News & Analysis

NFL Divisional Round PFF Preview: Players to watch, fantasy football advice and betting projections

PFF previews the four NFL games ahead of the divisional round, highlighting players to watch while also taking a fantasy football and betting approach to offer insight for every NFL fan.

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Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers

Headline of the Game: The passing game will feature plenty of strength-on-strength matchups in Santa Clara

Throughout the season, both the Vikings and the 49ers have fielded top-five passing offenses in terms of expected points added per play. The interesting part of that in this divisional-round matchup is that both teams have defenses that have shown the ability to neutralize what the other passing offense has done best this season. 

The first of these matchups features the highest-graded receiver in the NFL regardless of position (George Kittle) and a Vikings defense that was the best team in the league at covering opposing tight ends. The Vikings have had their problems at the cornerback position in 2019, but their linebackers and safeties have been excellent in coverage; they have the highest PFF coverage grade in the NFL on tight end targets, and they lead the NFL in passer rating allowed to the position at 60.3. If any team can slow down Kittle, it is the Vikings. 

On the other side of the ball, Kirk Cousins has been one of the NFL's most effective passers when looking 20 or more yards downfield. His passer rating of 119.7 ranked third among all qualifying quarterbacks on those deep passes, and his top target (Stefon Diggs) led the NFL with 635 receiving yards on passes 20-plus yards downfield. Meanwhile, no team has limited the deep ball better than the 49ers have. In 16 regular-season games, they allowed just 10 completions on 51 deep targets, six fewer than any other defense. Something is going to have to give. 

Fantasy football preview

Since Week 10, Deebo Samuel ranks 14th among wide receivers in fantasy points per game (15.8), 40 spots ahead of Emmanuel Sanders (9.1). Over this span he ranks top-three in yards after the catch, yards after contact and missed tackles forced. Expect a big game from him this week. The Vikings held Michael Thomas in check last week, but across the regular season they gave up the second-most fantasy points per game to opposing outside wide receivers.

Dalvin Cook struggled with a shoulder injury, which kept him out of the final two weeks of the season, but he looked fully healthy last week, totaling 130 yards and 28.0 fantasy points on 31 touches. This looks even more impressive given the matchup — the Saints were giving up the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to opposing running backs. His matchup this week is even tougher — the 49ers rank third-best.

Betting Preview

Early line movement has pushed this spread toward the 49ers, where they sit as touchdown favorites over the seventh-ranked Vikings. The Vikings have the better offensive ranking despite both teams having near-equal EPA generated on both pass and rush attempts. The short week could be causing bettors to doubt the Vikings, with Greenline finding value on all three betting markets offered in this matchup.

© Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens

Headline of the Game: The top two offenses in the NFL over the second half of the season square off with the AFC Championship on the line

Ever since the Titans made the move to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, their offense has been among the league’s best. Since that Week 7 game, they rank first in average yards per play, second in expected points added per play and second in the percentage of their drives that end in touchdowns. Tannehill has completely flipped the script on a disastrous 2018 performance with the Miami Dolphins, going from the lowest-graded quarterback in the NFL a season ago to the highest-graded quarterback this season. His number one target, A.J. Brown, was one of the top wide receivers in the entire league over the second half of the season, and Derrick Henry ran for more yards after contact than any other running back had total from Week 7 to Week 17. Their emergence as an offensive juggernaut has been one of the more surprising developments in the NFL.

The other team right there with them in all the offensive efficiency metrics is the Baltimore Ravens. The marriage of Greg Roman’s unique scheme and Lamar Jackson’s one-of-a-kind skillset is a problem. Jackson was the fifth-highest graded passer in the NFL over the course of the regular season. Perhaps more impressively, he was also the league’s highest-graded rusher regardless of position, as 37% of his rushes went for first downs or touchdowns (easily the highest rate of any qualifying rusher). Teams must contend with stopping the league’s top rushing and passing attacks when facing the Ravens. That’s easier said than done. Neither defense will have an easy task on Saturday night. 

Fantasy football preview

Despite spending six weeks on the injury report listed as questionable — with foot, shoulder, knee, and ankle injuries — Mark Andrews’ sophomore season was historically great. He averaged 2.89 yards per route run, which bested George Kittle’s 2018 then-record for the position (2.82). His 13.8 fantasy points per game ranked fifth-best at the position. After two weeks of rest, expect a big game from Andrews against a Tennessee defense that gave up the fifth-most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends this regular season.

Against the Patriots, Ryan Tannehill totaled only 72 passing yards on 15 attempts. Derrick Henry totaled 182 rushing yards on 34 attempts. Henry averaged 7.57 yards per carry in the first half, but that dropped by half in the second (3.80). Baltimore has been tougher against the pass (78.5 opposing passer rating, second-best) than the run (4.37 yards allowed per carry, 11th-worst), but expect them to sell out to stop the run like the Patriots did in the final two quarters of last week’s game. Though, Henry is averaging a league-high 5.00 yards per carry against eight or more box defenders, so, try as they might, it might not matter.

Betting Preview

With the No. 1-ranked Ravens coming off a long stretch of rest, bettors are buying into the recent performance of the Titans. After opening at a 10-point spread, this line has continued to slide toward the Titans. Tennessee holds the top ranking in our Massey offensive rankings, and Ryan Tannehill has a better overall passing grade than Lamar Jackson by the slimmest of margins. Check Greenline to see if these key stats are enough to give the Titans the edge on covering Saturday.

© Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs

Headline of the Game: The 2017 quarterback class takes center stage

Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes weren’t the first two quarterbacks off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft, but they have been the clear-cut top quarterbacks from the class. Now, we get to see the two face off for the second time this season. This time, it’s win or go home. 

In the first matchup back in Week 6, Mahomes had his lowest single-game grade of the season at just 40.0. Don’t let the 96.5 passer rating in the box score fool you; the Texans were on the receiving end of the worst game of Mahomes’ young career. He was careless with the football throughout, notching a season-high four turnover-worthy plays without any big-time throws. That game came at a point when Mahomes was clearly affected by the ankle injury that he dealt with early in the season, but it now appears to be all systems go for last year’s MVP. Over the last three weeks of the regular season, Mahomes was the second-highest graded quarterback in the NFL — the Texans won’t be getting the same Mahomes this time around. 

Fresh off his heroics at the end of the Texans’ victory over the Buffalo Bills in overtime, Watson will need another strong performance to keep pace with the Chiefs’ high-flying offense. In that last game against the Chiefs, Watson had his fastest time to throw of the season at 2.6 seconds. Because of that, he didn’t take a single sack in the game — one of only two games for which that can be said this season. By contrast, he took seven sacks with an average time to throw over one second higher (3.7 seconds) against the Bills this past weekend. Watson controlling his pressure rate will be one of the biggest keys to the game.

Fantasy football preview

Is Damien Williams officially back? Over his last four complete games, Williams is averaging 18.3 touches and 21.6 fantasy points per game. Keep in mind, Williams was a late-season superstar last year, averaging 17.5 touches per game and 24.4 fantasy points per game across Kansas City’s final six games (including 29.5 fantasy points per game in the postseason). Houston would be an exploitable matchup for Williams, ranking eighth-worst in yards allowed per carry, fifth-worst in fantasy points allowed per game, and worst in receiving fantasy points allowed per game.

After sitting out of the Wild Card Round with a groin injury, Will Fuller is expected to play this Sunday. Much has been made of Deshaun Watson’s splits based on whether Fuller is active, and while Fuller might have a real impact on the game whether or not he’s fully healthy, he’s probably too risky to trust for fantasy. He’s reached 12 receiving yards just twice over his last five games. Outside of two games, he’s averaging only 6.6 fantasy points per game this year. To make matters worse, the Chiefs are a brutal matchup — no team has allowed fewer fantasy points to opposing outside wide receivers (where Fuller runs 70% of his routes).

Betting Preview

Kansas City looks like the early-week betting favorite out of the AFC, with this spread rising a full two points since the open. This line should move all the way to 10, with Greenline offering a small lean at that price. The Chiefs sit second in EPA generated per pass attempt, and bettors are buying into the over on this total. Whether the Texans keep pace to push this total over is a question only Greenline can answer.

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Seahawks @ Green Bay Packers

Headline of the Game: Two early-season MVP candidates will have to regain that form to advance to the NFC Championship

Through the first eight weeks of the season, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers were both top-five graded quarterbacks in the PFF grading system. But from Week 9 to 17, Wilson dropped down from first to fourth in PFF overall grade while Rodgers fell from fourth to 19th. Neither quarterback was able to maintain the level of play that we saw from them early in the season — Rodgers clearly more so than Wilson — but the Packers and the Seahawks need them to be that MVP-level player if either team is to have a chance of making noise in the postseason. 

We wrote prior to the playoffs about the situation that Wilson finds himself in this season. With the roster deficiencies around him and with how often he is forced to make plays under pressure or in suboptimal down and distance situations, Wilson doesn’t have much margin for error.

He delivered in the Wild Card Round against a depleted Philadelphia Eagles’ team. The Seahawks led all teams in the first week of the postseason in EPA per pass play by a wide margin while the opposite could be said on run plays, and Wilson will have to do it all over again in Lambeau. He needs to be the best player on the field every time he steps on the field. 

Rodgers certainly hasn’t been the best player on the field over the second half of this season. If you look at the 2018 season and the first eight weeks of this season, Rodgers and Wilson are the only two quarterbacks with a big-time throw to turnover-worthy play ratio above 3.0. Since then, Rodgers has cut that rate by over 50% with 15 big-time throws compared to nine turnover-worthy plays. On top of that, 25% of his passes have been uncatchable over that stretch — a bottom-five rate in the NFL alongside Josh Allen, David Blough, Jacoby Brissett and Jameis Winston. If Rodgers continues to play like that, it’s going to be nearly impossible for the Packers to string together three consecutive wins.

Fantasy football preview

Aaron Jones is averaging 21.8 touches, 136.5 yards, and 23.2 fantasy points per game over his last four games. While impressive, the bulk of Jones’ production has come on efficiency rather than volume (excluding games without Jamaal Williams), implying he’s gotten a little lucky. Even so, given this week’s matchup, it’s easy to bet on another hyper-efficient outing from Jones. Excluding last week’s game (where Miles Sanders averaged 4.93 yards per carry), Seattle ended the season giving up a league-high 23.0 rushing fantasy points per game to opposing running backs since Week 14.

Including last week’s 29.0-point performance against the Eagles, D.K. Metcalf has now outscored Tyler Lockett in six of their last eight games. Over this span, he ranks 30th in fantasy points per game (12.9), well ahead of Lockett’s 9.3. Lockett has been about as boom or bust as they come, scoring 31% of his fantasy points in just two games (both against teams ranking bottom-three against slot wide receivers). After a worst-possible matchup last week, he gets another difficult draw – only the Eagles have allowed fewer receptions to slot wide receivers than the Packers.

Betting Preview

The Sunday nightcap game of the week offers the lowest spread in the divisional round slate. Bettors seem to be wrestling with the idea that this Packers team could be fraudulent. The spread hasn’t moved in any discernible direction since the open, but Greenline finds value on all three betting markets offered. With a more detailed writeup dropping later this week, it is paramount to check Greenline early to get the best number before any key number movement.

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