With the sport’s new passing-crazed style of play challenging the traditional notion that a stalwart defense is a fundamental ingredient for postseason success, these playoffs will provide an intriguing look at the way to win in the NFL when the stakes are highest.
“If you want to just make it a full-on seven-on-seven [passing-drill] league, then the Super Bowl will look like Baylor and Washington,” said former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross, referring to the recent Alamo Bowl, which Baylor won, 67-56. “They really have legislated defense almost out of the game, at least the physical intimidation side of it. They say that isn’t true. But you can’t tell me that receivers don’t feel a little more comfortable going over the middle than they used to feel.”
The Saints, Patriots and Packers were the league’s top three teams in both total offense and scoring offense. But defense was another matter entirely. The Saints ranked 24th among the 32 NFL teams in total defense (based on yards allowed) during the regular season. The Patriots were 31st and the Packers were last.
Their formula worked exceedingly well during the regular season. The Packers and the Patriots are the top seeds in the NFC and AFC, respectively, and have first-round playoff byes. The Saints are the NFC’s third seed and enter the postseason on an eight-game winning streak.
But some experts are skeptical that a team can thrive in the postseason playing that way. Of the 45 teams to win Super Bowl titles, 38 had a top-10 defense.
“If the defenses aren’t real good, I think there’s some vulnerability there,” said former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy.
Defensive statistics for the Packers, Patriots and Saints might have been skewed, Levy noted, by opponents sometimes piling up meaningless passing yards as they faced big deficits late in games.
But he also believes that “if you gave me my choice, I’d want a great defense first. I once made a comment that offense sells tickets, kicking wins games and defense wins championships. I think that still holds true, to me. That’s no disrespect to all these great quarterbacks and what they’ve done. [But] I have a little apprehension about a team that is vulnerable on defense, no matter how potent their offense is.”
The three offensive juggernauts fared better in the category of scoring defense. The Saints ranked 13th in the league, the Patriots were 15th and the Packers were 19th. The Packers and Patriots also had two of the league’s top turnover margins, plus-24 for Green Bay and plus-17 for New England. Still, Cross said he, too, had concerns.