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Placing the Broncos' 2015 Orange Rush in the pantheon of great NFL defenses

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The 2015 Broncos defense rightly deserves to be mentioned when the discussion of the greatest defenses of all time comes up. Let's compare the playoff performances to get a relative analysis.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When you think about the best NFL defenses of all-time, what teams come to your mind?

  • 1970 Vikings
  • 1971 Vikings
  • 1977 Broncos
  • 1978 Broncos
  • 1985 Bears
  • 1995 Chiefs
  • 2000 Ravens
  • 2002 Buccaneers
  • 2006 Ravens
  • 2013 Seahawks

You don't think about all of those teams? Well you really should since those are nine of the top 10 in scoring defense when you factor in average league scoring during that season.

I submit to you that we should also add the 2015 Broncos to that list, but I'm going to take a different analytical approach than Football Perspective; I'm going to compare playoff performance relative to the offenses that those defenses faced. The table shows the team, their opponent(s) in the playoffs, the rank of their playoff opponents in terms of scoring, the average regular season points per game of the playoff opponent(s) and the difference between what the defense allowed to that offense in the playoff game and what that offense scored on average in the regular season.

Team Opponent Opp. Scoring Rank PPG Points allowed DIFF
1970 MIN SF 1 25.1 17 8.1
1971 MIN DAL 1 29 20 9
1977 DEN PIT 7 20.2 21 -0.8
OAK 1 25.1 17 8.1
DAL 2 24.6 27 -2.4
1978 DEN PIT 5 25.4 33 -7.6
1985 CHI NYG 6 24.9 0 24.9
LAR 15 21.3 0 21.3
NE 10 22.6 10 12.6
1995 KC IND 17 20.7 10 10.7
2000 BAL DEN 2 30.3 3 27.3
TEN 13 21.6 10 11.6
OAK 3 29.9 3 26.9
NYG 15 20.5 7 13.5
2002 TAM SF 14 22.9 6 16.9
PHI 4 25.9 10 15.9
OAK 2 28.2 21 7.2
2006 BAL IND 2 26.7 15 11.7
2013 SEA NO 10 25.9 15 10.9
SF 11 25.4 17 8.4
DEN 1 37.9 8 29.9
2015 DEN PIT 4 26.4 16 10.4
NE 3 29.1 18 11.1
CAR 1 31.25 10 21.25

The higher the number in the DIFF column, the better. So let's analyze each of these teams' playoff performances (and please leave the excuses at the door - we're going to focus on the numbers and not on who played or didn't play).

The 1970 Vikings (the Purple People Eaters) did a good job holding the #1 offense in the league well below their average points. Unfortunately their offense was only able to muster 10 points as they lost the 49ers. The following year that again faced the #1 scoring offense in the league. This time it was the Dallas Cowboys and while their defense again held the Cowboys to well below their season average, the result was the same for the team - a loss because their offense was not able to much against the Cowboys defense.

The 1977 Orange Crush Broncos defense faced the #7 Steelers offense in the divisional round. They gave up about what the Steelers normally scored that season, which is well above what that defense normally allowed. They got us a win the divisional round.

They gave up 17 to the (insert city here) Raiders and that was enough to get us to the Super Bowl. Against the #2 offense of the Dallas Cowboys, our defense would eventually falter and allow 27 in the 17-point loss, due to the Broncos offense turning the ball over eight times.

In 1978 the Orange Crush let us down in the divisional round against he #5 scoring offense of the Steelers by allowing 33 points, which was more than the Steelers normally scored that season. You'll note that the 33 points allowed is the most allowed by any of these defenses in a playoff game.

The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the defenses that oft get mentioned first in any discussion of the "best defenses ever" - and rightfully so. This tends to obscure how complete of a team the Bears had that year. They also had the #2 scoring offense. In the playoffs that year they held the #6 scoring offense, the Giants, to 0 points. They followed that up by shutting out the LA Rams who had the #15 scoring offense and then holding to Cheatriots and their #10 scoring offense to 10 points in garbage time in the Super Bowl.

Had they not let up on the throttle with the big lead in the second half, they could have gone through the playoffs allowing ZERO total points. Now they did this without facing any of the top 5 scoring offenses in the league, one of which had handed them their only loss of the season that year (Miami), but that doesn't diminish their accomplishment. Allowing 3.3 ppg in the playoffs on the way a Super Bowl win will probably never be done again given the current offensive-friendly rules in the NFL.

The 1995 Chiefs tend to get forgotten in any of these discussions partly because they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs after going 13-3 and winning the AFC West. They held the #17 scoring offense to 10 total points, but their feeble offense was only able to produce 7 in the loss. Steve Bono was their starting QB and he got benched for Rich Gannon after being largely ineffective for most of the game. The 1995 Colts had the #5 scoring defense, so it's not like their offense got shut down by a soft defense.

And now we come to one of the other defenses that always gets mentioned in the "greatest ever" discussions, the 2000 Ravens. They faced the #2 scoring offense in the Broncos in the wildcard round and almost completely shut our offense down that afternoon, allowing 3 points.

They then faced the #13 offense in the Titans and held them to 10 points, less than half of their scoring average. They were pitted against another strong offense in the AFCCG vs the Raiders who had the #3 scoring offense that year. Like us, the Raiders only manged 3 points.

Against the Giants and their #15 scoring offense they only allowed 7 points in the Super Bowl. So in four playoff games they allowed 23 total points - 5.8 ppg. This defense and other defenses around this time period started the owners thinking about rule changes that would make it easier for offenses to score. Those rules have been in place now for more than a decade and I doubt we will ever see another playoff team give up less than a touchdown per game on the way to a Super Bowl win.

The 2002 Bucs had another great defense and they also generally come up in the greatest defense discussions. They faced the 49ers and their #14 scoring offense in the divisional round, holding them to two field goals, which was well below their season scoring average.

They faced a tougher challenge in the NFCCG against he #4 offense of the Eagles. They held them to 10 points, less than half of their scoring average. Then they faced the #2 scoring offense of the Raiders in the Super Bowl. The Raiders were able to score 21 on them in their blowout loss. Much of that came in "garbage time" after the Bucs had gone up 34-3, but it still counts meaning that the Bucs allowed 37 points in three playoff games en route to the Lombardi trophy - 12.3 ppg.

Next we come to the 2006 Ravens. Most of the core of that 2000 defense was still intact. That Ravens team finished the regular season 13-3 and had the #1 scoring defense in the league allowing only 12.6 ppg. Unfortunately for them their offense could only muster two fields in the divisional round against the Colts who, led by Peyton Manning, were only able to muster five field goals. Five is more than two and despite holding the #2 offense in the league to about half of what they normally scored the 2006 Ravens lost. That defense may have been as good as the 2000 Ravens defense, but it is largely forgotten because of their "one-and-done" exit in the playoffs.

We turn our attention next to the 2013 Seahawks. Like the 2006 Ravens they finished the season at 13-3  allowing a league-leading 14.4 ppg. In the divisional round they held the #10 scoring offense of the Saints to 15 points - almost 11 points below their season average. They then allowed 17 to the #11 scoring offense of the 49ers in the NFCCG, which was still more than 8 points below the 49ers average. As much as it pains me to write this (even two years later), they then held the #1 scoring offense in the league to 8 in the Super Bowl - almost 30 points below their season scoring average.

They allowed a total of 40 points in three playoff games - 13.3 ppg - a number that is pretty comparable to what the 2002 Bucs did and given the new rules equally or more impressive than the 12.3 ppg allowed by the Bucs in 2002. The average team scored 23.4 ppg in the NFL in 2013. For the Seahawks to hold all three of their playoffs opponents to more than 10 points below that is astounding.

So how do our 2015 Broncos stack up? Quite well. We faced the #4 offense in the Steelers holding them to more than 10 points below their season scoring average. Admittedly it was without their best receiver (and possibly the best receiver in the NFL), but the number stands all the same (we also were playing with Chris Harris Jr at ~50%). The following week we held #3 scoring offense of the Patriots to 18 points, more than 11 below their season average. Then yesterday we held the #1 scoring offense in the league to 10 total points, more than 21 points below their season average.

The 44 points that we allowed in three games - 14.7 ppg - definitely qualifies us to be included in this list of the best all-time defenses in the league. The league scoring average this season 22.8, so to hold three of the top four offenses in the league to 8.1 points below the league scoring average is phenomenal.

Conclusion

While the 2015 Broncos defense gave up more points per game than than other post-rule-change playoff defenses, none of the other teams on the list faced the caliber of offenses that the 2015 Broncos defense did. To hold the #4, #3 and #1 scoring offenses in the league to 14.7ppg is a remarkable feat. That feat coupled with how anemic our offense was in the playoffs definitely qualifies our defense to be talked about with the 85 Bears, 00 Ravens, 02 Bucs and 13 Seahawks. All four of those teams won the Super Bowl on the backs of their elite defenses and in two of the five cases despite their weak offenses.