1:05PM ET Game
Cincinnati @ Indianapolis
The first game on Sunday's slate has the Wild Card Round's highest Vegas total (49) with Indianapolis favored by 3.5 points. I think Cincinnati can win if and only if OC Hue Jackson abides by one formula: Putting the ball in Jeremy Hill's belly 25-plus times. Gashed by the Titans' motley running back crew for a combined 18-114 rushing number in Week 17, the Colts finished the regular season ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' run-defense DVOA and allowed the 12th most fantasy points to running backs, including the fifth most rushing scores (14). Here's a stat from Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman: During the eight weeks where Hill handled 17-plus touches this season, the Bengals went 7-1 and Hill led all running backs in fantasy points, averaging 140 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown per game. With Le'Veon Bell (knee) injured and DeMarco Murray facing Detroit, I think you can make a solid case that Hill is the highest-upside daily-league running back play in the playoffs' initial round. ... Giovani Bernard's snap rates are 37%, 37%, and 42% over the past three weeks, with corresponding touch totals of 18, 13, and 10. I expect Bernard to be in the 8-12 touch range at Indianapolis, though that number could increase if the Colts grab a lead and force Jackson to call more pass plays. Gio notched receiving lines of 5-45-1 and 7-56-1 in Weeks 16 and 17, playing more than usual in Cincinnati's loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday night. He's a Week 18 daily-league sleeper who will pay dividends if game flow gets away from the Bengals.
The Colts blew out the Bengals 27-0 when these teams played in October. It's worth remembering he was without A.J. Green (toe), but Andy Dalton went 18-of-38 passing (47.4%) for 126 yards (3.32 YPA) with three sacks taken and a 55.4 quarterback rating. The strength of Colts coach Chuck Pagano's defense is in the air, where Indy finished the regular season No. 10 in Football Outsiders' pass-defense DVOA and limited enemy passers to a 58.9% completion rate, the NFL's sixth stingiest clip. Across three career playoff games, Dalton is 70-of-123 (56.9%) for 718 yards (5.84 YPA) with a 1:6 TD-to-INT ratio and 0-3 record. Especially with both Green and Jermaine Gresham playing beat up, Jackson must do everything he can to keep the ball out of Dalton's hands. ... Dalton's target distribution over the last month: Green 43; Gio 21; Gresham 18; Ryan Hewitt 10; Mohamed Sanu 9; Hill 8; Brandon Tate 6. ... Green appears on track to play after suffering a Week 17 concussion. He's also playing through a biceps injury that has affected Green's ability to raise his arm above his head. Green still secured 8-of-13 targets for 82 yards in last week's loss to Pittsburgh. Hurting and set to run Week 18 routes at physical Colts press corners Vontae Davis and Greg Toler, Green is a less attractive Wild Card Round DFS start than Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, and Calvin Johnson. ... Sanu's target totals over the final five regular season weeks were 3, 3, 3, 2, and 1. He becomes intriguing if and only if Green is unexpectedly inactive for this game. ... Gresham has battled debilitating back and toe ailments in recent weeks. He played Week 17 in a noticeable amount of pain. After failing to practice this week, I'd be concerned Gresham won't last long on Sunday.
Friday Update: The Bengals have listed A.J. Green as doubtful, making it even more obvious that OC Hue Jackson needs to stay committed to his run game on Sunday. Green's absence also puts Mohamed Sanu on the DFS radar. In Green's three missed games this regular season, Sanu posted stat lines of 10-120-1, 3-54-0, and 5-125-0. Sanu's target totals were 14, 9, and 9. It is worth noting that Sanu's 3-54 effort game against these same Colts, who play a ton of man coverage. Sanu struggles to get open versus man. There is some reason to believe Sanu is an excellent Week 18 daily-league sleeper. There is also some reason to believe he could be a daily-league trap.
The Colts dismantled the Bengals in Week 7, totaling 506 yards of offense and controlling possession time 40:20. Indianapolis had one of the worst run games in football in 2014, but still stomped Cincinnati with 166 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries (5.72 YPC) from its running backs. Weak at linebacker and soft in the trenches, the Bengals finished 28th in Football Outsiders' run-defense DVOA. Dan Herron is probably my favorite DFS running back value of the Wild Card Round because his matchup is ideal and he has safely overtaken Trent Richardson. Whereas Herron started each of Indy's final two games, handling snap rates of 46% and 45%, T-Rich came off the bench en route to playing-time clips of 28% and 21%. It was particularly telling that Herron exited after the first drive of the third quarter in last week's meaningless win over Tennessee. Richardson and Zurlon Tipton handled second-half backfield duties with Matt Hasselbeck in the game. OC Pep Hamilton similarly phased Richardson out of his offense in last year's two playoff games, giving him touch totals of 1 and 3. Donald Brown took over as the bellcow, touching the ball 15 and 18 times. I think we'll see Herron in the Brown role versus Cincinnati. And with actual things on the line, I doubt we'll see much T-Rich. ... Andrew Luck cooked Cincinnati at the short and intermediate levels in Week 7, ripping off five pass plays of 20-plus yards. The Bengals could not stop Indy on posts and crossers. I still think we'll see a solid effort from a Cincinnati defense whose strength is standout secondary play. DC Paul Guenther's unit has limited opposing quarterbacks to an 18:20 TD-to-INT ratio and 75.8 passer rating, the NFL's third stingiest mark. The Bengals' regular season pass rush was lacking, but the Colts' offensive line is bad enough to spark it. Bengals LE Carlos Dunlap will cause matchup problems for fill-in Colts RT Joe Reitz, who is starting in place of Gosder Cherilus (knee).
It's fair to wonder how healthy T.Y. Hilton will be against the Bengals. He missed Week 16 with a hamstring strain and was pulled 27 snaps into Week 17 after failing to secure any of his three targets. The Colts seem to think Hilton will be fine -- and perhaps he will be -- but hamstring injuries and wide receivers often don't mix well. I think Hilton's effectiveness is a major Week 18 question mark. ... There is so much health uncertainty in Indianapolis' deep pass-catcher corps that forecasting which player will benefit or have a big game is difficult. And no member of the group has an especially enticing Wild Card Round matchup. Dwayne Allen will play against the Bengals, but missed Week 17 with a knee injury and was banged up for much of the season's second half. Allen may be asked to help Reitz block Dunlap frequently in this game. Attempting to play through a torn triceps, Reggie Wayne was brutally ineffective over the final month and a half and pulled his groin in last Sunday's win over Tennessee. Coby Fleener, Donte Moncrief, and Hakeem Nicks are healthy, but have been hit-or-miss producers. I'm sure one or two of these players will have a big game, but I can't pretend to know whom it will be. Despite this game's lofty Vegas total and Luck's presence at quarterback, I'm avoiding Colts pass catchers in Week 18 DFS.
Score Prediction: Bengals 24, Colts 23
4:40PM ET Game
Detroit @ Dallas
An unstoppable force meets an immovable object when Dallas' No. 2-ranked rushing offense plays host to Detroit's league-best run defense Sunday evening. The Lions finished the regular season No. 1 in run defense, No. 1 in yards-per-carry allowed (3.17), and No. 1 in Football Outsiders' run-defense DVOA. The Cowboys have stayed dedicated to the run through thick and thin and I think DeMarco Murray is a good bet for 20-plus carries, but it's worth pondering whether a ground-game commitment would be Dallas' best means of moving the Week 18 chains. Understandably over the course of a 392-carry campaign, Murray slowed down in late November and December, managing a 3.93 YPC average across his final five games. He averaged 5.07 in the initial 11. Murray's workload is secure and he's a good bet for a goal-line score or two, but I think this game sets up better for a Dez Bryant blowup. ... Whilst Murray was fading, Tony Romo was exploding, completing 74.8% of his passes with an 8.89 YPA and 12:1 TD-to-INT ratio over the season's final month. Quietly almost, Romo led the NFL in 2014 completion percentage (69.9%), touchdown rate (7.8% of his throws went for six), yards per attempt (8.5), and quarterback rating (113.2). Detroit's front seven is very disruptive, but Romo's quick release can mitigate opposing pass rush, and the Lions' secondary can be had. Detroit allowed multiple touchdown passes in six of its final seven games while permitting 250-plus-yard passing efforts to the likes of Drew Stanton, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, and Teddy Bridgewater. In Wild Card Round daily fantasy, Romo is every bit as justifiable a play as Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and Cam Newton.
Romo's target distribution over the season's final month: Dez Bryant 26; Jason Witten 25; Cole Beasley 19; Murray 14; Terrance Williams 11; Lance Dunbar 4. ... The Lions are vulnerable to plus-sized wide receivers, surrendering stat lines of 2-54-2 (Michael Floyd), 9-98 (Brandon LaFell), 9-71-2 (Alshon Jeffery), 10-159 (Vincent Jackson), 4-45-2 (Mike Evans), 5-72 (Charles Johnson), 6-72-1 (Jeffery again), and 6-86 (Jordy Nelson) over their final seven regular season games. All of those wideouts stand 6-foot-2 or taller, and Dez goes 6-foot-2, 224. If Antonio Brown is the best bet among Wild Card Round wide receivers, Dez is a close No. 2. ... Detroit also showed susceptibility to tight ends this year, allowing the fourth most receptions (84) in the league to the position. I like Witten as a top-three DFS tight end play this week. ... Williams plays more snaps than Beasley, but the latter's passing-game role was bigger down the stretch. Williams didn't see more than five targets in any of Dallas' last seven games, goose egging twice during that span. I think this will be a Dez-Witten game and would avoid the Cowboys' complementary receivers in daily-league lineups.
The on-field performances were mixed, but Matthew Stafford finished his first season under rookie OC Joe Lombardi on a statistical high note. He completed 119-of-187 passes (63.6%) for 1,314 yards (7.03 YPA) and a 9:2 TD-to-INT ratio across Detroit's final five games. The Cowboys' pass defense was inconsistent over the course of the year, finishing 22nd in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric and 28th in sacks (28). Talent deficient on DC Rod Marinelli's side of the ball, Dallas effectively uses its high-volume rushing attack to mask its defense, ranking first in the NFL in time of possession. Only four teams played fewer defensive snaps than the 2014 Cowboys. I think Stafford is a sleeper for a big Wild Card game because Dallas likely will not be able to control the clock against Detroit, forcing a sub-par Cowboys defense onto the field more. ... Dallas' run defense stiffened in the season's final month, holding Bears, Colts, Eagles, and Redskins running backs to a combined 187 yards on 62 carries (3.01 YPC). Although Joique Bell remained Dallas' lead runner, the healthy return of Reggie Bush ate into Bell's stretch-run usage. Bell's workload dipped in four straight weeks to close out the year, while Bush registered touch totals of 12, 4, 13, and 8 in Weeks 14-17. The Lions also use Theo Riddick in some passing-specific packages. Whereas Riddick and Bush combined for 23 pass targets the past two weeks, Bell only saw three. Bell will get any and all goal-line work, but he doesn't appear to the good bet for 20 or so touches he was closer to midseason. I think there are better DFS running back plays this week.
Stafford's target distribution in Weeks 14-17: Calvin Johnson 38; Golden Tate 29; Bush 21; Bell 14; Eric Ebron 12; Riddick 10; Jeremy Ross 6. ... Marinelli's Cover 2-style defense is designed specifically to limit big plays on the perimeter. Cowboys LCB Brandon Carr has still been frequently victimized for chunk-yardage gains and touchdowns, and Megatron is going to run a lot of routes against him in perhaps the biggest mismatch of the Wild Card Round. Megatron is capable of having a monster game, but schematically Tate and Ebron could also give Dallas fits. Tate is a classic zone-beating slot receiver who will be asked by Lombardi to find soft spots in the middle of the field. Although his rookie season was poor, Ebron is a Week 18 DFS sleeper with a cheap price tag. The top-ten draft pick logged a 61% snap rate in Week 17, and during the regular season Dallas allowed the most receptions (109), second most yards (1,052), and seventh most touchdowns (10) in the league to tight ends.
Score Prediction: Cowboys 27, Lions 24