Best Super Bowl scoring defenses

As all the world knows, Seattle held Peyton Manning and the Broncos to eight points in yesterday’s Super Bowl. As most people could guess, though, eight points is not the record for the lowest points ever allowed in a Super Bowl. That honor belongs to the 1971 Dallas Cowboys, who held the Miami Dolphins to one measly field goal in Super Bowl 6 (or VI, for any Romans in the audience).

However, the 1971 Cowboys were not facing a record-setting offense. Not even close. Super Bowl teams have averaged 25.6 points per game during the regular season leading up to their Super Bowl appeaerance, but the 1971 Dolphins averaged only 22.5 points per game, or well below average. By contrast, Seattle’s victim (I mean, opponent) yesterday averaged 37.9 points per game during the regular season ... yet the Seahawks held them to just 8 points during the Super Bowl.

So which is better: holding a 22 ppg team to only three points, or holding a 38 ppg team to only eight points? And what about some of the other strong defensive performances in the Super Bowl, like the Raiders holding the 33.8 ppg Washington to only nine points in Super Bowl 18? Or the NY Giants, who held the 36.8 ppg Patriots to only seventeen points in Super Bowl 42? How do we compare these different performances against different opponents in different eras?

While there are more complicated ways to make these comparisons, and no comparison spanning so many years can ever be precise, here’s a handy way of visualizing just how good the Seahawks’ performance was. Rate each Super Bowl defensive performance by subtracting (a) the number of points that team allowed in the Super Bowl game, from (b) the number of points per game that the opposing offense had averaged during the regular season. For example, Seattle held the 37.9 ppg Broncos to just 8 points in the Super Bowl, giving them a point differential of 37.9 – 8 = 29.9. And when the 2007 Giants held the 36.8 ppg Patriots to only 17 points in the Super Bowl, the Giants’ point differential was a smaller but still respectable 36.8 – 17 = 19.8. (Note that larger numbers indicate a larger reduction in the opposing team’s scoring, and thus a stronger defensive performance.)

Do the same thing for every Super Bowl, and we get the following table showing the top twelve Super Bowl defenses by this measure (shown in the final column):

Season SB
Defense tm
Offense tm
Off ppg season Off pts SB Differential
2013 48 Seahawks Broncos 37.9 8 29.9
1983 18 Raiders Washington 33.8 9 24.8
2007 42 Giants Patriots 36.8 14 22.8
1966 1 Packers Chiefs 32.0 10 22.0
1968 3 Jets Colts 28.7 7 21.7
1969 4 Chiefs Vikings 27.1 7 20.1
1971 6 Cowboys Dolphins 22.5 3 19.5
1967 2 Packers Raiders 33.4 19 19.4
2005 40 Steelers Seahawks 28.2 10 18.2
1972 7 Dolphins Washington 24.0 7 17.0
1974 9 Steelers Vikings 22.1 6 16.1

Interestingly, the Seahawks' performance yesterday comes out on top, and by a comfortable margin.

Some other points of interest:

  • Super Bowl 48 is not the Seahawks' only appearance in this table. But the less said about that, the better.
  • A surprisingly large share of the top defensive performances (by this measure) came in the earliest Super Bowls: the ones that would be single-digit Super Bowls if we stopped using Roman numerals. I'm not sure what that's about, though it's possible that parity was weaker back then.
  • If we set aside those first nine Super Bowls, Seattle's performance yesterday is even more striking. Basically, Seattle held the 2013 Broncos to nearly 30 points below their season average ppg, while in the last 40 years, (a) NO other Super Bowl defense has held its opponent to as much as 25 points below their season average, and (b) only TWO other defenses have reduced their opponent's scoring by as much as 20 points per game. Can you spell "dominant"?
  • All data comes from tables at However, I had to extract that data by hand from several different tables, and I can't guarantee that I didn't make a mistake or three during the extraction process.
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