With the advent of new rules that protect quarterbacks and defenseless receivers over the middle, 2011 was shaping up to be the season where old football adages came to die. Running the ball, playing good defense, and controlling the time of possession were always what it supposedly took to win. This season, the 15-1 Packers, 13-3 Saints, and 13-3 Patriots thumbed their nose at those adages.
Think back to the first game of the 2011 season, Saints at Packers on Thursday night. Defense was nonexistent. Both teams combined for 76 points and 876 yards of offense. Nearly 900 yards of offense, points aplenty, and superstar quarterbacks showing off their multimillion dollar arms.
Some people fall in the pro-defense category of football fans. For the millions of viewers who tuned in that night to watch the return of the NFL, especially the fans tuning in from the Wisconsin and Louisiana regions, it's likely they align with the offense.
Now, four months removed from that opening day pinball game, the Saints and Packers are out of the playoffs, done in by two teams that are far better at destroying opponents' offenses than creating their own. I found it rather amazing that, after both New Orleans and Green Bay were kicked to the curb by respectively by San Francisco and New York, people were actually triumphing the return of "real football."
Meanwhile, I'm fairly certain executives at FOX groaned when the clock struck midnight on the Packers and Saints. A rematch of that Week 1 score fest would have been ratings gold. Also, for casual fans, who often fall into the WE LOVE OFFENSE! SCORE ! SCORE! SCORE! category, it's tough to get excited about Giants at 49ers.
Both sets of fans should get pleasure out of this weekends AFC Championship Game, as it pits two teams with two completely different styles of play against one another. It also places, front and center, an opportunity to prove which philosophy is best to win in the modern NFL: offense or defense.
The team that lives and dies by its offense is the New England Patriots. If you are a fan or scoring, scoring, and scoring some more, this is your team. They have managed to make their sixth AFC Championship Game in eleven years despite having a defense that surrendered 21.4 points-per-game along with an average of 411 yards-per-game. Football Outsiders' DVOA has them ranked 30th in all of football in Defensive Efficiency. Yet, despite this putrid excuse for a defense, Tom Brady has managed to propel the Pats into the conference title title due in large part to the fact that he is a touchdown machine.
The Patriots, just like the Packers and the Saints, place a great deal of pressure on the opponent to score. They are what people refer to as "high octane," which is often an NFL euphemism for "they can't stop the opponent on defense, and thus have to score lots and lots of points in order to win."
The Baltimore Ravens are the other team in this year's AFC Championship.
The Ravens are 6-1 against the Patriots in recent years. The last time both these teams met in the postseason was the 2009 playoffs. Baltimore walked into Foxboro and then walked all over New England 33-14. Brady threw three interceptions in that game, and the Patriots defense, which was better back then than the group they have today, allowed Baltimore to run for 234 yards and four touchdowns on them.
For this game, the Ravens walk into Foxboro with one of the top ranked defenses. They surrender only 16.8 points-per-game, and are No. 4 in the league in pass defense. Quarterbacks average only a 53 percent completion percentage against their secondary with 6.4 yards-per-completion, which is also ranked fourth best in the NFL.
For fans of defense, Baltimore is right up your alley.
It is on offense where the Ravens have questions. They rank in the middle in terms of yards. Their running game is top 10, but it is their passing game that has some doubting whether or not they can get the job done in New England. DVOA ranked Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco 12 overall in QB efficiency in 2011, and the passing game as a whole 14th overall.
They are what people refer to as "a tough, hard-nosed football team," which is often an NFL euphemism for "they can't score, and thus have to rely heavily on their defense to mash the opponent's offense into Play-Doh."
To stop Baltimore, you must shut down their running game. One of the reasons their divisional playoff game this past Sunday against the Texans was close was that Houston contained Ray Rice for much of the afternoon. Wade Phillips' defense stoned the Ravens on two critical short yardage plays, including a fourth-and-goal in the third quarter. In terms of stats, this is consistent with what we've seen all year. Houston was ranked sixth overall in run defense efficiency, and fourth overall in conventional statistics (96 yards allowed per game).
However, the Patriots run defense is pretty terrible. 28th in efficiency, 17th overall in conventional stats. They surrender 117 rushing-yards-per-game at 4.6 yards per carry.
It's also worth mentioning that the New England Patriots are in the AFC Championship Game despite not having won a single game against a team with a winning record all season. 0-2 against the Steelers and Giants in 2011, 13-1 against everyone else. Even their playoff win this past weekend against the Broncos was against a team that didn't have a winning record in the regular season. Denver backed into postseason play at 8-8.
Another interesting side story to this game is how the Ravens are, in many ways, a reflection of what the Patriots used to be back in the days when they were winning Super Bowls. In the 2000s, New England made its reputation as the team who took "high octane" offenses, doused them in gasoline, and set them on fire. The "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams and the Peyton Manning-led Colts all met their end at the hands of Bill Belichick's stifling defenses from 2001-2004. However, since the Patriots acquired Randy Moss in 2007, they've shifted from ball-control-defense-oriented to score, score and score some more.
With the 2011 Ravens, you see more similarities with the Super Bowl era Patriots. The Pats teams during that time surrendered 16 points per game on defense with opposing QBs completed roughly 55 percent of their passes, numbers comparable with the 2011 Ravens. It's also quite amazing how Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's 2011 numbers compare to Brady's Super Bowl-winning season in 2003.
2003 Brady: 60% completion, 3,620 yards, 23 TDs, 12 INTs
2011 Flacco: 57% completion, 3,610 yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs
Also, like Brady in 2003, Flacco is in his fourth year in the league, and is asked to, essentially, not screw things up for his defense. This is in contrast with much of the rest of the NFL, where we saw Dan Marino's single-season yardage record fall to Drew Brees, a record-tying ten quarterbacks throw for over 4,000 yards, and a record breaking three quarterbacks go over the 5,000 yard mark. Hell, it would have been four had Aaron Rodgers not sat out the Packers final regular season game against the Lions.
Consider this: There were more 5,000-yard passers in 2011 than there were in the history of the NFL prior to this season.
But, as we've seen many times before, playoff football is not regular season football. The "high octane" Pack and Saints are gone. Among the offensive-heavy teams, only the Patriots remain.
If cosmic history remains consistent this weekend, maintaining that it has always been easier to destroy than to create, this AFC Championship game is a bad match-up for New England. Unless we see a complete and total implosion by the Ravens, look for Baltimore to be going to Indianapolis to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVI.