49ers, Seahawks, Broncos boast top three remaining defenses

Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games.

The Divisional Round

The playoffs continue this weekend, with the right to play on Championship Sunday at stake. NFL.com's analysts break down the divisional round:

» Kimberly Jones: Ravens at Broncos
» Bucky Brooks: Packers at 49ers
» Jeff Darlington: Seahawks at Falcons
» Albert Breer: Texans at Patriots

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That's an old saying that still has some merit to it, even in this era of super-powered aerial attacks. Defense is still important, as the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers can attest.

So I thought I'd rank the remaining playoff teams according to defense, from best to worst. This is the order I came to after evaluating stats such as points allowed, sacks, third-down success and turnovers, to name a few. I've also evaluated each position group (defensive line, linebackers and secondary).

I think the top four defensive teams are very good, but after that, there's a pretty significant drop-off. Without further ado, here are my rankings:

1) San Francisco 49ers

Boasting six players who made the 2013 Pro Bowl (NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Donte Whitner and Patrick Willis), this unit gave up just 273 points in the regular season, second-best in the league. Bowman and Willis are really tough. We'll see how effective Justin Smith is after missing the last two regular-season games with a triceps injury; his presence is really key to Aldon Smith playing well.

2) Seattle Seahawks

Defensive end Chris Clemons will miss the rest of the playoffs after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Sunday. If he were healthy, I'd probably rank Seattle above the 49ers. Losing him really hurts the Seahawks. Still, their outstanding defensive backs make them really tough to pass against; Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are very long players who disrupt opposing offenses with their press coverage. Earl Thomas is also an excellent safety who's a good tackler and strong against the pass. Finally, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner should be in the mix for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

3) Denver Broncos

Head man John Fox is a top-notch defensive coach. In the regular season, the Broncos piled up 52 sacks, tied for the most in the league, and yielded just 290.8 yards per game, less than both Seattle and San Francisco. Sack differential is a big predictor of playoff success; Denver is at plus-31, which is a phenomenal number. One key player who you don't hear much about: linebacker Wesley Woodyard, a former undrafted free agent who leads the Broncos with 117 total tackles. Obviously, Von Miller (18.5 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (11) are important, too.

4) Houston Texans

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is as good as they come, and defensive lineman J.J. Watt is one of the best defenders in the NFL. This unit does not make mistakes. Time of possession is important; in the regular season, the Texans' offense had the ball for nearly 34 minutes per game. Ultimately, though, defense is paramount to their success. The Texans had a good offense for several years, but didn't go to the playoffs until they hired Phillips.

5) Atlanta Falcons

This unit is led by an underrated coordinator in Mike Nolan. He's one of those guys who seems to produce defensive results wherever he goes. Even without cornerback Brent Grimes, who went on injured reserve in September, Nolan has made this Falcons defense respectable. Expect Nolan to give rookie quarterback Russell Wilson a lot of new looks in an attempt to confuse him on Sunday.

6) Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens held the Indianapolis Colts to nine points last weekend, but I think you throw all that out for the divisional round. Paul Kruger played well, recording 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble, but who did he do it against? Ray Lewis is back, and he added something to the defense on Sunday, but I don't think you can run on adrenaline two weeks in a row.

7) New England Patriots

This unit is better than it had been in recent seasons, though with a point differential of 226 (easily the biggest margin in the league), the Patriots don't rely on their defense as much as other teams. Rookies have played a very important role; Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson have both played well, while Chandler Jones would have been a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year if he hadn't been hurt. Linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork will be the keys to stopping Houston's running game on Sunday.

8) Green Bay Packers

They gave up 5,388 total yards in the regular season -- 1,197 less than they gave up last season. Like the Patriots, the Packers are a high-scoring team with an improved defense. Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson both missed big chunks of the regular season, but both veterans are now healthy and back. Woodson is the kind of guy who just makes plays. A.J. Hawk will have to stop Niners running back Frank Gore if Green Bay is to have a shot at knocking off San Francisco.

DIVISIONAL-ROUND PICKS

Last week, I was 4-0 with my wild-card picks, missing on the final scores for both the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans by just one point. Here are my thoughts on the divisional-round matchups:

Denver Broncos 20, Baltimore Ravens 10

» Ravens fans shouldn't let last Sunday's win over the Colts fool them; Baltimore doesn't have as much momentum as that victory might suggest. The Ravens haven't been a good road team. I don't think Lewis, meanwhile, is going to have the same kind of impact he had in the wild-card round.

» Peyton Manning hasn't been a great playoff quarterback, but the Broncos are stacked on offense, with an above-average line, two excellent receivers and a good tight end. Manning is also 2-0 against the Ravens in the postseason.

» Worth noting: Manning is 0-3 in playoff games when the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees. The temperature in Denver on Saturday is expected to be in the low 20s.

San Francisco 49ers 27, Green Bay Packers 24

» This game has upset potential. The Packers and Niners are both well-coached. One play could determine the outcome, and I could easily see Green Bay winning.

» The 49ers have a slight advantage in San Francisco, which is a tough place to play. That field is slow; even when it's dry, it's wet. That's why the Niners have so much success with their Gore-powered running game. The Packers' fleet-footed offensive attack, meanwhile, might have trouble.

Seattle Seahawks 20, Atlanta Falcons 17



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» Can the Seahawks stop the Falcons' receivers? Can the Falcons stop the Seahawks' running game? The Georgia Dome will be loud, but if Seattle can run the ball, the Seahawks can take the crowd out of it, like the Packers did in the 2010 playoffs.

» Don't forget that the Seahawks will have to travel east for the second week in a row. That's a tough trip to make, and can seriously affect a team.

» Watch for Falcons running back Jacquizz Rodgers to play a key role.

New England Patriots 34, Houston Texans 23

» The Patriots have to stop the Texans' run game and make quarterback Matt Schaub beat them. The Texans have not played well lately, losing three of their last four regular-season games, and surviving against the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend in less-than-dominant fashion.

» Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been brilliant lately. If he beats Houston, he'll have 17 career postseason wins, lifting him past Joe Montana for the most by a quarterback in NFL history.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS


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» The divisional round looks like it's going to offer the best TV watching weekend in all of sports. Be sure to order your pizza early, because there will be a lot sold. Maybe we can get Peyton to deliver some on Sunday.

» You never know what's going to happen in the playoffs. Consider what transpired in 1940. On Nov. 17, the Chicago Bears dropped a regular-season game against the Washington Redskins, 7-3. When the two teams met in the championship game on Dec. 8, the outcome was flipped just a little bit -- the Bears rolled to a 73-0 win.

»A side note about Mike Nolan: I've known him since he was about 2 or 3 years old. His dad, Dick Nolan, was a player and then a coach with the Dallas Cowboys, and I remember going over to the Nolan house and helping Dick assemble toys for his kids.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.