When it comes to the playoffs, the old adage goes, “defense wins championships.” While teams are looking to score in bunches, it will come down to the defense to get the big stop or force a turnover. Saturday kicks off the mad dash for the Lombardi Trophy, and the immortality that goes along with it. Today we take a look at which defenses are best positioned to help their team win it all. Rather than going based solely on yards, points, and other traditional stats, we are also taking a look at a defenses DVOA (Defensive Value Over Average), a stat used by Football Outsiders (better shows performance over recent weeks).
*Ranked from Best to Worst
Chicago Bears (12-4, 3rd Seed NFC) 17.7/PPG Against
Vic Fangio’s Bears defense is the new Monsters of the Midway with a simple yet suffocating approach. The defensive coordinator has benefited greatly from the addition of Khalil Mack. General manager Ryan Pace sent three first round picks to the Raiders to acquire the linebacker, a move which helped push the Bears to the playoffs. Mack isn’t the only weapon on defense. The front seven also features rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. The quartet accounts for 29 out of the team’s 50 sacks on the season. By far the defense has been one of the best all season in the NFL, and the best in the NFC by a large margin. This isn’t the first time Fangio has led a swarming defense, the 2018 Bears defense is reminiscent of his 2011 49ers squad that were one game shy of the Super Bowl. Fangio hopes this year has a different ending.
Baltimore Ravens (10-6, 4th Seed AFC) 17.9/PPG Against
The Ravens defense kept the team in line for the playoffs. Despite the offensive woes under Joe Flacco, Baltimore stayed within striking distance. Baltimore’s defense is led by middle linebacker C.J. Mosley and safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle. Don Martindale calls the defense and is able to send pressure because of his secondary. Joining Weddle and Jefferson are cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Jimmy Smith. The trio has helped the unit to a top five ranking in passing yards allowed. Baltimore isn’t a defense with flashy players as much as it is a unit which plays sound football and rarely makes mistakes. Combined with an effective rushing attack on offense and the Ravens are a danger for anyone in the AFC.
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, 5th Seed AFC) 20.6/PPG Against
Gus Bradley has enjoyed using the talent on the Chargers defense. The former Jaguars head coach has a formidable unit playing in Carson. The pass rush comes from all angles, including defensive ends Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Isaac Rochell. The trio of pass rushers have accounted for 17.5 of the team’s 38 sacks. What makes it more impressive is that Bosa missed half the season with an injury but still finished with 5.5 sacks in just seven games. The defense is boosted by rookie safety Derwin James and cornerback Desmond King. Both men are tied for the team lead for interceptions with three a piece. Los Angeles has had occasional issues against the pass but has been solid in shutting down the ground game. The unit was instrumental late in the game when the Chargers defeated the Chiefs two weeks ago.
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Houston Texans (11-5, 3rd Seed AFC) 19.8/PPG Against
The Texans are dependent on the duo of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to cause chaos for opposing offenses. Watt and Clowney have combined for 25 of the team’s 43 sacks. However, the secondary has struggled to stop opposing passing attacks, ranking in the bottom five of passing yards allowed. The Houston secondary has struggled with injuries with three cornerbacks on injured reserve. They have also lacked consistency. It is a young group that needs the pass rush to get home to be effective. While the Texans are in the top three in stopping the run, they will need to do so against offenses who use three and four receiver sets. First up is talented quarterback Andrew Luck.
Dallas Cowboys (10-6, 4th Seed NFC) 20.3/PPG Against
For the first time in recent memory the Cowboys seem to have a defense to go along with their offense. Two years ago the defense failed to stop Aaron Rodgers late in the game as the Packers came back to knock the Cowboys out of the playoffs. In 2018 the defense has shown the strength up front and the speed needed in the second level. The defense is in the top 10 in least yards allowed. Dallas is led by a pair of talented young linebackers in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch is a defensive rookie of the year contender and has allowed Dallas to keep rolling along even with the injury concerns of veteran Sean Lee. Smith is as advertised from his days in college. It remains to be seen if the young Cowboys defense can earn their take in the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints (13-3, 1st Seed NFC) 22.1/PPG Against
The last time the Saints had an effective defense they won a championship. This season the offense has received the headlines, but the defense has done enough to make the Saints the top team in the NFC. Defensively the Saints focus on stopping the run. They rank second in the league in fewest yards allowed. The goal on defense is to get the stop as quickly as possible to let the offense get back on the field. Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins have led the pass rush, combining for 20 sacks on the season. The defense has been inconsistent through parts of the season but the offense has typically bailed them out. In a close game the defense will need to come through. Can the Saints pull out the win with the defense on the field?
Indianapolis Colts (10-6, 6th Seed AFC) 21.5/PPG Against
The Colts defense is surging at the right time. It is a rather young group but is mixed with veterans like Jabaal Sheard and Denico Autry. The former Raiders pass rusher has found a home with the Colts and has rewarded the team with nine sacks in just 12 games. Defensively the Colts can stop the run and has been about average against the pass. A major flaw with the defense is their inexperience. The unit has multiple contributors on injured reserve as well as multiple players hoping to heal up in time for this weekend’s matchup. If the unit can harness the same intensity they had against the Cowboys in Week 15, the rest of the AFC is in for a rude awakening.
Los Angeles Rams (13-3, 2nd Seed NFC) 24.0/PPG Against
The Rams defense has the talent to be special. They don’t need to be perfect but they have done the job for much of the season. Playing behind a high scoring offense allows defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to be aggressive and go after the football. Los Angeles has the best defensive player in the NFL, Aaron Donald. The defensive tackle was just two sacks shy of breaking the NFL single season record while playing against double and triple teams on a weekly basis. The secondary features talented young players John Johnson and Marcus Peters. Both players are ball hawks who look to make plays and create turnovers. Throw in veteran Aqib Talib and the Rams secondary is formidable. However, they are far from unbeatable. If you’ve got a solid tight end, you have a good shot of moving the football.
Seattle Seahawks (10-6, 5th Seed NFC) 21.7/PPG Against
This isn’t the Legion of Boom. Many of those players have moved on or can be found on the injured list. In what was a surprise to many, the Seahawks defense found their claws. Seattle is led by defensive end Frank Clark and his 14 sacks. Not to be outdone, defensive tackle Jarran Reed added 10.5 sacks of his own. The pass rush is fierce and the secondary has found its footing after the loss of Earl Thomas. However, the unquestioned leader on defense is linebacker Bobby Wagner. He leads Seattle both in stopping the run and has the coverage skills to stay with most tight ends and running backs. Consistency is what separates this defense from previous seasons. Seattle has been beaten up by some of the better quarterbacks in the league but also by undrafted players like Nick Mullens. Can they perform well on the road? They’ll need to if they hope to move on in the playoffs.
New England Patriots (11-5, 2nd Seed AFC) 20.3/PPG Against
The Patriots defense is the epitome of bend but don’t break. They give up lots of yards but tend to clamp down in big situations and have a decent points per game average. The unit ranks as one of the worst in yards surrendered but is a top five unit in the percentage of drives which end in a score for opposing offenses. That is the key for the Patriots defense. No one on defense stands out as a major playmaker but the Patriots are solid unit which forces you to drive down the field and score points. The name of the game is limiting big plays. Defensive end Trey Flowers leads the team with 7.5 sacks, but the team has eight players with at least 50 tackles on the year. The lack of real playmakers on defense means offenses have the potential to take advantage and put points on the scoreboard.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, 6th Seed NFC) 21.8/PPG Against
Losing the majority of the your first and second team cornerbacks can cause major chaos in the secondary. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is the only secondary player who has started every game in 2018 for the Eagles. The lack of continuity has caused issues on deep routes for Philadelphia. A major area where the Eagles do damage is in their pass rush. Fletcher Cox leads the team with 10.5 sacks followed by Michael Bennett and his nine sacks. The pass rush is fierce and has the talent behind it to make an impact in the playoffs. That said, the Eagles can thank the Chiefs for being the worst pass defense in the playoffs. Philadelphia needs the pass rush to get going or quarterbacks are going to find holes in the banged up secondary.
Kansas City Chiefs (12-4, 1st Seed AFC) 26.3/PPG Against
The Chiefs offense is unstoppable. Defensively however, the Chiefs struggle to stop offenses from doing much of anything. Kansas City traded their best cornerback in the offseason and find themselves 31st out of 32 teams in pass defense. The best asset for the defense is their offense and the fact that opposing teams are forced to throw the football more than they would like. This allows the Chiefs pass rush to take control. It is a pass rush led by Chris Jones and Dee Ford. Jones has taken the league by storm with 15.5 sacks on the year. Ford to his credit has added 13 sacks of his own. A tight game means offenses run the football more often. Not something a bottom ten ranked run defense wants to see. Kansas City’s defense is by far the weakest aspect of the team. It could become a liability if the offense shows any signs of struggle.