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Defense and the NFL Playoffs

   by Al McMordie - 01/04/2012

Last year wasn't much of an NFL season for defense. Here were the Top 10 defenses in the NFL in terms of yards allowed in 2010: Chargers, Steelers, Dolphins, Jets, Saints, Giants, Vikings, Ravens, Packers and Bears. Not the elite of the NFL we normally expect as the postseason starts. The 14-2 Patriots ranked 27th, the Falcons 17th, both top seeds. However, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Super Bowl participants (Green Bay, Pittsburgh) came from that list, once again showcasing the value of defense.

This season the Top 6 list finds the Steelers, Texans, Ravens, 49ers, Jaguars and Bengals. Only the Jaguars were stiffs overall because of the worst offense in the league. And the Bengals were the biggest surprise of 2011, getting there with a young, but tough, defense and two rookies on offense at QB and WR.

And who finished last in the NFL in total defense this season? The defending champion Packers and Patriots! That will again be a theme to watch this January: Will the Packers and Pats continue to advance despite weak defensive numbers? Or will the better defensive teams be able to upset them?

In the AFC, a defensive-minded team to watch is the surprising Houston Texans, a terrible defensive team last season but No. 1 this year. The Texans have a new defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, using a 3-4 look with rookie DE J.J. Watt, a first-round pick. Houston is ranked No. 1 in total defense, and is on an 8-1-1 run under the total going into the playoffs. We’ll see if they can advance with a third-string rookie QB notwithstanding that top-seeded defense.

And speaking of defense, the defending AFC champion Steelers are 10-2 ATS in their last 12 games in January and the over is 21-6 in the Steelers last 27 games in January. Baltimore is 8-0 SU/5-3 ATS at home, 4-4 SU/ATS on the road. Also, the Ravens are 5-0-1 ATS vs. a team with a winning record, but 5-10 ATS in their last 15 games in January

Last season the teams that earned the all-important bye weeks were the Patriots (27th in total defense), Steelers (second), Falcons (17th) and Bears (10th). Two years ago the teams earning the bye week and their defensive rankings were the Colts (16th in total defense), Chargers (15th), Saints (24th) and Vikings (9th). Not very impressive defensive rankings. On the other hand, the Colts and Saints ended up in the Super Bowl, while the rested Vikings probably should have been there, coughing up the NFC title game in a flurry of turnovers and stupid plays.

Why is this important? Three years ago the Steelers were No. 1 in total defense and ended up winning the Super Bowl. The team they beat, Arizona, was 19th. The 2008 Eagles were third in total defense and came close to making the Super Bowl, suffering a last minute loss in the NFC Championship game.

Go back a year earlier and the 2007 Patriots (4th) and NY Giants (7th) had statistically very strong defenses and met in the Super Bowl. And that's what makes the 2012 playoffs so interesting is that it has not been a year of dominant defenses. All in all, it was a year of flashy, high scoring passing offenses again.

With weather looking unusually frigid across much of the US as we start the New Year, how will that influence the passing offenses in the playoffs? The Patriots and Packers are pass-first teams and will have home field in cold, outdoor stadiums.

The Patriots (12-3 SU/8-7 ATS) have QB Tom Brady (36 TDs, 11 INTs) and a slew of offensive talent, with WRs Wes Welker and Deion Branch and outstanding TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The defense is last in the NFL in yards allowed, last in pass defense as they've dealt with a ton of defensive injuries. Late in the year they had a 27-24 win at home over Miami, rallying from a 17-0 halftime deficit. The defense was bad early, but terrific in the second half. Brady completed 20 of 27 passes for 217 yards in the second half, finishing at 27 for 46 for 304 yards.

They suffered another injury, losing All Pro Guard Logan Mankins from an O-line that has lost 3 centers. New England DE Andre Carter, their sack leader, is also out for the year, hurting this shaky defense. There have been huge changes all season to this defense because of injuries and poor play, releasing underachieving Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Merriweather and Darius Butler. By the way, the Over is 22-8 in the Patriots last 30 games as a favorite and they are 26-8 over the total in the Patriots last 34 games overall.

So what will the 2012 playoffs bring, the best offense or defenses advancing? We will know soon enough, but don't be surprised if one of the better defenses rises up and curtails at least one of the strong offenses. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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