For those who simplify football down to adages like "defense wins championships," the past weekend of the NFL playoffs was easy to digest. Teams with superior defense or at least defenses that were excellent that day won.
But if you peel a layer, there was something strange. The three closest games shouldn't have been remotely competitive. The seemingly best defensive efforts in the second round of the playoffs were games in which teams barely survived.
In Green Bay, the New York Giants forced four turnovers and didn't put the game away until the final three minutes. In Baltimore, it took a fourth turnover, this one an interception at the goal line, to hold off a Houston Texans team quarterbacked by a rookie.
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In each case, those defenses weren't overcoming a lot of mistakes by their own offenses. The 49ers and Giants committed only one turnover each and the Ravens had none. In the playoffs, those types of turnover margins should have led to blowouts. Instead, the 49ers needed a heroic effort from Alex Smith and Vernon Davis to survive.
"What did the past weekend tell me?" an AFC team general manager said, rhetorically. "Really, what it told me is that if you don't have a quarterback, you have no chance, and if you don't help your quarterback, you have even less chance."
The losing team has scored at least 20 points in four of the eight playoff games this season. Likewise, six of 11 playoff games last season featured the losing team scoring at least 20. By contrast, in the playoffs of the 2008 and 2009 seasons, only six of 22 games featured the losing team scoring at least 20.
This comes at a time when officiating is not nearly as tough on defenses. Through eight playoff games, there have been only six flags for defensive pass interference or defensive holding on a pass play. That's an average of .75 penalties per game.
By contrast, in 256 regular-season games, there were 402 penalties for defensive pass interference or defensive holding. That's an average of 1.6 per game.
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At a time when officials are calling far fewer defensive penalties, offenses are still coming up with points.
"The defenses were good [in the first two rounds of the playoffs], not great," the AFC executive said. "This isn't 10 years ago with teams like Tampa Bay [in 2002 season] or Baltimore [in 2000 season]. Nobody has that kind of defense right now where you look around and say, 'Can we even move the football 20 yards here?' It's not even like when the Giants stopped New England [in 2007 seson]. When the Giants got it going with their pass rush, that was something to behold."
"Just think about it, if you get four or five turnovers on defense, as long as you don't turn it over yourself, that should be a rout. I'm watching Baltimore play and I was thinking to myself, 'They could lose this game.' "
While some of the credit for that goes to Houston's defense, the San Francisco-New Orleans and New York-Green Bay games are more indicative of where the league seems headed.
Or as the GM lamented: "The league is getting what it wants."
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