As usual in NFL playoffs, defense trumps offense

Defensive tackle Justin Smith has a hold of Saints quarterback Drew Brees during last week’s NFC division playoff game, when the 49ers forced five turnovers in a victory.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith has a hold of Saints quarterback Drew Brees during last week’s NFC division playoff game, when the 49ers forced five turnovers in a victory.
Published Jan. 22, 2012


The basketball players of the NFL have all gone home now. They have taken the sprinters and the dancers and the video gamers with them.

Now, it is time for the tough guys to take over.

As usual.

It happens. Every few seasons, there is an offense that has so much sizzle, so much flash, that it fools you into thinking that defenses have no chance. It scores fast, and it scores often, and you suspect it has found a shortcut to the end zone.

Then the playoffs come along, and once again, football is raw and brutal, and it feels like 1958 all over again.

It feels like the Giants, who sent Aaron Rodgers and all his numbers packing.

It feels like the 49ers, who sent Drew Brees and all his records on his way.

Forever, it has been like this, since Air Coryell and Dan Marino throwing to the Marks Brothers and The Greatest Show on Turf. This time of year, the best of the champions, the Steel Curtain and the No-Name Defense and the '85 Bears, are the nicknames to remember. Simple as this: Defense usually wins. That's been true since cliches were new.

Today, it will be true again. You can talk all you want about Eli Manning and his escape from his brother's shadow or how no one will ever refer to Alex Smith as a bust again. But do you know who today's NFC Championship Game is about? It's about the Giants' Jason-Pierre Paul and Justin Tuck and the 49ers' Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.

It's about bloody knuckles. It's about pain. It's about, as New York defensive lineman Chris Canty predicted, "a bloodbath."

Yeah, it sounds a lot like 1958, too.

Around here, to be honest, it looks that way, too.

The skies are gray and ominous here, and the wind whips and the rain blows. Even if you didn't think the 49ers and Giants were going to spend much of the afternoon pounding on each other, the elements suggest there is no other way to play this one. Not that either team really knows a different way to play. If they did, they might not be here.

"This time of year is about defense," said 49ers safety Donte Whitner. "All year long, we hear about the offenses. That's what people outside the locker room talk about. But inside the locker, we know it's about defense."

Consider this: Out of the last 30 Super Bowl winners, 26 have ranked in the top 10 in defense (so have 16 of the losers). Offense-first teams win every now and then, but only every now and then. It is the defensive teams that have to answer the questions about dynasties. Offense is a piano with a lot of different fingers trying to find the right rhythm. Defense is a drum. All you have to do is pound it.

Remember back when the Bucs played a nasty sort of defense, the kind that won them a Super Bowl for the 2002 season? John Lynch is one of the nicest men to ever play the sport, but even he would chew nails when the questions suggested he and his buddies would be helpless against the offenses of teams such as the Rams and the Raiders.

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"We like to think we're pretty good, too,'' Lynch would say.

Usually, some defense usually is. The best advice for an offense? Have a good defense of your own.

"At this time of year, you've kind of shown your bag of tricks," said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. "You've shown the 78 formations you've used and the different personnel groupings and the down-and-distance tendencies. You've kind of put everything out there on the table, and now you get a defense that can break you down and go, 'Wait a second, I see what they're doing.'

"I think defense kind of wins out this time of year because they've broken you down to such a degree. They've kind of taken your bag of tricks away from you."

You don't have to convince either the 49ers or the Giants. Not after the 49ers forced five turnovers against the Saints. Not after the Giants sacked Rodgers four times and recovered three fumbles.

Hey, how do you think these guys got here? Last year, the 49ers were 6-10 and irrelevant. It was defense that turned them around, a fierce group of linebackers, a bold set of defensive backs.

This year, the Giants were 7-7 and an afterthought. And again, it was defense that turned them around. New York admits it gets its juice from a hungry front four — starring Pierre-Paul, the former USF star.

They are much the same, these two. They have a little explosion on their own offenses, and they can run the ball a little. But the secret to both has been on the side of the ball that fans don't watch enough.

Today, this defense wins it or that one. This pass rush or that one. This takeaway or that one.

Afterward, of course, the networks will interview the winning quarterback.

That's happened before, too.