O’Neil: What happened to ‘defense wins championships’ in the NFL?

Jan 14, 2019, 11:49 AM | Updated: 11:52 am

Drew Brees and the Saints' offense have moved on to the NFC Championship game. (AP)...

Drew Brees and the Saints' offense have moved on to the NFC Championship game. (AP)


The reckoning never came.

I waited all weekend to be reminded that defense wins championships, and well, I’m still waiting.

Moore: NFL playoffs show why wild card not good enough for Seahawks

The top four scoring teams in the league are the only four teams left in the playoffs: Chiefs and Patriots, Rams and Saints. The NFL playoffs is like basketball on grass, or in the case of New Orleans’ Superdome I guess it would be FieldTurf.

I’m slightly bummed about that for two reasons.

• 1) The satisfaction I get from watching the fanciest and most innovative offenses the NFL has to offer getting rendered utterly inert by a defense so tough that it chews on glass and spits out nails. I absolutely love it whether it was the Oilers’ run-and-shoot offense getting wrecked in the 1980s or Peyton Manning’s long face after another one-and-done playoff exit or when the Seahawks absolutely punked that record-setting Broncos offense in the Super Bowl.

• 2) My world view is being upended at least as it relates to football success. Now that might sound like I’m repeating what I said above about the enjoyment I get from watched a passing offense go kaput, but this isn’t about my satisfaction but about the actual undermining of a long-held belief that I’ve had about football: while a pass-heavy offense may be great for racking up regular-season victories, it’s harder to win a championship with that type of team compared to a team that plays great defense and runs the ball.

I would go so far as to identify this as a core belief I’ve held about the NFL. That for all of the success Manning had in his career – and he had a ton of it – he won as many titles due to a great defense (one) as he did with a great offense (one). The reason for that is when he was the Colts and they were perennially ringing up 12 or more victories, they would inevitably run into someone in the playoffs who would be able to knock the Colts’ high-octane offense out of rhythm, then the Colts would find themselves in a fistfight, getting bludgeoned while futilely trying to fix their malfunctioning shotgun.

As evidence of this I would trot out the fact that in the dozen years that Manning manned (heh) the Colts pocket, Indianapolis had six different one-and-done appearances in the playoffs. That included 2005, when Indianapolis was 14-2 only to lose at home to sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers. They won 13 games in 2007 and lost their first playoff game, won 12 the following year and had the same thing happen.

Having a great quarterback and a sleek offense was great in the regular season but became a little more problematic if you happened to run into one of those steel-toed defenses that tend to populate the NFL playoff entries.

But look at the four teams left in this year’s playoffs. Know what they all have in common aside from the fact that they’re four of the five teams in the league to average more than 27 points in the regular season? None of them have a defense that you’d consider to be “good,” let alone great. None of the final four in this year’s playoffs ranked among the top 10 in yards allowed this season, and only the Patriots ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense.

OK, just a couple more things before you’ll have to excuse me to go reconfigure my world view of NFL football.

Can you remind me

…that road teams no longer win in the divisional round? Seriously. Because every year I seem to think that this year’s playoff field is so wide open that a No. 6 seed has as good of a chance as the No. 2 seed of reaching the Super Bowl, and every year – no matter what happens in the wild-card round – the top two seeds wind up winning in the divisional round.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but not that much. In fact, if you go back to the 2012 season (a logical starting point since it is the advent of the Wilsonian era), there have been 14 conference championship pairings. Eight of them have featured the top two seeds in the conference.

Best thing I read last week

“The Weight I Carry” by Tommy Tomlinson, The Atlantic

I’ve known Tommy Tomlinson only through his work, including what I thought was a really well-done profile of Ichiro when he was nearing his 3,000th major-league hit. We even had him as a guest on the show.

What he wrote last week, however, took an incredible amount of honesty and an awful lot of courage about the impact his weight has had upon him. As big an impact as weight has had on Tommy’s life, he unflinchingly shows that nothing has been more severely affected than his self-image. He never tells you how much he weighs now four years into his commitment, but I hope he’s feeling better not just physically, but about himself, too.

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O’Neil: What happened to ‘defense wins championships’ in the NFL?