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Fantasy football rankings, Week 16: Defense/special teams

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One of the top defenses this season has gotten there under the radar. But no more! I'm exposing them!

If I were to offer you a pop quiz, because in this hypothetical I'm a teacher or something, and ask you to name the top 10 fantasy defenses so far this season, you'd probably do okay. You'd get the guys at the top: Kansas City, Seattle, Carolina, Arizona, San Francisco. You'd probably do okay with teams like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Cleveland. Maybe even Tampa Bay.

But listen. I do fantasy D/ST rankings every single week. I have a spreadsheet set up entirely to track defense fantasy scoring in every single way I can think of, and as an obsessive guy, I can think of a lot of ways. And I had no idea the Buffalo Bills had a top-10 fantasy defense so far this season.

They do, though. The Bills have averaged 7.6 fantasy points a game this season, scoring 10 or more five different times. In its last four, the defense has scored 10 (against Jacksonville on Sunday) and 21 (in Week 11 against the Jets). They've only had a single negative outing once all season, and that was in Week 3 (oddly, also against the Jets). In short, the Bills are the sneakiest productive defense I've ever seen.

On a related note, avoiding negative scores is one of the most valuable things a defense can do. A goose egg is annoying, but doesn't actively hurt you like a negative. Well, outside of the NFC West, the only D/ST in the NFL that has yet to produce a negative fantasy day is the Carolina Panthers' unit. But every single team in the NFC West has scored zero or better in every game this season. They've scored positive fantasy points in 55 of 56 team-games this season, with St. Louis' zero in Week 2 against Atlanta the closest thing to a blemish the division has. It's pretty clearly the best division in football by just about every measure, and that includes fantasy-reliable defenses.

Back to Buffalo. Without acclaim, the Bills are tied for third in the NFL in interceptions at 20, with four each for Kiko Alonso, Aaron Williams, and Jairus Byrd. The Bills are the only team in the league with three players that have four or more interceptions. Only Seattle, Miami, Cleveland, and San Francisco even have two such players.

In short, the Bills surprised me. When I ran my numbers and realized the Bills ranked, in one of my two scoring systems, as Week 16's No. 1 fantasy defense, I thought I had made a mistake. But I hadn't. The Bills are legit.

Remember, in the fantasy playoffs, I do two sets of rankings: one for Favorites and one for Underdogs. In the Favorites rankings, I'm very concerned with a unit's consistency, under the thinking that all you want out of a defense is reliable production. If they go off, great, but if there's just as much risk of a negative-4, you don't want to bother. On the other hand, the Underdogs rankings list doesn't really care about consistency at all. If you're projected to lose your fantasy matchup, then who cares if a defense might score negative-4, so long as 25 is a real option?

Here's a look at some other notable units this week:

San Francisco 49ers (No. 2 Favorites, No. 1 Underdogs) - Earlier this season, I was checking out on the San Francisco defense as a top-flight unit. Through three games the D/ST had 14 total fantasy points, and between injury and other issues, things just weren't looking great. Of course, since that slow start, the 49ers' defense has averaged 11.9 points a game, with only one game below eight fantasy points. So, you know, "oops" on that whole checking-out thing. San Francisco takes on a rough Atlanta team Monday, and Favorite or Underdog, you want in on that.

Cleveland Browns (No. 3 Favorites, No. 2 Underdogs) - Cornerback Joe Haden is a question mark for Sunday, but honestly, if he has to miss a game, he couldn't pick a better one. Haden's skill is neutralizing the opposition's top wide receiver, as he did in his most famous 2013 example, Cincinnati's A.J. Green in Week 11. It's a heck of a value, and it only gets more valuable as the opponent's top target ranks higher. Well, Sunday, the Browns take on the New York Jets, and not only do the Jets not really have a true No. 1 receiver, I'm not at all convinced they have a true No. 2. You'd feel better about the Browns with Haden out there, but even if he misses I'm not knocking them much.

Carolina Panthers (No. 16 Favorites, No. 14 Underdogs) - All in all, I think my formula for D/ST rankings has worked out fairly well. The main thing I still would like to work out in the system is home/road splits. It might be as easy as adding one more variable to the equation, with average home or average road (whichever is applicable) scoring. I have a feeling I will spend an unhealthy amount of time fiddling with this over the offseason, and I have a feeling that my rankings are incomplete without that. For example, the Panthers slide down this week's rankings largely because they play the Saints, who have allowed the second-fewest points to opposing fantasy defenses so far. Except ... the Saints have allowed three points per game to defenses. When they play in New Orleans, that number is negative-0.86; when they play elsewhere, it is 6.86. It's a different team. This week, Carolina gets to play New Orleans in Carolina. So my official rankings, which are entirely based on my formula, will have the Panthers in the middle of the pack. But if I own them, I'm using them, and I'm doing it fairly confidently.

Here are the overall rankings for Week 16:

Favorites ranking Opponent Underdogs ranking Opponent
1 Buffalo Bills Miami San Francisco 49ers Atlanta
2 San Francisco 49ers Atlanta Cleveland Browns at NY Jets
3 Cleveland Browns at NY Jets Detroit Lions NY Giants
4 Seattle Seahawks Arizona St. Louis Rams Tampa Bay
5 St. Louis Rams Tampa Bay Kansas City Chiefs Indianapolis
6 Detroit Lions NY Giants Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis
7 San Diego Chargers Oakland Buffalo Bills Miami
8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Miami Dolphins at Buffalo
9 Jacksonville Jaguars Tennessee Denver Broncos at Houston
10 Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay
11 Cincinnati Bengals Minnesota Seattle Seahawks Arizona
12 Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Cincinnati Bengals Minnesota
13 New Orleans Saints at Carolina Arizona Cardinals at Seattle
14 New England Patriots at Baltimore Carolina Panthers New Orleans
15 Kansas City Chiefs Indianapolis San Diego Chargers Oakland
16 Carolina Panthers New Orleans Jacksonville Jaguars Tennessee
17 New York Giants at Detroit Dallas Cowboys at Washington
18 Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville New Orleans Saints at Carolina
19 Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay New England Patriots at Baltimore
20 New York Jets Cleveland New York Jets Cleveland
21 Denver Broncos at Houston New York Giants at Detroit
22 Dallas Cowboys at Washington Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville
23 Baltimore Ravens New England Baltimore Ravens New England
24 Green Bay Packers Pittsburgh Green Bay Packers Pittsburgh
25 Philadelphia Eagles Chicago Philadelphia Eagles Chicago
26 Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco
27 Houston Texans Denver Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City
28 Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Washington Redskins Dallas
29 Washington Redskins Dallas Chicago Bears at Philadelphia
30 Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati
31 Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Oakland Raiders at San Diego
32 Oakland Raiders at San Diego Houston Texans Denver

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