With the fantasy football regular season rapidly coming to a close, it’s time for teams to start preparing for their run in the playoffs. Yesterday I broke down the playoff schedule for quarterbacks, today I’ll take a look at running backs. Many owners factor in fantasy playoff matchups as early as a draft day, long before the season even begin. I am not one of those people. Although I do support the concept as a tiebreaker if you just can’t decide between two players during your draft, November and December matchups are not very important in July and August. So much changes throughout the NFL season due to injuries and coaching changes without even mentioning players who just flat out under (or over) perform. This makes it’s nearly impossible to predict with any level of confidence what players and teams are going to look like at the season’s end with any degree of certainty.
With 10+ weeks in the books, we have a pretty good idea of what teams are good and bad, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. We can use this information now to see what players we might want to target or fade as the playoff picture comes into focus. One of my favorite tools to use when I start preparing my weekly rankings and setting my lineups is ESPN’s fantasy points against data.
Using that information, I looked at the matchups of all NFL teams during the traditional fantasy football playoffs of weeks 14, 15 and 16 (if you play in a league that uses week 17, your commissioner is a monster, and I’m sorry for you). I didn’t bother messing with teams in the middle of the pack or what I viewed as neutral matchups; focusing on the handful of teams that were either strong or weak against each positional grouping regarding fantasy points allowed. Hopefully, you find this useful and wish you success in the fantasy playoffs, unless of course, we’re in a league together, in which case I wish only bad things for your fantasy team.
The six softest fantasy run defenses come playoff time belong to the 49ers, Bills, Chargers, Raiders, Rams, and Lions. Only three teams are lucky enough to face these defenses during the playoffs. Unfortunately, two are RBBC teams. The Titans are a two-horse backfield. Even with Demarco Murray getting the bulk of the work most of the season, I think their week 15 and 16 matchups against the 49ers and Rams might be good enough to get value out of both Murray and Derrick Henry if need be.
The other team, the Eagles, have developed an ugly (for fantasy anyway) almost 3-and-a-half-headed monster at running back. Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner will all get at least a little work. Each of the first 3 can probably be trusted a little bit with matchups against the Rams in week 14 and Raiders in week 16. Hopefully, the situation clears up a bit with a little bit of time before the playoffs start, but as of now, it looks those three backs will vulture at least some touches from one another down the stretch.
This leaves only the Chiefs and rookie stud Kareem Hunt as the only team with 2 plus matchups for fantasy purposes. He’s regressed a bit after his monstrous start to the year, but given his matchups to close the fantasy season, he might be just the player to carry you across the finish line. A few players that have one great matchup in the playoffs and might be low owned in redraft leagues include: Samaje Perine, Kenyan Drake and Joe Mixon, as well as the duos of Marlon Mack/Frank Gore, Alfred Morris/Rod Smith, and Elijah McGuire/Bilal Powell who are all probably going to emerge as safe plug and play RB2/flex plays to close out the season.
Looking at the flip side, the five toughest matchups for running backs are the Texans, Vikings, Eagles, Seahawks, and Panthers. Contrary to what we saw at the quarterback position, these matchups impact a couple of stud RBs. Both Todd Gurley and Leonard Fournette both face 2 of the top 5 fantasy defenses against running backs. That is less than ideal, with Gurley looking at the Eagles and Seahawks and Fournette facing the Seahawks and Houston. The only positive spin I can put on this is that those games are in weeks 14 and 15, with both players seeing easier matchups in week 16 if you make it to your championship game. Fournette, in particular, gets to face the worst rushing defense in the league in week 16, which might be enough to win a championship if he can stay healthy until then.
The only other team that faces two top fantasy run defenses is Green Bay, but between injuries and poor quarterback play, it’s hard to trust Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones (if healthy and not in jail) anyway. Just a quick note to close on: If you’ve been holding onto Ezekiel Elliott hoping for a big week 16 return to win you a championship, he’ll be coming back to face the Seahawks and the 4th stingiest fantasy defense against running backs, so that’s not an ideal spot for him, so temper your expectations if you think he can be your week 16 savior.