Three of the top four defenses still alive

Updated: January 11, 2006, 12:40 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the opening round of the playoffs, losing teams scored the second-fewest points ever under the current format, two offenses had less than 133 yards, and defense and takeaways dominated in all four contests. Only one game produced more than 40 points combined, and nearly one-third of the total scoring was the result of defensive takeaways.

For this weekend's divisional round matchups, well, get ready for more of the same.

It's hard to imagine that with five of the NFL's top 11 offenses involved in the divisional round, there won't be plenty of fireworks. After all, the second round features three of the five statistically most potent offenses from the '05 regular season. And just think, from an individual standpoint, about the galaxy of playmakers.

As good as offenses are at this level of the playoffs, you still don't see many games where both teams are [scoring] in the 20s. You better be able to play defense ...
Steelers LB Joey Porter

Steve Smith and Santana Moss, the two most explosive wide receivers in the league, the former the first player since 1992 to win the wide receiver "triple crown" by leading the NFL in catches, yards and touchdowns. The most valuable player and rushing champion, Shaun Alexander, who also established a new record for touchdowns. The two-time reigning passing champion, Peyton Manning, and a three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback in Tom Brady. That's just a fraction of the impressive offensive roll call assembled for the second round.

But don't dismiss the role that defense has played in bringing the eight franchises to this point, or the role it will play in determining the league's final four.

"You've got to go in with the mentality that you're going to need some stops to keep moving forward," Washington Redskins weakside linebacker Marcus Washington said. "Yeah, there are some great offenses playing at this level. But I guess I'm a little bit old school. I still think you win championships with defense. And when you look at who's left [in the playoffs], the teams still playing, they can all play some defense."

It isn't easy to debunk the notion that once the playoffs reach the divisional round, it is actually offense that takes over. Since 1990, when the league adopted the 12-team playoff format, winning teams on average have scored more in the second round than in the first. But in the 60 second-round contests played over the last 15 years, an average of 43.45 combined points were scored per game -- which is actually down a bit from the wild-card round.

That's because losing teams have scored fewer points in the conference semifinal games and defenses have been better.

Consider this: Twenty-four losing teams in the second round, 11 of which went into the games with top-10 rated offenses, tallied 10 points or less. Only a dozen losing teams scored more than 20 points in the divisional round since 1990. In only three of the last 15 divisional rounds did the four losing teams average more than 17 points. The overall standard for the 60 franchises that exited the playoffs in the second round since 1990 is just 14.2 points.

So someone is playing defense at this juncture of the season, and some defenses are apt to play very well again this weekend. Defense doesn't quite dominate at any level of the postseason, but there are some dominating defenses on display this weekend, and they will make their presence felt. The Chicago-Carolina game, for instance, features two of the top three defenses in the league. In their regular-season matchup, the Bears and Panthers produced just 16 points and one touchdown, and that score came after an 8-yard drive set up by Chicago cornerback Nathan Vasher's interception and serpentine return.

"I think [defense] is the more common denominator of the eight teams left playing," Bears left defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "It's impossible to get to this point without a very good defense. And there are some great defenses [still playing]. Plus, just look at how [the first round] played out."

Indeed, offensively, there was only one 100-yard rushing performance in the wild-card round. Only one receiver, the unlikely Cedrick Wilson of Pittsburgh, posted a 100-yard receiving game. No quarterback registered even 209 passing yards. Arguably the most notable individual statistic was the 4½ sacks rung up by New England linebacker Willie McGinest. The most oft-cited numbers were the paltry yards permitted by the Tampa Bay (120) and Carolina (132) defenses and the zero points scored by the New York Giants.

Things might not be as stingy this weekend, but there certainly is the potential again for some outstanding defensive performances.

Of the eight teams remaining, four feature top-10 ranked defenses, and Carolina, Chicago and Pittsburgh all statistically rated in the top four. Only the Seattle Seahawks (No. 17) and the Patriots (No. 26) were in the lower half of the rankings. And certainly the overall improvement in the Seahawks during the course of the entire season and the late-season surge in New England can be attributed to playing better defense. Five of the eight teams in the divisional round ranked among the top dozen units in scoring defense.

"I think we had a little addition by subtraction this year and more guys bought into what we were doing [defensively]," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said of a unit that ranked No. 26 last season. "We played much better."

Willie McGinest
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaMcGinest set a single-game playoff record with 4½ sacks against the Jags.

As was the case in 2004, New England had to overcome crippling injuries, but the return of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the restructuring of the linebacker corps, and getting lineman Richard Seymour back into the lineup steadied a Patriots unit that at the halfway point of the year had surrendered nearly 400 yards per game. Over the last two months, the Pats have developed a defensive identity: They can stop the run. The New England secondary remains suspect, but with opponents forced into third-and-long situations now, some of its deficiencies have been camouflaged.

"We're never a team that makes excuses," McGinest said. "But it took a while, because of the injuries, having to move guys around, whatever, to get on track. But I like the way we're playing now. We're a lot sounder than we were."

That's the case in Denver as well, where, despite dropping to No. 15 in total defense from No. 4 a year ago, the Broncos are a much better overall unit. Ditto Indianapolis, the 11th-rated defense in the league, and a far more complete unit that can put much more pressure on the quarterback. And the Steelers, who were justifiably concerned about their porous third-down defense in the middle of the season, have regained equilibrium again and are playing with great intensity.

There are some terrific, high-profile defensive coordinators in the Elite Eight -- Ron Rivera (Chicago), Gregg Williams (Washington), Dick LeBeau (Pittsburgh) -- and each team has plenty of players capable of authoring game-altering moments. In fact, one other common thread among the remaining eight teams is their penchant for forcing turnovers, always a valued commodity in the playoffs.

Only the Patriots rank in the bottom half of the NFL in turnover differential. Five of the eight survivors are in the top 10 in both takeaways and turnover differential. The ability to slow down high-octane offenses, and to create scoring opportunities with takeaways, will be paramount this weekend.

"As good as offenses are at this level of the playoffs," Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter said, "you still don't see many games where both teams are [scoring] in the 20s. You better be able to play defense, and just looking around, I think everyone left in the hunt definitely can."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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