The Fantasy Playoffs Arrive and Everything Is Intense and Immediate
Image Credit: Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Tee Higgins.

“Life is a gamble, at terrible odds. If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Whew! Nothing highlights the agony and the ecstasy of fantasy football quite like a high-scoring playoff week where healthy first-round picks score anywhere from 41 to 0.4, where Josh Allen completes seven passes but Baker Mayfield throws for 381 and 4, where Jaylen Waddle finally puts up 28 points, but Breece Hall responds with 2.8.

It could go from the highest highs to lowest lows in moments . . . and transition back to the highs. (Trey McBride is back from the locker room! and onto the field! and still a star!)

Fantasy football is so fun and so terrifying because almost anything can happen. (My BBM teams with Monday advance aspirations are far more bizarre than those that will be eliminated.) It can start with any given Thursday night where a team that just got shut out goes for 63. It can continue into a Saturday slate where Tee Higgins drops two more long passes before deciding to catch two touchdowns, including a whirling, gymnastic score that will go on highlight reels for a generation.

Ty Chandler Wants to Be Your 2023 Playoff Zero RB

Of course, Higgins wasn’t the most impressive player in that game, nor was it Jordan Addison, Week 15’s overall WR1. Instead, the title goes to Ty Chandler, who finally gave the Vikings a threat in the running game. It’s been a long, frustrating time coming, but perhaps the definitive changing of the guard can finally occur.

I say that very tentatively but with honest hope. Chandler has been a fixture on the Zero RB Candidates Countdown, and despite mediocre peripherals prior to Week 15, the thesis was fully in evidence during a borderline must-win for Minnesota.

The Vikings couldn’t hold on against Jake Browning’s comeback, but Chandler did everything he could, rushing for 132 yards (69 after contact), forcing three missed tackles, breaking a 30-yard run, scoring a TD, and catching three passes.

Jahmyr Gibbs – Dynasty RB1?

And yet Chandler was not the most impressive running back to take the field on Saturday. Fresh off of a humiliating loss at Chicago, the Detroit Lions returned to Ford Field where they would face the surging Denver Broncos.

Detroit made a key decision that may have saved their entire season, a decision that may open a 10-year Super Bowl window:

The Lions did not try to establish David Montgomery.

The initial results were not overwhelmingly positive. When Detroit opened with a drive where Jared Goff threw incomplete on three of his first five passes – leading to a quick punt – you might have been terrified when contemplating the possible takeaway for Ben Johnson.

In fact, the Lions’ first two drives were ugly and abbreviated and did include two targets and one carry for Montgomery. Jahmyr Gibbs had yet to touch the ball, and fantasy managers were already uncomfortable or livid, depending on each individual’s propensity for rapid blood pressure elevation. But neither of these drives started with back-to-back Montgomery carries. His first rushing attempt came on their seventh offensive snap.

From there, it was all Gibbs (except for the additional 16 Montgomery carries; of course they tried to establish him). The rookie gained 100 yards on 11 carries and added a receiving score. His first-level vision and second-level explosion were unmatched by anyone not named James Cook.

Blair Andrews to the Rescue

We were extremely high on Gibbs as a prospect, as a dynasty asset, and as a redraft/best ball weapon, and no one was higher than Blair. The early returns were a little unnerving, but since the beginning of Week 7, Gibbs is averaging more PPG than all but Christian McCaffrey.

He’s been the best pick in all formats.

Jahmyr Gibbs Is the Best Value in Every Draft: How to Find Rookie RB Stars in Underdog’s Best Ball Mania IV

Really, everything about this article is important and highlights what you might call “the RotoViz way,” but a few key points:

  • Gibbs’ comps included McCaffrey, his 4.36 gave him even better long speed, and his receiving track record was better than Robinson’s.
  • The Lions’ track record suggested an extremely high level of total EP to the backs.
  • Gibbs had an excellent shot to pay off in a big way when it mattered most.

A little more detail from Blair.

Previous research has shown that rookie RBs tend to be undervalued based on what they contribute in the fantasy playoffs, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the pure upside. How likely is a rookie running back to put up a big score in a fantasy playoff week?

Because the data I’m looking at spans multiple seasons with different playoff schedules, I’ve isolated what I’m calling the “long fantasy playoffs” — Weeks 14 through 17. We know that younger players tend to outperform, so what if we split the population by age?

As you might have guessed, here we see a major advantage for 21-year-old RBs, all of whom are rookies. We expect about 15% of all top-100 RB games in these weeks to be 20-point games. But 21-year-old RBs produce such games at a 31% clip. No other age group hits even 20%. While 21-year olds account for only 4% of the total population, they account for more than 8% of the 20-point games.

Our sky-high dynasty ranking for Gibbs drew some eyebrows, but it may end up as an underestimate. McCaffrey’s age, Hall’s offense, and Robinson’s coaching are all limiting factors that do not apply to Gibbs.

James Cook Is the Hybrid Star Who Required Patience

Perhaps the most salient point in last week’s Zero RB Universe focused on the evolution of Buffalo’s backfield under Joe Brady.

In today’s Stealing Bananas, Ben and I discussed the Bills’ future game plans after they completed seven passes while rushing 49 times. I’m perhaps a little more skeptical that Buffalo will draw the right conclusions from this game, but I’m also happy with that (potential) outcome as someone with much more Cook than I have exposure to the passing game.

Over the last five weeks (four games for Cook), he’s been outscored by only McCaffrey and Kyren Williams. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, but the current outcome highlights the optionality provided by difference-making talent. You have the opportunity to win in a variety of usage environments – and to win big if a sea change occurs.

Cook’s explosion comes at the perfect time for fantasy managers to capitalize on our preseason thesis that Cook Is the 2023 Tony Pollard. The abbreviated version:

  • Coaches were raving about Cook’s improvement/capabilities.
  • Cook pops both before and after contact.
  • Cook’s top Workout Explorer comp was Jamaal Charles.
  • Cook was extremely efficient in the receiving game as a rookie.

Week 15 was a little bittersweet for Ben and me as our two McCaffrey MEs were eliminated by losing title tilts last week – and our Chasing Stolen Bananas squad is poised to go over 200 points tonight in the consolation – but as long as your Breece Hall team is still alive . . .

. . . it will score a lot of points when you also have Cook.

Speaking of bittersweet, our first messages were about how we thought we had LaPorta on this squad, but he was actually on the other three. Then McBride did what he does.

Monday Night Interlude

If you’re sweating anything tonight . . . well, generally you can’t do anything about it, but if you’re like all of us, you will believe you can affect the outcome by rooting hard enough and in the correct ways. That means you’ve read Blair’s Wrong Read and know everything there is to know about this matchup.

This game would feature more shootout potential if not for the health concerns at the quarterback position. Of course, both of these teams are among the five worst in football at stopping yards after contact and limiting opposing run game EPA, so maybe they’ll just run the ball.

It’s a complicated backfield in Seattle, where the roles are constantly in flux. In Philadelphia, there’s the constant drumbeat for more D’Andre Swift, but he’s played poorly since the conclusion of the campaign’s first month. (More in Zero RB Universe for those interested.)

If he’s going to break out, this is probably the contest. When we pull up Swift in the NFL Player Explorer and then click on the Matchups tab, it brings up this stretch of recent defensive performances from Seattle.

This is perhaps a little misleading due to the two contests against McCaffrey, but it’s also the textbook definition of struggling in all facets.

On the other hand, maybe you need to score – or avoid – points by the receivers in this game. If you’ve read Dave Caban’s WR/CB matchups column, you know the Seahawks have a chance to go off even with Drew Lock under center, especially if you need RotoViz favorite/insta-bust Jaxon Smith-Njigba to continue his recent target leadership.

Smith-Njigba leads the squad in targets from Drew Lock, which also includes two short stints earlier in the season, and Lock seems to have an easier time finding him when he’s not the first read. JSN has the best overall matchup of any WR this week, an encouraging note after two of the other top-ranked WR matchups (Jayden Reed and Cooper Kupp) went off.

RotoViz Overtime

Colm and I had the Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta trio going in our Main Event, and the scheduling quirk let us rise to 15th Saturday night. The following day didn’t go as well, but we found a silver lining in the FFPC’s Superflex tournament.

Week 15 was a good reminder that you don’t actually need points from the QB position to win in SF, especially in a year with such crushing quarterback injuries and such well-timed down performances from stars. At the end of the episode, I discuss the lessons we want to learn about the QB position, and hopefully they’re more nuanced than draft Mayfield and avoid Allen.

It’s almost impossible not to over-learn the lessons of the previous season – those results do matter and they’re freshest in our minds – but we’ll avoid chasing the trendiest (and thus most expensive) takeaways when we can avoid falling into the trap of either, “I was wrong,” or “I was right.” (As Ben and I discussed on a recent SB, whether you tend to make mistakes based more on the former or the latter is something you need to know about your own personality in order to best counter.)

* The other takeaway is to never stop rooting for Quentin Johnson in garbage time of Week 15 during a lost season. You never know which points will put you over the top.

Part of our ME dismay stemmed from starting Brandon Aiyuk over Rashee Rice, but we’ll still take those points in the big picture. Isiah Pacheco’s injury has opened the door for the Chiefs to pursue a better play mix, and it’s corresponded with a true emergence from the rookie. Since the beginning of Week 12, Rice is the overall WR3, trailing only CeeDee Lamb and Deebo Samuel.

WR Leaderboard – Week 12 to Week 15

Player PPR TargetShare Recs Catch% RecYards RecTD YAC YAC/Rec aDOT
Deebo Samuel 114.1 26.9 22 75.9 392 5 256 11.6 7.4
CeeDee Lamb 87.6 32.2 29 63 293 3 95 3.3 10.4
Rashee Rice 81.4 27.9 32 84.2 334 3 236 7.4 3.4
Michael Pittman 79.5 30.8 33 73.3 385 1 161 4.9 7.6
Mike Evans 71.7 29.2 18 54.5 297 4 92 5.1 14
Jaylen Waddle 71.7 29.5 27 81.8 387 1 165 6.1 9.4
Cooper Kupp 71.3 22.8 25 80.6 283 3 147 5.9 6
Tyreek Hill 67.8 21.4 18 75 320 3 150 8.3 9.1
Amon-Ra St. Brown 60.7 25.6 21 61.8 277 2 153 7.3 7.9

Rice’s target depth (3.4) is microscopic, but that’s contributed to a sky-high catch rate (84%) and yards after the catch numbers (236) that trail only Deebo Samuel (who also has 49 rushing yards and three scores).

Trey McBride – Unicorn

At the risk of hyperbole – and you know I’m going to risk it – I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like McBride.

Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were two of the best of all time, and what they did in their 30s would be Hall of Fame-worthy on its own.

Rob Gronkowski was a force of nature, with a lumbering, hitching stride that suckered plenty of defensive backs into taking the wrong line. Jimmy Graham was the basketball-player-turned-matchup-nightmare, and he’s scoring again in 2023 in one of the season’s most unlikely twists. Vernon Davis was the greatest TE athlete of all time. He may go down as a disappointment, yet found the end zone 53 times before turning 30.

And this doesn’t even cover players like George Kittle and Mark Andrews.

But go back and watch the receptions McBride has made over these last two months – these leaping, twisting, ferocious grabs with thunderous after-catch feats tacked on –  and tell me it’s something you’ve seen before at any position.

TE Leaderboard – Weeks 8 to 15

Player PPR/Game TargetShare Recs Catch% RecYards RecTD AirYards YAC
Trey McBride 16.7 29 51 79.7 542 2 420 254
Sam LaPorta 16.4 21.2 36 73.5 381 6 384 141
T.J. Hockenson 16.2 28.4 44 68.8 512 3 563 157
David Njoku 15.5 25.2 45 60 488 5 347 324
George Kittle 15.3 23.2 32 72.7 571 3 435 290
Evan Engram 14.5 22.2 47 81 383 3 302 187
Cole Kmet 13.2 22.9 41 83.7 331 3 203 169
Jake Ferguson 12.8 17.4 36 67.9 424 4 302 219
Travis Kelce 11.6 21.2 37 72.5 399 1 377 185
Hunter Henry 11.2 14.1 22 73.3 209 4 248 34

To be clear, I’m not suggesting McBride is at the level of the elites that I’ve mentioned above. Greatness requires consistency over years and is more about substance than flash. As a young player who couldn’t even convince his coaches to play him ahead of Zach Ertz to start the season, there is a long, long way to go.

Instead this is simply a celebration of a unique talent playing well at the present time, and a hope that he will continue to perform at something approximating these levels for the foreseeable future.

You Had to Be Patient With McBride, But Patience Can Be a Virtue

David Njoku posted his second consecutive 20-point game, set a new career-high with 14 targets, and gained 100 receiving yards for only the second time. The former trendy prospect is a testament to the power of perseverance. His career was teetering on the brink in Years 3 and 4, but he’s rallied for three consecutive strong campaigns. The 2023 season represents a true seventh-year breakout, and his fit with Joe Flacco comes at just the right time for fantasy managers and reality fans.

More In Overtime

Join us for thoughts on Sam Howell’s benching, Lamar Jackson’s passing struggles, Javonte Williams’ quixotic attempts to find the end zone and much more. Plus, good luck tonight. We’re rooting for you to get all of your teams across the line in the myriad fantastic fantasy contests.

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Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.

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