National Football League
Defense will take center stage Sunday
National Football League

Defense will take center stage Sunday

Published Jan. 16, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

With Tim Tebow, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — football’s most publicly devout quarterbacks — now eliminated from the playoffs, comes the inevitable question:

Is God overrated?

No, I think not. Rather, it’s the offenses that are overrated.

Actually, let me rephrase that. This was supposed to be the year for NFL offenses, what with the Saints and the Packers and the Eagles (remember them?). But the notion of a prototypical NFL offense — described in the ubiquitous broadcasters’ phrase as high-powered — is overrated.


They’re fun to watch, sure. Some of these schemes look as though the coach is running everything with a joystick. But by themselves, fast-paced prolific offenses are no guarantee of success. That might seem counterintuitive to a generation raised on video games, overproduced video analysis and incessant highlights. But this entire season has served to vindicate believers in all the cranky, conservative, old-school aphorisms.

Defense, first.

Ground and pound.

Whatever you do, don’t turn the ball over.

Consider the Jets, who went to consecutive AFC Championship Games. Rex Ryan and Brian Schottenheimer abandoned their running game and conned themselves (and everybody else, it seems) into thinking that Mark Sanchez was Johnny Unitas. How’d that turn out?

Consider the Broncos. Lost in all the Tebowmania was one pretty reliable rule of thumb. When God’s favorite quarterback lost the ball, via interception or fumble, the Broncos lost, too. When he didn’t, they won.

What about New England? The Patriots are the exception, right? Well, not really. Yes, they have the quarterback and the coach, each of them great enough in his own right to be excepted from most rules. And, yes, in a fashion quite unaccustomed for a Bill Belichick team, the Patriots' regular-season defense sucked. But they also led the AFC in turnover ratio. They turned the ball over 17 times, five fumbles and a dozen interceptions. But they took it away 34, easily the largest margin in the conference.

What’s true in regular season, however, is more true in the playoffs. Three of the four remaining teams are identified first by stout, bruising defensive units. Baltimore is what it’s always been (no need to worry about Joe Flacco; this is, after all, a franchise that won a championship with Trent Dilfer). Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh might have been a quarterback, but he knew enough about the game to understand that you build a team with defense first. The Giants are contenders again because they again have the best pass rush in football, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Chris Canty. (If you’re looking for clues to Sunday’s NFC title game, look first to the state of Canty’s knee.)

The Patriots, again, are the exception. Still, it’s worth reminding that Belichick made his bones as defensive coordinator. Also worth noting: Each conference championship game will feature a disciple of Bill Parcells (Belichick and Coughlin). No “West Coast” teams made the cut.

The past two weeks have only underscored the conservative school’s virtues. Each of the eight playoff games offered its own form of anecdotal evidence. Not only did the Giants defense pitch a shutout against the Falcons in the wild-card round, New York outran Atlanta 172 yards to 64. The Lions and the Saints? Again, for all the yards racked up by Matt Stafford and Brees, it came down to who could run (the Saints, with 167 yards on the ground) and who could not (32 for the Lions). The Bengals-Texans game saw Andy Dalton throw like Timothy Dalton (three picks) and Arian Foster outrun Cedric Benson (153 yards to 14). And lost in the talk of Tebow’s miracle was the fact he wasn’t sacked. On the other hand, Denver sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and intercepted him once.

The divisional round offered more of the same. Belichick understood how to deal with Tebow, which is to say that the best defense against him is a good offense. He can do a lot of things, but playing catch-up is not one of them. Last month, the Patriots put up 41 against the Broncos. This time, 45. Does that say more about the quarterback, or Denver’s defense?

Texans-Ravens? For all the flacco he’s taking, Baltimore’s quarterback committed no turnovers. T.J. Yates, the rookie, threw three picks.

Niners-Saints was antithesis of Baltimore-Houston. Drew Brees had three receivers gain more than 100 yards. But, again, when the light show was over, it came down to turnovers. Brees threw two picks and New Orleans lost three fumbles. Plus, the Saints were outgained by 96 yards on the ground.

In the finale, the Giants sacked Aaron Rodgers four times and recovered three fumbles. In January in Green Bay, the Giants made the Packers look like a soft dome team.

So take a bow, Tom Coughlin. Maybe no one likes you. But you’re right. This isn’t a video game. It’s football.


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