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Inside the Matchup
Wildcard Weekend

By: Bill Andereson | Sal Marcoccio | Nick Caron | Kyle Smith

 Predictions - YTD
Rk Staffer W L %
1 Caron 45 18 71.4
2 Anderson 44 20 68.8
3 Smith 42 22 65.6
4 Marcoccio 36 26 58.1


Bengals @ Texans - (Smith)

Passing Game Thoughts: While Andy Dalton was by no means a fantasy star, he did rank 12th among quarterbacks in fantasy points, making him at least a serviceable starter. He tied for seventh in touchdown passes, but threw for only 300 yards twice all year and from Week 10 on surpassed 230 yards just once. Dalton has one of the game’s premiere wideouts to throw to in fantasy stud A.J. Green. The second-year receiver was fourth at his position in fantasy points, and had a nine-game touchdown streak from Weeks 2-9 this year. The Bengals have few other fantasy options in their receiving game, though fantasy owners may want to take a look at Jermaine Gresham. He ranked 10th among tight ends in fantasy points this year and has a very good match-up against a struggling Texans pass defense.

Houston had a solid start to the season defending the pass, but fell off and wound up ranked 16th in the league against the pass and tied for 26th in touchdown throws allowed. They surrendered the 15th-most fantasy points in the NFL to quarterbacks, the 11th-most to wideouts and tied for fourth-most to tight ends. The Texans yielded at least one touchdown to wide receivers in six of their last seven games, and in their last four games gave up five touchdowns to tight ends.

Running Game Thoughts: Like teammate Andy Dalton, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a serviceable if unspectacular fantasy option this season. He was 19th among running backs in fantasy points, ranking 13th at his position in rushing yards and scoring six times on the ground. BGE ran for at least 100 yards in four of his team’s five games from Weeks 11-15, but suffered a hamstring injury that has left him questionable for this week’s playoff game. Considering Green-Ellis’s injury and difficult match-up, fantasy owners may want to look elsewhere for their running back.

The Texans were consistently good against the run all season, and ended the year with the league’s seventh-ranked run defense. They were ninth in YPC allowed and tied the Broncos for fewest rushing scores permitted. Keeping runners out of the end zone meant they were a beast for fantasy running backs to pick up points against, and in fact no team allowed fewer fantasy points to players at that position than Houston.

Andy Dalton: 255 pass yds, 2 TD, 1 INT
A.J. Green: 105 rec yds, 1 TD
Jermaine Gresham: 60 rec yds, 1 TD
Andrew Hawkins: 45 rec yds
Marvin Jones: 25 rec yds
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 55 rush yds / 10 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: The Texans not only had problems defending the pass late in the season, they had troubles moving it through the air as well. Matt Schaub was 20th in fantasy points among quarterbacks this year, and threw just a single touchdown pass with three interceptions in his last four games. They only real fantasy option in Houston’s passing game is Andre Johnson. The Miami product went ballistic from the midpoint of the season on, with at least 85 receiving yards in all but two games from Week 7 on. He was even better at the end of the season and had at least 140 yards in four of his last seven contests. Unfortunately, Johnson had just a single touchdown catch from Week 12 through the end of the year, which left him in eighth at his position in fantasy points for the season.

The Bengals were excellent defending the pass during the 2012 regular season, ranking seventh in pass defense, tied for fourth in touchdown passes ceded, and third in sacks. They allowed the seventh-fewest fantasy points in the league to quarterbacks and the third-fewest fantasy points to wide receivers, but were 15th in points allowed to tight ends. Yet fantasy owners should keep in mind that many of those tight end points came in the season’s first half, because Cincinnati has not allowed a player at that position to score since Week 9.

Running Game Thoughts: Arian Foster wound up sixth in the NFL in rushing yards for the season, but only Adrian Peterson had more fantasy points. Foster led the league with 15 rushing scores and added two more via reception to lead the league in touchdowns. He struggled a bit at the end of the year in terms of yards, but for the most part (Week 16 being the major exception) still found a way to get into the end zone, saving fantasy owners from bad games. Foster should continue to have success this week against the Bengals.

Cincinnati wasn’t quite as good against the run as they were the pass, but still had solid numbers across the board. They ranked 12th in the NFL in rush defense, tied for 18th in rushing scores surrendered, and were 11th in YPC allowed. The Bengals yielded the 14th-fewest fantasy points in the league to running backs, and they allowed just two touchdowns to backs in their final seven games.

Matt Schaub: 215 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Andre Johnson: 90 rec yds, 1 TD
Kevin Walter: 40 rec yds
Owen Daniels: 30 rec yds
DeVier Posey: 15 rec yds
Arian Foster: 85 rush yds, 2 TD / 20 rec yds
Ben Tate: 30 rush yds / 10 rec yds

Prediction: Texans 24, Bengals 20 ^ Top

Vikings @ Packers - (Anderson)

Passing Game Thoughts: The matchup between Christian Ponder and the Vikings pass offense and the Packers defense is the most crucial of this game. We know what the Vikings rushing attack will do (be very productive), what the Packers passing offense will do (score lots of points), and what the Packers run game probably will not do (much of anything). The Vikings pass offense, on the other hand, is very unpredictable, inconsistent, and to that point, a bit scary. By most accounts, Ponder is a less than average NFL quarterback at this point in his career. He ranks 21st in the league in quarterback rating, 25th in passing yards, and a laughable 31st in passing yards per attempt. In their first meeting this season (at Green Bay), Ponder went 12 for 25 (48%) for just 119 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He looked way overmatched and repeatedly missed open receivers on his way to one of his worst days of the season. As bad as that game was, Ponder actually had four games with fewer yards and five games with no touchdown passes at all, making his floor of production one of the league’s worst for starting quarterbacks. On the flip side is last week’s game against the Packers, where Ponder stepped up and threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns (with no picks) in a high-pressure situation in which the Vikings had to win to get in the playoffs. In addition to that game, Ponder did have four games of 250-plus yards this year, six games of two or more touchdowns, and eight games where he did not throw an interception, showing that when he is on, he is more than adequate as a productive signal caller.

What is strange about Ponder is that his production (or lack thereof) does not seem to rely heavily on matchup, as he had some nice games against strong defenses (49ers, Texans), bad games against good defenses (Seahawks, Cardinals), good games against bad defenses (Redskins, Colts), and bad games against bad defenses (Lions). What does stand out is Ponder’s home and away splits, which certainly favor his home starts. At home, Ponder has thrown (in 30 less attempts) four more touchdowns, taken six less sacks, thrown 230 more yards, and is averaging over 1.5 more yards per attempt than in road games. Of course this week’s game is not only on the road, but on the road in Green Bay in January, not a historically pleasant place for visitors to play. While Ponder may pull something out of his hat that we were just not expecting, the odds are certainly against him in a tough road game, with the added pressure of this being his first postseason game. The return of defensive back Charles Woodson and a lack of explosion and consistency from his wide receivers (with Harvin still out) won't help either. With the outcome of this game resting heavily Ponder's arm, I expect him to cave under the pressure this time around, rather than thrive on it.

Running Game Thoughts: This week is round three of Adrian Peterson vs. the Packers. The first two rounds this season went to Peterson, as he ran for 409 yards and two touchdowns in the first two meetings of these division rivals. With all eyes on Peterson (as usual), it will be interesting to see what changes the Packers make to slow him down. There are a few scary things in this matchup for the Packers defense, beside the fact that they are dealing with the league’s best running back. For one, Peterson seems to have the Packers number, as the Green Bay run defense has been relatively good all season except when facing Peterson and the Vikings. In their 14 other games, the Packers allowed just one 100-yard rusher, and that was Frank Gore in Week 1. Peterson has averaged a shade over 200 yards per game against Green Bay, making those contests two of his three highest yardage games of the season. Second, the Packers (and the rest of the league) know without a doubt that the Vikings offense revolves around Peterson, and they still could not stop him in either game, but especially in a critical game last week that could have given the Packers an important first-round bye.

Finally, the Vikings showed in this last game that if the Packers sell out to stop the run, the passing game can hurt them, with Ponder (16-28, 3 TDs, 0 INT) making some critical throws late when the box was stacked to stop the run. If Ponder is on again this week, and the Packers are forced to divert some attention to the pass game, Peterson may come close to hitting the 200-yard mark again. On the bright side for the Packers defense, Peterson is coming off a career-high 34 carries and has one less day of rest this week, with the game being on Saturday. In addition, the game is in Green Bay, which is notorious for being one of the toughest places to play in January. What this all comes down to is the play of Christian Ponder. Peterson is going to get his yards, and it will not matter all that much what the Packers do to stop him; he is that good, and that hot right now. If Ponder can’t keep the defense honest, Peterson will have a good (not great) game. But if Ponder can make some nice throws early and show the defense he is on his game, expect Peterson to have another huge game against this Packers defense.

Christian Ponder: 185 pass yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs
Jarius Wright: 45 rec yds
Kyle Rudolph: 40 rec yds
Jerome Simpson: 40 rec yds
Adrian Peterson: 140 rush yds, 1 TD, 10 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: A scary thought for the Vikings defense: in two games this year against Minnesota, Aaron Rodgers has thrown for 651 yards and five touchdowns while completing 73 percent of his passes. A Scarier thought: in neither game did Rodgers have his full complement of receivers as he is expected to this weekend. Every major receiver on the Packers roster (Jennings, Nelson, Cobb, Finley, and Jones) has missed time this season with a variety of injuries. Not since Week 1 has Rodgers had a full arsenal at his disposal for a full four quarters. For the Packers, this is obviously a great thing, not only for depth purposes and keeping fresh legs, but also because Rodgers is one of the very best at finding the mismatch and getting all his weapons involved rather than just honing in on one or two guys. For a Vikings defense that ranks among the worst 12 teams in passing yards allowed, opposing quarterback rating allowed, touchdown passes allowed, completion percentage allowed, and least amount of passes picked off, it could be a very long day, as Rodgers is sure to throw 30 or more times at home.

The news may be even worse, however, as cornerback Antoine Winfield, perhaps the Vikings best defensive back this year, is questionable after he aggravated his broken hand in the second quarter last week. While the Vikings do get to the quarterback often (5th in sacks—7 in 2 games vs. Rodgers in 2012), they will certainly need to keep the pressure up all game long and cover in the secondary better, because they do not take the ball away often (22 times, 10th worst). With perhaps the deepest and most talented stable of receivers at his disposal this week, Rodgers should have little trouble picking apart this defense. And unless the weather conditions are extreme, the Vikings get a couple turnovers, or Rodgers plays one of his worst games ever, I expect this phase of the game to be totally dominated by the Packers.

Running Game Thoughts: As inconsistent and talent-starved as the Vikings passing game is right now, the Packers running attack may actually be the weakest offensive unit in this game. They finished the regular season 20th in rushing yards, and even worse in yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. And the Packers get a lot of their rushing yardage in garbage time after victory is fairly secure. While below-average run blocking may get some of the blame, the talent and health in the Packers backfield is also well below average, with perhaps their most talented running back, Cedric Benson (an average talent anyway), put on IR several weeks ago. In his place the Packers have used a committee of Alex Green, James Starks, Ryan Grant, and most recently DuJuan Harris, who seems to have the “hot hand” and will therefore probably get the most touches this weekend.

The Vikings run defense has been quite good, giving up the 11th fewest yards on the ground while being stingy around the goal line (10 rush TDs allowed; 8th best). In their two matchups against the Vikings this year, the Packers had two very different outcomes, racking up 152 yards on the ground in the first game and just 72 in the second. In that first game the Packers used a combination of five different ball carriers and had a big lead in the fourth quarter, while in the second game they used just two ball carriers and the game was extremely close throughout. I do not expect this game to be a blow out, and I have a hard time believing this unit will be given many chances to win (or blow) this game, considering that the overwhelming majority of offensive talent is on the passing side. While the Packers always run the ball just enough to keep the defense honest, I expect an even heavier dose of the passing game this week; the Packers receivers are healthy, the Vikings defense is more vulnerable through the air, and the consistency of the Green Bay backfield is a big weakness. The Packers will consider anything they get from this unit a big bonus, but they will likely have little significance on the outcome of this game.

Aaron Rodgers: 340 pass yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT
Greg Jennings: 75 rec yds, 1 TD
Jordy Nelson: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Randall Cobb: 70 rec yds
James Jones: 70 rec yds
Jermichael Finley: 45 rec yds
DuJuan Harris: 45 rush yds, 10 rec yds

Prediction: Packers 30, Vikings 20

Colts at Ravens - (Caron)

Passing Game Thoughts: One of three rookie quarterbacks performing on Wild-Card Weekend, Andrew Luck will look to continue where he left off in the regular season. After a solid Week 17 game in which he threw two touchdowns in a victory over the Texans, the top overall pick of the 2012 draft finished as the ninth-ranked fantasy QB in standard scoring leagues. Although he has thrown for an average of only 195 yards per game over his last four, Luck has done a good job of avoiding turnovers over that span, which has allowed him to stay on pace while getting his team three much-needed wins. His favorite target, Reggie Wayne, has been a consistent producer in PPR leagues, but it has been T.Y. Hilton who has broken out over the second half of the season, including a four-catch, 114-yard performance with a touchdown in Week 17. Neither Dwayne Allen nor Coby Fleener has been particularly productive in recent weeks, so look for Luck to continue to target Wayne and Hilton, along with Donnie Avery, this week.

In his first playoff game, Luck will head to Baltimore to go up against Ed Reed and the Ravens secondary. The Ravens have had moments this season where they struggled against the pass, but their end-of-year numbers were very good, as they finished as the seventh-ranked defense against opposing quarterbacks. Since Week 11, the Ravens have allowed only one passer (Robert Griffin III) to throw for more than 270 yards or two touchdowns. But it’s also worth mentioning that they have forced just two interceptions through their final seven games. In addition, they’ve allowed five touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers through their past four games. The numbers don’t necessarily point to a big day for the Colts' rookie quarterback, but rest assured that Luck will have his opportunities. Indianapolis will win or lose this game on the shoulders of Andrew Luck.

Running Game Thoughts: He isn’t a particularly sexy name, but it’s hard to deny that Colts running back Vick Ballard was a fantasy season-saver for many owners who lost running backs in the second half of the year. Since Week 13, Ballard has averaged 10.2 fantasy points per game (standard scoring), which has included two games of over 90 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Although he has not been very active in the passing game, he has received at least 18 carries in every game since Donald Brown was hurt in Week 13, which has made Ballard one of the most consistent backs in the league over that span. The only concern going into the playoffs is that Delone Carter could be back this week and has a history of goal-line sniping from both Ballard and Brown. Still, we expect Ballard to get at least 90 percent of his team’s carries, which typically translates into some decent fantasy production.

The Baltimore defense has long been one of the stingiest in the league, but 2012 was certainly a drop-off from what they are normally capable of, especially when it comes to defending the run. This year, the Ravens have allowed more than 140 yards rushing to an opposing team on five occasions, including twice over their final four weeks. Despite holding BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the Bengals running game in check last week, Baltimore still allowed an average of nearly 15 points per game to RBs over the final five weeks of the regular season. If Ballard gets the 15-plus carries that we expect him to, he should have a solid day on Wild-Card Weekend. But don’t expect a huge game. Make no mistake about it, this is the Andrew Luck show. Ballard and the running game are just along for the ride.

Andrew Luck: 220 pass yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 20 rush yds
T.Y. Hilton: 80 rec yds, 1 TD
Reggie Wayne: 70 rec yds, 1 TD
Donnie Avery: 40 rec yds
Dwayne Allen: 25 rec yds
Vick Ballard: 90 rush yds

Passing Game Thoughts: After jumping out to one of the best records in the league to start the season, the Ravens struggled to wrap it up in convincing fashion, losing four of their final five games. Of course, Week 17 didn’t matter for them and their playoff seeding, so the loss to the Bengals was irrelevant. But the pressure is certainly still on quarterback Joe Flacco and his team as they head into their fifth consecutive playoff appearance with the former first-round pick under center. Flacco himself has actually been fairly good over his past three (full) games, throwing seven touchdowns to only three interceptions despite two losses. It’s been the up-and-down performances he’s had throughout the year that have critics questioning whether it’s time to move on from the guy who proclaimed himself an elite quarterback before the season started. If he wants to keep making those claims, Flacco is going to need more games like he’s had in recent weeks, while Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta step it up for the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Flacco, he’s going up against a red-hot Colts defense that has allowed just five passing touchdowns over their past six games, including zero in their final two. They’ve also forced a total of eight interceptions during that stretch, successfully holding three of six opposing QBs to 10 or fewer fantasy points on the day. Indianapolis seems to be peaking at the right time, and with the Ravens in a major rut, this could be the perfect storm for a wild-card upset. Nevertheless, the Ravens have never failed to make it out of the first week of the playoffs with Flacco at quarterback.

Running Game Thoughts: One of the most consistent players in fantasy football this season has been Ray Rice, who finished as the sixth-ranked RB in standard scoring leagues. For those in PPR leagues, Rice was even better, as his 61 receptions placed him second among all backs, behind only Darren Sproles. If you take away his dreadful Week 15 performance in a blowout loss to the Broncos and his Week 17, where he barely touched the ball in an irrelevant game, Rice has been a solid top five fantasy back all season. Although backup Bernard Pierce has seen a sharp increase in carries over the past two games, don’t look for that to continue. Week 16 was a blowout win for the Ravens, so they put in their backups fairly early, while Week 17 didn’t matter for playoff seeding. Expect Rice to return to his full workload for the playoffs, and with fresh legs at that.

Rice will be one of the top options this week as he goes up against the Indianapolis Colts, the 26th-ranked fantasy defense against opposing RBs. The Colts have allowed 11 or more fantasy points to RBs in six of their past seven games and have been victim to three of the best fantasy days by opposing running games this year. The most recent embarrassment came in Week 16 when they allowed Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis and the 2-14 Chiefs to rush for 341 yards against them. It hasn’t always been against great running games, either. The Jets beat them up for 246 yards and three scores on the ground earlier this year, and the Bears rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns of their own back in Week 1. The Colts are definitely beatable on the ground, and with Rice essentially having a game off in Week 17, he should be rested and ready to run all over them.

Joe Flacco: 240 pass yds, 1 TD, 1 INT
Torrey Smith: 80 rec yds
Anquan Boldin: 60 rec yds
Dennis Pitta: 30 rec yds, 1 TD
Jacoby Jones: 30 rec yds
Ray Rice: 110 rush yds, 2 TDs, 25 rec yds
Bernard Pierce: 25 rush yds

Prediction: Ravens 24, Colts 20 ^ Top

Seahawks at Redskins - (Marcoccio)

Passing Game Thoughts: Three rookie quarterbacks will be starting in this year’s playoffs, something that was once considered borderline impossible. Russell Wilson has been somewhat lost in the shadows of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but his rookie season has been every bit as good... and of course much more improbable. Wilson, thought by many scouts to be undersized, threw for more touchdown passes (26) than either Luck (23) or Griffin (20), and like his fellow rookies is also able to gain yards with his legs (489 rush yds, 4 TDs). Wilson isn’t asked to throw the ball often in the Seahawks run-oriented attack, but he has been able to move the ball through the air when needed and already throws one of the best deep balls in the league. Sidney Rice is the Hawks' top option at wide receiver and is coming off his second best season as a professional, with 748 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Rice has had issues staying healthy for most of his career and this season has been no different; he was in a walking boot two weeks ago but will be ready to play on Sunday. Golden Tate finally made the leap from college standout to adequate professional wideout and made some big plays for the Seahawks this season. The duo could have their way against what has been a poor Redskins secondary.

Washington has allowed the second most passing touchdowns and third most yards this season. After losing Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker to season-ending injuries early in the season, they have had issues generating a consistent pass rush, thus exposing the over-rated DeAngelo Hall and fellow cornerback Josh Wilson in coverage.

Running Game Thoughts: Marshawn Lynch was easily Seattle's most valuable offensive player this season, as the offense ran through him on the way to nearly 1,600 rushing yards and double-digit touchdown totals. Lynch averaged a very stout 5.0 yards per carry behind a young O-line that was bolstered by some high draft picks. Behind Lynch, the Seahawks have rookie runner Robert Turbin, who possesses a similar style and body type to Lynch but adds a little more speed and pass-catching ability. The Hawks feature one of the more conservative offenses in the league, and Lynch is built to dish out as much punishment as he absorbs. It goes without saying that the matchup of strength on strength (Washington being the fifth-ranked run defense) will go a long way toward determining the winner of this contest.

Russell Wilson: 225 pass yds 1 TDs, 1 INT / 30 rush yds.
Golden Tate: 40 rec yds,
Sidney Rice: 85 rec yds, 1 TD
Zach Miller: 35 rec yds
Marshawn Lynch: 115 rush yds, 2 TDs / 10 rec yds
Robert Turbin: 15 rush yds / 45 rec yds

Passing Game Thoughts: Robert Griffin III looked like a grizzled veteran last week while Tony Romo made “rookie” mistakes in a matchup that determined the winner of the NFC East. Griffin’s knee injury—and the brace that he wore because of it—slowed him down a little when he took off to run, but the rookie still managed to gain over 60 yards on the ground. Pierre Garcon missed a large chunk of the season due to a foot injury but is clearly the top option in the passing game when healthy. Garcon has performed at a top level since returning from the injury, and with his size and speed, he should be able to handle the physical defensive backs of Seattle as well as anyone. Expectations should be lowered, however, as Richard Sherman has had an All-Pro type season and Brandon Brower will be back from suspension. When Griffin is not looking Garcon’s way, the ball gets spread around between a diverse group of receivers in Aldrick Robinson, Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson, and occasionally to slow-footed tight end Logan Paulsen.

With their dynamic duo at cornerback, the Seahawks have kept most passing attacks at bay. The pass defense has played better statistically at home than away, but on the season the team has limited its opposition to only 203.1 yards per game through the air and the league's second lowest total of 15 passing touchdowns.

Running Game Thoughts: Alfred Morris capped off a remarkable rookie season by thrashing the depleted middle of the Dallas defense for 200 yards, breaking Clinton Portis’ team record of 1,516 yards in the process. Morris finished the season with 1,613 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. He has the ability to plant and turn up field, which works well in the Shanahan zone blocking scheme, and he’s one of the more powerful backs in the league after contact. Facing a top pass defense, the Shanahans will surely want to rely on the running game to soften up the Seattle defense. The Seahawks are the 10th-ranked run defense in the league, so opponents have to pick their poison when deciding how to attack the team. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are both quick to the ball and sure tacklers, and the team has kept opposing offenses to only 103.1 yards per game and 8 touchdowns on the ground.

Robert Griffin III: 225 pass yds 1 TD, 1 INT / 55 rush yds, 1 TD
Leonard Hankerson: 30 rec yds
Pierre Garcon: 50 rec yds, 1 TD
Santana Moss: 25 rec yds
Logan Paulsen: 25 rec yds
Alfred Morris: 105 rush yds, 1 TD / 5 rec yds

Prediction: Seahawks 27, Redskins 24 ^ Top