On Saturday, when the first of 12 teams begin the month-long slog for the Super Bowl, there will be even more at stake than a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
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The very heart and soul of the NFL, and just how you go about becoming its champion, is up for grabs. There is now a stark contrast between teams that plan their Super Bowl routes through their offenses and those who look to their defenses to get them there.
“The real season starts now,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who set NFL single-season passing records for yards, completion percentage, 300-yard games and consecutive 300-yard games this season.
“Nothing else matters past this coming Saturday’s game,” he said. “We have to continue to progress and get better. All of our goals and dreams and aspirations are right there in front of us.”
This is right in front of the NFL as well: The old adage that defense wins championships will be tested, and perhaps rewritten, over the next four weeks.
Many of the teams that have earned a spot in the postseason did so in one of two very distinct ways. Teams like the Steelers, Ravens, Texans, 49ers and even the Bengals earned their shot with staunch defenses and rather pedestrian offenses. They are the old-school visions of how to build champions.
On the other side of that approach are offenses that epitomize the new NFL — all high-flying, high-scoring, who-says-defense-wins-championships offenses that helped shatter records this season, produce three 5,000-yard passers in Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Stafford, produce the most efficient passer in a season in Aaron Rodgers and the most points on the scoreboard since the 1960s.
Pittsburgh, Atlanta and the New York Giants each boast a quarterback that set franchise records for passing yards in a season, which puts the Steelers in the enviable position of having some bragging rights on both sides of the ball.
But for the most part, it’s one or the other – teams like Green Bay that could be 1,000 points up if its offense played its own defense, and teams like the Ravens that almost certainly couldn’t score on its own defense.
So who you got? The high-powered offenses no one can stop, or the defenses that seem capable of stopping almost everyone?
Even the four teams that earned a bye in the first round did so on one side of the divide or the other. The top two teams, Green Bay and New England, carved out 15- and 13-win seasons, respectively, with offenses that boggle the mind and just keep scoring.
The Packers boast the best offense in football. They averaged 35 points per game and have a quarterback with a 122.5 QB rating who threw for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and a mere six interceptions this season. That’s simply incredible. They also have a mediocre-at-best defense – the 19th best in the league in points allowed and the league’s worst pass defense.
The Patriots also boast a big-time offense, the third-best in football, as well as a defense that allowed 21.4 points per game, 15th in the league. Brady served up another monster year, of course, but his defense can still get served.
Then there are the Niners (second-best defense) and the Ravens (third-best) and their old-school approach. They have defenses as stout as their offenses are mild, and to be successful they’ll have to show the flash of the NFL’s 2011 regular season has no lasting power now that 2012 has arrived.
Still, their defensive successes – and that of the Steelers and Texans – will be mightily tested going forward. As in the regular season, this is the era of the offense. The 44.36 point-per-game average this season was the highest since 1965.
The fact there’s even an argument between Brees and Rodgers for MVP highlights, among other things, shows just how out of control some of these high-octane offenses have gotten. Two quarterbacks have been so historically great, statistically, that it’s hard choosing which one was better.
The marquee matchups that will tell us whether defense or offense truly rules the day in the NFL will have to wait until the divisional round. Saturday’s showdown between New Orleans (second-best offense) and Detroit (fourth-best) features similar philosophies.
It’ll be the first time in NFL history that a playoff game has featured two 5,000-yard passers. The Saints, for good measure, set NFL records with 7,474 total net yards and 5,347 passing yards.
“The regular season is over and it’s the postseason now so our full attention is on the Saints,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said, expressing the obvious in the way only a coach can. “The playoffs are about advancing and doing whatever you have to do each week to advance.”
For those two teams, it’ll likely be offense that they must do to advance. But for the Bengals-Texans game, both of whom got there on their defenses, it’ll probably be the other side of the ball that dictates who moves on.
“The Bengals are a heck of a team,” said Houston head coach Gary Kubiak. “They’re a lot like us. They’ve been playing a young quarterback, they run the ball well and they play good defense. This is going to be a heck of a game.”
And a heck of a postseason, because there’s a divide in the game that’s about to be settled.
There’s no doubt the high-scoring has contributed to just how popular the league has become, but this is a fact as well: The NFL is a copycat league because it’s a win-or-go-home league. If teams like Green Bay or New England – or Atlanta, New Orleans or Detroit – roll to a championship, the high minds of the NFL could look around and decide it’s time to get on the offensive bandwagon or get left behind.
Popular wisdom might just decide defenses no longer win championships.
But in the same way, a championship claimed by the Ravens, Niners, Steelers or Houston would remind us that defense still rule the day that matters most: The Super Bowl.
Get ready. One of the most exciting regular-seasons in NFL history is about to usher in a postseason that should settle whether the move toward high-powered offenses, from the NFL on down, has finally replaced the old adage that D is the key to winning it all.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.