PHOENIX — The Seattle Seahawks have an opportunity to say they’ve punished the who’s who of NFL quarterbacks.
They made easy work of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in last year’s Super Bowl. They overcame a rough, turnover-filled day on offense to beat a hobbled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago.
Up next are Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona.
‘‘If we beat the best,’’ Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said, ‘‘then we’ve got to be considered the best in the game.’’
So let that debate begin. Where do these Seahawks rank among the greatest defenses of all-time — from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain of the 1970s to the 1985 Bears to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
The Sun-Times interviewed more than a dozen former players and coaches during Super Bowl week, and the consensus is this Seahawks team could be in consideration for best ever.
‘‘If they go to back-to-back Super Bowls and they shut down Peyton Manning and the way that offense was functioning last year, and shut down Tom Brady and the way this offense is functioning right now, you’d have to put them in the conversation in those top-five defenses of all time,’’ former NFL coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy said.
Mike Ditka doesn’t put them at the top, even though the Seahawks have a chance to do something his Bears couldn’t do in the 1980s — become repeat champions.
‘‘I know they have a very good defense,’’ Ditka said. ‘‘But, hey, I wouldn’t trade their defense for our defense. That’s for sure. Our defense was great. I don’t think there will ever be another one like it. I don’t think there will ever be one that dominant. Ours was special.’’
But there are arguments against that defense, starting with what happened in 1986, when the Bears set a new record for fewest points allowed. It’s a fact readily brought up by the rest of the NFL.
‘‘A lot of people forget, the ’85 champions didn’t break the all-time record [for points allowed] — it was the ’86 team that got bounced in the first round,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, whose Ravens in 2000 broke the points-allowed record. ‘‘The challenge is to sustain it.’’
The Seahawks have led the league in total defense the last two seasons and in points allowed the last three — despite unfavorable circumstances. Offenses in this era have the upper hand, according to the NFL rulebook. Quarterbacks can’t be hit like they used to be, and there are consequences for roughing up receivers. Penalties are a serious problem.
‘‘You look at some of the great defenses — they didn’t have to deal with all these rules and all these different restrictions,’’ former Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said. ‘‘To see what they’re doing and how physical they play and not draw the penalties and to consistently be a really great group . it’s pretty special.
‘‘They don’t do a lot of fancy stuff. They say, ‘Look, we’re going to line up, and we’re going to kick your butt.’ ’’
Longevity is important. Most of the coaches and players interviewed said it’s not the Bears but the Steelers of the 1970s who should be considered the gold standard for defenses because of their ruthless dominance, Hall of Fame players and four Super Bowl victories.
‘‘They were solid from front to back,’’ former NFL receiver Hines Ward said. ‘‘They were solid at linebacker, defensive end, the secondary. The Seattle Seahawks’ defense is probably the closest from front to back as a team in the ’70s in the Pittsburgh Steelers.’’
But for how long?
The Seahawks have stayed out of salary-cap hell because quarterback Russell Wilson still is on his rookie contract. Wilson’s payday, though, will come after this season, which could lead to the departure of running back Marshawn Lynch.
‘‘They’ve weathered that first foray of holding on to a core,’’ Billick said. ‘‘But it will continue to chip away. It’s hard to maintain.’’
That said, the Seahawks’ defense survived some attrition this offseason, and its future seems locked in. Nine defensive starters from Super Bowl XLIX are under contract for next season.
Even better: Cornerback Richard Sherman, linebacker K.J. Wright, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are signed through 2017 or longer. Wagner, an All-Pro, is the only stalwart in need of a contract past next season.
‘‘It can’t be a one-year wonder,’’ NFL Network analyst and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci said. ‘‘It’s got to be over time. . Tampa didn’t do that. Baltimore, the [Minnesota] Vikings back with [defensive tackle] Alan Page and those guys [the Purple People Eaters], they didn’t do that. This is here to stay.’’
The Seahawks’ place in history isn’t lost on the players.
‘‘We’re trying to be legendary,’’ Wright said. ‘‘For us to win the [Super Bowl], it will be our stamp on being one of the greatest in history.’’
Or even No. 1.
‘‘I think we’ll be the Paul Bunyans of the NFL,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘We’ll be the best.’’
THE BEST EVER? Former players and coaches consider where the Seahawks’ defense ranks among the all-time best:
‘‘You’ve got to put them with the Steel Curtain, us [in Tampa Bay], Baltimore. They’re champions. If I had to balance them all, it’s got to be the Steel Curtain. I think there’s seven or eight Hall of Famers on it. It’s kind of tough to go against that. But we play a different game now than they played then.’’
‘‘They’re in the top. . You can talk about Baltimore, our [Patriots] defense, the Bears, Pittsburgh. You can go down the line. But they are one of the best defenses to ever do it. If you look at the consistencies of great defenses, that Baltimore defense, that was only for one year that was shattering and destroying records and all that.’’
‘‘For me, the gold standard was the Steelers in the 1970s. The ’76 team that didn’t win the championship was probably the best defense of that group. But they did it over an extended period of time from about ’73 to ’79, where they shut down a lot of exceptional offenses and exceptional quarterbacks.”
‘‘They always talk about the 46 defense and what Buddy Ryan was able to do [with the Bears]. I think that’s the gold standard. . . You look at the Seattle Seahawks — you have Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and kind of the big-name guys — but they’re doing it with a lot of guys who don’t have those big names.’’
‘‘If they can pull this off, they’d be right there. That’s not to say you have to win the Super Bowl to qualify as one of the great defenses of all time. But when we were making our run and broke the single-season record [for fewest points allowed], they kept saying, ‘But you’ve got to win it all.’ Well, OK, if that’s the criteria, they’ve clearly shown over a two-year period of time that they have to be compared with the best.’’
‘‘They’re in that conversation. . Now, does this defense have as many Hall of Famers as that Chicago Bear defense? Probably not.’’