After 14 weeks of the 2020 NFL season, it wasn't unreasonable to believe that we had enough of a sample size to make certain judgements about last week's slate.
It was reasonable to assert that the Los Angeles Rams were a good defensive football team. The Rams came into the week at or near the top of the league in a number of statistical categories. Most importantly for fantasy managers, the Rams were ranked inside the top five among defenses in most scoring systems.
It was also reasonable to assert that the Jets were a favorable matchup for that good Rams Defense, The Jets entered Week 15 dead last in the NFL in total offense and scoring offense. The Jets were right at the top of the league in fantasy points given up to defenses.
New York hadn't won a game all season long. The contest was in Los Angeles. Everything pointed to the Rams Defense feasting—and fantasy managers who started them reaping the benefits.
Then the game started.
It's not just that the NFC West-leading Rams got beat 23-20 by the 0-13 Jets. Or that the Rams never led in the game. Los Angeles only allowed 289 yards of offense, but they also did next to nothing in the big play column—just two sacks. It was the Rams' second-worst fantasy outing defensively of the season.
It just goes to show you. You can play the matchups. Pour over stats. Crunch all the numbers ever. But sometimes, once the game starts weird things sometimes happen.
The Rams' stunning loss sets up a must-win game for LA Sunday in Seattle. The Rams played well against their division rivals in Week 10, sacking Russell Wilson six times and amassing three takeaways. Fantasy managers who have started the Rams on a weekly basis are likely reluctant to bail on them after one off week.
But given the matchup, how the Rams looked in Week 15 and the stakes in Week 16, this writer is more than a little reluctant to recommend starting them, too.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. New York Giants)
There isn't a better team defense play in Week 16 than the Ravens playing host to the New York Giants. The Ravens are coming off one of their most impressive defensive efforts of the year—most of what the team allowed to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week was in garbage time. The Giants, on the other hand, had just 288 yards of offense and were held out of the end zone with Colt McCoy under center in a Sunday night loss to the Browns. With the Ravens fighting for their playoff lives and the Giants at the bottom of the NFC in most statistical categories on offense, this one smells like a blowout. Of course, so did Jets-Rams in Week 15.
Miami Dolphins (at Las Vegas Raiders)
This Saturday night affair in Sin City features two teams barreling in opposite directions. The visiting Dolphins are in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt after elimination the Patriots from postseason contention last week, while the floundering Raiders are one lucky break against the Jets away from a five-game skid. Miami has the NFL's second-ranked scoring defense as of this writing, sits right at the top of the league with 26 takeaways and ranks either first or second in fantasy points among defenses in most scoring systems. Brian Flores has this unit playing as well as any defense in the league.
Chicago Bears (at Jacksonville Jaguars)
After winning two in a row to get back to .500, the Bears are clinging to postseason hopes ahead of this matchup with a Jaguars team that now holds the first overall pick in the 2021 draft after losing their 12th straight in blowout fashion in Baltimore. The Bears allowed 27 points at Minnesota last week, but the team did get to Kirk Cousins three times and picked him off once. The Bears haven't been a great fantasy play this season—Chicago barely ranks inside the top-20 in fantasy points for the year. But their production is up the last few weeks and the Jags have allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to defenses over the past month.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at Detroit Lions)
A bit of the bloom has come off the rose with the Tampa Bay defense—Tampa was a top-five fantasy defense over the season's first half but has plummeted outside the top-20 since Week 9. That defense didn't look especially good against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15—especially in the first half. But with the Bucs clinging to the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC ahead of a matchup on Saturday with a Detroit Lions team that has surrendered the third-most fantasy points to defenses in 2020, the table would appear set for an inspired effort—and solid stat line.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Indianapolis Colts)
The Steelers are in a similar position as the Rams in Week 16. Certainly, no one saw the Cincinnati Bengals jumping out to a 17-0 lead on Monday Night Football this past week, and Pittsburgh's offensive woes of late are having a negative impact on the defense's fantasy production—the Steelers sit in the bottom half of the league in fantasy points over the last three (admittedly unimpressive) games. But we're talking about a Steelers Defense that sits at the top of the NFL in sacks, takeaways, and fantasy points, and while the Colts are a solid offensive football team they aren't the Kansas City Chiefs. There just aren't many units I'd start ahead of them.
Washington Football Team (vs. Carolina Panthers)
That the Washington Football Team didn't do much defensively from a fantasy perspective in Week 15 is understandable—they were taking on Russell Wilson and the buzzsaw that is the Seattle offense. Still, that doesn't change the fact that only the Rams and Dolphins have amassed more fantasy points among defenses since Week 11 than Washington, which boasts one of the best front-sevens in the game. That front seven should find the sledding quite a bit easier this week at home in a top-15 fantasy matchup for defenses with the Carolina Panthers.
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STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
Buffalo Bills (at New England Patriots)
The Bills are riding high right now—last week's smackdown of the Denver Broncos gave Buffalo their first AFC East title in over 20 years. That game also featured one of Buffalo's better defensive efforts of the season—the Bills sacked Drew Lock three times and returned a fumble for a touchdown. The Bills haven't been overly impressive from a fantasy perspective for the season, but they have shown some potential when the matchup is right—like say a Week 16 tilt with an eliminated Patriots team that is having all kinds of problems moving the ball through the air.
Cleveland Browns (at New York Jets)
The Browns Defense has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse the past two weeks—from getting boatraced to the tune of 47 points allowed to the Baltimore Ravens to keeping the New York Giants out of the end zone entirely last Sunday night. The last time the Jets looked competent (a few weeks ago against the Raiders) offensively they followed that up by getting jackstomped 40-3 in Seattle. The Browns aren't the Seahawks, but they are a good football team—and fantasy managers that scooped them off the waiver did so explicitly because of this Big Apple two-fer. Don't turn back now.
Arizona Cardinals (vs. San Francisco 49ers)
Most of the talk about the Arizona Cardinals this season has centered on Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and the offense—and rightly so. But the Arizona defense has picked it up of late as well. Two weeks ago, the Redbirds notched eight sacks and three takeaways against the Giants. Against the Philadelphia Eagles this past Sunday, the Cardinals tallied half a dozen more sacks. Now the Cardinals get their third consecutive top-10 fantasy matchup for defenses—this time an injury-ravaged San Francisco 49ers team that has given up the eighth-most fantasy points per game to the position.
Philadelphia Eagles (at Dallas Cowboys)
From a matchup perspective, there's a lot to like about this week's matchup between these NFC Least rivals at Jerruh World—the Cowboys have surrendered 36 sacks this season, rank third in the NFL in giveaways and have allowed the most fantasy points in the NFC to opposing defenses. But there's also the matter of an Eagles Defense that has all kinds of injury issues that has struggled at times this year. The Eagles sit just inside the top-10 in fantasy points for the season, but there's enough bust potential here to be worrisome given the lack of margin for error in Week 16.
Carolina Panthers (at Washington Football Team)
Full disclosure—the Carolina Panthers aren't a good defensive football team. As a matter of fact, from a fantasy perspective the Panthers have been decidedly ungood outside a couple fluky stat lines born of defensive scores about a month ago. But this streaming recommendation has less to do with the Panthers Defense than it does the team they face. The Washington Football Team ranks 30th in total offense, 26th in scoring offense and has surrendered the 14th-most fantasy points to opposing team defenses this season.
Los Angeles Chargers (vs. Denver Broncos)
That scraping sound you hear is the bottom of the matchup barrel in a must-win week. This is the definition of a desperation play, if only because the Los Angeles Chargers are 14 games into the 2020 season and the next big defensive stat line they throw up for fantasy managers will be the first one. But as we saw last week against the Buffalo Bills, Drew Lock and the Broncos have done what they can to make mediocre defenses look good in 2020. The Broncos are fourth in fantasy points allowed to defenses this year, and there isn't a team in the NFL that has turned the ball over more.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Atlanta Falcons)
The Chiefs are having a very Chiefs-esque year on defense. The team will give up yards. Give up points. But Kansas City also has a penchant for making the big plays that keep a team defense fantasy-relevant. But while the Falcons are a bad team the Chiefs should handle with relative ease, they are also a bad team that has given up the 10th-fewest fantasy points to defenses in 2020. This will no doubt be an entertaining game to watch (especially if you're a Chiefs fan). But there's enough shootout potential to make fantasy managers nervous about trusting Kansas City in a must-win week.