- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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As usual, the NFL playoff picture will be loaded with outstanding football players on both sides of the ball. But this season, the bulk of the star power is on the offensive side, particularly at the quarterback position. That isn't to take anything away from DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson and the like, but overall, the defenses might be doing everything they possibly can -- particularly in the NFC and from the second round on in the AFC -- just to keep their teams in games.
For Scouts Inc.'s offensive playoff rankings, click here.
The top three defensive lines on our list -- Minnesota, New England and Indianapolis -- all had Pro Bowl-caliber players who were nursing late-season injuries: the Vikings' Pat Williams, the Patriots' Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, and the Colts' Freeney and Robert Mathis. With a bye week for all three of these teams on the horizon, expect all of these defensive fronts to be operating at full capacity and wreaking havoc on opposing running games and pass protections alike.
I am a big believer that outside of quarterbacks, defensive linemen make the NFL go 'round. Great defensive line play makes the other levels of defense better and will keep a team in just about every game. That holds true with these dozen playoff units. There really isn't a weak group in the lot, and it needs to be taken into consideration that each of the three lines ranked at the bottom lost a very prominent member of the group, including elite nose tackles for the Jets (Kris Jenkins) and Chargers (Jamal Williams). If the Ravens, who feature Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, and Eagles, with Brodrick Bunkley and Trent Cole, are the seventh- and eighth-ranked units in the playoffs, you know it is a very strong class.
Dallas' linebacking corps tops our list, and Ware very well could be the best defensive player in the league. Of course, Ware is a well-known commodity, but Anthony Spencer on the opposite side has really stepped up his game. Only the Colts can rival the edge pass-rushing prowess those two bring to the table this postseason. The inside linebackers have been very steady for the Cowboys as well.
It probably is not a coincidence that our top five linebacking groups all run the 3-4 defense, as they simply have more linebackers to factor in. More than half of the playoff field employs an odd front, which could lead to more passing this postseason than in recent memory. There also is a wealth of dangerous pass-catching tight ends in this year's field, which could pose problems for these heavier upfield 3-4 linebackers.
All in all, these linebacking units are not off-the-charts impressive. Some of the league's better linebacking groups will be watching the playoffs from home.
The secondaries in the NFC had better be ready for an awful lot of action. The ball will be in the air frequently, with excellent quarterbacks distributing the ball to exceptional pass-catching weapons. The same should hold true in the AFC, but not until the second-round matchups.
While elite cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey will not be a part of this postseason, my top two candidates for defensive player of the year, CBs Revis and Woodson, will be putting their talents on display. Revis shuts down every No. 1 wide receiver he faces, and Woodson has rare versatility and playmaking skills that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers utilizes extremely well.
There are some elite safeties still playing as well, including the Ravens' Ed Reed. Reed has battled injuries, but he is one of the only bright spots on the bottom-ranked defensive backfield, which has serious problems at the cornerback position.
The secondary to keep an eye on in the playoffs belongs to the Saints. New Orleans had the best secondary in the NFL at the halfway point of the season. But because of a lot of injuries and recent play -- which I contend has a great deal to do with the injuries -- we were forced to drop the Saints well down the list. However, with players getting healthy and another week off, don't be surprised if they return to a high level of play.
One injury of note is to the Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who went down in Week 17. With our No. 2 group of receivers (Green Bay) coming to town Sunday, Arizona will need its top cover guy to be healthy. Rodgers-Cromartie is an elite talent, but the finer points of his game still need work. If injuries hinder his extreme athleticism, upon which he relies so much, the Cardinals' pass defense could be in for a long evening.
Although often forgotten, special teams are a crucial aspect of any game. This looks to be the case even more so in the NFC, where it appears that every one of the six teams has a chance to advance to the Super Bowl and the games all could be incredibly competitive. Of course, there will be tight games in the AFC as well; the two wild-card games in particular could be grind-it-out, low-scoring affairs in which a big special teams play or miscue could decide the outcome.
In this postseason, there is only a slim chance that an NFC game will be played in bad weather. And after the first round, weather probably won't be a major factor in the AFC, either, assuming things go to plan -- which we concede is unlikely. It probably isn't a coincidence that some of the best specialists in the league reside in warm-weather climates such as Oakland and San Diego. However, the Eagles and Jets have proved to be excellent in this phase of the game despite weather challenges. Unfortunately, that probably won't come into play this time out, and the kicking and punting should be cleaner than in most postseasons.
Dallas is particularly interesting in this phase of the game. Its place-kicking clearly is unsettled, but its punting and kickoff specialists are superb.
Minnesota really struggled with its special teams a year ago but has vastly improved. The Vikings are solid in all areas and feature a very dangerous return man in Percy Harvin, the offensive rookie of the year.
Finally, nothing seems to change in Indianapolis. For the most part, that is a good thing, as the Colts win a lot of games on a yearly basis. But in regards to special teams, it is a major problem. The Colts have a great deal of money invested in their core players, who are exceptional. But the bottom of their roster is consistently weak -- which lends to poor coverage and return teams. That holds true again this season.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com
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