The abrupt and brutal ending for the Panthers, Titans, Giants and Chargers -- all divisional winners -- compared with exhilarating continuance for the Cardinals, Ravens, Eagles and Steelers, reminds everyone in the National Football League that the regular season is increasingly purely appetizer. Building a strong finish and squeaking into the playoffs as a hot team clearly means more than dominating starts or remarkable midseasons.
The past two Super Bowl champions illustrate this and if Philadelphia or Arizona claim the crown in Tampa, Fla., the trend is further cemented.
"He's been there 10 years and year after year they play hard and well, especially against the run. They don't give up a lot and do it all at a fast tempo. They are all on that defense playing fast right now. And if the ball breaks the line of scrimmage, they run it down very well. Pressure and turnovers. Every possession against them is so valuable. He takes things away that you don't get back."
"I told Clancy last year what an excellent job I felt they were doing putting that defense together and last year they morphed into a 3-4 defense and now they seem to be swinging back to 4-3. They have settled down and not given up a lot of big plays and that had kind of been their Achilles Heel, giving up big plays and people hitting the run on them. Not now."
"Dick, time after time after time, has his defense in the right place and continues to do a good job. They play hard and fast and reap the benefits of that. Whether the defense is run or pass, they do a good job in playing hard and fast. Their guys tackle well. That may be the most important part at this level."
"Rex has sort of morphed to a defense that is a little Philadelphia, a little Pittsburgh in scheme, it's not so much a 3-4 or a 4-3 -- they just come and get you. He has them doing a great job of getting off the ball and attacking both run and pass. Teams have a lot of identification problems on offense going against this defense and the Ravens do it even out of their base defense, in the way it is aligned. You set your protection and he has them walk away from what they showed early and overload your protection. He seemingly always has them able to bring one more guy than you can block."
The Colts won it all in the 2006 season, though they were the first champion since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to produce a non-winning record against divisional opponents.
The league continues to be driven by offense in the regular season but by defense in the postseason. Each conference championship participant won the turnover battle in the divisional round: Arizona 6-1 over Carolina, Baltimore 3-0 over Tennessee, Pittsburgh 2-0 over San Diego and Philadelphia 3-2 over the Giants.
And each winner saw their defensive coordinator cook something special in those games and deliver a weapon often unnoticed, often unsung.
For the Cardinals, it was end Antonio Smith, who forced a fumble vs. the Panthers and created game-long headaches with his 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame and mauling approach generating matchup nightmares. For the Ravens, it was safety Jim Leonhard, who helped cursh the Titans by making two big plays in the red zone, forcing one fumble and recovering another. For the Steelers, it was linebacker James Farrior, fast, mobile and non-stop in pursuit. And for the Eagles, no one among the Giants feared defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley before kickoff. But after he twice bunged the Giants on fourth-down short yardage plays, Bunkley proved a beast.
Give applause to each one of these defenses for their persistence and resilience. Each one in the divisional round was forced to regroup, refocus and take command after falling behind: For the Eagles, it was an early 3-0 deficit and for the Cardinals, Ravens and Steelers it was 7-0 deficits. Credit each team's defensive coordinator for pushing his unit to play fast as well as smart and to emphasize matchups as much as schemes.
Here is what we can expect from these four distinctive defensive coordinators in the conference championship games:
Arizona's Clancy Pendergast vs. Philadelphia
He prefers to rush four, play coverage and concentrate on not allowing explosive plays. It is a bend-but-not-break approach that relies on keeping things in front and tackling well. And the Cardinals have the athletes on defense to do this. Eagles running back Brian Westbrook will be the focus, as usual, and forcing quarterback Donovan McNabb to remain in the pocket will also be a Pendergast key. Bringing down McNabb in the pocket when the Cardinals have a hand on him will also be an emphasis.
Philadelphia's Jim Johnson vs. Arizona
Johnson will not let receiver Larry Fitzgerald beat him. Expect coverage to rotate and focus on neutralizing Fitzgerald. The Eagles will run blitz with the same passion of their pass blitz. Johnson will attempt to make quarterback Kurt Warner beat him and look to force Warner into mistakes. He wants Warner to hold the ball and for the protection to crumble, resulting in hits on Warner. Johnson knows that Warner is an easy target once protection breaks because of the quarterback's lack of mobility.
Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau vs. Baltimore
His goal is always to dictate to an offense and do so by using zone blitzes, pressure, fire. LeBeau loves havoc and creating turnovers and he does it using unusual angles and variety. The Ravens offense is not known for explosion and he knows the offense often simply serves as a complement to Baltimore's dominating defense. Playing with a lead helps any defense. When LeBeau has that advantage, especially in this matchup, his defense is twice as tough, creative, risky and aggressive.
Baltimore's Rex Ryan vs. Pittsburgh
Though Pittsburgh receiver Santonio Holmes stretches defenses and Hines Ward pricks them, though running back Willie Parker has returned healthy and energized, Ryan will focus on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Ryan always makes defending the run a top priority. But enough hits, enough pressure and turnovers will follow from Roethlisberger, Ryan likely surmises, and that is where the game-changing plays on defense can be created. The key for Ryan is making sure that his defense gets Roethlisberger on the ground when the chances surface, because this big quarterback has a way of breaking free and lengthening plays. However, gaining turnovers for Ryan's defense is never limited to hitting the quarterback, because no unit left is more adept at blowing up ball carriers and popping balls loose.