If you’re not interested in football you might not realise that during the NFL season I write a weekly column called Friday Morning Tight End for nfluk.com. Because there were no games to preview last week, and because this year’s Super Bowl matches up two teams that play extremely physically up front, I used the extra space to discuss the old issue of whether a good defense beats a good offense. This week’s FMTE column, with a Super Bowl preview and an analysis of the NFL’s Deer Hunter, Ray Lewis, will be up at nfluk.com tomorrow…
Around Super Bowl time, some fogeys older than myself like to quote the old adage that says ‘defense wins championships’. They also say you need an ‘elite’ quarterback or an ‘elite’ running back to win, and that’s easily disproved. Although we think of teams with ‘great’ defenses, and remember the Super Bowls they have won, few Super Bowls match great offenses vs great defenses, and of the recent games where you might argue defense did win it, you could only call two or three of those teams great defenses (2000 Ravens, 2002 Bucs, maybe 2005 Steelers). We look at the adage when we see great offenses getting stopped by less than immortal defenses: the Patriots beating the Rams, the Giants doing it twice to the Pats. And you can certainly argue that the Saints beat the Colts because they played better defense. Super Bowl winners generally don’t establish any trend at all, though in any game you can always try to say the winning team played better defense. But did defense win the championship?
The guys who claim it does often quote the table of the highest-scoring teams in NFL history. They’ll tell you that, in the Super Bowl era, there were 28 teams that averaged 30 points per game or more, and only five won the Super Bowl. Interestingly, in the pre-Super Bowl era the numbers were 7 of 23, including the highest-scoring team of all time, the 1950 Rams, who averaged 38.8 ppg, went 9-3, and lost the NFL title game. In the Super Bowl era, the highest scoring teams are the 2007 Pats (36.8), 2011 Packers (35.0), 2012 Pats (34.8) 1998 Vikes (34.75),and the 2011 Saints 34.2. None of them won the Super Bowl; in fact only the 2007 Pats even made it to the big game. Note that the 07 Pats and 98 Vikes had something in common, besides not winning the Super Bowl, namely Randy Moss, who happens to be playing for the Niners this season.
Consider the 1948 Cardinals, who averaged 32.9 points per game, but lost the NFL championship to the Steve Van Buren Eagles 7-0. Did they lose because defense beat offense? Those Eagles averaged 31.2 points per game, themselves, and the one-touchdown game was due more to the awful weather conditions than anything else. Were these teams high-scoring because the AAFC was draining off a lot of the better players from the NFL (they would merge in 1950)? You always have to account for context; thus it’s no coincidence four of the top five scoring teams of the Super Bowl era played in the past five seasons.
Context is even more important when you do what few pundits sever bother to do, and reverse the equation. If defense wins championships, how come the stingiest D of all time, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons, allowing only 9.2 ppg, went 7-7 and didn’t even make the playoffs? The best of the Steel Curtain teams, the ’76 Steelers, allowing only 9.9 ppg, shutting out five of their last eight opponents and holding two of the other three to a field goal, went 10-4 and lost the Conference championship 24-7 to the Raiders. It’s context again; of the ten ‘best’ defenses of the Super Bowl era, in terms of points per game allowed, nine played between 1968 and 1977—after which point Bill Walsh and the competition committee relaxed the blocking rules, reduced contact on receivers, and made the West Coast offense possible. So those teams were losing to each other, or to teams that allowed 11 or 12 points a game, like the 66 Packers or the 72 and 73 Dolphins.
Indeed, of the 30 defenses, 12 either didn’t make the playoffs at all or lost in the first round. So considering their era, the 2000 Ravens, tied for eighth best with the ’68 Colts (who lost the Super Bowl to the Jets), have a great argument to be considered the best defense ever, especially when you realise their so-called pathetic offense (which still averaged 20.8ppg) allowed two touchdowns, which means their D actually gave up only 9.2 ppg, same as the ’77 Falcons, in a much more high-scoring league. A similar argument might be made for the ’85 Bears, who allowed 12.4 ppg but averaged 28.5 and won the Super Bowl, or the 2002 Bucs, who allowed 12.3 and won the Super Bowl.
This suggests balance is important. But even when you look at the teams with the biggest scoring differentials, only one of the top five won a Super Bowl (the ’99 Rams, averaging 32.9 ppg and allowing 15.1). The 2007 Pats were the best (36.8-17.1, 19.7 differential) followed by the ’68 Colts, the ’99 Rams, the ’69 Vikes and the ’68 Cowboys. The Rams were the only ones who won the big game. However five of the next six on the list were Lombardi Trophy winners. We are, however, entering an area where there is an element of the tautological—good teams win because they have big winning margins sounds like the kind of thing Bill Belichick says at post-game press conferences.

When Peyton Manning’s Colts used to fail in the playoffs, fingers were pointed at their defense, but the reality was their losses came when their offense couldn’t function normallyt; the same thing the Ravens did to the Pats Sunday (they lost this season to the Ravens twice, the Cards, the Seahawks, and the Niners, all physical defenses, and four of them birds). In Tom Brady’s playoff wins, the Pats have averaged 27.5 points, in their losses only 18. For Manning the split is even higher, 31.4 in wins, 16.1 in losses. This year the Broncos allowed 19.2 ppg, the Pats 21.5, and both fell to the Ravens, who allowed Denver’s offense only 21 points, and the Pats only 13.

The adage makes more sense the way Jim Criner once said it to me, ‘offense wins games, defense wins championships’, meaning (I think) that a good defense could always stop an offense, whereas a good offense might not always be able to top a defense. Think about it in the context of the Patriots-Ravens game last Sunday. The Pats scored a lot of points this year, but their offense was largely horizontal, especially without Gronk. So a typical Patriots’ drive contained a lot of plays, and required a good deal of precision. Watching them run hurry-up on teams like Houston was a thing of beauty. But if you have to be precise on six, or eight, or ten plays, it only requires the defense to upset that precision once, or twice, in order to stop your drive. The Ravens, by playing a lot of nickel, with Haloti Ngata at the nose, weren’t as bothered by the hurry-up, and their physical dominance made them less vulnerable to the runs, and allowed them to disrupt enough plays to force the Pats out of their comfort zone. I’m convinced Wes Welker was concussed by Bernard Pollard with the hit just before he made a crucial third-down drop; Welker also seemed to be favouring his ribs. Tom Brady was clearly thinking about hits when he collapsed after running into the umpire, when he slid rather than try to get out of bounds at the end of the first half, and when he threw a ball away on fourth down rather than try to evade Ngata. The Ravens took the Pats out of their timing, and the Pats made enough mistakes themselves to ‘prove’ yet again, as Peter King might say, I’m not saying defense does win championships, but defense won this one. Or maybe it was the Ravens’ offense. And Jim, at least until the Super Bowl, was right.