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.
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.
1. Demaryius Thomas – DEN (vs. SD)
Thomas is the clear No. 1 fantasy wideout for this weekend’s slate of games. Responsible for a team-high 138 regular-season targets, Thomas was No. 2 in fantasy scoring at the position. He racked up 1,430 yards and scored 14 touchdowns on 92 receptions. The San Diego defense has allowed a total of six passing scores over its last six games, but it benefited greatly from an effective, run-heavy attack on the other side of the ball. Thomas and Co. will have plenty of opportunities to score against an underwhelming secondary. In the first meeting between these two teams, Shareece Wright shadowed Thomas to the tune of 50 snaps. Thomas caught seven balls for 108 yards and three touchdowns. In Week 15, Wright played exclusively at left corner, which left Thomas to face off with both Wright and Richard Marshall. The duo held Thomas to a 4-45-0 line on five targets.
2. Julian Edelman – NE (vs. IND)
3. T.Y. Hilton – IND (@ NE)
4. Eric Decker – DEN (vs. SD)
In PPR formats, you could easily make a case that Edelman is the top fantasy wideout this weekend. He’s seen nine or more targets in six straight games, reaching as high as17 in Week 15. Over New England’s last two games, Edelman saw an absurd 45 percent of the team’s targets. With Aaron Dobson looking doubtful, Edelman will line up to Tom Brady’s right more often than usual. He’ll see a little bit of standout Vontae Davis, but primary coverage will come from underwhelming Josh Gordy and Darius Butler. Edelman is set up nicely for another massive workload.
Speaking of massive target numbers, Hilton has enjoyed 33 looks over the Colts last two games. That works out to 41 percent of the team’s total targets. Key to Indianapolis’ comeback against Kansas City on Saturday, the sophomore wideout hauled in 13 of 18 targets for 224 yards and three touchdowns. Per Pro Football Focus, Hilton was in the slot on 49 of his 59 snaps in the win. Aqib Talib shadowed a host of No. 1 wide receivers this past regular season, but rarely traveled to the slot. Hilton can expect to see quite a bit of competent, but beatable Kyle Arrington this weekend.
Powered by a team-high 50 targets, Decker was the top-scoring fantasy wide receiver over the last five weeks of the 2013 regular season. He racked up 32 catches for 491 yards and eight touchdowns during that span. The eight scores were three more than any other player in the league. Of course, Wes Welker was out of action during three of those five games. With the team’s primary slot man back in action – not to mention Manning’s propensity for spreading the ball around – it’s fair to expect Decker to return to earth this week. Decker managed only five catches for 94 yards and no scores in two regular season meetings with San Diego. He figures to see an even mix of Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall in coverage.
5. Keenan Allen – SD (@ DEN)
6. Wes Welker – DEN (vs. SD)
Allen was targeted only three times in Sunday’s win over Cincinnati, buts it’s nothing to be alarmed about. Playing with a lead, San Diego called only 19 passes in the game. This means Allen still saw 20 percent of the targets, which is just about in line with the 25 percent he’s seen for most of the season. The Chargers will need to throw more often this week, which will allow Allen more of an opportunity. Of course, efficiency could be a problem with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in coverage. Denver’s top corner shadowed Allen when these teams met in Week 15, lining up opposite San Diego’s top wideout 61 times. Allen caught only two balls for 29 yards on five targets, but did bail out owners by scoring on both catches.
Prior to suffering a concussion that ended his regular season after 13 games, Welker was No. 14 in fantasy points at the wide receiver position. Working primarily out of the slot, he caught 73 balls for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns on 109 targets. Yardage, of course, is an ongoing issue for Welker, but he sees enough targets, including plenty near the end zone, in the league’s top offense. Back to full health for the playoffs, Welker will face off with Marcus Gilchrist this weekend.
7. Anquan Boldin – SF (@ CAR)
8. Marques Colston – NO (@ SEA)
9. Michael Crabtree – SF (@ CAR)
10. Steve Smith – CAR (vs. SF)
Boldin took a back seat to Crabtree in the 49ers victory in Green Bay on Sunday, but he’s been plenty involved throughout the 2013 season. Including Sunday’s six-target effort, Boldin is now averaging 8.5 targets-per-game since Crabtree’s Week 13 return. That works out to a massive 32 percent of the team’s targets and is five percentage points above what Crabtree has seen. Crabtree, meanwhile, finally busted out in the team’s Wild Card victory over Green Bay. In his sixth game since returning from a torn Achilles, Crabtree was targeted a season-high 13 times. He had totaled 30 targets over his first five games. Boldin gets the nod here as a result of his more-consistent and heavier usage, but the matchup does make this one a close call. Boldin will see Drayton Florence when out wide and Captain Munnerlyn while in the slot. Both, especially Florence, have done well in coverage this season. Crabtree, meanwhile, has the luxury of taking on a struggling Melvin White.
Colston matched a season low with two targets against the Eagles. He had been averaging 8.4 per-game since returning from injury in Week 10. When these teams met in Week 13, both Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell played their sides, leaving Colston to operate against inferior coverage in the slot. He still managed only four catches for 27 yards on six targets. Expect a similar gameplan this weekend, with Colston working primarily against Walter Thurmond III.
Smith is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury, but he’s far from a great play even if he goes. No. 39 in fantasy points among wide receivers before missing most of Week 16 and all of 17, Smith doesn’t see enough of a workload to offset the Panthers’ run-heavy scheme. Carlos Rogers (hamstring) remains questionable for Sunday, which makes coverage of Smith a bit tricky to predict. If Rogers goes, expect Smith to see a lot of Tramaine Brock some of Rogers. If Rogers sits, Tarell Brown and Perrish Cox figure to work against Smith. With Brown and especially Brock playing well, Smith will have his hands full either way.
11. Danny Amendola – NE (vs. IND)
12. Kenbrell Thompkins – NE (vs. IND)
13. Eddie Royal – SD (@ DEN)
14. Golden Tate – SEA (vs. NO)
Amendola, Thompkins, and Dobson combined for 12 targets over the Patriots’ last two games, so there’s not much to get overly excited about here. Still, Dobson is expected to sit out, which does make the other two wide receivers a bit more intriguing. Back when he was playing regular snaps during the first six weeks of the season, Thompkins was No. 20 in fantasy points among wide receivers. The only thing consistent about Amendola’s targets has been their volatility throughout the season. He has a pair of 14-target games, but failed to eclipse four looks in four other games. Thompkins generally works on the left side of the formation, which means he’ll have his hands full with Davis. Amendola has a favorable matchup with Butler working against him in the slot.
Powered by an extremely fluky eight touchdowns on just 47 receptions, Royal was the No. 34 fantasy wide receiver during the regular season. Still, he’s working as Rivers’ No. 2 target as of late, stealing away looks from both Antonio Gates and Vincent Brown. Royal usually works in the slot, which means he’ll be covered by an older, but still competent Champ Bailey. There’s not a lot to like here, but Royal is a safe bet for five or six targets.
Tate would be a bit higher if not for the expected return of Percy Harvin. Even if Harvin is limited, targets were already hard to find in one of the league’s run-heaviest offenses. Even worse for Tate is the fact that Keenan Lewis covered him 35 times when these teams met earlier this season. Lewis has shadowed several top wideouts this season, including DeSean Jackson this past Saturday. Lewis does, however, remain questionable with a head injury.
15. Brandon LaFell – CAR (vs. SF)
16. Griff Whalen – IND (@ NE)
17. Doug Baldwin – SEA (vs. NO)
18. Percy Harvin – SEA (vs. NO)
19. Kenny Stills – NO (@ SEA)
20. Lance Moore – NO (@ SEA)
LaFell has a plus matchup with either Rogers or Cox covering him in the slot…Whalen has emerged as the Colts’ No. 2 receiver, but saw only three targets on Saturday. He’ll move around a lot, but will see plenty of Talib…Baldwin’s fantasy appeal is limited by the return of Harvin. The two figure to share slot duties against Malcolm Jenkins. Expect Harvin to be limited in his first game since Week 11…Already canceling each other out, Stills and Moore may not even see many targets with Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell tattooed to them all afternoon long.
21. Vincent Brown – SD (@ DEN)
22. Ted Ginn – CAR (vs. SF)
23. LaVon Brazill – IND (@ NE)
24. Da’Rick Rogers – IND (@ NE)
25. Jermaine Kearse – SEA (vs. NO)
26. Austin Collie – NE (vs. IND)
27. Quinton Patton – SF (@ CAR)
28. Robert Meachem – NO (@ SEA)
29. Andre Caldwell – DEN (vs. SD)
30. Ricardo Lockette – SEA (vs. NO)
31. Seyi Ajirotutu – SD (@ DEN)
32. Domenik Hixon – CAR (vs. SF)
Projected primary cornerback coverage: Brown (Chris Harris Jr.), Ginn (Brown), Rogers (Logan Ryan), Kearse (Corey White), Patton (Florence)
1. Jimmy Graham – NO (@ SEA)
Graham matched his second-lowest target total of the season when Brees looked his way only four times in Saturday’s win in Philadelphia. Averaging 8.4 targets-per-game coming into the playoffs, Fantasy’s No. 1 tight end each of the last two seasons is primed for a rebound in Seattle. In the Week 13 meeting with the Seahawks, Graham hauled in only three passes for 42 yards on nine targets, but did find the end zone – something he did 16 times this season. A clear product of strong cornerback play, opponents of Seattle targeted a tight end 24 percent of the time this season, which is the fourth-highest mark in the league. The Seattle defense is tough, but its linebackers will struggle to shut down an oft-targeted Graham.
2. Julius Thomas – DEN (vs. SD)
3. Greg Olsen – CAR (vs. SF)
4. Vernon Davis – SF (@ CAR)
With Seattle on tap, Graham isn’t quite as appealing as he is most weeks. That makes our second tier of tight ends worth some consideration in salary-based formats.
Despite the three-week Welker absence, Thomas did not see an increase in targets. He’s hung right around the 6.5-per-game mark all season. Of course, in the high-powered Denver offense, that’s plenty. Despite missing a pair of games, Thomas was No. 3 in fantasy points among tight ends, hauling in 65 balls for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. In two meetings with San Diego, Thomas totaled seven receptions, 145 yards, and one touchdown on 13 targets.
Olsen has seen seven or more targets in six of the Panthers last seven games. In fact, he’s seen at least one third of the team’s targets in four consecutive games and an enormous 35 percent total over that span. With Steve Smith dealing with a knee injury, Olsen is guaranteed to be a large part of the offensive gameplan. Of course, sledding won’t be easy against a 49ers defense that hasn’t allowed more than two passing scores in a game since Week 1. The veteran hauled in only one of three targets for 14 yards when these teams met in Week 10. Olsen will see plenty of targets this time around, but his ceiling is limited.
Davis saw seven targets against Green Bay on Sunday, which solidifies his fantasy value a bit after he had totaled eight the previous two games. He’s now seen 4.8 targets-per-game since Crabtree’s return, which isn’t a ton, but is enough when you consider his massive usage near the end zone. The Panthers’ defense is elite, but it has struggled a bit against opposing tight ends.
5. Coby Fleener – IND (@ NE)
6. Antonio Gates – SD (@ DEN)
7. Zach Miller – SEA (vs. NO)
8. Ladarius Green – SD (@ DEN)
Fleener doubled his target total from his previous three games with a seven-target afternoon against Kansas City on Saturday. If New England goes out of its way to shut down Hilton, there’s a shot at a repeat performance this week. Of course, there are plenty of better options at the tight end position…Miller is only averaging four or so targets per game, but did score five touchdowns during the regular season. He figures to see even fewer looks with Harvin back in action.
It may surprise you to know that Green and Gates are even with five targets a piece over the team’s last two games. After averaging 7.5 target-per-game over San Diego’s first 13 games, Gates has a total of 11 over the four games. Even worse, he hasn’t been utilized near the goal line very often this season. Green, meanwhile, run blocks 58 percent of the time when he’s in the game. You could do worse in terms of a high-upside flier, but the bust factor here is very high.
9. Ben Watson – NO (@ SEA)
10. Michael Hoomanawanui – NE (vs. IND)
11. Luke Willson – SEA (vs. NO)
12. Jack Doyle – IND (@ NE)
13. Weslye Saunders – IND (@ NE)
14. Garrett Celek – SF (@ CAR)
15. Jacob Tamme – DEN (vs. SD)
1. Seahawks (vs. NO)
2. Panthers (vs. SF)
3. 49ers (@ CAR)
4. Broncos (vs. SD)
5. Patriots (vs. IND)
6. Colts (@ NE)
7. Saints (@ SEA)
8. Chargers (@ DEN)
1. Matt Prater – DEN (vs. SD)
2. Stephen Gostkowski – NE (vs. IND)
3. Steven Hauschka – SEA (vs. NO)
4. Adam Vinatieri – IND (vs. NE)
5. Nick Novak – SD (@ DEN)
6. Phil Dawson – SF (@ CAR)
7. Shayne Graham – NO (@ SEA)
8. Graham Gano – CAR (vs. SF)
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