If the NFL’s best offense competed against the best defense, who would win?
It’s a hypothetical question commonly asked annually to seek the answer to another question, “Who is more apt to win a championship, a good offense or a good defense?”
Truthfully, neither one alone will be triumphant. It takes a balanced team to get the job done. But we did see that matchup for the first time in Super Bowl history in January of 2003. Tampa Bay trounced Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII, not because their No. 1 defense was that much better than the Raiders’ top offense, but because the Buccaneers were a better team from top to bottom.
Similarities are already appearing between that year’s title game and this year’s Super Bowl, which features the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cardinals did not finish at the top of the league statistically, but their No. 4 offense has been a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, the Steelers finished with the No. 1 overall defense, which included the league’s top pass defense.
Tampa Bay’s 2002 defense yielded just 155.6 passing yards per game whereas this year’s Steelers allowed just 156.9 per game in the regular season.
However, the Steelers’ run defense is markedly better, having allowed 17 fewer rushing yards per game (80.2) than the Bucs’ did in their Super Bowl season (97.1).
Arizona’s offense, on the other hand, bears semblance to the Raiders’ prolific offense in 2002. Rich Gannon, at the age of 38, was the No. 2 passer that year with 4,689 yards and 26 touchdowns. Kurt Warner, by comparison, is 37 years old and finished third in the league with 4,583 yards while throwing 30 touchdowns.
Gannon was surrounded by a strong cast of supporters including Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Jerry Porter, while running back Charlie Garner had 91 receptions that year. At Warner’s disposal, he has Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston, and has a trio of running backs — Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower, and J.J. Arrington — that combined for 75 receptions this year.
Interestingly, the two unheralded units in 2002 — Oakland’s defense and Tampa Bay’s offense — did not play as expected in the Super Bowl. Oakland had the No. 11 defense that year while Tampa Bay’s offense finished 24th, and yet it was the Raiders who could not play defense in Super Bowl XXXVII because their offense turned the ball over five times. And the Bucs’ offense benefited from advantageous field position.
Even though it’s not a statistical No. 1-vs.-No. 1 matchup, for all intents and purposes, we’ll once again find out whether the NFL’s top defense can stop one of the league’s best offenses.
I can tell you right now that you can throw out anything that happened in the prior 20 weeks of the season. And you can ignore the matchup between Arizona’s offense and Pittsburgh’s defense, even though that’ll be the most entertaining part of the game.
The winner of this game will be whoever protects the ball better and limits its turnovers, as well as whichever team succeeds in the game’s unheralded matchup — Pittsburgh’s offense versus Arizona’s defense.