Welcome to the fantasy semifinals. Thanks so much for reading this column all season. Start ‘Em or Sit ‘Em is geared toward season-long leagues but can also be used for daily fantasy purposes. Anybody can tell you to start the Deshaun Watsons, Mark Ingrams, and Chris Godwins of the world. That’s not what I’m doing here. I’m looking deeper at legitimate mostly-borderline candidates who owners may truly be contemplating using in lineups. Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean I advocate playing some of these guys over your weekly studs.
Start of the Week: Ryan Tannehill vs. Texans: I’ve been hesitant on Tannehill because there are concerns with his volume coupled with the Titans’ slow-paced offense and total number of plays. Tannehill is averaging just 21.5 pass attempts per game over the last four weeks while the Titans are 25th in offensive pace and 31st in offensive plays per contest. On top of that, Tennessee runs the ball at the sixth-highest clip. This offense goes through Derrick Henry, and it’s impossible for Tannehill to keep up this torrid pace. However, since taking over as the starter in Week 7, only Lamar Jackson and Matthew Stafford (three games) have scored more fantasy points per game. That’s it. That’s the list. Tannehill is playing at a legitimate MVP level, as silly as it sounds. He’s No. 1 in the league, averaging a robust 9.8 yards per attempt, 1.2 yards more than the next closest passer, Stafford. Tannehill has multiple touchdown passes in 6-of-7 starts while also raising his floor with three rushing touchdowns. He draws another great Week 15 spot against a Texans unit that is 27th in pass-defense DVOA, 27th in passing yards allowed, 26th in opponent completion percentage, 22nd in opponent yards per attempt, 28th in passing touchdowns allowed, 29th in opponent QB rating, 27th in adjusted sack rate, and 29th in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks. Rookie Drew Lock just hung the QB7 day on the Texans last week with 309 yards and three touchdowns in his second career start. Tom Brady garbage-timed his way to 326 yards and three scores as the QB5 the previous week. And Lamar Jackson had four touchdowns as the QB2 in Week 11. Even Derek Carr produced 285 yards and three scores in Week 8 at Houston. This game’s 50-point total is the highest of Week 15, and the Titans’ implied total of 26.5 points is the week’s sixth-highest. Keep riding Tannehill. In Week 16, he gets a home date with a Saints Defense that just I.R.’ed DE Marcus Davenport and DT Sheldon Rankins, huge pieces of their defensive line. He’ll also be a QB1 for that one.
Jared Goff at Cowboys: After going the entire month of November without a touchdown pass, five interceptions, and four fumbles, Goff flipped a switch when the calendar flipped to December. Over his last two games, Goff has completed 54-of-74 passes (73%) for 717 yards (9.7 YPA) and a 4:2 TD:INT mark while absorbing just one sack with no fumbles against the Cardinals and Seahawks. Goff is the QB7 in that span. He heads back on the road which always raises concerns for the fourth-year signal-caller, but this Cowboys team has laid down of late. Dallas is 24th in pass-defense DVOA, 25th in opponent completion percentage, 32nd in interceptions, 19th in opponent QB rating, and 23rd in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks over the last five weeks. In that span, Mitchel Trubisky (244 yards, 3 TDs; 63 rushing yards, 1 TD; QB3), Josh Allen (231 yards, 1 TD; 43 rushing yards, 1 TD; QB10), Jeff Driskel (209 yards, 2 TDs; 51 rushing yards, 1 TD; QB5), and Kirk Cousins (220 yards, 2 TDs; QB10) all have top-10 finishes against Dallas. The Cowboys and Rams are Nos. 3 and 4 in offensive pace, and this game’s 48.5-point total is the second-highest of the week. Goff comes with risk, but he’s back on the QB1 map in season-long leagues with this offense humming right now.
Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Falcons: Garoppolo is literally coming off the best game of his life. In the game of the year to date, Garoppolo lit the Saints up for 349 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-35 passing (74.3%) en route to the QB5 finish in a 48-46 Niners win. It was a signature win for Garoppolo and one that could propel the Niners to the Super Bowl. He’ll look to build on it against a Falcons team that is 26th in pass-defense DVOA, 24th in passing yards allowed, 28th in opponent completion percentage, 26th in opponent yards per attempt, 23rd in passing touchdowns allowed, 26th in opponent QB rating, 30th in adjusted sack rate, and 27th in fantasy points yielded to quarterbacks. Atlanta has been much better since its Week 9 bye, but Jameis Winston was able to touch this unit up for 313 yards and three scores in Week 12 as the QB4. Drew Brees has laid a pair of eggs against the Falcons since Week 10, and Kyle Allen is the other passer Atlanta has faced twice since its bye. Allen is confirmed terrible. The big concern for Garoppolo here is San Francisco’s run-heavy ways as the NFC’s premier rushing team. Volume could be a concern with the Niners as 11-point home favorites, but the Falcons have enough on the offensive side to force the 49ers to push the ball a bit. Plus, Atlanta just lost top CB Desmond Trufant to a season-ending broken forearm last Sunday. Coach Dan Quinn’s defense will roll with a cornerback trio of Isaiah Oliver and Blidi Wreh-Wilson on the outside and Kendall Sheffield in the slot. Oliver is Pro Football Focus’ No. 91 cover corner and Sheffield No. 98 out of 121 qualifiers. Wreh-Wilson, also known as “The Bleeder” h/t to Pat Thorman, has extremely poor coverage marks across 209 snaps. He hemorrhages yards and fantasy points when in the lineup. The Niners’ implied team total of 28.75 points is second-highest of the week. Garoppolo may not have to throw it more than 25-30 times, but multiple scores are within reach.
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Baker Mayfield at Cardinals: One of the biggest quarterback busts of the fantasy season after being drafted as a top-five QB1 in the summer, Mayfield enters Week 15 as the overall QB30 in points per game. Andy Dalton, Kyle Allen, and Mitchell Trubisky are scoring more fantasy points per week than Mayfield, who has more multi-interception games (4) than multi-touchdown passing games (3) as a sophomore. He’s faced a really tough schedule, and the offense playing at the seventh-slowest pace and running the eighth-fewest plays hasn’t helped things. But Mayfield just hasn’t been good. However, this is a spot to really take advantage of against a Cardinals unit that is 29th in pass-defense DVOA, 32nd in passing yards allowed, 32nd in opponent completion rate, 31st in opponent yards per attempt, 32nd in passing touchdowns allowed, 30th in interceptions, 32nd in opponent QB rating, and 32nd in fantasy points given up to quarterbacks. Arizona plays at the second-fastest offensive pace and allows the most opponent plays per game. Jared Goff ended his month-long skid with 424 yards and two touchdowns as the overall QB6 in Arizona in Week 13. Jimmy Garoppolo had 424 yards and four touchdowns as the QB3 in Week 11. And two weeks before that, Garoppolo put together 317 yards and four scores as the QB2. This is as easy of a matchup Mayfield will have seen all year. 10-of-13 QBs to face the Cardinals have managed 300 yards and/or multiple touchdowns, with Devlin Hodges, Daniel Jones, and Russell Wilson being the lone exceptions. This game’s 48-point total is third-highest of the week. Cleveland’s implied total of 25 points is the week’s eighth-highest.
Mitchell Trubisky at Packers: During the Bears’ current three-game win streak, Trubisky is the overall QB2 behind only Lamar Jackson. He has nine touchdowns and four picks in that span and has shown a willingness to use his legs more with his first two rushing touchdowns of the season Weeks 12 and 14. It’s what made Trubisky a spiked fantasy asset last season. But in the fantasy semifinals, it’s really difficult to trust Trubisky going into Lambeau Field. The Packers are 17th in pass-defense DVOA, 10th in opponent completion percentage, No. 6 in passing touchdowns allowed, No. 3 in interceptions, 11th in opponent QB rating, and No. 8 in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks. Only one of the last five quarterbacks to face this defense has thrown multiple touchdowns, and only 5-of-13 total have accomplished the feat on the year. Trubisky faced this defense way back in Week 1 and averaged a pitiful 5.07 YPA on 45 throws with no touchdowns and one pick, guiding the Bears to three points. And that was at home. This game’s 40.5-point total is the third-lowest of the week. The Packers are top-10 in opponent plays per game and operate at the ninth-slowest pace on offense. There just doesn’t appear to be much upside with Trubisky. Chicago’s implied total of 18.25 is the week’s seventh-lowest.
Josh Allen at Steelers: Allen is coming off his fewest passing yards (146) and rushing yards (9) of the season in a home loss to the Ravens, finishing the week as the QB29. It was easily his worst output in what has been a really consistent year for the sophomore. Unfortunately, Sunday night’s test is even more difficult against a Steelers unit that comes in at No. 4 in pass-defense DVOA, No. 5 in passing yards allowed, No. 9 in opponent completion rate, No. 7 in opponent yards per attempt, No. 2 in interceptions, No. 5 in opponent QB rating, No. 2 in adjusted sack rate, and No. 9 in fantasy points surrendered to quarterbacks. Pittsburgh has also allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards and just one touchdown on the ground to the position. Meanwhile, Allen seemed to pick up a bit of an ankle injury in the loss to Baltimore. He’ll be fine to play, but perhaps that explains his season-low two rushing attempts. Containing Allen to the pocket obviously severely weakens his playmaking ability. Bills-Steelers projects to be a defensive slugfest with a Week 15-low 36.5-point total and Buffalo implied to score just 17.5 points. Pittsburgh plays at the fourth-slowest offensive pace and should be getting James Conner back from his shoulder injury to help control the clock even more.
Philip Rivers vs. Vikings: Rivers managed his best fantasy finish of the season last week in Jacksonville, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns en route to the QB8 day. The Jaguars are playing the worst defense in all of football right now and are sleepwalking to the season’s finish line. On the year, Rivers is the overall QB20 in fantasy points per game. He now draws a Vikings Defense that is 11th in pass-defense DVOA, 16th in passing yards allowed, No. 7 in opponent yards per attempt, No. 3 in interceptions, 14th in opponent QB rating, 11th in adjusted sack rate, and 13th in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks. It’s not an unbeatable matchup by any means, but Rivers has displayed no real ceiling this year while settling in as a mid-to-low QB2. He’s fine for two-QB leagues, but this game’s 45-point total is fifth-lowest of the week and the Chargers’ implied total of 21.25 is 12th-lowest. L.A. plays at the third-slowest offensive pace, which obviously plays a big role in capping the upside of the skill players.