By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The NFL is perhaps the most unpredictable of all sports leagues, and that plays out on nearly an every-week basis.
In last weekend’s wild-card games, New Orleans was supposed to be up against it because they were forced to play outdoors against the red-hot Philadelphia Eagles. There was no way that the Saints were supposed to slow down the red-hot Eagles offense and it was clear that Drew Brees struggled on the road.
The theory made plenty of sense based on past performance, but the Saints prevailed by a 26-24 margin as Brees threw for 250 yards and a touchdown.
San Diego appeared to be little more than road kill as they went to Cincinnati. The Bengals were 8-0 at home this year and the Chargers made the playoffs when fate intervened – and Ryan Succop missed a Week 17 field goal. By turning up the blitz and running the ball right at the Bengals, the Chargers rolled to a 27-10 victory.
Neither of these wins made any sense based on what had happened during the regular season.
The reason for the NFL’s unpredictability may be the back-and-forth war between offensive and defensive coaches.
Just two years ago, it appeared that offensive coaches had scored a decisive victory. During the 2011 season, there was one way to win in football: Light up the scoreboard with an explosive passing game.
Defense didn’t matter. That’s just how the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers played that season. The Patriots went 13-3 and scored 542 points while earning the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Saints matched New England’s record and scored 547 points, while the Packers went a remarkable 15-1 and scored 560 points.
All three of those teams finished near the bottom of the league in total defense, but it didn’t seem to matter. With quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, it was simply a matter of outscoring their opponents.
While this made old-school purists who loved concepts like defense and the running game weak in the knees, the NFL had turned a corner. The passing game was the only thing that appeared to matter.
That may have been the case then, but the game has changed once again. Take a look at the NFC, where the four teams that will compete in the divisional playoff are all in the top five spots in total yards allowed.
If you don’t subscribe to yards allowed being a viable measurable tool, the Seahawks, Panthers, 49ers and Saints have allowed the least points of any team in the league.
Three of those teams also rely heavily on the running game to get their offense in gear as well. The Saints struggled in that area with disappointing Pierre Thomas during the regular season, but they upgraded significantly when they turned to Mark Ingram in the wild-card game in the win over the Eagles.
Not only are these teams thoroughly dependent on defense, all of these teams have at least two dominant players who are lights-out hitters.
The Seahawks have two game-changing players in cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas. Sherman was the best cover corner in the league this year and had 16 passes defensed and eight interceptions, while Thomas had 105 tackles and five picks. Don’t overlook middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who led the Seahawks with 120 tackles and also had 5.0 sacks.
Ron Rivera’s Panthers lean on middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is like a young Brian Urlacher because he goes sideline-to-sideline to make big hits. He led the Panthers with 156 tackles while defensive end Greg Hardy had 15.0 sacks and can turn any game in the Panthers’ favor.
The 49ers are loaded with star defensive players, but nobody is more productive than linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who had 145 tackles, four forced fumbles and 5.0 sacks. Defensive tackle Justin Smith may not get the recognition that Patrick Willis or Aldon Smith get, but he shuts down the running game and also had 6.5 sacks.
The Saints are the most interesting team in this group because of the transformation they have made. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was the most effective coordinator in the league as the Saints went from the worst defense in the league in 2012 to the fourth-best this year (total yards and points).
Give credit to leading tackler Curtis Lofton, for making Ryan’s gameplan work. The Saints’ middle linebacker led the team with 125 tackles, while defensive end Cameron Jordan had 12.5 sacks. Outside linebacker Junior Galette was barely known at the start of the season, but he had 12.0 sacks this year and became a game-changing player.
They have clearly turned their attention to defense in the NFC. The best teams in the conference are at least as dependent on hard-hitting defense as they are strong quarterback play.
One has to hope that Phil Emery has noticed and will attempt to repair the Bears’ 30th-ranked defense in the offseason.