It’s the first week of the fantasy playoffs and we have just two more Thursday night games. The fantasy season has lived up to expectation with re-scheduled games and COVID-19 restrictions to manage on a weekly basis. For some, it’s time to rest and take stock of our processes to see why we didn’t make the playoffs. For the lucky few, it’s time to dig in for the final push for a championship. To help out, I’ve put together my notes for TNF and provided a rundown of all the injury news to monitor as we head into Week 14.
It’s all about the Quarterbacks
It’s been a tumultuous season for Cam Newton. In the first couple two weeks of the season, Newton’s ardent supporters were vindicated as he finished as the QB6 and QB2. But then he tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of their Week 5 game, got benched in Week 7, and has been inconsistent from a week-to-week standpoint ever since. We’ve come to rely on Newton’s ability as a runner since he came into the league and, so far, he’s delivered. Newton is on pace for over 600 yards which he hasn’t eclipsed since his last full season in 2017. However, we’ve expected the rushing yards to be complemented by some passing yards. And some doesn’t equate to 69 and 84 yards in back-to-back games. Newton is 27th in Completion Percentage over Expected (CPOE) and 21st in Expected Points Added (EPA) per Play over his last month of games. He’s completed just five passing touchdowns. The concerns we had in the offseason (e.g., aging roster with undeveloped youth decimated by opt outs and injuries) are almost all we have left. Now, the Patriots (still in the playoff picture) travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams.
Newton’s biggest problem has been dealing with pressure. His footwork and throwing mechanics become a liability under duress and it’s been the cause of his worst performances as a passer. The 49ers, Ravens, and Cardinals entered their games against the Patriots with a pressure rate of over 30.0% over their previous four. In those games, Newton finished as the QB35, QB12, and QB28. A rushing touchdown saved him against the Ravens but was held to just 6.9 Yards per Attempt (YPA) on 17 attempts. Los Angeles’ defensive front ranks ninth in adjusted sack rate and has allowed just one 300-yard passer this season (Josh Allen in Week 3). They’ve stymied athletic quarterbacks on the ground as well with just three rushing touchdowns allowed to quarterbacks on the season. With boundary receivers limited to less than 50 yards in five straight games, teams have taken to the interior. Deebo Samuel stole the show in Week 12 on nine targets from the slot (totaled 13- 133-0 on the day) which has typified how passing games have been able to move the ball. Jakobi Meyers has the most targets out of the slot since Week 9 (31) so there’s some hope to see him bounce back after a string of poor games. Regardless, how well Newton holds up under pressure will dictate game flow. If he can connect with his receivers and get into a rhythm, we may see the old Cam Newton back out there on Thursday night.
Jared Goff has been another enigma at quarterback. Most of what you’d want to see in a quarterback from a metrics perspective is there. He’s cracked 300 yards passing in four of his last five games. His neutral passing rate has spiked to 65.8% after closing out 2019 at 61.2%. Plus, he’s had more than 30 pass attempts in every game this season except for Week 2. With that type of volume and yardage totals, you’d expect to see Goff at or near the top of the fantasy rankings for quarterbacks. However, he’s at QB16 behind Derek Carr. The primary reason is touchdowns. Goff has just 17 touchdowns this season. His 3.8% touchdown rate this season mimics his 3.5% touchdown rate from 2019. Because 76.4% of his pass attempts are 10 air yards or less, he’s become inefficient in the most critical aspect of the game. Plus, he doesn’t get much opportunity once his team gets in scoring position. Los Angeles has thrown on just 40.5% of their passes from within the red zone. It’s helped all of the running backs gain success, but limited Goff’s production. But with the Rams going up against the Patriots’ defense, it may be more of the same to start off the fantasy playoffs.
Everyone will still be focused on New England shutting out the Chargers, but the Patriots have been a tough matchup for quarterbacks this season. They’ve allowed just three QB1 performances but they came from legitimate starters (Russell Wilson in Week 2, Lamar Jackson in Week 8, and Deshaun Watson in Week 11). Deshaun Watson has been the only quarterback to reach 300 passing yards against New England all season and they’ve limited four opposing quarterbacks to fewer than 200 yards. Enemy quarterbacks have found success in two ways: deep or quick passing. All of the quarterbacks that finished as a QB1 against New England had notable success on passes of 15 air yards or more (Wilson 5-110-3, Jackson 6-18-1, and Watson 8-91-0). But some of the others survived on a shortened time to throw. Jimmy Garoppolo (277 passing yards) was ninth in average time to throw in Week 7 and Justin Herbert (209) was 12th. Goff has been in the top half of the league in this area for the last month. It’s propped up his passing volume and kept the Rams’ offense moving (35.0 yards per drive), but reduced his touchdown efficiency. Regardless, it comes down to Goff and his ability to execute under pressure. Should the Patriots’ pass rush find a weakness, the Rams will have a tough night.
Points of Interest
For the Patriots, I’ll be focusing on the passing game. Specifically, Jakobi Meyers. The undrafted sophomore saw an immediate uptick in work after Julian Edelman aggravated a pre-existing knee injury back in Week 7. From Weeks 8 to 10, Meyers was their primary receiver. He maintained a 40.3% target share and had 286 yards in the three-game stretch. While most of it came in Week 9 (14-169-0), most felt that his instant connection with Cam Newton and role within the team was secure. But he’s seen just five targets per game over their last three contests. Even in Week 11, when Cam Newton threw for 365 yards, Meyers was held to just 38 scoreless yards on three targets. Meanwhile, Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry have stepped into fantasy-relevant roles with the two receivers accounting for the majority of the receiving touchdowns over their last three games. Of the three, Meyers has run the most snaps out of the slot according to PFF which could help him avoid Jalen Ramsey. Regardless, given the Rams' ability to fluster opposing quarterbacks, all eyes will be on Cam Newton and his ability to pass while under pressure.
For the Rams, all eyes will be on Jared Goff and Sean McVay. Thursday night will be the first time the duo has faced Bill Belichick since he short-circuited their dynamic offense in the 2018 Super Bowl. Since then, the Rams have struggled to find the magic that got them to the big game. They were third in offensive yards per drive, second in points per game, and third in situation neutral pace. With injuries and losses along their offensive line and trading Brandin Cooks, they’ve fallen to 17th in both yards per drive and points per game and their neutral pace rank has fallen to ninth. Plus, it’s no secret how to dismantle Goff’s game. Goff is ninth in EPA per Play (0.33) and seventh in percentage of on-target throws (82.1%) when he’s not facing pressure. But it all falls apart the moment the pocket breaks. His EPA per Play and on-target percentage plummet to 47.7% and -0.67. All of his sacks have come under pressure and 60.0% of his interceptions have come when he’s on the run. New England may be undermanned, but they’re not without a coach. The same defense that gave up three touchdowns to Joe Flacco in Week 9 just shut out Justin Herbert (the leading contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year) with three sacks and two interceptions. We’ll see how well Sean McVay has game-planned on a short week and whether Goff can execute once the headset goes silent.
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Wednesday practice reports can be difficult to gauge. Teams that played on Monday or Tuesday have estimated reports due to not holding practice on Wednesday. Plus, players that miss practice or are limited can still make progress throughout the remainder of the week and be active on Sunday. We’ll need to monitor each player’s progress as we get closer to Sunday, but this is list isn’t encouraging for folks entering the playoffs.
Did Not Practice
Tyreek Hill (Illness) was a surprise absentee on Wednesday. Andy Reid provided clarification that their star wide receiver’s illness was not COVID-19 related, but it’s unclear how long he’ll be away from the team. After Kansas City was without Clyde Edwards-Helaire last week for a similar ailment and used him in a backup role, it’ll be worth following Hill’s participation (if any) to close out the week.
Julio Jones (hamstring) was held out of practice as the Falcons prepare for travel to face the Chargers. Jones has been just limited to start the week the last two Wednesdays but escaped Week 13 without a setback. Atlanta’s top receiver was on the field for 94% of their offensive snaps without any trips to the medical tent. It’s tough to see him sitting so early in the week, but there are no indications he’ll be out in Week 14.
Josh Jacobs (Ankle) has been out since suffering an ankle injury against the Falcons in Week 12. Jacobs is pushing to play, but Jon Gruden has been non-committal on the sophomore’s status. Remember, Jacobs played on a fractured shoulder to close out the 2019 season and was the first rookie in franchise history to eclipse 1,000 yards. The Raiders are eighth in playoff seeding (only seven spots) and could use their best running back against the Colts in Week 14.
Deebo Samuel (Foot) missed Wednesday’s practice with a foot contusion. Kyle Shanahan clarified that this injury isn’t connected to the fracture that required surgery during the offseason, but it’s a concern nonetheless. Samuel played 95% of the team’s snaps against the Bills so the injury designation comes as a surprise. However, he’s still expected to suit up on Sunday against Washington.
Chris Godwin (Finger) missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday after having a procedure done to remove 10 pins from his finger. Godwin had been playing with a cast to protect his fractured finger for nearly a month. He’s expected back at practice Friday and will start on Sunday against the Vikings
The Vikings were without Kyle Rudolph (Foot), Irv Smith (Back), and Alexander Mattison (Illness) on Wednesday. A foot injury would be the likeliest explanation for Rudolph’s doughnut in the stat sheet, but he ran 35 routes against the Jaguars. With Irv Smith still dealing with injuries, the Vikings are down to Tyler Conklin at tight end who earned a single target in Week 13.
It’s unclear as to why Kenny Golladay (Hip) wasn’t placed in Injured Reserve. He’s now missed five consecutive games and hasn’t practiced, even in a limited fashion, since Week 11. Interim Coach Bevell has received positive reports from the wide receiver, but there’s no expectation Golladay will be on the field anytime soon.
The Panthers got Christian McCaffrey back and then they didn’t. McCaffrey has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury and popped up on the injury report with a quad injury. Matt Rhule indicated McCaffrey is ‘day-to-day’ and his status for Week 14 is unclear with the Panthers well out of playoff contention.
D’Andre Swift got in a limited practice after missing the last two weeks with a concussion. The lingering effects have caused teammates (and the NFL community at large) to worry about his future health given the rookie’s talent. Swift started off Week 13 but then regressed to DNP to close out the week. However, Darrell Bevell has some optimism he’ll be able to clear the concussion protocol and suit up in Week 14.
Myles Gaskin (Knee) and DeAndre Washington (hamstring) were both limited on Wednesday. With Salvon Ahmed (Shoulder) and Matt Breida (Illness) both out, it’s likely the Dolphins were being cautious with their only remaining running backs. Gaskin handled 62.2% of the team’s running back touches right after being activated from Injured Reserve. With over 140 scrimmage yards against Cincinnati, Miami will need Gaskin ready to roll against the Chiefs this weekend.