The Seattle Seahawks just completed a virtuoso performance in the Super Bowl, holding a team that set the new NFL record for scoring to an anemic 8 points over an entire game. Although depleting Sunday night of any drama whatsoever, Seattle’s surgically thorough deconstruction of the Broncos offense forces us to ask some important historical questions.
Namely: did we just watch the greatest defensive unit of all time?
In order to truly appreciate how good this defense is, one needs to first look at how they handled Peyton Manning, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who just completed the gaudiest statistical campaign of his career.
Even if you take away his interceptions — interceptions that weren’t due to bad luck, but Seattle’s continued harassment of him up front — Manning was grasping to create any offense. Throwing short only provided America with a quick lesson in how great the Seahawks are at tackling and rallying to the ball. Throwing long never led to anything, with Seattle’s secondary providing their expected, glove-like coverage.
In short, Seattle made him play one of the worst games of his career.
The last time a team quarterbacked by Manning for the entire game (they also lost 30-7 in the 2009 season finale at Buffalo, when he played part of the game) failed to score double digits was almost a decade ago– the 20-3 loss at New England in January 2005. Denver had only been held under 20 points once since Manning has been the quarterback, a 17-9 win at Arrowhead in 2012.
Still, in the immediate aftermath, we can be prone to hyperbole. That, though, is usually countered by the notion that everything was better in the good old days, whether those days for you were a decade or four decades ago. While we do not know where the eventual legacy of this group will fall, we can now evaluate and compare them to past champions on a single season basis.
So, let’s set aside the hype and compare the teams.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens lead all Super Bowl Champions by allowing only 10.3 points per game in the regular season, and then they allowed only 26 points in four playoff games. The 1985 Bears, another team singled out as the best defense to win a Super Bowl, allowed only 12.4 points a game in the regular season, then recorded consecutive playoff shutouts.
In contrast, Seattle allowed 14.4 points a game. Great within one season, but not in the same range as the other defenses.
Or is it? Scoring is up dramatically in the last few years, and there’s also the matter of the schedule actually faced by each team. Seattle played a team that had scored 606 points during the season, in the ultimate game.
To compare the top defenses to win the Super Bowl, I looked at how each of their opponents did scoring against the rest of the league, including playoff games. For example, the Baltimore Ravens had five games against opponents who scored fewer than 14 points a game in other contests (two each against Cleveland and Cincinnati, plus Arizona), while the lowest scoring opponent Seattle faced was Jacksonville (15.3 points in all other games). Baltimore faced only one team that averaged more than 23 points a game (Oakland with Rich Gannon in the AFC Championship Game) while Seattle faced eleven opponents who averaged that many points against the rest of their schedule.
Compare the points allowed in each game versus the opponent’s average against all others, then find the average, and we get this:
Kansas City in the final season of the American Football League comes out on top. While we may want to give a little discount there (I wrote a lengthy study about comparing the AFL and NFL many moons ago), that Chiefs defense deserves to be discussed among the best for a single year.
The 1985 Bears come out on top among the teams after the merger, followed by the 2002 Buccaneers. The 2000 Ravens and 2013 Seahawks are in a virtual dead heat. If we looked at only regular season numbers, Seattle would be just ahead, and they are probably biased by including playoff scores. Denver, New Orleans, and San Francisco all saw their averages drop against better competition, and Seattle played more playoff teams and better offenses.
Regardless, though, we are talking percentage points, and Seattle is absolutely in the discussion, even though their raw points allowed (including playoffs) falls below the rest of this group.
They’ve also done it their own way. All of those other dominant defensive Super Bowl champs, except for the 2002 Buccaneers, has a middle linebacker who is (or will be) enshrined in Canton. Chances are, you weren’t discussing Bobby Wagner this week, but rather the Legion of Boom. This group did it with the strength in the secondary, though they were certainly strong all around, and we saw on Sunday the amount of pressure they brought up front.
It was a true team effort on defense, from pass rush, to linebackers that tackled in space and closed down the short passing game, to the coverage on the back end that choked the big plays off. It was also every bit as impressive, over a full season, as any Super Bowl champion.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]