Defense Wins Championships? We'll Find Out
After a regular season of offensive explosions, the NFL postseason is demonstrating that defense indeed wins championships. And that kickers can lose them.
Despite the presence of six of the NFL's top quarterbacks, it was defense that won this weekend in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Defense played by three of the top-seeded teams and defense played by the New York Jets -- whose coach, Rex Ryan, prophesied that his lads could go all the way because they led the league in rushing and led the league in defense, the formula that almost always works in the NFL.
Rex gets the last laugh -- so far. He also gets a trip to Indianapolis next Sunday to play the team that put them in the playoffs, starting their late season tank against the Jets when New York was one of a pack of 7-7 teams just hoping to get in. The matchup between Ryan and the Colts' Jim Caldwell marks the first time in the Super Bowl era that two rookie coaches have ever met in a championship game.
That game will be followed by the two top-seeded teams in the NFC, Minnesota at New Orleans, with the respective winners meeting Feb. 7 in the Super Bowl.
Here's the note on defense ...
For 13 straight quarters on Saturday and Sunday, the home teams -- the favorites -- didn't permit a touchdown and allowed just three field goals. That was New Orleans, which allowed nothing in the second half of their 45-14 win over Arizona; Indianapolis, which allowed just three points all game; Minnesota, which allowed just three points in beating Dallas 34-3; and San Diego, which allowed the Jets just three points in three quarters.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, New York scored twice in the fourth, the breakthrough TD coming after -- what else? -- an interception in the final seconds of the third quarter by Jim Leonhard that left the ball on San Diego's 16. Seven of the 16 yards on the touchdown "drive'' resulted from a late-hit penalty on the Chargers' Shaun Phillips. The Jets got a lot of breaks, including three missed field goals by Nate Kaeding, the All-Pro kicker, although one was a desperation shot from 57 yards at the end of the first half.
So the Jets move on.
New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis (15-2)
Other than the Jets and their fans, the happiest folks at the outcome in San Diego had to be the Colts, who have been hearing all season that they would never make it past the Chargers and thus never make it to the Super Bowl. There was some truth to that -- San Diego had knocked them out of the playoffs the last two seasons and beat them in 2005 when they were 13-0.
Actually, the Jets did that this season -- stopped Indy's unbeaten streak at 14, but the 29-15 win was dubious at best. In fact, you can say the Colts put New York into the playoffs and now it's their job to knock them out.
For anyone who doesn't remember that game, it's the one that set off the tempest about whether teams should be "forced'' to play starters, something that no team really can be forced to do. This was a case of the Colts, as predetermined by team president Bill Polian, deciding that winning the Super Bowl was more important than going unbeaten.
So in the third quarter of their game with the Jets in Week 16, the Colts were leading 15-10 when Peyton Manning was lifted for Curtis Painter, the third-string QB. Game over. Jets cruise.
That was the turnaround for New York, whose coach, Rex Ryan, thought his team had been eliminated the week before by a loss to Atlanta. The win made the Jets 8-7, then they won the finale over Cincinnati, another playoff team that hardly exerted itself and beat the Bengals again in the playoffs.
Contrast? The Jets led the NFL in rushing yards with an average of 172.2 yards per game; the Colts were last at less than half that, 80.9. The Colts were second in passing, the Jets were next to last, just about what you would expect from teams with Peyton Manning and rookie Mark Sanchez as the respective QBs.
How will this game go?
The Colts hope just like their 20-3 win over the Ravens Saturday night -- Baltimore, after all, is a lot like the Jets and Ryan used to be the defensive coordinator there. They run a lot, play defense and have a young quarterback, albeit a second-year man rather than a rookie. The Ravens made Manning patient, but his short-passing game and very short runs by Joseph Addai, Donald Brown and Mike Hart managed to net 20 points, more than enough.
The Jets undoubtedly will play this as they played in San Diego -- keep it close and wait for a break, like Sunday's interception. In the first meeting, the break was Brad Smith's kickoff return for a TD to open the second half.
And, of course, the entrance of Curtis Painter.
Minnesota (13-4) at New Orleans (14-3)
Brett Favre comes home -- or at least 100 miles or so from home -- to the site where he won his only Super Bowl 13 years ago for Green Bay.
As well as the Vikings played Sunday, remember that they were at the Metrodome, where they are 9-0, averaged 32.9 points a game and never scored fewer than 27. They averaged 10-plus points a game more than they scored on the road, where they were 4-4.
Moreover, the dome crowd noise, which helped Minnesota so much Sunday against Dallas, will work against them in the Superdome. Minnesota's offensive linemen are the ones who will have to work with a silent snap count, giving the Saints the jump off the ball that allowed the Vikings to sack Tony Romo six times on Sunday.
What also works for the Saints are Drew Brees' three- and five-step drops -- he gets rid of the ball much more quickly than Romo, who likes to buy time, even when there is none.
That doesn't mean the Saints will breeze (no pun intended). But it does mean that their offense will have a lot more time than Dallas' had in the Metrodome, which has always been one of the NFL's noisiest venues.
Expect Minnesota to try to control the ball to keep Brees off the field, trying again to get Adrian Peterson started on the ground. New Orleans' defense isn't as good as Dallas' -- neither statistically nor in reality -- so the holes could be there. Although the Saints' pass rush, even without Charles Grant, seemed refreshed enough by its week off to cause all sorts of problems for Kurt Warner, especially in the second half, when he was playing with a bruised chest.
If Favre gets time? Lets just say he has a kind of mystical connection with Sidney Rice similar to those he had in Green Bay with Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver.
Even without help from the crowd, the Minnesota pass rush is difficult to block. Jared Allen against Jermon Bushrod is a mismatch, which means Bushrod will get help -- although probably not from Jeremy Shockey, even if his leg allows him to play. One reason Shockey wanted out of New York is that the Giants were asking him to block too often -- and against lesser folks than Jared Allen.
The Vikings' road mediocrity suggest the Saints should win.
Sunday's results suggest to take nothing for granted.