JMToWin's NFL Edge: Wild Card 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!
Welcome To The Playoffs
You made it to the playoffs, my friend!
If you are still reading this, you likely either A) made some money this year, or B) have been close enough to hitting something big that it makes sense to get in two more weeks of action. Either way: we have some playoff football to get to!
This is my favorite sports weekend of the year. Maybe I’m partial to this weekend because – as a lifelong Patriots fan – I rarely have a dog in the fight in this weekend and can just enjoy the games; but more than that, this weekend always seems to provide us with at least one crazy game, or one crazy moment, that gets talked about for years. Glorious playoff football!
Of course, while every play on the field is magnified for the players involved, our goal in DFS remains no different from before: we want to play the best players we can play.
As always, “the best player” does not necessarily mean “the highest projection.” Sometimes, a player can be “the best play” because he is projected barely below another guy, but will draw far lower ownership. Sometimes, a player can be “the best play” because he has the potential to post the top score on the slate (even though his style of play means he can also crater your lineup – think a guy like Tyreek Hill). And sometimes, a player can be “the best play” because you are so convinced he will outperform expectations, you absolutely have to have him on your team. (These are the plays that feel better than any other when they pay off…but worse than any other when they don’t.)
If you’re still here – still playing NFL DFS this deep into the season – you are either doing something right, or you are “close enough to something right” that it makes sense to keep hunting. As such: Keep doing what you’re doing! Keep playing the best plays.
Let’s see what happens.
Titans at Chiefs
Vegas-Implied Total: Chiefs 26.0, Titans 18.0
Chiefs Run D – 32nd DVOA / 23rd Yards allowed per carry
Titans Run O – 8th DVOA / 15th Yards per carry
Chiefs Pass D – 23rd DVOA / 23rd 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
Chiefs Run O – 5th DVOA / 1st Yards per carry
Titans Pass D – 24th DVOA / 12th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Chiefs Pass O – 8th DVOA / 2nd Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
It seems that this first game of the Wild Card weekend is always a game that contains at least one team we will completely forget was even in the playoffs. I’m not sure if the NFL schedules the least memorable teams in this slot on purpose, or if these teams instead become less memorable because their game happens so early in the weekend – but one way or another, we will likely forget, by next year, that the loser of this game even made the playoffs. And given the way this matchup sets up, this means we will likely forget, by next year, that the Titans even made the playoffs.
The Chiefs have had their struggles on defense this year, but they have been lights out at home – not allowing a single team to score more than 20 points on them at Arrowhead. This, in spite of a home schedule that included games against the Eagles, the Redskins, the Steelers, the Raiders, and the Chargers.
The Titans’ defense, on the other hand, benefitted from road matchups this year against the Jaguars, Colts, Dolphins, Browns, and Cardinals (with Blaine Gabbert) – which boosted their statistics, but not their underlying talent. As we explored in this space earlier in the year: with ageless wonder Dick LeBeau coordinating this defense, they are able to “chess match” their way to quality games against below-average quarterbacks and/or offensive minds, but their below-average talent causes them to fall apart in tougher matchups.
To be fair, we should not expect a blowout. The Titans did allow 57 points to the Deshaun Watson led Texans, and 40 points to the Steelers, but they also held the Rams to 27 points and the Garoppolo led 49ers to 25 points down the stretch – with both these games coming on the road. This is not a defense that significantly boosts the upside of an opponent – but it should also not prove to be a major downgrade for the Chiefs.
This is especially true of the matchup for Alex Smith, who has quietly been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year – ranking eighth in the league in passing yards, and ranking top three in completion percentage, yards per pass attempt, and passer rating. His five interceptions were the fewest in the league among quarterbacks who started the bulk of the season. The Titans often put a safety in the box to discourage the run, which led to them facing the 10th-fewest rushing attempts and the most pass attempts in the NFL. Only four teams allowed fewer rushing yards this year to running backs than the Titans allowed. Volume should not be an issue for Smith this week, in a slightly above-average matchup.
Tennessee struggled against tight ends this year, ranking 24th in DVOA and facing the third-most targets to tight ends in the league. This sets up as a nice spot for Travis Kelce, whose only issue – ever – is volume, as he can win in any matchup if the targets are there.
Tyreek Hill saw more than eight targets in a game only twice all year; he also saw fewer than six targets only once all year. We can lock him into that “six to eight” range every week in this offense – and we know that a couple of these targets will come near the line of scrimmage to get the ball in his hands, and a couple will come on deep shots. The matchup would seem to work against Hill, given that the Titans allowed the third-fewest receptions of 20+ yards – though I wouldn’t bet against Hill in a home playoff game. Even with the “third-fewest receptions of 20+ yards,” the Titans allowed 37 such plays (2.31 per game). There is room for a big play or two from Hill.
The tougher matchup goes to Kareem Hunt, against a Titans run D that ranks seventh in DVOA, fourth in yards allowed per carry, and fourth in rushing yards allowed. It is wholly noteworthy that only two teams allowed more receptions to running backs than the Titans allowed, while Kareem Hunt saw over five targets per game (and over 30 touches per game) once Matt Nagy took over the play-calling. Hunt is well-rested, and there is every reason to expect a similarly massive workload.
Albert Wilson will return to his role as the number four option in the pass game. He typically carries very little upside, but his floor is high enough to consider him as a cheap option with guaranteed points that will enable you to pay up in other spots.
Things are less exciting on the other side of the ball, where Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ broken passing attack (20th in DVOA, 18th in yards per pass attempt, 30th in passing touchdowns) travel to take on a Chiefs team that is tougher at home than it is on the road. With that said, the Titans (27th in passing play percentage) will likely have to abandon their run-dominant ways as the game moves along, and as the Chiefs pull out ahead. It’s fairly safe to expect at least a small jump in volume on the 28.3 pass attempts per game Mariota had during the regular season.
Targets dropped for Rishard Matthews down the stretch (4.8 targets per game over the last four contests of the season), but a closer look shows a matchup against Patrick Peterson, a matchup against the Rams, and a matchup against Jacksonville. The only game in that stretch in a favorable matchup (at San Francisco) saw eight targets go to Matthews, and he should be in the “six to eight” range once again. The Chiefs have allowed the 10th-most pass plays of 20+ yards, the second-most wide receiver yards, and the third-most wide receiver touchdowns. The following fact, however, should be underlined: The Chiefs allowed a low 57.2% completion rate to wide receivers, as their issues were more related to “big plays” than to “consistent dominance”; the Titans’ offense ranked 25th in pass plays of 20+ yards, and an inordinately high number of Mariota’s throws fail to go more than 15 yards downfield. Because efficiency numbers can be low against the Chiefs, it is preferable to attack them with wide receivers who have big-play upside; the Titans are not an offense that typically creates such plays.
Corey Davis was out-targeted by Matthews against San Francisco (when Matthews had a softer matchup), but he has still been involved lately – seeing 5.4 targets per game across his last four contests. Davis is still raw, and is no guarantee to win in tight coverage, but the Chiefs slip up enough in coverage, and Davis has enough upside to his game, that he has a shot at hitting this week. Eric Decker will maintain his slot role – which has not led to much upside this year, but has led to fairly consistent production.
Delanie Walker has a tougher matchup, against a Chiefs team that allowed the third-fewest tight end receptions in the league, but as with the Chiefs’ wide receiver defense, big plays have been an issue. In spite of ranking third-best in receptions allowed to tight ends, the Chiefs rank 12th-worst in yards allowed. The Chiefs also allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns to tight ends, so Delanie will need the yards, making him a risky play.
The concern I expressed last week over Derrick Henry had nothing to do with his abilities as a rusher, and had only to do with the fact that the Titans do not trust him in the pass game. Naturally, he went ahead and averaged only 1.8 yards per carry in spite of seeing 28 carries…while taking a 66-yard reception to the house. The same concerns stand this week, as Henry saw only two targets. But given that he played 63 of 65 snaps last week, I think he’ll see enough targets to support a nice floor even as the Titans fall behind; as long as he is on the field on passing downs, a few looks should bleed his way. The Chiefs have allowed the eighth-most yards and the sixth-most rushing touchdowns to the running back position.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
Throw in the rushing upside of Alex Smith (23.7 rushing yards per game), and he looks like one of the best quarterback options on the slate. The fact that this seems crazy underscores what makes him such a great play, as most people will overlook him this week. Smith averaged more fantasy points per game this year than any of the other quarterbacks playing on the weekend.
I’m also a big fan of the other pieces on the Chiefs – with none of them being priorities for me, but all of them being really nice plays. Kelce and Hill should see a small bump in volume, in a matchup that tilts opponents toward the pass; and Hunt is going to be used heavily in the pass game if he’s not getting carries, as Matt Nagy seems intent on riding Hunt as much as he can.
I’m not a big fan of the Titans’ passing attack, as I expect it to end up a bit overvalued by the public on a slate this small. Because the Chiefs’ biggest weakness (the big play) does not align with what Tennessee does well, there is a chance for this unit to yield disappointing results.
On the other hand, I’m a bigger fan of Henry than I was last week. The Titans showed last week that they are comfortable leaving Henry on the field in all situations, which means he should get a few catches and a ton of carries. I don’t expect the Titans to win, but I do expect Henry to do well this week.
If DeMarco Murray is miraculously active, I would not automatically assume it’s only as a decoy. The Titans have shown a willingness to ride him in spots where he was expected to be inactive, so nothing should be considered certain if Murray is active this week.
Falcons at Rams
Vegas-Implied Total: Rams 27.5, Falcons 21.0
Rams Run D – 22nd DVOA / 30th Yards allowed per carry
Falcons Run O – 16th DVOA / 8th Yards per carry
Rams Pass D – 3rd DVOA / 13th 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
Rams Run O – 9th DVOA / 7th Yards per carry
Falcons Pass D – 19th DVOA / 11th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Rams Pass O – 7th DVOA / 7th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
The Falcons may have disappointed compared to expectations, but realistically, they overcame the Super Bowl hangover that affects so many Super Bowl losers and made it into the playoffs in what proved to be the toughest division in football. That’s about where the good news ends, as they have to travel across the country to take on a white-hot Rams team that had six wins of 16 or more points (with four wins of 30+).
The Falcons’ defense – which is light on “scheme” and big on speed – is at risk of getting outsmarted by wunderkind Sean McVay, while Steve Sarkisian and Matt Ryan are likely to be overwhelmed by Wade Phillips. If you care about coaching as much as I believe you should, you should immediately downgrade expectations for the Falcons in this spot – particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
One thing to be said for Sarkisian: he has continued to try new things throughout the season in an effort to kick this offense into gear – rather than simply doing the same thing all season regardless (as most coaches are prone to doing). Lately, this has led to the running backs getting involved in the pass game again, with Tevin Coleman seeing two and four targets the last two weeks, while Devonta Freeman saw 11 and three looks. Freeman is still largely splitting carries with Coleman (22 the last two weeks for Freeman, 17 for Coleman), so if the targets disappear, he could be in trouble. But as a safety net, the matchup is good (22nd in DVOA; 30th in yards allowed per carry) – good enough that a talent like Freeman maintains an outside shot at a nice fantasy day even if he only gets 11 or 12 carries and a couple catches.
Julio Jones finished the season with the second-most receiving yards in the NFL. Only Antonio Brown had more yards than Julio. How’s that for “a disappointing season”? Of course, yards are only part of the equation in DFS – and where Julio fell especially short (only three receiving touchdowns on the year) is where the Rams are strongest (sixth-fewest touchdowns allowed to wide receivers). This puts a cap on Julio’s chances of reaching his upside. The matchup is non-threatening otherwise.
Somewhat embarrassingly, Mohamed Sanu finished the year with twice as many receiving touchdowns as Julio (to further troll Julio: he also threw one of Julio’s three touchdown receptions to him). He has a consistent role in this offense, but it’s a primarily short-yardage role that has yielded three games in his last five of 43 yards or fewer. Sanu’s chances of breaking the slate open for you are slim, but his chances of cratering your roster are also slim.
On the other side of the ball, “the offense that Jeff Fisher built” (which somehow jumped from 32nd in scoring to first in scoring once he left) will be taking on an Atlanta team that quietly ranked ninth best in yards allowed per game and eighth best in points allowed per game. Dan Quinn’s unit is quick enough to slow down an opponent as talented and as well-schemed as the Rams, but I’m still comfortable giving a slight advantage to the Rams on this side of the ball as well.
The Rams finished the season ranked 25th in passing play percentage – and this is in spite of a stretch in which McVay opened up the offense a bit, in what was seemingly a bit of extra reps and responsibility for his young quarterback. The Rams are capable of opening up the offense if it becomes necessary to do so, but this team has reached this point by playing a low-risk, highly-disciplined brand of offense that leans heavily on both the run and high-percentage throws (with “high-percentage” in this offense not necessarily meaning “short,” but instead also meaning “downfield throws to guys who are more open than an NFL receiver should be, as a result of the brilliance of this offense”). Expect the Rams to lean on Todd Gurley first and foremost – only opening things up with a pass-heavy attack if the Falcons jump out to a lead.
Two weeks ago, I argued against the $9100 price tag for Todd Gurley (on both FanDuel and DraftKings), as he was averaging around 20 touches per game, and therefore needed incredible efficiency in order to pay off that price tag. Not only did he continue his run of incredible efficiency that week, but he also touched the ball 32 times (with 10 receptions!) – blowing past his season averages for both carries and catches. I fully expect the Rams to give Gurley every opportunity to win the game for them, which means that 25 to 35 touches should not be a surprise. The Falcons are below-average against the run (19th in DVOA; 20th in yards allowed per carry), and no team in football has allowed more receptions to the running back position than the Falcons have allowed.
There is a clear path for this to be a low-volume game for Jared Goff, and for a chunk of his passes to go to Todd Gurley, which makes volume a concern for the other pass catchers on this team. Robert Woods is the best bet for volume, as he has averaged nine targets per game across his last four contests – even seeing seven targets in Week 15 when Goff threw only 21 times. Cooper Kupp will soak up five to seven targets on underneath routes, with a red zone role (third in the NFL in red zone targets) that gives him enough upside to enter the conversation. Sammy Watkins has seen six targets per game the last two weeks, and while he brings a low floor, he always carries big-play upside. Atlanta was one of the better teams in football (eighth-best) at preventing pass plays of 20+ yards.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
Todd Gurley is the best raw play on the slate, and I even feel he is worth his ridiculous salary, as I expect the Rams to give him as many touches as they reasonably can – while the matchup sets up well for Gurley to succeed.
I’m less sold on anything else in this game. I expect Goff to be held to around 30 pass attempts, which lowers his upside and lowers opportunities for his pass catchers – especially with work likely to tilt toward Gurley through the air as well. I would be fine with Woods or Kupp, and Watkins has low-floor/high-ceiling appeal, but I’m definitely not forcing any of these guys onto a lineup. Solid scores should be expected from the first two guys, but upside will be tougher for them to reach.
Devonta Freeman is intriguing on the other side, but there is still fear that he’ll see something like 12 carries and two catches. This risk needs to be acknowledged – along with acknowledging his upside. He’s a fine play, as he could post a huge game if his carries spike or if his targets remain in place, but he’s also risky at his price.
The same goes for Julio, who should be able to pick up yards in this spot, but the Falcons have not been forcing him the ball (which lowers his target floor), and touchdowns will be tough to come by (which lowers his ceiling). Julio has the talent to win any matchup, but his chances of hitting in this spot are lower than they would be in others.
Finally, Sanu is solid, but unimaginative; he works fine on a slate this small, without a ton of value available. Coleman should be popular, given his consistent role and his low price tag; the limited touches give him a low floor, but his big-play upside makes him a nice salary saver. And Matt Ryan is more name than game this year, and has lower expectations than at least a couple other quarterbacks on the slate.
Bills at Jaguars
Vegas-Implied Total: Jaguars 24.25, Bills 15.25
Jaguars Run D – 26th DVOA / 26th Yards allowed per carry
Bills Run O – 19th DVOA / 14th Yards per carry
Jaguars Pass D – 1st DVOA / 2nd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Bills Pass O – 28th DVOA / 26th Yards per pass attempt
Bills Run D – 31st DVOA / 25th Yards allowed per carry
Jaguars Run O – 12th DVOA / 9th Yards per carry
Bills Pass D – 12th DVOA / 9th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Jaguars Pass O – 15th DVOA / 13th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
Oh, glorious storylines! Two teams with long playoff droughts; Doug Marrone coaching against the team he ditched a few years back; mid-season trade chip Marcell Dareus squaring off with the team that got rid of him.
Of course, while the storylines are great for marketing and hype, none of that will matter once the players take the field – at which point, the Bills will have to figure out a way to navigate this lethal Jacksonville defense.
This game hinges massively on the health of LeSean McCoy – who was carted off the field last week but is a game-time decision for this one. Early in the week, it seems likely that Shady takes the field – though how effective he will actually be remains an open question.
The matchup itself is appealing, on paper, though the Jags’ run defense deficiencies are more scheme-driven than talent-driven. Given how little Tyrod Taylor has done through the air this year (Buffalo ranks 31st in passing yards), the Jags should be able to dedicate extra attention to the run. I’m comfortable chalking this up as a below-average draw for Shady – and I’m comfortable expecting him to be a not-quite-100% version of himself.
If Shady misses, it will be Marcus Murphy and Mike Tolbert carrying the mail. Last week after Shady went down, Murphy and Tolbert both took seven carries and saw a pair of targets; a similar split seems likely this week – with each guy getting 12 to 15 carries and a handful of targets. Murphy looks like the likelier bet for upside, though Tolbert has far more experience, and may be relied on near the goal line and down the stretch in the unlikely event that the Bills are closing out this game with a lead.
The Bills’ passing attack is the easiest thing to break down this week. This is a team that ranks 31st in passing yards, with a quarterback who has topped 224 passing yards only three times all season – taking on the best pass defense in the NFL (first in DVOA, second in yards allowed per pass attempt, first in yards allowed, second in interceptions, second in sacks, first in completion percentage, first in passer rating, and third in touchdowns). If you have regularly rostered the Bills’ passing attack, you have probably lost a decent chunk of money doing so, and if you have regularly rostered passing attacks against the Jags, you have probably lost a decent chunk of money doing so.
The Jaguars’ offense also provides us a perfectly clear path in terms of “what we should target,” as the Jags ran the ball more frequently than any team in the NFL, and they get to take on a Bills defense that finished the year ranked 31st in DVOA and 25th in yards allowed per carry. Over his last four game, Leonard Fournette has averaged 20.3 carries and 3.5 catches per game, and he has five games on the year with 28+ touches – giving us an idea of what the Jags may do in this must-win game. On a pure point-per-dollar basis, there is a case to be made for Fournette as an even better option than Gurley (though this argument is a bit easier to make on FanDuel, where Gurley’s pass game involvement leads to fewer points). Behind Fournette, Chris Ivory should take anywhere from one to eight carries, while T.J. Yeldon will come onto the field on most third downs – a role that has led to four or five carries per game, with two to four catches most games.
The Bills are much tougher on the pass game – ranking 12th in DVOA and ninth in yards allowed per pass attempt, while allowing the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the league. Everything on the Bills is further designed to push targets to the middle of the field, which hurts perimeter threats Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole, and bumps up target expectation for Allen Hurns – who played 47 snaps in his return to the field last week. Assuming the Jags take and hold a lead – as expected – Bortles should throw the ball around 30 times, which will create enough opportunity for each of Westbrook, Cole, and Hurns to see six or seven targets. Cole has become Bortles’ preferred target, though Westbrook still has seven or more targets in five of his last six games and carries talent-driven upside, while Hurns and Bortles have had a strong connection over the years. If Marqise Lee returns this week, things get iffy, as the Jags would likely want to keep Cole involved, which could lead to him spelling all three guys; Cole can play both inside and outside. In all, this is not a great spot for the Jags’ passing attack – but on a slate this small, with these guys priced so cheap, they are definitely part of the conversation. Buffalo is also weak against the tight end – though Marcedes Lewis has topped two catches only three times all season.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
Leonard Fournette is the crown jewel of this game, as a talented lead back on a large home favorite taking on a poor run defense. Expect north of 25 touches – making him an excellent point-per-dollar play, and even giving him an outside shot at dethroning Todd Gurley as the top raw play on the slate.
Through the air for the Jags, I wouldn’t mind taking a shot on Westbrook, Hurns, or Cole. Westbrook has the lowest floor, but he should draw fairly low ownership given his recent stretch of disappointing games, and the upside remains. Hurns should go massively overlooked in the DFS community, and the Bills push targets toward the middle of the field; with that said, he’s still a bit of a risk, as Bortles may force passes outside the numbers (or look to running backs) rather than looking to Hurns. Cole has the most upside, with probably the best “target floor” as well; as with Dede, his matchup on the outside against Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines is a definite downgrade.
I’m mostly comfortable leaving the Bills’ offense alone, though Shady obviously carries a ceiling (along with a low floor) if he plays, while Murphy and Tolbert should turn into solid point-per-dollar plays if Shady is out.
If you want to target the Bills’ passing attack against the Jags, you are on your own.
Panthers at Saints
Vegas-Implied Total: Saints 27.75, Panthers 20.75
Saints Run D – 23rd DVOA / 28th Yards allowed per carry
Panthers Run O – 11th DVOA / 10th Yards per carry
Saints Pass D – 5th DVOA / 18th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Panthers Pass O – 17th DVOA / 23rd Yards per pass attempt
Panthers Run D – 6th DVOA / 11th Yards allowed per carry
Saints Run O – 1st DVOA / 2nd Yards per carry
Panthers Pass D – 10th DVOA / 20th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Saints Pass O – 6th DVOA / 1st Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
This game is the pride of Wild Card weekend, with two teams that could easily have finished the season as the number two seed in the NFC – two teams, furthermore, that are division opponents with big names on both offense and defense.
Of course, while the Panthers went into the final weekend of the season with a shot at not only the NFC South title, but also a shot at a first-round bye, the Saints are pretty clearly the superior team between the two. In two meetings this year, the Saints topped 30 points both times – winning 31-21 at home in Week 13, and smashing the Panthers to the tune of 34-13 in Charlotte in Week 3. The Saints are rightly installed as touchdown favorites, and it seems fairly likely that they top the 27.75 Vegas-implied total set for them. The Saints scored 30 or more points in seven of their games this year, including five of their eight games in the Superdome.
As has been the case nearly all season, the Saints are one of the easiest teams to break down, as they are a run-heavy offense (23rd in passing play percentage), and they also involve their running backs heavily in the pass game (Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined to average 10.7 targets per game – a huge number for a pair of running backs to split; Kamara brings 6.3 of those targets to the table, while Ingram carries the other 4.4). The red zone opportunities also flow through these two, as Ingram ranks 11th in the NFL in red zone carries (33), while Kamara ranks 20th (25); Kamara also has 17 red zone targets (16 in the NFL), while Ingram has 12 such looks of his own. Carolina is solid against the run – ranking sixth in DVOA and 11th in yards allowed per rush attempt – but Kamara and Ingram have been matchup-proof this year in the best rushing offense in the NFL. The first game against Carolina came with Adrian Peterson still on the Saints’ roster, but in Week 13 Kamara rushed nine times for 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while catching five passes for 66 yards. Mark Ingram added a 14-85-1 line on the ground in that game, with 6-37-0 through the air.
Drew Brees was once a lock for 38+ pass attempts every game, but with the Saints’ defense growing this year and the run game taking off, Brees has more games with 30 or fewer pass attempts (seven) than he has with 38 or more pass attempts (four). This has not hurt Michael Thomas at all this year, as he saw eight or more targets in 14 of 16 games. He also saw his red zone role increase down the stretch – finishing the season with a respectable 16 looks inside the 20. He is almost guaranteed to see eight or more targets, as Sean Payton has shown a willingness to ride his best players this year. The Panthers allowed the second-most receptions, the fourth-most yards, and the 10th-most touchdowns to the wide receiver position. This is a great spot for Thomas.
While the offense flows entirely through those first three guys, Ted Ginn does have five games in his last eight with five or more targets. He’s the fourth option, but he should be able to scrape together another five targets this week, which gives him decent upside (along with a fairly low floor). No one else in this offense is involved enough to matter.
One of the most polarizing figures on this slate will be Cam Newton, who has rarely looked right this year. If you are wondering how safe you should feel about Cam, go back and watch his throws to Greg Olsen last week (nine targets, one catch), and marvel at just how frequently Cam completely misfired on his attempts. The Saints rank fifth in DVOA against the pass; Marshon Lattimore finished the season with PFF’s number seven coverage grade out of 121 qualifying corners, while counterpart Ken Crawley finished the season with PFF’s number 23 coverage grade. Lattimore should follow Devin Funchess this week, and the Panthers are essentially throwing special teamers and practice squadders at Crawley, which is a “win” for the Saints in each spot.
Cam has also locked onto Olsen lately – feeding nine targets per game his way over the last three weeks – though they have connected on under 50% of these throws, while the Saints have bullied tight ends all season, allowing the fewest catches and the fewest yards to the position.
The only matchup that gives the Panthers an advantage on paper is Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart against a run defense that finished the season ranked 23rd in DVOA against the run and 28th in yards allowed per carry. The Saints have quietly been sturdy against running backs through the air – allowing a completion rate of only 69.1% (low for passes to running backs), while allowing only middling yardage and reception totals to the position. In their first meeting this year, McCaffrey went wild with a 9-101-0 line through the air, but New Orleans came back to hold him to a 5-33-1 line second time around. CMC has only three games all year with double-digit carries, so he’ll have to post a nice game through the air in order to pay off his salary.
Jonathan Stewart, on the other hand, has failed to go for double-digit carries only twice all season, but he has chipped in only eight catches (on 15 targets). If his back is healthy enough this week for him to take the field, he should see his typical 11 or 12 carries, with a shot at goal line work. He’ll likely need a touchdown in order to provide a usable game.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
While this is the marquee game from a viewing standpoint, the Panthers’ side of the ball does not match up great against the Saints’ defense, as New Orleans has the tools to shut down a number one receiver and a tight end – which are the two primary weapons Cam relies on outside of Christian McCaffrey. Theoretically, this would lead to extra targets for CMC, but Cam has a tendency to force things to the targets he wants to throw to – so realistically, the likeliest scenario is six or seven targets for Funchess, eight to 12 targets for Olsen, and fairly low efficiency on these looks. Either of these guys can be rostered in tourneys for their workload-driven upside, while Cam obviously has the skills to post the highest score on the slate, regardless of matchup; none of these guys, however, should be viewed as staple pieces. CMC is viable, though I would obviously prefer to make it up to guys like Fournette and Gurley if I can. J-Stew is touchdown-dependent, but he’s not bad value on a week with only four games and very little to like at the lower reaches of the price range. He should get his 11 or 12 carries, and there is a chance he could do something with those looks in a good matchup. If Stewart misses, Cameron Artis-Payne should step in again – and should be able to see eight to 10 carries of his own.
On the other side, Kamara and Ingram both have the upside to break the slate open, and they are a strong enough duo that they can coexist on a roster together. Kamara’s guaranteed pass game role gives him a higher floor, but the ceiling on these two is the same.
Michael Thomas is an excellent play – with a high floor and a high ceiling. Drew Brees does not jump off the page, with how heavily this team leans on the run, but he should post a solid game as well. The rest of the pieces on the Saints are nothing more than tourney dart throws.
With that, I am out of here for the week!
I’ll see you back here next Wednesday – and I’ll see you at the top of the leaderboards this weekend!