After 16 long weeks, we have reached the end of the line in most leagues. Two teams are still alive in Week 17. A week from now, one of those teams will be the champion.
And more than a few teams that made it this far have a defense to thank for a win in Week 16.
It's not all that often that a defense posts the best score of the entire season at the position in the fantasy playoffs. But that's exactly what the Cowboys pulled off in Sunday night's blowout win over Washington. The Cowboys logged five sacks, two interceptions (one of which was returned for a touchdown) and a blocked punt that was also recovered for a score.
That's right—two touchdowns.
It was the biggest fantasy output by any defense all season long—at least for a day.
On Monday night against a New Orleans Saints team that was forced to start Ian Book at quarterback, the Miami Dolphins matched Dallas' massive fantasy output. The Dolphins went about things a little differently—they only had one touchdown on a pick-six. But the Dolphins added eight sacks and two takeaways on the way to the same fantasy production.
Now, the matchups aren't as favorable for either of those teams in Week 17. The Cowboys face an Arizona Cardinals team at AT&T Stadium that has surrendered the seventh-fewest fantasy points to opposing defenses this season, while the Dolphins travel to face a Tennessee Titans club that looked much better offensively last week with a healthy A.J. Brown back in the lineup.
However, it's not like those were the first big games of the season from the Cowboys and Dolphins, either. The Cowboys are going to finish the season as the No. 1 fantasy defense in most scoring systems, while Miami sits fourth in total points at the position for the season.
In other words, if Dallas or Miami have gotten you this far, there's no way you can even really consider sitting them.
Both have earned every-week starter status. Championship week or not.
New England Patriots (vs. Jacksonville Jaguars)
Fantasy managers who have ridden New England's second-ranked fantasy defense this season were left with two choices a week ago—start them against Buffalo and hope for an OK stat line or pull a matchup play off the waiver wire. Whatever they decided, if they survived New England's lackluster defensive effort against the Bills, it's right back on the horse this week against the Jaguars. Jacksonville's 26 giveaways are tied for the most in the league, and no team in the NFL has allowed more fantasy points per game to opposing defenses. This is a "get-right" spot and then some.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at New York Jets)
The Buccaneers haven't been as good defensively this year as last, but fantasy managers don't really have that much to complain about—after 16 weeks the Bucs are fifth in the league in fantasy points, as well as ranking third in the league in sacks and run defense, ninth in scoring defense and seventh in takeaways. This week the Buccaneers face a New York Jets that has improved offensively from terrible to just bad—the Jets are 27th in the NFL in scoring and have surrendered the fifth-most fantasy points to opposing defenses in 2021. This game is fixing to be an ugly one for Jets fans.
Buffalo Bills (vs. Atlanta Falcons)
That's right—another elite defense taking on a tomato can of an opponent. The Bills are fantasy football's sixth-ranked defense and that much better from an NFL perspective—Buffalo leads the league in yards allowed and is the only team in the NFL giving up less than 300 yards a game. Buffalo is also third in the NFL in points allowed, giving up just 17.6 per contest. This is a defense capable of shutting down the league's most explosive offenses, of which the Atlanta Falcons are not one. Only three teams have given up more fantasy points per game to defenses.
New Orleans Saints (vs. Carolina Panthers)
At 7-8, the season is getting away from the New Orleans Saints, but while the team has more than a few problems the defense isn't one of them—the Saints have rather quietly been a top-10 fantasy defense and rank fifth against the run and fourth in points allowed. It's that stout defense that really makes the Saints an attractive play in Week 17. The Carolina offense has imploded pretty thoroughly, but if you can take the run away from a Carolina team surrendering the most fantasy points in the NFC to team defenses then things go from bad to borderline ridiculous.
San Francisco 49ers (vs. Houston Texans)
To their credit, the Houston Texans have at least shown something of a pulse of late—including hanging 41 points on the Los Angeles Chargers last week. But there is quite a bit of difference between taking on the Bolts and their inability to stop the run and facing the 49ers and a defense that ranks fourth in total defense, seventh against the pass, eighth in sacks and eighth in fantasy points among defenses over the last month. Add in that the Niners are at home and no doubt seething after last week's blown game in Nashville, and you have the makings of a no-doubter for Championship Week.
Indianapolis Colts (at Las Vegas Raiders)
The Colts are one of the hottest teams in the league, and an underrated defense has played a significant role in their push to the postseason. Indianapolis has been as opportunistic as any team in the league, pacing the AFC with 31 takeaways—takeaways that have propelled the Colts to a third-place ranking in fantasy points among defenses. For a team with a winning record (albeit barely) the Raiders have been kind to opposing defenses this year, giving up the 10th-most fantasy points to the position. The Colts may not be the top defense of Week 17, but they are a safe bet to land inside the top-10.
STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
Philadelphia Eagles (at Washington Football Team)
Don't look now, but the Philadelphia Eagles are making a serious push for a playoff spot—and fantasy football's No. 12 defense deserves a fair share of the credit for that. The Eagles might not lead the league in any defensive categories, but Philly is equally stout against the run and the pass, cracking the league's top-10 in both categories. The Washington offense, on the other hand, is a hot mess—the same hot mess that gave up that massive line to the Cowboys a week ago. As matchup plays go this week, fantasy managers will be hard-pressed to find a better one in Week 17.
Chicago Bears (vs. New York Giants)
Last week's big win over the Seattle Seahawks aside, this is a season the Chicago Bears would just as soon forget—and Robert Quinn's huge season aside, that extends to a Bears defense that barely ranks inside the top-10 in fantasy points for the season. However, that same Bears defense has shown the ability to be fantasy-relevant when the matchup is right, and this week's tilt with the Giants certainly fits that bill. The Giants have allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing defenses this season, and in recent weeks the offense has actually figured out a way to get worse.
Los Angeles Chargers (vs. Denver Broncos)
This streaming option isn't for the faint of heart—not after a Chargers team that ranks 26th in fantasy points for the season imploded defensively last week against the NFL's worst offense in Houston. But this has a lot less to do with the Chargers than it does a Denver Broncos team that has been doing more than a little imploding of their own of late. As of this writing, Teddy Bridgewater remains in the NFL's concussion protocol after suffering a scary injury against Cincinnati in Week 15, and inept really doesn’t do the Denver offense under Drew Lock last week justice.
Seattle Seahawks (vs. Detroit Lions)
It has been a long season for the Seattle Seahawks, and the defense deserves their share of the blame—the Seahawks have allowed more yards per game this season than any team in the NFC. Fortunately for Seattle, in Week 17 they face a Lions team that ranks 23rd in total defense, 29th in scoring defense and ninth in fantasy points allowed to defenses. Seattle showed last week that they can get after the quarterback a little with four sacks against the Chicago Bears. This is the closest thing to a dart throw I'd in any way consider with the stakes as high as they are this week.