a similarly high ceiling.
Rudolph is the guy who comes closest to being “large-slate viable,” as the Eagles allow middling production to the tight end position. With the obvious caveat that the Eagles boast one of the best defenses in the NFL, and no matchup against them is “easy,” Rudolph has the “easiest” draw of the lot. Seven or eight targets is a reasonable expectation in this spot, with a big red zone role that adds upside to his catch-and-fall game.
This is also the best spot for quarterback production – which says far more about the slate than it does about Case Keenum. I don’t think I could even pull the trigger on Foles in this spot, but Keenum should throw a decent amount in what shakes out as the most winnable matchup on the slate. Behind him, Bortles has a cratering floor, but a decent yardage- and rushing-driven ceiling against the Patriots, while Tom Brady is Tom Brady; we should not expect heavy passing volume from Brady, but he should sling the ball around enough to compete for the top raw score on the ugliest DFS slate I have ever seen.
With that, my friends, the action ends.
Thanks for hanging out this year.
I’ll see you next season – and I’ll see you at the top of the leaderboards this weekend.