There have been a few NFL analysts that believe the ranking of offenses and defenses solely on the basis of yardage gained or allowed is ludicrous. A team trailing by 20 points will be forced to pass on almost every down and, with the winning team playing in a prevent defense designed not to allow huge plays. San Diego's Philip Rivers threw for more than 300 yards against the Steelers while trailing by double digits almost the entire second half of their divisional round game. Does that mean the Pittsburgh pass defense is suddenly vulnerable? No.
The system used to determine offensive and defensive rankings would appear to be flawed. With a passer rating system that incorporates everything except the square root of Johnny Unitas' hat size, it would seem that there would be a more tangible way to rate offensive and defensive strength – a system that incorporates points scored and allowed and turnovers created. But for now, we still simply go by the yardage totals to determine strength and weakness.
Over the last decade, we have learned that being No. 1 on offense or defense is a feather in the cap of the team that achieved it, but it is far from a prerequisite for winning a championship.
Since 1998, only one defense that was rated No. 1 in the league won the Super Bowl – the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the flip side, only one team with the No. 1-rated offense has won the Super Bowl – the 1999 Rams. In that decade-long span from 1998-2007, three champions were ranked in the top five in defense – the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (No. 2), the 2002 Buccaneers (No. 1) and 2005 Steelers (No. 4). In that same time frame, only two teams with a top five offense have won it all – the 1999 Rams and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (No. 3).
Truth be told, since the dramatic increases in the salary cap starting a little less than a decade ago, teams can be dominating on one side of the ball and be successful. When the Ravens won in 2000 with the second-ranked defense, their offense checked in at No. 16 – exactly in the middle of the pack. The 2001 Patriots somehow won with the 19th ranked offense and 24th-rated defense – a strange anomaly that hasn't been matched since. The 2002 Bucs may have had the best defense, but their offense ranked 24th. The 2003 Patriots had the 17th-ranked offense and the seventh-ranked defense. A year later, the Pats won it all with the seventh-rated offense and the ninth-ranked defense. When the Steelers won with the fourth-ranked defense in 2005, their offense tied for 15th. The Colts may have had the third-ranked offense in 2006, but the defense checked in at 26th. Last year, the Giants got hot at the right time, but entered the playoffs with the 16th-ranked offense and the seventh-ranked defense.
The numbers will tell you that the reason the Steelers are in the Super Bowl is because of their top-rated defense – with the same being said for Arizona's highly-rated offense. But the truth is that regular-season yardage numbers aren't the best barometer of team success in the postseason. Only three teams in the league had both an offense and a defense ranked in the top 10 – Philadelphia (ninth offense, third defense), the Giants (seventh offense, fifth defense) and New England (fifth offense, 10th defense). All three of them will be watching the game as spectators, with one of them (the Patriots) not even involved in the playoffs.