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Exploiting the Matchups: Cooking Up a Playoff Run

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for Rotowire.com since 2011 and is most proud of recommending Victor Cruz as a starter in his breakout game against the Eagles. He's a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, the Packers and, unfortunately, the Knicks.

In many leagues this is the last week before the nerve-racking fantasy playoffs get underway. Like a lot of owners, I find myself in desperate need of a win to have a chance in a few leagues. And, just like many of those owners, I find myself conflicted about a number of starting decisions.

I blame Allen Robinson, personally. No, actually that's not enough. Sure, he's single-handedly buried me a couple of weeks and put me in some must-win situations, but it's unfair to have him shoulder all the blame. I really blame wide receivers as a whole. In the year I finally bought into the theory of stacking “star” receivers early, so many of them are untrustworthy. The lack of consistent receivers is what has me so torn this week.

You see, last year in Week 13 I gave very fair and sound advice for how to win late in the season -- play for the highest floor. The problem with that, however, is how wildly-inconsistent wide receivers have been this year. Heck, even the league-leader in receiving yards, Julio Jones, has four games of 35 yards or fewer. Of course, Jones is not a very good example since he's one of the few true must-starts. A better example is Michael Crabtree. In his last six games, he has three with at least 96 yards. In the other three he has 42 combined. Brandin Cooks, however, is the popular name to cite this week as a source of fantasy frustrations. Three weeks ago he burned the Broncos, of all defenses, for 98 yards and a touchdown. Last Sunday he scored as many fantasy points as I did drinking beer on my couch (heavily, I might add, after he gave me that goose egg in a game I desperately needed).

So that brings us back to my conflict. How do I play guys like this if I'm worried about the highest floor?

If you want high floors at the receiver position you can't really look past about 6-10 players you can count on, if that. The unhappy conclusion is that this year the move is to swing for the fences. It's to roll the dice at receiver because there's sadly no other good choice. Do you really want to play Pierre Garcon and aim for that surefire 50 or so yards? Heck no! Roll out the hot receiver that has the prime matchup, the guy who in a million years you never would have imagined pinning your playoff hopes on back in August. And, spoiler alert, there's a bunch of them this week. I do discuss a couple in more depth below, but my faves are Tyreek Hill and Taylor Gabriel on the Georgia Dome turf, Marquess Wilson getting the ragtag Niners, and Malcolm Mitchell becoming Tom Brady's new best friend. Of course, these “no names” are not the only hot receivers to chance and they're certainly not the only ones with volatile potential outcomes. Many of your rollercoaster “stars” are still guys you should be playing. When deciding between them, pay close attention to the matchup, in particular the likely game-flow scenarios and the opposing secondaries, and choose wisely. Then get the beer ready, because in the fantasy playoffs you never know if you're going to be the one turning up the heat or the one who gets cooked.

As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are guys you wouldn't roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you may want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let's get to it.

UPGRADE:

Quarterback

Matthew Stafford, DET at NO

Jared Goff threw for 167 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of just his second career start against this Saints defense. I repeat. Goff threw for 167 yards and three touchdowns in the first half against this Saints defense. That's all you need to know.

Matt Barkley, CHI vs. SF

Only the Browns have allowed more passing touchdowns this year than the 26 given up by the 49ers, and they've done that in an extra game (Cleveland finally has its bye this week). Even Ryan Tannehill pitched three TDs against them last Sunday. It was the second time he did so and the first was, no coincidence, versus the Browns. And Tannehill did so with Jarvis Landry banged up and DeVante Parker leaving the game. AND it only took him 30 attempts. The Niners' D is a mess as a whole, and Barkley, who threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee in his first career start, is auditioning for a job next season. Expect him to be sharp again.

Alex Smith, KC at ATL

When Smith has been forced to throw, he's put up numbers. In the three games in which he's attempted at least 40 passes he's totaled 870 yards and six touchdowns (one rushing). Facing a high-powered Atlanta offense on its own turf is going to do just that. When Smith tries to keep pace, expect some fireworks from an offense that has legit playmakers not named Jeremy Maclin. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that the Falcons' defense has been the most generous in the league to signal callers on a per-game fantasy basis.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, NYJ vs. IND

Fitzpatrick played his best football of the season last Sunday. It was the first time he's thrown multiple touchdowns since Week 1 and his best completion percentage (68.8) since Week 2. With the Colts on deck, his odds of an encore seem pretty strong. Indy has given up multiple passing touchdowns in eight straight games, and the list of QBs to find success against the Colts includes the lowly likes of Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler and Nick Foles.

Running Back

Theo Riddick, DET at NO

Only the vaunted Broncos and Seahawks defenses have held the Saints to less than 32 points at home this season, and given that the Lions' defense has allowed a league-high 106.4 passer rating to quarterbacks, chances seem slim it will manage that feat against Drew Brees. Of course, this bodes very well for Riddick. As it turns out, only three defenses have allowed more receiving yards to running backs than New Orleans. When the Lions throw and throw often, it stands to reason they might just involve their dual-threat tailback whose 128 catches since 2015 are easily tops among all running backs.

James Starks, GB vs. HOU

The Texans haven't scored more than 30 points this season. In fact, they've broken 25 just twice. The Packers, meanwhile, haven't scored less than 24 points in six consecutive. After Aaron Rodgers builds a reasonable lead on a Texans team spiraling out of the playoff picture, count on Starks getting a heavy second-half workload against a Houston defense that is one of 12 teams to allow more than 1,500 scrimmage yards to running backs this season. That means Starks' streak of three games with at least 68 yards or a touchdown will reach a fourth.

Tevin Coleman, ATL vs. KC

In their last six contests, the Chiefs have allowed six running backs to either score or total 100-plus scrimmage yards. Coleman might have only gotten eight carries last week in his return from a hamstring injury, but one of those was a goal-line touchdown, pushing his team lead to six rushing scores. In a game that figures to see a lot of yards churned out, expect Coleman to get further involved as he regains the early season form that saw him rack up an unexpected 564 yards and six touchdowns in seven games.

Kenneth Dixon, BAL vs. MIA

In their last four games, the Dolphins have struggled to slow No. 1 tailbacks. Matt Forte and Carlos Hyde each topped 90 scrimmage yards and scored. Melvin Gordon had more than 130 scrimmage yards by burning them for more than 60 rushing and receiving. Todd Gurley had a 24-yard touchdown run, his only carry of the year topping 20 yards. Although Dixon has not rushed for more than 50 yards in a game since becoming a part of the backfield rotation, he has proven to be the more dynamic weapon between he and Terrance West. In two of the last three games he's had exactly 80 scrimmage yards while averaging 5.1 YPC on the ground. He's better in PPR formats, of course, but in what should be a tight matchup between playoff hopefuls, Dixon is going see upward of 15 touches.

Tim Hightower, NO vs. DET

In four of his last five games, Hightower has at least 17 touches and 102 scrimmage yards, with two TDs in that stretch and a total of 490 yards in those five contests. And yards are what you're counting on with a flex option like Hightower. Fortunately for him and his owners, the Lions defense coming to town is one of only 12 to have allowed over 1,500 scrimmage yards to tailbacks.

Wide Receiver

Brandin Cooks, NO vs. DET

It's hard to go back to the well and have faith that Cooks can rebound after he went M.I.A. last week while the entire rest of the Saints offense went bananas. But here's why you should keep the faith: in four of his six home games, Cooks piled up 458 yards and five touchdowns, including scores against both the Seattle and Denver secondaries. Moreover, the last time he expressed frustration over his role in the offense he followed it up by blasting Carolina for 173 yards and a score.

Marvin Jones, DET at NO

It's wake up time for one of Detroit's top playmakers. Jones has been in a four-game slumber after a torrid start to the season (482 yards through four games, 248 since). Fortunately, the Lions finally play a game that will require them to open up the passing attack much earlier than the fourth quarter. Drew Brees has averaged 357 yards and 3.5 TDs at home this year, which means the Saints will force Matthew Stafford and Co. to sling it more than their season-high 41 attempts.

Taylor Gabriel, ATL vs. KC

The Titans are the only defense that has allowed more than the 2,237 yards the Chiefs have given up to wide receivers. And they've done that in one more game (their bye is this week). And it's only 14 measly yards less. Gabriel is a lightning-fast jitterbug of a receiver who is a big play waiting to happen, as evidenced by his 322 scrimmage yards (51 rushing) and five total touchdowns in the last four games on only 16 touches. So, if there was ever a week to roll the dice on the firecracker wideout that you need to do a lot with a little, this is that week.

DeAndre Hopkins & Will Fuller, HOU at GB

Hopkins and Fuller reached at least 60 yards in the same game last week for the first time since Week 2. With Fuller back to full strength following a hammy injury and Hopkins finally finding something of a groove with Brock Osweiler, the timing couldn't be better for the pair to face one of the most generous defenses to wide receivers. Even with the return of Damarious Randall to the secondary, the Packers let Dorial Green-Beckham post a season-high 82 receiving yards last week, and over their last three contests, they've given up a touchdown to six wideouts. When Houston is behind to a hot Green Bay offense, volume and weak coverage will provide a winning formula for Hopkins and Fuller owners.

Marquess Wilson, CHI vs. SF

The list of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receivers to get in the end zone versus the 49ers just continues to grow, as Kenny Stills and rookie Leonte Carroo found paydirt against this generous defense. Wilson, who has become the de facto No. 1 for Chicago, will look to join that Island of Misfit Toys club, and after his showing last week, it's hard not to like his odds. Wilson has just nine catches this season, but eight came from Matt Barkley last week in his second appearance of the year. On 11 targets he racked up 125 yards and scored. Look for a big encore with SF in town.

Tight End

Ladarius Green, PIT vs. NYG

The Giants have allowed at least 50 yards to the tight end position in five consecutive games and the trio of Zach Ertz, Tyler Eifert and Zach Miller combined for 254 yards and a touchdown during that stretch. While Janoris Jenkins has had great success limiting top-tier wide receivers, Big Blue has struggled defending the middle of the field with linebackers. After test-driving his new toy the last few weeks (97 yards on five catches), expect Ben Roethlisberger to exploit this weakness with his ultra-athletic tight end.

Coby Fleener, NO vs. DET

The Lions have allowed at least 64 yards or a touchdown to a tight end in nine of 11 games this season. Fleener has disappointed overall given his pairing with Brees, but this game is at home and the scoreboard could look like a stock ticker by the end of the game.

DOWNGRADE:

Quarterback

Blake Bortles, JAC vs. DEN

Bortles has tossed multiple touchdowns in five consecutive games and has run for 171 yards during that same stretch, including a career-high 81 last week. While he may continue doing damage with his legs given the disruptiveness of Denver's pass rush, chances are high his scoring streak will end versus a group that has averaged less than one passing touchdown allowed per game.

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT vs. NYG

The Giants haven't allowed a single quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards and multiple touchdowns in the same game. In fact, only Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins have tossed two scores against them, and they picked off Rodgers twice to offset his damage. Led by the All-Pro play of Jenkins and a pass rush that's picked up steam lately (14 sacks in the last three games), the Giants have quietly allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to QBs. Even with Green finally healthy, Roethlisberger still lacks weapons beyond Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. When Jenkins makes Big Ben think twice about force-feeding Brown while Jason Pierre-Paul and Co. have a chance to get in the backfield, things could get a bit ugly for the Steelers' aerial attack.

Kirk Cousins, WAS at AZ

For all the struggles the Cardinals have endured, one of those has not been defending the pass. They still have Patrick Peterson locking up No. 1 receivers and have a pass rush that's gotten to quarterbacks for 29 sacks, good for sixth in the league. As red-hot as Cousins has been -- 824 yards and six TDs in his last two -- an Arizona D that has allowed the second-fewest passing yards (only 18 behind Denver!) and the fewest touchdowns (just nine!!!) will put out that flame in the desert.

Cam Newton, CAR at SEA

Newton threw for multiple touchdowns last week for just the third time this season and second time since Week 2. And that result required a blown coverage on an 88-yard bomb to Ted Ginn. The Seahawks, unfortunately, are not known for their egregious coverage mistakes. They average less than a passing touchdown allowed per game and will be ready to return to their normally dominant defensive ways at home after the ugly loss last week in Tampa.

Running Back

Jay Ajayi, MIA at BAL

With three offensive line starters absent last week, Ajayi met with a 49ers defense that was suddenly very un-49er-like; they stonewalled the power back to the tune of 45 yards on 18 carries. After being shut down by a San Fran group that is still last against the run and allows nearly 100 more yards per game on the ground than the top-ranked Ravens run D, it is awfully hard to play Ajayi in this tough road test, with or without his line healthy.

Lamar Miller, HOU at GB

In the last two games Houston lost by more than two touchdowns, Miller received a combined 19 carries for 81 yards. Injury or not, Aaron Rodgers will come out firing in a must-win game, and it could quickly start to resemble those prior Texans losses. While Green Bay has struggled recently slowing quality backs, the healthiest part of its defense remains a stout defensive line led by All-Pro candidate Mike Daniels. Miller, unfortunately, can't boast the same clean bill of health, as he's battling an ankle injury and has fought through a shoulder ailment this year as well. It's tough to bench the league's fifth leading rusher, but this matchup has bad news written all over it for the Houston ground game.

Thomas Rawls, SEA vs. CAR

Only three defenses have allowed fewer rushing yards to tailbacks than the 801 the Panthers have given up (72.8 yards per game at 3.5 YPC). And in case anyone was wondering, Rawls only has 148 receiving yards in 17 career games, so he should have a lovely time trying to produce behind a patchwork offensive line against the Carolina front seven.

Wide Receiver

Allen Robinson, JAC vs. DEN

Just when you thought you could trust him again … out goes the rug from under your feet. After notching his first 100-yard game of the season and his third straight with at least 70 yards, Robinson has totaled a measly 42 yards over his last two games. Sure, he semi-saved his day in one with a touchdown, but the fact remains that this superstar talent is a bust this year. Versus the elite corner duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, and with Bortles running for his life from a vaunted Denver pass rush, you can count on Robinson's lost season to continue.

Dez Bryant, DAL at MIN

Since returning from injury in Week 8, Bryant has 400 yards and four touchdowns in five games. In that same timeframe, the Vikings have allowed an average of one score per game to wide receivers and none have eclipsed better than 81 yards against them. The Minnesota offense, however, has not been so hot, as it topped 20 points just once during that stretch. When Dallas is comfortably ahead early in this one, Dak Prescott will have little reason to test stud corner Xavier Rhodes by targeting Bryant.

Demaryius Thomas, DEN at JAC

Thomas is trending down. Despite a 10-game streak with at least five catches, he has only one 100-yard performance this season, has scored just twice in his last six outings, and has turned in 60 or fewer yards in more than half his appearances this year, including five of his last seven. With as little hope as Jacksonville has to build a two-score lead versus the elite Denver D, less throwing figures to equal more of the same for Thomas, particularly as he battles star rookie corner Jalen Ramsey who has held every No. 1 receiver to 80 yards or less since Week 3.

Tight End

Jordan Reed, WAS at AZ

It's awfully hard to feel confident about Reed this Sunday. Sure, he torched Dallas in the second half last week after suffering a separated shoulder for 10-95-2. But that was against a Cowboys defense that has allowed a league-high 75 receptions by tight ends and in a game that saw Kirk Cousins throw 53 times with Washington playing from behind. And Reed did that damage during an adrenaline-driven second half in a crucial meeting with a division rival. His shoulder might feel even worse entering this game against a 4-6-1 Cardinals team that likely won't call for as much passing. Most unfortunate for Reed owners, Arizona boasts the top defense versus tight ends. It's allowed a ridiculously low 282 yards and zero scores to the position.

Jared Cook, GB vs. HOU

We all saw the matchup nightmare that the uber-athletic Cook can be for Green Bay when he first returned from an ankle injury and burned the Redskins for 105 yards and a score. Last week we saw the flip side when game flow and a tougher opponent limited him to a measly seven yards. Cook's downside was on display versus an Eagles defense that's one of just three to have allowed fewer than 400 yards to tight ends this season. The other two, you ask? The aforementioned Cardinals and you betcha, the Texans.