IRVING, Texas – The top-rated offenses are fun to watch win regular season games. The top-rated defenses are fun to watch win championships.
If given the choice at the start of the season for the top-ranked offense or the top-ranked defense, I'd take the latter every time.
That's not just because of what the Seahawks did to the Broncos' historically prolific offense in the Super Bowl, though that does help support the argument. Three of the past six Super Bowl champions boasted top five defenses and two of them – Seattle and Pittsburgh – were the top-ranked defense in the league.
By contrast, only one of the past six Super Bowl champions took a top-five offense the distance.
When a prominent, high-powered offense led by one of the league's premier quarterbacks is in a groove it can look like a work of art. But football isn't a beauty contest. There are games and conditions where high-powered offenses won't operate to perfection and a turnover or two can change the shape of a game. What happens then?
That's part of the reason I picked the Seahawks to win it all this year. Conventional wisdom looks at what Peyton Manning did all year and believes even the mighty Seahawks defense stands no chance. But the league's top defense, if paired with at least a competent offense, is typically a more reliable bet than the league's top offense on the rare occasion they play.
A stalwart defense always gives its team a chance to win. The best defenses in the league rarely have major lapses, and they occur much more infrequently than a star offense turning the ball over. That one slip-up is the only gift a premier defense needs to shift the course of a game and a season. The top defenses keep their teams in the game and put their offenses in positions where they need to make only a few plays to win.
As the Broncos demonstrated in the Super Bowl, even the best offenses to take the field can eventually crumble, especially without a particularly opportunistic defense on the other side. The elite defenses have an edge and don't put pressure on any one single player to perform on either side of the ball. The Broncos needed Manning to be near-perfect to win. He wasn't, and they didn't.
The Saints and Drew Brees are the only example in recent history where a star offense without a classically strong defense made a run to win it. They did it while facing another team without a stout defense in the Colts. The Saints ranked in the top three that season in interceptions, which turned out to be the difference in that Super Bowl.
It's easy to recall Tom Brady and the prominent, high-powered offenses of the past that won championships. Take a closer look, though, and New England's offense in its Super Bowl 2003 season actually ranked No. 17, while its defense ranked No. 7. The Patriots held a top-10 defense when they won a year later, as well. [embedded_ad]
The top offenses play in memorable, enjoyable and engaging games. The most unforgettable moments during an NFL's regular season typically involve the best offenses. Even if the outcome wasn't ideal for Cowboys fans, when Denver came to Dallas and battled back and forth it was one of the most entertaining games in recent memory.
That's nice to watch. It's not fun to see 14-3. Or 43-8, for that matter.
But when building a team, success beats entertainment. The swagger of the leading defenses around the NFL inject fear into opponents. When they're operating at optimal level, those teams always have a chance to win.
Those defenses can score on any play, and they're the teams I'd select at the start of the year ahead of all others.