So sad when the regular season comes to an end. A select minority of fantasy football players are happy at this point because they won their championships, and some fans are happy because their team of choice (or birth) has January football to play. I am in that latter group with my Eagles in the playoffs even though they now look far from a Super Bowl contender with Nick Foles at the helm. Even if this is the sad part of the year for you because the season is over, there are still some last-ditch opportunities to extend your fantasy football season. There is always daily over the next few weeks, but there is also the NFL Playoff Challenge. Here we will focus on some strategy and some picks moving forward.
If you don’t understand what the playoff challenge is or how it works, check out the rules here. The biggest takeaways from the rules are that it is standard scoring with 4 points per passing TD (NFL needs to get with the PPR program). Based on these rules we must evaluate the value of bonuses. When you build your initial lineup members of that lineup that advance to the next round of playoffs will get a 2x bonus in divisional week. If their teams continue to advance your bonus will go up each week to 3x (conference championships) then 4x (Super Bowl).
Some people opt to select players in their initial lineups that aren’t playing in the wild card games, so that they will be guaranteed to have the 2x bonus come the divisional playoff weekend. This is an excellent strategy if you have a pretty good sense of which teams will represent their conferences in the Super Bowl. This is likely the strategy that I will choose. The risk is that if you are wrong then the players on the losing teams have to be replaced and they would be starting with no bonus. Therefore, in the AFC you are probably safe with Steelers or Patriots players, but the NFC is a little harder to figure out.
Looking at the NFC you could look at the Vikings or the Eagles to get that guaranteed bonus in the divisional round, but the Eagles appear to be a shell of themselves without Carson Wentz, and it’s still hard to believe in Case Keenum despite all the Vikings success this year. He has only produced 20+ points three times this season. Eagles players would be super contrarian options as all other NFC contenders appear better equipped for the playoffs. If the Eagles make it to the Super Bowl, expect it to be as ugly as their last few games which means no good for fantasy.
Looking at NFC teams required to play in the first two round, we have to continue to ask ourselves which team has the best chance of getting to the Super Bowl. If the NFC champion is predicted correctly from teams playing Wild Card weekend, we get the benefit of the bonus plus the points accumulated in the wild card weekend. The NFC champion will be hard to be predict. The Rams fell to the Vikings and the Eagles. The Vikings lost to the Panthers. The Panthers fell to the Saints twice and the Falcons. The Falcons dropped games to the Saints in week 16, the Vikings, and the Panthers (week 9). The Saints lost to the Falcons (week 14), the Vikings (week 1), and the Rams. The Eagles have lost to none of these teams.
At a glance and taking reality into account, the Vikings appear to be the best options for the long play with a guaranteed bonus, but the Rams seem like a solid option of those teams playing in the Wild Card rounds. Todd Gurley is a beast and there should be every expectation that they lean on him through the playoffs. His heavy use will open up the pass game making Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Sammy Watkins intriguing options. The Rams will have to go through Minnesota to get to the NFC championship (no easy task), but there are two things to like about Rams players. One thing is their road to the playoffs will cause many to shy away, thus making Rams players a more contrarian play. The other thing is Sean McVay who has done amazing things with this offense. Having seen them once already this season, he should be able to scheme a way to produce on offense given all of the options they have.
New Orleans has a pretty good path to the divisional round since they face the Panthers whom they have beaten twice this season already. When they reach the divisional round they would face the Vikings, who they lost to early in the season, or the Eagles who have had a top 10 defense against RBs on the season. This could be the brick wall they hit as three of the Saints five losses have come on the road. This could be a major concern if you plan on playing any Saints. If you believe that the Saints will prevail through to the NFC championship then you may want to look at the receiving options like Kamara and Michael Thomas as the Panthers have been worst against fantasy receivers in recent weeks. Just understand the risk that comes with the divisional round. If the Rams somehow lose to the Falcons, then this could be a short trip for these players, thus impacting our bonuses.
Looking at the AFC playoff landscape, it is understandably easy to gravitate toward the Patriots or Steelers as their offenses have been consistently productive. History tells us that the Patriots players would be better options for the long play while skipping the Wild Card round points. Looking at teams required to play in the Wild Card round really serves to bolster the choice to invest in the long play with the Steelers or Patriots players as the other teams are hardly inspiring, but we will look at some options anyway.
The Chiefs haven’t scored less than 26 points since week 13. Looking at the competition they faced during that period there was some poor competition, but that span did include dropping 30 points on a Chargers defense that had been good lately. This gives us hope for these players in a long play because there is no real expectation that Buffalo beats the Jags in their house which would have Kansas City facing the Patriots. Kansas City is one of three teams to best the Patriots this season as no other AFC playoff team has done. The upside of this offense’s ability to be dynamic with Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce gives us a little bit of confidence in these contrarian options. Alex Smith has also scored 25+ points 5 times this season so there is reason to believe that he can facilitate a productive offense. Hunt has also had 6 20+ point performances with three of those performances in weeks 14-16 which indicates he is getting hot!
Jacksonville hasn’t been as dominating a team as they had been this season. Bortles is regressing against the pass rush, and the defense has been had by Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco who seem to have found cracks in the Jaguars armor. What does this mean for the Jags fantasy options? Well it could mean that we would be hoping for a Bortles bounce-back which would bring Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, and Marquis Lee back to life. Leonard Fournette will have to be used to keep the pressure of moving the offense off of Bortles shoulders. These players would be a highly contrarian pick for the long play though, so consider the risk.
Here are my selections (subject to change) for the challenge:
At the end of the day, I am feeling a Rams – Patriots Super Bowl. Well really I am feeling an Eagles – X Super Bowl, but I need to be realistic. The two non-Super Bowl projected picks I have are Juju Smith-Schuster and Kareem Hunt. The Jags should handle the Bills which would take them to Pittsburgh. The Jags still have an elite pass defense even though, but they have allowed the 8th most fantasy points to receivers over the last few weeks. Juju could see a weaker coverage if Antonio Brown returns healthy in the Divisional round, a trend that could continue to the Conference round against the Patriots.
As for Kareem Hunt, there is every expectation that the Chiefs should pull off this win. The Chiefs have performed much better since leaning on Hunt again. He has had the hot hand as mentioned earlier. Tennessee is giving up the 14th most points to running backs, 10th most points to receivers, 13th most points to tight ends, and 12th most points to passers over the last 4 weeks which all adds up to a solid expectation of offensive production for the Chiefs. The Chiefs and Steelers are the only two teams I believe can beat the Patriots, so this allows me to split the difference between the two teams as one of them will move on to face the Patriots allowing me to keep that bonus going.
To expand on the Rams selections, they face Atlanta in the Wild Card round and the Falcons have given up the 7th most points to QBs and 6th most points to receivers. They have been really good defending the running back, but we could expect to see Todd Gurley’s picture next to the definition for “matchup proof”. If we believe this about Todd Gurley, then we must believe that the next logical matchup against Minnesota won’t matter. Continuing to follow that logic, if they can’t contain Gurley, it will open up the passing game. This results in an NFC championship appearance for the Rams (hopefully in Philly as a fan, or at home in Los Angeles) where we would benefit from that 3x bonus.
For this NFL Playoff Challenge it is critical to maximize your bonuses. In order to do so, you want to project teams that will go to at least the conference championships. From there, trace back the scenarios that get them there then select your lineup based on what you project players to do on their road to the conference championships or the Super Bowl. Don’t forget to consider being contrarian with a pick or two. Lastly, before finalizing your lineup consider the risk of selecting players playing on Wild Card weekend versus the safety of selecting players on a bye. Good luck and enjoy your Playoff Challenge!