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Blanchette: History shows top defense holds the edge

Spokesman-Review contributing sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The problem with the inevitable debate of Who’s No. 1 is that somebody’s already No. 1.

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali may have both been undefeated when they stepped through the ropes, but Frazier had the belts and Ali was simply the “people’s champ.”

Evert and Navritolova. Tiger and Phil. Affirmed had already beaten Alydar four times before they met in the Kentucky Derby.

College football’s contrivance to settle the argument pits the top two teams, but a poll has handicapped the top one. And that may be as close as it gets to No. 1 on No. 1 when the BCS is no longer around. How often do the top two even make it into college basketball’s championship game?

But at Super Bowl XLVIII, there’s no such problem.

The Denver Broncos are No. 1.

So are the Seattle Seahawks.

The best at moving the football and scoring points. The best at not being moved or scored upon.

“That’s what makes the game so big,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “That’s what makes the game so fun.”

And that’s what figures to make the game a referendum on just where pro football is at this point in time.

Never has the Super Bowl matched two teams with a wider gap between the points one scores (Denver’s 37.9) and the points the other gives up (14.4). Likewise, the Seahawks allowed the fewest yards and had the most takeaways this NFL season; the Broncos rewrote the records for yards and touchdowns.

“Historically, it’s as hard as it gets,” admitted Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, before pointing out, “They have to play us, too.”

No one seems to have a problem anointing the Broncos as possibly the NFL greatest offensive team. Those records say a lot (the 1950 Rams actually scored slightly more points per game, but only in a 12-game season), and what’s left unsaid is pretty much covered by the presence of Peyton Manning – glamor boy turned grand old man of the game.

But to mention the Seahawks among the game’s legendary defenses?

The ’85 Bears? The Steel Curtain? The Orange Crush and Gritz Blitz?


Also, a tough sell statistically.

Math has changed in the NFL. The numbers that used to be put up by the premium defenses – those Gritz Blitz Falcons and other early-and-mid ’70s nasties in Minnesota, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh – are simply impossible to achieve now. Not long after, the NFL instituted the 5-yard bump zone for defensive backs and loosened the reins on offensive linemen using their hands. And with another crackdown on contact with receivers in the mid-2000s – and the more recent sensitivity to targeting and head shots – pro football became a horse race and not a rodeo. Scoring in the past 20 years is up nearly a touchdown a game.

No wonder the notion of shutting down an offense like Denver’s is not even entertained.

“If you pull your hair out over every pass (Manning) completes and over every yard that he makes,” said Sherman, “then you’d have a long day ahead of you. He’s a great, elite quarterback and he’s going to make his yards.”

And yet history is largely on Seattle’s side.

In previous Super Bowl showdowns pitting the game’s best “go” against the top “stop,” only once – in 1990, when the 49ers routed Denver – did the offense-dominant team win. Tampa Bay (2003), the Giants (1991), Niners (1985) and Steelers (1979) all saw defense prevail – though it hardly hurt that San Francisco and Pittsburgh had Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw carving up the other side’s defense.

Should the Seahawks’ defense carry the day, maybe there’s a chance “Legion of Boom” will have some legs in historical discussions.

“But it’s not something you consciously think about going into a game like this,” Sherman insisted. “It’s one of those things that after it’s all said and done, once all the chips have fallen, then maybe we will think about what this game meant to our legacy – or to (Manning’s) legacy.”

Actually, it might be more interesting – and a better gauge of its impact – to see if Seattle’s success spawns imitators.

Surely more teams are already trying to develop big cornerbacks in the Sherman mold to combat swift, space-eater receivers, and more physical safeties like Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

But it’s also true that one reason the Seahawks were able to afford reinforcements like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on the line – the one area on the team that’s been dramatically upgraded, and took the Seattle defense from good to great – was because they’re currently spending so little at quarterback. In time, the Seahawks may well have to reinvent themselves again.

But that’s a question for another day.

For now, it’s a question of whether you’d rather have the best offense, or the top defense.

“I’d rather,” Seahawks tight end Zach Miller said, “be on the team that wins.”

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