At first glance, this Super Bowl is a matchup of dreadful defenses. The New York Giants ranked 27th among the 32 NFL teams in total defense during the regular season. The New England Patriots ranked next-to-last.
But both teams played far better defense during the playoffs to reach this game, and the offenses might not have it quite so easy in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“I don’t think those numbers are accurate representations of these teams,” said Brian Billick, the former coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “Now, these are not upper-echelon defenses, although with a healthy New York Giants team . . . I think we would have seen maybe a top-10 defense. I don’t know that New England is in that category.”
The Patriots, after surrendering 411.1 yards and 21.4 points per game during the regular season, reduced that to 325 yards and 15 points per game during the AFC playoffs. The Giants, after yielding 376.4 yards and 25 points per game during the regular season, tightened things up on defense and allowed 321 yards and 13 points per game during the NFC playoffs.
“I think right now we’re clicking on the offensive side [and] defensive side as well as on special teams,” Giants cornerback Aaron Ross said. “Being a defensive player, early in the year, we weren’t on the same page. We had a few mental mistakes that cost us games. Now in the last month and a half, we’ve been on a hot streak and Coach [Tom] Coughlin has been putting in a great game plan for us and we’ve been executing plays.”
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said he sensed all along that his defense would improve its play as the season progressed.
“They never stopped listening,” Fewell said of his players. “I knew we weren’t in trouble. They wanted to right it. They wanted to get it right. We had a lot of guys playing that really didn’t have the experience that they needed and didn’t really understand the concepts we were trying to teach and what we were trying to get across with our game plans. But they never shut us out and they kept believing in what we were trying to get done.”
Billick said he thinks the Patriots benefited from playing two opponents without high-powered offenses — the Denver Broncos and the Ravens — during the playoffs. The Broncos ranked 23rd in the NFL in total offense during the regular season and the Ravens were 15th.
“I think New York got healthy and that was a big part of it, and became battle-tested,” Billick said. “That schedule they had in the second half, they’ve been on a playoff win-or-go-home mentality for a while now. Now, you worry about it emotionally wearing your team out. But on the flip side, they’ve been battle-tested. New England, on the other hand, I don’t know that they have. They’ve had an easier course to it. We’ll see if that makes a difference when it comes to this championship game.”
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said he has told his teammates that the defensive results from the regular season, and even those from the playoffs, no longer have any relevance.
“It’s a one-game season,” Mayo said. “Nothing else matters. None of the stats from the regular season, none of the stats from the postseason, matter. It’s all about Sunday and that’s our focus.”
The Patriots, with Brady, were one of the three teams in the NFL playoff field with a top-tier offense during the regular season and a low-ranked defense. The Patriots are the only one of those teams left standing, with the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints having lost in the second round of the NFC playoffs. That seemed to indicate that it doesn’t necessarily take dominating defense to reach the Super Bowl in today’s NFL, but it does take some decent defense—especially when it’s played at the right time.
“I think you can go to the playoffs being dominant in one area—running the ball, stopping the run, throwing the ball, whatever it may be,” Billick said. “But to get here, I think you have to have more balance. And I think they [the Patriots and Giants] are more balanced than people give them credit for.”
For much of his career, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has been known as a defensive guru. Now it’s possible that he will win a Super Bowl title with the league’s 31st-ranked defense.
“It’s hard to play defense in the league now,” former St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk said. “It’s hard to call defenses. . . . Belichick is great, but I’ll tell you what he’s really great at is playing the game within the rules and taking advantage of those rules…. It’s just a different game. Belichick understands: ‘I’m going to give up a lot of yards. I’m not going to be one of the top defenses. But we can stop people from scoring all the time.’ They’ve been a pretty decent scoring defense.”
Whichever team prevails Sunday will become only the eighth club ever to win a Super Bowl without a top-10 defense. It is a sign of the times in the NFL, and the spotlight Sunday is likely to be on Brady, Manning and the offenses.
“That’s how it goes,” Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said. “We have a great offense and we have had some down points [on defense]. I think everyone will keep giving our offense the love and the respect because they deserve it. As defensive guys, we’ve got to just go out there and play. We have to do our part in this game. We believe in each other. We play for each other and that’s all that matters to us.”
Indeed, no matter what happened during the regular season, one of these defenses will emerge from Sunday’s game as a Super Bowl-winning defense.
“When you get to this game, it’s not about all of that stuff,” Faulk said. “It’s about winning. It’s not about stats. It’s not about what looks good. All you remember is the winner of this game.”
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