This season suggests that there are essentially two models for success in the National Football League: the Indianapolis Colts model and the Pittsburgh Steelers model.
The Colts model is the reality the league has created. By emphasizing offense at every turn – by making quarterbacks as precious a fabergé eggs and penalizing defensive backs for anything short of wearing strong cologne – the NFL has essentially changed the balance of power in the game. An elite quarterback can now unlock even the most dominating defenses.
And so those teams that have them – forced by the salary cap to prioritize their needs – have chosen to start an offensive arms race at the expense of their own defenses.
The three most elite quarterbacks in the NFL – the Saints' Drew Brees, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, and Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers – have the 24th-, 31st-, and 32nd-ranked defenses, respectively, in a 32-team league.
This is what the Colts were famous for: leveraging their entire team to maximize the talents of Manning. He missed this year to injury, and they finished 2-14, the worst record in the NFL. They had made the playoffs for nine consecutive years previously.
The Steelers model is to find a top second-tier quarterback who won't eat up too much salary-cap space and then build the rest of the team around defense. The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Houston Texans all found success with this formula this season. Along with the Steelers, they all rank in the top seven of NFL defenses.