The adage “defense wins championships” has been spot-on when describing a lot of teams that have made it to -- and in many cases won -- the Super Bowl since the game’s inception. Seven of the first eight teams to appear in the Super Bowl ranked either first or second in total defense (yards allowed). And that was before Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain dynasty, the 1985 Chicago Bears and, more recently, the dominant Baltimore Ravens (2000) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002) defenses.
Of course, the same could be said for the other side of the ball. Just look back at all the great offensive juggernauts that have made it to pro football’s biggest stage: the San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice immediately come to mind, as do the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” teams, Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and the Saints with Drew Brees.
Actually, it’s rare that a team makes it to the Super Bowl without being elite on either defense or offense -- or both. An examination of the 92 previous Super Bowl teams bears this out and gives us a handy metric by which to compare this year’s two combatants: the 49ers and Ravens.
You’ll see in the infographic below that the 49ers fit the profile of a typical Super Bowl team -- because of their elite defense -- whereas the Ravens do not. That does not mean, however, that Baltimore has no shot of taking home the Lombardi trophy. In Super Bowl history, statistically dominant teams are barely above .500 when facing those that aren’t as impressive on paper.
Almost without exception, Super Bowl teams are really good at offense, defense or both -- as in, they rank in the top 10. In fact, a staggering 91 of the 94 teams (97 percent) that have played (or will play, including this year’s teams) in the Super Bowl ranked in the top 10 in either points scored or points allowed during the regular season.
In addition, 89 of the 94 teams (95 percent) that have played (or will play this Sunday) in the Super Bowl ranked in the top 10 in either yards or yards allowed during the regular season. This season’s Ravens didn’t; the other four teams that didn’t have a top-10 offense or defense went 2-2 in the Super Bowl.
Taking the analysis one step further, from top-10 offenses and defenses to top-five offenses and defenses, still provides strong trends (as shown in the infographic above). More than three-fourths of Super Bowl teams have fielded top-five offenses and/or defenses in terms of yards and points. Moreover, nearly three-fourths scored at least 100 points more than they allowed during the regular season -- a stat that’s usually indicative of greatness (or at least very-good-ness) on one or both sides of the ball.
This year’s Super Bowl is an aberration in that it will be only the 12th in which a team that ranked in the top five on either offense or defense will face a team that did not. Yet you don’t have to look too far to find examples of non-elite offenses or defenses beating those that ranked in the top five. Just last year the New York Giants -- who finished the season ranked eighth in yards gained, 27th in yards allowed, ninth in points scored and 25th in points allowed -- toppled the Patriots, who ranked second in yards gained and third in points scored. The Patriots had a plus-171 point differential during the 2011 regular season. The Giants had a minus-6 differential and became the first team to win the Super Bowl (or even reach the Super Bowl) following a season in which it posted a negative point differential.
In short: Don’t let the numbers mislead you. The Niners appear to be the more dominant team on paper, but history suggests the Ravens shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
More items of note:
• 30 of the 46 teams that have won the Super Bowl (65 percent) ranked in the top five in points scored during the regular season.
• 22 of the 46 teams that have won the Super Bowl (48 percent) ranked in the top five in yards during the regular season.
• 28 of the 46 teams that have won the Super Bowl (61 percent) ranked in the top five in points allowed during the regular season.
• 29 of the 46 teams that have won the Super Bowl (63 percent) ranked in the top five in yards allowed during the regular season.
On a related note, when you watch the game this Sunday, keep in mind the “rule of 20 points.” If a team scores 20, the odds are good it will win the game. How good?
• Just five of the 46 Super Bowl champions have scored fewer than 20 points.
• Only one Super Bowl winner since 1975 has scored fewer than 20 points (the Giants scored 17 in Super Bowl XLII).
• 34 of the 46 losing teams in the Super Bowl have scored fewer than 20 points.
Infographic by SportsData LLC.