Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham has been on fire lately but is dealing with an injury this week and has a tough matchup if he does play against Dallas. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
As most leagues enter the fantasy playoffs, owners are constantly reminded that “every point counts.” And, thus, positions like K and D/ST tend to get more focus.
With kickers, it's a roll of the dice no matter what you do. Try to avoid bad weather and play guys on teams with at least halfway-decent offenses. Other than that, just hope for the best.
With defenses, it's easier to find matchup plays, especially if opposing offenses have key injuries and/or have generally been struggling in recent weeks. Of course, factoring in a D/ST's own strengths is important, too. With that in mind, we're going to pay a little more attention than usual to D/STs in this week's column, as playoff-bound fantasy owners are undoubtedly trying to figure out the best possible plays.
Hee are some key numbers to know about every contest, plus a sleeper, stumbler, stud or injury concern to watch out for with a brief explanation why. Note that the "studs" are guys who are either better than most owners realize or established stars who owners might be foolishly thinking about sitting.
Rams at Bills
Stat to know: The Bills have allowed 21 passing TDs (tied for eighth most) despite a relatively modest 229.3 passing yards allowed per game. After getting 14 targets last week,
Stumbler: WR Stevie Johnson (Coming off a hamstring injury; Rams allowing 10th-fewest FPPG to WRs).
Jets at Jaguars
Stat to know: With Maurice Jones-Drew (foot) and Rashad Jennings (concussion) both unlikely to play, the Jaguars are expected to turn to Montell Owens to handle the bulk of the RB touches. The Jets are allowing the seventh-most FPPG to RBs (20.3), but Owens has just 112 career rushing yards in five seasons. Use him at your own risk.
Injury: WR Cecil Shorts, concussion (Not expected to play, which means Justin Blackmon will draw Antonio Cromartie in coverage, limiting his value).
Titans at Colts
Stat to know: Kenny Britt has scored in each of the past two games, but he's only managed five catches and 65 yards. Even in a favorable matchup against a Colts' defense allowing the third-most FPP G to WRs (26.4), Britt is a risky play. Nate Washington (7-150 the past two games) and Kendall Wright (11-126) look like better options.
Sleeper: RB Vick Ballard (Titans allowing the most FPPG to RBs).
Cowboys at Bengals
Stat to know: Jermaine Gresham has scored in three of his past four games, but he's missed practice this week because of a hamstring injury and might be limited or out for Sunday's game. Even if active, this is a tough matchup for Gresham, as the Cowboys are allowing 7.3 FPPG to TEs (tied for 21st).
Sleeper: Bengals D/ST (Cowboys allowing seventh-most FPPG to D/STs).
Chargers at Steelers
Stat to know: Ben Roethlisberger's return should boost the value of all of Pittsburgh's skill players. The Steelers averaged almost 50 fewer total yards and over seven fewer points per game while Roethlisberger was out. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown stand to benefit the most.
Stumbler: Malcom Floyd (Steelers allowing fewest FPPG to WRs).
Chiefs at Browns
Stat to know: Owners might be tempted to use Peyton Hillis against his old team after he received 12 carries last week, but he only gained 19 yards. Perhaps just as problematic is that the Browns have only allowed 10.6 FPPG to RBs over the past three weeks. Jamaal Charles is the only Kansas City back worth using.
Sleeper: Browns D/ST (Chiefs allowing third-most FPPG to D/STs).
Eagles at Buccaneers
Stat to know: Tampa Bay ranks first in run defense (82.3 yards per game), but they've also allowed 45.9 receiving yards per game to RBs and nine rushing touchdowns. With LeSean McCoy unlikely to play because of concussion symptoms, Bryce Brown is once again a top option.
Sleeper: Buccaneers D/ST (Eagles allowing most FPPG to D/STs).
Ravens at Redskins
Stat to know: Dennis Pitta was targeted just once in Week 11 and three times in Week 13, but in Week 12, he got nine looks. That inconsistency makes him tough to trust, but this week he faces a Redskins' defense allowing the most FPPG to TEs (11.3). He's worth the risk.
Stumbler: Ravens' D/ST (Redskins allowing third-fewest FPPG to D/STs).
Falcons at Panthers
Stat to know: Michael Turner had his best game of the season against the Panthers in Week 4 (171 total yards, TD), and over the course of his career, he's scored 12 times against them in nine games. Turner remains a solid RB2.
Sleeper: RB DeAngelo Williams (Falcons allowing ninth-most FPPG to RBs).
Bears at Vikings
Stat to know: Jay Cutler managed 233 yards and two TDs last week against Seattle, and this week he gets a more favorable matchup against a Vikings' defense allowing the seventh-most FPPG to QBs (21.7). Cutler's upside is limited because of Chicago's banged-up receiving corps, but he's still a safe low-end QB1.
Stud: TE Kyle Rudolph (At least eight targets in each of the three games Percy Harvin has missed).
Dolphins at 49ers
Stat to know: The Dolphins are one of eight teams allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game, but over their past four contests, they've allowed at least 13 fantasy points to a single running back three times. Make sure Frank Gore is still in your lineup.
Stumbler: WR Brian Hartline (49ers allowing third-fewest FPPG to WRs).
Saints at Giants
Stat to know: Pierre Thomas (14 carries last week) and Darren Sproles (nine targets in each of the past two games) have been getting the most action in the Saints' backfield, but Mark Ingram remains the goal-line back. Ultimately, none are great standard-league plays against a Giants' defense allowing the fourth-fewest FPPG to RBs (14.3), but Sproles still has PPR value.
Sleeper: Giants D/ST (Saints have allowed six sacks and seven takeaways in past two games).
Cardinals at Seahawks
Stat to know: Arizona's passing game has been a fantasy black hole the past couple weeks, but with John Skelton back under center and Seahawks CB Brandon Browner suspended, things could open up for Larry Fitzgerald and either Andre Roberts (ankle) or Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald has posted 1,434 yards and 10 TDs in 17 career games against Seattle.
Stumbler: RB Beanie Wells (Seahawks allowing seventh-fewest FPPG to RBs).
Lions at Packers
Stat to know: The Lions throw more than any team in the NFL (45.6 pass attempts per game), and with Ryan Broyles (knee) and Titus Young (knee) out, WR Mike Thomas and TE Tony Scheffler figure to see more targets against a mediocre Packers' pass defense. Both can be used as emergency fill-ins if you're in a bind.
Sleeper: TE Jermichael Finley (Lions allowing fourth-most FPPG to TEs).
Texans at Patriots
Stat to know: Both the Texans and Patriots feature solid fantasy defenses, but neither are great options on Monday night. The only team allowing fewer FPPG to D/STs than the Texans (3.6) is the Patriots (3.3).
Sleeper: QB Matt Schaub (Patriots allowing 10th-most FPPG to QBs).
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.