The bloom has come off the proverbial rose in New England.
Over the first half of the 2019 season, the Patriots weren't just the highest-scoring fantasy defense by a ridiculous margin. They were one of the highest-scoring "players" at any position. The Pats racked up takeaways and sacks like crazy. There were defensive and special teams scores seemingly on a weekly basis.
The Patriots were a true difference-maker.
However, since the team returned from their bye week, it's been another story. The Patriots are still the highest-scoring unit in most fantasy systems by a sizable margin—a margin so wide that it's unlikely they'll be caught. New England ranks second in the NFL in takeaways, total defense and pass defense, fourth in sacks and still leads the league in scoring defense.
But since Week 11 (the first game back after a week off), the Patriots rank outside the top-12 in fantasy points—largely because rather than getting fat off the likes of the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins the Patriots have played the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. Had the game against Dallas not been played in a driving rainstorm that ranking would likely be that much worse.
And now that murderous stretch on the schedule continues Sunday at Gillette Stadium against Patrick Mahomes and a Kansas City Chiefs team that ranks 31st in the league in fantasy points surrendered to team defenses in 2019.
The New England defense remains stout. It helped get many fantasy squads into the postseason this year. But in a must-win situation where one loss means the end of the season, the Patriots could be about to disappoint quite a few people.
They aren't alone, either—the San Francisco 49ers (who rank second to New England in many scoring systems) continue an even worse stretch on the schedule than New England with a trip to New Orleans to face the 10-2 Saints. The Chicago Bears face the NFL's No. 1 offense in terms of yardage in the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday. Both are bottom-five fantasy matchups.
Does this mean all three defenses should be relegated to the bench in Week 14? Not necessarily. But matchups are more important defensively than at any other position.
And the matchups for all three clubs, for lack of a better word, suck this week.
This article was written before the Vikings met the Seattle Seahawks in a huge Week 13 Monday night tilt—a game in which it's entirely possible Minnesota's defense will struggle to contain Russell Wilson. But when the Vikings host the Lions Sunday, they won't be facing a leading candidate to be named NFL MVP. They'll be facing an undrafted rookie making the second start of his career in David Blough. Blough had a couple moments early in last week's loss to Chicago, but as the game progressed the Detroit offense became sluggish and stagnant. Minnesota's going to feast in this one.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are arguably the most surprising 7-5 team in the National Football League, and most of the credit for that surprise lies with the Pittsburgh defense. After 13 weeks, the Steelers lead the NFL with 30 takeaways and lead the AFC with 43 sacks. Not surprisingly given those big plays, Pittsburgh trails only the Patriots and 49ers in fantasy points among defenses. The Cardinals haven't been a great fantasy matchup this year, but after falling apart last week at home against the Rams it's a matchup that looks a lot better now.
Baltimore Ravens (at Buffalo Bills)
Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense has gotten most of the credit for the Ravens' 10-2 record, but the defense is also playing at a high level. The Ravens are tied for sixth in the NFL with 19 takeaways, lead the league with five defensive scores and rank among the top-five fantasy defenses in most scoring systems. The Bills have admittedly been playing pretty darn good football in their own right, but right now Baltimore's on another level. Since their big Week 9 win against the Patriots, no fantasy defense has scored more points than Baltimore.
Philadelphia Eagles (vs. New York Giants)
Placing the Eagles in 'no-doubter" territory for a second straight week after the Week 13 debacle in Miami might be seen as proof that I've taken leave of my senses. However, here we are, in the land of second chances. This isn't to say that there isn't a measure of risk involved with this play. But it's got as much to do with the matchup as the team itself. The reeling New York Giants have dropped eight games in a row and lead the NFL in giveaways with 28. Throw in 35 sacks allowed and a floundering offense, and you have a team giving up the fourth-most fantasy points to defenses in 2019.
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Green Bay Packers (vs. Washington Redskins)
After an abysmal start to the season, the Redskins have finally shown some signs of life lately—as evidenced by the team's upset win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 13. But the Redskins are still a bad team with the NFL's last-ranked offense in terms of both yardage and points who have given up the fifth-most fantasy points per game to team defenses in 2019. Last week against the New York Giants, the Packers parlayed three turnovers and 13 points allowed into a top-12 finish. Against Washington playing at home, Green Bay could easily crack the top-five.
Tennessee Titans (at Oakland Raiders)
The Titans aren't generally a defense that would qualify for "no-doubter" status—they rank at the bottom of weekly starter territory for the season in fantasy points and toward the middle of the league in both sacks and takeaways. But the Titans are coming off one of their best (fantasy) defensive efforts of the season in a big win over the Indianapolis Colts—an effort that included a blocked field goal for a touchdown. This week's opponent for the Titans has made a habit of allowing defensive scores in their recent slump—both the Jets in Week 12 and Chiefs in Week 13 scored off turnovers.
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Cleveland Browns (vs. Cincinnati Bengals)
The Cincinnati Bengals finally got in the win column in Week 13, taking down the New York Jets in emphatic fashion. And to be fair, the Cleveland Browns haven't exactly lit things up from a fantasy perspective defensively of late—over the past month the Browns rank just inside the top-15 in fantasy points. But while the Bengals may have finally shown a pulse last week, they are still team with the third-most giveaways and the sixth-most sacks allowed that has been a top-five fantasy matchup for team defenses all season long.
Jacksonville Jaguars (vs. Los Angeles Chargers)
Frankly, a decent case can be made for taking the flip side of this matchup—the Jaguars are in free-fall offensively of late and made a mid-game switch to Gardner Minshew at quarterback a week ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Jaguars (while disappointing) have scored substantially more fantasy points defensively this year than the Chargers, who have more giveaways this season than all but three NFL teams. Throw in the 26 times Philip Rivers has been sacked this year, and the Jags are good enough to merit a look as a one-week play at least.
Atlanta Falcons (vs. Carolina Panthers)
There's something of a theme with the streaming options in Week 14—bad defenses with excellent matchups. The Falcons are a prime example, in that Atlanta's spent most of the 2019 getting torched by opposing offenses and ranks outside the top 25 fantasy defenses for the year. But that Atlanta defense had had a couple of big weeks over the last month or so—including the last meeting with the reeling Carolina Panthers. In that game, the Falcons D/ST scored a touchdown on a punt return, sacked Kyle Allen five times and picked the turnover-prone young quarterback off on four occasions.
Indianapolis Colts (at Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
After watching the Colts get lit up by the Titans for 31 points in a second straight loss that dropped Indy into third place in the AFC South, placing any fantasy faith in the Colts Defense on the road in Tampa might not feel appealing—especially after the Buccaneers played mistake-free football in a Week 13 win over the Jaguars. But as yourself this question—what are the odds that Jameis Winston and a Buccaneers team that is tied for the league lead in turnovers with 28 can play mistake-free football two weeks in a row. Here's a hint—it rhymes with hero.
New York Jets (vs. Miami Dolphins)
From a matchup perspective, much of what can be said in favor of rolling out the Jets can also be said about the visiting Dolphins. Both teams have surrendered at least 20 turnovers this season. Both teams rank in the top five of the league in both sacks allowed and fantasy points given up to team defenses this season. Both have also been inconsistent enough of late that trusting either defense in a must-win week isn't for the faint of heart. But the Jets are a top-10 defense in many fantasy scoring systems for the season and playing at home. So of the two, they get the nod.
Kansas City Chiefs (at New England Patriots)
This is where we're at with the Patriots and their suddenly lackluster offense—where considering an opponent playing against New England in Gillette Stadium isn't immediately dismissed as kooky talk. Kansas City gives up yardage and points, but the team also ranks in the top half of the league in both sacks and takeaways. Add in three defensive scores, and you have a top-10 fantasy defense in most scoring systems. For most of last week's loss to the Texans, the Patriots had all kinds of trouble moving the football—and the Texans are not a good defensive football team.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. New York Jets): Christmas coming early for fantasy owners of the Baltimore defense—and any Ravens players, for that matter. They get a terrible Jets team at home just in time for the fantasy playoff semifinals.
Cleveland Browns (at Arizona Cardinals): Much will depend both on how the Browns look defensively against the Bengals and how the Arizona offense rebounds (or not) against the Steelers. But the Browns could be a solid matchup play two weeks running.
Philadelphia Eagles (at Washington Redskins): Much like with the Browns, the Eagles have to show they can be trusted for one week before worrying about the second. But there's no denying this two-week tour of NFC East tomato cans sets up well.