On Defense, Neither Super Bowl Team Wins

In football, defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. That hasn't been true recently. In fact, both teams in Sunday's Super Bowl, the Giants and the Patriots, featured less-than-stout defenses through the season. NPR's Mike Pesca has some possible reasons why.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest day in football. And therefore, the biggest day in defense or so the conventional wisdom goes. But the teams in today's game, the Giants and the Patriots, featured less-than-stellar defenses through the season.

Here's NPR's Mike Pesca.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: It is still unknown, and therefore still available for wagering, what color the Gatorade will be that douses the winning coach, or if Madonna will wear fishnet stockings during half-time. But this much is clear: The winner of this Super Bowl will have the most porous defense of any Super Bowl winner. The teams combined to allow almost 7.2 miles of offense over the course of the season.

That's why you hear this argument as put forth by Derrick Brooks, former Super Bowl participant and current broadcaster on Sirius Satellite Radio.

DERRICK BROOKS: Right now, defensive rankings are judged by yardage. And, you know, to say that the teams are bad because they give up a lot of yardage is not fair.

PESCA: Because the stats indicates that a middling to poor defense will win this championship, the Derrick Brooks argument has become popular: Change the defection of defense. Many pundits say if you let up 80 yards but only give up a field goal, that's good defense. That's a little like saying if you crash your car but don't go to the hospital, that's good driving.

But there is an argument to be made that we should be looking at metrics other than yards allowed. Take points allowed. The Patriots rank 15th by that measure, the Giants a sad 25th. It still tests the age old motto, a motto that is so ingrained that former Giants linebacker Corey Miller returned to it, even after detailing all the rule changes that allowed for wild wide-open offenses.

COREY MILLER: Yeah, you could score 45th or you could throw for 5,000 yards like guys are doing now. So, but I still believe, at the end of the day, its defense that's normally going to win championships.

PESCA: How can that be? Let's look at defenses by points allowed. For about the first 40 years of the Super Bowl, exactly one team that ranked outside the top 10 in points allowed won a Super Bowl. But recent Super Bowls have been won by the Indianapolis Colts who ranked 23rd, the 2007 Giants who ranked 17th and the Saints were the 20th ranked defense; three of the last five winners in the bottom half of NFL teams. Ah, but those were the rankings throughout the year. Note those who rise to the defense of defense.

Former NFL quarterback Jim Miller, in speaking of the Patriots, gives voice to a popular new criteria.

JIM MILLER: I just go by what they've done. As of late, they've only giving up 21 points a game. Much like the Giants, they've shored it up defensively as of late in the year.

PESCA: The defense the Patriots puts on the field today will have a couple important players who were injured throughout the year. And the same is true for the Giants. So maybe the current defenses really are a lot better than their yearlong stats. And then there is that ineffable notion that defenses can tighten up and play better when it counts.

Corey Miller says, this happens.

MILLER: This is the mentality, you know, and it's a more focused on the defense, more so than offense. And here's why: Offense is about rhythm. Offense is all about timing, not so much when it comes to defense.

PESCA: Though, as defined by the stats, a mediocre at best defense which got better in the post-season will be raising the Lombardi trophy. Maybe the defense will be deceptively good. Maybe it will have peaked at the right time. Maybe it will be a bend but don't break defense. Or maybe we just can't admit that a poor defense is about to win a Super Bowl. So, whichever team wins the championship, we'll be able to say, you know what? They had a championship defense. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Indianapolis.

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