Analysis: Super Bowl Chances With Top Defense But Not Top Offense

The other day, I remarked that I wouldn’t have Midweek Musings this week because of Thanksgiving, but I do have something else for you. I did some research the past couple of weeks to consider if the Broncos can win a Super Bowl with the No. 1 defense in the NFL when the offense isn’t doing enough to help.

It’s easy to write off the Denver Broncos as having any hope of reaching the Super Bowl because of the various issues plaguing the team, particularly after last week’s shellacking against the Chiefs at Mile High. However, we must remember that seasons are not decided in Week 10 or 11 but in the playoffs.

Indeed, it’s likely this is Peyton Manning’s last season with the Broncos, regardless of whether or not the loss to Kansas City was actually his last game. And Brock Osweiler, who had a solid outing against Chicago, remains an unknown factor for the coming weeks.

However, a quick check through the annals of recent NFL history, dating back to when the Broncos won their back-to-back Super Bowls, shows that there have been several teams who went on to win Super Bowls without having the most dominant offense and, while having a dominant defense isn’t a guarantee either, quite a few teams who had subpar offenses had top defenses that allowed them to be put over the top.

The purpose of this writing is not to argue who should be the starting quarterback or predict who among the current Super Bowl favorites is going to disintegrate because somebody exposes them. It’s simply to give perspective about how some teams actually accomplished their seasons despite not having a perfect team makeup.

I only went back to the Broncos’ Super Bowl wins because that’s the point when the NFL was starting to evolve into the passing league it’s known as today. After the Broncos won those Super Bowls, Peyton Manning hit his stride, the St. Louis Rams emerged with the Greatest Show on Turf and Bill Belichick was getting things warmed up in New England.

I examined Football Outsiders’ DVOA for all seasons going back to the Broncos’ first Super Bowl win. I have listed which team FO ranked as the top offense that season, followed by who were the two teams that went to the Super Bowl (winner first) and where their offenses ranked. An asterisk (*) is used when the Super Bowl winner or loser had the top-ranked offense. (Note: Remember that the years refer to the regular season and the Super Bowl takes place in the new year.)

Year Top O SB Winner O Rank SB Loser O Rank
2014 Green Bay New England 6th Seattle 5th
2013 Denver Seattle 7th Denver *
2012 New England Baltimore 13th San Francisco 5th
2011 Green Bay NY Giants 7th New England 3rd
2010 New England Green Bay 7th Pittsburgh 5th
2009 New England New Orleans 2nd Indianapolis 6th
2008 Denver Pittsburgh 21st Arizona 15th
2007 New England NY Giants 18th New England *
2006 Indianapolis Indianapolis * Chicago 28th
2005 Seattle Pittsburgh 9th Seattle *
2004 Indianapolis New England 3rd Philadelphia 9th
2003 Kansas City New England 14th Carolina 18th
2002 Kansas City Tampa Bay 20th Oakland 2nd
2001 San Francisco New England 11th St. Louis 2nd
2000 St. Louis Baltimore 22nd NY Giants 8th
1999 Washington St. Louis 4th Tennessee 3rd
1998 Denver Denver * Atlanta 10th
1997 Jacksonville Denver 2nd Green Bay 4th


First of all, some bragging rights for you Bronco fans: Your team is one of just two since the 1997 regular season to win a Super Bowl with Football Outsiders’ top-ranked offense. The other one is Indianapolis and, of course, Peyton Manning was the quarterback. Interestingly, the Patriots never won a Super Bowl with the top-ranked offense by FO DVOA, and their highest-ranked Super Bowl-winning offense was third in 2004. FO’s rankings history would suggest that the Patriots (currently ranked No. 1 in offensive DVOA) are far from guaranteed from winning the Lombardi this year.

And then there’s the offenses that were mediocre at best, and at times downright awful, but the teams won a Super Bowl anyway. Baltimore, of course, stands out for its 2000 title. Tampa Bay is also there for a 2002 victory. The one that might surprise you is Pittsburgh in 2008, because that’s when they had Ben Roethlisberger in his prime, Hines Ward still in his prime, and Santonio Holmes was thought to be on the rise. The New York Giants, of course, were the ultimate Super Bowl spoiler in 2007. That’s four Super Bowl winners who didn’t have an offense that ranked in the top half.

So how do the defenses measure up? Once again, I’ve taken those defenses that FO ranked first for each season, then done the same for the Super Bowl winner and loser. The asterisk (*) comes into play as before.

Year Top D SB Winner Rank SB Loser Rank
2014 Seattle New England 12th Seattle *
2013 Seattle Seattle * Denver 15th
2012 Chicago Baltimore 19th San Francisco 3rd
2011 Baltimore NY Giants 19th New England 30th
2010 Pittsburgh Green Bay 2nd Pittsburgh  *
2009 NY Jets New Orleans 17th Indianapolis 16th
2008 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh * Arizona 21st
2007 Tennessee NY Giants 13th New England 11th
2006 Baltimore Indianapolis 25th Chicago 2nd
2005 Chicago Pittsburgh 3rd Seattle 16th
2004 Buffalo New England 7th Philadelphia 16th
2003 Baltimore New England 2nd Carolina 10th
2002 Tampa Bay Tampa Bay * Oakland 7th
2001 Philadelphia New England 13th St. Louis 5th
2000 Tennessee Baltimore 2nd NY Giants 12th
1999 Baltimore St. Louis 3rd Tennessee 20th
1998 Miami Denver 20th Atlanta 5th
1997 San Francisco Denver 8th Green Bay 3rd


Football Outsiders DVOA ratings show that a top defense is somewhat preferable to having a top offense if you want to win a Super Bowl. If you notice the offense rankings, only five Super Bowl winners had a top-five offense, but eight Super Bowl winners had a top-five defense. Teams with the No. 1 offense have gone 2-3 in the Super Bowl and haven’t won since 2006, but teams with the No. 1 defense have gone 3-2, last won in 2013 and have made the Super Bowl the last two (granted, it’s the same team, but it still speaks well for having the best defense in the NFL).

In recent years, it’s true several Super Bowl winners didn’t have a top 10 defense, but the majority were in the top half (13 of the 18 listed). And of course, having the top defense in the NFL doesn’t ensure you anything. But having a top defense did a lot for those teams that had offenses ranked in the bottom half. It certainly helped Tampa Bay in 2002 and it played a big role for Pittsburgh in 2008. Baltimore’s defense wasn’t the best in 2000, but it was right up there and certainly made a difference. The New York Giants, of course, didn’t have a top 10 defense in 2007, but they were a team that could be considered “good enough” to challenge New England.

So what about the four most notable examples? Before we get to them, let’s take a look at this year’s Denver Broncos team and examine how Pro Football Reference rates offenses and defenses for expected points contributed in games.

What PFR does is judge offense, defense and special teams either positively or negatively to the team’s final score based on how it performed overall for that particular game. Bear this in mind: Long drives are considered positive for offense, while three-and-outs are as much of a negative as a turnover, and the better the field position given off a turnover, the worse it affects an offense. Meanwhile, for a defense, a three-and-out does more to work in its favor than a sustained drive in which the defense forces a turnover, although the latter counts for more than holding the opponent to a field goal. At the same time, a defense isn’t penalized as much if the opponent gets great field position, as it would be if the opponent started deep in its own territory.

The way to look at individual games is this: A unit contributing positive expected points number to a game can be said to have done its job well, and how well depends on how many points. A unit contributing a negative number to a game did not do its job well, and how poorly depends on how worse the negative number is. PFR doesn’t categorize its numbers to determine how good or poorly a unit played, but I’d look at it this way.

* Double-digit positive number: Great showing.
* Single-digit positive number at least 3: Good but not great showing.
* Between 2 and -2: Average showing.
* Single-digit negative number less than -3: Mediocre showing.
* Double-digit negative number: Bad showing.

Seldom will both units have great showings, but if one is great and the other is good, you should have a win. A great showing by one unit and an average showing by the other means the unit with the great showing arguably won the game, and that unit definitely won it if the other unit was mediocre or bad. If one unit has a bad outing, the only way the team is likely to win is for the other unit to have a great game. A “good but not great” outing by one likely won’t help overcome a bad outing by the other, but the former performance can overcome an average or mediocre outing.

A quick check of the Broncos’ expected points in each game this season shows this:

Week 1: Baltimore W 19-13, bad offense, great defense.
Week 2: Kansas City W 31-24, mediocre offense, good defense.
Week 3: Detroit W 24-12, good offense, good defense
Week 4: Minnesota W 23-20, good offense, average defense.
Week 5: Oakland W 16-10, mediocre offense, good defense.
Week 6: Cleveland W 26-23 OT, bad offense, great defense.
Week 7: Bye week.
Week 8: Green Bay W 29-10, great offense, good defense.
Week 9: Indianapolis L 27-24, good offense, bad defense.
Week 10: Kansas City L 29-13, bad offense, good defense.
Week 11: Chicago W 17-15, good offense, average defense.

Thus far, the defense has had one bad game, that coming against Indianapolis. Before anyone gets tuned up, keep in mind the following: It’s the only bad game the defense has had, even the top unit in the NFL in a single season can have a bad game, and the biggest point to keep in mind is that saying the defense was bad against the Colts does not suddenly take away from the next few points I’ll make.

The offense has had three bad games (Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City at home) and two mediocre games (Kansas City on the road, Oakland), meaning the offense hasn’t gotten the job done in five of the Broncos’ 10 games. The defense, meanwhile, has definitely gotten it done in seven of the 10 games, played well enough to get it done in two others and, among the Broncos’ seven victories, the defense won the day in four of them. So it’s correct to say the offense has been a problem overall and the defense is the bigger reason that the Broncos are a playoff contender. This past Sunday, the Broncos had a good offensive showing, so the switch to Brock Osweiler can be considered a positive for at least one week.

Going back to Football Outsiders, I want to examine where the Broncos components on offense through nine games have ranked (as of this writing, FO hasn’t included the Chicago game). Peyton Manning has a -215 DYAR to rank 31st out of 32 ranked quarterbacks who have throw at least 135 passes. (Yes, I would expect that ranking to drop once other QBs get additional pass attempts.) Ronnie Hillman has a DYAR of 11 to rank 22nd out of 36 among running backs with at least 72 touches, while C.J. Anderson is -55 to rank 35th. For receivers with at least 36 targets, Demaryius Thomas has 38 DYAR to rank 43rd and Emmanuel Sanders is 25 to rank 49th, with 62 receivers ranked. (Bennie Fowler has a 37 DYAR on 14 targets, but he may not generate enough targets this season to qualify for a ranking.) For tight ends, only Owen Daniels has enough targets to qualify, and he is at -24 DYAR to rank 29th out of 40 tight ends with at least 18 targets. (Vernon Davis is ranked, but because the bulk of his targets came with San Francisco, it’s a bit misleading to include him. Meanwhile, Virgil Green has nine targets and a 47 DYAR.) Finally, FO DYAR ranks the offensive line 31st overall in run blocking and fourth overall in pass protection.

So, yes, there’s plenty of work to be done all around on the offense. The question, therefore, is how well does the presence of Brock Osweiler continue to help other areas improve. Against Chicago, it definitely helped the running game and the tight ends were more productive. We’ll know more when FO updates its DVOA rankings later in the week.

So how does all this apply to other teams? Let’s take a look at the four teams whose offense did not rank in the top half per FO DVOA and see how those teams’ offenses and defenses fared in each game, using PFR’s metrics. I use PFR because FO doesn’t break down individual games.

Week 1: Houston, W 38-17, good offense, great defense
Week 2: Cleveland, W 10-6, average offense, good defense
Week 3: Philadelphia, L 15-6, bad offense, great defense
Week 4: Baltimore, W 23-20 OT, bad offense, great defense
Week 5: Jacksonville, W 26-21, good offense, average defense*
Week 6: Bye week
Week 7: Cincinnati, W 38-10, great offense, great defense
Week 8: New York Giants, L 21-12, bad offense, good defense
Week 9: Washington, W 23-6, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 10: Indianapolis, L 24-20, average offense, mediocre defense
Week 11: San Diego, W 11-10, good offense, good defense
Week 12: Cincinnati, W 27-10, great offense, great defense
Week 13: New England, W 33-10, average offense, great defense
Week 14: Dallas, W 20-13, bad offense, great defense
Week 15: Baltimore, W 13-9, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 16: Tennessee, L 31-14, mediocre offense, mediocre defense
Week 17: Cleveland, W 31-0, good offense, great defense
* Although it’s technically above 2, 2.06 is closer to average.

For the regular season, the Steelers offense had two great games and was at least good in six games, while it was no better than mediocre in seven games and was bad in four. In those seven games in which the offense was no better than mediocre, the Steelers defense was great in five of them and all but one were victories. For the season, the Steelers D had 10 great games and was at least good in 13 of them.

What happened in the playoffs? It went like this: The Steelers had a first-round bye and beat San Diego in the divisional round 35-24 thanks to a good offensive performance (the defense was average). In the AFC championship, the Steelers had their fifth bad offensive outing of the regular season against the Ravens, but had their 11th great defensive outing of the season and won 23-14. In the Super Bowl, the defense was average and the offense was good in a 27-23 win over Arizona.

While the offense definitely got the job done in the Super Bowl, there’s no other way to put it: Were it not for the defense doing a lot of the heavy lifting, the Steelers might not have reached the Super Bowl.

The Football Outsiders DYAR regarding parts of the offense: Ben Roethlisberger’s FO DYAR was 97, ranking him 26th out of 41 ranked quarterbacks. Mewelde Moore’s was 119, ranking him 13th out of 49 running backs, while Willie Parker was 25 for 30th. Hines Ward was 296, ranked seventh out of 79 wide receivers, while Nate Washington 74 for 51st and Santonio Holmes was 48 for 58th. Heath Miller was 99 to rank 13th out of 43 tight ends. The offensive line was ranked 26th overall in run blocking and 29th overall in pass protection. In terms of DYAR, Ward was definitely valuable and Moore was more valuable than people may have realized.

Week 1: Dallas, L 45-35, good offense, bad defense
Week 2: Green Bay, L 35-13, average offense, bad defense
Week 3: Washington, W 24-17, average offense, great defense
Week 4: Philadelphia, W 16-3, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 5: NY Jets, W 35-24, good offense, great defense
Week 6: Atlanta, W 31-10, great offense, great defense
Week 7: San Francisco, W 33-15, good offense, great defense
Week 8: Miami, W 13-10, mediocre offense, good defense
Week 9: Bye week
Week 10: Dallas, L 31-20, average offense, bad defense
Week 11: Detroit, W 16-10, mediocre offense, good defense
Week 12: Minnesota, L 41-17, bad offense, mediocre defense
Week 13: Chicago, W 21-16, average offense, good defense
Week 14: Philadelphia, W 16-13, mediocre offense, good defense
Week 15: Buffalo, W 38-21, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 16: New England, L 38-35, great offense, bad defense

The Giants had just one bad offensive outing but five mediocre outings, while the defense had four bad outings and one mediocre outing. On the other side, the Giants offense had two great games and three good games, while the defense had six great games and four good games. Again, I think it’s fair to say that the defense did more of the work, although the offense had fewer bad outings than the defense did. And it’s worth asking if the Giants had managed at least an average outing in Week 16, if they would have beaten the Patriots that week.

In the playoffs, though, the offense did more of the work. In the wild card round, the offense was good and the defense mediocre in a 24-14 win over Tampa Bay. In the divisional round, it was the same thing when the Giants beat Dallas 21-17. In the NFC championship game, the offense was again good while the defense was average in a 23-20 victory, and the same held true in the Super Bowl over New England.

So the Giants qualify as a team in which the defense did more of the work during the regular season, but the offense took over in the playoffs. It might be fair to say that the offense needed time to find its rhythm, but once it did, it could do enough to beat other teams, so long as the defense didn’t have a bad game.

FO DYAR about the offense: Eli Manning was -190, ranked 40th out of 51 passers (so Eli wasn’t much better than Peyton has been through nine games). Brandon Jacobs was 230, ranked third out of 49 RBs, and Derrick Ward was 111, ranked 18th. Out of 86 wide receivers, Plaxico Burress was 132 and ranked 35th and Amani Toomer was 129 and ranked 37th. Jeremy Shockey ranked 18th out of 44 tight ends with 33 DYAR and the offensive line ranked third in run blocking and 11th in pass protection. Clearly this offense was fueled by Jacobs and the offensive line.

Week 1: New Orleans L 26-20 OT, mediocre offense, average defense
Week 2: Baltimore W 25-0, average offense, great defense
Week 3: St. Louis W 26-14, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 4: Cincinnati W 35-7, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 5: Atlanta W 20-6, average offense, great defense
Week 6: Cleveland W 17-3, good offense, great defense
Week 7: Philadelphia L 20-10, bad offense, good defense
Week 8: Carolina W 12-9, bad offense, great defense
Week 9: Minnesota W 38-24, great offense, bad defense
Week 10: Bye week
Week 11: Carolina W 23-10, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 12: Green Bay W 21-7, mediocre offense, great defense*
Week 13: New Orleans L 23-20, mediocre offense, good defense
Week 14: Atlanta W 34-10, great offense, great defense
Week 15: Detroit W 23-20, good offense, average defense
Week 16: Pittsburgh L 17-7, bad offense, average defense
Week 17: Chicago W 15-0, mediocre offense, great defense
* offense was -9.99, so one might call it a bad showing

There’s no other way to describe Tampa Bay’s 2002 regular season than as one mostly carried by the defense, which had nine games in which the defense played great, two good games and just one game in which it played badly. The offense, on the other hand, had two great games and two good games, but three bad games and seven mediocre games. The defense got it done in 11 games while the offense only did so in four games, with two where it did enough while the defense was great. The good news is that the offense had a great game in the one game in which the defense had a bad showing.

In the playoffs, the Bucs had great defense in all three games, playing good offense in two games (division round vs. San Francisco, 31-6 win, and Super Bowl vs. Oakland, 48-21 win) and mediocre offense in the other (NFC title game vs. Philadelphia, 27-10 win).

The Buccaneers are the best example of a team whose defense carried it throughout most of the season. In fact, the Bucs offense might very well be comparable to the Broncos offense this season. I wouldn’t compare the defenses to each other, though, as the Bucs D in 2002 was dominant most of the season and is arguably one of the best defenses of all time.

FO DYAR about the offense: Brad Johnson was 746, ranked 10th out of 47 passers. Michael Pittman was -50, ranked 38th out of 44 RBs, and Mike Alstott was -54, ranked 39th. Out of 87 wide receivers, Keyshawn Johnson was 135 for 31st, Joe Jureivicius was 132 for 33rd and Keenan McCardell was 48 for 61st. Among 43 tight ends, Rickey Dudley was 16 for 26th and Ken Dilger was seven for 27th, and the offensive line was ranked 26th in run blocking and 17th in pass protection. Interestingly, Johnson may have been the most valuable player for the Bucs’ offense.

Week 1: Pittsburgh W 16-0, average offense, great defense
Week 2: Jacksonville W 39-36, good offense, average defense
Week 3: Miami L 19-6, mediocre offense, mediocre defense
Week 4: Cincinnati W 37-0, great offense, great defense
Week 5: Cleveland W 12-0, average offense, great defense
Week 6: Jacksonville W 15-10, bad offense, great defense
Week 7: Washington L 10-3, bad offense, good defense
Week 8: Tennessee L 14-6, bad offense, great defense
Week 9: Pittsburgh L 9-6, mediocre offense, good defense
Week 10: Cincinnati W 27-7, average offense, great defense
Week 11: Tennessee W 24-23, mediocre offense, mediocre defense
Week 12: Dallas W 27-0, great offense, great defense
Week 13: Cleveland W 44-7, great offense, great defense
Week 14: Bye week
Week 15: San Diego W 24-3, mediocre offense, great defense
Week 16: Arizona W 13-7, bad offense, great defense
Week 17: NY Jets W 34-20, bad offense, great defense

In the playoffs, the offense was never better than mediocre but the defense was great in all four games: a 21-3 win over Denver in the wild card round, a 24-10 over Tennessee in the divisional round, a 16-3 win over Oakland in the AFC championship and a 34-7 win over the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.

During the regular season, the offense had three games (one with Banks at QB, the others with Dilfer at QB) and one good game (with Banks as QB), but was mediocre or bad more often (four mediocre outings, five bad outings). The offense failed to score a touchdown for five straight weeks (weeks 5 to 9) and the only win in that span was an average outing. The defense, meanwhile, had just two mediocre and one average outing, but was either good or great in every other game.

There’s no other way to put it: Defense carried the Ravens for the bulk of the season, arguably more so than the Broncos defense is carrying the offense this season. At least the Broncos offense hasn’t gone five straight games without a touchdown.

FO DYAR about the offense: Tony Banks (the starter to begin the season) was -83, ranked 35th out of 46 passers, and Trent Dilfer (replaced Banks in Week 10) was -187, ranked 39th (that’s right, Baltimore got worse DYAR out of Banks’ replacement). Jamal Lewis was 160, ranked eighth out of 38 runners. Among 75 wide receivers, Qadry Ismail was 79 for 45th and Travis Taylor was -40 for 68th. Shannon Sharpe was third among tight ends with 142 DYAR and the offensive line was fourth in run blocking and 17th in pass protection. I imagine most of you aren’t surprised that Lewis and Sharpe were the most valuable pieces of the offense, along with the line when it came to run blocking.

It’s possible to win a Super Bowl with the No. 1 defense even when the offense isn’t clicking. What’s important is that the offense deliver at least a few good or great outings during the season. The Broncos have had five games in which the offense was at least good and four of those games were wins. If the Broncos can have at least good offense in the games they should win on paper (both San Diego games, Oakland at home), a good or great outing by the defense should be enough to get the win. As for the other three games (New England, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati), what’s important is the defense have at least a good outing and the offense try to match that level. It would be really nice if the Broncos can have a great offensive showing against one of the three (as they had against the Packers), but if the offense can avoid bad or mediocre outings in those games, we can feel more confident about the team’s chances.

Additionally, we want to see the likes of Ronnie Hillman, CJ Anderson, Demaryius Thomas and Owen Daniels improve in DYAR and the offensive line to improve in run blocking, so they get closer to the middle of the pack. Finally, it would be nice to see a couple more great games from the defense. If these things can happen, the Broncos may look more like a Super Bowl contender.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.