Kickoff: Sunday, December 20th at 1:00 PM ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
Betting Odds: TB -6, 50.5 total via Oddsshark
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady (start, QB1)
While Tom Brady hasn’t been as locked in as he was earlier in the season, he’s shown that he can still get it done in favorable matchups, putting up 23+ points against the Panthers and while playing from behind against the Chiefs, whereas he’s struggled against tough defenses like New Orleans and the Rams. The Falcons have been one of the most pitiful pass defenses all year long, giving up the most fantasy points to opposing QBs and allowing the 5th-most passing yards per attempt in the league. Brady has a plethora of options to throw it to and should have no trouble carving up the Falcons defense. The only concern is that they might not need to throw, as they didn’t against the Vikings, but this should still be a high floor game for Brady.
Ronald Jones II (start if healthy, RB2), Leonard Fournette (start if Jones is inactive, FLEX), LeSean McCoy (sit), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (sit)
As of Wednesday evening, the only news we have on Ronald Jones II is that he has been placed on the COVID-IR list, but we do not know if that means he has tested positive or if he was just deemed a close contact. If he is indeed just a close contact, he could be eligible for Sunday’s game provided he tests negative every day up until then, and if he’s ready to go between that and the surgery he had on his broken finger, then he should be fired up as an RB2. There’s a good chance the Buccaneers have a lead on Sunday and can give the ball to Jones quite a bit, which they’ve done in recent wins over the Panthers and Vikings, both games where Jones scored over 15 points in PPR leagues.
If Jones is inactive on Sunday, whether due to COVID or due to his broken finger, then that makes Leonard Fournette an interesting play. He’s not as locked in as Jones, as he hasn’t had double-digit carries since week 8, but LeSean McCoy and Ke’Shawn Vaughn have just 19 carries between them on the season, so there’s no reason to expect them to pick up a bigger workload with Jones out. I wouldn’t be as high on him as I am Jones, as he hasn’t had the handle on the workload lately, but this should still be a great game-flow for Fournette to succeed as the lead back should he get the opportunity.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Mike Evans (start, WR2), Chris Godwin (start, WR2), Antonio Brown (start, FLEX), Rob Gronkowski (start, TE1)
Since Week 9, which was the first game that all three of these wide receivers played together, the Buccaneers targets have broken down as such (5 games total): Mike Evans with 40, Chris Godwin with 34, Antonio Brown with 34, Rob Gronkowski with 24. While there was some concern that these four guys weren’t all going to be able to eat, the fact of the matter is there have been plenty of targets to go around. Now, that does mean their ceiling has been a bit capped, as Evans’ 20 point performance in Week 12 has been the highest scoring performance from any of the four of them over that stretch, but they have also collectively had a pretty high floor. Evans and Godwin have combined to have just three single-digit performances since Week 9, and Gronkowski has had 7+ points in three games as well.
The Falcons pass defense has been atrocious all year long and they have given up the 2nd-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers, and the 5th-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends. Playing together does limit each of their ceilings a bit, but you can certainly rely on Evans, Godwin, and Gronkowski. Brown makes for more of an interesting flex player, as his output range has been decidedly the lowest among all three receivers (never scoring higher than 13.8 points so far this year), but the targets are there and there hasn’t been an easier matchup yet this season. You can feel good about firing up any of these guys this week.
Matt Ryan (sit, low-end QB2)
It sounds like Julio Jones is not likely to play this week, and that has been a bad omen for Matt Ryan this season. When Jones doesn’t play, Ryan has averaged just 11.4 points per game and has finished as the QB27, 25, 17, and 28, respectively. And it wasn’t like they were playing particularly tough opponents without Jones, as those included games against the Panthers and the Raiders, two of the worst defenses in football this season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the other hand, are a top-1o defense against the pass, making them perhaps the toughest opponent that the Falcons have had to face without their top receiving option.
If Julio Jones does play, the picture is a tad-bit rosier for Ryan. He’s averaged 19.7 points per game in the games that Jones has managed to play, so he’s at least a low-end starter typically speaking, but again, Tampa Bay is a tough opponent, and Ryan has pretty much-been a matchup dependent all year long. He thrived against Seattle, Dallas, and Denver, but was awful in two matchups against New Orleans, and did poorly against Chicago as well. I really don’t see how you could justify starting Matt Ryan in a one-QB league this week.
Todd Gurley (sit), Ito Smith (sit), Brian Hill (sit)
Do not start any of these running backs this week. Over the past four weeks, they have split the carries fairly evenly, with Ito Smith narrowly getting the edge with 32 carries, compared to 23 for Brian Hill and 22 for Todd Gurley (albeit in one fewer game). These three running backs have combined for 51.5 points in PPR leagues during that stretch, with only one performance in double-digits (that being when Smith found the end-zone in a complete rout over the Las Vegas Raiders). They are also facing the #1 run defense in the NFL, who have allowed the 8th-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs this season. There is absolutely no reason to start any of these guys, as none of them have the handle on the workload, and none of them are likely to find the end-zone.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Calvin Ridley (start, WR1), Julio Jones (start if healthy, WR1), Russell Gage (sit), Hayden Hurst (sit)
Luckily, Calvin Ridley has managed to succeed even despite all the trouble the Falcons have had elsewhere on offense, ranking 7th at wide receiver over the past four weeks (since the Falcons bye in Week 10). He has scored at least 14 points in all four games in PPR formats and has eclipsed double-digits in three of the four games in standard formats. He is the Falcons’ leader in receiving touchdowns by a wide margin with 8 (Jones and Hurst are tied for second with 3 each) and is also the leader in targets by a lot as well. Ridley has essentially been the Falcons offense, and you can start him with confidence even in this tough matchup.
While it’s unlikely that Julio Jones plays this Sunday, you can start him if he is indeed ready to go. Jones is perpetually questionable, so he hardly is ever playing at full strength, and despite that, he has still managed to put up 15+ points in PPR in 6 of the 9 games he has played in this season. He has one of the highest ceilings in the NFL as well, scoring 33.7 points in a Week 6 explosion against the Vikings and scoring 24.7 points in the Falcons Week 1 loss to the Seahawks. I don’t expect to see him on the field, but chances are he will be very good if he’s out there.
You might look at what Russell Gage has done lately and think to yourself that he’s a startable wide receiver, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame you. He’s scored in the double digits three of the past four weeks and has averaged 8 targets per game over that stretch. However, there are two things really working against him here. First off, Gage is like Matt Ryan in that he has done much better in games with Jones than without. He has averaged 11 points per game in the games he has played with Jones, and 8.3 points per game in the games without him, and even that is misleading because Gage scored 18.7 points this most recent week without Jones, and had scored 4.6, 3.6, and 6.4 points in the other three games. Add in the fact that this is going to be the toughest defense that the Falcons have played without Julio Jones since Week 3 against the Bears, when Gage only had 2 receptions for 26 yards, and it’s pretty clear to me that Gage is someone to avoid this week.
As for Hayden Hurst, he was at his best between Weeks 2 and 9, when he was actually involved in the offense, averaging 6 targets per game during that stretch. Since the Falcons’ bye week though, he has had games with just 2, 3, and 4 targets. In fact, in three of the four games since their bye, he has totaled just 2 receptions for 16 yards. And while he did alright in Week 12, turning 8 targets into 4 receptions for 48 yards, it was still a far cry from what he was doing before, and it came against the porous Raiders’ defense. I know the tight end is a bit of a wasteland, but you either want someone who is getting volume, or likely to score a touchdown, and I just don’t see how Hurst fits the bill for either of those things here against the Buccaneers.
-Myles Nelson (@MylesNelsonPL on Twitter)