Start and Sit: Conference Championships Scott Spratt 16 Jan 2020, 11:44am
The conference championships bring the total of NFL teams from which to build your daily lineups to just four, and that changes the equation of player selections. In tournaments throughout the season, it makes sense to build lineups by stacking players from the same NFL rosters. But now with just a handful of teams playing, that strategy makes increasing sense in cash games. Beyond just the contextual factors of venue, weather, and defensive opponent, consider the possible game scripts of the Titans-Chiefs and Packers-49ers matchups and what those might mean for fantasy scoring from the players who benefit or suffer from a lack of production in tandem with each other.
The following tables feature the players with the best and worst matchups of the week. Each listed player shows a true-talent (TT) ranking that represents how I would rank him with a perfectly neutral game context. Then, that ranking is adjusted by adding the context of the venue (Ven) -- home and road and dome and outside -- the forecasted weather (Wea), and the defensive tendencies of the opponent (Def). The line beneath those rankings shows how much those contextual factors move projected PPR fantasy points. That total (Tot) number gives you a comprehensive estimate of how many fantasy points the player will score this week more or less than his typical total.
Quarterbacks


After his come-from-behind divisional-round win with five touchdowns, and given the remaining quarterback options in the playoffs, Patrick Mahomes will likely land in most daily lineups this week. Still, I can't talk you out of doing the same. The Titans have a stronger run defense (No. 10 DVOA) than pass defense (No. 21), and that boosts their opponents' pass plays by 10%. The Titans do cut passing touchdowns by 13% per attempt, but I'm not sure the normal efficiency rules apply to the otherworldly Mahomes, especially facing a defense that is bottom-three with a 25.1% defensive pressure rate. The Titans will likely have to succeed again with their ball-control offense to limit Mahomes in fantasy. I don't think their defense or the 20-degree kickoff temperature will do it, even if those factors temper the gains I project for him playing at home. I project Mahomes for a six-point advantage over the other quarterbacks, easily justifying his $7,700 price tag on DraftKings.

There isn't a great value option at the position this week, but I do rank Jimmy Garoppolo third, a spot ahead of where his $5,200 DraftKings price slots him at the position. The Packers are not a favorable defensive matchup. They have the opposite split of the Titans with a batter pass defense (No. 10 DVOA) than run defense (No. 23) and a 34.4% defensive pressure rate that should encourage the 49ers to run the ball if the game script makes that possible for them. It certainly was in Week 12 when the 49ers' 37-8 blowout of the Packers needed just 20 pass attempts. But Garoppolo still threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns in those extreme circumstances, and chances are he'll have more incentive to throw this week. I think that's probably true of Ryan Tannehill relative to recent weeks as well, but Garoppolo has the added benefit of a home start with mild weather conditions. If you are debating between the two, I'd side with Garoppolo.

Aaron Rodgers will likely need to excel for the Packers to pull off an upset in San Francisco, but I'm not sure how likely that is. The 49ers have the No. 2 DVOA pass defense, and while they allowed some stronger passing performances in the second half of the season, much of that production came with pass-rusher Dee Ford hurt. The 49ers have an 11.1% sack rate in Ford's 12 healthy games and just a 4.6% sack rate in the five games he missed. He's back now, and Rodgers will have to contend with that as well as a defense that cuts pass plays by 10%, passing yards per attempt by 19%, and passing touchdowns per attempt by 13%. The weather will be better than he saw at home last week, but Rodgers averaged 52 more yards, 0.3 more touchdowns, and 4.1 more fantasy points per game at home than on the road this season. I still have him as the No. 2 quarterback, well ahead of both Garoppolo and Tannehill. But I'm not excited to pay $6,100 for him and probably only would as part of a Packers stack.
I already indicated my pessimism for Tannehill this week, but that goes beyond his meager average of 16 pass attempts per game the last three weeks as Derrick Henry has run wild. Tannehill has everything going against him this week. He is on the road in cold temperatures and playing a Chiefs defense that is much stronger against the pass (No. 6 DVOA) than the run (No. 29). The Chiefs tend to build leads and still promote their opponents' pass plays by 9% despite a weaker run defense, but they counterbalance that by cutting passing yards and touchdowns by 11% and 21% per attempt. I don't have Tannehill way behind Garoppolo, also facing a formidable pass defense in the Packers. But it's enough of a gap that I wouldn't pay more for him than Garoppolo in DraftKings as his $5,500 salary demands.
Running Backs


The running back position revolves around Derrick Henry at this point, and on paper, the Chiefs are a better matchup than either the Patriots or the Ravens from the last two weeks. The Chiefs are the No. 29 DVOA run defense and increase rushing yards by 12% per attempt. Even on the road, Henry lands at the No. 1 spot for me at the position this week, something he didn't do in either the wild-card round (I had him behind Alvin Kamara and Miles Sanders) or divisional round (I had him behind Aaron Jones), with mixed success. It's justifiable to pay his steep $8,700 in DraftKings, but it's also worth mentioning that several other running backs have plus matchups this week. With Henry's game-script-driven downside, you should consider a contrarian play, especially in a tournament where other backs who contribute as receivers are easier to stack.
Probably the best choice for that is the Chiefs' Damien Williams, who I think showed he's now the workhorse option for the team in playing 62 offensive snaps versus just two each for LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson. The Titans have the No. 10 DVOA run defense, but Williams' path to fantasy success likely goes through his receiving, where the Titans are bottom-10 in DVOA against the position. His receiving also raises his floor relative to Henry because it keeps him involved regardless of game script. At $7,000, I'd be happy to use him in DFS, especially as part of a Mahomes stack. I ranked him second at the position this week.
Meanwhile, if you are value-hunting, your best bet is likely in San Francisco. Tevin Coleman's 105-yard, two-touchdown outburst last week jumped him over his teammate Raheem Mostert by $1,400 in DraftKings. But that was Coleman's first game with more than five carries since Week 12. It's possible his renaissance is a one-week phenomenon related to Mostert's illness and subsequent calf cramp, something he believes shouldn't affect him going forward. But even if that's not the case, Mostert still continued his six-game streak of 10 or more carries last week. And with seven touchdowns over that stretch, he strikes me as a much safer choice this week than his teammate Coleman. And both players should benefit from a Packers defense that is No. 23 in DVOA against the run and increases rushing yards and touchdowns by 8% and 23% per attempt. I have Mostert ranked a spot ahead of and projected for nearly three points more than Coleman this week.

Aaron Jones' versatility as a runner and a receiver insulates him from bad matchups, but he is still likely stuck with the worst of them this week on the road against the 49ers. The 49ers are stronger against the pass (No. 2 DVOA) than the run (No. 11), but their general defensive excellence leads to a 26% reduction in their opponents' rushing touchdowns per attempt. And Jones already struggles to score on the road. He has 12 touchdowns in nine homes games this season versus just six in eight road games, and those six road scores all came in two games against the Cowboys and Vikings. I ranked Jones third at the position, the same as his slotting from his $6,700 DraftKings salary. But I still view that salary as a bit inflated by Jones' success in what was a much better matchup last week.
Wide Receivers


I was confused when Emmanuel Sanders was more expensive than Deebo Samuel in DraftKings last week, but either because of opaque matchup considerations or Samuel's four-target advantage in the divisional round, they flip-flopped this week. Now, Samuel's $5,500 and Sanders' $4,900 price tags have them third and fifth at the position, the same spots where I ranked them this week. That reversal I think eliminates the potential for value here since both Samuel and Sanders are stuck playing a Packers defense that is No. 10 in DVOA against the pass, upper-half against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, and cuts passing touchdowns by 24% per attempt. Samuel and Sanders were limited to just three combined targets in Week 12 in San Francisco when the 49ers took advantage of the Packers' biggest passing weakness against tight ends (No. 24 DVOA), targeting George Kittle six times for 129 yards and a score. If the Packers can avoid a blowout this time, then the game script should lift all of the 49ers receivers in fantasy. But even with positive matchup considerations in the home game and good weather, it's difficult to expect the 49ers moving away from a target distribution that worked so well against this specific defense.
Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman have cold weather to blame for their smaller matchup boosts, but I still prefer them over the 49ers' duo as fantasy options given their respective daily price tags. In particular, I see Hardman as a major value with just the 10th highest salary of $3,800 at the position. I ranked him seventh. The Titans pass defense is bottom-10 against both No. 1 receivers and "other" receivers, and they increase pass plays by 10%. Hardman has not seen five targets in a game since Hill was injured in October, and I don't have him projected for them this week. But I still think he has a one-in-four chance of a touchdown, and that makes him a tremendous stack option with Mahomes.

In absolute terms, Davante Adams and Allen Lazard are likely better fantasy options than Hill and Hardman this week. I have them projected for more combined points, and their DraftKings salaries of $7,900 and $4,400 are both higher than their Chiefs counterparts. But relative to their context-free projections, Adams and Lazard are much worse off for their matchups. Ford's pass-rushing boost may not hurt the Packers receivers as much as it will hurt Aaron Rodgers, but cornerback Emmanuel Moseley's insertion into the starting lineup should. His 63% coverage success rate (10th) and 6.3 allowed yards per target (14th) are far superior to incumbent Ahkello Witherspoon's totals of 54% (33rd) and 7.8 (48th). He may be the missing piece for a 49ers pass defense that was already top-10 in DVOA against every receiver grouping except against No. 2 receivers. Meanwhile, the 49ers cut pass plays by 10%, passing yards by 19% per attempt, and passing touchdowns by 13% per attempt. There is shootout potential, but I'd still rather roll with a Chiefs stack than a Packers stack this week.
A.J. Brown has been a victim of the Titans' run-dominated game plan, and he could benefit if the Titans fall behind and are forced to pass. But that possibility does not make this an attractive fantasy matchup. The Chiefs are No. 6 in DVOA pass defense in general and top-10 against both No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. They also cut passing yards and touchdowns by 11% and 21% per attempt. I thought Brown's meager total of 13 yards the last two weeks would make him a daily value, but his $5,200 DraftKings salary is still fourth-highest at the position, the same spot where I ranked him for the week.
Tight Ends


In explaining why Samuel and Sanders are not my favorite daily choices despite a plus matchup, I already explained why I think George Kittle is an excellent fantasy option this week. The Packers are No. 24 in DVOA defense against tight ends and allow 55 yards per game to the position, 14th-most. In a matchup in San Francisco earlier this season, Kittle saw six of the team's 19 targets and converted them into a fantasy-friendly 129 yards and a touchdown. With the likelihood of a game script that better favors passing, Kittle's ceiling is even higher this week. He's expensive at $5,800 on DraftKings, but my No. 2 ranking of him at the position fully justifies it.
Kittle may win the battle of which tight end sees the biggest matchup improvement, but Travis Kelce wins the war. Even giving up a fantasy point because of the cold weather, Kelce lands about seven points ahead of Kittle in my weekly projections. The Titans are a similarly receptive defense to tight end scoring, finishing 20th in DVOA against the position and allowing 58 yards per game to them, 10th-most in football. The Mahomes-Kelce stack provided eight touchdowns a week ago, and I love it again this week even with the latter's $7,100 salary.

Jimmy Graham has enjoyed bigger workloads than Jonnu Smith in recent weeks, but that could change if the Titans fall behind in Kansas City on Sunday. Meanwhile, I don't think there's any doubt which tight is more effective on a per-target basis as this point in their careers. Graham has just five touchdowns on 93 receptions the last two seasons. Smith has six on 55. And while the former's opponents, the 49ers, have the No. 2 DVOA defense against tight ends and allow just 34 yards per game to the position -- the fewest in football -- the latter's opponents, the Chiefs, allow 59 yards per game to the position, sixth-most. I ranked Smith a stop ahead of Graham this week, but their DraftKings salaries of $3,400 and $3.700 are reversed and make Smith the better value.



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