The NFC is getting defensive again.
The past three Super Bowl champions, all division winners in 2011, were ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in total defense last year. The New Orleans Saints (24th), New York Giants (27th) and Green Bay Packers (32nd) all overcame their defensive shortcomings with stellar quarterback play to go a combined 37-11 during the regular season in 2011.
But after the first five weeks of 2012, those three teams are only 6-9.
Meanwhile, the more defensive-minded Falcons, Bears, 49ers, Cardinals and Vikings are 4-1 or better. Those five teams rank in the top eight in the league in scoring defense.
The Falcons have forced 14 turnovers, second most in the NFL.
The Bears' defense has scored five touchdowns in the last three games.
The 49ers have allowed just three points in two weeks.
The Cardinals are fourth in the NFL with 17 sacks.
And the Vikings haven't allowed more than 13 points in their last three games.
Instead of elite quarterbacks like the Saints' Drew Brees, the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Giants' Eli Manning dominating the conference, it's Vikings second-year passer Christian Ponder and Cardinals longtime backup Kevin Kolb who are winning.
The 49ers showed the blueprint of how to win without an elite quarterback last year: Lean heavily on the defense and limit mistakes.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith flourished in his reduced role. He had a career-best 90.7 passer rating while the 49ers attempted the second fewest passes in 2011. This year Smith leads the league in passer rating (108.7) with the 28th most attempts.
With a good defense, pressure is taken off quarterbacks and the passing game. Field position is more important, so not turning the ball over is essential.
Ponder, Kolb, the Falcons' Matt Ryan and Smith have three or fewer interceptions.
After an offensive-driven 2011 season -- when quarterbacks broke records and bottom-feeding defenses were playoff bound -- defense has been restored as a leading component in winning football again.
- Jeffrey Tomik