Conference Championship Sunday
3:05 PM ET Game
Green Bay @ Atlanta
Vegas Projected Score: Falcons 32.75, Packers 28.25
Sunday’s NFC Championship Game is the highest-totaled (60.5) NFL playoff game of all time. It’s also a rematch of Atlanta’s Week 8 shootout win over Green Bay, wherein Packers DC Dom Capers sold out to stop Julio Jones and Matt Ryan dissected Capers’ defense between the numbers with tailbacks, tight ends, and slot receivers accounting for two-thirds of Ryan’s 288 passing yards. Should Jones’ balky toe again act up, it’s comforting to know Ryan previously exploited passing-game matchups against Green Bay even as Julio’s box-score impact wasn’t felt. In Weeks 15-19, the Packers allowed Dak Prescott’s second most passing yards of the year (302), Eli Manning’s fifth most (299), Matthew Stafford’s second most (347), and Sam Bradford (382) and Matt Barkley’s (362) season highs. The Packers have given up 36 touchdown passes in 18 games and 28.6 points per game on the road, including 30-plus-point burgers to Atlanta (33), Tennessee (47), Washington (42), and Dallas (31) in games that occurred Week 8 or later. Even if Julio is hobbled, there is every reason to believe the NFL’s highest scoring and most diverse offense will shred Green Bay’s defense. As Aaron Rodgers’ pass-catcher corps is severely banged up, Ryan is my No. 1 DFS quarterback play on the Conference Championship slate. … Tevin Coleman missed Week 8 against the Packers with a hamstring injury. Long since back to full strength, Coleman has averaged 12.5 touches over Atlanta’s last six games with five touchdowns in the last five. When the matchup dictates, Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan has deftly used Coleman to attack bigger, slower inside linebackers, a position at which every player the Packers gave a snap this season earned a negative pass-coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. … Albeit with his box score saved by two plays – a third-quarter goal-line dive and a 53-yard hot-route reception – Devonta Freeman hit pay dirt for the 13th time across nine home games in last week’s win over Seattle and is averaging 19.5 touches per game over the last month. Green Bay is vulnerable in terms of running efficiency allowed, yielding a combined 114-534-2 (4.68 YPC) rushing line to enemy backs over its last six games. I think Freeman has the best shot at rivaling Le’Veon Bell to be the highest-scoring fantasy running back on the Week 20 slate.
Ryan’s targets against the Packers in Week 8: Mohamed Sanu 10; Freeman 6; Julio Jones and Austin Hooper 5; Taylor Gabriel 3; Jacob Tamme 2. … Much as he did to Odell Beckham (4-28-0) in the Wild Card Round, Capers used double teams involving safeties and linebackers to help Ladarius Gunter cover Julio in Week 8. In a losing effort, the Packers held Jones to 29 yards on five targets, only allowing him to get the ball underneath. Dez Bryant (9-132-2) did show last week what a Type-A No. 1 wideout was capable of against Gunter with less help. Jones’ injury and the possibility the Packers again force Ryan to beat them with anyone but Jones render him risky, but Julio's return to practice on Friday bodes well. Afterwards, coach Dan Quinn promised Jones will have "no limitations" against the Packers. … Sanu (9-84-1) led Atlanta in all receiving categories in Week 8, although 5-50-1 of his stat line came on Atlanta’s final drive, which Sanu capped with an 11-yard game winner. Late in the game, Sanu receptions were seemingly concessions Capers was willing to make to contain Julio. The Packers’ slot coverage has improved somewhat late in the season, checking Cole Beasley (4-45-0), Sterling Shepard (4-63-0), and Stefon Diggs (4-29-1) over the last month and holding Anquan Boldin to 3-22-0 before a last-minute 35-yard Hail Mary score. Either way, I expect Sanu to be one of this week’s highest-owned DFS receivers based on his first-matchup success, reasonable cost, and last week’s 4-44-1 line on five targets. … Gabriel played only 35% of Atlanta’s Divisional Round snaps, but he out-targeted Sanu 6 to 5 and was schemed the ball proactively whenever he was in. With Julio sitting out practice all week, it’s certainly conceivable the Falcons draw up more plays than usual for Gabriel. When these teams met in Week 8, 4.40-speedster Gabriel split two Packers defensive backs for a 47-yard touchdown on a play Ryan checked into just before the snap. While Sanu has a safer DFS floor, plays more snaps, and sees more red-zone usage, Gabriel offers a significantly higher yardage ceiling and will be lower owned. … Back from a three-week MCL injury in the Divisional Round, Hooper drew one target on 52% of the snaps and ran 19 routes. Levine Toilolo (82%) drew four targets on 24 routes. My gut prefers promising prospect Hooper after he caught 5-of-5 targets for 41 yards in these clubs’ first meeting, operating as a safety valve for Ryan. Hooper flashed big-play ability when healthy this season, ripping off four 25-plus-yard catches and scoring three TDs on only 27 targets. Last-week usage favored 6-foot-8, 260-pound blocking tight end Toilolo. The Falcons’ tight end corps has an appealing matchup against a Packers defense that allowed the NFL’s eighth most yards (1,004) to tight ends this regular season, then Will Tye’s (4-66) season high for yards in the Wild Card Round and 6-59-1 to Jason Witten last week.
Missing Jared Cook (ankle), Randall Cobb (hamstring), and Ty Montgomery (illness) at the time, Aaron Rodgers nevertheless carved up the Falcons for four touchdowns and 306 all-purpose yards in Week 8, padding his stats with six rushes for 60 yards against an Atlanta defense that allowed the NFL’s 11th most rushing yards to quarterbacks (212) and 49 yards on the ground to Russell Wilson last week. As the 2016 Falcons faced a league-high 40.9 pass attempts and the NFL’s seventh most offensive plays (66.2) per game, Atlanta forces opponents to respond with enhanced pass volume in order to keep pace with the NFL’s highest-scoring team. Even as they grabbed a quick 21-3 lead, the Packers embraced their pass-first strengths in last week’s win over Dallas with 46 called passes compared to only 17 runs, and 11 snaps of “empty,” clearing the backfield with Rodgers in the ‘gun. In my opinion, Jordy Nelson (ribs), Davante Adams (ankle), and Geronimo Allison's (hamstring) injuries make Matt Ryan the superior Week 20 DFS quarterback play and Atlanta’s D/ST a mildly intriguing contrarian punt. Still, Rodgers’ logic-defying recent performance and unmatched efficiency combined with the probability of more reliance on his arm and legs than usual make Rodgers my No. 2 quarterback play, ahead of Tom Brady. … Ty Montgomery reasserted himself as the Packers’ feature back in Dallas, logging 17 touches on a 77% snap rate while Aaron Ripkowski stuck to short-yardage carries and Christine Michael didn’t touch the ball at all on 6% of the snaps. Montgomery finally saw increased passing-game usage, running his highest route total (30) since Week 15 and drawing an 11-week high in targets (7). Nelson, Adams, and Allison's injuries may force the Packers to lean on Montgomery’s receiving skills more. This year’s Falcons allowed a league-high 107 receptions and the NFL’s second most receiving yards (866) to running backs. On the ground, Atlanta has given up a 67-346-2 (5.16 YPC) rushing line to enemy backs over its last four games. Montgomery is a developing player with recurring playing-time concerns, but he arguably has the highest-upside PPR outlook of any non-Le’Veon Bell running back on the Conference Title slate. Montgomery did give up two more sacks in blitz pickup last week. Fortunately, the 2016 Falcons had the NFL’s third lowest blitz frequency (20.3%) and will challenge Montgomery’s pass pro less than the Cowboys did.
Jared Cook emerged as Rodgers’ go-to guy in the Divisional Round, pacing Green Bay in targets (11) and yards (104) on a season-high 76% of the snaps while flaming Byron Jones, Morris Claiborne, and Sean Lee for big plays. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers’ QBR is 13 points higher and his yards-per-attempt two yards greater with Cook on the field this season. Cook gets another gorgeous draw against an Atlanta defense that gave up the NFL’s ninth most catches (86) and yards (988) and sixth most touchdowns (8) to tight ends this season. Particularly with Nelson and/or Adams hobbled, Cook is easily Week 20’s best DFS tight end play and may be the highest-owned player on the entire slate. … In the absence of Cook, Cobb, and Montgomery, the Packers dialed up a variety of screens and swings out of the backfield designed to feed Adams a team-high 14 targets, catching 12 for 74 yards in Week 8 at Atlanta. Assuming he plays in the rematch, Adams would likely run more traditional routes against the Falcons, who gave up the NFL’s fifth most touchdown passes (31) this season and have allowed four different wideouts to top 80 yards against them over their last two games. While the matchup is strong, Adams’ health uncertainty renders him one of the riskiest DFS investments on the Conference Championship slate. … Nelson (ribs) is in a similar boat with unknown availability and effectiveness if he plays. Nelson fractured two ribs just 14 days before Sunday’s game. … The Falcons let RCB Robert Alford chase Doug Baldwin (5-80-1) in the slot last week, a tactic less likely here because Alford will be needed against Nelson and/or Adams outside. Cobb seems more likely to match up with safeties, linebackers, and rookie slot CB Brian Poole. With Nelson (ribs) sidelined last week, Cobb parlayed eight targets into a team-high seven catches for 62 yards on a 14-week-high 92% of the snaps. Cobb’s matchup isn’t a gimme – Poole has been solid and Falcons rookie LBs Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have improved – but Cobb is playing a high-volume role in a probable shootout. At this stage of the week, Cook and Cobb look like the favorites to lead the Packers in targets at the Georgia Dome. … Geronimo Allison took over as Green Bay’s third receiver in Dallas, logging five targets on 76% of the snaps and catching three balls for 46 yards. Rodgers and Allison hooked up twice on blitz-beating hot routes and once deep down the middle for 26 after Allison worked back to Rodgers on an improvised play. While Allison is rarely Rodgers’ first read, he has produced four plays of 25-plus yards over the Packers’ last four games and looks likely to log heavy playing time in a pass-heavy, high-scoring affair. If both Adams and Nelson miss Sunday’s game, Allison will become a shoo-in DFS value play.
Score Prediction: Falcons 34, Packers 27
6:40 PM ET Game
Pittsburgh @ New England
Vegas Projected Score: Patriots 28.25, Steelers 22.75
The Pats went vanilla against the Landry Jones-quarterbacked Steelers when these clubs met in Week 7, playing bend-but-don’t-break defense to force Jones into check downs and keeping Le’Veon Bell out of open space. On offense, the Pats dialed up 29 runs versus 26 called passes in a smooth-sailing 27-16 win where New England got up 14-0 early and never trailed. … LeGarrette Blount (24-127-2) ate in Week 7, but he has been out-snapped by Dion Lewis in three of the last four games and took a firm backseat in the Divisional Round, logging only eight touches on 39% of the snaps to Lewis’ 15 touches at a 48% playing-time clip. James White played 17% of the downs and touched the ball once, beating Texans ILB Benardrick McKinney for a 19-yard touchdown catch. Blount did miss 2-of-3 practices with an illness last week and remains the favorite for goal-line work, even after Lewis stayed in last week's game for a fourth-quarter goal-line score because New England was playing hurry-up offense. Still, Blount has a less-secure role and tougher matchup against a Pittsburgh defense that has held enemy backs to a combined 113-383-3 (3.39 YPC) rushing line over LE Stephon Tuitt’s last seven appearances. The Steelers have been more vulnerable to passing-game backs, yielding the NFL’s fourth most receiving yards (787) to the position. The Patriots attacked that weakness in Week 7, proactively matching up White against linebackers and hitting him for a 19-yard screen-pass score. Like they did to McKinney last week, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots go after Steelers ILB Lawrence Timmons in pass coverage here. … Lewis has emerged as the best DFS play in New England’s backfield with touch counts of 20 > 17 > 13 > 15 and five kickoff returns over the last four games, giving Lewis correlation appeal with the Patriots’ D/ST. … Blount is averaging only 40.8 rushing yards per game over the last month and has a tough matchup. He is also a lock for significantly lower DFS ownership than Lewis and has multiple touchdowns in his range of possible outcomes. … White is a capable receiving back with some big-play potential because the Pats get him the ball in space, but he has not reached eight touches in a game since Week 6. … Similar to the Divisional Round against a stout Texans pass defense – where Tom Brady (17.4) finished fifth behind Dak Prescott (26.4), Matt Ryan (25.2), Aaron Rodgers (22.8), and Russell Wilson (19.9) in fantasy points – a Week 20 DFS bet on Brady is a bet on the greatest quarterback in league history overcoming a tough draw. No passer to face the Steelers has reached 265 yards since Week 10 – a nine-game run – while Pittsburgh’s stout secondary and fierce pass rush present limited discernable matchup edges for New England’s pass-catcher corps. Brady-to-Julian Edelman tournament stacks are always in play, but I think the two NFC Championship Game quarterbacks are better bets.
The Steelers were surprisingly comfortable leaving Timmons on Edelman in Week 7. While Edelman racked up nine catches, Timmons won the open-field tackling game and was fortunate Edelman dropped a possible 50-yard touchdown on a screaming slant where Edelman beat Timmons badly. Edelman managed 60 yards on 10 targets, but he had seven catches in the first half alone. In the rematch, Edelman figures to work against Timmons and 32-year-old slot corner William Gay, whom PFF has charged with 21 completions allowed on 24 targets (88%) over his last five games. Leading the NFL in receiving yards per game (98.3) since Week 9, Edelman is as good a bet as any player to lead the Conference Championship slate in targets, catches, and receiving yards. … As Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Chris Hogan (thigh) are dealing with injuries, Michael Floyd has the next clearest path to Patriots receiver usage against the Steelers. Floyd has logged 4 and 3 targets on snap rates of 73% and 64% over the last two games, playing well (3-36-1) in Week 17 against Miami before floundering (1-9-0) in last week’s win over Houston. Seemingly not on the same page as Brady, Floyd’s first target bounced off his hands to Texans CB A.J. Bouye for an interception, and Floyd nearly got Brady picked again on a third-quarter drop. Floyd was also flagged for offensive pass interference in the second half. Pittsburgh allowed the NFL’s second fewest touchdown catches to wide receivers (9) this season and has given up one (Albert Wilson) in two playoff games. … When Brady dials up downfield shots, they will probably target RCB Artie Burns, who had a solid rookie year but allowed team highs in catches (52), yards (700), and touchdowns (5) and is the Steelers’ corner opponents typically attack. While dependent upon health and playing time – which will be hard to forecast – Floyd, Hogan, and Mitchell are all theoretically capable of being vertical-target recipients. Floyd has yet to draw a target from Brady further than ten yards downfield, however, while Mitchell hasn’t played since Week 16. Hogan tied Edelman for the Patriots’ team lead in 20-plus-yard targets (20) and drew three before going down last week. Hogan has assured reporters he is fine. If Hogan indeed plays, he’ll be an intriguing DFS tournament bet with low ownership. Hogan was a bigger part of the Patriots’ game plan than usual last week. … Martellus Bennett doesn’t look spry on the field, but he played 93% of New England’s Divisional Round snaps, posted his second highest route total (33) of the season, and narrowly missed a few big plays. The 2016 Steelers permitted the NFL’s eighth most catches (83) and tenth most yards (946) to tight ends and have allowed tight ends to catch 10-of-12 targets for 111 yards in January.
Albeit with Landry Jones posing much less of a quarterback threat than Ben Roethlisberger will, the Patriots held Le’Veon Bell in check in Week 7, limiting him to 149 scoreless yards on 31 touches at 3.9 yards per carry with only one gain beyond 12 yards. Bell did do passing-game damage, catching 10-of-13 targets for 68 yards. New England leaned on its No. 4 DVOA-rated run defense and efficient tackling to bottle up Bell near the line of scrimmage, simply winning battles in the trenches. The Patriots kept one safety high and dropped an eighth defender into the box on most run plays, an approach they may not repeat with Roethlisberger at the controls. While the spot is unideal as a six-point road dog facing a top-five run defense, Bell remains the heavy favorite to lead all Week 20 players in touches and yards. The Patriots haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown since Week 8, but they did give up the NFL’s third most receptions (101) and receiving yards (804) to running backs this season before surrendering ten catches to Texans backs last week. … As Roethlisberger missed Week 7 with a meniscus injury, he has not faced the Patriots since Week 1 of the 2015 season, wherein Ben threw for 351 yards and one score in a 28-21 loss at Foxboro. While New England’s pass defense has been statistically stingy lately, it is fair to question its strength after the Patriots faced Brock Osweiler, Matt Moore, Jared Goff, Trevor Siemian, Ryan Fitzpatrick twice, Joe Flacco, and Colin Kaepernick over their last eight games. Still, the eyeball test is in New England’s favor with improved pass rush and secondary play, while Big Ben’s dreadful road-game splits remain relevant. Beyond Antonio Brown and Bell, the Steelers’ offense in its current state is short on dimensions, and Brown and Bell are players Bill Belichick can to at least some extent scheme to contain. On the road in inclement weather to face a Patriots defense that allowed a league-low 15.6 points per game and the NFL’s seventh fewest passing scores (21), Roethlisberger is the weakest DFS quarterback bet on the Conference Championship slate. He will also be the lowest owned.
Antonio Brown has faced New England twice over the past two seasons, hanging 9-133-1 and 7-106 receiving lines on target totals of 11 and 11 with Roethlisberger and Jones quarterbacking, respectively. The Patriots have used double-team concepts against Brown on some obvious passing downs, but mostly let top CB Malcolm Butler have at him. Brown has won in the box score, even if plenty of on-field battles were won by Butler, too. It would be a surprise if these two didn’t match up for most of Sunday’s game. … Eli Rogers stepped up for seven targets on a season-high 85% of Pittsburgh’s Divisional Round snaps, only to finish with 27 scoreless yards. Rogers’ catches occur around the line of scrimmage, and he rarely makes big plays. Rogers figures to match up with Patriots slot corner Logan Ryan, who gave DeAndre Hopkins (6-65-0) fits last week and has allowed just one touchdown pass since Week 1. Rogers doesn’t have a great matchup and never offers much upside, but he has DFS punt appeal on a two-game slate based purely on opportunity. … In desperate need of another pass catcher to step forward, the Steelers got it from Jesse James in the Divisional Round with five catches for 83 yards on six targets, including a 26-yard gain where James ran by All-World SS Eric Berry deep in the seam. The Steelers used James as a slot receiver, H-back-style tight end, and safety valve for Roethlisberger to check down to when Pittsburgh’s wideouts were covered. More so than chunk-yardage runs by Bell or deep passes to Brown, completions to James seem like concessions Belichick would be willing to make in exchange for limiting big plays. James’ passing-game usage has been hit or miss, but he can be counted on to play at least 80% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps with a shot to capitalize in the box score if matchups dictate.
Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Steelers 17