Does D still win titles? Theory will be put to test as No. 1 offense faces No. 1 defense
The NFL seems to be challenging the long-held notion that "defense wins championships." Recent seasons have delivered an explosion of points, with more and more offenses spreading the field for various purposes and implementing up-tempo attacks.
And then there are the Seattle Seahawks.
Seattle's offense (though it slumped down the stretch) was plenty respectable, with a No. 8 finish in points scored during the regular season. The defense simply took it to another level in allowing just 231 points over 16 games -- 10 fewer than Carolina, 41 fewer than San Francisco and at least 70 fewer than any other team in the league.
The Seahawks will carry the defense banner into the Super Bowl, where the league's most potent offense awaits.
This is just the fifth Super Bowl since the AFL-NFL merger to pit the No. 1 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense. It's been advantage defense, thus far, with wins by the 1990 Giants, '84 49ers and '78 Steelers. Only the 1989 49ers, led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice (and boasting the No. 3 defense themselves), have bucked the trend, beating the Broncos 55-10.
Denver's offense in 2013 scored 164 more regular-season points than the loaded 49ers attack. That stat alone emphasizes which direction the league has trended over the past couple decades. Peyton Manning and Co., though, have not seen a defense even close to the likes of what the Seahawks bring to the table; vice versa for Seattle.
But the Broncos were tested during the regular season, with mixed results. They played seven of their 16 games against defenses that finished ranked No. 12 or better in points allowed, and posted a 4-3 record. The mark improves to 6-3 if you take into account playoff wins over San Diego (No. 11 defense) and New England (No. 10). The stingiest defense that Denver faced all season was Kansas City's, which allowed 305 points -- the fifth-best number, but one that sat nearly five points per game higher than Seattle's effort.
In the second game versus Kansas City, a 35-28 win that all but sealed the division for Denver, Manning fired five touchdown passes and finished with 403 yards through the air.
"I think he [Manning] showed people why he's so great," Decker said after the game. "How we run our offense, we're very versatile as far as going inside, outside, left, right, whatever it may be. Fortunately I had some play calls and took advantage of the opportunities I got."
Statistics aside, the Kansas City defense may be the closest mirror to Seattle's D that Denver has seen first-hand this season. The Chiefs featured an aggressive linebacking group, led off the edge by Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Inside, nose tackle Dontari Poe commanded heavy attention, while the secondary revolved around versatile safety Eric Berry and a veteran cornerback duo of Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith.
The Broncos managed to keep Manning upright in both games with Kansas City -- the Chiefs recorded zero sacks, despite a combined 75 pass attempts from Manning -- and Manning then took advantage of the defensive weaknesses. Specifically, he targeted rookie Marcus Cooper, firing 13 passes his way in the first meeting and another 11 in that seven-point victory.
Richard Sherman's presence on one side of the field in the Super Bowl, matched up with either Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker, likely will encourage Manning to look elsewhere. So, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane could be the difference-makers should Seattle hold the line.
The closest comparison Seattle can draw from in prepping for the Broncos lies in the New Orleans offense. Seattle twice shut down Drew Brees through the air -- the Seahawks scored a 34-7 win over the Saints during the regular season and a 23-15 wild-card round rematch victory. That said, New Orleans' talented offense did not even come close to matching the Broncos point-for-point during the regular season. No one did.
Denver scored 606 points in its 16 regular-season games; Chicago's offense was second-most prolific, at 445 points. The Saints, No. 10 overall, came in at 414.
"We wouldn’t have it any other way," said headline-stealing Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman of the Broncos, according to the Seattle Times. "They’re an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s as tough as it gets. That’s as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl."
Seattle actually faced the three worst offenses (Tampa Bay, Houston and Jacksonville) during the regular season, plus drew a boatload of offenses in the middle of the pack. Opposing offenses did manage to find some success running on the Seahawks, who allowed 100 or more yards on the ground 11 times and finished behind six other defenses in overall rushing yards allowed.
Denver can run with Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, but its record-setting offense is built around Manning and his receivers. The Saints actually tried to come out of their element with a run-heavy approach in their playoff game against Seattle, only to reverse course after falling behind by 16.
"We’re going to try to stay as balanced as we can," Moreno said ahead of his team's playoff meeting with the Patriots. The Broncos wound up running for 107 yards and passing for 400 in that win. "Pass the ball when they’re giving it to us and try to run."
Taking the ball out of Manning's hands figures to be Plan B for the Broncos. That means the approach will not be all that different than it was for the other No. 1 offenses in their Super Bowl showdowns against No. 1 defenses.
The quarterbacks of the No. 1 offenses in the four such prior Super Bowls: Jim Kelly, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Roger Staubach. Montana fired five touchdown passes in taking his '89 San Francisco team past an overmatched Denver squad; Kelly and Staubach each attempted 30 passes in their losses; Marino took to the air 50 times in the 1984 loss.
What does all that history mean for this season's matchup? Nothing. And yet, there's still no getting around just how historic this matchup is, as Denver's incredible offense lines up against Seattle's dynamic defense. More than ever, the NFL has shifted toward a philosophy that championship teams can be built from the offense out. The Seahawks will try to strike another blow -- the fourth in five No. 1 offense versus No. 1 defense Super Bowls -- for the tried and true belief that defense comes first.