Shift toward offense culminates with upcoming XLVI fireworks

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If you love the passing game, you'll love Super Bowl XLVI. In fact, it's a watershed moment in the evolution of pro football.

No matter who wins Sunday, Tom Brady or Eli Manning will emerge as the most prolific passer to ever win a championship. And no matter who wins, each will have done it paired with a pass defense more porous than any championship unit to come before it.

Certainly, both defenses have played better in recent weeks. And the Giants and Patriots combined for just 44 points when they met in midseason (A 24-20 Giants victory at New England).

But nobody reaches the Super Bowl without playing well down the stretch. And neither of those points changes the fact that the Patriots and Giants field the two worst pass defenses in Super Bowl history, by any empirical measure.

The NFL powers-that-be must certainly love what they see. After all, the league has waged war against defense since 1978, while working feverishly to make life easy on quarterbacks.

The goals were noble and even necessary at the time. Offenses were overwhelmed in the 1970s, defenses ruled the day, and the NFL wanted to give fans a more exciting form of football -- one defined by its marquee quarterbacks and high-flying passing attacks.

That effort meets its statistical destiny in Super Bowl XLVI.

Here's a look at the 10 most prolific passing pairings in Super Bowl play, based upon combined passing yards in the regular season:

It's not even close. The Giants and Patriots, Manning and Brady, top any previous Super Bowl tandem by nearly 1,000 yards, and most others by well over 2,000 yards.

You don't have to go back very far to see how dramatically the game has changed in recent years, either. In 2003, the Panthers and Patriots totaled just 6,482 on their way to Super Bowl XXXVIII. (They then produced one of the greatest and most unexpected shootouts in Super Bowl history.)

The 1970s were the Stone Age by comparison. The Dolphins and Vikings faced each other in Super Bowl VIII after a season in which neither passed for 2,000 yards -- 1,582 for Miami and 1,956 for Minnesota. Granted, it was a 14-game season. But even over 16 games, the passing numbers are minuscule by today's standards.

We can also look at Brady and Manning's production individually. Here are the top five most prolific quarterbacks to play in the Super Bowl:

Tom Brady, 2011 Patriots -- 5,235 yardsDan Marino, 1984 Dolphins -- 5,084 yardsEli Manning, 2011 Giants -- 4,933 yardsTom Brady, 2007 Patriots -- 4,806 yardsKurt Warner, 2008 Cardinals -- 4,583 yards

The Super Bowl has always been a showcase for the game's best quarterbacks. So the appearance of Brady and Manning is not the surprising story here.

Instead, the big story is that two quarterbacks have reached the Super Bowl with defenses that have no business playing for a championship -- at least by any historic standard right up through 2010.

Both quarterbacks have overcome defenses that could barely stop anybody through the air this year. And it's this fact that makes Super Bowl XLVI a watershed moment in NFL history.

Here's a look at the 10 worst Super Bowl pairings based upon pass defense (combined yards allowed):

Wow! The Giants and Patriots this year surrendered 1,581 more yards through the air than any Super Bowl tandem to come before them -- 22 percent more through the air than the previous record holders (Rams-Titans).

You do not have to go back very far to see how dramatically the game has changed in recent years. In fact, when these same two franchises met just four years ago in Super Bowl XLII, they surrendered just 6,358 yards through the air that season (a difference of 2,427 yards).

Just last year, the Packers beat the Steelers after a year in which opponents ripped them for just 6,532 yards through the air. For a little historic perspective, the Dolphins faced the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII, after a season in which they combined to surrender 2,641 passing yards in 14 games (the equivalent of 3,014 yards in 16 games).

Yes, the game has changed a lot since 1973.

Even if we look at the defenses individually, the Patriots and Giants stand out from any Super Bowl contenders that have come before them.

Here are the five worst pass defenses to reach a Super Bowl, based on net yards allowed.

2011 Patriots -- 4,703 yards2011 Giants -- 4,082 yards1983 Redskins -- 3,975 yards1996 Patriots -- 3,803 yards2009 Saints -- 3,769 yards

The Giants and Patriots, in other words, are the first teams to reach a Super Bowl after surrendering more than 4,000 yards through the air. History tells us neither team should be in the Super Bowl. But both are here.

Giants fans are quick to point out that the team's defense suffered key injuries much of the year and only recently got healthy. Well, a lot of defenses in a lot of years had key players come together late in the season. None of them before this year reached the Super Bowl surrendering more than 4,000 yards through the air.

If the Giants win they'll also do it with the worst scoring defense in history to capture a Super Bowl (400 points allowed). The current record is held by the 2006 Colts (360 points).

Patriots fans have been quick to point out that the team's defense has gelled late in the year. Well, same thing: A lot of defenses in a lot of seasons gelled late in the year. None reached a Super Bowl surrendering anything close to 4,703 yards through the air.

The NFL must certainly be happy. It's been working toward this moment, this one game, since 1978.

The 1970s were a tough time to be an offensive player in general and a quarterback in particular. The Cold, Hard Football Facts call the decade the Dead Ball Era because passing offense was so bad and scoring was so low. It all bottomed out in 1977, the lowest scoring season since World War II.

It was clear that something needed to be done. So the NFL instituted sweeping rule changes to open up offense before the 1978 season.

That effort has continued into the 21st century, from "re-emphasizing" pass interference rules after the 2003 season to the penalties and fines levied week after week against defenders here in the 2011 season for hits that folks would have called good football just a couple years ago.

The increase in passing offense has been slow and steady since the late 1970s. But that increase was sharp and dramatic here in the 2011 season.

It culminates in a Super Bowl that's unique and historic by any statistical measure. is dedicated to cutting-edge analysis and to the "gridiron lifestyle" of beer, food and football. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Email comments to