- Derrick Henry is hoping to continue his incredible stretch against a bad KC run D
- Travis Kelce is looking to continue strong performance by TEs against the Titans
- Don’t expect the Packers defense to be able to slow down George Kittle
In advance of Sunday’s Conference Championship games, I wanted to isolate specific advantageous matchups that could be interesting from a fantasy and prop perspective.
Tennessee Titans vs Kansas City Chiefs
Tennessee offense vs Kansas City defense:
- Based on DVOA ranks, the KC defense ranks 29th defending the run and sixth defending the pass.
- Ryan Tannehill has clearly taken a back seat to Derrick Henry and the run game in recent games. In his first nine starts, Tannehill averaged 267 passing yards per game but when you include the Week 17 game at Houston, Tannehill has passed for under 200 yards in the last three while averaging 119 yards. He has thrown for at least two passing TDs in 8 of his last 9 games. The Chiefs pass defense has gotten better as the season went along and has allowed only three QBs to throw for over 300 yards this season. Tannehill’s passing numbers will purely be a result of the game flow.
- What else is there to say about Derrick Henry that hasn’t already been said? He has averaged 159 yards and 6.3 ypc in his last eight games and has cleared 181 rushing yards in the last three games. His 188-yard game against the Chiefs back in November was the start of this hot streak. The Chiefs come in ranked 29th in DVOA run defense and have allowed an aggregate ypc of 4.86 to RBs this season who averaged 4.41 ypc on the season. RBs averaged 22 carries for 106 yards per game against this Chiefs defense and they only faced four top 12 DVOA run offenses on the season. Coincidence or not, the Chiefs went 1-3 in those games. Henry also leads all RBs in the NFL in explosive runs and the Chiefs defense ranks 28th in allowing explosive runs to RBs. Add in the fact the Chiefs may be without Chris Jones again on Sunday. Absent the Chiefs jumping out to an early 14+ point lead and the Titans being forced to abandon the run game, it’s extremely difficult to find a path where Henry is slowed down in this game.
- Poor Titans WRs, being left in the dust as Henry runs all over the competition. A.J. Brown has received only 4 targets with 2 receptions and 13 total yards in the last two playoff games. In the first game against Kansas City, Brown caught only 1 ball for 17 yards on 4 targets. KC has allowed the second-fewest receiving yards per game to #1 receivers and third-fewest to #2 WRs. Including the playoffs, Brown has faced four teams that rank in the top 10 both in DVOA pass defense and lowest yards allowed to #1 WRs, and responded with 27, 17, 4, and 9 receiving yard games.
- If Titans WRs are slowed down on Sunday, one player who may be able to step up is TE Jonnu Smith. The Chiefs are 27th in yards per game allowed to TEs and second in targets allowed per game. Smith has faced five other pass defenses that rank in the bottom 10 in yards per game allowed to TEs. In those games, he averaged 4.4 targets, 3.6 receptions, and 39.4 receiving yards. He has cleared 3 receptions and 29 yards in 4 of those 5 games. In the first meeting against the Chiefs, Smith received 6 targets and caught 4 for 30 yards. Safety Juan Thornhill will miss this game and has been the second-best coverage DB on the Chiefs. His replacement, Daniel Sorensen, is 10th on the team in pass coverage grade according to PFF. If the Chiefs decide to sell out to stop Henry with an extra safety in the box, a guy like Smith can have coverage advantages.
Kansas City offense vs Tennessee defense:
- The Titans defense ranks 21st defending the pass and 10th defending the run, based on DVOA rankings.
- Patrick Mahomes posted tremendous numbers last week in a comeback effort against Houston with 321 passing yards, 9.2 ypa, 5 TDs, and 0 INTs. That was his eighth game this season of 300+ passing yards and his median passing figure this season has been 315 yards. The Titans’ 21st ranked DVOA pass defense has faced five pass offenses that rank in the top 10. In those games, Tennessee has allowed 347 passing yards per game, 65% completion percentage, 7.64 ypa, 11 passing TDs, and 2 INTs. This includes Mahomes’s 446 passing yards in their first meeting. Don’t be too deterred by game script and the ability of Mahomes to continue to throw the ball in the second half of a blowout. In game situations where a team is winning by 14 or more points in the second half, KC is fifth in the NFL with a 45%/55% pass to run ratio. The Chiefs will continue to chuck the ball even when comfortably ahead.
- Last week I had a strong feeling that Damien Williams could have a big game but because the Chiefs started off so slowly, Williams did not get the opportunity in the run game. He finished the game with only 12 carries and 47 yards. The good news for him is that LeSean McCoy did not take any carries away from him last week. He has now received at least 12 carries in 5 of his last 6 games and his floor has been 47 rushing yards. The Titans defense has been solid against the run and ranks 13th in yards per carry allowed against a schedule of run offenses that ranks as eighth-toughest in the NFL. Williams can potentially do damage through the air. Last week he received 6 targets and caught 2 for 21 yards and a receiving TD. The Titans have allowed the fifth-highest percentage of targets to RBs in the NFL and 19th in yards per attempt. Williams caught 5 passes for 32 yards in the first meeting against Tennessee.
- The Chiefs WRs have been relatively kept in check the last two months. Tyreek Hill had a monster game in the first matchup with Tennessee, receiving 19 targets with 11 receptions, 157 yards, and 1 TD. Since then, a span of 7 games, Hill has not cleared 8 targets, 6 receptions, or 72 yards. It’s pretty clear teams are accounting for Hill and not allowing him to go deep. Since Week 14, Hill’s 9.59 average depth of target ranks 48th in the NFL during that span. For the season, Hill has been targeted on 20+ yard attempts on only 21% of his total targets, which is well below his 31%-mark last season.
- Sunday is setting up nicely for TE Travis Kelce. The Titans are 21st in yards allowed per game to TEs and have allowed the sixth-most targets to TEs. Kelce has played 7 games this season against defenses that rank in the bottom 12 in yards per game allowed to TEs, with Mahomes as the QB. In those 7 games, Kelce averaged 9.3 targets, 7.4 receptions, and 97 yards per game. He has cleared 70 receiving yards in all but one of those games and his per game median receiving yards is at 90 yards. Excluding last week’s game against Baltimore with an injured Mark Andrews, Tennessee has only faced four TEs this season that I would consider upper echelon. In games against Austin Hooper, Darren Waller, Hunter Henry, and their first matchup with Kelce, the Titans allowed an average of 7 receptions and 94 yards per game. All four produced games of 73 or more receiving yards against Tennessee. It was clear last week when the Chiefs were down early that in times of need, Mahomes loves to target Kelce. He responded with a dominant 10 reception, 134-yard, 3 TD performance.
Green Bay Packers vs San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay offense vs San Francisco defense:
- Based on DVOA ranks, the SF defense ranks 11th defending the run and second defending the pass. The Niners have allowed 11% of RB rushes to go for 10+ yards and rank 19th in explosive runs allowed. The pass defense ranks second-best in lowest percentage of explosive passes allowed.
- Aaron Rodgers is averaging 250 passing yards per game but has cleared 300 yards only once in his last 9 games. His median figure is 235 passing yards per game. In their Week 12 matchup against the Niners, Rodgers was held to 104 passing yards on 33 attempts. That game was marred by some drops by his receivers but nonetheless Rodgers was harassed by the Niners pass rush and really struggled. In seven games against top 10 pass defenses, Rodgers has been held to 210 passing yards per game and has cleared 216 passing yards only once. SF has allowed QBs to average only 190 passing yards per game. In games where Dee Ford played at least 30% of the snaps, that passing yards per game allowed plummets to 173 yards.
- The Niners defense has been awesome all season but the one area that they are a bit susceptible is running QBs. Russell Wilson 2x, Kyler Murray 2x, and Lamar Jackson combined for 284 rushing yards on 43 carries. Those QBs averaged 57 rushing yards per game against SF and all ran for at least 29 yards. Rodgers didn’t run much in their first matchup, rushing three times for 13 yards. He has run more of late, rushing for at least 13 yards in 5 of his last 7 games. Against the Niner pass rush, his mobility will be a big asset.
- As highlighted here in last week’s player matchup preview, the Niners run defense in aggregate looks much worse than when considering just the RBs they have faced. They’ve allowed a schedule of RBs, who in aggregate have averaged 4.31 ypc, to run for 4.14 ypc. Aaron Jones came into last week’s game with a great matchup but could only muster 62 yards on 21 carries. He had entered last week with three 100+ rushing yard games in his previous four games. Now he has to face this Niners defense that held him to 38 yards on 13 carries in their first meeting. He also had no catches in their first meeting and don’t expect a completely different outcome on Sunday. The Niners have allowed the second-lowest yards per game receiving to RBs this season.
- The matchup for Jimmy Graham isn’t going to be much better than what he saw last week, and it certainly isn’t a favorable one this week. The Niners are #1 in the NFL in defending TEs. In the first meeting, Graham caught one pass for 7 yards although he did have a very catchable 40-yard pass go through his hands. Rodgers doesn’t have a reliable #2 option after Davante Adams, so he will need Graham to step up on Sunday. Graham has averaged 29 receiving yards per game with a median of 20 yards.
- Adams is clearly going to be Rodgers’s top option and he has been targeted as such this season. He has received at least 10 targets in 9 of the last 10 games and has averaged 11.7 during this stretch. He has averaged 7.6 receptions and 96 yards in the last 10 and has cleared 93 yards in four straight games. In their first matchup with the Niners, Adams was targeted 12 times and caught 7 for only 43 yards. As Richard Sherman does not typically shadow WRs and sticks to the offensive right side of the field only, Adams could line up on the opposite side of the field and get peppered by targets. Normally this would be ok with Ahkello Witherspoon covering that side of the field, but he has struggled so badly that he was benched last week. Witherspoon has allowed a QB rating of 109.3 when targeted as compared to Emmanuel Moseley’s 86.6 rating allowed. Witherspoon has allowed 6 receiving TDs on 337 snaps with Moseley allowing only 2 TDs on 345 snaps. My assumption is that the Niners leave Sherman to lock down his side of the field against whomever (Jake Kumerow, Allen Lazard, etc) with bracket coverage on Adams on the other side.
San Francisco offense vs Green Bay defense:
- The Packers defense ranks 10th defending the pass and 23rd defending the run, based on DVOA. The Packers are 24th in percentage of runs going for 10+ yards and 24th in percentage of passes going for 20+ yards.
- Jimmy Garoppolo is averaging 242 passing yards per game with 248 median yards. He has cleared 300 passing yards only three times this season but truthfully, it’s been more about opportunity than performance. He has faced eight pass defenses in the top 12 and has averaged 207 passing yards per game with a total of 9 TDs and 8 INTs. He has only attempted 25 passes per game in those eight games. This compares to 33 attempts and 272 yards in nine other games. In the first matchup against the Packers, Garoppolo had his best game of the season with a 70% completion percentage, 253 passing yards, 12.6 ypa, and his highest passer rating on the season. The Niners continually attacked the middle of the field and it makes sense considering the Packers defense is most susceptible there. GB has allowed 169 pass targets in the middle of the field with a 9.4 ypa and a 71% success rate.
- The Packers run defense has struggled this year, but the problem is good luck figuring out which Niners RB takes the lead role on Sunday. Raheem Mostert has averaged 13 carries and 78 yards in the last six games with a median of 12 carries and 58 yards. His rushing yardage the last four games has fallen within a very tight range with 53 to 58 yards per game. After going nine straight games without clearing 40 rush yards, Tevin Coleman broke out last week with a 22 carry, 105 rushing yard performance. Expect Kyle Shanahan to go with a three-headed RB monster, with Matt Breida as well, and the hot hand will take the lead in the second half.
- George Kittle dominated the Packers in their first meeting catching all 6 of his targets for 129 yards and a TD. He has averaged 6 catches for 71 yards this season but has a spectacular matchup against this GB defense. Kittle has owned the middle of the field this season with 37 of his 112 targets (33%) coming in the middle of the field and a 65% success rate. The Packers rank 31st, allowing a 71% success rate and 10.1 ypa average to TEs down the middle of the field. GB is 26th overall in yards per attempt allowed to TEs this season and Kittle has faced seven other teams in the bottom 10 of ypa allowed to TEs and in those games Kittle has averaged 6 receptions for 88 yards. He has at least 79 receiving yards in all but one of those eight games. Unless Mike Pettine somehow completely changes his defensive issues in the middle of the field, Kittle should be able to dominate again.
- With a focus on both the run game as well as Kittle, don’t expect a ton of targets to go towards WRs. Emmanuel Sanders has only cleared 41 yards in 3 of 11 games with the Niners and has a median per game yardage figure of only 33 yards. Deebo Samuel has taken over as the #1 WR option of late and is clearly the most explosive. In his last seven games, he has only caught 3 passes per game but has averaged 53 yards on those receptions.