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NFL divisional playoffs: Quarterbacks and defenses key to Conference finalists

Having talked last week about how Peyton Manning falls short when it comes to talking about the greatest quarterbacks of all time because of his lacklustre postseason record, this weekend’s games again demonstrated the importance of having a passer who can make big plays when needed while remaining error-free, with the four winning quarterbacks combining for 10 touchdowns without interception.

But it also reminded us of one of the NFL‘s greatest truisms – that offense wins games but defense wins championships – with each of the four Conference finalists ranking in the top six overall in terms of points conceded during the regular season.

Pittsburgh Steelers 31 Baltimore Ravens 24

In a hard-hitting defensive battle, the Steelers restricted the Ravens to a miserly 126 yards on offense as they overturned a 21-7 half-time deficit. They forced turnovers on three of Baltimore’s first four possessions of the second half to set up 17 unanswered points. Then Ben Roethlisberger threw a 58-yard bomb to rookie receiver Antonio Brown to set up the go-ahead touchdown inside the two-minute warning.

Rashard Mendenhall ran for two touchdowns, while Roethlisberger passed for two more as the quarterback improved his postseason record to 9-2, giving him the second-best win percentage in NFL playoff history – and as many wins in 11 outings as Manning has achieved in 19 attempts.

Atlanta Falcons 21 Green Bay Packers 48

The visiting Packers broke open an even contest with two touchdowns in the final 42 seconds of the first half, as Tramon Williams returned an interception 70 yards for a score. The defense restricted the Falcons to 194 yards and forced four turnovers, while Aaron Rodgers led touchdown drives on five straight possessions as Green Bay racked up 35 unanswered points and did not have to punt in the entire game.

In a masterclass of the art of quarterback play, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, rendering Eric Weems‘ NFL postseason record 102-yard kick return no more than a statistical footnote as the NFC’s top-seeded team were ultimately overrun.

Chicago Bears 35 Seattle Seahawks 24

The Bears eased to victory at a snowy Soldier Field, jumping out to a 21-0 half-time lead courtesy of a 58-yard pass from Jay Culter to Greg Olsen, and keeping the Seahawks out of the endzone until the fourth quarter. The Bears outgained Seattle 238-96 in the first half, then stifled any hope of a Seahawks comeback by retaining possession for 20:11 of the second half with a ball-control offense which racked up 176 yards on the ground.

In his first career postseason start, the often maligned Cutler passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more – becoming only the second quarterback ever to achieve this feat in a playoff game – in an efficient performance.

New England Patriots 21 New York Jets 28

The Jets shocked the team with the NFL’s best regular season record on their own turf, reversing their 45-3 Gillette Stadium battering in week 13, to advance to their second consecutive AFC Championship Game. The defense frustrated Tom Brady and the Patriots‘ offense for much of the game, as Brady threw his first interception in 340 pass attempts and was sacked five times.

Mark Sanchez threw touchdowns to LaDainian Tomlinson, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes to win his fourth career postseason road game, and the defense held firm on a key fourth quarter, fourth down stand to stall the Patriots’ comeback.

Quarterbacks (and offenses) win games?

No matter how conservative a team’s offensive scheme, a playoff-winning team almost always requires its quarterback to have a strong game, or at the very least possess the ability to come up with big plays at critical moments. All four winning quarterbacks delivered on both fronts this weekend.

Roethlisberger improved his playoff record to 9-2. His postseason win percentage of 81.8% is the second highest of all time (image courtesy of steelers.com)

Roethlisberger, one of the quarterbacking fraternity’s genuine tough guys, overcame six sacks – including a fumble returned for a first quarter touchdown – to make one big play after another. Four times he converted on third-and-10-plus to keep alive drives which resulted in 14 points, the last the crucial long completion to Brown which set the Steelers up to win the game.

Rodgers completed an astonishing 86% of his passes in a flawless display in which he showcased both the accuracy of his arm and his ability to escape a pass rush and make plays on the run. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to have registered a passer rating of 120 – 100 is considered a benchmark achievement – in his first three career playoff games, and currently leads all quarterbacks (both past and present) in career passer rating.

Sanchez's four playoff wins have all come on the road (image courtesy of newyorkjets.com)

Cutler, making his first playoff start in the inhospitable environment of a typical January afternoon in Chicago, set the tone with a perfectly thrown deep ball to Olsen, scored twice himself and managed the game well. His only mistake of note, a short pass on the Seattle goalline which should have been intercepted by safety Jordan Babineaux with an open field in front of him, also underlined the one characteristic which all successful quarterbacks need from time to time: luck.

A week after leading a drive in the final minute to the game-winning field goal against Manning’s Indianapolis Colts, Sanchez required fewer heroics this time as he executed the Jets’ balanced offense to perfection. His three touchdown passes tied the team playoff record, and he also registered his fourth postseason win in only his second season, all of which have come the hardest way possible – on the road.

Defenses win championships?

Of course, while quarterbacks frequently play a pivotal role, they are not the only key ingredient for playoff success.

It used to be that most playoff teams possessed a good running game, although in the modern-day, pass-dominated NFL that is no longer the case. Of the eight teams who qualified for this weekend’s divisional round only one – the Jets – had a top quartile running game, with three sides being below average.

Indeed, there is little correlation between the eight teams and strong offensive performance in general, with the ‘average’ ranking in all major offensive categories being somewhere in the middle of the pack. The Bears and Seahawks were both bottom quartile in two of the three key yardage categories, and outside the top 20 in terms of scoring.

A good offense is useful, but it is by no means essential.

Analysis © Tim Liew. Data from nfl.com. Any errors are my own

One thing which remains constant, however, is that a strong defense is far more important to postseason qualification and success. Only a tiny handful of Super Bowl winners have lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy without at least an above-average defensive unit. If you look at the dominant teams in each decade during the Super Bowl era – the 1960s’ Packers, 1970s’ Steelers, 1980s’ San Francisco 49ers, 1990s’ Dallas Cowboys and 2000s’ Patriots – all of them, even the pass happy Niners, had tough, swarming defenses capable of squeezing the life out of opponents.

Despite the ongoing tweaking of the rules which generally favour offenses, that defensive trend has continued this season. Of the final eight, all but the 7-9 Seahawks featured in the top eight in terms of points allowed – an eye-poppingly high correlation – and most also ranked highly in terms of run defense. (Passing and total yardage rankings are typically poorer, but this is to be expected given how often opponents were required to chase games.)

Analysis © Tim Liew. Data from nfl.com. Any errors are my own

The best defenses are adept at applying pressure and forcing opposing offenses into errors – the four winning sides this weekend had 17 sacks and eight turnovers between them – with the Steelers, Packers and Jets all producing big momentum-changing plays from their defensive units.

In terms of yardage, both Pittsburgh and Green Bay restricted their opponents to less than half their own offensive output,  Chicago outgained Seattle 437-276 (the Seahawks managed just 106 in the first three quarters), and although the Jets were outgained 372-314 by New England, they allowed just 127 yards during a first half in which they established an ultimately decisive 11-point lead.

It is no coincidence that the four teams who will contest next weekend’s Conference Championship games all featured in the top six in terms of points allowed. And three of the four (Steelers, Packers, Jets) will do so with quarterbacks who are proven performers in the playoffs as well as the regular season.

Offensive yardage and points are just for show. Just ask the Patriots – who shattered virtually every meaningful record en route to losing Super Bowl XLII, and whose number one-scoring offense this season will be watching Super Bowl XLV at home.

Offense? Who needs an offense?

Previous 2010 NFL playoff articles

NFL wild-card playoffs: Manning shows why he isn’t the greatest ever

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to NFL divisional playoffs: Quarterbacks and defenses key to Conference finalists

  1. Chris Ross says:

    Great post. Quarterbacks a huge key as they all stepped up in their own way over the weekend. Just a great slate of games. Gotta love playoff football!

    • Tim says:

      Hi Chris. It was indeed a good set of games last weekend. Rodgers and Roethlisberger were the pick of the QBs for me, although I was also impressed with Sanchez’s quiet efficiency and Cutler’s ability to make key plays in the freezing cold. I do worry about Cutler’s tendency to make a couple of bad decisions too many in a game, though. Someone will make him pay sooner or later.

  2. Bheise says:

    Awesome post, great analysis. Looking forward to seeing what you think about the conference title games. Both games look like they’re going to be great.

    • Tim says:

      On paper, neither game should be a shootout, but you never know with Championship games if there are early scores.

      In the AFC game, I think the Jets will look to keep the game tight and the ball out of Big Ben’s hands. If the Steelers can establish the run, the Jets will be in big trouble. Similarly, if the Steelers can jump out to a 10-point lead, the Jets will be forced out of their ball control gameplan. But the longer the game stays close, the better the chance the Jets have. Playing on the road holds no fears for them – Indy, check, Pats, check – and Sanchez has guts. But I still think Pittsburgh will edge it – their big play potential on both sides of the ball will make the difference.

      As for the NFC, my head says the Bears with their home advantage, but my heart says Green Bay. Jay Cutler has the potential to make big plays for both teams, while I am a huge fan of Aaron Rodgers. If the Bears’ offense doesn’t show up, the Pack will kill them. But of Cutler can keep the chains moving and the Bears can shut down the run, their defense is good enough to stall Green Bay. Both regular season meetings were tight. Packers to edge it, I say.

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