This is it.
This is the week that separates the contenders from the pretenders, the gold from the bronze and dreamers from the disappointments. It’s the most stressful week of the entire season: the semifinals.
Nails will be chomped, hair will be pulled and shouting will be common — good or bad.
Because only a few days stand between teams and a shot at glory, bragging rights for the next year and, in some leagues, a championship trophy — the ultimate Christmas gift.
This is also the time when fantasy owners second-guess themselves the most. Don’t do that. If you’ve made it this far, it’s for a reason. So trust your gut when deciding who to start in that final flex-spot. You’ll have nine months to reassess.
The easier matchup always tends to be more favorable than position rank. But also, start the guys that got you here. Keep recent production in mind — i.e. T.Y. Hilton, Cam Akers, Brandon Aiyuk — and go down swinging with your best lineup.
There isn’t much advice to give this late in the season; at this point, your team is what it is. Just hope for the best this weekend, and I’ll see you on the other side.
Quarterbacks to Start
Tom Brady, Buccaneers: Brady has been up and down the entire season with five games above 20 fantasy points and six games below 15. But he’s been a Top-5 fantasy quarterback on the road and he faces the softest pass defense in the league this week in Atlanta. The Falcons have just been abysmal defensively and with Ronald Jones II likely out after being placed on the COVID-19 list, I think the Bucs lean heavily on the pass. This has the chance to be a shootout, which would benefit Brady. He should be good for multiple TDs and close to 300 passing yards.
Jalen Hurts, Eagles: Hurts sparked the Eagles offense last week and looked pretty good against a Saints defense that came in ranked No. 4 against the pass. I wouldn’t expect Hurts to throw for 300 yards, or even 250, but what he provides on the ground makes him a solid streamer this week. Arizona has a good defense, but they’ve given up some yards in games and I think this will be a lot closer than the experts are predicting. If you are in dire need of a QB this week, Hurts is a good option.
Quarterbacks to Sit
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins: Even at home, there isn’t anything to like about a rookie QB going up against Bill Belichick. Throughout his Hall of Fame career, Belichick is 21-5 against rookie QBs, including two weeks ago when his defense shut out Justin Herbert, who is likely to win Rookie of the Year. Tua has been good, not great. And that’s not really something you can trust this late in the season. Keep him on your bench.
Baker Mayfield, Browns: Mayfield has reinvented himself the past two weeks and actually earned a roster spot for the fantasy playoffs following 28- and 29-point performances. But he’s going to come back down to reality a bit this week on the road against the Giants. New York has been one of the best defenses in the NFC the past month; the Browns should win, but I think they lean heavily on the run game.
Running Backs to Start
Jonathan Taylor, Colts: If you’ve held onto Taylor this entire year, you’ve been reaping the rewards the past couple of weeks. Taylor has been on fire, averaging over seven yards per carry in his last two outings. He’s peaking at the right time and he’s a Top-5 play this week against Houston and its 31st-ranked rush defense. The Texans have allowed a 100-yard rusher in all but one game so far this season. Just count your blessings and get ready for a ton of points on Sunday; Taylor is going to have a big afternoon.
Cam Akers, Rams: If you were able to snag Akers off the waiver wire before last week’s game, pat yourself on the back. Akers gashed the Patriots for 171 yards on 29 carries, effectively cementing his role as the Rams' bell cow. Akers is coming off a nice 10-day rest and should be able to carry momentum into his Week 15 matchup against the hapless Jets. I think the Rams get up early and feed Akers often. He’s a Top-10 play this week so get him into your lineup.
Running Backs to Sit
Chris Carson, Seahawks: The Seahawks need Carson to be effective, and for the most part he has been since returning from a foot injury that kept him sidelined for a month. But Washington has an emerging defense that has allowed only two rushing touchdowns since Week 6 and only two 100-yard rushers all season. These 10 a.m., games always throw the Seahawks offense off-kilter; I could see them having a stinker against a very underrated defense. Carson has a decent floor because of how involved he is in the passing game but I wouldn’t expect gaudy rushing numbers.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs: Even though he hasn’t been as productive as many thought coming into the season, Edwards-Helaire has been fairly stable through the first 14 weeks. Unfortunately, there couldn’t be a worse matchup for a running back to draw in the fantasy playoffs. Before last week, the Saints hadn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher dating back to last season. While Hurts and Sanders picked them apart, I wouldn’t count on it happening a second week in a row. Le'Veon Bell is starting to get more in the mix; I think CEH is a flex-play at best.
Wide Receivers to Start
T.Y. Hilton, Colts: I told fantasy managers last week to grab Hilton prior to Sunday, who at the time was owned in about 50% of ESPN leagues but was coming off a 25-point outing against the Texans. Hilton duplicated that performance last week and now he gets the Texans again, who he has just torn apart throughout his career. Hilton is a must-start this week and should be counted on for at least one TD and close to 100 yards. The Colts are starting to click behind Philip Rivers. I think they roll over the Texans this weekend at home.
Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers: He’s missed a couple of games due to injury, but when healthy, I don’t know if there has been a better receiver than Aiyuk since Week 7. With George Kittle and Deebo Samuel injured, Aiyuk has become QB Nick Mullen's favorite downfield target and he’s produced five straight games above 17 fantasy points. Aiyuk will draw close to 10 targets on Sunday, and he should parlay that into another Top-10 performance against a struggling Cowboys defense.
Wide Receivers to Sit
DJ Moore, Panthers: The Panthers activated Moore off the COVID-19 list on Thursday, and he is expected to start Saturday evening in Green Bay. But he’s got a tough matchup against a stingy Packers secondary that has allowed the fifth-lowest points to opposing wide receivers. The Panthers will need to throw the ball a ton to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the potent Packers offense; Moore has a decent floor, but I wouldn’t expect a big outing. Look elsewhere if you have a better option.
Diontae Johnson, Steelers: Johnson has been one of my favorite players to watch this season, but he also leads the league in dropped passes and was benched for the first half last week after dropping two on the opening drive. Head coach Mike Tomlin has said that he intends to wipe the slate clean, but he’s also hinted that Johnson could find himself back on the bench if he drops anymore passes. He’s the Steelers most explosive receiver once he gets the ball in his hands; it’s just getting to that point that’s been the problem. That’s not something you want to lean on in the semifinals when one poor roster decision could cost you a chance at the championship. It pains me to do this because I have Johnson in all of my leagues, but I’m keeping him on the bench this week for T.Y. Hilton.