Down to the final three games of the NFL season, only four teams remain.
This Sunday, the Patriots head to Denver to take on the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. The victor will take on the winner of the NFC title game between the Seahawks and 49ers in Superbowl XLVIII.
Down below are positional rankings and analysis at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker, and defense. Standard scoring is assumed.
Snaps and cornerback matchup data provided by ProFootballFocus.com
1. Peyton Manning – DEN (vs. NE)
In the eight games prior to their Week 9 bye, the Broncos averaged five offensive touchdowns per game. In nine games since, they’ve averaged 3.8. That is a massive drop, but consider that the 3.8 mark is still more than a half touchdown higher than what the Eagles – No. 2 in the category at 3.2 – put up all season. This is unquestionably one of the best offenses in NFL history. Denver is also No. 1 in offensive plays and 77 percent of its touchdowns are of the passing variety (fourth-highest in the league). Of course, Manning did struggle in New England when these teams met in Week 12. He completed 19 of 36 attempts for 150 yards, two scores, and one interception. The New England defense won’t allow for a walk in the park, but Denver will have an easier time at home this time around. A good bet for at least 300 yards and three scores, Manning is easily this week’s top quarterback option.
2. Tom Brady – NE (@ DEN)
The Patriots scored six touchdowns on Saturday. Brady scored zero. New England has been extremely run heavy over its last three games, calling 81 passes and 123 runs. Brady has thrown only two touchdowns during those three games. The Patriots will look to keep Manning off the field by running the ball a ton again this week, which would theoretically limit Brady’s fantasy upside. Denver figures to put up plenty of points, however, which will provide Brady with plenty of opportunities to throw the ball. Note that opponents of the Broncos have called pass 64 percent of the time this season, which is third-highest in the NFL. Playing from behind when these teams met in Week 12, Brady went 34-of-50 for 344 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He’s not a bad play in day-gaming formats.
3. Russell Wilson – SEA (vs. SF)
Following a stretch of two or more passing touchdowns in six straight games, Wilson has now totaled just four passing scores over his last five games. He hasn’t thrown for more than one touchdown in a single game since Week 13. In two meetings with San Francisco this season, Wilson went 23-of-44 (52 percent) for 341 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and 35 rushing yards. The 49ers haven’t allowed a quarterback to reach three passing touchdowns since Week 1. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even a fantasy expert) to figure out that Wilson makes for an underwhelming play against the 49ers this weekend.
4. Colin Kaepernick – SF (@ SEA)
It may shock you to realize that Kaepernick has thrown at least three touchdowns in a single game only twice this season. The last one came in Week 12. In fact, Kaepernick has now totaled nine passing scores over his last seven games. And it gets worse. In the first two meetings between these two teams, Kaepernick completed 28 of 57 passes (49 percent) for 302 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions. And we thought Wilson’s numbers were underwhelming. If you started Kaepernick in either of those games, you were bailed out a bit by his legs. He ran the ball nine times in both affairs for a total of 118 yards. The Seattle defense has allowed 17 passing scores in 17 games this season. That includes a total of five over its last seven games. Kaepernick is the best bet to lead the position in rushing yards this weekend, but he’s easily the worst fantasy play.
1. Marshawn Lynch – SEA (vs. SF)
Lynch matched a season-high with 28 carries against the Saints on Saturday. His first and only other 28-carry game of the season came in Week 2 against the 49ers. Efficiency was a problem for Lynch in both matchups against San Francisco this season, but he still put up strong fantasy numbers thanks to a massive workload. He totaled 48 carries for 170 yards (3.5 YPC) and three touchdowns, while also adding a score and 37 yards as a receiver. San Francisco is excellent against the run and has allowed only six rushing touchdowns since Week 4. Lynch will get the rock a ton in this game, especially if Seattle can establish an early lead. It’s close, but he’s your best tailback option.
2. Knowshon Moreno – DEN (vs. NE)
Last week, we suggested that Moreno would see near two-thirds of the Broncos’ carries during the postseason. He saw 68 percent (23 total) against San Diego, which suggests our expectations were on track. That’s the good news. The concerning news is that, as a team, Denver has just one rushing score over its last five games. Touchdowns, of course, are quite volatile, so while the scoring slump is a slight concern, it’s not worth downgrading him too far. Moreno touched the ball an absurd 38 times when these teams met in Week 12. He racked up 224 rushing yards and a score on 37 carries, while also adding a catch for six yards. The Patriots are decent, at best, against the run. Considering the better matchup and his role as a receiver, Moreno is arguably this week’s top fantasy option at running back.
3. LeGarrette Blount – NE (@ DEN)
After scoring six rushing touchdowns on Saturday, the Patriots now have an incredible 24 scores on the ground over their last 12 games. Blount has been a big part of that, finding paydirt four times against the Colts. Playing with the lead for much of the night, the Patriots called run on 25 of Blount’s 27 snaps. Although he managed 24 carries, note that this is still very much a committee. Blount handled 52 percent of the team’s carries on Saturday and sits at 50 percent over New England’s last five games. This is important, because he will lose a lot of work to Shane Vereen if Denver jumps way ahead early. Note that Blount has seen only three targets all season long. When these teams met earlier this year, Blount only saw two carries. After allowing at least one rushing touchdown in 14 of its first 15 games, the Denver defense hasn’t allowed a single rushing score over its last three. Blount’s carry numbers figure to dip this week, but he still has a decent shot at a touchdown.
4. Frank Gore – SF (@ SEA)
Gore is one of the best pure runners still alive in the playoffs, but he’s going to have his hands full with a tough Seattle run defense this Sunday. He struggled to 30 total yards on 10 touches when these teams last met in Seattle. He bounced back at home with 110 yards on 17 carries in Week 14. The Seattle defense allowed a rushing touchdown to Khiry Robinson on Saturday. That was the first one surrendered since Week 7. Gore saw a pair of targets on Sunday, which matched his total from his previous four games. It’s hard to find much upside here, but Gore is a sure bet for 15 or so touches.
5. Shane Vereen – NE (@ DEN)
Vereen struggled on the ground, but caught eight of 11 targets for 60 yards in the Week 12 meeting between these teams. I lead with that because there’s a good chance he puts up a similar line this weekend. The Patriots are the clear underdog and the expectation is that they’ll try to establish the run early before being forced to play catchup in the second half. This means a lot of snaps, routes, and targets for Vereen. Averaging a massive 20 percent of the New England targets when active this season, Vereen has a very high ceiling this weekend.
6. Stevan Ridley – NE (@ DEN)
With Blount playing well, Ridley is now the Patriots’ clear No. 2 ball-carrier. New England has run it a ton lately, though, which has allowed him to average 14 carries per game over his last three outings. He’ll struggle to reach that mark if New England plays from behind, as expected, this weekend. Ridley managed only four carries for 14 yards when these teams met earlier this season.
7. Montee Ball – DEN (vs. NE)
Game situation allowed Denver to call 34 runs in Sunday’s win over San Diego. That landed Ball 10 carries, which the rookie turned into a strong 52 yards. He’ll remain involved against New England, but as we pointed out last week, Moreno tends to see a much larger piece of the pie in competitive games. Ball racked up 40 yards on seven carries in the first meeting.
8. Kendall Hunter – SF (@ SEA)
Hunter managed nine carries against the Panthers, which was his highest total since Week 8. He was also targeted for the first time since Week 10. He only saw five carries in two meetings with Seattle this season. He totaled nine yards.
9. Robert Turbin – SEA (vs. SF)
Turbin only carried the ball three times on Sunday and has seen one target since Week 11. He totaled eight carries for 43 yards and zero catches on two targets against the 49ers during the regular season.
10. Anthony Dixon – SF (@ SEA)
Dixon played fullback on all but three of his 27 snaps on Saturday.
11. James Develin – NE (@ DEN)
12. Michael Robinson – SF (@ SEA)
13. LaMichael James – SF (@ SEA)
14. Derrick Coleman – SEA (vs. SF)
15. Ronnie Hillman/C.J. Anderson – DEN (vs. NE)
16. Brandon Bolden – NE (@ DEN)
1. Demaryius Thomas – DEN (vs. NE)
Thomas was targeted 10 times against San Diego, which brings him to eight 10-plus target games this season. Manning likes to spread the ball around, but Thomas remains his No. 1 target. Same as when these two teams met in Week 12, Thomas can expect to be shadowed by Aqib Talib. Thomas was held to four catches for 41 yards and one score on nine targets in that game. For what it’s worth, Talib shadowed T.Y. Hilton on Saturday, lining up across from him on 59 of Hilton’s 60 snaps. Talib did a nice job on Thomas the first time around, but he’s far from impenetrable. Thomas is your top wide receiver bet in non-PPR formats.
2. Julian Edelman – NE (@ DEN)
Another week saw yet another episode of Edelman handling an insanely high percentage of Brady’s targets. Edelman has now seen eight or more targets in seven consecutive games. That may not seem like much, but consider that it works out to 31 percent of the team’s targets. That includes 41 percent of the targets over New England’s last three games. Edelman caught nine of 11 targets for 110 yards and two scores in the first meeting between these teams. Moving all around the formation, it’s hard to nail down who he’ll see in coverage. Denver has used Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as a shadow corner on occasion and that could make sense here with Edelman seeing so much work. If not, 34-year-old Quentin Jammer figures to be on him the most. Jammer is replacing standout Chris Harris Jr., who tore his ACL during Sunday’s win. It would be a clear plus matchup for Edelman. Consistently Brady’s No. 1 target, Edelman is your top bet at wide receiver in PPR and arguably No. 1 in standard.
3. Eric Decker – DEN (vs. NE)
With five targets, Decker was last among Denver’s “Big Four” in the category on Sunday. Of course, with Peyton Manning under center, that may just mean he’s in line to lead the unit against New England. Decker’s 140 targets on the season are second-most on the team and trails Thomas by only eight. It’s worth noting that Decker has seen six or fewer targets in a game six times this season. All six of those occasions came during the team’s last nine games. Blanketed by Logan Ryan (and some Alfonzo Dennard) in the first meeting, Decker hauled in just one of four targets for five yards. Dennard figures to cover him most often this time around.
4. Wes Welker – DEN (vs. NE)
Back after a three-game absence due to a concussion, Welker hauled in six of his nine targets for 38 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Welker now has 11 scores in 14 games this season. He’ll continue to be a near every-down player in Denver’s high-scoring offense. Shadowed by Kyle Arrington, Welker caught only half of his eight targets for 31 yards in the first meeting. Arrington was seemingly benched in favor of Logan Ryan during Sunday’s win, but Ryan usually plays outside. That made sense at the time with Talib handling Hilton in the slot. Assuming Arrington returns to his normal role, he’ll be on Welker all game long.
5. Anquan Boldin – SF (@ SEA)
Boldin continues to rack up enormous target totals despite the presence of Michael Crabtree. Kaepernick looked Boldin’s way 12 times on Sunday, which worked out to 42 percent of the team’s targets. The 33-year-old is now averaging nine targets per game since Crabtree’s return. Boldin managed only one catch for seven yards on four targets when these teams met in Seattle in Week 2. He rebounded for a six-catch, 93-yard performance on eight targets in Week 14. Similar to Edelman, Boldin lines up all over the field. He’ll see Walter Thurmond III most often in coverage, but Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell will be in the mix, as well. All three corners are playing well this year. Sherman mostly stuck to his side (left corner) in both meetings. He lined up opposite Boldin 25 times in each game.
6. Michael Crabtree – SF (@ SEA)
Crabtree and Boldin have swapped the team-lead in targets nearly each week since the former returned in Week 13. Crabtree is averaging 7.1 targets per game in those seven affairs, which works out to a very respectable 27 percent of the team’s targets. He didn’t play when these teams last met in Seattle, but caught four of his eight targets for 40 yards in the second meeting. Crabtree barely lines up in the slot and is usually to the left of Kaepernick. He’ll see Maxwell most often in coverage, with Sherman on him about 30 percent of the line. The two faced off 19 times in Week 14.
7. Percy Harvin – SEA (vs. SF)
Appearing in only his second game of 2013 this past weekend, Harvin lasted only19 plays before suffering a concussion. He was plenty involved, however, running 12 routes and carrying the ball once. Despite leaving the game after 35 team snaps, Harvin still managed to see 25 percent (four total) of the team’s targets. Tentatively expected to play this week, he’ll again see a large workload. He won’t have much trouble getting open against San Francisco slot man Perrish Cox. Harvin is obviously a very risky play, but the ceiling here is enormous.
8. Danny Amendola – NE (@ DEN)
Prior to Kenbrell Thompkins leaving Saturday’s game with a head injury, he had played 38 snaps to Amendola’s 27. Although that doesn’t provide a ton of optimism for Amendola going forward, he gets a slight edge due to Thompkins’ questionable status for Sunday. Although Amendola only saw five targets in the win, it worked out to a healthy 22 percent of Brady’s looks. New England’s primary slot man can expect to see Champ Bailey in coverage on a majority of his routes this weekend. Amendola was targeted six times, but caught only three balls for 17 yards when these teams met in Week 12.
9. Kenbrell Thompkins – NE (@ DEN)
As mentioned, Thompkins was working as New England’s No. 2 wide receiver prior to a head injury that knocked him out of the game. While active, however, he was unable to haul in any of his three targets. Thompkins caught six of nine targets for 56 yards when these teams met in Week 12. If he plays (and Aaron Dobson remains out), Thompkins makes for a high-risk, high-reward option.
10. Golden Tate – SEA (vs. SF)
Prior to Harvin’s premature exit on Saturday, the Seattle wide receiver snap split was as follows: Doug Baldwin – 25 (of 35 team snaps), Tate – 24, Jermaine Kearse – 19, Harvin – 19. Clearly, Seattle is rolling with a committee attack at the position. Harvin is the best playmaker and Kearse is an excellent run blocker. The committee approach limits Tate’s upside, but he did see 25 percent of the targets in the win (four total). He caught only one of two targets for 19 yards in the Week 2 meeting in Seattle, but bounced back for six catches for 65 yards on eight targets in Week 14. Tate can expect to see plenty of Tarell Brown in coverage. If there’s one potential saving grace, with teams avoiding the team’s standout linebackers, wide receivers tend to be targeted more than they normally would against the 49ers. There’s not much appeal here unless you’re convinced Seattle will be playing from behind.
11. Doug Baldwin – SEA (vs. SF)
Baldwin totaled four catches for 87 yards on five targets against the 49ers during the regular season, but note that Sidney Rice was active in the Week 2 meeting. Same as Tate, there’s not much to love here with the Seahawks running the ball so often while also rotating wide receivers.
1. Julius Thomas – DEN (vs. NE)
Making his first career playoff start, Thomas was targeted a healthy seven times against San Diego. Manning looked Thomas’ direction on 19 percent of his throws. That’s the highest percentage he’s seen since Week 5 and his third-highest total of the year. Thomas was out of action when these teams faced off in Week 12, but replacement Jacob Tamme caught all five of his targets for 47 yards and a touchdown. Teams love throwing to the tight end against New England and that doesn’t figure to change this week. Primed for eight or so targets in the league’s top offense, Thomas is easily the tight end to own this weekend.
2. Vernon Davis – SF (@ SEA)
Of all players with 12 or more end zone targets this season, no one has caught a higher percentage than Davis (52.6 percent). He’s been targeted while inside the confines of the end zone 19 times, which is fifth-most in the NFL, including the playoffs. He’s caught 10. Davis caught only one of four targets against Carolina, but – go figure – it was an end zone target resulting in a touchdown. The Seattle defense did a relatively nice job slowing Davis during the regular season, holding him to five catches, 41 yards, and one score on eight targets. Tight ends actually fare pretty well against Seattle with game plans built to avoid the outside corners. With Boldin and Crabtree seeing bulk of the targets, Davis will bite you if he doesn’t score. Of course, not many players are better bets to find pay dirt.
3. Zach Miller – SEA (vs. SF)
Miller quietly handled a healthy 15 percent of the Seattle targets and scored five touchdowns during the regular season. But, with Harvin back in the mix, the veteran tight end is certain to see a dip in his workload. He was targeted only once during Saturday’s win over New Orleans. Miller was ineffective as a receiver in the two regular season meetings with San Francisco, hauling in three of seven targets for 35 yards.
4. Michael Hoomanawanui – NE (@ DEN)
Hoomanawanui played all 74 snaps on Saturday. That’s about all he has going for him. In four games since Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending injury, Hoomanawanui has seen only five targets.
5. Virgil Green – DEN (vs. NE)
Green has yet to eclipse two targets in a single game this season. He’s a situational blocker and well off the fantasy radar.
6. Luke Willson – SEA (vs. SF)
Wilson failed to haul in his only target when these teams last played in Seattle, but he actually led the Seahawks in receiving in the second meeting. He went for three receptions, 70 yards, and a score on four targets in the loss. Snaps will be harder to find this time around with Harvin back in the mix.
1. Seahawks (vs. SF)
2. 49ers (@ SEA)
3. Broncos (vs. NE)
4. Patriots (@ DEN)