Water Cooler Quarterbacks: Defense Wins Championships?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Does the oft-stated adage hold true in today's NFL?

Recently, we saw the old adage "Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships" raised once again in the course of football discussions as various fans sought to advance their case as to why their teams had the "best" shot at going all the way. It has been seen in various media (print, video, social, etc). It has shown up in casual football conversations.

One of the more interesting things about the saying is that no-one seems to be able to determine exactly where it came from. Some people attribute it to legendary college football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant Jr. It has also been attributed to college basketball coach Dave Thorson. Depending on where you look, you can find other people being given credit for it. The point is, it has become widely used and an often accepted truism -- even in the NFL.

The question raised among the Water Cooler Quarterbacks is "Given the way the NFL is catering to the offensive side of the game -- witness some of the ridiculously biased rules and penalty interpretations (okay, that's a topic for another discussion) -- is that adage particularly applicable in the NFL today?"

We decided to take a look at how the defense has fared of late in championship games -- read, Super Bowl. We decided to look at the last twenty-five Super Bowls (we did not have the time nor the energy to look at all of them). We thought it would be fun to look at the which ranked offenses and defenses made it to the big game.

Now, about the rankings. There is a lot of discussion (or should we say "dispute") about how to rank offenses and defenses in the NFL. Some people advocate using points scored for the offense and points allowed for the defense. The problem with that one is that, for the less research-minded fan, points scored and points allowed lump defensive and special teams scores into those figures. For example, in the game between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins, the Broncos scored 45 points. However, 7 of those points were scored by the defense. Also in that game, Denver gave up 21 points, but 7 of those were scored by the Redskins' defense. So, unless someone wants to take the time to review every score of every game for every team during a season, points scored/allowed is not currently a quick way to take the measure an offense/defense. There are a variety of other options being promoted by various groups and fans.

For this study, we took the easy (read lazy) way out and chose to use the current method used by the NFL for ranking offenses and defenses -- total yards. One of the weaknesses of the method is that it does not account for other important parts of the defense's play, such as interceptions. Example, the Broncos are currently ranked as the #21 defense in the NFL in 2013, yet they are tied with Seattle for 1st place in interceptions. Yes, we agree that it is not the best measure out there, but for the time being it is the simplest. It is also currently the most widely used when talking about ranking offenses/defenses.

Keeping that in mind, we first looked at which teams were ranked #1 in offense and #1 in defense in each of the last twenty-five seasons (2013 excluded). We then looked to see how those teams fared in the post-season. What we found was the following (remember each team is listed as the #1 team in offense or defense based on yards):

#1 Offense & #1 Defense in the Previous 25 Seasons

The #1 offense has made the post season 20 times.

The five exceptions to this were: 2010 San Diego, 2008 New Orleans, 2005 Kansas City, 2004 Kansas City and 2003 Minnesota.

The #1 defense has made the post season 20 times.

The five exceptions to this were: 2012 Pittsburgh, 2010 San Diego, 1998 San Diego, 1991 Philadelphia and 1990 Pittsburgh.

The #1 offense has appeared in 6 Wildcard games. It's record is 3-3.

2011 New Orleans defeated Detroit 45-28
2000 St. Louis lost to New Orleans 28-31
1997 Denver defeated Jacksonville 42-17
1995 Detroit lost to Philadelphia 37-58
1994 Miami defeated Kansas City 27-17
1990 Houston Oilers lost to Cincinnati 14-41

The #1 defense has appeared in 8 Wildcard games. It's record is 2-6.

2011 Pittsburgh lost to Denver 23-29
2009 New York Jets defeated Cincinnati 24-14
2007 Pittsburgh lost to Jacksonville 29-31
2005 Tampa Bay lost to Washington 10-17
2003 Dallas lost to Carolina 10-29
1999 Buffalo lost to Tennessee 16-22
1993 Minnesota lost to New York Giants 10-17
1988 Minnesota defeated Los Angeles Rams 28-17

The #1 offense has appeared in 17 Divisional Round games. It's record is 14-3.

2012 New England defeated Houston Texans 41-28
2011 New Orleans lost to San Francisco 32-36
2009 New Orleans defeated Arizona 45-14
2007 New England defeated Jacksonville 31-20
2006 New Orleans defeated Philadelphia 27-24
2002 Oakland defeated New York Jets 30-10
2001 St. Louis defeated Green Bay 45-17
1999 St. Louis defeated Minnesota 49-37
1998 Minnesota defeated Arizona 41-21
1997 Denver defeated Kansas City 14-10
1996 Denver lost to Jacksonville 27-30
1994 Miami lost to San Diego 21-22
1993 San Francisco defeated New York Giants 44-3
1992 San Francisco defeated Washington 20-13
1991 Buffalo defeated Kansas City 37-14
1989 San Francisco defeated Minnesota 41-13
1988 Cincinnati defeated Seattle 21-13

The #1 defense has appeared in 14 Divisional Round games. It's record is 9-5.

2009 New York Jets defeated San Diego 17-14
2008 Pittsburgh defeated San Diego 35-24
2006 Baltimore lost to Indianapolis 6-15
2004 Pittsburgh defeated New York Jets 20-17
2002 Tampa Bay defeated San Francisco 31-6
2001 Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 27-10
2000 Tennessee lost to Baltimore 10-24
1997 San Francisco defeated Minnesota 38-22
1996 Green Bay defeated San Francisco 35-14
1995 San Francisco lost to Green Bay 17-27
1994 Dallas defeated Green Bay 35-9
1992 Dallas defeated Philadelphia 34-10
1989 Minnesota lost to San Francisco 13-41
1988 Minnesota lost to San Francisco 9-34

The #1 offense has appeared in 14 Conference Championship games. It's record is 9-5.

2012 New England lost to Baltimore 13-28
2009 New Orleans defeated Minnesota 31-28
2007 New England defeated Jacksonville 31-20
2006 New Orleans lost to Chicago 14-39
2002 Oakland defeated Tennessee 41-24
2001 St. Louis defeated Philadelphia 29-24
1999 St. Louis defeated Tampa Bay 11-6
1998 Minnesota lost to Atlanta 27-30
1997 Denver defeated Pittsburgh 24-21
1993 San Francisco lost to Dallas 21-38
1992 San Francisco lost to Dallas 20-30
1991 Buffalo defeated Denver 10-7
1989 San Francisco defeated Los Angeles Rams 30-3
1988 Cincinnati defeated Buffalo 21-10

The #1 defense has appeared in 9 Conference Championship games. It's record is 4-5.

2009 New York Jets lost to Indianapolis 17-30
2008 Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-14
2004 Pittsburgh lost to New England 27-41
2002 Tampa Bay defeated Philadelphia 27-10
2001 Pittsburgh lost to New England 17-24
1997 San Francisco lost to Green Bay 10-23
1996 Green Bay defeated Carolina 30-13
1994 Dallas lost to San Francisco 28-38
1992 Dallas defeated San Francisco 30-20

The #1 offense has appeared in 9 Super Bowls. It's record is 5-4.

2009 New Orleans defeated Indianapolis 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV
2007 New England lost to New York Giants 14-17 in Super Bowl XLII
2002 Oakland lost to Tampa Bay 21-48 in Super Bowl XXXVII
2001 St. Louis lost to New England 17-20 in Super Bowl XXXVI
1999 St. Louis defeated Tennessee 23-16 in Super Bowl XXXIV
1997 Denver defeated Green Bay 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII
1991 Buffalo lost to Washington 24-37 in Super Bowl XXVI
1989 San Francisco defeated Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV
1988 Cincinnati lost to San Francisco 16-20 in Super Bowl XXIII

The #1 defense has appeared in 4 Super Bowls. It's record is 4-0.

2008 Pittsburgh defeated Arizona 27-23 in Super Bowl XLIII
2002 Tampa Bay defeated Oakland 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII
1996 Green Bay defeated New England 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI
1992 Dallas defeated Buffalo 52-17 in Super Bowl XXVII

It's tempting to say at this point that the #1 ranked offense is twice as likely to get a team into the Super Bowl than the #1 ranked defense. It would also be easy to argue that if and when the #1 ranked defense reaches the Super Bowl, it will win the game. While technically accurate, neither of these statements captures the whole picture that is the Super Bowl. Think about it -- the #1 offense and the #1 defense have a combined twelve appearances in the last twenty-five Super Bowls. That is less than half the championship games that have been played. This raises the question of what were the rankings of the other teams that have made it to the Super Bowl.

Who ELSE has made the Super Bowl?

The data shown above only accounts for half of the last twenty-five Super Bowls, do the question becomes which offenses and defenses HAVE made the Super Bowl? More importantly, who has won the Super Bowls -- in terms of relative offensive and defensive rankings. We looked at four situations:

1)The winning team's offense ranking was higher than the loser's defense AND the winner's defense was ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened five times.

1999 SB XXXIV St. Louis had the #1 ranked offense versus Tennessee's #17 ranked defense


The Rams had the #6 ranked defense versus the Titans' #13 ranked offense
1996 SB XXXI Green Bay had the #5 ranked offense versus New England's #19 ranked defense


The Packers had the #1 ranked defense versus the Patriots' #7 ranked offense
1994 SB XXIX San Francisco had the #2 ranked offense versus San Diego's #14 ranked defense


The 49ers had the #8 ranked defense versus the Chargers' #11 ranked offense
1992 SB XXVII Dallas had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #12 ranked defense


The Cowboys had the #1 ranked defense versus the Bills' #2 ranked offense
1989 SB XXIV San Francisco had the #1ranked offense versus Denver's #3 ranked defense


The 49ers had the #4 ranked defense versus the Broncos' #15 ranked offense

2)The winner's offense was ranked higher than the loser's defense but the winner's defense was not ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened ten times.

2011 SB XLVI New York Giants had the #8 ranked offense versus New England's #31 ranked defense


The Giants had the #27 ranked defense versus the Patriots' #2 ranked offense
2009 SB XLIV New Orleans had the #1 ranked offense versus Indianapolis' #18 ranked defense


The Saints had the #25 ranked defense versus the Colts' #9 ranked offense
2006 SB XLI Indianapolis had the #3 ranked offense versus Chicago's #5 ranked defense


The Colts had the #21 ranked defense versus the Bears' #15 ranked offense
2005 SB XL Pittsburgh had the #15 ranked offense versus Seattle's #17 ranked defense


The Steelers had the #4 ranked defense versus the Seahawks' #2 ranked offense
2004 SB XXXIX New England had the #7 ranked offense versus Philadelphia's #10 ranked defense


The Patriots had the #9 ranked defense versus the Eagles' #9 ranked offense*
1998 SB XXXIII Denver had the #3 ranked offense versus Atlanta's #8 ranked defense


The Broncos had the #11 ranked defense versus the Falcons' #7 ranked offense
1997 SB XXXII Denver had the #1 ranked offense versus Green Bay's #7 ranked defense


The Broncos had the #5 ranked defense versus the Packers' #4 ranked offense
1993 SB XXVIII Dallas had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #27 ranked defense


The Cowboys had the #10 ranked defense versus the Bills' #6 ranked offense
1991 SB XXVI Washington had the #4 ranked offense versus Buffalo's #27 ranked defense


The Redskins had the #3 ranked defense versus the Bills' #1 ranked offense
1988 SB XXIII San Francisco had the #2 ranked offense versus Cincinnati's #15 ranked defense


The 49ers had the #3 ranked defense versus the Bengals #1 ranked offense

3)The winner's defense was ranked higher than the loser's offense but the winner's offense was not ranked higher than the loser's defense. This has happened five times.

2010 SB XLV Green Bay had the #5 ranked defense versus Pittsburgh's #14 ranked offense


The Packers had the #9 ranked offense versus the Steelers' #2 ranked defense
2008 SB XLIII Pittsburgh had the #1 ranked defense versus Arizona's #4 ranked offense


The Steelers had the #22 ranked offense versus the Cardinals' #19 ranked defense
2003 SB XXXVIII New England had the #7 ranked defense versus Carolina's #16 ranked offense


The Patriots had the #17 ranked offense versus the Panthers' #8 ranked defense
2000 SB XXXV Baltimore had the #2 ranked defense versus New York Giants' #13 ranked offense


The Ravens had the #16 ranked offense versus the Giants' #5 ranked defense
1990 SB XXV The New York Giants had the #2 ranked defense versus Buffalo's #6 ranked offense


The Giants had the #17 ranked offense versus the Bills #8 ranked defense

4)The winner's offense was not ranked higher than the loser's defense AND the winner's defense was not ranked higher than the loser's offense. This has happened five times.

2012 SB XLVII Baltimore had the #16 ranked offense versus San Francisco's #3 ranked defense


The Ravens had the #17 ranked defense versus the 49ers' #11 ranked offense
2007 SB XLII The New York Giants had the #16 ranked offense versus New England's #4 ranked defense


The Giants had the #7 ranked defense versus New England's #1 ranked offense
2002 SB XXXVII Tampa Bay had the #24 ranked offense versus Oakland's #11 ranked defense


The Buccaneers had the #1 ranked defense versus Oakland's #1 ranked offense *
2001 SB XXXVI New England had the #19 ranked offense versus St. Louis' #3 ranked defense


The Patriots had the #24 ranked defense versus the Rams' #1 ranked offense
1995 SB XXX Dallas had the #5 ranked offense versus Pittsburgh's #3 ranked defense


The Cowboys had the #9 ranked defense versus the Steelers' #6 ranked offense

*We considered ties in rankings as not being better than the other team.

One final observation. We have listed the scores from each of the last twenty-five Super Bowls below:

2012 XLVII Bal 34 SF 31
2011 XLVI NYG 21 NE 17
2010 XLV GB 31 PIt 25
2009 XLIV NO 31 Ind 17
2008 XLIII Pit 27 Ari 23
2007 XLII NYG 17 NE 14
2006 XLI Ind 29 Chi 17
2005 XL Pit 21 Sea 10
2004 XXXIX NE 24 Phi 21
2003 XXXVIII NE 32 Car 29
2002 XXXVII TB 48 Oak 21
2001 XXXVI NE 20 StL 17
2000 XXXV Bal 34 NYG 7
1999 XXXIV StL 23 Ten 16
1998 XXXIII Den 34 Atl 19
1997 XXXII Den 31 GB 24
1996 XXXI GB 35 NE 21
1995 XXX Dal 27 Pit 17
1994 XXIX SF 49 SD 26
1993 XXVIII Dal 20 Buf 13
1992 XXVII Dal 52 Buf 17
1991 XXVI Was 37 Buf 24
1990 XXV NYG 20 Buf 19
1989 XXIV SF 55 Den 10
1988 XXIII SF 20 Cin 16

The winning team has scored 20 or more points in 24 of the 25 contests.
The winning team has scored 30 or more points in 14 of the 25 games.
The winning team has scored 40 or more points in 4 of the 25 contests.
The winning team has scored 50 or more points in 2 of the 25 games.

The losing team has score 20 or more points in 10 of the 25 contests.
The losing team has scored 30 or more points in 1 of the 25 games.

If we adjust the scores by removing points scored by the defense/special teams, the ratios become this:

The winning team scored 20 or more points in 19 of the 25 contests.
The winning team scored 30 or more points in 8 of the 25 games.
The winning team scored 40 or more points in 3 of the 25 contests.
The winning team scored 50 or more points in 1 of the 25 games.

The losing team scored 20 or more points in 8 of the 25 games.

More importantly, the defensive/special teams scores only directly affected the outcome in four of the Super Bowls.

SB XLVII Baltimore scored 7 defensive points, San Francisco gained 2 points on a safety. Without those
scores, the 49ers would have won the game 29-27.

SB XLV Green Bay gained 7 defensive points. Without them, Pittsburgh would have won 25-24.

SB XLIII Pittsburgh gained 7 defensive points and Arizona gained 2 points from a safety. Without them
Arizona would have won that game 21-20.

SB XXXVI New England gained 7 defensive points. Without them, St. Louis would have won that game 17-13.



When all of this information overload was said and done, we came to a very simple conclusion: the very arbitrary offensive and defensive rankings used by the NFL and other sources, for all intents and purposes, do not really mean squat (one of the other Water Cooler Quarterback's term, not mine). It was our impression that winning the Super Bowl has more to do with match-ups and the ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented -- both during the regular season and in the post-season -- than it does with arbitrary rankings.

Think about it, the so-called #1 offense and the #1 defense have only managed to appear in a combined thirteen of the last twenty-five Super Bowls -- in other words, just over half the time. While teams with radically low rankings have often gone on to win the Super Bowl -- New England, for example, won Super Bowl XXXVI with the #19 ranked offense and the #24 ranked defense, despite their opponent -- St. Louis -- have the the #1 ranked offense and the #3 ranked defense.

What it really boils down to is our belief that until such time as someone creates a metric that is able to account for all of the contributions of each unit (offense, defense, special teams) and how those contributions impact the play of each of the other units, then the idea of ranking the units is rather meaningless. Winning or losing in the playoffs can have as much to do with sheer dumb luck -- Pre-Tuck Rule anyone? -- as it does with so-called rankings.

As a result, we tend to doubt the oft-repeated truism "Defense wins championships."


The Water Cooler Quarterbacks wish you another great weekend of football.

Go Broncos!!!!!!!

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