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Super Bowl Run: Defense Has Its Day!

   by Al McMordie - 01/22/2012

Pats/Giants rematch! It’s a great contrast in styles, just like 4 years ago, a great offense against a great defense. Let’s give some praise to defensive coordinators this NFL postseason. It’s been a difficult two-year run for defenses, what with all the rule changes to favor the offense. Offensive records have been piling up, from Peyton Manning’s Colts to Tom Brady’s 50 TDs in 2007 and the record setting yardage put up this season, over 5,000 passing yards by an astonishing three quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Brady and Matthew Stafford). To put that in perspective Dan Marino's NFL record had been in place since 1984, the only QB to top 5,000 yards – until three did it this season and one (Brees) last year. Throw in Eli Manning’s 4,933 yards and that’s 4 of the top 6 passing yards ever all this season!

It was all offense all the time, so it seemed, which NFL and TV executives were delighted with. And then a funny thing happened in January: the defensive teams won. Brees and the Saints got knocked silly by the 49ers powerful defense, coughing it up 5 times. The mighty Green Bay Packers had a 15-1 regular season come to a screeching halt in the playoffs when the Giants and their attacking defense forced 3 fumbles and pulled a 37-20 upset.

The conference c hampionship games found only one high flying, flashy offense (Patriots) and 3 teams that have defense (49ers, Giants, Ravens) as their trademark. It’s nice to see defense rising up, as the rules have been altered since 2004 to help the passing game – enforcement of the 5-yard rule to prevent defensive backs from mugging receivers, the Brady Rule to help keep quarterbacks upright, etc. Three years ago the upstart Arizona Cardinals came out of nowhere with a weak defense but won the NFC. How? With a dynamite passing game behind Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Kurt Warner.

In 2009 we saw the top two offensive teams in the league, the Saints and Colts, meet in the Super Bowl. The New Orleans offense was tops in the league, averaging 31.9 points and 403 yards, while the Colts had the No. 2 passing offense behind MVP QB Peyton Manning (33 TDs, 16 INTs). And both those teams had defenses that weren’t very good statistically. Had the importance of defense been diminished? No. At least not as much as some might think. The last two postseasons, the defenses have come roaring back with a vengeance – as they usually do in January.

Last year the four teams that made the conference championship games, the Steelers, Jets, Bears and Packers, all ranked in the Top 10 in total defense and the Top 6 in points allowed. Those high flying offense of the Saints, Colts and Patriots all went winless in the playoffs (and all had below average defenses).

So why did the Packers fall out of this year’s playoffs so swiftly? It wasn’t so much the offense being out of synch against the Giants as it was their bad defense all season. Remember that the Packers ranked an impressive second in total defense in 2009, then 9th last season in yards allowed but second in points (15.6 ppg allowed) behind defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who likes to blitz and mix things up. Down the stretch the Packers defense defense allowed 0, 7, 3, 20, 16, 7, 31, 17, 3, 16, 24, 21, 14 and 25 points their final 14 games (13 ppg) while winning the Super Bowl.

This season? A totally different defense showed up, despite much of the same cast and defensive coordinator. The Packers allowed over 30 points 5 times, including their final two games, giving up 41 to Detroit and 37 to the NY Giants. In two meetings with the Giants this season, Green Bay allowed 35 and 37. They also gave up 35 to San Diego and 34 to the Saints – both wins, but shaky wins.

Defense is what got the surprising 49ers so far, a team that was 45-to-1 to win the Super Bowl back in August. Thanks to the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense, the Niners have a knack for making offenses one-dimensional. The Saints were 12-0 this season when rushing for 100 yards. After they gained 37 yards on 14 carries in the playoff loss to San Francisco, they dropped to 1-4 when they didn’t hit 100.

Baltimore eschews a fancy offense and leans on a talented, punishing defense to lead the way. The Ravens had the second best run defense in the NFL during the regular season, permitting just 92.6 yards per game. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs led the AFC with 14 sacks during the regular season.

The Giants struggled on defense much of the season, but are riding a 5-0 SU/ATS run because of the defensive talent, topping the Jets (29-14), the rival Cowboys (31-14), the Falcons (24-2) in the Wild Card game, a shocker at Green Bay (37-20) and winning at San Fran (20-17). They lead the NFL with 48 sacks with Jason Pierre-Paul (16½ sacks) and DE Osi Umenyiora. They sacked Aaron Rodgers 4 times in the playoffs and QB Alex Smith 3 more times in the NFC title game. The Giants are 8-1 ATS in their last 9 playoff games, the Under is 8-2 in the Giants last 10 playoff games.

Defense is not something the Patriots do well, though the defense saved the day in the AFC Championship game, stopping the Ravens on a late game winning TD pass, then won it when Baltimore missed the field goal.

This will be an interesting Super Bowl: If the Patriots win many can claim that this is now a new era where offense dominates the NFL, after the Saints and Packers won the last two years and the Colts in 2006. Or, if the Giants prevail they can point to two titles the last four years won with defense, along with a Green Bay defense that was outstanding a year ago as champs. While both teams have talented QBs and passing games, don’t be surprised if the Big Game comes down to defense and turnovers. Winning Super Bowls with great defense isn’t dead just yet, it just took a year off when the Saints/Colts met! Good luck, as always....Al McMordie

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