Coaches prefer to have offensive and defensive balance, but if any one element stands out with respects to teams advancing to the Super Bowl, it’s defense.
Kurt Warner may have been MVP and gotten much of the headlines when the Rams won the Super Bowl during the 1999 season, but the defense was often overlooked. As bad as the Ravens offense was two years ago (16th in the NFL), their No. 2-rated defense led them to a Super Bowl title.
Here’s a look at some of the contending teams as this season winds down.
Philadelphia: The Eagles were the most dominant club after 12 weeks, outscoring teams by a sizzling 28-16 average. The key appears to be do-it-all quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is out with a broken ankle, though he may be back in early January. But the defense is solid and, in a showdown with Tampa Bay, won 20-10 as a 3-point favorite.
The Eagles have also been unpredictable and prone to letdowns. Philly lost 28-25 at Jacksonville as a favorite and suffered a stunning 35-13 home loss to the Colts as a 10-point favorite. Last season, Philly lost 21-20 at home to Arizona as a 14-point favorite, and later blew a 17-13 halftime lead at St. Louis in the NFC Championship game.
Backup QB Koy Detmer was outstanding in replacing McNabb at San Francisco, but injured his left elbow in the 38-17 upset win. Third-string QB A.J. Feeley now starts for Philly, which plays three of its remaining four games on the road, where it is 2-3 ATS. Without McNabb, the Eagles may have to ride their defense to the Super Bowl.
Atlanta: The return of the Dancing Dirty Birds? What a remarkable story the Falcons have been. Offensively, the Falcons are paced by a trio of youngsters in QB Michael Vick and RBs T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn. Atlanta has had three straight losing seasons since reaching the 1999 Super Bowl and started this year 1-3.
Of concern is that their schedule has been relatively easy. Atlanta ends the season playing Seattle, Detroit and Cleveland, so a playoff spot is likely. This weekend’s game at Tampa Bay may tell us how good this team really is. There’s a chance these Dirty Birds are frauds. The defense has shut down weak offensive teams, but gave up 37 to Green Bay, 34 to Pittsburgh and 35 to New Orleans. Tampa Bay has already whipped the Falcons in Atlanta, 20-6.
Tampa Bay: Speaking of the Bucs, it appears Jon Gruden was the right man for this job. Tampa Bay has been a talented defensive team in recent years with an ultra-conservative offense under Tony Dungy. Gruden’s aggressive passing philosophy helped the Bucs to a 9-2 start. Remember Tampa Bay opened with a 26-20 OT loss to New Orleans. The Bucs are 9-1 SU and 8-2 ATS since.
The Bucs have a poor running game, but manage to win with QB Brad Johnson, WR Keyshawn Johnson and the No. 1 defense in pro football. Tampa Bay outscores teams by a 22-11 average. The Bucs ends the season with games at Detroit and Chicago, and home games against Atlanta and Pittsburgh. The fiery Gruden will likely have these guys playing hard and Tampa has a strong home field edge, but the cold weather collapses in recent years stick out. The Bucs reached the NFC title game in 1980 and 1999. On each occasion, they had the home field advantage.
Oakland: The Raiders are a bunch of talented old veterans who are often unstoppable on offense. Oakland lives by the pass with over 300 yards passing per game behind veterans Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley. First-year coach Bill Callahan runs an aggressive offense, but the Raiders have been streaky. After a 4-0 start both SU and ATS, the Raiders fell flat on its face during an 0-4 run. The Raiders then posted impressive wins at Denver (34-10) and against New England (27-20).
Oakland went 0-3 both SU and ATS last year in December, which cost them home field advantage in the postseason. Instead of having two weeks to prepare for their home playoff game, the Raiders had to play the Jets in the Wild Card game and then fly 3,000 miles to play the Patriots in that memorable snowstorm. The stretch run is tough, with games against San Diego, Miami, Denver and Kansas City.
Miami: There’s no question RB Ricky Williams was a key missing piece. After 12 weeks, Miami was outscoring teams by a 24-17 average with great balance -- 139 yards rushing, 198 yards passing per game. The Dolphins started 5-1 SU and ATS before injuries slowed them down.
The biggest loss was QB Jay Fiedler, who is expected back soon. Backup Ray Lucas struggled early during the losing streak, but has looked impressive in wins over the Ravens and Chargers. The defense has been solid all year and will be dangerous if able to gain home field advantage in the playoffs. The Dolphins are 5-1 both SU and ATS at home.
Denver, Pittsburgh, Indy and San Diego also have the personnel to make a run in the AFC. Defending champion New England is beating the bad teams and struggling against the good ones. The Pats have gone 3-5 SU and 1-7 ATS after a 2-0 start in both categories. In the NFC, the Saints and 49ers appear to be playoff bound, but have weaknesses on defense.