Does defense really win championships?

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

July 6th, 2020

Legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once famously stated, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships." Since then, many coaches and players, across all of sports, have bought into his motto.

But the past decade in the NFL has proven defense may not be the ultimate factor in who wins a Super Bowl.

Let's crunch the data on the past 10 seasons to determine whether the team with the better defensive stats came out on top in the NFL’s biggest game.  

Number of times the better defense won the Super Bowl

Super Bowl winnerScoring defense ranked better than Super Bowl opponent
2019: Kansas City Chiefs
2018: New England Patriots
2017: Philadelphia Eagles
2016: New England Patriots
2015: Denver Broncos
2014: New England Patriots
2013: Seattle Seahawks
2012: Baltimore Ravens
2011: New York Giants
2010: Green Bay Packers

Dating back to 2010, the team with the best scoring defense won the Super Bowl six out of 10 times.

From 2010 to 2014, this phenomenon occurred just once, but since 2015, the trend has held true each year.  

In 2010, the Super Bowl featured the No. 1 scoring defense (Steelers) against the No. 2 scoring defense (Packers). Green Bay won that matchup, and offense made the difference. The Packers ranked in the top 10 in yards per game, passing, and scoring throughout the season. The Steelers trailed Green Bay in each of those categories.   

In 2012, Baltimore’s 12th-ranked scoring defense ousted San Francisco’s second-ranked scoring defense. Similarly, in 2014, the Seahawks ranked better on defense (first in opponent points per game) but lost to New England, which wasn't too far behind (eighth) in that category. Both the Ravens and Patriots possessed better offenses, which helped them get over the hump.

The oddest outlier is the 2011 Giants. New York’s scoring defense ranked 25th, compared to New England at 15th. The Patriots also ranked second in yards per game and third in points per game on offense, while the Giants were eighth and ninth, respectively, in those statistics.

The better defense didn't win every championship in the past decade, but typically the Super Bowl winner at least fielded a respectable defense (with the exception of New York).

Number of times the better offense won

Super Bowl matchup (winner listed first)Team with better scoring offense
2019: Kansas City vs. San Francisco
San Francisco (ranked second)
2018: New England vs. Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles (ranked second)
2016: Philadelphia vs. New England
New England and Philadelphia (tied for second)
2016: New England vs. Atlanta
Atlanta (ranked first)
2015: Denver vs. Carolina
Carolina (ranked first)
2014: New England vs. Seattle
New England (ranked fourth)
2013: Seattle vs. Denver
Denver (ranked first)
2012: Baltimore vs. San Francisco
Baltimore (ranked 10th)
2011: New York vs. New England
New England (ranked third)
2010: Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh
Green Bay (ranked 10th)

Since the data determined the better defense doesn’t win every time, we looked at scoring offense to see how much that statistic made a difference in the Super Bowl.

From 2015 to 2019, the better scoring offense lost in each Super Bowl, and each of those offenses ranked first or second in the league. Expanding out from 2010 to 2019, the better scoring offense came up short seven times in the past decade, with the exceptions occurring in 2010 (Green Bay), 2012 (Baltimore), and 2014 (New England).

As seen above, these same teams also ranked lower in scoring defense, compared to the teams they beat in the Super Bowl, but the Packers, Ravens, and Patriots were all still in the top 12 in that category.

There is no hard-set trend over the past decade, but recent Super Bowls show a team with a stellar offense and mediocre defense usually can't win NFL's biggest game.

How much does defense matter?

Since 2010, the No. 1 ranked scoring defense throughout the regular season has won the championship game just twice. In 2016, the Patriots' No. 1 defense (15.6 points per game) squared off with Atlanta's 27th-ranked unit. And in 2013, Seattle's top scoring defense (14.4) annihilated Denver and its 22nd-ranked squad.

One significant trend that did appear in the past decade is that each Super Bowl matchup included at least one team in the top 10 in scoring defense, other than 2011, when New England and New York both ranked 15th or lower.

All but four of the past 10 Super Bowls pitted two top 12 scoring defenses against one another.

Of the four Super Bowl games that didn't present a matchup of two scoring defenses in the top 12, the higher-ranking defense won three.

The Giants are the outlier, once more, as neither they nor the Patriots ranked in the top 12, and yet New York's 25th-ranked unit beat out New England's 15th-ranked defense.

Tossing out that Super Bowl, though, defense played a larger factor than offense, but it wasn't the only key, which makes Bryant's old adage more myth than reality.