The annals of fantasy football history are littered with unlikely playoff heroes. Players who rose from obscurity at the perfect time to carry teams to fantasy glory.
Players like Billy Volek.
Back in 2004, the veteran journeyman was pressed into service late in the season as the starting quarterback for the Tennessee Titans. In successive weeks in the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14 and 15), Volek threw for over 400 yards with four touchdowns.
In 2018, the Titans Defense could be just such an improbable hero. Heading into Week 15, the Titans ranked outside the top 20 in most fantasy scoring systems. But against the Giants in New York, the Titans posted their best fantasy effort of the year, pitching a shutout while adding three sacks and a pair of takeaways. It marked the second straight solid showing by the team.
Now, in this all-important Week 16, the Titans will play host to a reeling Washington Redskins team that trotted out its fourth starting quarterback of the season a week ago. Over the last month, no team in the NFL has surrendered more fantasy points to defenses than the Redskins.
It's the best of both worlds. A streamer's dream—a defense playing its best football of the season squaring off against a floundering offense that's falling apart.
If you weren't fortunate enough to secure a ticket for the Titans express, here's a look around the NFL at the other fantasy defenses of note in Championship Week.
Chicago Bears (at San Francisco 49ers)
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Bears are really, really good defensively—third in total defense, second against the run, third in scoring defense, fourth in sacks with 45, first in the NFL with a jaw-dropping 35 takeaways and most importantly the No. 1 defense in terms of fantasy points in 2018…by a sizable margin. This week those Bears travel to face a 49ers team that ranks sixth in fantasy points surrendered to defenses this season, and thanks to the Rams loss to Philadelphia last week the Bears have something to play for—hope of securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
Los Angeles Rams (at Arizona Cardinals)
As I mentioned just now, the Rams are suddenly in the midst of a stumble, losers of two straight after falling in surprising fashion to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. Not only is the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs now in jeopardy, but the Rams are only one game up on a Bears team that holds the head-to-head tiebreaker complements to Chicago's Week 14 win over the Rams. That gives the Rams plenty of motivation to keep their foot on the floor defensively against a Cardinals team that leads the NFC in fantasy points allowed to defenses.
Denver Broncos (at Oakland Raiders)
After last week's loss at home to Cleveland, it's essentially all over but the crying for the 6-8 Broncos, but Denver's ninth-ranked fantasy defense will still be giving it everything they have against their division rivals in Oakland. That should equate to a good stat line for a Broncos team that ranks sixth in the NFL with 26 takeaways and fifth in the NFL with 42 sacks. The Raiders rank fifth in fantasy points allowed to defenses this season and managed just a single touchdown a week ago against one of the NFL's worst defenses in Cincinnati.
Minnesota Vikings (at Detroit Lions)
It's been an up-and-down season for the Vikings, but the defense has been consistently stout—the Vikes are fourth in the NFL in total defense and third in fantasy points after a big game against the Miami Dolphins that included nine sacks. In Week 15 a Minnesota team clinging to the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs gets another favorable matchup when they travel to Detroit to face an injury-ravaged Lions team that has fallen apart offensively. For the season, the Lions rank seventh in fantasy points allowed to team defenses.
Jacksonville Jaguars (at Miami Dolphins)
There isn't a more disappointing team in the NFL this year than the Jaguars, who entered the year as a Super Bowl contender and now sit at 4-10. That disappointment extends to the defense—a D/ST that was the first unit at the position selected in most drafts has dropped outside the top-15 in fantasy points. And yet, here I go again, recommending these heartbreakers as a solid fantasy start. The reason? A matchup with an inconsistent Miami offense that's tied for the third in the NFL in giveaways and ninth in fantasy points given up to defenses this season.
Dallas Cowboys (vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Given that the Cowboys were just skunked 23-0 by the Indianapolis Colts, it might seem odd for the team to be getting "No-Doubter" status in Week 15. But while last week's game was against a red-hot Colts team, this week's matchup is at home against the floundering Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers lead the NFL in turnovers this season with 32 takeaways, including a staggering 25 interceptions. As a result, the Bucs rank inside the top-10 in fantasy points given up to defenses this year. Dallas will be looking for payback after last week's setback.
STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
New England Patriots (vs. Buffalo Bills)
The Patriots are in relatively uncharted waters after losing two straight in the month of December, and a big part of that swoon is due to a defense that has struggled of late—especially against the run. But Week 16 sets up well for the Pats to get back and track and capture their umpteenth straight AFC East title. The Bills have somehow eked out five wins this season, but Buffalo is 31st in the NFL in total offense, leads the AFC with 28 giveaways and has surrendered more fantasy points to defenses this year than any team in the NFL.
Cleveland Browns (vs. Cincinnati Bengals)
The Browns are one of the more pleasant surprises in the NFL this year, with a chance to reach the .500 mark in December Sunday when they host the Bengals. However, Cleveland's defense hasn't exactly rolled up the fantasy points this season, and despite all the injuries that have hit the Bengals defensively the team piled up 30 points in a Week 15 win over the Oakland Raiders. Still, the Browns are riding high right now, playing at home and facing Jeff "Who?" Driskel. Call it a hunch, but I think the defense steps up big in a Cleveland win Sunday.
Indianapolis Colts (vs. New York Giants)
Momentum can be a big deal in the NFL, and right now these teams are barreling in opposite directions. The Giants were just blanked at home by the Tennessee Titans 17-0, while the Colts kept their postseason aspirations on track by blasting the surging Dallas Cowboys 23-0 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 15. The Giants are just a middling fantasy matchup, and the team had been playing well before last week's backstep. But the Colts looked like a team on a mission against Dallas, and they'll be playing inside in front of a raucous home crowd again Sunday.
Green Bay Packers (at New York Jets)
To say it's been a disappointing year in Green Bay is a disappointment—this will mark the first team in the Aaron Rodgers era that the Packers have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. And the Packers aren't usually much of an asset for fantasy owners—Green Bay is barely inside the top-20 in fantasy points for the year. But the Packers have done a decent job of getting after the quarterback (sixth in the NFL in sacks) and face an error-prone Jets team Sunday that has given up the third-most fantasy points in the league to defenses this season.
Miami Dolphins (vs. Jacksonville Jaguars)
The Dolphins haven't done much defensively to warrant attention or confidence from fantasy owners this year—the Dolphins are 30th in total defense, 27th in scoring defense and rank well outside the top 20 in the majority of fantasy scoring systems. But this streaming recommendation has less to do with the Dolphins than who they are playing—the Jaguars are now up to fourth in the NFL in fantasy points given up to defenses. In three games with Cody Kessler under center for the Jags, the team has scored all of two touchdowns.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
Seattle Seahawks (vs. Kansas City Chiefs)
The Seahawks left more than a few fantasy owners holding the bag this week with a miserable effort on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Those same fantasy owners are now going to be forced to the waiver wire to find another starter at the position—if they survived the week. That the Seahawks are hosting the Chiefs at CenturyLink Field is about the only thing to like about this game. The Chiefs are angry after falling at home to the Chargers a week ago, and only the Saints and Patriots have allowed fewer fantasy points to defenses this year.
Baltimore Ravens (at Los Angeles Chargers)
The Ravens are in the thick of playoff contention this year, thanks in no small part to a defense that ranks first in the NFL in both yards and points allowed. The Ravens have also been a top-five fantasy defense most of the season and a reliable weekly starter for fantasy owners. However, in Week 16 the Baltimore defense faces an uphill climb. The Chargers are riding high after taking down the Chiefs in a thriller last week, and the team could have both Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon back for this one. The Chargers are also 28th in fantasy points given up to defenses in 2018.
Pittsburgh Steelers (at New Orleans Saints)
The Steelers got back on the postseason track and secured one of the most impressive wins of Week 15 when they held the New England Patriots to just 10 points in 1 seven-point victory at Heinz Field. But the odds of the defense repeating that effort (which wasn't especially good from a fantasy perspective anyway) against the New Orleans Saints aren't good. Not at the Superdome. Not against a Saints team trying to lock up the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs that has been stingier to fantasy defenses this season than any team in the NFC.
Buffalo Bills (at New England Patriots)
That the Bills have managed to win five games this year in spite of a pathetic offense is a testament to how good the team's second-tanked defense has been this year. The Bills have also been a somewhat viable fantasy asset, checking in inside the top-12 in fantasy points for the season despite very little help from the other side of the ball. However, this week's trip to Gillette Stadium is not a good time to consider starting the Bills. The Patriots are dead last in the NFL in fantasy points given up to defenses and seething after dropping their last two games.