Offenses could dominate divisional playoffs
John Clayton breaks down the divisional playoffs and says that offense could dominate.
Everything seems to be going against the odds in these unpredictable NFL playoffs.
Prior to this season, no 8-8 playoff team had won a game in the postseason. So what happens? The Vikings and Rams both did it over the weekend and on the road, too. Since 1990, almost 73 percent of the playoff home teams won during the first round. Over the weekend, three of the four losers were home teams.
No dome team has ever gone on the road and won two games to go to the Super Bowl. The Colts have a chance to be the first. Who knows? It's been an unpredictable season with unexplained results.
Since last season's NFC and AFC title games, the landscape in the NFL changed. The Patriots pushed the limits of the illegal contact rule all the way to a Super Bowl title. But will that come back to haunt them? A lot is on the line this weekend.
The impact of the new emphasis on illegal contact was monumental in the first round. Points increased to more than 51 per game, better than four per game over last season. Passing yardage skyrocketed. The NFL wanted more offense and it got that.
In many ways, the NFL got the best of both worlds. Offense increased, but the penalties didn't seem to slow down games.
The results were predictable. The last time the NFL wanted to re-enforce the contact rules was in 1994. During that season, illegal contact penalties soared from 40 in 1993 to 117 in 1994. Pass interference penalties jumped from 178 to 216 during that period. Scoring increased from 37.4 to 40.5 that year, and yards per completion increased form 11.55 to 11.66.
The changes were just as pronounced this year.
Illegal contact penalties rose from 79 to 122. Pass interference penalties actually decreased from 238 in 2003 to 176 this season. Offense improved under those conditions. Scoring went from 41.66 to 43 and yards per completion went from 11.29 in 2003 to 11.8 this year.
Already, the shift towards the offensive side of the ball has had an impact during the playoffs. Only four top 10 defenses remain -- the Steelers, the Jets, the Patriots and the Eagles.
More coaches are talking about offense being important in winning playoff games. This weekend will be another test.
• New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers, Saturday, 4:30 ET: Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis predicted the Jets would beat the Steelers if they had the chance to meet again in the playoffs. On Saturday, the Steelers will try to make him regret those words. Though the Jets showed they could play with the Steelers, they wore down as the game went on. It was a fast, physical, run-oriented type of football game won by the Steelers, 17-6. It's hard to see anything different Saturday. The difference between the two teams is the Steelers' ability to get more out of their running backs. While Curtis Martin out-rushed Jerome Bettis in this game 72 yards to 57, the Steelers used the play-action pass to set up their offense. The Jets didn't. By using the play-action and having safeties bite on fake handoffs, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a better chance to get a few big plays downfield. Although Roethlisberger completed only nine of 19 passes in this game, three of them went for 21 yards or more. Chad Pennington was struggling with his ability to throw deep coming off a rotator cuff injury and ended up with three interceptions. The weather will be a little colder than their last meeting, and the winds of Heinz Field will affect Pennington more than Roethlisberger. The Steelers will also have Plaxico Burress, who should give them even more opportunities to get the ball downfield. The Steelers can choose between Bettis and Duce Staley now that Staley has recovered from his hamstring injury. The score of the last meeting was 3-3 heading into the final quarter when the Steelers took total control of the game. Pennington can't afford to make mistakes and commit turnovers. Don't expect Jets defensive end John Abraham to play. Though he's practicing, he's five weeks into a knee injury that usually takes six to eight weeks to heal. If he plays against the Steelers, it would be an unbelievably courageous effort on his part.
• St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons, Saturday, 8 ET: The Rams have to figure out a way to stop Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. They failed in their first meeting, a 34-17 Falcons victory in the Georgia Dome. Vick completed 14 of 19 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 109 yards on 12 carries. The game was closer than the score, though. The Rams rallied from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter. But things fell apart for the Rams after a Warrick Dunn touchdown run that gave the Falcons a 24-17 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the Rams were called for unsportsmanlike conduct, forcing them to start from their 10. Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney sacked Marc Bulger at the Rams 1-yard line. On the next play, defensive end Brady Smith blind-sided Bulger, forcing an interception that was caught by Smith for a touchdown. Ball game. This is a better Rams team than the one that started the season. Their defense is coming on because of more aggressive play along the defensive line. Defensive end Bryce Fisher is hot. Jimmy Kennedy is becoming a force in the interior. The linebacking corps is playing better. After allowing 27.2 point a game during the first 11 games, the Rams have allowed 18.8 during their last six. Obviously, the Rams are a good offensive team. Getting improved play from the defense gives them a good chance. The key stat, though, will be turnovers. The turnover ratio for the Rams is minus-24, and teams that make that many turnovers without creating them usually don't go very far in the playoffs. Bulger is getting better each week, but it will be hard for him to overcome a two-or-three turnover game.
• Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 1 ET: The Vikings are great theater. They have their biggest win in years, upsetting the Packers in Green Bay, and the talk is about Randy Moss' fake moon touchdown celebration. While Moss is carrying the headlines, the real story is how healthy the Vikings will be going into this game. They left everything on the field Sunday in Lambeau. It was a physical game on a frozen field, and the Vikings are aching. The Eagles, meanwhile, are fresh. But are they too fresh? They haven't played a meaningful snap in a month, having rested starters for the final two games of the regular season and during the bye week. That might lead to a slow start for the Eagles, who have some questions heading into this game. The offense isn't the same without wide receiver Terrell Owens, and Andy Reid didn't let Donovan McNabb get used to not having Owens. Brian Westbrook has to get his timing down after not doing anything for almost a month. The Eagles won the first meeting, 27-16, on Sept. 20, but the Vikings gave the Eagles one of their toughest games of the season. Daunte Culpepper threw for 343 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings had 410 yards of offense to the Eagles 317. For time of possession, it wasn't close. The Vikings had the ball for almost 38 minutes compared to the Eagles 22. The difference was the efficiency of McNabb, who hit tight end L.J. Smith for an 11-yard touchdown and Owens for a 45-yard touchdown. If the Vikings have anything left from their victory over the Packers, this could be a pretty good game.
• Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots, Sunday, 4:30 ET: There are four reasons that the Colts have a chance to get over the hump against the Patriots and they involve injuries and rule adjustments. The rules adjustment is in the passing offense. Officials are tightly enforcing illegal contact and the Patriots secondary is a patchwork of undrafted rookies, wide receivers and linebackers playing safety. The three key injuries involve cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole and defensive end Richard Seymour. Law and Poole are on injured reserve and their absences will make it tough to contain the Colts passing offense. Law has had success in the past against Marvin Harrison. Now, there is no one player who can match up against Harrison. Seymour has a knee injury, and no one knows for sure whether he will play. Take three key defenders away from any team and it will be hard to match the 27-24 victory the Patriots had in the opener. But, the Patriots are at home, and they do have Bill Belichick calling the shots. The Patriots have always had an edge on Peyton Manning. In Manning's past four games at New England, he has a quarterback rating of 56, has completed only 54.9 percent of his passes, and has thrown just five touchdowns and 11 interceptions. What's usually lost in translation is how well Tom Brady plays against the Colts. He's 5-0 against them with a 99 quarterback rating. He'll have homefield advantage, and the Colts defense will be in a deep zone most of the game trying to minimize big plays. In some ways, this is a Super Bowl quality matchup. The Patriots could be coming to the end of an era and they want to secure their place as a dynasty. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is off to Notre Dame next season. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel could be Cleveland's next coach. Law may not be back next season and he's considered one of the team's best defenders.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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