Exploiting the Matchups: Top Fantasy Plays for the NFL Divisional Round

Exploiting the Matchups: Top Fantasy Plays for the NFL Divisional Round

This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.

Betting lines suggest this isn't the most compelling divisional round, with all four home teams favored by more than a field goal and two by more than a touchdown. In terms of narratives, it's everything we could've hoped for, starting with Saturday's QB matchup between The Best in the Business and The Next Big Thing.

After Trevor Lawrence tries to pull off the huge upset, we'll see if the Giants' starters can keep up with the Eagles' just two weeks after the backups gave Jalen Hurts and Co. a half-decent game. Then it's on to a rematch of the postponed Week 17 game, featuring two of the NFL's most pass-happy offenses (the over/under would probably be above 50 if played at a neutral site instead of at Orchard Park in mid-January).

Last but not least, we get a battle between two traditional NFC heavyweights... one where the underdog has a veteran Pro Bowler at quarterback and the favorite is starting a rookie Day 3 pick. Am I being obnoxious and over-feeding the hype if I say this is the game that determines whether Brock Purdy is just a system-driven flash-in-the-pan or actually capable of being a decent starting QB?

Jaguars at Chiefs — 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday

Jaguars IT: 22.25 (6th)

Chiefs IT: 30.75 (1st)

Jaguars Key Injuries: WR Jamal Agnew (Q- shoulder)

Chiefs Key Injuries: DE Frank Clark (Q - groin) + WR Mecole Hardman (D - pelvis)


Biggest Mismatch: QB Patrick Mahomes > Jaguars secondary

No. 1 pick Travon Walker has as many QB hits (six) the past five games as he did in his first 11, combining with Josh Allen and Arden Key to give the Jaguars an above-average pass rush that's generated multiple sacks in seven straight. The secondary, on the other hand, remains vulnerable, including two starters (S Rayshawn Jenkins, slot CB Tre Herndon) in the bottom 20th percentile for PFF grading at their positions.

Even with the improved pass rush and No. 1 corner Tyson Campbell and hard-hitting safety Andre Cisco providing some juice, Jacksonville finished the regular season 30th in pass-defense DVOA (compared to 11th against the run). That's an undersell, especially given the recent improvement, but even a generous outlook paints the Jacksonville pass defense as less than mediocre.

Mahomes ripped the Jags for 331 and four TDs back in Week 10, with four different pass catchers reaching 50 yards but none getting to 100. And the Jacksonville offense has improved since then, along with the defense, so there's some chance of a true, two-sided shootout rather than a beatdown.


Best Fantasy Play: TE Travis Kelce

The Jags finished the regular season dead last in DVOA on passes thrown to tight ends, also allowing the most YPT (9.5) and fourth most receiving yards (1,066). Kelce unambiguously has a good matchup, with at least a portion of the coverage responsibility falling to Jenkins and a rookie, Devin Lloyd, who gave up the most coverage yards (722) of any LB this year, per PFF.

We've also mentioned the Jags being vulnerable in the slot, re: Herndon, but it's harder to pinpoint a specific matchup there given that all of KC's relevant WRs have taken 30-to-40 percent of their snaps inside this year. There's no designated slot man, but we do know Kelce will spend a ton of time working the middle of the field. 

Beyond that, any concerns regarding workload management probably dissipate with the start of the playoffs. Few noticed on account of his fantastic receiving stats, but the Chiefs did scale Kelce's route/snap shares back at times this year (at least compared to recent seasons). The circumstances this weekend suggest he'll be both busy and efficient.


Giants at Eagles — 8:15 p.m. ET on Saturday

Giants IT: 20.25 (8th)

Eagles IT: 27.75 (2nd)

Giants Key Injuries: WR Isaiah Hodgins (Q - ankle) + OLB Azeez Ojulari (Q - quad) +  CB Fabian Moreau (hip)

Eagles Key Injuries: CB Avonte Maddox (D - toe)


Biggest Mismatch: WR DeVonta Smith > CBs Fabian Moreau & Darnay Holmes

The Giants' top corner, Adoree' Jackson, missed both regular-season games between these teams. He finally made his return last week, not only shadowing Justin Jefferson but also holding him to 47 yards on nine targets. That's not to say Jackson is among the premier corners in the game; he is, however, much better than his teammates in New York.

Should Jackson shadow Brown this weekend, Smith will be left to feast on the Giants' other corners, Moreau and Darnay Holmes, both in the bottom 20th percentile of PFF's position grades. The Giants also have struggled to cover TEs (see: Hockenson), so don't be shocked if Smith and Dallas Goedert take the lead while Brown does less than usual. 


Best Fantasy Play: RB Miles Sanders

In the first matchup between these teams, Sanders took 17 carries for a season-high 144 yards and two touchdowns. In the second matchup, two weeks ago, he was held to 11 carries for 33 yards and played a season-low 40 percent of offensive snaps.

Yes, the Giants have improved against the run, as is usually the case with any team that has any glaring weakness and is still alive at this point in the year. It's still the same group of players, more or less, that averaged 5.2 yards per carry throughout the regular season. 

Smith might have an even better individual matchup, but Sanders is set up pretty/Purdy as the lead back for a big favorite, with potential for larger workload shares than usual now that we're in the playoffs. Boston Scott, for all his success against the Giants, probably won't have much of a role in this one.


Bills at Bengals — 3:00 p.m. ET on Saturday

Bengals IT: 21.5 (6th)

Bills IT: 27 (3rd)

Bengals Key Injuries: T Jonah Williams (D - knee) + G Alex Cappa (D - ankle)

Bills Key Injuries: CB Dane Jackson (Q - knee) +DT Jordan Phillips (Q - shoulder)


Biggest Mismatch: Bills LBs > Bengals running game

If Von Miller weren't out for the season, I'd have listed Buffalo's edge rushers over Cincinnati's tackles as the biggest mismatch in this game. It's still a mismatch with the Bengals missing both tackles, no doubt, but not quite to the same extent given the Bills' lack of a dominant pass rusher.

What Buffalo does have is one of the best LB duos in the league, which makes running a dicey proposition even for teams that can block. The Bengals aren't one of those teams, nor have they been inclined to stick with their run game when it struggles, and it's unclear how much they'll even bother with it Sunday afternoon. Joe Burrow will be busy, and Joe Mixon probably needs a lot of receiving stats to have a decent fantasy day. TBD if weather is a factor here.


Best Fantasy Play: WRs Stefon Diggs or Gabe Davis

If Mixon gets our biggest matchup downgrade, Buffalo's perimeter receivers get the biggest upgrade. Safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are a solid duo and have helped cover up some of the weakness here, but Diggs and Davis will still get their chances to take aim at Cincinnati's shaky outside corners, the oft-mocked Eli Apple and rookie second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt. It's an especially good draw for Diggs, facing a pair of larger CBs that lack his change-of-direction skills and precision.


Cowboys at 49ers — 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday

DAL IT: 21.25 (7th)

SF IT: 24.75 (4th)

 Cowboys Key Injuries: T Jason Peters (Q - hip) + S Jayron Kearse (Q - knee)

 49ers Key Injuries: WR Jauan Jennings (Q - knee) + DE Samson Ebukam (ankle)


Biggest Mismatch: Kyle Shanahan > Mike McCarthy

Both teams are capable of dominance and excel up front on both sides of the ball. Neither has a dominant secondary, and only one has a proven, quality starter at QB (not the favorite). Mock his Super Bowl losses if you will, but Shanahan is arguably as important to his team as any coach or non-QB in the league.


Best Fantasy Play - Brandon Aiyuk

Christian McCaffrey is probably worth spending up for in DFS contests after playing 90 percent of pre-halftime snaps last week, but he's not the only guy worth considering from a game that features arguably the two best defenses remaining in the NFL. Both secondaries are beatable if QBs can avoid the pass-rush onslaught, and while again overshadowed by teammates George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, it's still Aiyuk who is most likely to see targets deep downfield. Samuel, of course, turns short plays into long ones, but that's also why he costs a lot more than Aiyuk in any contest.


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Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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