NFL playoff recap: Defense no longer wins championships

Rob Woodfork,

What an educational divisional round playoff round.

Not only did we enjoy two epic, compelling finishes in Denver and Atlanta, but we had two time-honored notions regarding the NFL playoffs officially dispelled: The team with the most momentum tends to win and defense wins championships. Time to take those two banners down.

This weekend, no winning team scored less than 30 points. In fact, even the losing teams managed 28 or better. We’ve heard for years that this is a quarterback’s league, but this is getting kinda ridiculous.

Just take this weekend: The winning QBs combined to throw for 11 TDs and three interceptions. The losing QBs threw for nine TDs and five INTs. This might sound like I’m oversimplifying things, but I’m sure we can all remember a day when defense ruled and the above losing numbers would be the best-case scenario for the winning QBs.

There’s certainly a more statistically sound case to be made for what I’m saying (starting with this), and just using “the eye test” (i.e., simply believing what you see) should tell us the rule changes in recent years have restricted some of the things defenses can do to slow down these potent passing attacks. Defenses in San Francisco and Denver were effective this season, yet still we watched each of those units get shredded at a time when they should be at their best. Just grinding out a win on D is no longer an option … now the only hope for defenders is to force a couple takeaways and hope your offense can outscore opponents straight up.

See a trend with the statistical rankings of the NFL’s Final Four?

Patriots: No. 1 offense (yards/scoring), No. 25 defense (No. 9 scoring)
Ravens: No. 16 offense (No. 10 scoring), No. 17 defense (No. 12 scoring)
Falcons: No. 8 offense (No. 7 scoring), No. 24 defense (No. 5 scoring)
Niners: No. 11 offense (yards/scoring), No. 3 defense (No. 2 scoring)

That’s right. Every offense is in the top half of the league, with only one defense ranking in the top half.

In addition to the death of defense, we saw “the hot teams” all fall. Last week, the Redskins entered the postseason with seven straight wins. The Bengals had won seven of eight going into Houston. Yet both fell.

This week, Denver was in the midst of a league-best 11-game winning streak. Yet they couldn’t hang on at home against a Ravens squad that backed its way into the playoffs with three losses in the team’s last four games. Seattle was on a six- game hot streak, but had their comeback in Atlanta fall short – yes, to the same Falcons that had two of their three losses in December.

Look at the recent NFL champions: The 2011 Giants were a mediocre 9-7 team that got hot in the playoffs. Ditto for the 2008 squad that went all the way. The 2009 Saints lost their last three games after a 13-0 start, but righted the ship once playoff time rolled around. The 2010 Packers were an injury-riddled team that won only three of their last six games to eek their way into the playoffs as the sixth and final seed. We know how that run ended.

This much we know is true: Home-field advantage no longer matters. (In fact, I’d make a case the bye week is more of a hindrance than a help … but we’ll save that talk for another day.) Momentum heading into the playoffs doesn’t count anymore. All that matters is getting into the tournament. Once you’re there, anything can happen.

Which is exactly why we love the NFL.

Ravens 38
Broncos 35 (2 OT)

Remember when Eli Manning proclaimed himself an elite quarterback before last season? And then he went out and backed it up? Yeah, Joe Flacco is one more win away from doing the same thing. Dude outdueled Peyton Manning despite going up against the second-ranked defense and helped his team to a win on a day when special teams alone surrendered two touchdowns. Color me impressed.

Speaking of Manning, his brother Peyton has once again proven what I’ve been saying for years: He’s a great regular-season player, but he’s not the same guy in the playoffs. Yes, his supporting cast failed him in this game, but a clutch QB doesn’t throw that horrible interception in overtime. Period. Eli might never come within shouting distance of his brother’s passing numbers, but Peyton has a lot of work to do to prove he’s anywhere near as clutch as his baby brother.

Packers 31
Niners 45

Colin Kaepernick did what Redskins fans envisioned with Robert Griffin III this season: 263 yards and two TDs passing, and a league-record 181 yards and two more scores on the ground. If Kaepernick keeps this up, we may have at least one Harbaugh coaching in the Super Bowl.

And what can we say about Green Bay that hasn’t already been said? They need to shore up that defense (which got shredded for a franchise-worst 579 yards, including 323 on the ground) and get Aaron Rodgers a running game. The only team that seems capable of advancing in the playoffs with a QB virtually doing it by himself is New England.

Seahawks 28
Falcons 30

Seattle may have had the two worst end-of-half sequences in the NFL this season. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they both came in the most important game of the year. Russell Wilson is a terrific player and Seattle could end up ruling that division starting next season, but on Sunday night his coaches failed him.

“Matty Ice,” “The Matt-ural” … whatever you want to call Matt Ryan, he finally got the job done. Now that he’s got that elusive first playoff win and the monkey is off his back, maybe now he and the Falcons can play fast and loose against the Niners and get Atlanta back to the Super Bowl.

Texans 28
Patriots 41

Speaking of the Super Bowl, I’m done predicting big things for the Houston Texans. They just don’t have the coaching, the quarterback or the consistency to be a championship team. So after about three years of riding the Texans bandwagon, I’m swearing them off. I know a bad investment when I see one.

The New England Patriots are who we thought they were. However, if Stevan Ridley keeps playing like this and giving that New England offense some balance, this could be the year they break through and actually win a Super Bowl for the first time in eight years.

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