Does defense really win championships? Seahawks are going to find out
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Defense wins championships, right?
Ha! Tell that to the Broncos.
No, not these Broncos. The 1989 Broncos.
Twenty-four years ago, they were the team with the NFL's top-ranked scoring defense, the ones who were looking to win a title based not on how many points they could accumulate, but how few they could allow.
It did not work out well.
Those Broncos wound up losing to the 49ers, 55-10, in the most lopsided Super Bowl in history. It was one of only four previous times that the league's top scoring defense met the league's top scoring offense in the league's top game.
Score one for the scorers.
Tonight, for the fifth time, it's best against best. And unlike Super Bowl XXIV, it's the Broncos who have the top-ranked offense. They have put up historic numbers behind a future Hall of Fame quarterback, blowing the competition away with astounding precision. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have been the stingiest defense in both points and yards allowed.
After a decade of quarterback dominance, the Seahawks are looking to bring a little defense back to the Super Bowl.
It's become pretty rare for a top defense to win a championship. Of the last 10 Super Bowl champions, only the 2008 Steelers had the league's best unit. Only three of the last 10 champions had a top-5 defense. More -- four of the 10 -- finished in the bottom half of the rankings. The 2011 Giants won Super Bowl XLVI with a 27th-ranked defense.
That would not seem to back up the old axiom that we started out with. What's up?
"I think number one, there are some terrific offenses out there and the high-scoring offenses that we see in a week-in and week-out basis, there are some really talented and featured players," Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of the changing landscape of the league.
"It's a real challenge for us, and sometimes it's different types of people. It might be a running back, or a quarterback, or a tight end, or their feature receiver. [The Broncos] have a number of them, so we certainly have our hands full."
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll pinpointed the change more precisely.
"When you just use [Peyton] Manning and [Tom] Brady, you're talking about a couple of the greatest passers to ever play this game, in great systems that really recognize how to utilize their talent at its fullest," he said. "The best way to do that is to let those guys throw the ball all over the yard. They could handle it and do it well and win championships doing it. That is what we're facing."
And trying to stop. The diametrics of this game are impressive. While the Seahawks have allowed 14.4 points per game, the Broncos have scored nearly 10 points per quarter. Per. Quarter. This is a team that has averaged 37.9 points per game. The Seahawks scored that many points only twice this season and haven't surpassed 27 since Week 13.
The only way the Seahawks' offense can keep up with the Broncos, in other words, is if the Seahawks' defense can do its job.
"I think it's true," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said of the initial thesis here, perhaps more out of hope than conviction. "I think you have to have a great defense usually to win a championship. It's not easy to just to do it on offense."
The Seahawks do have some advantages. Manning has pretty much dispelled the myth that he cannot win when the temperature dips, but that doesn't mean playing in the first cold-weather outdoor Super Bowl at the windy Meadowlands will be easy for either offense. Typically, wintry conditions, either in terms of temperature or precipitation, favor the defense. That's why Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett was so excited about the matchup.
"We're built for this game, man," he said. "It's going to be a great game. I can't wait."
Given the possibility of uncomfortable conditions, the Seahawks have another advantage. They can run the ball effectively, keeping it away from the Broncos during long stretches of time if they have to.
"We're fortunate because we live by the running game," linebacker Malcolm Smith said. "Just play great defense and run the ball and execute well and things will turn out well for us."
In the end, for the Seahawks, their first Super Bowl will come down to this deciding factor: Can they stop Manning?
They're going to try.
"As a defense, we respect the heck out of Peyton Manning, but as a true competitor, as competitive as our team is, you wouldn't want to have it any other way," cornerback Richard Sherman said of having to prove himself against the top quarterback in the league.
"You want the best of the best, otherwise you don't feel like you're getting the biggest challenge of your life. If you lose, you understand that you lost to the best quarterback in the world and you can accept that. If you win, you understand that you were playing against the best quarterback in the world and it feels that much sweeter."
Those 1989 Broncos whose defense didn't win a championship turned out to be the exception. Of the four previous matchups of premier scoring units, top 'O' vs. top 'D', the defense won three of them. Only once in those three victories did the high-scoring team manage to put up more than 19 points.
Even more rare is the meeting of top defense against top offense in yardage. This is only the second time that will happen since the 1970 merger. The only other such clash was when the Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, more than a decade ago.
A lot has changed in the NFL since then in terms of rules that protect offensive players, philosophies and personnel. So, do defenses still win championships?
"I don't know if they were throwing the ball like that then, so this is a new challenge in that regard, but it's a great challenge for us," Carroll said. "That statement that defense wins championships has been out there a long time. I don't know that it ever went away.
"We'll find out."