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On Football: Defenses rise to task in NFL postseason
Pro football

On Football: Defenses rise to task in NFL postseason

Bears Saints Football

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is sacked by Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the second half of Sunday's NFL wild-card playoff game in New Orleans.

The lasting memory of the offenses for Seattle, Tennessee and Chicago this weekend is how offensive they were.

Not in a good way.

Even in a league where scoring was at an all-time high, with more touchdowns than ever, defense becomes a priceless commodity in the postseason. Ask the quarterbacks who were victimized by it, including a Super Bowl winner, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson.

Ask Derrick Henry, the 2,000-yard All-Pro running back for the Titans whose production in Sunday's loss to Baltimore almost could be measured in inches.

And anyone on a Bears attack that that was more teddy than grizzly — thanks to New Orleans' dominant D.

"Our defense played outstanding," coach Sean Payton said of a 21-9 victory. "We tackled well in space. ... Ultimately we forced them to become one-dimensional, and when you do that you're going to win a lot of games."

John Harbaugh and Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale could say the same. Rams DC Brandon Staley could echo those thoughts. So could his boss, Sean McVay, an offensive guru whose unit is a placeholder while the defense is destructive.

"This might be the best win I have ever been associated with," said Harbaugh, who merely won a Super Bowl in the 2012 season and now has a record eight away victories in the playoffs.

There weren't many fans on hand for any of the games due to COVID-19 restrictions, and chants of DEE-FENSE weren't rocking any of the stadiums. But the message remains clear: If you bring the D, it's a smoother pass to the W. And possibly the SB (Super Bowl).

For all the complexity of the NFL these days, when offenses have more schemes and formations and variables than ever — not to mention so many rules slanted to help scoring — a big pass rush is the antidote. A unanimous All-Pro Aaron Donald as an inside force, particularly when complemented by a revitalized Leonard Floyd and shutdown backs, can make a defense destructive. It's happened in LA, which won at Seattle 30-20.

A veteran group with dynamic performers at each position is how New Orleans' unit has reached equal status with the Drew Brees/Alvin Kamara offense. This might be the best defense in the Big Easy since Brees arrived in 2006, and if this is his final season, he certainly has the accompaniment to make it special.

Consider, also, that the Chiefs, for all their scoreboard-exploding magic with the ball, didn't win a championship until their defense reached a higher level. Remember the Legion of Boom? Or Baltimore's powerhouse D with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in 2012?

Tom Brady unquestionably was the major reason for New England's dynasty, but even he needed help from the defense in the Super Bowl victories against the Seahawks (Malcolm Butler's interception) and Rams, who scored three points in 2019. In two of his Super Bowl defeats, Brady was harried and sacked by the Giants' unyielding pressure.

Why do defenses play a bigger role in many postseason games?

For one, teams with weak Ds don't get to the playoffs very often. Yes, the NFC East was abysmal in 2020, but the winner had, by far, the division's best defense. Contenders (actually pretenders) who failed to get into the championship chase — Las Vegas, Dallas and Minnesota — came up short on that side of the ball.

Also make note of how good defensive teams turn up the heat in the biggest games. When you have strength and stinginess, you expand the envelope. Play not to lose? Nope: You let the horses run.

The Rams and Saints were the best examples of that during wild-card weekend. Both are capable of giving fits to the Packers and Bucs, respectively, next weekend. Indeed, the style and makeup of New Orleans' group is exactly what bothers Brady the most, and the Saints beat him and Tampa Bay twice already this season.

And the last guy Aaron Rodgers is eager to meet up close next Saturday afternoon is that other Aaron from the West Coast.

This is not to claim that A-Rod and Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are doomed in these playoffs. Nor that such All-Pros as Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (also a unanimous selection) or Green Bay wideout Davante Adams will underachieve.

But anyone who believes the shootout in Pittsburgh won by Cleveland 48-37 is a harbinger for these playoffs, well, maybe such an observer needs to meet Donald while in possession of the ball.



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