Power Ranking the Best Defensive Units Remaining in the NFL Divisional Round
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The moniker "defense wins championships" has come under fire in recent years, yet six of the eight teams playing in the divisional round finished the regular season as top-10 scoring defenses.
Is this merely a coincidence, or is there an answer for the proliferation of pass-happy offenses around the league?
While the New England Patriots will never be identified as a defensive team, Bill Belichick's squad still features a bevy of stars in Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty. And while Aaron Rodgers is the player most associated with the Green Bay Packers, Clay Matthews isn't far behind.
Let's take a look at my power rankings for the defensive units remaining in the NFL divisional round.
8. New England Patriots
Few players are harder to block than Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
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Bill Belichick has slowly rebuilt his defense over the past six years, but the New England Patriots' biggest weakness is still on that side of the ball.
First-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower added athleticism and size to the Patriots defense, which ranked ninth in points allowed per game at 20.7.
Led by stud nose tackle Vince Wilfork, New England is stout and disciplined against the run. Linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes make a ton of tackles and helped anchor the league's ninth-ranked run defense.
However, New England's most glaring wart is still its pass defense.
Due to a lackluster pass rush and an inconsistent secondary, the Patriots surrendered 271.4 yards per game through the air—fourth worst in the league.
While the Texans don't pose a tremendous threat through the air, a team like the Denver Broncos could carve up New England's young secondary in the next round.
7. Atlanta Falcons
Quarterbacks always have to look out for cornerback Asante Samuel.
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Despite finishing the regular season as a top-five scoring defense, the Atlanta Falcons just edge out the Patriots in avoiding the lowest spot on this list.
Atlanta has a few stars on defense in defensive end John Abraham, cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, but a paltry pass rush and shaky run defense leaves much to be desired.
The 34-year-old Abraham continues to be a steady force on passing downs, racking up double-digit sacks for the seventh time in his 13-year career. However, the veteran defensive end got little help from the rest of the starting 11. Abraham's 10 sacks accounted for 34 percent of the Falcons' sack total, and no other player topped four quarterback takedowns.
Luckily for the Falcons, safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore are one of the most underrated tandems in the league, and with five more interceptions, Samuel continues to be one of the game's premier takeaway artists.
Atlanta is definitely solid on defense, but lacks dominant, top-tier players to be ranked much higher on this list.
6. Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews is one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.
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With Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews back healthy, the Green Bay Packers are rounding into form at just the right time.
Besides their Week 17 debacle against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers defense has surrendered just 12.8 points per game in their last five wins.
Much of that success has to be credited to Matthews—perhaps the league's best 3-4 outside linebacker—who more than doubled his sack total from last year. The instinctive, explosive pass-rusher has torched opposing offensive linemen for six sacks in his last four games.
While Matthews garners the attention, Green Bay's best defensive player this season might be rookie cornerback Casey Hayward.
The second-round pick out of Vanderbilt was known as a ball hawk in college, and he wasted no time letting quarterbacks know it's a bad idea to throw his way.
With six interceptions, 21 passes defended and 53 total tackles, Hayward has been not only one of the best rookies but one of the best defenders in the game. His fantastic season earned him both All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors from Pro Football Focus.
Armed with playmakers in Matthews, Hayward, Woodson and Sam Shields, Green Bay's defense has star power.
5. Baltimore Ravens
The next game could be Ray Lewis' last.
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This isn't your old Baltimore Ravens, folks.
Well, actually they're just old.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are at the tail end of their Hall of Fame careers, and stars Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata have battled injuries of their own throughout the 2012 season.
Even though the Ravens finished 12th in scoring defense, this unit still possesses enough firepower to shut down any offense on any given week.
While Suggs has looked like a shell of his former self, 2009 second round pick Paul Kruger has picked up the slack in the pass-rush department. The 6'4", 270-pounder racked up a career-high nine sacks this season before putting on a dominant performance against the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round.
Baltimore's strength still lies in its front seven, which is of course anchored by Lewis, but the Ravens are no longer the force they were over the past decade.
Still, not many teams boast Baltimore's experience and cohesion.
4. Denver Broncos
Von Miller terrorizes offensive tackles with his blinding speed.
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Everyone's focus was on Peyton Manning's comeback, but few realized just how good the Denver Broncos' defense has been this season.
Anchored by a ferocious pass-rush duo, Denver finished fourth in the league in scoring defense (18.1 points per game) and boasted the league's third-best pass defense.
No player deserves more credit for Denver's success than phenom Von Miller. The speedy linebacker managed to make his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign look average, as the second-year pro racked up 18.5 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Besides his terrific pass-rush production, Miller's strong play against the run can't be overlooked.
A complete defender and absolute mismatch because of his blinding speed, Miller turns the Broncos defense from good to great.
Along with future Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey, underrated linebacker Wesley Woodyard and steady defensive end Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos boast an excellent mix of youth and experience.
3. Houston Texans
J.J. Watt is one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year.
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No player has single-handedly dominated in 2012 like J.J. Watt.
The 2011 first-round pick flashed potential as a rookie but has already established himself as the premier 3-4 defensive end in football in just his second year in the league.
At 6'6", 295 pounds, Watt is simply too big, too fast and too physical to block one-on-one. When he's not sacking the quarterback, Houston's best player uses his freakishly long arms to bat down passes at a ridiculous rate. With 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defended, Watt has to be the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
While Watt and Antonio Smith get after the quarterback, Glover Quinn, Danieal Manning, Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson anchor one of the league's top secondaries.
The quartet combined for 10 interceptions and 49 passes defended in the regular season, often taking advantage of rushed throws due to pressure from Watt.
Although Houston hasn't found a way to replace Brian Cushing in the middle, the Texans still boast one of the most aggressive defenses remaining in the divisional round.
2. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers need star defensive end Justin Smith back in the lineup against the Packers.
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Before Justin Smith went down against the New England Patriots, no team dominated on defense like the San Francisco 49ers. However, the absence of "Cowboy" has left the 49ers vulnerable on defense in recent weeks.
Although San Francisco ultimately prevailed, Tom Brady engineered a 28-point comeback against the 49ers in Week 15 before the Seattle Seahawks dropped 42 points on Patrick Willis and Co a week later.
The loss of Smith has also hurt the production of San Fran's other Smith—second-year pass-rusher Aldon Smith—who's been shut out in the sack department for three straight games.
Luckily San Francisco's depth doesn't stop at the Smith brothers. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis form the league's most formidable tackling tandem, combining for 269 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three interceptions, 15 passes defended and three forced fumbles.
On the back end, the 49ers are physical, as safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson punish receivers who come across the middle and chase down ball carriers with ease.
If not for their recent struggles, the 49ers would be atop the list of remaining defenses. However, that honor belongs to another team out west.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman emerged as one of the top corners in the league.
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Even with the loss of top pass-rusher Chris Clemons, the Seattle Seahawks are the No. 1 defense left in the playoffs.
With corners built like safeties and safeties built like linebackers, the Seahawks secondary is far and away the most complete unit in the NFL. Corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, strong safety Kam Chancellor delivers knockout hits and free safety Earl Thomas makes quarterbacks look silly for testing him deep.
To complement their elite secondary, Seattle has an aggressive front seven that is equally adept at stopping the run and the pass.
Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner—who was drafted 47th overall—proved he should have been selected 20 spots higher with his excellent play against the run. The 6'0", 241-pounder finished seventh in the league with 140 tackles, while chipping in two sacks and three picks.
Along with first-rounder Bruce Irvin (eight sacks) and underrated second-year linebacker K.J. Wright (98 tackles, seven for loss), the Seahawks' front seven is fast and physical.
With no discernible weaknesses and the production to match, Seattle's defense is the top unit remaining in the NFL divisional round.