In year's past I pushed a simple, two-point formula to handicap the NFL playoff field. Looking at Super Bowl history, two points recurred when compiling the contestants and the eventual winners:
1. The playoffs have been an excellent filter for weeding out imposters. From Super Bowl I through Super Bowl 40, 62 of the 80 teams to play, a solid 78%, finished in the top ten in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
2. When looking at playoff fields, scoring defense matters most: Of those first 40 Super Bowl champions, 38 of them -- 95% -- had a defense ranked in the top-10. And the two outliers were hardly chopped liver. The '76 Raiders ranked 12th in a 28-team league and the '82 Raiders ranked 13th in scoring D in a 28 team field.
From 1966 to 2005 only six defenses ranked 14th and below made the game:
'86 Broncos, 15th of 28
'88 Bengals, 17th of 28
'91 BIlls, 19th of 28
'92 Bills, 14th of 28
96 Patriots, 14th of 30
'99 Titans, 15th of 31
All of them lost.
Then came '06 and '07:
- '06 Colts -- 2nd in scoring offense, 23rd in scoring defense
- '07 Giants -- 14th in scoring offense, 17th in scoring defense
Those are the two worst regular-season defenses to win in the modern era. They don't come close to past champs,but they found some magic dust in their respective Januarys and beat everyone they faced.
Last year, the formula seemed to get back on track. The Steelers had the top scoring defense, though they have the worst offense to win a Super Bowl:
- '08 Steelers -- 20th in scoring offense, 1st in scoring defense
What's more, those Steelers, who led the league in sacks allowed, came within seconds of losing to this curio:
- '08 Cardinals -- 3rd in scoring offense, 28th in scoring defense
This is why I've written about the NFL entering unchartered, parity-saturated waters. In '06 and '07, defense stopped winning championships. Last year's Cardinals came this-close to proving you didn't even need a bad defense to hoist a Lombardi trophy. You may only need eleven warm bodies to act as speed bumps while your turbocharged offense does its thing.
This year, I'm giving the formula another chance. The Steelers put defense back in vogue, though this year's rankings show that anything is possible -- in both conferences.
- Patriots - 6th offense; 5th defense
- Ravens - 9th offense; 3rd defense
- Colts - 7th offense, 8th defense
- Chargers - 4th offense, 11th defense
- Jets - 17th offense, 1st defense
- Bengals - 22nd offense, 6th defense
As defenses go, all these teams look like contenders. 2009 was the year of unbalanced conferences. Most of the top scoring defenses were in the AFC while most of the top offenses were in the NFC.
Three teams, the Pats, Ravens and Colts, do the offensive/defensive double-dip. San Diego enters the playoffs on the hottest of streaks, but they have the worst defense in their field, though 11th ain't bad. San Diego has also been playing with little margin for error in their 11-game win streak. One win came by a single point and three of the last four wins were by a field goal.
In other words, nobody looks like a sure thing here. Team-to-team matchups will mean everything.
- Packers - 3rd offense, 7th defense
- Vikings - 2nd offense, 10th defense
- Cowboys - 14th offense, 2nd defense
- Saints - 1st offense, 20th defense
- Eagles - 5th offense, 19th defense
- Cardinals - 11th offense, 14th defense
If this were a "traditional" year (if they exist anymore) I would put Green Bay, Dallas and Minnesota in the top tier and the other three one level below. But the Cardinals look like the '07 Giants and the Saints and Eagles look like stronger versions of last year's Cards.
That said, I'm going to use these numbers to help me with the weekend picks.
1. Jets vs. Bengals: both of these teams have sluggish offenses. The Jets have some good fortune on their side, with the Colts shutting it down in a game which could have put New York on the golf links. Still, their defense has been the NFL's best this year and their offense, which can cough up turnovers when it puts too much on Mark Sanchez, has scored more than the Bengals.
They also stumped Cincinnati last week. The Bengals were resting some of their starters, but the Jets match up very well with Cincy's cap-gun O. Darrelle Revis can take on Chad Ochocinco, leaving 10 Jets to take on Cedric Benson. And if they stop Cincy's run, who can Carson Palmer throw to?
I see an ugly game. I also see the Jets advancing.
2. Eagles vs. Cowboys: Dallas has matchups in its favor. It comes down to how well the Cowboys' line protects Tony Romo. If he gets adequate time, he'll have targets to throw to. The Eagles have not stopped Patrick Crayton or Jason Witten in either game and Miles Austin got the better or the Eagles corners in the rematch.
This game will probably resemble the first game much more than the second, but I see Dallas ending their playoff futility streak.
3. Patriots vs. Ravens: Wes Welker is out. I still like the Pats. I don't like the Ravens. I picked them to win the North this year and have watched them blow game after game against good teams. They've had a brutal schedule. Since they beat San Diego in week two, they've played six games against playoff teams. They're 0-6 in those. They've had eight against over that time against teams with winning records. They are 1-7 in those.
Baltimore's lone win in that group was a 20-17 overtime win over the Steelers. Over the Dennis Dixon quarterbacked Steelers. Had Ben Roethlisberger played, Pittsburgh, and not the Ravens, would be taking the field here. Baltimore has creatively found ways to lose close games. Their kicker missed a short field goal at the gun at Minnesota. John Harbaugh mangled the clock at the close of their loss to Pittsburgh.
The last time I checked Bill Belichick is still a good coach, and Tom Brady is still a good QB. The Pats are also 8-0 at home this year. I see the Ravens finding another way to lose to a winning team. It's what this Ravens team does. The Patriots move on.
4. Packers vs. Cardinals: Somebody explain the Cardinals. They're much better on the road than at home. When they whipped the Vikings in week 13, they looked like the most dangerous team in the NFC to me. But they've dropped off in December. Their defense stuttered. Kurt Warner was concussed. Larry Fitzgerald has been nicked up all year and is clearly not "Larry Fitzgerald." They have nobody who can stretch a secondary vertically.
Meanwhile, they're facing a Packers team that went 7-1 in the second half. They have their issues too. Their offensive line was a sieve the first eight games, though it has been much better of late. The secondary gave up 500 yards to Ben Roethlisberger in that lone loss.
Ken Whisenhunt is angry at the Packers Mike McCarthy for allegedly running up the score last week. Whisenhunt got his guys to turn it on last year when nobody thought much of them, and he may be able to do it again. I'm not as sure. If Fitzgerald were his old self, I could see Kurt Warner going deep to him. But this Fitz averages 11.1 yards per catch. He averaged 14.9 last year. Anquan Boldin is out.
I give this one to the Packers.