This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
It's officially the fantasy playoffs everywhere. Many leagues with six playoff teams got started last week, but of course others are a two-week format. Either way, we're finally here. As I have in years past, I'm advocating that you use your gut when it comes to getting through the weekend – first, to make those tough lineup decisions and then secondly to house your drink of choice.
After all, the playoffs are a time of celebration. It takes a lot of focus, good calls and lucky breaks to get within a game of a title shot, so that achievement in and of itself should be enjoyed. We're all playing a game in which we have zero control beyond the lineup, so once you've calculated that optimal team to take into battle, you should feel relief, not regret as the action unfolds. To maximize your lineup, as I've stated many times before, follow the touches and weigh the trends. If it's a close call between players of similar opportunity/production, defer to the defensive matchup, the anticipated game flow or, my personal favorite, the players' individual skill and what they may be playing for – Playoff hopes? A new contract? Redemption/pride?
Obviously, there are many factors to consider when making tough choices, but it's also important to avoid over-analyzing. That's where the gut comes in before the beers are cracked. If you follow it and things don't work out, how can you sweat that? That's the best we can do when we're not strapping on the pads ourselves.
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 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.
Blake Bortles, JAC vs. HOU
After going seven straight games without producing multiple touchdowns, Bortles has now done so in three consecutive contests, regardless of game script and in a variety of ways (four passing TDs, two rushing). Over the last two games against the Colts and, more impressively, the Seahawks, he's even looked like a highly competent passer with at least 268 aerial yards in each and a combined 9.3 YPA. The emergences of Dede Westbrook and the second-coming of Cecil Shorts – Keelan Cole – as explosive downfield threats give Bortles some options besides Marqise Lee. After the Texans just let Jimmy Garoppolo torch them for 334 yards at a clip of 10.1 YPA in only his second start in a confusing offense with the league's most ragtag group of wideouts west of Chicago, Bortles might have people thinking that Tom Coughlin has Mark Brunell leading the Jags to the playoffs again.
Matt Ryan, ATL at TB
Ryan is a shell of last year's MVP. When all is said and done there's a realistic chance he could throw literally half as many touchdowns and twice as many interceptions as he did in his sensational 2016 campaign. But as is always true for fantasy purposes in the middle of December: timing is everything. And this week Ryan gets a shot at being your fantasy team's MVP, with a Monday night matchup against a Buccaneers defense that's dead last in passing yards allowed (276.1 per game). In their first meeting – thanks largely to Julio Jones' insane explosion – Ryan registered his third 300-yard effort of the season.
Nick Foles, PHI at NYG
In the seven games since getting their first win of the season, the Giants have allowed 16 total touchdowns to quarterbacks – including three to C.J. Beathard – and have given up 285 or more passing yards to five signal callers. While the Eagles may enter this game with a bit of a somber demeanor, the rivalry and need to hang on to first place in the NFC should be enough motivation to keep their loaded offense sharp. Foles has quarterbacked the Eagles to the playoffs before, and although that was back in 2013 in the Chip Kelly era, the veteran with a career 56:27 TD:INT ratio has never played with this amount of offensive firepower before.
Joe Flacco, BAL at CLE
The Browns are the only defense to have allowed 20 more touchdown passes than they've collected interceptions (26-to-6 to be exact). Moreover, their 28 scores given up to QBs top the league. With Alex Collins humming on the ground to make defenses respect the run, and his weapons and himself finally healthy for the most part, Flacco has pitched it for exactly 269 yards and two scores in back-to-back games, including last week's impressive showing against Pittsburgh's fourth-ranked pass defense. With three performances in his last five posting at least 260 and two touchdowns through the air, Flacco is playing his best ball in an effort to seal a wild card for the Ravens, and a Cleveland defense that was the only unit prior to this stretch to let him throw multiple scores will not stand in his way.
Jonathan Stewart, CAR vs. GB
The narrative this year on Stewart has largely been that he's got little to nothing left in the tank – and sure, four games amassing 64 yards on 52 carries (at a preposterously low 1.2 YPC) will do that – but just when he's been largely left for dead, Stewart reminded us why Carolina has kept him around for a decade. Though last week's three-touchdown explosion was literally out of nowhere – it was a career first in his 129th regular-season game – it forces owners to look a bit harder. Peeling back the onion that has been Stewart's season shows a man peaking at the right time. All six of Stewart's rushing touchdowns have come within his last six outings, including at least 100 yards or a score in five of those. Despite the season-long inefficiency on the ground, one has to like Stewart's chances of being productive against a Packers defense that's been gouged for 693 scrimmage yards by opposing tailbacks in their last four games, including back-to-back 100-yard rushers and five different tailbacks with double figure points in standard scoring.
Jay Ajayi, PHI at NYG
In all but one game this year the Giants have allowed an opposing running back to tally at least 77 scrimmage yards. And in the one game that a single back failed to do that, Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy combined for 95 scrimmage yards for a Seattle offense led in rushing by Russell Wilson. Averaging 7.0 YPC on the 44 totes he's received since joining the Eagles five games ago, Ajayi is finally starting to get treated like the lead back he is, and that could pay handsome dividends when he almost certainly matches or exceeds the 15 carries he garnered last week. With Carson Wentz (knee) out and an awful Giants team that shouldn't be able to stay in this contest for four quarters, Ajayi should get plenty of work in a more ground-based attack.
Kerwynn Williams, AZ at WAS
In the last six games in which the Redskins did not face the Seahawks, they've allowed every backfield they've encountered to top 100 scrimmage yards and seven different running backs to amass eight touchdowns. That spells good things for Williams' prospects this week, as the Cardinals' last viable backfield threat standing has looked good while tallying at least 88 scrimmage yards in consecutive contests as Adrian Peterson's (neck) replacement. Compact and quick more so than fast, Williams' play style is reminiscent of Justin Forsett and it has shown in his career mark of 4.8 YPC.
Rod Smith, DAL at OAK
In 10 of the last 11 games the Raiders have given up 100-plus scrimmage yards or a score to an opposing running back. Although that's also promising for Alfred Morris, it's the 240-pound Smith who's often been called on near the goal line. In the last three games, Smith has a red zone rushing touchdown in each, and an 81-yard slant he took to the house against the Giants last week also displayed his ability to break a big play. A safe bet for double-digit touches against a weak defense, Smith is easily a worthy flex option.
Jordy Nelson, GB at CAR
Aaron Rodgers is back. Adjust accordingly. Nelson posted 153 yards in seven Brett Hundley starts but produced six touchdowns in four games with Rodgers before that (he played only one series versus Atlanta).
Michael Crabtree, OAK vs. DAL
Crabtree disappointed last week when you consider the circumstances. The Chiefs have allowed the second most receiving yards to wide receivers, but even with Amari Cooper exiting with a re-injured ankle in the second quarter and the Raiders playing the entire game from behind, Crabtree managed only 60 yards on 13 targets (4.6 YPT). The silver lining, of course, is that he saw 13 passes come his way, and with Cooper still banged up he's likely to have another busy game versus a depleted Cowboys secondary that has yielded a league-high 17 touchdowns to wideouts. So, although Crabtree has not scored in nearly two months (minus the two-point conversion he did add last Sunday) and has yet to post a 100-yard outing this year, this is his best shot the rest of the way at doing both.
Dede Westbrook, JAC vs. HOU
In four career games Westbrook already has 33 targets – a number that leads the Jaguars in that stretch – and he's increased his yardage output each week. Having just scored his first touchdown, Westbrook will now look to hit a new milestone with a 100-yard day against a Texans defense that just allowed fellow speedster Marquise Goodwin to register the third game of his career topping the century mark.
Mohamed Sanu, ATL at TB
Coming off his best receiving day of the season in which he posted a 6/84/1 line in a crucial win over New Orleans, Sanu has now posted at least 65 yards or a touchdown in all but four games this year, including a recent meeting with the Bucs in which he snagged eight of 10 targets for 64 yards and burnt their dead-last pass defense with a 51-yard TD pass to Julio Jones on a gadget play. A pure football player who Atlanta counts on for steady production, Sanu is a safe floor, low ceiling kind of guy to plug into playoff lineups that want to minimize risk in the flex.
Sammy Watkins, LAR at SEA
Watkins in a Rams uniform has not displayed the ceiling of Watkins in a Bills uniform, save for one big day way back in September. Nevertheless, due to the Robert Woods injury he's emerged to lead the team in touchdown receptions despite being fourth in both receptions and receiving yards. Although he has not managed better than 82 yards in his recent scoring barrage, Watkins has now hit paydirt in five of the last six games, including two that Woods did play in. So, although Cooper Kupp and Woods (if active as expected) will get their fair share of targets, Watkins has a solid chance at extending his scoring streak against a Seattle defense that has allowed five touchdowns to non-No. 1 wideouts in its last four games.
Jared Cook, OAK vs. DAL
It's tough to trust a man that recently tallied just four catches over a three-game stretch, but alas that is the state of the tight end position if you're an owner that does not possess a clear top-five option. In Cook's case, he makes closing one's eyes and rolling those dice a bit more palatable because he sandwiched that awful three-game disappearing act between games totaling 13 catches, 201 yards and a score. Given that the Cowboys' defense has been friendly to tight ends lately – at least 59 yards and a score to the position in four of their last six games – Cook is someone that must be considered as a high-upside option, particularly with Amari Cooper (ankle) injured.
Jack Doyle, IND vs. DEN
In his last six games Doyle has epitomized the frustration that the tight end position has been this season. After piling up 20 catches for 184 yards and a score in two outings, he turned in three games totaling 29 yards in his next four. He did score, however, in last week's blizzard battle, and the four yards he produced can be thrown out the window considering the conditions, so although he's been boom or bust in this stretch (three games with at least 63 yards, three at 16 or fewer), his "boom" efforts have slightly outpaced his duds. Against a Broncos defense that has surrendered the third most yards (822) and touchdowns (eight) to tight ends, Doyle should be on the right side of that scoring pendulum for his owners this week.
Drew Brees, NO vs. NYJ
The Saints lead the league in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns, and since they made that full commitment to the ground game following a Week 5 bye, Brees has thrown just 11 touchdowns in nine contests. In their seven wins during this stretch he's topped 300 passing yards only once and had four games with one or no touchdown passes. He did not throw three scores in any of those nine games. With a Jets team coming to town that simply doesn't have the offense to threaten a Saints team winning with its two-headed monster of a backfield and a defense that boasts balance at all three levels, Brees' numbers are going to remain stifled by a lack of volume.
Case Keenum, MIN vs. CIN
In his last six games Keenum has thrown for at least 280 yards five times while generating 14 total touchdowns, including five multi-score efforts. In that stretch only Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Ben Roethlisberger produced more touchdowns. But the latter is one of only three quarterbacks to throw for multiple scores against a Bengals defense that's tied for the sixth fewest passing TDs allowed (15). Moreover, only one passer all year has topped 300 yards against them and/or thrown three touchdowns. That man was Aaron Rodgers who did both way back in Week 3, and even he required a 72-yard pass in overtime to narrowly exceed that first mark. When also considering the Bengals were just trampled for over 200 yards rushing by the Bears in a blowout loss, it's worth noting that a Vikings ground game ranked eighth in the league could further limit Keenum's production.
Jared Goff, LAR at SEA
Goff has just two games this season in which he failed to throw a touchdown – at Minnesota and versus Seattle. That first Seahawks meeting also happened to be the only time the second-year breakout star has thrown multiple interceptions this season. Although the Seahawks are now without Richard Sherman (Achilles/IR) and Kam Chancellor (neck), they remain a major challenge to score points against on their home turf. In fact, in their last three home games they held Carson Wentz (knee), Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins to three combined passing touchdowns. Limiting Wentz to one score was especially impressive, considering he leads the league in passing scores and piloted the NFL's highest-scoring offense. Goff's arm likely will be needed to escape Seattle with the division lead still in hand, but the Rams figure to at least try leaning on the legs of Todd Gurley before getting aggressive through the air.
Marshawn Lynch, OAK vs. DAL
In the last five contests Lynch has tallied 435 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns while averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per touch. Only one of the defenses he faced, however, is a top-10 run defense, and against that Denver unit he struggled on a per-play basis (2.6 YPC) but saw a season-high 26 rush attempts as the Raiders played the entire second half with a lead. Not only is Oakland less likely to do that against a Dallas team that's awoken behind its top-shelf offensive line, but Lynch's recent surge of efficiency may also take a hit against a Dallas defense that's only given up the 20th most rushing yards to tailbacks. The Cowboys got star linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) back in the lineup last week, and they've given up only six rushing scores to running backs all season, with just two of those occurring when Lee was healthy. So, unless Lynch gets more involved than usual as a receiver (he has 13 catches on the year), his "Beast Mode" flashbacks probably won't flash this weekend.
Kareem Hunt, KC vs. LAC
The Chargers have flipped the script. With a high-powered offense that has quickly built leads in recent weeks, aided by the return of thumping linebacker Denzel Perryman, they're no longer the same team that was trampled on the ground during an 0-4 start. They're still ranked 29th in run defense, but in their last six contests they've limited Dion Lewis, Leonard Fournette, Alfred Morris, Isaiah Crowell and Samaje Perine to a combined 199 rushing yards on 68 carries (2.9 YPC). Over that same timespan all five of those tailbacks turned in 100-yard days against other defenses. So, although Hunt finally broke through last week with Kansas City leaning on him for 28 touches, it looks more likely than not that he'll return to the quiet days that saw him go more than two months without a touchdown and five straight games without exceeding 100 scrimmage yards – a far cry from the career-high 172 rushing yards he blasted the Bolts with in Week 3.
Carlos Hyde, SF vs. TEN
With Jimmy Garoppolo's sharp play keeping defenses honest, Hyde found more running room than usual last Sunday, topping 75 yards on the ground for the second time in four games and reaching the end zone for the first time in nearly two months. The Titans' top-five run defense, however, could have Hyde resembling the runner than compiled 101 yards on 33 carries the two previous weeks. And given the way Garoppolo has been pushing the ball downfield instead of checking down to Hyde the way rookie C.J. Beathard often did, the yardage likely won't be there this Sunday for San Fran's best offensive skill player. After all, a front seven led by the underrated Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard has Tennessee ranked third in rushing yards allowed to tailbacks (73.8 per contest) and tied for first in both rushing (four) and total scores (seven) surrendered to the position.
DeAndre Hopkins, HOU at JAC
Let's get one thing very, very clear. It's the fantasy playoffs and there's no chance you are benching Hopkins. However, his visit to Jacksonville and the suffocating attention Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and the loaded Jaguars secondary will undoubtedly pay him, coupled with having third stringer T.J. Yates under center, should influence other lineup decisions. Anticipating a slight downtick in Hopkins' typically elite production should have his owners playing for the greatest upside at the flex position. After all, while Hopkins did score in Week 1 against Jacksonville, that TD came from rookie star Deshaun Watson, and it still took him 16 targets to produce 55 yards that day. Daily owners should be especially wary of Hopkins given his cost.
Robby Anderson, NYJ at NO
In the four games in which Bryce Petty threw at least 25 passes last year, Anderson produced at least 60 yards, scored in two of them and hauled in a catch of at least 40 yards in all four. So, while the change from Josh McCown (hand/IR) to Petty is a significant downgrade in real life, it may not be a dramatic change for Anderson's fantasy prospects. Unfortunately, that theory will be put to a significant test this Sunday when Anderson lines up across from rookie sensation Marshon Lattimore. Even at less than 100 percent strength due to a lingering ankle ailment, Lattimore will be the next best corner Anderson will have faced besides the Broncos duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris that essentially erased the second-year receiver last week.
A.J. Green, CIN at MIN
One of those bench-at-your-own-peril types because of his proven ability to beat any coverage at any time, it bears noting that Green has just a single catch of over 20 yards in the last eight games, a 70-yard score which gave him his only 100-yard effort in that stretch. He does have four other touchdowns in those eight contests, but not another game above 77 yards. To further exemplify his declining connection with Andy Dalton, it's taken him 29 attempts the past two weeks to accumulate 141 yards (4.9 YPT). That kind of inefficiency can still lead to volume stats against lesser corners, but facing Xavier Rhodes this Sunday could lead to doom for those blindly hoping for a vintage performance.
T.Y. Hilton, IND vs. DEN
Hilton's untouched 40-yard score against Jacksonville a couple weeks ago is the exception, not the rule, with him this year. He beat up on three bad defenses which on the season have allowed a combined 73 touchdown passes, but Hilton has otherwise been horrible with no other games above 60 yards. In fact, he has hauled in two or fewer catches in six of his last eight games. If Hilton could not top 100 yards or find the end zone in four career meetings against Denver's elite corners withAndrew Luck, it's frightening to think how quiet he'll be without him.
Tyreek Hill, KC vs. LAC
Hill is always one play away from good fantasy numbers. His ability to score from anywhere on any play makes him awfully hard to sit down, but it also makes him a high risk, high reward type. After all, how confident do you feel starting someone in the playoffs who has produced 44.9% of his receiving yards in three games? In 10 other appearances Hill has averaged 54.3 receiving yards with three games that failed to even top 40 yards. And while Hill did produce 90 scrimmage yards and a score in a September meeting with the Chargers, consider that a secondary led by Casey Hayward's elite play has yet to allow a single 100-yard wide receiver this year. It feels more likely than not that Hill's boom will be M.I.A. this week.
Vernon Davis, WAS vs. AZ
Jordan Reed finally is out of the picture, landing on IR with a "Mr. Glass" designation (though technically written as "hamstring"). Davis owners likely were not worried about Reed returning to steal any of Davis' action, and coming off his second touchdown of the season there's reason for excitement in Washington's second-most targeted player. That excitement should be stowed for at least one week, however. Not only has Davis' yardage taken a nose dive in recent weeks (41 combined yards in three games, including a goose egg against the Giants of all teams), but he also must deal with a Cardinals defense that's limited opposing tight ends to the seventh fewest yards per game (42.5).