It is absolutely insane to me how far we’ve come in fantasy football. I know I’m in a “Best Ball Bubble”, but the amount of conversation around the NFL Schedule release is pretty staggering. The industry is certainly getting much sharper, especially around Best Ball tournament strategy for Playoff style formats (like Underdog and DraftKings), but there is still plenty to be gleaned from the NFL schedule for strategic purposes.
In these Playoff formats, we know that Weeks 15 through 17 are the most important for the results of the tournament. You naturally want to advance out of your initial 12 team group, but very little money is made from that step of the process. In order to maximize our chance at real money, we need to navigate our way to the final round AND have a team capable of finishing high amongst other very strong teams in that individual week 17.
Because of this, we know that the NFL schedule and the matchups teams have along the way can be extremely important. However, before we even get to the schedule, it’s also important that we understand the types of players that can give us a unique advantage with upside when we get to the fantasy playoffs, AKA the ways to maximize our upside for the playoffs.
There are a few main areas where we can use the schedule to our advantage:
- Overall Strength of Schedule
- Bye Weeks
- Overall Playoff Strength of Schedule
- Game Stacks
- Secondary Stacking
Overall Strength of Schedule
There is going to be a lot of focus on the specific playoff weeks (weeks 15-17) because those are obviously the weeks where the magic happens. However, we can still gain an advantage from looking at the strength of schedule for teams from an entire season view.
Because we do still need to get our teams into the playoffs in order to even have a shot at profits, we can benefit from teams that have extraordinarily weak or tough schedules, as well as teams that with a higher volume of strong game environments.
From a schedule strength perspective, I like to use the Sharp Football Analysis Strength of Schedule Tools. Most places you will look will simply view schedule difficulty by Vegas Win totals, but that’s not always the best metric to use. Sharp Football does have this as a metric to use, but they also dive deeper than anyone else in analyzing the schedule. As Rich Hribar said on our show re: the schedule, “This is Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl.”
The other notable thing about the overall schedule is that game environment is just as important for fantasy as anything. What would be classified as a difficult schedule by Vegas win totals of opponents could actually be an excellent schedule to target for our fantasy teams.
There are two specific divisions that jump out as examples this year. The NFC West and AFC West are both loaded with high-powered offenses. Aside from the Seahawks, every team in both of those divisions has an incredible offense, so when they square off with one another we can have lots of fantasy points in those games.
Bye Weeks have largely been beat to death in fantasy football at this point, but there are 3 main strategies for bye weeks.
1 – Focusing heavily on reducing bye week overlap to help you maximize regular season scoring and improve your advance rate
2 – Only focusing on avoiding overlap at the “onesie” positions of QB and TE, while simply ensuring you have enough players to field a roster every week at RB and WR.
3 – Essentially ignoring Bye Weeks and maximizing each team for the playoffs without limiting your combinations of players.
We have a Bye Week Cheat sheet for you to reference that breaks down when every team has a bye in an easy to consume chart.
Overall Playoff Strength of Schedule
This is sort of a hybrid between a heavy Week 17 focus and the overall season schedule. We know that Week 17 is the big one and where all the money is won, but sometimes we can have our cake and eat it too.
We do still need upside in Weeks 15 and 16 in order to advance from those groups, so if we can find teams with favorable matchups or game environments in those weeks AND strong week 17 spots, those teams can be even more beneficial. I think most would argue that Week 17 should be weighted the most heavily, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t benefit in using the whole playoff schedule to our advantage.
At the time of this writing, the schedule for 2022 is not yet out, but in 2021 a team that the market was not high on, the Detroit Lions, had an incredible collective playoff schedule. The week 17 game against Seattle was not one most were excited about relative to some other games, but it clearly had scoring potential, and the Lions also squared off with the Falcons and Cardinals during the playoffs. We saw incredible scoring environments in those games with the Lions producing a “league winner” in Amon-Ra St. Brown.
We also have a Playoff Schedule Cheat Sheet for you to reference that breaks down the Playoff Schedule for every team in an easy to consume chart.
Finally to the meat and potatoes. Game stacks are going to be the hottest topic in Best Ball this summer. They started to catch on last season, but they seem to be all the rage heading into the schedule release. That does not mean they’re overhyped or overused, however. Quite the opposite.
While sharper folks are catching on, there is still a ton of merit to correlating your teams with what we call “game stacks” of the championship round. Last year (2021), we saw an explosion by two games in particular – Chiefs vs. Bengals and Seahawks vs. Lions.
This is something we’ve pulled from DFS strategy, and it makes a ton of sense. Week 17 is where the money is won, and it’s a top heavy payout structure in that week. If you are lucky enough to make that final week, you are going to be squaring off with essentially nothing but other super strong teams. On top of that, there is going to be a huge amount of overlap in terms of the players on those finals teams. That’s because certain players give you such an advantage in the regular season that they make up a massive amount of teams that advance to the playoffs in the first place. Then, in the first two playoff weeks, the players who put up big games will be such huge drivers of who advances each week that it will even further limit down the player pool to those who made the finals. For example, last year Mark Andrews was on 67% of teams in the Best Ball Mania 2 final.
Because of these variables, we are looking for a combination of maximizing our upside, reducing the amount of things we need to get right and creating more uniqueness from within our roster in the finals. Game stacks are the one thing that can help with all of these variables. We know from DFS that stacking a QB with his pass catcher(s) and having a player (or two) from the opposing team is a super high upside strategy because of what happens in extremely high scoring NFL games. Outsized fantasy results occur when NFL teams get into back and forth shootouts.
You also have fewer things you need to go your way in that one specific week. Instead of needing 4-5 different games (and maybe even more teams) to break your way, you mostly just need 1. You’re trying to hit an extremely big parlay in that week, and you can go from having to hit an 8 leg parlay to maybe a 6 leg parlay with a game stack.
Lastly, it’s extremely difficult to plan for uniqueness in the best ball finals. There are small things we can do with player selection at the end of drafts or unique combinations, but the game stack can give you easier access to that. You’ll typically see just the one player who puts up the big games from an offense sustain high advance rates. In 2021, Tee Higgins had the big game for the Bengals stack in Week 16, so it left Ja’Marr Chase just 6% owned in the final compared to 24% for Higgins (Burrow was 16%).
This is probably my favorite part of the schedule and week 17, but it’s the one that gets the least attention. Game stacks can be extremely powerful, but there are ways to get access to some of the similar perks of a game stack without loading up on the game. In fact, secondary stacks can allow you to get access to multiple correlated scenarios (like high scoring game environments) within the same team.
Similar to game stacks, the skill players on opposite sides of a game have correlated ceilings, as well. The QB is not a MUST in every correlation scenario, and it should not prevent you from adding this little extra Week 17 correlation into your teams. In fact, some QBs won’t end up adding upside to your team given the other QBs on your roster (and the other game stack(s) on your roster).
If a running back on your team puts up a ceiling performance (let’s say 100 yards + multiple TDs), that means his team is likely either scoring a lot of points, in a positive game script, or both. In turn, that means the pass catchers from his opponent are being forced to score more points to keep up, in a shootout game script, or both. This correlates the ceiling of both. The same goes for opposing WRs and TEs. With QBs producing the most replaceable points, you can still benefit from an offense scoring a bunch of points without having the QB by having the pass catchers that do the scoring and their opponents that get elevated because of it.
Let’s walk through an example using the 2021 Best Ball Finals.
The Bengals and Chiefs squared off, and that was the game stack that you ended up really wanting to have. Joe Burrow was the QB1 for the week and Ja’Marr Chase put up an insane 50+ fantasy points. Interestingly, it was not Tyreek Hill (7.2 fantasy points) or Travis Kelce (10.9 fantasy points) that were the opposing Chief that you were looking for, but it was Darrel Williams. Darrel was the RB3 overall on the week with 24 fantasy points.
But if you stopped your correlation with just that game stack, you missed out on the other game that propelled people to 7 figures of winnings – Seahawks vs. Lions. The Seahwks hung 51 points on the Lions, while the Lions scored 29 themselves. Russell Wilson had a strong game, but he was still far behind Burrow and did not distance himself from the QB pack (goes back to the above point about replaceability). You certainly weren’t complaining if you had Russ, but the real key were two other players in this game – Rashaad Penny and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Penny was the RB1 on the week with 30 fantasy points, and Amon-Ra was the WR2 behind Chase with 31 fantasy points. This was the perfect example of the secondary stack. The Lions hapless defense could not stop Penny, so he was putting up tons of fantasy points and real points. That led to the Lions being forced to try to keep up, and that meant feeding their best player, St. Brown.
We even saw the winner of Best Ball Mania 2 (Liam Murphy) take down $1 Million without Burrow. He actually had Josh Allen who scored 11 fewer fantasy points. But that secondary stack of the Seattle/Detroit game, something he specifically talked about was a priority for him in drafts last year, combined with Chase was what propelled him.
So, while the game stacks are absolutely important and something we should be targeting, I think the most undervalued aspect of the NFL Schedule for Best Ball tournaments is in secondary stacking.
As soon as the schedule is released, I will be working on updating both our Underdog Positional Tiers and Underdog Top 250 Overall rankings in order to reflect some of these variables of the playoff format.
And of course, make sure to check out the Playoff Schedule Cheat Sheet.