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NFL Divisional Round Preview: Sunday Edition

NFL Playoffs Sunday

NFL DIVISIONAL ROUND PREVIEW

With the wild card round of the playoffs in the rearview mirror the focus shifts to the divisional round of the playoffs where NFL fans are treated to two excellent quarterback duels on Sunday. The early game pits Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns, coming off of a 48-37 upset victory in Pittsburgh over the Steelers, against Patrick Mahomes and the reigning Super Bowl champions. Including their college careers, this is the third matchup between the two. Mayfield claimed the victory in college and Mahomes claimed the only NFL regular season victory between the two. Who will win the first NFL playoff matchup between the two former first-rounders? In the evening game, future hall-of-fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees meet for a third time this season. At 43 and 42 years old, respectively, this may be the final time these two quarterbacks play against each other. Brady is seeking to win his seventh Super Bowl and prove to everyone that he can win a title without Bill Belichick. Brees is looking to win his second Super Bowl after several seasons of deep playoff runs have ended in heartbreak recently.

Browns at Chiefs

Spread: Chiefs -10 | Over/Under 57

Vegas Odds

The Cleveland Browns are 4-8 ATS in their last 12 games but are 5-2 ATS in their last 7 games against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Browns are 7-2 straight up in their last 9 games and 5-1 straight up in their last 6 road games. Nearly all US bookies have this game locked in with a line of at least 10 points, however, some have it closer to 11. The total has gone OVER in 5 of the Browns’ last 7 games. The Chiefs are 0-7-1 ATS in their last 8 games. The Chiefs are 10-1 straight up in their last 11 games and 13-2 straight up in their last 15 games at home. The total has gone OVER in 6 of the Chiefs’ last 9 games against the Browns.

Quarterback

This will be the second time that Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes have gone head-to-head in the NFL and they had a Big 12 matchup where they combined for nearly 1300 yards passing. Kevin Stefanski has restored the magic that NFL fans saw during Mayfield’s rookie season. Mayfield is completing 46.6-percent of his deep ball passes (15+ yards), which is No. 6 among quarterbacks, and has mastered a trademark of Stefanski offenses by completing 69.5-percent (No. 8) of his play-action passes. Down are the danger plays (35 in 2019 to 21 in 2020) and up are the completed air yards (2096 in 2019 to 2298 in 2020 on almost 300 fewer passing yards).

In this game, you will see both quarterbacks make remarkable passes (both have 39 documented money throws, passes requiring exceptional skill or athleticism along with critical throws in clutch moments). The major difference between the two former first-round quarterbacks is that Patrick Mahomes will be more vertical with his passes (4865 air yards, No. 4). Chiefs’ defense needs to force Baker Mayfield into mistakes; Mayfield has a four-game active streak without throwing an interception and has only thrown one interception in his past ten games. The Browns defense must defend the deep ball. Tyreek Hill is a threat and Mahomes loves to throw deep (69 deep ball attempts, No. 6), but only has a deep ball completion percentage of 37.7-percent (No. 22).

Running Back

Last week, the Browns backfield was split between Nick Chubb (58-percent) and Kareem Hunt (37-percent). This near 60-40 split in snaps has been consistent since Week 11 of the regular season (Chubb: 54.3-percent, Hunt: 45-percent). The Chiefs have struggled to contain running backs; this season, only nine teams have allowed more fantasy points than them (19.8). Both Browns’ running backs excel in both the pass and run game. They combined for 23 total touchdowns. Hunt was top-20 in running backs in targets, receptions, and receiving yards, while Chubb showed last week he is no slouch in that department either with a 4/69/1 receiving stat line on 4 targets. Chubb has caught 20 of his 22 targets (playoffs included) and did not register a drop.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle/hip) DNP on Thursday after registering a limited practice on Wednesday. Monitor his activity on Friday. Before sustaining his Week 15 injuries, he had registered back-to-back games with 80+ yards from scrimmage and was well on his way to eliminating Le’Veon Bell from the timeshare they were in. If CEH misses the playoff game, Bell and Darrel Williams will split time in the backfield. Neither option is an attractive option. Bell has only topped 60 yards from scrimmage once since joining the Chiefs and played well behind Williams in Week 16 with Edwards-Helaire out. In Week 16, Williams had more yards from scrimmage than any game that Bell played. Making matters worse, the Browns’ defense was No. 8 in fantasy points allowed to running backs (16.0).

Wide Receiver

Play. Tyreek. Hill. Hill has lined up in the slot 58-percent of the time pre-snap. That means he’ll avoid Denzel Ward if he even plays at all. The Cleveland Browns’ secondary is still not full strength and almost allowed Ben Roethlisberger to come back in the wildcard matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. According to PFF, Hill has the largest WR-CB matchup advantage of 62% of all wide receivers playing this weekend. M.J. Stewart, his predicted primary coverage has the lowest PFF grade of cornerbacks playing this weekend (46.2) and is allowing the most fantasy points per route covered (0.37). All three starting cornerbacks for the Kansas City Chiefs allow fewer than 1 yard per route covered. The only certainty for the Cleveland Browns is that Jarvis Landry will receive the volume and preferable cornerback matchup to be a relevant option in DFS this week. Landry is averaging 2.16 yards per route run (third-highest among wide receivers this week) and is averaging 0.45 fantasy points per route run.

Tight End

After back-to-back performances against the Pittsburgh Steelers where he saw 16 targets and converted 11 of those targets for 83 yards and 2 touchdowns, Hooper turns his attention to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Steelers were the second-best defense against tight ends this season (5.1 fantasy points) and the Chiefs allow the seventh-most points to the position (9.2). With the wide receivers matched up with unfavorable cornerback matchups, expect Hooper to receive heavy volume and produce big fantasy points again. The Cleveland Browns’ defense allows even more fantasy points to tight ends (9.8), which spells trouble for them as they attempt to stop Travis Kelce. Kelce is the best tight end in the game and you don’t me to provide stats to convince you. I’ll leave you with this: in PPR scoring, Kelce outscored the next-highest scoring tight end by 34 fantasy points despite sitting out Week 17 for rest.

Prediction

The Cleveland Browns will use their two-headed running combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to not only tire out the Kansas City Chiefs but to also limit the amount of time Patrick Mahomes has the ball. In theory, this is an excellent plan to keep the game close, but the combination of the Chiefs’ firepower and the glaring defensive weaknesses at guarding tight ends and the lack of cornerback depth means that Mahomes can orchestrate quick drives if the Chiefs need to score. I’ll take the Chiefs in a high-scoring game where the Browns control the game in the first half but lack the pass defense to maintain the lead. CHIEFS 35-31.

Buccaneers at Saints

Spread: Saints -3 | Over/Under 52

Vegas Odds

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 4-2 ATS in their last 6 games but are 0-5 ATS in their last 5 games against the New Orleans Saints. The Buccaneers are 6-0 straight up in their last 6 games on the road. The total has gone OVER in 4 of the Buccaneers’ last 5 games when playing on the road against the Saints. The Saints are 8-1-1 ATS in their last 10 games. The total has gone UNDER in 7 of the Saints’ last 10 games. The Saints are 12-2 straight up in their last 14 games, including 6-1 straight up in their last 7 games played at home.

Quarterback

Tom Brady used this season to prove the doubters wrong. “He can’t win without Bill Belichick.” Brady’s team is the one that made it to the playoffs. “He’s too old and he can’t throw deep.” Brady was No. 3 in pass yards (4616 and No. 2 in air yards No. 2, while leading the league in air yards per pass attempt (9.1). Brady led the league in deep attempts (93) and red zone attempts (95), which largely contributed to his 40 passing touchdowns. Last week, Brady faced the stout pass defense of the Washington Football Team that had allowed the third-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks (15.7). Brady would proceed to throw for 381 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 31-23 wildcard game victory. Can Brady repeat this type of performance? The New Orleans Saints are the fourth-best fantasy defense against quarterbacks (15.8).

Despite being the slightly younger of the 42+-year-old quarterbacks, Drew Brees has shown his age this season. Even before fracturing his ribs in Week 10, Brees was struggling to connect on long passes. On the season, Brees averaged 5.9 air yards per pass attempt (No. 36) and only had 18 deep attempts (15+ yard passes) in 12 games. What he lacked in deep throw ability this season he made up for with his decision-making. On the season (playoffs included), Brees only had one game with more than one interception. In two matchups with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, Brees has thrown for under 400 total yards combined but managed a 6:0 TD-INT ratio. Those two games were in his bottom-three passing yard performances besides the Week 10 game where he got injured.

Running Back

Ronald Jones returned to practice for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, which means his practice activity on Friday is worth monitoring. If he can practice for a second consecutive day, then his chances of playing in the playoff game will be looking good. Jones is a one-dimensional player; despite recording 28 receptions (No. 30) this season, he only managed 165 receiving yards (No. 39) and he dropped 6 (No. 4) passes. Jones has been effective on the ground, with a 4.7 YPC and averaging 1.71 (No. 8) yards created per touch. In Jones’ absence, Leonard Fournette has taken advantage of the opportunity. In Weeks 15 and 16, Fournette had 21.5 and 15.6 fantasy points, respectively. In the wildcard game last weekend, Fournette had 23 total touches for 132 yards and 1 touchdown. A timeshare may render both running backs useless in DFS this week; the New Orleans Saints are the top fantasy defense against running backs (14.0 fantasy points).

Not to be outdone by their divisional rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the second-best fantasy defense against running backs (14.1 fantasy points). Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, they will be tasked with stopping Alvin Kamara, who is currently on the best stretch of his career in production and usage. One week after receiving a career-high 22 carries, Kamara topped his career mark with 23 carries against the Chicago Bears in the wildcard round. Kamara had two top-8 fantasy running back performances against the Buccaneers this season. With his heavy usage because of the need to run the offense through him instead of Drew Brees, along with his ability to produce in the passing and rushing game expect another top performance from Kamra in the third matchup of the Buccaneers and Saints this season.

Wide Receiver

Chris Godwin (hip/quad) and Mike Evans (knee) have been limited in practice this week but should be good to go for this playoff game. Along with Antonio Brown, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers boast the best wide receiver trio of the playoff teams. All three wide receivers are averaging at least 1.87 yards per route run and 0.44 fantasy points per route and have favorable cornerback matchups. Last week, Godwin and Evans saw 22 of the team’s 38 targets, while Brown only managed 3 targets. The one Buccaneers’ wide receiver I’m fading is Mike Evans. In two games against the Saints, he combined for 5 catches for 66 yards and 0 touchdowns while being guarded primarily by Marshon Lattimore. Deonte Harris had a big game last week in the wildcard, but Michael Thomas remains the only relevant wide receiver to play for the Saints. This week he is expected to be guarded by Carlton Davis, who allows 0.29 fantasy points per route covered and his 1.39 yards per route covered is the second-most among cornerbacks playing this week.

Tight End

Jared Cook, fresh off a 7 target game against the Chicago Bears, finds himself matched up with Kevin Minter (PFF grade: 47.9). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense allowed the 10th-most fantasy points per game to tight ends in 2020 (8.5) and last week allowed Logan Thomas to register a 5/74/0 stat line on 9 targets. Rob Gronkowski had a goose egg performance last week against the Washington Football Team and only saw 1 target while his positional teammate, Cameron Brate, recorded a 4/80/0 stat line on 6 targets. Don’t expect a repeat performance from Brate (80 yards was a season-best) as Gronkowski will see a better matchup against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints allow 8.1 fantasy points per game, while the Football Team allowed only 6.8 fantasy points per game.

Prediction

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense has two primary focuses: contain Alvin Kamara and make wide receivers not named Michael Thomas step up. The Buccaneers have more firepower on offense with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown plus a running back combo of Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. On defense, the New Orleans Saints have the advantage, but it’s a slim advantage because the Buccaneers’ defense as a whole is healthy and solid. Both offenses faced great defenses; the Buccaneers managed to put up 31 points against the Washington Football Team, while the Saints only put up 21 points against the Chicago Bears. I expect Tom Brady and the Buccaneers to avenge their 0-2 seasonal record against the Saints and claim a victory in the most important of the teams’ three matchups. Buccaneers 31-23.

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