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Fantasy Playbook: How to Get a Head Start on Your Fantasy Playoffs

Though most leagues won’t start the postseason until Week 14, the time to start plotting a course for a championship run is now. For those fantasy players who already have a playoff spot wrapped up, here’s how to maximize your title chances.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

With the Week 12 Sunday slate in the books, we’ve reached crunch time for the fantasy football regular season. Most leagues will kick their playoffs off over the next two weeks, so it’s time for all you postseason contenders to maximize the last few spots on your roster and give yourself the best chance to win it all. Last week, I broke down which lottery-ticket running backs to add for your playoff run; now let’s take a look at the waiver-wire sleepers who look primed to capitalize on soft schedules down the stretch.

These late-season adds aren’t meant to replace the foundational players who got your team this far, obviously; fantasy stars like Lamar Jackson, Christian McCaffrey, and Michael Thomas are must-starts, regardless of opponent. But when it comes to filling out the rest of your starting lineup―injury fill-ins or sit/start questions at your RB2, WR2, or flex spots―sometimes the easiest tiebreaker is to go with the guy with the most favorable matchup. With that in mind, here’s a handful of waiver-wire adds whose advantageous late-season matchups make them worth taking a flier on a week early. These are the players who could help you with those sit-start calls―and give you a boost on your playoff run.

QB Sam Darnold, Jets: There some major question marks at the quarterback position as we head into the fantasy postseason: Backups and still-developing rookies like Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Kyle Allen, Dwayne Haskins, Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges, and Ryan Finley don’t inspire much confidence, and the list of dependable veteran starters has been further pared down with recent struggles by Philip Rivers, Nick Foles, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Tom Brady. That leaves plenty of playoff-bound fantasy squads looking for a boost heading into the postseason―and Darnold might be the answer.

The Jets quarterback has had a decidedly up-and-down sophomore campaign, but thanks to the team’s outrageously easy second-half slate, he’s built some confidence and is looking more and more like a legit fantasy postseason streamer. Darnold continued his hot streak on Sunday, notching 28.2 fantasy points to put himself in position for an overall QB2 finish this week, pending Monday Night Football. He passed for 315 yards and two touchdowns while adding 16 yards and a score on the ground in the team’s 34-3 romp over the Raiders, giving the red-hot passer his third straight week with 20-plus fantasy points. Still rostered in just 39 percent of Yahoo leagues, Darnold’s got the woeful defenses of the Bengals and Dolphins on tap over the next two weeks. But strike while the iron’s hot―his value will fall off significantly with the team’s Week 15 tilt with the Ravens.

QB Ryan Tannehill, Titans: So, uh, Tannehill has looked really good in his five starts with the Titans since taking over for Marcus Mariota. The 31-year-old vet completed 14 of 18 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, adding seven carries for 40 yards and two scores on the ground to net 32.4 fantasy points and put him on track as this week’s overall QB1. Tannehill (who is rostered in 26 percent of Yahoo leagues) has notched at least 18.9 points in every one of his starts this season and has given the entire Tennessee offense a major spark. He draws a tough Colts defense in Week 13, but he’s an intriguing streamer in both weeks 14 and 15 against Raiders and Texans defenses that have ranked top-10 in points allowed to fantasy QBs this year.

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dolphins: Every day is an adventure when Fitzpatrick is under center, but the fearless veteran signal-caller brings plenty of fantasy boom potential to go with his obvious bust risk. And while it would admittedly take a little chutzpah to roll with Fitzmagic with your season on the line, the Dolphins face one of the most quarterback-friendly slates during the fantasy postseason―they have third-easiest schedule per pass defense efficiency from Week 13 through Week 16, per Sharp Football Stats―with matchups against the Eagles, Jets, Giants, and Bengals over the next four weeks. Those latter two games (in Weeks 15 and 16, likely the semifinals and finals of your league’s postseason) are when Fitzy (who is rostered in 10 percent of leagues) is especially intriguing, as both the Giants’ and Bengals’ awful defenses rank in the top 10 this year in points allowed to opposing passers.

Turnovers are always a distinct possibility when Fitzpatrick plays, but the 37-year-old is a little like Jameis Winston in that he doesn’t need a clean game to put up big fantasy points. Fitzpatrick is on pace for a QB6 finish this week despite tossing two picks in the Dolphins’ 41-24 loss to the Browns, a game in which he notched 23.1 fantasy points with two touchdowns through the air and another 45 yards and a score on the ground.

WR Darius Slayton, Giants: Sterling Shepard’s return from a lengthy concussion-related absence on Sunday didn’t seem to affect Slayton’s role in the offense, with the rookie catching four of seven targets for 67 yards in the Giants’ 19-14 loss to the Bears. Slayton has clearly earned Daniel Jones’s trust, with the former fifth-rounder netting double-digit PPR points in three of his last four games. Those numbers could jump with the juicy matchups that await: From Week 14 through Week 16, Slayton will face off against the subpar secondaries of the Eagles, Dolphins, and Redskins, respectively, giving the rookie sneaky flex appeal as a late-season waiver add. He’s rostered in just 25 percent of leagues.

WR James Washington, Steelers: The Steelers benched starter Mason Rudolph in favor of undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges on Sunday, creating plenty of uncertainty for the team’s offense going forward―especially for a deep threat like Washington. The second-year pro could see a fantasy boost if the more-aggressive Hodges is named the starter going forward, but whether Pittsburgh makes the change or goes back to Rudolph, it’s clear that Washington has carved out a bigger role in the offense over the last month, posting double-digit PPR points in three of four games (including an 18.8-point outing in the team’s 16-10 win over the Bengals on Sunday, highlighted by his big 79-yard touchdown).

Washington is set to benefit from a soft fantasy playoffs schedule, too, with the Steelers drawing the eighth-easiest slate of opposing pass defenses from Week 14 to Week 16, per Sharp Football Stats, with matchups against the Cardinals, Bills, and Jets, respectively. The Week 14 and Week 16 games against Arizona and New York are especially exploitable for Washington, who is still rostered in just 20 percent of leagues.

WR Chris Conley, Jaguars: The Jaguars are in the midst of a quarterback controversy of their own, with Nick Foles’s subpar play continuing for the second straight week in the team’s 42-20 loss to the Titans on Sunday. But whether Jacksonville sticks with Foles or turns back to Gardner Minshew II as the starter, the team’s pass-catchers are poised to benefit from what’s setting up to be the second-easiest slate of opposing pass defenses over the next month (Weeks 13 through 16), per Sharp Football Stats. After drawing the porous Buccaneers secondary next week, Jacksonville will face off against the Chargers, Raiders, and Falcons for the meat of the fantasy postseason. That’s obviously big news for the team’s no. 1 in DJ Chark, but could also pay dividends for the likes of Dede Westbrook (who is owned in 62 percent of leagues) and Conley.

Conley (rostered in 15 percent of Yahoo leagues) was relatively quiet on Sunday, notching 8.9 fantasy points on a four-catch, 49-yard line. But his underlying numbers bely major fantasy potential going forward, with the fifth-year pro accounting for nine targets and a team-high 176 air yards (third among all players in the early slates) on the day. Conley has notched double-digit PPR points in three of his last five games and provides a solid floor for fantasy squads in need of some flex-spot help.

RB Derrius Guice, Redskins: The Redskins had a tough time getting things going on the ground in their 19-16 win over the Lions on Sunday (finishing with 86 yards on 24 rushes), but Guice has gradually seen his role grow since returning from the injured reserve two weeks ago. The second-year back tallied 10 carries for 32 yards―slightly outpacing Adrian Peterson’s 10-carry, 27-yard line―and displayed more elusiveness and juice than his aging counterpart. Guice is trending in the right direction and could be a bankable flex option down the stretch, thanks to Washington’s upcoming slate of exploitable run defenses. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Redskins draw the ninth-easiest slate of opponent run defense efficiency from Week 13 to Week 16―with games against the Panthers, Packers, Eagles, and Giants on tap. In fact, if you take out the team’s Week 15 tilt against Philadelphia, Washington has the easiest run defense slate in the league for those other three games. Guice isn’t exactly a secret, as he’s rostered in 56 percent of Yahoo leagues, but if he’s still out there in yours, now’s the time to grab him.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: WR Chris Godwin, Buccaneers

Godwin helped turn the Falcons defense back into a pumpkin on Sunday, exploding with seven catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s 35-22 win. That performance gave Godwin a league-best 37.4 PPR points for the week and should move the third-year pro back above teammate Mike Evans and into the overall WR2 spot on the year. With his big day, the Tampa Bay pass catcher became one of just three receivers since 2012 (joining Tyreek Hill and Odell Beckham Jr.) with at least three 125-plus yard, two-plus touchdown games in a single season.

Slider: QB Mason Rudolph, Steelers

Rudolph was not suspended following a late-game fight with Myles Garrett last week, but the second-year quarterback was benched by head coach Mike Tomlin early in the third quarter on Sunday after completing just 8 of 16 passes for 85 yards and an interception. Let’s hope that no one was depending on Rudolph this week in single-quarterback leagues, but those in two-QB and superflex leagues were sorely disappointed with Rudolph’s 1.9-point day. Tomlin declined to name a starter for the Steelers’ Week 13 tilt against the Browns, but it wouldn’t be a big surprise if Hodges gets the chance.

Riser: QB Baker Mayfield, Browns

Mayfield is finally starting to heat up. The second-year pro posted a season-best 23.6 fantasy points in the Browns’ blowout over the Dolphins, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Mayfield has now posted nine total touchdowns and just one interception over his last four games, boosted by a soft schedule and the team’s evolution toward more two-running-back sets with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. With the Steelers, Bengals, and Cardinals on the slate, Mayfield should continue to trend up.

Slider: RB Saquon Barkley, Giants

Barkley’s slump continued Sunday, with the all-world back finding little room to work on the ground or through the air. The second-year back finished with 59 scoreless yards on 17 carries while adding two catches for 1 yard―both receiving lows this season―to finish with 8.0 PPR points. After coming into the season as the consensus top pick, Barkley’s been a fantasy bust―even when healthy―carrying a disappointing 15.6 PPR-point average in eight games this season, well off his 24.1-point-per-game clip as a rookie.

Riser: RB Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

Fournette finally broke his touchdown drought, finding paydirt twice (his first scores since Week 5) in the Jaguars’ loss to the Titans. With 97 yards rushing and nine catches for 62 yards, Fournette notched a running-back best 36.9 PPR points on the day. He will draw a tough Tampa Bay run defense in Week 13, but has more favorable matchups for the fantasy postseason, with games against the Chargers, Raiders, and Falcons the subsequent three weeks.

Slider: RB Chris Carson, Seahawks

Carson has managed to hold Rashaad Penny off as the Seahawks’ starter because of his tackle-breaking and pass-catching prowess, but with another two fumbles on Sunday (though one was officially credited to Russell Wilson, Carson was the more guilty party), Seattle may be forced to look to Penny a whole lot more down the stretch. Carson, who’s now fumbled seven times this season, got just eight carries for 26 yards in Seattle’s 17-9 win over the Eagles (he added four catches for 31 yards to finish with 9.7 PPR points), and tellingly played a secondary role to Penny late in the game. Penny, meanwhile, looked great, displaying top-tier speed on a number of big runs (including a 58-yard touchdown scamper) to finish with 14 rushes for 129 yards and one touchdown. The 2018 first-rounder credited weight loss over the past few weeks for his breakout game (he’s down to 230 after coming into the year at 238), and his added burst was apparent. Seattle may stick with a committee approach, but Penny’s likely played himself into a much bigger role.

Riser: WR D.J. Moore, Panthers

Moore came into the Panthers’ matchup against the Falcons with just three touchdowns on 132 career touches. He scored two on just seven touches Sunday. The explosive second-year pro finished the game with 31.4 PPR points―putting him on track to be the overall WR3 this week―thanks to a six-catch, 126-yard and two-score line. Moore has now posted four straight games of 95-plus receiving yards, no small feat considering how poorly quarterback Kyle Allen has played in the past month.

Cutting Up the Pie

Broncos Feed Philip Lindsay

The Broncos’ transition from what had been a full-blown committee approach for most of the year to a Lindsay-centric backfield continued on Sunday, with the second-year pro dominating touches over Royce Freeman for the second straight week. Lindsay finished the 20-3 loss with 13 carries for 57 yards and added one catch for 11 yards―easily outpacing Freeman’s two-carry, two-catch day. Lindsay appears to be the bell cow in this offense from here on out, making Freeman a desperation option only.

Steelers Shake Up Their Backfield Rotation

With James Conner on the shelf with a shoulder injury, the Steelers turned to rookie Benny Snell―not backup Jaylen Samuels―to carry the load in the team’s 16-10 win over the Bengals. Snell carried the ball 21 times for 98 yards, with another pair of rookies in recently signed Kerrith White Jr. (six rushes for 43 yards) and Trey Edmunds (two carries for 7 yards) providing support. Samuels garnered just two carries, netting 6 yards, and was targeted just three times in the passing game, gaining 26 yards. With Conner’s return up in the air, Snell should remain a lead back in the interim, with Samuels relegated back to a complementary role … and your fantasy bench.

The Injury Report

Here are the injuries to monitor for this week.

WR Hunter Renfrow, Raiders: Renfrow left the game with an injury to his ribs after taking a big hit from Jets safety Jamal Adams. He was listed as questionable to return, but with the game well out of hand, the Raiders played it safe. The rookie receiver finished with three catches for 31 yards; if he’s forced to miss time, it could provide a boost to tight end Darren Waller and receiver Zay Jones.

Smash the Add Button

We’ve already talked about the waiver-wire adds with the most favorable late-season schedules above, but here’s a few more must-add players to target on this week’s waiver wire.

RB Rashaad Penny, Seahawks (rostered in 18 percent of Yahoo leagues): Penny showed newfound explosiveness in Seattle’s win over the Eagles, and thanks to Carson’s continued fumble problem, may have found himself a major role for the Seahawks’ stretch run. Even if Seattle runs with a committee approach, Penny brings flex appeal in a run-heavy offense.

RB Bo Scarbrough, Lions (43 percent): Scarbrough followed up his impressive Week 11 debut with another strong outing for the Lions on Sunday, netting 98 yards on 18 carries as the clear early-down back for Detroit. Scarbrough has earned a bigger role for this offense and that makes him a flex play in deeper leagues, but it’s worth noting that Detroit will face the second-toughest slate of opposing run defenses from Week 13 to Week 16.

RB Benny Snell Jr., Steelers (5 percent): With James Conner still out with a shoulder injury, Snell returned from a knee injury and took over the lead back role for Pittsburgh this week. His value is tied to how quickly Conner can return, but Snell’s potential for volume next week against the Browns makes him worth a spot on your roster.

TE Ryan Griffin, Jets (44 percent): With Chris Herndon on the injured reserve with a rib injury, Griffin’s found himself a bigger role in the offense, finding the end zone for the second straight week on Sunday. Griffin has now posted double-digit PPR points in four of his last five games, making him a must-add for anyone looking for help at the barren tight end position.

The Watch List

Add this guy to your waiver-wire watch list and be ready to pounce.

WRs N’Keal Harry (14 percent) and Jakobi Meyers (1 percent), Patriots: The Patriots’ rookie pass catchers saw increased action on Sunday thanks to injuries to Phillip Dorsett (concussion) and Mohamed Sanu (ankle), with Harry catching one of his four targets for 10 yards and a touchdown and Meyers grabbing four of nine targets for 74 yards. That duo is likely to find themselves playing complementary roles if either Dorsett or Sanu returns to the field this week, but it’s worth keeping tabs on the health situation in New England’s pass-catching corps.