The NFL will hold its conference semifinals without a single defense ranked in the top five in third downs, yards per game, yards per play or points allowed.
Yes, it’s been a tough season on that side of the ball.
But it’s not too late for defenders to write a U-turn ending to the Great Offensive Explosion of 2018.
The underdog Colts, Chargers, Cowboys and Eagles head into this weekend’s games looking to throw four giant buckets of reality on the final four fantasy that would feature rising star Patrick Mahomes, setting superstar Tom Brady, two offensive brainiacs named Sean and the NFL’s top four scoring machines in Kansas City (35.3 points per game), the L.A. Rams (32.9), New Orleans (31.5) and New England (27.3).
The AFC appears ripest for a couple of upsets. The sixth-seeded Colts, 10-1 in their past 11 games, play at the top-seeded Chiefs (12-4) on Saturday while the fifth-seeded Chargers, 8-0 in games played outside Los Angeles, travel to No. 2 seed New England (11-5) to play a Patriots team that’s 8-0 at home but 2-2 in its past four games.
If the Colts and Chargers win, Los Angeles would host the first conference title game between teams seeded fifth and sixth. And league headquarters probably would weep quietly over the missed opportunity of the 41-year-old Brady going touchdown-for-touchdown with the 23-year-old Mahomes, à la the Patriots’ 43-40 victory back in October.
In the NFC, the Cowboys (11-6) seem most likely to pull an upset. They take the best remaining defense and league rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott into Los Angeles on Saturday to play a No. 2-seeded Rams team that’s 13-3, but last in the league in yards allowed per rush (5.07).
Sunday, the sixth-seeded Eagles (10-7) travel to New Orleans to play the top-seeded Saints (13-3). New Orleans beat the Eagles 48-7 two months ago, but since then Philadelphia has gone 6-1 while giving up only 18.9 points per game, including last week’s 16-15 wild-card win over No. 3 seed Chicago.
The Saints are a 7½-point favorite, but one would be wise not to wager against Nick Foles. The reigning Super Bowl MVP has won his past four postseason games and has Philly riding a four-game win streak.
If the Eagles and Colts both advance, it would be the third time both No. 6 seeds advanced to the conference championships. The last time was 2010, when the Packers and Jets made it. Green Bay went on to win the Super Bowl that year.
If last week’s wild-card games are any indication, defense still holds a prominent place. At least in the postseason.
The Colts, Eagles, Chargers and Cowboys won while allowing seven, 15, 17 and 22 points, respectively. The average point total per team last week was 18.1 points, 4.2 below the regular-season average.
Also, in an era of utter adoration for offensive minds, it was fun to watch defensive coordinators Gus Bradley of the Chargers and Matt Eberflus of the Colts prove there’s still creativity on the other side of the ball.
Bradley crafted a defensive scheme using seven defensive backs to cover up injuries at linebacker and befuddle Lamar Jackson, the one-dimensional Ravens rookie quarterback.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn wasn’t a believer in the plan at first, but trusted Bradley. And, two weeks after Baltimore mauled them 22-10 at home, the Chargers controlled the rematch start to finish while allowing just 74 yards through the first 50 minutes.
Meanwhile, at Houston, Eberflus made a one-week super-star out of undrafted second-year nickelback Kenny Moore. He blitzed the 5-9, 190-pound Moore 11 times as Moore became the first Colt to record a sack and an interception in the same playoff game.
In Dallas, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli held Seattle’s top-ranked running game to 73 yards — 77 below its average. And, finally, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz held the Bears’ ninth-ranked scoring offense (26.3) to 15 points.
Naturally, a standout defensive effort in today’s era was overshadowed, this time by Cody Parkey’s double-doinker missed field goal as time expired.
But that’s OK. It’s not too late for NFL defenders to seize some sizable recognition this season.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org