Once bitten twice shy may have been a truism for the ‘80s hair band Great White, but it’s no way to run a fantasy football team. We recommended stocking up on Saints against Seattle’s historically long 250-1 odds last January, and we won’t hesitate to roll with New Orleans again this year.
The 13-3 Saints are statistically the hottest team in the league and certainly the best No. 3 seed in NFL history. They opened the week as a 10 ½-point favorite over the Lions in what projects as the first-round’s biggest shootout against a defense that has allowed 438, 425, 477, 367, and 550 yards over the past five weeks.
Drew Brees set records for passing yards (5,347), completions (468) and percentage (71.6), and his offense passed the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams’ record for most yards (7,474) and first downs (416). The streaking Saints have reeled off eight consecutive wins, including an average of 517.5 yards per over the past six weeks. Their last three opponents have fallen by 22, 29, and 28 points. More dynamic than Brees’ Super Bowl XLIV offense thanks to a diverse three-headed backfield that has cleared 100 yards 12 times, the Who Dats are undefeated in the Superdome while Detroit is 0-5 this season against NFC playoff teams.
If Brees stays this hot, Alex Smith has no chance of outdueling him in San Francisco the following week. Propped up by a soft schedule, the 49ers’ most impressive win was over a gimpy Ben Roethlisberger in the dual power-outage game. While the Niners boast the league’s best defense, turnover ratio, and special teams in addition to an effective ball-control offense, it’s hard to imagine the red zone-challenged Smith successfully trading punches with Brees.
Lost in the MVP debate is the idea that Brees might actually be the favorite had Mark Ingram plunged in from a yard out in the last seconds of the NFL opener back in September. Should Brees get an opportunity to avenge that loss in Lambeau, he’s facing an uphill battle against history. The Saints, 5-3 outside of the Big Easy this season, are winless in four road playoff games. Dome teams don’t win outdoor conference championship games, and the Packers haven’t lost in Green Bay since mid-October of 2010.
Elsewhere in the NFC, the schizophrenic Giants followed another inexplicable home loss to a mediocre team (Redskins) with dominant wins over the Jets and Cowboys. The Falcons, winless in the playoffs under Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, were the big winner in Week 17. An outdoor game in New York is certainly preferable to a third blowout loss in New Orleans. Buoyed by explosive rookie Julio Jones as well as Ryan’s mastery of the no-huddle attack, the Falcons are surging on offense heading into the postseason.
PFT’s Mike Florio suggests the Texans-Bengals game could be the key to the AFC playoffs. The winner will determine whether the Patriots or Ravens will have to take on the Steelers next week. The Bengals backed into the playoffs thanks to one of the easiest non-division schedules in recent history, beating just one team that finished with a winning record (the 9-7 Titans) and finishing in the lower half of Football Outsiders’ team metrics while closing out the second half 3-5. In nine games against non-playoff teams, the Bengals were 9-0. All seven losses came against playoff teams. The Texans, on the other hand, haven't scored more than 22 points in a game since Matt Schaub’s season-ending injury in Week 10.
The only team to win a playoff game in each of the last three postseasons, the Ravens have a good shot at a rematch with a Texans team that fell 29-14 under Schaub in Baltimore back in Week 6. John Harbaugh’s squad has won 18 of their last 19 home games, including all eight this season.
While the Jets, Cowboys, Eagles, Raiders, and Chargers missed the postseason in large part due to losses against New England, it’s a bit of a red flag that the Patriots haven’t beat a team with a winning record all season. Tom Brady has been able to dig out of 17-0 and 21-0 home deficits to Miami and Buffalo the past two weeks, but that won’t work against the Ravens or Steelers. Despite the regular-season dominance at Foxboro, the home fans have watched the Pats’ season end in each of the past two seasons.
The Broncos’ point differential of -81 is the second-worst of any playoff team since the schedule expanded to 16 games nearly 35 years ago. Just the sixth team since 1990 to make the playoffs after losing four of its first five games, Denver also closed out the season with three straight clunkers. The Steelers once again boast the NFL’s No. 1 statistical defense as well as the AFC’s most well-rounded team when the quarterback is at full health. Dick LeBeau’s defense should make quick work of a struggling Tim Tebow.
Final team efficiency ratings via @fboutsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) system:
Final ratings in @fboutsiders' weighted DVOA, which is adjusted to diminish the importance of early-season games:
In the last six years, the Super Bowl winners have been sixth, first, second, fifth, third and sixth seeds. Courtesy of Las Vegas oddsmakers, here are the latest Super Bowl odds:
1. Packers 8-5
2. Patriots 7-2
3. Saints 5-1
4. Ravens 6-1
5. Steelers 10-1
6. 49ers 12-1
7. Giants 20-1
8. Texans 35-1
9. Falcons 40-1
10. Lions 50-1
11. Broncos 60-1
12. Bengals 70-1
On to the rankings. For a quick primer on playoff fantasy football, check out Evan Silva's how-to column from a few years ago. The rules are similar to regular fantasy football, except that total points are the key. Pick a starting team, possibly a bench, and let them go at it. Myfantasyleague.com is hosting free playoff leagues.