I'm having a tough time deciding whether Seattle @ Carolina ends in a 13-10 defensive slug-fest, or a 30-27 shootout. Vegas landed in the middle, setting the over/under at 44 points, meaning neither team has an implied total above the 24 point mark I usually prefer to target. The line is fair -- Carolina allowed only 17 points per game at home (third-lowest in the league), with both of their late season shootouts coming on the road at the Saints and Giants respectively. I'd like Russell Wilson ($6,800) and the Seahawks offense much more if this game were being played in Seattle, but I do think Wilson warrants a spot on about 15% of your tournament rosters. He'll be lower-owned than Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, and Tom Brady, yet his demonstrated ceiling of 38 fantasy points is right there with each of them. Wilson has averaged 36.6 rushing yards per game in three meetings with Carolina over the last two years, which is nearly the equivalent of an extra passing touchdown per game on DraftKings. Prior to last week's impossible weather game at Minnesota, Wilson had scored at least 21 fantasy points in seven straight contests.
Barring any further surprises, Marshawn Lynch ($6,400) will be active for the first time since Week 10. With the running back position razor thin behind David Johnson, it's tempting to pencil Lynch into lineups, but I'm keeping my expectations in check. Carolina ranks 6th in rush defense DVOA, we have no idea what type of workload Lynch is ready for after such a long layoff, and with Christine Michael ($5,500) running well the last few weeks, it's entirely possible we see the two form some sort of rotation. Lynch is certainly viable on this slate due to his touchdown upside, but if he doesn't score, I'd bet you're looking at about seven fantasy points. I'd rather punt RB2 with someone like Fitzgerald Toussaint or one of the Denver backs, and spend the extra money at wide receiver (or even tight end). If you're looking for a strong case to play Lynch, check out what Dan Hindery wrote in this week's Roundtable.
The Doug Baldwin ($6,800) regression refuses to ever come. This season's cumulative WR7 is once again a strong play despite the tough matchup with Carolina's elite secondary. Baldwin runs 83% of his routes from the slot (per Pro Football Focus), which means he should avoid Josh Norman on the majority of his routes (Norman ventured into the slot on only 2% of his snaps this season). After catching a red zone touchdown last week, Baldwin now has five red zone scores in his last five games on the strength of an NFL leading 61% red zone target market share over that span. Tyler Lockett ($4,400) figures to see the most of Norman's coverage, which limits his appeal (even as a contrarian stacking option in the return game when paired with Seattle's defense). Jermaine Kearse ($3,200) is an interesting low-owned flyer for the second straight week. Before throwing up a dud in last week's ice bowl, Kearse had scored double-digit fantasy points in five of his last six games. Of the three Seattle receivers, he has by far the best one-on-one matchup with Carolina cornerback Robert McClain.
With Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Heath Miller (and even Richard Rodgers) on the slate, there is no reason to roster Cooper Helfet ($2,500) or Chase Coffman ($2,800).
It feels strange to say the Seahawks Defense ($4,100) isn't a top play, but considering their price and bad spot (on the road against a 15-1 team who employs the best quarterback in the NFL this season), there are better options.
If I were making 10 GPP lineups this week, Carson Palmer would be on four of them and Cam Newton ($7,500) would be on three. Your number one goal when constructing rosters this week is to assemble a team that can score the most raw points (as opposed to targeting the best point per dollar values at each position). Very simply, Newton has demonstrated the ability to score more points than any other quarterback, and there's a decent chance you'll need him to run deep in tournaments, despite the bad on-paper matchup. It's worth noting Newton's fantasy points per game average increased by about 16% in home games this season.
Jonathan Stewart ($5,800) will be active for the first time since Week 14, and we should see his ownership depressed a bit due to the injury layoff, bad matchup, and steep price tag (he's only $200 less than David Johnson). While Seattle does rank third in rush defense DVOA, Stewart has had their number. He posted a 20-78-2 line on the Seahawaks in their Week 6 meeting, and he reached 70 yards on only 13 carries in Carolina's blowout loss to Seattle in last year's playoffs. There's always the chance Stewart gets poached by Cam Newton at the goal line, but the narrative he doesn't have touchdown upside is a fallacy. From Week 6 (after he came back healthy from the Panthers bye week) through 14 (his last game played before getting injured), Stewart led the league in carries and touchdowns from inside the opponent's five yard line. As one of the few backs on this slate guaranteed at least 15 touches, Stewart is absolutely in play.
With Rob Gronkowski's murky injury situation, Greg Olsen ($6,900) is easily the safest tight end on the slate. I'm expecting him to be one of the three highest-owned players this week, but like Jordan Reed last week, this doesn't look like the spot to fade him. Seattle was exposed by tight ends on several occasions this season. They ranked 26th in pass defense DVOA to opposing tight ends and allowed the 10th-most fantasy points per game to the position. When these teams met in Week 6, Olsen exploited the matchup to the tune of seven catches, 131 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The rest of Carolina's receivers will either hold the key to a GPP win or sink your lineup completely. If you believe Cam Newton is going to look every bit like the league MVP in a tough matchup, it makes sense to pair him with flyers like Corey Brown ($3,500), or Jerricho Cotchery ($3,000) who will go under 5% owned. Ted Ginn Jr. ($5,000) found himself on several winning GPP lineups late in the season thanks to his deep ball skills. I don't like his chances of catching a bomb against a Seattle secondary that allowed the fourth-fewest pass plays of 20+ yards. If I had to choose a Panthers wide receiver to roster it would be either Cotchery (who has a plus matchup in the slot with Seattle cornerback Deshawn Shead), or Devin Funchess ($3,400). Funchess isn't guaranteed playing time, but he's proven himself as a playmaker in just about every opportunity he's gotten this season, and Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera recently referred to his as the team's X-Factor for the playoffs.
Steelers @ Broncos Speed Round
It doesn't look like I have enough time left to give you my full thoughts on this game, and get it out in time to do you any good, so we're going lightning round on the final game of the weekend...
- Ben Roethlisberger ($7,000) - The latest reports on Roethlisberger stated he was a full participant in Friday's practice and his arm strength looked the same as usual. The matchup is ugly, Roethlisberger's road splits are not promising, and he'll be missing his best weapon, but that report is encouraging enough for me to get at least one Steelers stack into the portfolio. The rest of the field will be scared to death to use Roethlisberger and there's a chance he can be set-up with numerous short fields if Peyton Manning looks anything like he did early in the season.
- Fitzgerald Toussaint ($4,200) - The narrative states that with Antonio Brown out and Roethlisberger's arm at less than full strength, Toussaint should clean up in the short passing game. I buy it -- Toussaint was targeted eight times last week and generated 10 of his 15.8 fantasy points via the receiving game. Denver allowed the eighth-most receptions to opposing running backs during the regular season.
- Jordan Todman ($3,800) - I've always liked Todman as a runner and he showed why last week with 65 yards on 11 carries against a tough run defense. But with Denver now favored by 7.5, the implied game script heavily favors Toussaint who played 66% of Pittsburgh's running back snaps last week. The only spot I'll have Todman is in a contrarian lineup that features both Pittsburgh backs, where I'm looking for the low priced combination to net me about 25 combined fantasy points.
- Martavis Bryant ($6,000) - Bryant can score from anywhere on the field regardless of who he's lined up against. He belongs in your tournament lineups every week, and this game is no different. The Steelers have been trying to get the ball in Bryant's hands on short slants (and even rushes) in recent weeks, so he might not be ruined if Roethlisberger can't throw downfield. He'll also likely see an uptick in targets with Brown sidelined.
- Markus Wheaton ($4,300) - Wheaton will take on an expanded role with Brown out, but I'm convinced he's a terrible player and he'll have to deal with shutdown corner Chris Harris on the majority of his routes. If having zero exposure to Wheaton is the reason I don't win money this week, I'm fine with that.
- Heath Miller ($3,200) - Can Miller get you the 10-12 fantasy points you need for him to pay off his price tag -- especially with Brown sidelined? Of course. But the floor here is low and the ceiling not high enough for me to justify using him over Gronk, Olsen, Kelce, or my preferred tight end sleeper, Richard Rodgers.
- Steelers Defense ($3,600) - This is a super-sneaky contrarian play that I'll be looking to get into at least 30% of my lineups. Everyone will be using a defense from a big home favorite, which will leave the Steelers under-owned in a matchup with Peyton Manning. Manning has an awful playoff track record, and threw 17 interceptions in nine games before getting injured. Pittsburgh may very well have the best on paper matchup of any D/ST on the slate.
- Peyton Manning ($6,000) - I'm incredibly conflicted on Manning this week. I've already mentioned his suspect history in playoff games and how bad he's been this season. However, the weakness of Pittsburgh's defense is in their secondary, and Denver's receivers match-up with the Steelers corners so well it's hard not to like Manning at this price tag (and low ownership). Ultimately, I think Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are good enough to bring Manning along for the ride. I'll have 15%-20% exposure.
- C.J. Anderson ($3,700) - Anderson has averaged over six yards per carry in five out of his last six games. He's been the better runner than Ronnie Hillman over the second half of the season, but unfortunately Anderson is no lock to receive more carries than his platoon-mate. Considering Anderson's recent explosiveness and the implied game script, there's a case to be made for him as the RB2 on this slate behind David Johnson.
- Ronnie Hillman ($4,100) - I like Hillman a lot less than Anderson, but since the Broncos insist on trotting him out there for 15 touches per game, I'll be forced to split my Anderson and Hillman shares down the middle. You should too. It can easily be Hillman who benefits most if the Broncos get out to an early lead and take the air out of the ball late in the game.
- Demaryius Thomas ($7,000) - Thomas is a nightmare for the Pittsburgh secondary, as evidenced by his two-touchdown performance against the Steelers in Week 15. He averaged 93.3 receiving yards per game in his 10 games with Manning this season, compared to 61.8 in the six games Manning missed. Given the matchup and Antonio Brown's absence, Thomas' ceiling on this slate is WR1.
- Emmanuel Sanders ($5,800) - Sanders will be matched up against Antwon Blake, PFFs lowest graded cornerback on the slate. When Sanders last faced his old team in Week 15, he exploited the matchup to the tune of a season-high 39.5 fantasy points. The monster performance counted as Sanders' sixth 20+ point fantasy game this season, proving his ceiling is plenty high to help you land in a GPP winner's circle. I'll have lots of lineups that feature both Thomas and Sanders.
- Owen Daniels ($2,500)/Vernon Davis ($2,900) - Don't do this to your rosters.
- Broncos Defense ($3,900) - Denver is my favorite D/ST play of the week. Pittsburgh is not the same team on the road (21.8 points per game away vs. 30.6 at home). They have to face one of the best defenses in the league without two of their best weapons, and their quarterback may not be able to throw past the line of scrimmage. Denver has sacked enemy quarterbacks on 8.32% of their plays this season, the highest rate in the league. If Roethlisberger gets blown up and lands on his shoulder, there's a strong possibility we'll see Landry Jones for extended action. That is a recipe for a deep tournament run.