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NFL Playoffs: Under and Out

   by Al McMordie - 01/11/2006

One of the most telling stats of the first week of the NFL playoffs was the defense. Washington amassed a ridiculous 120 yards of offense against the Buccaneers. Even more ridiculous is that they WON the game! The Patriots followed Saturday night with a dominating performance against the Jaguars, allowing 3 points. Both games sailed under the total.

Isn’t it always like this? Defense is what wins in January and February, more so than offense. The better defensive teams generally make it into the playoffs, then have an edge on their opponents, especially if that opponent has defensive weaknesses that can be exploited. This was evident Sunday when the Steelers fell behind 17-7 at Cincinnati, but remained calm as their defense forced Bengal punt after punt and a slew of interceptions. Truth be told, the Bengals have a strong, balanced offense, but that defense struggled badly in the second half of the year. And that poor defense is why Pittsburgh came roaring back to a 31-17 victory. And a large factor in why Cincinnati will be home watching the rest of the postseason.

That game crept over the total, but the other Sunday game, Carolina’s 23-0 shutout at the NY Giants, went under. Which means 75% of the playoff games have gone under the total thus far. The Bengals electrified the home crowd with a 10-0 first quarter lead behind their talented offense. However, when the final gun had sounded, the Steelers had 144 rushing yards, which is their bread and butter, and once they got the lead, their defense did the rest.

It’s important for a team that goes deeper into the playoffs to have some semblance of a balanced offense and a tough defense. An effective running game adds so much to an offense. If it’s second and five or third and three, having a reliable ground game forces the defense into having to watch for the pass AND the run. Offensive flexibility and options are important weapons. An offense that can’t run well and is forced to pass often, however, like the Bengals and Jaguars were in the second half, makes it easier for a defense to attack. The defense can sit back in coverage and look for interceptions, or mix in blitzes to harass a quarterback who they know is very likely to be dropping back for a pass. This creates sacks and opportunities for hurried passes and interceptions. The Steelers and Patriots’ defenses were both textbook examples this weekend.

Notice that the top five rushing teams as far as percentage of running plays called this season were the Steelers (57%), followed by the Broncos, Bears, Falcons, and Seahawks. What stands out about that group? Four of the five are still alive for the Super Bowl, with three earning first round byes.

While the Steelers used defense and several trick plays in their impressive comeback, the Carolina Panthers didn’t do anything fancy Sunday. They ran the football for 223 yards against the Giants, then played an aggressive, choking defense that held the Giants to 132 total yards. That formula may not excite TV viewers, but the Panthers used that same plan to win the NFC title just two years ago. In the NFC championship game that season, Carolina upset the Eagles 14-6 on the road, in a game that went way under the total. And the Panthers had the same blueprint Sunday in their 23-0 rout at the NY Giants as a road dog.
The Bears play a similar style under Lovie Smith with the No. 2 overall defense and the best defense yet of all the remaining playoff teams. And they face the Panthers this weekend. Don’t look for a lot of trickery, especially in the Chicago cold, but for both sides to play their games: power football and smash-mouth defense. A 14-6 game may not get huge TV ratings, but history shows that formula wins often in January. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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