Fantasy Football Start or Sit: Week 14
You can't play scared.
Too often, we make suboptimal decisions because something is on the line. Maybe you're about to break 90 for the first time in a round of golf, and instead of using a low iron to hit the 18th green on your second shot, you opt to lay up and play it safe. Then, your approach shot flops (because you're not the greatest golfer in the world), and you miss out on carding the 89. Had you just gone for the green -- something you would've done in any other round -- your situation might be different.
These things happen all the time. If you're hosting Thanksgiving, you're not going to make some new mashed potato recipe with baby reds if you're family's used to Yukon Golds, despite that baby red recipe tasting delicious. You may not go and ask for a job promotion if you think it's going to come across as too needy or forward, even though you know you're deserving. And if you're going on a first date, you're probably going to avoid that Indian joint down the street for lunch, even though it's so good, because, well, you know.
The same goes for the fantasy football playoffs. You've made it this far by making (mostly) optimal decisions -- choices that may haven't always been the safest ones. Just because everything is on the line this week doesn't mean it's time to lay up on the 18th, though.
You can't play scared.
Start Andy Dalton (at Cleveland): Since the start of last season, Andy Dalton has averaged 0.58 more touchdowns per game with Tyler Eifert in the lineup versus without him. That's a key insight for this week as he'll face the Browns, a team that has seen the fourth-fewest passing plays this season. Dalton will need to be efficient in order to have an effective fantasy day.
Fortunately, most quarterbacks have been able to be efficient against the Browns this year. The only starters to not throw two or more touchdowns on Cleveland's bottom-ranked defense -- they're ranked last, according to our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- have been Ryan Fitzpatrick (not even a starter anymore) and Ben Roethlisberger (played in bad weather). Cleveland's allowed the second-most fantasy points to passers, and despite the fact that Dalton will more than likely be without A.J. Green, he's still got his tight end. And that's important.
Sit Marcus Mariota (vs. Denver): I can understand why benching Marcus Mariota in the fantasy playoffs feels awkward. He's been a top-11 weekly scorer at the quarterback position in each of his last eight games, and he's been the perfect late-round quarterback for your fantasy squad.
Part of the reason for his success, though, has been an unsustainable touchdown rate -- since Week 5, the start of this unreal stretch of play, Mariota is throwing a touchdown on 8.7% of his attempts. The league average over the last five years has hovered 4.5%. Even if he's better than average at throwing touchdowns (which he probably is), a rate that high won't continue.
It'll be tough for him to keep it up this week, at least. The Titans are hosting the Broncos, a team that's allowed a quarterback to score more than 15 fantasy points in a given contest just twice this year. One of those games came against Cam Newton all the way back in Week 1, with the other coming against Drew Brees in the Superdome.
It's the worst matchup imaginable for Mariota, and with at least some regression coming, he makes for an incredibly risky play in Week 14.
Start Jameis Winston (vs. New Orleans): Yes, the Saints are better defensively than we generally give them credit for, but they're still really easy to target in fantasy football. On the year, seven quarterbacks have finished with a top-10 weekly ranking against them, including Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith. Winston himself provides a great floor each week, having scored fewer than 15 fantasy points just twice this year, both games coming in tough matchups against Arizona (fourth-best pass defense, according to our numbers) and Denver (the absolute best). He should be fine this week.
Sit Aaron Rodgers (vs. Seattle): The last time Aaron Rodgers didn't finish as a weekly top-12, QB1 in fantasy football was way back in Week 6. He's been on fire, but he's also yet to be really tested over this time -- the only top-half secondaries, per our metrics, that he's faced were Houston (Week 13) and Philadelphia (Week 12), two teams going in the wrong direction from a pass defense standpoint over this second half of the season. Houston, for instance, has allowed an average of 18.73 fantasy points per game over their last four games, while Philly's surrendered at least 22 fantasy points in each of their last three contests.
Don't get me wrong, Rodgers has been great himself, and he's still an OK play this week. But there's at least reason to doubt his ability to produce fantasy points given the Seahawks -- a fringe top-five secondary -- are the toughest defense he's faced in some time. Seattle's also a road favorite in the game, which doesn't help Rodgers' case.
You shouldn't be sitting Rodgers for someone like Joe Flacco, but Kirk Cousins or Jameis Winston? You can make a very strong case.
Start Matt Forte (at San Francisco): In losses this season, Matt Forte is averaging just over 10 PPR points per contest. In wins, that shoots up to over 28 points. Now, granted, the sample is small (the Jets have won just three games), but there's logic behind it: when New York trails, teammate Bilal Powell sees the field more as he's their primary receiving back.
This week, the Jets are just 2.5-point underdogs in San Francisco. A neutral to potentially positive game script for Forte should mean fantasy points, especially considering the 49ers have the worst rush defense in the NFL, per NEP, all while surrendering the most rushing attempts per game in the NFL -- by 30. Forte has a top-five market share at the running back position this year, which means he should see plenty of volume in the matchup, making him a must-start option regardless of who's under center.
Sit Devontae Booker (at Tennessee): If not for a Kapri Bibbs season-ending injury, Booker would be a very easy sit this week. Bibbs completely outperformed Booker on the ground against Jacksonville in the first half last week before getting hurt (5 carries for 49 yards versus Booker's end-of-game total of 18 carries for 35 yards), and there was talk of Bibbs taking over as the team's top back sooner rather than later.
Now Booker's primary competition is Justin Forsett, who signed with the team this week. It's already being reported, though, that Forsett will split work with Booker. Yes, that's correct: a 31-year-old back who was signed days ago is already stealing carries from Devontae Booker.
The matchup is one where we should expect a pass-friendly attack this week as Tennessee, Denver's opponent, has one of the worst pass defenses in football. Combine that with Booker's overall ineffectiveness (his highest weekly output has been 11.1 PPR points over the last four weeks) and the Forsett factor, and you've got enough reasons to sit him.
I've already talked about how bad Cleveland's been against the pass this year, but it's just as bad against the run, at least from a fantasy standpoint. Only the aforementioned 49ers have allowed more fantasy points per game to running backs this year. The Browns have given up five top-eight PPR performances to the position, including a 27.2-point performance to, you guessed it, Jeremy Hill back in Week 7.
With Hill seeing a healthy market share in the Bengals' offense since Bernard's injury (about 73% of running back touches have gone to him), he should be able to come through in the plus matchup.
Sit Jay Ajayi (vs. Arizona): I know you can't really sit Ajayi, or at least you can't in most leagues. Like usual, though, it's tough to find legitimate options to write up as a sit, because, as I've said all year, any breathing running back who gets touches deserves a look in fantasy football.
But I will say that Ajayi isn't in the most advantageous spot this week. The Cardinals have allowed just four running backs to rank higher than 23rd in weekly PPR scoring this season, and they rank best in fantasy points allowed to the position. Ajayi's production has also dropped lately due to a cycle of injuries between key offensive linemen Mike Pouncey, Laremy Tunsil, and Branden Albert. Those three linemen have played a huge part in Ajayi's second half swing, and it doesn't sound good for Pouncey in this week's game. That's troubling for Ajayi, who's averaged just under 12 PPR points per game over his last four outings after scoring 33.7, 28.6, and 22.0 PPR points, respectively, during Weeks 6, 7, and 9.
Start Rob Kelley (at Philadelphia): As I've mentioned the last two weeks in this column, Kelley is very game script-dependent. We've seen Washington trail over the last two weeks, and Kelley has a combined 28 carries in those two contests. In Week 11 alone -- a game where Washington was able to destroy Green Bay -- Kelley toted the rock 24 times. So when you hear Washington coach Jay Gruden say that he wants to get Kelley "more involved", it's really not much of a choice -- the Redskins need to start leading in games in order to do that or else we'll continue to see more Chris Thompson.
This week sets up pretty well for Kelley, though. Washington is a one-point road favorite in Philadelphia, a team that's just getting beat up of late, losing five of their last six. The Eagles have also allowed an RB2 (top-24) game or better to a running back in PPR formats in each contest since Week 3, which should give Kelley owners some confidence that a floor should be there.
If Washington keeps things close or straight up wins this game -- a likely scenario given what Vegas thinks -- that's good news for Kelley.
Start Amari Cooper (at Kansas City): The only reason Amari Cooper finds his name in this week's start-sit -- a column that generally features fringe plays -- is because of what he's done lately. Owners are probably annoyed as all hell by his lack of volume (16 targets over his last three games, which is fine, but certainly not elite) and overall production (just one top-20 performance over his last four games), but don't think about benching him (shallow leaguers may be thinking it) in this week's matchup. Cooper caught 10 balls for 129 yards earlier in the season against the Chiefs, and teammate Michael Crabtree should be the one who sees more Marcus Peters in the contest. It could be another big week for Cooper.
Sit Rishard Matthews (vs. Denver): I've already dug into why Marcus Mariota is a tough play this week, but so is Rishard Matthews, who's been a monster since becoming Tennessee's top wideout -- snap-wise -- back in Week 8. Over that time (five games), Matthews has averaged 7.8 targets and 18.0 PPR points per game, scoring no fewer than 13.8 points in a given week.
But Denver, man. Denver is so good on the perimeter. Only four wideouts have finished as top-20 receivers in a given week versus Denver this year, as the Broncos are allowing the fewest points per game -- by far -- to the wide receiver position. For the same reason as Mariota above, Matthews may be average, but it's a clear downgrade week.
Start Demaryius Thomas (at Tennessee): Since Week 6, the Titans have allowed eight top-15 wide receiver performances (PPR) and six top-10 ones. The secondary now ranks second-worst, per our schedule-adjusted numbers. Demaryius Thomas, despite underperforming versus his average draft cost to start the year, still has a top-10 market share at the wide receiver position this year, and he should be getting quarterback Trevor Siemian back this week. All signs point to both Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders having nice days.
Sit Allen Robinson (vs. Minnesota): It was once a hot take to tell folks to bench Allen Robinson, and now he probably should be on your bench more than not. The Vikings have allowed the second-fewest points to opposing wideouts this year, and A-Rob has given you a usable, top-30 game at wide receiver just four times this season. With the season on the line, there's no chance I'd trust him.
Start Kenny Britt (vs. Atlanta): Kenny Britt doesn't get nearly enough love for what he's doing this season in the league's worst offense. (And by worst, I mean, like, by a mile.) He's seen fewer than six targets in a game just once (averaging 7.5 per contest), all while scoring double-digit PPR points in all but three games. This week, he goes up against a Falcons defense that's surrendered the eighth-most points to the wide receiver position. And they'll be without top corner Desmond Trufant, who was ruled out for the season just a week and a half ago. With a probable negative game script (Atlanta is a six-point road favorite), Britt could see a lot of volume against the depleted secondary.
Start C.J. Fiedorowicz (at Indianapolis): As a tight end, you want opportunity against the Colts -- they've surrendered the eighth-most points to the position this year, including four top-five performances in PPR leagues. Fiedorowicz was actually one of those tight ends who tore them apart, catching 6 passes for 85 yards and a score back in Week 6. With no fewer than five targets in a single game since Week 3, he makes for a really great play against the Colts this week.
Sit Martellus Bennett (vs. Baltimore): Even without Rob Gronkowski, Marty B hasn't been much of a fantasy asset. He's combined for a meager 11 targets over his last three games, totaling just 40 yards. In a bad matchup against the Ravens, who've allowed the second-fewest points per game to the tight end position, he's an easy fade.
Start Ladarius Green (at Buffalo): The Steelers finally unleashed Green this past week, putting him on the field for 48% of the team's snaps. His usage when on the field has been ridiculous as he's combined for 20 targets on 69 snaps (28.9%) over the last four weeks. That's the highest target percentage among all tight ends in football, with second-place Trey Burton coming in at 17%. So, even if Green continues to play fewer than 50% of Pittsburgh's snaps, he'll still more than likely be utilized through the air. It's not like the Steelers have anyone competing for targets outside of Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown anyway.
Start the Detroit Lions (vs. Chicago): Surprisingly, since Week 4, the Lions have allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the entire NFL. (I can thank Chris Raybon for that stat.) It's not that they're efficient -- they still rank as the fifth-worst defense in the NFL, per our numbers -- but they limit opposing offenses by sustaining long, methodical drives when they have the ball. Detroit operates at one of the slowest paces in football, and the defense has seen the fourth-fewest plays against them as a result.
All of this should make you feel more confident using them at home against the Bears this week, a team that's yet to be on the road with third-string Matt Barkley under center. The Lions are huge 7.5-point favorites, which means a negative game script for Chicago is likely. That'll lead to more Barkley throws and, hopefully, more turnovers.
Sit the Baltimore Ravens (at New England): The Ravens' defensive performance is really flying under the radar this season, considering it's the sole reason the team is still fighting for a playoff spot. They rank third, according to our numbers, as a unit, but you can't trust them as big underdogs in New England this weekend. Since Tom Brady's been back from his suspension (Week 5), only one defense (Seattle) has ranked higher than 23rd in weekly scoring against New England.
Other defenses to start: New England Patriots (vs. Baltimore), Cincinnati Bengals (at Cleveland)
Other defenses to sit: Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Oakland), Buffalo Bills (vs. Pittsburgh)