Every year for the past two decades, I have pored over the numbers of the four teams that make it to Championship Sunday. Seeking possible conclusions about the direction of the game, I hope to unearth key characteristics of success that can drive future teams into the NFL's final four.
Each year, the last four teams standing tend to share many of the same traits. If you're still playing football at this time of year, you likely have performed well on third down and in the red zone, you've protected the football better than your opponents, and you haven't given up too many big plays. I've also tried to look for any other factors that might be unexpected indicators -- coaches' backgrounds and methods, quarterbacks taken early in the draft vs. late, etc.
When it comes to this season's foursome, here's what I know:
Don't lose your balance
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Yes, today's league is quarterback-driven, with virtually all the rules bent toward offensive productivity, but don't think for a second that defense has become irrelevant. Balance remains crucial. Combine the offensive and defensive rankings from the regular season for all 32 teams, and the four squads still playing all rank in the top 10. Seattle comes in second in the NFL with a combined rank of 10 (No. 9 in total offense and No. 1 in total defense), while Indianapolis is third (14), Green Bay is sixth (21) and New England is eighth (24). Nine of the top 10 in combined ranking made the playoffs.
When you compare that to New Orleans, which ranked No. 1 in total offense but No. 31 in total defense, you can see it is almost impossible to be successful without balance. No matter how dominant you are on one side of the ball, if the other unit isn't at least in the middle of the pack, good luck. The second-ranked offense in the NFL was Pittsburgh's, but the Steelers were able to make the playoffs because their defense was, while not quite up to the franchise's usual standards, at least serviceable at No. 18. Detroit had the second-ranked defense and 19th-ranked offense. Only two teams finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball: Seattle and Denver.
It's the quarterback, stupid
As balanced as you might be, you still need an elite -- or near-elite -- quarterback. The championship field has two future Hall of Famers (Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) and two young guns (Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck) who can't quite claim that status yet, though Wilson and Luck are headed for the realm of $120 million contracts. What is striking about this group is the draft diversity: Luck was the first overall pick in his draft, while Rodgers fell to 24th. Wilson was taken in the third round. And then there's Brady, forever the poster child for long shots, having lasted all the way to the compensatory-selection portion of Round 6.
Now, before you get too excited about finding your next franchise quarterback in Round 3, like Wilson, know that of the 21 quarterbacks taken in the third round since 1998, only three have established themselves as anything but busts or backups: Wilson, Matt Schaub and maybeNick Foles (though the jury's still out on him). Don't even get me started on the once-in-a-generation diamond in the rough that is Brady, taken 199th overall in 2000.
Toxic differential matters
I have long talked about the two biggest determinants for success in the NFL being turnovers and big plays. Individually, they are significant; combined, in a statistic called "toxic differential," they are nearly unbeatable. Green Bay, New England and Seattle were three of the top four teams in turnover differential in 2014, while Seattle, Indianapolis and Green Bay were three of the top five teams in explosive-play differential (plays of 20-plus yards). Seattle led the NFL in toxic differential, while Green Bay and Indianapolis both finished in the top six. New England was the only outlier at No. 16, owing largely to the number of big plays the Pats' defense gave up.
Don't overlook regular-season brilliance
Even though the idea of just getting in the playoffs is a valuable motivational tool, the fact of the matter is, since the current postseason format was adopted, 72 percent of the top two seeds have made it to Championship Sunday. We have seen two teams with sub-.500 records make it to the playoffs and even win a game (Seattle and Carolina). Of course, neither made it to this stage.
It's a long season -- only the strong survive
Back in September, Rodgers had to tell Packer backers to "R-E-L-A-X," as they were coming unhinged over Green Bay's early offensive struggles. In October, numerous analysts detailed the potential end of the Belichick-Brady era in New England. By November, Seattle was seen as a flawed team that would have to rally just to claim a wild-card spot. And in December, Indy was purportedly a one-dimensional outfit that would be hard-pressed to match last year's postseason performance.
All four teams bounced back.
The league is too balanced -- both in structure and in fact -- for any team to dominate throughout the year without a setback or two. The best coaches and best teams don't overreact; they address the problem, continue emphasizing their strengths and push forward. Each of the four teams still standing did that this season.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Two years ago, the NFL seemed to be moving closer to the college game, with spread offenses, fleet-footed option quarterbacks and a breathless focus on a faster and faster pace. However, once again, we're left with four teams that win behind QBs who beat you from the pocket. Wilson is the one guy people might point to as a college-style signal-caller, but both he and Luck are quarterbacks who can run, as opposed to athletes who can throw.
Twenty years ago, NFL offenses averaged 63.7 plays per game. This year? 63.9. With the increase of no-huddle attacks, the fastest teams in the league were around 70 plays per game. Here's how the final four shake out: Indianapolis (69.1), New England (67.1), Seattle (63.8), Green Bay (62.6). I have no doubt that no-huddle concepts will continue to bump up play counts for certain teams. However, this approach still requires a special player at the quarterback position -- you can't just plug anyone into the system and have it be unstoppable.
Beware the quick-fix guru
Finally, teams with head coaches who are managers of the game -- as opposed to those who juggle duties as head coach and primary play-caller -- dominate the championship bracket. As we currently speculate on who will fill vacated head-coaching positions, many teams tend to focus on the hottest coordinator on one side of the ball, someone ostensibly expected to deliver his "guru" game plan guaranteed for success. (I'll admit it was that mindset that contributed strongly to me being offered the job in Baltimore in 1999.) But the real challenge for a head coach is not installing a game plan; it's all the larger-scale, macro-level decisions he must make, ranging from personnel to strategy to how to deal with the media to free agency. The only way to learn that is on-the-job training as a head man, so hiring a coordinator is always a calculated risk.
It's rare to find a guy who can fulfill all the head-coaching duties and still run an offense or defense spectacularly well. Three of the four head coaches gearing up for Championship Sunday operate as "pure" head coaches, with coordinators providing the primary game plans on both sides of the ball. Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is the outlier, orchestrating his own offense as the play-caller. Last year, all four teams in the final four (Seattle, San Francisco, New England and Denver) had a head coach whose primary role was just that: head coach.