While the first part of that formula is likely true, the second part is a bit more ambiguous. Super Bowl XLVI pitted two below-average pass defenses in the Giants and Patriots, but the year before, the Packers and Steelers met for the title with two of the three best pass defenses in the league.
Those are only two examples, but there's nothing that tells us that a super pass defense is absolutely essential to a Super Bowl champion or contender. Of course, there's no denying that it helps—last year, only the Patriots, Redskins and Colts made the postseason with a negative pass D EPA.
Therefore, if we consider good pass defense an important but not indispensable quality, that bodes well for a contender who, despite this past weekend's results, is showing quiet improvement in that area.
A Mile High Misnomer
Let's make one thing clear immediately: Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are not "frauds," as some in the mainstream media are eagerly proclaiming after their loss at Foxboro. Many are citing Manning's record in sub-freezing temperatures as proof of the Broncos' playoff fallibility, but multiple writers have already dispelled that notion.
Manning is most certainly not the problem in Denver, and fortunately most rational fans do not need much explanation to understand that. However, many fans might have come away believing that the Broncos' pass defense is the team's Achilles heel. Indeed, it was not some inherent cold-weather flaw in Manning that cost Denver the game, but rather a second half in which Tom Brady and the Patriots moved the ball at will.
Besides the flaws of magnifying a small sample size, that second half was not really indicative of Denver's pass defense capabilities. Overall, the Broncos pass defense EPA is below average, worse than only the Lions, Packers and Colts among playoff contenders:
That's really not as troubling as it seems. Denver is generally ahead, meaning that the opposition must pass to catch up, thus deflating the Broncos' pass defense stats. Moreover, we can measure Denver's game-by-game pass EPA per play and compare them to their opponents' pass EPA/P for the year. And when we do that, an interesting trend emerges over recent weeks:
At the beginning of the year, Denver's pass defense results were strongly correlated with their competition, making them vulnerable to great passing teams. However, in recent weeks, the Broncos have bucked that trend (sorry, I had to) and actually performed better than average against their opponents.
Denver's personnel trends seem to support this hypothesis as well. Despite modest sack totals, Von Miller has actually been a behemoth since his return, with the second-highest EPA/G among linebackers. Shaun Phillips has compiled 10 sacks as the Broncos' other pass-rushing star. In the secondary, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kayvon Webster and Chris Harris gave Denver three good corners when Webster started seeing more snaps after the first month.
If there's cause for concern, it's that Denver is not particularly deep in the secondary, as the New England loss exposed. Rodgers-Cromartie's shoulder injury, suffered while needlessly diving for a Hail Mary, forced the Broncos to stray from their man concepts and play soft zone, a death knell against Brady. Starting safety Duke Ihenacho was also in and out of the game after halftime.
Champ Bailey has essentially missed the whole season, and his imminent return should bolster that depth. It's always dangerous to rely on a 35-year old corner staying healthy while playing heavy snaps. But Bailey still graded out as the 10th best corner in the league last season, per Pro Football Focus, so any contributions should be a positive addition to an improving unit.
Denver's ceiling may be a slightly above average pass defense, and they're a couple injuries away from being a disaster. But average is good enough when paired with that offense.
The NFC North Goes South
Most people believe the NFC East is the worst division in the league, but the NFC North certainly challenges that notion. Granted, part of that is due to the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers turning into Jaguars North. Still, the average ranking of the four North teams is 15.0, while the East sits not far behind at 15.1. Just sayin'.
The Lions looked like potential first-round bye challengers after improving to 6-3, but two consecutive losses to the Steelers and Buccaneers bore strong resemblances to past bumbling Detroit teams. The Lions defense, which has excelled against the run this year, has given up nine pass plays of 20 or more yards the past two weeks after conceding 29 such plays through the first nine games.
But Chicago would gladly take the Lions defense, as the Bears defense has turned into one of the league's worst units. While we're on the subject of giving up big plays, the Bears have given up 6.0 yards per play, 28th in the league. Injuries and age have worn down this once-proud unit, with Henry Melton out for the season, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs missing significant time, and Julius Peppers turning into a pumpkin. Chicago is extremely fortunate that Josh McCown has played so well in Jay Cutler's stead, otherwise the Bears would already be out of the division title hunt.
And before you attribute Green Bay's problems solely to Rodgers' absence, note that their defense is below average against both the pass and the run. Apart from Clay Matthews and Tramon Williams, the Packers defense does not have any particularly impactful players, as no one else is even in the top-40 of EPA/G at their position. The massive downgrade at quarterback obviously hurts, but the Packers really don't have enough to stay afloat without their former MVP.
The collective mediocrity has kept everyone besides Minnesota in the race. These three teams do have excellent passing games (when Rodgers comes back), which is certainly enough to at least be competitive. But the NFC fourth-seed, who will likely be a home underdog against Carolina in the Wild Card round, might come from the North instead of the East after all.
- Since we're on the subject of pass defense today, Washington's fall out of the playoffs this season will largely fall on their regression in that facet. Washington ranks 26th in EPA per play there, en route to the league's least efficient pass defense. D.C. was only 21st in 2012, but they jumped into the top third of the league in terms of passing yards allowed per play during their season-ending seven-game winning streak, per Pro-Football-Reference. Robert Griffin III's diminished production following his knee injury certainly hurts, but it's not the deciding factor in the team's decline.
- Curious to see the 5-6 St. Louis Rams ranked 30th. The Rams are a strange team, having gone on two separate three-game losing streaks. And yet, their average margin of victory this year has been a whopping 18.6 points per game. For reference, the Broncos have won by an average of 16.6 points per game this year. St. Louis is a young and talented team, and if they find a stable quarterback solution, they might start to turn in some more consistently positive (and sensible) results.
- The AFC sixth-seed contender field hurts my head. We have the whole range of teams, from the all-offense-no-defense Chargers to the middle ground Titans and the defensively oriented Browns. Mostly, there are a bunch of teams (nine, to be precise) who are within one game of each other and are average or worse at both offense and defense. Woo-hoo. You really have to squint to see anything that suggests one team is particularly better than the rest. The Steelers and Ravens have recent history, I suppose, and I'll likely do a write-up on whoever wins that game in next week's rankings (which probably means they'll tie). But the whole bunch just looks like one indistinguishable morass of mediocrity.
Now that I've thoroughly depressed you with thoughts of Geno Smith's turnover rate and Ray Rice's yards per carry, check out the rankings for some cheerier sights.
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