In AFC, defensive grit beats offensive glamor

MIAMI — Most of the glamor boys are gone. Peyton Manning didn't make it past the first round of the playoffs. Brett Favre bombed in the regular season, and Tom Brady has a different sort of engagement.

In their place are grunts and goons. Tough guys and hard cases. The quarterbacks may still get the biggest contracts and the best commercials, but, in the AFC this season, the defenses are in control of the glory.

Just ask Chad Pennington. He should be out of therapy any minute now.

Less than 24 hours ago, Pennington was an NFL darling. Second to Manning in the MVP race, and winner of the comeback player of the year award. The Dolphins quarterback was supposed to be the smartest guy on the field. Not once this season had Pennington thrown more than one interception in a game.

Then, along comes the Baltimore defense, and Pennington gets stupid in a hurry. He threw two interceptions in the second quarter of Sunday's 27-9 loss. Then, to prove it was no fluke, he threw two more in the third.

And, just like that, the Ravens had a date with Tennessee.

Apparently, that date is around 1971.

Yes, you might say these are throwback teams. Teams that hit first and ask for transfusions later.

"Defense wins championships," Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "Always has."

I'm not sure about always, but it has a pretty good chance this month. Take a look at the four teams remaining in the AFC. Pittsburgh had the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL. Tennessee was No. 2. Baltimore was No. 3.

That's a lot more tackling than touchdowns. And, the thing is, these teams pretty much live and die with their defenses. They have decent quarterbacks, but they're not the guys winning games. Baltimore's, Tennessee's and Pittsburgh's quarterbacks are ranked 22nd, 23rd and 24th respectively in NFL passer rating.

Only San Diego, with hotshot QB Philip Rivers, has anything approaching an explosive offense in the AFC this postseason.

In other words, get used to third and long.

"We want to cause havoc, week in and week out," said Ravens safety Ed Reed, who had two interceptions Sunday. "Ain't nothing different today. This is what we do."

Specifically what the Ravens do is take the ball away from other teams, by any means necessary. The Dolphins tied an NFL record with just 13 turnovers in the regular season, yet the Ravens forced five in one afternoon.

"The word for it is opportunistic," safety Jim Leonhard said. "We take advantage of mistakes like no defense I've ever been around."

The shock was not that Baltimore shut down the Dolphins offense but that it was done with such ease. Once the Ravens eliminated Miami's running game (Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for 36 yards on 16 carries), it became a showdown of Pennington against the defense. Not even Wile E. Coyote would take that bet.

For a team not shy about blitzing, the Ravens got plenty of pressure with their defensive line. While Pennington made some poor decisions and throws, he was harassed into a lot of his mistakes by a heavy pass rush.

"You get big guys running at you at full speed, you tend to throw the ball a lot quicker," Ravens 290-pound defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "A lot of times, it's not the sack you're after but the pressure. Sacks are just tackles. Pressure turns into interceptions."

This is something the Ravens know well. No team had more takeaways than Baltimore's 34 this season. And no defensive back had more interceptions than Reed's nine.

The question now is whether Baltimore's defense will be more dominant than Tennessee's and, perhaps, Pittsburgh's down the road.

The odds are not in Baltimore's favor. As the lone AFC wild card remaining, it will be on the road the rest of the postseason. And, while the Ravens were 11-2 against everyone else this season, they were 0-3 against Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

Still, there is something intriguing about a team that can go on the road in the playoffs and hold an offense to 2.5 yards per carry and a 53.7 passer rating. There is something enticing about a team that has one of history's greatest linebackers (Ray Lewis) and the best safety (Reed) of this generation.

"I mentioned to (coach) John (Harbaugh), I said, 'What team would you rather be with in this tournament than our own?' " Ryan said. "These guys are built to win it all. That's the way we feel. I don't care what other people think. If we're coming to your town, we're going to make your life tough."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

In AFC, defensive grit beats offensive glamor 01/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 9:22pm]

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