Defense wins championships.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard that one before.
It’s one of the most well-known, often-stated, worn out clichés in sports, and is most commonly used in football, particularly when describing the outcome of the Super Bowl.
So, with the football’s 50th world championship (they call it that even though its tournament consists of team’s from the U.S., but we’ll save that discussion for another time) bearing down on us, I took a look at the last 10 Super Bowl matchups to see if that old adage is true. Does defense really win championships?
I thought it was a fitting time to delve into the matter, considering this year’s contenders: The Denver Broncos, who boast the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense, and the Carolina Panthers, whose Cam Newton-led offense is tops in the league.
We’ll start with 2006’s Super Bowl XL and work our way through XLIX and (hopefully) come to an answer to that question.
Super Bowl XL
Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Seattle Seahawks 10
•Pittsburgh’s Defense: Ranked 4th in yards and points allowed per game.
•Seattle’s Offense: Ranked 2nd in yards and 1st in points per game.
•Here’s an example of why going into the Super Bowl with a juggernaut offense doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll come away with a win. The Seahawks’ offense was phenomenal in the 2005 regular season, racking up 369.7 yards per game and scoring an average of 28.3 points per game. The Steelers made their case, though, that a top-ranked defense will trump a top-ranked offense by holding the Seahawks to just 10 points in the contest. Seattle had nearly 400 yards of total offense in the game, but despite their regular season prowess, couldn’t put up their season average of points, which would have gotten them the win.
Super Bowl XLI
Indianapolis Colts 29, Chicago Bears 17
•Indianapolis’ Defense: Ranked 21st in yards and 23rd in points allowed per game.
•Chicago’s Offense: Ranked 21st in yards and 23rd in points per game.
•Here’s a game that argues offense, not defense, wins championships. The Colts were putrid defensively in the 2006 regular season, as were the Bears on offense. But if you look at the flip side to each team, you’ll see that the Colts’ offense was ranked third in yards and second in points per game, while the Bears’ defense was ranked fifth in yards and third in points allowed per game. Even in the rainy conditions at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, Peyton Manning was able to lead the Colts to 22 points. Indianapolis went up 29-17 in the fourth quarter thanks to a 56-yard pick-six by Kelvin Hayden. Chicago’s top notch defense, that only gave up 294.1 yards of offense per game in the regular season, gave up 430 to the Manning led Colts. Offense wins this round.
Super Bowl XLII
New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
•New York’s Defense: Ranked 7th in yards and 17th in points allowed per game.
•New England’s Offense: Ranked 1st in yards and points per game.
•When anyone brings up Super Bowl XLII, two things come to mind: The Giants ruined the Patriots perfect season, and the David Tyree “Helmet Catch.” Tyree’s catch was so amazing that it has its own Wikipedia entry. This game was particularly memorable because the Giants weren’t supposed to win. The Patriots tore through the regular season and were 18-0 when they entered the Super Bowl. The Giants limped to the finish and battled their way to the Super Bowl as a sixth-seed wild card. After going down 14-10 in the fourth quarter, Tyree made the catch heard round the world to save the Giants and propel them to one of the most improbable wins in Super Bowl history. The Patriots, in the 2007 regular season, were superior to the Giants in all facets of the game. New England’s defense ranked fourth in yards and points allowed per game, outplaying New York on both sides of the ball. The Giants were determined though, and held the Patriots to just 274 yards of total offense when they had been used to putting up 411.3 per game. New York played a fantastic game defensively, so you could say that defense won this championship, but I chalk it up to the football gods making sure the “Evil Empire” didn’t go 19-0.
Super Bowl XLIII
Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Arizona Cardinals 23
•Pittsburgh’s Defense: Ranked 1st in yards and points allowed per game.
•Arizona’s Offense: Ranked 4th in yards and points per game.
•This was a Super Bowl where the team with the NFL’s best defense won, but it did get a lot of help from its offense. Despite having its best defense since the Steel Curtain of the 1970s, Pittsburgh relied on a 90-yard game-winning drive from its offense late in the fourth quarter to come from behind and beat Arizona for the Lombardi Trophy. That’s not to say the Steelers’ defense didn’t make some important plays, the most important of which being a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by James Harrison to end the second quarter. The Cardinals offense had its highlights though, and racked up 407 yards against a Steelers’ defense that only gave up 237.2 per game in the regular season. Everyone will remember Santonio Holmes’ tip-toe catch on a perfect pass from Ben Roethlisberger to retake the lead in the fourth, but Pittsburgh’s defense made big plays that Arizona’s offense couldn’t match. Give it to the defense.
•Super Bowl XLIV – New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17
•New Orleans’ Defense: Ranked 25th in yards and 20th in points allowed per game.
•Indianapolis’ Offense: Ranked 9th in yards and 7th in points per game.
•This was a game where offense was the clear winner. The Saints came into Super Bowl XLIV with an atrocious defense, ranking at the bottom of the league across the board. Meanwhile, their offense was ranked first across the board. The Colts’ middle-of-the-pack defense held for the Saints to 332 yards of offense when they were used to averaging 403.8, but couldn’t keep them from putting points on the board. Offense wins here.
Super Bowl XLV
Green Bay Packers 31, Pittsburgh Steelers 25
•Green Bay’s Defense: Ranked 5th in yards and 2nd in points allowed per game.
•Pittsburgh’s Offense: Ranked 14th in yards and 12th in points per game.
•Here’s a game where two fantastic defenses gave way to the offenses and let them shoot it out for the Lombardi Trophy. Not so fast. As good as Green Bay’s defense was in the regular season, Pittsburgh’s was better. The Steelers ranked second in yards allowed per game and first in points allowed per game. Despite giving up just 276.8 yards and 14.5 points per game in the regular season, the Steelers allowed 338 yards to Green Bay’s offense and allowed 24 points (Seven points were thanks to a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by Nick Collins). Still, the argument can be made that it was in fact the defense that made the difference, as Collins’ pick-six – one of three Pittsburgh turnovers – gave Green Bay seven more points it otherwise wouldn’t have had. The Steelers, meanwhile, didn’t create a single turnover. Maybe defense had the upper hand in this one?
Super Bowl XLVI
NY Giants 21, New England Patriots 17
•New York’s Defense: Ranked 27th in yards and 25th in points allowed per game.
•New England’s Offense: Ranked 2nd in yards and 3rd in points per game.
•Round 2. And the Giants stunned the Patriots for a second time in four years. New England’s fear-inducing offense averaged a whopping 428 yards and 32.1 points per game in the regular season. It should have been a cake walk for Tom Brady and Co., but New York’s cellar-dwelling defense slammed the door on the Patriot offense, holding it to just 349 total yards and nearly half of its average game’s worth of points showing that when it really matters, a motivated defense will unravel the most potent offense. And New England’s offense sputtered when it really mattered in crunch time and didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter. It should be noted that the Patriots ranked 31st – dead last – in yards allowed per game on defense and 15th in points allowed. Defense outdid offense in this one.
Super Bowl XLVII
Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31
•Baltimore’s Defense: Ranked 17th in yards and 14th in points allowed per game
•San Francisco’s Offense: Ranked 16th in yards and 10th in points per game.
•This was an interesting one where neither team played particularly well defensively. The teams matched up pretty evenly offensively, but there was glaring mismatch defensively, with San Francisco ranking third in yards allowed and second in points allowed per game in the regular season. The 49ers, despite losing, actually outgained the Ravens 468-367. Both quarterbacks dissected the opposing defense, with Joe Flacco going 22-33 for 287 yards and three TDs for Baltimore, and Colin Kaepernick going 16-28 for 302 yards and a TD combined with 62 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown for San Francisco. Offense ruled the day in this Super Bowl. Note: The difference maker: A 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones to start the second half.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seattle Seahawks 43, Denver Broncos 8
•Seattle’s Defense: Ranked 1st in yards and points allowed per game.
•Denver’s Offense: Ranked 1st in yards and points per game.
•If you ever want to prove your point when arguing that defense wins championships, use this – and only this – game before dropping the mic and exiting because you’ve won the debate. Denver’s offense, which made some of those Tom Brady-led Patriots offenses look juvenile, averaged 457.3 yards per game and 37.9 points. Take a moment and absorb those numbers, because they’re ridiculous. Then, appreciate the fact that the Seahawks had Manning and his offense in complete shambles. Denver tallied just 306 yards and mustered a measly eight points, which came as time expired in the third quarter. Seattle picked Manning off twice – one being 69-yard pick-six by Malcolm Smith – and forced a safety on the Broncos’ first play of the game. This one was over the second it started, and all the credit goes to Seattle’s defense.
Super Bowl XLIX
New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24
•New England’s Defense: Ranked 13th in yards and 8th in points allowed per game
•Seattle’s Offense: Ranked 9th in yards and 10th in points per game.
•Just hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch and the game is over. The decision by Seattle head coach Pete Carroll will be a Super Bowl talking point forever. But, the point I’d like to make is, from 1-yard out, trailing by four points with 26 seconds to play, the Seahawks’ offense had a chance to make a game-winning play. They chose a passing play and it wasn’t Seattle that made a play, but New England. Specifically its defense. Malcolm Butler jumped Ricardo Lockette’s slant route and made a Super Bowl-saving interception to seal the win for the Patriots. This game, tight throughout, came down to one play, offense versus defense. Defense prevailed and won its team the Super Bowl.
In dissecting these games, it’s not necessarily where each team is ranked in respect to defense and offense that determines who will win.
But, more often than not, when it comes down to a side of the ball needing to make a play when it really matters, defense will prevail.
It’s not guaranteed and there are exceptions as there are with all rules, and things happen that seem to be out of anyone’s control (it’s still unbelievable that Tyree caught that ball).
It might happen in the first or second quarter, but defenses often make a play at some point in the game that proves to be the turning point or determining factor in the outcome. Although you can’t always hang a game with more than 100 plays on just one. Unless you’re Scott Norwood.
Still, I’d take a disruptive, stifling defense over a powerhouse offense any day. That’s why my money is on Denver to get Manning his second Lombardi Trophy in what will likely be the final game of his storied career.
Cam Newton, with each game that he plays, is redefining the quarterback position and is doing great things for the NFL. Carolina’s – a team that also has a top-10 defense at its disposal – time will come.
But with the way Denver had New England’s offense in fits during the AFC Championship game and a chance to send Manning off into the sunset, I don’t think that time will come Feb. 7.
Blake is a former sports editor of The Herald, now residing in Erie.