OK, that’s not quite true. At last check, the Steelers have been in the Super Bowl a few times lately, and the Ravens, Bears and Jets have been representing the defense-first mentality in the championship games for years. But with the dispatching of the Packers and Saints, the Patriots are the lone members of the Throw a Trillion Passes club still standing. The 49ers win with their front seven. The Ravens with their defensive old guard. The Giants? Let’s call it balance, with their stars on the front four standing extra tall to hide the fact that there is almost no one behind them.
Defense may not win championships anymore, but this year proved that it can still get you there. Here are some of the inside secrets of the four defenses still standing. Just about every statistic you see comes from Football Outsiders, your best source for analysis that goes beyond “they sure do hit hard.”
Giants: Every sack counts
The Giants' defense only does one thing well this year: pressure the quarterback. The Giants tied for third in the NFL with 48 sacks, but just as importantly, they got every possible yard out of those sacks. The Giants tied the Vikings for the league lead with 335 yards, dumping the average quarterback for a seven-yard loss.
SB XLVI (Giants 21, Patriots 17)
The Giants produce extra long sacks because they apply pressure both up the middle and on the edges, so quarterbacks don’t get many opportunities to step forward and make a pass (or at least minimize the loss). Scramblers often leave the pocket in search of big plays, only to discover that Jason Pierre-Paul can match them stride for stride. There is also a Rex Grossman factor, as the Redskins quarterback got dumped for losses of 16 and 14 yards. He has a knack for skewing results.
Alex Smith runs well, but he also takes his share of sacks: 44 of them in the regular season, despite the fact that Smith does not pass as often as most quarterbacks. The Giants will bring him down a few times on Sunday, and every yard that results will be precious.
49ers: Power and the Second Level
The 49ers' defense is excellent at many things, so let’s just focus on two of them. The Niners have the NFL's best short-yardage defense, and they are also best at stopping running backs on the second level and in the open field.
Let’s define a “short-yardage situation” as a play in which a team needs either one or two yards for a first down or a touchdown. The 49ers are 45-of-73 when stopping opponents in short yardage situations, or 62 percent. The NFL average is just under 40 percent. Short-yardage success is a major reason why the 49ers defense allows an excellent 29.4 percent third-down conversion rate. Opponents don’t get many “easy” first downs, because no first down is easy against the 49ers.
“Second-level yards” are the yards a running back gains once he is through the line of scrimmage but before he breaks into the clear. They are the runs of 5 to 10 yards that result from linebackers getting blocked and ballcarriers picking up some real estate after contact. The average team allows seven runs of 5-to-10 yards per game. The 49ers, with the league's best second-level defense, allowed just 64 total runs of 5-to-10 yards, or four per game. You could see the impact that has on an opponent in the Saints game. The Saints wanted to set up their play-action passes with runs up the middle, but when their backs kept getting stopped for 1-yard gains, all they were setting up was third-and-long.
What about breakaway runs of longer than 10 yards? The 49ers were also tops at stopping those. They allowed just 15 runs of more than 10 yards, resulting in just 255 opponent yards. The average team allows about 24 long runs for 331 yards. You get the idea. If the 49ers defense tackles you, you stay tackled, and they only let you gain a yard or two when you need ten.
Ravens: Air Traffic Control
The Ravens have zero chance of surviving a shootout with the Patriots, and no team has been able to stop Tom Brady from cruising down the field with his precision short passing attack. The best bet is to try to do what the Giants did earlier in the season -- force the Patriots to settle for a few field goals, keep the score in the 20s, and hope their offense can do enough. Luckily for the Ravens, they have the best red-zone pass defense in the NFL.
Ed Reed produced two of the red-zone interceptions. Terrell Suggs provided the other, plus two sacks and lots of things that do not show up in the stat sheet (he forced an intentional grounding penalty, for example). The unsung hero of the Ravens' red-zone defense may be cornerback Cary Williams, who is credited with four red-zone passes defensed and two goal-line tackles short of a touchdown on passing plays.
Williams, Reed, Suggs and Lewis face the toughest task of their careers on Sunday. One or two red zone stops will go a long way.
Patriots: The Best Defense is …
You know what the best defense is? A good offense. Let’s face it: the Patriots' defense is pretty terrible. They thrive thanks to field position, one of the most overlooked elements of modern football.
Opponents start their average drives on the 24 yard line, the second-worst field position in the NFL. They then drive an average of 37.5 yards, the highest opponent total in the league. Yes, these numbers are starting to run together a bit, but look at them carefully. The Patriots gain five yards of starting field position on every drive. Then, even though their defense gives up too many yards, their offense averages two additional yards per drive. It is like the field is tilted to give the Patriots seven additional yards every time the ball changes hands. Those seven yards add up, allowing the Patriots to give up a lot of completed passes while waiting for the opponent to make a mistake.
The 5.9-yard differential in starting field position between the Patriots and their opponents is the second-highest margin in the league. The largest belongs to the 49ers, who gain a whopping 9.4 yards in net field position, thanks to great punter Andy Lee, great return man Ted Ginn and a defense with a knack for three-and-outs. While the Patriots use the tilted field to aid and abet shootouts, the 49ers usually use it to turn field goal contests into slow-motion routs. Either way, the end results are the same.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.