On the heels of a regular season in which league records were set for most points scored and most yards gained, it is defense that could steal the stage and take the final bow.
Picture Richard Sherman, Luke Kuechly or Aldon Smith driving away in that Silverado High Country truck that is presented to the Super Bowl MVP, or cavorting with Mickey Mouse on a trip to Disney.
In yards allowed during the regular season, the Seahawks ranked first, the Panthers ranked second, the Saints ranked fourth and the 49ers ranked fifth. One of those teams is going to be playing in MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
If a defensive-oriented team wins the Super Bowl, it will be a departure from recent years. The 2013 Super Bowl champion Ravens ranked 17th in yards allowed. The Giants ranked 27th when they won it the year before. When the Saints were champions in 2010, they ranked 25th in defense. The 2011 Packers were the only Lombardi Trophy winners of the last four that had a statistically impressive defense, ranking fifth.
"The thing is, we probably have more really good defenses than we've had in awhile," said Fox-TV and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick. "I can't remember a year with this many."
Billick was the head coach of the Ravens when they won in 2001, perhaps the only Super Bowl champion that won almost in spite of its offense. Whoever wins this Super Bowl will need more help from offense than that Ravens team got.
"When we won our Super Bowl and Jon Gruden won his (with the Bucs in 2003) and Bill Belichick won his first one with (Tom) Brady (and the Patriots in 2002), you could do it without a complete team because you could get to the Super Bowl and not have to face that Hall of Famer. Now that's not the case."
Potential future Hall of Fame quarterbacks—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and perhaps more—are lined up waiting to expose the vulnerabilities of these defenses. Former Colts general manager and ESPN analyst Bill Polian said he believes defense, a running game and a kicking game gets you to the playoffs, and the quarterback takes you the rest of the way.
"You cannot win a Super Bowl championship without a quarterback who can at least win the game for you when all else fails," he said. "The only quarterback to go all the way in modern times who couldn't win on his own was Trent Dilfer."
Of course, these teams with dominant defenses all may have that quarterback—there's Russell Wilson in Seattle, Cam Newton in Carolina, Brees in New Orleans and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. It's the combination of the quarterback and the defense that makes these teams viable.
Polian believes a defense has to do three things to win a championship. "It doesn't have to be statistically the best," he said. "It has to get off the field on third down. It has to play really good red-zone defense. And it has to take the ball away. You have to have those three things to go all the way the overwhelming majority of the time. And those are the only statistics that really matter."
Of the remaining playoff teams, the 49ers had the best third-down defense during the regular season, ranking sixth in the NFL. Next came the Saints at ninth, the Seahawks at 10th and the Panthers at 12th.
No defense was better at red-zone touchdown efficiency or takeaways than the Seahawks. They ranked first in each category. The Panthers, who ranked third, were the only other top-10 team in red-zone touchdown efficiency. In takeaways, the Panthers and 49ers were tied for sixth, and the Patriots were tied for 10th. The Saints came in at 29th.
The best defenses during the regular season and the postseason pretty clearly belong to the Seahawks, 49ers and Panthers, in no particular order.
"There is a pretty wide gulf between them and the others," Polian said.
With the Seahawks' rare opportunism, the 49ers' overwhelming physicality and the Panthers' wild pass rush, each defense has the ability to defeat a great quarterback. The Saints, who are down four starters because of injury, are more suspect.
But none of them is without a soft spot.
"Carolina is not as good in the secondary, although they have played magnificently, a lot better than people think," Polian said. "Seattle has had so many losses in the secondary, I wonder if they would hold up as well on a neutral field. When one of the Smiths (Aldon or Justin) is out, San Francisco becomes a different defense. They are completely dependent on the Smiths."
The old-school purists out there are hoping one of them can stop the defensive bleeding and own the last three weeks of the NFL year.
• Some in the know are convinced Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is going to land one of the head-coaching jobs. The reason is he has some heavy hitters in his corner. Among those stumping for Caldwell are Polian, Tony Dungy and Ozzie Newsome. The league also has made a concerted push for teams to strongly consider minorities this year. Polian, Dungy, Ernie Accorsi, Charley Casserly, Dennis Green, John Madden, Carl Peterson and Ron Wolf formed the Career Development Council in part to help spur minority advancement. The group gave Caldwell a strong endorsement.
• The Browns have a group of interviewers dealing with head-coach candidates. Included in the group are team CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi. But the man heading up the interviews and calling the shots, according to a source who knows, is Jimmy Haslam. After the Browns struck out on Rob Chudzinski last year, Haslam wants to make sure they are hiring the person he feels is best for the job this time. Haslam's involvement could be partial explanation as to why the Browns and Josh McDaniels went separate ways. What's happening in Cleveland is part of a bigger trend of owners taking more control of their teams.
• The goings on in the Dolphins front office that were exposed by Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald sound familiar to people who were in the Browns front office in 2009. A rift similar to the one that developed between former Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin developed in Cleveland between then-general manager George Kokinis and head coach Eric Mangini. The common denominator? Dawn Aponte was a powerful front office figure in both situations.
• Anyone who knows Philbin knows how much it hurt him to fire his dear friend Mike Sherman. In fact, we hear Philbin nearly pulled a Mike Munchak and fell on the sword himself. Sherman, though, convinced him to stay with this logic: If Philbin had quit, he would have cost every other assistant on the staff his job as well. This way, only Sherman lost a job.
• Falcons personnel man Lionel Vital appears to be the favorite for the Bucs general manager job, and if he leaves, look for Scott Pioli to become the leading candidate to take his place. Pioli and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff are close friends from their days with the Patriots, and those who know the former Chiefs czar say he would not mind taking a job that is a step down from general manager if it is the right situation.
• How much did Andrew Luck impress people around the league with his performance against the Chiefs? This is what one veteran front-office man said about the Colts QB: "To be able to do what he did with hardly any supporting cast was incredible. I would take him ahead of any quarterback in the league right now. I'd take him ahead of Manning, Brady, any of them."
Draft Tip of the Week
Up until recently, the highest rated wide receiver prospect in the draft according to many scouts was Vanderbilt senior Jordan Matthews. But since a number of impressive underclassmen have started declaring themselves eligible for the draft, Matthews has been leapfrogged by at least three receivers—Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Marqise Lee of USC and Mike Evans of Texas A&M. Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State now makes it four with his decision to go pro, per Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post. The bonanza of wide receivers could mean Matthews will drop from the first round to the second.
NFL front-office men still are getting acquainted with the junior receivers, and their final grades will hinge on workouts. But based on information we have at this time, this group of underclassmen receivers could be one of the best position groups of underclassmen ever.
"There might not be a top-five pick at the position, but the juniors give the position great depth in the first few rounds," a college scouting director said.
Here is how the top underclassmen who have declared break down:
Potential first-round picks (7): Watkins, Lee, Evans, Allen Robinson of Penn State, Brandon Coleman of Rutgers, Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.
It isn't likely that all six, plus Benjamin now that he has declared, will go in the first. But each of them merits consideration according to at least one NFL front-office man. Watkins figures to go first in the top 10. Lee and Evans won't be far behind. One high-ranking front-office man has Robinson pegged to go somewhere in the 15-20 range. Coleman is expected to go later in the first, said a national scout, and Cooks is a borderline first- or second-round prospect.
Potential second-round picks (5): Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, Davante Adams of Fresno State, Donte Moncrief of Mississippi, Jarvis Landry of LSU, Martavis Bryant of Clemson.
Most of these players need solid workouts to be chosen in the second round.
Potential third-round picks (2): Paul Richardson of Colorado, Bruce Ellington of South Carolina.
Richardson's speed intrigues NFL teams, whereas Ellington has everything but ideal size.
The playoff game between the Colts and Patriots should be called the Attrition Bowl.
The Colts have 17 players on injured reserve—most in the NFL. Among the Colts on IR are four running backs, including starter Vick Ballard. Also out for the year is Reggie Wayne, arguably the second most valuable offensive player on the team after Andrew Luck. The Colts have started five wide receivers, five running backs and nine offensive linemen. They have used seven different starting alignments on the offensive line.
The Colts had 16 unique starting lineups on offense and 12 on defense. The Patriots had 14 on offense and 15 on defense.
The Patriots have placed 14 on IR, more than all but five teams. The Patriots lost the heart of their defense for much of the season when inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly were injured early. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski also was available for only seven games. The Patriots were thin at wide receiver from the start of the year, and six wide receivers have started games for them, with none starting more than eight.
One who started eight, Aaron Dobson, might miss the divisional playoff game with a foot injury. As if to even things out, the Colts also might be without a starting receiver, as Darrius Heyward-Bey may be out with a hammy. The Patriots will definitely be without inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, perhaps their defensive MVP, for the first time this year. He went on injured reserve earlier this week.
According to Rick Gosselin's annual study for The Dallas Morning News, Colts starters this season sat out 83 games to injuries—more than any team in the league except the Giants, whose starters missed 91. Patriots starters lost 74 games, third most in the NFL.
• If you thought a Super Bowl in New York was ill advised, wait until you hear about a Super Bowl in London.
• Expanding the playoffs to include two more teams is a great idea. This way, only 18 teams can complain they missed the postseason because they were screwed by bad calls.
• Some wonder how Jay Gruden will cope with a boss who is dictatorial. But Gruden apparently does not see RGIII that way.
• The Pro Football Hall of Fame finalists list is so stacked that it will be more difficult to identify eight to leave out than it will be to find seven who belong.
• Somehow, I prefer to think of San Diegans in beachwear, as opposed to bolo ties.
• 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh calls wide receiver Michael Crabtree "the greatest catcher of all time" (via the San Jose Mercury News' Cam Inman). Imagine what he'll say about Crabtree if he ever makes a Pro Bowl.
• After winning a game in the Wild Card Round, Harbaugh told CSNBayArea.com reporter Matt Maiocco he loved him, and then he kissed Sacramento Bee reporter Matt Barrows on the head, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, the San Francisco beat reporters are expected to file their stories without going anywhere near the postgame interview area where Harbaugh will hold his press conference.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. All stats via the NFL, unless noted.