CHARGERS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
Either one of these teams could make a clear claim as a top three or four unit in the league, with the Patriots one of four teams that earned a first-round bye, and with the Chargers boasting the better record this year. The Patriots are 8-0 at home this year, while the Chargers have gone an NFL-best 7-1 on the road. In their illustrious careers, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady have squared off seven times, with Brady winning all seven times. Whichever team wins this game will have a strong shot at reaching the Super Bowl, and whichever team loses this game is likely to be back in this position next year. These are two quality opponents — pairing nicely with the Colts/Chiefs game on Saturday to give us two excellent AFC playoff matchups. Each of these teams ranked top eight in both points per game and fewest points allowed per game. The Patriots have been installed as four point favorites in a game with an Over/Under of 47.0.
The Chargers went through a stretch this year in which Philip Rivers failed to top even 27 pass attempts in five consecutive games. During the regular season, Rivers had 10 games with 30 or fewer pass attempts. Two of his games north of 30 attempts came in the first four weeks of the season. Since that time, Rivers has more games with zero touchdown passes (two) than he has games with three touchdown passes (one). While Rivers’ can still support pass catchers through concentrated volume and downfield passing (more on this in a bit), this offense belongs to the run game whenever possible — and against a Patriots team that ranked 29th in yards allowed per carry, we should expect the Chargers to look to establish the run this week.
With the Chargers ranked 32nd in pace of play and 28th in plays per game, the run-leaning likelihood is a positive for targeting this winnable matchup, though we are still dealing with the drawback of an uncertain workload. Across the Chargers’ last three games, Melvin Gordon (knee) has played 66.7%, 54.2%, and 46.4% of the team’s snaps, drawing touch totals of 15 // 13 // 18. He still carries solid upside (aided by the Patriots’ weakness defending pass-catching running backs, with the ninth most yards allowed to the position), though with the Patriots allowing the second fewest rushing touchdowns to running backs this year, there is enough risk that Gordon is more “decent-floor/solid-ceiling” than he is “slam dunk play.” The pricing discount on both FanDuel and DraftKings does make him a bit more appealing than he otherwise would be.
The number two back in this offense has benefitted from Gordon’s capped workload, with Justin Jackson picking up eight touches in Week 15 (in a game Ekeler missed), with Austin Ekeler and Jackson combining for 14 touches in Week 17, and with Ekeler going for 15 touches last week. It is likely noteworthy that Jackson played only three snaps in a playoff game last week, and that Ekeler saw 15 touches to Jackson’s two. Ekeler is only guaranteed around eight or nine touches, but if Gordon continues to see a capped workload and the Chargers are able to keep this game close enough to pile up running back touches, it is worth noting that Ekeler has a big edge over the Patriots’ linebackers in the pass game.
The matchup will be far more difficult when the Chargers take to the air, as the Patriots have allowed an awesome-low catch rate to wide receivers of only 59.26%. With the Patriots playing so much man coverage (and regularly playing with a lead), opponents have skewed pass-heavy against them — allowing stats to pile up through volume; but with the Chargers landing at 30 or fewer pass attempts most weeks this season, you will need to consider, while building rosters this weekend, how much you expect game flow to be able to dictate the Chargers’ approach. Volume is the best path to production against the Patriots, so a bet on this passing attack is best made with a bet on a pass-heavy game from the visiting Chargers.
The player who has been best able to work around the volume issues in this passing attack has been Keenan Allen, who has five games this year of double-digit targets, and who has target counts in his last four healthy games of 8 // 8 // 7 // 6. Working against Allen is a Patriots team that is very comfortable playing Jason McCourty (37% slot snap rate) and Stephon Gilmore (18% slot snap rate) in the slot, which will make it difficult for him to take advantage of the weaker interior matchups he is typically able to hammer. Working in Allen’s favor would be a shootout that pushes the Chargers into pass-heavy mode — which would virtually guarantee double-digit looks.
The player next likeliest to take advantage in this spot is Mike Williams, who has the talent of an alpha receiver, but who will be treated as the number two by the Patriots. Williams’ floor is bone bare, but with recent target counts in Allen’s healthy games of 6 // 3 // 6 // 5 and with an aDOT on the year of 15.2 (top 10 in the NFL), he should have opportunities to hit in this spot.
This passing attack wraps up with Tyrell Williams, who has taken a backseat to Mike lately (recent target counts in Keenan-healthy games of 4 // 2 // 3 // 4), but who still has big-play upside. Behind Williams, Hunter Henry will return on a snap count this week as a hope-for-touchdown play; Antonio Gates will see his typical handful of dead-legged targets; Travis Benjamin will have a few touches manufactured for him that will create thin opportunities for upside.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
Much has been made of the Chargers playing with seven defensive backs for almost the entire game against the Ravens last week, though this was not as much of an outlier for the Chargers as the story would make it seem. In Week 15 against the Chiefs, the Chargers played only one linebacker for much of the game, and they did the same thing for large chunks of their matchup with the Bengals the week before. Strong safeties Adrian Phillips and Derwin James have both been full-time players for weeks now, and the Chargers regularly have Desmond King on the field as their nickel back as well. While Gus Bradley deserves plenty of credit for finding a way to slow down the multi-headed rushing attack of the Ravens, a lot of the “personnel genius” was out of necessity, as the Chargers are simply a better defense — especially against the run — with Phillips and James spending time in the box than they are with the underwhelming quartet of Kyle Emmanuel, Jatvis Brown, Hayes Pullard, and Uchenna Nwosu. It won’t be surprising if we see plenty of six and even seven DB formations from the Chargers this week as they look to slow down a Patriots team that ranks sixth in pace of play, sixth in time of possession, second in plays per game, seventh in rush play rate, and third in rush attempts. Rather quietly, the Seahawks and Ravens were the only teams in football that ran the ball more times than the Patriots this year. New England ranks third in adjusted line yards. The Chargers are strong against the run (sixth in DVOA // 12th in yards allowed per carry), but this is their comparative weak link.
While we can expect the Patriots to pile up rush attempts, the below-average matchup and the three-headed nature of the Patriots’ backfield makes this unit difficult to bet on in DFS. Since Rex Burkhead returned to the Patriots in Week 13, snap counts among the Patriots’ running backs have looked like this:
Michel has only seven catches all season and has carry counts of 17 // 20 // 13 // 18 // 14 since Burkhead returned, making him a yardage-and-touchdown back with a difficult path to a big-yardage game.
White has touch counts of 13 // 6 // 7 // 10 // 8 since Burkhead returned, making him reliant on big plays and touchdowns to provide more than just floor.
Burkhead saw 17 touches in Week 16, but otherwise he has gone for touch counts of 9 // 5 // 7 // 6.
Add it all up, and that’s running back touch counts across the last five weeks of 39 // 31 // 27 // 45 // 28 — stunning numbers that would make this an attractive spot if the Patriots employed a Zeke or a Gurley (or if they were even dividing the work between only two guys). But these touches (and the nature of these touches) are spread thin for each player’s respective price, making each guy a “decent floor, hope for ceiling” option, rather than allowing any of these guys to stand out as a lock-and-load play.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
Those touch counts for Patriots running backs illustrate the dearth of remaining touches available on a team that is still happy to spread the ball around to the weapons that remain. Outside of peak Gronkowski years or the couple years the Patriots enjoyed with Randy Moss, this team has capitalized on spreading non-slot/non-RB targets to a wide variety of players, with volume thin across the board. Across the last five weeks (since Burkhead returned), targets to non-slot/non-RBs on the Patriots have looked like this (note: the last two games were without Josh Gordon):
(Gordon went 3 // 9 // 2 in Weeks 13-15.)
With the Chargers doing a great job against perimeter receivers and allowing an awesome-low 61.2% completion rate to tight ends (second best in the league, behind only the Saints and Bills), the best way to try to capture upside from the Patriots’ offense is to A) select a running back to bet on, B) isolate Julian Edelman (more on him in a moment), or C) hope for the best from one of the ancillary pass catchers listed above. Hogan and Dorsett are “hope for a big play or a touchdown” options (Hogan is the better bet for a big play on a schemed route that sends him into open space downfield; Dorsett is the better bet to scrape open when others are covered, especially in the end zone). Patterson will see limited touches and is best considered a fourth running back, though his touches are at least designed to get his speed into space. Gronk is a hope-for-touchdown play. A realistic “Option D” is to bet on Brady and hope to capture all the points, though there is obviously concern that this run-heavy team will earn a large chunk of its fantasy production on the ground, making Brady a lesser on-paper play than some of the other options available. He would be a “hope the yards and touchdowns flow through him” option.
As for Edelman: we have explored a number of times in this space the fact that Chargers slot corner Desmond King is a strong tackler and playmaker, but he is not a scary coverage matchup for slot receivers — allowing a 75% completion rate on passes into his coverage this year. Edelman has topped 100 yards only twice this season (and has yet to top 104), while King has allowed only three touchdowns on passes thrown into his coverage; but Edelman is also the Patriots’ best means of moving the ball through the air, and with recent target counts of 8 // 12 // 11 // 10 // 6, he should be reliably involved this week. His path to monster ceiling is slim, but his chances of a pure dud are also slim, keeping him in the conversation as a Safety piece this week.
The Chargers’ offense should do well in this spot, though they are difficult to target from a DFS perspective, as their backfield is split and their wide receivers don’t see enough locked-in volume to be lock-and-load plays against a good secondary that is best attacked with volume. I like Gordon this week, but I don’t love him; his ceiling is attractive, but there are enough paths to a disappointing game that he still carries some risk. I like Ekeler, but I don’t love him; if he sees 14+ touches, he could smash at his price, but there is still a chance he touches the ball only eight or nine times. I like Keenan, but the matchup is difficult, making him a hope-for-volume/hope-for-the-best option. I like Mike Williams (I like his upside quite a bit, actually), but his floor is still scary. The fact that there are several other pieces behind these guys who will also touch the ball on a slow-paced, low-play-volume team says a lot about the lack of locked-in certainty on this side of the ball, but there are certainly paths to one or two guys from the Chargers’ offense mattering this weekend.
As always: the Patriots can be expected to score points, without any guarantee that any individual player pops off for a big game. This offense will be difficult to bet on this week, with seven or more touches likely for three different running backs, and with three or more touches likely for an additional five pass catchers. There are “bet on big plays/touchdowns” cases to be made for all of Burkhead, Michel, White, Dorsett, Hogan, Patterson, and Gronk, while you could also roster Brady and hope the touchdowns flow through him — but while all of these are viable options for upside-hunting or filling out the last space on a roster, the only player who carries any sort of certainty is Edelman. Edelman lacks the upside of guys like Hill, Hilton, and Amari, but his floor still keeps him in the conversation this week.