New England @ Denver
Pats-Broncos has a 44.5-point game total with visiting New England favored by three. The Patriots' team total is just below 24 in Denver. ... The limitations on and/or ineffectiveness of slot CB Chris Harris (shoulder) are a major concern for the Broncos' defense against the Patriots' inside-the-numbers passing game. Playing "with one arm" as described by coach Gary Kubiak, Pro Football Focus charged Harris with 122 yards allowed against Antonio Brown-less Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round. With Harris shuttling on and off the field, the Broncos experienced miscommunications that left Darrius Heyward-Bey, Sammie Coates, and Martavis Bryant wide open for huge gains. His pass-catcher corps back near full strength, Tom Brady is arguably the top quarterback play on this two-game DFS slate. A high volume of pass attempts is likely for Brady as the Patriots continue their quick-out passing attack. Brady topped 40 attempts in last Saturday's win over the Chiefs and dialed up 45 dropbacks when New England visited Denver in Week 12. I think the Pats will beat the Broncos by imposing their will with the pass and playing solid defense. ... New England's game plan figures to mirror last week's versus Kansas City, wherein James White led Patriots backs in snap rate (72%) but logged only three touches. Steven Jackson played 29% of the downs and has a pitiful 27-56-1 (2.07 YPC) rushing line through three games as a Patriot. Brandon Bolden's snaps have dipped in four straight weeks and he focused on special teams versus the Chiefs. Although White is the best DFS option in the group, he is at best the No. 4 running back option in the Conference Championship Round.
Despite reports Rob Gronkowski's (back, knee) availability would come down to a game-time decision in the Divisional Round, Gronk was a full-go against the Chiefs with a 7-83-2 stat line on 91% of the snaps. Patriots tight ends ripped up Denver's backend in these clubs' Week 12 date, with Gronk and Scott Chandler combining for 11-146-2. As Gronk exited that game early due to a low blow from Broncos FS Darian Stewart and missed the next week, this is something of a #RevengeGame. The Broncos allowed the eighth most yards to tight ends this regular season. ... No NFL team consistently exploits opponents' weaknesses better than the Patriots, who will almost certainly attack Denver's coverage in the middle of the field with Harris ailing. Although Danny Amendola had a slow Divisional Round (2-18-0), he did log a robust 76% playing-time clip and should see more Week 20 usage as New England's primary slot receiver. Although he does not offer the floor or ceiling of Julian Edelman, Amendola will be a significantly lower-owned DFS play and could be a major part of the Patriots' matchup-based game plan. ... Edelman will see lots of LCB Aqib Talib, but moves around more than any New England receiver and will get chances against struggling RCB Bradley Roby as well as banged-up Harris. Edelman played over half of his 2015 snaps in the slot. Edelman was highly effective in his Week 19 return from foot surgery, catching ten balls and totaling 111 yards on an 88% snap rate. In Denver, Edelman is the favorite to lead the Patriots in receptions. ... Brandon LaFell's target counts are 5, 4, 1, and 5 in New England's last four games, failing to clear 40 receiving yards in six of his last seven. The passing-game environment is favorable and LaFell's matchup isn't imposing versus Roby, but LaFell's recent usage and production don't seem to bode positively for his Week 20 results.
As three-point dogs versus New England, the Broncos' team total is just under 21 points in AFC title week. ... "Our defense is what's guiding us. Let's be clear," were Peyton Manning's words after last Sunday's win over Pittsburgh. A limited game manager now, Manning's role versus the Patriots will be to protect the ball, eat clock, keep Brady off the field, and make advantageous pre-snap adjustments. Peyton has been particularly dreadful at home this season, going 93-of-162 passing (57.4%) for 1,054 yards (6.52 YPA) with a 1:8 TD-to-INT ratio across six games at Mile High. He topped 225 passing yards in one of those games. Now facing a Pats pass defense that finished 2015 second in sacks (49) and 13th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, Manning is a strong DFS target for New England's D/ST. ... The Broncos' best hope of generating offense will be on the ground, where C.J. Anderson (15-113-2) and Ronnie Hillman (14-59-1) had success running on New England in Week 12. Patriots SLB Jamie Collins (illness) was inactive for that game, however, while WLB Dont'a Hightower (knee) left in the second quarter. Both should be at or near full strength in this rematch. Despite Anderson's superior effectiveness, the Broncos have maintained an even backfield split, playing Anderson on 50% of their Week 19 downs and Hillman on 45%. Anderson logged 17 touches to Hillman's 16. Anderson has severely outplayed Hillman since Denver's Week 7 bye, averaging 6.12 yards per carry with six touchdowns on 100 rushing attempts compared to Hillman's 3.68 YPC clip and five scores on 157 runs. The Broncos will be hurting themselves if they continue to utilize Hillman equally at Anderson's expense.
Peyton's Divisional Round target distribution: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders 8; Jordan Norwood and Bennie Fowler 4; Anderson and Owen Daniels 3; Cody Latimer, Andre Caldwell, and Virgil Green 2; Hillman 1. ... In Week 12, the Patriots shadowed Sanders (6-113-0) with Malcolm Butler and put Logan Ryan on Thomas (1-36-0) with safety help. A repeat seems likely, perhaps with Butler getting more help in the rematch. It's worth remembering that Brock Osweiler was playing quarterback for Denver at the time. As Butler and Ryan both turned in strong 2015s, the matchup for neither Broncos wideout stands out as attractive, though Butler has played better than Ryan lately. ... Based on playing time, the top DFS punt among Denver's complementary wideouts is situational slot man Norwood, who logged 41% of the Divisional Round snaps compared to 36% for Caldwell, 28% for Fowler, and 8% for Latimer. Slot corner Justin Coleman is the biggest liability in New England's secondary. ... The Patriots permitted the NFL's fourth fewest receptions (64) and third fewest yards (630) to tight ends this season. They held Travis Kelce to 6-23-0 on nine targets last week, and Daniels to 5-48-0 in Week 12. All in all, the outlooks for Broncos pass catchers appear bleak on paper considering the tough matchups New England presents and Denver's poor quarterback play.
Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Broncos 13
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Arizona @ Carolina
Cardinals-Panthers has the biggest game total of conference title week at 48 points, with host Carolina favored by three. The Panthers' team total is 25.5. ... Cam Newton is on fire over his last ten games, going 195-of-302 passing (64.6%) for 2,475 yards (8.20 YPA) and a 25:2 TD-to-INT ratio with six additional rushing scores. Carolina is averaging 34 points per game during that stretch. The Panthers' offense plays faster at home, where they haven't lost since November 16 of 2014. Playoffs included, Carolina has won 12 straight games at Bank of America Stadium. Arizona plays aggressive, largely stingy defense, but the Panthers have consistently shown the ability to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and their quarterback is playing at a career-best clip. I like the Panthers to win this game with Cam as the offensive centerpiece. Under both James Bettcher and Todd Bowles, Arizona's man-coverage defense has historically struggled versus dual-threat quarterbacks. The Cardinals allowed the overall QB6 fantasy performance to Russell Wilson in Week 17, and a top-12 finish to Wilson in Week 10. In 2014, Colin Kaepernick finished as the QB12 and QB4 in his two meetings with Arizona, while Wilson dropped QB9 and QB1 weeks on Bowles' group. ... The Cards have shown small-sample run-defense leakiness recently, yielding 310 yards on 61 carries (5.08 YPC) to enemy backs in their last three games. Arizona coughed up big runs to Eddie Lacy in the Divisional Round and a 17-carry, 102-yard effort to Christine Michael in Week 17. The Cardinals' run-defense backslide has coincided with year-ending injuries to slot CB Tyrann Mathieu (ACL), OLB Alex Okafor (toe), and DE Cory Redding (ankle). Jonathan Stewart hung a 24-123-1 rushing line on the Cardinals in last year's playoff date and is a good bet for 20 more workmanlike touches in this rematch.
Newton's targets in Ted Ginn's last six games played: Greg Olsen 45; Ginn 31; Jerricho Cotchery 26; Corey Brown 23; Devin Funchess 20; Mike Tolbert 10; Ed Dickson 8. ... The Cardinals allowed the sixth most receptions in the league to tight ends this regular season and gave up big games to the position down the stretch, ceding 8-71-1 to Seahawks TEs in Week 17, 10-109-1 to Eagles TEs in Week 15, and 9-144 to Vikings TEs the week before. Mathieu's loss has weakened Arizona's coverage in the middle of the field. This is a plus matchup for Olsen, who should be leaned on especially heavily if Patrick Peterson shadows Ginn. ... Peterson followed James Jones (0-0) wherever he went in last week's win over Green Bay and figures to apply similar treatment to Ginn, whose receiving lines in his last two games are 1-9-0 and 0-0. Against struggling RCB Justin Bethel, Carolina will need more contributions from its complementary wideouts than usual this week. ... Brown led that group in playing time (75%) in the Divisional Round, with slot man Cotchery logging 54% of the downs and Funchess a 34% snap rate. Brown has theoretical big-play ability, but hasn't cleared 60 receiving yards in a game all season. Funchess' playing-time shortage has rendered him an inconsistent, largely pedestrian producer with 30 or fewer yards in six of his last seven games. 33-year-old Cotchery should have opportunities to move the chains against inconsistent slot CB Jerraud Powers, who is playing in place of Mathieu.
As three-point dogs in Carolina, the Cardinals' team total is 22.5 points in Week 20. ... Carson Palmer should have ample passing-game opportunities against Carolina, which has given up 300-plus yards passing in three straight games while showing vulnerability minus slot corner Bene Benwikere (broken leg) and RCB Charles Tillman (ACL). Fill-in RCB Robert McClain was torched by Jermaine Kearse (11-110-2) last week. Fill-in slot CB Cortland Finnegan had trouble staying with Doug Baldwin (8-82) and Luke Willson (4-54). Although I do believe Carolina will win this game, I think Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald could have big box scores on the other side. Palmer would stand to benefit. ... Despite a healthier Andre Ellington, David Johnson remained the Cardinals' every-down back in last Saturday's win over Green Bay, logging 88% of the snaps and 21 touches compared to Ellington's three touches on 11% of the downs. The Panthers have played mediocre run defense over their last six games, ceding 438 yards and three touchdowns on 105 carries (4.17 YPC) to opposing running backs. Although he flopped as a DFS play last week, Johnson maintains the highest usage projection among running backs on the Conference Championship slate, and his matchup isn't quite as daunting as it may seem. Johnson offers particularly big PPR upside against a Panthers defense that allowed the NFL's second most receptions (110) to running backs this season.
Divisional Round hero Fitzgerald has the path of least resistance in Arizona's receiver corps. Fitz runs nearly 60% of his routes in the slot, where he'll take on 32-year-old journeyman Finnegan after Seahawks slot man Doug Baldwin caught eight balls against Carolina last week. After last Saturday night's 8-176-1 explosion versus Green Bay, Fitzgerald is averaging 114 yards with ten touchdowns in eight career playoff games. ... Rather than utilize top CB Josh Norman to shadow last week, the Panthers employed Norman at left cornerback only, where he mainly dealt with Tyler Lockett (3-75-1) in coverage. Norman has been mortal over his last four games, giving up 163 yards and two touchdowns on 24 targets, 16 of which (66.7%) have been complete. He still needs to be viewed as a difficult matchup, of course, but the charting stats are notable with Norman set to face a near-equal distribution of Floyd and John Brown in Week 20. Floyd does run a small majority of his routes against right cornerbacks (McClain), and theoretically has a slightly better draw than Brown. Brown sees more slot action than Floyd, however, and will get plenty of chances against slow-footed Finnegan. In DFS tournaments, Floyd's superior recent production will lead to a far higher ownership rate. And while I would agree Floyd is the better on-paper play, rostering Brown would be a great way to secure monster big-play ability and diversify oneself from much of the field. 4.34 speedster Brown has been no slouch himself lately, clearing 80 yards and/or hitting pay dirt in all but one of Arizona's last eight games.
Score Prediction: Panthers 27, Cardinals 23