The Final Four of the NFL takes place Sunday with the Denver Broncos hosting the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship while the Arizona Cardinals face the Carolina Panthers on the NFC side. No Cinderella stories here as each game pits the top two seeds.
The topic here is simple enough: What attributes from these teams can help the Washington Redskins take the next step from playoff squad to title contender.
The answer is clear: Defense.
Fine, there are some nice quarterbacks still playing, but the Redskins put up points this season. Stopping opponents from moving the ball was the tricky part.
All four ranked among the top 10 in yards and points allowed during the regular season. Denver led the entire NFL by allowing 283.1 yards per game and surrendered the fewest points (18.5) among the remaining teams. Pass rush (linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) and pass coverage (corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris) led the way. The Broncos finished as the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite at times brutal play from quarterback Peyton Manning, little punch from the running game and a leaky offensive line.
Now, we're not talking about the 2001 Baltimore Ravens in terms of defensive ferocity or unbalanced teams; Carolina, Arizona and New England ranked 1-2-3 in points scored while Denver was 19th, well behind those other teams and the Redskins (10th). However, all the remaining teams can put the clamps on opponents or make game-turning plays.
In terms of sacks, the Broncos (52), Patriots (49) and Panthers (44) finished first, second and sixth respectively. The Cardinals slotted 20th, but fourth in interceptions, three slots behind the Panthers, who boast a potent front-7 with linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis plus fellow Pro Bowler Kawann Short. New England had players at all three levels on defense selected to the Pro Bowl.
We're focusing on these four teams, but the trend this season certainly favored teams strong defensively. The only playoff team not ranked among the top 12 in points allowed, the Redskins (16th). Washington also finished 28th in defensive ranking (yards allowed).
Even if all return for Washington, is there really a defensive strength for coordinator Joe Barry's group? Actually, the perimeter pass rush looks potent with Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith plus Junior Galette assuming the free agent stays put after a season-ending injury before last season kicked off. Bashaud Breelandis one of the up-and-coming cornerbacks. Defensive end Chris Baker delivered a breakout season.
But overall very little is settled on any of the three levels. The defensive line needs young legs. The inside linebacker spots are unsettled. Breeland is the only clear secondary starter next season. When Aaron Rodgers found a rhythm in the playoff loss, the Redskins had no answer.
No matter what magic Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Cam Newton conjure up Sunday, they should expect and likely will receive some resistance. That's the next step for the Redskins.
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