SAN JOSE, Calif. — Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has spent the past week-plus studying the Denver Broncos defense. He is impressed.
He started listing everything he had seen on film from the Broncos.
“Speed,” Shula said. “Change of direction. The way they diagnose plays.”
Shula went on with his checklist, which was burned in his brain after seeing the NFL’s best defense on film.
“Bunch of guys get to the ball really fast,” Shula said. “They’re tough against the run. They contest every throw.”
Shula paused slightly and summed up everything he was saying.
“There’s not a weakness,” Shula said.
The Broncos aren’t being given much of a chance in Super Bowl 50, and you can see that by how the betting line in Las Vegas continues to creep the Panthers’ way. But that ignores a lot of history.
Plenty of teams win with a mediocre offense and a great defense. Those teams have become shorthand for the great defenses ever. When someone says “2000 Ravens,” heads nod.
The Broncos are in that class. They led the NFL in passing yards allowed, and rushing yards per play allowed. They led the NFL in sacks. There’s talent at every level of the defense. It’s an impressive unit.
To qualify for this list of defense-dominated Super Bowl champions, a team had to be in the top five in total defense during the regular season, and its offense had to be ranked 10 spots lower in total offense among NFL teams (you won’t see some of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers teams or the 1985 Chicago Bears because those offenses were in the top 10). Yes, it’s an over-simplified way to qualify these teams, but it pares it down to the teams you’ll recognize:
1981 San Francisco 49ers
A little surprising to see a Bill Walsh/Joe Montana team on the list. But Montana was still coming into his own, the offense didn't peak until late (it finished just 13th in yards gained) and this was a really good defensive team, finishing second in yards and points allowed. We don’t remember the 1980s 49ers for their defense, but they were great at that too.
The 49ers were favored by only one point in this game, which seems crazy now considering how that dynasty is viewed. And while Montana won the MVP in this Super Bowl, he had just 147 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals.
1990 New York Giants
In the history of the NFL, I believe nobody did a better coaching job in back-to-back games than Bill Parcells and his defensive coordinator Bill Belichick in January of 1991. The Giants won 15-13 against the 49ers, who were going for their third straight Super Bowl title, then beat a Buffalo Bills team that won its AFC championship 51-3 against the Los Angeles Raiders. The Giants were 17th in yards gained, second in yards allowed and won the Super Bowl.
Of course unknown quarterback Jeff Hostetler replaced injured Phil Simms late in the season and led the charge to the Super Bowl, The Broncos parallel would have been perfect if Brock Osweiler kept the starting job, but as we know, that didn’t happen.
But 25 years ago a defensive team that ground out a last-minute win in its conference championship was given little chance against an opponent that blew out its conference championship opponent. But the Giants defense carried the day in a 20-19 Super Bowl XXV win. Hmmm. The Giants were 7-point underdogs. The Broncos are about 5.5-point underdogs in Super Bowl 50.
2000 Baltimore Ravens
If you ask someone to name the best defense ever, the 2000 Ravens will come up a lot. That Ravens team blasted the New York Giants 34-7 in Super Bowl XXXV with Trent Dilfer starting at quarterback. The defense was amazing in that game, and all season too. The offense finished just 14th in points scored and 16th in yards gained (which actually might be better than you remember). And still, the Ravens were favored by just 3 points going into the Super Bowl. This team is the ultimate proof that defense can win a championship.
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Of all the teams on this list, the Buccaneers had the lowest ranked offense during their season. They were 24th in total offense. Tampa Bay was 18th in points scored. But a truly special defense that ranked first in points and yards allowed cruised through to the Super Bowl and then blew out the Oakland Raiders with a barrage of turnovers. And the Raiders were favored in that game by 4 points.
Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Co. showed that a truly great defense can carry a team to a title. And they turned “Brad Johnson” into a go-to answer when people talk about how it’s possible to win a Super Bowl with a mediocre quarterback.
2003 New England Patriots
By now we think of the Patriots as an offensive machine, but that wasn’t really the case for either of their first two Super Bowls. The 2001 team didn’t make this list because it was below average in offense and defense (19th in yards gained, 24th in yards allowed). But the 2003 team allowed the fewest points in the NFL, gave up the seventh-fewest yards, while the below-average offense was 17th in yards gained. Yet they went 14-2 and were 7-point favorites in the Super Bowl because we already knew something great was brewing there.
2005 and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers
Something to keep in mind when we talk about Super Bowl wins for a quarterback being the ultimate measure of that player. Neither of Ben Roethlisberger’s Super Bowl wins was keyed by the offense. The Steelers were 15th in yards in 2005 and 22nd in yards in 2008. But the defense was third and fourth in yards and points allowed in 2005 and first in both in 2008. That was a great defense, and that’s probably why Pittsburgh was favored in each Super Bowl it won that decade. But even though we revise history when it comes to the Steelers’ offense with Roethlisberger in those years, it wasn’t great. The defense was the key to those title teams.
2013 Seattle Seahawks
Ironic that the Broncos can take some inspiration from this Seahawks team. Denver came into the Super Bowl two seasons ago against Seattle with the highest-scoring offense n NFL history. Since we have a bias toward offense (as we’ve seen a few times on this list, through the scope of the betting line), the Broncos were favored by 2.5 points. But the Seahawks’ great defense, which ranked first in points and yards allowed that season, had perhaps the greatest day for a defense in NFL history. Seattle nearly shutting out a Broncos offense that set a lot of records that season. Seattle won in a 43-8 romp. The Seattle offense had its moments that year but was still ranked just 17th in yards gained.
But defense can win a championship too. There are plenty of examples of that throughout Super Bowl history.
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