Fresh off the first 600-point season in NFL history (606, to be exact), the 2013 Denver Broncos offense did what great offenses on unbalanced teams normally do in the playoffs.
They came up small in the big moment.
In this case, the mighty Denver aerial machine did its best impression of another famous airship that crashed and burned over the fields of New Jersey: the Hindenburg.
The 2013 Broncos simply imploded. They came up smaller than most in their 43-8 loss to the statistical powerhouse Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. The first snap of the game sailed over Peyton Manning's head into the end zone, yielding a safety and an early 2-0 lead for Seattle, not to mention the fastest score in NFL history.
More importantly, the botched play set the tone for the rest of the game: this was not going to be Denver's day. A team that had played with machine-like efficiency all season looked like a bumbling second-rate high school team out of the gate.
The 35-point margin may have been shocking. But not the Seattle victory and the fiery meltdown of the Denver offense in the biggest game of the year.
The public and the pigskin pundits were once again captivated by a sexy, high-powered offense. They ALWAYS are. So the Broncos were a popular favorite to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Anyone armed with the Cold, Hard Football Facts knew otherwise: the Seahawks were easily the better team and, more importantly, the most balanced team in football.
We picked them to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season and we picked the underdogs to win outright Sunday night.
Seattle possessed the magic formula for NFL success: a hugely efficient and underrated young quarterback in Russell Wilson, whose skills were on display all night long; and paired him with the best defense in football, not just in scoring D but in our Quality Stats.
In fact, Seattle was No. 1 in nine of our 23 Quality Stats, No. 1 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential, the Mother of All Stats.
Denver, meanwhile, became the 56th team in NFL history to score 30.0+ PPG. And CHFF readers know that postseason life has never been kind to those teams, what we call The Big 56, especially if they lacked balance.
Almost every single one of these teams whiffed badly in their biggest game of the year. In fact, of these 56 teams only a meager seven managed to match their regular-season scoring rate in the postseason finale.
But Denver's -29.9 point differential between its regular-seasoon scoring average and its output in the playoffs was the worst by any great offense in 50 seasons.
The Broncos Sunday night narrowly edged out another Peyton Manning-led offense, the 2004 Colts (-29.6), for that dishonor.
Put another way, Manning has led the two biggest postseason meltdowns of the last 50 years.
The Big 56: Small-Time Performances in Big-Time Games
|1948 Cardinals||32.92||Lost NFL title, 7-0||-32.92|
|1964 Colts||30.57||Lost NFL title, 27-0||-30.57|
|1949 L.A. Rams||30.0||Lost NFL title, 14-0||-30.0|
|2013 Broncos||37.9||Lost SB XLVIII, 43-8||-29.9|
|2004 Colts||32.6||Lost div. round, 20-3||-29.6|
|1942 Bears||34.18||Lost NFL title, 14-6||-28.18|
|1949 49ers||34.7||Lost AAFC title, 21-7||-27.7|
|2000 Broncos||30.31||Lost WC round, 21-3||-27.31|
|1961 Oilers||36.6||Won AFL title, 10-3||-26.6|
|1983 Redskins||33.81||Lost SB XVIII, 38-9||-24.81|
|1948 Eagles||31.33||Won NFL title, 7-0||-24.33|
|1956 Bears||30.25||Lost NFL title, 47-7||-23.25|
|2007 Patriots||36.8||Lost SB XLII, 17-14||-22.8|
|1966 Chiefs||32.0||Lost SB I, 35-10||-22.0|
|1963 Giants||32.0||Lost NFL title, 14-10||-22.0|
|2012 Patriots||34.8||Lost AFC titel, 28-13||-21.8|
|1967 Raiders||33.4||Lost SB II, 33-14||-19.4|
|1949 Eagles||30.33||Won NFL title, 14-0||-16.33|
|1946 Browns||30.21||Won AAFC title 14-9||-16.21|
|1984 Dolphins||32.1||Lost SB XIX, 38-16||-16.1|
|2011 Patriots||32.1||Lost SB XLVI, 21-17||-15.1|
|2011 Packers||35.0||Lost div. round, 37-20||-15.0|
|2001 Rams||31.4||Lost SB XXXVI, 20-17||-14.4|
|2010 Patriots||32.38||Lost div. round, 28-21||-11.38|
|1950 Rams||38.8||Lost NFL title, 30-28||-10.8|
|1968 Cowboys||30.79||Lost div. round, 31-20||-10.79|
|1999 Rams||32.88||Won SB XXXIV, 23-16||-9.88|
|2006 Chargers||30.75||Lost div. round, 24-21||-9.75|
|1968 Raiders||32.36||Lost AFL title, 27-23||-9.36|
|1958 Colts||31.75||Won NFL title, 23-17||-8.75|
|1951 L.A. Rams||32.7||Won NFL title, 24-17||-8.7|
|1998 Vikings||34.8||Lost NFC title, 30-27||-7.8|
|1987 49ers||30.6||Lost div. round, 36-24||-6.6|
|2000 Rams||33.75||Lost NFC wc round, 31-28||-5.75|
|1966 Cowboys||31.79||Lost NFL title, 34-27||-4.79|
|2011 Saints||34.19||Lost div. round, 36-32||-2.19|
|2009 Saints||31.9||Won SB XLIV, 31-17||-0.9|
|1959 Colts||31.2||Won NFL title, 31-16||-0.2|
|2003 Chiefs||30.25||Lost div. round, 38-31||+0.75|
|1941 Bears||36.0||Won NFL title, 37-9||+1.0|
|1998 Broncos||31.31||Won SB XXXIII, 34-19||+2.69|
|2012 Broncos||30.1||Lost div. round, 38-35||+4.9|
|1991 Redskins||30.31||Won SB XXVI, 37-24||+6.69|
|1943 Bears||30.3||Won NFL title, 41-21||+10.7|
|1994 49ers||31.6||Won SB XXIX, 49-26||+17.4|
Wow! Only seven of these teams matched or surpassed their scoring output in the final game of the season, including Manning's 2012 Broncos, who benefitted from those two non-offensive scores.
Obviously, these offenses largely faced great defenses in the postseason, in many cases among the league’s best. You can’t expect these teams to consistently match their scoring average against such tough competition. We understand that.
But it’s certainly reasonable to expect more than just a couple of the greatest offenses in history to down with a tougher fight.
The biggest busts in pro football history
It’s certainly shocking the sheer DD size of the offensive collapses we've seen throughout history:
Eleven members of the Big 56 were held 24+ points below their regular-season average
Twenty-six members of the Big 56 were held 10+ points below their regular-season average
Forty-nine of 56 teams failed to match their regular-season average in the biggest game of the year
The 56 greatest offenses in history averaged 32.6 PPG in the regular-season and just 19.1 in their postseason finale (-13.5 PPG). Remember, that includes the WINNERS, too.
Among the failures, they averaged 32.6 PPG in the regular season then scored just 15.4 PPG in their humiliating season-ending losses (-17.1). That’s right: the game's greatest offenses produced less than half their regular-season output in playoff defeat.
The 2003 Chiefs hold one proud distinction among this disappointing cast of characters. They are the only team on our list that was nobly carried off the field on the shield of its offense in playoff defeat and can point a finger at the defense.
The 2003 Chiefs scored 30.3 PPG in the regular season and topped that total against Peyton Manning and the Colts in a 38-31 divisional playoff loss.
It all leads us to one big conclusion: sexy offenses like the 2013 Denver Broncos tend to build their portfolio by beating up bad defenses.
Then when the season gets late, when they've consumed a little too much success and suddenly have to negotiate a speed trap of great defenses, these offenses look like your prom date after she disappeared with the guys from the hockey team for an hour: weathered, glassy eyed and not so hot.
For evidence of this phenomenon, look at great 1950 Rams, the only team in history to average more points per game (38.8) than the 2013 Broncos (37.9).
But a closer look L.A.'s schedule that year reveals that the sexy, star-studded Rams offense made itself look a hell of a lot, ahem, bustier thanks to a big boost from a soft, padded schedule.
(Speaking of busts, the Rams offense was not the only huge bust in L.A. that year. Take a good long look at Mrs. Bob Waterfield, a.k.a, Jane Russell.)
The 1950 Rams played three games -- one-quarter of their 12-game schedule -- against the New York Yanks and Baltimore Colts, two short-lived franchises that couldn't play defense. The Rams scored 158 of their 466 points in three games against those two teams (45 and 43 vs. NY, 70 vs. Baltimore).
The Colts, a transplant from the AAFC, were so bad in the NFL they folded at the end of the 1950 season (re-emerging under new ownership in 1953); the Yanks folded never to return after the 1951 season.
Balance Wins Championships
The old cliché says that “defense wins championships.” There’s certainly some truth to the saying. NFL champions are generally a bit bettter defensively than they are offensively. And great defenses are less likely to fall apart than great offenses.
But it’s actually simplistic to say that "defense wins championships." A more accurate saying is that “balance wins championships.”
Teams that are competitive in all areas, even if they’re not dominant in any, tend to perform better in the postseason than teams that are dominant in one area but have weaknesses in others.
The 2013 Denver Broncos fielded a sexy, high-powered offense. But they were an umbalanced team. In fact, while the balanced Seahawks were No. 1 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, the unbalanced Broncos were a mere No. 6, a fact which caused us some ridicule on the interwebs.
How could we put the mighty 600-point Broncos at No. 6 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings? Well, we did not put them there. The Broncos put themselves there by virtue of their imbalanced play.
And when the sole source of strength on the team, that offense, failed to show up against a great defense in a big game (as they almost always do), the outcome was statistically inevitable. The Broncos crashed and burned.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks were not as sexy. But they were certainly better on defense. And certainly more balanced, as our Quality Stats proved all season.
The balanced team with the great defense won the Super Bowl. The sexy temptress of a team imploded over the fields of New Jersey.