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Seahawks vs Broncos, Super Bowl 2014: Offense or Defense? A historical look at which is more favorable for a championship

For the first time in NFL history, the number one offense faces off against the number one defense for the championship. What do past Super Bowls say about the likelihood of Seattle winning the title with their secondary?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Bad boys, bad boys. Bad boys, bad boys.

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you. A-somethin-somethin, arick-Ay...

Oh sorry, didn't see you there. I was just singing the theme song to dualities in Communities of Practice. You know... CoPs. I was thinking about two opposing forces this morning on account of the Denver Broncos meeting the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII (yep, this is still real life) and dualities in Communities of Practice came up. The main take away from that Wiki article being this:

The opposing entities in a duality need to be viewed from a perspective of balance rather than opposition. The term implies a dynamism, continual change and mutual adjustment as the tensions that are inherent in dualities can be both creative and constraining.

The Broncos feature the number one offense in the NFL, the top passing offense, and likely one of the greatest offenses we've ever seen. Looking back two years later, it's incredibly obvious why Peyton Manning chose Denver when he became a free agent. If he had come to Seattle, he would have had the top defense and honestly would be in this position to win a Super Bowl anyway, but he probably wouldn't have broken any passing records. Sidney Rice was the oft-injured number one and the duo of Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin were far less inspiring at the time. Especially compared to Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

With those two players last year, Manning had his best season since winning the Super Bowl in 2006, despite playing conservatively (for Manning) after missing all of 2011 with a neck injury.

After losing in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Broncos added Wes Welker, promoted Julius Thomas to starter, and told Manning to go all Michael Keaton in Batman, aka, "You wanna get nuts? LET'S GET NUTS!"

Manning attempted 76 additional passes and went from having a great year to having the best year. Peyton broke the NFL record for yards in season (5,477) and touchdowns (55) while throwing fewer interceptions (10) than he did the year before. Peyton Manning had one game this year with a passer rating below 90; He threw two touchdowns and one interception against the Patriots in their Week 11 collapse, but for just 150 yards on 36 attempts. However, let me repeat one part of that.

Peyton Manning had one game this year with a passer rating below 90, including playoffs. In his rematch with New England, he threw for 400 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and 9.3 yards per attempt.

Duality: The Seattle Seahawks.

From a perspective of balance, it's easy to see why Seattle versus Denver is possibly the most beautiful and exciting Super Bowl matchup we've seen in the HDTV era. The 2013 Seahawks ask for your consideration (okay, I do) to be considered among the best defenses ever, if not the best passing defense of all-time. Or at least, since the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And it starts with head coach Pete Carroll, the secondary guru that has constructed some of the best pass defenses in NFL history.

Carroll's second job in the NFL was as the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings in 1985. They improved from 28th in net yards per pass attempt allowed in '84 to 20th in '85. Then 19th in '86. Then 10th in '87. Then finally first overall in 1988. Chris Stewart at Football Perspective recently ranked those '88 Vikings as the second-best pass defense since 1950.

(The best is those Bucs of 2002. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 48.4 against Tampa Bay that year. That's like Jon Bois running out a team of all Geno Smith's. Or, just one Geno Smith, I guess.)

The Vikings finished first in nY/A again in 1989 and Carroll parlayed that into a job as defensive coordinator for the Jets in 1990. Let me try to fast forward the following 23 years and just say that New York never really had a great pass defense with Carroll as DC or head coach (1994) but the San Francisco 49ers did when Carroll was the DC there (95-96) as did the Patriots when he was the head coach (97-99).

Now with Seattle, he's getting his opportunity to slay the biggest monster of all: The greatest QB of all-time, the greatest offense, on the greatest stage. (Arguably)

That same article that ranked Carroll's Vikings second, ranked Carroll's current iteration of the Seahawks as the fourth-best passing defense since 1950. (The 2012 Seahawks were 89th on that list.) Carroll wasted no time in constructing what he would view as the perfect secondary, and along with John Schneider, has shown a keen eye for finding talent that few others valued as highly.

Carroll's second draft pick with Seattle was safety Earl Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro in his four seasons. Thomas was the 14th pick of the draft, quickly dispelled any notion that Carroll would favor his own players from USC (like safety Taylor Mays), and his 15 career interceptions is tied for first in his draft class with the Patriots' Devin McCourty.

The fourth draft pick of the Carroll era (or the Carra) was Walter Thurmond III, whose career has been setback by injuries, but he did record his first career interception this season.

The sixth draft pick of the Carra was safety Kam Chancellor. One of the great steals of the draft, the fifth round pick out of Virginia Tech has made two Pro Bowls, a second-team All-Pro in 2013, and the extension he signed last year that keeps him through 2017 looks even more genius now. Chancellor has been a major star for the Seahawks in the playoffs, with Pro Football Focus currently giving him the highest grade of any defensive back in the postseason.

In just two games, Chancellor has seven stops (first among safeties), 17 tackles (first), six assisted tackles (first), and has been thrown at 13 times (most among safeties) but allowing a passer rating of 21.0 (second-best among safeties after Husain Abdullah, who had two interceptions in the Chiefs loss to Indy.)

In other words, Chancellor good job man no passer do good quarterback stinky tight end bad stupid hits hard ouch probably take few plays off seattle winners dinners of chicken.

Carroll's 14th selection with the Seahawks came the next year, and it was this guy named Richard Sherman? Despite me never hearing about this player before right now, he apparently is "good" at his "job"? In two years as a full-time starter, Sherman has made two All-Pro rosters. Besides the accolades, Sherman's 20 career interceptions ranks sixth all-time in franchise history, tied with Shawn Springs and Darryl Williams.

Yes, the guy that we drafted before Walter Jones some 16 years ago, had the same amount of interceptions in his Seattle career as the guy we drafted three years ago. And Sherman has only one fewer interception than Marcus Trufant, who was here for 10 years. Sherman's rate of interceptions per game is 0.41, and Dave Brown (who holds the franchise record with 50 career interceptions) had a rate of 0.31.

Kenny Easley's is 0.36.

The 15th selection of the Carra, taken right after Sherman, was safety Mark LeGree, but the 16th selection of the Carra was Byron Maxwell. So, win some, lose some. The controversy-slash-injury to Brandon Browner (the low-key signing of 2011 that translated into a Pro Bowl berth that year) gave Maxwell his first opportunity to get starter snaps in 2013. He made five starts and recorded four interceptions.

Maxwell has played 129 snaps in the playoffs (five fewer than Sherman) and been thrown at eight times. He has as many passes defenses (two) as he does completions allowed, and he's allowed just 39 yards. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 47.4 in the playoffs, which is almost exactly the same number (47.8) that he allowed in the regular season. The only corner in the NFL this year to post a better opposing passer rating than Maxwell, was Sherman (47.3.)

That's how you get the Yin to Peyton's Yang. (I don't know what band my band is covering, but our cover band name is definitely Peyton's Yang.) While most media members will focus on only Peyton Manning or only Richard Sherman, it's important to note that they aren't the only ones involved in this fight and they certainly needed help to get here. Not just from the people you may expect, like D. Thomas or E. Thomas, but Sherman gives a lot of credit to his defensive line and front seven, while Manning knows that he's an old soul in an old body and needs protection from his offensive line.

This is eleven players versus eleven players.

The duality and balance of this year's Super Bowl should be something to behold and gives viewers and fans something to see that they've rarely ever seen before. I've been tracking Super Bowl numbers for the past few years, hoping that they would some day come in handy, and by the grace of Russell Wilson here we are. How rare is it to see such a good offense versus such a good defense?


As Football Outsiders pointed out in their DVOA ratings this week, it's the first time that the number one offense by DVOA meets the number one defense. It is the third time that the top two teams by DVOA will meet in the Super Bowl and the fourth time that it will pit the top two teams in each conference against each other. Now, I can do something that DVOA can't do, which is go farther back than 1991.

Here's what I can tell you about the eternal struggle of offense versus defense in Super Bowl history:

- 21 of 47 Super Bowls have featured a top five total offense against a top five total defense. In those instances, the "great defense" has beaten the "great offense" 13 times. That sounds like an advantage of 13 to 8, which would be good news for Seattle, but it's actually even better than that.

In two instances (1971 and 1968) both teams featured a top five offense and a top five defense. I call that a "split." So really, it's more like 13-6-2 instead of 13-8. Actually, when you go back that far, you really are narrowing the amount of teams to evaluate when you're using a "ranking" measurement, and it can skew the data one way or the other. Edit: In a re-count, I believe it's actually 14-5-2.

(For reference, the 21 sample years are: 1966, '67, '68, '69, '71, '72, '74, '75, '78, '81, '83, '88, '89, '91, '92, '95, '97, '02, '05, '06, '8)

(The years that the top-five offense beat the top-five defense were '69, '72, '89, '95, and '06)

What if you just looked back to Super Bowls since 1980?

Of the last 12 Super Bowls to feature a top five offense against a top five defense, the defensive team is 9-3. The three offenses to win the Super Bowl were the '89 49ers, the '95 Cowboys, and the '06 Colts.

The '89 Niners actually had the fourth ranked total defense in addition to the number one ranked offense. They went 14-2 and destroyed the 11-5 Broncos by a score of 55-10. Though Denver had the third-ranked defense that year, they were just average (15th) on offense.

The '95 Super Bowl was actually a very evenly-ranked matchup between the Cowboys and Steelers, and Dallas won 27-17.

The '06 Super Bowl had the Colts offense (ranked first by DVOA) against the Bears defense (ranked second by DVOA) and both teams featured below-average units on the other side of the ball. Indy had a poor defense, Chicago had Rex Grossman.

Peyton Manning's offense won the game 29-17, but it was 22-17 with 12 minutes left until Grossman threw a game-sealing pick six to Kelvin Hayden.

In the other nine games of this sample size, the better defense won.

- The Broncos are 19th in total defense, while the Seahawks are 17th in total offense. Denver is 14th in DVOA on defense, while Seattle is 11th in DVOA on offense.

- The team with the number one total offense in the league has made the Super Bowl 15 times and is 8-7 in those games.

The team with the number one total defense in the league has made the Super Bowl 14 times and is 11-3 in those games. The last five teams to make the Super Bowl with the number one defense have won it, dating back to the 1985 Chicago Bears.

In the DVOA era, seven teams have made the Super Bowl with the number one offense by DVOA. They are 5-2.

Only four teams have made it with the number one defense, and they are 3-1. The only team to lose the Super Bowl with the top defense by DVOA was the 2010 Steelers, and they lost to the Packers, who were ranked second.

- The 2002 Super Bowl probably provides the greatest setup to to the 2013 Super Bowl. The Bucs were ranked first on defense by DVOA, total defense, passing defense. The Raiders were ranked second on offense by DVOA, first in total offense, first in passing offense.

Tampa Bay won that game 48-21.

But if anyone has a counter-argument to that, it's Peyton Manning. In 2006 against the Bears, Manning was facing off against the team ranked first in net Y/A allowed. Opposing teams against Chicago had a passer rating of just 66.5 that year and they recorded 24 interceptions. In fact, they even forced three turnovers in the Super Bowl and led 14-6 early, but they were done in by their offense.

Grossman threw two interceptions and overall they had five turnovers. The Bears allowed 191 rushing yards but actually shut down Manning as much as anyone could hope: 25-of-38, 247 yards, one touchdown, one interception, rating of 81.8.

In classic Manning fashion, Peyton was terrible in the playoffs that year. Yes, in his one Super Bowl championship season, Manning was at his worst. He threw seven interceptions in four games (after throwing only nine during the regular season) and only three touchdowns, with a rating of 70.5, but actually went 4-0. So, how did Manning win his first and only Super Bowl?

Defense. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Indianapolis allowed only 14 points total in the first two rounds, then beat the Patriots 38-34 in the AFC title game that looks like a shootout, but featured three non-offensive touchdowns and five field goals. When they beat the Bears in the Super Bowl, they did it with five turnovers forced and defense. Despite not being great overall on defense, Indy featured a very good pass defense and an incredibly-horrid rush defense. We should already know by now that pass defense > rush defense.

Can Manning get the same performance out of his Broncos defense this time? Denver hasn't forced a turnover in the playoffs yet but they have held San Diego and New England to just 33 points in two games. However, thirty of those points have come in the fourth quarter.

If they built a lead on Seattle two Sunday's from now, could they hold onto it?

- Super Bowl XLVIII will feature the top passing game versus the top passing defense, so what does history say about that?

There have been 13 instances of a top five passing offense facing a top five passing defense. In those games, the pass defense is 8-4-1 (remember the splits before? The 1968 Super Bowl featured two teams that were top five in both. Again, going back far enough, the data for ranking isn't good.)

The last four games to feature a top five pass defense versus top five pass offense has been won by the defense:

2008 Steelers vs Cardinals, 2002 Bucs vs Raiders, 1997 Broncos vs Packers, 1996 Packers vs Patriots.

The last time the offense beat the defense was, again, the 1989 San Francisco 49ers that did everything.

The only instance in history of a number one pass offense featuring a number one pass defense was the 2002 victory by Tampa Bay. Rich Gannon threw five interceptions in that game, half as many as he had thrown all season long.


As noted earlier, Manning has also thrown 10 interceptions this season. Could he suffer the same fate as Gannon, and find himself in turnover turmoil in New Jersey against the best pass defense we've seen since '02? That's probably not a high probability.

Manning has thrown more than four interceptions only once in his career (6, in 2007 vs San Diego) and more than three just five times, including once in the playoffs.

But Seattle isn't necessarily hoping that Manning has a meltdown in the Super Bowl. They aren't banking on him having a terrible game or intercepting him three or four times, though they won't be mad about it if they do. This is about making the number one passing offense in the NFL to simply be average.

If they can take them down a notch, from historical to merely good, then you have to re-evaluate the Broncos and ask yourself what you've got if Denver is exactly the same in every other area of football as they have been all year, but with a worse offense. What you'd have is a team that probably isn't good enough to win the Super Bowl.

If the Broncos can play as good on offense as they have for the whole season, against the best secondary in the NFL, then they will be more than worthy.

History seems to favor the defense, and it leans even harder towards that side of the ball if you look at only the last 25 or 30 years, but the only thing I can guarantee you is this: In less than two weeks, a "D" is going to win the Super Bowl.

We just don't know which kind of D, yet.