Defense Still Wins Championships, Folks

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As a kid growing up, I remember when the NFL's 'Dead Ball' era drew to a close, after the 1977 season. The following year, passing offenses exploded across the league, with players like Steve Largent (16.45 yards per reception), John Jefferson (17.88), Harold Carmichael (19.49) and others ripping off big chunks of yardage and lighting up scoreboards around the league like pinball machines.

Coincidentally, in addition to limiting contact with an opposing team's receiver to the first five yards from the line of scrimmage, season schedules were expanded in 1978, from fourteen to sixteen games, thus ensuring that passing records would be shattered even more convincingly in the years ahead. The offensive game in the National Football League had been effectively changed forever.

And for good reason; it was time to move the game forward. Does anyone really believe the league would enjoy its unquestioned status as the number one sport in North America today if Super Bowls were still being won by scores like 16-6? That's what the Pittsburgh Steelers' margin of victory was over the Minnesota Vikings, following the 1974 season. It is widely believed by many historians today that the Steelers were, in large part, the reason for the rules change for defensive backs, because guys like Mel Blount, Ron Johnson, and Donnie Shell played such a suffocating brand of pass defense against opposing teams. By the midpoint of the '78 season, however, teams that employed a high-powered passing game looked almost unstoppable. The Super Bowl that year, played right here in Miami, featured a combined 66 points scored, between the Cowboys and Steelers.

As the league worked assiduously over the years to continue to increase the game's entertainment value, and then later, to reduce serious injuries and thus protect itself from lawsuits, it made more and more sense for top football recruits at the high school and collegiate level to play offense than defense. Over the past twenty odd years, offensive football in the NFL has often more closely resembled something belonging on a 'Star Wars' set than a gridiron.

From time to time, though, we are reminded once again that defense does, indeed, still win championships.

Not only does it still win championships, but it does so much more frequently and emphatically than we might be tempted to believe. To wit: in the fifty-year history of the Super Bowl, the team with the NFL's number one ranked defense has won the Super Bowl fifteen times, or 30%. And for those of you keeping score at home, yes -- the Miami Dolphins' Super Bowl-winning teams, in 1972 and '73 -- had the league's top-ranked defense for both of those years.

By comparison, since 1966, teams that have had the league's top-ranked offense have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy only ten times, or 20% of the time.

Okay, so over a fifty year period, there is a ten percent differential between the top-ranked defense versus the top-ranked offense, winning a championship? Nice, but not exactly a slam dunk. Here's where it gets interesting, though: since 2000, having the top-ranked defense in the NFL has been almost a one-way ticket to a parade through the streets of that team's city following the playoffs. Over the past sixteen years, the top-ranked defensive team has won a whopping six Super Bowls -- more than a third of the time -- while the league's top offensive team has won only one title over that period, the New Orleans Saints in 2009. Had it not been for Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll's horrible play calling at the Patriots' one-yard line a year ago, the disparity would be even more ridiculous.

Throughout both the regular season and the playoffs, the Carolina Panthers had one of the league's most potent offenses. They had averaged better than 32 points a game entering Sunday's contest. The Broncos' defensive wrecking crew, led by outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and laying claim to the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, held them to just ten points. Examples like Denver's dominant performance on Sunday are by no means unique to just football; in the NBA, as well as Major League Baseball, we've seen time and time again that great defense almost always beats great offense.

In sum, the way to win football games and division, conference and league, titles, is not to try and get into a shootout with your opponent, but rather, to endeavor to shut them down. It worked for the Denver Broncos on Sunday night, just as it worked for the Seattle Seahawks two years ago, against these same Broncos. Denver had the fewest yards, offensively, (194) of any Super Bowl winning team and Cam Newton was the best quarterback in Sunday's game by leaps and bounds, but the guy whose team boasted the better defense had a much happier plane ride home.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Phinsider's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of The Phinsider writers or editors.