Four of the five teams that gave up the fewest points during the regular season are the last four left with a shot at the Super Bowl Denzelle Good Jersey , something that had never happened since the NFL-AFL merger nearly a half-century ago.
And three of the four toughest to gain yards against are still around, too.
Still think that all a team needs to succeed in the modern game is an elite QB? Go ahead and take a close look at Sunday’s matchups for the conference championship games.
Sure, Tom Brady (assuming his injured right hand is good to go) and the New England Patriots will be playing for the AFC title, just like they always do, but they’ll be going up against Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles will send Nick Foles out to face the Minnesota Vikings and Case Keenum, hardly a marquee matchup between quarterbacks, and one set up by injuries to other signal-callers.
What this quartet of teams does have in common is solid defense, showing once again that while everyone is paying so much attention to one side of the ball, it’s the other that might truly matter the most. The more league rules and officiating tend to favor offenses, the more figuring out ways to slow that down is imperative.
”When you have a defense that can shut that type of firepower down,” said Brian Robison, a linebacker on the Vikings defense that ranked No. 1 in yards and points allowed, ”it allows you to win ballgames.”
Minnesota gave up 15.8 points per game. Jacksonville was No. 2 at 16.8, followed by No. 4 Philadelphia’s 18.4 and No. 5 New England’s 18.5.
”There’s teams that have really good defenses that aren’t talked about,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. ”We’re one of them.”
It’s the first time since the 1970 merger there has been that sort of defensive dominance among the NFL’s final four. The closest was at the end of the 2010 season, when teams that ranked No. 1 (Steelers), No. 2 (Packers), No. 4 (Bears) and No. 6 (Jets) in points allowed reached the conference title games.
”The most heralded guys on the field are the quarterbacks. So I would say, nine times out of 10, your detail goes into your offensive planning and things like that,” said Jacksonville’s leading tackler, Telvin Smith, who returned a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown last weekend. ”Offense sells tickets, and defense wins championships. I’m happy I’m on the defensive side.”
He is part of a young, talented and speedy D that rose to prominence quickly via a combination of shrewd drafting (linebackers Smith and Myles Jack, defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. Anthony Castonzo Jersey , cornerback Jalen Ramsey) and free-agent signings that panned out (defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson).
Take a look at the regular-season rankings in various defensive categories, and you can’t miss the Jaguars. That helps explain how they made it this far with Bortles, whose 84.7 rating ranked 22nd among QBs with at least 100 pass attempts and whose 13 interceptions were exceeded by only six players.
Campbell tied for second in NFL with 14.5 sacks, while Ngakoue added 12 and led the league by forcing six fumbles. Bouye tied for third with six interceptions, while Ramsey, Gipson and Church each had four. As a unit, the Jaguars were No. 2 in yards allowed at 286.1, trailing the No. 1 Vikings (275.9), with the Eagles (306.5) at No. 4. The Jaguars were also second in sacks and total takeaways, while they topped the NFL with seven defensive TDs.
Exceptional defense can carry a team far: In nine of the last 10 seasons, the No. 1 or No. 2 team in points allowed participated in a conference championship game. The exception was 2015, when the Seahawks led the league in that category but lost in the divisional round, and the Bengals ranked second but lost in the wild-card round.
”Now it’s down to, `May the best defense win,”’ Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. ”We each get to showcase what we can do.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Eden Prairie, Minnesota; Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts; Mark Long in Jacksonville, Florida; and Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
Well, that didn’t last long.
The Los Angeles Rams’ first playoff appearance in 13 seasons came to a quick end Saturday night when the young, upstart team led by the NFL’s youngest coach was schooled by Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, who won the wild-card game 26-13.
It was the Rams’ first playoff game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1979 and their first in Southern California since 1986.
Only six Rams players had playoff experience, including left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who went 0-6 with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Whitworth said it was natural that players would be nervous in their first playoff appearance.
However, second-year quarterback Jared Goff downplayed the team’s lack of postseason experience.
”I think they played better than we did,” Goff said. ”Playoff inexperience Johnny Unitas Jersey , I don’t know what that means. Each game’s the same. This one has a little bit more meaning to it, of course. But we did not play well. And if we played like this two weeks ago against the same team, we would have lost as well.”
The Rams fell behind 13-0 thanks to two special teams gaffes by Pro Bowler Pharoh Cooper. Todd Gurley got going too late to help, although he did finish with 101 yards rushing. Goff made some nice passes, but also had some misses and watched his teammates make some drops.
Cooper fumbled on a kickoff return late in the first quarter when he was hit by Damontae Kazee, with Kemal Ishmael recovering at the Rams 32.
Devonta Freeman capped the short drive with a 3-yard scoring run to give the Falcons a 13-0 lead.
Matt Bryant kicked field goals of 29 and 51 yards in the first quarter.
The Falcons, who blew a 28-3 lead in last season’s Super Bowl, had their first score set up by a special teams blunder by the Rams that allowed Atlanta to almost completely flip the field.
With the Falcons forced to punt from their 14, Cooper was indecisive and let the ball bounce at about the L.A. 40. It hit off Blake Countess’ foot during a wild scramble that ended with LaRoy Reynolds recovering at the Rams 17.
The Falcons had to settle for Bryant’s 29-yarder. He kicked a 51-yarder on Atlanta’s next possession.
Cooper took the blame for the miscues. He said he should have protected the ball better on the kickoff return. On the punt, he said he needed to take control of the situation by yelling ”Poison,” as in, get away from the ball.
”They’ve been so good for us all year,” Goff said. ”They’ve won so many games for us. You can go look throughout the whole season how many games those guys, in particular Pharoh, have contributed to and put us in good field position. The first one was a freak one and the second one I know he’d like to have back. He’s a Pro Bowl returner and has done such a good job this year. I know we wouldn’t want anyone (else) back there.”
The Rams had gone from 4-12 in 2016, their first season back in Los Angeles after 22 years in St. Louis, to 11-5 and the NFC West championship under first-year coach Sean McVay.
The Rams were hosting their first playoff game in the Coliseum since Jan. 7, 1979, when they lost 28-0 to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC championship game. It was their first playoff game in Southern California since Jan. 4, 1986, when they beat the Cowboys 20-0 at Anaheim Stadium.
McVay was born 20 days after that game.
The Rams moved to St. Louis after the 1994 season and won their only Super Bowl after the 1999 season.
They moved back to L.A. prior to the 2016 season.
”It’s hard,” Goff said. ”We didn’t want this to end at all. We’ve got such a special group of dudes in there, coaches and everybody. It’s such a special group. You don’t want it to end this early by any means. But I think we have a good, strong core group we’ve built this year.”
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