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NFL playoffs 2012: Defenses make their case as some of the high-powered offenses go home

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NFL playoff teams made an on-the-field case over the weekend for the ongoing need to play something resembling sturdy defense to advance in the postseason, even in this pass-happy age of offensive pyrotechnics.

The sport’s final four is set, with the Baltimore Ravens preparing to play the New England Patriots in the AFC title game Sunday, followed by the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers squaring off in the NFC championship game.

Two of the three teams that began the playoffs with the highest of high-powered offenses but defenses that struggled mightily during the regular season are now eliminated from the Super Bowl chase. The Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints lost conference semifinal games this past weekend. From among that trio of great-offense, pitiable-defense teams, only the Patriots advanced to the conference championship round.

Two of the final four teams, the Ravens and 49ers, finished in the top four of the league’s total-defense rankings during the regular season, even if San Francisco had to deviate from its defense-first approach a bit to win Saturday’s captivating game against the Saints. The Giants likewise have leaned on their defense in their two playoff victories — that after a regular season in which they were a pass-reliant team that often had to scramble to make up for defensive shortcomings.

“It was a battle of the defenses today,” Ravens tailback Ray Rice said after his team’s 20-13 win Sunday over the Houston Texans in Baltimore, “and our defense made the big plays.”

There weren’t all that many battles of the defenses during an NFL regular season in which two quarterbacks, the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Patriots’ Tom Brady, surpassed Dan Marino’s 27-year-old league record for passing yards in a season while a third, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, had the highest single-season passer rating ever.

As these playoffs began, experts debated whether the old adage about defense winning championships remained true. These playoffs were to be an intriguing case study. The Saints, Patriots and Packers were the league’s top three teams in total offense during the regular season. But the Saints ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense, while the Patriots were 31st and the Packers were last. The postseason field also included the league’s top four total-defense teams in the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Texans, the Ravens and the 49ers.

The results have been somewhat mixed, with the Steelers and Texans also eliminated. But what seems clear so far this postseason is that a team that continues to play defense like the Saints or Packers did all season is in peril.

Brees threw for 928 yards in the Saints’ two playoff games, and yet they’ve been ousted. He passed for 462 yards and four touchdowns Saturday at San Francisco. But the Saints committed five turnovers. The New Orleans defense couldn’t stop the 49ers when it mattered and the Saints lost, 36-32.

“You can look at the offenses, where they ranked, and the defenses, where they ranked,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “But you still have to look at who’s turning the ball over and who isn’t turning the ball over.”

The Packers couldn’t overcome an off day for Rodgers and their offense Sunday at Lambeau Field and fell, 37-20, to the Giants.

“Guys understand the way to win football games against good teams,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said at his postgame news conference Sunday. “Our defense is playing great with pressure and turnovers. Our offense for the most part is protecting the ball and playing smart football. When we have a chance to make a big play we are making them.”

Manning and his receivers carried the Giants for portions of a regular season in which the defense ranked 29th in the league against the pass. But the defense has been revitalized during the Giants’ four-game winning streak, including two triumphs at the end of the regular season and two in the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons scored only a safety against the Giants in the first round of the playoffs. The Giants had four sacks and forced four turnovers Sunday in Green Bay.

“Our defense has played well the last few weeks and that has been a huge difference for us in being able to count on that,” Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said at his news conference following the game.

Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said he regarded turnovers and mistakes, some of them unforced, as the biggest factor in the losses by the Saints and Packers, but added: “Teams were winning a bunch of games with offense during the regular season. You have these offenses really rolling, playing with great confidence. But it gets a little bit later in the season and into the playoffs and everyone understands the magnitude of the game, and everybody starts to tighten up a little bit.”

The Ravens did very little on offense Sunday against the Texans. Rice ran for only 60 yards on 21 carries and quarterback Joe Flacco connected on only 14 of 27 passes. The Ravens’ two touchdowns came on drives of two and 34 yards. But the Baltimore defense intercepted Houston’s rookie quarterback, T.J. Yates, three times and shut out the Texans in the second half.

“I knew we were facing one of the best defenses around,” Yates said.

The NFC championship game matches one top defensive team, the 49ers, against a team playing improved defense, the Giants. The AFC title game has the Patriots, whose beleaguered defense fared better in Saturday night’s lopsided triumph over Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and the Broncos, matched up with the imposing defense of the Ravens, who know the challenge becomes far greater now against Brady. The three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback tied the NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes against the Broncos.

“We’re playing against a phenomenal player,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said Sunday. “We’re playing against a phenomenal team. You can’t make that many mistakes or else they’re going to expose you.”

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