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Championship Round Ranks, Game Breakdowns

Ja'Marr Chase

Ja’Marr Chase

Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports

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We’re down to a two-game postseason DFS slate this weekend, and as your ninth-grade civics teacher told you, there are no stupid questions.

Can we play five guys from the same offense? Yeah, sure. Can we make a lineup with a single player from one of the two games? Of course. Can we use a defense against our lineup’s quarterback? On this slate? Yes.

Can we play Jimmy Garoppolo? No, you idiot. You moron. Go to detention (I’m kidding, sort of).

The easiest path to getting weird (and different) on this truncated slate is fairly obvious: Fade the AFC title bout and go heavier on players from the NFC championship game. Even though the over in the Bengals-KC game has no chance to survive, an unexpectedly back-and-forth affair between the Rams and 49ers would rocket unique lineups to the top of any DFS leaderboard this Sunday. If you can construct lineups that tread somewhat lightly on Chiefs and Bengals players without vomiting and/or convulsing, it could pay off bigly.

Before we get into a breakdown of each championship game, let’s do some rankings.

Championship Round Ranks

Quarterback

1. Patrick Mahomes
2. Joe Burrow
3. Matthew Stafford
4. Jimmy Garoppolo

Running back

1. Joe Mixon
2. Cam Akers
3. Elijah Mitchell
4. Jerick McKinnon
5. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
6. Sony Michel

Wide receiver

1. Cooper Kupp
2. Ja’Marr Chase
3. Deebo Samuel
4. Tyreek Hill
5. Tee Higgins
6. Brandon Aiyuk
7. Odell Beckham, Jr.
8. Byron Pringle
9. Tyler Boyd
10. Van Jefferson
11. Mecole Hardman
12. Jauan Jennings

Tight end

1. Travis Kelce
2. George Kittle
3. C.J. Uzomah
4. Tyler Higbee
5. Kendall Blanton

Defense

1. 49ers
2. Rams
3. Chiefs
4. Bengals

Championship Round Matchups

Kansas City Chiefs (-7) vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Kansas City implied total: 30.25
Cincinnati implied total: 23.75

The Bengals defense looked fine -- stellar, even -- against Ryan Tannehill and the Titans last week, thanks mostly to Tannehill looking like he never quite made the transition from wide receiver to quarterback. I would advise you to clear all memories of Cincy’s standout Divisional Round defensive performance from your mind grapes. They’re going to be roasted on a spit this Sunday.

Without much investigation, the Bengals defense was brutally tough against the pass for most of the second half of the regular season. They allowed the 10th lowest expected points added (EPA) per drop back … against quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Baker Mayfield, Drew Lock, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Josh Johnson twice (and Cincinnati hardly slowed down Johnson the second time as the journeyman threw for 304 yards and two scores as Baltimore’s emergency quarterback). In that string of matchups against not-quite-elite passers, Cincinnati allowed the third-highest yards per pass attempt on early downs and the sixth-highest drop back success rate on early downs.

And the last time the Bengals played a top-15 passing offense -- besides the Chiefs in Week 17 -- Justin Herbert shredded them for 317 yards and three touchdowns on a cool 9.5 adjusted yards per attempt. What I’m saying is Patrick Mahomes is going to have his way with the Bengals in the AFC title game. Being without Larry Ogunjobi (foot) -- who had several big plays against KC in Week 17 -- won’t help matters for the Bengals.

Mahomes, to put it mildly, will see significant rostership on this week’s slate. So will his pass catchers. Against the Bengals in Week 17, Tyreek Hill caught six of ten targets for 40 yards and Travis Kelce reeled in five of seven targets for 25 yards and a touchdown. No Chiefs player had a big statistical day besides then-workhorse back Darrel Williams, who turned 17 touches into 107 yards and two touchdowns. Relegated to third-string duties after a fumble in Jerick McKinnon’s breakout Wild Card game, Williams is no longer fantasy relevant.

That brings us to McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who -- like Williams in Week 17 -- will face nonstop light boxes as the Bengals desperately try to stop the downfield strike. This should set up Kansas City’s backs for plenty of rushes and screen passes -- an increasingly common and useful play in the KC playbook. Last week against Buffalo, McKinnon saw 11 rushing attempts to CEH’s nine. McKinnon, meanwhile, ran a route on 71 percent of Mahomes’ dropbacks and saw seven targets (18.4 percent target per route run rate) while Edwards-Helaire ran a route on 20 percent of KC’s dropbacks and had two targets (18.1 percent TPRR route).

McKinnon is bound to have many times more rostership this week than his backfield mate, who is inexplicably priced higher than McKinnon on DraftKings. Another week removed from a serious shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for more than a month, CEH could be further integrated into the Kansas City offense in the championship game. With precious few avenues to getting different in large-field DFS contests, I take no pleasure in reporting Edwards-Helaire -- who could quite easily see double-digit touches -- is a prime option for those looking to get weird. McKinnon’s PPR appeal and two running backs in the NFC Championship Game with rock-solid roles makes Edwards-Helaire the decidedly redheaded stepchild of this DFS slate. Apologies to the redheads.

Byron Pringle is a little more than a touchdown-dependent option since he’s run a route on 72.8 percent of Mahomes’ dropbacks in two postseason games, second among KC pass catchers only to Tyreek Hill. His 19.44 percent TPRR rate is markedly higher than his 16 percent TPRR during the regular season. With DFS players flocking to target hogs Kelce and Hill, Pringle is a low-cost pivot who’s involved enough in the red zone to make it work. Mecole Hardman is a terribly thin option running a route on 44.4 percent of the team’s dropbacks this postseason. But at $300 less than Pringle on DraftKings, you could do worse. Once again, anything goes.

It would seem the only way to create anything approaching a unique lineup primarily using players from the AFC title game would be rostering Edwards-Helaire, one of Kelce and Hill, and Pringle alongside a Bengals stack. Our definition of unique is loose in the context of a two-game slate.

Will Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo continue his blitz-happy ways in the AFC Championship Game? There’s not much reason to think he’ll ease up on the blitz. Kansas City had the league’s seventh-highest blitz rate during the regular season (28.1 percent) and frequently pressured Burrow in their regular season meeting with the Bengals. Burrow went ballistic on those pressured passes, completing 70 percent of his attempts for 138 yards (13.8 yards per completion) and one of his four touchdowns.

That Burrow bashed the Chiefs when they blitzed is hardly a shock. No quarterback had a higher yards per attempt (8.6) than Burrow when facing pressure this season, no QB had a higher completion rate (60.9 percent), and only five signal callers had a higher big time throw rate when pressured, per Pro Football Focus. Burrow has actually fared worse against defenses that don’t send extra rushers all that often, including the Raiders and Titans this postseason. Leaving a coverage unit exposed, it turns out, is a bad idea against Burrow and his pass catchers.

You don’t need me to make the case for Ja’Marr Chase in a matchup against a secondary he wrecked to the tune of 266 yards and three touchdowns in Week 17. Fading Chase, of course, could be the most unique lineup construction of the championship game slate. It’s his WR2 sidekick, Tee Higgins -- who would profile as an alpha receiver on at least 20 NFL teams -- who interests me here.

Higgins, who saw his target per route run rate collapse in the month before the Bengals’ Divisional Round win over Tennessee, benefited from the Titans shading coverage toward Chase. Higgins ran his usual full complement of routes and was targeted on an encouraging 20 percent of those routes, not as high as his 24 percent TPRR rate in the regular season, but far higher than the 12 percent TPRR he had seen in the three games before the Divisional Round. If the Bengals continue leaning into a pass-heavy approach -- they posted a nice 69 percent pass rate in Week 17 against KC -- Higgins could fall into double-digit targets pretty easily.

A truly galaxy brain maneuver would be to fade Chase while rostering Higgins and Joe Mixon. Stop booing me. I’m right. Mixon’s pass game involvement and a matchup against a Kansas City defense that gave up the fourth-most running back receptions (6.5 per game) and the second-most running back receiving yards (52.1 per game) makes him a must-play option who likely won’t see as much rostership as Cam Akers and Elijah Mitchell. KC allowed the fifth-highest target share to running backs in the regular season.

Running a route on 59 percent of Burrow’s dropbacks and commanding a 19.71 percent target share this postseason, Mixon is in perfect position to make proverbial hay even if he doesn’t do much on the ground. He’s only a few weeks removed from catching seven of eight targets against these Chiefs. Mixon is certainly a stacking option alongside Burrow.

C.J. Uzomah, quite puzzlingly, is still the cheapest tight end option on the slate after piling up 13 catches on 14 targets (19.5 percent target share) in Cincinnati’s two playoff games. In Week 17 against the Chiefs, Uzomah managed four receptions on six targets for 32 yards. His involvement and usage -- he’s run a route on 89 percent of Burrow’s dropbacks this postseason -- makes Uzomah ideal for a two tight-end roster build for those keen on jamming Travis Kelce into lineups. There’s almost no universe in which Burrow doesn’t throw 40 passes against KC -- a welcomed development for a tertiary option like Uzomah.

Los Angeles Rams (-3.5) vs. San Francisco 49ers
Los Angeles implied total: 24.5
San Francisco implied total: 21

This game is somehow less appealing today than it was on Monday, when its total sat at 47. Now it’s 45.5, with the Niners’ implied total looking bleaker by the moment.

Maybe Kyle Shanahan’s ownage of Sean McVay will continue unabated this weekend, and maybe the 49ers will complete their improbable run to the Super Bowl, and maybe San Francisco’s run-establishing ways will become the hottest new trend in a league full of unapologetic copycats, and maybe my life will be ruined because of that. But to do so, to beat the Rams again, this game will almost certainly have to be a slow, low-scoring slog -- the way Shanny likes it.

If the Niners continue their domination of the Rams on Sunday, McVay will legally be required to refer to Shanahan as “daddy,” thanks to an obscure California law passed in 1919. Look it up.

Among the least comfortable lineup builds in this short slate: Playing Jimmy Garoppolo at QB to save enough salary for a murderer’s row of pass catchers from Sunday’s championship games. Is it viable? Are you sacrificing too much by forgoing Mahomes and Burrow and rolling with a quarterback who completed 11 passes for 131 yards while nearly throwing three interceptions for touchdowns last week against Green Bay?

In two games against LA this season, Garoppolo completed 74.5 percent of his attempts for three touchdowns and two picks. Jimmy G’s adjusted yards per attempt against the Rams accounted for two of his five highest AY/A on the year. The Rams failed to get much pressure on Garoppolo (30.9 percent pressure rate in those two games), who was sacked four times in regular season meetings with LA. Behind what Pro Football Focus has graded as the NFL’s seventh-best pass-blocking offensive line, Garoppolo should enjoy plenty of clean pockets on Sunday.

There’s no question Garoppolo is highly (horrifyingly) dependent on game script. In losses over his 49ers career, his completion rate is nine points lower than it is in wins, his adjusted yards per attempt plunges by more than two, and he throws an average of two interceptions per game (up from 0.48 interceptions in wins). If you’re making a lineup with Jimmy G, it should be one based on the Niners generating neutral or positive game script -- not a pass-heavy comeback attempt. The problem, of course, becomes the 49ers’ 41 percent pass rate while leading this season. The volume simply won’t be there if San Francisco jumps out to a hefty lead against the Rams. Jimmy G’s production will very much depend on a goldilocks game script: Not too big a lead for the Niners, and certainly not a blowout script for LA. In a two-game slate, I suppose there’s a case for Garoppolo as a default tournament option. Just barely.

A productive game for Garoppolo would probably mean good things for Brandon Aiyuk, who could be forgotten even in a two-game DFS slate. Aiyuk caught a meager three of four targets in Week 10 against the Rams, a result that could be explained by the Niners’ 31 percent pass rate in a 31-10 blowout victory. In the far closer, back-and-forth Week 18 game against LA, Aiyuk caught six of seven targets for 107 yards, seeing his second-highest yards per target (15.29) of the year. When Aiyuk has seen at least seven targets in a game since the start of the 2020 season, he’s averaged 79.1 receiving yards and 0.59 touchdowns per game. Aiyuk, with his route rate very much intact, is a sensible tournament option this weekend who -- while sensitive to game script -- won’t have much rostership at all.

You may recall Jauan Jennings ripping the Rams for 94 yards and two scores on six catches in Week 17. His big outing depended entirely on the Niners chasing points late in the game, making Jennings a bad fit for most lineups that include Samuel or Mitchell. Jennings could serve as a cheap salary-saver whose targets would be inflated if Jimmy G is forced to drop back far more than Shanahan would prefer. He’d make sense in a lineup with Cooper Kupp and Cam Akers.

Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell would once again be usable in the same lineup if one believes the 49ers will seize the lead and bash the Rams on the ground. Last week in neutral and positive script, Samuel and Mitchell combined for 27 rushing attempts, with Mitchell leading the way with 17 carries. That production didn’t really follow shouldn’t matter. These two could combine for 35 touches if things break right against the Rams.

As odious a fantasy option as George Kittle has become of late, it’s worth remembering he commanded a target on 40 percent of his pass routes in Week 10 against these Rams (he had five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown). In Week 17 against LA, he again had five receptions, this time for just ten yards. Kittle’s rostership being exceedingly low is a safe bet this week.

McVay is as committed to Cam Akers as any head coach is committed to any running back in the league right now. Akers had a devastating red zone fumble at the end of the first half against Tampa last week and McVay didn’t flinch. Akers racked up 24 carries to Sony Michel’s one attempt. He also ran a route on 58.5 percent of Matthew Stafford’s dropbacks. No running back on this slate, including Mitchell, has a higher rushing attempt ceiling than Akers. LA was a massive 8 percent under their expected pass rate in their Week 18 loss to the Niners, a suboptimal approach that allowed the 49ers to get back into the game and eventually pull out the win. There’s no reason to expect a vastly different approach in the NFL Championship Game.

A run-heavy approach for the Rams would leave little volume for anyone not named Cooper Kupp. In Week 18, Kupp got it one on a mere seven targets, going for 118 yards and a touchdown. In runaway blowout script in Week 10 against the 49ers, Kupp had 11 grabs for 122 scoreless yards. What I’m saying is there’s (almost) no way Kupp doesn’t get there for DFS purposes, though fading him would make one’s lineup different. You knew that though.