LOS ANGELES – When Jonathan Vilma studied game film of the San Francisco 49ers this week, it was presumably in color.
But to hear the New Orleans Saints linebacker talk about San Francisco’s style of play – big on defense and running the ball – you might think he was watching old black-and-white movies.
“A team like that,” he said, “is almost a throwback team.”
Never mind that Pittsburgh won a Super Bowl four years ago by keeping opponents out of the end zone. With all the offensive fireworks in the NFL this season, the adage that “defense wins championships” is now under review.
That makes the divisional playoffs this weekend a kind of referendum on where the NFL is headed.
Teams such as the 49ers, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens, who adhere to a more traditional brand of football, represent one side of the ideological divide.
Teams on the other side – New Orleans, the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots – surrendered lots of yards during the regular season, mired in the bottom third of those statistical categories while leading the league in scoring.
So far, the flashier teams rank as favorites to reach Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
“I think (the league) has trended toward more explosive offenses,” said Eric Mangini, the former New York Jets and Cleveland Browns coach who now works as an analyst for ESPN.
Seven of the NFL’s top 10 scoring teams made it to the postseason this winter. They were joined by five of the top 10 stingiest defenses.
Offenses could be taking command of the pro game for several reasons. Start with the quarterback position.
This season, there were three 5,000-yard passers – Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford – which had never happened before. In another first, the divisional round features four Super Bowl Most Valuable Players in Brees, Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.
Those four, by the way, play for the teams with the four worst pass defenses in the league.
Even quarterbacks with modest ratings, such as Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Denver’s Tim Tebow, have raised their level of play. And San Francisco’s Alex Smith has forged a remarkable turnaround compared with previous seasons.
To some, this dynamic makes no sense given the NFL lockout and shortened preseason.
“When you start training camp, it always seems the defense has the upper hand,” said Tim Hasselbeck, a former pro quarterback who is also at ESPN. “So it is surprising for me to see the success teams are having throwing the football.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh takes the opposite view, thinking that defensive backs suffered most from limited preparation.
“I’m not sure the secondary has ever recovered,” he said. “There’s a lot of cohesiveness that goes on in the back … and maybe has been exploited.”
There might be another explanation for all those completed passes: the rule book. Defenses must contend with recent changes that protect the quarterback in the pocket and crack down on hitting so-called “defenseless” receivers.
“There have been a lot of rules that have helped improve offensive production,” Mangini said. “It’s a factor.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone is jumping on the scoring bandwagon.
The 49ers went 13-3 and transformed themselves into playoff contenders by adopting coach Jim Harbaugh’s blue-collar mentality, even wearing mechanic’s shirts around the locker room. This week, San Francisco players said they don’t care how many yards Brees throws for, so long as they can keep the score down and avoid a track meet.
“We’re not going to be someone we’re not,” Smith said. “There are a lot of ways to win games in this league.”
Just look at Denver. Although the Broncos rank low statistically on both sides of the ball – 23rd in offense and 20th in defense during the regular season – they qualify as old school by way of the NFL’s best ground game.
And with Baltimore facing Houston on Sunday, at least one traditional-style team is assured of reaching the AFC championship game. In other words, there is still a chance for defense to win out.
The first big test comes this afternoon at Candlestick Park. The 49ers have surrendered about 14 points a game this season; the Saints have scored an average of 34.
“I’ll be curious to see how San Francisco does,” Mangini said, referring to that saying about defense and championships. “We’re going to test that premise.”