Expect playoffs to be dominated by offense
From opening night until New Year's Day, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady dared defenses to stop them.
Yards and points were accumulated at record rates in the NFL this season, and because those three star quarterbacks — along with other slingers such as Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger — are still chasing a championship as the playoffs begin this weekend, the question becomes:
Will the postseason be as pass-heavy and filled with points as the regular season was?
"It's kind of the way it was this year, all year, and it's really the way teams are built — to throw the football," said quarterback Matt Ryan, whose Atlanta Falcons play at Manning's New York Giants on Sunday. "I guess I can see that moving forward."
It all began in Game 1, when Rodgers and Brees combined for 731 yards and six touchdowns through the air, helping the past two Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, put up 76 points. A few days later, Brady threw for 517 yards for the New England Patriots.
On and on it went, all the way through Week 17, when even the resting Rodgers' backup, Matt Flynn, got in on the act, breaking franchise marks by passing for 480 yards and six TDs in a 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions, whose own quarterback, Matthew Stafford, also produced "Did I read that right?" numbers: 520 yards, five touchdowns.
Add it up, and NFL teams gained more yards combined per game than ever (693.7, 21.7 higher than the old mark). They also scored more points combined per game (44.4) than any time since 1965, a season before the first Super Bowl. The entire history of the league had produced two 5,000-yard passing seasons; there were three in 2011 (by Brady, Brees and Stafford). For the first time, three teams scored more than 500 points in the same season (Packers, Saints, Patriots). Quarterbacks threw for 300 or more yards in a game 121 times, 17 more than in any prior season.
"I don't necessarily expect things to change much in the playoffs. We're definitely trending toward higher numbers," said Joe Theismann, who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the 1983 NFL title.
His team's success was predicated in part on the running of John Riggins behind an offensive line known as the Hogs, but that old formula of relying on the ground game for success in January might be exactly that: an old formula.
"The way we've thought about traditional and conventional football in the past has changed, and it has changed significantly," Theismann said. "Basically, now you run just to slow down the pass rush a little bit or you run to set up your play-action passing game for big plays."
Conventional wisdom used to dictate that it's important to be able to run the ball in cold, blustery playoff weather. But Theismann and Rodgers both pointed to last weekend's 86-point, passing free-for-all at Lambeau Field, where Flynn and Stafford ignored the 20 mph wind, freezing temperature and snow flurries.
The teams that boast nine of the NFL's 10 highest-rated passers this season made the playoffs (although No. 6, Houston's Matt Schaub, is injured). And of the teams with the 13 lowest-rated quarterbacks, only one is still around: Denver, with Tim Tebow, which hosts Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Similarly, seven of the league's nine leaders in yards receiving made the playoffs.
Anyone not convinced that running games aren't central to a team's success should consider this: Only six of the league's top 18 rushers made it to the postseason. And in last year's Super Bowl, for example, the Packers ran the ball 13 times and threw it 39.
Among the reasons cited for all of the big plays this season: During the lockout, which cut down on formal offseason work, it was easier for players on offense than those on defense to get together for informal sessions; the new collective bargaining agreement reduced contact in practice, leading to poorer tackling; emphasis on enforcing rules against illegal hits made some defensive players more tentative; and the general trend over the years of rules changes favoring players on offense.
Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott raised another factor: increased emphasis on finding top players for the offense.
"Take a look at (New England's Rob) Gronkowski. You go, 'Wow!' All of a sudden, pretty much every team has an athlete like that at the tight end position. At fullback, too. And everybody has not one, but two or more good receivers. Look at Green Bay, and all the people that touch the ball for them," said Lott, who played in the 1980s and 1990s. "When I came into the league, there was one team like that: the San Diego Chargers. They had Kellen Winslow, John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, Chuck Muncie, with Dan Fouts at the helm. Now you look at teams like Detroit (and say), 'That guy is great. That guy is great. That guy is productive. Look at what that guy has done.' Now it's all about the piling up of weapons that each team has, and the unique characteristics that each team brings."
Still, Lott wasn't so sure there will be what he called "epic scoring" in these playoffs, figuring the defenses will find a way to catch up.
As for the primacy of offense over defense, it's worth noting where this season's two No. 1-seeded teams ranked in yards allowed: The NFC's Packers (15-1) were 32nd among the league's 32 teams; the AFC's Patriots (13-3) were 31st.
"Personally, I think that we're going to step up. Obviously, there's going to be a lot of high-powered offenses in these playoffs," Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We know we haven't played to our expectations, but we still have that belief that we can."
There are, of course, playoff teams that know they can play good defense. The Steelers (12-4), for example, gave up the fewest yards and points in the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers (13-3) were fourth in yards allowed, second in points allowed, and didn't allow a TD rushing until their 15th game. The Baltimore Ravens (12-4), Houston Texans (10-6), Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) and Denver Broncos (8-8) also rely on their ability to stop teams.
That's part of why the wild-card opener between the Bengals and Texans on Saturday isn't expected to follow the tons-of-yards-and-points trend. Another key factor: It's the first playoff game in NFL history pitting two starting rookie QBs (Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Houston's T.J. Yates).
Things are expected to get particularly wild Saturday night, though. The over-under line for combined points in the Lions-Saints NFC game in the controlled climate of New Orleans' dome is 59, the highest for a postseason matchup.
"I know how explosive Detroit is offensively. I also know that I think we feel like we're playing (good) football as a team and as an offense. But you know, it seems like, typically, when you get weeks like this where everybody's hyping up one side of the ball or the other and, you know, kind of predicting it to be a shootout or whatever, the defenses are off kind of quietly in the corner, making sure they come out with their best performance and they take that as motivation," said Brees, whose set of records this season includes yards passing (5,476), completions (468), completion percentage (71.2) and 300-yard games (13).
"It could be a back-and-forth shootout," Brees summed up. "It could also be a defensive struggle."
Sure it could, Drew.