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2021 Underdog Playoff Best Ball Strategy


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By Majesstik

Whether you’ve just completed your first Best Ball season or you’ve been playing for years, the concept of Playoff Best Ball will be a new challenge for many. It’s a game where we need to have enough players available in every round to advance, but we also have to balance the fact that the prizes don’t come until the SuperBowl, so having as many players in that game (or at least the top-scoring players in that game) will be essential if we’re playing for first place. Let’s walk through some of the basics of how the tourney works, then we’ll get into the strategy element. 

Tournament Overview

Each team drafts 10 players per roster broken out into five starters (1 QB, 1 RB, 2 WR/TE, 1 FLEX – which is RB/WR/TE, no QBs) and five bench players. The players we draft accumulate points in each round they are still playing.

The $25 Gauntlet has 4 Rounds, broken into groups of 6 for the Wild Card Games, 16 for the Divisional Playoffs, 15 for the Conference Championships, then 94 person groups for the Super Bowl.

Advancement for The Gauntlet is the top one team for Round 1, the top three teams for Round 2, back to only the top one team for Round 3, then the remaining teams play for the prizes noted on the chart for the tournament when you look at the entry page.

The $5 Mitten has 4 Rounds, broken into groups of 6 for the Wild Card Games, 8 for the Divisional Playoffs, 10 for the Conference Championships, then 94 person groups for the Super Bowl.

Advancement for The Mitten is the top two teams for Round 1, the top one team for Round 2, the top one team for Round 3, then the remaining teams play for the prizes noted on the chart for the tournament when you look at the entry page. 

As we can see, there are some differences between The Gauntlet and The Mitten. In the first round, The Mitten allows two teams to advance compared to The Gauntlet only advancing one team. But, The Gauntlet advances three teams in the second round where The Mitten only advances one. Round 3 is the same for both, just one team advances from their group.

The Variables

Even with the NFL Playoff brackets set, we’re dealing with a new variable in Best Ball in that we don’t know what the exact schedule is after that first week. This will require us to make our predictions on who will win in each round and make bets on those players. For volume players, it would be a good idea to draft for multiple scenarios and bet heavily on just a couple of teams to advance in each draft.

For players only planning to draft a few rosters, I would say the approach should be similar but the teams we’re betting on here need to carry us the whole way. We need to think about what the field is drafting for. How many of them are going to draft for a Titans versus 49ers Super Bowl? Not many. Those bets will be made by the high-volume players who will likely make up a large percentage of entries. I wish I had data on how many people maxed out the regular season tourneys, but the numbers for The Gauntlet (45.1k field size) would require 300 people max entering to reduce the field size to 300 individuals. My guess is there will be roughly 100-150 individuals max entering this contest leaving around 23-30k entries to be consumed by the rest of the field. Low-volume players need to lay out a plan to beat the MME players that will have a lot of angles covered.

Besides not knowing the schedule for the entire tournament, we have the variable of drafting against five other players with each entry. How many times do you think we’re going to be able to execute our plan? What will we do if someone else has our blueprint and we have to audible out of it? This can be the frustrating part for high and low-volume players alike, which allows for more unique rosters being piled into the tourney. More on this angle later.

Another variable will come from rosters that were drafted before the 14 playoff teams were established, and are likely to make up a portion of the MME players’ rosters. These rosters may have players on them that will not be playing in the playoffs, thus reducing the available starters on those rosters to nine or fewer. This will give a slight edge to the drafters that waited until the playoff brackets were set before building their rosters. 

The weather will be another variable we can consider. I wouldn’t weigh this too heavily but we might want to think about it when making stacks. If we’re betting on one cold or bad weather team, then maybe our secondary stacks need to be from a dome or more warm weather team.

We’ll also need to consider injured players that are returning and try to determine if they will be healthy enough for their normal workload, while also wondering what COVID will do to rosters. Sharp Football Analysis has provided a team by team breakdown showing a risk map of each team/player that could be subject to going on the COVID list. I would recommend paying at least some attention to that for ADP tiebreakers or stacking plans.

Brackets

Before starting any drafts a helpful exercise we may want to complete is to fill out a few playoff brackets with different scenarios. This outline will help us map out which teams might have the toughest paths to get to the Super Bowl, while also illustrating to ourselves the different seeding combinations that could occur. By creating these different brackets, we’ll identify leverage spots that occur when there is an upset, and how the seeding changes the matchups in the following round(s). It will also show which teams may have better matchups in case brackets fall a certain way, which could allow us to target those teams and pair them with stacks from the other conference that could also have the softer matchups. Doing this simple exercise could give us an edge over most of the field. Why? Well, because a large portion of the field is going into drafts saying, “Bills stack no matter what” or generally not having a written plan to execute. We’ll be going into drafts with a blueprint for the scenarios we want to bet on, and that will lead us to which stacks we’re likely to get for that draft, while we let the rest of the room try to force things. 


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#math


STACKING

Instead of forcing “no matter what” stacks, my strategy will be to reduce all the brackets I want down to the projected final four teams from those brackets. I’ll keep those “Final Fours” written down on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet and keep it in my sight for each draft I enter. This way, I’ll have the pivot plan in front of me when the draft board doesn’t allow the stack I was hoping to draft. If my first choice of stacks doesn’t work out, I’ll move on to the next preferred final four blueprint. This will allow me to draft with intent, as I’ll have the “audible” right in front of me – no guesswork.

As far as how I will be stacking, I’m looking at doing 4-3-3 stacks using three of the final four teams, (or 4-3-2-1 if the 4-3-3 doesn’t work out). In theory, if we’re using a 4-3-3 (or 4-3-2-1) blueprint, we should be able to snag players from our top four rosters throughout the draft.

This may seem like an unnecessary step but I found benefit from it. By writing out a bunch of brackets I was able to get an image stuck in my head of what teams to queue up and which ones to ignore while drafting. I have been trying my best to stick to just four teams with at least one primary stack and drafting from the other three teams that won’t face each other in the second round if the playoffs go the way the brackets/stacks were written.

Chasing Upside / Playing for First Place

There will be 14 NFL teams in this year’s playoffs with 12 of those teams playing in the first week. ADP for these players is going to be heavily biased around regular-season totals and we will see certain teams that will be very difficult to stack. A quick look at the current ADP indicates a Patrick Mahomes/Tyreek Hill/Travis Kelce stack is out of the question. However, all three of these guys have such a high ceiling and a high likelihood of playing in the Super Bowl we need to consider locking in that kind of upside right away, then focus on building stacks if we can. If we take one of those players with our first-round pick, it reduces the chance that someone else can draft the other two onto the same roster. 

When it comes to stacking, we might want to take a DFS approach to it. If we see through ADP the way most people are stacking (or trying to stack), we may want to consider doing something different. For example, Stefon Diggs has an ADP that charts him in the 5th pick slot and Josh Allen slots into the 8th slot. If we are drafting the Diggs/Allen combo, then we need to figure out how we’re going to gain leverage against the thousands of other Allen/Diggs rosters that will be looking at the same available players as well for the rest of the draft. We can make choices like leaving Diggs out of the stack and start building our secondary stack with that first or second round pick and try to snag Gabe Davis, Cole Beasley, and/or Dawson Knox later. Or, we can go off the board a bit and start taking players that fit one of our blueprints a round early and leave the ADP tempting picks for the rest of the room, and force them into those decisions while we execute our written plan.

Another thing to consider if you end up drafting multiple players from one of the #7 seeds (Eagles or Steelers) is to not draft players from the #1 seed in that conference (Packers or Titans) since they will play each other in round two. 

Here is a look at ADP, as of January 11th, with some slight modifications based on what I’m seeing in drafts (ie. Derek Carr and Darren Waller are not going undrafted so I added them to Round 10, and Joe Burrow goes anywhere from Round 2 through Round 5). Use this to plan out stacks and to have a road map if you have to pivot to another stack.

The Teams/Players

The last thing we should do is write out our team opinions so we have something to refer back to once our draft starts and we need to pivot, or better yet, we get to stick to our plan. This will help us fill out our multiple scenario brackets and assist in providing our blueprint for the final four of each bracket. We’ll be able to have conviction in who we think goes to the Super Bowl from those alternative brackets or identify leverage spots along the way.

Here are my general notes and I would suggest reading the Edge Matchups for each game as well. Then, list out the players for each team somewhere you’ll have handy for each draft, possibly in the same spot you have all your final four scenarios written down.

AFC

#1 Tennessee Titans 

[Rd1 Bye]

Low event team. They don’t score much and don’t allow much scoring against (sixth-fewest points against at 20.8, which goes down to 16.8 per game in Tennessee). The offense is driven by Derrick Henry, who could be a full go for the playoffs (status is uncertain right now). A.J. Brown is the other elite player from this team. The Titans offense is likely to be under-drafted due to the low scoring potential, but if they make the Super Bowl, people will be underweight making them a leverage stack. Their defense takes away the run and TEs, instead forcing teams to the air through Outside and Slot WRs.

#2 Kansas City Chiefs

[Rd1 Home vs PIT: 12.5 favorites with 29.5 team total (largest favorite and team total)]

The obvious top three players are Mahomes, Kelce, and Tyreek Hill. Ancillary pieces are Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman. They have an ambiguous backfield that is injured, providing a place to capitalize on uncertainty if we can pick the right RB (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Derrick Gore, or Jerick McKinnon). The defense typically takes away outside WRs and funnels targets into the middle of the field for RBs, TEs, and Slot WRs. 

#7 Pittsburgh Steelers

[Rd1 at KC: 12.5 dogs with 17 team total (largest dog and lowest team total)]

Ben Roethlisberger will throw at high volume but for low YPA, and typically just for one or two TDs. Ben’s favorite target between the 20s is Diontae Johnson, and his favorite green zone targets are Dionte and Pat Freiermuth. Najee Harris plays most of the snaps at RB and sees 5.5 targets per game. The defense struggles at stopping the run, is strong vs TEs and RBs as receivers but weaker against Outside WRs.

#3 Buffalo Bills

[Rd1 Home vs NE: 4.5 favorites with 24.0 team total]

The Bills have a prolific passing attack led by Allen, Diggs, and (recently) Davis. Beasley and Isaiah McKenzie seemed to be sharing Slot WR reps toward the end of the season but Beasley could reclaim the primary slot role for the playoffs. Manny Sanders seems like the odd man out but he could eat away at some of Davis’ snaps if healthy. Knox averages 4.7 targets per game with a 12.6% TD rate. If green zone targets aren’t going to Diggs, Knox has the second-highest total, while Davis has a green zone role as well. Singletary has come on toward the end of the season as a bell cow RB with Josh Allen still running as well. The Bills defense allowed the fewest points per game this year at 17.0 and just 16.6 at home. They have been great at shutting down TEs and WRs but can get gashed by committed rushing attacks.

#6 New England Patriots

[Rd1 at BUF: 4.5 dogs with 19.5 team total]

Run-heavy team centered around Damien Harris and the RBs, with Hunter Henry as a viable play at TE. Ancillary pieces are the WRs (Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor). The Patriots defense allowed the second-fewest points per game at 17.8 (just after Buffalo) and the fewest points while on the road (16.0). Their defense is designed to take away the pass, allow rushing yards between the 20s, then prevent TDs in the red zone. NE only allowed 9 rushing TDs for the year and no multiple rushing TD games. They are the toughest defense versus TEs. The best plays against them are athletic, pass-catching RBs.

#4 Cincinnati Bengals

[Rd1 Home vs LV: 6.5 favorites with 28.0 team total]

Led by Burrow’s passing, the Bengals won the games they needed (against playoff-caliber opponents) to get into the playoffs. Burrow is among the highest ceiling QBs available if you’re projecting them to win the AFC. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins are top stack-mates, with Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd not far behind. CJ Uzomah fits into the stack if you are not able to get top stack players or looking to differentiate among multiple CIN stacks. Their defense has been fairly balanced but sprung a leak versus the pass in the second half of the season. Best to target this defense with pass-catching RBs, Slot WRs, and TEs.

#5 Las Vegas Raiders

[Rd1 at CIN: 6.5 dogs with 21.5 team total]

Coming off of a four-game win streak to get into the playoffs based on a “win (or tie) to get in” final game. They lost to the Bengals 32-13 at home during Week 11 with Foster Moreau catching their only TD. The offense is based around Josh Jacobs running, Hunter Renfrow as the possession guy, and Zay Jones becoming more involved in the second half of the season. TE Darren Waller has been an injury-riddled enigma but capable of ceiling games (including an 8/7/116/0 line vs this same Cincy team). The Raiders have been a deep-passing team, even without Henry Ruggs. There is potential for leverage with them as most will have Bengals stacks in the tourneys. Their defense has three good CBs making them harder to move the ball against with WRs. They have allowed their most fantasy points to RBs and TEs.

NFC

#1 Green Bay Packers

[Rd1 Bye]

An efficient and condensed offense with two of the best players at their positions: Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. Their ambiguous backfield is split between Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. Jones has the greater pass-catching role and scored 10 total TDs to Dillon’s seven while playing two fewer games. Allen Lazard entered Rodger’s circle of trust this year and appears to be the best bet for #2 WR duties. Randall Cobb looks likely to return for their first playoff game as the Slot WR leaving Marquez Valdes-Scantling left to pick up scraps. The TE position is rarely utilized since they lost Robert Tonyan due to injury in Week 8.  

The Packers defense has been balanced at stopping most things but allowing a little bit of everything. Jaire Alexander coming back will give Outside WRs a tougher time. Run-heavy teams have had some success against them and TEs might be the best receiving threat to use against them.

#2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

[Rd1 Home vs PHI: 8.5 favorites with 28.75 team total]

The Bucs come into the playoffs dealing with several key injuries on both sides of the ball. On offense, we can expect Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to be a top connection with Mike Evans the only outside receiving option in Brady’s circle of trust. Cyril Grayson looked to be on the cusp of getting into that circle but has been derailed by a hamstring and might miss the first-round game versus Philadelphia. That leaves Tyler Johnson (who Brady does not seem to have any rapport with), Breshad Perriman (who has deep threat ability), Scotty Miller, and Jaelon Darden (six catches on 12 targets this year) to pick up the scraps. Or, they could play more double-TE sets and get Cam Brate more involved. Playoff Lenny (Leonard Fournette) should be back at some point, possibly the first playoff game which would be a huge boost to the offense, both rushing and receiving. Brady was very comfortable throwing passes Fournette’s way. My player preference for TB: Brady, Fournette, Gronk, Evans, Grayson, and Brate.

The Buccaneers defense may not have three-time All-Pro Lavonte David back until the second round of the playoffs and we’re also waiting to see if Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett will play. Those three being out could be a problem against a mobile QB (Hurts) and run-heavy Eagles offense. The Bucs have been very stingy against the run this year but will allow RBs to pick up fantasy points via receiving, and they have been heavily targeted by Outside WRs (some of which occurred during the stretch they were missing starting CBs). Tight ends have been a spot of weakness for the Bucs for years but that has been tightened up over the second half of this season and is more neutral than smash.

#7 Philadelphia Eagles

[Rd1 at TB: 8.5 dogs with 20.25 team total]

The Eagles are a highly condensed offense with their strength going against the Bucs strength on defense – rushing. Hurts is the top pick from this squad with DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert as the top viable stacking partners. Miles Sanders is interesting but will have a tough first-round matchup against the Bucs, who had the fewest RB rushing points allowed. The Eagles have three very good corners and have been the toughest defense for WRs (Outside and Slot) to score fantasy points against. Their defense has been much softer in allowing targets and points to RBs and TEs.

#3 Dallas Cowboys

[Rd1 Home vs SF: 3 point favorites (smallest favorite) with a 26.25 team total]

The Cowboys were the #1 scoring offense during the regular season with their top finishing players by position in half-PPR being Dalton Schultz (TE4), Ezekiel Elliott (RB7), and Dak Prescott (QB11). The WRs had good seasons but with the way the ball gets distributed, it’s hard to predict which one will have the highest score on a given week, making all of them viable when stacking. Elliott is viable as a one-off RB if not stacking their passing game. The Cowboys defense has been stout against the run and against Slot WRs this year. Despite Trevon Diggs’s ball skills, Outside WRs have posted the best fantasy scores of the position groups we’re drafting. QB and TE matchups have been neutral. 

#6 San Francisco 49ers

[Rd1 at DAL: 3 point dogs (smallest dogs) with a 23.25 team total]

Bully-ball offense based on running the ball and short passes (usually to the middle of the field) that get the receiver into run-after-catch situations. Their top players are Deebo Samuel, Elijah Mitchell, and George Kittle. Ancillary pieces are Brandon Aiyuk and Jimmy Garoppolo, with Jauan Jennings or Kyle Juszczyk as last-round flyers, if betting on SF as a final four team. Their defense is among the best at shutting down TEs (except for Tyler Higbee) and stopping the run. Their pass-rush forces opponents into quick passes toward the middle of the field (often to Slot WRs).

#4 Los Angeles Rams

[Rd1 Home vs ARI: 4 point favorites with 27.0 team total]

The Rams offense has sputtered down the stretch and will face off against a pass-funnel defense to begin the playoffs. Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp offer a similar floor/ceiling combo as Rodgers/Adams. Odell Beckham has a decent enough role to add him as the third option in a passing stack or we can choose Tyler Higbee. Van Jefferson comes after those guys in the pecking order for targets. Cam Akers’ return is dubious for Sony Michel and the running back workload as a whole. They probably want to start Akers and have him take 60% of the work but a lot of that will depend on how healthy he is.

The Rams defense is mostly neutral across the positions we’re drafting with slight dings to QB and RB rushing. Teams with quick passing games tend to have more success as they negate the pass rush and try to get Yards After the Catch (ARI ranks #8 in YAC). 

#5 Arizona Cardinals

[Rd1 at LARI: 4 point dogs with 23.0 team total]

Overall, the Cardinals are a balanced offense that tilts a bit run-heavy due to Kyler Murray having the fourth most QB rush attempts (88) despite missing three games. James Conner tied Damien Harris with 15 rushing TDs, good for second-most. Chase Edmonds is used more as a pass-catcher than Conner, but Conner can handle those duties, too. The passing game without Hopkins (who is out for this game, at least) has been mostly Zach Ertz and Christian Kirk with small contributions from Antoine Wesley (mostly in the red zone) and A.J. Green. Their games against the Rams this year both went over 53 points, with each team winning once (Hopkins played in both games). James Conner ran in two TDs in both games.

The Cardinals run defense allowed just 10 rushing TDs with only two multiple rushing TD games allowed. They allowed the 13th-most rushing yards. Their pass defense has taken away most opposing TEs and funneled targets and fantasy points to the Outside WRs.

The Conclusion

If we prepare for our drafts by doing the things we covered here, then we should gain an edge on our draft rooms by being (likely) the only one in the room with a written plan and being the only one that has the audibles already called because we’ll have a blueprint for every scenario sitting right in front of us. Good luck fam!


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