Thursday, Sep 8th
Monday, Sep 12th

Playoff Bonus!

Playoff Contest Game Theory

:: by HilowFF

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Note from JM :: Hilow’s breakdown centers around the FFPC Playoff Challenge (which is a contest you should be eyeing if you are looking to maximize your upside in the playoffs!), but I want to strongly encourage you to read this even if you are not planning to dip your bankroll into the FFPC. Not only does this breakdown provide a glimpse into some top-level game theory thinking, but it also includes scores of valuable tidbits that will help you in building DFS rosters this weekend.

Let’s begin!

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There are numerous lucrative playoff contests offered on varying platforms across the industry, the most well-known of which are found over at FFPC and NFFC, with top prizes of $500,000 and $200,000 paid to the winner, respectively. As you can see, the fantasy season is far from over. These contests are somewhat of a merger between season-long and DFS in both scope and rules, and they also require that same marriage of season-long and DFS strategy and thought process. I am personally more familiar with FFPC’s version, where you select no more than one player from 10 of the 12 playoff teams using FFPC’s standard lineup (QB, RB, RB, WR, WR, TE, FLEX, FLEX, K, DEF) as opposed to NFFC’s, where they fold in an eliminator aspect, so we’ll focus on FFPC’s format in this article.

Before we can discuss the best plays from each team in an attempt to reach the optimal lineup, we first need to dive into arguably the most important strategy in a contest such as this: game theory. Without unpacking the theory itself (or its mathematical-based poker cousin, game theory optimal), it can best be described as “the science of strategy.” Using this idea, given a set framework (contest rules, for example), what is the most profitable/optimal way of playing by the prescribed rules to gain an edge? In a top-heavy contest like this where lineups are locked at first kickoff through the end of the playoffs, the most obvious answer is also the 80% solution, and that is by looking at Vegas game lines and bracketology. That said, 80% of your competition is going to rely solely on this information as a means of differentiating themselves.

The larger edge comes when analyzing how many games you need, or should build to expect, from each position. This comes from a thorough understanding of playoff seedings and possible matchups throughout the playoffs. We want to ensure we aren’t simply focusing on which players to choose from each team, but taking it one step further and projecting how many games each team will play and which positions we should prioritize from each scenario. As we all should know by now, the highest scoring fantasy position is QB, so game theory would suggest we should build our lineups expecting three to four games from our QB, as once a team loses, the players we chose from those teams obviously no longer accrue points. This brings up an interesting talking point as we should expect the highest owned QB to be Lamar Jackson. As a quick example to highlight why game theory is so important, Baltimore will play one of three teams in their first game (which comes in week two after their bye): Texans, Bills or Titans. Without diving too far into those respective matchups, take my word on the fact that Baltimore’s best matchup of those three would be a date with Houston (BUF/TEN front four and LBs are of the quick/athletic variety, a tougher matchup for a team who set records for the amount of rushes per game this year). This means that 75% of the possible AFC outcomes from wildcard weekend (NE/BUF win, HOU/TEN win, BUF/TEN win) have Baltimore playing one of TEN or BUF, which are the more difficult matchups for the number one seed. In other words, BAL has only a 25% chance (speaking to a pure quad-outcome event, not taking into account NE and HOU’s respective chance of winning their individual games) of facing the team they match up best with in the second round. When paired with expected ownership, one of our single greatest edges from a game theory perspective would be to fade Lamar Jackson, a thought counterintuitive to most**. That was a lot of theory packed into a single paragraph; hopefully I didn’t lose anyone.

**Disclaimer: I’m not saying Lamar Jackson is a poor play. He is an excellent play if you are building a lineup saying Baltimore will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. More to come on this shortly. 

Now that we’ve established that QB is the most important position in playoff contests, we’ll take it from a bottom-up approach, starting with the least important: K and DEF. We are guaranteed that four teams will only play one game in the playoffs, with the possibility of more should a team with a bye lose their first game (we’ll get into who I think those teams could be shortly). Because we are using only 10 of 12 possible playoff teams to build our lineups, it is paramount that the two teams we leave out lose their first game. Furthermore, game theory would suggest that the teams we choose our kicker and defense from should also lose their first game because those positions are historically lower scoring on a per game basis than QB/RB/WR/TE (unless we expect a team to perform like NE did on the defensive side of the ball over the first half of the season; I do not).

The other three positions are so close from a game theory edge perspective that they are almost interchangeable, but we should build our lineups expecting 1-3 games from RB, WR and TE. When you think about prospective game script from a team losing and playing one game for WRs versus RBs, the edge moves to WR (for the chance that a team with a first-round bye loses their first game). This is due to the fact that if a team is playing from behind, we expect more volume to flow to the WRs (who are receiving a full point per reception in this format) rather than through the RBs (true for all cases other than a workhorse RB). The real key to winning a large contest like this is building around the actual playoff bracket itself. Make sure that each lineup you enter starts with a playoff bracket that makes sense. This will serve two purposes; it will allow you to maximize the total games played from your lineup for each scenario as well as make it easier to visualize individual matchups for each team throughout the playoffs and thus select the optimal players from each team. 

Seeding shakes out as follows:

AFC:

1: Baltimore Ravens
2: Kansas City Chiefs
3: New England Patriots
4: Houston Texans
5: Buffalo Bills
6: Tennessee Titans

NFC:

1: San Francisco 49ers
2: Green Bay Packers
3: New Orleans Saints
4: Philadelphia Eagles
5: Seattle Seahawks
6: Minnesota Vikings

Opening Game Lines for Wildcard round:

Bills @ Texans (-3)
Titans @ Patriots (-5.5)
Vikings @ Saints (-7.5)
Seahawks (-1) @ Eagles

Using this information, it should be expected that the projected losing teams from the wildcard round will carry less overall ownership. In addition, teams with a first-round bye should be expected to carry higher ownership (as the perceived better teams), but there are two teams with first-round byes that carry higher-than-ownership-will-dictate chances of losing their first game: Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers. We touched on Baltimore and their likeliest matchups in week two earlier. Based on seeding, the Pack are likeliest to play the Saints at Lambeau in week two. Everyone knows the narrative of the Saints’ home/road and dome/outside splits. I largely disregard that narrative, especially in the playoffs, with a rookie HC for the Packers and with the Packers outmatched in every aspect on the field. This brings us back to our discussion on the most important position in these contests, the QB. What we have with the Saints is one of maybe two teams who has a legit shot at playing four games in the playoffs (a wildcard weekend team that reaches the Super Bowl). Paired with expected high ownership on Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, as well as Michael Thomas on his own team, and Drew Brees becomes the highest leverage player to add to our rosters. The two underdogs that I project winning their first-round games are the Bills and Eagles, with the Titans +5.5 representing solid value for my wagering compatriots. Let’s dig into those wildcard weekend matchups.

Bills @ Texans (-3)

The entire landscape of this game revolves around Will Fuller and whether or not he plays. Without Fuller, we can expect Tre White (PFF’s top rated corner this year, the only CB to not allow a TD reception in 2019, and the CB who led the NFL in interceptions in 2019) to limit Nuk to short-intermediate attempts and put more weight on the backs of Stills, Duke Johnson, and Keke Coutee/DeAndre Carter to move the chains. This will lead to a higher chance of stalled drives and should minimize red zone trips for the Houston offense as a whole, making it a higher likelihood the Bills can control this game in the way they would like (control the clock with long, sustained drives utilizing rushes and short passes to set up downfield looks). The best way to attack Buffalo is on the ground, but Hyde/Duke will be running the NFL’s 22nd ranked run-blocking unit vs a Buffalo DL ceding a respectable 4.37 YPC on the backs of the NFL’s 12th ranked adjusted line yards allowed (4.15).

On the other side of the ball, Buffalo should find success in their likeliest approach that we touched on earlier, with the Texans D ranking 25th in yards allowed per carry and Buffalo ranking 8th in YPC. The Texans have also allowed the MOST receptions, yards, and TDs to opposing backs in the pass game in the league. When Buffalo does take their shots downfield, it will be against a Texans defense allowing the NFL’s 29th ranked yards per pass. This game also carries the lowest O/U on the weekend, meaning it is a solid place to look for defense selection (from the losing team).

Overall, my favorite selections from these teams are Devin Singletary and the Houston defense. Smokey Brown is also viable, but with the way this game is likeliest to play out, it seems rather thin. If building for Houston to win this game, Buffalo defense and Will Fuller (if active; Kenny Stills if Fuller misses) as well as the volume play with Nuk become viable. Both kickers are viable, prioritizing the losing team’s kicker.

Titans @ Patriots (-5.5)

The Pats should be up for this game after losing their bye in a loss to the Dolphins in Week 17, but both because of how their offense is built with the talent they have available and an aging Brady, as well as how this Titans defense is built, we should expect them to have to march the field and score via long, sustained possessions. In a PPR format, this plays into the usual suspects: Julian Edelman and James White. The secondary members of the Pats should have a tougher time than usual, with Adoree’ Jackson looking probable (it’s highly unlikely Adoree’ is used inside on Edelman). On the other side of the ball, we should expect the same heavy dose of King Henry, with Stephon Gilmore shadowing AJ Brown. If building around the Patriots advancing, Edelman is the logical choice, as he can rack up PPR points without Brady moving the needle. James White should be the primary pivot. Greg Joseph is also viable. If anticipating the Titans advancing, Derrick Henry is the primary target, with AJB secondary. Pats defense would be a great selection on these lineups, as Tennessee have allowed a league-worst 11.2% adjusted sack rate. 

Vikings @ Saints (-7.5)

This game is really interesting to me, as many will automatically assume the Saints make through to play the Packers. If this game were played 1,000 times, the Saints would advance over 70% of the time, but in the small scope of a single game, anything can happen. Starting with the Vikings, the best matchup is likely to be the forgotten man: Adam Thielen. The Saints boast a top five rush defense in almost every defensive metric and Lattimore should shadow Diggs on the outside. I would only utilize Thielen on lineups that have the Vikings upsetting the Saints, again, around only a 30% chance of actually happening. If you have the Vikings losing this game, I recommend not rostering a single player from their team. 

For the Saints, they really should have no problem moving the ball via their standard plan: short passing to MT and Kamara, as the Vikings are middle of the road in most passing defense metrics. Likeliest scenario has NO again relying on Michael Thomas to do the majority of the heavy lifting, but we have dug in depth into the game theory aspects of roster construction for this contest, specifically in regard to the Saints. On builds that have the Saints advancing to the Super Bowl, Brees should be your selection. On builds that have the Saints playing 1-3 games, Michael Thomas is the choice, with Kamara the pivot. (For example: the Saints advance to the NFC Championship and lose. In this scenario, their likeliest opponents would be MIN, GB, SF, all of whom are better attacked on the ground than through the air. Now this normally is actionable information, but we know the Saints continue to have success running their offense primarily through Michael Thomas, even in tougher matchups.) Bottom line, if you have the Saints playing in the Super Bowl, you should have Brees rostered. If you have them playing 1-3 games, Michael Thomas should be rostered. 

Seahawks (-1) @ Eagles

The Seahawks have been seemingly incapable of adjusting their game plan for specific opponents all season, instead electing to play to their strengths (running the football) in an attempt to keep games close into the fourth quarter. Their first-round matchup with the Eagles will put this mindset to the test, as the strength of the Eagles’ defense is their DL. Philly has allowed fewer points to opposing RBs than all but five other teams (NO, BAL, TB, SF, NE), and because of how they have chosen to approach games this year, we shouldn’t expect Seattle to open up their offense until the fourth quarter. Paired with the offensive injuries to PHI (I expect PHI to be without Agholor and Ertz again, with Miles Sanders looking like a legitimate 50/50), this game has little chance of developing into a high-tempo shootout. With all of this considered, the final possession is likely to decide who advances to week two of the playoffs, which Vegas also agrees with. Because of how handcuffed these teams both are (Seattle, due to play-calling; Philadelphia, due to injuries), there actually isn’t much to be said for digging into individual matchups, as the likeliest scenario has this game shaking out as a grind fest on both sides until late in the fourth quarter. The only player that stands out from this game is Dallas Goedert, as he is the one player for whom we can confidently project both volume and matchup to be in his favor. I recommend only playing Goedert in builds that have PHI advancing, and he is a strong play on these builds in a 1.5 TE PPR format where we can confidently assume Ertz will not play either this week or next (remember, we are aiming for 2-4 games from all of RB, WR, TE and historically we want two games from the TE position). When building around Seattle advancing, I recommend sticking with volume. Due to the injuries to their RB room, we can expect a split backfield between Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch, meaning the likeliest bet for volume over a two-game sample would be Tyler Lockett. Even in a game for a playoff bye in Week 17 in which they trailed throughout, Seattle didn’t get truly aggressive until the fourth quarter, ending with 30 rush attempts vs 40 pass attempts. DK Metcalf and PHI D are interesting pivots on these builds.

Overall, ensure all entries tell a story with emphasis on how many games each player would play based on how far you have the respective teams advancing in the playoffs. Make each build start with a unique playoff bracket and go from there, paying close attention to the matchups throughout the playoffs for each team along the way. Good luck; and as always, if you have any questions hit me up on twitter @HilowFF!