As we head into the crunch time of the NFL regular season and the fantasy football playoffs, every little detail doesn’t matter. Even in daily fantasy tournaments and sports betting, we’re trying to do all we can to make lasting wins before the hourglass runs out. Here, we’ll focus on seven of the biggest storylines that could shape outcomes in all lines of fake football for Week 14.
Denver Broncos’ passing game distribution
Emmanuel Sanders held a 23 percent share of Denver’s passing targets, 28 percent of their air yards and 21 percent of the red zone targets. Losing him for the season after a torn Achilles in practice doesn’t just open up a hole in their passing attack; it leaves a cavernous opening.
The candidates to step up and fill the void will come out of a band of youngsters. The current No. 2 receiver, Courtland Sutton, has been a big play-threat as a rookie, averaging a league-high 19.9 yards per catch. He’s also failed to offer consistent production following the mid-season trade of Demaryius Thomas. Sutton just cleared 80 yards for the first time all season and found the end zone for the first time since Thomas was dealt.
More opportunity will be sent his way, and that matters in a passing game that isn’t designed to support more than a small handful of bodies. That said, it’s fair to say he’s shown so far that he needs more time to develop before being counted on as a target hog. In all fairness, that’s nothing outside of what we should expect from a rookie receiver.
The other two notable receivers on the depth chart are Tim Patrick and DaeSean Hamilton. Patrick has intriguing size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) and has four catches this season. Hamilton has the most similar skill set to Sanders and was one of my favorite receivers from the 2018 NFL Draft. His 77.9 percent success rate vs. man coverage in my Reception Perception charting led all prospects in the class. He’s a pristine route runner who should thrive from the slot. After leading all Broncos receivers in snaps last week (47), Hamilton has a chance to instantly prove himself in a cakewalk matchup against the 49ers secondary.
With all bias admitted, I believe that logic and objective evidence can cleanly lead one to project Hamilton as the next man up in the Broncos receiving corps. Sutton may well lead the team in targets and air yards, but Hamilton’s route-running prowess and Case Keenum’s success with slot receivers Sanders and Adam Thielen the last two seasons make him interesting, at least.
Josh Allen’s progress
The Bills rookie quarterback came into the NFL with impossibly low expectations. It’s certainly been a roller coaster ride with Josh Allen, but he’s shown undeniable progress over his last two games since returning from an injury absence.
Of course, there are still plenty of hiccups in his passing work. He completed just 26 of 52 throws in the last two weeks for an even 50 percent. Yet, he’s been verifiably dynamic as a runner in that stretch, taking off 22 times for 234 yards and a score. If it weren’t for end-of-game kneel downs in Week 12, Allen would have been the first quarterback in league history to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games, per Rotoworld’s Rich Hribar.
Considering some of the outside standards set for Allen, him keeping this moving and competitive is a big win for the rookie. He gets a matchup with a Jets defense that lacks teeth in Week 14.
The Bills have finally started to push their offensive ceiling in a positive direction. We’re ready to see more. The gap between Allen’s ceiling and floor is cavernous. It’s tempting to chase the deep throws and long runs in this spot if you play DFS or need a second quarterback starter.
Colts pass protection vs. Texans front seven
Despite all the talent in the Houston front seven, the team ranks middle of the pack (14th) in sack rate with a 7.2 mark. They have indeed been a fine defense and delivered a stellar performance last week in blotting out a Browns offense that came in on a tear. Nevertheless, their pass rush hasn’t been the overwhelming unit we could have reasonably projected. J.J. Watt ranks fifth in the NFL with 56 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Their No. 2 player, Jadeveon Clowney, checks in at 39th. No other player has cleared 30.
For most of the season, Andrew Luck has been one of the most well-protected passers in the game. The Colts 2.8 sack rate allowed is the best in the league. However, the Jaguars got the best of the Colts offensive line last week, putting Luck under pressure on 42.1 percent of his dropbacks. If this was just a one-week blip for Indianapolis and they can keep Luck clean again, they have a major advantage over this Texans defense.
This AFC South matchup has the chance to be a high-scoring slate shaker. The Colts pass protection has captivated us throughout the season. I can overlook a Week 13 misstep against a still-talented Jaguars defense. They have the edge here.
Cam Newton’s shoulder
The Panthers star quarterback gave no lip service to the idea that his shoulder is an issue. That’s fine, but objective player tracking data provided by the NFL’s Next Gen Stats shows that something has been amiss the last month:
Interesting numbers from @NFLResearch and #NextGenStats: Over the past 4 games, Cam’s passer rating has dropped precipitously in Tight Window, Deep, Under Pressure and On the Run situations. Backs up the film, which shows an obvious decrease in arm strength of late pic.twitter.com/WWdlnbVXej
— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) December 6, 2018
While 2018 has been, by far, Cam Newton’s most efficient passing season to date, it’s hard to not notice the lack of deep shots in this offense. For much of the year, it just created a lack of a counterpunch that rarely showed up thanks to Carolina’s bevy of talented run-after-catch players. In Week 13, Newton’s lack of drive was painfully noticeable late in their fourth-straight loss.
It’s hard to know just how concerned we should be about this injury, but to completely wash over it feels utterly foolish. One thing is for sure: the Panthers will not shut Cam Newton down the rest of the way, no matter how much the shoulder is bothering him. Given Newton’s overall competitive drive and pride, it’s a stretch to think he will tap out.
Ron Rivera needs to stack wins and potentially make the playoffs to save his job. No way he wants to do so at the mercy of Taylor Heinicke’s arm. Let’s hope it’s not to the doom of the player but odds are, we see Newton under center the rest of 2018.
The matchup with the Browns has the potential to feature some major fireworks given the offensive skill position talent on both sides of the ball. For that reason, we shouldn’t alter projections much. But after what we saw from Andrew Luck just last year, forgive me for wanting caution the rest of the season.
A battle of letdowns
We all know Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been himself this year. On occasion, we see teams get a boost from making a change at the head coaching position when that play caller is a clear lame duck. It’s not out of the question for us to see the Packers offense offer up their best showing in weeks in the first game without Mike McCarthy.
New head coach Joe Philbin hasn’t called plays in 20 years. With Rodgers the lone pillar of the Packers offensive brain-trust likely to stay afloat for 2019, we could see him steer the direction of the scoring unit as it plays out the string this year.
That wouldn’t exactly be a hard standard to reach and the Falcons are more than willing to oblige. The Falcons are the 31st ranked pass defense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. They get little pressure on the quarterback and none of their players have cracked 25 hurries on the season.
The question is whether Atlanta’s offense can come along for the ride. Further casting doubt on the unit’s standing among top NFL offenses, Atlanta scored under 20 points for the fourth straight game in Week 13. Before last week, Matt Ryan had still managed to escape with solid fantasy numbers but we finally saw him fall under 200 passing yards for the first time all year.
We can’t project Rodgers for one of his vintage lines given the state of this offense, but it’s safe to give him a QB1 nod this week. Ryan and the Falcons offense are due for a rebound performance here, which should only help Rodgers’ stock. The All-Pro passer is a great DFS contrarian play.
The Eagles last gasp at the NFC East (again)
The Super Bowl champs have been in “got to have this one” -mode for almost two months now. Philadelphia enters Week 14 after two-straight wins over their dismal division rivals to take on the current NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles are only one game back from striking even with Dallas, despite going 1-4 in Weeks 7-11 (bye included). If they can’t get one over on the Cowboys here, the NFC East race will take a decisive step toward wrapping up.
The key matchup in this spot will be Carson Wentz against the Cowboys front seven. On the back of star defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys defensive line has developed into the type of unit that can take over a game. Behind them, rookie Leighton Vander Esch heads up a linebacker group that flies around the field and exudes athleticism. Wentz’s mobility was finally back in focus as a weapon last week, outperforming his expected completion rate by 34 percent, per Next Gen Stats, when on the move. He also went 12 of 17 for 146 yards and a touchdown when blitzed by Washington.
The Cowboys do indeed have a good pass rush and blot out perimeter receiver. However, they have issues covering the middle of the field. They’re tied for the fifth-most catches allowed to tight ends and slot corner Anthony Brown gives up a 70 percent catch rate. Wentz can take advantage with Zach Ertz and Golden Tate, who combined for 16 catches last Monday night. If his mobility is back in play as well, Wentz can orchestrate a road upset in Dallas.
Monday Night Football: Pace vs. talent
The Seahawks and Vikings are a pair of NFC Wild Card contenders who will need to fight for every remaining contest to keep their playoff positioning intact. The two teams will have a shot at dealing a painful blow to each other when they meet up this Monday night. One way or another, it will be a tremendous game to watch with high stakes fueling the gravity of the evening. Yet, to the question of how the game will unfold from a scoring perspective, we must ask whether pace or talent wins out.
The Vikings and Seahawks are littered with gifted offensive players that could push this game into high-scoring territory. While he’s coming off one of his worst games as Minnesota’s quarterback and hasn’t made the offense markedly better if at all, Kirk Cousins has been a plus passer on balance this year. Stefon Diggs is in a prime matchup against Shaquill Griffin, who allows a 71 percent catch rate in coverage. His running mate, Adam Thielen, is in a fine spot as well.
The Seahawks boast a quarterback in Russell Wilson who ranks No. 2 in touchdown rate (8.9) and a deep threat receiver who trails only Michael Thomas among receivers (50-plus target minimum) with a 78.6 percent catch rate. Yet, all the possible fireworks could be stifled by the Seahawks’ approach.
The team leads the NFL in rush attempts (380) and play at the 26th fastest pace among offenses in 2018. On the other side, Mike Zimmer indicated his desire for the Vikings to establish the good ol’ run game this week, and going forward. We could see this contest turn into a slow-paced, rushing-heavy game that leaves us wanting more in fantasy and keeps the game under its 45-point total.
I think this game competes for the latter scenario more than we see a high-flying matchup. Seattle has been able to play on their desired script of late and while Wilson’s passing efficiency can always override volume, I’m not sure the Vikings have enough counterpunch moves on offense beyond Diggs and Thielen to hold up their end of the bargain.