Outside of maybe Cricket and Major League Baseball, one of the other 'big four' sports in North America, American Football is the only major team sport worldwide that doesn't really blend each of the pieces of it's teams in games. In baseball and cricket, there are assigned pitchers or bowlers and an order of hitters. Before the game even begins, coaches can know exactly who is going to matchup against who in specific positions. Compare that to rugby, soccer or basketball, where players move freely around the field and don't carry out defined roles that limit them to certain aspects of the game, and there is a stark contrast between the two types of team sports.
While cricket and baseball are limited to maybe three or four units at most, each individual matchup on an American Football field can be decisive and often act like dominoes.
As I was researching an article recently, I came across this image.
This image represents parity in the NFL this season, as it states, but it was startling to me that every single team had beaten their counterpart immediately clockwise. The Jaguars beat the Colts, who beat the Titans, who beat the Lions, who beat the Seahawks who beat the Patriots. You could strike it down to the old “Any Given Sunday, Anything Can Happen” attitude, but in reality the importance of matchups is what allows this level of parity to be possible in the league.
A great example of how this works can be found with the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks beat the New England Patriots by a point 24-23 in Week 6 in Seattle. However, they lost to the St. Louis Rams 19-13, in Edward Jones Dome, two weeks previous. Now, that could be chalked down to the Seahawks being good at home and bad on the road, but the difference between the Rams and Patriots is too great for that to be the sole reason for those results. The Patriots destroyed the Rams in London in Week 8 by a scoreline of 45-7.
How can this be explained?
The Patriots run a spread offense, which means they like to use at least three wide receivers and put Tom Brady in the shotgun formation on a repeated basis. Because of tight end Rob Gronkowski's domination as a run blocker and pass catcher, the Patriots have been able to run a very balanced offense all year. Gronkowski's presence allows them to run against the defense when it is set up to stop the pass, and pass against it when it is set up to stop the run.
Against the Seahawks, that wasn't possible. The Seahawks not only have the best secondary in the NFL, but they have the most diverse and physically intimidating unit also. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are big bodied defenders who move like ballerinas in the tight and like sprinters in the open field. That, along with their excellent technique and awareness, allows them both to be left on islands against opposing receivers without the potential for consistent big plays. Furthermore, Earl Thomas is the best free safety in the NFL at the moment, while Kam Chancellor is similar to both cornerbacks with his athleticism and ability to match up to tight ends and support the run.
Typically, defenses are forced to drop more defenders into coverage against the Patriots, which means that they can run the ball with ease whenever they like. The Seahawks didn't do that. Instead they trusted their cornerbacks to contain Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd while Chancellor and Thomas, along with some help at times from athletic linebacker KJ Wright, were responsible for the middle of the field. The result saw the Patriots run the ball only 26 times for 87 yards, with a long of 13. Brady still put up 395 yards and two touchdowns, but did so on a monumental 58 attempts and added two interceptions. The Seahawks' front seven was able to shut down the running game and pressure Brady with it's depth and quality, while the team's secondary limited the offense to 23 total points.
Against the Patriots' poor secondary, 23 points isn't an insurmountable task by any means. The Patriots have small cornerbacks and were dealing with very poor safety play at the time. Despite being a rookie quarterback, Wilson was able to throw three touchdowns, including a fade in the endzone to the tall Braylon Edwards, who towarded over Alfonzo Dennard, while Sidney Rice split the safeties deep for a 46 yard game-winner late on.
Yet, when the Rams travelled to London and tried to repeat the upset victory, they were blown out of the game. The Rams have quality cornerbacks, but their safety quality wasn't on the level of the Seahawks, so Rob Gronkowski was able to score two touchdowns and reap 146 yards receiving while the offense also was able to run for over 150 yards. On the other side of the ball, outside of one big play to Chris Givens, the Rams were unable to punish the Patriots' poor secondary because of their lack of receiving talent. The Rams are a run first team without the weapons to punish teams passing, but the Patriots are an outstanding run defense so they only scored seven points on the day.
When the Rams beat the Seahawks, they faced similar struggles on offense, but benefited from a special teams touchdown pass from punter Johnny Hekker and four field goals, three from long range. The Rams only scored 19 points, but their matchup against the offense limited the Seahawks to just 13 points. Unlike the Patriots, the Rams had the secondary talent to contain Sidney Rice on the outside, while the Seahawks didn't have a similar threat to Gronkowski to dominate the interior. Marshawn Lynch was able to run for a big day, 118 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, but the Rams were able to expose the weaknesses of the Seahawks' passing attack. The Patriots rely primarily on rookie Chandler Jones to rush the passer, while the rest of their front seven is better against the run. The Rams have defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long as well as defensive tackles William Hayes and Kendall Langford who can all rush the passer.
Because the Seahawks have a poor pass protecting offensive line and Wilson was an inexperienced rookie at the time, the Rams were able to force three interceptions and limit him to just 160 yards with no touchdowns. So even though the Rams only scored 19 points, they still left the game with a six point victory.
Much of a team's success is dependant on the quarterback position, but the layers to each NFL team can be overwhelming at times. A weakness on any given layer can have a domino effect on the whole team and be the differene between a comprehensive victory over a demoralizing loss.