It's difficult to strike a balance between trusting the talents that helped get you deep into the fantasy playoffs and the emerging talents heating up for this final stretch. We often feel indebted to the commodities that propelled our teams into the most meaningful matchups of the year. While it's certainly understandable to stick with what has worked in the past, there are also exceptions in which we should consider getting bold with potentially rewarding and available assets. The 49ers' D/ST, for example, has been a top-five fantasy unit in nearly every format this season, but this weekend sees them face an elite Patriots attack. Would it be wise or crazy to favor say the Lions' lowly defense in what seems to be a savory matchup? Given these intense win-or-go-home weekends, it's not even about "what have you done for me lately," but rather, "what can you do for me this Sunday?"
In individual defensive player (IDP) leagues, if there is a single position that is greatly influenced by matchups in a similar fashion to D/STs, it would be defensive linemen. Given the fickle nature of the position and how variable it can be based on opponents' tendencies, it's prudent to play to matchups with linemen as often as possible. Even if there is a lineman that has been strong for your team, it's important to consider that matchups are most influential at this position since it's often about specific one-on-one matchups between ends and offensive tackles. We can somewhat easily identify the weak offensive lines and pursue some of the linemen apt to take advantage of favorable settings. If you are dealing with inconsistent production on the line, consider some of the underappreciated talents discussed below for this crucial weekend of playoff competition.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Playoff Payoffs! Let's discuss some notable names to consider for these important fantasy playoff matchups: The Seahawks' Chris Clemons is quietly on his way to a third straight season with double-digit sacks and could feast on the Bills this weekend. The Bengals' Geno Atkins, one of the league's hidden gems, faces a suspect Eagles line on Thursday night The Vikings' Harrison Smith is heating up and is the rare rookie who is getting stronger and leaping over the proverbial rookie wall. Morgan Burnett is still available in nearly 40 percent of leagues and faces somewhat sloppy passing attacks to finish out the season. The Giants' Antrel Rolle is turning in strong statistical outings lately and faces a stretch of pass-happy offenses. The Bucs' Ronde Barber is an ageless wonder and likely will have a bust in Canton one day. Facing the Saints' offense equals lots of work for Barber and Co. It's crazy that this requires mention, but Von Miller is on pace for 20 sacks and remains available in 40 percent of ESPN leagues. Rookie Lavonte David doesn't have Luke Kuechly's contract or strong ownership numbers, but he's having a similarly stellar first run in the league. Sticking with rooks, Bobby Wagner is going for the all-time mentions award for the season in this column. Wagner remains productive and underappreciated. Broncos 'backer Wesley Woodyard is back in the mix this week and should be busy corralling Ray Rice.
Sacking Arizona: While the Coen brothers movie "Raising Arizona" saw Nicholas Cage turn in a fine comedic performance, the current comedy taking the NFL by storm is the Arizona offensive line and offense in general. The Cardinals have surrendered 51 sacks on the season, nine more than the next team (Green Bay comes in second with 42 allowed), and face a Detroit defensive line with a number of talented pass rushers. Just as many fantasy managers are pursuing the Lions D as a deft spot start this weekend, it would also be wise to go after Cliff Avril, Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and even Kyle Vanden Bosch, as the ingredients for another sack party are definitely present. While it's tough to beat the Cards in the porous offensive line department, the Eagles are doing their best to catch up and face a strong Bengals defensive line capable of creating consistent havoc on Thursday night.
Super Cam: It's becoming clear that talk of a sophomore slump from Cam Newton was a bit premature, given the torrid run he has been on of late. While Newton is lighting up fantasy leagues with his offensive prowess, Miami's Cameron Wake is making a strong case for being the "Super Cam" of the defensive side of the ball. With 4.5 sacks over his past two games and two inviting matchups on the way for the next two crucial weekends, there isn't another defensive end I'd rather roster -- save for the otherworldly J.J. Watt, of course -- than Wake. The former CFL star has capably and impressively transitioned from an outside 'backer role in previous seasons and proven adept as a down lineman. Available in just less than half of ESPN leagues, you can "wake up" and add Wake just as he's hitting his stride in time for the most important matchups of the year.
Bargain bin: Defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
The 49ers' Aldon Smith is owned in just more than 21 percent of ESPN leagues but is on pace for the all-time sack record for a season. That ownership number is just wrong, and you should help fix this if you're in a league that handsomely rewards sack production. The Rams will have to live with trading the rights to Robert Griffin III away, but the emergence of defensive tackle Michael Brockers can help with that. In leagues that roster tackles specifically, he's a solid addition and an ideal keeper candidate. The Steelers' Ziggy Hood has an awesome name and two straight big games. Sticking in the sweet name department, the Browns' Frostee Rucker has a nice matchup. The Rams' Jo-Lonn Dunbar is a huge asset in hyphen leagues, and also in leagues that reward a healthy tackle clip. Cowboys outside 'backer Anthony Spencer is heating up and faces a Steelers line with some noted protection issues. The Bengals' Reggie Nelson should enjoy a sweet matchup versus a rookie quarterback in Nick Foles, who is dropping back more and more as the weeks progress. The Pats' Devin McCourty has been productive while shifting to safety. In deep leagues, the Lions' Lawrence Jackson could join in on the sack party versus the Cards. Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers is facing a pass-happy offense and should see a fair share of targets sent in his direction.
IDP Rankings Week 14: Top 30 linebackers, lineman and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Tackle - Solo (1), Tackle - Assist (0.50), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (2), Pass defended (1), Blocked kick (3).