While CBS executives were praying for a Peyton Manning vs. Donovan McNabb scenario to garner huge ratings for the Super Bowl, the prospect of a 16-13 Super Bowl between the Patriots and Panthers is likely to be a ratings loser for the biggest event in sports.
But, as teams like the Vikings gather to watch the big game, it once again pays testament to a long-held belief among football coaches, players and scouts -- offense will put butts in the seats, but defense wins championships.
Even before the playoffs began, teams that couldn't play shut-down defense were eliminated. The Vikings were a prime example of that. Despite leading the league in interceptions and having one of the best turnover ratios in the league -- typically indicators of success -- the Vikings' inability to stop the run killed them too many times and left them as a playoff casualty to wild card teams like the Cowboys, who had little offense but a stout defense.
Even after the playoffs began, nothing changed. The Seahawks, who couldn't win on the road, were victims. The Broncos, who had played up-and-down defense, were also D.O.A. when the playoffs got underway.
The trend continued throughout. Although the Eagles could not stop the run most of the year, the Packers' inability to stop a fourth-and-26 (sound familiar?) ended their playoff run. Likewise, the rested and homestanding Rams found the Panthers defense too strong to score touchdowns against and kicking field goals wasn't enough for the Rams to win -- or even save the dignity of coach Mike Martz, who went into an offensive shell at the end of the fourth quarter.
In the AFC, the same axiom applied. While the Colts got gashed defensively by the Chiefs, Kansas City's inability to ever stop the Indy offense resulted in their playoff outster despite a 13-3 record. On the other side of the AFC bracket, the Patriots' smothering defense kept the Titans at bay to advance.
Many of the so-called experts were all over the dream matchup of Manning vs. McNabb for the Super Bowl. Instead, the Patriots forced Manning into four interceptions and, despite the two teams combining for 11 red zone trips, just three touchdowns were scored as the Pats moved on with a 21-14 win. In the NFC, the Panthers' lackluster offense was bailed out by an overpowering defense that injured McNabb and walked away with a critical road win -- the Eagles' third straight NFC title game loss.
Just as offensive innovators dominated the late 1980s and early 1990s, allowing teams like the 49ers, Cowboys and Packers to control games, the evolving NFL is turning to a defensive game -- coming full circle back to its roots when the Steelers, Dolphins, Cowboys and Vikings ruled the roost.
The game plans for both Super Bowl teams were to build from defense first to build a winner. The Patriots have a team that Bill Belichick pieced together through free agency, adding key defensive components. And, with seven draft picks in the first four rounds of April's draft, it doesn't look like the Pats will be going away any time soon.
The same is true for the Panthers. 1-15 just two years ago (that win coming vs. the Vikings), John Fox has built a defense that starts with a dominating front four and creates havoc at the point of attack -- just ask Marc Bulger or McNabb about that.
The days of needing a Joe Montana or Steve Young or John Elway to win a title are over. Since 2000, the championship quarterbacks have been Trent Dilfer, Tom Brady and Brad Johnson -- far from dominant quarterbacks. Brady may add his name to that list for a second time. If he doesn't, it will be Jake Delhomme -- a guy even fantasy owners didn't take.
As we near the start of free agency, it's time for general managers and coaches to pay heed to the lessons learned in this decade. Defense is once again what is winning championships. You don't need a Pro Bowl quarterback or overpowering running game -- the Patriots have gone with a three-headed monster all year. What you need is defense and, if the Vikings can add two or three valuable contributors to their own defensive side of the ball, the turnaround could be fast and impressive.
Defense Once Again Is King
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