Following their dramatic 28-24 come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, the San Francisco 49ers can take pride in one of the elements that was crucial in getting their franchise back to the Super Bowl.
While the statement, "defense wins championships" is often overused—and at times cliche—the 49ers have made the point that having and utilizing a top defense is one of the ways any NFL franchise can earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
In this age of pass-first, aggressive offense, San Francisco has come to symbolize an equally impressive defense, capable of limiting the passing game and dominating against the run at the line of scrimmage. Paired with a revamped offense, thanks in large part to quarterback Colin Kaepernick—as well as a reliable special teams, sans kicker David Akers—the 49ers were able to rely on their defense to get them within one win of the ultimate prize: a Super Bowl ring.
The comparison between the two teams begs the question: how does the 2012-13 San Francisco 49ers defense stack up against the 2000-01 Baltimore Ravens?
In 2000-01, the Ravens headed toward the regular season concerned about their top linebacker Ray Lewis' legal issues, following implications that he was involved in a murder in late-Jan. 2000. While the charges were eventually dropped in exchange for testimony against others involved in the case, the incident clouded the great linebacker's growing legacy for years to come.
Nonetheless, Baltimore got off to a hot start that season with their defense leading the way.
The Ravens enjoyed a 5-1 start, complimented by three shutouts against the Steelers, Bengals and Browns. They would eventually finish the season 12-4 and one game behind the AFC Central champion Tennessee Titans. Much like 49ers teams of recent years, Baltimore struggled with their offense and elected to switch their starting quarterback mid-season, going with Trent Dilfer over the ineffective Tony Banks.
This move—while not totally similar to the recent 49er decision to start Kaepernick over the incumbent Alex Smith—gave the Ravens an ability to manage the game on offense and give their vaunted defense a rest in between drives.
During that season, Baltimore allowed a record-setting 165 points, averaging 10.3 per game—first among the rest of the league (pro-football-reference.com). Their turnover differential was at plus-23, also first in the NFL. Similar to the 2012-13 49ers, the Ravens were among the best at stopping the run.
Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis enjoyed the play-making abilities of Ray Lewis along with the compliments of safety Rod Woodson and defensive tackle Sam Adams. All three would be named to the Pro Bowl that season.
The 2012-13 49ers also put up significant numbers on defense en route to their NFC Championship.
While the current 49ers did not crack the top-3 in turnover differential—instead coming in eighth in the league with a plus-9—San Francisco was equally impressive in total defense. The 49ers defense was second overall in the league, averaging 17.1 points per game. This is impressive considering their schedule included a number of top scoring teams such as the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers (pro-football-reference.com). All three of those opponents had finished in the top-5 NFL offenses this season.
In 2000-01, the Ravens struggled somewhat against the passing game—although their dominance against the run made opponents one-dimensional—thus limiting damage through the air. The 2012-13 49ers have followed a similar formula.
Atop both defenses were inside linebackers, both of whom wore 52. In 2000-01, it was Lewis who was at the pinnacle of his career. Now in 2012-13, it is the 49ers' Patrick Willis who has emerged as one of the top linebackers today. Both men have their fair share of accolades and Pro Bowl appearances, and both are captains of their respective teams. Lewis has a ring. Willis wants one.
Both are expected to leave it out on the field in less than two weeks.
However, defenses are more than just the game-play of one person. The 2012-13 49ers legacy—led by its stalwart defense—is going to be compared to the legacy of the 2000-01 Ravens, which ESPN Page 2 listed as the third-best defense of all time (espn.go.com). San Francisco's defense is certainly not on the same page as the defense that propelled the Ravens to their Super Bowl championship, but emulating what defenses can do best has at least put them in the discussion.
Even though San Francisco's overall defense was not first in the league in 2012-13, the formula of stopping the run, limiting the pass and giving the ball back to the offense has once again shown that it can be a means to earn a trip to the Super Bowl. Highlighted by the play of stars like Willis, safety Dashon Goldson, defensive end Justin Smith and linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers will look to have the same outcome as did the Ravens in 2000-01.
Now, two teams who are known for their defense will face off in the Super Bowl. While the 2012-13 Ravens defense lacks the same impact it once had in 2000-01, they still should be a force to be reckoned with and defense figures to be a key aspect in the game.
"This will be power on power," Charley Armey, the retired general manager for the St. Louis Rams stated (via the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinal). "Both the defenses are very good, but I think definitely the Niners have the edge at linebacker. It's not going to be a real high-scoring game."
San Francisco will look to their run defense to stop Ravens' runningbacks Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
Furthermore, the 49ers will hope to avoid another first-half meltdown, similar to the NFC championship game against the Falcons when San Francisco was trailing 24-14 at the half.
On the Ravens' side, they will have to contend not only with the talents of runningbacks Frank Gore and LaMichael James—as well as the resurgent tight end Vernon Davis—but also the rushing capabilities of Kaepernick, who may be looking to reestablish the same dominance he displayed against the Green Bay Packers over a week ago.
Nonetheless, this upcoming Super Bowl promises to be another showdown between two franchises who champion the defense. One has set the bar for defense already while the other wants to equal the mark.
If San Francisco's defense can be nearly as impressive as the Ravens were in 2000-01, there will be no mistake in backing up the aforementioned statement:
"Defense wins championships."