Conference Championship snaps & plays
With only two games on the Conference Championship slate, we are going to combine our snaps-and-pace-based look at each matchup with a few recommendations from each contest for use in FanDuel tournaments. Keep in mind, with so much lineup overlap due to limited options, any edge we have this weekend will be small. A downward adjustment to the percentage of our bankroll risked is highly recommended.
|AFC Team||Snaps/Game (Rank)||Last 4 Games||Opponent Snaps/Game||Last 4 Games|
|New England||65.1 (14th)||57.0 (31st)||66.2 (10th)||71.3 (5th)|
|Denver||66.3 (8th)||67.5 (T-8th)||64.1 (15th)||67.0 (14th)|
* Playoff data included
New England at Denver
The Patriots’ pace had nearly ground to a standstill prior to last week’s game. Before hitting the Chiefs with their quickest seconds-per-snap pace since Week 2 in Buffalo (23.7 seconds per snap), and their highest no-huddle rate since Week 3 against Jacksonville (17.9 percent), New England had used the hurry-up on only 4.6 percent of snaps since Week 7, and had the league’s third-slowest pace in their previous four games (31.1 seconds per snap). Tom Brady threw four no-huddle passes during a tone-setting opening drive on which they scored. He averaged 2.19 seconds to throw during his 43 dropbacks – notably quicker than his league-fastest 2.35-seconds regular season rate.
The Patriots attempted 14 running plays and averaged 2.7 yards per carry last week. Against the league’s top-graded run stopping unit in Denver (+98.2), without a between-the-tackles threat, it’s hard to see New England ditching their pass-heavy approach. As healthy as they’ve been since early October, when they were third in plays-per-game and fifth in no-huddle rate, the Patriots should see their snap volume boosted against a Broncos team with pass defense questions (particularly Chris Harris’ injury status). Even if Denver dares them to hand off with light defensive personnel looks, James White – who last week played 42 snaps to Steven Jackson’s 17 – is unlikely to pound away often.
Denver’s 66.3 snaps per game is the highest rate of the four conference finalists, counts as the eighth-most among all teams, and is up from where it was after 10 weeks (63.2; 19th) when Peyton Manning was initially benched. Their no-huddle rate during the last three games (29.1 percent) is a shade over three-and-a-half times greater than it was in their first 14 contests (7.9 percent). They operate at the eighth-quickest pace (26.9 seconds per snap), and are third-fastest over their last four games (24.1). The Patriots allowed the most plays per game of any team that’s still alive (66.2; 10th-most), and have given up 71.3 during the last four contests (fifth-most).
Despite all of this, if the Broncos are to pull off the upset, it will likely come on ground. That is how they won during New England’s Week 12 visit, when Denver running backs rushed 30 times for 175 yards (5.8 yards per carry). However, Jamie Collins missed that game and Dont’a Hightower was injured. Before he left, the Broncos averaged 2.9 yards on 15 carries, versus 8.0 yards on 17 attempts without New England’s standout linebacker. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks has also grown into a more prominent role since then (20 snaps), averaging 33.8 plays per game after Week 12. If Denver cannot run effectively, it will lead to more throwing and higher play volume on both sides.
FanDuel Tournament Plays
Tom Brady, $8,100
With consensus top-quarterback Cam Newton only $400 more expensive on a short slate, and Carson Palmer $400 cheaper and in the more likely matchup to shoot-out, Brady may be the lowest-owned of the top three options. He dropped 280 yards and three touchdowns on the Broncos without Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and less than a full game’s worth of Rob Gronkowski. He pairs well with any combination of those pass catchers, as well as receiving back White. New England will be throwing early and often, look to have their tempo back, and will struggle to pound away a lead on the ground.
C.J. Anderson, $6,300
Anderson is one of the better methods of executing a “next-most-likely” strategy. Between New England’s defensive front reinforcements, and Anderson’s head-scratching workload split with Ronnie Hillman, Denver’s most effective running back does not jump off the page as a week-winning candidate. However, he did have – by a mile – his best game of the season against the Patriots (+4.6 grade) while producing 29.3 FanDuel points, and has been far more effective than Hillman for months. If there was ever a time for the Broncos to fully unleash Anderson, it is now – when he’s their best shot at an upset.
Patriots Defense, $4,600
They are cheap and ownership won’t be light, but New England’s restocked front should better hold Denver’s rushing attack this time. The more Manning is forced to throw, the more likely he is to have a meltdown like the one that got him benched against Kansas City. The Patriots’ pass rush (+29.0; 11th) collected the league’s second-most sacks (49) despite blitzing at the NFL’s third-lowest rate (18.6 percent, playoffs included). That means their second-ranked pass coverage (+39.6) will have plenty of defenders flooding the secondary, with eyes on Manning’s frosty flutterballs.
|NFC Team||Snaps/Game (Rank)||Last 4 Games||Opponent Snaps/Game||Last 4 Games|
|Arizona||64.8 (15th)||62.0 (23rd)||61.8 (28th)||66.0 (15th)|
|Carolina||66.2 (10th)||63.8 (19th)||66.1 (11th)||67.8 (13th)|
* Playoff data included
Arizona at Carolina
The Cardinals average a middling 64.8 plays per game (15th-most) and operate at the league’s sixth-slowest pace (29.6 seconds per snap). However, in their two losses – not including the Week 17 semi-capitulation to Seattle – their plays-per-game average would rank fourth for the full season (68.5) and their pace quickened. While it makes sense, since most non-Andy-Reid teams play faster when trailing, if we put stock in Vegas projections, we can expect it on Sunday. Arizona is a three-point road underdog to a Carolina team who, while they allow the 11th-most snaps per game overall (66.1), give up a whopping 69.6 at home – which would rank second only to Philadelphia on the season.
Other than the fact that they are usually winning, the Panthers surrender extra plays in Carolina due to an elevated pace. They finished the regular season with a 31-percent no-huddle rate in home games, versus 8.1-percent on the road. Last week, they went to the hurry-up on 46.9 percent of snaps, and Carolina’s last two games featured their highest no-huddle rates of the season. Along with their snap-generating pace, the Panthers’ pass defense has cracked under the weight of injuries to top-three cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere. They have allowed at least 300 passing yards in three straight games, and Arizona will be throwing often on Sunday.
The Panthers run 66.2 plays per game (10th-most), and face a Cardinals team that allows the fifth-fewest snaps on average (61.8). Yet, that rate has jumped to 67 plays per game since standout cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was lost for the season a month ago. While Carolina – whose 49.6-percent regular season rush percentage ranked second-highest – will frequently test Arizona’s 17th-ranked run defense (+10.4), their tempo should continue to mitigate the snap-muting effects of a ground-based attack. Unlike with most slow-paced, run-based offenses — such as the Vikings’ (31st in no-huddle rate, 31st in snaps) — play volume is not a worry with the Panthers in almost all game scripts.
Even if one or both offenses struggle to produce plays, scoring should not be a concern. The Panthers lead the league in points-per-snap (0.472) and the Cardinals are right behind them with a 0.468 rate. Not coincidentally, the Patriots rank third (0.445) – leaving the Broncos (0.335; 20th) as the only conference finalist not among the most efficient offenses on a per-snap basis. It is by no means a secret, but the Cardinals-Panthers game is the matchup to target most heavily for DFS purposes. Unless we are taking an ultra-contrarian stance, which is tougher to execute on a slate that will produce heavy lineup overlap, hitting this game hard and diversifying lineups in subtler ways is the best approach.
FanDuel Tournament Plays
Larry Fitzgerald, $8,000
One of the better-kept secrets of the season was Arizona’s awful pass blocking (-72.4; fourth-worst). Carson Palmer — who from 2007 to 2014 had a 56.7 quarterback rating and a -33.6 grade while under pressure — posted a 95.2 QBR and +17.3 grade when the heat was on. He regressed last week and spit out a 61.1 QBR and -3.5 grade when pressured. Fitzgerald runs shorter routes (9.1-yard average depth of target) than John Brown (15.3) and Michael Floyd (16.0). Like last week, he will get fed often (12 targets), and in the most favorable coverage matchup among Arizona wideouts (mainly via Cortland Finnegan).
Jonathan Stewart, $7,000
Between Newton being the shiniest DFS toy in Carolina, and concerns over Stewart’s injured foot and ankle, we might be able to get him at depressed ownership. On an uber-short slate, even a small ownership discount on a home-favorite starting running back is extremely rare, and playing Stewart along with Newton is fine. Arizona’s run defense has proved vulnerable, especially in recent weeks. Their light defensive personnel – particularly 208-pound inside “linebacker” Deone Bucannon (-5.7 run-stopping grade; 35th of 60 qualifiers) – should struggle with the Panthers’ power running game.
Greg Olsen, $7,000
The choice at tight end is Gronkowski or Olsen. Owen Daniels will be erased by Patrick Chung (ask Travis Kelce), and Arizona is a tight end wasteland. We can’t go wrong with either, but saving $1,900 is nothing to sneeze at, even on a short slate. Olsen is coming off of a six-catch (on six targets), 77-yard, one-touchdown performance, and faces a Cardinals defense that has struggled to defend tight ends since midseason. They also blitz at the league’s highest rate (47.4 percent), and Olsen is Newton’s most-targeted receiver against extra rushers (31 catches on 43 targets, 451 yards, three touchdowns).
Conference Finalist Pace Stats
|Team||No-Huddle % (Rank)||Last 4 Games||Seconds Per Snap||Last 4 Games|
|Arizona||1.3% (32nd)||0.0% (32nd)||29.6 (27th)||29.2 (23rd)|
|Carolina||21.1% (6th)||32.2% (4th)||29.4 (26th)||28.9 (21st)|
|Denver||11.6% (9th)||21.9% (6th)||27.4 (12th)||24.1 (3rd)|
|New England||12.0% (8th)||5.7% (19th)||26.9 (8th)||28.7 (19th)|
* Playoff data included
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman