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2015 NFL Playoffs: Does Offense Win Championships, Too?

On Wild Card Weekend, the better offenses won three of four games. Can we expect the better offenses to continue to dominate in the Divisional Round?

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

"Offense wins games, defense wins championships" is one of the more often heard phrases in football. But just because people repeat stuff they heard doesn't necessarily make it true.

The phrase is so ubiquitous, it even made it onto Wikipedia's List of Sports Clichés, but what does it really mean? What we do know is that on wild card weekend, teams with the better defense did not fare particularly well:

Game (and defensive ranking)
Better defense
Arizona (5th) @ Carolina (21st)
Baltimore (6th) @ Pittsburgh (18th)
Cincinnati (12th) @ Indianapolis (19th)
Detroit (3rd) @ Dallas (15th)

The better defenses were 1-3 last weekend, and only Baltimore was able to win as a team with the better defense. Conversely, the better offenses came through last weekend, winning three out of the four games, as the table below shows:

Game (and offensive ranking)
Better offense
Arizona (24th) @ Carolina (19th)
Baltimore (8th) @ Pittsburgh (7th)
Cincinnati (15th) @ Indianapolis (6th)
Detroit (22nd) @ Dallas (5th)

Of course, basing a statistical argument on a sample size of just four games is a foolhardy exercise, so let's take larger scale view of the issue. A while back, Brian Burke at Advanced Football Analytics looked at NFL data from 2002-2006 and found that when "looking at the NFL as a whole, offense and defense balances symmetrically", but that elite offenses historically outperform elite defenses.

Not happy with Burke's sample size either?

Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim - the authors of "Scorecasting" - looked at data from 45 Super Bowls, 427 NFL playoff games, more than 10,000 regular season games, and came to a similar conclusion as Burke did:

We found that when it comes to winning a title, or winning in sports in general for that matter, offense and defense carry nearly identical weight. In other words, offense wins championships, too.

  • We further found that among the 45 NFL Super Bowls, the better defensive team — measured by points allowed that season— has won 29 times.  The better offensive team won 25 times. It’s a slight edge for defense, but it’s a pretty close call and not different from random chance.
  • There have been 427 NFL playoff games over the last 45 seasons. The better defensive teams have won 58 percent of them. The better offensive teams have won 62 percent of the time. (Again, the winning team is sometimes better both offensively and defensively, which explains why the total exceeds 100 percent.) That’s a slight edge to the offense, but again, pretty even.
  • In almost 10,000 regular season games, the better defensive team has won 66.5 percent of the time compared with 67.4 percent of the time for the better offensive team. That’s a slight nod to the offense but a negligible difference.

As we look to the Divisional Round this weekend, can we expect a repeat of the Wildcard weekend, with the better defenses losing?

As Cowboys fans, we'd better hope so, because the Packers defense (13th) is ranked slightly ahead of the Cowboys (15th). Unfortunately, the Packers are also ranked better on offense (1st) than the Cowboys (5th) - at least as measured by points scored. In fact, we'll see three games this weekend where one team has a better defense and a better offense.

Better Defense
Better Offense
Baltimore @ New England
BAL (6th)
NE (4th)
Carolina @ Seattle
SEA (1st)
SEA (10th)
Dallas @ Green Bay
GB (13th)
GB (1st)
Indianapolis @ Denver
DEN (16th)
DEN (2nd)

For three of the four underdogs in these games (all four road teams are at least one-touchdown underdogs), success will depend on their ability to outperform a better defense and a better offense. And that's not going to be easy.

In one of the articles linked above, Brian Burke argues that the biggest flaw in this whole discussion "may be using total points or total yards to compare squads", and that to best compare offensive and defensive performance and ability, squad efficiency - yards per play - should be used. Which is exactly what we'll look at in the next table

Y/A Offense
Y/A Defense
Team Pass Run Pass Run
8.4 (1st) 4.6 (3rd) 7.5 (20th) 4.2 (18th)
8.3 (2nd) 4.4 (11th) 6.9 (10th) 4.3 (22nd)

On offense, the Cowboys and Packers are about as good as it gets through the air, while the Cowboys enjoy a slight advantage on the ground. On defense, neither team is anything to write home about, though the Packers have the better pass defense.

In the end, all of this may not matter when the Cowboys travel to Green Bay for a matchup of arguably the two best offenses in the league. Because, as we all know, "a good offense is the best defense" anyway.

So what happens when the two best offenses meet?

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