clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2017 NFL Playoffs: Does Offense Win Championships, Too?

On Wild Card Weekend, the better defenses won three of four games. But the better offenses also won three out of four games. What could that mean for the Divisional Round?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

"Offense wins games, defense wins championships" is one of the more often heard phrases in football. But just because people repeat it often doesn't necessarily make it true - unless you're in politics or social media, of course.

The phrase is so ubiquitous in sports, 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 (as measured by points allowed) did win three out of four games.

Game (and defensive ranking)
Better defense
Oakland (20th) @ Houston (11th) HOU HOU
Detroit (13th) @ Seattle (3rd) SEA SEA
Miami (18th) @ Pittsburgh (10th) PIT PIT
New York Giants (2nd) @ Green Bay (21st) NYG GB

The better defenses were 3-1 last weekend, and only the New York Sailors lost their game despite having the better defense. So that looks like a validation of the "defense wins championships" school of thought.

Except the better offenses also won three of the four games on wildcard weekend.

Game (and offensive ranking)
Better offense
Oakland (7th) @ Houston (28th) OAK HOU
Detroit (20th) @ Seattle (18th) SEA SEA
Miami (17th) @ Pittsburgh (10th) PIT PIT
New York Giants (26th) @ Green Bay (4th) GB GB

The Seahawks, Steelers, and Packers all came through as the better offenses, and the Raiders might have, if they had played with Derek Carr, but they didn't.

In any case, basing a statistical argument on a sample size of just four games is a foolhardy exercise (given that you could make an even better point about how the home teams were 4-0 on wildcard weekend), so let's take larger scale view of the issue. A while back, Brian Burke (writing for the now defunct 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 more wins by the stronger offenses or the stronger defenses?

Only one game this weekend features a matchup where one team has a better defense and a better offense, in this case Texans @ Patriots, which is one reason why New England is favored by 16 points over Houston. The other games appear to be much more evenly matched.

Better Defense
Better Offense
Seattle @ Atlanta SEA (3rd) ATL (1st)
Houston @ New England NE (1st) NE (3rd)
Pittsburgh @ Kansas City KC (7th) PIT (10th)
Green Bay @ Dallas DAL (5th) GB (4th)

Despite rolling to a 13-3 season, and allowing just 19.1 points per game, many people are still surprised to see the Cowboys defense not rank in the bottom half of the league. Imagine what must have happened to those poor people's brains when they read today that PFF graded the Cowboys secondary as the best in the league.

Be that as it may, the Cowboys enter Sunday's game with a clear advantage on defense (Packers are ranked 21st) and a negligible disadvantage on offense where the Cowboys are ranked one spot behind the Packers at No. 5. Advantage Cowboys?

In one of the articles linked above, Brian Burke argues that the biggest flaw in this whole discussion about better offense or defense "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
7.9 (4th) 4.8 (3rd) 6.9 (12th) 3.9 (11th)
7.2 (15th) 4.5 (8th) 8.1 (32nd) 4.0 (13th)

In this look, the Cowboys have the clear advantage on offense and on defense. Sure, we could limit the data set to just the last seven games the Packers won, and the numbers would look different We could also take out the Cowboys' Week 17 game against Philly, which the Cowboys played with their backups, and the numbers would look different yet again. And while we're handing out mulligans, why not remove all other games than don't fit whatever narrative is the flavor of the day?

In the divisional round, all four home teams are favored for the win, and if you look at the offensive performance in terms of yards per play, three of the four home teams have the better performance (1. ATL: 6.7, 4. Dal: 6.0, 5. NE: 5.9). Can we expect the better offenses to dominate in the Divisional Round?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Blogging The Boys Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Dallas Cowboys news from Blogging The Boys