Given how Week 13 played out, it might seem a bit odd to lead this week’s column off with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The highlight of Pittsburgh’s game against the lowly Arizona Cardinals last week was probably the third-quarter weather delay—because on the field, things didn’t go well. The Steelers gave up 24 points to a two-win Cardinals team, managed just two sacks and didn’t force a takeaway. While speaking to reporters after a two-touchdown loss, star edge-rusher T.J. Watt didn’t mince words about his team’s performance.
“We got our (butts) kicked,” Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “I don’t know if it got away from us. We got pummeled today.”
Luckily for the Steelers, Week 14 brings with it that which fixes all that ails opposing defenses—a date with the New England Patriots.
After being shut out 6-0 by the Los Angeles Chargers last week, the Patriots accomplished something that hasn’t been done since 1938—the Pats allowed 10 or fewer points three games in a row—and lost all three games.
New England has scored 13 points in the last three games combined. The team is 28th in yards per game, rank dead last in scoring at 12.3 points per game and have surrendered the third-most fantasy points per game to team defenses this season.
If ever there was a bounce-back spot for a defense, it’s against the farce the Patriots have become.
San Francisco 49ers (vs. Seattle Seahawks)
Given that we just saw the Seahawks light up the Dallas Cowboys on the road to the tune of 35 points in their best offensive performance of the season, one might have a little pause about trotting out the Niners in a must-win week. Don’t—San Francisco just held the Eagles under 20 points on the road while sacking Jalen Hurts three times, and the week before that they put the clamps on the Seahawks in Seattle—half a dozen sacks, two takeaways and just 220 yards of offense allowed. There’s no reason not to start the 49ers with confidence.
Cleveland Browns (vs. Jacksonville Jaguars)
Not that long ago, this one might have been filed under “Caveat Emptor.” The Browns still lead the league in total defense and pass defense, but as the injuries have mounted on both sides of the ball, the Browns defense has slipped a bit of late, allowing 65 points over the past two weeks. But Monday’s loss to the Bengals was a disaster for the Jaguars in more ways than one—both wide receiver Christian Kirk and quarterback Trevor Lawrence suffered injuries that leave their Week 14 status very much in doubt. C.J. Beathard starting at quarterback rather changes the dynamic of this game.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. Los Angeles Rams)
After losses by the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 13, the Ravens are one of two 9-3 teams left in the AFC, and the team’s defense has played a big part in that success. The Ravens rank second in the league in total defense, second against the pass and first in scoring at 15.6 points per game. More importantly for fantasy managers, the Ravens lead the league with 47 sacks and have added 19 takeaways on the way to the most fantasy points in the AFC. This is a Ravens team that destroyed the Seahawks and Detroit Lions at M&T Bank Stadium.
New Orleans Saints (vs. Carolina Panthers)
Last week’s loss to the Lions aside, if the Saints could get close to the effort from the offense this season that they have from the defense, New Orleans would be in first place in the NFC South. The Saints have been seventh against the pass this season, and the team would be better in a number of other categories if the offense didn’t put their team in untenable positions with regularity. Over the first nine weeks of the 2023 season, the Saints ranked third among defenses in fantasy points, and while that production has fallen off of late, this week Cameron Jordan, Pete Werner and Company get a Carolina Panthers team that has given up the fifth-most fantasy points per game to defenses this season.
Indianapolis Colts (at Cincinnati Bengals)
The Indianapolis Colts are quietly putting together a solid season defensively. Only the Baltimore Ravens have more sacks than the 42 the Colts have amassed. Only four teams have logged more takeaways than the 20 the Colts have accrued. And only the Dallas Cowboys and Ravens have logged more fantasy points among defenses. Jake Browning admittedly looked excellent in his second NFL start for the Bengals, and Cincinnati isn’t short on skill-position talent. But we’re still talking about a team with a backup quarterback that has struggled to protect the quarterback at times this season.
Dallas Cowboys (vs. Philadelphia Eagles)
There’s really no choice but to include the Dallas defense among the “No-Doubters” this year—in 2023 you never know when DaRon Bland is going take his 37th interception back for a touchdown this season. The Cowboys are third in the league in total defense, fifth against the pass, fourth in scoring defense and tied for fifth in the league in takeaways. However, there is risk involved with Dallas—the Cowboys just posted a fantasy clunker against the Seattle Seahawks and didn’t fare a whole lot better when these teams met in Philadelphia earlier this season.
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Houston Texans (at New York Jets)
Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud has been the dominant storyline surrounding the 7-5 Texans, but while the defense hasn’t been great it hasn’t been terrible, either. Its young stars came up big last week against the Broncos, with cornerback Derek Stingley logging two interceptions and edge-rusher Will Anderson notching a pair of sacks. The real appeal here, of course, is the Jets—no matter who New York’s quarterback is, the Jets have completely inept offensively, and no team in the AFC had surrendered more fantasy points per game to defenses this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (at Cleveland Browns)
On one hand, the Jaguars would likely just as soon forget that Monday’s defensive performance ever happened—the Jags surrendered 34 points and over 350 passing yards to a Bengals team led by a backup quarterback. On the other hand, the Jaguars are among the league leaders in takeaways and the team has one of the league’s best edge-rushers in Josh Allen. And the Jaguars will be facing a Browns team that will probably be short its starting quarterback, top running back and No. 1 wide receiver. There’s only so many injuries any team can withstand.
Miami Dolphins (vs. Tennessee Titans)
Miami’s explosive offense has been the talk of the league this season, but the Dolphins defense has quietly come on of late for fantasy managers, including a pick-six from edge-rusher Andrew Van Ginkel last week against the Commanders. The Dolphins have hit double digits in fantasy points each of the past three weeks, and over that three-week span no fantasy defense in the league has scored more points. The Tennessee Titans are 27th in total offense and 25th in scoring offense this season, and there’s a good chance the team will be without running back Derrick Henry, who is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
Green Bay Packers (at New York Giants)
The Packers have been on a roll of late, punctuated by last week’s big Lambeau Field victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers defense has played relatively well this season—Green Bay is 10th in pass defense and ninth in scoring, although big plays haven’t come especially often. That could change this week against the Giants though, while young quarterback Tommy DeVito has shown some improvement, the Giants are well on the way to shattering the NFL record for sacks allowed, and no team in the NFL has surrendered more fantasy points per game to defenses.
Detroit Lions (at Chicago Bears)
The Lions rebounded from their Thanksgiving Day loss to the Packers last week against the Saints, but concerns about the team’s defensive performance in recent weeks persist. From a fantasy perspective, Detroit spent the first half of the year ping-ponging between good outings and poor ones, but over the past several weeks the team has been in a funk—Detroit’s last big fantasy stat line came back in Week 8, but this week’s trip to the Windy City could spur a bounce-back. The Bears rank sixth in fantasy points per game given up to defenses this season.
Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year, Follow him on Twitter at @IDPSharks