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Patriots, Packers worst on defense? Rankings don't tell story

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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The NFL's two worst defenses are back in business this weekend, and that's not supposed to happen. I mean, if defenses win championships, how is it that the 31st- and 32nd-ranked defenses are alive in the playoffs?

But it's not just that they're alive; they're the favorites to reach the Super Bowl, for crying out loud.

You heard me. Green Bay's defense is dead last. New England is 31st. Both teams are top seeds in their conferences, which means both could ... and maybe should ... advance to Super Bowl XLVI, and that should tell you something.

It should tell you we need to rethink how we evaluate offenses and defenses.

The NFL ranks its 32 teams by yards, but I don't know many coaches who do. They do it by points, and that's a more accurate barometer. Let's be honest: If a club is as dominant as Green Bay was this season, it figures that it often holds substantial leads through fourth quarters.

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Typically, what happens then is that defenses relax, opposing offenses chew up yards, and rankings -- at least defensive rankings -- suffer. Case in point: Green Bay's 33-27 defeat of Minnesota in late October. The Packers were up 33-17 in the fourth quarter before allowing Minnesota to creep back into contention.

When it was over, the Vikings had piled up 435 yards ... yet the contest seldom was in doubt. In fact, when the Packers absolutely, positively had to make a stop on Minnesota's last possession, they did, stuffing Christian Ponder on three incomplete passes at the Vikings 36.

Yet the rankings have the Packers' defense at the bottom, right alongside the Packers' pass defense, also ranked No. 32. Green Bay got there the last weekend of the regular season, supplanting New England when Detroit's Matt Stafford ripped the Packers' backups for 520 yards in a season-ending defeat.

That ranking tells you that nobody is worse than Green Bay on defense, right? Not so fast. The Packers are tied with San Francisco for the league lead in takeaways with 38, including an NFL-best 31 interceptions, and they're a not-so-dreadful 20th on defense inside the 20.

Now look at New England. The Patriots are tied for third in takeaways with 34, tied for second in interceptions and are 21st in red-zone defense. Suddenly, they don't look so dreadful.

But let's take this a step farther and see where both rank in points allowed: Green Bay is 19th, New England is 15th and now we're talking. Maybe, just maybe, these guys aren't the pits after all.

Look, the Patriots' Bill Belichick doesn't give a flip about yards; his concern is touchdowns, points and victories ... and not necessarily in that order. He'll trade field goals for touchdowns ... and he did most afternoons this season in New England. That works for the bottom line, but it doesn't work for rankings.

So maybe it's time to change the rankings.

Granted, the Patriots' defense has holes the size of the Astrodome. But what does it matter if it keeps opponents out of the end zone or causes decisive turnovers?

The same goes for Green Bay, which hemorrhages way too much real estate with its pass defense. But it generally holds when it must, and it had to in a November defeat of San Diego when it stopped the Chargers on San Diego's final two drives -- including a last gasp that ended with an interception.

"The league has to change the rankings," an AFC defensive coordinator told me this week. "With the way the game is going, yards don't make a difference. Everyone's getting them. It should be measured by how many points you give up. And, then, it should be adjusted so that it's points that the defense surrenders, not just points in general. That way, you eliminate returns and make it a true defensive ranking.

"The game today is about keeping people out of the end zone. If you force an opponent to settle for a field goal, that's good defense. But not the way we rank things, and it doesn't make sense."

He's right, of course. I would like to see the NFL's rankings change, too. Furthermore, I would like to see a ranking that measures defenses in the final five minutes of each half. Those are the most meaningful and tell you how much ... or if ... you can trust a defense to make a critical stop.

When the New York Giants drove the length of the field on New England this season, going 80 yards in eight plays to score a last-minute victory, it told me something about the Patriots' defense. It told me it stinks.

But when Washington couldn't close the deal on them a month later, with the Pats' Jerod Mayo intercepting Rex Grossman at the New England 9 with 20 seconds remaining, it told me something more about the Patriots' D. It told me that maybe it doesn't stink quite as badly as we think.

The rankings say it does. The points say it doesn't. Tell me which you're going to believe.

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