Power Ranking Every Defense in the NFL Playoffs

Rocco ConstantinoContributor IDecember 31, 2012

Power Ranking Every Defense in the NFL Playoffs

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    It used to be said that the road to the playoffs was paved with great defense and a strong running game.

    While the top teams in the NFL certainly have that combination, there are some teams in the 2013 playoffs who made it this far without that winning balance.

    The top overall defensive team in the NFL (the Steelers) didn't even make the playoffs while the Redskins and their 28th-ranked defense made it as the NFC East Champions.

    Only five of the top 10 defenses in the NFL qualified this year, with the Bears, Jets, Chargers and Panthers joining the Steelers on the outside looking in.  

    Incredibly, there were almost as many teams from the bottom 10 defenses this year as the top 10, as the Falcons, Colts, Patriots and Redskins all ranked 24th or lower.  

    This year's playoffs will be a test to see if the old adage holds up.  Do teams really need an elite defense in order to win a championship?  

    There are enough mediocre units that qualified for us to find out.

12. Indianapolis Colts

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    Between the rise of Andrew Luck, the success of Bruce Arians and the inspirational return of Chuck Pagano, the 2012 Indianapolis Colts season featured so many incredible stories.

    None of which revolved around their defense.

    The Colts rank 26th overall defense and 21st in scoring defense, both the lowest rankings of any team in the playoffs in either conference.

    Their run defense is particularly weak, as they average giving up 137.5 yards per game on the ground.  That total is better than just three teams in the NFL and will have Ray Rice licking his chops.

    The Colts also have just 28 sacks, the lowest total of any team in the playoffs.

    Veteran Robert Mathis can still get to the quarterback though and led the way with eight sacks this year.

    Perhaps the best all-around player on defense for the Colts this year has been Jerrell Freeman, a 26-year-old rookie linebacker who was playing in the Canadian Football League prior to this season.

    Freeman leads the Colts by a long shot with 145 tackles, including a team-high 90 solo tackles.

    Those positives don't outweigh the negatives though.  If you need any more convincing, consider that the Colts gave up five touchdowns in a 35-9 loss to the New York Jets.

11. Washington Redskins

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    The Washington Redskins might have the hottest team in the NFC coming into the playoffs, but it's no thanks to their defense.

    Over their past six games, the Redskins have allowed an average of over three touchdowns per game.

    The Redskins' average season stats on defense are mediocre at best.

    They allow 4.2 yards per carry, which ranks them 15th overall and they allow an 88.9 passer rating against to rank 13th.

    However, it's their total defense that forces them to the No. 11 spot on this list.

    The Redskins allow an average of 383.3 yards per game, better than only the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints in the entire NFL.

    One of the Redskins' most alarming stats is that they allowed a 44 percent third-down conversion rate, the worst in the NFL.

    They do make up ground in the turnover ratio category though.  The 'Skins rank third in the NFL with a +17 turnover differential.

    Looking at some of these defensive stats, it makes what Robert Griffin has done to lead this team to the NFC East title even more impressive. 

10. Baltimore Ravens

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    Don't let the fact that the Baltimore Ravens rank solidly in the middle of the pack in most NFL defensive categories fool you.

    There isn't a team out there that wants to face a healthy Ravens defense, especially if it's led by a returning Ray Lewis.  

    It's looking more and more like Lewis will play in their first-round game against the Colts and even at his advanced age will be rested and ready to make an impact.

    It wasn't a typical season for the Ravens defense though. 

    They ranked 17th in total defense, 12th in scoring defense and 15th in sacks.

    Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata turned in their usual Pro Bowl performances and outside linebacker Paul Kruger enjoyed the best season of his career, registering nine sacks and six batted passes.

9. Minnesota Vikings

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    While everybody has been in awe of Adrian Peterson's incredible season in Minnesota, the Vikings defense quietly had a solid year themselves.

    Led once again by veteran Jared Allen, who reached double-digits in sacks for the sixth straight year with 12, the Vikings placed eighth in the NFL with 39 sacks.

    Aside from that though, the Vikes were merely average across the board in other important categories.

    They were 16th overall in total defense and 14th overall in scoring defense but struggled on third down, allowing a 41 percent conversion rate.

    One of the key additions to the Vikings defense this year was rookie safety Harrison Smith.  Smith is a very active player who was second on the team with 103 tackles and 73 solo tackles.  He's a future Pro Bowl player.

8. New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots might be the biggest defensive enigma of all playoff teams.

    They rank 25th in the NFL in total defense but rank ninth in the NFL in points allowed per game with 20.7

    The reason for the disparity in the two rankings is that the Patriots defense was a turnover machine in 2012. 

    They intercepted 19 passes and recovered an NFL-high 20 fumbles.  They also have scored six defensive touchdowns and have a turnover differential of +20, also the highest total in the NFL.

    As if playing against Tom Brady wasn't enough.

    Led by Pro Bowler starters Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork, the Pats' strength has been their run defense.  They were one of just six NFL teams to allow less than 4.0 yards per carry, checking in with 3.9 yards.

    The Patriots allowed just five runs of 20 yards or better all season, the lowest total in the NFL.

    So as it looks, the Patriots defense could go either way in the playoffs.  They can be passed on for sure, but live for the turnover.    

    But if they run into Peyton Manning in Denver with the game on the line, it will be a big challenge for the league's 29th ranked pass defense to stop him.

7. Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons don't rank near the top of the NFL in many defense categories, but they are one of the best in the most important category: points against.

    The Falcons rank fifth in the NFL with 18.7 points against per game and were one of just five teams to allow less than 300 total points all season.

    The big debate around the Falcons is whether that is just a mirage based on a bend-but-don't-break defense.  Despite allowing so few points, the Falcons only ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense.  

    The only playoff teams they rank ahead of in that category are the Patriots, Redskins and Colts.

    The real concern here is that two of the Falcons key defensive players were injured in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Buccaneers.

    John Abraham, who continued to be a beast with 10 sacks and six forced this season, twisted an ankle and Dunta Robinson suffered a head injury.

    The top-seeded Falcons are lucky they have a bye week for two of their key stars to recover.

6. Houston Texans

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    If these rankings were done specifically by the final season statistics, the Houston Texans would be a little bit higher.  

    However, the Texans defense simply hasn't been the same in the second half of the season.

    Overall the Texans have the eighth-ranked total defense in the NFL; a strong playoff defense for sure.  Their overall scoring defense of 20.7 points per game is solid as well, ranking ninth in the NFL and sixth among playoff teams.

    Their past seven games have been a totally different story though.

    Over that span, they have allowed an average of 26.9 points a game, which would rank them between the Chiefs and Bills if that was projected over a full season.

    The problem has been that they have given up more than four touchdowns in a game four times over that span.  Over consecutive weeks, they gave up a combined 795 passing yards and six touchdowns to Chad Henne and Matthew Stafford.

    Two weeks after that they were torched to the tune of 42 points by the Patriots.

    But if the Bengals, Patriots or anyone else thinks they might have it easy, they need to think again.

    As long as J.J. Watt is on the field, no offense can breathe easy.  The Pro Bowl defensive lineman registered an incredible 20.5 sacks and was a complete disruption all over the field.

    In addition, Antonio Smith and rookie Whitney Mercilus combined for 13 sacks as the Texans racked up 44 sacks on the season, good for fifth in the NFL.

    The Texans also had a turnover ratio of +12, the sixth-highest total in the NFL.

    When you throw in Pro Bowl cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the Texans defense could be a real nightmare.  They just have to shore up the loose ends and get refocused.  Don't bet against Watt doing that single-handedly.

5. Green Bay Packers

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    A year ago, the Green Bay Packers had a historically bad defense.  

    What a difference a year makes.

    A healthy Packers unit improved their total defense by an incredible 75 yards per game and ended the season with the 11th-ranked defense in the NFL.

    Safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker A.J. Hawk each had over 120 tackles and Clay Mathews had 13 sacks despite missing four games in another Pro Bowl season.

    Before allowing the Vikings 37 points in the season finale, the Packers defense had been playing its best ball of the season.

    In the four games before that, they allowed an average of just 13.5 points in games against the Giants, Vikings, Titans and Bears.

    The Packers were also fourth in the NFL this year with 47 sacks. 

4. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Somewhat quietly, the Cincinnati Bengals put together a dominant season on the defensive side of the ball and they have the numbers to back it up.

    The Bengals ranked sixth overall in total defense, eighth in scoring defense, second in the NFL with 51 sacks and third in the NFL in fumble recoveries.  

    They also showed a tremendous knack for getting off the field on third downs, allowing opponents to convert at just a 36 percent rate.  That was good for fourth-best in the NFL.

    The Bengals have also been playing their best defense of late.  They haven't allowed a team to top 21 points since the Broncos topped them 31-24 in Week 9.

    While many of the other top defenses in the playoffs rely on well-recognized superstars, the Bengals have had contributions from all over the roster.

    Rookie project Vontaze Burfict leads the team with 73 tackles and Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson combined for 24 sacks. 

    Atkins and Carlos Dunlap each forced four fumbles and Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry each chipped in six sacks of their own.

    That kind of defensive depth is what teams need for a playoff run, so don't be surprised if the Bengals give the Texans a real test in the first round.

3. San Francisco 49ers

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    Thee top three defenses in the playoffs all have a solid case as the best defense in the NFL.

    The 49ers are pushed down to third place in the group because they gave up 34 and 42 points respectively in Weeks 15 and 16.

    Overall though, the 49ers were as good as anybody.  They ranked third in total defense and were one of just three teams to allow less than 300 yards per game.

    Their scoring defense was just as good, as they placed second in the NFL by allowing just 17.1 points per game.

    They allowed less than 10 points in a game on five different occasions, all of which came over the first 11 games.

    The 49ers were just average, though, in sacks, interceptions and fumble recoveries.  In those respective categories they ranked 11th (38), 16th (14) and 13th (11).

    Their +9 turnover ratio only places them in the middle of the pack among all playoff teams.

    The 49ers will send six defensive players to the Pro Bowl, five of whom will start.  Aldon Smith had another season that was off the charts, with 19.5 sacks.  NaVorro Bowman led the team with 149 tackles and Patrick Willis is one of the best defensive leaders in the NFL.

2. Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos get the slight nod over the 49ers as the No. 2 defense in the playoffs, but fall just short of the No. 1 unit, who you may now have guessed is the Seattle Seahawks.

    The Broncos laid claim to this spot by leading the NFL with 52 sacks and finishing second to the Steelers in overall defense.

    They also finished fourth in the NFL in scoring defense by allowing just 18.1 points per game.

    Since Thanksgiving, the Broncos have held five of their last six opponents to 17 points or less and had three games this year where they didn't allow a touchdown.

    Von Miller was as ferocious as ever in 2012 and is simply one of the most intimidating players in the NFL.  He had 18.5 sacks this year and forced six fumbles for good measure.

    Elvis Dumerville set a career high with 54 tackles and added 11 sacks and six forced fumbles as well.

    Perennial Pro Bowler Champ Bailey continued to play at a high level late in his career and Chris Harris returned two interceptions for touchdowns this year.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    What separates the Seahawks from the other elite defenses in this group is that they allowed just 15.3 points per game, the lowest total in the NFL.

    You can throw around any other stat that you want, but when it comes down to it, defenses are measured by keeping their opponents off the scoreboard.  

    Nobody did it better than the Seahawks.

    In half of their games this season, the Seahawks kept their opponent to less than two touchdowns in a game.  Some of those opponents included strong offensive teams like the 49ers (twice), Packers, Cowboys and Panthers.  

    Overall, they ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense and fifth with a +13 turnover margin.

    About the only negative that could be found was that they rank just 18th in the NFL with 36 sacks.

    The real wild card here though is that the Seahawks are a different team on the road.   

    They lost to the Dolphins, Lions, Rams and Cardinals away from Seattle this year and allowed an average of 22.8 points per game to those teams.

    The only way the Seahawks can play another home game this year is if both they and the Vikings advance to the NFC Championship Game.

    But this slideshow isn't a projection about which defenses will play the best in the playoffs.  It's a power ranking of the defenses of the 12 teams coming into the playoffs based on the seasons they had.

    By that qualifications, the Seahawks rank as the best overall defensive team in the playoffs right now.