Last season defense won a championship, as Von Miller and the Denver Broncos shut down MVP Cam Newton and his top-scoring Carolina Panthers offense to win the Super Bowl. Historically, though, defense only sometimes wins championships — and that sure as hell won’t be happening this season. Whichever team hoists the Lombardi Trophy in three weeks will have gotten to the mountaintop behind an elite quarterback, a high-powered offense, and either a decent or a downright-awful defense.
In the NFC, the high-flying Falcons, led by the deadly efficient Matt Ryan, will face off against the Packers and the Human Cheat Code, Aaron Rodgers. Over in the AFC, it’ll be some guy named Tom Brady and the Patriots facing off against the inconsistent-but-still-dangerous Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. It’s a dream scenario for the NFL and the fans who just want to see beautifully crafted scoring plays: Four of the best quarterbacks in the league squaring off against four adequate-at-best defenses.
New England (ranked 16th in defensive DVOA at the end of the regular season) and Pittsburgh (11th) don’t have bad defenses, but Atlanta (27th) and Green Bay (20th) do. All four of the remaining squads finished the year outside the top 10 in defensive DVOA, in stark contrast to last season, when the Panthers (second) faced off with the Cardinals (third) and the Broncos (first) played the Patriots (12th). In fact, this is the first time in the history of Football Outsiders DVOA, which goes back to 1989, that zero top-10 regular-season defenses made it to the conference championship round. Hell, there’s been only one other season (2007) without at least one top-five defense in the final four.
Now, you might be saying, “But what about the Patriots? They had the best scoring defense in the league!” And allow us to stop you right there. They had that against the easiest schedule of offenses in the NFL this season. Sure, you can beat only who’s in front of you, but context is important. In a quarterback-driven league, the Patriots lucked into a schedule heavy on game managers, backups, and turnover machines. They got the bad, early-season versions of Carson Palmer and Ryan Tannehill, faced off against Brock Osweiler twice — and let’s stop here for a second. The Patriots played one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in the divisional round of the playoffs! Oh, they also faced Tyrod Taylor twice, and his team doesn’t even seem to want him anymore. They beat Charlie Whitehurst, Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, and Landry Jones (who played when Ben Roethlisberger was out with a meniscus injury in Week 7), and lost to the best quarterback on their schedule, Russell Wilson, at home. The rest of the group is a meditation on sub-average signal-calling: Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, and Matt Moore.
We’ll finally get to see how the Patriots stack up against a top-tier quarterback next weekend. Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, and Co. have yet to stop a trio like Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown — partially because they’ve yet to play anyone nearly as good.
The Steelers are in that good-not-great group of defenses, too. They finished the year 12th in yards surrendered, 16th in yards per play (5.5), tied for 14th in takeaways (23), seventh in passing touchdowns allowed (20), and tied for 18th in rushing scores given up (15). Pittsburgh’s defense got better as the year went on, but going from Matt Moore and Alex Smith to Tom Brady is like going from Harry Dunne to John Wick.
For Green Bay and Atlanta, there’s no need for semantics or nuance; they’re both just plain bad. The Falcons may have gotten past Wilson and the Seahawks this weekend, but they finished the year 25th in yards (5,939) surrendered and 27th in points surrendered (25.4 per game). The team that’s about to try to defend God-Mode Rodgers in the passing game gave up 4,267 pass yards (28th in the league), surrendered 31 touchdowns (28th), picked off just 12 passes (tied for 18th), and allowed a 92.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (22nd) during the regular season.
Likewise for Green Bay, the defense that’s tasked with stopping one of the best offenses in league history gave up 32 passing touchdowns (tied for 29th) in 2016 and surrendered 7.1 yards per pass attempt. They’re down to third- and fourth-string cornerbacks who will be tasked with somehow stopping Julio Jones. You can quote-tweet both of those teams’ defensive stats with 10 grimace emoji, because that’s how many touchdowns Ryan and Rodgers are going to combine for.
It’s a rare occurrence to get a championship round with four great quarterbacks, but it’s even rarer to see a final four so devoid of elite defenses. If you thought the Packers-Cowboys classic had a lot of points, just wait until next weekend. And no matter which two teams make it to Houston, the Super Bowl XXIX record of 75 combined points feels like it’s in play. Don’t put it past any of these quarterbacks — or any of these defenses.