Down to the final three games of the NFL season, only four teams remain.
This Sunday, the Patriots head to Denver to take on the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. The victor will take on the winner of the NFC title game between the Seahawks and 49ers in Superbowl XLVIII.
Down below are positional rankings and analysis at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker, and defense. Standard scoring is assumed.
Snaps and cornerback matchup data provided by ProFootballFocus.com
1. Peyton Manning – DEN (vs. NE)
In the eight games prior to their Week 9 bye, the Broncos averaged five offensive touchdowns per game. In nine games since, they’ve averaged 3.8. That is a massive drop, but consider that the 3.8 mark is still more than a half touchdown higher than what the Eagles – No. 2 in the category at 3.2 – put up all season. This is unquestionably one of the best offenses in NFL history. Denver is also No. 1 in offensive plays and 77 percent of its touchdowns are of the passing variety (fourth-highest in the league). Of course, Manning did struggle in New England when these teams met in Week 12. He completed 19 of 36 attempts for 150 yards, two scores, and one interception. The New England defense won’t allow for a walk in the park, but Denver will have an easier time at home this time around. A good bet for at least 300 yards and three scores, Manning is easily this week’s top quarterback option.
2. Tom Brady – NE (@ DEN)
The Patriots scored six touchdowns on Saturday. Brady scored zero. New England has been extremely run heavy over its last three games, calling 81 passes and 123 runs. Brady has thrown only two touchdowns during those three games. The Patriots will look to keep Manning off the field by running the ball a ton again this week, which would theoretically limit Brady’s fantasy upside. Denver figures to put up plenty of points, however, which will provide Brady with plenty of opportunities to throw the ball. Note that opponents of the Broncos have called pass 64 percent of the time this season, which is third-highest in the NFL. Playing from behind when these teams met in Week 12, Brady went 34-of-50 for 344 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He’s not a bad play in day-gaming formats.
3. Russell Wilson – SEA (vs. SF)
Following a stretch of two or more passing touchdowns in six straight games, Wilson has now totaled just four passing scores over his last five games. He hasn’t thrown for more than one touchdown in a single game since Week 13. In two meetings with San Francisco this season, Wilson went 23-of-44 (52 percent) for 341 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and 35 rushing yards. The 49ers haven’t allowed a quarterback to reach three passing touchdowns since Week 1. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even a fantasy expert) to figure out that Wilson makes for an underwhelming play against the 49ers this weekend.
4. Colin Kaepernick – SF (@ SEA)
It may shock you to realize that Kaepernick has thrown at least three touchdowns in a single game only twice this season. The last one came in Week 12. In fact, Kaepernick has now totaled nine passing scores over his last seven games. And it gets worse. In the first two meetings between these two teams, Kaepernick completed 28 of 57 passes (49 percent) for 302 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions. And we thought Wilson’s numbers were underwhelming. If you started Kaepernick in either of those games, you were bailed out a bit by his legs. He ran the ball nine times in both affairs for a total of 118 yards. The Seattle defense has allowed 17 passing scores in 17 games this season. That includes a total of five over its last seven games. Kaepernick is the best bet to lead the position in rushing yards this weekend, but he’s easily the worst fantasy play.
1. Marshawn Lynch – SEA (vs. SF)
Lynch matched a season-high with 28 carries against the Saints on Saturday. His first and only other 28-carry game of the season came in Week 2 against the 49ers. Efficiency was a problem for Lynch in both matchups against San Francisco this season, but he still put up strong fantasy numbers thanks to a massive workload. He totaled 48 carries for 170 yards (3.5 YPC) and three touchdowns, while also adding a score and 37 yards as a receiver. San Francisco is excellent against the run and has allowed only six rushing touchdowns since Week 4. Lynch will get the rock a ton in this game, especially if Seattle can establish an early lead. It’s close, but he’s your best tailback option.
2. Knowshon Moreno – DEN (vs. NE)
Last week, we suggested that Moreno would see near two-thirds of the Broncos’ carries during the postseason. He saw 68 percent (23 total) against San Diego, which suggests our expectations were on track. That’s the good news. The concerning news is that, as a team, Denver has just one rushing score over its last five games. Touchdowns, of course, are quite volatile, so while the scoring slump is a slight concern, it’s not worth downgrading him too far. Moreno touched the ball an absurd 38 times when these teams met in Week 12. He racked up 224 rushing yards and a score on 37 carries, while also adding a catch for six yards. The Patriots are decent, at best, against the run. Considering the better matchup and his role as a receiver, Moreno is arguably this week’s top fantasy option at running back.
3. LeGarrette Blount – NE (@ DEN)
After scoring six rushing touchdowns on Saturday, the Patriots now have an incredible 24 scores on the ground over their last 12 games. Blount has been a big part of that, finding paydirt four times against the Colts. Playing with the lead for much of the night, the Patriots called run on 25 of Blount’s 27 snaps. Although he managed 24 carries, note that this is still very much a committee. Blount handled 52 percent of the team’s carries on Saturday and sits at 50 percent over New England’s last five games. This is important, because he will lose a lot of work to Shane Vereen if Denver jumps way ahead early. Note that Blount has seen only three targets all season long. When these teams met earlier this year, Blount only saw two carries. After allowing at least one rushing touchdown in 14 of its first 15 games, the Denver defense hasn’t allowed a single rushing score over its last three. Blount’s carry numbers figure to dip this week, but he still has a decent shot at a touchdown.
4. Frank Gore – SF (@ SEA)
Gore is one of the best pure runners still alive in the playoffs, but he’s going to have his hands full with a tough Seattle run defense this Sunday. He struggled to 30 total yards on 10 touches when these teams last met in Seattle. He bounced back at home with 110 yards on 17 carries in Week 14. The Seattle defense allowed a rushing touchdown to Khiry Robinson on Saturday. That was the first one surrendered since Week 7. Gore saw a pair of targets on Sunday, which matched his total from his previous four games. It’s hard to find much upside here, but Gore is a sure bet for 15 or so touches.
5. Shane Vereen – NE (@ DEN)
Vereen struggled on the ground, but caught eight of 11 targets for 60 yards in the Week 12 meeting between these teams. I lead with that because there’s a good chance he puts up a similar line this weekend. The Patriots are the clear underdog and the expectation is that they’ll try to establish the run early before being forced to play catchup in the second half. This means a lot of snaps, routes, and targets for Vereen. Averaging a massive 20 percent of the New England targets when active this season, Vereen has a very high ceiling this weekend.
6. Stevan Ridley – NE (@ DEN)
With Blount playing well, Ridley is now the Patriots’ clear No. 2 ball-carrier. New England has run it a ton lately, though, which has allowed him to average 14 carries per game over his last three outings. He’ll struggle to reach that mark if New England plays from behind, as expected, this weekend. Ridley managed only four carries for 14 yards when these teams met earlier this season.
7. Montee Ball – DEN (vs. NE)
Game situation allowed Denver to call 34 runs in Sunday’s win over San Diego. That landed Ball 10 carries, which the rookie turned into a strong 52 yards. He’ll remain involved against New England, but as we pointed out last week, Moreno tends to see a much larger piece of the pie in competitive games. Ball racked up 40 yards on seven carries in the first meeting.
8. Kendall Hunter – SF (@ SEA)
Hunter managed nine carries against the Panthers, which was his highest total since Week 8. He was also targeted for the first time since Week 10. He only saw five carries in two meetings with Seattle this season. He totaled nine yards.
9. Robert Turbin – SEA (vs. SF)
Turbin only carried the ball three times on Sunday and has seen one target since Week 11. He totaled eight carries for 43 yards and zero catches on two targets against the 49ers during the regular season.
10. Anthony Dixon – SF (@ SEA)
Dixon played fullback on all but three of his 27 snaps on Saturday.
11. James Develin – NE (@ DEN)
12. Michael Robinson – SF (@ SEA)
13. LaMichael James – SF (@ SEA)
14. Derrick Coleman – SEA (vs. SF)
15. Ronnie Hillman/C.J. Anderson – DEN (vs. NE)
16. Brandon Bolden – NE (@ DEN)