This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
KISS for the playoffs.
It's an easier thing to say than to do, especially when this season has been the moving target of all moving targets. Although the trustworthy players have been few and far between, the advice remains the same as it does most postseasons: Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.
Don't overthink things and don't roll the dice unless desperation (a.k.a. injury) demands it. By keep it simple, I mean, as I've said for several weeks, to follow the touches. There are 3-5 defenses at each extreme of the spectrum that you want to target or stay away from when possible, but otherwise the path to success is based on volume. If someone has been getting a big workload lately it's for a reason, be it his individual play or a lack of other options on the team. You need to know the why to know if it might continue, but ultimately the why doesn't matter as long as the opportunity remains.
So regardless of what you think of one's talent level – I'm not sure anyone would have called Peyton Barber a 100-yard caliber back prior to last Sunday – you want any professional football player seeing 15 or more carries or eight or more targets in your fantasy lineup. So, carefully weigh who could get those heavy ground workloads or push for double-digit targets. Game flow is more critical than a defense's quality, but often the best defenses are going to dictate a negative game flow for their opponent, particularly for running backs that aren't deployed much as pass catchers. Conversely, it's not the worst idea to play a target-hog against a top tier defense that might get its team a cushy lead. Dominating targets in a comeback effort is fantasy gold, as we all know.
Whether you're playing for the next round or the first round (if your playoffs start next week), this is no time to get cute. Unless you see the odds wildly stacked against you, why roll that boom-or-bust guy out? Save that for a fantasy championship match when my advice is always to go with your gut and have fun with it. Title games are awfully hard to reach and they should be savored and celebrated. I always advocate going out with a bang, taking a risk or two and living in the moment of swinging for that one last home run. But we're not there yet. And we really, really, REALLY want to be. So, keep it simple for a couple more weeks.
That is all.
As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are players you wouldn't roll out every week while Downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you might want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let's get to it.
DeShone Kizer, CLE vs. GB
Despite completing only 15 of 32 attempts against one of the league's top pass defenses, Kizer produced 215 yards and a score through the air while adding 46 yards on the ground in Sunday's 19-10 loss to the Chargers. In his last five contests, the rookie's scrambling ability has padded his otherwise low floor nicely. He's scored three rushing touchdowns in that stretch while averaging 6.2 carries for 36.4 yards. With a Packers defense on tap that's allowed an average of 298.8 passing yards per game in the six contests Brett Hundley has started – including a season-high 297 to fellow rookie Mitchell Trubisky – the passing floor goes way up for Kizer, especially if he can hone his chemistry with Josh Gordon. The unparalleled athleticism Gordon brings to the table gives Kizer a much brighter outlook, starting this week with a highly exploitable Packers secondary that just lost rookie cornerback Kevin King (shoulder) to injured reserve.
Josh McCown, NYJ at DEN
The Broncos have allowed multiple passing touchdowns in nine games already, with the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Andy Dalton and Jay Cutler all getting in on the act. Their 26 passing scores allowed lead the league, and now McCown – who has racked up 19 touchdowns over his last eight contests and is tied for the league lead in rushing TDs by a quarterback (five) – looks like a darn good bet to increase that total.
Alex Smith, KC vs. OAK
Launching himself firmly back into top-10 consideration at the position, Smith put up arguably the best fantasy performance of the season by a quarterback last week with 366 yards and four scores passing and another 70 on the ground (on one run!). Sure, that explosion came against a Jets defense whose 24 passing touchdowns allowed are second in the league, but it's not like Oakland is exactly a challenge. Another Smith, Geno of the Giants, threw for over 200 yards and a score against the Raiders last week while mostly throwing to replacement parts in just his second start since 2014. The Chiefs' leader already torched them for 342 yards and three touchdowns on the road in October, and given the Raiders' league-worst 20:1 TD:INT ratio, it's a safe bet Smith has an encore in store following last Sunday's explosion.
Jameis Winston, TB vs. DET
If Winston can throw for 270 yards and two scores with Mike Evans only accounting for two grabs and 33 yards, and the Lions can give up near identical stats to Joe Flacco, it's reasonably fair to expect Winston to have a repeat performance at the least. The big caveat here is that game flow might keep Winston from throwing much if Matthew Stafford can't fight through a badly bruised throwing hand to keep the Detroit offense competitive. However, Brett Hundley threw for just 84 yards last week and Winston still got his. So, even a bad Lions offense might not hurt him much. After all, shorter fields and more time of possession typically equates to more scoring opportunities.
Alfred Morris, DAL at NYG
Morris' usage in replacement of Ezekiel Elliott has been inconsistent – his carry allotment has gone 11, 17, 9, 27 in four starts – but his effectiveness has never wavered. He's managed at least 4.0 YPC in every contest, and his 307 rushing yards in the last four games place him fourth in the league behind only Mark Ingram, Dion Lewis and Latavius Murray. Now facing a Giants defense ranked dead last in rushing yards allowed, Morris becomes a must-start. Backup Rod Smith, who has scored in two straight contests, could even be viewed as a flex for this friendly matchup.
Jay Ajayi, PHI at LAR
The Rams have been absolutely gouged by running backs the past three weeks. Latavius Murray, Alvin Kamara and Kerwynn Williams each ran for over 85 yards while averaging more than 6.0 YPC against a unit that now has its second-leading tackler (Alec Ogletree) fighting an elbow injury. That trio of tailbacks collectively piled up 381 yards and four touchdowns on only 43 touches (8.9 yards per play). On the season, the Rams have given up 4.7 per carry to opposing tailbacks, the second most generous mark in the league. So although Ajayi has yet to receive more than 12 touches in any of his four games in Philly, he's easily a top flex option under the circumstances. The 2016 Pro Bowler has thrived on the big play in his new environment, already ripping off three runs of at least 30 yards. That ability to break free for a big gain has twice allowed him to hit double-digits in standard fantasy points.
Mike Davis, SEA at JAC
The Jaguars allowed the geriatric duo of Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore to combine for 140 rushing yards the last two weeks on 32 carries (4.4 YPC). The younger, much sprier Marlon Mack sliced them for an additional 46 yards at a clip of 7.7 per carry. Davis, meanwhile, has flashed similarly fresh legs and an angry disposition as a ball carrier in his last two appearances, tallying 160 scrimmage yards on 28 touches, including an impressive 101 last Sunday against an Eagles defense that entered the contest having allowed a league-low 84.2 scrimmage yards to opposing tailbacks. After notching 20 touches against Philly, the compact Davis is the clear leader of the Seahawks' backfield and someone poised for at least 15-18 chances to keep earning that privilege.
After stoning Kareem Hunt and looking like a formidable defense for one week, the Bills are back to their Oprah Winfrey-like giving to running backs. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead combined for 170 yards and two scores on the ground (at 6.3 YPC), while even James White pitched in 50 scrimmage yards to remind everyone how truly terrible Buffalo is at defending running backs. That means Gore, now the fifth all-time leading rusher, should easily continue his five-game streak with at least 60 scrimmage yards, and he may even hit triple digits for just the second time this season. Mack, meanwhile, could hit 60-plus scrimmage yards for the first time since October, which also happens to be the last time the big-play threat posted a double-figure fantasy day.
Andre Ellington, HOU vs. SF
Alfred Blue and Braxton Miller are in the concussion protocol and Bruce Ellington (hamstring) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (concussion) are on IR. Meanwhile, Will Fuller is still working his way back from cracked ribs. Houston sure has a problem, and that problem is lining up healthy bodies. Ellington, claimed off waivers less than two weeks earlier, was forced to step into a significant role in Sunday's 24-13 loss to the Titans and ended up snagging five balls for 56 yards. With all the injuries to Texans skill players, Ellington may stay on the field at times this week even when Lamar Miller is in the backfield. Against a Niners defense that has yielded the most receiving yards to running backs, Ellington is an intriguing flex option – much in the same way he was for Arizona pre-Adrian Peterson when he went three straight games with at least 10 touches and 63 scrimmage yards, including two contests with nine receptions.
Josh Gordon, CLE vs. GB
Gordon plucked four passes for 85 yards against Casey Hayward and saw a whopping 11 targets (with two more negated due to penalties) in his first regular-season game in nearly three years. For perspective, that yardage is tied for the second most by a wide receiver this season versus the Chargers, trailing only Odell Beckham's 97 from the game he broke his ankle. With a good shot at double-digit targets against a Green Bay D completely devoid of a shutdown corner, Gordon should push for the century mark in just his second game back.
Marquise Goodwin, SF at HOU
Over the past four games, only 10 wide receivers who have bested Goodwin's 346 scrimmage yards. And three of those – Julio Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kenny Stills – required single-game explosions of at least 180 yards to do so. Goodwin has been steady, with at least 68 yards in each of those contests, culminating in a career-high eight catches for 99 yards last Sunday with Jimmy Garoppolo under center for his first start as a 49er. The improving route runner will now take his world class speed and top target share against a Texans defense that's allowed the eight most yards (1,900) to wideouts.
Sterling Shepard, NYG vs. DAL
In Shepard's first game back from a two-game absence due to migraines he posted a respectable 56 yards on six targets. But that was with Geno Smith making his first start as a Giant under a great deal of scrutiny and amid public outcry over Eli Manning's benching. With Manning back, Shepard should return to his productive ways. In his last two efforts pairing up with Big Blue's usual starter he posted 212 yards on a team-leading 22 targets. Considering that Dallas has allowed the second most receptions and the most touchdowns to wideouts, a Shepard bounce-back looks to be forthcoming.
Ryan Grant, WAS at LAC
The Chargers have allowed secondary wide receivers to post at least 54 yards or a touchdown 12 times this season. In other words, receivers not locked down by Casey Hayward have been at least deep-league flex worthy pretty much every week against them. Grant, with all of 417 yards on the season, may be better suited for DFS action this Sunday, but with at least 59 yards and a touchdown in two of his last three contests, even the faint of heart should give him some flex consideration. What Grant does well – run his routes on time and in sync with his quarterback's anticipation – has allowed him to sneak into third on the wideout pecking order behind Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson, and while the latter is being checked by Hayward, the savvy vet will be quietly separating from coverage just when Kirk Cousins needs to get rid of the ball.
Cameron Brate, TB vs. DET
The Lions don't struggle to defend tight ends. In fact, they've only given up 46 receptions all year to the position, good for the fifth fewest in the league. They have, however, allowed four touchdowns to tight ends in just their last three games. And it just so happens that catching touchdowns is what Brate does best. His six scores lead the Buccaneers and place him behind only Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz among tight ends. Both of his catches against the Packers last week hit paydirt, showing that he is still Jameis Winston's favorite target inside the red zone. Want proof? In Winston's last 16 full games Brate has tallied 11 scores. The Lions figure to continue their downward slide covering tight ends this Sunday.
Stephen Anderson, HOU vs. SF
It's all hands on deck for the Texans. With Will Fuller already sidelined by cracked ribs and Houston losing Bruce Ellington (hamstring), Braxton Miller (concussion) and fellow tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz (concussion) against Tennessee last week, Anderson, the oversized wide receiver turned tight end, saw a huge target increase as a band aid, turning 12 looks into a career-high 79 yards and a score. Now he gets to enjoy the fruits of extra labor against a 49ers group that is one of just four defenses to have allowed at least 65 catches, 700 yards and seven touchdowns to the tight end position.
Jason Witten, DAL at NYG
Cue the obligatory "start any tight end against the Giants" upgrade. Although Big Blue miraculously held Vernon Davis catchless a couple weeks ago, and they have gone three straight contests without giving up a score to a tight end, they did get back to their usually generous ways by letting Clive Walford post 57 of his season's 67 yards last Sunday. While it's likely the entire fantasy community opted for Oakland's team-leader in receiving, Jared Cook, over Walford who outgained the former by 48 yards, the fact remains. The Giants stink at covering tight ends (and for what it's worth Cook has suffered from butterfingers recently, catching 4-of-15 targets in three weeks). If any Cowboys tight end is having a day, it will be Witten who has 20 catches in his last three meetings with the Giants.
Russell Wilson, SEA at JAC
It doesn't take long watching a Seahawks game to see that Wilson's offensive line simply can't protect him. It seems like every other pass attempt has Wilson running around the backfield in circles desperately (and often deftly) to avoid heavy pressure. That scramble drill is going to be amplified big time when the 'Hawks visit Jacksonville and try to keep Wilson upright against a defense leading the league with 45 sacks. With Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye representing one of the league's top corner tandems on the back end, Wilson is really going to struggle 3,000-plus miles from home. As good as he's been, expect his seven-game multi-touchdown streak to come to an end against a Jaguars defense that has seen only two QBs all year do that against them.
Kirk Cousins, WAS at LAC
Playing against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram with a patchwork offensive line is going to make for a very long Sunday, especially while throwing to a mediocre receiving corps that will basically have one target (likely Josh Doctson) taken away by Casey Hayward. Although Cousins has managed to overcome a lot of obstacles all season, this is one that figures to be more challenging than usual. In fact, the last two times he traveled across the country to face defenses that have strong pass rushes and playmakers in the secondary (at the Seahawks and at the Rams), Cousins had his two least productive fantasy days of the year, tallying just 426 yards and one touchdown between the two contests, though the Redskins somehow managed to win both games.
Cam Newton, CAR vs. MIN
Newton struggled versus a Saints defense that was missing Marshon Lattimore (ankle). Now he must deal with the Vikings while his top wide receiver is fighting an injury and his next best weapon, Christian McCaffrey, must contend with a unit that has allowed an average of only 35.8 receiving yards per game to tailbacks (good for the sixth fewest in the league). Moreover, Minnesota has allowed the fewest rushing yards to quarterbacks with an exceptionally low average of 4.7 yards per contest. With Newton having posted fewer than 180 passing yards in four of his last five games, he simply can't be trusted in this one.
Christian McCaffrey, CAR vs. MIN
McCaffrey has been hot lately with four scores over his last four appearances, but what Carolina drafted him so highly to do – rack up total yards – has not really come to fruition. The rookie has just one game with over 100 yards from scrimmage (way back in Week 5), a result that stems from limited touches and his lack of effectiveness on the ground. An average of just 3.5 YPC won't lead to much yardage when he's routinely limited to single-digit carries and, at times (four of the last eight games), not even receiving double-digit total touches.
Jamaal Williams, GB at CLE
Only 10 defenses have allowed fewer rushing yards to tailbacks than the Browns, who are limiting opposing backs to 86.5 yards per game and 3.4 YPC. For Williams, who particularly thrives as a physical, determined runner, that puts a damper on his upside despite back-to-back games with at least 120 scrimmage yards and a score. Given how spry Aaron Jones appeared on his game-winning touchdown jaunt, it's hard to imagine a more even split not forming in the Packers backfield this week. With a tough opponent already presenting a challenge for achieving efficiency, Williams likely needs the kind of volume that just won't be there.
Carlos Hyde, SF at HOU
Hyde has exactly 1,000 scrimmage yards, but it's been six games since he found the end zone. Considering he's also only topped 100 scrimmage yards twice since Week 2 and now has to face a Houston defense that has allowed the fourth fewest yards and second fewest touchdowns to tailbacks, Hyde barely offers flex appeal this Sunday.
Robby Anderson, NYJ at DEN
He's awfully hard to sit after racking up over 250 yards and two scores the past two games, and with Josh McCown playing very well himself and targeting Anderson heavily (22 total in those contests), but the Aqib Talib and Chris Harris factor remains a big concern for wide receivers. While Denver leads the league in touchdown passes allowed, only 12 of those 26 have gone to wideouts. Talib, angry and fresh off suspension, figures to use his physicality to slow down the speedy but thin Anderson in an effort to limit the Jets' best offensive weapon. Here's betting it works.
Doug Baldwin, SEA at JAC
Baldwin has produced five games between 84 and 108 yards this year, scoring in three of those, but he's also registered 44 or fewer yards five times and has only one other touchdown to his name. That kind of volatility and low floor is difficult to trust in any matchup, let alone against a defense that has allowed the fewest catches, yards and touchdowns to wide receivers.
Devin Funchess, CAR vs. MIN
Xavier Rhodes made amends for his Thanksgiving Day sins versus Marvin Jones and returned to his stifling ways against Julio Jones last week, holding the All-World wideout to 229 fewer receiving yards than he produced one week prior. Back to his usual ways, the Pro Bowl corner will look to put a temporary damper on Funchess' breakout season. Funchess has produced at least 86 yards or a score in four straight outings, with three games hitting that yardage threshold and three scores in that timeframe. But Rhodes and his secondary partner in crime Harrison Smith will put an end to that sharp play. With few other weapons to worry about, count on the 6-foot-4 Funchess to have a shadow or two glued to him at all times.
Kyle Rudolph, MIN at CAR
The Panthers have given up the fewest catches and yards to tight ends, despite playing two of the game's best at the position in Rob Gronkowski and Zach Ertz. That duo combined for 98 yards and two touchdowns, or approximately 25 percent of the yards and 40 percent of the scores Carolina has allowed to tight ends. In 10 other games, they've allowed a meager 301 yards and three TDs to the position. Rudolph has been fairly hot lately with at least 58 yards or a score in three straight, but he's still too touchdown-dependent to trust against a defense anchored by Luke Kuechly. Given his average of 38.8 yards per game, Rudolph's floor looks too low this week to pin one's playoff hopes to him.