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Reloaded: Does defense win championships? A look back at the 46-game history of the Super Bowl

To understand the Super Bowl, you must eat, sleep, and breathe Super Bowl. I've done that, so now what have I learned?


DK Note: Over the Fourth of July Break, I thought it would be cool to reload a few older articles from myself and some of our esteemed writers here at Field Gulls. As I browsed through the dusty archives, I picked out a few posts that were definitely worth re-posting. For those of you that missed these the first time around, you're in for some excellent analysis, and for those of you that remember these posts, I'd say they're even worth re-reading.

Here's a piece from Kenny that was originally published on January 28th, just prior to the Super Bowl. Enjoy.


If you have ever watched the Giants play a playoff game, you should know by now that we can't predict anything. Try as we might, who knows when Eli Manning is going to channel Peyton for a moment, or David Tyree and Mario Manningham become Super Bowl legends. Just in case you had forgotten, or were just completely unaware, Tyree had four catches for 35 yards. "Well, that's not bad for the Super Bowl, fine gentleman!"

"No, that was during the regular season, kind sir!"

"Bullshit, motherf2#$@%!"

"Giants, man. Giants."

That is to say, once again, that the Super Bowl will be determined on Sunday and not by anything we say about it in the days leading up to it. Tyree had more yards in one game than he had during the entire season and made a catch that is arguably the best catch in the 46-game history of the Super Bowl. It wasn't Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks that made the most memorable catch of Super Bowl XLVI, but Manningham, the guy that finished fourth on his own team in yardage. When the Ravens meet the 49ers to decide who is the "best" for the 2012 season, we have no idea what is going to happen and Baltimore has already defied odds to make this far, they only have to win one more game. That's it. Why do I bring all of this up?

Well, I spent several days last week compiling stats, rankings, info, and more on the entire history of the Super Bowl. I looked over all 92 participants, the coaches, the quarterbacks, the offense and defenses, and even DVOA. I kept adding new stats, averaged them out, compiled a very large Excel spreadsheet because I remain determined to find out what makes a Super Bowl champion. When I told this to Danny Kelly, he just wanted to me to tell him why the Ravens would beat the Niners. What hope do they have? What are the facts that favor Baltimore. And my best answer for that is:

Well, look at David Tyree and the Giants!

Because in reality, almost everything favors San Francisco. Right now I see a Ravens upset as one that will be on par with the 1968 Jets, the 1980 Raiders, the 2001 Patriots, or the 2007 and 2011 Giants. Almost nothing is going in the favor of Baltimore right now as I see it after hours and hours of research. The best hope I can give anyone that wants to see the Niners lose is that sometimes upsets happen, that Any Given Sunday isn't just the original story of Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith, and other cliches about expecting the unexpected. After all, six of the last seven Super Bowl winners had a worse regular season record than their opponent. For as long as this league saw almost nothing but one dynasty leading into the next, with championships shared by teams like the 49ers, Giants, Redskins, Cowboys, Steelers, Dolphins, or Raiders, we have parity now unlike anything we've ever seen.

It used to be that the league had a dominating team and that team won the Super Bowl more often than not. Today we don't see that nearly as often and if anything, the Seahawks blew their chance at a championship when they decided to become the best team in the NFL. Look at the Giants, you should really be mediocre or simply plain good! As an example of that, look no further than point differential.

We heard Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders tell us that blowout victories actually were somewhat predictive of a team being great. Even if you're playing a bad team, winning by 30+ is still significant. Never did this prove more true than between 1989 and 2000, when every single NFL champion was ranked either 1st or 2nd in point differential. The 2011 New York Giants were actually the first team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl after being outscored during the regular season, while the 2008 Cardinals had a point differential of +0.1 points per game.

It's less often now that you see that kind of dominance make it all the way to the championship, with just three of the last nine Super Bowl winners ranked 1st or 2nd in point differential. The 2001 Patriots were 7th, the 2003 Patriots were 6th, the 2005 Steelers were 5th, the 2006 Colts were 9th, the 2007 Giants were 13th, the 2008 Steelers were 5th, and the 2011 Giants were 19th. Nothing like the dominating teams of the 90's, like the Rams, Broncos, Packers, Cowboys, Niners, Redskins, and Giants Super Bowl-winning teams that rolled through the regular season. Then they got to the Super Bowl and usually faced a tam that was very, very good, but not great.

Those Bills that lost four Super Bowls in a row really had their best shot in 1990 when they were 1st in point differential (+10.3) but subsequent Buffalo teams really weren't great on defense and when Scott Norwood was wide right on a 47-yard field goal attempt, that ended the franchise's best chance at a championship. After the Bills run, we had teams lose the Super Bowl with quarterbacks like Stan Humphries, Neil O'Donnell, Drew Bledsoe, Chris Chandler, Steve McNair, and Kerry Collins. Forgettable players and "good not great" players. The point being that there was a significant talent gap between the winners and losers and that consistently decided the outcome before the game was started. It's not the case anymore.

Right now, the Ravens are the over-achieving band of "you shouldn't be here" odds breakers and the 49ers are the dominating team that certainly looked like the best team in the NFL at certain points in time this season. If this were 1995, I'd almost certainly expect San Francisco to win 33-10, but the balance of power really seems more balanced these days. Maybe Baltimore isn't "supposed" to be here, but they did go through the Broncos and Patriots, the only two respectable AFC teams, to get this far and it's reasonable that they could win one more game. But it would still be an upset, and a significant one at that. Here are some facts and figures that may be of some interest to you that will show why that's the case and maybe even some numbers that could help Seattle as they try to build a Super Bowl team of their own.

Defense > Offense

It's one thing to just say that defense wins football games and it's another to back it up with numbers. "Hey ladies, I make $75,000 a year!" "Okay Kenny, show us your pay stubs" say the ladies as I quietly exit stage right.

Well, defense wins Super Bowls. Here is why. These are the average offense and defensive scoring numbers for Super Bowl teams:

Super Bowl Winner: 25.59 points per game, 15.86 points per game allowed

Super Bowl Loser: 25.67 points per game, 17.00 points per game allowed

During the regular season, the team that loses the Super Bowl actually scores slightly more often than the champion. However, they allow a much more significant 1.14 points per game on average than the winning team. That number continues to hold up in other statistics. The Total Defense of the Super Bowl loser is ranked 9.41 in the NFL on average, while the Total Defense of the winning team is ranked 6.5 on average.

The champion of the league is ranked almost 3 spots higher on average than the losing team. That's really bad news for Baltimore. The Ravens were 12th in scoring defense and 17th in total defense while the 49ers were 2nd in scoring defense and 3rd in total defense. If Baltimore won the Super Bowl, they would be the 7th-lowest ranked team by total defense to do so.

Lowest-Ranked Total D to Win Super Bowl

2011 Giants - 27th

2009 Saints - 25th

2001 Patriots - 24th

2006 Colts - 21st

1976 Raiders - 18th

1987 Redskins - 18th

Lowest-Ranked Scoring D to Win Super Bowl

2011 Giants - 25th

2006 Colts - 23rd

2009 Saints - 20th

2007 Giants - 17th

1983 Raiders - 13th

1976 Raiders - 12th

The Ravens allow 21.5 points per game, and only five teams have ever won the Super Bowl after allowing at least 20 points per game in the regular season. However, Baltimore scores just 24.9 points per game and most of those other teams with bad defenses also had a stellar offense. The closest comp in that respect would be the 2007 Giants that scored 23.3 points per game and allowed 21.9 points per game and then went on to beat the 16-0 Patriots.

And if a game like that happens again, you can expect Tandon Doss to make some incredible play that becomes instant legend.

These numbers hold up when talking about DVOA, as well. Super Bowl winners and Super Bowl losers are near equals in offensive DVOA. On average, they are both ranked ~7th on offense. However, the Super Bowl winner is ranked about 8.7th on defense, while the loser was ranked 11.6th on D. When almost everything is equal except for one category, it's probably worth noting the importance of that category. And it might be even more important since DVOA only goes back to 1991 and were aren't counting the less significant games, the ones that included players like Len Dawson and people were still referring to a pass as a "forward pass".

The 49ers were 2nd in defensive DVOA, while the Ravens were only 19th.

Baltimore has strides to make when it comes to overcoming San Francsico on Sunday, but perhaps none is more important than their notable differences on defense. It's enough to make me want the Seahawks to only focus on that side of the ball forever and ever. Defense really does win championships.

- Since 1990, teams ranked 1st or 2nd in scoring defense are 10-2 in the Super Bowl. Both losses (2010 Packers over Steelers, 2004 Patriots over Eagles) came to a team that was also ranked 1st or 2nd in scoring defense. Overall, teams ranked 1st or 2nd in scoring defense are 22-11.

- 11 Super Bowl losers were ranked outside of the top 10 in scoring defense, compared to six Super Bowl winners.

- The 2011 Giants 25.0 points per game allowed was the worst scoring defense to win the Super Bowl. The 2000 Ravens 10.3 points per game allowed was the best. Those Ravens also scored 20.8 points per game on offense, the lowest-ever for a Super Bowl champion.

- 31 of 46 Super Bowl winners had a top 5 scoring defense. 23 of 46 Super Bowl losers had a top 5 scoring defense. 30 Super Bowl winners had a top 5 total defense. 18 losers were top 5 in total defense.

- 7 Super Bowl winners were 1st in total rush defense, compared to 5 Super Bowl losers. 25 winners were top 5 in that category and 36 were top 10. 20 losers were top 5 in rush defense and 32 were top 10. 6 winners were ranked 1st in yards per carry allowed, 29 were top 10. 5 losers were ranked 1st, 23 were top 10.

- Pass defense might be more significant than rush defense. Only 3 Super Bowl losers had the top ranked pass defense, and just 11 were in the top 5. But 8 Super Bowl winners were the top-ranked pass defense and 18 in the top 5. How about yards per attempt, which might be more telling?

- 9 Super Bowl winners were ranked 1st in Net Yards per Pass Attempt allowed, 30 were top 5. 5 Super Bowl losers (what I am calling "Super Losers") were ranked 1st in that category and 17 were top 5.

I should have guessed that after spending dozens of hours on Super Bowl research that I wouldn't be able to put it all into one article, and I think that "Defense wins championships" is a good place to start and finish today. Not to mention that I am simultaneously writing a similar article for SBNation/NFL based on my research. Perhaps this is some food for thought to chew on with less than a week until the last game of the season. If you have any questions or theories about what I have done or just want to know what champion had the most turnovers in the playoffs the year that they won it all (the 1975 Steelers had 12 before they even got to the Super Bowl) or other interesting facts (the 1983 Redskins had an unfathomable +43 turnover differential and still lost the Super Bowl. Seeing "+43" was the only time I audibly said "Holy shit" during my research. I probably thought "holy shit" several times but every now and then you can't even control the words that are coming out of my mouth.)

We got a whole week of Super Bowl talk ahead, even if you despise the two teams playing and just want the Ravens to run over San Francisco, or perhaps you want the NFC West to get a title (?) or whatever, it's going to be unavoidable. All we know for certain is that the Ravens are a longshot, but that recent history has shown that longshots can win it too, and that the Giants screw up everything.

Six more days until it's officially the offseason, which is probably still the best news of all!

Follow Ken on Twitter, don't be like all those people that unfollowed me this week.