NFL playoffs: When offenses shine, fans tune in

NFL playoffs are full of big passing games and weak defensive squads. It's easier for fans to cheer champion quarterbacks than defensive squads in the NFL playoffs.

Sean Gardner/Reuters/File
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees throws a pass against the Detroit Lions in the fourth quarter during their NFL NFC wildcard playoff football game in New Orleans. Elite quarterbacks like Brees against low-ranking defenses could mean a high scoring NFL playoffs season, and more viewers tuning in to watch.

For the last few weeks, the picture that has emerged of this year’s NFL playoffs has been one of marquee quarterbacks, high-powered offenses, and middling defenses. The rankings of the perceived Super Bowl contenders on either side of the ball are telling enough. The Green Bay Packers, for instance, have the league’s top-ranked offense and a defense ranked only 19th . The Patriots: 3rd ranked offense, 15th -ranked defense. The Saints? 2nd and 13th. The Giants? 9th and 25th .

These  teams are challenging the conventional wisdom that “defense wins football games,” as Monitor staffer Mark Sappenfield wrote Sunday. This past weekend’s results only underscored the point: Going against every expectation, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top-ranked defense (including a highly touted pass defense) was dismantled by the Broncos and Tim Tebow, a guy who, as we all know, has trouble accurately throwing a football.

So as the Broncos take the field against the Patriots Saturday, the talk is not of which defense can stop the other. It's about which defense can slow the offense enough so that their offense will score more points.

If there was any doubt that this year’s Super Bowl will be an offensive shoot-around, it was thoroughly banished by the Steelers’ shocking exit. Going forward, this will mean more points on the board and, quite possibly, more people watching.

Television is responsible for changing the landscape of a number of professional sports, and those which have adapted to the medium have endured as the nation’s most popular. Most of these changes have benefited the offensive side of the ball. The NBA started using the shot clock, and adopted the three point shot in 1980. Major League baseball parks shortened their fields and began using designated hitters so that home runs became the rule, rather than the exception. Over the past decade or so, as Mr. Sappenfield notes, several NFL teams have moved to offenses that value and showcase the quarterback more than ever.

This translates into a more accessible television experience for two reasons. For one, the action is centered around a single guy, who can serve as the hero’s face for an entire team. Teams that are strong on defense don’t have the capacity for that kind of easy allegiance: It’s more natural to root for Eli Manning, for example, than for a faceless group of defenders.

Second, high-scoring games are just plain more exciting than those low-scoring defensive chess matches – there’s more crowd noise, tangible results, and a sense that a lot more is happening. Just as much happens in defensive contests, but defense in football is more about thwarting action than creating it. The lowest-rated Super Bowl of the past decade was in 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens beat the New York Giants 34-7. The big story that year was the Baltimore Ravens defense, led by Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis.

There are, admittedly, a slew of factors that determine how many viewers tune in for a football game. Last year’s NFL playoffs were among the highest rated in history, not because of the games themselves, but because that winter was one of the worst in recent memory, prompting people to spend their January weekends indoors. A team’s market share also plays a huge role: With their huge fan base, the New England Patriots will inevitably draw more viewers than, small market teams like the Carolina Panthers or the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The market share factor (or lack thereof) was painfully evident in this year’s World Series between the small market St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers. From a baseball standpoint, the series was one of the best in recent memory, but because both teams have relatively small fan bases, it didn’t get nearly the viewership it deserved.

But the Cardinals-Rangers matchup did benefit ratings-wise (if not enough) from the quality of play, as it progressed, and exciting NFL games can follow suit. Sunday's matchup between the Broncos and Steelers earned the highest ratings share for a wild card game in 24 years, as an uncommonly good passing performance from Tebow catapulted Denver to a 29-23 overtime win.

And, in a playoff field that still includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rogers, and Eli Manning, we can expect viewers to tune in for more.

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