Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Remember defense? It's back, in football form!

Just two weeks after Gregg Easterbrook pointed out that the two best teams in each conference had the two worst defense in the league (Packers 32nd, Patriots 31st), defense made a comeback in big way, reminding us that while defense might not necessarily win championships, it can certainly win games.

The Ravens and the 49ers are two of the best defenses in the league and while the Giants have had a so-so year, it's hard to miss that their defense played a huge role in defeating the Packers. The Ravens won with just 228 yards of offense and three points in the last three quarters, though they have long been the perfect example of why strong offenses with mediocre defenses go farther than strong defenses with mediocre offenses. In the last 13 seasons, the Ravens have ranked outside the top 10 in fewest yards allowed just once (2002), and have ranked third or better eight times.

In that time, however, they've watched as the rival Patriots and Steelers have won a combined five Super Bowls. This probably has something to do with the fact that the Ravens haven't ranked in the top 10 for yards gained since 1997, back when their high-flying ways led one football writer to teach me the term 'oxymoron', as in "Biggest oxymoron in fooball: Baltimore Ravens defense." Of course, if you look through the rankings for most yards gained, you'd be amazed at which offenses rank highly and which don't.

Nevertheless, this just might be the Ravens year, though this week's performance makes it hard to see how they'd get past the Patriots next week. The Broncos were a cream puff to be sure, with an emphasis on puff, but a team like the Ravens is usually good enough to lose to the Patriots by a touchdown. Their drubbing of the Patriots in the playoffs two years ago will give them confidence, but the game will probably be determined by whether the Ravens have the presence of mind, and the talent, to cover the Patriots' tight ends.

The Patriots are getting healthier and better on defense, though a lot of their supposed rejuvenation was the result of playing Tim Tebow, who clearly showed that he's not anyone's long-term answer at quarterback. Quarterbacks who are likely to be elite at the professional level don't look that bad, they look shaky like Cam Newton has seemed shaky. Of course, Tebow, like so many other quarterbacks (Vince Young is 30-19 as a starter) who made careers out of someone in the front office believing in them despite a lack of talent, will be back next year and will certainly play a few more years before a consensus finally develops that he was useless.

The Giants-49ers game, too, is the result of great defense, sort of. While the Giants' defensive performance was lauded for humbling the 15-1 Packers, let's not forget that they scored 37 points. That's one more than the 49ers, who have one of the best defenses in the league, but needed (and got) 36 points to beat the Saints. The Giants pose a lot of problems for any team when playing well, due to their strong front four and cornerbacks who can play man coverage, but when they're bad, they're atrocious. The 49ers have been more consistent on offense as well as on defense, and they're also playing at home.

I pick the 49ers and the Patriots to meet in the Super Bowl. I was 2-2 last week, giving me a playoff record of 5-3. That looks good, until you consider that picking home teams alone would get you to 7-1, which admittedly is as good as home teams have had it in 20 years.

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