In the aftermath of Super Bowl 50, several Denver Broncos tried to make the case that their defense is the best in NFL history, which only proves that those who don't really study history are doomed to misrepresent it.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end Derek Wolfe and linebacker Brandon Marshall can all be forgiven for getting caught up in the euphoria of their suffocating performance against Cam Newton and a terrific Carolina Panthers offense. They deserved to beat their chests and parade through Denver on Tuesday with their shiny new Lombardi Trophy.
They are also entitled to their opinions, but they might want to do some actual statistical comparison before doubling down on such a brash claim.
Their defense might have knocked Newton into another ZIP code, but it wasn't even the stingiest defense in the AFC during the regular season. The Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs gave up fewer points than the Broncos.
The Broncos are understandably guilty of running afoul of something psychologists call the "recency effect." It's not really a complicated concept. The importance and memorability of the most recent event is magnified in a string of historical comparisons, which isn't exactly counterintuitive.
That, among other reasons, is why Internet polls aimed at rating the greatest sports moments always seem to favor the best ones that are easiest for the most respondents to remember. Major League Baseball found this out in 2002 when it polled fans to choose the sport's 10 greatest moments of all-time. Cal Ripken Jr.'s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game seven years earlier was No. 1 and Bobby Thomson's pennant-clinching "Shot Heard 'Round the World" — perhaps the most storied single swing of the bat in baseball history — didn't make the list.
So forgive those Broncos players for falling into that trap, but let's get real here. The Broncos gave up 296 points during the regular season and 44 points during their three postseason games. That's an average of 17.9 points per game, which is pretty good until you compare it the two teams during the 16-game era that are generally left standing during any debate about the best defensive units — the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Ravens.
Just to avoid the appearance of favoritism, we'll take them in chronological order.
The '85 Bears allowed an average of 12.4 points during the regular season, shut out their first two playoff opponents and then crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX. Just to drive home the point, they gave up just 10 points total in their three postseason games.
That's why Bears fans can't understand how coach Mike Ditka keeps getting passed over for sainthood.
The '85 team featured scary sackmen Richard Dent (17 sacks) and Otis Wilson (10.5), legendary lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. It also included current Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who might be the best guy to make — or break — any comparison between those Bears and these Broncos, but is not on record as having done so.
The 2000 Ravens defense certainly needs no introduction around here. Ray Lewis (107 tackles) led a star-studded group of veterans that included Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, Rob Burnett (10.5 sacks), Peter Boulware (7 sacks) and Michael McCrary (6.5 sacks) to a regular season in which opposing teams averaged just 10.3 points per game.
The Ravens pitched four shutouts that season and dominated their four playoff opponents, giving up an average of just 5.8 points per game and trouncing the New York Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV.
In short, combine the regular season and the postseason and this year's Broncos defense allowed nearly twice as many points as the 2000 Ravens (340 to 188) and 132 more than the '85 Bears.
The only way to really include the Broncos in this conversation is to point out that the NFL is a more offense-minded league now than it was in 1985 or 2000, which is true.
It's just not true enough.
The average team in the AFC this year scored 361 points, about 30 points more than the average for the NFC in 1985 or the AFC of 2000 — or about two points per game. Even giving Denver extra credit for shutting down the top-scoring team in either league Sunday, it's impossible to make the "best-ever" argument stick.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.