Fantasy Football Playoff Challenge: Looking ahead to championship weekend lineup decisions
Jamey Eisenberg updates the rankings for any Playoff Challenge leagues with the AFC and NFC Championship Games on tap for this coming weekend.
This is it. One more weekend until we know who is playing in Super Bowl LII. And it's two fascinating matchups in the AFC and NFC Championship Games.
For the AFC, you have the Patriots, who many expected to be here because of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They are one win away from competing in their eighth Super Bowl together, which has produced five wins.
New England's opponent is Jacksonville, which is making its third ever trip to the AFC Championship Game. The Jaguars, who lost in the AFC title game to the Patriots in 1996 and to the Titans in 1999, are here because of their defense and running game, which is led by Leonard Fournette.
Brady said Tuesday during a radio interview on WEEI in Boston that this will be a tough matchup against the Jaguars.
"We've had a good offense," Brady said. "They've had the best defense, and that's always a challenge when you go up against those guys."
In the NFC, it's the battle of the backup quarterbacks with Case Keenum for the Vikings and Nick Foles for the Eagles. Both spent time together with the Rams in 2015 when Foles started nine games before being benched for, you guessed it, Keenum.
As part of the story, Foles was traded from the Eagles to the Rams in 2015 for Sam Bradford, who was then traded to the Vikings in 2016 after Philadelphia drafted Carson Wentz. Bradford was Minnesota's starter to open this season, but he missed most of the year with a knee injury, which allowed Keenum to start after he signed with the Vikings as a free agent this offseason.
Foles, meanwhile, returned to the Eagles this offseason after a stop in Kansas City for a year. When Wentz suffered a torn ACL in Week 14 -- against the Rams of all teams -- Foles stepped in as his replacement.
It's as if Foles and Keenum, as unlikely as it might be, were meant to face each other in this game. Somewhere, Jeff Fisher, who coached the Rams in 2015, is smiling.
Philadelphia is trying to go back to the Super Bowl for the third time. The Eagles lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl XV in 1980 and to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004.
And the Vikings are trying to become the first team to play the Super Bowl on their home field since Minnesota is the host city. Previously, the closest any team has gotten was the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, who played in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. In 1979, the Los Angeles Rams played Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl.
Minnesota has played in four Super Bowls (IV in 1969, VIII in 1973, IX in 1974 and XI in 1976), but the Vikings are 0-4 in those games.
History will be made this season with whoever wins the Super Bowl, as Brady and Belichick will add to their legacies or Jacksonville, Minnesota or Philadelphia will win the title for the first time. But first, these teams need to advance past this weekend.
As for Fantasy owners, we have you covered with Playoff Challenge rankings for the AFC and NFC Championship Games. These rankings are based on standard formats, and you want players who are going to play two more games to maximize their production.
With that in mind, I like the Patriots to beat the Jaguars, and I expect the Vikings to beat the Eagles. That would set up a home team playing in the Super Bowl for the first time against the quarterback and coach with the most Super Bowl wins and appearances ever.
It should be fun.
- Tom Brady, NE
- Case Keenum, MIN
- Nick Foles, PHI
- Blake Bortles, JAC
The Jaguars have an elite pass defense, but slowing down Brady will be tough. He just broke out of his slump where he had gone five games in a row with fewer than 20 Fantasy points. Against the Titans in the divisional round he had 337 passing yards and three touchdowns, and Jacksonville just allowed Ben Roethlisberger to pass for 469 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
After Brady, none of the quarterbacks are really trustworthy, but I expect Keenum to play two more games. He just had 16 Fantasy points against the Saints in the divisional round, and he's gone three games in a row with 16 points or less. And the Eagles haven't allowed a quarterback to score more than 14 Fantasy points in three games in a row.
I give the Eagles a better chance than the Jaguars to advance to the Super Bowl, so Foles is ranked third here. But he's combined for 18 Fantasy points in his past three appearances, including the playoffs, and the Vikings have only allowed three quarterbacks to score at least 20 Fantasy points this season, although one was last week against Drew Brees.
In a one-game scenario, I would take Bortles over Foles for this week, and Bortles has at least 17 Fantasy points in each of his playoff starts against the Bills and Steelers. And the Patriots have allowed a quarterback to score at least 22 Fantasy points in three of their past five games, including Marcus Mariota last week. But Bortles is ranked last here because I expect the Jaguars season to end Sunday.
- Dion Lewis, NE
- Latavius Murray, MIN
- James White, NE
- Jerick McKinnon, MIN
- Leonard Fournette, JAC
- Jay Ajayi, PHI
- T.J. Yeldon, JAC
- Corey Clement, PHI
- LeGarrette Blount, PHI
- Rex Burkhead, NE
- Brandon Bolden, NE
- Chris Ivory, JAC
Burkhead (knee) is expected to play against the Jaguars after being out since Week 15, but we hope he just cuts into the touches for Bolden and leaves Lewis and White alone. Lewis has been awesome to close the season, and including the playoffs, he now has at least 11 Fantasy points in a standard league in seven of his past nine games. Against Tennessee, Lewis had 15 carries for 62 yards and nine catches for 79 yards.
White just had four carries for 11 yards and a touchdown and four catches for 29 yards and a touchdown against the Titans, and the Jaguars struggled against Le'Veon Bell last week. Bell had 16 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown and nine catches for 88 yards and a touchdown, and I expect the Patriots to heavily involve their running backs in the passing game this week.
The Vikings will definitely lean on their running backs, and Murray has a touchdown or 90 total yards in seven of his past nine games, including the playoffs. He had 19 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown and two catches for 17 yards against the Saints last week.
McKinnon also had eight carries for 34 yards and a touchdown and three catches for 6 yards against New Orleans. Last week, Philadelphia allowed Atlanta's running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to each score eight Fantasy points in a standard league.
Fournette just had a dominant game against the Steelers with 25 carries for 109 yards and three touchdowns and two catches for 10 yards, and Yeldon also chipped in five carries for 20 yards and a touchdown and three catches for 57 yards. But the Patriots did a great job limiting Derrick Henry to 12 carries for 28 yards and three catches for 21 yards last week, and New England has allowed just one rushing touchdown to a running back in the past nine games.
Ajayi is the only Eagles running back you can consider this week, and he has either 80 total yards or a touchdown in his past three games, including the playoffs, along with seven catches over that span. But the Vikings have allowed the fewest Fantasy points to opposing running backs this season, and Ajayi could be limited to one more game with a loss this week.
- Stefon Diggs, MIN
- Adam Thielen, MIN
- Brandin Cooks, NE
- Danny Amendola, NE
- Alshon Jeffery, PHI
- Chris Hogan, NE
- Marqise Lee, JAC
- Nelson Agholor, PHI
- Dede Westbrook, JAC
- Torrey Smith, PHI
- Keelan Cole, JAC
- Jarius Wright, MIN
- Allen Hurns, JAC
The Eagles secondary has struggled of late, and that should help Diggs and Thielen in this matchup. In Philadelphia's past six games, including the playoffs, at least one receiver has either 80 receiving yards or a touchdown, with nine receivers scoring at least seven Fantasy points in a standard league over that span. Diggs is the better of the two Vikings receivers since he has a touchdown in four games in a row, including the playoffs.
The Patriots receivers have a tough matchup against the Jaguars, although the Steelers receivers of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eli Rogers combined for 17 catches for 257 yards and four touchdowns on 25 targets last week. Cooks still has the most upside of the group, but he struggled against the Titans with three catches for 32 yards on nine targets. Still, Cooks has a touchdown in two of his past four games.
I would take Cooks ahead of Amendola and Hogan, although both were better against Tennessee. Amendola had 11 catches for 112 yards on 13 targets, and he should be heavily involved again with Brady trying to get the ball out of his hands quickly. And Hogan returned from a three-game absence with a shoulder injury against the Titans and finished with one catch for 4 yards on four targets, but it was a touchdown.
Jeffery has more touchdowns in his career against the Vikings than any other team he's faced with seven in 12 career games against Minnesota, but he's struggled with Foles. In his past four games, including the playoffs, Jeffery has nine catches for 63 yards and one touchdown on 19 targets.
Jeffery also will see a hefty dose of Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes, which will be a tough matchup. And Agholor also should have a tough time in this game, and he's struggled with Foles as well. In his past four games, including the playoffs, Agholor has 17 catches for 129 yards and one touchdown on 22 targets.
For the Jaguars, their receivers have been all over the place the past two weeks with four guys being involved with Lee, Westbrook, Cole and Hurns. Against the Bills, Lee, Hurns and Cole combined for no catches, with all three having just one target each. Only Westbrook was relatively involved with five catches for 48 yards on eight targets.
And then against the Steelers, Lee was the leading receiver with three catches for 28 yards on six targets, but Cole, Hurns and Westbrook combined for three catches for 65 yards on seven targets. The bulk of that production was Cole hauling in his lone reception for 45 yards. It's a situation to avoid at New England.
All four teams remaining in the playoffs have done well defending tight ends this season, but Jacksonville was the worst at No. 13 in Fantasy points allowed. And the Jaguars just allowed Vance McDonald to catch 10 passes for 112 yards on 16 targets last week.
Gronkowski has a touchdown or at least 147 receiving yards in five of his past six games, including the playoffs, and he just had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown on nine targets against the Titans. He's the only safe bet at the position for any Playoff Challenge.
Rudolph and Ertz are in tough spots because of their matchup against each other. The Eagles have allowed one touchdown to a tight end in their past 10 games, including the playoffs, and Rudolph has nine Fantasy points combined in his past four games on nine catches for 54 yards and a touchdown on 14 targets.
Ertz has to face a Vikings defense that is first in fewest Fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends, and Minnesota hasn't allowed a tight end to score a touchdown since Week 5. He had three catches for 32 yards on five targets against the Falcons last week, and this should be another tough outing for him in the NFC Championship Game.
I would avoid all the Jaguars tight ends this week, and Lewis did not have a target against the Steelers in the divisional round. In the past two games, Bortles has thrown touchdowns to Ben Koyack against the Bills and Tommy Bohanon against the Steelers. Stay away from any Jacksonville tight end in the Playoff Challenge.
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