So you want to win a Super Bowl?
Here's a simple, one-step guide: Get yourself a Hall of Fame quarterback, sit back and wait.
But don't forget, defenses win championships.
Except, of course, when they don't.
And so goes any attempt to find the ultimate truth in the NFL. As the league transitions to the offseason, and teams focus on improving rosters for 2016, it's hard to deny that the straightest line to a championship is riding an elite-level quarterback. But it's also impossible to ignore that the past three seasons have rendered that simple plan well short of foolproof.
The NFL's top defense has advanced to the Super Bowl in each of those years, and in two of them it slayed an All-Pro caliber quarterback and carried its team to a championship. The Denver Broncos forced Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton into his worst performance of the season to win Super Bowl 50, and the Seattle Seahawks throttled a still-elite Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
One of the biggest mistakes in NFL analysis is projecting the most recent result into future trends. No, we are not necessarily entering an era when defense is more important than quarterback play. But there is reason for hope among teams who don't have a top-10 quarterback and know how hard it is to find one.
Let's take a closer look at what has happened in the NFL's so-called passing era.
Passing production and efficiency continued to rise in 2015. As the chart shows, NFL teams have never thrown for more yards per game, tossed more touchdowns, completed passes at a higher rate and thrown interceptions at a lower rate than they did this season. There was a record number of quarterbacks with at least 30 touchdowns passes, and quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns in a game more times than in any other season in NFL history.
Against that backdrop, the NFL's eventual MVP -- who threw 27 touchdowns and one interception in his final eight games -- advanced to the Super Bowl. There, he faced a defense that finished the season ranked first in yards allowed (283.1) and fourth in points (18.5). We all know what happened next.
The Seahawks spun a similar story two years ago, stifling the highest-scoring offense in NFL history and limiting Manning -- who had thrown for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns in the regular season -- to eight points. In between those two games, of course, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady torched the Seahawks for 328 yards and four touchdowns in an eventual 28-24 victory in Super Bowl XLIX.
In each case, the Seahawks entered the game with the NFL's top defense in both yards allowed and points.
Brady's performance in Super Bowl XLIX extended the closest thing to a trend as we've had in the passing era. From 2000-12, whenever an elite quarterback -- or one who entered the playoffs performing at that level -- faced a top-five defense in the Super Bowl, the quarterback won. It happened four times in all:
Peyton Manning beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Eli Manning beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
So what does all this mean?
There is plenty to be said for the impact of a great defense. The 2015 Broncos were the 12th team in NFL history to advance to the Super Bowl with the top-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed. Those teams are 10-2 in the Super Bowl, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the other hand, the Panthers are now the fifth team in the past six instances to lose the Super Bowl after advancing with the NFL's highest-scoring offense.
A great defense can take down a great quarterback, even when its own team is quarterback-deficient. Manning was one of the NFL's worst starters in 2015, and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was a tick above average (No. 12 in Total QBR) in 2013.
At the same time, I'm not sure how many teams would trade a franchise quarterback for a top-notch defense. When you look at the Broncos and Seahawks' defenses, you see it required exceptional personnel decisions and luck in both the draft and free agency.
The Broncos drafted linebackers Von Miller and Danny Trevathan along with defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. Their free-agent haul included linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
The Seahawks, of course, supplemented recent draft classes that included cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker K.J. Wright and linebacker Bruce Irvin with free-agent defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
Drafting an elite quarterback, if you're lucky enough to be in position to do so, is a quicker fix and can cover for mistakes or lack of depth in other areas. When Manning beat the Bears, his Indianapolis Colts defense ranked No. 23 in points allowed. Eli Manning's New York Giants defense ranked No. 25 in points allowed entering Super Bowl XLVI and No. 17 before Super Bowl XLII.
The lesson, if there is one, is that the NFL's passing era hasn't totally blocked off alternate paths to the championship. Keep that in mind as you sweat out the offseason.