Stat Analysis

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Guest Column: Do Great Defenses Really Beat Great Offenses?

Guest Column by Vincent Verhei

We're all used to it by now.  Football writers continuously spout cliches without ever offering evidence to prove that these statements are true. Come January, one cliche is heard more than any other: "Great defenses always beat great offenses," or its close cousin "Defense wins championships." True, the 1985 Bears and 2002 Buccaneers won Super Bowls. But last I checked, the 1991 Redskins and 1999 Rams did too. It's always seemed to me that great TEAMS win championships, and whether those teams are offense- or defense-based is irrelevant.

So I went back and checked the numbers. I found the top five offenses and defenses (measured by points scored) for each season since 1994. Then I checked the win-loss records when top offenses (T5Os) and defenses (T5Ds) squared off. I checked both regular season and playoff games.

In the regular season, a T5O has faced a T5D 106 times, winning 61 and losing 45. That's a winning percentage of .575. So it appears that great offenses actually have a slight edge, at least during the regular season. And if we break it down by year, you'll see that's usually the case:

1994: 7-3
1995: 6-6
1996: 3-9
1997: 7-7
1998: 9-4
1999: 4-7
2000: 2-1
2001: 6-2
2002: 9-4
2003: 8-2

Just to be clear, these are the win-loss records of T5Os when playing against T5Ds. The poor 1996 record can be attributed almost entirely to San Francisco, who went 1-4 against great defenses, beating Pittsburgh and losing to Green Bay, Dallas, and Carolina twice. In 1999, Washington went 0-3, and Carolina went 0-2. And yes, in 2000 there were only three regular season games between a top five offense and a top five defense -- and two of them were Indianapolis vs. Miami.

But what about the postseason? If defense wins championships, isn't that when it would win? Afraid not. T5Os have faced T5D 38 times in 10 years. They've won 19, they've lost 19. Yes, they've split right down the middle. I'd say great defenses beat great offenses half the time, which is what you'd expect.

In that span, T5Os have played T5Ds in the Super Bowl three times, winning twice (Denver over Green Bay, Denver over Atlanta) and losing once (Oakland against Tampa Bay).

To be fair, recent history favors the defenses - HEAVILY. In the past two years, T5Os are 0-5 against T5Ds. Zero. None. Nada. I wouldn't call that much of a long-term trend, but for the 2002 and 2003 playoffs, yes, I'll concede, a great defense beats a great offense.

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