This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
I'll ditch the start/sit format with the end of the regular season, but given the increasing popularity of fantasy playoff contests, it only makes sense to continue with ETM. Standards are a little different in the playoffs, of course, as most of the teams and players that provide the best matchups are now working on vacation plans rather than gameplans. For now, let's forget about those guys and take a look at the six games coming up in the divisional round
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals
Saturday, 4:30 ET — Bengals -5.5, O/U 48.5
Implied Totals: Bengals (27.0) - Raiders (21.5)
Matchup Upgrade(s): RB Joe Mixon
Despite finishing 10th in both run-defense DVOA and YPC allowed, Las Vegas allowed the third most PPR points to running backs during the regular season, thanks to 23 touchdowns (30th) and 100 receptions (26th). Mixon was responsible for two of those TDs back in Week 11 when took 30 carries for 123 yards in a 32-13 Bengals victory, and he'll now face a front seven that looks even more vulnerable with DT Darius Philon (knee) on injured reserve and DT Jonathan Hankins (back) listed as questionable. (Hankins should play, but he was limited to 31 percent of snaps in a must-win game Sunday night in his return from a two-game absence.)
Matchup Downgrade(s): QB Derek Carr
While the Bengals defense won't be mistaken for dominant, it's a solid unit that has all 11 starters healthy at a time when few teams can say the same. There's also the matter of Carr's stinker the first time these teams played, when he finished with 215 passing yards, one TD and two turnovers as the Raiders fell apart in the fourth quarter on their home field and allowed Cincy to score the final 16 points in a 32-13 contest.
Sure, the Raiders have pulled things together since their mid-season slump/crisis, but the Bengals also have improved throughout the year and now get home-field advantage for the rematch. It could be a long day for Carr, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, though the matchup is less of a factor for volume receivers who tend to catch a handful of passes even in off games.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Saturday, 8:30 ET — Bills - 4.0, O/U 44.0
Implied Totals: Bills (24.0) - Patriots (20.0)
Matchup Upgrade(s): None, really.
This is the third meeting in a span of seven weeks between two teams with top-five defenses. The Bills, theoretically, aren't quite as formidable without CB Tre'Davious White (ACL), but in practice, their pass defense remained dominant late in the season, with the most notable result being Mac Jones' 145-yard, two-INT disaster in Buffalo's 33-21 victory Week 16.
Damien Harris kept the Patriots in that game (kind of) on the strength of his 103 rushing yards and three touchdowns, but that was with Rhamondre Stevenson out of the lineup and Harris not bothered by his hamstring (he's listed as questionable this week, but should play). The Pats' O-line is capable of pushing anyone around, including the Bills, so there is an opportunity for New England to have a nice rushing day — it's just less clear who would benefit this time around.
On the other side, Josh Allen and Co. have proven they can hang with the Pats defense, but it'd probably be a stretch to call this a "good matchup" for anyone. Stefon Diggs did put up 7-85-1 in the last meeting... on 13 targets. And Isaiah McKenzie blew up for 11-125-1 on 12 targets... but it's unclear how much he'll play this week, with the debate between him and Cole Beasley in the slot a popular topic of conversation for #BillsMafia (hint: I don't have the answer).
Matchup Downgrade(s): Pretty much everyone?
It's easy enough to make a case for Allen/Diggs on the basis of workload and talent, and for Singletary due to his dominance of New England's rushing workload. But as mentioned above, nearly every offensive player in this game is up against a serious challenge, with both teams boasting impressive talent (and coaching) on defense. The Patriots do have 13 guys listed as questionable, so that's something to watch, though it won't come as much of a surprise if, say, 12 of the 13 end up playing. Furthermore, it's expected to be around 5 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff, which is cold enough to cause problems for some QBs even without wind and precipitation.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sunday, 1:00 ET — Bucs -9.0, O/U 45.5
Implied Totals: Bucs (27.25) - Eagles (18.25)
Matchup Upgrade(s): TE Rob Gronkowski
This one is almost too obvious*, with Gronkowski averaging 8.4 targets and 77.3 yards over the final eight weeks of the regular season and now facing an Eagles defense that allowed a league-high 17.3 PPR points per game to tight ends. That doesn't mean Mike Evans won't also have a big night, but it's harder to buy into Tyler Johnson or Breshad Perriman against a Philly squad that gave up the second fewest points to WRs this year, thanks in large part to strong play from CBs Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox and Steven Nelson (all of whom are healthy for the playoffs).
*If not for spell-check, this would've been misspelled as 'to obvious'... a beautiful irony.
Matchup Downgrade(s): QB Jalen Hurts + RB Miles Sanders
Tampa allowed the second-most catches (117) to running backs this year, one more than Philadelphia gave up. However, it was otherwise the same story as ever, with no team allowing fewer rushing yards to RBs than Tampa's 1,083. And even if we acknowledge that the Eagles are one of the few teams with an offensive line that can match up to the Bucs, it's hard to know who will get the carries between Hurts, Sanders (hand), Jordan Howard and Boston Scott. You better hope it's the Eagles QB if you start him this week, as a road game against the Super Bowl champs in bad weather* doesn't portend well for the passing stats.
*As of Friday morning, forecasts were calling for rain and moderate wind (15-20 mph) in Tampa on Sunday afternoon.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Sunday, 4:30 ET — Cowboys -3.0, O/U 51.0
Implied Totals: Cowboys (27) - 49ers (24)
Matchup Upgrade(s): WRs CeeDee Lamb + Amari Cooper
It's no secret the cornerbacks are the weakness of San Francisco's defense, with deep passes in particular causing problems this year. Had he not suffered an ACL tear, Michael Gallup might've been the surprise hero this week. As is, Lamb and Amari Cooper will run most of the deep routes for Dallas, and the snap alignments from recent games suggest Lamb will see more of 49ers rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas, owner of PFF's No. 117 grade out of 120 qualified cornerbacks. The Cowboys do move their receivers around enough that Cooper will also get his shots on Thomas' side of the field (to the offense's right).
Matchup Downgrade(s): WR Brandon Aiyuk + QB Jimmy Garoppolo
It'll be interesting to see how the Cowboys deploy CB Trevon Diggs against a team with a clear No. 1 receiver who takes a bunch of his snaps in the slot and backfield. It's not a simple shadow situation, which means Aiyuk likely will spend some (or even most) of his afternoon lined up across from the star cornerback. That might create some chances for big plays given Diggs' tendency to gamble, but it also creates potential for a dud, especially given that Diggs usually wins those gambles, in part because he's supported by a pass rush that features Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. This is where you worry about the Jimmy G collapse, especially if Trent Williams (elbow) misses another week.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 8:15 ET — Chiefs -12.5, O/U 46.0
Implied Totals: Chiefs (29.25) - Steelers (16.75)
Matchup Upgrade(s): RB Darrel Williams
Quick, name two things that aren't as good as we thought they were. Let me guess... you said 'Clyde Edwards-Helaire' and 'the Pittsburgh Steelers run defense'. Well, you're pretty darn smart, though the first part may be irrelevant with Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) missing another practice Friday and thus in danger of missing another game. If so, Williams is left as the unquestioned lead back against a Steelers defense that finished the regular season No. 27 in DVOA against the run. That's largely a product of DE Stephon Tuitt and DT Tyson Alualu landing on injured reserve, but neither will be back this week, nor has there been any hint of a return later in the playoffs if the Steelers continue their miracle run (they won't).
Matchup Downgrade(s): WR Chase Claypool
The Chiefs defense isn't as bad as it looked in the first half of the season and isn't as good as it looked in the second half. But it's at least a solid unit, especially against the pass, and just like Cincinnati should have key contributors healthy this weekend. There's on dominant corner on the Chiefs, but also no cupcake matchup between Rashad Fenton, L'Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward. The likely outcome: a disappointing end to a disappointing season for the talented Mr. Claypool.
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Monday, 8:15 ET — Rams - 4.0, O/U 49.5
Implied Totals: Rams (26.75) - Cardinals (22.75)
Matchup Upgrade(s): QB Matthew Stafford + WR Odell Beckham
Stafford threw for 280-plus yards and multiple TDs in both games against Arizona this season, but the first was an inefficient effort with 41 pass attempts, six sacks and an interception in a 37-20 loss, while the rematch featured three TDs and no turnovers in a 30-23 win. J.J. Watt (shoulder) missed that second contest and may now be back Monday night, and while that obviously makes a difference, the Cardinals appear vulnerable on the back end either way.
Cooper Kupp being the first beneficiary shouldn't change, but Beckham might actually have the relative advantage this week, with Arizona's top corner Byron Murphy likely spending most of his night in the slot against Kupp (just as he did in Weeks 4 and 14 - 79 combined slot snaps, 22 outside, per PFF). With Murphy out of the way, Beckham and Van Jefferson will square up with Antonio Hamilton and Marco Wilson (shoulder), and OBJ makes for the much better play after Ben Skowronek took more work from Jefferson the final few weeks of the season.