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Top 5 Passing Matchups
Minnesota at Detroit
The Vikings may have to skew a bit more pass-heavy with Dalvin Cook on the shelf, and this dynamic group looks ready. They didn’t full-on dominate through the air last Sunday, but the matchup was rough, and Cousins still managed to throw multiple touchdowns for the fifth time in six games. It came on the heels of huge lines against three solid defenses in the Packers (341 and 3 touchdowns), Chargers (294 and 2), and Panthers (373 and 3). This attack is relatively simple, running heavily through its two starting wideouts, but the talent level in that pair is immense. Justin Jefferson (93 yards per game on a 24% target share) is one of the best of a truly electric batch of young receivers. He’s capable of an overall WR1 finish on any given week. Adam Thielen (62 per game at 22%) has stepped aside as the No. 1, but remains a lethal weapon near the goal line, with 22 touchdowns over his last 25 games. And if there’s ever a time for Tyler Conklin to bounce back to relevance, it comes here against a Lions defense that’s weak against tight ends.
The Lions sit at 0-10-1, and their opponents often don’t need to throw much to win. They’ve faced the league’s fewest attempts, just 31 per game. But when those opponents do put the ball into the air, they tend to do it efficiently against this stripped-down unit. The Lions have lost numerous starters from a Week 1 group that was weak to begin with, and the fill-in play has been brutal. Amani Oruwariye, Jerry Jacobs, and Dean Marlowe have all become every-down guys, and all three have been picked on relentlessly. Oruwariye gave perhaps his worst showing in the first Vikings game back in Week 5; Justin Jefferson turned in 7-124 that day. Safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris have struggled notably over the middle, and a strong slot man or tight end can always exploit this matchup. Simply put, there’s virtually no sturdy point in this unit, and nowhere an opposing passer can’t attack. Jefferson and Adam Thielen can pick their spots and produce at will for as long as they’ll need to Sunday.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Jets
The Eagles still never know what they’ll get from Jalen Hurts on a given week. Hurts had worked his way into a game-managing groove, but comes fresh off a pair of awful showings through the air. He’d hit on 62% of his throws at 7.3 yards per attempt, but has posted just 47% and 5.0 since. In other words, he’s due for a breather in a date with the weak Jets defense. Hurts throws to a wide array of young, flawed targets who contribute situationally. Against the Jets he can sample from the talents of DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, and tight end Dallas Goedert. Smith and Goedert lead the way, and while their volume wanes with game flow, both are big-play threats down the field. Ultimately, this attack will go as far as game script takes it. If the game stays competitive and pushes Hurts to strive at all, he’ll find himself in great position to succeed.
The Jets haven’t done much right here in 2021, and that extends to their pass defense, still one of the most generous in football. Only the beaten-up Lions have allowed more yardage per attempt, and only six teams have topped the Jets per game. (If opponents had to throw more to beat the Jets, they’d be jostling for dead last). They’ve given up big stat lines to the usual suspects like Josh Allen, but also to the conservative likes of Mac Jones (307 yards, 2 touchdowns), Tua Tagovailoa (273 and 2), and Carson Wentz (272 and 3). There’s blame to be assigned all over this talent-starved defense, which desperately needs a full draft or two to go well. Its only reliable piece, underrated safety Marcus Maye, has been lost to a torn Achilles, and very little has cropped up in his place. Cornerback Bryce Hall has flashed ability, but rookie Michael Carter II II has been consistently beatable across the field. The fill-in safeties have struggled mightily, and opponents love to test this group deep up the seams and along the sidelines. The Eagles boast more than enough raw speed to do the same.
Indianapolis at Houston
The Colts still try to pound the ball whenever possible, as seen in Jonathan Taylor’s usage. But Carson Wentz showed last week he can at least tread water when pressed into a shootout. Wentz hit on 27 of 44 throws for 306 yards and 3 touchdowns (with 2 interceptions) in nearly keeping pace with the Buccaneers. The air attack is focused on quick, low-upside throws to T.Y. Hilton, Zach Pascal, and the stable of backs and tight ends. But when he can shake loose, Michael Pittman Jr provides a true big-play threat, capable of winning on all levels of the field. Pittman has turned a 23% target share into 67 yards per game. Against the Texans, he and his teammates will face extremely winnable one-on-one matchups for as long as the Colts are actively throwing.
The Texans’ rebuilding defense continues to take baby steps forward, though they’re much too small for the fantasy world to see. This remains a beatable unit that’s benefitted from a weak schedule of late. They’ve looked great against Zach Wilson, Jacoby Brissett, and the Titans’ hopelessly injured offense. But prior to that, they were fully exposed by Kyler Murray (20 of 28, 361 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Matthew Stafford (21 of 32, 305 and 3). The problems start up front, with a pass rush that sorely misses J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and the rest of what was once a fearsome group. Houston ranks just 29th in hurry rate, which puts gobs of pressure on the young and stretched secondary. Cornerbacks Tavierre Thomas, Terrance Mitchell, and Desmond King flash ability but give up more than their share of chunk plays downfield. The team may welcome back top safety Justin Reid from a one-game suspension, but they’ve leaked production all year with him on board anyway. The combination of shaky talent and typical game flow always makes this a targetable fantasy matchup through the air.
San Francisco at Seattle
The 49ers pass game has settled comfortably into a niche, giving quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a manageable load while the ground game actively wins games. But there’s no denying how efficient Garoppolo has been of late in that low-risk role. He’s completed 71% of his throws over the past 4 weeks, posting 8.5 yards per attempt and 7 touchdowns. It’s a given that they’ll miss Deebo Samuel, who will sit for a week or two with a groin injury. But the rest of the air attack is back at full health, and there are still playmakers here to take advantage of the matchup. After all, Samuel has caught just two balls over the past two weeks. Brandon Aiyuk is clearly back in coach Kyle Shanahan’s good graces: he’s drawn 6+ targets in 4 of the last 5 games, averaging 67 yards in the process. George Kittle hasn’t popped off the stat sheet since returning from injury, but his capabilities are well-known. Samuel’s loss to both the passing and running games should reshape the offense somewhat, and those two would absorb most of the uptick. Even at these moderate volume levels, they’d project as well as ever against the beleaguered Seattle defense.
The Seahawks’ once-proud defense has effectively fallen to pieces. Here in 2021, this stands as one of fantasy’s most dependable (and high-upside) matchups to exploit. They’ve been brutalized by just about every solid passer they’ve faced, but they reached their low point in Week 11’s loss to the Cardinals backup Colt McCoy (35 of 44, 328 yards, 2 touchdowns). There’s not much left in the secondary from Week 1, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. Much of the damage has been done in the slots, where the cornerbacks are iffy and the safeties have been downright atrocious in coverage. $70 million man Jamal Adams continues to struggle down the field, and he’s targeted almost weekly for big plays. Tight ends in particular have loved this matchup: Zach Ertz (8 for 88 and 2 touchdowns), Dan Arnold (8 for 68), and Pat Freiermuth (7 of 58) have ruled the middle of the field, as well as the red zone, in recent weeks.
Washington at Las Vegas
The Football Team likely knows Taylor Heinicke won’t be their 2022 starter. Still, he’s entertaining and determined to compete, and the team surely appreciates his role in this three-game winning streak. Heinicke has completed 78% of his throws over that span; he put up 256 yards in upsetting the Buccaneers, then fired 3 touchdowns against the Panthers’ punishing secondary. He’s been spreading the ball around of late, getting youngster DeAndre Carter and the tight ends more involved than usual. But this attack always hums along best when Terry McLaurin is dominating targets. McLaurin has posted 50+ yards in 8 of 11 games thus far, topping 100 in 4 of them. An electric deep threat at 210 pounds, he’s a fine match for Heinicke, who’s rarely afraid to hang the ball high for his top playmaker. The combination should give the Raiders’ spotty secondary fits.
The Raiders’ long-suffering defense has taken a noticeable step forward in 2021, though their fortunes have turned of late. Three of their last 6 opponents have cleared 325 yards, and 4 of them threw multiple touchdowns. The most noticeable lapse came against Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs two weeks ago (35 of 50 for 406 and 5 touchdowns), but Thanksgiving’s performance against Dallas was just as egregious. Playing without his top two receivers, Dak Prescott managed to post 375 yards and 2 touchdowns, with 2 of his wideouts topping 100. The usually-stable Casey Hayward was beaten repeatedly down the field, as were Brandon Facyson and the safeties. But perhaps the weakest link is still on the second level, where the Las Vegas linebackers have struggled mightily to cover. Cory Littleton has been one of football’s worst defenders since signing for $35 million last year, while fellow castoffs Denzel Perryman and K.J. Wright have been 2021 busts in their own right. Overall, there’s clear improvement here from recent seasons and even a budding star or two. But this remains a targetable fantasy matchup until further notice.
Bottom 5 Passing Matchups
Buffalo vs New England
The Bills’ air attack continues to experience a bumpy ride into the NFL’s elite ranks. Josh Allen and his wide range of versatile weapons are dynamic, and they’re always capable of winning fantasy weeks on sheer explosiveness. Stefon Diggs is one of the game’s steadiest and best No. 1 men, while Dawson Knox, Cole Beasley, and Gabriel Davis make for situational mismatches all over the field. Still, the 2021 season has revealed a blueprint for keeping a lid on the eruptive Bills and Chiefs: a disciplined Cover-2 that keeps the safeties high. Allen and the Bills have struggled in recent dates with the Jaguars and Colts, who did exactly that and kept Diggs in particular under wraps. They’ll now face a Bill Belichick defense capable of matching up man-to-man and mixing up complex coverages downfield. The Buffalo offense is always a no-brainer fantasy play, but expectations must be kept in check in matchups like this one. There’s clear potential for season-lows across the board.
The Patriots’ dominance of opposing pass games has become almost laughable. It’s true they’ve benefited from a favorable schedule of late; they haven’t faced an upper-tier passer since Justin Herbert back in Week 8. But they showed exceptionally well that day against Herbert (18 of 35 for 223 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) and have been suffocating ever since (just 144 per game, 4.9 per attempt). The Patriots have shed top cornerback Stephon Gilmore but have replaced his impact with a shutdown pair that’s been just about as effective. J.C. Jackson has broken up 28 passes and picked off 16 over his last 27 games, and his dominant man skills erase half the opponent’s field for stretches. Across the way, Jalen Mills continues to serve as one of football’s most underappreciated cover men. Both benefit from a diverse pass rush that pushes the pocket and forces shaky throws into coverage. Josh Allen will offer this unit its biggest threat in quite some time, but Bill Belichick will surely be prepared. The personnel is in place to make life difficult for Allen and his weapons, who won’t find easy room to maneuver down the field.
Chicago vs Arizona
The Bears haven’t yet tipped their hands as to who will start under center Sunday. Rookie Justin Fields seems uncertain at best, while Andy Dalton looked spry in relief on Thanksgiving. It’s important to note that he did it against Detroit, though. Whoever starts will again be without Allen Robinson, who remains out with a nagging hamstring injury. Perhaps the only true bright spot on this offense has been speedy second-year Darnell Mooney, a legitimate WR2 as the fantasy playoffs approach. With Robinson on the shelf, Mooney has commanded a 33% target share and averaged a 5-122 receiving line. Beyond Mooney, there’s virtually no dynamism to be found here. The other wideouts, like Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd, are situational guys without real volume. Tight end Cole Kmet now consistently draws 6+ targets a game (11 last week), though his role as a checkdown (9.8 yards per catch) without touchdown upside (none yet) is unimpressive.
The Cardinals pass defense has been one of 2021’s most dominant, and arguably the main reason they sit at a league-best 9-2. Apart from a few garbage-time rallies, opponents have either struggled to move the ball downfield against coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit, or merely given up trying and relied on checkdowns. Only two opposing passers have topped 250 yards, and both did so in high-volume blowouts. Much of the credit has gone to the pass rush, led by Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, but they’ve actually been hit-or-miss. The most pleasant surprise has been the play of cornerbacks Byron Murphy, Robert Alford, and Marco Wilson. Murphy is a budding star who may draw All-Pro hype, while the rookie Wilson and the veteran Alford have been sturdy on their own. With all these pieces in place, they’ve allowed just 5 wideouts to clear 80 yards all season. It’s hard to imagine these Bears receivers pushing that mark much, if at all. It will be even harder if Chicago’s bottom-tier line can’t contain Jones and Golden to begin with.
Seattle vs San Francisco
The Seahawks’ season is nearly over at 3-8, so it’s fair to wonder how long they’ll keep a limited Russell Wilson on the field. Wilson is enduring arguably the worst three-game run of his storied career. He’s winless since returning from his finger injury, completing just 56% at 6.3 yards per throw. He’ll be back under center Sunday in what looks like an uphill battle, to say the least. He struggled last Sunday against Washington’s shaky defense, focusing underneath and ignoring DK Metcalf (just one catch on four targets) down the field. The playmakers will have to get involved if there’s to be any success against the 49ers. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett always boast week-winning fantasy upside, but this offense is hard to trust at the moment. Tight end Gerald Everett may be a target vacuum (22% over 3 games) for as long as Wilson is so clearly limited.
The 49ers, for all their struggles, still consistently limit their opponents through the air. No one has topped 250 yards since Week 3, a stretch that’s included dates with Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, and Kirk Cousins. Even against strong passers, the 49ers’ focus on the deep ball pays off, keeping things mostly underneath and low impact. The star power lies up front, where Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead lead a stout pass rush that makes life difficult for quarterbacks. The whole front seven is imposing and deep enough to weather the short-term loss of linebacker Fred Warner. Warner is a coverage specialist, but he’s not the only reason this group hasn’t allowed a tight end to top 40 yards since Week 1. The secondary has shuffled pieces on and off the field for most of the year but is rounding into health and has underrated safety Jimmie Ward back. Ward is a Swiss Army knife for the 49ers, covering both down the field and in the slot, and his presence is definitely felt.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
The Ravens are quite possibly seeing the worst of Lamar Jackson they’ve seen in years. Overall, there’s been very little impact from this air attack since its Week 5 explosion against the Colts. Over that span, Jackson has averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt and 219 a game. The Ravens will always favor the run, but they need more air production than that, if only situationally. And they’ve failed to fully uncork Marquise Brown (6 catches, 64 yards a game) or Mark Andrews (5 for 60) over this run. They’re strong but spotty, and there’s not much behind them to rely on for fantasy purposes. Rookie Rashod Bateman offers promise, and he’s topped 80 yards twice in his 6 games. But everyone’s floor is lower when the offense is this out-of-sync.
The Steelers have given up 41 points in back-to-back games, right on the heels of escaping the toothless Lions with a tie. But the defense is at least somewhat predictable; it’s fallen into “run-funnel” territory at this point. With the front seven struggling to hold against the run, opponents are focusing on that whenever possible. Since their Week 7 bye, they’ve faced a heavy 45% run rate that’s seen a lot of success. It’s safe to assume the run-oriented Ravens will ground the ball as often as possible, avoiding the Steelers’ disruptive pass rush and playmaking secondary. Cornerback Joe Haden likely remains out, but linchpins T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are back after one-game absences. This unit is far from perfect, and big stat lines do happen, particularly when the cornerbacks are exposed on the outside. Still, they’re certainly capable of stifling the shaky Ravens, if only by flustering Lamar Jackson into a handful of mistakes.
Cincinnati vs LA Chargers
The Bengals didn’t ask much from Joe Burrow and the air attack to win their last two games (impressively). Burrow has been efficient with this throws, completing 73% over a three-game span. But the Bengals will look to lean on Joe Mixon and the ground game whenever possible, and they’re not quite to the point that Burrow can cut loose on instinct. There’s still work to be done on the front line and on Burrow’s decision-making. When circumstances are strong, Burrow and his gifted set of young receivers can create splash plays. But the Chargers present a tough enough matchup to make them a riskier play than usual.
The Chargers pass defense isn’t without its warts, but it’s been consistently “bend don’t break” through much of 2021. Only a single opponent (Baker Mayfield in an absolute shootout) has topped 275 yards in this matchup, after all. Rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr remains out, but the secondary is deep enough to weather it. Michael Davis, Tevaughn Campbell, and Chris Harris Jr are all healthy and make for a strong trio. They’ve bounced in and out of the lineup, but when together they’ve done fine work against the likes of Tyreek Hill (5 for 56), Marquise Brown (4 for 35), and others. Behind them looms safety Derwin James, a do-it-all type who covers all over the field and looks bound for another All-Pro nod. The table is set for all of them up front by another likely All-Pro, Joey Bosa, and an underrated pass rush that comes from all angles. The Chargers haven’t recorded many sacks, but sit sixth leaguewide in hurry rate and affect their share of throws. All told, it’s one of the game’s most dynamic pass defenses, and Joe Burrow’s production won’t come easily.
|Week 13 Passing Matchups|
|Philadelphia||at NY Jets||Great|
|San Francisco||at Seattle||Great|
|Washington||at Las Vegas||Great|
|Dallas||at New Orleans||Good|
|New Orleans||vs Dallas||Good|
|Miami||vs NY Giants||Good|
|Tampa Bay||at Atlanta||Good|
|NY Giants||at Miami||Good|
|Atlanta||vs Tampa Bay||Neutral|
|NY Jets||vs Philadelphia||Neutral|
|Jacksonville||at LA Rams||Neutral|
|Kansas City||vs Denver||Neutral|
|LA Chargers||at Cincinnati||Tough|
|LA Rams||vs Jacksonville||Tough|
|Las Vegas||vs Washington||Tough|
|Denver||at Kansas City||Tough|
|New England||at Buffalo||Tough|
|Cincinnati||vs LA Chargers||Bad|
|Seattle||vs San Francisco||Bad|
|Buffalo||vs New England||Bad|