Does Defense Really Win Championships, REALLY?

Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant is often credited with coining the phrase, “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”

Is this a statement based on objective, statistical research or a subjective, gut feeling? It’s quite possible that comments like Coach Bryant’s begin as nothing more than a sound bite, but are then slowly embraced as fact through years of repetition by millions of fans who may or may not have enjoyed a few too many soda pops.

I decided to look back at every Super Bowl match-up from 1970 onwards in order to find out if what Coach Bryant had said actually held water (I felt there just weren’t enough teams prior to 1970 to make those stats worthwhile.)

I ranked winning and losing teams (open this spreadsheet: O vs D) by league offensive rank, points scored per game, league defensive rank and points allowed per game (for the regular season, not the playoffs.) I then created a column called ‘scoring difference’ (J & N) in which I compare their season points scored per game average against the actual number of points they scored in the Super Bowl. I also created a column called ‘allowed difference’ (G & Q) in which I compare their season points allowed per game with the actual number of points they allowed in the Super Bowl. Keep in mind Super Bowls usually feature two powerhouse teams playing against each other for the first time in years. Many a team has come out of a weak division with an inflated record and gaudy numbers only to crash and burn come January, when they’re pitted against a bone-crushing defense. On the flip side, that team with the high-flying defensive unit may not yet have had to deal with the charismatic gunslinger who tossed 50 TD’s during the regular season and has a cornucopia of shoes, soft drinks and breakfast cereals named after him.

Having the #1 offense is more likely to get you to the big dance in the first place (21 Super Bowl appearances vs the #1 D’s 18) but it would appear that having the #1 defense is far more advantageous as far as winning goes. As surprising as it may seem, the #1 D is dominating in Super Bowl play. Is this because the eventual winning team was, statistically speaking, more likely to possess the superior defense and thus were more likely to shut down their opponent’s offense?

O vs D SB Record

Since 1970, there have been 13 Super Bowl teams whose offense ranked outside the top ten – eight of them have won the Super Bowl. The eight winners had an average defensive ranking of 3.5. If we give a mulligan to the 2007 Giants (ranked 18th), the average defensive ranking for the other seven teams is 1.43. For the five Super Bowl losers with an offense ranked outside the top ten, the average defensive ranking was 5.8. If we drop the worst offender (The ’79 Steelers – 11th) we’re still left with an average defensive ranking of 4.5. Once again, it appears as though having an elite defense is far more important in the Super Bowl than having an elite offense.

And what happens if a #1 offense locks horns with a #1 defense? What happens then? Well I’ll tell you… The #1 offense and #1 defense have met each other six times in the Super Bowl…

#1O vs #1 D SB Head to Head

The D’s are 5-1 lifetime against the O’s. The O’s captured their solitary Championship in 1989 when the 49ers pummelled the Broncos 55-10. It’s worth mentioning however, that the 49ers were ranked #2 in defense (allowing just 1.7 PPG more than Denver) while the Broncos were ranked #8 in offense, scoring just 22.6 PPG compared to San Fran’s 27.6 PPG. Remember what I said earlier about that charismatic gunslinger with all the endorsement deals?

Of the ten lowest ranked offenses to win the Super Bowl, six of them had the #1 ranked D. The lowest offensively ranked team to take home the Lombardi was the 2008 Steelers (21st), and guess where their defense was ranked… Yup, you guessed it, 1st.

Conversely, Peyton Manning and the 2006 Colts, with the 24th ranked defense, made up the most ground when they knocked off my beloved Bears (3rd) 29-17 (insert sobbing emoji here.)

Even the Patriots’ heroic comeback last season shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – they entered the Super Bowl with the #1 defense (15.6 PPG allowed) and the #3 offense, while the Dirty Birds sported a 27th ranked D to go with their #1 ranked offense. One of the criterion for having a great defense is that you can actually do it for all 60 minutes.
I recently updated my spreadsheet to include this past weekend’s divisional match-ups. My predictions were:

  1. Eagles (#4 D, #3 O) over the Falcons (#8 D, #15 O)
  2. Pats (#5 D, #2 O) over the Titans (#17 D, #18 O)
  3. Jags (#2 D, 6 O) over the Steelers (#7 D, #8 O)
  4. Vikings (#1 D, #10 O) over the Saints (#10 D, #4 O)

As you already know, I finished 4-0. The only game I was concerned about was the Saints-Vikings match-up simply because of Minnesota’s quarterback situation. The Norsemen had done well with mostly unproven signal callers this season while Drew Brees remained, as always, the steady hand on the tiller for the Saints. In close match-ups I tend to side with the better QB but in this instance I decided to stick with my spreadsheet, and was duly rewarded. When it really counted, the Saints’ D failed to shut their opponents down, and it cost them dearly.

The Jags will now face off against the Mighty Patriots while the Vikings attempt to thwart the Eagles.  Originally, I toyed with the idea of quitting while I’m ahead and not making any predictions for this coming weekend, but where’s the fun in that?  After some additional study I’ve decided that this will be a weekend of home team heartache, as the Vikings will defeat the Eagles 28-21 and the Jaguars, continuing to feed off their youthful arrogance, will maul the Patriots 28-17.  So confident am I in my predictions that should this weekend’s results not turn out as outlined above, anyone who liked and shared this post prior to kick-off will receive a cheque for 100 dollars.*

I realize that some may say these predictions are brazen, even reckless.  I take solace in the knowledge that my treasured spreadsheet currently has me sitting at 4-0, and that’s a track record I can easily defend.




*Cheques will not be honoured.

One thought on “Does Defense Really Win Championships, REALLY?

  1. Pingback: Super Bowl LII Result Revealed! | Michael D Johnson

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