Fact or Fluke: How will major injuries impact fantasy football playoff pushes?

At this point in the fantasy football season, we kind of expect a degree of normalcy. We know who and what players and teams are by now, and we generally think our projections and predictions are as accurate as they’ve been all season. Week 13 had other plans for us, though, as it seemed to create more questions than answers. With the fantasy playoffs rapidly approaching, it’s no time to let up in striving to understand the unusually good and bad performances that just happened.

Rather than any few individuals, this week I’ll focus on some big pictures: What overall impacts should we anticipate from a key injury or a key return from injury? What teams experienced a significant shift last week, and can we trust it going forward?

Injuries to fantasy-relevant teams

San Francisco 49ers

Losing two quarterbacks to season-ending ankle/foot injuries is beyond bad luck; the way this team piles them up is more like a curse! The 49ers' game plan is and pretty much always has been to win with 1) defense, 2) run game and 3) passing when absolutely necessary. That is, despite having an elite corps of receivers in Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.

Enter Brock Purdy, who spent four years at Iowa becoming an effective pass-first QB. Purdy took over for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo (who's now lost for the season) in the first quarter and saw his first major NFL action vs. Miami. He threw 37 passes, completing 25 for 210 yards, one interception and two touchdowns. Although the Niners won easily, not letting Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins get into any rhythm moving the ball, that pass volume was about five more than the team’s normally low average of 32 pass attempts per game.

If SF sticks with the rookie, things might look up for Samuel and Aiyuk managers. The duo saw 19 targets, though neither caught a touchdown. McCaffrey is going to be fine no matter what, but Kittle’s relative lack of involvement was a bit concerning. Kittle’s managers have no choice but to pray that he and Purdy can develop some chemistry this week. It might help his Week 14 outlook that Tampa Bay’s biggest defensive weakness is against opposing TEs (fifth-most fantasy points allowed to the position this season).

Baltimore Ravens

It sounds like Lamar Jackson will be out for weeks, not days, which is terrible news for an organization that has been struggling offensively. Baltimore managed only 10 points vs. Denver, bringing its average over the past three games to a paltry 16 PPG. The story of the season for the Ravens has been injuries, with Mark Andrews’ shoulder derailing the passing game for a few weeks and JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Kenyan Drake all missing time to hamper a run-heavy game plan.

Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens is a fantasy star
Fantasy managers will have to do without Lamar Jackson for the start of the fantasy playoffs. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) (Greg Fiume via Getty Images)

Quarterback Tyler Huntley was an effective scrambler, notching 41 rushing yards on 10 carries, including one for the lone touchdown, in Week 13. He passed 34 times, completing an impressive 84% of them, but for minimal yardage (187 yards). He spread the ball around pretty evenly to Andrews, Demarcus Robinson, Devin Duvernay and Isaiah Likely, while three running backs combined for only 14 carries. Andrews’ managers, like Kittle’s, will have to grin and bear it going forward, but this doesn’t feel great.

Big picture: There were fantasy warning signs in place before Jackson was hurt. They’re now flashing bright red.

Cincinnati Bengals

In a game that lived up to the hype, a star returned for the Bengals, and Cincy was able to upset the Chiefs. Again. The game of football is just more fun with Ja’Marr Chase in it. His athleticism at the point of the catch is remarkable, and though he didn’t score — and got a dumb penalty for taunting after Tee Higgins’ TD — he looked to be in perfect health (7/97). His return hurts Tyler Boyd the most, as Higgins’ robust target share isn’t going anywhere (he averages about seven per game, while Chase commands 10 targets per game). Burrow and the Bengals are top-five in pass attempts, completions and yards so far this season.

Week 14 could be a Joe Mixon spotlight, however, considering the Browns are one of the most generous fantasy RB matchups, and Mixon should clear the concussion protocol early this week.

Two teams with major fantasy playoff impact players

Philadelphia Eagles

While Miami still has it locked down, it looks like AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith are ready and able to step into that top-receiving-duo role if vacated. Jalen Hurts was on a tear Sunday vs. Tennessee, posting a fantasy line most QBs only dream of in the first half and ending with 380 yards and four total touchdowns. Brown and Smith combined for 221 receiving yards on 13 catches and three touchdowns. Brown is universally renowned, but Smith isn’t being started in about 35% of fantasy leagues. Smith was the Eagles’ leading receiver in Weeks 10 and 11, and his performance in Week 13 should get that starting number up to 95% by Week 14, when he faces the Giants. The fantasy playoffs are going to be full of Eagles this year.

Cleveland Browns

There are two possible ways to interpret the disappointment of Deshaun Watson’s return to professional football. One is that Watson was rusty, not ready and/or not in sync with the rest of the Browns. He completed only 13 passes, one more than the lowly Panthers and the second-fewest in the league. Jacoby Brissett never got close to being that bad.

The second interpretation is that the Houston Texans’ pass defense is actually good.

On paper, they were allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing QBs and the fifth-fewest to opposing WRs coming into the game. The lazy analysis said yes, but they give up the most fantasy points to running backs, so teams simply don’t need to throw against them. Lazy isn’t necessarily wrong here, but Nick Chubb was also uncharacteristically ineffective against them (17 rushes for 80 yards). It’s likely a combination of the Texans’ coverage and Watson’s poor throws that led to the offensive meltdown.

Fortunately, defense and special teams had their backs: The Browns managed to score 27 points without an offensive touchdown. Next week at Cincinnati will be a more challenging test than this, so I hope Watson and Amari Cooper can get on the same page. Single-QB league managers probably want to avoid starting him if possible.

Quick hits

Christian Watson, Green Bay Packers

His early-season 50-plus-yard drop is still the play that comes to my mind when I type his name (Primacy Bias — the first instance of a player is the one that carries the most weight), but despite the equally memorable look of utter disgust that drop brought to Aaron Rodgers’ face, Watson has redeemed himself eight times over. Rodgers has always liked to throw to “his guy,” and Watson is that person now.

Is his two-touchdown-per-game pace sustainable? All available records say no, and we learned earlier in the season that even the best of the best wide receivers average about one touchdown per 14 targets ... but maybe?

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

St. Brown was a prime candidate for some positive regression, and it hit in Week 13. The Sun God (we can call him that again) ended with 11 catches for 114 yards and two scores. Detroit takes on the Vikings in Week 14, which will give us a good indication if the Jared Goff-St. Brown end-of-season magic is indeed underway for the second consecutive year.

Zonovan Knight, RB, New York Jets

Knight is the latest example of what looks like a magical season for the Jets. Their defense is superb — allowing the fourth-fewest real and fantasy points to opponents — they have a real star for the future in Breece Hall, they worked it out with Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson is the real deal, and Mike White has flashed some serious potential. The past two weeks, Knight has averaged about 5.5 yards per carry on 29 carries and caught 8-of-8 passes thrown his way for about 15 PPR fantasy points per game.

I wasn’t 100 percent on board after Week 13 when James Robinson was a healthy scratch, but I am now. I also don’t want to ignore Ty Johnson, who is finding a lot of success both on the ground (5/62/1 in Week 12) and through the air (6-of-7 targets caught for 38 yards in Week 13). If you’re in a tough spot for Week 14 RBs, Johnson will be much more available than Knight.

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