Offense sells tickets, but defense wins games.
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 Clemonswill 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.
» 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.
» 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.
» 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.
» 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.