Ranking the Defenses Heading into Conference Championship Weekend

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2013

Ranking the Defenses Heading into Conference Championship Weekend

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    The NFL's conference championship weekend is upon us, and NFL fans everywhere want to know who's going to win their matchup. We all know what they say wins championships: defense.

    Statistically, it's true. Defense really does win championships—especially good scoring defenses that sack the quarterback a lot and snag many interceptions. Teams may gain yards, but a defense that disrupts the passing game and stops drives is a defense that's going to win playoff games.

    That's true in the regular season too. But at this point in the season, when championships are won, teams are physically and emotionally exhausted. Even the healthiest player on the field has a collection of bumps and bruises under his uniform, and all players know these are some of the most important games they'll ever play.

    A defense that can make the other team turtle in fear of the sack or turnover is a team that's going to win.

    Which teams' pass-rushers are felling quarterbacks like timber? Which teams' defensive backs are jumping routes and flipping the field? Which of the four remaining contenders has the toughest defense?

4. New England Patriots

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    The Patriots of the early 2000s certainly won championships with their hard-nosed defense, but recently they've relied more on quarterback Tom Brady's golden arm and/or hair.

    This season's New England squad sneaked back into the top 10 of scoring defenses, though, and its secondary picked off 3.4 percent of its opponent's passes. If the Patriots can turn up the wick on their pass rush against the Ravens, they'll be tough to get past.

     

    Statistics

    Average regular-season points per game allowed: 20.7 (ranked ninth)

    Average playoff points per game allowed: 28 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt sack percentage: 5.9 percent (ranked 21st)

    Playoff ratio of sacks/times sacked: 1/1 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt interception percentage: 3.4 percent (ranked sixth)

    Playoff interceptions/times intercepted: 1/0 (one game)

3. Baltimore Ravens

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    There's no question the Baltimore defense—especially its leader, Ray Lewis—strikes fear into the hearts of opponents.

    As the 12th-best scoring defense in the NFL, though, it wasn't an outstanding unit this season. The Ravens didn't stand out from the pack in either sacks or interceptions during the regular season either.

    So far in the playoffs, though, the Ravens have racked up six sacks against just two allowed. They've also snagged three interceptions without throwing any. If this trend holds, they're going to be an extremely tough out in the AFC championship game.

     

    Statistics

    Average regular-season points per game allowed: 21.5 (ranked 12th)

    Average playoff points per game allowed: 22 (two games)

    Regular-season pass-attempt sack percentage: 6.2 percent (ranked 16th)

    Playoff ratio of sacks/times sacked: 6/2 (two games)

    Regular-season pass-attempt interception percentage: 2.3 percent (ranked 19th)

    Playoff interceptions: 3/0 (two games)

2. San Francisco 49ers

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    The 49ers were the second-best scoring defense in all of football this season and boast a well-earned reputation as a hard-hitting unit.

    Outside of pass-rusher Aldon Smith, though, the 49ers didn't get after the quarterback this season. They also didn't pick the ball off more often than an average NFL unit.

    Their only playoff game so far this season was a wild shootout against the high-powered Green Bay Packers, so their playoff statistics are severely out of whack. But is that an outlier or a sign that a collapse is imminent?

     

    Statistics

    Average regular-season points per game allowed: 17.1 (ranked second)

    Average playoff points per game allowed: 31 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt sack percentage: 6.3 percent (ranked 13th)

    Playoff ratio of sacks/times sacked: 1/1 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt interception percentage: 2.5 percent (ranked 17th)

    Playoff interceptions: 1/1 (one game)

1. Atlanta Falcons

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    When most fans think of the Atlanta Falcons, they think of quarterback Matt Ryan and the best wide receiver pair in the game. But free safety Thomas DeCoud leads a defense that finished in the regular season as a top-10 scoring and ball-hawking unit.

    Pass-rusher John Abraham registered 10 sacks on the regular season, but nobody else managed more than four. The Falcons outsacked the Seahawks in the divisional round, though, and snagged a pick.

    They pitched an impressive first-half shutout against the Seahawks but collapsed in the second half. If the first-half unit shows up for the NFC championship game, look out.

     

    Statistics

    Average regular-season points per game allowed: 18.7 (ranked fifth)

    Average playoff points per game allowed: 28 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt sack percentage: 5.0 percent (ranked 27th)

    Playoff ratio of sacks/times sacked: 2/0 (one game)

    Regular-season pass-attempt interception percentage: 3.6 percent (ranked fourth)

    Playoff interceptions/times intercepted: 1/2 (one game)