New England @ Denver
Sunday 3:00 pm ET
As noted in ubiquitous Chet Gresham's FanDuel column, Patriots-Broncos is the conference title game for fantasy upside seekers to target. Whereas Niners-Seahawks has a 40-point over-under and is a virtual lock to be a low-scoring defensive slugfest, New England-Denver's 56.5-point projection is the highest of any playoff game so far, surpassing Eagles-Saints (55) from Wild Card weekend. ... After being held touchdown-less by a combination of game flow and a run-based approach from OC Josh McDaniels during last week's Divisional round tailkicking of the Colts, Tom Brady is a strong bet for a bounce-back effort at Mile High. When the Patriots and Broncos met in Week 12 of the regular season, Brady doused Denver with 344 yards and three touchdowns on 34-of-50 passing (68%). While losing Rob Gronkowski in the meantime has certainly had a big impact on the Patriots' offense and McDaniels' in-game strategies, it's also worth noting New England is a game plan-specific team that attacks defensive weak spots. And without OLB Von Miller, LE Derek Wolfe, FS Rahim Moore, and CB Chris Harris, Denver's pass defense certainly appears ripe for the picking. As Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen, and Danny Amendola are now New England's top pass-catching weapons and primarily work inside the numbers, the Patriots' passing attack is essentially built to defeat a defense that just lost its top inside-the-numbers cover man in Harris. I expect McDaniels to dial up a balanced-to-pass first approach, and Brady to turn in an impressively productive Week 20 box score.
Edelman enters the AFC Championship with at least six receptions in seven consecutive games. Among Week 20 fantasy receivers, only Demaryius Thomas is a superior bet for production. ... Amendola's playing time has been affected recently by the presence or lack thereof of X receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, as when either of the latter is active for games they become near-full-time players and Amendola hovers around 50% of the snaps. It's a dicey situation to invest in because both Thompkins (concussion) and Dobson (foot) are listed as questionable on the injury report, and it's unclear whether one or both will play. Austin Collie is next in line for playing time. ... The outlook for New England's three-headed backfield is dependent upon the way McDaniels chooses to play. LeGarrette Blount is a workhorse when the Patriots attempt to pound their opponent into submission. The Pats still refuse to trust Stevan Ridley as a lead back due to his ball-security woes, but he has 12-plus carries in three straight games and will definitely be involved. My pick this week to have the biggest game is Vereen, but there certainly are no guarantees because his role has been game-plan dependent, and McDaniels' recent game plans have favored the run over the pass. I'd rank Patriots Week 20 backs as Vereen > Blount > Ridley.
Denver's Week 12 offensive stats were skewed by the fact that they grabbed a 24-0 first-half lead and hammered New England on the ground. Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball, and C.J. Anderson proceeded to combine for 280 yards on a whopping 47 carries in these clubs' regular season meeting. I don't believe Brady will repeat his 50 pass attempts from that game, but also don't anticipate Denver running the ball nearly 50 times. I do expect Brady to have passing success and the Broncos to run effectively on a New England defense that finished 2013 ranked 30th versus the run and lost run-thumping ILB Brandon Spikes to injured reserve before the Divisional round. Moreno is a safe bet for 18-plus touches and a goal-line opportunity or two. I found it interesting that despite averaging 5.2 YPC in last week's win over San Diego, Ball's role dwindled as the game progressed and the Chargers got closer on the scoreboard. Ball would be a risky RB2/flex on FanDuel and in playoff leagues. ... Sunday's forecast for New England-Denver is calling for 57-degree temperatures, no rain, and single-digit winds. So weather should not be an obstacle as Peyton Manning takes on Bill Belichick's defense. Manning has faced Belichick twice as a Bronco, combining to complete 50-of-80 throws (62.5%) for 487 yards, five touchdowns, and one pick. I like Brady as a fantasy start, but there's no question Peyton is the best quarterback bet in Week 20 if we ignore relative cost.
Demaryius has faced the Patriots four times in his career, registering stat lines of 7-116, 9-180, 4-41-1, and 6-93. Belichick will surely assign Aqib Talib to Thomas, and it's a matchup Demaryius is likeliest to win. ... Julius Thomas is the premier tight end bet of the conference championship round, taking on a New England defense that coughed up a 7-81 line to Colts tight ends in Week 19. The Patriots were also leaky in second-level coverage this regular season, permitting the fourth most receptions (89) in the NFL to tight ends, and the sixth most yards (971). ... With Talib very likely to shadow Demaryius on a heavy majority of Sunday's snaps, expect Eric Decker to tangle with Pats No. 2 CB Alfonzo Dennard. Dennard ranked No. 70 among 110 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' 2013 cornerback ratings, and tied for 74th in coverage. So on paper at least, this has the look of a plus matchup for Decker. ... New England slot corner Kyle Arrington effectively shut down Wes Welker in these clubs' Week 12 meeting, holding the former Patriot to four receptions for 31 yards on eight targets. Arrington racked up five tackles and a pass breakup, and was among the quiet keys to New England's 34-31 comeback victory. I like Demaryius and Orange Julius as Week 20 fantasy starts, with Decker as an interesting roll of the dice and Welker to take more of a backseat.
Score Prediction: Broncos 28, Patriots 27
San Francisco @ Seattle
Sunday 6:30 pm ET
Although San Francisco is playing better all-around football of late, Seattle's history of controlling games with overwhelming crowd noise and a regularly dominant defense is hard to overlook when projecting Sunday's late-game outcome. As are Colin Kaepernick's historical struggles versus Pete Carroll's defense. In three career starts against the Seahawks, Kaepernick is 47-of-93 passing (50.5%) for 546 yards (5.87 YPA), two touchdowns, and five interceptions. I think Kaepernick had one of the most underrated quarterback seasons in recent NFL memory considering his depleted supporting cast, and I still don't think he's going to fare well at CenturyLink Field. Incredibly rare is the quarterback who does. ... Kaepernick's target distribution with Michael Crabtree back in the starting lineup for the last seven games: Anquan Boldin 62; Crabtree 53; Vernon Davis 34; Frank Gore 7; Quinton Patton 4. ... Boldin tagged Seattle for 93 yards on six receptions in these clubs' Week 14 meeting, though it's worth noting the Seahawks were minus slot corner Walter Thurmond III (suspension) in that game, and Boldin was held to one catch for seven yards when these teams did battle in Week 2. Because Seattle's corners disallow clean releases off the line of scrimmage and play big-bodied press technique throughout the backend, Boldin's physicality-based game never matches up well on paper with the Seahawks. Boldin is capable of making an impact by hauling in a few contested catches, but I strongly doubt he'll be the star of the game that he was last week.
The 49ers need more from Crabtree and Davis than they got in last Sunday's win over Carolina. While Davis managed one catch for a one-yard touchdown on four targets, Crabtree was held under 30 yards on seven passes directed his way, and was a non-factor after an early-game blow to the left wrist via Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn. The Seahawks appear to have Crabtree's number, holding him to stat lines of 4-40, 4-65, and 4-31 in these clubs' last three tilts. Crabtree has played Seattle seven times in his career, never scoring a touchdown. ... Gore was one of San Francisco's few skill-position players to have statistical success the last time these division rivals met, rushing 17 times for 110 yards (6.47 YPC). 51 yards came on a single fourth-quarter cutback run, however, and the Week 14 affair was played in San Francisco. At home this season, Seattle has held enemy rushers to 966 yards and four touchdowns on 266 carries (3.63 YPC). Those are exceptionally stingy scoring and yardage efficiency rates. Gore may need another semi-fluke long run to pay box-score dividends, and at this stage of his career Gore isn't really a long-run back.
FanDuel and fantasy playoff leaguers should avoid this game where possible, but Marshawn Lynch is an exception. He's the one Seattle skill player with a documented, consistent history of success against the Niners' defense. Over his last five 49ers meetings, Lynch has rushed 115 times for 491 yards (4.27 YPC) and scored six all-purpose touchdowns. Lynch has reached pay dirt and/or topped 100 total yards in all five games. Expect a high volume of carries Sunday, and Lynch to serve as Seattle's primary means of chain movement. ... Combine Russell Wilson's concerning late-season performance dip with the historical inability of Seattle's pass catchers to get anything done in the air versus San Francisco, and you have the recipe for a Lynch-dominated plan of attack. These are Golden Tate's last six stat lines versus the Niners: 1-8-1; 3-16; 0-0; 2-27; 1-19; 6-65. Zach Miller's last six are even slower, at 2-22; 2-15; 0-0; 1-9; 2-19; 1-13. Particularly without Percy Harvin (concussion), the Seahawks are desperate for a pass catcher to emerge as an X-factor, whether it be slot man Doug Baldwin, athletically blessed rookie tight end Luke Willson, or jump-ball specialist Jermaine Kearse. It's worth noting Willson snuck past 49ers ILB Patrick Willis down the seam for a 39-yard TD in Week 14. Willson quietly led Seattle in receiving yards (70) in that game.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 17, 49ers 14
New England @ Denver