News & Analysis

NFL Divisional Round Preview: DFS advice, betting tips and matchups to watch

Nov 4, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) shake hands after the game at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

PFF previews the four NFL games in the divisional round of the 2020 NFL playoffs, highlighting storylines to watch while also taking a fantasy football and betting approach to offer insight for every NFL fan.

Los Angeles Rams @ Green Bay Packers

Headline of the game: The Packers’ variability on offense will be big against the Rams

In one sense, this matchup seems to favor the Rams’ defense. The unit is built around limiting explosive plays through the air, with Los Angeles allowing a league-low 10.0% of pass plays to go for 15 or more yards. On the other side, no quarterback threw for more yards on passes 20 or more yards downfield than Aaron Rodgers over the course of the regular season (1,242). If the Rams can take that aspect of the Packers’ offense away, it gives them a chance to come away with a win in Lambeau.

Yet, the Packers' downfield passing attack is far from the only way their offense can hurt a defense. Rodgers has grown more comfortable taking what defenses give him in his second season in Matt Lafleur’s offense, and he entered the postseason with the highest passer rating of any quarterback in the league on throws in 2.5 seconds or less (129.6). Green Bay ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per run play, as well — boasting several capable running backs able to make plays behind one of the NFL's better offensive lines.

It sets up for a fascinating strength-on-strength matchup to kick off the divisional round.

Fantasy

Jared Goff’s PFF passing grade of 59.0 since Week 12 is the worst among all remaining quarterbacks in the postseason. He has completed just two passes over 20 yards and compiled a 4:3 TD:INT ratio in a clean pocket.

Goff’s prospects aren’t likely to improve this week at Green Bay, as the Packers boast PFF’s second-highest-graded coverage unit (80.4) among teams playing this weekend.

The Packers have allowed the seventh-fewest fantasy points and second-lowest touchdown passing rate to opposing QBs since Week 13. Only one quarterback this season has thrown for over 300 yards against them (Deshaun Watson).

It remains to be seen whether or not Goff will even start the game, as the Rams started off with John Wolford under center last week but were forced to switch after his injury.

Either way, Rams receivers like Robert Woods ($5,900) and Cooper Kupp ($5,300) will have a difficult time posting high-end fantasy numbers  Green Bay has allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to WRs over the past four weeks.

If there’s any piece of this Rams’ offense to play in DFS, it’s Cam Akers. The rookie RB has averaged 27.5 touches over the past two games and is still supremely underpriced on DraftKings at just $5,700.

The Packers’ biggest weakness is against running backs, as they’ve allowed the fifth-most fantasy points allowed to RBs this season. Expect Akers to have his opportunities to make an impact in this matchup.

Aaron Rodgers has posted one dud game this season, and it was against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in Week 6. He was pressured on 44% of his dropbacks and finished the day with a meager 5.8 fantasy points.

We shouldn’t envision a repeat poor performance even against the Los Angeles Rams, but Rodgers will see his fair share of pressure, especially without left tackle David Bakhtiari.

Backup Billy Turner started in Week 17 and allowed three pressures. That performance earned him a 43.4 PFF pass-blocking grade. It’s no wonder why the team just recently signed Jared Veldheer off the Colts’ practice squad.

L.A. is entering this game with a league-high pressure rate (51%) since Week 14. This hardly presents a smash spot for Rodgers and the passing game. The Packers’ quarterback is the only QB this season to have seen at least 135 dropbacks under pressure without throwing multiple interceptions, so we could easily see some negative regression versus a defense littered with playmakers. No team allowed fewer fantasy points to QBs than the Rams this season.

This sets up nicely for the Rams DST to be a prime pay-down DST option at $2,600.

L.A. also allowed the fewest fantasy points to WRs this season, so there is merit to fading Davante Adams as the highest-priced WR on DraftKings ($8,600). The Rams run zone coverage at one of the highest rates in the NFL.

That type of coverage could limit Adams because his target share (36% vs 27%), touchdowns (10 vs. 4) and PFF receiving grade (95.0 vs. 79.2) all drop in zone coverage as opposed to man coverage.

Betting

The early-week line movement has moved away from the Packers coming off their first-round bye. This spread opened at -7.5 with juice toward the dog before cutting through 7 down to -6.5. Our cash and ticket percentages are heavily skewed toward the Packers, making it tough to gauge what exactly is causing the early-line movement.

The Rams did nothing to erase questions about the quarterback position in last week's victory, as John Wolford left early with a neck injury and Jared Goff clearly struggled to throw the football. Goff’s passing game grade was his second-lowest of the season, which was enough to get past a Seahawks team playing not to lose but will be tough to overcome against the No. 1 seed in Lambeau.

How the weather impacts Goff's grip with his thumb is also a question that needs to be answered. It’s possible the positive injury news for Wolford has caused this market to move in the Rams' favor, and Aaron Donald also looks to have escaped serious injury. 

PFF Greenline finds the smallest of value on the Rams' current spread but sides with the moneyline as the better play. It isn’t a great feeling siding with the Rams, and the PFF Forecast early-week writeup still preferred the Packers. Given some weather concerns, the total could continue to drop, which could bring it down to a playable number as we get closer to kickoff.

Jan 3, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs during the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills

Headline of the game: Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen each look to prove they’re the best quarterback from the 2018 draft class

Eight teams remain in the postseason, and three of them are led by quarterbacks from the 2018 draft class. Two of those quarterbacks will face off in this game. 

At this time last season, it would have been absurd to suggest that Allen was the preferable quarterback over Jackson, who was coming off an MVP campaign as Allen finished another disappointing season as a passer. Allen has very much made that a conversation with his play in 2020. He ended the regular season with a 90.9 PFF grade that ranked fifth at the quarterback position, and he followed it up with an 89.0 PFF grade in the Bills’ wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts. His improved accuracy — making the leap from 32nd in uncatchable pass rate across the 2018-19 seasons to fifth in 2020 — has been the driver in that turnaround. 

Jackson wasn’t able to replicate his 2019 MVP season this year, but he showed last week why he remains one of the NFL's hardest players to defend. His 136 rushing yards led all players in the first round of the playoffs, headed by a 48-yard scramble for a touchdown that highlighted his unique athletic profile.

There’s a reason the Ravens have by far the highest expected points added per run play (0.06) in the league over the past two seasons. Jackson is a game-changer in the truest sense of the word, and the Bills’ top priority on defense will be ensuring he’s not the one who beats them.    

Fantasy

Josh Allen continues to be on absolute tear in terms of fantasy points, ranking first in fantasy points per game (28.0) and second in expected fantasy points per game (23.4). There’s no doubt that he is worth every penny at $7,400 on DraftKings because he is going to go absolutely nuclear against a Ravens defense that played the second-most snaps from man coverage this season. 

Allen has a PFF passing grade of 89.2 (third), 19 passing touchdowns (second) and 8.8 yards per pass attempt (third) against man coverage this season. Pairing him with Stefon Diggs at $7,300 seems like an absolute no-brainer considering the Bills’ receiver leads the NFL in targets, catches and receiving yards against man defenses.

Diggs owns a 36% target share when facing man. 

Baltimore also blitzes more than any other team (30%), and to no surprise, Allen leads the NFL in touchdown passes versus the blitz (18). He has also rushed for three touchdowns against blitzes, which just further cements his status as an outstanding DFS play. 

Marquise Brown has been red hot during Lamar Jackson’s second-half surge, averaging 16.5 fantasy points per game since Week 12. He has scored or posted at least 98 receiving yards in every single game since then, but he may finally hit a wall in this matchup versus the Bills. 

Buffalo has allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points to WRs and faced by far the lowest rate of deep ball attempts (6.8%) this season. 

With Brown and Mark Andrews seeing similar portions of the team’s targets and air yards, the Ravens tight end might be the superior option at a slightly discount salary ($5,000).

The Bills just got manhandled by the Colts’ trio of tight ends to the tune of 17 targets, 14 catches and 136 yards. And that’s not just a small sample trap — the Bills have allowed the most catches and yards to tight ends this season.

Betting

The tightest spread of the divisional round could easily turn into the game of the week, as it features two offenses in the top 10 of our opponent-adjusted grades. Not to mention, both teams are in the top five of our Elo rankings.

Josh Allen has been lights-out all season, and Lamar Jackson seems to have finally found the form he displayed throughout 2019. The narrative of not being able to win a playoff game is now over for Jackson, which appears to have the betting market fully buying into the Ravens this weekend.

The spread opened at -2.5 before retreating to -1.5 or even -1. This movement isn’t worth a whole lot, so it could be based on protection from this number being able to be teased through key numbers. PFF Greenline finds some value on this discounted number, which sides against the majority of the cash and ticket percentages.

The total of 50 has held to the open despite 74% of the cash and 70% of the tickets being on the over. The weather looks pleasant enough fora game in Buffalo in January, which should point everyone toward the over. In a game that should come down to the final possession, taking a stance on the total seems to be the best approach.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs

Headline of the game: The Browns need another mistake-free game from Baker Mayfield to have a chance at the upset

The Browns’ wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was bizarre. Starting with an errant snap from Maurkice Pouncey that resulted in a Cleveland touchdown on the first play of the game and quickly progressing to a 28-0 first quarter on the back of a few more turnovers, the Browns were able to play from a comfortable position offensively for much of the game.

It’s fair to say that helped Mayfield in his postseason debut, but he also showed the ability to hit big throws later in the game as the Steelers threatened with a comeback. In all, Mayfield was near perfect on the night. His 89.9 passing grade was one of the highest marks of Super Wild Card Weekend, and he finished the game without a turnover-worthy play or sack taken against a Steelers’ defense that feasted in both of those areas throughout the regular season.

Not only will Mayfield need to limit the negatives like that again here, but he’ll likely need to put up a few big-time throws — something he didn’t do against Pittsburgh because he didn’t need to — to top Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. If the 2019 postseason taught us anything, it’s that no lead is safe against Andy Reid & Co.

Fantasy

Most of the remaining defenses in the playoffs are elite, but Kansas City has some pretty clear weaknesses. This makes a few Browns players strong options this week.

Kansas City has given up the eighth-most fantasy points to running backs. Nick Chubb is appropriately priced at $6,600, but Kareem Hunt is a bargain at $4,800. Hunt is the receiving back for the Browns, and Kansas City has given up more receiving yards to running backs than any other team at 846. The Browns are likely to be trailing and will need to pass, meaning more opportunities for Hunt.

The Chiefs have also allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to tight ends on the season. Austin Hooper just played 90% of snaps for Cleveland for the first time since Week 2. He received double-digit targets for the second time in three weeks and scored his fourth touchdown in the last six games. At $3,800, he’s the fifth-most expensive tight end but is likely to be a top-three TE for the week.

Kansas City’s star players are high-priced as usual. Tyreek Hill is the most likely player among those with a high price tag to live up to expectations. Hill finished first in deep touchdown receptions (8), while the Browns were tied for third in deep passing touchdowns allowed (11).

The one position where Kansas City doesn’t have a top-priced player is running back. The position should still be avoided. Only three running backs all season ended up with more than 65 rushing yards against the Browns. We don’t know if Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be ready to play or not, and he could be limited even if he does play. The Chiefs have tinkered all season with how they use their running backs. With how well Darwin Thompson played in Week 17, even he could see some playing time if Edwards-Helaire is out. Instead of guessing who the back will be, look elsewhere for a running back.

Betting

Kansas City's struggles when it comes to covering the spread are well-documented, but this doesn’t seem to have impacted them negatively in the eyes of bettors. The Chiefs have received almost 70% of the spread cash to open the week and have the majority of cash and tickets on the moneyline.

The line movement has been in favor of the Browns, but that appears to be more of a correction based on their recent performance and positive COVID-related news than a reflection of bettors wanting to back them. PFF Greenline does find value on the Browns at +10, but doing some line shopping could net an even better price as books still seem split between -10 and -10.5.

The Chiefs have slid to the sixth-best offense in our opponent-adjusted grades, with the Browns moving up to fourth overall. Both defenses sit in the bottom half of the NFL in this metric, so the expectation of a high-scoring game seems warranted from the betting market.

The 56-point total is the highest of the weekend and has also held to the opening number. PFF's predictive models found some early value on the over, but some possible weather issues have caused our numbers to drop slightly. This could be another viable opportunity if things start to change, which makes monitoring Greenline a worthwhile activity as we move toward Sunday.

Nov 8, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) greet after the game at Raymond James Stadium. Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints

Headline of the game: Have the Buccaneers figured out enough offensively to get over the hump vs. New Orleans?

Tampa Bay averaged -0.17 expected points added (EPA) per play in two games against the Saints this season. Against all other defenses, that figure rose to 0.16.

They didn’t have an uglier performance all season than the egg that was laid on Sunday Night Football back in Week 9, losing 38-3 in a game that was over shortly after it started. Yet, here we are in the postseason, and the Buccaneers have an opportunity to turn things around against the Saints and pick up the only win that really matters after dropping the first two meetings.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been on a tear since returning from the Week 13 bye. Over the past five weeks, the Buccaneers rank first in yards per play on offense (6.9) and Tom Brady is the highest-graded passer in the NFL (94.3). You can point to soft matchups against Detroit, Atlanta and Minnesota to close the season, but the Buccaneers averaged 7.0 yards per play against a very good Washington defense last week despite five dropped passes from the usually sure-handed Chris Godwin.

The Saints also boast one of the better defenses in the league, setting up yet another chance for Tampa Bay to show that their midseason woes on offense have been well and truly ironed out.

Fantasy

The Saints wide receivers are the perfect players to take a chance on. The majority of remaining playoff teams are excellent in coverage, leaving very few high-upside players. This could be the highest-scoring game of the weekend, giving New Orleans plenty of opportunities to throw.

Michael Thomas is priced at $6,700, which might be a little high considering his target share hasn’t been nearly as high as it has been in the past.

The Buccaneers gave up 104 receiving yards to Cam Sims last week, and Russell Gage gained 91 yards against them the week before. It could be some of the wide receivers further down the depth chart making an impact. Emmanuel Sanders at $4,500 is second on the depth chart. Lil'Jordan Humphrey played over 50% of the Saints offensive snaps for the first time last week, and he’s one of several wide receiver options at $3,000.

Deonte Harris played fewer snaps than Humphry last week but had the game of his career with 83 yards on seven catches and a touchdown. He’s at $3,500. If you’re looking for a cheaper wide receiver, any one of these three could pay off.

The Buccaneers pass offense has been on fire recently with no signs of slowing down. Tom Brady has averaged 380 passing yards and three touchdowns over the last four weeks. In general, he’s been able to help all three of his wide receivers put up big numbers. Brady is the best value at quarterback with how well he’s playing. His salary is $6,300, placing him in the bottom half of starting quarterbacks.

Antonio Brown is the best value of the WR trio. He is cheapest at $5,400 and has scored five touchdowns over the last four weeks.

Mike Evans, on the other hand, should be avoided at $6,400. He has traditionally been shadowed by Marshon Lattimore. Evans has averaged three catches for 34 yards and 0.25 touchdowns in his last four games against the Saints. Lattimore hasn’t graded as well this year compared to the past, but the Saints defense has always prioritized stopping Evans.

Betting

It doesn’t get any better than the G.O.A.T. matchup on Sunday Night Football.

This is the game everyone looked forward to when Brady moved down to Tampa Bay. The early-week betting action has been on the Buccaneers' side, as the added hook to the field-goal spread quickly disappeared. At this point, 62% of the cash and an even percentage of the tickets have been in the Bucs' direction, which indicates the initial movement was the betting market pushing this spread to a more efficient number. PFF Greenline agrees with this betting sentiment, as we find no value on the current spread or moneyline.

The total also looks to be an efficient spot after adding a point to the opening 51. Currently, 68% of the cash is on the under, while 70% of the tickets have been printed on the over, highlighting disagreement between the two different types of bettors. This is another game market that isn’t providing much in the way of opportunity, making the betting opportunities in the player prop market all the more appealing.

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