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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the NFL Playoffs

As the NFL transitions to a more offensively focused league, we are seeing more elite quarterback play and talented offenses dominate the playoffs. While seeing good offenses succeed in the playoffs is nothing new, the importance of having a truly elite defense to accompany the offense is beginning to fade. The saying “defense wins championships,” while still holding some truth, no longer has the same meaning it once did.

Between 2000 and 2005, the statement was absolutely true, with the Super Bowl-winning defenses outranking their offenses by eight spots. The lowest-rated defense to win a championship was ranked sixth, and half of the winners were ranked first overall. The average defense was ranked around 2.3, while the average offense was ranked around 10.5. From 2005 to 2015, the offensive ranks remained similar, while the defensive ranks began to fall due to changes in NFL offenses. This trend has continued over the years as offenses continue to evolve and defenses are forced to adjust.

Success in the playoffs has much more to do with teams playing well entering the playoffs than it does with the in-season rankings of a team’s offense or defense. The 2012 Ravens are a great example of this, as their offense and defense were ranked 16th and 17th, respectively. The Ravens started the year 9-2 but lost four of their last five due, in part, to a Ray Lewis injury. As he came back in time for the playoffs, the team was able to build momentum and outperform their rankings. Too many factors can play into statistics when it comes to rankings, making them unreliable at times when trying to predict the teams with the best chance of winning a Super Bowl. This does not mean they are unusable, but in order for them to be useful, they must be understood within the context of that team’s specific season.

While the regular season defensive rankings tell one story, the truth can be very different. Defensive statistics can be misleading based on the context of the games played by specific teams. If one team has a high-scoring offense, the defense will have to play more snaps, likely resulting in giving up more points, especially late in games that have already been decided. When the playoffs begin, we can see some of these defenses, which are not ranked very highly, begin to outperform expectations. While these defenses are not carrying their teams to championships, they are playing well enough to keep their talented offenses within a comfortable margin. 

The level at which quarterbacks are currently playing can take even the most talented defenses out of the game. That being said, teams are much more likely to succeed in the playoffs with a defense that is playing well, as 16 of the last 24 Super Bowl winners had a defense forcing a negative EPA/Play on opposing offenses during their playoff run. The remaining eight teams are the 99’ Rams, 07’ Giants, 09’ Saints, 14’ Patriots, 17’ Eagles, 18’ Patriots, 19’ Chiefs, and 22’ Chiefs, all teams with high-scoring offenses and elite quarterback performance in the playoffs.

The NFL playoffs are an unpredictable place, however, games are less likely to be blowouts, forcing defenses to play the entire game. Because of this, defenses that have played well when it matters during the season begin to play better than their rankings indicate. Even with this boost, offenses are beginning to run away with the advantage in the playoffs. The win percentage of teams with an offense outranking the opposing defense has risen from 56% to 66% since 2010. At the same time, the win percentage for the opposite scenario has dropped from 55% to 48%. Teams with an advantage on both sides of the ball win 66% of the time.

There are no guarantees in the NFL, especially not in the playoffs. Having an elite offense or defense is absolutely beneficial to teams trying to win the Super Bowl, however without having balance on both sides of the ball, it can be very difficult to win. Only seven of the last 53 Super Bowl winners have had an offense or defense ranked below 16th. Of the seven, the majority were below-average defenses carried by talented offenses, and all occurred in the past 20 years. Teams that can rely on either side of the ball to perform based on what the specific game requires have the best chance for success. Recently, however, we have begun to see well-structured teams with talent on both sides being removed from the playoffs by the impressive offensive firepower so many quarterbacks and coordinators now possess. While the current NFL belongs to the offenses, we could see the league transition back to an era of defensive dominance as every day defenses are creating new adjustments to effective offenses.

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