The Chicago Bears had the #1 defense in the regular season by a number of measures, including Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. The defense was actually historically good, and in the only playoff game they will compete in, they held Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to 77.7 passer rating (the only time he has had a passer rating below 100 in the postseason). That’s remarkable.
It didn’t matter.
In fact, in three of the four wildcard contests, the better defense was lost: Chicago’s #1 defense lost to Philadelphia’s #15 defense, Houston’s #7 defense lost to Indianapolis’s #10 defense, and Baltimore’s #3 defense gave way to LA’s #8 defense. Only with Dallas (#9) beating Seattle (#14) was there a game where the higher-ranked defense came out on top.
The picture is exactly reversed on offense. The Eagles (#16) beat the Bears (#20), the Colts (#10) beat the Texans (#21), and the Chargers (#3) bear the Ravens (#15). Again, the odd game out is Seattle’s #9 offense losing Dallas’s #24 offense. On the surface, that could just be a fluke. One of those things, even if it is suggestive.
Let’s look at next weekend, during the divisional round, to see what hope might be found for the idea that defense wins championships.
We already know that the #1 defense won’t be playing, because Chicago was eliminated. The #2 defense (Buffalo) never made it in, while the the #3 defense was Baltimore, and they were likewise eliminated. Meanwhile, Minnesota (#4) had a chance to get to the playoffs but could not quite make it. Denver (#5) is looking for a new head coach.
What are the top offenses doing? They’re getting ready to play. Kansas City (#1) is the only reason the Chargers (#3) even had to play on wildcard weekend, and both teams are still alive in the playoffs. The team in between them, the Rams (#2), might have lost to the Bears in the regular season, but they still have a chance at the Super Bowl. New Orleans (#4) is likewise getting ready to host a game. The #5 offense? The Patriots, who likewise get to host a divisional game.
To be clear, that’s the top five defenses going 0-5 for playing in the divisional playoff games and the top five offenses going 5-0 for the same honor.
Defense certainly can and has won individual games in the NFL this season. However, only two of the top eight teams in overall DVOA are staying home on Sunday--the Ravens and the Bears. What both of those teams had in common was that they showed mediocre offenses propped up by spectacular defenses. That was enough to get them into the playoffs, but not enough to win games against playoff teams. Right now, Dallas is the only team left with a top ten defense that does not also have a top ten offense.
Chicago fans are justifiably happy with how the season went, and the defense did some amazing things. However, if the Bears are going to make another run--perhaps a little deeper next time--the lesson from 2018 is that they are going to take a stronger effort on the part of the offense.