Does defense win championships? Stat-geek sports fans like me tend to distrust this old saying. Scoring a point helps just as much as allowing one hurts. And in football, the proposition risks ignoring the role played by the likes of Tom Brady. It is the case, however, that the better defensive team has usually won theSuper Bowl — and done so far more consistently than offensive juggernauts. The Web site Pro Football Reference publishes a statistic called the Simple Rating System (S.R.S.), which evaluates each team’s offense and defense based on the number of points it scored and allowed relative to the league average and adjusted for strength of schedule. Of the 92 teams to have played in the Super Bowl before this year, I identified those with the 20 best defensive and offensive ratings, according to S.R.S. (see charts above).
The defensive list contains teams that you would expect, like the 1985 Bears. These teams have compiled a 14-6 record (.700) in the Super Bowl. Their winning percentage is actually nearly 80 percent when you ignore the three cases, Super Bowls IV, VIII and XLV, when two of the all-time great defensive teams faced each other.
The 20 best offensive teams, however, are just 10-10 in the Super Bowl. There have been successes in this group, like the Saints under Drew Brees, but there have been just as many failures, including two of Brady’s Patriots teams. (During his three championships, the Patriots had a much better balance between offense and defense.)
The reasons that exceptional defenses fare so much better in the Super Bowl are still somewhat murky, but this factor bodes well for this year’s 49ers, whose defense belongs in the elite group, according to S.R.S. (it ranks 17th among Super Bowl teams). The Ravens, despite all the hype surrounding Ray Lewis, allowed a rather pedestrian 21.5 points per game this year.
The 49ers also have the better offense, according to S.R.S., so there isn’t much to recommend the Ravens . . . unless you look at the more sophisticated rankings published by Football Outsiders. Their system, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (D.V.O.A.), accounts for a team’s success or failure on every play it ran during the year and not just on final scores.
Those rankings find that while the 49ers had the better offense and defense, the Ravens had the best special teams in the league this year. If they do pull off the upset, on the heels of Steve Weatherford’s game-changing performance for the Giants in last year’s Super Bowl, perhaps it will be time for a new cliché: punters win championships. But don’t count on that.