“Defence wins championships.”
That clichéd adage doesn’t always hold true, of course. But in the NFL, defence continually proves to be a difference-maker. In fact, six of the last 10 Super Bowl champions were ranked in the top 10 in either points against or yards allowed in the regular season.
And despite the NFL’s clear push towards more offence in recent years, the 2015 playoff teams prove defence is not only alive and well, but is crucial to success: nine of the teams with top-10 defences in the regular season reached the post-season. Six of those teams have advanced to this weekend’s divisional rounds, while the other two remaining teams sit just outside the top 10 at Nos. 11 and 12.
Which of these teams has the best chance of being carried to Super Bowl glory on the back of its defence? The latest NFL Playoff Power Rankings delves into just that.
(Remember: As each round of the playoffs approaches, we're re-ranking the remaining post-season teams vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy differently. Last week's rankings have no effect on the rankings below.)
1) Seattle Seahawks
For the fourth year in a row the Seahawks finished the regular season with the best scoring defence in the league, allowing just 17.3 points per game. Seattle's the first team since the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s to lead the NFL in points allowed four straight seasons (the Browns did it five years straight from 1953 through 1957). Giving up just 81.5 rush yards a game and six times allowing less than 60 yards on the ground (including last week’s wild-card win over the Vikings), the Seahawks are also owners of the league’s best run defence.
What does it all mean? It means football fans will get to enjoy one hell of a matchup Sunday afternoon: Seattle’s defence against Carolina’s league-best offence is by far the most intriguing clash of Divisional Weekend. Much like their Week 6 meeting, expect this one to come down to the wire.
2) Denver Broncos
The Broncos are a championship-calibre team, but for the first time since Peyton Manning’s arrival at Mile High, defence is the reason why. No team allowed fewer yards in 2015 than Denver's revamped defence. The group is extremely dangerous from top to bottom: the line is basically unblockable, racking up 52 sacks this season with a handful of players recording at least 5.5. The Broncos’ secondary is also the league’s top unit, surrendering less than 200 yards per game through the air.
None of this bodes well for the ailing Pittsburgh Steelers, who could be without Ben Roethlisberger (who put up more passing yards on Denver than any other QB this season) and star wide receiver Antonio Brown (who burned the Broncos for 189 and 2 TDs in Week 10). You can bet Denver will be out for revenge.
3) Kansas City Chiefs
Defence has been the catalyst for the Chiefs’ 11-game winning streak: opponents are scoring fewer than 12 points per game over that stretch. To put that in perspective, Kansas City was giving up more than 26 a game during their 1-5 start.
So what's with the wild swing? Most of it has to do with the fact the Chiefs are loaded with defensive stars up and down the lineup. Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson are, individually, three of the best linebackers in the NFL, and come together to make an unstoppable force. Rookie cornerback Marcus Peters has emerged as one of the league’s top playmaking corners, picking off an NFL-leading eight passes in his first season. In Eric Berry the Chiefs have the NFL’s comeback player of the year, as the safety is playing some of his best football just one year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Add to that mix another handful of players who don’t get enough credit, and K.C. has one of the league’s strongest defensive units—one that's bound to give Tom Brady fits this weekend.
4) Carolina Panthers
You don’t win 15 games without a top-notch defence, and Ron Rivera has put one together in Carolina. Obviously football is a team sport, but for the Panthers it really comes down to four players on defence. Josh Norman emerged this season as the NFL’s best shutdown corner (and its best agitator) and defensive tackle Kawann Short may have had the quietest 11-sack season ever, while Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are an unrivalled dynamic linebacking duo. Combined, these studs have catapulted Carolina’s defence to one of the NFL’s top units, forcing more turnovers than any other team this season (39).
5) Arizona Cardinals
Like Carolina, the Cardinals boast a top-10 defence, but have made a living off making plays on the football. Arizona finished second this season with 33 forced turnovers (including 11 in their final four games) and scored six touchdowns, tied with the Chiefs for the most TDs by a defence in 2015. A season-ending injury to Tyrann Mathieu and the losses of Alex Okafor and Cory Redding for the playoffs definitely hurts, but you can guarantee the Cardinals will make some big plays on defence this post-season.
6) New England Patriots
Despite losing many key players from last season’s Super Bowl-winning team, the Patriots were still able to field a top-10 defence in 2016. New England’s biggest strength defensively is against the run, allowing 98.6 yards per game this season (ninth) and surrendering 100 yards just three times over the final 11 games. With the losses of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, however, the Patriots' pass defence has struggled mightily at times this season. New England gave up 36 pass plays of 25 yards or more—to put that in perspective, the Browns and Saints also gave up 36. New England also had trouble forcing turnovers, pulling in just 12 interceptions and recovering nine fumble recoveries.
7) Pittsburgh Steelers
Injuries to a pair of their biggest stars aside, the Steelers defence is what holds this team back from being a true Super Bowl contender. It’s true that Pittsburgh is actually one of the league’s top run-stopping teams, having given up just six rushing touchdowns all season and just 91 yards a game on the ground. The pass defence, though, has been a whole different story. The Steelers' secondary ranks 30th in yards allowed at more than 270 per game. If Peyton Manning is able to make the Broncos passing game effective on Saturday (I know, that's a BIG "if"), you can expect that’s how Denver will attack the Steelers.
8) Green Bay Packers
Green Bay face the mirror image of Pittsburgh's major issue: an above-average pass defence brought down by a below-average run defence. As a whole, the Packers defence is middle of the wrung; the unit ranks 12th in points against (20.1 per game) and 15th in yards allowed (346.7 per game). But, despite being rather young in the secondary, Green Bay’s secondary is among the league’s best thanks in part to a dynamic pass rush. But the Packers have proven susceptible to giving up big plays on the ground, allowing 59 rush plays of 10 yards or more. Only the Saints and Dolphins gave up more. That could prove to be Green Bay’s downfall against a creative Cardinals team that thrashed the Packers 38-8 in their Week 16 meeting.