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.

Sean Gardner/REUTERS
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.

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

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.

This is what the Colts were famous for: leveraging their entire team to maximize the talents of Manning. He missed this year to injury, and they finished 2-14, the worst record in the NFL. They had made the playoffs for nine consecutive years previously.   

The Steelers model is to find a top second-tier quarterback who won't eat up too much salary-cap space and then build the rest of the team around defense. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Houston Texans all found success with this formula this season. Along with the Steelers, they all rank in the top seven of NFL defenses. 

It is this generation's "defense wins championships" – though it is noteworthy that the only team that has parlayed this strategy into consistent success in recent years is the one with the best quarterback, the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger

The remaining teams in this years playoffs are a throwback team with a dominant defense and a caretaker quarterback (San Francisco 49ers), two teams that have a top second-tier quarterback (New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons), and one that emerged from a weak division (Denver Broncos). None but perhaps the 49ers would appear to have a serious shot of making it to the Super Bowl.

With two quarterbacks (Brees and Brady) breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, and three teams with dreadful defenses standing as legitimate Super Bowl favorites, it is perhaps only fitting that this season's Super Bowl will be in Indianapolis.    

Even without their team present, it might just feel like a home game for Colts fans. 

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