Whether or not you spin it as an adage or a cliche (the difference hinging entirely on whether you wax nostalgic or despise it), the idea that “defense wins championships” has been around for about as long as there’s been sport.
As a concept, it holds water because of simplicity and common sense. After all, if you allow a team to score zero points (specifically in a postseason where there are no ties and a winner must be crowned), you’ll never lose a game.
However, as the NFL continues its offensive evolution, it’s also true that offenses rule the day.
The 2013 Denver Broncos, led by Peyton Manning and a slew of elite weapons on the outside, have been as prolific of an offense as we’ve ever seen.
They’ve raced out to a 12-3 start that has locked up an AFC West championship, and they’ll have an opportunity to put a bow on the No. 1 seed in the AFC next Sunday in Oakland. Through these first 15 games, they’ve put up a staggering 572 points and 6,859 yards of total offense.
To state it less casually, the Broncos have lined up against 11 able-bodied professional athletes intent on hurting and maiming, yet, they still managed to advance the football to the tune of 3.9 miles of total offense. That’s three tenths of a mile more offense than NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers managed in his entire career.
However, while the Denver Broncos offense is a different kind of dominant in 2013, they were also pretty damn good in 2012, as well. But in the playoffs, their defense faltered, and Peyton Manning was, yet again, denied an opportunity to compete for that elusive second Super Bowl that somehow seems to define (at least in part) his legacy.
With the benefit of home field advantage and a high-powered offense, the Broncos figured to be a favorite in the AFC. However, in the divisional round against the Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos defense failed and they went on to lose 34-31.
Manning’s performance advanced so many “big game” and “cold weather” narratives that it’d amplify the Denver altitude exponentially and make you downright nauseous, but the reality of the loss was that the defense simply wasn’t good enough in Denver.
This year, once again, the prohibitive weakness of the Broncos is their defense.
They’re ranked 22nd in scoring defense and total defense, and prognosticators seem to think if there’s one thing that could cost Manning a second championship again, it’s a Denver secondary that’s given up the fifth-most passing yards in the National Football League.
However, while there’s no doubt that the ability to generate a stop defensively plays an inevitable role in any and every postseason run, is Denver’s defense really enough to be a detriment to their Super Bowl chances?
Rudimentary knowledge about shutouts aside, in an era where offense is at a premium, we’re becoming cognizant of a new reality when it comes to the value of possessions (possession, for all intents and purposes, meaning being on offense).
The Broncos are so good offensively that it allows them to mask defensive inefficiencies that would cripple the vast majority of teams. And, on days when the defense fails to show up entirely, an efficient offense that maximizes their possessions in a given football game can, at the very least, keep you in the football game.
The Denver Broncos defense isn’t good, but they’re capable of getting opposing offenses off the field occasionally (be it by stops or turnovers) and giving Denver’s prolific offense opportunities to separate themselves. In other words, the Broncos offense is good enough to carry their struggling defense to a title.
Now, granted, the fact remains that if the Denver Broncos had even an average defense, their chances of winning a Super Bowl would be dramatically greater. But, subscription to an addled and aged notion that being below-average defensively somehow precludes you from championship consideration discredits just how good Denver–and Peyton Manning–is.
And, if we’re being honest with each other, they’re REALLY freaking good.
Being balanced is great (just ask the Seattle Seahawks), but if you win in still trumps how you win and nobody will give much thought about how horrendous Denver’s defense is if they simply outscore teams in the playoffs the way they’ve managed to in the regular season.