NEW YORK — James Lofton and Lawrence Taylor were in the same vehicle, shuttling from Bush International Airport and toward downtown Houston last weekend for a sports memorabilia show.
Super Bowl reminiscing didn’t take long to commence. They played against each other for the 1990 championship, Lofton a field-stretching receiver for the Buffalo Bills and Taylor the whipsaw for a devastating New York Giants defense.
Soon, the subject of tonight’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks at the Meadowlands arose.
“Who do you like in this one?” Lofton asked.
Taylor sided with the Broncos because of their all-intergalactic quarterback, Peyton Manning.
“Well, you know,” Lofton said, “this is the first time since 1990 when we played you guys that the No. 1 scoring offense is facing the No. 1 scoring defense for the Super Bowl.”
Taylor flipped sides.
“Uh, I guess I like Seattle,” he said.
For the first time since Buffalo’s first Super Bowl appearance 24 years ago, the most prolific offense will face the stingiest defense for the Lombardi Trophy.
Denver set at NFL record with 606 points this season.
Seattle allowed 231 points, fewest in either of the past two years.
Denver scored 50 points three times, tying a record.
Seattle became the third team since the NFL-AFL merger to allow the fewest passing yards while leading the league in interceptions.
Denver became the first team with five players to score double-digit touchdowns from scrimmage.
Seattle’s opponents scored touchdowns on a league-low 36.1 percent of their red-zone chances.
Denver scored a touchdown on 35.1 percent of its possessions, 10.1 percent higher than the next-best team (the largest margin in 73 years).
Seattle led the NFL with 39 takeaways and forced the second-most punts.
Here is a delicious but, given that it’s happened only four times before, not-so-classic showdown between the best offense and the best defense.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. “They’re an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s as tough as it gets, the No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense.”
Taylor hasn’t been alone in not knowing the matchup’s historical significance. Many who closely follow the game were stunned to learn the Bills and Giants were the most recent No. 1 versus No. 1 Super Bowl.
“Wow,” Randy Moss said, staring off into space when informed by The Buffalo News it hasn’t happened since 1990. “Wow … Wow … Wow …”
In 2007, Moss was the lightning bolt who helped the New England Patriots break all the scoring and yardage records. He led the NFL with 23 touchdowns, and the Patriots came within one quarter of an undefeated season.
As Moss discovered when the Giants shocked his Patriots in the Super Bowl, a klieg-light offense should provide no assumptions for victory.
The premier defense has gone 3-1 against the premier offense in their Super Bowl matchups
The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers (over the Dallas Cowboys), the 1984 San Francisco 49ers (over the Miami Dolphins) and the 1990 Giants (sorry to bring it up again) were the winners.
The 49ers’ top-rated offense from 1989 was the only one to win (against the Broncos), but those 49ers also had the second-best defense.
Defense sets tempo
Money being wagered in Las Vegas has made Denver roughly a two-point favorite to win tonight.
When mulling how the game will unfold, it’s easier to envision Manning’s surgically precise passes to Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. Manning was sacked a league-low 20 times this year. He always has plenty of time in the pocket in our mind’s eye.
The Hall of Fame coaches from the Bills’ first Super Bowl warned not to overlook the impact a dominant defense can have.
“When I was first hired by the Kansas City Chiefs, the media asked what my style was going to be,” Marv Levy recalled this week from his home in Chicago. “I said, ‘Offense sells tickets. Kicking wins games. Defense wins championships.’
“I don’t know if that’s 100 percent true, but I think the importance of defense is overlooked compared.”
Bill Parcells and his young defensive coordinator, Bill Belichick, oversaw a defense that yielded 13.2 points a game in the regular season and a total of 16 points in its two playoff victories.
The Giants’ offense ranked 15th in a 28-team league, and that was with Phil Simms starting 14 games. Backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler was more like a caretaker.
Yet they continued to win.
“It’s much like baseball in that you can manufacture runs,” Parcells said from his snowbird home in Jupiter, Fla., where he watches St. Louis Cardinals spring training. “I think you can manufacture points a little bit in football. But if you can’t get them out, then you’re in trouble.
“If you’re not good enough defensively, then you’re at a distinct disadvantage, and it makes you play differently. When you have a good defense, you can play the game at your own tempo.”
The Giants’ strategy against the Bills was to shorten the game. That meant running as much time off the clock on offense as the Giants could with workhorse runner Ottis Anderson, while letting Thurmas Thomas touch the ball all he wanted.
“We spent a lot of time on the sidelines that game,” Lofton said.
The Bills had beaten the Giants six weeks earlier at the Meadowlands. The Bills stormed to their first Super Bowl by scoring 44 points against the Dolphins and winning a 51-3 laugher over the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship.
“Everybody just figured,” Giants safety Everson Walls said, “we were going to be the next in line.”
The Giants deployed a strategy that Walls could best describe as a “penny package” because it was smaller and faster than their dime package. They used extra linebackers and defensive backs to better cover Andre Reed, Lofton and Keith McKeller.
Thurman Thomas ran 15 times for 135 yards and a touchdown to give the Bills a 19-17 lead in the fourth quarter. He also caught five passes for 55 yards.
“Our game plan was all about picking the poison,” Walls said. “Are we going to allow Jim Kelly to beat us, or are we going to allow Thurman Thomas to beat us? Very rarely did we have three defensive linemen in the game at the same time. We went with the most nimble personnel we could muster up.
“If it wasn’t for a missed field goal by Scott Norwood you’re looking at Thurman Thomas being MVP. He was running all over us. But that became time-consuming for the Bills.”
The Seahawks almost certainly will try the same approach tonight. They have the type of ground-and-pound runner for that job, former Bills first-round pick Marshawn Lynch.
Parallel to XXV seen
Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott played on both of San Francisco’s best-versus-best winners. Those victories were over future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Dan Marino and John Elway.
“The psychology is to keep doing what you’ve done,” Lott said Friday in Manhattan. “The reason the No. 1 offense is No. 1 is because they are accustomed to getting big plays. You must eliminate the big plays and make them be methodical, throw short passes, keep everything in front of you.
“Even against Dan Marino, we wanted to see if people could prove they can work their way down the field. It’s hard to work your way down the field.”
Levy and Parcells see parallels between tonight’s game and the Super Bowl they coached against each other.
The Broncos run a no-huddle offense with a running back who’s dangerous enough.
Knowshon Moreno became the first in Broncos history to rush for 1,000 yards and add another 500 yards receiving. Moreno scored 13 touchdowns.
“I can see the genes of our no-huddle style very apparently in what Denver’s doing, but they’ve fine-tuned it,” Levy said. “Things evolve, whether it’s medicine, journalism, technology or styles of offense or defense.
“They get up to the line, don’t give a defense the chance to substitute as much, try to tire them out. I don’t think it’s as fast-paced as ours was. But I don’t know if there’s ever been a quarterback who’s on top of it more than Peyton Manning is.”
Seattle’s defense, meanwhile, led the NFL in points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, interceptions and takeaways. It was tied for seventh in run defense, tied for seventh in yards per carry and tied for eighth in sacks.
That caliber of belligerence leads Lott to believe the game could be decided in how well Denver’s receivers can battle for the ball once it’s out of Manning’s right hand.
Denver was the first team to feature five players with at least 60 receptions. Demaryius Thomas and Decker led any NFL receiving tandem with 2,718 combined yards.
“The guys are going to be making incredible efforts to get to the ball,” Lott said, “and when you have that a lot of times you find the offensive guys are at a disadvantage going after the ball.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if Denver’s receivers are going to be aggressive and want to take the ball. We had a guy like that in Jerry Rice. He was very aggressive and knew he had to outwork the defenders for the ball. Denver’s going to have to outwork Seattle’s guys for the ball.”
Seattle held six regular-season opponents to single-digit points. Three of its last five regular-season opponents gained less than 190 yards.
“It’s very interesting to me,” Parcells said. “I’m curious. Seattle plays a relatively simple defense. When you have good players you can do that and execute it. The Denver offense has been so prolific, and only occasionally did you see a little slipup.”
Denver’s offense and Seattle’s defense are so dominant, they could neutralize each other until their counterparts decide the game.
“The game itself,” Parcells said, “will come down to, ‘Can Denver’s defense stop the Seattle ball-control style, and can Seattle’s defense force some three-and-outs?’
“If Denver gets a two-score lead, then Seattle’s in trouble. But Denver’s defense has shown vulnerability to giving up some points. If Seattle can keep the game close and run the ball and keep Peyton over there on the sideline, then Seattle has a good chance.”