“When an outstanding offensive team meets an outstanding defensive team, the defense will win every time.” So said Hall of Fame football coach Marv Levy in 1974, when coaching the Montreal Alouettes and their top defense against the top-ranked offense of the Edmonton Eskimos for the Grey Cup.  Levy was vindicated when the Alouettes won, 20-7. (The story is recounted on page 194 of Levy’s autobiography, Where Else Would You Rather Be?)

Ironically, Levy was also on the sidelines for perhaps the most famous example of this claim, when his top-ranked offense narrowly lost to New York’s top-ranked defense, in a game that was ultimately decided by neither offense nor defense, but by the kicking game.

Until this year, that was the last time the number one defense played the number one offense for the championship. That bodes well for Seattle and their defense. However, that’s not the only good news for them.  More recent history shows us that powerful offense usually fail to bring home the title.  Look at St. Louis in 2001, Oakland in 2002, Seattle in 2005,  and New England in 2007 and 2011.

Interestingly, the two recent exceptions I can think of to this pattern both involve Peyton Manning. His always-efficient Indianapolis offense beat Chicago’s famed defense in a downpour in 2006, and lost to New Orleans’ record-setting offense in 2009, in a matchup of two teams with strong offenses and suspect defenses.

It’s funny how the knock on Manning has long been that he “chokes”, that he “can’t win the big one” (or, since 2006, that he can’t win it a second time.) The truth is, he’s just been a victim of his own success, of being at the center of some wildly unbalanced teams.  You can have a fair amount of regular season success with that, but come the postseason, you will be defeated by other good teams that know how to take away what you do best.

People thought Tom Brady was particularly “clutch” early in his career, but I think it was more that he played on balanced teams.  Then New England became more one-dimensional in favor of the passing game, and suddenly Brady always fails in the playoffs just like Manning used to.  It’s not that Brady forgot how to play in big games; it’s that other teams simply realized that if they took him away, New England had nothing else.

Denver is about as unbalanced as it gets, and if anyone slows down their passing game, they will find that they have nothing else.

Seattle is almost uniquely suited to slowing Denver down, having the top defensive secondary in the league.  Manning’s arm is pretty weak at this point, so it’s not like he’ll be able to throw the long bomb. (In the AFC championship, he threw some truly awful passes that were complete only by sheer luck. And that was in the thin Denver air.) Their offense is heavily reliant on the short pass, which relies on timing, and which Seattle’s defensive backs will be able to disrupt.

Meanwhile, people keep saying the Denver defense can stop Seattle’s running game, but I am skeptical. I think they look better on the stat sheet than they actually are.  Probably, they seem so good against the run because the lousy teams they played abandoned the run after falling behind to the Manning attack. That won’t be an issue for Seattle.

SEA: 27

 

DEN: 19

 

SEA: 23

SF: 22

Kaepernick is not quite as good as Wilson.

  NE: 29

                DEN: 26 (O.T.)

…however, ask me in another half hour, and I might say “Denver by 14” instead.  I went back and forth trying to figure this game out.  But it’s one of the most difficult matchups I can remember.

On the one hand, Denver is exactly the kind of powerful but wildly unbalanced offense that almost always collapses in the playoffs.  It’s not that Manning “chokes” as people always say; it’s just that his teams are usually one-dimensional passing attacks, and when they meet someone who can stop that, they lose.

New England, meanwhile, seems to have finally done what I’ve been saying they should do these past few seasons, and developed a running game.  This is good–for a time, they were the one-dimensional passing team that was always collapsing in the postseason.

The only difficulty is that almost all of their first-stringers on defense, and their top receiving weapon, are injured.  Soon or later, this seems bound to catch up to them.  Thanks to the salary cap, teams just can’t build up depth.  But then again, no one would’ve said they could get even this far with so many injuries, and yet here they are.  So why not take down one of the best offenses in NFL history while they’re at it?

Then, of course, there is the meeting earlier in the season between the two teams. Normally, that would give some indication of what to expect.  But somehow, I doubt New England will spot Denver a 24-point lead again by fumbling three times.  But if they do, I don’t think their offense, sans Gronkowski, can come back.

It could be a shootout.  It could be a defensive struggle.  It could be a blowout by either side.  All I know is it figures to be pretty entertaining.