The biggest storyline for the forty-seventh Super Bowl is quite obviously that two brothers will be coaching against each other for the first time in NFL history. As astonishing and amazing as that is, it’s not the most important detail of the game. It’s not Ray Lewis’ retirement, it’s not the rise of Collin Kaepernick, it’s not Randy Moss and Ed Reed’s quests for an elusive ring, and it’s not Joe Flacco’s potential to actually be elite. The biggest story for this year’s game is that defense still does matter in the NFL.
San Francisco and Baltimore both put up a strong 28 points against two teams not recently known for being staunch defenders. Those 28 points would have gotten both teams eliminated last week in the divisional playoff games no matter who their opponent was. San Fran gave up 24 first half points to Atlanta in what looked like a one-sided affair in the first half. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones looked like they were doing 7-on-7 drills against the 49ers defense. None of this is wholly surprising as Atlanta had the #9 overall, #6 passing offense in the league this year, and were #2 in third down conversion percentage. Matt Ryan was hot all game, as he completed over 70% of his passes for 396 yards. In the first half he averaged 11 yards per pass for 271 yards … a total most would love to have at the end of a playoff game. By the same token, Tom Brady and the Pats look mostly like their high scoring selves, jumping out to a run of the mill, efficient, turnover free 13-7 halftime lead against Baltimore. The Patriots scored a whopping 557 points in the regular season and a robust 41 in the divisional playoff game. Those 557 points were more than the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders scored combined!
The consequences of facing the rabid 49ers defense
The second half of both games went entirely different. Matty Ice and his Falcons went cold, and were completely shut out in the second half. Ryan did complete 67% of his passes in the second half, but his yards per attempt dropped to a rather pedestrian 6.9 yards (compared to 11.2 in the first half). The 49ers started to dominate the game physically, and by the end it was clear that Matt Ryan had essentially no movement in his left arm. The Ravens outscored the mighty Patriots 21-0 in the second half. The well oiled Pats offense committed 3 turnovers in the 2nd half, and looked out of sorts for the entire 30 minutes. The #1 total, #4 passing, and #7 rushing offense during the regular season had no clue how to solve the Ravens. Physicality, toughness, and hardnosed, old fashioned defense won this game for Baltimore. Yes Flacco was great, but all he would have needed was 14 points to claim a victory.
Has defense made a comeback in the NFL? Yes and no. The 49ers and Ravens won on Sunday because their defenses kicked ass, but also because they dominated the ball offensively. Gone are the days where a team could completely shut out another competent team for 60 minutes. The rule changes and emphasis on neutering defensive players makes this a new reality. In fact, holding a good team below 3 touchdowns is a Herculean feat. To understand how difficult that is, the 12 playoff teams this year averaged just over 26 points per game. At the same time, a defense that can somewhat disrupt what another team is trying to accomplish can go deep into the playoffs. In victory both the 49ers and Ravens scored more than their season average AND kept their opponent from reaching theirs. So yes, defense made a slight comeback this year for the Harughbowl, but it also must require a slight uptick in offense also. This is the new reality in the NFL. Have a defense good enough to knock one score off of your opponent’s average, and score about a field goal more than what your team averages. Sounds so much easier than it is … just as New England, Atlanta, Denver, Washington, Green Bay, Seattle, Cincinnati, Houston, Minnesota, and Indianapolis.