I’ve been playing fantasy sports for over 20 years and have focused on dynasty football for the last decade. I’ve done fantasy hockey, NASCAR, golf, basketball, baseball, you name it, and I’ve found nothing is more fun for me than the NFL playoff fantasy leagues. They seem to have grown in popularity over the last several years, and if you haven’t given them a try, I suggest you give it a go, as they’ll add another layer of fun to your NFL playoff-watching experience (and you might make a little money too).
One of the other takeaways from these NFL playoff leagues is how you can use information from games to help you prepare for your future in dynasty leagues. Just looking back to a season ago, we saw Cam Akers’ return to action in the playoffs following a preseason Achilles injury. Without seeing Akers in game-action, who knows what his ADP and trade value would have been heading into this year. However, his playoff return saw him carry the ball 67 times for 172 yards while catching eight balls for an additional 76 yards.
In other years, lesser-known players emerge as playoff heroes, and that ends up resulting in more touches in the following year. For example, people thought the door was closing on Leonard Fournette, then “Playoff Lenny” emerged. There is no doubt that Fournette’s two-year playoff run has boosted his value in the eyes of fans. He has seen 77 carries for 351 yards and five touchdowns while adding another 27 receptions for 204 yards and an additional score. Putting up those gaudy numbers in primetime games will have an impact on any player’s value. You can use that to flip players in dynasty leagues who might be seeing a bump in value.
Types of Leagues
There are multiple options when it comes to playoff fantasy leagues. I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the different types and styles I’m familiar with. Hopefully, all of them are covered, but I may unintentionally omit some formats I’m unaware of in a world of infinite options. And if you’re looking for playoff player rankings and strategy talk, nobody does it better than 4for4.
Arguably the most popular and most common playoff league is a one-and-done league. Basically, you can use any player in each round of the playoffs, but once you use someone, you can’t use them again- they’re done. You have to employ a little strategy here, as you would hate to use Josh Allen in round one and Jalen Hurts in round two and then be stuck without a quarterback in the Super Bowl if it ended up being Bills vs. Eagles.
There are two different scoring systems I’ve used. The most common is a total points winner at the completion of the playoffs. The other option is a system where the highest-scoring team is paid out each week. So if you score the highest in Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional Round, or the Conference Championship Round, you get money for those weeks separately. That change may impact your strategy in a given week, but I’ll explain more in the strategy section below.
NFL Playoff Challenge
There’s money to be made, so of course, the NFL has its own playoff fantasy format. In NFL.com’s Playoff Challenge, you pick a lineup ahead of the wildcard round, and that is your lineup for the remainder of the playoffs. The interesting thing here is that there are multipliers in each round. So in round one, you get the players’ normal points. However, in round two, you get double their points; in round three, you get triple their points; and in the Super Bowl, you get four times their points. So the key to winning here is getting as many Super Bowl players in your lineup as possible, even if you get a big fat ZERO in round one because your lineup is full of players on the bye.
One Player per Team
With 14 playoff teams, you construct a lineup with 14 players. The specific lineups may differ from league to league, but typically you’re going to be looking at a QB, QB, RB, RB, RB, WR, WR, WR, TE, TE, SF, Flex, Flex, Flex set-up. You’ll take a zero from your Kansas City and Philadelphia players in round one since they’re not playing. As each team is eliminated, you’ll lose that player for the remainder of the playoff, and eventually, in the Super Bowl, you’ll only have two players left.
If you’re familiar with eliminator leagues, you’ll already know how this works. If not, essentially, what happens is this: your league will cut teams who do not score enough points each week. For example, I play in 14-team leagues. After round one, six teams are cut, and eight teams remain. After round two, four more get cut, and four teams move on, and in the Super Bowl, there are only two teams left after two get cut after round three. The winner is the remaining team that scores the most points in the Super Bowl.
Underdog Playoff Best Ball
One of the fastest-growing and most popular playoff fantasy leagues is hosted by Underdog Fantasy. I have yet to play this format myself, so this is in my blind spot in terms of familiarity. However, you’re in a six-person, ten-round draft, and the league uses best ball scoring. There is a large format tournament called The Gauntlet with up to $1M in prizes ($25 entry fee) and another type called The Mitten with up to $250k in total prizes ($5 entry fee). There is an element of DFS to this, so if you’re a DFS fan, this might be the one for you. If you’re looking for strategy discussion, check out the terrific coverage at 4for4. As a bonus, if you’re brand new to Underdog Fantasy, you can get a
Snake Draft style
Another format I have never tried, but I know it exists, are the snake draft leagues. Similar to Underdog, you hold a snake draft to build your teams, and the teams with the most points at the end of the playoffs win. If you’ve got a track record of success drafting, go for it. For me, in the playoff with a smaller player pool, I prefer the other league styles where I have access to every player.
What Does Las Vegas Think?
One of the most overlooked tools in fantasy football is the Las Vegas betting lines and odds. You can find the game lines on many sites, including our friends at Betsperts.com. If you’re looking for players making deep playoff runs, you could do much worse than seeing who Las Vegas thinks are the favorites.
As of this writing, here are the Super Bowl winning odds (the number is based off of a $100 wager, so for the Chiefs, a $100 bet would win you $300 if they win the Super Bowl):
- Chiefs +300
- Bills +420
- Eagles +500
- 49ers +550
- Bengals +750
- Cowboys +1300
- Chargers +2100
- Buccaneers +3000
- Vikings +3200
- Ravens +3400
- Jaguars +4600
- Dolphins +5000
- Giants +5000
- Seahawks +5000
Looking at these numbers, if you’re looking to target players making deep runs in the playoffs, The Chiefs, Bills, Eagles, and 49ers all seem to be playing the most playoff games. There is a small gap before you get to the Bengals, then we have a big gap until we get to the Cowboys and then the Chargers.
Assuming Vegas has this right, in leagues where you keep a single roster throughout the playoffs, you’ll want to target high-point scorers on the top few teams like Travis Kelce, Josh Allen, A.J. Brown, and Christian McCaffrey. Also, in those leagues, you should target the bottom teams for less valuable positions, like kicker and defense. The Giants’ kicker plays indoors in round one, the Dolphins face the Bills, who had the third-most turnovers in the NFL this season, and the Seahawks get to face a seventh-round rookie making his first playoff start, so you’ve got some options with upside even if they lose.
Digging a little deeper into specific round-one matchups, you should be able to find what teams are projected to score more points and, thus, present better chances for fantasy production. I used the below DraftKings odds from covers.com because it was the most aesthetically pleasing for my purposes here.
In one-and-done leagues, this is essential information because, in an ideal world, you want to get the highest-scoring players each week, preferably from losing teams if possible. After looking at the game odds, we can determine projected team point totals.
- Bills 27.75
- 49ers 26.5
- Vikings 25.75
- Bengals 24.5
- Chargers 24.25
- Cowboys 24
- Jaguars 23.25
- Giants 22.75
- Buccaneers 21.5
- Dolphins 18.25
- Ravens 17.5
- Seahawks 16.5
The Bills are poised for a deep playoff run, and the AFC seems to run through either Buffalo or Kansas City, who will both likely have the two-highest projected totals each week throughout the playoffs. So in one-and-done leagues, you might want to save their players, while in leagues where you only get one player throughout, a Bills Super Bowl run gets you four games, which is huge as you continue through the playoffs.
If you’re looking for upsets or lesser-owned players in round one, the highest-scoring team projected to lose is Jacksonville at 23.25 points, and the lowest projected scoring favorite is the Cowboys with 24 points. If you believe the Jags can pull off the upset, it would be the only time you can use Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Austin Ekeler if they end up getting bounced. Other marquee players likely to only play one game based on the odds are Saquon Barkley, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and playoff Lenny, Tyreek Hill, and D.K. Metcalf. According to Las Vegas, if you think they can have a big wild card weekend in a losing effort, you should try to get them into your lineups.
Be mindful of the lines and the projected team totals. Loading up your teams with Ravens and Seahawks is probably a terrible idea, as they may combine for only 34 points. Statistically speaking, they are both unlikely to play in the second round, but you might dig yourself a hole in the standings that you can’t get out of over the following three weeks chasing points you didn’t get from Baltimore and Seattle.
Strategies and Tips
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of these leagues, but some strategies are more helpful than others. For example, in one-and-done leagues, I recommend sticking to one conference for quarterback through rounds one, two, and three. Picking the best matchup each week on the NFC side and going with whatever AFC signal-caller makes it to the big game is better than jumping back and forth. Imagine finding that you’ve already used Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes in a TB-KC Super Bowl, so you’re stuck starting Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. The absolute worst-case scenario would probably be Skylar Thompson in the AFC or Geno Smith in the NFC, and truth be told, if Miami or Seattle were to make a deep run, it’s because they’re getting top-notch QB play up to that point.
Tight Ends Too
Few playoff teams have multiple options at tight end also. Knowing that I would employ the same strategy as I do with quarterbacks. Pick one half of the playoff bracket and stay there until the final week. You might want to get T.J. Hockenson and Evan Engram in your early lineups, but in the (very) unlikely event of a Vikings-Jaguars title game, you’d be forced to use Irv Smith or Dan Arnold. Again, what’s the worst-case scenario in both conferences; maybe Will Dissly or Cade Otton in the NFC and Mike Gesicki or Gerald Everett in the AFC? Those are all much better options than any of the backups if you accidentally burned both Hayden Hurst and Dalton Schultz ahead of a Cincy-Dallas Super Bowl.
Look Ahead to Next Week… and the Week After
Be mindful of what you’re leaving yourself for future rounds. Aside from the Giants, most teams have two (or more) usable running backs this year. If you like Dallas’ matchup this week- and if they win- next week’s matchup, don’t use Tony Pollard and Zeke Elliot in back-to-back weeks. This is because if the Cowboys make a Championship run, you’ll have nobody to use out of their backfield in rounds three and four (sorry Malik Davis fans).
Don’t Leave Points on the Table
It’s easy to overthink things and think you’re Junior Nostradamus, and you know who will win every game of each round. Many times in the past, I’ve loved a player’s first-round matchup, but I was convinced they were going to win and advance so I could use that player in the next round. I was right about the player matchup but not the game outcome, so I missed the monster statistical game I thought was coming and never got to use the player in the next round. Take the points when you think you can get them- especially in the leagues that only count your cumulative total.
Brackets, Brackets, and More Brackets
Make your own playoff brackets, a bunch of them. Sprinkle in upsets you can imagine. Sprinkle in a few upsets you can’t imagine (hello, Doug Pederson-led Jags going into Arrowhead to defeat his former boss to go to the AFC championship game). Just play things out in your mind and on paper as often as possible. After a while, you’ll get a feel for the way you believe games can go and what teams you think are most likely to play three or four games. Build your own narrative and make your lineups accordingly.
Players I Like and Will be Using
I’ll try to keep this simple since I’ll probably be in a dozen(or more) leagues and will likely be using everyone in some format at some point. Seattle is giving up the most fantasy points to opposing running backs, and tight ends out of all the playoff teams, 26 points per game (PPG) and 15.2 ppg, respectively. The 49ers are currently the biggest favorite in all of round one at -10, and they’re playing at home against a division opponent that they smashed twice this season. I cannot find a reason to not have McCaffrey and George Kittle in nearly every single one of my lineups. The only ever-so-slight hesitation I have is that if they were to play Minnesota in the next round, they’ve allowed 21.8ppg to running backs and 10.5ppg to tight ends, so they both would have another good matchup next week too. On the flip side, if Minnesota loses, the 49ers would get the Dallas-Tampa Bay winner, who are both among the worst matchups for running backs.
I’m going to try to squeeze Saquon Barkley into many lineups. The Giants are projected to score more than three touchdowns, and we all know that the entire offense runs through Barkley. So whether they win or lose, they’ll have to lean on him, and the Vikings have allowed 21.8ppg to opposing backs, and he’s unlikely to see a better matchup throughout the remainder of the playoffs.
Austin Ekeler is another player I’m trying to use early. The Chargers are as untrustworthy as they come in the playoffs- especially on the road- and I think they lose in Jacksonville. Ekeler is game script-proof and has a super safe floor in PPR leagues. Speaking of the Chargers, with Mike Williams‘ recent injury, we’re likely to see an obscene amount of Keenan Allen. Again, I think the Chargers lose, and this might be the only chance to use Allen. Even if they advance, they’ll likely have a healthy Mike Williams in future rounds, potentially limiting Allen’s upside throughout the playoffs.
I have yet to build any lineups with Dalvin Cook, but as I look at the big picture, I might have to. The Giants are allowing a fourth-best 21.7 points to opposing backs. If they advance and face the 49ers, they allow the fewest points to backs, a paltry 14.6. Tampa Bay and Dallas are also stout against the run, so unless Minnesota makes it to the Super Bowl, there probably isn’t another good matchup for him.
All of the playoff teams have two good, startable wide receivers, except for the Giants and Ravens, who have no wide receivers. If you like a particular matchup, pick the receiver you like best between the two because you can go back to the well with any team again using the other option you didn’t use. Dallas gives up a second-best 32.4ppg to wide receivers. If you want to use Chris Godwin this week, Mike Evans will still be there if they ever play the 49ers, who give up the third-best 31.8ppg to receivers.
No birds for me. The Eagles are on the bye, so that’s obvious, but I can’t imagine any Seahawks getting into any of my lineups. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but my process is good. I also can’t imagine any Ravens either. With Gus Edwards banged up, I might squeeze J.K. Dobbins in as the only option out of the backfield. I’m under the assumption that Lamar Jackson isn’t playing. If he were to play, I could probably shoehorn Mark Andrews into a few lineups too, but there’s no way I’m trusting him with Tyler Huntley at QB.
There are a few big-play guys who could make a splash if you’re a gamblin’ man, but I’m a tad more risk-averse than most. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in Miami only need a single catch to have a serviceable fantasy performance. Still, if they’re tied to Teddy Bridgewater or Skylar Thompson, it’s hard to trust them. Darius Slayton is in the same boat. He’s the Giants’ big play guy, but that’s not an offense I want to target if I can avoid it. At the same time, that trio could easily combine for four catches, 214 yards, and three scores.
I have rambled on long enough. I hope this gave you some insight into playoff fantasy leagues and some ideas for strategies that you might be willing to employ yourself. Or, maybe you think I’m an idiot, and you’ll win by doing the exact opposite of everything I said- and they’re both viable strategies! Keep an eye on snaps and targets, too, as these might be an early indicator of things to come in the 2023-2024 season, and you can also use this knowledge prepping for the dynasty off-season. Either way, have fun, hopefully, make some money in the process, and enjoy the best part of dynasty leagues…the off-season!
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