We've heard a lot in recent weeks that "defense wins championships." New England's 24-14 victory over Indianapolis in the AFC title game was cited as a prime example of a team with a superior defense besting a team with a superior offense.
Well, if we look back on Super Bowl history, it appears that this belief is more than just cliché and that New England's AFC title game victory was more than just an isolated event.
In fact, it's a belief supported rather resolutely by that emotionless judge, jury and executioner: the Cold, Hard Football Facts. This arbiter of all things pigskin tells us that in the 33 Super Bowls played since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the team with the better scoring defense has won 25 times. (We began our calculations following the AFL-NFL merger because there was no interleague play before the 1970 season, except in the first four Super Bowls, and it seemed a false comparison to pair up defenses from two leagues that did not meet each other.)
This bodes well for New England, which had the No. 1 scoring defense in football this year, surrendering a mere 238 points. The Carolina Panthers ranked 10th, giving up 304 points. The offensive numbers also bode well for New England. The Patriots scored 348 points this year. Carolina scored 325.
These offensive numbers are also important to consider. Of the eight teams with an inferior defense that have won a Super Bowl since the merger, six of them were able to rely upon a higher-powered offense than their opponents.
- The 1998 Broncos (501 PF, 309 PA) beat the Falcons (442 PF, 289 PA)
- The 1997 Broncos (472 PF, 287 PA) beat the Packers (422 PF, 282 PA)
- The 1989 49ers (442 PF, 253 PA) beat the Broncos (362 PF, 226 PA)
- The 1977 Cowboys (345 PF, 212 PA) beat the Broncos (274 PF, 148 PA)
- The 1971 Cowboys (406 PF, 222 PA) beat the Dolphins (315 PF, 174 PA)
- The 1970 Colts (321 PF, 234 PA) beat the Cowboys (299 PA, 221 PA)
Only twice since the AFL-NFL merger has a team with both an inferior scoring defense and an inferior scoring offense bested their Super Bowl opponent. In both instances, the Raiders were the victorious team.
- The 1980 Raiders (364 PF, 306 PA) beat the Eagles (384 PF, 222 PA)
- The 1983 Raiders (441 PF, 338 PA) beat the Redskins (552 PF, 332 PA)
Note that in both instances, the Raiders had a sizable point differential during the season. The 1980 Raiders were +58. The 1983 Raiders were +103.
The 2003 Patriots are +110. The 2003 Panthers are +21 – the second smallest scoring differential for any participant in Super Bowl history.
Only the 1979 Rams, who lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-19, in Super Bowl XIV, had a smaller scoring differential than the 2003 Panthers. The Rams went 9-7 in the regular season, scored 323 points, and surrendered 309 (+14).
It should be noted that the appearance of the Rams in Super Bowl XIV marked the low point in NFC history:
- The 1979 Rams won the NFC West with a 9-7 record; actually got a bye-week during the wild-card round; upset the Cowboys in the divisional round, 21-19; and beat the three-year-old expansion Buccaneers, 9-0, in what must have been the worst NFC title game in history.
- The NFC won just two of 10 Super Bowls in the 1970s, a decade of futility punctuated by the Rams' appearance in Super Bowl XIV (played in January 1980).
- The 1979 Rams boast the worst overall record (11-8) of any participant in Super Bowl history.
Yet the Cold, Hard Football Facts indicate that the 2003 Panthers have more in common with the 1979 Rams than with almost any other participant in Super Bowl history. The Cold, Hard Football Facts believe they'll share the same Super Bowl fate.