Team defenses can be maddeningly difficult to predict. And in Week 11, the San Francisco 49ers were a perfect example.
Heading into Sunday's game, the 49ers looked like a solid fantasy play—a top-five unit from both an NFL and fantasy perspective about to square off with a Cardinals team that has had its share of ups and downs offensively over Kyler Murray's first season under center.
However, for most of the game it looked like the Niners were going to fall flat for fantasy owners. The Cardinals raced out to a 16-0 lead, and while Arizona allowed four sacks the Redbirds gave up just a single turnover.
Then the Cardinals tried a desperation lateral play as the timer run down—a play that ended with an Arizona fumble squirting around the field before eventually being scooped up by safety D.J. Reed and carried into the end zone for a Niners touchdown.
Just like that, San Francisco went from outside the top-12 in most fantasy scoring systems to inside the top-five.
This week's matchup isn't nearly as favorable. Sunday night the 49ers play host to an 8-2 Packers team that ranks at the bottom of the NFC in fantasy points per game allowed to team defenses.
This isn't to say that fantasy owners shouldn't start San Francisco in Week 12—they lead the NFC in fantasy points at the position and have earned every-week starter status.
Besides, as San Francisco showed on Sunday afternoon, you never know what might happen.
Chicago Bears (vs. NYG)
Offensively, the Chicago Bears are a mess—after falling Sunday night in Los Angeles the Bears are 4-6 and their playoff hopes are just about toast. And the defense has been something of a fantasy letdown—after all weeks the Bears barely rank inside the top-10 after leading the position in fantasy points last season. But from a matchup perspective, it doesn't get a whole lot better than hosting the Giants in Week 12. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have more giveaways in 2019 than the Giants, and no team in the NFC has surrendered more fantasy points per game to team defenses.
Baltimore Ravens (at Los Angeles Rams)
It wasn't that long ago that fantasy owners avoided the Los Angeles Rams Offense like the plague—in their march to the Super Bowl last year the Rams ranked well outside the top 20 in fantasy points given up to defenses. That's no longer the case—Sunday night against the Bears the Rams ran the ball almost twice as many times as they ran it and after 11 weeks the Rams rank inside the top 10 in fantasy points surrendered to defenses. The Ravens are playing lights-out football on both sides of the ball right now and appear set to roll over another opponent next Monday night.
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The Steelers may have stumbled last week in Cleveland, but the Pittsburgh defense remains a unit that appeals to fantasy owners for a number of reasons. The Steelers rank second in the NFL in takeaways this year with 26, fourth in sacks with 34 and slot inside the top-three at the position in more fantasy scoring systems than not. There's also the matter of Pittsburgh's opponent this week—a winless Cincinnati Bengals team starting a rookie quarterback who is tied for the AFC lead in giveaways and ranks fourth in the NFL in sacks allowed with 36.
New Orleans Saints (vs. CAR)
The Saints were embarrassed at home by the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10, but the team got back on the right track on Sunday against the Buccaneers with a defensive performance that included two sacks, four interceptions and a defensive score by safety Marcus Williams. While that game was going on, Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen was busy throwing four picks of his own in a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons. With the Panthers reeling and the Saints running away with the division, it's the matchup that earns New Orleans "no-doubter" status this week.
Buffalo Bills (vs. DEN)
The Buffalo Bills have to be the least talked-about 7-3 team in the NFL, and the engine that has driven the team to that record is equal parts running the ball and playing defense. The Bills have been a top-10 unit for fantasy owners defensively, racking up 29 sacks on the season—good for ninth in the NFL. The Broncos have actually played better than expected with Brandon Allen at quarterback, including racing out to a 20-0 lead last week in Minnesota. But he's still a fourth-year backup making his third career start on the road against a solid defensive squad. The honeymoon ends Sunday.
New England Patriots (vs. DAL)
If I don't at least mention the Patriots here I'll no doubt be inundated by questions regarding why I didn't. And to their credit, the Pats have done plenty worth mentioning to this point in the 2019 campaign—they remain the No. 1 fantasy defense by a sizable margin. But New England's historic pace has slowed as their level of opposition has stiffened, and on Sunday the Patriots play a Dallas Cowboys team that is firing on all cylinders offensively right now. You gotta start the New England defense every week, but this could be a slow one—at least by their standards.
STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
Oakland Raiders (at NYJ)
Break up the Oakland Raiders! Over the last couple of weeks, the Oakland defense has stepped up its level of play—and then some. Last year, the Raiders were dead last in the NFL in sacks with just 13 all season long. Keyed by rookies Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, the Raiders have racked up 10 over the past two games alone. The Raiders still only have a relatively modest 12 takeaways for the season, but over the last two weeks the silver and black ranks fifth in fantasy points among defenses headed into a prime matchup on the road against a mistake-prone Jets team.
Cleveland Browns (vs. MIA)
The Cleveland defense has more than a few problems right now. The biggest, of course, is the effect of the season-ending suspension handed down to defensive end Myles Garrett after last week's helmet incident against the Steelers. But in that same game, a Cleveland secondary that has been beset by injuries this year also lost starting strong safety Morgan Burnett to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Still, the Browns are coming off their finest defensive effort of the season in Week 10 and host a Miami Dolphins team Sunday that has given up boatloads of fantasy points to opposing defenses in 2019.
Atlanta Falcons (vs. TBB)
For most of the season, the Atlanta Falcons have been a fantasy afterthought. But that has changed in a big way of late. After stunning the Saints in New Orleans in Week 10, the Falcons laid an even bigger beatdown on the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte Sunday. The Falcons haven't allowed a touchdown since Week 8, a pass rush that was all but invisible most of the year has awakened of late and Atlanta was the highest-scoring team defense on Week 11 in some scoring systems. Add in an opponent that leads the NFL in turnovers, and the Falcons are absolutely on the streaming radar in Week 12.
Tennessee Titans (vs. JAX)
The Titans have been all over the place offensively this season, but for most of the year the defense has been fairly stout—Tennessee didn't allow more than 20 points in a game until Week 8. However, after allowing all the yards ever and 32 points two weeks ago against the Chiefs and then taking the week off in Week 10, the Titans are probably available on a lot of waiver wires. That could be a good thing for streamers in need of a spot-start—the Jaguars have been wildly inconsistent offensively in 2019 and that didn't change last week with Nick Foles back under center.
Detroit Lions (at WAS)
The Lions haven't done much to intrigue fantasy owners in 2019—over the first 11 weeks of the season the team barely ranks inside the top 25 in scoring, and only three teams in the NFL have had less success getting to opposing quarterbacks this year. But this recommendation has less to do with the Lions than it does the team they are playing. At the risk of sounding blunt, the Redskins are hot garbage right now offensively—Washington managed just 225 yards of total offense last week against the Jets and ranks inside the top-five in fantasy points per game surrendered to team defenses.
New York Giants (at CHI)
This is a call that may raise a few eyebrows—the 2019 Giants are known for several things, but stout defensive play ain't exactly one of them. However, the Giants have quietly posted enough fantasy points this year to cling to a top-12 ranking in many fantasy scoring systems. There's also the matter of the dumpster fire that is the Chicago offense. From all appearances, it will be Chase Daniel calling the shots Sunday at Soldier Field, and while the Bears haven't been a great fantasy matchup this year there's enough opportunity here to merit a look as a low-end matchup play at least.
Green Bay Packers (vs. NYG): The Packers aren't a great fantasy start in Week 12 at San Francisco. But the situation brightens considerably the following week when Danny Dimes and the Turnovers visit the (maybe) frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
Philadelphia Eagles (at MIA): By the time this game rolls around, the Eagles will more likely than not have their proverbial backs against the Wall. And with all the injuries the team has on offense, it's the Philly defense that's going to have to carry the team.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. CLE): After everything that happened in Cleveland last Thursday night, you have to thing tempers will be running hot at Heinz Field in Week 13. This game's going to be a slugfest, and both defenses are fantasy-relevant.