There are four teams left in the playoffs and two of them are there because of their defenses. Here's an interesting stat: Two of the teams left had top-10 offenses throughout the regular season, the Patriots and Giants, and two of the teams had top five defenses, the 49ers and Ravens. The funny thing is the two teams with great offenses had not-so-great defenses and the two teams with great defenses had mediocre to not-so-great offenses.
What's even funnier, is two of the teams that many picked to win the Super Bowl, or at least face each other in the NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, who had two of the highest powered offenses in the league, were already eliminated.
So, what can we learn from this? What we can learn is that even though this is a passing league and teams with high-powered offenses are tough to beat, the term "defenses win championships" still has some weight. The Bengals can learn something as well. What has happened in the playoffs so far should show them that they're missing a key ingredient that every elite defense has: a game-changer.
The Bengals have a good defense. They've had a good defense since Mike Zimmer took over as the defensive coordinator. While they've been good, which is much better than what they have been, they haven't been great. The defense is good enough to take down some of the better teams in the league and it's good enough to get them to the playoffs but it needs to be good enough to get them to the next level and to do that they need a player that has the potential to make plays that few can.
Let's examine the two top defenses left in the playoffs. On the Ravens, you have two future hall of famers in safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis. On the 49ers, you have linebacker Patrick Willis. All three of these players have the potential to change a game and an entire season and all three have transformed their teams' defense to the status of elite.
Granted, players like Lewis, Reed and Willis don't come around in every draft and they can't be found in free agency, but the lesson that could be taught to the Bengals is to focus their early draft picks on the defense. They need to upgrade several positions on defense, especially in the secondary, and they may even be able to upgrade linebacker positions. Players like Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Leon Hall are good start to a great defense but they're not quite there yet. Another cornerback, a great safety and maybe even a game-changing linebacker could be all the difference in the world.
With the right core of players and the right coordinator, the Bengals defense could make the jump from good to elite. They have the amount of high picks necessary to find the right players in the next couple of years too. There's no question that the offense needs an upgrade as well but I think it would be best to use free agency and mid- to late-round picks for that.
If they do things one thing at a time and start with their defense first, the Bengals could find themselves in a similar situation as the 49ers and the Ravens right now in the next couple of years.