Somebody will win the Super Bowl, but not with defense

The quarterbacks are drawing all the headlines, but even Tom Brady and Matt Ryan can't score at will against elite defenses. Thankfully for them, they won't have to in the Super Bowl.

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New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09:
Photo by Keith Allison, courtesy of creativecommons.org

The Super Bowl is drawing closer, and the starting quarterbacks are the main focus. That makes sense: quarterback is the most important position and both Tom Brady and Matt Ryan have had MVP-caliber seasons. It’s very likely that one of them will walk away with that very award after the annual NFL Honors ceremony on Saturday.

With such talented passers being flanked by dangerous offensive weapons, it seems likely that this year’s Super Bowl will be a high-scoring battle, especially when compared to last year’s defense-minded slugfest. Currently, Vegas has set the over/under of points in the game at 59, the highest total in Super Bowl history.

Of course, it takes two to tango. Even the best offenses can’t put up huge point totals without a little bit of help from the opposing defense. If this Super Bowl is going to feature as much offense as everyone expects, Ryan and Brady will need a little bit of help. Luckily for them and for the fans that enjoy watching elite offenses battle it out, these defenses look ready to do their part and lay down.

The popular opinion of Atlanta’s defense is that they’re not very good, and that’s fair. The raw numbers back it up, too. The Falcons have allowed the eighth-most yards on the season and the sixth-most points. It’s fair to say that their defense isn’t very good, despite the play of stars like Vic Beasley and the apparently immortal Dwight Freeney. It’s easy to see Brady carving up the Atlanta defense, especially with the Falcons missing their star cornerback in Desmond Trufant, who had season-ending surgery in late November.

New England’s defense is more highly-regarded, but it may be mostly smoke and mirrors. No team has allowed fewer points on the season than the Patriots, and they rank No. 8 in fewest yards allowed. The problem here is that numbers without context can be misleading, and that’s certainly true in this scenario. The list of quarterbacks they’ve faced in their 18 games this season (postseason included) is as follows: Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor (twice), Brock Osweiler (twice), Charlie Whitehurst, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Matt Moore and Ben Roethlisberger.

In case you don’t have time to read that full list, here’s a quick summary: it’s not very good. Palmer has name recognition but was dreadful this year. The victory over Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the AFC Championship game is undercut a bit by the fact that star running back Le’Veon Bell missed most of the contest with a groin injury.

They weren’t as dominant as they could’ve been against such a rough group of quarterbacks, either, finishing twelfth in fewest passing yards allowed. Finishing just outside the top 10 in that measure certainly isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a bit disappointing against a slew of career backups and mid-level talent (and, to be fair, Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson).

Another thing to consider is how much New England’s great offense and special teams helps its defense. The Patriots were in the top half of the league in average time spent on their offensive drives, allowing their defense to rest and recover. Their opponents also had the worst starting field position in the league on average – through efficient offense and good special teams work, they forced opposing offenses into worse situations. That’s meaningful over the length of an entire season, but in a single game it’s entirely possible for Atlanta to pull off a big return and start with great field position, or to have a big sack on Brady and put the New England defense in a bad situation that they’re not used to. If that happens, then Ryan and his elite offense will be sure to take advantage.

The Patriots’ defense isn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near the juggernaut that many people seem to believe it is. They haven’t faced an offense nearly as potent as Atlanta’s, and the Falcons are good enough to find a way to score. Of course, Brady and the Patriots offense shouldn’t have any trouble against the subpar defense they’ll be facing.

Neither of these defenses are elite. Both of the offenses are. It should be an incredibly fun, high-scoring battle between two teams capable of pouring in points.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Keith Allison

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