Good defense was a scarce commodity during an NFL regular season in which Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and other quarterbacks carved up opposing secondaries with record-setting passing proficiency.
But now that the playoffs have arrived, do teams such as Brees’ New Orleans Saints, Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers or Brady’s New England Patriots have to play much better defense to win a Super Bowl title?
With the sport’s new passing-crazed style of play challenging the traditional notion that a stalwart defense is a fundamental ingredient for postseason success, these playoffs will provide an intriguing look at the way to win in the NFL when the stakes are highest.
“If you want to just make it a full-on seven-on-seven (passing-drill) league, then the Super Bowl will look like Baylor and Washington,” said former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross, referring to the recent Alamo Bowl, which Baylor won, 67-56. “They really have legislated defense almost out of the game, at least the physical intimidation side of it. They say that isn’t true. But you can’t tell me that receivers don’t feel a little more comfortable going over the middle than they used to feel.”
The Saints, Patriots and Packers were the league’s top three teams in both total offense and scoring offense. But defense was another matter entirely. The Saints ranked 24th among the 32 NFL teams in total defense (based on yards allowed) during the regular season. The Patriots were 31st and the Packers were last.
Their formula worked exceedingly well during the regular season. The Packers and the Patriots are the top seeds in the NFC and AFC, respectively, and have first-round playoff byes. The Saints are the NFC’s third seed and enter the postseason on an eight-game winning streak.
But some experts are skeptical that a team can thrive in the postseason playing that way. Of the 45 teams to win Super Bowl titles, 38 had top-10 defenses.
“If the defenses aren’t real good, I think there’s some vulnerability there,” said former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy. “If you gave me my choice, I’d want a great defense first. I once made a comment that offense sells tickets, kicking wins games and defense wins championships. I think that still holds true, to me.
“That’s no disrespect to all these great quarterbacks and what they’ve done. (But) I have a little apprehension about a team that is vulnerable on defense, no matter how potent their offense is.”
The three offensive juggernauts fared better in the category of scoring defense. The Saints ranked 13th in the league, the Patriots were 15th and the Packers were 19th. The Packers and Patriots also had two of the NFL’s top turnover margins – plus-24 for Green Bay and plus-17 for New England.
Former NFL coach Dan Reeves said he has become convinced it’s possible in today’s NFL for a team with major defensive flaws to win the Super Bowl. He recalled watching the Indianapolis Colts surrender 375 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a December game in 2006, before they went on to win the Super Bowl. Those Colts ranked last in rushing defense and 21st in total defense.
“It’s not who plays great defense and runs the ball any more.” Reeves said. “That’s the old-school way. If it was about that, you could give the trophy to San Francisco right now.”
This season’s playoff field includes the league’s four highest-ranked defenses. Pittsburgh led the league in total defense while Houston ranked second, Baltimore was third and San Francisco was fourth.
Nevertheless, this season almost certainly will be remembered as the greatest passing season in league history. Brees set single-season NFL records for passing yards, with 5,476, and completion percentage, at 71.2 percent. Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford joined Brees in surpassing 5,000 passing yards. Before this season, there had been only two 5,000-yard passing seasons in league history, by Dan Marino for the Miami Dolphins in 1984 and by Brees for the Saints in 2008.
“It is a passing league,” former Bills safety Mark Kelso said. “If Green Bay and New Orleans play in the (NFC) championship game, I know I’ll be watching. I mean, they (the Packers) have a backup quarterback who can throw for over 450 yards and six touchdowns.”