And then there were four. Going into Conference Championship week, the NFL playoffs are down to four teams, the Saints, Vikings, Colts and Jets. It's easy to see that of thsoe 4 teams, one doesn't seem to belong. The Saints, Vikings and Colts are all division winners and recipients of the first round bye. The Jets have had to play their way in for the last few weeks. Different routes to the same game.
But what do these teams have in common.
At first glance, it doesn't seem like they have much in common, but that's the beauty of vague, broad strokes.
Quarterback - Well, it's hardly fair to compare Sanchez to the other three guys. Maybe you've heard of them. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre. These three guys are among the league's best every year, while Sanchez put forth a decent rookie year, an All Pro he is not.
Running Game - Here is where the Jets shine. With Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, the Jets had the best running game in the league and run a league high 59% of the time. The other teams, well, it's a hodge podge at the position. The Vikings have AP who has been less than fantastic over the last 8 games. The Saints have a 3 or 4 headed monster but tend to get it done with receptions out of the backfield. The Colts have a very underwhelming running game, but commit to the run just enough to make you think about it.
Coaching - Another interesting mix here. We have the boisterous first year coach Rex Ryan, the quiet first year coach who we know very little about (Caldwell), the offensive guru (Payton) and the whipping boy turned genius in Childress. No real common thread here.
Momentum - Eh, can't really quantify this but each have different takes on momentum. The Vikings we going all the way into the playoffs, same with the Jets. The Colts took 3 weeks off (Week 16, 17, bye week) and the Saints took two weeks off.
Defense - Here we go. The Colts don't have a defense that you look at and think "Man, they're awesome", but they are very sound and very quick. They have the ability to rush the passer with Freeney and Mathis, and as we've discussed here on Buc 'Em, that makes the defense go. The Vikings have the best defensive line in football, headed by the Williams Wall, Ray Edwards, and wild man Jared Allen. Their linebacking corps are solid and their defensive backfield makes enough plays to get it done. The Saints, while not an overbearing defense have been one of the best at creating turnovers all year. Darren Sharper has had a Pro Bowl year and the rest of their defense, when healthy has been formidable. Then there's Jets. We have seen their defense play, we know about Revis Island, and the blitzes just keep coming.
This is about as close to a common thread as I can find. In a league filled with deep throws, high scoring offense and points coming on every play, defense still makes the league tick. There are plenty of occasions we've noted where the top defense has taken down the top offense, and while we don't know the outcome yet, it seems that defense has gotten most teams into the Super Bowl hunt.
Another interesting fact, and perhaps something to consider in future years. The Jets could have been eliminated in Weeks 16 or 17 with a loss. They played the Colts, who sat their starters in the 2nd half, and the Bengals, who gave all the effort of 53 Randy Moss'. Well, the Jets went on to eliminate the Bengals, and now have the chance to take out the Colts, the two teams that "let" them win to get in. If the Jets win, I would bet that other teams would take notice and perhaps finish off their schedule and bury other teams rather than coast and "allow" someone into the playoffs.