Defense wins championships.
It’s a truism that’s as old as the oblate spheroid itself. (Or is it prolate? I forget.) John Heisman probably preached it to his Georgia Techies, and took more pride in Cumberland’s zero than in his side’s 222 in their 1916 matchup.
Super Bowl XLIII presents a classic offense-defense matchup. When the Arizona Cardinals’ offense lines up against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, more than a quarter of the players on the field will be Pro Bowl selections for this season (Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, and Larry Fitzgerald; James Harrison, James Farrior, and Troy Polamalu). When the Pittsburgh offense takes on the Arizona defense… well, there’s Arizona safety Adrian Wilson. Moveable object, meet resistible force.
The Cardinals are a great story. Dismissed as one of the worst teams ever to make the playoffs, they’ve jelled at the perfect moment, and offer a multitude of attractive narratives: Warner’s comeback from oblivion. Fitzgerald’s emergence as the most exciting player in the game. Coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm facing their former team. The second-longest championship drought in pro sports.
This Steelers team feels familiar, and thus unexciting. It won the Super Bowl three years ago, defeating the Seattle Seahawks in a game remembered more for officiating controversies than its plays or players. That was also a defense-oriented team, a bottom-seed that won three straight AFC playoff games on the road, holding the high-scoring Bengals to 17 points, the higher-scoring Colts to 18, the potent Broncos to 17, and the league’s top offense, Seattle, to 10.
Because of that familiarity, most watchers might not realize just how good this year’s Pittsburgh defense is. The Steelers allowed the fewest points in the league. They had the NFL’s best defense against both the rush and the pass, as measured in yards and net yards per attempt. The last team to achieve that trifecta was the pre-merger Minnesota Vikings in 1969.
The Cardinals’ performance in the playoffs has brushed aside the memory of how they played for sixteen games. Their nine wins – tied for fewest for a Super Bowl team – came against teams whose record in their other games was a combined 53-82. Their seven losses came against teams that were otherwise 62-41. Which record seems more like Pittsburgh’s? The Steelers’ defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 60.6 rating over sixteen games – worse than Dan Orlovsky or Derek Anderson or anyone who qualified for the year-end rankings. Arizona’s defense allowed a 95.4 quarterback rating –essentially, Peyton Manning. Arizona gave up more points than all but four teams: the Lions, Chiefs, Broncos, and Rams. The only team with anything close to as poor a defensive record among the last ten Super Bowl winners was the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated the Chicago Bears in SB XLI. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t Rex Grossman.
And what’s so impressive about Arizona’s run, anyway? They beat Atlanta when Matt Ryan played the way a rookie quarterback is supposed to play in a road playoff game. They won on the road in Carolina thanks to Jake Delhomme’s six-turnover implosion. They won at home against a Philadelphia team whose blitzing scheme played perfectly into Warner’s hands.
Pittsburgh meanwhile controlled San Diego, the only offense to outscore Arizona’s, holding them to ten points through three quarters and never letting them get within one score despite two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Then the Steelers won an epic physical battle with Baltimore, allowing the Ravens to get close before the defense delivered the clinching touchdown.
The Steelers’ season was more impressive; so was their playoff performance against better teams. The point spread opened at seven, a few points fewer than I’d have expected – and hasn’t moved in two weeks. Usually, when the spread surprises you, it’s wise to remember that the oddsmakers know more than you do.
This year, though, the world seems to be talking itself into picking the Cardinals. The Steelers are being relegated to the role of “the other guys.” This may be the first time in Super Bowl history that a clear favorite has the added motivation that they’re being overlooked.
Defense wins championships. Pittsburgh 29, Arizona 16.