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Defense does win championships

(Jan. 22, 2004) -- We now know what some of the game's greatest quarterbacks have known all along -- defense really does win championships.

For all the hype surrounding golden-armed quarterbacks such as Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese and Joe Montana, take a look on the other side of the ball and you will see that all three gridiron immortals were on teams with great defenses, whose bone-jarring hits still ring a bell. The Steel Curtain, Gold Rush & the No-Name Defense in Miami produced countless Hall of Famers who paved the way for a combined 10 Super Bowl titles for the trio of signal-callers.

Depending on whose side you are on, a great defense is truly a quarterback's best friend. Just ask the likes of Jeff Hostetler, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson if defense matters. All three were beneficiaries of being on the right team at the right time. Below-average offenses gave way to dominating defenses that provided the work in the trenches while their offensive teammates received trips to Disney World.

Four interceptions of Peyton Manning and three picks thrown by Donovan McNabb said more about their opponents' pass-picking prowess and their deceptive mind-altering schemes. Ty Law and Ricky Manning's three interceptions are proof positive that one good quarterback is no match for 11 good players who make up one great defense.

The Patriots double-covered Peyton Manning's favorite wide receiver, Marvin Harrison, then battered and bruised his other receivers, Brandon Stokley and Reggie Wayne. New England's defenders harassed Indy's tight end Marcus Pollard so much that he seemed more concerned with pleading with the officials to throw a penalty flag than he was about finishing his pass routes. If only the Colts defense could do the same to Tom Brady's receivers.

Carolina's secondary out-muscled McNabb's receivers -- Freddie Mitchell, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash. Add to that nearly a dozen dropped passes and it's easy to see why McNabb never had a chance.

Both Manning and McNabb remain tried-and-true members of the club of quarterbacks who are Super Bowl ring-less, along with NFL greats Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, who combined for nine Super Bowl losses. Tarkenton, Marino and Kelly posted career numbers in the pantheon of prolific NFL passers, combining for more than 140,000 yards passing and 1,104 touchdowns, but without a top-ranked defense, none were able to caress the coveted Lombardi Trophy.

In order to win a championship, great quarterback play seems to be less of a requirement than efficient execution and deft decision-making. Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme are examples of the poor man's quarterbacks who have hit the mother load. Neither were high draft picks; Brady was taken in the sixth round and Delhomme was an undrafted rookie free agent. But a few mistakes by starters in front of them and opportunistic play has led both underdogs to the NFL's promised land.

This is Brady's second trip to the Super Bowl. Remember, Brady usurped the authority of franchise savior Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots' first-round pick in the 1994 draft, to win Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. The discovery of Brady adds further credence to coach Bill Belichick's genius title.

Ironically, Manning, this year's co-MVP, suffered a similar season-ending fate as last year's MVP Rich Gannon, who tossed five interceptions to the Buccaneers' record-setting defense in Super Bowl XXXVII. For all the offensive fireworks, the defense is still the gun powder that packs the punch (note: see the 2003 Kansas City Chiefs). It seems the trend has been well established.

The last three Super Bowl winners -- the Ravens, Patriots and Buccaneers -- were led by dominating defenses. That's why this year's winner will be too difficult to predict. The Patriots and Panthers are not led by offensive gurus, but rather defensive geniuses -- Bill Belichick and John Fox. Both teach tenacious tackling and timely teamwork built on the sum of the parts and not individual stars. If you are a football purist, this game will be a tactician's dream. So let the offense sell tickets, but watch as the defense win championships.

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