By Sam McPherson
A quick glance at the last handful of Super Bowl champions shows only one team that really was led by its defensive stars, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks. Otherwise, you have to go back to the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to see a team defense that dominated the Super Bowl. Most of the time, it’s the star quarterback that gets all the press. Eli and Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, etc.
The Houston Texans start their Super Bowl quest on Saturday at NRG Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Texans are to make a Super Bowl run, they will do so without a star QB. However, Houston does have the pieces on defense to win the Super Bowl, and that defense starts with defensive end J.J. Watt, perhaps the best defensive player in the NFL.
Seattle had the Legion of Boom in 2013 when it won the NFL championship, and even the 2012 Baltimore Ravens had an aging Ray Lewis on defense. However, those Ravens also received a stellar postseason effort from QB Joe Flacco and Watt would need that kind of support from QB Brian Hoyer this January if the Texans are to make a run at the championship. In fact, it’s those Ravens the current Houston team most resembles in terms of championship comparisons. If the 2015 Texans end up winning it all, it’s because they followed the 2012 Baltimore blueprint.
It’s an old phraseology that has been lost in the modern, pass-happy NFL: Defense wins championships. Those 2012 Ravens were old on defense, but they held together when they needed to. After giving finishing 12th in points allowed in the regular season, Baltimore forced 10 turnovers in four playoff games to overcome its aging issues. They bent a lot, but they didn’t break as much. This year’s Texans finished seventh in points allowed and the defense will have to hold form as it only gets tougher in the postseason. If Houston beats Kansas City, even tougher offenses remain on the pathway to the Super Bowl.
In the Texans’ only win this season over a playoff team, they held the Cincinnati Bengals to just 256 yards and six points on the road, while forcing two turnovers. Houston needs four games in a row like that to win the Super Bowl and the Chiefs offense scored the ninth-most points in the NFL this year. Kansas City QB Alex Smith and his career postseason QB rating (108.6) won’t be easy to defend against, even at home. Watt will need to put this team on his back, perhaps like Lewis did for the 2000 Ravens, in order to win the Super Bowl.
Running Game Depth
Those Ravens had two young running backs to use in the playoffs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. When Rice was tired, Pierce came in and sliced up defenses from Indianapolis, Denver and New England before the running game finally stalled a bit in the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers. Averaging almost 135 yards on the ground in four playoff games, Baltimore was able to keep opponents off balance enough for Flacco to throw at will.
Houston has averaged 128.5 yards on the ground since the bye week, rotating carries between three young RBs, Alfred Blue, Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes. Of the three, Grimes may be the best option to ride hard in the playoffs since he had the smallest number of regular-season carries and the highest yards-per-carry average of the trio. Either way, the Texans will have to run the ball effectively to win in January.
Improved QB Play
Flacco was an average regular-season quarterback in 2012, throwing 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on his way to an 87.7 QB rating. Yet in the postseason, he turned into Joe Montana, having the month of his life throwing 11 TDs and no INTs on the way to the Super Bowl MVP Award. He was never as good before, and he’ll never be as good again. Sometimes, that’s the kind of QB magic a team needs to win it all.
Hoyer’s 2015 regular-season numbers look similar to those Flacco posted in 2012: 19 TDs, seven INTs and a 91.4 QB rating. The Texans QB is older and less experienced than Flacco was, and that will work against him in the big-game atmosphere. Flacco already had nine postseason starts before that 2012 run; this will be Hoyer’s first NFL playoff start. However, their talent levels are comparable, as are their support systems. Hoyer has the ability to do what Flacco did and he has the weapons around him to do so, such as wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Head Coach Pedigree
Both John Harbaugh and Bill O’Brien spent a lot of time in the college ranks, learning their craft. The Ravens’ Harbaugh spent 14 years coaching college ball before making the jump to the NFL and O’Brien actually spent 14 years doing the same. While Harbaugh was never a head coach at any level before Baltimore hired him to run the show, O’Brien did spend two years as the head man at Penn State after his first NFL stint, five years with the New England Patriots. Either way, both men earned their way to where they are now through hard work.
That means they take nothing for granted. O’Brien got to this postseason with four different starting QBs this year, even though Hoyer is clearly his favorite pupil having spent time together in New England under Bill Belichick. Harbaugh coached under Andy Reid and Ray Rhodes in the NFL himself. The bloodlines for these two coaches run deep in professional football, back to the Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh coaching trees, respectively. Winning is in their blood. It’s only a matter of time before O’Brien reaches the heights of his mentors.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.