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Defense won't win this championship

Darren Sharper and the Saints forced 39 turnovers, second in the league, but allowed 21.3 points per game.

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Darren Sharper and the Saints forced 39 turnovers, second in the league, but allowed 21.3 points per game.


The scary dudes have all left the field. Bart Scott? Gone. DeMarcus Ware? History. Ray Lewis? Probably at home scraping running backs off the bottoms of his cleats.

What's left for Super Bowl XLIV is a handful of familiar names but otherwise one of the weaker collections of defensive talent the NFL's title game has ever seen. The Saints offense has style. The Colts offense has pizzazz. The defenses have nervous rashes.

Consider it from this vantage point:

Six NFC teams made the playoffs. The Saints had the worst defense among them. Six AFC teams made the playoffs. The Colts had the second-worst defense among them.

So if you are going to make the argument that defense wins championships, you're probably not going to want to use this game as Exhibit A. Or B. Or C.

"People have been saying that about us all year," Saints safety Darren Sharper said. "Deion Sanders keeps saying we're the 25th-ranked defense in the NFL. Man, that's got nothing to do with the game itself."

Okay, so maybe the defenses deserve a little more credit. Teams generally don't win 13 or 14 games in the regular season without knocking down a quarterback or two along the way. And Indianapolis was probably a little better than the average defense in the NFL this season.

But aren't Super Bowl defenses supposed to be better than that? Aren't they supposed to have nicknames like the Steel Curtain? Or the Purple People Eaters? Aren't they supposed to lead the NFL in fewest points allowed, like the 2000 Ravens, the '02 Buccaneers, the '03 Patriots or the '08 Steelers? Aren't they supposed to inspire the theme from Jaws instead of The Pink Panther?

The truth is these guys are simply not up to the usual standard of Super Bowl defenses. Of the past 20 Super Bowl teams, only two defenses have given up more points than New Orleans did. Only three have given up more than Indianapolis.

It's not unfair to say the Colts and Saints have reached the brink of February in spite of their defenses rather than because of them. These are the kinds of guys whose names come after the film's title. They're part of the show, but they're not the reason you're tuning in.

That doesn't mean they don't have some individual flair. Sharper is probably heading to the Hall of Fame. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is somebody's migraine waiting to happen. Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis make a wicked pair of bookends.

It's just that, collectively, they remind you of bystanders in a history book.

For the most part, the defenses have hung on while the offenses have carried the day. There was the time the Colts gave up 34 points to New England this season. And won 35-34. Or the time they gave up 31 to Jacksonville. And won 35-31.

The Saints were even worse. They won one game 33-30 and another 46-34. And when the offense dared to score less than 26 points, the Saints were 0-3.

So what is it you can expect in Super Bowl XLIV? Probably more touchdowns than punts. Probably more bombs than sacks. Probably more high fives than third downs on offense.

The Colts have shown the ability to win the occasional game with a strong defensive effort, but the Saints have to be counting on Drew Brees delivering 30 points or more. And they had better be counting on turnovers.

That is the one statistic New Orleans can brag about. The Saints forced 39 turnovers in the regular season, which was the second most in the league. And they had five turnovers against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, which is how they won despite Minnesota's offense running sprints up and down the field.

"What they did was, to some degree, what they've done all season," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "If you look at the takeaway numbers through the course of the year, it's been amazing. Their pursuit to the football and their obsession with turnovers really ended up being the difference between winning or losing."

The Colts gave up an average of 19.1 points a game in the regular season. The Saints gave up an average of 21.3. To put that in perspective, it has been 26 years since the Super Bowl has had two defenses topping 19 points a game.

Now that doesn't mean they're awful, and it doesn't mean there won't be a defensive stand. I mean, it's entirely possible the Colts will stuff Brees. And I suppose it's even possible the Saints will slow down Peyton Manning.

But if you're the type who hates to miss even a single point, you may not want to walk away from the TV.

Or, you know, blink.

John Romano can be reached at

Defense won't win this championship 01/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 9:57pm]
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