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Fantasy Football Weekly: Bucs-Lions

Posted Dec 8, 2017

As fantasy football's playoff season begins, there are some critical questions surrounding this Sunday's Bucs-Lions matchup


If you're in a 12-team league, I'll assume your playoffs are beginning this week. By now, most league-runners know to finish before Week 17, as there can be some painful "rest" decisions by NFL coaches whose teams have already clinched. Maybe only four teams make your playoffs, which is okay I guess, and that would mean you have one more week to try to clinch a spot.

Either way, this is do-or-die time for many fantasy owners. The Bucs-Lions game – with the uncertainty of Matthew Stafford's throwing hand, the possible rise of Peyton Barber and a handful of very up-and-down fantasy tight ends – could end up being critical. We'll get to some of the key questions in that game below.

Of course, there are some fantasy owners out there who are kicking back and putting their heels on their desks this week. Those would be first and second-place teams that earned byes in a six-team playoff. That, by the way, is the proper way to do the playoffs in a 12-team league. Never let the top eight teams into the postseason. That's a crime. True story (I swear): One year, after I apparently sold my soul to the devil, I had a fantasy team go undefeated in the regular season. That had never happened to me before and it will never happen again. This league let in eight teams, so I had to play the eighth seed, which had a losing record (!) in the first round. For the first time all year, my team fell apart and I lost that game and my shot at the perfect fantasy season. I reconstructed how my team would have done had I made it past that week with a bye, and I would have easily won the next two games. I think I may have cried a little bit.

So, don't do that. Never let eight teams in a 12-team league into the playoffs. I may be a bit biased here, but that's my very strong advice.

Now that I got that out, we'll get to the Bucs and Lions below in our latest Three Burning Questions. First, however, we continue with tradition and review the advice from last week.

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Accountability Section: This season, each Fantasy Football Weekly article is going to include a review of the previous week's advice to see if it was actually helpful. Here's a recap of what I covered last week, along with self-assigned letter grades for each piece of advice:

Advice #1: If you held on to Jameis Winston during his injury and have been using a comparable but uninspiring quarterback in his place, it was safe to go right back to Winston in his return to the lineup.

Review: A-. Winston threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns and was not picked off. He did lose a fumble, which can cost you a couple points depending on your scoring system. In a standard Yahoo! league, he was the ninth-highest scoring QB in fantasy in Week 13. When measured against an unexciting replacement (the example I used was Tyrod Taylor), it was almost surely a good move to start Winston.

Advice #2: In Doug Martin's absence, there probably isn't one Buccaneer running back worth starting this week, but if you're determined to start one, go with Peyton Barber.

Review: C+. As it turned out, Peyton Barber was worth starting on your fantasy team, with 143 yards from scrimmage. He didn't score but either 14 or 18 (in a PPR league) points is pretty good from what was probably your second or third. Partial credit to me for picking the right back, though.

Advice #3: Even after the huge day by Atlanta's number-one receiver Julio Jones, don't expect huge things from Green Bay's number-one, Davante Adams.

Review: A. That's right, a straight up "A". Not an "A-" or a "B+" but a full "A." That was one of my bolder predictions of the week, given that the Buccaneers came into the game giving up the most fantasy points per week to opposing receivers of any defense, by a wide margin. That kind of nugget led a much, much more accomplished fantasy football writer than me to put Adams among his top picks for Week 13. Adams was held to four catches for 42 yards, maybe as much by Brett Hundley's struggles as the Bucs' defense.

One additional note: A piece of advice from two weeks ago suggested not starting Cam Brate that week but holding onto him despite his string of one-catch games because I believed he had a couple big fantasy outings left in him this season. That one is looking better after Brate's two-touchdown game in Green Bay.

A pretty good week to send us into playoff season. Let's see if I can keep it going.

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Three Burning Questions: Buccaneers at Lions

1. Let's start with the obvious one: Was Peyton Barber's 100-yard game in Green Bay a fluke or is he a legitimate option as a starter on my playoff team?

Well, I don't think there was anything fluky about Barber's performance in Green Bay. He didn't get to 100 yards thanks to one big 50-yard run or anything. He consistently broke tackles and fought for extra yards after contact. He's a big, powerful back and I could see him repeating that type of performance against Detroit, if not necessarily with the same volume of yards or carries. Plus, he scored twice on short runs the previous week in Atlanta, so you shouldn't worry about someone else poaching his touchdown opportunities.

Still, there's a lot to consider this week. Doug Martin returned to full participation in practice on Wednesday and there's reason to believe he will be cleared from the NFL's concussion protocol this week (it hadn't happened as of Thursday morning but Head Coach Dirk Koetter hinted that it could be imminent). I fully expect Barber to continue to get a good number of carries in the week ahead, but it's natural to worry (from a fantasy standpoint) that Martin will take some of them away.

Barber had the benefit of being allowed to get into a groove in Green Bay, and that's a big thing for a lot of running backs. He had 10 carries for 32 yards in the first half and then 13 for 70 in the second half. Will he get that same opportunity against the Lions? I'm not sure, and that worries me as a fantasy owner.

The good news, Detroit's defense has not been good against the run, particularly from a fantasy standpoint. The Lions are 19th in the NFL's rush defense rankings, but are 29th in the fantasy rankings, and the difference is the whopping 16 rushing touchdowns they've allowed. Detroit's opponents have scored at least one rushing touchdown in 10 of 12 games this year and at least two in the last five games, and six of the last seven. Wow. I really felt like that called for some aggressive italicizing.

So clearly I'm torn here. It seems like a lost opportunity not to start a running back against the Lions' defense, but I'm also worried that the circumstances aren't right for Barber to be as productive as he was last week. For me, the tiebreaker is that an early lead for the Lions would cause the Buccaneers to get away from the running game if it happened. And that has happened on multiple occasions this year, which is how the Buccaneers rank 31st in the NFL in percentage of first-half plays that are runs, ahead of only the Lions.

Obviously, I'm not rooting for that to happen, nor am I especially expecting it to happen. But since I'm on the fence about starting Barber anyway, the thought gives me pause. I think if I have a decent alternative option, I'm going with that one (and hoping that Barber proves me very wrong).

By the way, I don't think starting Lions' rookie Tion Green is an absolutely crazy idea. Green got his first carries of the season last week against Baltimore and picked up 51 yards on 11 carries. That total was a bit fluky as it was largely built on one 33-yard run, but the Lions got down big early against the Ravens and probably didn't have as many opportunities to hand off. Everyone knows that Detroit's running game has been subpar for years, but Green is the one guy on the roster that gives them some size and can be powerful between the tackles. Tampa Bay's defense has had occasional problems against the run this year, as it did last Sunday, giving up 199 yards to the Packers.

2. There are a number of possible tight end options on these two teams, but none that look like a sure thing. Is there one you would consider starting in this critical fantasy week?

Yeah, that's an unpredictable bunch. The Bucs' Cameron Brate is the eighth-highest scoring fantasy tight end in PPR leagues this year (seventh in non-PPR), so he obviously has to be a starting consideration, but we can't ignore that most of those points were put up in the season's first half. His two-TD game in Green Bay was a boon to anyone who stuck with him throw a series of one-catch games, but those were still only his two receptions in that contest.

The Bucs' O.J. Howard and the Lions' Eric Ebron aren't near the top of the fantasy rankings but they are both athletic route-runners and they've each had a couple of very productive fantasy weekends. You start either of those two hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Even Detroit's Darren Fells had a stretch this season in which he caught three touchdowns in a two-game span, so a desperate owner in a very deep league might hope for another fluky fantasy game from him.

I'm going to cut this group of four in half right now. Tampa Bay's defense has given up the second fewest fantasy points to tight ends all season. Neither Ebron nor Fells has been close to consistent enough in fantasy football for me to go against that statistic. Detroit, on the other hand, has given up the 11th most fantasy points to tight ends, so I remain intrigued by Brate and Howard.

Wait, there's more. I've previously referenced this chart on Football Outsiders, which ranks pass defenses by how they've fared against five categories of pass-catchers: #1 WR, #2 WR, Other WR, TE and RB. Detroit ranks second-to-last on that chart against tight ends. This is starting to sound like too good of an opportunity to pass up. I'm going to start a Buccaneer tight end against that defense.

Now, which one? Brate is the surer thing to some degree, but the Bucs have turned to Howard a couple times this year when they felt like his athleticism was a good matchup for the linebackers and the safeties in the middle of the opposing defense. That could be the case here against the Lions.

Once again I'm torn, so once again I'm going to a tiebreaker. In this case, it's the return of Jameis Winston. As Head Coach Dirk Koetter said on Monday, "There is something about Jameis and Cam in the red zone." Winston returns from a three-week absence and Brate suddenly catches his first two touchdowns in over a month? Yeah, not a coincidence. Start Brate and enjoy his red zone work this Sunday against the Lions.

3. Matt Stafford is my usual starting quarterback. If he is cleared to play after his hand injury from last weekend, should I hesitate at all to start him? Let's assume that I have another reasonable option, a quarterback just a little behind Stafford in this year's rankings, like Philip Rivers, Case Keenum or Matt Ryan.

Before you laugh, there are some legitimate reasons to think this over. And remember, we're only discussing this if you have a similar but not-quite-as-good option on hand. You're not benching Stafford in the playoffs for Eli Manning or Jameis Winston. For the most part, I'm a dance-with-who-brung-ya guy when it comes to the fantasy playoffs.

The injury is an issue, though. Buccaneer players and coaches know that Stafford is a very tough player and likely to play through any pain he has. But could the injured hand compromise his grip in any way? Last year, Stafford suffered a dislocated middle finger on the last play of the first quarter in Week 14. He finished that game and played the final three, but in those 3.75 games he threw three touchdown passes and five interceptions. Don't tell me you're not at least sweating the thought of something similar if Stafford is cleared for Sunday and you're starting him in your playoffs.

The Buccaneers have allowed the 12th-most fantasy points to quarterbacks this year, so that's fairly tempting. They're coming off a game in which they allowed just 77 net passing yards and no touchdowns through the air in Green Bay, so that's a reason to pause. However, that was against Brett Hundley. More experienced passers like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer have had productive days against the Buccaneers.

The main reason the Buccaneers have given up some big passing days this year is the fairly consistent lack of a pass rush. However, this weekend they'll be playing a Lions team that has had to shuffle its O-Line lineup repeatedly due to injuries, and they may be without right tackle Ricky Wagner this week. Stafford has been sacked 39 times. If there's a game in which the Bucs might actually get to the passer, as they did in a win over the Jets a few weeks ago, this looks like it. And then we circle back to Stafford's hand. If he takes a couple sacks, there's always the risk of re-injury.

All of that said, I'm sticking with Stafford if he's been my primary starter all year and I don't magically have some great other option. Twelve games in, you have to go with what has been the most common outcome for the Buccaneers' defense, and that has been mostly good days for opposing quarterbacks. I'm holding my breath while doing it, though.