It is, unquestionably, an age of offense in pro football, and of passing offense in particular. There are star quarterbacks at practically every turn. These playoffs were littered with them. The league’s offensive numbers become ever more staggering. To some observers, the rule changes implemented over the past decade can be interpreted as the NFL all but banning the sort of rugged defense that once was celebrated.
Little of that will be evident Sunday in Seattle, however, when the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers square off in the NFC title game. In the most passing-friendly era in the sport’s history, the NFC’s Super Bowl berth will be decided by a matchup of teams that rely heavily on their proud, hard-nosed defenses.
“We understand what we have to do to go up there and win,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “Our defense has to be the best defense on the football field. We have to get turnovers. We possibly have to score on defense when we get up there. We understand how to win that football game.”
Being the best defense on the field Sunday won’t be easy for the 49ers. The Seahawks tied for seventh in the league in rushing defense during the regular season and were ranked first in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense. The 49ers were fourth in rushing defense, seventh in passing defense, fifth in total defense and third in scoring defense.
“We’re very similar,” Seahawks safety Earl Thomas said at a midweek news conference. “That’s what makes it so great. It's going to be physical. For guys like us, we like it that way. It gives everybody who is watching a chance to see who we are and what we're all about. As a competitor, you want this to be a close game and you want it to be magnified so you can step up and make that play.”
It’s not that the Seahawks and 49ers don’t have standout quarterbacks. They do. Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick have been part of the wave of dual-threat quarterbacks to have great success in the league the past few seasons. Wilson was the NFL’s seventh-rated passer this season and Kapernick was 10th.
And it’s not that the two teams don’t have productive running games. They do, led by tailbacks Marshawn Lynch of Seattle and Frank Gore of San Francisco. The 49ers were third in the league in rushing offense during the regular season and the Seahawks were fourth.
But unlike Sunday’s AFC championship game, in which quarterbacks Peyton Manning of Denver and Tom Brady of New England are clearly the centers of attention, the quarterbacks and offenses on the NFC side must share the spotlight.
After the San Francisco defense crafted a pair of first-half goal line stands and shut out the Panthers in the second half of last Sunday’s triumph at Carolina, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said: “Our defense, they’ve been doing a great job for so long. [Linebackers] Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, they always come up big for us. I feel we have so many guys on defense I can just keep on naming. But they always give us that spark. Always. Whenever they’re out there and they’re out there before us, they just give us that spark, and we feed off of that.”
Neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers would be in the category of the Baltimore Ravens of 13 years ago, whose defense carried an offense headed by unheralded quarterback Trent Dilfer to a Super Bowl triumph. But either team would give a young quarterback plenty of help.
Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, as he surveyed this season’s field of playoff quarterbacks, said earlier in the postseason: “If you look at these quarterbacks, you have the two dinosaurs, I call them, in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The other guys are younger guys. They threw for right around 3,000 or 3,500 yards. They’re all excellent quarterbacks. But they have great defenses. They have great running games. Everyone focuses on the quarterbacks. And they are great, exciting, young quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs and their arms. But those teams play great defense, too.”
It is a season in which Manning set single-season NFL records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdown passes. It was yet another sign of the times.
Dan Marino’s NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (48), set in 1984, lasted for two decades. Since then, it has been broken three times in 10 years — by Manning in 2004, by Brady in 2007 and by Manning again this season. Before 2008, there had been one 5,000-yard passing season in NFL history, that by Marino in ’84. In the last six seasons, there have been seven 5,000-yard passing seasons — four by Drew Brees of New Orleans and one each by Manning, Brady and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford.
Some defensive players have said they feel there’s little to nothing they can do at a time when the NFL first cracked down on clutching-and-grabbing tactics by defenders against receivers prior to the 2004 season and then, in more recent years, passed a series of safety rules prohibiting hits to the head of players deemed defenseless, including a quarterback delivering a pass and a receiver making a catch.
So playing the kind of defense that the Seahawks and 49ers play is no longer the norm. The Seattle secondary, in particular, has a reputation for being physical with receivers, and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman spent part of his week lamenting the way the game is played and officiated.
“Since these rules have come, you look up and every receiver, every play they could drop a wide-open pass and turn around and look for a flag,” Sherman said at a midweek news conference. “I think that kind of ruins the game. That kind of ruins the intensity, the whole DNA of football and what it is, if you see flags every single play. So I think [defensive backs] playing physical is the way football should be. A lot of people want to see great offense. You see great offense all the time. . . . We stand up there and have a dog-fight every play.”
Sherman called that “real football.” He said “there is no love lost” between the Seahawks and 49ers and he wondered “if there are going to be handshakes after this one.”
Said Sherman: “I don't hate anybody. So I don't think hate, but passion definitely. There will be some passion, some dislike, some strong dislike. But there will be some intensity. It's playoff football. So even if we weren't two teams that are familiar with each other, it's playoff football. So there is going to be a lot of intensity, a lot of chippiness, and a hard-fought game.”