In a season that has been all about scoring, we’ve got a fitting slate of conference championship matchups to decide the next Super Bowl champion.
Saints vs. Rams. Chiefs vs. Patriots.
The top four teams in points scored during the regular season are the last four standing.
That fact only fuels fire to the notion that the NFL is trending toward offense. Lots of offense.
The 2018 regular season was, as the NFL communications department put it, “one of the most prolific offensive seasons in league history.”
Here are some of the eye-popping stats to back up that declaration:
- Teams combined to score 1,371 total touchdowns, the most in a single season in NFL history, while the 11,952 total points scored are the second most in league annals (11,985 in 2013).
- The marks for passer rating (92.9), completion percentage (64.9 percent) and touchdown passes (847) were all the highest for a single season in NFL history, while the total completions (11,462) were the third highest in a single season in league annals.
- Eight quarterbacks had a passer rating of 100 or better, the most in a single season in NFL history, surpassing the previous record of six in 2015.
- Nine players rushed for at least 1,000 yards, including three players with at least 1,200 rushing yards. The 2018 season saw players average 4.42 yards per rush attempt, the highest single-season total in league history.
But what about what we’ve witnessed in the postseason?
No team scored more than 24 points in the wild card round. Then the Chiefs and Rams hit the 30-point mark en route to wins in the divisional round. The Patriots scored 41 in a route of the Chargers. The notoriously offensive-minded Saints rode a terrific defensive effort (held the Eagles scoreless for three quarters) to move on, 20-14.
So let’s address the larger questions at hand here.
All the points in the regular season, the four explosive teams vying for the title – is this all a sign of things to come? Has the way the game is played – and won – changed?
Well, recent rule changes certainly favor the offense. That’s been a talking point for several years now, and we know more scoring is always considered a good thing from the league’s perspective (points = entertainment).
As owner David Tepper said recently, "People love offense. And the rules have gone to offense."
And yes, to answer the original question, offensive schemes in the NFL do look different. There used to be a clear distinction between “pro style” offenses and “spread” offenses associated with the college level. That line has become blurred as the NFL as a whole has shown more of a willingness to incorporate what’s working for high-scoring college programs and the quarterbacks leading them.
The run-pass option, better known as the RPO, isn’t a new concept, but it’s gaining in popularity. So too are quick, horizontal passes on first down that essentially serve as glorified run plays.
Fullbacks are rarely a factor. Three wide receiver sets are commonly used. Defenses are being spread out and exploited by speed, both in the run and pass game.
“Stuff that used to be ‘too college-y,’” new Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury recently told SI.com, “those things are showing up and thriving in the NFL.”
Some would argue the NFL and college ranks have always recycled stuff from one another. As veteran coaches will remind you, "Nothing is new or hasn't been done before."
Anyway, Kingsbury is a head coach in the NFL despite leaving Texas Tech with a losing record. But that’s where he coached quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the favorite to claim NFL MVP after an incredible 50-touchdown season with the Chiefs.
And Arizona is hoping he can be their version of Sean McVay, a young offensive guru who has had tremendous early success with the Rams.
But grizzled defensive masterminds are still valued, especially as defenses work to counter the "trend." The Broncos hired Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to be their next head coach, and everything about Fangio screams “old school.”
“The game of the NFL, everybody thinks the game has changed,” Fangio said at his introductory press conference. “Fundamentals is still what wins in this league.”
But he also said this: “We have to evolve on defense to defend what the offenses are doing.”
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera echoed that sentiment when he last spoke to the media after Carolina’s season concluded.
“We have to grow, we have to adapt, we have to learn,” Rivera said. “And if you don’t, the truth of the matter is you become extinct.”
The old cliché goes like this: Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships.
Is offense beginning to do both?
There’s danger in making grand declarations. Let’s not forget that just last year, all four teams in the conference championship games fielded a defense that finished in the top five for fewest points allowed.
But 2018 has been a different story. This year has been about offense from the start. And with the four teams left, it will be that way right up to the finish.