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The Seahawks have had an interesting progression to their season as they started out grinding away some wins, then turned into an explosive offense that won a few shootouts, and now have evolved into a more ground based team that has leaned heavily on rookie running back Kenneth Walker over the last three weeks, as they fought for a playoff spot. This week, the Seahawks get a third opportunity to overcome the league’s top defense, whom their offense managed to score only 13 total points against in the first two matchups. The 49ers beat Seattle 27-7 in Week 2 but the Seahawks touchdown came on special teams, and the Seahawks only touchdown in their Week 15 Thursday night loss came with 3:35 left in the game after they had barely moved the ball for three and a half quarters.
Looking at this week’s playoff game, the Seahawks have a difficult decision to make in their approach. They have found their way into the playoffs by grinding out wins and putting the ball in the belly of Kenneth Walker, but they now face San Francisco’s top-ranked run defense. Do they really want to run into a brick wall repeatedly and leave themselves in long down and distance situations against this unit? My guess would be no. Looking deeper at the last two weeks for the Seahawks, we can see that they were playing at home and faced the Jets and the Rams, who rank 29th and 27th in the league in scoring. This week, on the road against a 49ers offense that has been dominant and nearly unstoppable for the last two months, the Seahawks should feel no such level of comfort that they can play the conservative field position game and rely on their defense to win it for them. This 49ers defense is elite against the run and solid at every level, but if they have a weakness, it has to be in their secondary. In Week 17, Jarrett Stidham lit up the 49ers defense as he relied heavily on two veteran receivers (Davante Adams and Darren Waller) and picked them apart from the pocket. Seattle could stir up the same recipe this week with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf serving as the focal points of their attack, and occasionally getting Kenneth Walker in space or picking up short yardage as needed. A short to intermediate passing attack that gets the ball out of Smith’s hands quickly before the 49ers pass rush can get there, and sets up short yardage situations on second and third down, is the approach the Raiders showed everyone. This is an approach that the Seahawks are equipped to execute thanks to the accuracy of Geno Smith, the route running of Tyler Lockett, and the big body of DK Metcalf. The Seahawks aren’t necessarily going to be completely airing it out this week, but we should expect more of a “pass to set up the run” approach than their grinding approach of recent weeks.
The Chargers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2018 after finishing the season with a 10-7 record and earning the #5 seed in the AFC. The Chargers were 6-6 through Week 13 before rallying off four consecutive victories to lock in their playoff berth prior to the regular season’s final week. Unfortunately, head coach Brandon Staley played the role of the donkey last week by playing his starters deep into a meaningless game after the Ravens lost in the early window, which locked the Chargers into their playoff position. Los Angeles rode their defense down the stretch to make the playoffs, holding their opponents to only 11 points per game during their four-game winning streak. The Chargers offense, on the other hand, was far less potent this season than most would expect given their reputation and playing style, as they only scored 30+ points one time in their last 12 games, and heralded young quarterback Justin Herbert has not thrown for over 300 yards while throwing multiple touchdown passes since Week 4.
Los Angeles has a great on-paper matchup this week, as the Jaguars defensive weakness matches up perfectly with the Chargers play calling tendencies. The Jacksonville pass defense ranks 30th in Football Outsiders DVOA metrics, while the Chargers are tied with Tampa Bay for the highest pass rate in the league at 67% and rank 5th in PROE. Jacksonville’s pass defense has had some good moments this season, but those have all come against teams with poor quarterbacks and/or weak weapons in their receiving corps. Some may look at the first matchup of these teams as a signal that the Jaguars pass defense provides a problem for the Chargers, but we must remember that in that first matchup, Justin Herbert was playing without having practiced that week due to broken ribs suffered ten days earlier and the Chargers were playing without Keenan Allen, who is in many ways the “engine” of this passing game as he helps sustain drives and provides separation for Herbert in the intermediate areas of the field. Jacksonville has faced three strong passing games since Week 10 – the Chiefs, Lions, and Cowboys – and those teams averaged 309 passing yards, and three touchdown passes in those games. The Chargers may not be quite to that level of those teams listed, but they are far above the teams that Jacksonville has had success against. An aggressive passing attack in the short and intermediate areas of the field with occasional shot plays will certainly be the approach from the Chargers, if they are paying attention at all. Although, after Staley’s decision to play all his starters and the resulting injuries to Joey Bosa and Mike Williams in Week 18, maybe that assumption is giving him too much credit.
The Dolphins have been at or above league average in pass rate over expectation (PROE) in every game in which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has played the majority of the offensive snaps, and below average in PROE in every game in which he has missed this season. The question then becomes “how do we think Mike McDaniel approaches this game with 1) the Dolphins listed as 13.5-point underdogs with Skyler Thompson starting at quarterback, 2) the team likely without three of their starting offensive linemen (and a backup tackle), and 3) likely without one of their primary running backs?” It is also worth noting that the majority of Skyler Thompson’s offensive snaps and pass attempts have come against the stingy defenses of the Jets (two games) and Patriots (one game), against whom he has averaged a shockingly low 4.96 yards per pass attempt. Finally, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have combined for a 53.2% team target market share this season but Skyler Thompson targeted running backs and tight ends at a whopping 51.92% rate over the final two weeks of the regular season (27 targets on 52 attempts went to running backs Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and Salvon Ahmed, tight ends Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe, and fullback Alec Ingold). Based on how we’ve seen Mike McDaniel manage games with “quarterbacks not named Tua Tagovailoa,” and more specifically, Skyler Thompson, we should see an offense built around the short-area passing game and dynamic run game in an attempt to shorten both the field and the game against the Bills.
Since Jeff Wilson was added to the team prior to Week 9, Miami’s lead back has played snap rates of (starting in Week 9 and moving forward) 49%, 61%, 61%, 61%, 73%, 76%, 60%, 65%, and 65%. The two games in the 70s were Raheem Mostert in games Jeff Wilson was hurt or missed. Jeff Wilson saw a 61% snap rate in the one game Raheem Mostert missed during that span. With Myles Gaskin on injured reserve, the change of pace role should land with Salvon Ahmed, should Mostert be unable to play through his broken thumb, with eventual volume likely dependent on game flow. Considering the high positional target rate with Skyler Thompson at quarterback, and the fact that Ahmed has but one target all season, it is fair to expect Jeff Wilson to see one of his higher target totals of the season (the previous season-high came in Week 17 against New England with seven). Bring it all together and Jeff Wilson should see a snap rate in the 60-75% range with 16-18 carries, and the opportunity for six to eight targets should Raheem Mostert miss. If Mostert plays, I wouldn’t expect those projections to decrease dramatically due to the nature of Mostert’s injury (broken thumb), which would likely affect his ability to secure the football on handoffs and through the air. The pure rushing matchup yields a below average 4.20 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Bills defense underperforming to 4.36 yards allowed per running back carry this season, but that is before considering the injuries along the Miami offensive line.
As covered above, Skyler Thompson has relied on his running backs and tight ends through the air at a whopping 51.92% rate over his final two games this season, which came against the stout defenses of the Patriots and Jets. In the three games in which Thompson played the majority of the offensive snaps, Tyreek Hill has target totals of seven, seven, and five, while Jaylen Waddle has target totals of five, five, and four. Now consider the low 4.96 yards per attempt value in Skyler Thompson’s three-ish game sample size under center. To say the fantasy value of both Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle takes a significant hit with Skyler Thompson under center is likely a vast understatement. With a borderline inability to attack downfield, paired with a high running back and tight end target rate, and injuries along the offensive line, expect the Miami offense to be largely confined to short area passing as they attempt to keep pace with the dangerous Bills offense.
The Giants have just four games all season with a pass rate over expectation (PROE) above league average, typically content to let the game come to them and limit the mistakes over the first three quarters. It just so happens, however, that one of those spiked pass rate games came against the Vikings in Week 16. There’s no way of knowing for certain how the Giants will choose to attack in the second meeting between these two teams, but it stands to reason that Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka, two of the more forward-thinking game callers in the business, will have their team ready to exploit whatever edge they see in the matchup. I’m going to save the rest of that discussion for the pass game section of this write-up below.
Saquon Barkley had a bit of a dip in workload over the middle of the season but he reprised a true workhorse role over the final month of play, playing snap rates of 86%, 91%, and 79% over his final three games (he was rested in Week 18), and handling 26, 24, and 16 running back opportunities in those games (the last of which was a 38-10 dismantling of the Colts). He also saw 18 combined targets in the two competitive games during that stretch, one of which was a 10-target game against these same Vikings. Matt Breida should continue as the primary change of pace back likely with a relatively modest workload in the playoffs as each game is a win or go home endeavor. The pure rushing matchup yields a slightly below average 4.29 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Minnesota defense allowing just 4.08 yards per carry but 23.7 DK points per game to opposing backfields.
This one is a little more interesting than the field is likely to fully realize, as the Minnesota secondary has actually been playing much better than public perception over the second half of the season. Patrick Peterson and Duke Shelley, the cornerback who filled in for Cam Dantzler after the latter’s injury, are two of PFF’s top five cornerbacks in coverage grades this season (albeit with games against the Patriots, Jets, Lions, Colts, Giants, Packers, and Bears on Shelley’s ledger). That leaves us with a case of “has the team been performing better against perimeter wide receivers because they are playing better football or is it a function of their opposition?” And while I would like to believe it is the latter, the reality is it is much more likely to be the former. That said, the Giants don’t exactly have world-beating talent amongst its pass-catchers, leading us to our exploration of their team. The Giants have played primarily from 11-personnel to end the season, with Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James, and rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger the primary pass-catching options alongside running back Saquon Barkley. Hodgins has seen one game with the Giants with more than six targets, Slayton has not seen more than eight targets since Week 8, and Daniel Bellinger has a season-high of five looks. This brings us to Saquon Barkley and Richie James, who should be considered the primary pass game options at this point in the season. James has led the team in receiving each of the previous four games, racking up 269 yards and two touchdowns on 32 targets during that span. Barkley has been operating with a floor of five to six targets for most of the second half of the season, seeing a combined 18 targets in the two most competitive games over the last month of play (a 20-12 win over Washington and the 27-24 loss to these Vikings; the other two games were the 38-10 trouncing of the Colts and a 48-22 blowout loss to the Eagles).
The Ravens are hurting in all the wrong places as they limp into the postseason, with Lamar Jackson highly unlikely to play this weekend with a Grade 2/3 PCL strain, Tyler Huntley dealing with tendinitis in this throwing shoulder, top wide receivers Rashad Bateman and Devin Duvernay done for the season, and Gus Edwards dealing with a concussion. Not coincidentally, four of their five lowest pass rate over expectation values have come since Week 13 (when Lamar Jackson injured his knee, excluding their Week 18 contest where they rested players). Even with most primary starters getting the day off, the Ravens played the Bengals tough in Week 18 after beating them 19-17 in Baltimore earlier in the season. They earned that victory over these Bengals in Week 5 on the backs of their defense, holding the Bengals to their second-lowest scoring output of the season. I expect that to be the game plan here – play the Bengals tough on defense, attempt to limit mistakes and play with a slow pace of play on offense, and do enough to stay in the game into the fourth quarter where they’ll look to leverage variance.
The injuries to the top two wide receivers have left the Ravens playing primarily from heavy sets to end the season, with elevated rates of both 21- and 12-personnel through the utilization of fullback Patrick Ricard and tight ends Mark Andrews, Josh Oliver, and Isaiah Likely. The split in work with this backfield is also relatively known, with J.K. Dobbins the primary early down back, Gus Edwards the short yardage back, Kenyan Drake likely to only be active should Edwards be unable to go, and Justice Hill the primary change of pace and clear passing situations back. That leaves Dobbins the primary ball handler albeit with a ceiling of 16-18 running back opportunities and little opportunity to pile up targets, Gus Edwards the likeliest to punch in a goal line score albeit with uncertainty surrounding his availability due to concussion, and Justice Hill unlikely to find the end zone outside of the two-minute offense although the likeliest of the bunch to see two-minute offense utilization. Either way you slice it, there isn’t a ton of room for ceiling from this backfield considering the three-way timeshare – which should remain even if Edwards misses due to the insertion of Kenyan Drake. The pure rushing matchup yields an average 4.335 net-adjusted line yards metric in a largely neutral matchup.
The primary pass-catchers for the Ravens are now Mark Andrews, Mark Andrews, and then Mark Andrews, with Demarcus Robinson, James Proche, Sammy Watkins, Tylan Wallace, and Isaiah Likely all playing situational roles after the release of DeSean Jackson prior to Week 18. Robinson is the one most likely to approach 60-65% of the offensive snaps as the “primary wide receiver,” but Andrews is the only player likely to be utilized as an every-down pass-catcher. Sammy Watkins rejoined the Ravens after being released by the Packers and has played between 33% and 50% of the offensive snaps during his three games back with the franchise. Tyler Huntley has made five starts for the Ravens this season, failing to finish one. His pass attempts in those games were 32, 12 (left early with an injury, but Anthony Brown added only five pass attempts), 30, 17, and 21 – with the team operating with an extremely low pass rate over expectation values in all five games. That severely limits the upside for all pass-catchers not named Mark Andrews (remember, he’s the top three options through the passing game for the Ravens). That said, the biggest vulnerability of the Bengals 3-4, zone-heavy, low blitz rate defense is over the intermediate middle of the field to tight ends, presenting an opportunity for upside for Andrews under the right circumstances (say, like would be the case in playoff desperation in a negative game script).
The Wild Card round concludes with Dallas visiting Tampa as a short road favorite (2.5) in a game with a 45.5 total (side note here: it feels weird to me that the 12-5 Cowboys have to play on the road against the 8-9 Bucs but nobody asked me about how NFL playoff seeding should work – their loss). Both defenses are strong, with the Cowboys, as we know, being elite, ranking 2nd in overall defensive DVOA while Tampa is solid at 13th. Both offenses are middle of the pack, ranked 15th and 16th in DVOA (Dallas is 15th).
We’ll start by looking at the Bucs and their run game, which has struggled on the ground all year behind a poor run-blocking offensive line. That has led to Leonard Fournette averaging just 3.5 yards per carry while backup Rachaad White is at 3.7. Exciting! Receiving volume buoys the floor and ceiling here with Uncle Lenny averaging just over five targets per game and White soaking up another 3.4. Fournette has been on the larger side of a timeshare in the second half of the season as White’s role has grown but there’s a big question mark here to me around workload and usage. Teams generally condense their offense in the playoffs to focus on their best players, and while I don’t know that Fournette is any better than White, we know that Brady trusts his veterans and also highly values ball security, and Fournette hasn’t fumbled once the season (White has done so three times). My tentative expectation is that White is still going to get some action but the workload split will lean more in Fournette’s favor in the playoffs; maybe it goes from the 55-45 or so split we’ve seen the past few weeks to something like a 70-30 split. Now, this is conjecture but if it plays out this way, that would make Fournette quite underpriced for a bell cow role at $7,200, especially with a very strong passing game role (remember playoff Lenny last year?). In that scenario, White at $5,400 would be quite overpriced. The way I’m going to play this is that while I’m fine playing Fournette and White together in the flex, in rosters in which one of them is the captain, I will be excluding the other (for one to end up being the optimal captain, we likely need them to see the bulk of the work).
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In the passing game, we’ll see Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as the primary wideouts with Julio Jones and Russell Gage sharing the WR3 role. We’ve seen guys like Scotty Miller, Breshad Perriman, and more recently Deven Thompkins, rotate in during the regular season, but I expect in the playoffs that those guys won’t see much action unless there’s an injury in front of them; you can include them in player pools but they are very thin punt options. The Bucs offensive line struggles have led them to adopt a somewhat ludicrously high-volume passing attack, with Tom Brady averaging an insane 44.8 pass attempts (not dropbacks – pass attempts) per game during the regular season (not including Week 18) albeit with a tiny 6.4 yards per pass attempt (second lowest of his career). What we’re seeing is a high volume, short area offense, and with Dallas having an elite pass rush (2nd in the NFL in adjusted sack rate while the Bucs O-line is dead last in this metric), we should expect to see that same short-area offense as the game plan going into this one. That plan of attack favors Chris Godwin, who has reached double-digit DK points in every game this season but one, however, he has only gone past 20 DK points twice (and has hit 30 just once). Godwin is a very safe play who has volume-based upside and who has more ceiling than the season’s data shows, as he only has three touchdowns on the year despite leading the team in targets inside the 10-yard line. The quick-out passing attack has really hurt Mike Evans this season. Evans has also struggled with converting air yards into production, as he ranks in the top 10 of wide receivers in expected fantasy points per game. Some of this is on Evans for missing catchable balls, and some of it is due to poorly thrown passes due to pressure. The net result is that Evans has two games of over 30 Draftkings points (including Week 17’s 10/207/3 explosion which came against a Panthers team with no appreciable pass rush at all), but he also has a whopping seven games of under 10 DK points. Yikes. Godwin’s my preferred play here, though Evans of course still has a strong ceiling but I’m more likely to come in underweight the field given that his ownership has generally tended to be in the 40-50% range in Showdowns this year. The WR3 role is one that I expect to see Gage in the lead for, with Julio mixing in for something like 25-40% of the snaps. That makes Gage at $5,200 an appealing option while Julio gets relegated to the tourney boom/bust group. At tight end, we should expect Cade Otton to lead the way in snaps with some combination of Cam Brate, Ko Kieft, and Kyle Rudolph rotating through (with the caveat that, as with Fournette and White, there’s a possibility that usage swings back to the veteran Brate in the playoffs but personally I think Otton has earned Brady’s trust and is most likely to be the lead guy). If Otton leads the way at the position, at just $1,800, he represents a very strong value play; his skillset aligns well with the type of offense the Bucs are running, and Brady has a long history of supporting strong tight end production. Everyone else is a tourney punt option. On the whole, my favorite Bucs skill position players are Godwin, Fournette, and Otton.