NFL Statistics: Super Bowl winners fueled by elite quarterbacks or elite defenses?

Jeff Zelevansky

Or is it somewhere in between? That would probably be a good guess!

WARNING: What you are about to read is the absolute definition of "information superhighway." This article on defenses and quarterbacks in relation to Super Bowl and regular season success is longer than a fake Michael Vick pass in a commercial and took so long that it was featured in the trailer for Cloud Atlas. This piece contains three of my four favorite things to write about: Football, history, and statistics. (The fourth thing being the psychological relationships and modern nuclear family impact of Full House and the Tanners.)

If you do not like reading about football, Super Bowls, Seahawks, quarterbacks, Zach Morris, and statistics, then please proceed to the nearest LOLCATS website! You have been warned.

My research bone, like most others in my body, is sensitive. At any time I could be minding my own business and then all of a sudden "WHAM!" I'm woken up before I go-go. The other day in another comment thread, the user hazbro made a statement along the lines of "the hottest quarterback in the playoffs wins the Super Bowl." That's paraphrasing at it's most rudimentary, but that was the sentiment.

I didn't set out to disprove hazbro, only to find out what recent trends would tell us about the playoffs, about quarterbacks, and about defense. I had no set theory to prove or disprove as a went on my journey, I just wanted to do some research, find some statistics, and see how many Super Bowl teams were led by a quarterback and how many were led by a defense.

Of course, in this team game of football you won't find a hard-line answer that most any team is led by either. Sure, there are examples of both in previous years where it was definitely the defense or definitely the quarterback, but those "definitely's" are about as rare as the ones I receive when I ask girls out on dates.

First, some background on what you are about to read:

- I started with 2010 for some reason, then worked my way back to 2007, then came back to do 2011. That may or may not provide some insight if I said a players full name five times.

- I started measuring quarterbacks by "QB Rating" and defenses by "Yards per play." "Why? Qb rating is so awful." I hear ya, but I had to choose one stat. I've gone over this many times, there just isn't one stat that's good. However, in the middle of my experiment I used DYAR and Weighted Defense from Football Outsiders. The Venn Diagrams use the numbers from Football Outsiders.

- The Venn's represent the top 10 QBs on the left, the top 10 defenses on the right, and then any team that had top 10 in both go in the middle. Hence, a Venn. (I might not have done the Venn's perfectly right, but I was having a bitch of a time getting Word to cooperate. They make perfect sense though.)

- In the playoff's I placed something next to the winning team in parentheses that I thought most represented their key to victory. Usually QB or D, but sometimes magic. This is up for discussion and interpretation.

When it was finally all over after about a business week, (Might as well throw in a follow me on Twitter now in case you die of old age while reading) I had learned some interesting stuff about quarterbacks, defenses, winning teams, losing teams, and the most important stat of all....

Let's turn it over to the numbers.

2007 Season


Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by QBR: 11.1-4.9

Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by DYAR: 10.7-5.3

Avg. Record of Top 10 Defense by Y/P: 10.2-5.8

Avg. Record of Top 10 Defense by Weighted Defense: 10-6

What a fascinating season.

The Patriots went 16-0 because their offense was phenomenal with Tom Brady (50 TD, 8 INT) and Randy Moss (23 TD) and Wes Welker (112 catches) and that offense alone should net you 13 wins. But the defense was not that bad either. New England was 5th in the NFL in net yards allowed per pass attempt, 6th in interceptions, and because they built early leads they forced opposing teams to abandon the run early. Which is good because the Pats were 26th in yards per carry allowed. Perhaps partly due to the fact that they rarely had to stop the run so they'd play deep and allow five or six yard runs because "Ha ha, you're down by 30."

New England was 19th in Weighted DVOA, but Football Outsiders still had them as 7th against the pass.

They were first in the NFL in turnovers on offense and ninth on turnovers forced on defense. This all led to being the #1 offense and #4 defense and that's why New England was 16-0 and perhaps, just maybe, the greatest team of all time. Well.. the greatest to not win a Super Bowl, certainly.

Only four times during the regular season did the Pats win by less than a touchdown. But teams adjust; After averaging an unbelievable 41.3 points per game in their 8-0 start, they scored "just" 32.25 points per game in their 8-0 finish. /Zach Morris timeout:

Why do great teams so often fail in the playoffs? Here is a theory... A team like the Patriots was so dominant that they wouldn't feel like they'd have to change anything to win a championship. They certainly came close but why did they go from a team that won by an average of 25.5 points per game in the first half of the season to a point differential of "only" 14 points per game in the second? Remember that the Pats were basically like a dominant college football team, say Alabama, had moved into the Big Sky Conference.

In the regular season, New England beat the Chargers by a score of 38-14. In the conference championship game it was 21-12. The best ball control team in the NFL had turned it over three times in the AFC Championship. The Patriots didn't necessarily have to adjust, because they were great... however the rest of the NFL, at least the good teams, had to make some adjustments if they thought they were going to beat the Patriots. So, New England: No adjustments? Opponent: Change everything.

Now, which team is harder to plan for?

Just a theory.


The Pats weren't the only team that had good QB play and good defense though. An abnormally high five teams had top 10 QBs (by QB rating) and top 10 defense (by yards per play allowed), including the Pats, Steelers, Colts, Cowboys, and Buccaneers. Those five teams averaged a little over 12 wins in the 2012 season. However, Jeff Garcia and Ben Roethlisberger weren't as favored in DYAR as Derek Anderson and Jay Cutler so that's why they don't show up in the middle of the diagram above.

By Weighted D, only the Bears were a top 10 team that was under .500. However, for DYAR top 10 quarterbacks, Brees, Palmer and Cutler all went 7-9.

The Ravens are an example of a team with a very good defense that is brought down by bad quarterback play. Baltimore was last in the NFL in turnovers and they had eight starts from Kyle Boller, six from Steven McNair, and two from Troy Smith. The Ravens finished first against the run by FO's standards, but struggled against the pass. They finished 5-11 and drafted Joe Flacco.

Matt Hasselbeck ranked ninth in DYAR, the Hawks defense ranked sixth in Weighted D, and Seattle went 10-6. The Seahawks really seemed to get things together in 2007 and their last three losses came by three points each. Seattle suffered some offensive and defensive collapses during the season but were one of only three teams to finish in the top ten of both categories.


Jaguars > Steelers (QB)

Seahawks > Redskins (QB)

Giants > Bucs (Hot QB, TO)

Chargers > Titans (QB)


Patriots > Jags (Everything)

Packers > Seahawks (QB)

Chargers > Colts (Magic)

Giants > Cowboys (Hot QB, TO)


Patriots > Chargers (Everything)

Giants > Packers (Hotness)

Super Bowl

Giants > Patriots (David Tyree)

Playoffs Conclusion

Here is a trivia question to stump your friends! "Who the fuck is Quinn Gray?" Well, he's a guy that quarterbacked the Jaguars for four games in 2007 (went 2-2) and the Jags still made the playoffs. The also beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-29 behind a strong running game led by Fred Taylor and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew. I can't believe Taylor rushed for over 1,200 yards only five years ago. But David Garrard was a pretty solid quarterback, he threw only three interceptions on 325 attempts during the regular season.

The Jags would be an example of a team that doesn't strike you as great in any one area (well, that was a solid run game) but they could succeed if the turnovers fall in their favor. A great quarterback might be able to overcome a couple of turnovers or if his defense forces none, but it is much harder to get a win while losing the turnover battle if you're not good at the quarterback position. Garrard wouldn't necessarily cost you the game, but how often would he win you the game? I couldn't honestly say that the 2007 Giants were a much better team than the 2007 Jaguars, if not worse. But Jacksonville forced four turnovers against Pittsburgh, and none against the Patriots. Even in their loss to New England, the game was close in the fourth quarter, but without a game-changing turnover they were doomed to lose to the better team.

Okay, let's focus.

The Chargers ran to the playoffs on a hot streak (as San Diego are wont to do) but was it all about Philip Rivers getting on a hot streak (random thought: Rivers looks kind of like a totem in Legends of the Hidden Temple) or was it the defense? Of course it's always going to be a little bit of both but really it wasn't Rivers as much as the defense.

Rivers was good when the Chargers won, but he was inconsistent. He wasn't carrying the team. Instead, check this: San Diego forced 29 turnovers in their last nine games, including playoffs. They went 8-1, their only loss being to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Philip Rivers was not that good in 2007, but the Chargers fortunate turns on defense nearly carried them to the Super Bowl. If you look at my graph above you will not see "Rivers" but you will see "Chargers," because they were the #1 ranked team in Weighted Defense. They employed the "Bend don't break" plan, with an average defense by "yardage" metrics, but they forced turnovers like Luke forces the force on your force-riddled Stormtrooper face.

You like the Seahawks??? Let's talk about them.

Seattle was basically carried to a 10-6 record in 2007 based on dominance in the passing game. The Hawks had 30 TD and 13 INT as a team, but allowed just 15 TD and 20 INT on defense. They ran over flew over the Redskins in the Wild Card game, but had to travel to Green Bay where they got trampled.

Turnovers? Seattle was 6-0 when forcing 3+, 1-6 when forcing one or none.

"Hey, where are the New York foosball Gigantes?" New York was 17th in scoring defense, 7th in total defense, below average in the passing game on offense, and only 26th in turnover differential. Nothing about New York's regular season screamed "Champions!" and hardly even said, "playoffs" in a low whisper. The Giants ranked 11th in Weighted D, just outside the Venn Diagram, but Eli?

He finished 40th in DYAR and 34th in DVOA.

It's hard to explain much of how a team that's so average could have not only beaten the greatest regular season team of all time, but to win three straight road playoff games? Was Eli Manning spectacular? Ehh... he was "very good." Eli had 6 TD and 1 INT in four games, with 7.2 yards per attempt. Probably the key for Eli was that he only threw that one pick, that coming in the Super Bowl. Much different than the 20 interceptions and 6.3 YPA he had in the regular season. Eli was hot for Eli, but he hardly "took over" the playoffs. He just stopped screwing up so much.

Did the Giants force a bunch of turnovers? Ehh... they forced seven in four games. Above average, maybe, but not the crushing numbers you'll see from other champions. Better yet perhaps is that they only turned it over twice. Another key to the game is sacks, and the Giants sacked Tom Brady five times. During the regular season, Brady was sacked 21 times total.

This Super Bowl has been dissected plenty of times, by men smarter and more involved than me, but to give you an overall explanation of how the Giants won the championship I give you this: /shrugs shoulders, walks away. They needed excellent defense against the Cowboys and Tony Romo in the division game when they led 21-17 and Dallas had 1st and 10 at the NYG 22 with under 2:00 remaining.

They intercepted Brett Favre in overtime on the road in Green Bay on the Packers first possession of the extra period. They had Eli Manning escape a sure sack and David Tyree make one of the greatest catches in NFL history (context dependent.)

Sometimes, things just happen. If the game was entirely predictable, how boring would that be?

2008 Season


Avg Record of Top 10 QB by QBR: 9.1-6.9

Avg Record of Top 10 QB by DYAR: 9.6-6.4

Avg Record of Top 10 Defense by Y/P: 9.1-6.9

Avg Record of Top 10 Defense by Weighted Defense: 10.6-5.4

I wouldn't call 2008 a "good" year, but it certainly was interesting. We didn't have Tom Brady that year and there were no epic quarterback seasons. However, the word "epic" had reached it's apex of popularity. This is almost exactly a standoff between mostly average quarterback seasons and mostly average defensive seasons. The whole kit and caboodle was up for grabs. (Motion to start using the word "caboodle" again. Meaning: an archaic term meaning group or collection, usually of people. I mean, hello, the Seahawks are totally a caboodle!)

With the whole season out of whack (Chad Pennington literally might have been the best quarterback that year) it was better to have a good defense than a good quarterback.

Advanced defensive metrics have advanced quarterback metrics beat by a full win on average. Based on the sample size I used for this study, that's rare! In the modern era though, it certainly feels that way. It wasn't that these teams typically had decent quarterbacks though and a great defense. It was mostly just a few successful teams with little talent at QB:

The Steelers had a phenomenal defense that year and went 12-4, despite a supbar year from Ben Roethlisberger.

The Titans went 13-3 with Kerry Collins.

The Eagles had a decent year and made the conference championship game despite a ho-hum year from Donovan McNabb.

The Vikings won the division with Gus Frerotte.

Italics emphasize bad quarterbacks.

The Bears almost made the playoffs with Kyle Orton.

Basically what I am getting at is that 2008 would have been a prime year to have "Russell Wilson the rookie" as your starting quarterback. Both the Falcons and Ravens made the playoffs with rookie quarterbacks, and it might be easy to forget what Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were really like as rookies. A top ten defense was enough to get you to the playoffs without good play behind center, but is it the same this year? How often can a team be so lucky?

The Dolphins won the East for a number of reasons: There was no Brady. Teams were confused for a minute about this "wildcat" formation. And Miami rebounded from a 2-4 start to get to 11-5, including winning four road games in weeks 13-17. However, it should be noted that the Dolphins only played three games against playoff teams and went 1-2. Why was Pennington a legit MVP candidate?

Maybe he did benefit from the formations but so what? What quarterback doesn't benefit from formations and coaching? Pennington completed 67.4% of his passes, 7.7 yards per attempt, and only threw seven interceptions in 476 pass attempts. He really was the perfect QB for that team. However, none of that mattered against an elite defense and Pennington threw four interceptions in the first round against the Ravens.


Wild Card

Cardinals > Falcons (QB)

Chargers > Colts (QB?)

Eagles > Vikings (QB)

Ravens > Dolphins (D)


Cardinals > Panthers (QB)

Ravens > Titans (QB/D)

Steelers > Chargers (D)

Eagles > Giants (QB)


Steelers > Ravens (QB/D)

Cardinals > Eagles (QB)

Super Bowl

Steelers > Cardinals (D)

Playoffs Conclusion -

I can only assume that the Cardinals made the Super Bowl, and nearly won it, on pure adrenaline. They were a bad team during the regular season. Now, were they a "quarterback" led team simply because Kurt Warner is good and their defense wasn't? Let me tell you something about how a quarterback looks good:

The Cardinals were 7-0 when they forced more than one turnover in the regular season. They were 2-7 when they didn't. They forced 12 turnovers in their three NFC playoff games and went to the Super Bowl. They forced just one turnover against the Steelers and lost 27-23. They lost by four points and allowed the Steelers defense to score nine points on their own.

Now, the Steelers were the top defense in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger had a so-so year (17 TD, 15 INT, 7 Y/A) but Pittsburgh's D was just dominating that year. They forced multiple turnovers nine times in the regular season and went 8-1 in those games. They failed to force a turnover four times and went 1-3 in those games. In the playoffs: eight turnovers in three games, at least two per game.... Championship.

Other examples would include the Eagles, a team that had a so-so year from McNabb but was top five against the run and the pass and fell just short of the Super Bowl when they turned it over three times against Arizona and forced only one turnover.

The big surprise that year was the 13-3 Tennessee Titans and that's because they were basically the 2011 49ers: they protected the football and forced a lot of turnovers to overcome a lack of talent at quarterback and receiver. In their three losses they forced only three turnovers. In the playoff game against the Ravens, 0 turnovers forced.

The Rex Ryan Ravens defense went 11-5 and forced six turnovers in their five losses. They forced eight in their first two playoff games, then got out-defensed by Pittsburgh in the conference championship with a 4:1 turnover ratio.

The 2008 playoffs were also a bad year for home teams as the road caboodle went 2-2 in the first round and 3-1 in the second. Just a weird, weird season but ultimately the champion also had the best defense in the NFL.

Winning Team AVG Score in 1st Round: 26.5

Winning Team AVG Score in 2nd Round: 26

Winning Team AVG Score in CONF Champ: 27.5

Winning Team Score in Super Bowl: 27

2009 Season


Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by QBR: 11.2-4.8

Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by DYAR: 11-5

Avg. Record of Top 10 D by Y/P: 9-7

Avg. Record of Top 10 D by Weighted D: 9-7

It was a much better year to be a top QB than to be a top defense. Surprisingly, the Panthers, 49ers, Bills, and Broncos all came out in the top 10 Weighted Defense rankings, however those quarterbacks were: Jake Delhomme/Matt Moore, Alex Smith/Shaun Hill, Ryan Fitzpatrick/Trent Edwards, and Kyle Orton. Yet for three of those teams to even post 8-8 records, and the Bills at 6-10, it's respectable considering how bad all of those quarterbacks were.

Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre were the only four quarterbacks to win 12+ games. None of them had a top 10 defense for Football Outsiders, but Manning's Colts allowed just 5 yards per play, which was tied for 5th in the NFL.

The Colts were an interesting team in that they started out 14-0, but half of their wins came on four points on less. They were only 13th in turnover differential, perhaps one of the least dominating 13+ win teams in NFL history, and they got away with a lot before losing in their final two regular season games.

The Jets make their case on defense with a team that finished 1st in: Scoring defense, total defense, 1st downs allowed, passing defense, passing touchdowns allowed, yards per pass attempt allowed, and 4th in yards per carry against... they actually run a similar path to.. your 2012 Seaatttttttttttllllleeee SEA-Hawwwwwwwwwwwwks. Sorry.

New York was last in pass attempts, 31st in yards, and Sanchize had 12 TD and 20 INT as a rookie. But they were a top running team and had all that defense. It was barely enough to get them to 9-7 (they needed to win five of their last six) and into the playoffs.

The least successful team with a QB in the top 10 was the 8-8 New York Giants, after a 5-0 start culminated in a defensive collapse and they finished 24th in turnover differential after a good season from Eli Manning. This allowed them to draft Jason Pierre-Paul the next season and change their defense.

Playoffs 2009

Wild Card

Jets > Bengals (D)

Cowboys > Eagles (Overlap)

Cardinals (17 in D) > Packers (QB)

Ravens > Patriots (D)


Saints > Cardinals (QB)

Colts > Ravens (QB)

Vikings > Cowboys (QB)

Jets > Chargers (D)


Saints > Vikings (QB)

Colts > Jets (QB)

Super Bowl

Saints > Colts (QB)

Playoffs Conclusion -

The Jets run...

When they turned the ball over multiple times during the regular season, New York was 2-5. A little ball control and they were 7-2. They went into Cincinnati and beat the Bengals with ease, despite Cedric Benson running for 169 yards. New York had 0 turnovers to the Bengals 2.

The bigger upset was going into San Diego to face the 13-3 Chargers. Leading 7-3 in the third quarter following a Mark Sanchez interception, Rivers was intercepted twice in a four minute span. The second of which led to a Dustin Keller touchdown and the Jets never relinquished the lead.

Beating the Colts would prove to be too much and despite a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, Manning, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie would be the difference. In this case, HoF QB > Defense.

The Vikings run...

Great passing offense, good running defense, Brett Favre controlling the ball like it's tightly kept in his Wranglers crotch. Favre threw a very un-Favre-like 7 interceptions in the regular season on the way to a 12-4 record. In their dominating 34-3 win against the Cowboys in the divisional game: 0 TO, 3 TO forced. However it's phenomenal that the Vikings lost to the Saints in overtime of the NFC Championship...

They should have been blown out.

The Vikings fumbled the ball six times, three lost, and Favre had two interceptions. New Orleans had just one turnover. After Reggie Bush muffed a punt at his own 10, Favre blew a great opportunity to break a 14-14 tie with his own fumble. A Percy Harvin fumble led to a short field for Brees to give the Saints a 28-21 lead at the start of the fourth. On the next drive, Bernard Berrian lost a fumble at the Saints 18.

Favre also threw two interceptions in Saints territory. Make no mistakes, and the Vikings run with it easy because New Orleans had no answer for Adrian Peterson. However, with that many turnovers you should never even make it to overtime... It's crazy that Minnesota almost went to the Super Bowl with that many mistakes. In this case, it was Drew Brees avoiding mistakes that led to the Saints road to victory.

He also threw three touchdown passes despite no receiver topping 40 yards.

The Super Bowl...

The Colts run to the Super Bowl featured a careful offense (3 turnovers in three games) and a defense that forced four turnovers to the Ravens and the already-discussed win over the Jets.

The Saints run to the Super Bowl had just one turnover in three games and forced eight in total. The Saints might have had a "bend don't break" defense that finished 25th in yards allowed and wasn't strong against the pass or run in particular, but they were 2nd in the NFL in turnovers forced and 3rd in turnover differential. They had nine interceptions from Darren Sharper and scored five "pick six" touchdowns on the year. That would prove crucial again in the Super Bowl.

Nawlins' finally took a 24-17 lead with 5:46 left in the game. Manning quickly drove Indy to the Saints 31 but on third-and-five, Tracy Porter snagged a pick-six to seal the game for good.

Both teams featured Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but the Saints propensity for turnovers was just better than the Colts (18th in the NFL in turnovers forced) and that finished it. When you've got QBs this close to even, you have to give a nod to the more effective defense.

Winning Team AVG Score in 1st Round: 35.5

Winning Team AVG Score in 2nd Round: 29

Winning Team AVG Score in CONF Champ: 30.5

Winning Team Score in Super Bowl: 31

2010 Season


Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by QB Rating: 10.3-5.7

Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by DYAR: 9.9-6.1

Avg. Record of Top 10 Defense by Y/P: 8.4-7.6

Avg. Record of Top 10 Defense by Weighted DVOA: 10.1-5.9

In what could only be described as "Chargers Syndrome," San Diego had the top total offense and total defense in the NFL but went 9-7 and missed the playoffs to the Chiefs, a team that did have a good season out of Matt Cassel and the defense, both of which finished in the top 10 of QB Rating and Y/P on defense but neither of which were liked that much by Football Outsiders. The Chargers turned the ball over 18 times in their first seven games (2-5) and then 10 times in their final nine games (7-2.)

Carson Palmer ranked very high in DYAR but really low in rankings like QBR with less than 7 YPA and 20 interceptions. This is another example of the difficulty of finding ONE stat to rule them all. The Bengals were 4-12 because Palmer was less than effective and ranked 25th in Weighted Defense.

On another note is the New York Jets. They ranked 1st in DEF DVOA, 4th in Weighted Defense, 7th against the pass and 2nd against the run. That led them to an 11-5 record despite Mark Sanchez being Mark Sanchez, who was 20th in DYAR and 22nd in QBR.

The 14-2 Patriots posted decent defensive numbers (14th in DVOA, 11th Weighted Defense) but went 14-2 because Brady was the best of the best. New England turned the ball over in only five regular season games, but when the posted multiple turnovers, they were 1-2. They needed OT against Baltimore to overcome two turnovers on offense.

How 'bout those Ravens? A top three defensive unit with a middle-pack Joe Flacco (not bad, slightly above average) went 12-4.

People will remember that the Packers only went 10-6 and snagged a Wild Card spot, but how they did it will always be remembered for Aaron Rodgers. However, though Rodgers is amazing, Green Bay finished ranked 2nd in Weighted D and Defensive DVOA. They were also 2nd in scoring defense and 5th in total defense. They dominated against the pass and struggled against the run (28th in YPC against) but finished 4th in the NFL in turnover differential.

So, how did they win the Super Bowl?


Wild Card

Seahawks > Saints (Magic)

Jets > Colts (D)

Packers > Eagles (QB)

Ravens > Chiefs (QB)


Steelers > Ravens (D)

Packers > Falcons (QB)

Bears > Seahawks (Everything)

Jets > Patriots (D)


Steelers > Jets (QB)

Packers > Bears (QB)

Super Bowl

Packers > Steelers (QB)

Playoffs Conclusion -

How do the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks beat the 11-5 New Orleans Saints? Beast Magic, of course. There really is no possible explanation outside of "Any Given Sunday" or "12th Man 4 Life." The Saints aren't just an offensive juggernaut, they had an above-average defense. However, they didn't generate quite the amount of turnovers as they did during their championship run. They turned it over pretty consistently during the 2010 season, and when they failed to score 30 points they were 5-5.

Yet in this particular game they only turned it over once, scored 36 points, and still lost. We remember Marshawn Lynch going beast forever, but the Saints also allowed 4 touchdown passes to the ghost of Matt Hasselbeck. Seattle contained the Saints offensive attack and Brees' 404 passing yards came on 60 pass attempts. The Saints also ran the ball with their backs 20 times for just 71 yards. This is a classic case of a defense playing terribly on the road, and that allowed the Hawks to get the most shocking victory in their playoff history.

The Jets run was interesting and placed more emphasis on defense. In round one they travel to Indianapolis. A Colts team that ran a 42.4 to 24.5 PASS:RUN ratio in the regular season on their way to a 10-6 record, ran a 26 to 27 PASS:RUN ratio against the Jets. New York controlled the ball and in the end, Antonio Cromartie's 47-yard kickoff return with :45 left put the Jets in position to setup for a game-winning field goal by Nick Folk as time expired.

When the Pats played the Jets for the second time during the regular season, New England won 45-3. When they played the Jets in the playoffs at home, New York took care of the ball (0 turnovers) and won pretty handily with a final score of 28-21. (Was 28-11 with under 3:00 left.) Here we see how a great defense can beat a great offense in a divisional round matchup.

The Packers run is of great consequence because they went from a Wild Card team that faced three road teams to a Super Bowl champion and also changed our perception of how good that team was. When they were 8-6, they were no big deal. When they ran off wins against four straight teams in the playoffs, Rodgers was well on his way to a Discount Double-Check endorsement.

Rodgers playoffs: 90-of-132, 68.2%, 9 TD, 2 INT, 1,094 yards, 8.3 YPA, two rushing TD.

Impressive. Also impressive though is that they forced 11 turnovers in four games and contained the running games of the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears on their way to the Super Bowl. When they faced Chicago in the NFC Championship, Rodgers threw 2 interceptions, but perhaps they were given a break after Jay Cutler was forced to leave the game. Even still, Cutler was 6-of-14 for 80 yards, 0 TD and 1 INT. However, it was a BJ Raji touchdown that closed the door, not an Aaron Rodgers one.

In the AFC, a William Gay fumble recovery touchdown put the Steelers up 24-0 in the first. The Jets scored the next 19 points, but when New York's defense was unable to stop Roethlisberger from gaining two first downs at the end of the game, Pittsburgh had it.

In the Super Bowl, Rodgers had 3 TD passes and no interceptions, but it was also Nick Collins 37-yard INT return touchdown that helped the Packers build a 21-3 lead. The final score of 31-25 shows where a critical defensive play might have given Green Bay the edge it need to win, even if Rodgers was great against a great defense. Did Rodgers win or did the Steelers defense lose? Did Roethlisberger blow it (2 INT) or did the Packers defense step up?

Obviously there's a "combination" factor here, but the Packers defense never got enough credit for their Super Bowl run.

Winning Team AVG Score in 1st Round: 27.25

Winning Team AVG Score in 2nd Round: 35.5

Winning Team AVG Score in CONF Champ: 22.5

Winning Team Score in Super Bowl: 31

2011 Season


Avg. Record of Top 10 QB by DYAR: 10.8-5.2

Avg. Record of Top 10 D by Weighted DVOA: 9.4-6.6

Avg. Record of Overlap: 10.6-5.4

Last year was interesting because quarterback injuries had major impacts on late-season playoff runs. The Bears posted the #1 Weighted D of 2011 but fell to 8-8 in large part because of the injury to Jay Cutler. At the time of his injury, the Bears were 7-3 and just just beaten the San Diego Chargers for their fifth straight win. I remember saying to myself, "That's the best team in the NFC right there."

I used to hate Cutler, call him overrated, just the same as the rest of you cool dudes. But then I started to watch him play more and realize that he's a really good quarterback. Cutler is going to throw picks, miss receivers, act like a wild idiot out there, but the drop off to Caleb Hanie was hilarious. Chicago lost five straight games and missed the playoffs entirely. You think Cutler is wild? The Bears turned it over just a hair over once per game with Cutler. With Hanie: 2.8 times per game.

Same story with the Texans, who went 7-3 with Matt Schaub and limited turnovers to 3-3 with T.J. Yates. Houston won a home playoff game over the Bengals, but turned it over four times to the Baltimore Ravens in the next round.

The top three quarterbacks had the top three records in the NFL, shared with one of the top defenses. (In weighted DVOA, the rankings for defense were Chicago, the New York Jets, and then the 49ers.) However, none of those teams won a title. Why not?


Saints > Lions (QB)

Texans > Bengals (D)

Broncos > Steelers (D)

Giants > Falcons (QB/D)

Divisional Round

49ers > Saints (D)

Patriots > Broncos (QB)

Ravens > Texans (D/QB)

Giants > Packers (D)

Conference Championships

Giants > 49ers (QB)

Patriots > Ravens (QB)

Super Bowl

Giants > Patriots (D)

Playoffs Conclusion

What I will remember most about last year's playoffs was how important it was to be a home team. Despite having quarterbacks like Tim Tebow and T.J. Yates, home teams went 4-0 in the first round. Home teams then went 3-1 in the Divisional round.

New Orleans played the part of a dominant NFC team and unstoppable scoring machine (hey now do you know what I mean?) but what stopped them from even making the conference championship? Well, New Orleans went 13-3 in the wrong year because it didn't even get them a first round bye. They destroyed the Lions but then had to travel to San Francisco, giving us what we wanted: Offense vs Defense.

What do you remember about the 49ers vs Saints game last year? My guess is that you remember a back-and-forth shootout in one of the most exciting fourth quarters in playoff history! Well, that's true. There were four lead changes in the last 4:11 of the game. However, what most don't remember is that while Alex Smith did hit Vernon Davis for the game-winning score with :14 left, none of that would have been possible if not for the 49ers defense. Though they allowed 32 points, San Francisco also forced five turnovers in the game and turned it over themselves only once.

Those turnovers didn't only lead to 10 easy points for San Francisco, but a fumble by Pierre Thomas at the SFO 2 kept a potential Saints touchdown off of the board.

The Conference Championship Games

This is a pivotal set of conference championship games because it really depicts how we would view quarterback play versus defense. That's not entirely fair because Joe Flacco and Alex Smith aren't dogshit and the Giants have a good defense, but in it's purest form the Ravens v Patriots and 49ers v Giants games could potentially give us DEF v DEF in the Super Bowl, QB v QB, or QB v D again.

How close were we to DEF v DEF? Incredibly freaking close. That's why it almost proves nothing either way to say that the QB definitely always wins, because we're talking about minute differences between a winner and a loser here. The Ravens forced three turnovers in their game against New England and only turned it over once but the difference between Baltimore in the Super Bowl and the Patriots in the Super Bowl was the greasy pork butt that Lee Evans had eaten just before he went onto the field without remembering to dry off his hands.

In the NFC, the team that had thrived on turnovers ran out of luck. The 49ers only had two games during the regular season without a turnover forced. Hell, they only had three games that didn't have multiple turnovers forced. The 49ers were incredibly careful too... they didn't turn the ball over in any of their last five regular season games and they had only one game during the regular season with two turnovers. It's the opposite of fitting that during the Giants game they turned it over twice (the last one costing them the game) and forced zero.

Eli Manning threw the ball 58 times and not a single one of them was intercepted. Alex Smith was only 12-of-26 for 196 yards, and the 49ers fell just short. Would a better QB have won the game? When you thrive on turnovers, what's your margin for error in a game where the balls don't fall your way? How can I get balls to fall my way

Defense, Defense lost in the Conference Championship games, but we were a razor thin edge from an all-defense Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl still provided interesting insight into what having a good defense vs having a good quarterback can do. Manning has turned into a great quarterback, but he's not Tom Brady and he never will be. However, Brady was kept in relative check for the game and the high-scoring Patriots put up only 17 points. The only three times that the Patriots scored 20 or less last year, they were 0-3. They can't win that kind of game and they can't stop a fourth quarter run which is why it's imperative for the Patriots to build leads of 10+ points. Mario Manningham made some phenomenal catches on the Giants game-winning drive but those opportunities were there because New England doesn't have the secondary to contain or completely stop good receivers.

On that day Eli Manning was the better quarterback because Manning faced the worse defense. The Patriots were a bottom-five pass defense no matter how you want to slice it. It showed in the Super Bowl and they lost because the Giants defense was good enough to contain the Patriots. This was absolutely a win of defense, but it should be noted that the Giants went 4-0 in the playoffs in large part because they only turned it over one time.

Winning Team AVG Score in 1st Round: 32.25

Winning Team AVG Score in 2nd Round: 34.5

Winning Team AVG Score in CONF Champ: 21.5

Winning Team Score in Super Bowl: 21

Overall Conclusion

The ultimate question that I was looking for answers to was the "Quarterback versus Defense" debate. However, there was of course going to be gray areas and those areas were heavily infested with... Turnovers. Perhaps the final conclusion is that because a quarterback is so responsible for turnovers, whether directly or indirectly, that's why having a great one is so important.

He's the weeble-wobble between a pick and a not-pick, but still an elite defense has the ability to make any quarterback look like Sanchez. (Not literally. That handsome devil is one of a kind.)

We've found that having a great quarterback has potentially led to more wins than having a great defense without a quarterback. The last ten Super Bowl quarterbacks were: Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady. Not a chump among them and every single one of them has won a Super Bowl.

Now, that's a rare run of fate in the championship game. You'd have to go back to 2001 for the last time that a previous Super Bowl winner had lost in the Super Bowl (Warner losing to Brady.) When people are looking for "but you can win with any quarterback if your defense is solid," they typically point to Brad Johnson in 2002 and Trent Dilfer in 2000 as recent examples. (Though, not so recent anymore.) However, few ever point to the quarterbacks that they faced: Rich Gannon and Kerry Collins.

Of course, when Tom Brady beat Warner in 2001, he wasn't "Tom Brady" as we know him today. How much of our perception of Eli changes based on the fact that he's won two Super Bowls?

Still, the evidence is pretty solid that having an elite quarterback is a dynamite play towards winning a championship. The most common names to pop up in the charts above are names like Peyton, Eli, Roethlisberger, Brady, Brees, Ryan, Rivers, Rodgers, Romo, and Schaub. Who of Ryan, Rivers, Romo or Schaub may join the others as "winners," as history will always remember them if they do?

The big key for players like Romo and Rivers is whether or not they'll ever be able to play safer but efficient football in January. (Or August and September in the case of Rivers.) Turnovers have shown to reign supreme.

The last five Super Bowl winners had a turnover ratio of 11:41 combined during the playoffs. That's an average of .61 turnovers on offense and 2.27 turnovers forced on defense per game. Winning the turnover battle plays a key role in turning the balance your way and evening any deficiency you may have in quarterback or defense.

But of course an elite defense or an elite quarterback will be a major reason as to why you won the turnover battle. It's how we saw the 49ers beat the Saints in 2011, and then also how we saw the 49ers lose to the Giants the next week. I didn't break any ground perhaps with my conclusion, but I hope I've laid more emphasis on the importance of how winning the turnover battle can help any team overcome the area that they are deficient in as long as they excel in another area. For the Seahawks, that means that as long as Russell Wilson doesn't turn it over, it won't matter as much if he only throws for 150 yards. But it will also go a long way if our great defense can start turning more opportunities into turnovers... and therefore more opportunities (and short fields) for Russell.


- Cheer the shit out of every Seahawks forced turnover like your wife had twins, and that you are financially and emotionally ready to bring those two little bundles of joy into the world.

- Cry like twin babies with colic every time that Seattle turns it over.

- Pray that Wilson turns into a great quarterback, because that will make this a lot easier.

- Or Matt Flynn if you're still into that, which is fine.

- The Giants fuck everything up.

- Follow Kenneth on Twitter

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