Matchups matter. They matter a lot, in fact, as fantasy footballers learned in terrible detail during Week 15’s semifinals.
Every NFL preseason is filled with talk of players’ strength of schedule: Does it mean anything? Does it mean everything? How do we know how soft that run defense might be, or how stingy that secondary is? A lot of digital ink is spilled every summer analyzing schedules or debunking the very notion of evaluating schedules.
I think both sides of the strength of schedule war can agree on one thing: Three months of data, of numbers and trends that tell a (fairly) clear story, should not go ignored. Judging a defense’s strengths and weaknesses in the dog days of summer is very different than evaluating those pluses and minuses in the waning days of the NFL regular season.
We saw the importance of matchups in Week 15, when countless fantasy seasons circled the drain thanks to the stinking statistical egg laid by the potent Green Bay offense. The Bills’ defense showed how nightmarish a matchup they could be just one week ago, when they shut down Peyton Manning in Denver. They were at home against the Packers, where they had allowed 17.8 points and 317 total yards per game.
Only the suffocating Seahawks’ defense is tougher against quarterbacks, when adjusted for strength of schedule. Buffalo is the sixth best defense against the run. Houston is the only team that forces more turnovers on a per-game basis. The Bills, in short, represent a horrid matchup for any offensive attack.
This argument could’ve been blunted, of course, if Jordy Nelson would’ve hung on to a 94-yard touchdown in the second half of the Packers’ loss at Buffalo, but the point remains: even the game’s elite producers — the ones who have single handedly won weeks for you in 2014 — are subject to the whims of matchups. Perhaps they’re not whims though, as whims aren’t concrete, measurable, and predictable.
Aaron Rodgers finished Week 15 as fantasy’s 24th highest scoring signal callers. Nelson didn’t crack the top-30 wide receivers, while Eddie Lacy managed a nice line on the strength of an early touchdown. But what actionable information — what sort of lessons — can we draw from matchups mattering?
Perhaps if players didn’t have names, if they were just numbers and figures to be judged in a robotic way, we’d be able to imagine a universe in which Rodgers is benched for Eli Manning, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Anderson, or Alex Smith. I don’t expect anyone to do that though. We have attachments to players, especially after they’ve saved our fantasy bacon once or twice or five times.
The lesson, I think, is that an investment in a top-end quarterback — a guy who’s guaranteed a top-5 seasonal finish barring injury — does not make your fantasy squad immune to matchups. They matter. They matter a lot, and that should be an underpinning of any strategy that elevates process over results.
Here are a few takeaways from Week 15, with an eye toward Week 16’s fantasy championship throw downs…
Just as Matthew Stafford is nothing more than a borderline fantasy option without Calvin Johnson, Eli Manning is an entirely different fantasy producer with Odell Beckham, Jr. wrecking opposing secondaries. Eli, on the strength of a trio of touchdown tosses to the rookie, finished Week 15 as a top-3 option. He’s averaged a healthy 18.2 fantasy points per game during OBJ’s emergence as what could be the most bankable asset in all of fantasy football not named DeMarco Murray. Beckham is fantasy’s No. 1 receiver over the past six weeks, and it’s not close. He’s outscored Demaryius Thomas by 39 fantasy points over that span. Antonio Brown is 49 points behind Beckham since the rookie took over as the centerpiece of the Giants’ offense. This is a lesson to take into 2015: Eli Manning is and will be the beneficiary of Beckham’s total and complete dominance, giving the lesser Manning a very nice fantasy floor and a ceiling fueled by defense’s inability to contain OBJ. We’ve seen glimpses of Eli’s resurgence through spans of 2014, and I think he shapes up as a logical candidate to be among fantasy’s top half-dozen signal callers next season. Another season in Big Blue’s new offense, the possible return of Victor Cruz, the merciful phasing out of Rueben Randle, and, most of all, the presence of Beckham make me bullish on Eli.
It might be the most uncomfortable move you make all season, but Jacksonville’s defense makes for an elite Week 16 play, at home against an injury-ravaged Titans’ offense begging us to target them in championship week. I think we can expect Charlie Whitehurt to be forced to the air in this one, as the Jaguars’ run defense is solid and the Titans’ running attack doesn’t really deserve to be called an attack. What do we look for when selecting weekly defense plays? We seek inaccurate quarterbacks who will likely throw quite a bit. Here are Whitehurt’s completion percentages over his past eight appearances: 57.5, 40, 57.1, 52.1, 61.9, 60.6, 65, 41.7. That’s bad. Clipboard Jesus could deliver defensive streamers a Thursday night gift against a Jags’ defense that has played a lot better at home than they’ve played on the road. Tennessee has given up 2.7 turnovers per contest over the past three weeks, as the team enters late-season meltdown mode. The Titans have the league’s third-worst pass blocking unit — that could loom large in this one. I’ll have Jacksonville ranked as a top-5 defensive play in Week 16.
I was among the many Johnny Manziel pushers headed into Week 15. I saw his rushing ability as a sort of insurance policy for a rough day through the air. Thanks to a Bengals’ rushing attack that ripped the Browns’ front seven and bled the clock, Manziel got a mere 45 offensive snaps. He rushed five times for 13 yards. It was beyond ugly — it was hideous beyond anything we’ve seen in recent history. Questions have already arisen about Manziel’s viability in Week 16 against a mostly-terrible Carolina defense. If you somehow survived JFF’s Week 15 debacle, you must make the move away from the rookie in the coming week. He could very well be decent against the Panthers, but he’s shown us his fantasy floor, and that should be all we need to know about Manziel’s fantasy prospects. I won’t rank Manziel among the top-20 quarterbacks for Week 16. He might not even be a top-25 play, if only because he so clearly showed that his collegiate playing style has no place in the NFL. And the rookie’s presence makes Carolina’s defense a high-upside play. Manziel will be an appealing swing-for-the-fences play in large-field daily fantasy tournaments. Beyond that, he’s hands off.