This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
Every championship run can be won or lost by that one tough decision we either nailed or blew. Last week I experienced both sides of it.
In one league, the rising Dede Westbrook nearly convinced me to play him over Stefon Diggs, but wiser heads prevailed and I opted for the far more proven and supremely gifted Diggs, who ultimately found the end zone. The differential was just over six points, and in a tight game it wound up being the reason I'll play for a title this week with perfect timing, as I'll return Ezekiel Elliott back to a lineup that also features Alvin Kamara and Melvin Gordon at running back. Losing Davante Adams will sting, but hopefully Zeke is enough to put me over the top. And this week's headliner, Diggs, will certainly be in my lineup for a ripe matchup against a nose-diving Green Bay D.
Unfortunately, lady luck was playing the field last week and left me cold in my other league. Anticipating how bad the Packers defense would play, I opted for Jonathan Stewart over Martavis Bryant to replace a missing Leonard Fournette (quad). I already had both Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell in my lineup and with JuJu Smith-Schuster's return was not feeling confident in Bryant's floor. Stewart and his three-game touchdown streak felt safer, except I failed to consider that the Packers are such a mess in the secondary that even Cam Newton and his erratic arm could score on them from outside the five-yard line. Oh well, at least Newton is my quarterback in the league I did win.
As the great Vincent Gambini said at the end of My Cousin Vinny, "win some, lose some." Just like cousin Vinny did, we all need to look at every angle for the answers we want to find. And fortunately for us, lineup decisions are not life and death like a murder trial. In the end, since we have to put our faith in other people – which the movie also taught us – it's best to trust one's gut when it's crunch time. So, prepare for those lineup locks with the facts to make a case for or against a player, and then let your gut make the ultimate call.
As I've recommended for years when championship week rolls around, your starting decisions should be prioritized by volume first, then skill and finally matchup, with game situation/context being a significant consideration in the matchup portion of that equation. End-of-year scenarios for many teams can become very influential in determining how involved players are, how motivated they are and ultimately whether they're successful.
The most important thing is you've lasted this long, and if you have it's hard to imagine you haven't had a blast getting here (unless you're my brother-in-law, who has complained his way to a 13-2 season and a likely title led by Kamara, Todd Gurley and Adam Thielen). That means this week, win or lose, is a celebration. Savor the feeling of being this close. It's eat, drink and be merry season, after all, so embrace it, rock your favorite jersey and have some fun with your closing remarks. At the end of the day it's about the ride, even if you don't get to go home to Marisa Tomei, win or lose, like Vinny did.
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.
Matthew Stafford, DET at CIN
The Bengals have quit. In fact, "quit" is too kind a word to describe their lack of effort the last two weeks in consecutive blowout losses to the Bears and Vikings. The absence of Vontaze Burfict (concussion) has taken the pop out of their defense, and the seeming inevitability of Marvin Lewis' departure has taken the life out of an already inconsistent team. Stafford, meanwhile, has been exceptionally sharp of late, completing at least 75.8 percent of his passes in three straight while throwing for 910 yards at a clip of 8.6 per attempt. Considering the Bengals have allowed both DeShone Kizer and Mitchell Trubisky to top 250 yards in the last month, it's a safe bet Stafford can do likewise and then some.
Jameis Winston, TB at CAR
This is less about the opponent and more about acknowledging Winston's resurgence since returning from a shoulder injury. He's produced at least 270 yards and two touchdowns in all three games, keeping an otherwise lifeless Tampa Bay team competitive with his arm. Two things stand out about his play and the outcomes. One, the Buccaneers don't possess the defensive personnel to keep most teams from topping the 20-point barrier. And two, Winston and the Bucs' offense have no quit in them. So, if he's getting that volume while playing from behind – a probable scenario against a focused Panthers team jockeying for playoff position – Winston likely will be putting up quality numbers.
Joe Flacco, BAL vs. IND
After throwing for 288 yards against the Browns last week, Flacco has pitched it for at least 260 yards while producing multiple scores (he added a rushing score last Sunday) in four of the last five games. Among the many indictments of the Colts defense, last week's shredding at the hands of Brock Osweiler tops the list. If Osweiler can throw for just shy of 200 yards on only 17 attempts while tallying three total touchdowns in three quarters, Flacco can certainly keep his strong play going on his home turf against a group ranked 30th in both sacks (23) and passing yards allowed per game (257.1).
Drew Stanton, AZ vs. NYG
For the truly desperate in two-QB formats, Stanton must be considered heavily. The Giants have allowed a league-high 30 passing touchdowns, including seven the last two weeks on only 68 attempts, and they are the only defense in the league with less than 25 sacks and single-digit interceptions. Stanton is not a good quarterback by any stretch of the imagination – he's completed just 63 of his last 139 attempts (45.3 percent) dating back to last year – but he did throw for at least 200 yards and a score in his last two appearances, including 273 and a score versus a Seattle defense that still had Richard Sherman (Achilles) and Kam Chancellor (neck) in the secondary. With the Blaine Gabbert experiment over after five games and Stanton's injured knee back to full strength, the career backup will get to go toe-to-toe with an inspired Eli Manning under some cushy circumstances.
Jerick McKinnon, MIN at GB
In the last four weeks McKinnon has taken a more definitive backseat to Latavius Murray in the pecking order of the Vikings' backfield. Murray has out-touched McKinnon 71 to 53 in that timespan despite the latter averaging 5.6 yards per touch to Murray's 4.3. McKinnon has still managed a respectable average of nearly 75 scrimmage yards per game in that stretch, and the Packers defense has allowed 756 scrimmage yards to opposing backfields over the same timespan. Given that Green Bay has been particularly bad defending tailbacks in the passing game, McKinnon makes for a strong play in fantasy championship week. Only two teams have allowed more catches (87) to running backs, and only one has surrendered more receiving touchdowns (five).
Theo Riddick, DET at CIN
In their three-game losing skid the Bengals have given up a whopping 696 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns to opposing tailbacks, including two 100-yard receiving games. In that stretch, five different running backs have reached at least 85 scrimmage yards. Over that same timeframe, Riddick has operated as the No. 1 tailback for the Lions and tallied at least 60 scrimmage yards in each contest while also scoring three touchdowns. One of the premier receiving backs in the league, Riddick shouldn't have much difficulty churning out yards against a Cincinnati defense that's laid down, especially if Vontaze Burfict (concussion) misses another game.
Joe Mixon, CIN vs. DET
The Bengals figure to take another beating this week, all things considered. The Lions offense is operating at a high level and has a lot to play for, while the Bengals are still reeling from the stunning loss to Pittsburgh, the loss of their defensive heartbeat in Vontaze Burfict (concussion) and now the news of the impending loss of their longtime head coach. Regardless, a young talent like Mixon will give everything he has if he's able to return from a concussion that has sidelined him for two games. His replacement, Giovani Bernard, managed productive outings in the ugly losses, with 130 scrimmage yards in one and a score in the other. Considering that prior to shutting down Jordan Howard last week the Lions had gone eight straight games allowing a touchdown to a primary tailback, Mixon's fresh legs could lead to a surprisingly productive fantasy day if he suits up.
DeMarco Murray, TEN vs. LAR
The Rams are giving up 4.7 yards per carry to opposing running backs and are one of eight defenses to have allowed 2,000 scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns to the position. Over their last seven games, they allowed an opposing tailback to top 70 scrimmage yards in six of them, including twice in blowout wins. So, although the Rams are well equipped to handle a Titans team that just lost consecutive contests to the Cardinals and 49ers, they're still more likely than not to give up some legitimate flex yardage to Murray, who has at least 13 touches in all but three games this year, including each of his last six contests.
Stefon Diggs, MIN at GB
The Packers secondary is an offensive coordinator's dream. They were so miserable against Carolina that a rusty, slow Greg Olsen was unstoppable, and despite Panthers wide receivers seeing just eight targets, Damiere Byrd registered not just his first, but his first TWO career receiving touchdowns. Diggs missed the first meeting with Green Bay after a red-hot start to the year, and he's slowed dramatically since suffering the groin injury with no 100-yard games and just two touchdowns since September. The Packers, emotionally defeated after missing out on the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade, are going to let Diggs' finish to the season mirror that magnificent start.
Two undrafted free agent receivers – rookie Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens – just blasted the Texans for 247 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches. Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick and arguably the most complete rookie wideout, is coming off his second 100-yard effort and is 21st in yards after the catch among wideouts despite having missed two games and ranking outside the top 50 in targets (only 63). Bryant, meanwhile, has an established pedigree that he's yet to fully display this year in part due to Smith-Schuster's emergence. Bryants scored 14 touchdowns in his first 21 career regular-season games, and the last time he suited up without Brown to dominate defensive attention all he did was rip the elite Denver secondary for 154 yards on nine grabs in a 2015 divisional playoff game, also adding 40 on the ground for good measure. Minus Brown (calf), this duo is set to go off in a big way against a Houston defense that has allowed the fifth most yards to wideouts at 168.6 per game.
Mike Wallace, BAL vs. IND
Wallace has produced at least 72 yards or a touchdown in five of Baltimore's last six contests, averaging 7.5 targets in that stretch. With Jeremy Maclin now sidelined by a knee injury, Wallace's target share (23.8 percent last week when Maclin went down) is almost certain to remain high against a Colts defense that is one of just three to have allowed over 2,400 yards to wide receivers this season (172.1 per game to be exact).
Kendall Wright, CHI vs. CLE
Wright leads the Bears by a longshot with 77 targets, but that number by itself is insignificant when comparing him to the rest of the league. After all, it lands him in a three-way tie for 54th overall. What matters about those targets, however, is that 24 of them have come in just the last two weeks. That volume doesn't just land him on the PPR radar – though his 17 grabs in those two weeks are more than catch leaders like DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen and Larry Fitzgerald – but with 188 yards Wright also warrants consideration in standard formats as a safe-floor guy. So, although Wright hasn't found the end zone since September and has previously had a scary low floor, he should maintain his new pace against a Browns defense that's allowed a wideout to top 80 yards in four of the last six, including three straight games.
Jesse James, PIT at HOU
This equation is simple: Add James' supreme motivation after not quite securing the game-winning touchdown against New England, subtract Antonio Brown (calf) and his 11.6 targets per game, then multiply by a Houston defense that stinks against the pass. The Texans have given up the sixth most yards (59.4 per game) to tight ends and are tied for the third most TD grabs (eight) allowed to the position. For the TE-needy that have survived to the championship round, James is as safe a dart as any.
Jermaine Gresham, AZ vs. NYG
Ricky Seals-Jones was Blaine Gabbert's guy, and that's no surprise given the connection they likely shared from practice as third-teamers most of the offseason and fall. Gresham, however, is the tight end boasting a connection with the returning Drew Stanton, whom he's spent three seasons with in Arizona. Gresham caught two of Stanton's three touchdown passes earlier this year and had a season-high 64 yards in Stanton's start against Seattle. Facing a Giants defense that's allowed the most yards (941) and touchdowns (13) to tight ends, Gresham, coming back from an absence due to illness, figures to provide a surprise value to bold (and desperate) owners.
Trey Burton, PHI vs. OAK
Yes, the tight end position has grown so weak beyond the top five that one even needs to look at backups for plug-and-play matchups with upside. That means Burton should be considered. Although much of his value over the past month was due to Zach Ertz missing a game with a concussion in which Burton went off for 71 yards and two scores, he still has at least 42 yards or a score in three of his last five appearances besides that explosion. Given that the Raiders have allowed more yards to tight ends than all but three teams, the tight end that likely has a good practice rapport with Nick Foles and caught a score from him last week could be worth a gamble.
Tom Brady, NE vs. BUF
Obviously you are not benching Brady with a fantasy championship on the line. It is completely fair to be concerned about his anticipated production, however. His last three games have seen him throw just two touchdowns to four interceptions while failing to crack the 300-yard barrier. Given that the Patriots boast a stable of capable running backs even without Rex Burkhead (knee), Brady may not need to do much to get a comfortable win (the Pats easily downed the Bills in Buffalo by a score of 23-3 three weeks ago). Given that Buffalo has allowed only 11 passing touchdowns all season – good for fewest in the league – while conversely having relinquished a league-high 19 rushing touchdowns, it's certainly reason enough to not use Brady in DFS. And for us season-long folks trying to win Super Bowls, it could provide reason to roll the dice with a high-risk/high-reward flex play.
Matt Ryan, ATL at NO
MVP, Shmemveepee. The contrast in Ryan's 2017 campaign when pitted against his magnificent, award-winning 2016 is depressingly stark. Case in point: he just struggled mightily in a tight, pivotal contest against a Buccaneers defense that is dead last in passing yards allowed. His spotty play yielded just 212 yards, one score and a completion rate of 54.8 percent on 31 throws. He has no games all year with three touchdown passes and there's little hope he'll break that trend against a Saints defense that picked him off three times just two weeks ago in his comfy Georgia confines. With less than 225 yards in five of his last six games and only three touchdowns total in his last three outings, Ryan only warrants use in two-QB formats.
Derek Carr, OAK at PHI
Carr has failed to consistently produce even against bad pass defenses this year, taking a significant step back from a 2016 season that at one point saw him enter the MVP conversation. So, what can we expect against an Eagles defense that's top 10 in both sacks and interceptions? More of the same, unfortunately, and maybe worse. With Amari Cooper (ankle) falling off the grid and Michael Crabtree sitting at 6.3 yards per target, Carr will be staring failure and a brutal pass rush in the face on Monday night.
Jordan Howard, CHI vs. CLE
With so many tailbacks emerging down the stretch run of the season, it's hard to imagine a team has landed in a championship match and doesn't have a better starting option than Howard right now. Sure, he exploded against a Vontaze Burfict-less Bengals team that Chicago steamrolled a couple weeks ago, gashing them for 147 yards and two scores. But he then laid an egg last Sunday versus the very Detroit defense he similarly shredded a month earlier, one that had gone eight straight games allowing a running back to find the end zone. Howard simply can't be trusted versus a Browns front seven fresh off a shutdown of the previously red-hot Alex Collins. After all, one thing Cleveland does lead the league in – besides losses of course – is yards per carry allowed to tailbacks (a meager 3.3).
Jamaal Williams, GB vs. MIN
Well Williams owners, it was fun while it lasted. A Vikings defense that has allowed only eight total touchdowns to opposing running backs is coming to town to face a Green Bay team that's just been crushed mentally and emotionally. The Packers will be up against the NFC's top defense without the services of wideout Davante Adams (concussion), likely making points difficult to come by. Add in the threat of Aaron Jones – who had two runs of at least 20 yards last week – and the recipe for limited, ineffective touches severely caps Williams' upside.
Carlos Hyde, SF vs. JAC
It's possible to run on the Jags this year. For as good as they've been shutting down the pass, they're only 19th versus the run (115.2 yards per game) and allow 4.5 YPC, a mark only three defenses have been worse than. The problem for Hyde, however, is that Jacksonville doesn't give up touchdowns. Running backs have produced a miserable five scores on the ground against them, and none of those have come within the last six games. Considering Hyde has only one score since mid-October, has caught just five passes from Jimmy Garoppolo and is averaging a weak 3.2 YPC in his last four outings, there's simply no upside to chase. So, if you want 40-50 scoreless yards, Hyde's your guy. If, however, you actually want to win your week, it's best to look elsewhere.
Julio Jones, ATL at NO
Jones arguably got the best of Saints CB Marshon Lattimore, a rookie Pro Bowler, a couple weeks ago in their first meeting, but that was Lattimore's first game back from an ankle injury in the wake of consecutive absences. And Jones still caught less than 50 percent of his 11 targets and failed to reach 100 yards for the 12th time this season. Outside of his shellacking of the Buccaneers, Jones has caught only 15 of 35 targets in four other contests the past month. He still needs to be started in the vast majority of playoff matchups, but there are far better options for DFS purposes.
Marquise Goodwin, SF vs. JAC
Though unable to score a touchdown, Goodwin has been the clear-cut favorite of new, undefeated starter Jimmy Garoppolo, racking up at least 99 yards in each of the QB's three starts while catching 24 balls. Goodwins' 329 scrimmage yards the past three weeks place him fourth among wide receivers behind only Tyreek Hill (348), Antonio Brown (339) and Keelan Cole (334). But that wild ride comes to a screeching halt this weekend, regardless of whether it's Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye that shadows Goodwin. Those two studs will relegate him back to the mediocrity that's defined most of his career.
Brandin Cooks, NE vs. BUF
Cooks has seven catches in his last three games. SEVEN. Total. In three games. He may be coming off 60 yards and a score last week, but that was in a contest that New England trailed the entire second half until the final minute. And that was also without Chris Hogan (shoulder), who may be ready to return after resting his shoulder another week. In the previous two weeks Cooks caught just three of 10 targets for 55 yards, including a 17-yard stinker against the very Bills who are visiting Sunday. Dion Lewis has been terrific lately, and New England can also slot in James White and the fresh legs of former Bill, Mike Gillislee, to offset the loss of Rex Burkhead (knee). All this adds up to Cooks likely struggling again and/or seeing too few opportunities against a Bills defense that has only surrendered seven touchdowns to wide receivers.
Kyle Rudolph, MIN at GB
Rudolph has scored five times in the last four games and will face a Packers defense that just got owned by Greg Olsen, who finally overcame the foot injury that sidelined him for most of the season. Rudolph has been dealing with an ankle injury himself, but unlike Olsen, who is approaching full strength at the tail end of his recovery, Rudolph's ailment is still relatively fresh, as he injured the ankle in a loss to Carolina just two weeks ago. The injury nearly sidelined him last Sunday and limited him to two catches, one of which found the end zone. Facing a Packers team that is out of the playoffs, decimated by injuries and had no defense to begin with, the Vikings should so easily steamroll them that Rudolph's services are hardly needed. Given the threat that his injury warrants a low snap count in a comfortable win, he feels too risky with championships at stake.