Back in my coaching days, I would set aside time every year to take a hard look at the final four teams that were playing on Championship Sunday. These teams obviously represent the most successful franchises of each particular season. The objective is to determine similarities between the four, use them as indicators for success in this league and track trends in the game moving forward.
For this season, the evaluation in the NFC will be of the fourth-seeded New York Giants and No. 2 San Francisco 49ers. On the AFC side, the top two seeds are the final two remaining: the No. 1 New England Patriots and No. 2 Baltimore Ravens. When looking at those four teams, this is what jumps out at me:
Defense still matters
With the explosion of offense that is today's NFL, it would be easy to discount the importance of playing great defense. Records for total offense, passing offense and scoring offense are broken on a regular basis these days, causing many to the claim that this is a "QB-driven league" and no longer does "defense wins championships." Well, this final foursome begs to differ.
New England and New York finished second and fifth, respectively, in passing offense, but Baltimore ended up at 19th and San Francisco all the way down at 29th. Much has been made of the fact that New England ranked 31st in the league in total defense, but the Patriots defense was also 19th in scoring defense and tied for third in takeaways. Not to mention, the Pats just held Denver to 252 total yards and 10 points in their playoff opener last Saturday night. Although the Giants were also lowly rated at 27th in total defense, no one questions they are currently playing at a top-10 level, thanks in large part to being the healthiest they've been all season. And of course, Baltimore and San Francisco are two of the most imposing defenses in the league, finishing third and fourth in total yards allowed, respectively.
Likewise, three of the teams are in the top 10 in sacks (New York and Baltimore are tied for third, San Francisco is tied for seventh), while New England ranked in the upper half of this category.
Still, you better have a QB
Having said that about defense, it is clear you need a presence at quarterback to be in a conference championship game, and you will likely need to get him in the first round of the NFL draft. Eli Manning and Alex Smith were the No. 1 overall picks in the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively, and Joe Flacco was the second quarterback taken in the 2008 NFL Draft (18th overall) behind Matt Ryan (third overall). Last year was an even more dramatic an example of this, with all four quarterbacks having gone in the first round: Chicago's Jay Cutler, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and New York's Mark Sanchez.
Of course, former sixth-round pick Tom Brady forever will be the exception to the rule.
Better yet, you need a playmaking tight end
Other than a quarterback, the other offensive weapon you must have is a playmaking tight end, or two. The importance of this was on full display in Saints-49ers, particularly during the dramatic finish. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and San Francisco's Vernon Davis threw body blows right into the gut of the opposing defense series after series, and both scored go-ahead touchdowns in the final two minutes. But Davis struck last, allowing San Francisco to advance. Davis was San Francisco's second-leading receiver during the regular season with 67 catches and led the team in touchdown catches (six). (Although the Saints are no longer playing, it's worth noting Graham's amazing season. He finished third in the league with 99 receptions, fourth with 11 touchdown catches and seventh with 1,310 receiving yards.)
Jake Ballard only had 38 receptions in the regular season, but still was Eli's go-to guy in crucial situations on third down and in the red zone. In Baltimore, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for 94 receptions and eight touchdowns.
Of course, New England has taken the use of the position to a whole new level. Rob Gronkowski put together one of the greatest tight end seasons ever, leading the NFL with 17 touchdown catches (a new tight end record), while hauling in 90 balls for 1,327 yards. Aaron Hernandez is certainly no slouch either, with 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. Their dual dominance was on full display against Denver. Gronkowski terrorized the Broncos with 10 catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. The versatile Hernandez racked up four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown, in addition to five rushes for 61 yards.
And a good skipper's always necessary
We are currently in the hiring season for NFL coaches, and a number of teams are trying to figure out the best type of coach to lead. Based on the final four, it had better be a guy who can manage the whole team, not just coordinate one phase of the game. None of the four remaining head coaches call plays for the offense or defense, allowing them to manage the team as a whole.
John Harbaugh, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick all rely on others to call their offensive and defensive plays, but make no mistake, each is still heavily involved. They are critical in developing game plans, but ultimately rely on coordinators to craft the art during the game. Even Jim Harbaugh, whom Alex Smith hears directly in his headset, is just relaying the call from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the primary play caller. Most critical decisions made by a head coach are made when his team is on offense. We have seen several examples of coaches who are primary play callers struggle to transition from coordinator to head coach during live action, particularly in the final minutes of either half.
Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton, both the primary play callers for their teams, made that profile popular when selecting a head coach last year. Interestingly enough, Payton had to turn the play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael after suffering a broken leg early in the season. The Saints went on to lead the NFL in total yards, passing offense and third-down conversions and were second in points scored with 547. The Super Bowl team of 2009 scored 510 points. Many people feel Payton may have done his best head-coaching job this year.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick