With 6:47 left in the first half last Saturday evening, Todd Gurley punched the ball over from the one yard line to give the Los Angeles Rams a 21-10 lead in a must-have game against their division rivals from San Francisco. By game’s end, the Rams would roll up 395 yards of offense, score 4 touchdowns, and ring up 31 points against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
With 4:50 left in the first quarter the next Sunday afternoon, Tennessee’s rookie receiver A.J. Brown took a pitch and cut it up field for a 49-yard touchdown run that gave the Titans a 14-0 lead in a fairly critical game against the New Orleans Saints. By game’s end – with quarterback Ryan Tannehill ringing up a 133.6 passer rating – the Titans would finish with 397 yards, 4 touchdowns and 28 points against the Saints.
Neither lead would hold, as both the 49ers and Saints would rally to victories – 34-31 for San Francisco (gamebook) (summary), and 38-28 for New Orleans (gamebook) (summary). But as the regular season is winding to its close, questions are starting to emerge about the defenses of nearly all of the top teams in the NFC.
Among the teams that have clinched playoff spots in the NFC, Minnesota ranks fourteenth in total defense, after allowing over 180 rushing yards for the second time in four weeks. The Seahawks, who have served up at least 24 points in four straight games, and have allowed over 20 in all but two games this season, rank twenty-sixth in yardage and twenty-first in points allowed. Green Bay’s defense seems to be on the best roll at the moment – the Packers haven’t allowed more than 15 points in any of their last 4 games – a span during which they have held opposing passers to a 61.0 rating while allowing just 92.3 rushing yards per game and only 3.8 yards per run. The problem is that all of this domination has come against some of the most struggling offenses in football – the Giants, Redskins and Bears.
Last Monday, they did dominate Minnesota – in Minnesota, no less. The Vikings, though, were minus both of their top running backs and gave up on the run very early. So that game comes with a significant asterisk. The last healthy and competent offense they faced was San Francisco in Week 12 – a game they were pushed around in to the tune of 37-8. The Packers (who rank just eighteenth in the league) have also allowed 34 points to Philadelphia, 24 to Dallas, 22 to Detroit, 24 to Oakland, 24 to Kansas City and 26 to the Chargers.
And then there are the Saints and the 49ers.
The Saints opened the season outscoring Houston 30-28, and have been trying to stay one score ahead of its defense ever since. They are currently football’s fifth highest scoring team (with 416 points on the season), while ranking fourteenth in scoring defense – having allowed 331 over 15 games this season. Over the last five weeks they have allowed 31 points to Carolina, 48 points to San Francisco and now 28 points to Tennessee. This is not a formula that bodes well for a deep playoff run.
In addition to the 272 passing yards and three touchdowns from Tannehill, the Saints also saw the Derrick Henry-less Titans pound them for 149 ground yards and a 5.7 average. The shakiness of their defense will probably cost them a first-round playoff bye, and will most likely be their demise once the playoffs start.
The surprise addition to this list, of course, is San Francisco. In their 7-0 start, defense was the 49ers calling card. Through that point of the season, San Fran had surrendered just 7 touchdowns, while racking up 27 sacks. Through their first 11 games, they dropped 44 opposing quarterbacks. That total led the NFL at that point – as did their 11.8% sack ratio. Through their first eleven games, they ranked first in overall defense and first against the pass while ranking second in points allowed with 163 and second in passer rating against at 72.7.
Since then, opposing game plans have sought to neutralize that pass rush – and with surprising success. Over the last four games, the 49ers have allowed 20 points to Baltimore, 46 to New Orleans, 29 to Atlanta, and 31 to the Rams. Over the last 152 pass attempts against them, the 49ers have just 3 sacks. Not coincidentally, they have also intercepted just one pass in those last four games, while allowing 15 touchdowns – ten of them on passes. The last four quarterbacks they’ve faced hold a 102.4 passer rating.
The Rams subverted the San Francisco rush by rolling Jared Goff out of the pocket – and usually out of trouble, and by slowing the 49ers with a bevy of screen passes.
The AFC side of the board has plenty of worrisome defenses – Buffalo, New England and especially Baltimore. On the NFC side, the best defense may well be fielded by the team with the worst record In the tournament – Philadelphia.
Eagles in the Playoffs?
After Week Seven, a somber Doug Pederson stood before the room full of reporters and conceded that the 37-10 thrashing his team had just absorbed at the hands of the hated Dallas Cowboys was one of the low points of his career. Week 16 would provide sweet, sweet revenge as the Eagles delivered a dagger to the Cowboy hearts with a 17-9 victory that left them in charge of the division. While I can’t honestly say I’d be stunned if the Giants rose up in Week 17 to knock Philly back out of the playoffs, still, all that stands between the Eagles and the division title is a win against the 4-11 Giants. Consistency has not been the strong point of this division.
As to the Eagle defense – yes, they have had their gaffs, too – even after their bye when they began to get mostly healthy. In recent weeks the Dolphins (37) and the Redskins (27) – hardly offensive juggernauts – have both put a fair amount of points on the board against them.
Even so, the Eagles rank ninth this season in total defense, and have played some of their best football against some of the better opponents they’ve lined up against (Buffalo, New England, Seattle and Dallas).
As it looks right now, the AFC playoffs could easily produce a string of 17-13 games. If you were to make a guess about the NFC side of the ticket, you would have to surmise that the contests there could get very, very wild, indeed.