The Math Behind the Matchups: Week 16

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Well, it’s over. After five different days with NFL action, the extended disaster that is Week 15 has finally sputtered to a halt. I believe I speak for the fantasy community when I say that we won’t miss the lowest scoring week in years.

Congratulations to those who survived – however ugly it was – and find yourself now in the semi-finals of the fantasy playoffs. In this article, we will dive deep into the NFL matchups for the coming week and, of course, the implications for fantasy football. It’s time to go the extra mile and take home that fantasy championship; let’s make sure you get those start/sit decisions right!

One thing to note: we will often be considering performance above expectation, especially when looking at statistics of an entire offense or defense. This is crucial because we don’t want to punish a good defense for giving up yards to great offenses (not that there were many last week). Similarly, we don’t want to put a bad defense on a pedestal just because they played well against the Jags. The idea, then, will be to look at how many yards the defense allowed minus the average yards the opposing offense usually gains (and vice versa for offenses above expectation).

I will point out some matchups that I think look ‘juicy’ (targets) or situations that you might want to stay away from (fades). These will by no means create an exhaustive list: there is a lot of information in the charts below, so feel free to study the matchups on your own and identify players that you might want to target or sit for the week.  All data, unless otherwise noted, is from nflfastR.

Hidden Stats

Every manager has felt the pain of their RB getting tackled on the 1-yard line, only for the team to toss it to the 3rd-string TE for the touchdown on the very next play. In this vein, we can count the number of times a player has ‘almost’ scored – which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet – with the idea that upwards regression in the future could be coming. The numbers here are different drives where the player was tackled inside the 5-yard line (it doesn’t make sense to include multiple plays on the same drive, since the player can only score once) and didn’t eventually end up scoring on that drive.

It’s been a frustrating year for A.J. Dillon fantasy managers. While the hulking Packers RB began to emerge over the back half of the season, starter Aaron Jones has, ironically, ‘vultured’ a couple of scores in recent weeks (ah, how the tables have turned). In fact, A.J. Villain leads RBs in ‘almost scoring’ over the past three weeks, and I could see some positive regression that solidifies him as an RB2 for these final, crucial weeks of the season. Another, perhaps indirectly, interesting name is Austin Ekeler. Of course, you’re starting Ekeler if he plays; if he sits, though, these types of opportunities could bode well for Justin Jackson as a potentially productive FLEX option.

We can consider pass-catchers next. To start, one of my biggest fantasy football pet peeves is that WRs don’t score fantasy points for drawing Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) penalties. It’s 2021, we have the technology…let’s start crediting wideouts for plays that generate real NFL yardage but don’t show up in the box score!

Anyways, using simple regression models (which takes air yards to predict YAC and TD probability) we can estimate how many fantasy points were taken off the board by a defensive penalty. Here are the Week 12 leaders:

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A similar approach tells us which pass-catchers underperformed and over-performed this week. Again, a simple regression model uses air yards, targets, and defensive ability to predict how many fantasy points a player should score, and compare that to how many they actually score. An overachieving player might be one who catches a few TDs on only a couple of targets; an underachieving one sees a lot of targets (against a bad defense) and doesn’t do much with it. Here are the standouts:

There is plenty to analyze, but here are my main takeaways.

  • Zay Jones sits atop the DPI chart and warrants at least some interest going forward. He garnered nine targets last week – a season-high – and is averaging seven targets a game since Week 12. He has a tough matchup with the Broncos in Week 16 but could be a reasonable WR3 or FLEX volume play, especially if Darren Waller continues to miss time.
  • It’s no surprise that Travis Kelce was a massive overachiever in his breakout performance on Thursday night against the Chargers (remember when we thought Week 15 would be a high-scoring affair?). Another name to consider, though, is Gabriel Davis. He has caught fire in the last three weeks, catching four scores from Josh Allen. Still, Davis is a touchdown play in disguise: he’s eclipsed 100 yards just once this season, and 50 yards just twice. It could be reasonable to expect that he falls back to earth, especially facing a hungry Patriots defense in Foxborough.
  • Speaking of hungry (former) Patriots, Rob Gronkowski leads the underachievers this week: he saw 11 targets and hauled in just two. With Chris Godwin out for the year following an ACL tear and Mike Evans uncertain to play, it’s a good bet that Tom Brady will continue to lean on his old friend. It’s suddenly more important for the Bucs to close out the season with wins, and Gronk could be a hero in a very depleted TE landscape.
  • Another week, another underperformance from DK Metcalf, who saw 12 (!!) targets in a losing effort to the Rams. DK certainly didn’t tank your week – he posted 8.2 fantasy points – but the disappointment continues for his fantasy managers. His volume will likely take a hit with the return of Tyler Lockett, and the Bears’ pass defense is on the stingier side. As the season unravels in Seattle (and Russell Wilson potentially looks forward to a new home) you wouldn’t be crazy to bench Metcalf.

Passing Attacks

Let’s turn to a breakdown of passing offenses:

Targets

  • Hold your nose, but the Bucs have actually been a susceptible pass defense of late, and Panthers WR Robby Anderson has been seeing solid volume: 20 targets over the past two weeks. It’s difficult to trust a pass-catcher with the sort of QB carousel going on in Carolina, especially when that carousel consists of Cam Newton, Sam Darnold and PJ Walker. Still, Robby might be a sneaky FLEX; he was the WR7 in Week 14 and an WR3 in Week 15.
  • Russell Gage has finally stepped into the target vacuum in Atlanta: he’s been a WR1 three of the past four weeks. In Week 16, he draws the Lions; despite Detroit’s surprising upset over the Cardinals, Dan Campbell’s squad is still well below-average against the pass. Continue to enjoy Gage’s late-season heroics.
  • The Seahawks have been ravaged against checkdowns recently and face the Bears this week. While we don’t traditionally think of David Montgomery as a pass-catching back, he does have 22 targets over the past three weeks. He is a strong RB2 this week; sure, Week 15 was disappointing, but it was for pretty much everyone!
  • The defense of the Vikings is not what it once was: they are among the worst teams in the league at guarding passes, although they are robust against checkdowns. That’s the perfect formula for Odell Beckham Jr., who has quietly (ok, maybe not quietly) been a WR1 in two of the past four weeks with his new offense. Oh, and you should start Cooper Kupp; that guy is good.

Fades

  • Although their win streak came to an end, the Patriots still stifled the Colts’ passing attack (although that may have been a product of Indianapolis’ game-plan). I mentioned above that Gabriel Davis has been extremely efficient of late, but it will be tough sledding for him and the rest of the Bills pass-catchers outside of perennial start Stefon Diggs.
  • After taking all of the heat to start the season, the Kansas City Chiefs have locked it down on defense. They’re elite against the deep ball, and while Big Ben Roethlisberger has had some vintage performances in recent weeks, it’s hard to have confidence in the Steelers’ aerial options (especially Chase Claypool).
  • After a shocking loss to the Detroit Lions, the Arizona Cardinals don’t get much of a breather: they square up against the Colts, who have been solid against the pass in almost every area. With Deandre Hopkins on the sideline, it’s tough to trust basically any receiver on the Cards; even Chase Edmonds is a dubious prospect, since the Colts lockdown checkdowns.

Finally, let’s take a look at the fantasy points scored by the major positions; this can help to identity tight ends and D/ST units that could be wise to stream this week:

  • The Lions rank as the worst team against the TE position. This should be the week (please) that Kyle Pitts posts a monster stat line. A more widely available option is Cole Kmet, who faces the Seahawks (third-worst against the position vs. expectation) and has averaged 8 targets over the past four weeks.
  • The wheels may have started to come off for the Browns offense – they are near the basement for fantasy output in most positions – and have to head to Lambeau to face a stout Packers defense. They’ve been a solid unit this year for fantasy purposes, but there’s a chance they are available on your waiver wire. A similar option is the New Orleans Saints: solid defense, potentially available, and facing a Dolphins offense that actually hasn’t played that well.
  • It’s not controversial that you should be targeting defenses playing the Texans, Jaguars, and Jets. This week, the Jags and Jets square off, but the Texans draw the Chargers; while Brandon Staley’s group has often been burned through the air of late (the much-discussed ‘funnel defense’) there isn’t much to fear from General Davis Mills‘ troops (outside of lone bright spot Brandin Cooks). The Chargers can be a potential start spot if you are desperate.

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Curious about any more matchups? Message me on Twitter.

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Chart styling from Sam.

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