January 21, 2017

ATLANTA (AP) We've all heard the adage: defense wins championships.

In the NFL, that doesn't necessarily apply.

Of course, it still helps - a lot, actually - to have a stout group on that side of the line.

But, as the Atlanta Falcons and the Green Bay Packers have proven this season, a team can get to the cusp of the Super Bowl while ranking near the bottom of the league in the two most prominent defensive categories: points and total yards.

The Packers allowed an average of 24.2 points (21st out of 32 teams) and 363.9 yards (22nd) during the regular season. The Falcons were even worse, giving up 25.4 points (27th) and 371.2 yards (25th).

Yet, those teams will meet Sunday for the NFC championship .

''It's harder to play defense than it's ever been,'' said former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, now an analyst for CBS. ''At the same time, if you can't stop people, you're putting so much pressure on your offense. Not everybody has that type of offense.''

Scoring points is certainly not a problem for the two NFC finalists.

The Falcons led the league in scoring (33.8) and ranked second in yards (415.8), while the Packers were fourth (27.0) and eighth (368.8) in those categories. There's no question that the quarterback is the most important player on the field, and these teams have two of the leading MVP candidates with Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.

Just when you're about to come to the conclusion that defense no longer matters, a look at the AFC championship jars you back to reality.

New England and Pittsburgh also have two of the game's top quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, which is probably the biggest reason they've gotten this far.

But the Patriots also have one of the league's stingiest defenses and the Steelers aren't too shabby, either, which was evident in the divisional round when they won at Kansas City without scoring a touchdown, relying on six field goals to beat the Chiefs 18-16 .

''Defense is still a big part of the game,'' Cowher said. ''You've got an unbelievably red-hot quarterback in Green Bay, and maybe the best offense in football in Atlanta. But if you look at Pittsburgh and New England, running the football and playing defense is a big part of how they got to where they are right now.''

Indeed, even in a league where the rules are designed to give a huge edge to the offense, it's unusual for two teams with such leaky defenses to get this far.

Over the last two decades, the only Super Bowl-winning defenses that ranked lower than 20th in both points and yards were the 2011 New York Giants, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.

A year ago, Denver won the championship by relying almost solely on the game's best defense. The Broncos were terrible offensively in the Super Bowl, managing just 11 first downs and 194 total yards while going 1 of 14 on third-down conversions, but a defensive touchdown helped carry them to a 24-10 victory over Carolina .

Before that, Seattle reached back-to-back Super Bowls largely because of the Legion of Boom, giving up fewer points and yards than any team in the league both seasons.

At this point, the Patriots are most capable of winning a defensive-minded championship, having allowed a league-low 15.6 points during the season.

''Any time we can limit that to zero or 10 - 13 realistically - those are numbers that we want to do,'' said Patriots linebacker and defensive captain Dont'a Hightower. ''The job of the defense is to keep the other team from scoring. We do take pride in that and it's something we want to continue to build on.''

The Packers' defensive woes are somewhat understandable, given a rash of injuries in the secondary. They have given up more than 400 total yards in four of their last five games, but Rodgers is playing at such a high level that it hasn't mattered.

As for the Falcons, they knew the defense would have to go through some growing pains. Coach Dan Quinn , who was the defensive coordinator for those two Super Bowl teams in Seattle, wanted more speed and athleticism on that side of the line. To get it, he has started as many as four rookies and a bunch of second-year players.

Naturally, there were plenty of youthful mistakes and communication breakdowns early in the season. But Atlanta showed real improvement over the final month, and that carried over to the divisional round of the playoffs. The Falcons gave up a long touchdown drive on Seattle's first possession - and then kept the Seahawks out of the end zone until the closing minutes, when the 36-20 victory was comfortably in hand.

''Statistically, it might not say we're doing good,'' safety Ricardo Allen said. ''But there's a lot of top-10 defenses that are home right now.''

In the end, that's all that matters.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Foxboro, Massachusetts contributed to this report.

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For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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