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‘Defense Wins Championships’ Myth Or Fact In The Super Bowl?

defense wins championships

There’s a saying in sports that “defense wins championships.” It’s certainly true that in all sports defense is important. In baseball, having a dominant pitcher can win a team the World Series (well unless the other team is stealing the signs). In football, we’ve seen recently that defense has definitely helped teams win the Super Bowl.

For example, in Super Bowl 50 the Denver Broncos had the number one defense and won against a dominant Carolina Panthers offense. The MVP was not Peyton Manning but linebacker Von Miller. As a data scientist, I cannot take a mantra for granted or recall a game where a dominant defensive team won the championship and take the mantra as a given. So I decided to look at the last 30 Super Bowls and see how these teams fared in DVOA.

super bowl champions dvoa

Clearly, a dominant offense (right side) wins most Super Bowls. Of the last 30 Super Bowls, 22 (73%) had a dominant offense. Of course, a dominant offense AND defense is expected to win Super Bowls (bottom right, 9 games), but surprisingly a dominant offense without a dominant defense (13 Super Bowls including last year’s) is also a (more delicious) recipe for success. On the other hand, there are only 5 games where a dominant defense without a dominant offense wins the Super Bowl (including the aforementioned 2015 Denver Broncos).

For the 2019 season, the San Francisco 49ers were ranked #2 in the league with a DVOA of -19.8% only second to New England. Their offense although ranked #7 in the league only had a 7.2% DVOA. The Kansas City Chiefs are on the opposite spectrum. They were ranked #2 on offense, second to the Ravens, with a DVOA of 22.7%. On defense, they ranked #14th in the league with a DVOA of -3.4%. You can see where each one would fall in the chart above. KC’s future based on this chart looks bright.

Looking at Super Bowl losers, we see a similar story. Of the 30 Super Bowls, there were only 3 where the winner didn’t have a dominant offense but the loser did; these games were: 2015 Broncos beat Panthers, 2013 Seahawks beat Broncos, and 2002 Bucs beat the Raiders. Of the 7 games with teams that had dominant defenses but not dominant offenses, 4 of those games lost including the memorable 2006 Manning lead Colts beating the Urlacher lead Chicago Bears. Of the 5 games where a dominant defense without a dominant offense won (bottom left in chart above), only 3 of those did they beat a dominant offense.

In summary, “defense wins Super Bowls” has been debunked. Last year, the four teams making it to the NFC and AFC championship were the top 4 offensive teams (Chiefs, Rams, Saints, Patriots). This year, Green Bay had neither a dominant offense or defense with a 6.5% and -1.1% DVOA in offense and defense respectively. The Titans did have a dominant offense posting a 12.9% DVOA on offense and a weak 1.0% defense, clearly not enough to stop the Chiefs. Although we know anything can happen on a given Sunday, this first analysis of Super Bowl LIV would give the edge to the Chiefs. We’ll see what my machine learning models will say about this.

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