Eight weeks into the 2018 season, the fantasy playoff race is starting to take shape. And unlike with other positions like quarterback and running back, injuries don't lessen the number of team defenses available to fantasy owners in a given week.
Sure, they can affect the quality of those defenses (see the Atlanta Falcons, whose defense has been chewed to pieces by injuries), but there's just one thing that significantly lessen the number of defenses available for use in a given week.
The dreaded six-team bye week—enemy of all that is good and decent in the world.
Sure enough, that's what we have this week. Two defenses that were drafted as weekly starters in most leagues are taking Week 9 off, thanks to last week's London tilt between the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars. They are being joined by the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants.
Not exactly a murderer's row, but still—fewer choices are fewer choices.
That's OK though. Even with just 26 teams to choose from, there are still some options to choose from, whether it's can't-miss no-brainers or streamers.
Including what may be the single best defensive play of the season to date—and a bucket full of matchup plays with warts of one kind or another.
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Chicago Bears (at Buffalo Bills)
Through eight weeks this season, the Bears are a top-three fantasy defense in most scoring systems. The team ranks seventh in the league in total defense (329.6 yards per game), sixth in scoring defense (20.6 points per game), and leads the NFC in takeaways with 17. On Sunday the Bears get what amounts to a dream matchup in Buffalo against a Bills team that ranks at or near the bottom of the league in just about every offensive category, has allowed the third-most sacks (26) in the NFL and is fourth in giveaways with 16. It will be a major upset if the Bears don't have a big week here.
Kansas City Chiefs (at CLE)
At first glance, this appears borne much more of matchup than of anything the Chiefs have done defensively in 2018. As a matter of fact, the Chiefs have done exactly nothing defensively this year—at least from an NFL perspective. However, fantasy-wise the Chiefs have parlayed 24 sacks, 12 takeaways and two touchdowns into a top-five fantasy ranking at the position. The Browns have been a top-10 matchup for team defenses this season, largely because they lead the league in sacks allowed and have turned it over 11 times. A big-play defense facing a team that gives up tons of them.
Dallas Cowboys (vs. TEN)
The 2018 season isn't exactly going according to plan for the Cowboys, but fault for their 3-4 start can't be blamed on the defense. Dallas has been stout on that side of the ball, ranking third in total defense (313.7 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (17.6 points per game). Coming off the bye and playing host to a Tennessee Titans team that ranks 30th in the NFL in both scoring defense and total defense and has given up the sixth-most fantasy points to team defenses this year, next Monday sets up very nicely for a big night in Big D.
STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
Denver Broncos (vs. Houston Texans)
The Broncos are scuffling a bit this season, but in some respects the team's defensive rankings carry an asterisk—this is a team that has had the distinct misfortune of having already played both the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs…twice. However, despite those three games (all losses) the Broncos still rank inside the top 10 among team defenses in NFL.com default fantasy scoring—largely due to 24 sacks (second in the NFL). Given the issues the Texans have had protecting Deshaun Watson this year, there's at least some fantasy upside present.
Miami Dolphins (vs. New York Jets)
After starting the season 3-0, the Dolphins have come crashing back to earth—last week's setback in Houston was Miami's fourth loss in five games. And the Dolphins aren't exactly tearing things up defensively—the team is 27th in both points allowed and scoring defense. However, if ever there was a week for the Dolphins to buck that trend and serve as a decent streaming option it's in Week 8 against the Jets. Only three teams in the NFL have turned the ball over more times than Gang Green, and the Jets are eighth in fantasy points allowed to defenses this season.
Houston Texans (at Denver Broncos)
The Texans are arguably the NFL's hottest team right now, winners of five straight. The Texans are also playing well defensively, ranking inside the top 10 in total defense, scoring defense, sacks, takeaways and fantasy points. All of those categories lend to the Texans being a good fantasy play on the road in Week 9. However, the Broncos are usually a tough out at Mile High, and they haven't been particularly kind to team defenses—the team's ranks outside the top-20 in fantasy points allowed in many scoring systems. What can I say? It's that kind of week.
Carolina Panthers (vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Welcome to Week 9—which shall go down in the annals of fantasy history as the week of the flawed streamer. The Panthers are an OK defense this year—13th in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. The Panthers have been a so-so fantasy option as well, ranking in the middle of the league. That's also where the Buccaneers slot in terms of fantasy points allowed—the team racks up a ton of yardage but leads the league with 19 giveaways. Given that propensity for turnovers, Tampa's quarterback controversy and the fact the Panthers are at home, Carolina has the makings of at least a serviceable fantasy start.
Oakland Raiders (at San Francisco 49ers)
When last we saw what's left of the Oakland Raiders, they were getting chewed to pieces by the Indianapolis Colts. The Raiders enter Week 9 26th in the NFL in total defense, 31st in the NFL in scoring defense and dead last in the NFL with a whopping seven sacks for the season. So what could possibly lead fantasy owners to want to even consider starting the Raiders in Week 9? A matchup with a San Francisco 49ers team that's second in the league in giveaways and third in fantasy points surrendered to team defenses—that's what.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
Cleveland Browns (vs. KCC)
The Cleveland Browns might not be a very good team, but due in large part to the team's league-leading 22 takeaways (far and away the most in the NFL) the Browns have been a top-five fantasy defense over the first half of their season. However, this is a week to leave the Browns on the bench. Or on the waiver wire. Or anywhere except in starting lineups. The Kansas City Chiefs are an offensive juggernaut—a finely-tuned instrument of destruction that gobbles up yardage and puts up points with remarkable frequency. Stay away from them. Far, far away. Especially with all the chaos in Cleveland this week.
Los Angeles Rams (at NOS)
Through eight games, the undefeated Rams are the No. 1 fantasy defense in most scoring systems in total points and rank inside the top two in fantasy points per game. The Rams are eighth in scoring defense and total defense and have posted their share of takeaways and sacks (thank you, Aaron Donald). But to say there's risk involved in starting the Rams in Week 9 is an understatement. Sunday the Rams travel to the house that Drew built, and the Saints have been known to occasionally have offensive success in the Superdome. You know, from time to time.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. PIT)
For most of the 2018 season, the Baltimore Ravens have been among the best defenses in the NFL. The Ravens are the only team in the NFL that has allowed less than 300 yards a game on average, and Baltimore is fifth in the National Football League in scoring defense even after allowing 36 points to the Carolina Panthers last week. Most importantly, the Ravens rank fifth in the league in fantasy points among defenses. But there's risk involved in starting the Ravens this week. This rivalry has become a shootout as often as not of late, and the Pittsburgh offense is firing on all cylinders even without Le'Veon Bell.