Do defenses really win championships?

Ever since the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 48 (side note… roman numerals are stupid… stop using them) the talking heads seem to have re-opened the age old debate:  Do defenses win championships?  We’ve all heard the old cliche “offense sells tickets but defense wins championships” and this mantra was never more true than in 2000 when the Ravens used their dominating defense and cap gun offense to roll the 5th best offense in football 35-7 holding Kerry Collins and company to zero offensive points.  Kerry Collins threw 4 interceptions and Sean Peyton’s high powered offense turned the ball over 6 times and had it not been for a 97 yard kick return by Ron Dixon the 2000 Giants may have been the only team ever shut out in a super bowl.

While much of the storyline in Super Bowl 48 focused on the Seahawks number 1 defense against the Broncos number 1 offense little attention was paid to the match up featuring the Seahawks number 8 offense against the Broncos porous number 22 defense.  The stellar defensive performance diverted our attention from the methodical and surgical dissection Russel Wilson performed on the Broncos defense.  While the stats were underwhelming (Mainly due to the early lead the defense built) we can wonder what the score would have been had the Seahawks remained in attack mode the entire game.  Did we give too much credit to the defense and forget about how the leagues 8th ranked offense continue to pile on the pressure scoring points at will?

So this leads me to the question of the day; in this day and age does defense really still hold the key to championship glory in the NFL?  In order to determine this I examined and dissected Super Bowl champions and the teams they defeated for each of the past 10 years.  Not only is 10 years a nice round number but historically significant as it was the 2004 season that kick started the current high flying offensive era of NFL football with the NFL’s decision to enforce the 5 yard illegal contact penalty.

In examining these teams I used rankings of offense and defense based on points scored and points allowed.  I like this statistic better than the standard yards allowed mainly because that number can be skewed by a “bend but don’t break” philosophy or a quick strike offense that just keeps putting the opposing team on the field.  The results are pretty interesting….

Taking a look at the past 10 Super Bowls gives us a total of 20 teams that have either won or lost the big game in the last decade.  Of the 20 teams 12 have had a statistically top 10 defense compared to 15 of the 20 with a top 10 offense.  This statistic skews even further when we take a peak at just the winners of the big game; 5 of 10 champions have had a top 10 defense compared to 7 of 10 with a top 10 offense.  So it may seem that just reaching the Super Bowl can be tough to do without a top 10 offense while half of Super Bowl champions in that time frame didn’t have a top 10 defense.  In 7 of the past 10 years a team with a top 10 defense has lost the Super Bowl to a team with a defense out of the top 10 while top 10 offense have not seen this same fate.  In the 8 games in which a top 10 offense has lost the super bowl 6 of the 8 have lost to teams also in the top 10 offensively with the 2008 Cardinals and the 2007 Patriots being the only teams to lose to opponents not boasting a top 10 offense.  In Super Bowl 42 the Giants were able to hold the Patriots record setting offense to 14 points but in this case it was not the leagues top defense suffocating it’s opponent.  In fact the Giants in 2007 were ranked 17th in scoring defense and had given up over 30 points 6 times in the regular season and over 40 points twice.  Their fate was slightly different for Arizona the next year when they went toe to toe with Pittsburgh’s number 1 defense in Super Bowl 43 but again was this necessarily an example of a suffocating and dominating defensive performance?  Kurt Warner completed 31 passes for 377 yards against that vaunted Steeler defense including a 64 yard TD to Larry Fitzgerald with 2:47 remaining in the game.  At this point it was not the Steelers number 1 defense but instead it was Ben Roethlesburger and the Steeler offense that went 78 yards in 1:48 to give the Steelers the lead and eventually the win.  While you may point out that we remember the miraculous 100 yard interception return just before the half by James Harrison but Harrison’s play would be completely meaningless had it not been for Big Ben and Santonio Holmes heroics in the final seconds of the game.

So we have seen how some of the top 10 defenses and top 10 offenses have fared in championship games but how about teams outside of the top 10?  Can a team get to the mountain top with a sub par offense if they have a great defense?  How about teams with a sub par defense and a great offense, can they be championship caliber?  Taking another look at Super Bowl champions I found that only 1 of the previous 10 Super Bowl’s was won by a team with a bottom half offense.  In comparison 4 of the previous 10 Super Bowl champions had a defense in the bottom half of the league; when we add in the Super Bowl loser we have 2 more teams with defenses in the bottom half of the league but no more bottom half offenses.  This gives us 6 of 20 teams with bottom half defenses making it to the big game but only 1 out of 20 (the 2008 Steelers) bottom half offenses even making the Super Bowl.  This numbers skews even more if we look at the bottom third of the league as Pittsburgh’s number 20 offense slightly misses the cut leaving us with no bottom third offenses reaching a Super Bowl in the previous 10 years.  In that same time frame 4 teams managed to make the big game with 2 winning despite having a defense ranked in the bottom third of the league.  The 2012 Broncos, 2011 Giants, 2008 Cardinals, and 2006 Colts. may not have followed the traditional mold but they were able to reach the biggest game of the year despite having defenses that ranked 22nd, 25th, 28th, and 23rd respectively.

Additionally the defensive performances of the past 10 years look even less impressive when considering a few more facts.  In our 10 years window we found 5 teams that won a Super Bowl with a top 10 defense and 7 teams that made it to the Super Bowl only to lose with a top 10 defense.  Looking specifically at these teams we can clearly see that 4 of the 5 Champions and 5 of the 7 losers with top 10 defenses also had a top 10 offense.  Meanwhile of the 7 Super Bowl champions with a top 10 offense only 3 also had a top 10 defense.

So perhaps we may have jumped the gun a little on this thought that the 2013 Seahawks have proven to us that even in this age of high flying offense that defense really is still the key to winning championships.  In fact the Seahawks performance in Super Bowl 48 was even more impressive considering the age in which it was accomplished.  League rules, offensive schemes, and even teams personnel decisions are built around creating a dynamic high powered, fast paced offense and more often than not it is this offensive fire power that will win regardless of the scale of the game.  We can look at the 2013 Seahawks and the 2008 Steelers as proof that defense is still alive in the NFL and that the true key to winning will always been defense but in order to do that we have to ignore the majority of the facts surrounding past Super Bowl champions.  In addition to just who won these games we also have to ignore the fact that the 2012 Ravens put up 34 points on the number 2 defense in the NFL in Super Bowl 47; the 2010 Packers scorched the leagues top defense for 31 points in Super Bowl 45; and the 2008 Cardinals piled up over 400 yards of offense against the suffocating Steelers defense in Super Bowl 43.  Continue to hold onto the past if you want and continue to believe the myth that defense wins championships but if you are a betting man (or woman) I would recommend putting your hard earned money on offense.

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