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Home Analytics NFL Offense vs Defense - Inside the Numbers

NFL Offense vs Defense – Inside the Numbers

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

X and O drawing of a football play 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 Percentage56%61%66%
Higher Ranked Defense Win Percentage55%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

Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks played in the 2013 Superbowl

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:

YearPlayoff RoundTop 5 OffenseTop 5 DefenseResult
2010Wild CardIndianapolis ColtsNew York JetsNYJ 17 - IND 16
2011DivisionalNew Orleans SaintsSan Francisco 49ersSF 36 - NO 32
2011NFC ChampionshipNew York GiantsSan Francisco 49ersNYG 20 - SF 17 (OT)
2012Wild CardWashington RedskinsSeattle SeahawksSEA 24 - WSH 14
2013Wild CardGreen Bay PackersSan Francisco 49ersSF 23 - GB 20
2013SuperbowlDenver BroncosSeattle SeahawksSEA 43 - DEN 8
2016Wild CardOakland RaidersHouston TexansHOU 27 - OAK 14
2017DivisionalAtlanta FalconsSeattle SeahawksATL 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:

YearSuperbowl ChampionOffense RankDefense Rank
2010Green Bay Packers95
2011New York Giants927
2012Baltimore Ravens1617
2013Seattle Seahawks181
2014New England Patriots1013
2015Denver Broncos161
2016New England Patriots48
2017Philadelphia Eagles74
2018New England Patriots521
2019Kansas City Chiefs617

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.

The Legion of Boom playing for the Seattle Seahawks

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!


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