- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Championship teams in the NFL traditionally have had some balance, some completeness. They could score. They could play defense. They could run the ball. They could throw it. They weren’t necessarily the best at any of those things, but they were at least passable. They didn’t, in other words, have glaring weaknesses.

The 2011 season seems to be testing that formula. The Green Bay Packers went 15-1 with a defense that gave up the most yards in the NFL and a running game that ranked 27th. The New England Patriots went 13-3, good for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with the second-worst defense in the league — and a secondary, in particular, that was close-your-eyes bad. The New Orleans Saints also went 13-3 … with a defense that gave up 64 points and 819 yards in two playoff games the past two weeks. And what are we to make of the New York Giants, who finished last in rushing and 27th in yards allowed?

The only playoff qualifiers who fit the old profile — sort of — are the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers (though the Houston Texans would have, too, if they hadn’t lost quarterback Matt Schaub to an injury). I say “sort of” because the Ravens‘ Joe Flacco and the Niners’ Alex Smith are merely adequate passers, and both clubs lean pretty heavily on their defenses.

Anyway, the old notions of balance and completeness are under attack. Indeed, we may be entering an era in which the key to winning a championship is the ability to put up tons of points and basically just outscore your liabilities. (The Packers, Saints and Patriots, all of whom averaged 30-plus points a game, certainly did a nice job of that in the regular season.) And the easiest way to score tons of points, of course, is to have a high-octane passing attack — directed by a Pro Bowl trigger man such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has been dishing out punishment throughout his 16-year career. (Associated Press)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has been dishing out punishment throughout his ... more >

Quarterbacks always have been important; but the way the game has evolved — before long, the equipment man will be an eligible receiver — they’re more important than ever. With a top QB, you don’t need a killer defense or a running game that’s much more than a diversion. You just need an offensive line that can keep your QB’s uniform reasonably clean. If you’ve got that, you can be in the mix virtually every year.

Who knew, though, that it could be taken to such extremes — that the Patriots could patch together a secondary for several games that included, on an emergency basis, wideouts Matt Slater and Julian Edelman … and live to tell about it? Here’s something else that’s startling: Five of the 12 playoff teams didn’t even have a 700-yard rusher, never mind a 1,000-yard rusher. (Makes you wonder why anybody drafts a running back in the first round anymore. So many clubs these days are taking the committee approach — and doing just fine.)

There’s the sense the NFL has spun off its axis and is trying to find a new one. Can you win a title with a shaky defense and a nondescript rushing attack? The Packers and Saints failed in their quest — this time — but the Pats are still alive. And if they pull it off, it will reverberate throughout the league (not that the league isn’t already heading in that direction).

That’s what makes their matchup with the Ravens in the conference title game so compelling. On one level, it’s a battle between Old School and New School. That’s not to say the Ravens are old-fashioned; I mean, they don’t run the single wing or anything. But they’re built along more traditional lines. They have a 1,000-yard back (Ray Rice, who was second in the NFL with 1,364 yards). They have a defense, revolving around Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed, that has held the opposition to 17 points or fewer 11 times.

There’s nothing, moreover, that they’re simply awful at. They’re functional across the board. And let’s not forget: Their division was the only one that produced three playoff clubs. That means they’ve been tested more than the other conference finalists.

And so we have Solid going up against Spectacular — the Ravens looking to upend the Patriots, with Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and all their other offensive bells and whistles. It’s a classic pairing, a crossroads championship game. And the fact that it’s being played outdoors, and not in some climate-controlled bubble, only adds to the anticipation.