This article is part of our Game Spotlight series.
Dallas (6-5) vs. New Orleans (10-1)
Open: 53.5 O/U, NO -7
Live: 51.5 O/U, NO -7
Although it's a mid-week game neither team has an evident rest disadvantage since both teams last played on Thanksgiving. Dallas could have used such an advantage, because the Saints are arguably the conference favorites with a league-leading 37.2 points per game as well as a defense that has established itself as one of the league's best following its trade for Eli Apple. Andy Dalton and Carson Wentz combined for just 309 yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions against the Saints over Weeks 10 and 11, and in Week 12 the Saints held the Falcons to three points in the first half and 17 for the game. Some of the Saints' pass defense stats on the year are less than flattering (third-most fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks), but they've been better in the last three weeks.
Dak Prescott collides with that surging defense just as he's hitting his own stride, which poses a mammoth test for the previously struggling quarterback as Dallas tries to resolve itself to the manners of a playoff team now that the NFC East is suddenly there for the taking following the Alex Smith injury and Philadelphia's continued descent. The Washington pass defense was a mostly dignified one before last week, when Prescott and recently acquired wideout Amari Cooper tore through Washington for 180 yards and two touchdowns on nine targets, giving hope that Cooper will come through as the WR1 Dallas so desperately needed.
The question of Cooper's production in this game is an important one after such a strong showing. The usage should be there for him in a game where Dallas projects to play from behind for its near entirety, and any big-picture understanding of Cooper's career makes it easy to identify him as a standout talent. But there might be some cause for concern in the fact that Dallas might make it easy for the Saints to shadow him with Marshon Lattimore, and he'll in whatever case probably line up outside rather than in the slot, where he ran a much greater percentage of his routes with Oakland and where the Saints are most vulnerable at corner (P.J. Williams). The appeal and the upside specifically with Cooper is obvious, but Cole Beasley is probably the Dallas receiver with the easiest matchup since his slot work should mostly avoid Lattimore and Apple. If you're fading Cooper, I think Beasley is an almost necessary pick, and the two in the same lineup makes plenty of sense too. Michael Gallup has passed Allen Hurns on the depth chart by now, and the rookie makes a lot of sense in GPPs. His catch rate of 42.9 percent is anemic but mostly a testament to the difficulty of his targets – he has 12.8 percent of Dallas' targets yet 23.6 percent of its air yardage, averaging 13.7 yards for target depth. Gallup's function is one that's hit-or-miss, but he should see downfield targets in a desperate setting. Blake Jarwin is the tight end replacement for the injured Geoff Swaim. Jarwin got involved early against Washington on Thanksgiving but his two early targets would be his last of the game, and the Saints have been cruel to tight ends this year, allowing just barely more than six yards per target at a completion rate of 60.3. Noah Brown would arguably be just as desirable of a target as Jarwin or Hurns, as the wideout/tight end tweener saw two targets on 20 snaps last week.
There is some substantial concern to be had for the entire Dallas passing game in the fact that the Dallas offensive line, already without star center Travis Frederick this year, will likely be without Tyron Smith against the Saints, while starting guards Zack Martin and Xavier Sua-Filo are both playing hurt. Smith's absence against the Falcons last year precipitated the entire collapse of the Cowboys, so it's a major worry with Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport up next, but at least it didn't derail Prescott against Washington last week. I think the Saints defense is a desirable pick in this game, because Prescott was taking tons of sacks this year even before Smith's absence became its own problem, and the Saints offense should force Prescott to drop back as much as any other time this year.
By conventional measurements the matchup is a horrific one for Ezekiel Elliott, whose team is a touchdown home underdog and catches a Saints defense allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to running backs at 3.3 yards per carry. But Elliott's nature and usage make him a different category of player, and the matchup considerations just don't go as far with him since there's almost no conceivable scenario where Dallas can avoid using him. That was the case even in prior years, but in 2018 it's especially true because Dallas has finally upped his pass-catching workload, which has led to proof for what many observers have agonizingly suspected: Elliott is an excellent receiver and using him as one meaningfully improves a Dallas offense that otherwise lacks pass-catching playmakers. After seeing 78 targets in his first 25 career games, Elliott is already up to 62 in 11 games this year, and considering his YPT is at 5.9 after registering at 8.1 in his first two years, I think there's reason to expect Elliott to post big receiving numbers to close out the year.
The Saints switched up their tendencies a bit against the Falcons on Thanksgiving. Outside of that game you could reliably predict the Saints' usage tendencies based on the game script: Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara trend upward the more competitive the game, while Brees' pass attempt volume drags and Mark Ingram gets more clock-killing carries at Kamara's expense the less competitive the opponent. Michael Thomas was featured extensively in either scenario. Until last week, that is. Perhaps it was just the result of New Orleans trying to give their backup skill position players more reps to prepare them as playoff depth, but somehow all of Kamara, Ingram, and even Thomas pretty much had half the day off relative to their usual standards, the runners combining for just 25 carries and three targets, while Thomas finished with six targets while backups Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, and Tommylee Lewis each scored.
Those three wideouts might remain involved Thursday, but Tre'Quan Smith (toe) is back in the lineup, and with him there those depth receivers will find it much more difficult to get on the field, let alone see targets. I'd rank Kirkwood first out of the previously mentioned trio since he's played 89 snaps over the last three weeks, but I think Carr would mostly be a nihilism play given that he mostly seems to block and set picks (13 targets on 234 snaps). Lewis is quick and explosive and will have kick return opportunities, but his role is liable to completely disappear with Smith back. Smith is the play if you're fading Michael Thomas, but this strikes me as a game where New Orleans might more so prioritize keeping Thomas away from standout corner Byron Jones, in which case Smith might be the one to run sacrificial routes to waste Jones' snaps so that Thomas spends his against the more manageable corners. If I'm wrong, then Smith would have a fine projection as a strong prospect in an elite offense.
The tight end question is a significant one with the Saints, because Ben Watson has shown the ability to score at multiple points this year and the surging Dan Arnold presents a far more interesting possibility yet after turning six targets into four receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving. Arnold is a recent wide receiver convert and his usage in the Saints offense reminds me of Ricky Seals-Jones' in Arizona last year – a case where the team doesn't trust him as a blocker but is sold on his pass-catching upside such that they prioritize him as a route runner on the snaps that he does play. Arnold has seen only 54 snaps in the last three weeks, but 11 targets with them, resulting in eight catches for 95 yards and a score. As much as Watson remains a totally sound punt play, Arnold seems to be trending upward at his expense. Josh Hill is actually the tight end who plays the most snaps for New Orleans, but he blocks much more than the other two.
The question of the Saints backfield is always a momentous one, and that's even when it's a full slate. In a single-game slate with the Saints it's crucial to get it right, or at least not horrifically wrong. As last week showed the answer can be 'neither' between Kamara and Ingram, and plenty other games showed us the answer can be 'both.' But if Kamara has one of his high-range outcomes and you don't roster him, it can be disqualifying, and if you pay up for his premium rates only to get an outcome like last week, the result is the same. Because he's a double-threat with such novel usage, Kamara is basically matchup-proof, or least traditional matchup indicators just don't apply to him reliably, so it's not much of a deterrent that Dallas allows the fifth-fewest fantasy points to running backs (3.7 YPC, 6.3 YPT). My general inclination is to prioritize Kamara into single-game slate lineups because Dallas is ascending as New Orleans heads on the road, where Brees is a little less capable which therefore might make Kamara a bit more indispensable. This reasoning mostly checks out – while Kamara's home/road carry averages are about identical (10.2 at home, 9.8 on the road), Kamara sees much more pass-catching work on the road so far in his career, with 5.7 targets per game at home and 7.2 on the road. Ingram can definitely produce and he might be the Saints runner to target if you're betting the under or just against Dallas, but at least to start the game I'd imagine the Saints take Dallas seriously and use some of their better bullets. Plus, Sean Payton has that revenge game narrative going. Maybe he'll run up the score!
If you want to bet on the under or otherwise fade some skill position players then a kicker might suit your lineup, and Will Lutz would of course be the preferred option as the heavy favorite. It also bodes poorly for Brett Maher that the Saints allow the fewest points to opposing kickers.
For my own lineups I will likely prioritize Kamara, Thomas, and the Saints defense, with Beasley being my most likely Cowboys pick, while Cooper, Elliott, Gallup, and Brown are next in some order of consideration. I'll probably fade both quarterbacks in this game. I'll need to think hard about Smith, Lutz, and Arnold for the Saints, while Kirkwood would probably be next in line. I doubt I'll have Ingram shares.