When it comes down to making a late-January playoff push, it's all about who has the most complete team. After impressive performances yesterday, I think it's relatively clear which two teams have the most complete teams heading into the 2012-13 postseason: Denver in the AFC and Seattle in the NFC.
It's actually quite baffling that more people have not been talking about the Denver Broncos, who happen to be one win and a Texans' loss away from snagging the No. 1 seed in the AFC (can still clinch first round bye with victory over Kansas City on Sunday). At 12-3 with one final regular season game remaining on the schedule, the Broncos are on a 10-game winning streak.
The streak, which may just be the quietest double-digit win streak I've seen in quite a while, includes big wins over teams such as New Orleans, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Peyton Manning (68.1%, 4,355 yards, 34 TD, 11 INT, 103.7 rating) has stated his case for MVP and Comeback Player of the Year, leading his offense to 10 30-point victories this season. The team's only three losses this season have come against playoff teams (Atlanta, Houston and New England), have been decided by 10 or fewer points and all came within the first five weeks of the season.
Since the last loss on October 7, Peyton & Co. has outscored opponents 308-172, and has put up less than 20 points in a game just once.
Sure, the New England Patriots (11-4) beat Denver earlier in the year and have had a more high-powered scoring offense than Manning's Broncos this season. But the Broncos have excelled in a very important area that the Pats have not: Denver's defense has been playing out of its mind this season.
Led by second-year linebacker Von Miller (65 total tackles, 17.5 sacks, 1 INT, 6 FF, 1 TD), Denver's defense has jumped from 24th scoring defense in 2011 to the 5th-ranked scoring defense this season. Atop the AFC in the category (behind SEA, CHI, San Fran, ATL), Denver has surrendered 19.1 points per game.
Having a healthy Elvis Dumervil back in the lineup this season has done wonders against the pass, as they currently rank 7th in pass defense (17th last season) lead the league in sacks with 48––28.5 of those have come from the Dumervil/Miller combination.
Peyton's 2nd-best scoring offense has received some assistance from the secondary in the scoring department, with 5 touchdowns coming off interception returns and one additional touchdown coming from a Tony Carter fumble recovery.
The rookie-led Seattle Seahawks haven't been quite as high-scoring as Denver's No. 2 ranked scoring offense, but in the month of December they've been the highest-scoring team in the league. Clinching a playoff spot in the NFC after defeating San Francisco last night, the 'Hawks have outscored opponents 150-30 over the last three weeks.
At 10-5 and current placeholder of the No. 5 seed in the NFC, Seattle has a shot at winning the NFC West division thanks to a four-game winning streak and a 6-1 record since the end of October. Although only one of its five losses have come against a playoff team (13-6 to San Francisco), all five of them have been by a touchdown or less.
The fact that rookie quarterback Russell Wilson (63.4%, 2,868 yards, 25 TD, 10 INT, 98.0 rating) is leading the team to these wins and is just one passing TD away from tying Peyton Manning's rookie record of 26 isn't even the most impressive thing about this team. Just like Denver, it's the defense that's impressing.
When it comes to playoff football I don't care how much you're passing the ball, defense and a powerful running game wins championships. Top NFC teams Atlanta (13-2) and Green Bay (11-4) have been throwing out of their minds with two top gunslingers Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. But they don't run the ball consistently well.
Both are top 10 passing teams, but Green Bay ranks 20th on the ground while Atlanta ranks 28th. Running under 4.0 yards per carry as a team isn't going to get the job done on the ground. Interestingly enough, Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, A.K.A. "Beast Mode," has single-handedly outrun the Falcons entire team this season (1,490 yards, 11 TDs to 1,332 yards, 11 TD) and has come close to outrunning Green Bay.
Running the ball 297 times with Lynch has done wonders for Wilson's development as the season has progressed, and actually 431 yards and 3 of the team's rushing TDs have come from Wilson himself. That's also something we haven't quite seen from Matt Ryan in Atlanta, though Aaron Rodgers is usually a threat on his feet if the opposition allows him too much time.
Now, when it comes to the defensive side of things, this is where it gets scary. Quietly the Seahawks have become the league's No. 1 scoring defense. After shutting down Colin Kaerpernick and the Niners last night (something I was not prepared for and didn't think would actually happen), the Seahawks are now 19 points ahead of the No. 2 scoring defense in Chicago and the 49ers fell to No. 3.
Try to digest these defensive numbers for Seattle:
5.0 yards/play (t-5th)
275 first downs allowed (7th)
2,998 passing yards (5th)
14 passing TDs (t-2nd)
17 interceptions (t-9th)
71.6 rating (3rd)
36 sacks (t-12th)
1,570 rushing yards (11th)
8 rushing TDs (t-5th)
13 fumble recoveries (7th)
30 forced turnovers (t-5th)
6 defensive touchdowns (t-3rd)
Individual Defensive Numbers:
Bobby Wagner––129 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3 INT, 4 passes defensed
Chris Clemons––38 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, 3 FF, 4 passes defensed
Richard Sherman––60 total tackles, 1.0 sack, 7 INT, 3 FF, 23 passes defensed, 1 TD
Kam Chancellor––84 total tackles, 1 FF, 2 FR, 4 passes defensed
Earl Thomas––58 total tackles, 3 INT, 1 FF, 9 passes defensed
Bruce Irvin (R)––16 total tackles, 8 sacks, 1 FF
In order for a team to be strong enough to make a deep playoff run and compete for a championship in the NFL, it has to be able to be multi-dimensional and have a tough defense. Though passing seems to be taking over the NFL, a strong running game is still vital to postseason success.
Because of this, and the fact that young quarterbacks seem to be taking over the game as well, it appears as though the Broncos and Seahawks are two of the best-fit teams for a championship at the moment and are getting hot at exactly the right time. If you were to ask me back in August if I thought the Seahawks and Broncos would be where they are right now at the end of December, I would probably say no. But Peyton has proven he's back and as strong as ever, and Russell Wilson proved last night that he's a force to be reckoned with coming out of the NFC West.
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