The first round of the NFL playoffs is in the books, which brings us to the always-entertaining Divisional round. Today, I’ll be supplying you with positional rankings and tiers at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker, and defense.
Playoff contests tend to vary greatly in terms of format, so I won’t be getting too into specifics. Instead, I’ll just be providing one-week, standard-scoring player rankings.
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-week $300,000 Fantasy Football league for the Divisional playoff weekend. It's $25 to join and first prize is $25,000. Starts Saturday at 4:35pm ET. Here's the FanDuel link.
Cornerback matchup data provided by ProFootballFocus.com
1. Peyton Manning – DEN (vs. SD)
Following a record-setting regular season, Manning is far and away the best fantasy bet at quarterback this weekend. Denver is averaging 3.4 passing touchdowns per game, with Manning registering an absurd nine games with four or more scores. When these two teams met in Week 10, the Denver offense ran only 60 plays, but Manning put up four touchdowns. San Diego got its revenge in Denver in Week 15, holding the Broncos’ offense to a season-low two offensive scores. An early lead and effective running game from San Diego led to just 53 offensive plays for Denver – also a low for the season. Still, Manning did score twice and put up 289 passing yards. It’s fair to expect a bounce-back, especially against a secondary that struggled badly for much of the season. The Chargers defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a 6:7 TD:INT mark over their last six games.
2. Andrew Luck – IND (@ NE)
3. Cam Newton – CAR (vs. SF)
4. Philip Rivers – SD (@ DEN)
After Manning, a good chunk of the remaining options run together. Luck, Rivers, and Newton each make for a solid play this weekend.
Luck is fresh off an incredible comeback win against a usually-tough Kansas City defense. The Colts put up a season-high six offensive touchdowns (previous high was four), five of which were scored by Luck. The Colts are quietly the No. 5 pass-heaviest team in the NFL and they’re about to take on a team surrendering 70 offensive plays-per-game, which is third most in the league. Luck is playing well, will have plenty of opportunities, and is facing a defense that has allowed three or more passing touchdowns four times over its last eight games. He’s your next best bet after Manning.
Newton isn’t going to get you a ton through the air, but he does enough with his legs to warrant some consideration this weekend. The San Francisco defense has allowed just six rushing scores over its last 14 games, but one of those touchdowns was registered by Carolina in Week 10. Newton struggled to a 16/32-169-0-1 line with 15 rushing yards in the first meeting, but that game was on the road. The Carolina offense has been a half touchdown better at Bank of America Stadium than they are on the road. That’s where they’ll be on Sunday.
During their in-progress five-game winning streak, the Chargers have called 140 passes and 192 runs. That’s incredibly run heavy. Still, they’re scoring points, which has allowed Rivers to average a respectable two passing scores per game during the streak. Similarly, the Broncos’ defense is allowing solid, but not spectacular production from opposing passers. Despite teams throwing the ball against them so often, Denver has allowed more than two passing touchdowns in a game only three times all season. In fact, it’s held seven opponents under two passing scores, including Rivers back in Week 10. Worst case, Rivers will provide solid production this weekend. Best case, San Diego falls behind and he’ll be forced to throw the ball 40-plus times, leading to a strong fantasy day.
5. Tom Brady – NE (vs. IND)
6. Russell Wilson – SEA (vs. NO)
7. Drew Brees – NO (@ SEA)
8. Colin Kaepernick – SF (@ CAR)
There is some serious talent in our final tier of quarterbacks, but that’s what happens when so many quality signal callers are still playing at this point in the season.
The Patriots averaged 3.6 offensive touchdowns per game with Rob Gronkowski (IR) this season. They sit at 2.1 without him. The Patriots are the No. 10 run-heaviest team in the league and score a majority of their touchdowns on the ground. Consider that Brady has eclipsed two passing scores only twice all season. The Colts pass defense just surrendered four touchdowns to Alex Smith, but the New England passing attack isn’t what it used to be. Brady is a mediocre play.
Wilson, Kaepernick, and especially Brees are usually reliable-to-strong fantasy options, but the going will be tough against some of the better defenses in the league this weekend.
Wilson faces a Saints’ defense allowing a league-low 59 plays-per-game and 2.0 touchdowns-per-game (sixth-lowest). The Seattle offense is backpedaling into the playoffs a bit, but it averaged an elite three offensive scores per game at home this season. The Seahawks crushed the Saints 34-7 in Seattle back in Week 13. Wilson tossed three touchdowns.
Kaepernick heads to Carolina to face a defense allowing 61 plays-per-game (second-lowest) and 1.3 touchdowns-per-game (second-lowest). The good news is opponents tend to throw a ton of passes against the Panthers and a high percentage of allowed scores are of the passing variety. The bad news is that they’ve only allowed two opposing quarterbacks to eclipse one passing score this season. It’s hard to see Kaepernick coming away with a good fantasy performance.
Headed to Seattle, Brees has this week’s toughest challenge. The Seahawks are allowing 62 plays-per-game (sixth-lowest) and an NFL-low 1.3 scores-per-game. They’ve allowed a total of four passing touchdowns over their last five games (one of those games was against Brees). Even worse for Brees are the Saints’ continual offensive woes on the road. New Orleans won in Philadelphia last week, but turned the ball over twice and scored only two touchdowns. The Saints are averaging 1.8 touchdowns-per-game on the road, which is a massive dip from their 4.4 mark at the Superdome. Brees will throw it a ton this weekend, but he’s going to have his hands full with a stellar Seattle defense.
1. Knowshon Moreno – DEN (vs. SD)
During the regular season, Moreno handled only 41 percent of the Broncos’ carries in games we could label as blowout wins by Denver. That’s compared to 68 percent in competitive games. It’s safe to assume most of the Broncos’ playoff games will be competitive, which means Moreno will flirt with 20 carries each week. Has he benefited from the presence of Manning? Of course. But consider that Moreno is averaging an exceptional 4.6 yards-per-carry against opposing Base defenses this season. That’s compared to 4.5 vs. Nickel and 3.4 vs. Dime. On top of his role in the running game, Moreno has racked up 72 targets this season. Following a breakout 2013 regular season and set to handle 25 or so looks in the league’s best offense, Moreno is the top fantasy running back this weekend.
2. Marshawn Lynch – SEA (vs. NO)
Not far off Moreno is the Seahawks’ offensive enforcer. Lynch is not quite as involved as a receiver, but Seattle’s No. 2 run-heaviest offense allowed him 301 carries during the regular season. Fantasy’s No. 4 running back put up nearly 1,600 total yards and scored on 14 occasions. New Orleans has allowed just four rushing touchdowns over its last eight games, however. In the first meeting between these teams, Seattle failed to record a rushing touchdown and Lynch totaled just 57 yards on 19 touches. It won’t be Lynch’s most-effective performance, but 20-plus touches will allow him a healthy fantasy performance.
3. Frank Gore – SF (@ CAR)
4. Donald Brown – IND (@ NE)
5. Ryan Mathews – SD (@ DEN)
Of the three backs on our next tier, Gore is clearly the best talent and the safest play. Still, a tough matchup in Carolina devalues him quite a bit. The Panthers have allowed only four rushing touchdowns all season, including two over their last 12 games. Gore doesn’t figure to do much as a receiver, either, as he’s been targeted only 27 times this season. That includes a total of three over the 49ers last five games. Gore will flirt with 20 touches if Carolina doesn’t jump too far ahead, which will allow plenty of opportunities to rack up yardage. Just don’t count on a touchdown.
The Colts running back carousal has been tough to predict over the past few months, but Brown has clearly been superior to Trent Richardson. The latter fumbled on his only carry on Saturday, while Brown racked up 15 touches. Brown figures to see a similar number of looks this weekend, especially since the Colts are unlikely to fall so far behind. The New England defense has done a decent job keeping opposing backs out of the end zone. Aside of surrendering four rushing scores to Houston in Week 13, the Patriots have given up seven in 15 other games.
Mathews was in on 17 of San Diego’s first 29 snaps before appearing on only one of the team’s final 30 plays in Sunday’s win. He’ll resume duties as the team’s lead back this weekend if his troublesome ankle holds up. Mathews has been excellent over the past few months, but has certainly benefited from the team’s run-heavy attack. The ankle, coupled with the possibility that San Diego will need to abandon the run should they fall behind, makes him a risky play.
6. Shane Vereen – NE (vs. IND)
7. LeGarrette Blount – NE (vs. IND)
8. Danny Woodhead – SD (@ DEN)
Our fourth tier includes a trio of solid, but not spectacular plays. The Patriots have 18 rushing touchdowns over their last 11 games, including at least one in 10 of those games. That's very impressive and certainly provides Blount with a great shot a touchdown this weekend. He’s barely used as a receiver (three targets this season), but has handled right around 50 percent of the team’s carries since Week 14. Vereen, meanwhile, is unlikely to eclipse a half dozen carries, but lines up at wide receiver about 20 percent of the time and is a good bet for six to eight targets.
With Mathews indisposed for the second half of Sunday’s win in Cincinnati, Woodhead racked up a season-high 15 carries. It’s unlikely that he’ll get close to that mark against Denver, but there’s some upside here considering Mathews’ shaky ankle. Worst case, Woodhead will see his normal heavy workload as a receiver. He was second among backs to only Pierre Thomas in regular-season receptions (77) and Jamaal Charles in receiving touchdowns (six).
9. DeAngelo Williams – CAR (vs. SF)
10. Mark Ingram – NO (@ SEA)
11. Darren Sproles – NO (@ SEA)
If Jonathan Stewart (questionable) is ruled out, Williams will be moved up a tier, but not much in terms of projected production. Sharing carries with Newton and Mike Tolbert, Williams is in line for 15 or so touches without Stewart in the lineup. Against a 49ers defense that has allowed only six rushing touchdowns since Week 4, there’s not much upside here.
By placing Ingram and Sproles in this tier, I’m assuming Pierre Thomas (questionable) will sit out again this weekend. Despite a limited role, Ingram has had a nice season for New Orleans when called upon. Still, with the Saints likely to throw a lot more often in Seattle, he’s unlikely to match the 18 carries he saw last week. The Seahawks last allowed a rushing touchdown in Week 7. Sproles caught seven balls the last time these two teams met, but Seattle held him to just 32 yards. It’s fair to expect slight improvement on those numbers this time around, but he won’t see many carries.
12. Stevan Ridley – NE (vs. IND)
13. Montee Ball – DEN (vs. SD)
14. Mike Tolbert – CAR (vs. SF)
15. Trent Richardson – IND (@ NE)
Ridley is averaging a decent 10.8 carries over his last four games, but is stuck behind Blount and Vereen…Ball’s role increased as the regular season progressed, but it’s fair to assume the rookie will take a back seat to the veteran Moreno during the playoffs…Tolbert is averaging 8.7 touches in three games since Stewart’s latest injury. There’s not much upside against the 49ers’ taxing run defense…As mentioned earlier, Richardson fumbled on his only touch against Kansas City on Saturday. He’ll play more than that this weekend, but it’s hard to get excited about a No. 2 back averaging 3.0 yards-per-carry.
16. Khiry Robinson – NO (@ SEA)
17. Ronnie Brown – SD (@ DEN)
18. Robert Turbin – SEA (vs. NO)
19. Kendall Hunter – SF (@ CAR)
20. Anthony Dixon – SF (@ CAR)
Robinson will see a handful of carries if Thomas is out this weekend…Brown is unlikely to eclipse a half dozen touches if Mathews returns, as expected…Turbin has seen one target since the team’s Week 12 bye…Similarly, Hunter has been targeted only once over the 49ers last 13 games…Dixon’s role has expanded only slightly since Bruce Miller’s season-ending injury.