“Offense wins games; defense wins championships.”
Whether or not that’s how the phrase originally went is moot. Unless you’re the 1999 St. Louis Rams, simply outscoring the opponent with nothing but copious offensive firepower just doesn’t cut it. Many a quarterback with a 40 TD/8 INT season has been sniped in the playoff thicket by sharpshooter corners and artillery linemen.
Ask Aaron Rodgers last year, he’ll tell you all about it.
Grant you, of the last ten Super Bowl champions, nine of them had either a guaranteed future Hall of Famer, (The Manning Brothers, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees, and Brady). In the case of Tampa Bay in 2002, they had an efficient journeyman in Brad Johnson who just didn’t make mistakes.
But in just about all of those cases, those quarterbacks could rely on a defense that would not only kill the opposing quarterback, but would give up such little ground to the opponent that victory was much more assured.
There are three measurements that define a quality defense. They don’t have to possess all three traits, but if they do, you can start chiseling their name on Lombardi’s trophy.
Any defense that dominates in defensive passer rating, rushing yards allowed, and/or quarterback sacks faces good odds of being the ones celebrating under the confetti in February.
With that considered, it becomes a little less shocking that thus year’s Super Bowl champion could very well come from the NFC West.
Yes, THAT NFC West. You know, the worst division in football two years ago. The year that a 6-9 team and a 7-8 team duked it out in the final regular season game, and the 6-9 team won the division at 7-9. Then they beat the New Orleans Saints in round one before being mercifully eradicated in the Divisional Round.
The same NFC West that, last season, produced a turnaround powerhouse in the San Francisco 49ers, a pair of middling squads in the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, and one rock-bottom sham of a team in the St. Louis Rams.
After looking at the numbers, and watching the heaps of brutality on display from the Rams and Cardinals’ defenses in their war of attrition on Thursday night, one thing’s clear: the NFC West is no longer a laughingstock.
FACT: Of the last ten Super Bowl champions, 7 of them had a defensive passer rating below 76.0. The only three who didn’t were the defenses of Peyton and Eli Manning. Tampa Bay in 2002 set the bar with a 48.4 passer rating (10 TD, 31 INT, 50.8 completion percentage), followed by New England in 2003 (56.2), Pittsburgh in 2008 (63.4) and Green Bay in 2010 (67.2)
FACT: All 4 NFC West teams are currently in the top eleven in Defensive Passer Rating; St. Louis is first (64.2), Arizona is sixth (74.3), Seattle is seventh (75.5), and San Francisco is eleventh (79.6). 14 teams have a Defensive Passer Rating of 90.0 or worse.
FACT: Although the last three Super Bowl champions have given up more than 4.0 YPA (4.5, 4.7, 4.5), and the Colts in 2006 gave up a staggering 5.3 YPA, the other six champions gave up 3.9 or less yards. Pittsburgh produced the 2 best years: 3.4 in 2005, and 3.3 YPA in 2008.
FACT: 3 NFC West teams rank in the top ten in rushing yards per attempt allowed; Seattle is second (2.99 YPA), San Francisco is fifth (3.24 YPA), and Arizona is tenth (3.64 YPA). St. Louis struggles here, with 4.4 YPA, for twenty-fifth best overall.
FACT: 8 of the last 10 Super Bowl champions had over 40 sacks on defense. The lone exceptions were Indianapolis in 2006 (a staggering 24) and New Orleans in 2009 (a modest 35). 2 teams topped 50; the 2007 Giants (52) and 2008 Steelers (51).
FACT: The Cardinals have 17 sacks in 5 games. That puts them on pace for 54.4 sacks on the year. The Rams, with 15 sacks after 5 games, are on pace for 48. Seattle and San Francisco, after 4 games apiece, have 12 and 8 sacks respectively. That has the Seahawks on course for 48, and the 49ers hurtling toward a mere 32.
But this could all be for nothing. Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, Kevin Kolb/John Skelton, and Sam Bradford all have to avoid the big mistakes, and their teams have to maintain something close to an even keel from now through the winter months.
But one of those teams is guaranteed a playoff spot. In fact, two other West teams could snatch those precious wild card spots. At that point, it doesn’t matter if you’re Eli Manning or Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan: when the defense is at its best, they’re damn hard to conquer.
I’m not guaranteeing an NFC West team will win Super Bowl XLVII. I’m just saying the idea of one doing just that is no longer laughable.
Because 2010 was forever ago.
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