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Is an elite defense enough to win a Super Bowl title?

Through five games, our defense have been elite. Let's look at some NFL history to see how we compare to other great defenses - and more importantly, to see if an elite defense and average offense is enough to bring the Lombardi trophy home.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I'm only going to look back as far as 1990. The NFL has changed dramatically in the past 25 seasons and going back further leads to a great many apples-to-oranges comparisons. We have only allowed 79 points in five games (15.8 ppg). I am not (and will not be) correcting for TDs that the offense directly allowed. There have been 153 teams that have allowed 80 or fewer points in the first five games since 1990. 139 of those teams had a winning record (91%) and 25 of those teams started the season 5-0 while 68 of them started 4-1.

80 points allowed in five games is an average of 16 points per game. That would be 256 over the entire regular season. There have been 68 teams since 1990 who have allowed 256 or fewer points in the regular season. The only Denver team to show up on this full list is the 1991 team. Below are the top 10 (PD = point difference, PC = combined points) .

Tm Year G W L T W-L% PF PA ▾ PD PC
BAL 2000 16 12 4 0 0.75 333 165 168 498
TEN 2000 16 13 3 0 0.813 346 191 155 537
TAM 2002 16 12 4 0 0.75 346 196 150 542
BAL 2006 16 13 3 0 0.813 353 201 152 554
CHI 2005 16 11 5 0 0.688 260 202 58 462
NOR 1992 16 12 4 0 0.75 330 202 128 532
CHI 2001 16 13 3 0 0.813 338 203 135 541
CLE 1994 16 11 5 0 0.688 340 204 136 544
NYG 1993 16 11 5 0 0.688 288 205 83 493
PHI 2001 16 11 5 0 0.688 343 208 135 551

The worst that any of those teams above finished was 11 and 5.  Every team in the top 10 made the playoffs. Only eleven of the 68 won fewer than 11 games. Only one team finished the season with a losing record (the 1993 Bears finished the season 7-9). The 1993 Giants were the only team to finish 8-8; they missed the playoffs. Four teams of the 68 finished at 9-7, two made the playoffs (92 WAS and 99 NYJ) and two didn't (90 and 00 PIT). Five teams finished 10-6, three made the playoffs (91 KC, 96 DAL and 10 NYG - who won the Super Bowl). Only two teams in the history of the NFL have finished the regular season with 11 wins and missed the playoffs, the 85 Broncos and 08 P*ts. So of the 68 teams on this total list, 62 made the playoffs. That's great, but how many of them won the Lombardi? 13 of the 68 teams on this list have won the NFL's biggest prize. So more than half of the Super Bowls won since 1990 have been won by teams the surrendered 16 or fewer points per game. Proving once again that defense wins championships.

Let's look closely at the four best defenses as determined by points allowed at the end of the regular season. We are going to focus on the 2000 Ravens and Titans, the 2002 Buccaneers and the 2006 Ravens.

2000 Ravens

The Ravens started 4-1 in 2000. They finished the regular season at 12-4. In three of their first five games they shut out their opponent. Interestingly, included in their first five games was their worst defensive performance of the season - a game in which they allowed the Jaguars 36 points. The Jags gained 421 yards on the Ravens in that game (Ravens won 39-36) mostly on the arm of Mark Brunell who threw for 386 and 3 TDs. This would be the second most yardage allowed by the Ravens all year. For perspective, they allowed 841 yards of total offense in four playoff games that season on route to Lombardi trophy.  The 2000 Ravens allowed 55 points in their first 5 games.

Why are the 2000 Ravens relevant to us? Because they rode an elite defense and game-manager QBs to the NFL title. Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer both started 8 games from the Ravens in 2000. They combined to throw 20 TDs and 19 INTs. The Ravens won despite them, not because of them - although each QB was credited with leading the team on one 4th quarter comeback or game winning drive that year. As much as it pains me to write this, Peyton Manning this year has played at about the same level that Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer played in 2000. It could be argued that he has played a little bit better, but our defense has not been playing at the level of 2000 Ravens so far. Admittedly the 2000 Ravens defense was one of the best in the history of the NFL. Our defense has a long way to go to be in the conversation with the 2000 Ravens.

Unlike the 2000 Ravens, we don't have an big punishing RB that we feed the ball 20 times a game. They had 240 lbs Jamal Lewis who carried the ball 309 times in the regular season and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. If a great defense is a QB's best friend, an effective running game is his next best friend.

Peyton Manning this year has played at about the same level that Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer played in 2000.

2000 Titans

The 2000 Titans had an elite defense, but they had the misfortune to have that great defense during the season season that Ravens had a defense for the ages - so they are largely forgotten. Like the Ravens that year they also started the season 4-1, but they finished 13-3. Their offense was limited and, like the Ravens, their defense had to carry the team in many games. The 2000 Titans season was ended by the Ravens in the divisional round.  The 2000 Titans allowed 78 points in their first five games.

This Titans team is of interest because they also had a game manager at QB, but he was much more akin to Russell Wilson than has was to Trent Dilfer. Steve McNair (RIP) was big and mobile and ran the ball 72 times for 403 yards during the 2000 regular season. McNair finished that season with 15 TDs and 13 INTs.

2002 Buccaneers

The Bucs had a decently long run of great defenses, but the 2002 team was the only one good enough to carry the team to the Lombardi trophy.  Like the previous two teams in this discussion, they also started the season 4-1. Like the Ravens, their defense was stifling in the first five games, allowing only 53 points (with one shutout). They finished the regular season at 12-4.

Like the first two teams their offense was mediocre, but unlike the 2000 Titans, their offense didn't turn the ball over much (21 turnovers in the regular season). The 2000 Ravens offense also did a decent job of not turning the ball over (26 in the regular season). So far this season we have turned the ball over 8 times, which is in the bottom half of the league after 5 games (18th).

The 2002 Bucs had an immobile aging veteran QB starting most of their games, Brad Johnson. Johnson only threw for 300 or more yards one time in 2002, but that was not a function of the Bucs ability to run the ball (they finished 27th in rushing yards that season). So far it sounds like their offense would be a good analogy to our offense in the first five games, however the analogy starts to break down when you look at Brad Johnson's stats for the season 22 TDs and only 6 INTs. Manning has already thrown more INTs in five games than Brad Johnson threw in the entire regular season that year. Brad Johnson was 34 when he "led" the 2002 Bucs to the Super Bowl, but he also played another six NFL seasons after that year.

The difference between a blowout and close game in many of our games this season has been a few dropped passes and missed blocks.

2006 Ravens

Some of the core pieces from the 2000 Ravens defense were still there in 2006 - Ed Reed and Ray Lewis - but there were many new faces, including Haloti Ngata and Trevor Pryce, who both performed at an elite level that year. The 2006 Ravens started the 4-1 like the other three teams in this discussion. Their lone loss in the first five coming at the hands of our defense (we held them to 3 points). They finished that season at 13-3 and were knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round in the only game that Peyton Manning's team has won in the playoffs where they didn't score a TD (Colts won 15-13 on the strength of 5 FGs).

Why is this team of interest to us? They had an above average offense (led by Steve McNair and a slowing Jamal Lewis) that didn't turn the ball over (23 in regular season) to pair with their elite defense. Unfortunately, right now our offense is not even average by many metrics. Our defense through five games has been comparable to theirs although their defense only gave up 46 points through 5 games with one shutout. The most points that 2006 Ravens defense would allow in a game was 26 points and they held their opponent to under 20 points in 14 of 17 games.

A common thread?

All four of the teams detailed above had at least one "blowout" victory in their first 5 games. The 00 Ravens beat the Bengals 37-0. The 00 Titans beat the Giants 28-14 (not as close as the final score might indicate). The 02 Bucs beat the Ravens 25-0 and Bengals 35-7. The 06 Ravens beat the Bucs 27-0 and the Raiders 28-6. The closest thing we have to blowout this season was our 24-12 victory over the Lions. Does this matter? Probably not much, because I expect our offense to improve relative to their current level of performance and the difference between a blowout and close game in many of our games this season has been a few dropped passes and missed blocks.  We are currently 8th in the league in point difference. If you sort those 68 teams from earlier by point difference, the top three won the Super Bowl (99 STL, 91 WAS and 96 GB) and so did six of the top twelve (13 SEA, 00 BAL and 92 DAL are the other three). All six of those teams finished the season with a PD (point difference) of 166 or more.

Tm Year W L W-L% PF PA ▾ PD
STL 1999 13 3 0.813 526 242 284
WAS 1991 14 2 0.875 485 224 261
GNB 1996 13 3 0.813 456 210 246
SFO 1992 14 2 0.875 431 236 195
IND 2005 14 2 0.875 439 247 192
SEA 2013 13 3 0.813 417 231 186
JAX 1999 14 2 0.875 396 217 179
PHI 2002 12 4 0.75 415 241 174
CHI 2006 13 3 0.813 427 255 172
BAL 2000 12 4 0.75 333 165 168
SEA 2012 11 5 0.688 412 245 167
DAL 1992 13 3 0.813 409 243 166

We have a point difference of 34 through 5 games. If we maintain that level over the rest of the regular season we'll finish with a PD of 109. Of the 68 teams on the list that is towards the bottom, but it almost exactly what the 2003 P*ts did (PD of 110) with their elite defense and average offense. They won the Super Bowl that year.