Perception Isn’t Reality in the Fantasy Playoffs

Kyle Moore

Our perceptions, during these waning weeks of the fantasy football season, are so often frozen in time, like an insect trapped in the confines of prehistoric amber, unchanged, static, fixed in time.

These trappings are everywhere in fantasy football, most pointedly in the way we think of NFL defenses, and which teams should be exploited with prudent match-up plays. It’s good thinking, to be sure, but when your understanding of a defense’s strengths and weaknesses are outdated by 60 days, your roster moves are made with misinformation.

The Buffalo Bills’ defense is an abomination, the Houston Texans’ defense is a force of nature, the Denver Broncos can’t cover tight ends, and the New York Jets cannot be run upon.

All of this oft-repeated fantasy dogma is, to some extent, wrong. Things have changed since the leaves turned – sometimes drastically. It’s important to keep up with how defenses have done over the past three or four games. Season-long numbers, as you’ll see here, can prove misleading, influencing you to plug in a borderline flex play because you think he has an irresistible match-up.

Come with me, you insect stuck in amber, as we refresh our perspective for these last weeks of your fantasy year.

Bills defense: It’s always nice to identify a defense early in the season that has been scorched – set aflame, even – by opposing running backs. It makes our jobs easier because middling running backs get a giant value boost against these lifeless run defenses, helping us at least feel more confident in our Sunday morning lineup decisions.

Buffalo gave up more than 100 yards to its first two opponents in 2012, and were subsequently dismantled by the Patriots, 49ers, and Titans, with each team cracking the 200-mark against a Bills’ front seven that looked to be historically bad against backs of any caliber.

Things changed after the Bills’ Week 8 bye, however, with coaches making adjustments to how the front seven approached obvious running situations that had been their demise in September and October. Since their bye week, Buffalo has surrendered just 78 rushing yards per game, appearing downright stout at times against the Dolphins, Colts, Rams, and Jaguars. Teams have scored three rushing touchdowns against Buffalo since Week 9.

The Bills are no longer the running back whipping post they were two months ago. In fact, they’ve been in the top-third of run defenses since midseason – a credit to their defensive coaching staff, if not the despised Chan Gailey. They’re by no definition an elite unit, but the perception of Buffalo’s defense is in desperate need of an update.

Texans’ defense: I get a steady flow of Twitter queries from fantasy footballers looking for a reason to bench Houston’s once-formidable defense. They know, either by watching the games or perusing the stats, that this is not a must-play unit anymore. Not even close, actually.

The Houston secondary, anchored by one-time shutdown cornerback Johnathan Joseph, started 2012 red hot, holding opposing wide receivers to a ridiculously low 14 combined points in their first two games. The steady secondary play continued until Week 6, when Aaron Rodgers orchestrated the Texans (Chainsaw) Massacre, roasting the Houston defense for six touchdowns. The Texans’ cover guys have never been the same.

Here are the fantasy point totals from wide receivers against the Houston defense since Week 11: 44, 40, 28, 37. If that isn’t a catastrophic meltdown, I’m not sure what is. Quartertbacks have gone to town against Houston’s pass defense during that stretch, with yardage totals of 378, 441, 309, and 296.

This means, of course, that Andrew Luck’s Week 15 matchup isn’t the nightmare you might have thought it would be back in September. It’s a plus matchup, in fact, and Luck owners have the great joy of facing the Texans’ secondary again in Week 17, if your league plays during the unpredictable final week.

Broncos’ defense: We’ve heard it – and Lord knows, I’ve said it – since mid-September: Play your tight ends against Denver. And for a while there, this was a supremely fruitful strategy for fantasy owners.

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson 99 celebrates with defensive end Robert Ayers 91 after sacking Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton not pictured in the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium Bob Donnan USA TODAY Sports

Tight ends racked up double digit points in four of the season’s first six games, exploiting Denver linebackers who often lacked the foot speed to keep up with guys like Tony Gonzalez and Owen Daniels. Even Antonio Gates, that tight end of endless fantasy derision, spanked Denver for 87 yards and two scores in Week 6.

The Broncos, rather stealthily, have occasionally allowed Champ Bailey to shadow tight ends over the pas few weeks. In Oakland in Week 14, Bailey intercepted an end zone shot intended for Brandon Myers – a key in holding Myers to one catch for seven yards.

The Broncos have allowed four points per game to tight ends over the past month, making them among the stingiest against the position. I’m not saying tight ends facing Denver deserve a rankings downgrade; I am saying opposing tight ends shouldn’t be viewed as locked-and—loaded top-10 options just because they’re facing the Broncos, who have seen tight ends eclipse 70 yards just twice in their past seven contests.

Adjust your thinking here. The Broncos, despite being second worst against tight ends in 2012, are not the pushovers they were two months ago. Adjust accordingly.

Jets’ defense: You must be thinking of the brutalizing Jets’ run defense from 2011, the one that held opponents to a paltry 3.9 yards per carry.

The current Jets can be run upon, and I think that’ll be an important realization for fantasy owners as they make gut-wrenching lineup calls in their playoff showdowns this month.

Teams have lined and up and run it right into the teeth of what used to be a fierce front seven (much like the Ravens, who are hardly a shadow of their former selves these past few weeks). The Jets are 29th against the run this year, allowing 136 yards per game (4.4 YPC) and 13 rushing touchdowns.

Even with gradual improvement against runners in the second half of the season, the Jets are being tuned up by running backs, who score an average of 17.3 fantasy points per game against Rex Ryan’s defense. The Patriots’ ball carriers had a bonanza against the Jets on Thanksgiving, scoring 35 points against Gang Green. Even Jacksonville’s running attack – led by the inimitable Montell Owens – posted 122 yards and a score against the Jets.

I’ve seen a lot of fidgety Chris Johnson owners weighing their options this week as the Titans get ready to face the Jets on Monday night. CJ?K has – and will be – a thorn in your side, but his matchup is not against the 2011 Jets. He’ll have room to run Monday night; the Jets are increasingly soft up front, and the Titans’ offensive line has blocked exceptionally well for Johnson during stretches of the past couple months.

This renewed perception of the Jets’ defense should also help owners of Ryan Mathews and C.J. Spiller in Weeks 16 and 17. Give them both slight matchup upgrades, even Mathews.

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C.D. Carter Fantasy Football Analyst
C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.