Commentary

Ravens' defensive mastery unequaled

The Ravens' dominance of Kerry Collins and the Giants ranks as the best defensive performance in Super Bowl history. Check out the rest of the top 10.

Originally Published: January 31, 2009
By Mark Simon | ESPN.com

Ray LewisAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesRay Lewis (52) and the Ravens' D completely shut down the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.
If any team can shut down the Cardinals' offensive attack, it's a Steelers defense that ranked first in both fewest yards and points allowed during the regular season.

Defense has been responsible for winning championships quite often in NFL history. The average Super Bowl winner has successfully kept its opponent off the scoreboard, allowing 15.1 points per game. Though no team has ever pitched a shutout in the Super Bowl, many have authored dominant, game-deciding performances.

So we present the 10 best defensive performances by a team in Super Bowl history, and as a bonus, the five worst such performances.

The 10 best defensive performances in Super Bowl history

No. 10: 1992 Cowboys vs. Bills, Super Bowl XXVII
52-17 win; 5 fumble recoveries, 4 interceptions

The Cowboys forced a Super Bowl-record nine turnovers, helped by Buffalo's inability to hold on to the football (eight fumbles, five of which it lost). Dallas returned two fumbles for scores (it would have had a third, were it not for Leon Lett's mishap). Perhaps more significantly, the Cowboys held Thurman Thomas (1,487 regular-season yards) to just 19 yards on 11 carries and sacked Bills quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Frank Reich four times.

No. 9: 2002 Buccaneers vs. Raiders, Super Bowl XXXVII
48-21 win; 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, 3 defensive touchdowns

First-year Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden seemed to know what was coming from his former team, the Raiders, and it showed on the defensive end. The Buccaneers' defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL, had a Super Bowl-record five interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. (No other team has had more than one interception return for a touchdown in a Super Bowl.) Free safety Dexter Jackson, who had two first-half interceptions when the game was up for grabs, was named MVP. Once the Raiders fell behind, they stopped running the ball, which made sense considering they didn't have a first-half rush longer than 4 yards.

No. 8: 1968 Jets vs. Colts, Super Bowl III
16-7 win; 5 turnovers forced, 4 interceptions

Lost in Joe Namath's guarantee of victory was the outstanding performance of the Jets' defense. The Colts, who averaged 28.7 points during the regular season, didn't score until 3:19 remained. Colts QB and NFL MVP Earl Morrall was benched in favor of Johnny Unitas after going 6-of-17 with three interceptions. (He was picked off in the end zone, on the 2-yard line, and the 12-yard line.) The Jets' defense forced five turnovers in all and matched its season low for points allowed in a game.

No. 7: 2001 Patriots vs. Rams, Super Bowl XXXVI
20-17 win; 3 turnovers forced

The Patriots, for the most part, grounded the Rams' aerial attack, intercepting Kurt Warner twice. The Rams managed 427 yards, but didn't score a touchdown in the first three quarters and the Patriots prevailed on Adam Vinatieri's game-ending field goal. Ty Law gave New England a second-quarter lead with a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown.

No. 6: 1983 Raiders vs. Redskins, Super Bowl XVIII
38-9 win; 6 sacks, 90 rushing yards allowed

The Redskins entered Super Bowl XVIII off a regular season in which they scored a then-record 541 points, including at least 23 in every game, but were held to single digits by the Raiders. Key to the victory was holding John Riggins -- who rushed for 1,347 yards in the regular season -- to 64 yards on 26 carries. The Raiders also sacked Joe Theismann six times, had two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Jack Squirek, who never scored a touchdown in 55 career regular-season games, had a 5-yard interception return for a score in the final seconds of the half to up the Los Angeles lead to 21-3.

No. 5: 1971 Cowboys vs. Dolphins, Super Bowl VI
24-3 win; 185 total yards allowed, 3 turnovers forced

Only once in Super Bowl history has a team not allowed a touchdown, and that came in Super Bowl VI. The Cowboys shut the Dolphins' offense down completely, holding it to a second-quarter field goal and nothing more. Among the highlights: Bob Lilly's 29-yard sack of Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese. The Dolphins had five drives that went three-and-out and drove the football past midfield only once in five second-half drives.

No. 4: 1974 Steelers vs. Vikings, Super Bowl IX
6-6 win; 119 total yards allowed, 17 rushing yards allowed, 0 offensive touchdowns, one safety, five turnovers forced

The Steelers hold or share Super Bowl records for fewest first downs (9) and yards allowed (119) for their performance against the Vikings in Super Bowl IX. The Vikings had five turnovers as quarterback Fran Tarkenton threw for 102 yards and was intercepted three times. The Steelers took the lead on a second-quarter safety and never trailed. The Vikings had just one first down on their first six drives.

No. 3: 2007 Giants vs. Patriots, Super Bowl XLII
17-14 win; 45 rushing yards allowed, 5 sacks

The Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history by holding a Patriots team that averaged 37 points per game to just 14 in this contest. The Giants' defensive line made Patriots quarterback Tom Brady uncomfortable all game, and though he threw for 266 yards, he was sacked a season-high five times (he had only been sacked 21 times in the regular season). Patriots running back Laurence Maroney, after back-to-back 100+ yard playoff games, was held to 36 yards on 14 carries.

[+] EnlargeRichard Dent
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSuper Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent helped the Bears' defense stymie the Patriots.

No. 2: 1985 Bears vs. Patriots, Super Bowl XX
46-10 win; 123 total yards, 7 rushing yards allowed, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, 7 sacks

Buddy Ryan's famous "46" defense shredded the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. New England fell behind early and basically eschewed the run, but managed a Super Bowl-low 7 yards on 11 carries. The Bears forced six turnovers and tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks. Reggie Phillips returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown, the only score in his NFL career. The Bears' defense accounted for nine points in all, not counting the touchdown run by defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry.

No. 1: 2000 Ravens vs. Giants, Super Bowl XXXV
34-7 win; 4 interceptions, 152 total yards allowed, 0 offensive TD allowed

The Ravens, who allowed a league-low 10.3 points in the regular season, second-best among any Super Bowl team, completely shut down Kerry Collins and the Giants. Baltimore had four interceptions, tied for second-most in Super Bowl history, and held the Giants to 152 yards of offense, third-fewest all time. Collins, frustrated repeatedly, completed only 15 of 39 passes (38.4 percent). Linebacker Ray Lewis (five tackles, four pass deflections) was named MVP. How dominating was the Ravens' defense? The Giants had one total first down on their first six drives, each of which ended in a punt.

The five worst defensive performances in Super Bowl history

No. 5: 1986 Broncos vs. Giants, Super Bowl XXI
Loss, 39-20; 399 total yards allowed, 0 turnovers forced, 1 sack

After taking a 10-9 lead into halftime, the Broncos allowed a Super Bowl-record 30 second half-points to the Giants. Phil Simms completed 22 of 25 passes, a Super Bowl-record 88 percent, including all 10 of his attempts in the third and fourth quarters. The Giants scored on each of their first five possessions of the second half.

No. 4: 1994 Chargers vs. 49ers, Super Bowl XXIX
Loss, 49-26; 455 total yards allowed, 316 pass yards allowed

The Chargers got buried early in this one by the 49ers, who had by far the NFL's best offense that season. It took the 49ers three plays to take a 7-0 lead, and by the time they had run seven plays, they were up 14 points and this game was basically over. The Chargers got beat short and long by Steve Young, who threw six touchdown passes, three to Jerry Rice. By halftime, the 49ers had 28 points, and had gained 304 yards on 36 plays en route to the third-most points in Super Bowl history.

No. 3: 1985 Dolphins vs. 49ers, Super Bowl XIX
Loss, 38-16; 537 total yards allowed, 211 rush yards allowed, 31 first downs allowed

The Dolphins allowed 537 yards, second-most in NFL history, and a Super Bowl-record 31 first downs against a 49ers offense that couldn't be stopped, netting better than 7 yards per play. All the hype about Dan Marino and his phenomenal season was overshadowed by the performances of Joe Montana (331 passing yards) and Roger Craig (two rushing touchdowns, one receiving touchdown).

No. 2: 1989 Broncos vs. 49ers, Super Bowl XXIV
Loss, 55-10; 461 total yards allowed, 317 pass yards allowed, 28 first downs allowed

The Broncos had a habit of getting shredded on Super Bowl Sunday (see below), and their performance in Super Bowl XXIV was almost as bad as they come. The 55 points allowed to the 49ers were a Super Bowl record. San Francisco held the football for 39:31, completed 75 percent of its passes and gained 6 yards per play. The 49ers led 13-3 after one quarter and 27-3 at halftime, then continued to pour it on in the second half. The 49ers ended up scoring touchdowns on eight of their first 11 possessions in this game.

No. 1: 1987 Broncos vs. Redskins, Super Bowl XXII
Loss, 42-10; 602 total yards allowed, 280 rush yards allowed

The Broncos allowed the Redskins to gain 356 yards in the second quarter alone in scoring a Super Bowl-record 35 points, en route to a 42-10 romp. To put that into perspective, 52 of 84 teams (61.9 percent) have allowed fewer than 356 yards for an entire game in the Super Bowl. Timmy Smith and Doug Williams were the big beneficiaries of the porous defense. Williams threw for four touchdowns in one quarter, including two of 50-plus yards. Smith had a 58-yard touchdown run as part of a record-breaking 204-yard output.

Mark Simon is a researcher for ESPN.