My New England Patriots fan clan took it very hard when the Pats became the first team in the 12-team playoff era not to make the post-season cut with an 11-win campaign. Last weekend's NFL playoff games simply derailed them. After three of the four top seeds went down and the final four included a team, the Arizona Cardinals, that the Patriots had smoked 47-7 a few weeks earlier, both my phone and BlackBerry were under siege from an attack of the "what ifs".
"What if the Patriots had made the playoffs?" was their refrain. Their answer: with Matt Cassell doing his best Tom Brady impression—the team had scored 47, 48 and 49 in three of their last six games—the team might just have soared into the Super Bowl and revived all that dynasty discussion that disappeared after one minor Super Bowl stumble last year.
Among this group, I am known as the naysayer—well that is the only one of the names they call me that I can repeat publicly. And again and again, on the phone and by e-mail, I kept repeating the mantra that year-in, year-out explains everything that occurs in the NFL playoffs: it's the defense, stupid!
The two biggest Super Bowl upsets of recent vintage were the Patriots over the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams and last year's Giants over the almost-perfect Pats and their record-setting offense. Both were defensive triumphs in the face of supposedly unstoppable offenses. The Patriots back seven beat up the Rams speedy wide receivers and shut down Kurt Warner's passing attack for most of the game. And the Giants front four simply stormed Tom Brady, sacking and harassing the MVP quarterback right up until his final gasp.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens all won Super Bowls in the past decade with renowned defenses. The Ravens even managed despite a feeble offense led by a quarterback, Trent Dilfer, for whom journeyman would have been a compliment. You may believe Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts are a notable exception to the rule. Hardly. The stats reveal otherwise. Manning led the league with a quarterback rating of 101.0 But in Indy's four post-season contests, Manning threw for just three touchdowns while tossing seven interceptions and his QB rating was a Dilferish 63.0. To put that in perspective, the lowest-ranked passer in the NFL this season had a rating of 66.5. Manning may have gotten the kudos, but it was Indy's revived defense, helpless against the run all season, that was the difference; bolstered by the return of safety Bob Sanders, Indy gave up just 82.5 yards per game on the ground in the playoffs.
Once you accept the premise that "defense rules", the current playoffs become pretty easy to decipher. Three of the four teams left standing—the Steelers, the Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles, ranked 1-2-3 in team defense this season. My friends at Cold, Hard Football Facts have proposed a slight refinement on the NFL's team defensive stats. They say their Defensive Hog Index has been virtually infallible over the past two seasons, having gone 18-1 in the playoffs. The index measures three stats that emphasize a stalwart defensive front—yards per carry, negative pass plays (sacks and interceptions) and opposition success on third down. And the same three teams topped the rankings, with the only difference being that the Eagles move ahead of the Ravens for the number two spot.
Of course, there always seems to be one team that defies explanation, in this case the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals were ranked 19th in the league in team defense. What happened? First, they got to play teams with defenses every bit as suspect as their own. Atlanta's defense ranked 24th in the NFL while Carolina's ranked just 18th. And in the CHHF index, Arizona actually ranked higher—17th to the Panthers' 19th and the Falcons' 23rd. More important, like Indy's a few years back, Arizona's defense simply rose to the occasion. Against Atlanta, the number three says it all: Arizona held the Falcons to less than three yards a carry, had three sacks and produced three turnovers. Against the Panthers, the only numbers you need to know are six turnovers and five sacks.
So it's not about home teams. It's not about favorites. It's not about quarterbacks. It's pretty much all about defense. Which makes figuring out this coming weekend a lot easier:
Philadelphia at Arizona: If defense rules, this game will play out in similar fashion to the last time the two teams met, on Thanksgiving night when Philly steamrolled the Cardinals by four touchdowns. Though they are playing in Arizona this time and the post-season Cardinals seem a different species of bird—with a rousing pass rush and a revived Edgerrin James running the ball—we trust in a full season's evidence that the Eagle's "D" is vastly superior. The wildcard is Donovan McNabb, one of those rare veteran quarterbacks whose judgment seems to have deteriorated along with his legs. I can't think of another first-rank quarterback who would have indulged in that silliness on the sidelines near game's end last week, getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the ball back to the Giants unnecessarily with more than two minutes remaining. Folks were so stunned by the idiocy that few bothered to wonder why he had run out of bounds in the first place when a slide would have kept the clock running. Still, McNabb's arm is strong, he has a better set of receivers than he has worked with in many a season past and coach Andy Reid seems to have woken up to the fact that Correll Buckhalter is too valuable to ignore, even when you have the estimable Brian Westbrook. Philadelphia 30 Arizona 13.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh: This collision of division rivals with the two most feared and ferocious defenses in football should be fun. But all season long the Steelers' defense has been just a little bit better. They rank #1 in all three of the CHFF "Defensive Hog" stats, including holding opponents to 3.29 yards per carry. In two games this season, Pittsburgh held the Ravens to 237 and 202 yards of total offense and made Joe Flacco, a cumulative 25-52 with 3 interceptions, look like the rookie he is. Despite those numbers, the Steelers won the first game in overtime and the second on a controversial last-minute touchdown. One never likes to back a team to pull of a trifecta. But the Steelers, at home, have the defensive might to prevail and yield an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl. Pittsburgh 16 Baltimore 12.
PS: To my Pats buddies: New England ranked 10th in team defense and even worse—16th—on that Defensive Hog Index. Cassell may have continued to step-up in the playoffs, but the defense, disappointing along the big-name front line and deficient in the no-name backfield, would have spelled a swift exit.