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NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge: Expert Strategy Guide

NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge

The NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge is free and the most popular way to follow along with the NFL Playoffs. Prizes are slightly unclear, but the official site hints at winning a trip to the Super Bowl. I’d operate as if the winner gets a nice prize, along with bragging rights – remember, the Playoff Challenge is free to enter.

This format is incredibly exploitable, and I’ll outline several different ways to create +EV teams.

I’ll go over the basic rules and strategy before going position-by-position to reveal undervalued and overvalued players. I’ll leave you with an outline of my Round 1 build.

Basic Rules

  • Choose 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 TE, 1 K, and 1 DST.
  • Standard fantasy scoring with no fractional scoring (a 32-yard reception is three points, not 3.2). You can view the complete rules and scoring system when creating your free team through this link.
  • The Playoff Challenge has four rounds: Wild Card, Divisional, Conference, and Super Bowl.
  • Total fantasy points over all four rounds determine the winner.
  • If/when your players are eliminated in each round, you are able to select new players for the next round in their place.
  • For each consecutive week that a player is in your lineup, you get a multiplier (1x, 2x, 3x, 4x).
    • Ex. Tom Brady scores 20 fantasy points in the Wild Card round, and the Buccaneers win. He then scores another 20 fantasy points in the Divisional round. If Brady was your QB pick in Rounds 1 and 2, he would score (20 + (2*20)) = 60 fantasy points. If Brady reaches the Super Bowl and scores 20 fantasy points in each round, you’d then score 20, 40, 60, and 80 fantasy points in each week.
    • Ex. Tom Brady scores 20 fantasy points in the Wild Card round, and the Buccaneers lose. You would get 20 fantasy points for Round 1, then have to choose a different QB for Round 2. If you select Josh Allen, and he scores 25 fantasy points in Round 2, you would get 25 fantasy points. However, managers who selected Josh Allen in Round 1 would then get (2*25) = 50 fantasy points in Round 2.
    • Ex. You draft Patrick Mahomes, who has a bye in Round 1. You get zero points in Round 1. If Mahomes scores 22 fantasy points in the Divisional round, you would then get (2*22) = 44 fantasy points from him through two rounds of the tournament.
  • Players lock when their game begins.
    • Ex. If you select Christian McCaffrey, he locks into your Round 1 lineup at 4:30 PM EST on Saturday, January 14th.

 

Basic Strategy

  • Focus minimally on Round 1. Round 2 is twice as important, Round 3 is three times as important, and Round 4 is four times as important as Round 1.
  • Take advantage of publicly available player rostership data. When selecting your team for Round 1, you’ll be able to see exactly how often each player shows up on opponents’ teams. It’s important to have a couple of players on your team that aren’t widely chosen, so you can get different.
    • Ex. Christian McCaffrey is drafted 82% of the time. Should the 49ers lose to the Seahawks and you didn’t select McCaffrey, your team now has a distinct advantage over 82% of the field. Conversely, if you draft McCaffrey and he has a big game in Round 1 and the 49ers advance, you only gain an advantage over 18% of opposing teams.
  • Pay attention to the odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl based on the betting markets. I’ll be referencing DraftKings sportsbooks’ implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl in the next section.
  • Work through an entire playoff bracket, selecting winners for each game through the Super Bowl. Once you’ve done this exercise, avoid selecting any players that you don’t have advancing to Round 2.
  • Stack your quarterback. If you select Joe Burrow, you’re expecting him to throw for a lot of yards and TDs. Make sure Ja’Marr Chase and/or Tee Higgins are also on your roster.

Quarterback Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each quarterback in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Player Team Start % Reach Super Bowl
Josh Allen BUF 53% 33%
Joe Burrow CIN 17% 18%
Patrick Mahomes KC 16% 37%
Jalen Hurts PHI 5% 36%
Brock Purdy SF 4% 36%
Justin Herbert LAC 1% 9%
Kirk Cousins MIN 1% 8%
Tom Brady TB 1% 9%
Trevor Lawrence JAX 1% 5%
Dak Prescott DAL 1% 17%
Daniel Jones NYG 0% 4%
Lamar Jackson BAL 0% 5%
Geno Smith SEA 0% 3%
Tua Tagovailoa MIA 0% 3%
  • Josh Allen immediately jumps out as a great QB to fade in this format. Should the Bills get knocked out in Round 1 or Round 2 of the playoffs, 53% of teams lose a key player at the highest-scoring position.
  • Patrick Mahomes is a decent pick, as the Chiefs’ odds of reaching the Super Bowl are roughly double how often he’s drafted. Remember, Round 1 matters very little in this format.
  • Jalen Hurts is severely undervalued. The Eagles reach the Super Bowl about one in three times, yet he’s only selected to one in 20 teams. While Hurts won’t tally any points in Round 1 due to his bye, if the Eagles reach the Super Bowl, he’s almost certainly the optimal QB after leading the NFL in fantasy points per game during the regular season.
  • My favorite “off-brand” QB is Justin Herbert. The Chargers have a legitimately strong roster all around, and we already know they play the Chiefs razor close. The Chargers are expected to reach the Super Bowl roughly 9% of the time, yet Herbert is only selected 1% of the time. The Chargers are loaded with weapons, as Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams are one of the NFL’s best trios.
  • The public is down on Dak Prescott after a disappointing Week 18 showing against the Commanders. However, the Cowboys still have a one-in-six chance of reaching the Super Bowl, yet Prescott only gets drafted once out of every 100 drafts.

Running Back Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each running back in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Player Team Start %
Reach Super Bowl
Christian McCaffrey SF 82% 36%
Joe Mixon CIN 29% 18%
Austin Ekeler LAC 24% 9%
Jerick McKinnon KC 15% 37%
Devin Singletary BUF 12% 33%
Miles Sanders PHI 10% 36%
Dalvin Cook MIN 5% 8%
Saquon Barkley NYG 4% 4%
James Cook BUF 3% 33%
Tony Pollard DAL 3% 17%
Isiah Pacheco KC 2% 37%
Elijah Mitchell SF 2% 36%
Travis Etienne JAX 1% 5%
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 1% 17%
Leonard Fournette TB 1% 9%
Kenneth Walker SEA 1% 3%
JK Dobbins BAL 0% 5%
Raheem Mostert MIA 0% 3%
Rachaad White TB 0% 9%
  • Christian McCaffrey is an absolute fantasy cheat code, but when he’s appearing on 82% of teams, I’m inclined to fade him. An extension of the McCaffrey fade is avoiding all 49ers players and hoping they’re eliminated within the first two rounds of the playoffs. If we assume McCaffrey busts, the 49ers are most likely losing in Round 1 or Round 2 of the playoffs.

 

  • Jerick McKinnon is massively under-valued, as he’s a focal point of the Chiefs’ red zone and goal-line offense.
  • While I prefer Jalen Hurts to Miles Sanders in a vacuum, if you’re building a team with an AFC quarterback, Sanders is a great player to select.
  • Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott carry immense TD upside and appear on only 3% and 1% of teams, respectively – despite the Cowboys having a 17% chance of playing in all four rounds.
  • We have seen Leonard Fournette dominate in the NFL playoffs before, and the Buccaneers’ chances of reaching the Super Bowl are nine times higher than his current rostership.

Wide Receiver Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each wide receiver in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Player Team Start %
Reach Super Bowl
Stefon Diggs BUF 59% 33%
Ja’Marr Chase CIN 36% 18%
Justin Jefferson MIN 27% 8%
Deebo Samuel SF 22% 36%
AJ Brown PHI 19% 36%
Brandon Aiyuk SF 7% 36%
CeeDee Lamb DAL 4% 17%
JuJu Smith-Schuster KC 3% 37%
Tee Higgins CIN 3% 18%
DeVonta Smith PHI 2% 36%
Keenan Allen LAC 2% 9%
Gabe Davis BUF 1% 33%
Tyreek Hill MIA 1% 3%
Kadarius Toney KC 1% 37%
Mike Evans TB 1% 9%
Chris Godwin TB 1% 9%
Christian Kirk JAX 0% 5%
Tyler Lockett SEA 0% 3%
DK Metcalf SEA 0% 3%
Tyler Boyd CIN 0% 18%
Jaylen Waddle MIA 0% 3%
Mike Williams LAC 0% 9%
Darius Slayton NYG 0% 4%
Adam Thielen MIN 0% 8%
  • Josh Allen is on 53% of teams, and Stefon Diggs is on 59%. I would fade the Bills since a loss in Round 1 or Round 2 knocks out roughly half the field. If you really want access to the Bills, Gabe Davis is selected only 1% of the time and broke fantasy with his 200-yard, four-TD game in Round 2 of last year’s playoffs.
  • Ja’Marr Chase is on twelve times as many teams at Tee Higgins. I prefer Chase in a vacuum, but Higgins at only 3% is very appealing.
  • AJ Brown is on 19% of teams, while DeVonta Smith is on only 2%. Over the past six weeks of the regular season, Brown averaged 15.1 standard fantasy points per game, while Smith averaged 13.8 – very similar.
  • CeeDee Lamb is only on 4% of teams, despite being the clear-cut WR1 on a team with the sixth-highest odds of reaching the Super Bowl.

Tight End Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each tight end in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Player Team Start %
Reach Super Bowl
George Kittle SF 49% 36%
Travis Kelce KC 31% 37%
TJ Hockenson MIN 4% 8%
Dawson Knox BUF 4% 33%
Dallas Goedert PHI 3% 36%
Dalton Schultz DAL 1% 17%
Mark Andrews BAL 1% 5%
Evan Engram JAX 1% 5%
Hayden Hurst CIN 1% 18%
Gerald Everett LAC 0% 9%
  • The Christian McCaffrey/49ers fade dovetails nicely with George Kittle, and his ludicrous start percentage (49%).
  • Travis Kelce is the clear play here, as the Chiefs are favorites to reach the Super Bowl, and Kelce’s start percentage (31%) is lower than the Chiefs’ odds of reaching the Super Bowl (37%). Kelce scored 30% more fantasy points per game during the regular season than George Kittle.
    • Remember, Round 1 statistics really don’t matter much in this format, so don’t fear Kelce’s bye week. If Kelce (12.1 points per game) and Kittle (9.4) each score their seasonal average in the playoffs, Kelce would then get (0 + (2*12.1) + (3*12.1) + (4*12.1)) = 108.9 fantasy points. Kittle would only score (9.4 + (2*9.4) + (3*9.4) + (4*9.4)) = 94 fantasy points at significantly higher rostership than Kelce.
  • Dallas Goedert and Dalton Schultz are my favorite “off-brand” tight ends, as both have serious upside on teams with high odds of reaching the Super Bowl. They also provide great leverage off George Kittle, as all three play in the NFC.

 

Kicker Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each kicker in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Player Team Start %
Reach Super Bowl
Tyler Bass BUF 34% 33%
Robbie Gould SF 25% 36%
Evan McPherson CIN 14% 18%
Harrison Butker KC 7% 37%
Justin Tucker BAL 6% 5%
Jake Elliott PHI 4% 36%
Brett Maher DAL 2% 17%
Greg Joseph MIN 1% 8%
Cameron Dicker LAC 1% 9%
Graham Gano NYG 0% 4%
Ryan Succop TB 0% 9%
Jason Myers SEA 0% 3%
Riley Patterson JAX 0% 5%
Jason Sanders MIA 0% 3%
  • I won’t pretend like I’m an expert on kicker scoring. However, we can see that Harrison Butker has a massive disparity between his start percentage and the Chiefs’ odds of reaching the Super Bowl. If you’re rolling with an NFC quarterback, I’d strongly recommend a couple of Chiefs in your lineup, with Butker being one of them.
  • Jake Elliott (PHI) and Brett Maher (DAL) are my favorite NFC options.

Defense Strategy

Below, you can visualize the percentage of teams that are starting each defense in Round 1. I’ve included the implied odds of each team reaching the Super Bowl – courtesy of DraftKings sportsbook.

Team Round 1 Opp Start % Reach Super Bowl
49ers DST SEA 61% 36%
Bills DST MIA 15% 33%
Eagles DST BYE 9% 36%
Cowboys DST TB 4% 17%
Bengals DST BAL 3% 18%
Chiefs DST BYE 2% 37%
Buccaneers DST DAL 1% 9%
Chargers DST JAX 0% 9%
Jaguars DST LAC 0% 5%
Vikings DST NYG 0% 8%
Giants DST MIN 0% 4%
Dolphins DST BUF 0% 3%
Ravens DST CIN 0% 5%
Seahawks DST SF 0% 3%
  • Keeping with the theme of fading 49ers players, we see that a whopping 61% of managers are trotting out San Francisco’s defense/special teams in Round 1.
  • My favorite options at defense are the Eagles and Cowboys, given how talented both of their units are. The Bills are interesting too, but the AFC has more high-powered offenses, so it’s unlikely that an AFC defense is the optimal play.

My Current Round 1 Build

NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge

  • I’m predicting an Eagles-Chiefs/Bengals Super Bowl. Looking at start percentages, it’s highly unlikely many other teams in the NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge will look similar to this one.
  • I’ll likely tinker with this team during the rest of the week, but this provides a nice outline for what a +EV team looks like.
  • There are scenarios where all three of the Eagles, Chiefs, and Bengals play at least three games in the playoffs.

We hope you enjoyed reading through this NFL Fantasy Playoff Challenge strategy guide. Best of luck in the playoffs.

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