There are two main phases to the game of football – offense and defense. Sorry, special team fans. Although special teams can play a big part of the outcome in a game, offense and defense always does. But which one is more important to have on an NFL team in the offense vs defense debate?
Legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant once said, “Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships.” Bryant did win six national championships embracing that philosophy in college football but that was also during the 1960s and 70s.
The game was different back then. More grit, less fluff. Today’s game is much more offensively driven than it was fifty years ago.
What wins in the NFL – offense or defense?
Let’s play GM for a second, shall we? If you are building a team to play in the NFL what do you try and focus on? A high-octane offense or a stout defense? I know most would answer with both a powerful offense and a shutdown defense but that’s not very realistic. Most teams have to choose to lean one way or the other or take a more balanced approach.
We focused on the playoff results over the last ten years to stay relevant to the changing style of the game and didn’t factor in regular season results because the playoffs are what really matters when it comes down to winning.
Obviously, clutch players and home-field advantage, among other things can also play a factor. Having Peyton Manning or Tom Brady on your team boosts your odds but let’s keep the argument strictly team offense vs team defense.
Related: NFL Playoff Seeds – Behind the Numbers
NFL Playoffs – Offense vs Defense
In all 110 NFL playoff games since the 2010 season, the team with the higher ranked offense has come out victorious 56% of the time. Independently, the team with the higher ranked defense has won 55% of the time. This gives a slight edge to your team if they are ranked higher on either side of the ball.
Except these numbers have been favoring offensively driven teams the last few years:
|Higher Ranked Offense Win Percentage||56%||61%||66%|
|Higher Ranked Defense Win Percentage||55%||53%||48%|
But if one team has the edge in offense and the opponent has an advantage on defense, or vice versa (which happens a whopping 61% of the time), it kind of renders those numbers useless.
How about combining those two scenarios for the same team? Teams that have both a higher ranked offense and defense compared to its opponent win 66% of the time. In the NFL playoffs, that is a crazy good statistical edge.
Top offenses vs great defenses
Next, let’s compare all the playoff matchups between teams with great offenses vs teams with great defenses to further pinpoint which aspect is more valuable to have as a team strength.
Since this is strictly a case study of offense vs defense, we filtered out games that featured two great offenses, two great defenses, or neither of both. Having a great unit on both sides of the ball is obviously preferred but that advantage will not be touched upon in this article.
Related: Top Superbowl Contenders for 2020
Since 2010, there have been 22 games that featured a top ten offense facing a top ten defense. The results? 11 wins for the offense. 11 wins for the defense. Dead even. But what if we refine this to just matchups of a top five NFL offense vs top five defense?
This gets us down to 8 specific games, where the top 5 defense has won 6 of them.
Below is a list of all these matchups:
|Year||Playoff Round||Top 5 Offense||Top 5 Defense||Result|
|2010||Wild Card||Indianapolis Colts||New York Jets||NYJ 17 - IND 16|
|2011||Divisional||New Orleans Saints||San Francisco 49ers||SF 36 - NO 32|
|2011||NFC Championship||New York Giants||San Francisco 49ers||NYG 20 - SF 17 (OT)|
|2012||Wild Card||Washington Redskins||Seattle Seahawks||SEA 24 - WSH 14|
|2013||Wild Card||Green Bay Packers||San Francisco 49ers||SF 23 - GB 20|
|2013||Superbowl||Denver Broncos||Seattle Seahawks||SEA 43 - DEN 8|
|2016||Wild Card||Oakland Raiders||Houston Texans||HOU 27 - OAK 14|
|2017||Divisional||Atlanta Falcons||Seattle Seahawks||ATL 36 - SEA 20|
Maybe this proves that when the best of the best on each side of the ball matchup the defense usually prevails. Having one of the best quarterbacks and offenses in the league is great but it appears they don’t fair too well against elite defenses.
Does Defense Win Championships?
Here are the last ten Superbowl winners along with their offensive and defensive rankings:
|Year||Superbowl Champion||Offense Rank||Defense Rank|
|2010||Green Bay Packers||9||5|
|2011||New York Giants||9||27|
|2014||New England Patriots||10||13|
|2016||New England Patriots||4||8|
|2018||New England Patriots||5||21|
|2019||Kansas City Chiefs||6||17|
The average Superbowl champion has an average rank of 10th for offense and 11th for defense. That doesn’t really prove much other than the fact that you have to have at least one of the categories close to the top ten to have a shot at a title.
One thing to note is that seven of the ten past champions had an offense ranked in the top ten. Well, what about the other three teams, you might ask. Two of them had the two best defenses of the decade (2013 Seahawks, 2015 Broncos) which propelled them to a title.
The last one? The 2012 Baltimore Ravens who appear as the lone outlier in the data. The Ravens still ranked 16th in overall offense.
Over the course of the previous ten NFL seasons, it seems the Superbowl Champions have followed a certain trend. Have a lot of fire power on offense or have a truly elite defense.
So, yeah good defenses have won championships in recent years but teams that have been more focused on the defensive side of the ball haven’t performed nearly as well as teams that rely on their offense.
Focus on Offense
Although the elite defenses usually stifle the best offenses, those matchups don’t come up very often (8 occurrences in 110 playoff games). They maybe only happen once or twice a year. This means the defensively minded teams will need to find other ways to win.
This is when they turn to their less than stellar offense to pick up the slack, which does not make for a sustainable model during a long playoff run against the best NFL teams.
The league is clearly shifting towards a more offensive brand of football and the stats show that. Teams that have adopted this style have more overall success than those who haven’t. Go offense!