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driving offenses UP A WALL

It happened without fanfare or, even, warning. One day, the Super Bowl was a contest of grace. The next, it was a collision of nasty.

Who knows how it came about. How Joe Montana and John Elway begat Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp. It just seemed to happen. As if a receiver went out for a post pattern and never returned to the huddle.

Time was, the Super Bowl was the refuge for innovators. The deep thinkers and the offensive marvels walked away with the prize, the Vince Lombardi Trophy. You would have receivers running this way and that, and quarterbacks who were posing and throwing.

Then, as we were busy counting yards, everything changed.

Defenses did not just show up, they refused to leave. Baltimore in 2000. New England in '01. Tampa Bay in '02.

And now? Now we have this. Two teams less offensive than a G-rated movie. The Patriots were the lowest-scoring AFC team to reach the playoffs. As for the Panthers? They scored even less.

New England has trouble running. Carolina doesn't like to pass. Of the nearly 50 offensive players named to the Pro Bowl, your two Super Bowl participants contributed one measly running back.

So it is to be a game of defensive might. Which means, for the fourth consecutive season, we are guaranteed a Super Bowl champion that counts success by the pain left behind.

This Super Bowl will be about the Carolina defensive line. Its size and strength. This week will be about the New England secondary. Its speed and aggression.

The quarterbacks always will get the glory, but these days, the defenses are calling the shots.

Nothing new, you say. Defense always has won championships. Yeah, well, that quaint notion spent almost 20 years underground.

Defenses might have ruled the NFL during the first 17 or so Super Bowls, but offenses took over around 1983. It was a few years after the NFL made rule changes to aid the passing game, and gurus suddenly were the rage. Pass interference rules were tightened. Holding interpretations were loosened.

The results were obvious. It would take more offense to win, and teams slowly built in that direction.

Between 1983-99, the top offenses from the AFC or NFC reached the Super Bowl 19 times. The conferences' top defenses made it just five times. In other words, the best offenses often made it to the Super Bowl. The best defenses usually did not.

Think about it. How many dominant defenses do you recall from the mid '80s to the late '90s? The Bears in '85. Maybe the Giants in '90. That might be it.

These were the days of Montana, Steve Young and the West Coast offense. Of Jim Kelly and the hurry-up. Of the Cowboys with their Texas Triplets. This was the era of Bill Walsh and the coaching progeny he spawned. This was multiple receivers and mobile quarterbacks. The Steel Curtain and Fearsome Foursome had given way to glitz and glamor.

Offenses might have reached their zenith with the Rams in '99. The Greatest Show on Turf was as explosive as any offense ever built. Yet the Rams have not won another Super Bowl. Neither has any other team built on offense.

So why has the pendulum swung back?

Beginning with the Ravens in 2000, why have defensive-oriented teams clawed their way to the Super Bowl?

There are a number of theories. Some say the better athletes are being steered toward defense. Others point to the number of defensive coordinators _ such as Bill Belichick and John Fox _ who have become coaches.

The most likely reason, however, is economics. In the age of the salary cap, it appears far easier to build a defense than an offense.

Defenses do not have the overwhelming expense of a star quarterback. Or, for that matter, a running back or receiver.

Put together a top-drawer defense and you can win a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as your quarterback. But you can't win the Super Bowl with a weak defense, no matter how impressive your quarterback.

Just ask the Colts.

Even teams that can afford a quarterback such as Peyton Manning or a running back such as Priest Holmes have trouble filling the rest of their holes. If one or two players are taking up so much room under the salary cap, then other areas suffer. The offensive line. Or the defense. Or, even, depth.

This is how Carolina can get to the Super Bowl from 1-15. This is how the Patriots can put together three consecutive winning seasons and two conference titles. They have high-priced talent on defense, to be sure, but their cores were modestly constructed.

Even if money is not involved, there is the question of consistency. While offenses are unpredictable, defenses rarely slump.

The Rams outgained New England 427-267 in Super Bowl XXXVI, but they lost because of three turnovers. Last season, Oakland's offense was supposed to be unstoppable, but it practically was outscored by Tampa Bay's defense.

This trend, as you might guess, is not popular with the masses. Defense, many will say, is dull. This week's pairing might be the dullest yet.

The truth is a little more kind. Defense might not be as glamorous. It might not even be as riveting. But it's not dull.

Just different.

Perhaps, even, nasty.