Pick the Steelers For Their Defense in this Super Bowl Toss-Up


I began a project a little over a year ago to compile all the offensive and defensive rankings of Super Bowl participants. Think back to where the Lions organization was a year or two ago. It was very much in doubt as to whether or not they were heading down the right path. Teams that reach the Super Bowl are obviously very good teams but what does that look like? Is a dominant offense just as good as a dominant defense? I felt like these were important questions to answer in order to evaluate the Lions as we watch them build towards what we hope can be a Super Bowl contender.

NFL.com has offensive and defensive team stats readily available for every year going back to the merger in 1970. This gives us 40 years worth of data to see if we can find any themes or traits of the teams that reached, won and lost the Super Bowl.

The image to the left is a list of the past 40 Super Bowl participants. Click the image for an expanded view. The column on the left is filled with the winners, the column on the right is filled with the losers. Each team’s offensive and defensive regular season ranking is shown next to the team name. The +/- column is the difference between the team’s offensive ranking and their defensive ranking. A negative number shows a bias towards offensive strength while a positive number shows the team has a better defensive ranking.

You will also notice that some rankings have been highlighted in my spreadsheet. This was to identify teams with a top-three ranking. The color difference was to more easily identify when a top-three defense has faced a top-three offense. That has happened eight times with the team with the top-three defense winning seven times to the top-three ranked offensive team’s one time. Perhaps this disparity is one reason the “defense wins championships” phrase is so often accepted and repeated.

Of course, the better ranked defensive team does not always win the Super Bowl, but one interesting fact pops out when we look at the average offensive and defensive ranks of Super Bowl winners and losers. The last 40 Super Bowl champs have an average offensive ranking of 7.5 and an average defensive ranking of about 6.5; Super Bowl winners tend to have a better defense than offense. The last 40 Super Bowl losers have an average offensive ranking of 7.0 and an average defensive ranking just below ten; unlike the Super Bowl winners, the losers tend to have better offenses than defenses. Wonder how the Buffalo Bills could have ever lost four straight Super Bowls? Check out the chart and it makes a lot more sense.

On the whole, we see that the teams that lose the Super Bowl are actually slightly better offensive teams than the Super Bowl champs but the winners tend to have defenses that overshadow their offensive shortcoming.

What does this mean for predicting the outcome of Super Bowl XLV? Not a whole lot, as it turns out. The Green Bay Packers had the ninth best offense and the fifth best defense while the Steelers were fourteenth on offense and second on defense. Both teams have statistically better defenses than offenses, a general trait we identified in previous Super Bowl champions. The Packers have the better offense but the Steelers have the better defense. Is that enough to pick the Steelers to emerge victorious? I say yes, although with little confidence. Teams with a top three defense are 18-5 when not facing another top three defense.

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