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Injuries and Defense
by Bryan Leonard - 01/19/2006
Before we look ahead to this weekend's NFL conference championship games, let's take a look backward. What was all the talk in the NFL over the last month? Should the Colts sit their starters to have them rested for the playoffs or not? There were many people that split on the answer, but I think we'd all agree what the correct answer is: Play 'em! Or at least, rest any injured players, but don't bench the majority of starters the last two weeks of the regular season, even if everything is sewed up.
That was the position the Colts found themselves in after that 13-0 start. They had clinched everything: The division title, the bye week, home field for the postseason, the No. 1 spot. However, anyone who watched Sunday's loss to the Steelers saw an Indy team that was rusty for most of the game. Very rusty.
The Colts were out of sync most of the way in their 21-18 loss to the Steelers. Overall, having a bye week gives a team enough time, two weeks, to rest and prepare. It takes time and practice to get a team in sync because there are so many players that need to work together in unison: Blocking patterns, running backs hitting the proper holes, lineman pulling, receivers running patterns, quarterbacks getting the football to them on timing routes, etc.
Think back to the final regular season game for the Denver Broncos. Denver was a 12-point dog at San Diego in a meaningless game for the Broncos. They had everything sewed up and needed only to stay healthy. Instead, Mike Shanahan had several starters play significant first half minutes. They also played inspired football, dominating the Chargers in an impressive performance. I think back to the regular season finale a year ago when the Patriots hosted the terrible 49ers at home in a meaningless game, yet Bill Belichick played the starters for three quarters. The reason was a little different, as the Patriots played a sluggish first half, tied 3-3, as a big favorite. Belichick didn't like the performance and sent the starters back out for the second half, injuries be damned! They followed the next few weeks with dominating performances on the way to winning another Super Bowl title.
With the four remaining teams, does anything stand out? Yes, defense! Carolina and Pittsburgh are ranked No. 3 and 4 in the NFL in total defense, with the Broncos and Seahawks at No. 15 and 16. More important is run defense, and notice that all the remaining teams are in the Top 5 in the NFL at stopping the run! It goes Denver (2nd), Pittsburgh (3rd), Carolina (4th) and Seattle (5th). One of those will win the Super Bowl, so again, stuffing the run is a huge key to building a championship defense.
That hasn't translated into a significant amount of unders for those teams, but keep in mind that 6 of the 8 playoff games thus far have gone under the total. Yes, it should come as no shock that defense wins championships in all sports, once again!