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NFL playoffs: Did New Orleans Saints end the 'defense wins championships' era?

NFL playoffs are led by teams with dreadful defenses, like the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. It's a sign that more teams are turning to the Indianapolis Colts model.

By Staff writer / January 8, 2012

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (l.) talks with Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford following their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in New Orleans Saturday.

Sean Gardner/REUTERS

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In the very year that the Indianapolis Colts imploded, much of the league, it seems, has decided they were right all along. 

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It has been coming on for a while now, but the Colts way of building a Super Bowl contender around the extraordinary abilities of quarterback Peyton Manning has come to full bloom across the National Football League this year. And rarely has it been more evident than in Saturday night's Wild Card matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions

The Lions, for their part, have essentially built themselves as a Colts clone: high-octane offense centered on a franchise quarterback, poor defense whose only recourse is an ability to pressure the quarterback.

But even the Saints are merely a variation on the type. They, too, are built on a franchise quarterback – surrounding him with an array of weapons that would make the Pentagon blush. Their defense, too, is a paper tiger – an assemblage of talent that would have been mocked in the "defense wins championships" era of Doomsday Defenses, Steel Curtains, and Purple People Eaters. 

That era is not yet wholly gone, but it is unrecognizable from even 10 years ago.

This season suggests that there are essentially two models for success in the National Football League: the Indianapolis Colts model and the Pittsburgh Steelers model.

The Colts model is the reality the league has created. By emphasizing offense at every turn – by making quarterbacks as precious a fabergé eggs and penalizing defensive backs for anything short of wearing strong cologne – the NFL has essentially changed the balance of power in the game. An elite quarterback can now unlock even the most dominating defenses.

And so those teams that have them – forced by the salary cap to prioritize their needs – have chosen to start an offensive arms race at the expense of their own defenses. 

The three most elite quarterbacks in the NFL – the Saints' Drew Brees, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, and Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers – have the 24th-, 31st-, and 32nd-ranked defenses, respectively, in a 32-team league.

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