Defense Wins Super Bowls
by Robert Ferringo - 01/30/2007
I often say that football is a violent, brutal game. So, quite naturally, the team that is more violent and brutal will usually win. Only the strong survive, and this maxim has borne itself out time and time again from the bloody core of this beloved, gladiatorial sport.
The standard-bearer for gridiron masochism over the past quarter-century was the 1985-86 Chicago Bears. That team redefined what it meant to dominate with defense and forged a blueprint that has been followed by such recent organizations as Pittsburgh, New England, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
In 1985 the Monsters of the Midway had the NFL's top-rated defense in both scoring and yards allowed. They rode that classic unit to three postseason wins by a combined 91-10 score, including a 46-10 maiming of New England in Super Bowl XX.
In the 21 years since the 1985 season kicked off there has not been a single Super Bowl champion that finished the regular season ranked lower than ninth in scoring defense. Twelve of those 21 champions boasted a defense rated in the top three in points allowed, and No. 1 units were a flawless 6-0. Further, of the two Super Bowl combatants the team that allowed fewer points per game during the regular season is 18-3 straight up.
I mean, I haven't uncovered some Rosetta Stone to NFL success here. If you give up less points, you win. Easy enough. I'm just pointing out what a fantastic indicator that one regular season stat has been at predicting the Super Bowl victor (85.7 percent).
Also, there have been only three teams in the past 21 seasons that had a defense ranked outside of the Top 10 in total yardage and went on to win the title. Those three exceptions - New England in 2001, Denver in 1998 and Washington in 1987 - each had scoring defenses ranked in the league's top eight, subscribing to the bend-but-don't-break school.
The average defensive ranking for the past 21 Super Bowl champions was fourth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed.
All of this is pertinent because the difference between the Chicago Bears defense and the Indianapolis Colts defense is about as prominent as the difference between Maria Sharapova and Star Jones.
The Bears have overwhelmed foes this year and have had the best unit in the NFL over the past two seasons. This year they were ranked third in scoring (15.9 points per game) and sixth in total yards (295.1 per game). Conversely, the Colts D was a dismal 23rd in scoring (22.5 ppg) and 21st in yardage (332.2 ypg).
I will give Indianapolis defenders credit for playing better lately. But you can definitely count me among those who are not completely sold on their defensive Renaissance. They allowed 34 points to the Patriots last week at home. Before that they shut down a toothless Ravens unit and a bumbling Chiefs offense that didn't adjust its scheme and couldn't get out of its own way.
Indianapolis has the worst rushing defense in the history of the NFL playoffs, and the images of Jacksonville rushing for nearly 400 yards in one game and Ron Dayne actually looking like a legit NFL back are still fresh in my memory. In nine games outside of the RCA Dome this season the Colts have surrendered an average of 34 rushes and 187 yards (5.4 yards per carry).
Therefore, based on the fact that an Indy victory in the Super Bowl with that defense would be unprecedented, it's kind of hard to justify them as a seven-point favorite.
So I'll leave you with this thought: explain to me what the difference is between this year's Colts-Bears "mismatch" and other seemingly one-sided match-ups like the Rams-Patriots in 2002, the Broncos-Packers in 1998, and the Bills-Giants in 1991?
In each of those instances the club with the sexy, high-powered offense was at least a touchdown favorite against a team that was more physical and violent at its core. I don't think I need to tell you how those three games worked out. Let's just say that the strong survived.
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