Making DFS tournament lineups is about telling yourself a story. The trick? You have to convince yourself that you're right.
There's no point in hedging if you're making lineups for large field DFS tournaments. Construct your lineup as if you have seen the future, as if you are absolutely correct in how these games will play out. If Player X goes off, then Player Y could also go off. If this player fails to meet fantasy expectations, who in their offense would provide leverage? Your tournament lineups should be spectacularly right or spectacularly wrong; nothing in between.
Below is a breakdown of all four Divisional Round games, with suggestions on how one might stack these contests in DFS tournaments. Get unreasonably assured about your NFL thought leading and make some correct lineups.
Cowboys (+3.5) at 49ers
49ers implied total: 24.75
Cowboys implied total: 21.25
If Kyle Shanahan has his way, the 49ers will establish the run with reckless abandon against a Dallas defense that ranks as the NFL's most extreme run funnel. Such a scenario would include a heavy workload for Christian McCaffrey and, to a lesser extent, Deebo Samuel, who last week against the Seahawks had 32 yards on three rushes.
Getting out to a comfortable little lead against the Cowboys would also generate volume for Elijah Mitchell, though his nine carries for two yards in the Wild Card round don't inspire great confidence (it was a strange outcome for a highly efficient rusher who was 19th in yards after contact per attempt on his 45 regular season carries).
A game full of running against a Dallas defense allowing the 13th highest rate of long rushes this season would necessitate a pass-heavy scheme for the Cowboys. It was almost soothing to see Dallas shift to a pass-first approach in their Wild Card domination of Tampa. After posting a -6 percent pass rate over expected during the regular season, the Cowboys were just 1 percent below their expected pass rate against the Bucs. Their 0 percent PROE on first down was well above their regular season rate. Mike McCarthy, for one week, stopped being scared and chose to ride or die with Dak Prescott. He lived.
Another pass-first game plan would make sense against San Francisco. The Niners in the regular season allowed the third lowest rate of positive rush plays and the second lowest EPA per rush. You can't run on the 49ers, so don't try. The best (only) avenue to exploiting the Niners defense from a fantasy standpoint is getting exposure to pass catchers running routes from the slot. While DK Metcalf became one of the only boundary receivers to put up solid numbers against the Niners in the Wild Card round, it's slot guys who have seen the most success against San Francisco (Tyler Lockett and Cade Johnson combined for six catches and 59 yards from the slot last week).
CeeDee Lamb, who last week had 64 yards and a touchdown from the slot, had a 62.5 percent slot rate during the regular season. It wouldn't be shocking to see Lamb with a season-high slot rate against the Niners. Dalton Schultz (40 percent slot rate) and Noah Brown (44 percent slot rate) also profile as potential beneficiaries in a matchup with the Niners.
Color me intrigued (once again) by T.Y. Hilton, who ran 52 percent of his Wild Card routes from the slot, catching two of four targets for 23 yards while running a route on 53 percent of the team's drop backs. Against Tampa, Hilton saw 27.3 percent of Dallas' air yards, second only to Schultz. Michael Gallup would get the far-less-favorable outside receiver duties against the 49ers.
I can't make myself pretend Ezekiel Elliott is worth playing here. He's not. If I have to use a Dallas running back, it's Tony Pollard. Brave, I know. We know two things about Pollard on this short slate: He's the most explosive back in the remaining field and he will be a contrarian option with CMC and Saquon Barkley on the slate.
Dallas is a run funnel not because they're bad against the rush -- they have allowed the fourth lowest rushing EPA since Week 12 -- but because opponents have tried to steer clear of the Cowboys' pass rush and opportunistic secondary. The Cowboys' pass coverage has softened of late, however. In Week 18, Sam Howell -- in his first NFL start -- posted an adjusted yards per attempt of 9 against Dallas. Two weeks earlier, Gardner Minshew racked up 355 yards, two touchdowns (and two picks) against the Cowboys. Trevor Lawrence carved up the Cowboys in Week 15 for 318 yards and four scores.
This Dallas secondary can be had, and what better quarterback to exploit a vulnerable coverage unit than white-hot Brock Purdy?
Purdy, since taking over as the Niners starter in Week 14, leads all quarterbacks in adjusted EPA per drop back. He ranks 14th in completion rate over expected. Shanahan is on a play-calling heater and Purdy has executed to perfection. Behind an offensive line graded by Pro Football Focus as the NFL's fourth best pass blocking unit, there's no reason Purdy can't shred the Cowboys. The 49ers have a 0 percent pass rate over expected on first down since Purdy's takeover -- a number that won't raise your eyebrows until you see the team was 5 percent under their expected pass rate from Week 1-13. Shanny is putting Purdy in a good spot time and again.
The 49ers, whether they attack the Cowboys with the pass or are forced into negative game script, have a pretty tight target distribution. And we know that does not include George Kittle, who is little more than a touchdown-or-bust fantasy option when Samuel is healthy and in the lineup. Kittle's only appeal this week lies in what will surely be low rostership.
Brandon Aiyuk, fresh off a 73-yard outing against Seattle, could be an under-rostered option in a matchup against a Dallas secondary that has been quite generous to boundary wideouts. Last week, Mike Evans was a fingertip away from a monster outing against Dallas. And Julio Jones caught seven balls for 71 yards and a touchdown while running 79 percent of his routes from the outside.
Terry McLaurin and Treylon Burks also had late-season success from the boundary against these Cowboys. Aiyuk could be a key player in this week's DFS slate.
Game Stack Ideas
Purdy, McCaffrey, Aiyuk, Lamb or Schultz or Hilton
McCaffrey, Samuel, Lamb or Schultz
Prescott, Lamb, Hilton or Schultz, Aiyuk
Bengals (+5) at Bills
Bills implied total: 26.75
Bengals implied total: 21.75
I suppose this would include Josh Allen doing his thing, winging it around the yard, taking off for a bunch of rushing yards and maybe a rushing score or two. The hugely pass-heavy Bills, after all, are taking on Cincinnati defense that qualifies as a slight pass funnel.
That shouldn't obscure the Bengals' recent snuffing out of passing attacks both good and bad. Cincy's secondary is no joke: They've given up the fourth lowest drop back success rate since Week 10 and the sixth lowest pass EPA in the regular season. Only Washington allowed a lower regular season rate of positive pass plays than the Bengals.
This could, just maybe, make Allen a QB to fade on this truncated DFS slate. The Bills have shown some recent willingness to lean toward the run when necessary. Perhaps a positive game script for Buffalo could create more opportunities for James Cook and Devin Singletary. It's Singletary who has a 32-29 edge in carries over Buffalo's past three games. Both backs have been efficient in that stretch, with Singletary averaging 6.3 yards per carry and Cook averaging 5.8 YPC. Singletary has a slight edge in pass routes since Week 16. Both guys have a meager four targets over that span.
Stefon Diggs in last week's win over Miami continued dominating air yards, seeing 27.5 percent of Buffalo's air yards on his way to seven catches for 114 yards. His 163 air yards were third among all pass catchers on the week. He sees enough intermediate looks to serve as an extension of the Bills' run game if they struggle to establish it against a tough Bengals front seven. It'll be tough to fade Diggs on this week's tiny slate.
The Bills play the second highest rate of two high safety coverage and the Bengals see two high safeties more than almost any offense in the NFL. It's safe to say Joe Burrow -- whether the Bengals get out to a lead or have to pass in negative script -- is going to dink and dunk his way to yards and points.
An early lead for the Bengals would probably lead to increased rush volume for Joe Mixon. It's hardly the worst spot for Mixon if he sees 15-20 carries in positive script: The Bills are allowing the 16th highest rate of positive running plays and rank 18th in long rush rate. A Buffalo defense refusing to give an inch to downfield threats Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins could provide Mixon with soft boxes throughout. Crucially, Mixon sees all the high-value touches in the Cincy backfield. Only four backs logged more inside-the-five rushing attempts than Mixon in the regular season.
Samaje Perine has some DFS intrigue as a short-area target in a game where Joe Burrow will play behind an offensive line decimated by injuries. Last week against Baltimore, Perine ran 19 routes to 22 routes for Mixon (Perine had one target while Mixon had five). Importantly, Perine has that dawg in him.
Like we saw in the Wild Card round, a trailing Bills offense would unleash its passing attack, bolstering route and target volume for all every-down Buffalo pass catchers. Gabe Davis haters could be in for a world of hurt if Buffalo chases points in the Divisional Round. In similar game script last week against the Dolphins, Davis led all NFL pass catchers with 184 air yards, which translated to six receptions, 119 yards, and a touchdown. Davis traditionally vanishes against man coverage. Thankfully for him, the Bengals play a lot of zone. Davis notched 16.9 yards per reception against zone coverage in the regular season, the eighth highest mark among all wideouts.
Isaiah McKenzie's potential return to the Buffalo lineup could create a hideous three-man slot commit in the Bills offense. If McKenzie (hamstring) remains sidelined, it's worth noting Cole Beasley for some reason ran more routes than Khalil Shakir in the Wild Card round and saw five targets to four for Shakir. It was Shakir who had 105 air yards to 32 for Beasley.
Game Stack Ideas
Burrow, Chase, Mixon, Diggs or Davis
Allen, Diggs and/or Davis, Knox, Chase
Mixon, Diggs or Davis
Allen, Mixon, Chase or Higgins
Jaguars (+8.5) at Chiefs
Chiefs implied total: 30.75
Jaguars implied total: 22.25
Patrick Mahomes is going to have every opportunity to torment this Jacksonville coverage unit. The Jaguars are the league's second most extreme pass funnel defense. They happen to be quite bad against the pass: The Jags allow the 11th highest rate of positive pass plays and the 12th highest rate of long pass completions.
We know the Chiefs are among the precious few teams that pass while leading, meaning we can't project the KC running backs for volume even in a blowout script. There's no scenario in which Travis Kelce won't at least have a chance to go ballistic here. In a Week 10 matchup with the Jags, Kelce caught six of seven targets for 81 yards and a score. Altogether, Kansas City tight ends combined for nine receptions, 105 yards, and two touchdowns.
Kadarius Toney, seeing a target on nearly one-fourth of his pass routes since joining the Chiefs, makes for an interesting stacking partner with Mahomes. Andy Reid in Week 10 against the Jags saw fit to deploy Toney liberally; he caught four of five targets for 57 yards and a score that week. Sustained rushing opportunities -- Toney had three carries in Week 18 against Vegas -- only add to his appeal as a low-cost DFS option who could garner serious rostership in a KC offense with a week-high 30.75-point implied total.
An all-out pass-heavy comeback game script for Jacksonville's offense would put every Jaguars pass catcher in play. Christian Kirk reeled in nine of his 11 targets against the Chiefs in Week 10, serving as Trevor Lawrence's main intermediate option with an 11.1 average depth of target. Kirk would require volume here because Kansas City leads the NFL in two high safety usage, and they use shell coverage at an even higher rate with a lead. The Chiefs are bound and determined not to allow big plays down the field.
Though Engram didn't do much in Week 10 against Kansas City (three catches for 14 yards on four targets), he's interesting as a dump-off option if the Jags are forced to completely abandon the run. The Chiefs aren't the worst tight end matchup, allowing 4.7 receptions per game to the position this season, the 17th most. It's not exactly easy to find a tight end with an 84 percent route rate who has 50 targets over his past six games. Engram presents a chance to use two tight ends in large-field DFS tournaments this weekend.
Not much would change for the Chiefs if they inexplicably face a deficit against the Jaguars on Saturday. They're going to pass and pass and pass some more. Jerick McKinnon, even if Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) is active, will benefit from negative script that forces KC to totally ignore its run game.
I would expect Doug Pederson and the Jaguars to get hyper conservative if they somehow seize a lead against Mahomes and the Chiefs. Travis Etienne would be in for a massive workload if the Jaguars are committed to burning clock and playing keepaway from the Chiefs offense.
Etienne notched a healthy 15.4 rushing attempts in Jacksonville wins after the team traded away James Robinson in October. Kansas City, giving up the 15th highest rush EPA, is hardly an intimidating matchup for opposing ball carriers. Etienne is a DFS option with a terrifying floor and an objectively intriguing ceiling scenario. No team, by the bye, gave up more regular season running back receptions than the Chiefs. Etienne caught three balls for 28 yards against KC in Week 10.
Game Stack Ideas
Mahomes, Kelce, Toney, Kirk or Engram or Jones
Mahomes, Kelce, Etienne
Lawrence, Kirk and Engram or Jones, Kelce, Toney or McKinnon
Giants (+7.5) at Eagles
Eagles implied total: 27.75
Giants implied total: 20.25
The Eagles have continually changed their offensive approach this season to attack their opponent's most glaring weakness. One week the Eagles might be 10 percent over their expected pass rate, and the next, 5 percent under. It's an approach other teams might consider.
In Week 14 against the Giants, Philadelphia was 4 percent over their expected pass rate. A month later, upon Hurts' return from injury in Week 18, they posted a PROE of 5 percent. It appears Nick Sirianni has a formula for attacking New York's defense, which has been middling against the pass all season. The Giants, I should note, are much healthier on defense this week than they were in Week 14. In Week 18, the team rested many of its starters with nothing to play for.
After dialing way back on the blitz against the Vikings in the Wild Card round -- and still pressuring Kirk Cousins on more than 40 percent of his drop backs -- the Giants would do well to take a similar approach against Hurts, who ripped the G-people when they blitzed him in Week 14. Consistent blitzes against Hurts could pay off bigly for DFS players who stack Hurts with A.J. Brown and/or DeVonta Smith.
Fully recovered from his shoulder injury, Hurts could get back to ruining opposing defenses on the ground this week. The man coverage-heavy Giants were predictably vulnerable to mobile quarterbacks this season: Lamar Jackson logged seven carries for 77 yards against New York, Hurts had 77 yards and a score on seven rushes, and Justin Fields had 52 yards on seven rushes (before the Bears unleashed him as a runner). That New York has been plainly bad against the run this season -- only the Packers and Browns gave up a higher rush EPA -- could compel the Eagles to operate a run-first offense in the Divisional Round.
That brings us to the eternally disappointing Miles Sanders. In positive script against the Giants, Sanders should have at least a pinch of upside. He went berserk against these Giants in Week 14, piling up 144 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries, his fourth biggest workload of the season. The Giants, allowing the league's eighth highest rate of positive rushes, stand little chance against Philly's road pavers without major adjustments in defensive scheme. Sanders, I think, can be played alongside Hurts since both guys can get there for fantasy purposes on the ground.
Run-back options for the Giants -- if they indeed chase points here -- include downfield threat Darius Slayton, the emergent Isaiah Hodgins, and slot man Richie James. Saquon Barkley can also be thrown in here, though a lineup with Hurts, his primary pass catchers, and Barkley is going to struggle to fill roster spots.
I'm fading Hodgins, who has scored a touchdown in five of his past six outings. The Vikings are as vulnerable to perimeter receivers as any defense in the NFL; Hodgins' matchup was pristine in the WIld Card round. Not so here, as the Eagles have shut down outside receivers all year. Hodgins, who led the Giants with a 43 percent air yards share in Week 14 against the Eagles (four catches, 38 yards, TD), is a touchdown-dependent option here.
Eagles opponents have naturally funneled targets to the slot this season, avoiding the coverage of Philly's shutdown corners. James should be a highly interesting DFS play if this trend continues in the Divisional Round. Leading Giants pass catchers in expected fantasy points in Week 14 against the Eagles, James caught seven of his nine targets for 61 yards and a touchdown. His 28 percent target share was 10 percent higher than any other New York pass catcher. A down week in the Wild Card round could keep James' rostership reasonable.
It's tough to exaggerate just how dramatically the Giants altered their offense last week against Minnesota. Facing one of the NFL's worst coverage units, Brian Daboll's offense posted a season-high 16 percent pass rate over expected, going hugely pass heavy on first downs and second and long. It paid off: Daniel Jones became the first QB in NFL postseason history to throw for 300 yards and two touchdowns while logging at least 70 rushing yards.
Jones' 11 designed rushing attempts against the Vikings were also a season high, and a head-spinning boon for Jones' fantasy prospects. Jones has typically been a product of positive game script, so it's hard to forecast a scenario in which he doesn't do well in an evenly matched contest, or one in which the Giants are leading.
After they went after the Vikings through the air, the Giants might adjust their approach to avoid Philadelphia's frighteningly effective secondary. The Eagles are 23rd in positive pass play rate allowed; only five defenses gave up a lower passing success rate in the regular season. That could mean a heavy dose of Jones and Barkley on the ground. Barkley has notched 21.6 carries per game in G-people victories this season. His recent increase in pass game involvement -- he's averaging seven targets over his past four games -- might just offer a bump for Barkley in DraftKings' full PPR scoring. The Eagles allowed the 12th most running back catches this season.
Brown or Smith would suffice as solid run-back options alongside Jones and Barkley, assuming a positive script for New York. Sanders would be off the proverbial table, while Dallas Goedert, facing a Giants defense giving up the ninth most tight end receptions, would certainly be in play. An efficiency monster, Goedert could easily get loose against a New York coverage unit giving up a hefty 10.5 yards per catch to tight ends.
Game Stack Ideas
Hurts, Brown or Smith, Goedert, Barkley or James
Jones, James, Barkley, Smith or Brown or Goedert
Hurts, Sanders, James, Hodgins or Slayton
Jones, James, Sanders, Brown or Smith and Goedert