NFL

What Wins Super Bowls: Offense vs. Defense

As the legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant put it, “offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” Nowadays, every coach around the entire sports landscape puts it, “offense wins games, defense wins championships.” It’s always been a guideline to building championship teams, and it makes sense. It doesn’t matter how many points you score if the other team can’t score you’re going to win. What I set out to find is if that rings true with teams that have made the Super Bowl, and what is really more important when it comes to winning the Super Bowl, offense or defense.

I took every team that made the Super Bowl and looked at four-team stats for each one. I looked at where they ranked in the regular season in points scored, yards gained, points were given up, and yards gave up. Obviously, there are some more variables than that and more advanced metrics, but these stats give a general idea of how good each team’s offense and defense were. I’ll be going decade by decade breaking down whether offense or defense was more important to the Super Bowl-winning teams in each era.

(Disclaimer: I want to point out that the teams will be sorted based on the year of the season not the year of the Super Bowl. For example, The Patriots won last years Super Bowl in 2019, but the entire regular season was in 2018, so they will be referred to as the 2018 Patriots)

The 70s (1970-1979) 

As you may have noticed I’m starting in the 1970 season, but the Super Bowl started in the 1966 season, with the first Super Bowl being played in 1967. The reason for this is that the first four Super Bowls were between the champions of the NFL and AFL, so the team’s offensive and defensive ranking was only weighed against each team respected league. In order to keep things simple, I’ll be starting with the 1970 season when the NFL and AFL merged into one league and rankings was combined. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get into what was truly more important in the 70s offense or defense.

The Best of the Best

One big thing that jumps out when looking at the stats is how incredibly dominant, on both sides of the ball, the Super Bowl winners were during this era. Every single winner was at least a top-six scoring offense including three number one offenses. The only number one offense to not win the Super Bowl this decade was the 1978 Cowboys who lost to a Steelers team ranked number one in defense. Conversely, eight of the Super Bowl winners were in the top three in either point allowed or yards allowed with six of them being top-five defenses. The only Super Bowl winner that wasn’t a top ten offense and defense was the 1976 Raiders who were ranked 12th in points allowed and 18th in yards allowed. Only two winners were statistically worse than their opponent going into the Super Bowl, the 1970 Colts and the 1978 Steelers. I know it may be redundant to say, but considering what future decades have shown, this was an era where the best team coming into the Super Bowl consistently won the Super Bowl.

Defense Made Championships

Of the 20 teams that made the Super Bowl this decade 19 of them were top 10 defenses, with 13 of them being top three scoring defenses. Only twice did the better defensive team not win the Super Bowl. The 1976 Vikings with a top-five defense lost to the 1976 Raiders who themselves had a top-five offense, and the 1970 Cowboys lost to the 1970 Colts. While the scoring defense was more relevant in who would make the Super Bowl what seemed more important in who would win is yards allowed. Eight of the winning teams were top four in yards allowed with only three of the losing teams being in the top four.

Offense Won Championships

There’s no denying it, in the 70s offense reigned supreme. Most importantly though scoring offense if what sealed the deal for most. Eight of the ten winners had stronger scoring offenses with the remaining two, the 1974 and 1978 Steelers, going up against a number five and one ranked scoring offense. Each winner was also top nine in yards gained although that didn’t seem to be as big of a factor given the fact the team that was better at yards gained only won fifty percent of the time. A lot of these teams also had strong defenses, but their opponents had nearly equal quality defenses, and the deciding factor in most games was who had a stronger offense. The only time a number one offense didn’t win, the 1978 Cowboys, was when they were up against the 1978 Steelers who had the number one defense and a top-six offense.

1970s Assorted Trivia

  • Teams ranked number one in any of the stats went a combined 6-1. Only the number one ranked 1978 Cowboys scoring offense didn’t win.
  • Teams that led in points scored won the most out of any stat at 8-2
  • Three teams won eight of the ten Super Bowls. (Steelers 4, Cowboys 2, Dolphins 2)
  • The 1972 Dolphins were the only team in the history of the Super Bowl to be the top-ranked team in all four stats.
  • Three times in four years the Vikings made the Super Bowl ranked in the top three in points allowed, but only once had a higher ranked defense than their opponent. (1976)
  • Outside of the 1972 Dolphins, only the 1979 Steelers were better at all four stats than their opponent. (1979 Rams)

1970s Verdict

Offense

This is one of the tougher decades to decide since most teams that made the Super Bowl were strong on both sides of the ball. Although, I’d have to say that offense was more of a deciding factor in who won the Super Bowl for this decade. The reason being that the team with the stronger offense won eight times compared to the stronger defense winning seven times. The deciding factor is, most of these offenses had strong defenses, but when looking at the stats everyone had strong defenses, and it was the team with the more powerful offense that won more often than not. This was the era that had the best teams all around because as you will see in later years a lot more teams will make the Super Bowl being carried by either offense or defense.

The 80s (1980-1989)

If You’re First You’re Last…On Offense

Being a top-ranked offense was almost a curse in the 80s. Three teams came into the Super Bowl ranked number one in both points scored and yards gained, the 1984 Dolphins, 1988 Bengals, and the 1989 49ers, and only the 49ers actually won the Super Bowl. The 1983 Redskins had a number one scoring offense but lost to a Raiders team that ranked 13th in points allowed. Also, the 1981 Bengals and the 1987 Broncos both had top-five offenses and lost. What all these losing teams have in common is that each of them had a defense ranked outside the top ten. It seemed in the 80s teams would get carried by a strong offense, and eventually hit a wall when faced with a tough defense.

Defensive Powerhouses

In the 80s, the main difference between the winning teams and losing teams is that while both teams had strong offenses the winning team almost always had a strong defense. The winning team had a stronger defense in eight of the ten games with only the 1980 Raiders and 1989 49ers being the exception. Also, in the 1989 49ers case, they were a top-four defense they just happened to be up against the 1989 Broncos and their number one ranked defense. Three of the losing teams had top-ranked defenses as well, the 1980 Eagles, 1982 Dolphins, and the 1989 Broncos, and only the 1980 Eagles weren’t up against a team with a top-three defense.

1980s Assorted Trivia

  • Teams that led in points scored went 2-7. (I didn’t count the 1987 Redskins and Broncos because they were equally ranked)
  • Only two teams were better at every stat than their opponent, the 1980 Eagles, and the 1985 Bears, and both faced teams that didn’t rank in the top five in any stat, the 1980 Raiders, and 1985 Patriots. Despite this, only the 1985 Bears ended up winning.
  • Only once did the number one offense play the number one defense the 1989 49ers and Broncos, and the number offense won.
  • For the second decade in a row, three teams won eight of the ten Super Bowls. (49ers 4, Redskins 2, Raiders 2)
  • Six teams occupied 16 of the 20 total Super Bowl appearances. (49ers 4, Redskins 3, Broncos 3, Raiders 2, Dolphins 2, Bengals 2)
  • Twice the Bengals entered the Super Bowl with a top-ranked offense and both times had defenses ranked outside the top ten.
  • The Broncos made the Super Bowl three times in four years and went from not having either a top offense or defense, to a top-three offense the next year, and then shifted gears two years later with a top-ranked defense without a top ten offense.

Verdict

Defense

The defense was overwhelmingly the strongest factor in Super Bowl wins for this decade. Every team that won had a top ten defense including six with top three defenses. To drive the point home even further multiple top-ranked offenses lost due to having weaker defenses, and being stacked up against teams with defenses of equal caliber to their offense. Also, five of the losing teams had defenses ranked outside the top ten. Multiple top offenses did win, but all were accompanied by top-ranked defenses.

The 90s (1990-1999)

The Best Team Always Won

Compared to every other decade the 90s had by far the least amount of parity in who won. Nine out of the ten winners were better at three or more stats with only the 1990 Giants being better at just defense compared to the top-ranked offense of the 1990 Bills. Nine of the winning teams had top three ranked offenses, and eight had top-five defenses. Only the 1990 Giants didn’t have a top ten offense and defense.

Weaker Defenses Aplenty

For the first time, we start to see teams making the Super Bowl with not just bad defenses but bottom five defenses. In the 80s we saw a couple of teams outside the top ten but were all within the top half in defense. Now the Bills made the Super Bowl twice with a defense that ranked 27th in yards allowed. The 1996 Patriots also made the Super Bowl with a bottom half defense ranked 14th in points allowed and 19th in yard allowed. None of the losing teams’ defenses ranked in the top five with six of them being outside the top ten. In this decade the losing teams were giving up a lot of yards with only the 1995 Steelers being within the top six. The winning teams were also giving up a lot of yards with four of them being outside the top seven in yards allowed.

1990s Assorted Trivia

  • 14 of the 20 teams were in the top three in points scored with 17 of them being in the top five.
  • The Bills lost four straight Super Bowls from 1990-1993 and three times had a number one ranked offense.
  • The 1990 Giants were the only team to not have a top ten offense
  • Only twice did the number one defense make the Super Bowl. (1996 Packers and 1990 Giants)
  • Four teams were better at every stat than their opponent. (1993 Cowboys, 1994 49ers, 1996 Packers, and 1999 Rams)
  • All ten of the losing teams were in the top seven in points scored with eight of them being in the top five.
  • The 1996 Packers are the only team ever to be ranked number one in three stats. (Excluding the 1972 Dolphins who were number one in all four stats)
  • The 1997 Packers and 1998 Falcons were the only two losing teams with top-five defenses and they both lost to the Broncos despite each having top five offenses as well.

Verdict

Offense

It was pretty much equal on if offense or defense was the deciding factor since almost every winning team was better at both. The only reason offense takes it is because, for the most part, the teams that won had stronger offenses than defense. Although the argument could be made that they all needed their strong defense more since all the losing teams had strong offenses, weak defenses. Keeping this in mind, the offense still gets the edge due to nine of the winning teams having the top four offenses while only four of them had top-four defenses.

The 2000s (2000-2009)

Extreme Parity

The new millennium ushered in an NFL where you could be bottom 20 in offense or defense and still make the Super Bowl. Unlike the previous three decades where, for the most part, you saw the best teams make the Super Bowl. In the 2000s every team that made the playoffs had a legitimate shot at making it to the Super Bowl. Nine of the ten Super Bowls featured a team that wasn’t top ten in offense or defense and six of them where both teams were outside the top ten in offense or defense. Super Bowl XXXIX was the only Super Bowl this decade to have both teams, the 2003 Patriots and Eagles, in the top ten of offense and defense.

Defense Carried Offense…Except for Teams with HOF QBs

Unless your team had Drew Brees or a Manning brother, your only hope of winning a Super Bowl this decade was having a higher ranked scoring defense than your opponent. The only three teams that had a weaker scoring defense than their opponent were the 2006 Colts, 2007 Giants, and 2009 Saints. All of which had a Manning Brother or Drew Brees. The only other team besides those three that didn’t have a stronger defense that their opponent was the 2001 Patriots who also had a Hall of Fame Quarterback in Tom Brady.

Top Ranked Offense Means Nothing

Five times this decade the top ranked offense went up against a middle of the road to bottom feeder level offense and the the weaker offensive team won all five. Only twice did the winning team have a top ranked offense, the 2006 Colts and 2009 Saints. Only two of the losing teams had an offense ranked outside the top 10 while only three of the winning teams had an offense ranked inside the top 10.

2000s Assorted Trivia

  • Only two teams were better at all four stats than their opponents, the 2004 Patriots and the 2007 Patriots, with only the 2004 Patriots coming up with the win.
  • The team with the best scoring defense went 7-3 while the team that put up the most offensive yards went 3-7
  • Number one offenses went 1-3 while number one defenses went 4-0
  • The Patriots made four Super Bowls and the only time they lost was when they had a number one offense. Every time they won they had a stronger defense than offense.
  • Seven of the Super Bowl winners this decade didn’t even have an offense ranked in the top half of the league
  • The 2008 Steelers had the worst offense to ever make the Super Bowl, with a 20th ranked scoring offense and a 22nd ranked offense in yards gained. With their number one defense they beat the 2008 Cardinals who had the third worst defense to ever make the Super Bowl, with a 28th ranked scoring defense and a defense ranked 19th yards allowed.

Verdict

Defense

This one is a no brainer. Having a stronger defense was by far the most deciding factor in who would win the Super Bowl this decade. With the only exception being have a Hall of Fame level quarterback. Only two of the winning teams had top five offenses with seven of the winners having top five defenses. Only three times did the better offensive team win and only one of them went up against a top five defense. With so much parity in who would make the Super Bowl this decade there was very little parity in the deciding factor of the winning team.

The 2010s (2010-2019)

Middle of the Pack

Now we are finally in the current decade, and similar to the 2000s any team that made the playoffs had a legitimate shot at making the Super Bowl. The only difference being that while some bad defenses did make the Super Bowl a lot of mediocre offense and defenses made the Super Bowl. Of the 20 teams that made the Super Bowl 14 of them had either and offense or defense ranked outside the top 10. Only three teams this decade ranked in the top 10 in every stat, the 2010 Packers, 2016 patriots, and 2017 Eagles. All of which ended up winning the Super Bowl, and all beat a team that was number one in either offense of defense.

Number One Failures

Compared to any other decade being number one at either offense or defense seemed to be many teams downfall. Of the eight teams that entered the Super Bowl ranked number one in offense or defense only one of them actually won the Super Bowl, the 2013 Seahawks, where they beat the 2013 Broncos who had the number one offense. Five teams entered with top two offenses and all lost due to having bottom half defenses.

Shift in Power

One of the most interesting stats from this decade is that half way through there was a complete shift in who would win. From 2010 to 2014 the weaker team in most stats was winning the Super Bowl, but then in 2015 it immediately became whoever had the stronger defense would win. In fact the last four year all four losers were ranked number one or two in scoring offense.

2010s Assorted Trivia

  • Not one team this decade was better at three or more stats won. Every team that was better at three or more stats went 0-5.
  • This decade provided the two worst defenses to ever make the Super Bowl, the 2011 Giants and 2016 Falcons.
  • The Patriots made five Super Bowls this decade going 3-2 and in their two loses they ranked 29th and 31st in yards allowed. Being the only two teams to ever be ranked 29th or lower in a stat and make the Super Bowl.
  • Six of the ten games featured a team that was number one in one of the four stats.
  • The 2011 Giants are statically the worst team to ever make the Super Bowl with a barely top 10 offense and a bottom 20s defense.

Verdict

Defense

The 2010s was overwhelmingly in favor of the defense. While three top ranked defenses did lose, six of the other seven winners were all stronger defenses. What makes defense the stand out winner of this decade is that six top ranked offenses lost while only two of the winners were top five offenses. Only one winner was stronger on offense, the 2010 Packers. It seems that the consistent exception to the rule is have a Hall of Fame quarterback in the case of the 2011 Giants and 2014 Patriots. The only true outlier is the 2012 Raven who were weaker in all stats except points scored with their 10th ranking compared to the 49ers 11th ranking. There’s still one Super Bowl left this decade, while I cannot predict who will make the Super Bowl it’s a safe bet that the better defensive team will win.

Overall Winner

Defense

It seems as if the old saying was correct, but should be modified a bit to say “Offense gets you to a championship, but defense wins you one.” Although it’s easier to make the championship with a strong offense, unless you have a Hall of Fame quarterback leading you, the better defensive team will most likely win. Out of all the Super Bowls the strongest defensive teams had a record of 34-17, so without a doubt I can say defense wins championships. Going into Super Bowl 2020 there are only two teams with top 10 defenses the Ravens and 49ers, so smart money is on one of them to come out on top.

Predicting Super Bowl 2020

I know i just said I cannot predict the Super Bowl matchup, but I’m going to anyways based entirely off the metrics I used for this article. This is being written prior to the Divisional Round so there are eight teams left. Based on what has happened in this decade the strongest offenses constantly go far in the playoffs. So the winners of the divisional games will most likley be the Ravens, Chiefs, 49ers, and Seahawks. Then the two strongest offenses left are the Ravens and 49ers, so the Super Bowl will most likely be those two. Then once it’s the Super Bowl the strongest defense wins, and in this case it’s the Ravens. Ranking top five in every stat, it is most likely the Ravens will end up beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Although there is a case for both the Seahawks and Packers to make the Super Bowl. The last three seasons the Super Bowl featured a defense ranked in the 20s which the Seahawks have. What makes me believe the Seahawks won’t make it is that all those bottom 20s defenses were accompanied by number one offenses which the Seahawks do not have. What makes the Packers a possibility is the one consistent exception to all the stats, and that’s a Hall of Fame quarterback which the Packers have in Aaron Rodgers. Although the Packers defense seems a little too weak to take on the 49ers offense, so the safest bet is still the 49ers.

If you want to look at all the numbers on a spreadsheet I provided a link to all the stats below.

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