Sporting Charts

Does Offense or Defense Win Super Bowl Championships?

“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.” ~ Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

Suggest that defensive football wins you Super Bowls and Peyton Manning and the explosive, record-setting Denver Broncos will take offense. Imply that offense reigns supreme in the new pass-first NFL and Richard Sherman, Seattle’s effusive cornerback, will tubthump in defense.

Much has been made about how Super Bowl XLVIII features Denver’s top ranked offense against Seattle and the league’s best defense. There’s an old adage that says a good offense is your best defense. Or was it, a good defense is your best offense? Either way, something’s gotta give. Only one team will get the W. Will it be the O or the D?

To help answer the question, I decided to delve into past NFL results to determine who has won Super Bowls – great offenses or great defenses.

OFFENSIVE VS. DEFENSIVE MATCHUP TRENDS

My analysis is based on each team’s season ending offensive and defensive rank by yards gained and allowed. For example, Seattle gave up the fewest yards in 2013; therefore, the Seahawks were assigned a #1 rank all season even though they may have started down in the rankings early-on and climbed their way to the top.

I charted historical results below based on all regular season and playoff games. I figured it would be best to understand the general trends of offenses and defenses before narrowing the scope to playoffs and, specifically, the Super Bowl. In this analysis, I have split each team’s offense and defense into quartiles based on the ranking described above. The following chart shows the winning percentage of offenses by quartile.

Winning Percentage of NFL Offenses Since 1978
Regular Season and Playoffs
         Defense
         1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Quartile Quartile Quartile Quartile
Offense 1st 0.512 0.600 0.663 0.705
Quartile
2nd 0.420 0.531 0.588 0.613
Quartile
3rd 0.374 0.448 0.479 0.571
Quartile
4th 0.278 0.316 0.427 0.467
Quartile


To illustrate, teams with top quartile offenses, such as the Broncos, have a .512 winning percentage against teams with top quartile defenses, such as the Seahawks. When evaluating the other side of the ball, Seattle and Denver are 3rd quartile teams. Based on my analysis, 3rd quartile offenses have a .479 winning percentage versus 3rd quartile defenses. Neither result favors the boys from the Emerald City.

To be fair, pro football has changed plenty since 1978. Offenses are spreading out and scoring is skyrocketing. What if I narrowed my results to the past 10 years? Surely, the top offenses will see even more success.

Winning Percentage of NFL Offenses Since 2004
Regular Season and Playoffs
       Defense
        1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Quartile Quartile Quartile Quartile
Offense 1st 0.506 0.605 0.651 0.700
Quartile
2nd 0.472 0.566 0.628 0.581
Quartile
3rd 0.397 0.429 0.444 0.568
Quartile
4th 0.288 0.298 0.421 0.423
Quartile


After narrowing my focus to the past ten seasons (2004-2013), the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quartiles have been performing better against the toughest defenses. However, the top quartile defenses actually improved over the top quartile offenses by lowering the winning percentage of top quartile offenses by six points from .512 to .506. In fact, if I were to narrow my analysis to only the past five seasons (2009-2013), the winning percentage of top quartile offenses against top quartile defenses drops another six points to .500.

So, can we ever answer the age old question? Can you determine whether it’s offense or defense that win Super Bowls when the average result comes down to a coin flip?

THE OFFENSIVE AND DEFESNIVE MAKEUP OF A CHAMPION

The following tables summarize findings from my analysis about the makeup of successful NFL teams. How good are the offenses for teams that make the playoffs? What about for those who eventually win?

Average Offensive Rank

Category

Since 1978

Since 2004

Since 2009

Playoff Teams

10.5

11.2

11.6

Super Bowl Teams

7.8

9.1

8.8

Super Bowl Champions

8.5

10.8

8.5


The results indicate that playoff teams tend to be ranked around 10th or 11th on average for a season in offensive yards gained. As expected, the better offensive teams have more success in the playoffs resulting in Super Bowl participants with offensive ranks 2-3 spots better than the average playoff team. What I didn’t expect was how the average offensive rank of Super Bowl winners would actually increase. Does that mean that the team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy has a better defense?

Next I looked at the same averages but using defensive rank. Do playoff teams typically have better defenses than offenses?

Average Defensive Rank

Category

Since 1978

Since 2004

Since 2009

Playoff Teams

11.1

12.4

13.2

Super Bowl Teams

9.3

12.3

14.8

Super Bowl Champions

7.7

12.9

18.5


Dating back to 1978, playoff teams have a slightly higher average defensive rank than average offensive rank. This holds true for Super Bowl participants as well, but not for Super Bowl champions. Over the past 35 years, the winner on Super Sunday has had a defense ranked one spot better than the offense on average. So defenses do win Super Bowls, but, again, by the slightest of margins. And look at how the defensive ranks have exploded in recent years. The 2009-12 sample is small, but an average rank of 12.9 for the past nine seasons is an indication that the trend is moving away from the top defenses becoming Super Bowl champions.

…BUT WHAT ABOUT GREAT OFFENSES VS. GREAT DEFENSES

The tables above summarized your average playoff team. But this year we aren’t witness to average. The Denver Broncos are the fortunate possessors of an unprecedented offense and the Seattle Seahawks field a punishing and relentless defense reminiscent of some of the NFL’s best.

Since 1978, 38% of playoff games have featured a top quartile offense versus a top quartile defense. Over the same period there have only been five other playoff games to pit a #1 offense in terms of yards gained against a #1 defense in terms of yards allowed. The last time two #1’s squared off in the playoffs was 11 years ago. It also happened to be the last time it occurred in a Super Bowl. Back then, Tampa Bay’s defense outplayed Oakland’s offense to the tune of 48-21.

The first chart below displays the winning percentages for offenses in playoff games since 2004. Note that I have removed results for any scenario where there were less than 10 games in the data. 

Winning Percentage of NFL Offenses Since 2004
Playoffs
         Defense
         1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Quartile Quartile Quartile Quartile
Offense 1st 0.400 0.625 0.471 0.563
Quartile
2nd 0.615 0.682 0.389 0.417
Quartile
3rd 0.476 N/A N/A N/A
Quartile
4th N/A N/A N/A N/A
Quartile


The upper quadrant of the table immediately jumps out. Top quartile offenses have won 40% of playoff games since 2004 against top quartile defenses proving that the best defenses shine through more often against the best offenses. But, interestingly, offenses that are above median (i.e., 1st and 2nd quartile) have had tremendous success in all other situations. 1st quartile offenses have won 62.5% of their games against 2nd quartile defenses and 2nd quartile offenses have won well over 60% of their games against above median defenses. Does the same hold true for Super Bowls?

I have extracted the Super Bowl results from my analysis and summarized the performance of the top quartile offenses and defenses below. Similarly to the chart above, the top quartile offenses seem to have their biggest challenge against the best defensive units. Since 1978, top quartile offenses have been just above .500 (21-20) in Super Bowls; however, they are 14-7 when facing the bottom 75% of NFL defenses.

Win/Loss Record in Super Bowls

Category

Since 1978

Since 2004

Since 2009

Top Quartile Offenses

21-20

4-4

2-1

Top Quartile Defenses

22-15

4-4

1-2

Top Quartile Offenses vs. Top Quartile Defenses

7-13

1-3

0-0

Top Quartile Offenses vs. Bottom 75% of Defenses

14-7

3-1

2-1


In the Super Bowl, top quartile defenses have played better than top quartile offenses. But in the past ten years, the results have been relatively even. However, the best defenses seem to rise up to the challenge when facing the top offenses.

Could there be a lack of preparation when the threat isn’t as high, i.e., when the top defensive units face teams with average offensive production? It sure seems that way based on historical results. Think about how the Buccaneers came ready to face Rich Gannon and the Raiders. Or better yet, how Michael Strahan and the underdog G-Men knocked off the 18-0 Patriots six years ago. But for all these examples, there are instances where top quartile defenses like the 2012 San Francisco 49ers allowed a 16th ranked Ravens offense to put up 34 points. Perhaps the 49ers are more focused and come away with a win last season if Joe Flacco and the Ravens O were more respected.

OFFENSE VS. OFFENSE/DEFENSE VS. DEFENSE

Before drawing final conclusions, I wanted to ignore the offense versus defense matchup for a moment and explain who wins more football games – the better offense or the better defense.

Some questions should be obvious. Who wins more football games when a better offense plays a worse offense? My guess, without running the numbers, is the better offense. But is the winning percentage of better offenses over worse offenses significantly higher or lower than the winning percentage of better defenses over worse defenses?

Winning Percentage of Teams with the Better Offensive Rank

Games

Since 1978

Since 2004

Since 2009

All Regular Season and Playoffs

.623

.637

.632

All Playoffs

.584

.560

.537

Super Bowl

.457

.444

.500


As expected, the better offensive teams tend to win about 60-65% of NFL regular season and playoff games. In addition, these results have not been significantly influenced by the recent offensive trends. It is noteworthy that the winning percentage for the best offenses drops when isolating playoff games from those in the regular season. And what about isolating Super Bowls? Over the past 35 championships, the best offensive team is below .500 with a 16-19 record. The improvement to .500 since 2009 is a bit misleading since the sample size is only four games.

How do these results compare to the same type of analysis on the best defenses? Can the numbers show whether offense or defense win Super Bowls?

Winning Percentage of Teams with the Better Defensive Rank

Games

Since 1978

Since 2004

Since 2009

All Regular Season and Playoffs

.596

.585

.574

All Playoffs

.573

.587

.574

Super Bowl

.629

.444

.250


The regular season record for each game’s best defense is quite a bit lower (.596 versus .623) than the record for each game’s best offense since 1978. Again, the results don’t materially change when narrowing the focus to recent seasons. But haven’t I already assessed that there is a cliff between the top quartile defenses and everyone else? Consequently, the results start looking much different when analyzing playoffs and Super Bowls in isolation. Since 1978, in The Big Game, the best defensive team wins significantly more often than the best offensive team - .629 versus .457. Since 2004, the results for the best defensive teams and the best offensive teams have been identical. It is up to you to decide whether that is attributable to a smaller sample size or the change in direction of NFL football.

Next, I took the results above and only analyzed the performance of the best offensive teams if they were top quartile offenses. Likewise, I did the same for games involving top quartile defenses. The combined regular season and playoff advantage held by the best offenses since 1978 had been cut in half. For playoff games only, the best defensive teams now held a slight lead. And for Super Bowls since 1978, when analyzing games involving top quartile units only, the best offensive teams have held a 14-15 record compared to a 17-10 record for the best defensive teams.

DOES OFFENSE OR DEFENSE WIN SUPER BOWLS?

Over a 16 game regular season, and even into the first few weeks of the playoffs, the level of a team’s offense tends to factor more into the final outcome. But Super Bowls are another story. Once the combatants are the best of the best, the quality of a team’s defense comes through. The best defenses, not only beat the best offenses more often than not in Super Bowls, but they also have success regardless of the level of the opposition’s defense.

It is remarkable that offenses with worse regular season statistics have better results on the game’s biggest stage. How could they win more often against both better offensive teams and top quartile defenses?

So, in the end, defense does win Super Bowls (unless your offense is average). Or, especially, if your offense is average. Everyone knew that the Broncos were in for a world of hurt against Seattle’s D. But does this mean that Denver could be overlooking Seattle’s 18th ranked offense? In six of the past 13 Super Bowls, the winning team has been ranked between 15th and 19th offensively (2000 & 2012 Ravens, 2001 & 2003 Patriots, 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants). And on three occasions over the same period, a #1 offense has lost to offensive units ranked 19th (2001 Patriots over Rams), 24th (2002 Buccaneers over Raiders) and 16th (2007 Giants over Patriots).

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for SportingCharts.com and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

 


TEAM UP