JMToWin's NFL Edge: Divisional Round
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!
Thanks for hanging with me this season. I had a blast!
Before we take a bow and ride off into the offseason, however, we have one final four-game slate to conquer. Let’s go!!!!
Falcons at Eagles
Vegas-Implied Total: Falcons 22.25, Eagles 19.25
Eagles Run D – 3rd DVOA / 6th Yards allowed per carry
Falcons Run O – 16th DVOA / 8th Yards per carry
Eagles Pass D – 7th DVOA / 3rd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Falcons Pass O – 10th DVOA / 5th Yards per pass attempt
Falcons Run D – 20th DVOA / 19th Yards allowed per carry
Eagles Run O – 17th DVOA / 4th Yards per carry
Falcons Pass D – 19th DVOA / 11th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Eagles Pass O – 5th DVOA / 14th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
On paper, I expect the Falcons to win this game – but if I were in Vegas this week, I imagine I would drop some money on Philly. Give an excellent coaching staff two weeks to prepare for a home playoff game, and the edge tips to that team. Yes, Carson Wentz had an awesome season, and Nick Foles has looked poor under center, but this team went 13-3 with more than just a quarterback. They also have a solid rushing attack (fourth in yards per carry) and an excellent defense (top seven in DVOA against both the run and the pass, and top six in yards allowed per attempt both on the ground and through the air; Philly also allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game this season, and the fourth-fewest points per game).
This is all worth noting, because the Eagles – with Doug Pederson running the team and Jim Schwartz running the defense – know that the way to win this game is by winning the defensive battle. They will want to isolate Julio Jones and make sure he is not the player who beats them. And they will have a plan in place for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Eagles are going to try to confuse Matt Ryan into mistakes (easier said than done, of course), and they are going to do their best to force him to win with Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper.
That’s the starting point for this game, in my opinion: how the Eagles will adjust in an effort to slow down the Falcons’ offense and win the game with Foles under center. If the Eagles are able to successfully execute in these areas, we could end up with a low-scoring game that disappoints from a fantasy perspective – surely the type of game the Eagles have spent two weeks trying to figure out a way to create.
If we are going to talk about coaching, however, we need to also talk about the coaching staff on the other side of the ball – which I underestimated last week. As expected, the Falcons did not do anything particularly exotic against the Rams, and from a purely schematic perspective, they were overmatched by the Rams’ coaches last week even as their win played out. But with the speed on this defense and the tenacity that Dan Quinn coaches up, this is a team that can slow down a potent offense (as seen last week), and can certainly slow down a team quarterbacked by Nick Foles. While the Falcons do not typically over-adjust scheme in order to account for opponent, we should see them at least more comfortable than normal cheating toward the run and forcing the Eagles to win through the air.
When Wentz went down for the season, the Eagles ranked 26th in passing play percentage – yet only four teams threw more often than Philly during the last three weeks of the season. This can be partially credited to the Eagles playing some closer games down the stretch, but I put a lot more of this on the Eagles trying to give Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld as many game reps as possible. This should change this week, and we will likely see a slow-paced game plan from the Eagles that aims to lean on the run – optimally establishing the run early on, in order to create a bit of extra space against the Falcons with play-action.
When the Eagles do take to the air, Alshon Jeffery will be on the outside against Desmond Trufant (who earned PFF’s number 17 cornerback rating out of 121 qualifiers). Trufant ranked 12th in the NFL in receptions allowed per coverage snap, while slot corner Brian Poole ranked 86th in this same category (out of the 86 corners charted by PFF; in other words: dead stinking last). This is the matchup Nelson Agholor will draw roughly 86% of the time. Agholor was also Foles’ preferred wide receiver target through the latter’s limited action.
Atlanta was decent against the tight end, ranking 14th in DVOA and allowing middling production. This matchup neither upgrades nor downgrades expectations for Zach Ertz, who saw over 30% of Foles’ total targets in Weeks 15 and 16. Even if Foles throws only 30 times, Ertz should see seven or eight targets, and he has clear upside for double-digit looks if the Eagles have to throw more than they want.
When the Eagles run the ball, they should “feature” Jay Ajayi, who has recent, rising touch counts (starting with Week 13) of 12, 16, 14, and 16. “Feature” belongs in quotes because this is not a Le’Veon Bell or Derrick Henry situation, as Ajayi is still playing fewer than 50% of the snaps. But in what projects as a run-heavy game plan, there is reason to believe Ajayi will see a floor of 16 touches (with a couple receptions mixed in). The other pieces in this offense are afterthoughts, and are unlikely to have a DFS-worthy role in what projects as a fairly low-scoring game.
We covered, at the top of this writeup, what the Eagles will aim to do to slow down a Falcons team that finished the regular season ranked eighth in yards, but only 15th in points. But what will the Falcons do in response?
This season, the Eagles faced only 17.6 running back rush attempts per game (a ludicrously low number, when you pause a moment to think about just how few that is, week in and week out), but they faced the second-most pass attempts. Part of this was the Eagles playing with a lead, of course, but a much bigger part is that when a quarterback steps up to the line with the freedom to check out of a run play, this is often what they end up doing against the Eagles. While I would not trust Steve Sarkisian to adjust to a pass-heavy attack, Matt Ryan has complete control at the line, and as such, I expect the Falcons to lean fairly heavily on the pass. We should not expect more than 12 to 14 carries for Devonta Freeman or more than five to six carries for Tevin Coleman, though each should be involved in the pass game; the Eagles allowed the 11th-most running back receptions this year. Freeman has recent target counts of two, 11, three, and seven, while Coleman has recent target counts of three, two, four, and zero.
The Eagles have allowed only a 56.0% completion rate to wide receivers this year, but they face so many pass attempts, this hardly matters; only five teams allowed more receptions to the position, and Philly allowed the eighth-most yards and the 14th-most touchdowns to wideouts. The matchup is not great for Julio or Sanu, but volume should help each guy float. Julio averaged 8.7 targets per game, while Sanu averaged 5.6. I’m comfortable adding 2.5 extra targets onto my expectations for each guy.
Austin Hooper, meanwhile, averaged only 3.8 targets per game, and has been underutilized all season – failing to top six targets since Week 6 (and failing to top even five targets in his last eight games). This season, Matt Ryan has been likelier to force the ball to Julio than to give Hooper a look, so even with the Eagles sure to tilt coverage toward the Falcons’ star receiver, target expectations remain fairly low for Hooper. If you are interested in Hooper, the matchup is a non-issue, as the Eagles have been above-average against tight ends, but no more so than against any other position.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
There is no one in this game – on either side of the ball – I would be going out of my way to play, but I do like the value on Jay Ajayi and Nelson Agholor, while Ertz is actually priced really reasonably on DraftKings. I expect around 14 to 16 carries and two or three catches for Ajayi, with around seven targets for Agholor and eight or nine for Ertz. While Foles downgrades things for all these guys, their prices merit attention on a slate this small, with value so thin. None of these guys are a lock, but this is at least better value than last week, when we were scraping around on guys like Corey Davis, Albert Wilson, and Allen Hurns. Foles is also worth a look in large-field tourneys. The likeliest scenario is that he posts a disappointing game, but there are enough weapons on this team that he could fall into a three-touchdown game – and if that happens, you’ll be in great shape, with a low-owned, low-priced QB.
Sanu and Julio are both intriguing, with Julio likely to see around 11 targets and Sanu likely to see around eight looks. While the Eagles lower efficiency, these looks are enough to justify the price tag each guy wears this week. Neither guy is a lock for more than 12 (FanDuel) or 15 (DraftKings) points, but Julio has the upside for a monster game even in a tough matchup, while Sanu’s red zone prowess gives him some solid point-per-dollar upside as well. Basically: view the floor the same as always on these guys, with “ceiling” less likely than normal to hit, but still in the cards.
I’ll likely leave the Falcons’ running backs alone altogether – in a split backfield, against a team that faces the fewest running plays in the league – though each guy obviously has the upside for a big play.
No one else in this game ends up on my radar this week.
Titans at Patriots
Vegas-Implied Total: Patriots 30.5, Titans 17.0
Patriots Run D – 30th DVOA / 31st Yards allowed per carry
Titans Run O – 8th DVOA / 15th Yards per carry
Patriots Pass D – 21st DVOA / 25th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Titans Pass O – 20th DVOA / 18th Yards per pass attempt
Titans Run D – 7th DVOA / 4th Yards allowed per carry
Patriots Run O – 3rd DVOA / 12th Yards per carry
Titans Pass D – 24th DVOA / 12th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Patriots Pass O – 1st DVOA / 3rd Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
This is not your average second-round playoff game, with one team installed as a 13.5 point favorite over the other. Furthermore, I expect something of a “statement game” from a Patriots team that seems to always play at their highest level when coming off some sort of controversy or situation that questions their ability to win (notable instances that come to mind are the Spygate controversy before the ’07 season, the blowout loss at Kansas City in ’14 – which birthed the “onto Cincinnati” press conference – and the #Deflategate suspension last year). With the media questioning the ability of three highly-competitive men – who have surely clashed a number of times over the years – to still win together, the Titans could be in for a rough night on Saturday. The Patriots are further aided by Tom Brady – who has been playing injured for the last couple months – having had an extra week of rest.
From a DFS perspective, the Patriots are obviously the sexy side of the ball in this one – and we are further aided in understanding how to best expect this game to play out by understanding the Titans’ style of defense. As we talked about at the start of this season, and have touched on throughout the season, Dick LeBeau’s defenses annually face among the fewest opponent rush attempts in the NFL, as they tend to pull an extra safety into the box to slow down the run – forcing teams to beat them through the air. This last season, only nine teams faced fewer rush attempts than the Titans. No team faced more pass attempts. In the same way that we expect Matt Ryan to regularly check into a pass at the line of scrimmage in the afternoon, we should expect Tom Brady to regularly check into a pass at the line of scrimmage in the evening.
Brady averaged over 36 pass attempts per game this year, and something in the range of 40 would not be unexpected in this spot – which provides plenty of targets to go around, even on a team that mixes and matches weapons.
The primary target should be Rob Gronkowski, who ended the season with an epic dud (zero catches on zero targets in Week 17), but who had seen target counts in his previous four games of seven, 13, 11, and eight. Tennessee ranks in the bottom 12 in the NFL in yards and catches against the tight end, and they rank 24th in DVOA.
While Gronk saw zero looks in Week 17, Brandin Cooks saw 11 targets – his first time in a five-game stretch with more than seven looks. Cooks seems likely to return to his typical range (around seven or eight targets) regardless of whether or not Chris Hogan plays. During the last four weeks of the regular season, Cooks and Brady connected on only 12 of 30 targets, and only two teams this year allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the Titans allowed.
Down the stretch run of the season, Patriots running backs, as a group, averaged eight to nine targets per game. When Chris Hogan went down, the running backs, Gronk, and Danny Amendola all saw a slight uptick in looks, so expect a bit of a drop if Hogan returns, but the bigger issue is that the Patriots may have three healthy backs this week. If Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, and James White are all healthy, it will be tough to expect either of the first two guys to top 12 carries, and it will be tough to expect any of these guys to top three or four catches. If Burkhead is out (or if rumors persist that his knee is still an issue, and that a limited role is to be expected), Lewis will handle first and second downs, with White mixing in on third downs. In this situation, Lewis will remain a threat for around 20 carries and four or five catches. White will take a few carries and catch a few balls, though he will be largely relegated to third downs – and the Titans ranked in the bottom half of the league in third downs forced per game.
Danny Amendola will carry his usual role close to the line of scrimmage, and will likely require a touchdown in order to be worth a roster spot (Amendola saw only 12 red zone targets all year – though this did tie him with Brandin Cooks). Chris Hogan (who also saw 12 red zone targets…in spite of missing half the season) should step right back into six to eight targets with a priority role in the red zone if he is healthy. At this point, that remains a fairly big “if.”
Halfway through last week’s Titans’ game, I nearly started texting people to marvel at what a complete non-factor Marcus Mariota was. Then, he took over the second half in a really solid playoff performance – becoming the first quarterback in a couple years to lead his team to more than 20 points at Arrowhead. This week, he will take on a Patriots defense that ranked 29th in yards allowed…but fifth in points allowed.
This is not accidental, as the Patriots – the apex of discipline and fundamentally sound play – have been comfortable, for years, allowing teams to march the field on them, with the thinking being twofold: 1) most opponents will shoot themselves in the foot if they have to march up the field over and over again, and 2) most teams will be unable to score touchdowns once they reach the red zone. The Patriots had the fourth-best red zone defense in the NFL. Tennessee’s offense ranked 19th in red zone touchdown percentage.
As always, the Titans will aim to keep the ball on the ground early on – which is another thing the Patriots are comfortable allowing their opponents to do. New England finished the regular season ranked 30th in DVOA against the run and 31st in yards allowed per rush attempt. Derrick Henry has played 128 of a possible 132 offensive plays the last two weeks, and while his passing involvement continues to be nearly nonexistent (he saw only two targets last week in comeback mode last week), he should be expected to top 20 carries again. For a guy who is unlikely to see more than two targets, he’s priced very aggressively on DraftKings, but he costs a much smaller percentage of the salary cap on FanDuel, where receptions matter less anyway.
As this game moves along, of course, we should expect Marcus Mariota to find himself having to pass, which will likely lead to him topping the 30.25 pass attempts per game he averaged during the regular season. The Patriots have been generous to wideouts this year, allowing the fifth-most receptions and the third-most yards to the position, though this thin wide receiver corps is always a tough sell. Their most polished wideout – Rishard Matthews – is best suited to a complementary role, while their most talented wideout – rookie Corey Davis – is overwhelmingly raw. Over the last three weeks, Davis has 18 targets while Matthews has eight, but Davis has also drawn the better matchup each of those weeks. It seems reasonable to expect Matthews to get back up to six or seven targets this week.
The talk this week, of course, is not around these two guys, but is instead around Eric Decker – who was on his way to another disappointing fantasy day before nabbing a game-winning touchdown last week. Decker has flatlined at around four or five targets (rising above six looks on only three occasions this year), and his underneath role yields very little upside on weeks in which he fails to score.
The most reliable target on the Titans is Delanie Walker, who has fallen below five targets only one time this season, and has seen eight or more targets in three of his last five games. The Patriots rank eighth in DVOA against the tight end, but they have allowed middling production to the position, and Delanie is the best bet on this team for consistent targets and reliable production. When factoring in expectations for Delanie compared to wide receivers in his price range, he stands out as a strong point-per-dollar play this week.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
Rob Gronkowski is the top tight end on the slate by raw expectations, and Delanie is one of the best values on the slate – making each guy stand out to me. On DraftKings, I would not mind locking in both of these guys on the same roster.
In sticking with positional groups: Brady is an excellent play (I think the week of rest will prove to be good for him), while Mariota is a low-floor play with low touchdown expectations, but his rushing ability gives him enough upside for him to be worth a shot in tourneys.
Dion Lewis will remain valuable if Burkhead is out or limited – with one of the most locked-in workloads on the slate. If Burkhead is instead rumored to be close to 100%, it will be tough to rely on any Patriots back. I love Henry on FanDuel, where his priced does not make sense. On DraftKings, Henry maintains strong upside if you want to go there – though it should go without saying that there is risk in paying up for an underdog running back who has a small role in the pass game.
I have made a habit of not paying up for Cooks all year – which has hurt me a couple times, but has helped me far more often. I just want more than seven targets if I am paying up at the position. (A red zone role would be nice as well.) If Hogan returns, I would be much more intrigued by him, as his price makes a lot of sense, and he should see the same number of targets as Cooks, with a higher likelihood of red zone work. On the Titans’ side of the ball, I don’t trust any of these receivers, but they should be in comeback mode against a team that is content to give up receptions to the position. Matthews’ price, in particular, jumps off the screen on both FanDuel and DraftKings. He’s not a guy I can peg for a high raw score, but he does check off enough boxes to be considered strong value.
Jaguars at Steelers
Vegas-Implied Total: Steelers 24.0, Jaguars 17.0
Steelers Run D – 18th DVOA / 27th Yards allowed per carry
Jaguars Run O – 12th DVOA / 9th Yards per carry
Steelers Pass D – 8th DVOA / 22nd 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
Steelers Run O – 6th DVOA / 25th Yards per carry
Jaguars Pass D – 1st DVOA / 2nd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Steelers Pass O – 4th DVOA / 8th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
All season long, I have avoided wide receivers against the Jaguars – and I am sure I am not alone in that boat. The Jags finished the season ranked first in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns allowed to wide receivers. This is truly a shutdown unit, with a completion rate allowed of under 50% on passes to wideouts. And yet(!), if there is one wide receiver who can beat them, it is Antonio Brown.
This is not conjecture; in Week five, AB hauled in 10 catches for 157 yards against the Jags. Now, this comes with a notable disclaimer: in that game, AB also saw 19 targets – and the Pittsburgh run defense (which has since improved) was shredded by the Jags’ rushing attack in a 9-30 loss. But if game flow plays out similarly in this spot, and the Steelers have to attack through the air, AB will be showered with targets, and he is the one guy in the league I would be comfortable betting on (in tourneys, of course) against this defense if the targets are there.
Of course, if the Steelers have things their way, that will not even be a topic of conversation, as this game will play out on the ground against a Jags run defense that can be had – finishing the season ranked 26th in both DVOA and yards allowed per carry. The Jags did rank in the top half of the league in yards allowed per game to running backs, and only five teams allowed fewer rushing touchdowns to running backs. The matchup is average to “slightly above-average,” as opposed to the glorious spot it looks like at first glance, and from a fantasy perspective, running backs have generally underperformed against the Jags. But we do know that Le’Veon Bell is locked into one of the largest workloads in the league, and his pass game involvement bodes well for him against a Jags defense that locks down wide receivers.
For that matter, the Jags’ pass defense locks down tight ends as well. Only six teams allowed fewer receptions to the position, and only four teams allowed fewer yards. In all, the Jags allowed the second-fewest yards per game and the second-fewest points per game in the NFL.
On the Jags’ side of the ball, I cannot recall ever seeing a quarterback whose confidence more obviously plays a major role in his on-field play than it does for Blake Bortles – who has the look of a genuine top 12 NFL quarterback for weeks at a time, and who then misfires on the easiest throws and freaks out at the slightest breach of the pocket during other stretches. For the last three weeks, Bortles’ confidence has been visibly shaken, and he has been unable to make even easy completions. That could be a problem this week against a Steelers pass defense that will have a healthy Joe Haden, and that was a top five defense against wide receivers all season until Haden went down.
Last week, with Marqise Lee finally healthy, the Jags’ snaps and targets broke down as follows:
Last week was especially strange, as the Jags had 59 offensive snaps, but the low-scoring, run-dominant nature of the game led to the Jags running very few three-wide sets. The two biggest takeaways for me in those numbers above are: 1) Each guy played a fairly similar number of snaps to the others. 2) Dede was the clear lead receiver.
There is no guarantee that this carries over, as Dede and Bortles have had an unprofitable connection to date, and Bortles has a long history with Lee and Hurns, along with a couple huge games with Cole. There is nothing in the matchup that bumps up production expectations for any of these guys, and they should all share time on the field with a confidence-shot QB under center; but all four guys have the talent for a big game, and as such, all four remain in the tourney conversation.
The more appealing portion of this side of the ball is the backfield, where Leonard Fournette should see a handful of carries and four to six targets. The Steelers are going to be ready with a game plan for stopping Fournette and forcing Bortles to beat them, but this unit has regressed since the loss of Ryan Shazier; if the Jags are going to win, it will almost certainly be because of a successfully-executed “defense and run game” approach, and that makes Fournette a near-lock to be fed the ball. He’s likely to go somewhat overlooked after his unpredictable dud last week.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
This is, apparently, my least favorite game on what is already a pretty poor slate for fantasy production (with this being a year in which a number of top defenses reached the second round), and I cannot see myself feeling good about a single wide receiver in this game – which crosses the quarterbacks off my “feels good” list as well.
To stretch that out a bit, however: Antonio Brown still carries monster upside, and a Fournette/AB stack could be a unique way to capitalize on one clear way this game could play out (it’s not the likeliest way for this game to play out – but it’s absolutely in the mix). Juju Smith-Schuster has also shown enough serious upside that a tourney flier can be taken on him, but he is nothing more than a low-floor shot in the dark.
It also does not take a huge imagination to envision one of the Jags’ receivers having a good game, though it appears impossible to comfortably predict which of the four core receivers is most likely to hit – and there is no guarantee against this pass defense that any of the four will hit.
The backfields are where the quality attention goes. Bell is overpriced, given the below-average fantasy production the Jags have allowed to running backs this year, but the workload still gives him a high raw floor. He’s not a priority for me, but his floor is great to have if you can fit him easily (to put that another way: a monster game is not the likeliest outcome here, and more than likely, Bell will post a score that falls shy of his price; but purely in the context of “a good fantasy score,” Bell should perform well – making him a guy I would be happy to have if the salary, unexpectedly, worked out). Fournette, on the other hand, is a guy I’m drawn toward, as he is priced about where he should be, on a slate with a lot of guys who are a bit overpriced.
Saints at Vikings
Vegas-Implied Total: Vikings 25.25, Saints 20.75
Vikings Run D – 5th DVOA / 5th Yards allowed per carry
Saints Run O – 1st DVOA / 2nd Yards per carry
Vikings Pass D – 4th DVOA / 1st Yards allowed per pass attempt
Saints Pass O – 6th DVOA / 1st Yards per pass attempt
Saints Run D – 23rd DVOA / 28th Yards allowed per carry
Vikings Run O – 18th DVOA / 23rd Yards per carry
Saints Pass D – 5th DVOA / 18th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Vikings Pass O – 3rd DVOA / 11th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
Speaking of “guys who are a bit overpriced…”
This year, the Minnesota Vikings have allowed the fewest yards per game, and the fewest points per game. Only five teams allowed fewer receptions to running backs than the Vikings allowed. Only one team allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs than the Vikings allowed. On the season, the Vikings allowed one receiving touchdown to running backs (the best mark in the league), while allowing only seven rushing touchdowns to the position (the sixth-best mark in the league). Le’Veon Bell is the only running back priced higher than Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram on FanDuel; Ingram’s price is depressed on DraftKings, but Kamara is the second highest-priced running back on there as well.
Of course, the craziest thing of all is that it’s still not crazy to play these guys. To mix in a bit of “JM’s reaction” up here: On paper, Kamara is overpriced on both sites, while Ingram is overpriced on FanDuel (and is still a tough sell on DraftKings, purely looking at raw expectations); but we also need to acknowledge that these are two of the most reliably-used weapons in the NFL – with massive red zone roles that we have tracked in this space all season. Kamara and Ingram are a good 65% of this entire offense – and given the talent and the locked-in workload, I still don’t hate the idea of playing either guy.
All Pro corner Xavier Rhodes had a strong season – consistently shadowing number one receivers, and consistently holding them below expectations. He was not impenetrable, however, as only 20 corners allowed more receptions this year than Rhodes allowed, and he posted respectable, but non-elite numbers in yards allowed per coverage snap and receptions allowed per coverage snap. His biggest impact came in the red zone, where he allowed only two touchdowns all season – while regularly shadowing an opponent’s top red zone threat. The floor for Michael Thomas should be bumped down a little, and his chances of hitting his ceiling are also lowered, but the matchup is not impossible, and the targets are going to be there.
If the Saints decide to put the ball in the hands of Drew Brees as this game moves along (which seems likely, as the Saints will be forced to try a number of things to figure out what will work against this stout Vikings defense), we should also see a couple deep shots to Ted Ginn – making him a guy worth taking a shot on as well. No team in the entire NFL allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the Vikings allowed – but as impressive as that sounds, they still allowed two such plays per game. As we pointed out last week with Tyreek Hill against the Titans (who ranked third in “fewest pass plays of 20+ yards”): there is still room for an explosive player to rip off a big gain or two. On a week with so little to love, it can make sense to take a shot in a spot like this.
As good of a corner as Rhodes is, the most impressive corner in this game is Saints’ rookie Marcus Lattimore, who had five interceptions on the year while allowing zero touchdowns – culminating in the third-lowest quarterback rating allowed in the NFL (45.3). Lattimore rarely travels into the slot, where Stefon Diggs goes about a quarter of the time, but the other 75% of Diggs’ snaps should see him followed by Lattimore, creating a tough matchup. Unlike Thomas (who saw at least eight targets in all but one game on the season), Diggs does not have guaranteed volume to fall back on; he topped seven targets in only two of his last 11 games.
From Weeks 3 through 12, Adam Thielen had nine consecutive games of eight or more targets – though he inexplicably fell below eight targets in four of the last five games on the year. With the reset that comes with the bye week, I expect the Vikings to get back to feeding Thielen the ball. P.J. Williams mans the slot for the Saints and has been below-average this year, ranking 83rd out of 121 qualifying corners in PFF’s ratings. Of course, the Saints’ pass rush (sixth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate) hurts opposing passing attacks as well, but Minnesota has one of the better offensive lines in football – ranking sixth in adjusted sack rate and seventh in sacks allowed. There should be time for Keenum to pick on Williams this week.
When Case Keenum is not throwing to Diggs and Thielen, he usually throws to Kyle Rudolph – who will maintain his workload- and touchdown-driven upside, but who is taking on a Saints defense that allowed the NFL’s fewest receptions and yards to tight ends. Rudolph is best viewed as a low-floor, moderate-ceiling play.
The Vikings’ backfield is the final piece of this weekend’s puzzle – and they are a piece most will likely forget can be locked in place. The Saints are best attacked on the ground, and Minnesota ranked 29th in passing play percentage (running the ball more often than 28 other teams). From Week 6 on, Latavius Murray had at least 15 carries in all but one game, with one to two catches a reasonable expectation along the way. If the Vikings are able to play this game the way they will want to play it, Murray will get around 20 touches, with the first crack at goal line work. Jerick McKinnon should mix in for seven to 10 carries, with anywhere from two to five catches along the way.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
I will be staying away from Drew Brees, because this is simply not a pass defense I see the need to attack with a pocket passer – but there is a clear tourney case to be made for Case Keenum. The Vikings would optimally like to win this game with Keenum acting as nothing more than a game manager, and with the defense and run game taking control; but if Keenum has to take over, he has enough gunslinger in him to post a strong fantasy day – at a low price.
Both sets of passing weapons are in below-average spots as well, but on a slate this small, a case can be made for all four of the major pieces:
Michael Thomas has his floor lowered by the matchup, and he becomes less likely to hit his ceiling (which, in all, means he is overpriced), but he also carries a high raw floor and has the role and the talent to still post one of the top scores on the slate if everything goes right. Ginn is also worth a shot in tourneys, simply based on the sort of upside he can bring to the table with one big play. Obviously, he is not a priority.
I don’t want to bet on a receiver in Diggs whose matchup is difficult, and whose targets have been inconsistent, but he is talented enough to post a strong game in spite of those obstacles. I am also lowering “floor” expectations for Thielen, but he makes for one of the most intriguing contrarian plays on the slate, as the matchup is not bad, and if the targets spike back to where they were earlier in the year, he could easily go for eight catches, a hundred yards, and a touchdown.
The Saints’ backfield cannot be expected to perform to expectations, but both guys will continue to be heavily involved – with Alvin Kamara being locked into five or six catches, and with Mark Ingram depending more on game flow, but still a threat for a monster day. This matchup is reminiscent of what the Saints had last week – though last week, it was much easier for the Saints to abandon the running backs and just attack through the air. That will not be as much of an option this week, which could lead to the running backs seeing enough work to matter once more.
Finally (an odd way to end the NFL Edge for the year…though perhaps fitting, given our desire in this space to trust the numbers and think for ourselves, rather than getting too caught up in what everyone else is hyping), Latavius Murray stands out as a great (if non-sexy) way to lock in points and save salary. He should see around 18 carries and a couple catches in an above-average matchup – with as high of a likelihood of a short rushing touchdown as any running back on the slate.
I’ll see you at the top of the leaderboards this weekend, my friend.
And I’ll see you in eight months when NFL kicks off again!