By: Allan Erickson
We’ve made it to championship weekend in the NFL, and surprisingly, there’s not a single sportswriter, broadcaster or analyst that can use that old cliché in the NFL- Defense Wins Championships. Keep in mind, I’ve been interested in football since the “Greatest Show on Turf” made their mark on the sport, but even with that high powered offense led by Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torrey Holt, Ricky Proehl, Marshall Faulk and Az Hakim, they were only able to capture one Super Bowl title. Why? Because defense wins championships. Denver had a 40 year old Peyton Manning last year against my Panthers, most would call him simply a “body” at the time. It was all about the defense, and Von Miller and company held the Panthers potent offense to a measly ten points. Most of the time the statement is true, but if we take a look at the remaining four playoff teams this season, it’s the year of the quarterbacks, and they are all deserving of the praise. One could argue that the quarterbacks left fighting for the Lombardi trophy are all top-5, but most would agree they’re all top-10.
We’ll start with the best quarterback in the game right now- Aaron Rodgers. He’s been on a tear since the middle of November. After the Packers got off to a sluggish 4-6 start, Rodgers declared that they could “run the table” and win their division. Aside from making this statement, Rodgers delivered. He responded by leading the Packers to victory in the next 8 games, while averaging over 300 yards passing per game, throwing 23 touchdowns as compared to 1 interception. The reason Rodgers gets the nod for the best quarterback in football, and remaining in the playoffs, is his lack of running game. Rodgers has been forced to hand the ball off to TY Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski for the back half of this season. No, that is not a misprint, these are actually the players used at running back for the Packers nowadays. What that means is that opposing defenses really only have to prepare to stop one thing, Rodgers’ arm. There was a time where Big Ben was the best at scrambling outside of the pocket, allowing some more time for his receivers to get open, and finding the open man. After watching Rodgers do it all season, there’s nobody better. Having Jordy Nelson back has helped Rodgers tremendously, but Nelson didn’t play this past weekend against the Cowboys, and Rodgers wasn’t phased. Take away Julio from Matt Ryan, Antonio from Big Ben, and Edelman from Brady, and their numbers will be affected by these losses, not AR 12 gauge.
Next we’ll take a look at Tom Brady. For those of you who know me, you know I don’t enjoy writing anything positive towards Brady, Belichik, or the Patriots. But as a writer, you have to give credit where credit is due. This player-coach duo is hands down the best we’ve ever seen. Their run together has been phenomenal, and though full of scandals and asterisks, the Patriots seem to win every year, no matter what the NFL is putting them through. Brady has been, well Brady. He’s been a field general, stayed healthy, fought through injuries to Gronk, revived Martellus Bennett’s career, and put up rock solid numbers in the 13 games he’s played in. Brady has done all what we expect him to do, and nobody can beat him at his own game. No, not cheating. I’m talking about short, quick passes, finding the open man, moving the chains and controlling the clock. Legarrette Blount has become a huge part of that offense, leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. To beat Brady, you’re going to have to have at least 3 plays of twenty-plus yards. You have to get chunks on Brady and the Pats, or he’ll have the ball last, and his kicker will drill a 54-yard field goal to win the Super Bowl (fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.)
Now we’ll look at Brady’s running mate for Sunday, Big Ben Roethlisberger. Ben and the high-powered Pittsburgh offense moved the ball extremely well against a stout Kansas City defense, accumulating 395 total yards, but only capitalizing with six field goals. In order to beat the Patriots, in Foxboro, Ben and company will HAVE to put up at least 27 points, which means, barring a 9 field goal performance from Chris Boswell, the Steelers will have to score some touchdowns this week. The artillery is there. Le’veon Bell has set new Steelers records for most rushing yards in playoff games in consecutive weeks. Antonio Brown is (in my opionion) the best wide receiver in the league. And Big Ben has done a phenomenal job making the likes of Jessie James, and Eli Rodgers look like formidable receivers (mind you he lost Markus Wheaton to injury this season.) The only thing the Steelers need to work on is their red zone efficiency. If Big Ben is going to beat Brady in Foxboro, the Steelers will need 7 instead of 3.
Last, but certainly not least, we’ll take a look at Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll start with the defensive performance against the Seahawks. Atlanta played Dan Quinn football Saturday against Seattle. The back end forced 2 interceptions from Russell Wilson, and he only completed 56.7% of his passes, a shocking number against a team known for its offensive prowess. The defense held its own, but this Sunday, they will face the red-hot Packers offense, in a game that’s sure to be high-scoring, and very entertaining, (unless you’re a defensive coordinator.) Matt Ryan leads the leagues best offense into a showdown with Rodgers and the Pack. Ryan has crazy weapons to his name, with Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, and the best running back tandem in all of football, the new smash and dash, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for over 150 all-purpose yards against the Seahawks. Ryan spreads the ball out better than any quarterback in the league, which has led to great success this season. No team will double-cover Julio Jones anymore, out of fear and respect for Ryan’s ability to spread the rock.
This is one of the few years where there isn’t a top-tier defense left in the final four. Last season, the Panthers, Cardinals and Broncos all had top-five defenses, and made up 3 out of the 4 teams participating in Championship week. This year, it’s all about high flying offenses. So, normally we wonder which team will be able to get crucial stops in late-game situations to advance. This weekend, we will wonder the same thing, but the opposition will be much more difficult to stop. I say, let the offenses fly, and score a ton of points this weekend, and let’s hope for some great football games. Cheers to the offenses in these championship games, and a good luck to the defensive coordinators and players, trying to put together a plan to stop them. This year appears to be one of those “Offense wins championships” years, and it’s all thanks to the elite quarterbacks that are left playing for the Lombardi trophy.