Past Super Bowls With Top Defensive Team: What Can We Learn?

Hello, Bronco fans! We’ve had plenty to feel good about the past couple of days, haven’t we? Nobody should ever feel bad that their favorite team made it to the Super Bowl and nobody should ever have to apologize for it.

Honestly, I’m feeling pretty good going into the matchup, not just because I think the Broncos have a better chance to win the game than some people may think, but because their opponent, the Carolina Panthers, is a team I find quite likeable. You had some people who doubted them because they wanted to gravitate to the perennial favorite in the NFC (the Seahawks, of course), the players just like to have fun (seriously, who doesn’t love those guys giving football to the kids in the stands?) and the team owner is like Pat Bowlen in some ways — there are legitimate criticisms to make about him which could apply to any NFL owner, but Jerry Richardson makes the Panthers about the players and coaches and not him (like Bowlen), he doesn’t micromanage (like Bowlen) and he genuinely likes the people who work for him and tries to keep good relationships (like Bowlen).

In the days to come, I’ll talk more about the specifics regarding the Panthers themselves, but I did want to take a stroll down memory lane to examine past Super Bowl matchups which featured the No. 1 defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders DVOA, and examine how those teams and their opponents measured up. In looking back at those Super Bowl matchups, there were some most unusual situations.

We’ll start, though, with comparing the Broncos to the Panthers. When examining the data, remember that the DVOA number is a percentage, that positive numbers are good for offenses and special teams, that negative numbers are good for defenses, and weighted DVOA is designed to reflect how a team was playing at the end of the regular season. I also included variance to show consistency from game to game and strength of schedule that measures the quality of defenses the offense faced and the quality of offenses the defense faced (numbers in percentages and the lower the number, the better).

2015: Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers
Offense: 25th vs. 8th (-8.8 vs. 9.9)
Weighted offense: 18th vs. 6th (-4.6 vs. 12.5)
Variance: 25th vs. 8th (8.8 vs. 4.6)
Schedule: 17th vs. 32nd (-0.1 vs. 4.9)
Defense: 1st vs. 2nd (-25.8 vs. -18.4)
Weighted defense: 1st vs. 5th (-22.1 vs. -17.7)
Variance: 14th vs. 30th (4.4 vs. 9.2)
Schedule: 4th vs. 26th (3.2 vs. -2.9)
Special teams: 14th vs. 23rd (0.7 vs. -2.4)
Weighted special teams: 21st vs. 18th (-1.2 vs. 0.6)

It’s true the Panthers have a top-five defense but the gap between the Broncos and the Panthers is significant. The Panthers would be considered a good defensive team in terms of all-time rankings, but the Broncos are considered one of the best ever. Consider that Carolina is just 2.8 better than the third-ranked defense (Arizona) and 3.2 better than the fourth (Seattle). It’s important to remember that several of the points the Panthers scored against Arizona and Seattle in the playoffs came from big plays or good field position.

I’ll do a more detailed breakdown of those games in another writeup, but sticking with the comparsion above, the Panthers do have a decided advantage on offense but, while the defense is very good, it’s not in the Broncos’ class. Again, Denver’s defense ranks among the best ever and that’s enough to overcome a subpar offense as long as the offense takes care of the ball, as we shall see when we get into other comparisons. As for the special teams, Denver definitely took a hit when Omar Bolden missed time with injuries, but that’s not Carolina’s strength, either.

2013, Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos: OK, this one is painful to revisit, but we have to do what we have to do. Here is the DVOA comparison:

Offense: 1st vs. 7th (33.5 vs. 9.4)
Weighted offense: 1st vs. 9th (26.7 vs. 8.7)
Variance: 9th vs. 18th (5.4 vs. 7.1)
Schedule: 30th vs. 9th (4.2 vs. -3.2)
Defense: 1st vs. 15th (-25.9 vs. -0.2)
Weighted defense: 1st vs. 10th (-30.0 vs. -5.6)
Variance: 28th vs. 16th (8.3 vs. 5.1)
Schedule: 31st vs. 23rd (-3.7 vs. -1.9)
Special teams: 5th vs. 21st (4.7 vs. -1.0)
Weighted special teams: 6th vs. 28th (5.0 vs. -5.3)

This really isn’t the best comparison with the Super Bowl 50 matchup, other than Seattle’s defensive DVOA is about even with Denver’s this season. In 2013, though, Denver didn’t have a defense that quite measured up to Carolina’s current D, thanks in part to injuries. What’s interesting is Seattle’s defense didn’t face a strong schedule yet got the job done against quality opponents in the playoffs, and I think its weighted DVOA indicates the Seahawks D only got better as the season continued. As we know, the Broncos didn’t play well in any area in the Super Bowl (offense, defense or special teams) and I’m not expecting all three phases of the game to falter this time around. One thing to remember about the Broncos D in this game is it gave up several sustained drives early and the Broncos were driving when down 15-0, when that fateful pick six happened.

2010, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers: Somebody inquired if the top two teams in DVOA defense ever met up before and it happened once since the switch to four divisions. Here’s the team comparison:

Offense: 5th vs. 7th (14.3 vs. 11.5)
Weighted offense: 3rd vs. 8th (21.8 vs. 9.5)
Variance: 20th vs. 14th (9.1 vs. 7.3)
Schedule: 10th vs. 9th (-2.0 vs. -2.1)
Defense: 1st vs. 2nd (-20.7 vs. -13.9)
Weighted defense: 1st vs. 2nd (-17.5 vs. 16.6)
Variance: 21st vs. 4th (6.8 vs. 3.7)
Schedule: 14th vs. 22nd (0.5 vs. -1.7)
Special teams: 16th vs. 26th (0.4 vs. -2.4)
Weighted special teams: 17th vs. 18th (-0.9 vs. -0.9)

Again, it’s tough to draw comparsions for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that Pittsburgh’s offense was much better than Denver’s offense this year. The less obvious one goes back to weighted defense, in which the gap between Pittsburgh and Green Bay had closed considerably. (Go back to the 2015 comp and you can see Denver’s defense still has a decided advantage over Carolina’s defense.) Another point to make is Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t rank among the best ever in DVOA, which the Broncos do.

As for the Super Bowl itself, you had two plays that went like this in a 24-second span:

3:44: Jordy Nelson 29 yard TD pass from Aaron Rodgers
3:20: Nick Collins 37 yard INT return

That put the Steelers into a 14-0 hole right away and made it difficult to come back. They turned the ball over two more times in the game while the Packers never did (the other turnovers gave the Packers the ball at midfield).

2008, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals: If you will recall, the Steelers in this season not only had the top DVOA defense, but one of the best ever, and their offense was not that good. Comparing the teams:

Offense: 21st vs. 15th (-1.5 vs. 4.6)
Weighted offense: 2.2 vs. 1.6 (17th vs. 19th)
Variance: 23rd vs. 21st (7.7 vs. 7.3)
Schedule: 7th vs. 18th (-4.9 vs. 1.0)
Defense: 1st vs. 2st (-29.0 vs. 5.1)
Weighted defense: 1st vs. 23rd (-30.7 vs. 7.5)
Variance: 14th vs. 24th (4.9 vs. 6.3)
Schedule: 9th vs. 32nd (1.1 vs. -3.9)
Special teams: 23rd vs. 28th (-1.5 vs. -4.6)
Weighted special teams: 24th vs. 30th (-2.8 vs. -5.6)

Once again, you don’t really have a good comparison because Arizona stands out as one of those teams that should not have made the Super Bowl, based on DVOA, but did. The Cardinals were particularly bad on defense and special teams throughout the regular season, but they were good enough against Atlanta, had a field day against Jake Delhomme when they faced Carolina, then had a strong offensive showing against Philadelphia to make up for lousy play everywhere else. That they had such a good offensive showing against Philly was impressive when you consider Philly ranked third in defensive DVOA that season and second in weighted DVOA.

The Super Bowl was 10-7 going into halftime, with the Cardinals driving, only for James Harrison to intercept a pass at the goal line and return it 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired. Arizona didn’t let Pittsburgh pull away, though, and got a safety with 2:58 left when trailing 20-14. Ben Roethlisberger had completed an 18-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, but offensive lineman Justin Hartwig was called for holding in the end zone (the Steelers had the ball on their 1-yard line at the time of the play). After the free kick, Kurt Warner completed a 64-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald (big play) and then we know about the game-winning drive.

This was an unusual Super Bowl in terms of the plays that allowed Arizona to take a late lead (safety because of a penalty, followed by a big pass play). Arizona really stands as a team that played its best football at the right time and, because of a sequence of events that doesn’t happen often, almost won the game.

2002, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Oakland Raiders: The Buccaneers not only had a dominant defense, but the best defense of any team since the switch to four divisions. Here’s the comparison:

Offense: 20th vs. 2nd (-3.8 vs. 22.0)
Weighted offense: 20th vs. 3rd (-3.8 vs. 19.8)
Variance: 17th vs. 19th (7.4 vs. 7.7)
Schedule: 7th vs. 30th (-1.7 vs. 3.0)
Defense: 1st vs. 7th (-31.8 vs. -6.2)
Weighted defense: 1st vs. 8th (-28.7 vs. -8.9)
Variance: 16th vs. 22nd (5.3 vs. 6.9)
Schedule: 32nd vs. 1st (-6.6 vs. 10.0)
Special teams: 9th vs. 15th (3.6 vs. 0.3)
Weighted special teams: 12th vs. 21st (2.0 vs. -2.2)

This is probably the closest comparison you can make with the Denver-Carolina matchup, in that the Buccaneers didn’t really have that good of an offense while the Raiders did, and the Raiders had a defense that, while not ranked second, was still pretty good. Of course, comparing any defense to Tampa Bay’s defense that season is not the best comp, because the Bucs defense was so damn good. Interestingly, the Bucs didn’t face a strong contingent of offenses, but still had their way with Oakland in the Super Bowl.

As for the Super Bowl itself, the 48-21 final is somewhat misleading if you are thinking Tampa Bay’s offense suddenly took over, because the Bucs had three pick-sixes in this game, meaning the offense put up 27 points. As far as that goes, it went like this in the first half: Sustained drive for a field goal, interception at midfield converted into field goal, punt from Oakland 10 returned 25 yards to set up touchdown, sustained drive for TD. In the third quarter, they had one sustained drive for a touchdown, so the Bucs got 10 points off good field position. Also, Brad Johnson threw one interception and the Raiders blocked an early fourth-quarter punt and returned the ball 13 yards for a touchdown.

How the Bucs won the game sounds like exactly how the Broncos will need to win Super Bowl 50: Get a couple of sustained drives that lead to points, take advantage of field position as much as possible, minimize turnovers and mistakes on offense and special teams, play great defense and force a turnover. If Peyton Manning posts a line like Johnson did (18-34-215-2-1), it would be enough to get the win as long as the Broncos continue their strong defensive play.

2000, Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Giants: You’ll probably hear comparisons of the Broncos offense this year to the Ravens in 2000. Comparing the teams:

Offense: 22nd vs. 8th (-8.1 vs. 8.9)
Weighted offense: 23rd vs. 11th (-12.2 vs. 5.7)
Variance: 20th vs. 11th (9.2 vs. 6.1)
Schedule: 5th vs. 21st (-3.1 vs. 0.5)
Defense: 2nd vs. 12th (-23.8 vs. -5.8)
Weighted defense: 2nd vs. 6th (-24.0 vs. -13.6)
Variance: 2nd vs. 9th (3.6 vs. 5.0)
Schedule: 31st vs. 27th (-7.7 vs. -5.8)
Special teams: 3rd vs. 27th (8.4 vs. -5.4)
Weighted special teams: 2nd vs. 27th (11.6 vs. -5.2)

I think one thing worth noting about the Giants that year is how much they improved offensively from the year before, going from 20th in DVOA in 1999 to 8th in 2000 (which says a lot about what Jim Fassel can do for an offense). Also, the Ravens had the top defense in DVOA the year before, so they had a couple of years in which their defense ranked among the best.

Getting to the comparison, I think you can consider the Ravens offense to be similar to the current Broncos, but the defense isn’t comparable and I would say the current Broncos not only have a better unit but played against better offenses. What gets overlooked about the 2000 Ravens is how good the special teams were. In fact, we’ll go over a sequence of plays from the Super Bowl from that season, a sequence involving special teams and one you are not likely to see again any time soon.

3:49: Duane Starks 49 yard INT return
3:31: Ron Dixon 97 yard kick return
3:13: Jermaine Lewis 84 yard kick return

So that’s three touchdowns in a 36-second span from a pick six and each team returning a kickoff to the end zone. In fact, that Dixon TD was the only points the Giants put up, so they were close to being shut out. Of course, this means of the Ravens’ 34 points, 14 came from the defense and special teams. As for the rest, they went like this: Touchdown on drive from the NYG 41, field goal on drive from BAL 12, TD on drive from NYG 38, FG on drive from NYG 34. That makes 17 points from good field position.

It is clear, though, that if the Broncos want to win the Super Bowl, they have to gain the advantage in field position, continue their great defensive play and minimize mistakes on offense and special teams. But past teams have shown that, if you do those things, you can win a Super Bowl, even if your No. 1 defense doesn’t have a top-ranked offense to go along with it.

Again, the closest comp would be Super Bowl XXXVII when Tampa Bay faced Oakland. You can’t really make a direct comparison in all aspects to those teams and the Super Bowl 50 teams, nor would I ever suggest that the XXXVII score would play out the same in the upcoming Super Bowl. But you can pull enough from that game to see teams that are similar in several aspects and that, what Tampa Bay got from its offense while paired with a quality defensive outing, is exactly what you would expect from the Broncos for them to win Super Bowl 50.

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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.