The thing to remember about NFL playoff football is that this is when defense really makes all the difference.
The league’s rules are so completely directed toward the passing game and encouraging downfield plays these days that teams wanting to combat the air attack have two real options: ball control offense and an attacking style of defense committed to pressure.
Cover schemes on defense are all on the rubbish pile at the moment and shootouts are much too iffy a proposition for any coach to stomach for long. For example, anybody recall the “Run and Shoot,” or as Buddy Ryan termed it, the “Chuck and Duck?” Sanity requires a certain amount of control, after all.
So in scanning the dozen teams left standing in the playoffs, it’s helpful to note which ones have the sort of defense that can dominate its opponent and, provided its offense and special teams don’t screw things up too much, might win the remaining few games against increasingly tougher competition
For whatever it’s worth, here’s my ranking of the playoff teams from their defensive standpoint, and in reverse order:
Packers - can’t stop the run and without Clay Matthews have not a speck of hope to rush the passer. No hope at all.
Eagles - seldom stop anyone from doing anything. No team benefitted more from playing in a weak division.
Chargers - in the bottom third of the league in terms of yardage given up and penalized a lot.
Broncos - surrender a lot of points and yardage, and injuries have taken a huge toll.
Chiefs - pretty much synonymous with their divisional rivals in being generous and hurt.
Patriots - current practitioners of the “bend but don’t break” philosophy but often exceptional at situational defense because of their “King of Schemes” under the hoodie.
Colts - weak year overall but got much healthier and happier in December.
Saints - kudos to DC Rob Ryan for moving his team from last year’s bottom to top five now, but suffer unjustly because just offense is different on the road.
49ers - solid, fast, opportunistic; and getting healthy at the right time.
Bengals - big and strong while playing fast and loose, a near perfect combination. A single injury weakness in the secondary prevents them from being atop this list. (That and the fact that Seattle is just better.)
Panthers - a wall any ancient Chinese emperor would have praised. Complemented by exceptional speed, smarts and tenaciousness in the middle.
Seahawks - a defense built to stop the deep passing game, with intimidation if need be. Strong and fast enough up front to handle most anything run at them, too.
There’s mine. Feel free to make your own lists, but hurry ‘cause time’s a wastin’. Thanks to a great final week of 13-3, yours truly finished the season with a 160-95 record (we had one tie, thus the odd number) and that’s good for a .627 average. Not too bad after all. Now the second season starts.
Chiefs at Colts - Road teams are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to playoff football, and Kansas City is no exception.
The biggest problem the Chiefs have at the moment is the disintegration of their defense in the latter half of the season due to the loss of linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali to injury. Though both will likely be back in the lineup today, there’s no time for Humpty Dumpty to be put back together again.
On the other side, Indianapolis enters the post season very hot, with a defense that has its dominating moments and an offense that has successfully reconfigured itself since mid season. Apparently King Chuck Pagano has better horses and men than King Red (Andy Reid) does, and he’s had more time.
Spread over the course of the season, the Chiefs performance has been outstanding. It’s just that from a momentum standpoint, it’s hard to see them doing any better against the Colts than they did the Sunday before Christmas when the Colts clobbered them on both sides of the ball in Arrowhead Stadium. That one hurt.
Jamaal Charles is the one weapon the Chiefs have that can make all the difference, but the problem with having a key player like that is everyone knows where to jam the lock.
Saints at Eagles - All year long, New Orleans has been a very different team away from home, and by different we mean next to nothing very good. Drew Brees outdoors in freezing weather is not really a winning combination either. Philly has its share of weaknesses, but it seems doubtful that the Saints are the team to exploit them today.
Chargers at Bengals - What’s true for the regular season holds true still, Cincinnati has not lost at home. On top of that, they just handled San Diego on the West Coast a month ago when the weather was balmy.
49ers at Packers - Aaron Rodgers and Lambeau Field in the 2014 version of the Ice Bowl has everybody thinking an epic confrontation might be in the works, but Green Bay cannot slow down, much less contain, the offense San Francisco brings to town. Fortunately for the Niners, their defense usually travels pretty well.