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Defense Wins Championships? Maybe Not This Year

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Defense Wins Championships? Maybe Not This Year

Despite not having the Packers to root for, it’s been interesting to watch the way the playoffs have played out so far. The teams that made the final four are probably not that big of a surprise to anyone in the sense that they were the top four seeds in the league.  Still, there were many more people who thought teams like the Colts, Chargers and Bears could potentially make much more noise in the postseason due to the play of their defenses.

While the old adage is “defense wins championships,” this year’s teams by and large have arrived to the precipice of the Super Bowl on the strength of their offenses. But it’s not just offensive innovation that defines the two championship games this year. A closer look at the stats reveals this year’s final four is historic for its defensive mediocrity.

Of the final four teams left (Kansas City, New England, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Rams), only New Orleans (14th) had a defense that finished in the top half of the league in yards allowed, the traditional metric used to rank defenses. The Rams ranked 19th, the Patriots 21st and the Chiefs 31st.

The teams fared a little better in terms of points allowed, with New England ranking 7th, New Orleans ranking 14th, Los Angeles ranking 20th and Kansas City ranking 14th.

But in general, none of the four of these teams had what could be categorized as elite defenses. And ultimately, strong defense didn’t make much of a difference this postseason.

Baltimore and Chicago both ranked in the top five for both yards and points allowed, and both went one-and-done in the wild card round, losing their respective games at home. Indianapolis, which finished just outside the top 10 at 11 overall, upset 12th-ranked Houston but was obliterated by the Chiefs, the team with the second-worst defense in the league by yards allowed (a unit that played its best football of the year this past weekend).

This isn’t just an interesting anomaly—it’s unprecedented, at least since the league expanded to 32 teams. Here’s how many top-10 defenses have advanced to the conference championship games each year since realignment:

·         2017: 3 (Minnesota, #1; Jacksonville, #2; Philadelphia, #4)

·         2016: 1 (New England, #8)

·         2015: 4 (Denver, #1, Arizona, #5; Carolina, #6; New England, #10)

·         2014: 1 (Seattle, #1)

·         2013: 2 (Seattle, #1, San Francisco, #5)

·         2012: 1 (San Francisco, #3)

·         2011: 2 (Baltimore, #3; San Francisco, #4)

·         2010: 3 (Pittsburgh, #2; NY Jets, #3; Green Bay, #5)

·         2009: 2 (NY Jets, #1; Minnesota, #6)

·         2008: 3 (Pittsburgh, #1; Baltimore, #2; Philadelphia, #3)

·         2007: 2 (New England, #4; NY Giants, #7)

·         2006: 2 (Chicago, #5; New England, #6)

·         2005: 2 (Carolina, #3; Pittsburgh, #4)

·         2004: 3 (Pittsburgh, #1; New England, #9; Philadelphia, #10)

·         2003: 2 (New England, #7; Carolina, #8)

·         2002: 3 (Tampa Bay, #1; Philadelphia, #4; Tennessee, #10)

That’s right; this is the first season since the 2002 realignment that hasn’t featured a single top 10 defense in either conference championship game. In 13 of 16 seasons, at least half of the teams playing in the championship games featured top-10 defenses.

And that’s just as far back as I researched—I wouldn’t be shocked if this is the first time in modern NFL history that this marks the first set of conference championships without a single top-10 defensive unit (since the AFL-NFL merger).

So what do we take away from all of this?

First, this isn’t at all saying that defense is no longer important. Eight of the 12 teams in the playoffs this year had a defense that ranked at least in the top half of the league, and four ranked in the top 10.

But it does perhaps give some insight into why teams are so focused in their coaching searches this offseason on finding new approaches to the offensive side of the football, with bright offensive minds in the mold of a Sean McVay being the hot commodity for franchises at the moment. Lots of teams see what’s happening in Los Angeles under the guidance of Sean McVay, or in New England under the guidance of Josh McDaniels, or in Kansas City under the guidance of Eric Bieniemy, or in New Orleans under the leadership of Sean Payton, and want to bring these kinds of bold and inventive offensive schemes to their franchises.

Of course, this is much easily said than done, and it’s reasonable to believe the bubble that is the demand for young, inventive offensive coaches is going to burst sooner or later.

Maybe the defenses for these four teams will step up over the final games of the season, but ultimately all eyes are now on the offensive side of the football for the rest of the postseason.

We’ll see if this trend continues into the 2019 season.

__________________________

Tim Backes is a lifelong Packer fan and a contributor to CheeseheadTV. Follow him on Twitter @timbackes for his Packer takes, random musings and Untappd beer check-ins.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (71) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Of course the trend will continue as the rules tilt the balance further and further toward day the offense. There more penalty flags thrown this year than there have been in the history of the NFL. They have made it all but impossible to play defense. 47 roughing the passer penalties in the first couple of games alone most of them for CM3 type of "hits".

Great article Tim!

BradHTX's picture

You nailed it, JS. This is the new NFL: high-flying offenses and hamstrung defenses.

Defense used to win championships, but while a 7-3 playoff victory is fascinating to read about, it’s boring as hell to watch. This is America, where we get what we want, when we want it, and a lot of it. And that includes scoring in our sports.

That’s why futbol will never overtake football in the hearts of the American public: any game that regularly ends in a 0-0 tie decided on kicks will never satisfy the American sports viewer soul, no matter how much afficionados talk about all the strategy involved in “The Beautiful Game.”

BradHTX's picture

Reply fail. Was supposed to be in response to Jonathan Spader.

Skip greenBayless's picture

The Bears had the no. 1 defense. They would have put up a hell of a fight against the Saints or Rams. The problem was their kicker. Had they had a great clutch kicker like a Mason Crosby they could be heading to a super bowl this year it was that close with that up and coming team. I'll still take a great defense and good to above average offense any day over just a great offense. The Bears will have that for years to come. We've got our work cut out to match them. Unless we get a young stud quarterback it ain't happening.

Dash

Jonathan Spader's picture

Can't tell if you're serious or not Dash. Of you are I have to disagree with pretty much everything you said. If you're not then I agree completely.

Skip greenBayless's picture

I am serious and don't call me Dash. Hey, so we disagree. No biggie. It's only an opinion after all. I like the Bears in case you haven't noticed. I love everything about them. If we can copycat them by getting ourselves a young stud qb like they have we'll be able to compete. We'll have to see what Gutey Frutey does in the draft in terms of drafting a qb. Maybe he likes Boyle like I do but I doubt it. No faith in these guys at the moment. None.

Dash

Old School's picture

Dash, I looked back to the beginning of the Free Agency era of 1992, and if you've got an elite offense and an above average defense you've got about a 3x better chance of winning the Super Bowl than if it's the other way around.

The issue is that all four remaining teams have elite offenses. Yes, the top four scoring offenses are still alive.

HOWEVER.....Most of the best scoring defenses made the playoffs. Not Minnesota or Jacksonville, but most everybody else. New Orleans was #14 and the Rams were 20th. KC is #24.

Skip greenBayless's picture

Thanks for the numbers Old School. I had a feeling that defense still is relevant come playoff time. Well right now I think our best chance is focusing on Mike Pettine and that defense. He's the coach to do it. I would like to see them have a top notch defense. A top 5. Offensively I don't see us getting better because unlike most I see our qb on a huge downward slide that started two years ago. If we had a young 2nd or 3rd year Aaron Rodgers I would be doing jumping jacks but we don't. The Bears do have what I want this team to have. What's your thought on the long term success of the Bears? Unfortunately I see them dominating the North for the next 5 years minimum unless we find our next young Aaron Rodgers quickly. Just my opinion.

Dash

Jonathan Spader's picture

Dash,

The Bears have drafted well and added some key pieces in FA. Roquan Smith is a player I wished the Packers had drafted. Robinson is a WR I had wanted the Packers to sign. Mack was the player I was the most frustrated about losing out on. Howard and Cohen are a punishing thunder and lightning combo.

Unfortunately for them they can only go as far as Trubisky can take them. So far he's flashed but fortunately shown that he's not an NFL caliber QB yet. That could change in a year or two.

Skip greenBayless's picture

"Unfortunately for them they can only go as far as Trubisky can take them. So far he's flashed but fortunately shown that he's not an NFL caliber QB yet. That could change in a year or two."

This is the part where you and I and probably most others disagree on. Trubisky in only his second season helped his team go from worst to first in one year. They were a bad field goal away from moving on in the playoffs. Remember how Aaron Rodgers started out. It was all gradual then consistent top level play for years until the last two years where it's now heading downward. Trubisky has all the skills to be a top 5 qb and he has all the weapons on offense. All young and growing together. Perfect combination. We had that from 2008 to 2014. We can have that again if we can quickly get another young star qb to match our young star offensive players. Rodgers is the odd ball now because of his age. Just my opinion.

Dash

Jonathan Spader's picture

2018 QB Stats:

Mitch Trubisky: Completion % 66.6 Yards - 3,223 TD - 24 Int - 12

Aaron Rodgers: Completion % 62.3 Yards - 4,442 TD - 25 Int - 2

Trubisky was a very small part of what took the Bears from worst to first. Player health played a much bigger role. They went from being the most injured team the past 2 years to experiencing tremendous health without firing their whole strength and conditioning staff!

dobber's picture

AND...the Bears renovated their offensive skill players in one off-season as well. Trubisky was better in 2018 than 2017, that's for certain, but he had much better weapons to throw to and was constantly staked to short fields by a defense that generated a tremendous number of TOs, leading to an odd disparity in yards from scrimmage and points scored.

He might get better, yet--and I think we can assume he will--but he's still a mistake-prone QB who is often only reading half the field and gets a lot out of his legs. Right now, he's Colin Kaepernick...eerily similar numbers and situations.

Bert's picture

Had the Bears selected Mahomes instead of Trubisky a couple years ago then they would be playing this weekend and probably dominating the NFC for the next 5+ years. But they didn't; so rather than being a dominating team they are a pretty good team. Trubisky will get better but he will never be a HOF talent by any means.

Old School's picture

Defense gets you to the playoffs, but you've got to be able to score points on good defenses if you want to advance.

My view on the future of the Bears? They should be good again next year. At this point, I think you have to consider them the favorite. People are underrating Trubisky, and if he improves AGAIN next year that's gonna be a problem. They've got a couple of backs that are pretty good at moving the ball downfield. They don't give up a lot of cheap points, they generate quite a few takeaways.

Chris Vachio's picture

I'm not so sure, though. The Chiefs D looked better than it had at any point during the season against the Colts, who have an excellent offense. The Colts were completely shut down before garbage time. A whole lot of good defensive teams failed to do that this season. Maybe they're just late bloomers.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Colts will go as far as Luck can take them. They're built the way the Packer used to be. Mack was a solid running back. Their OL did a great job for the 1st time since drafting luck. They have TY Hilton at WR. Ebron was a fantastic pickup at TE. Name 3 star defensive players on the Colts, I can't. Malik Hooker and Kenny Moore are the only 2 I know.

ShanghaiKid's picture

You should get to know the name Darius Leonard. He was an early second round pick from 2018 and made all-pro his rookie year. He’s a dude the Packers could use.

Lphill's picture

This ass Dash is ruining CheeseheadTV he has nothing to offer here this was a Packers forum where we could offer our opinions on topics but now it has become the Dash forum , what a shame.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Are you saying you got a heap when you just wanted a Dash?

Tarynfor12's picture

Nobody is stopping you from commenting as often as you wish or to oppose the comments of another. If you feel the comment of no value, ignore it, if you feel you cannot counter the point don't comment. Just don't say he shouldn't because you don't like how often he does or because he obviously doesn't like kool-aid.

Skip greenBayless's picture

Agree Taryn. I honestly don't get some of these people here why they would be so triggered over my opinions on this Packers team and where I see them headed. You've been down these roads before. Why do you think these people are acting as they are lately?

Dash

Tarynfor12's picture

I think the easiest way to know would be to find out the Kool-aid sales in their local stores. That sales money alone would entice a top FA to GB.

Some just refuse to accept there are negatives on this team, about this team and the FO workings/mindset. They believe ignoring it will make it go away or not be true, Such as the ORG has been doing for 6 years.

Demon's picture

What Taryn? Surely you jest. The Packers have the best players, coaches and front office in all of the NFL. Shame on you for saying otherwise.

I am as much a Packers fan as anyone. Just because I was one of the front runners saying that TT and MM needed to go doesnt mean I wasnt a fan. Change was needed! I dont know if the new regeim will bring home the Lombardi trophy. But I knew the previous regeim was not going to.

jsb937's picture

Kareem Hunt.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Matt Nagy already contacted Hunt. You'll see him in the NFC North but in a Bears uniform.

jsb937's picture

Kareem Hunt.

Old School's picture

I think that if the author digs deeper, he will find that the teams which are still playing at the end usually have one "elite" unit (defined as Top 4) and one average or better unit (defined as 12th or better).

This is not always the case, but it's pretty common.

And about 75% of the time, that elite unit is going to be the offense. Over the last 20 years, it's been the Ravens and Bucs and Packers and Bucs winning Super Bowls with defense but more commonly it's the highest octane offenses in each conference that are the favorites.

And by offense, I mean passing offense. Seattle runs the ball a lot....so did Baltimore down the stretch. But to advance in the playoffs you've got to be able to pass and if you can't then you'd better have an all-time defense.

Matt Gonzales's picture

Agree with this - the Seahawks and Falcons, on their SB runs, had a suffocating defense, great ground game, and QBs that came alive with big throws when it mattered most.

Matt Gonzales's picture

Meant Seahawks and Ravens. Too many birds.

Razer's picture

To say that defense or offense wins championships is a little too simplistic. The teams that won this weekend, choked some pretty good offenses. Watching NE shutdown the Chargers, the Chiefs making Luck look pedestrian or the Saints neutralizing Foles after the 1st quarter was some good defense. Even the Bears who have a good defense were destined to fail with their one dimensional team.

Hard to beat a well balanced team. What the offense doesn't do, defenses and special teams do.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Excellent point. Time will tell if it holds true, but I think there is quite a bit of evidence that supports your opinion.

croatpackfan's picture

Completely agree!

You have to be able to score points, prevent others to score on you and you have to win small battles in order to win the war (ST position battles and FGs!).

4thand10's picture

Rams have a very good defense. I had the Pats for defense in my FF and they always out scored my opponents. The Rams and Pats have deceptively good defenses, the saints and Chiefs are about the only ones out of the 4 that don’t have much for defense, but they do just enough. And I agree Razer.

stockholder's picture

Where's the kicker in this?

Since '61's picture

The rules have become ridiculously skewed against the defense. The stats for scoring and yardage gained increase every season.

The league wants this because it attracts the casual fans, the FFLs, and now gamblers with legalized sports betting.

The games are about making the highlight reels not playing good football. The quality of play will continue to decrease and the scoring will become nearly automatic as the more athletic players will want to play offense in college and we will reach the point where all the best players are on offense and the second level or worse players will be playing defense. Then we will have the NBA on turf. We’re pretty close to that now. Thanks, Since ‘61

Jonathan Spader's picture

Great minds Since 61'. Want to win on the sports betting front. Take the Over 50. Difference is NBA players play both offense and defense.

The TKstinator's picture

Since 61, I have expressed some of those exact same thoughts!
My latest question to ponder is, will there ever come a time when the pendulum swings back the other way? Will there ever be rule changes to assist the defense?

Since '61's picture

TK - anything is possible. However, we have reached a point where at least a generation of fans think that they are watching good football. They have been reeled in early by their Madden toys and they believe that play calling is all that matters. They don't understand that without good defensive play football is only half of a sport. Worse yet since they have never actually seen a great defensive team they don't know what they are missing.

As long as the money is rolling in for this current crop of greedy owners the game will suffer. While I hope that there will be some mitigation of this all offense era I'm not expecting it in the short to mid-term. More likely the NFL is headed the way of pro-wrestling and to becoming a complete farce. Or as Lewis Black has commented; "One day the owners will be able to drop crap out planes onto the fans and they will still be cheering how great it is and paying even more money to be crapped on by the owners."

If I didn't have nearly 60 years invested as a Packers fan I would be done with the NFL by now. Thanks, Since '61

Bert's picture

Since '61. Excellent post. You summed up my feelings exactly. I've been an NFL and Packers fan since '59 and am saddened when I see the league becoming a phony video game. To think it was just a few years ago we laughed at the Arena League. Now the NFL IS the Arena League and folks think it's great football. Very sad.

Since '61's picture

Sad indeed Bert. It’s embarrassing for the league to see so many TDs scored so easily. Poor tackling plus penalties on about every 3rd play, but the beat goes on.
Thanks, Since ‘61

Old School's picture

The question that comes to my mind is that given the rules as they are, what can you do to reduce opponent scores.

Here are some thoughts.

1) Try to keep the opposing offense off the field as much as possible.

2) Try to not let the opponent start a possession on a "short" field (on their own 40 or better)

3) Generally speaking, your opponent is going to have 10 possessions. How many of those possessions can you stop? Can we stop some third down completions? Maybe one or two takeaways in a game.?

4) Try to limit long plays. This means a double-deep safety quite a bit of the time, with safeties who can tackle. In fact, tackling should be a primary consideration for any defender we draft.

Realistically, if you can hold a team to three TDs in ten possessions...or maybe two TDs and two or three FGs......you've done your job.

fastmoving's picture

Since 61`, most of the time a can pretty good relate the way you think, but not on this one. I’m born 1970 and follow the NFL since about 1985, even today I used to watch some old games and I would argue that it was often hard to watch and it’s getting better every year. Even I like a good D and a low score too, but that does not mean it was always better. But we like to feel that way if we look in the rear mirror. Even it has not much to do with the reality back then. Never found the good old times on any topic if you look closer and keep the emotions out of it.
And I’m sure the owner has been even more greedy back than and for most of them, it was just a business. They moved the team around a lot and some looked only for the cash flow. A lot of these owners today, even we don’t like most of them, are football fans too and try to put a winning team on the field and not just because of the business side.
The players are way more athletic today and everything is faster and more exciting. Most games are close and safer and even when the rules favor the D so the NFL is doing it, because they believe that’s what the most fans want. They will always try to maximize the revenue and they will always try the minority of the fans what they looking for. There will always be critics, not matter what they do and in what direction they are going. So it’s not easy to please the fans. But there will always be change and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Finally, the years invested it’s a thing that’s little bit one sided to me. What else had you done with your time. You pobablly did not spend the hours because you had to. You got a lot of joy out of it and pain of course. But I bet you found it always exciting, otherwise you would have hung in there for so long. Besides your family, with what else did you spend so many hours in your life like football or sports in general?
And if you only keep going, because you already did it for so long, feels a little bit like stay in the parking lot, because you already paid for more hours the you actually needed…….
Maybe you still like it more that you are admit to yourself……………
What does Nagler always saying if some tells him he quits watching football: See you next week.

Since '61's picture

Sorry double post.

The TKstinator's picture

Like Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon?

dobber's picture

Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

Johnblood27's picture

Parrish and McHale

The TKstinator's picture

Well played, everyone!

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I am not a fan of the yards allowed metric. I measure defenses by points allowed, though if that team has a terrible offense, I will mentally adjust its defensive rating.

Tarynfor12's picture

Whether it's offense or defense that wins games, the Packers certainly haven't displayed either to be considered winners.

Hope that all changes with all the new coaching staff and solid draft picks along with much better FA signings.
Sheesh...my optimism is showing or am I still negative by not proclaiming all is fine...hmm !?
: )

Jonathan Spader's picture

And that day the Taryn's heart grew 3 sizes! Lol

albert999's picture

I think we should go after Desean Jackson of the Bucs
Led the league in 2018 with 18.9 yds per reception
They won’t keep him and he wants to go

dobber's picture

Games played since 2014...

DeSean Jackson: 66
Randall Cobb: 69

Since '61's picture

Cookie for Dobber!! Thanks, Since ‘61

albert999's picture

Rather have Desean

dobber's picture

I'm really not lobbying for either. Just putting it in the perspective of another player the consensus here says is overpaid and has underplayed.

Old School's picture

And somebody down voted him for stating a fact. Booo.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Moreover, games played makes Jackson look better than he was:

2884snaps since 2014: Jackson
1063 in 2017 and 2018: Jackson

3891 snaps since 2014: Cobb
1238 in 2017 and 2018: Cobb

Of course, Cobb sucked for the most part since 2014 or since 2017, whereas Jackson's aggregate production outstrips Cobb's in both time frames. They're different types of receivers now: Jackson caught 55.5% of his targets since 2017 and Cobb 68%.

4144 yds/233 rec = 17.79 yds/rec since 2014 Jackson
1442 yds/91 recs = 15.85 yds/rec since 2017 (inc. 18.79 in '18)

3762 yds/334 rec = 11.26 yds/rec since 2014 (skewed by 2014)
1036 yds/104 rec - 9.96 yds/rec since 2017.

Lphill's picture

Ok then Dash if your sure the Packers are heading down instead of up and that Rodgers is done then you have nothing else to contribute here , anyone who thinks Tim Boyle is destined to become a starter in the NFL can’t be taken seriously.

albert999's picture

nobody believed in a lot of quarterbacks
like....Brees,Flutie,Foles
Give the kid a chance

Barnacle's picture

Lphill

Please provide a list of those, in addition to Dash “who have nothing else to contribute here”.

Thanks in advance.

albert999's picture

i just gave you 3

Hematite's picture

Well, I guess since all four teams have high powered offenses and the Saints have the highest ranking defense of the four, we'll be getting the Saints 32nd pick in the first round.

Old School's picture

Not quite. They'll triumph over the Rams (20th in defense) but they'll lose in the Super Bowl to the Evil Empire (7th in defense, better than the Saints, who are ranked 14th).

So it's more likely to be 31. And that's fine by me. It's House Money.

So we're at #12, #31(most likely) #44 and #76. Four shots in the Top 100. Maybe we'll do some haggling and improve our position.

That's four guys, in addition to whatever we do in FA or trades.

Doug Niemczynski's picture

The WHY WHY WHY do we keep drafting DEFENSE?

Why can't we try just ONE year of drafting OFFENSIVE player's?

Old School's picture

Because you need people on defense. You can't win without help on defense.

And defenders make up over 80% of our special teams snaps.

On offense, you need a starting QB and a backup who doesn't play. We have that. You need somebody in the backfield to help him. We have that. You need receivers.....we kept 4 rookie WRs. We brought in two TEs in FA.

We could use some help on the offensive line. We got lucky last year with injuries, but luck always runs out. We need a starter at RG, a ready-to-start RT to replace Bulaga in the near future, a backup LT and a multipositional backup.

That's all doable in FA....for not that much money....and maybe a trade .

But on defense we can't line up a secondary that has 5 guys who can cover. We're probably releasing both our starting OLBs. Our entire starting DL finished the season on the inactive list and we've probably lost Wilkerson for good.

4thand1's picture

Your defense has to be good enough to get a couple of keys stops or a crucial turnover. Last year Brady threw for over 500 yards against what was supposed to be a really good Eagles D. A sack fumble ended up winning the game for the Eagles.

Irish_Cheesehead's picture

On another defensive note, Broncos hire Ed Donatell as DC - the same Ed Donatell that served as the defensive coordinator in Green Bay under Mike Sherman from 2000-2003. I didn't even know he was still coaching!

albert999's picture

The 4 teams left have the highest scoring offenses in the league
Draft OL

Holecrap's picture

IF you look back at the real dominant teams like the Niners with Montana and the Steelers with Bradshaw, were not talking champion shampion, were talking super bowl wins and domination. Not over a ten year period but they won theres in a short period of time.

Why? They had dominating offenses and defenses both at the same time.

The Ravens were the only team with a crap offense to win a super bowl strickly on defensive play. Only done once.

Ive always been able to pick the sb winner. It will be the team with a decent above avg D, decent above avg O, good special teams, good kicking and decent coaching. Thus, no achiles heel. Funny, those are the same attibutes that get you to the playoffs too.

The bears, no kicking. Vikes, no offense. Packers - no nothing, ditto lions.

Jonathan Spader's picture

What about the Broncos Ernie when Von Miller was unstoppable and their defense shut down NE's offense? Peyton Manning was well past his prime and their offense was not impressive.

AgrippaLII's picture

The team that holds it's opponent to the fewest points will win. So I would say yes defense still wins Championships !

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