Wild Card Sunday
1:05 PM ET Game
Buffalo @ Jacksonville
Team Totals: Jaguars 24, Bills 15
After leading the NFL in rushing attempts (527), the Jaguars’ game plan should be simple against a Bills defense that got trampled by enemy backs for a 140/679/4.85/5 rushing line in its last five games, playing musical chairs at linebacker and getting blown off the ball up front. Buffalo also allowed the NFL’s 12th-most running back receptions (89), notable since Leonard Fournette averaged 4.0 targets and 21.6 routes run per game following the Jaguars’ Week 8 bye after averaging 3.3 targets on 13.3 routes to begin the year. Fournette logged a season-high 87% snap rate in last week’s loss to Tennessee, perhaps foreshadowing a true every-down role for the playoffs. On a Jacksonville team favored by nine points at home, Fournette projects as a usage monster in a mouth-watering draw.
Blake Bortles teased down the stretch with a run of improved play against poor defenses that included Indy, Houston, San Francisco, and injury-ruined Seattle only to throw five picks in the final two games, both losses for Jacksonville. Coach Doug Marrone figures to game plan to “hide” Bortles against Buffalo’s stout pass defense, which allowed multiple touchdown throws in just 3-of-16 games and plays zone coverage designed to stamp out big plays and force offenses into longer drives, increasing turnover opportunities. The strategy has worked, as Sean McDermott’s defense yielded the NFL’s seventh-fewest 20-plus-yard completions (42) and ranked sixth in interceptions (18). From scheme and strategy standpoints, this is exactly the style of defense that is likely to cause Bortles fits.
Marqise Lee suffered a Week 15 high ankle sprain and hasn’t played since. If Lee does make it back, his return would affect the usage of other Jags and may put fellow perimeter wideout Dede Westbrook at the most risk. I’m assuming here Lee won’t play, but his situation is worth monitoring closely. … Due to their willingness to concede short conversions in exchange for limiting big plays, the Bills yielded the NFL’s sixth-most catches (197) to wideouts but the 20th-most yards (2,263). Short to intermediate WRs Keenan Allen (12/159/2), Michael Thomas (9/117/0), and Jarvis Landry (10/99/0, 9/92/1) hurt Buffalo most in the second half of the year. Whereas boundary CBs E.J. Gaines and Tre’Davious White were standouts all season, Bills slot CB Leonard Johnson was the most beatable member of Buffalo’s secondary. Allen Hurns ran 97% of his Week 17 routes in the slot and is a DFS sleeper for the Wild Card Round. … The favorite to lead Jacksonville in Week 18 receiving remains Keelan Cole, who dominated targets in the final three games (30) over Westbrook (18) and runs higher-percentage routes to which Buffalo’s zone is most susceptible. … If the Bills employ any shadow coverage with White, Westbrook would be his likeliest adversary. White last got beaten for a touchdown in Week 9 and was credited with a 50.6% completion rate allowed by PFF. Westbrook is best viewed as a big-play-dependent dart throw.
I wouldn’t call Jacksonville a cinch to beat Buffalo due to Bortles’ turnover proneness and the Bills’ ability to create turnovers, but there are an almost-overwhelming number of factors working against Sean McDermott’s club. Foremost is offensive engine LeSean McCoy’s Week 17 ankle sprain, which cost him the second half of last week’s win over Miami and forced him into a walking boot after the game. The tentative expectation is that McCoy will play in Jacksonville, but his effectiveness is no given on a potentially bum wheel against a Jaguars defense that limited enemy running backs to a 197/672/3.42/4 rushing line over its final nine games. The Bills closed out Week 17 with scatback Marcus Murphy and short-yardage specialist Mike Tolbert splitting touches; Murphy logged nine on 21% of the snaps to Tolbert’s eight at 36%. DT Kyle Williams vultured a goal-line TD shortly after McCoy’s third-quarter exit.
Another anti-Bills factor is their poor 2017 home-away splits; Buffalo went 3-5 on the road and averaged 17.6 points in away games versus 20.1 at The Ralph. Tyrod Taylor’s home-road splits date back further; over the past two years, Taylor has a 19:6 TD-to-INT ratio and 7.14 yards-per-attempt average at home versus a 12:4 TD-to-INT ratio and 6.47 YPA on the road. This season, 70% of the sacks taken by Taylor occurred in away games. Taylor’s lone edge is Jacksonville’s allowance of the NFL’s seventh-most quarterback rushing yards (267). Keyed by three lockdown corners, one of the NFL’s most athletic linebacker corps, and a ferocious pass rush, the 2017 Jaguars yielded the league’s third-fewest TD passes (17) while ranking second in both sacks (55) and quarterback hits (113). At home, the Jags held three of their final five opponents to ten points or fewer. By far, they’re the top D/ST play on the board.
Buffalo also enters Week 18 without favorable pass-catcher matchups. Knee-hobbled Kelvin Benjamin is sure to be tied up by Jalen Ramsey, a Defensive Player of the Year favorite and the best player in a Jags secondary that allowed only six enemy wideouts to clear 60 yards and five to top 70 all year. Just three receivers caught more than five passes in a game against the 2017 Jags. The Bills’ three-receiver set is rounded out by inconsistent speedster Deonte Thompson and struggling rookie slot man Zay Jones, who caught 36% of his targets this season. With 4.31 speed, Thompson offers the best chance to haul in a shot play against a Jacksonville defense that did give up useful games to fellow burners Tyler Lockett (4/90/1), Paul Richardson (3/72/1), and T.Y. Hilton (3/51/1) down the stretch. … Charles Clay led the Bills with 27 targets in the final three weeks. His matchup is brutal, of course; the Jaguars allowed the NFL’s fifth-fewest yards (646) to tight ends and stymied Delanie Walker (3/19/0), Jack Doyle (3/16/0), and Jimmy Graham (0/0) over the final five weeks. Clay is a bet-on-volume option in the Wild Card Round.
Score Prediction: Jaguars 20, Bills 13
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4:40 PM ET Game
Carolina @ New Orleans
Team Totals: Saints 28, Panthers 20.5
In a meaningful Week 17 game at Atlanta where Carolina had a chance to sneak into the NFC’s No. 2 seed and earn a first-round bye, Cam Newton turned in arguably his worst performance of the season, missing on his first nine throws of the game, finishing with year lows in completion rate (41.2%) and passer rating (31.5), and throwing three interceptions with two fumbles in the Panthers’ 22-10 loss. With erratic accuracy and poor mechanics – specifically shoddy footwork -- Cam threw for fewer than 200 yards in seven of the final nine weeks and saw his yards per pass attempt (6.7) drop for the third straight year. When he slumps as a passer, Cam’s value becomes tied almost entirely to his athleticism, which he of course puts to great and voluminous use with 40-plus rushing yards and/or a rushing TD in 13 of his final 14 starts. The Saints showed regular season vulnerability to dual-threat quarterbacks, allowing the NFL’s fourth-most rushing yards (307) to the position. New Orleans’ pass defense finished strong with shutdown rookie CB Marshon Lattimore healthy, however, holding enemy passers to a 4:9 TD-to-INT ratio in the final month. Barring Newton’s light bulb flipping on as a passer, the Panthers’ chances of generating Wild Card Round offense at the Superdome will likely live or die with Cam’s legs.
Jonathan Stewart (back) will return after missing Week 17. He logged touch counts of 13 and 11 in two regular season meetings with New Orleans, totaling 61 and 45 yards and scoring a two-yard touchdown in the second game. Stewart’s DFS appeal is always almost entirely goal-line-score driven, and New Orleans allowed the NFL’s 11th-fewest rushing TDs to running backs in 2017. Stewart drew just four passing-game targets in his final nine games, catching two for eight yards. … Christian McCaffrey’s touch counts were also 13 and 11 against New Orleans, good for total-yardage/touchdown results of 117/0 and 49/1. The Saints pose an above-average matchup for McCaffrey’s receiving-oriented skill set after yielding the NFL’s 14th-most receiving yards (737) and second-most receiving touchdowns (5) to backs. McCaffrey ranks second on the Panthers in red-zone targets (13) and first in targets inside the ten (8).
Newton’s Weeks 15-17 target distribution: Greg Olsen 27; McCaffrey 19; Devin Funchess 12; Brenton Bersin and Kaelin Clay 8; Ed Dickson 3; Stewart 2. … Funchess’ two regular season stat lines against the Saints were 4/58/0 and 4/60/1 on 10 and 7 targets. Lattimore missed the second game with an ankle injury but figures to primarily match up with Funchess on Sunday. Per PFF, quarterbacks went 16-of-30 (53.3%) passing for 273 yards, zero touchdowns, and three interceptions when targeting Lattimore in the final month, despite the fact that Lattimore matched up with Julio Jones twice and Mike Evans once in that four-week span. … Olsen has dominated targets lately, but an inefficient Newton has caused inefficiency for his pass catchers. And the Saints shut down tight ends all season, allowing the NFL’s fewest catches (53) and yards (577) to the position while notably stymieing Cameron Brate (3/33/0, 1/9/0), Kyle Rudolph (3/26/1), Julius Thomas (2/29/0), Austin Hooper (2/23/0, 3/18/0), Charles Clay (2/13/0), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (2/13/0), and Eric Ebron (1/9/0). … With Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd on I.R. and Russell Shepard demoted, the Panthers’ complementary pass catchers in last week’s loss to Atlanta were Clay, Bersin, and Dickson. Clay ran the most routes (31), but Bersin drew the most targets (4) and ran a team-high 56% of his routes in the slot, where the Saints were beaten by Cooper Kupp (8/116/0), Adam Humphries (7/102/0), Mohamed Sanu (6/83/1), and Jamison Crowder (7/72/0) in the second half of the year. Bersin looks like the best DFS punt of the complementary receiving group.
The Panthers sprung major back-end leaks down the stretch, allowing 305 passing yards per game and an 11:5 TD-to-INT ratio following their Week 11 bye. On 29 and 34 attempts, Drew Brees’ passing-yardage/touchdown results in two 2017 meetings with Ron Rivera’s defense were 220/3 and 269/1. Brees’ volume was limited in large part because New Orleans controlled both games, winning by 21- and 10-point margins. While we can expect Brees’ attempts to elevate if the Panthers play the Saints tougher in these teams’ third affair, another relatively low-volume game will likely result if New Orleans’ running game excels. Although Brees failed to exhibit a high 2017 ceiling, I believe he offers the Wild Card Round’s most passing-yardage upside at the Superdome with the highest team total on slate.
Whereas the Panthers held running backs to a paltry 253/879/3.47/3 rushing line in their 14 non-Saints regular season games, Carolina was rinsed for 39/238/6.10/4 rushing by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in these clubs’ two meetings. The Saints’ matchup-proof running game is keyed by an offensive line that finished No. 2 in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. Ingram’s total-yardage/touchdown results against the Panthers were 86/0 and 122/1 to Kamara’s 42/1 and 126/2, although Adrian Peterson was still siphoning carries in the first meeting. In the passing game, Ingram enters the Wild Card Round with three or more receptions in six of the last seven weeks. Le’Veon Bell (85) was the only NFL running back to catch more passes than Kamara (82) this season, and no back gained more receiving yards (826). The Panthers’ speedy linebacker play makes them one of the NFL’s toughest matchups for running backs in the passing game, but they did allow 11/99/1 receiving to Falcons backs in Week 17. As Kamara began returning kickoffs in the Saints' last two games, he offers correlation appeal with New Orleans' D/ST against a struggling Panthers offense.
Limited by a hamstring injury in New Orleans’ Week 16 win over Atlanta, Michael Thomas resumed his normal role in last week’s loss to the Bucs by playing 91% of the Saints’ offensive snaps and leading the team in targets (8). Thomas has the highest wide receiver floor on the Wild Card slate after catching five-plus passes in 14-of-16 regular season games. Thomas’ matchup is gorgeous against a slumping Carolina secondary that allowed 13 different enemy wideouts to clear 60 yards over the season’s final eight games, including Thomas’ 5/70/1 stat line in Week 13. Thomas dropped 7/87/1 on the Panthers in these clubs’ Week 3 date. … Ted Ginn typically has to deliver on low volume – he topped six targets just twice all year – but this matchup could elevate his role should the Panthers put up a better fight against the Saints’ rushing attack than they did in Weeks 3 and 13. Particularly if Carolina matches No. 1 CB James Bradberry on Thomas, speedster Ginn would primarily draw inconsistent RCB Daryl Worley, who ran a sluggish 4.64 forty coming out of West Virginia. … Saints complementary pass catchers Josh Hill, Brandon Coleman, and Willie Snead played minor roles all season. In Week 17, Hill led the trio in routes run (24) and targets but only drew two. Coleman and Snead form a near-even timeshare at slot receiver.
Score Prediction: Saints 27, Panthers 21