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Winning Football: 'D' comes before 'O'

   by Jim Feist - 11/01/2010

So what do you prefer: offense or defense? Most casual bettors examining NFL picks like offense, which is why Monday night football games often take more action on the over. There have been some terrific offensive football teams that last few years, such as USC and Texas in 2005, LSU and Florida the last two years, and pro passing attacks like the Rams, Colts, Dick Vermeil's Chiefs, the 2007 Patriots and this year's Chargers and Colts.

However, name the last few Super Bowl winners? The Saints, Steelers, Giants, Colts, Pats and Bucs. Last season was a bit of an aberration with the high flying Saints and Colts meeting in the Super Bowl, but more often than not the superior defensive team stands out. Even so, the team the Saints upset, the Colts, were no defensive dynamos, ranked 18th in total defense, 24th against the run.

In 2008 the Arizona Cardinals had the flashy offense and were the big surprise, but the top defensive team in the league, Pittsburgh, topped them in the big game. In 2007 defense shut down offense as the Giants topped the record-setting Patriots' offense.

In 2006 Indy was unusual, in that their run defense was poor during the regular season, then caught fire in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Bears were No. 1 in total defense. Back in 2005, the Steelers and Seahawks met in the Super Bowl. They were two of the top run defenses in the league and Pittsburgh was No. 4 in total defense. The Patriots won three Super Bowls with a better defense than offense. Their 2002 team didn't make the playoffs and the reason was obvious, the second worst run defense, a flaw they fixed and the result was back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

That 2002 season the Super Bowl was a fascinating match-up that pitted the No. 1 offense, Oakland, against the No. 1 defense in Tampa Bay. The Raiders averaged 28.1 points per game, while the Bucs ranked 18th in scoring with 21.6 ppg. This is partly why the Raiders were a 4-point favorite on Super Sunday, but what was the outcome? Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21.

Defense still rules and is an important factor when assessing NFL picks. Defense, in all sports, doesn't get the publicity that a flashy, exciting offense does, but there is so much truth in that age-old adage "Defense wins championships." Pittsburgh won four Super Bowl titles in six years from 1975-80 with Hall-of-Famers Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris on offense. But the cornerstone of that run was a defense for the ages led by L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, and Jack Ham.

Note that four of the last eight Super Bowl champions had major deficiencies on offense, yet won with strong all-around defenses. The 2005 Steelers were 23rd in passing. Many laughed at the Baltimore Ravens in 2000 when they went five straight games without an offensive touchdown, but the Ravens laughed all the way to the Super Bowl, going 14-5-1 against the spread dominating with a ferocious defense. Here are the defensive rankings of the last 12 Super Bowl champions and their spread marks:

Super Bowl Champs - ATS Record - Defensive Rank 1996
Packers: 12-6-1 ATS - No. 1 (4th rushing, 1st passing)
1997 Broncos: 13-7 ATS - No. 5 (16th rushing, 5th passing)
1998 Broncos: - 12-7 ATS - No. 11 (3rd rushing, 25th passing)
1999 Rams: 14-4-1 ATS - No. 6 (1st rushing, 23rd passing)
2000 Ravens: 14-5-1 ATS - No. 2 (1st rushing, 9th passing)
2001 Patriots: 13-5-1 ATS - No. 24 (18th rushing, 24th passing)
2002 Bucs: 12-6 ATS - No. 1 (6th rushing, 1st passing)
2003 Patriots: 14-4-1 ATS - No. 7 (3rd rushing, 18th passing)
2004 Patriots: 13-5-1 ATS - No. 9 (6th rushing, 17th passing)
2005 Steelers: 13-7 ATS - No. 4 (3rd rushing, 16th passing)
2006 Colts: 12-8 ATS- No. 15 (32nd rushing, 3rd passing)
2007 Giants: 14-6 ATS - No. 7 (8th rushing, 11th passing)
2008 Steelers: 11-8 ATS - No. 1 (2nd rushing, 1st passing)
2009 Saints: 10-9 ATS - No. 25 (21st rushing, 26th passing)

All the champs were statistically very strong defensively, with the exception of the 2001, the 2006 Colts and the 2008 Saints. In 2001, New England struggled early with injuries and new personnel, but in the second half the 'D' held their final nine opponents to 17 points or less. Contrast those numbers with the offensive rankings of the last ten Super Bowl champs: The Ravens were 16th offensively, the Patriots 19th, Tampa Bay was 22nd, the 03' Pats were 17th, the '04 Pats 7th, the Steelers 15th, the 2006 Colts third the Giants 16th, the 2008 Steelers 22nd, the 2009 Saints No. 1.

The 1999 Rams had a devastating offense (No. 1), but it was easy to overlook the fact that the Rams had the No. 6 overall defense (No. 1 against the run). The strong offense and defense helped the Rams go 16-3 SU and 14-4-1 ATS on the way to beating Tennessee, 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV.

The 2000 Rams' offense was even better, No. 1 averaging 33.7 points per game. The defense lost head coach Dick Vermeil, defensive coordinator John Bunting, as well as an early-season injury to defensive leader D'Marco Farr. That was plenty, as the unit completely disintegrated, finishing 23rd overall, 27th against the pass while giving up the most points in the NFL (29.4 points per game).

Even though the offense was unstoppable, the defensive collapse caused the Rams to limp into the playoffs as a Wild Card team, where they were quickly eliminated by the Saints, 31-28, as a 6-point favorite. The bad 'D' made them a bad bet, as well, going 6-10-1 against the spread. The Pats ended 2007 on a 1-8 ATS run, getting all that publicity on offense, while the Giants were 8-1 ATS. Offense may get all the TV highlights, but defense is still the key to football success.

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