STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This Sunday's Super Bowl features the number one defense, the Seattle Seahawks, against the number one offense, the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. That is a surprisingly rare matchup, number one defense against number one offense. It's only happened a few times in all the Super Bowls to date. But of course that means there is a defense and an offense in the game that are not number one. NPR's Mike Pesca looks at what having greatness in one phase of the game does to the rest of the team.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: This year the Denver defense was OK. They gave up slightly fewer yards than most NFL defenses but were in the bottom third in points allowed. That all went about as noticed as the curtains in a cat house because Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense was the greatest in NFL history, and as such all the defense had to do was not implode.
This reminds Randy Moss of 2007, when, as a Patriot, he was a key part of what was at the time the greatest offense in NFL history. But he says things got dicey for the Patriots' defense when the offense lacked its usual pyrotechnics.
RANDY MOSS: Those guys, they wasn't used to being on that field. We didn't punt the ball a lot, and then when it was time for them to really hunker down and make plays, you know, they struggled with it just a tad.
PESCA: Those Patriots lost in the Super Bowl, by the way. Moss says the Denver D isn't that bad, but they do benefit from the gifts the offense bestows, not just big leads, but field position. Hall of Famer Howie Long says pass rushers specifically benefit by playing on a team with a good offense because they know their opponents will be passing most of the time.
HOWIE LONG: I always said to myself, if I had an offense that could score 30 points a game, I've got to get 10-plus sacks a year.
PESCA: During Long's tenure, the Raiders had better-than-average offenses in three non-strike shortened seasons. Those were the only three seasons Long had 10 or more sacks. But a good offense, the thinking goes, doesn't really help a team's defense that much. But a great defense like the Seahawks have will shape the very nature of the offense.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson could put up dazzling numbers. But since his defense is so good, he's asked to play more conservatively, acknowledges Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
PETE CARROLL: Our defense is very, very steady and very opportunistic. And on the other side of the ball as well, we love that we are a running football team. The aggressive nature. The style of our play really complements our special teams and our defense. So there's a really good fit.
PESCA: Seattle's defensive line coach, Travis Jones, emphasizes the importance of turnovers.
TRAVIS JONES: We believe in protecting the ball.
PESCA: Wait. Stop. Every team believes in protecting the ball. It is better for an offense not to fumble, Lombardi probably never had to note. But Jones' message goes further. It contains passion.
JONES: It's all about the ball. So when we got it, keep it. When we don't have it, get it from them.
PESCA: It also has the virtue of being accurate. Seattle only turned the ball over 19 times this season, second fewest in the NFC. But they took it away 39 times, the best in football. Other teams might urge their receivers to make a play; Jones says the message in Seattle is more like first do no harm.
JONES: All of our offensive guys, skill guys, understand that when they have the ball in their hand, that they're holding the hopes and dreams of everyone on the team.
PESCA: Seattle's receiving corps has been denigrated based on their paltry receiving yards, but their pass catchers have some of the surest hands in the NFL, dropping balls at roughly half the rate, not total number, half the rate of Denver's highly praised pass catchers. Which is to say there is some evidence that the Seahawks' offense can deliver in a big way if called upon.
Though Denver's defense has already performed surprisingly well this post-season. All of this is a long way of saying that Super Bowl 48 may just come down to special teams. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.