1. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers has one of the best arsenals of weapons in the league and the Packers figure to be in the top 3 in offense once again. Their defense looks to return to 2010 form, though losing quality ILB Desmond Bishop for the season could hurt. The secondary needs to rebound though I’m not sure they did enough to reinforce the talent in their defensive backfield. The Packers will need to find consistency and production in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but they look like a good bet to win the NFC North once again and it would be hard to bet against them in January.
2. New England Patriots – If Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots are all but guaranteed to have a top 5 offense. Adding Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney to an already dangerous passing attack should worry the rest of the AFC field. The Pats might also see more explosiveness from the RB position with 2nd year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen replacing the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ultimately though, the Patriots will only go as far as their defense takes them. Adding Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower looks like it will pay dividends but can their secondary improve from last year’s nightmarish season? If New England can get a good season from a few of their younger DB’s (Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard), they will be nearly unstoppable.
3. Houston Texans – The Texans have an excellent offense and an excellent defense. Man for man, they might have the best 22 starters in the league. However, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson have durability questions and the team’s depth isn’t great. Furthermore, I don’t trust coach Gary Kubiak to win in the playoffs. The Texans should put together an excellent regular season if they can avoid injuries to their top players, but they will need to prove that they can take the next step in the post-season.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers – It seems as if many fans and experts are discounting the Steelers a bit this year and it’s tough to see why. Their defense is still loaded with talent and young players like Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward figure to play bigger roles in 2012. The offense underachieved last year for a number of reasons but the O-line should be improved and the WR corps is still amongst the game’s best if Mike Wallace reports. Even without Wallace, there is enough talent for the Steelers to put up a lot of points if they can do a better job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy. The Steelers are still one of the most talented and best coached teams in football and seem poised for another good year.
5. New York Giants – It’s tough to know what to make of the Giants. 2012 could see a return of the mediocre and underachieving regular-season team that they’ve been for most of Tom Coughlin’s tenure or perhaps the 2011 Super Bowl champion team of December – February will be on display for a full 16 games. If their key front 7 players are healthy, the Giants have enough talent to repeat as Champions. The big questions for New York are their CB’s, OL and running game without Brandon Jacobs. Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t established himself as a consistent threat and I’m not a fan of 1st rounder David Wilson or backup D.J. Ware. The OL was a big problem last year and hasn’t improved much on paper though, as we saw, they can win with what they have.
6. New Orleans Saints – The Saints would be higher up in these rankings were it not for the suspension of Sean Payton. New Orleans has an incredibly talented roster, elite QB and enough young talent to think that they could improve in many of their weak spots. However, taking Sean Payton off the sideline is a huge loss. He might be the 2nd most valuable coach in the league behind Bill Belichick and it’s tough to see the Saints hoisting the Lombardi without him. Still, the Saints should be playoff-bound and Drew Brees is capable of putting the team on his back if needed. With the Super Bowl being played in New Orleans this year, it would be quite a story for the Payton-less Saints to win it all on their home turf.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Projecting the 49ers at this point in the pre-season comes down to one thing: do you think Alex Smith can repeat his 2011 season? Smith will never live up to his #1 overall status, but there’s plenty of reasons to think that he can continue to be a top third type QB under coach Jim Harbaugh who was superb at hiding Smith’s weaknesses and setting him up for success. The defense is loaded with depth and top-end talent and should remain an elite unit. Throw in a terrible division and the 49ers should be headed back to the post-season and double-digit wins.
8. Baltimore Ravens – The good news for the Ravens is that they were one or two plays away from the Super Bowl last year. The bad news is that it’s tough to see how they’ve improved enough to get themselves to the next level. Losing Terrell Suggs for the season is a huge blow and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are at the very end of the line. As well coached as the Ravens’ D has been, a step back would not be surprising. Unfortunately for Baltimore, they probably cannot withstand a step back from the defense as their offense is simply not good enough to carry the team. Between the timid and overly conservative game plans of the coaching staff and the inconsistencies of QB Joe Flacco, the Ravens offense will be an average unit once again. Ray Rice is good enough to keep the unit from being bad, but the team will not be able to win (or even make the playoffs) without the defense playing up to the lofty standards set by the franchise over the last decade.
9. Detroit Lions – If the Lions can keep themselves out of trouble and avoid taking tons of stupid penalties, they could be a serious contender in the NFC in 2012. Of the teams in my top 10 rankings, the Lions are the team I could see as most likely to flop. Matthew Stafford is clearly an elite QB when healthy – but his ability to stay healthy needs to be proven. The defense has to improve from their 23rd overall ranking (points allowed) if the Lions are to challenge the Packers for the NFC North. While the Lions have some fairly big holes on their roster, an elite QB and disruptive pass rush can take you a long way.
10. Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys have underperformed for awhile and it’s tough to avoid feeling that with a better coaching staff, they could be a consistent double-digit win team. Their DB corps which killed them at times last year has received a big boost in 1st rounder Morris Claiborne and prized free agent Brandon Carr. They still lack a pass-rusher to take attention away from DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant’s problems (both off-field and on) could really affect the offense given the lack of depth at WR. The OL – a perpetual problem in Big D – still looks shaky on paper. Still, the Cowboys have a lot of talent, a top QB and promising young players at a number of positions. The ‘Boys have a brutal opening stretch on their schedule, opening in New York against the Giants and then heading to Seattle before facing Tampa Bay and Chicago at home. After their week 5 bye, they head to Baltimore. If they’re still afloat after week 6, I like their chances for a return to post-season play and a potential Super Bowl run.
11. Atlanta Falcons – After last year, I’m highly skeptical of both coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan’s ability to win a championship. Smith looked out of his league last year with overly conservative gameplans and a bad feel for when to take chances in his playcalling. The Falcons have a ton of talent with which to work, but seem to lack the killer instinct that great teams tend to have. In many ways, they are reminiscent of the Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs teams of the mid/late 1990’s (or even his Chargers teams of the mid 2000’s). The Falcons should be a contender next year and a top regular season team, but probably not a team headed for a deep playoff run.
12. Chicago Bears – Though I’m not a fan of big contracts for RB’s, re-signing Matt Forte was a must for a team lacking consistency on offense. Adding Brandon Marshall was very smart and will give Jay Cutler a solid, if inconsistent at times, target. Drafting Alshon Jeffery could turn into a major coup though I’m skeptical of Shea McClellin’s ability to have an impact in a 4-3 – assuming he can stay concussion free. While the Bears offense should be better than in recent years, their defense is getting old and still has holes in a number of key places. The offensive line has been bad far more often than good in the last few seasons but little was done to upgrade that unit. With Green Bay still an elite team and Detroit on the rise, the Bears could face an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.
13. Cincinnati Bengals – On paper, the Bengals have a pretty stacked roster. Certainly, they’ve added a ton of big name college players over the last few years. Yet, it’s still tough to pencil them into a playoff spot. One big reason is their division,, another is the growing pains that accompany many young QB’s. Andy Dalton was adequate last year, but his 80.4 QB Rating was worse than Kevin Kolb’s and only slightly better than Mark Sanchez and Tarvaris Jackson. Adding reliable, though mediocre, BenJarvus Green-Ellis could help take pressure off Dalton, though Green-Ellis isn’t a huge upgrade over Cedric Benson. If the Bengals haul of young prospects can step up, or they can find another big-time weapon on offense to complement A.J. Green, Cincinnati could be a big surprise next year.
14. Denver Broncos – The similarities between the Broncos and late 2000’s Colts are numerous: exceptional pass rushers, weak in the trenches, shaky secondaries with some upside, mediocre running backs and a team which will rely heavily upon the right arm of Peyton Manning. If Manning stays healthy, the Broncos should win the AFC West and could win 10-12 games. However, the Colts don’t have a Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne (let alone all 3 in their prime simultaneously) and it remains to be seen how effective Manning can be playing outdoors every week. We’ve seen him have success in bad weather and with mediocre supporting casts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he is very much the Manning of old. However, like the Manning-era Colts, the team will collapse without him and it’s not a sure thing that his neck will hold up.
15. Philadelphia Eagles – The problems with basing an offense around Michael Vick were quite apparent last year: he simply isn’t very good at times and he can’t stay healthy enough to be at his best for more than a few games. Rookie Nick Foles will probably be called upon at some point in 2012 when Vick inevitably gets hurt or benched. There’s a good amount of talent on the Eagles roster and they could contend for the NFC East title, but they will need a lot of luck with Vick’s health and performance. The Eagles’ placing in the middle of my rankings is a direct result of them most likely having to play a few games with Foles or Mike Kafka at QB and they’re probably not good enough to survive with those guys for more than a game or two.
16. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks are right in the middle of my rankings for one reason: I could see them being very good or really terrible. More than any other team, it’s hard to get a feel for whether or not this is an 11-5 type team or 5-11. The QB situation is one big reason why: Matt Flynn is a total unknown and neither Russell Wilson or Tarvaris Jackson strike me as guys that can take a team to the playoffs. The skill position players are a bit overrated but are capable of great things at times. Marshawn Lynch can be a top back at times, and a non-factor at others. Sidney Rice is an excellent weapon when healthy – which has been rare. Seahawks fans seem to love the non-Rice receivers led by Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu but the front office seems to have a different opinion as they’ve seemingly auditioned or signed every washed up veteran imaginable. If Braylon Edwards or Terrell Owens makes the roster and can be a #1 or #2 guy, Flynn should be set up for success. The Seahawks D is steady and well-coached but their depth is questionable and might have overachieved last year. 1st rounder Bruce Irvin will be one of the most intriguing stories to watch this year.
With the offseason in high gear, free agency and trades have significantly changed some teams’ draft needs. Here’s an updated look at how the 1st round of April’s draft could go:
1. Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck – QB – Stanford
A no-brainer at this point. Luck will be the face of the Colts for the foreseeable future.
2. Washington Redskins – Robert Griffin III – QB – Baylor
Another obvious selection, the Redskins gave up a small fortune to get the franchise QB they have lacked for a very long time.
3. Minnesota Vikings – Matt Kalil – OT – Southern California
As much of a sure thing as the first two picks are at this point, the Vikings’ 3rd overall pick is starting to feel like a lock as well. Kalil fills a huge hole and represents a top talent at a premium position. The only other consideration here (assuming Minnesota doesn’t trade down) is CB Morris Claiborne, but it’s tough to see the zone-defense Vikings passing up a LT for a CB. If they ran more man-to-man, it could be possible for Claiborne to go here but Kalil is better value for Minnesota.
4. Cleveland Browns – Trent Richardson – RB – Alabama
This is another pick which seemingly is locked in, though not to the same extent as the first three. The Browns desperately need playmakers on offense and Richardson is one of the best RB’s to come out of college in the last 5-10 years. That said, a WR like Justin Blackmon wouldn’t be a shock and they could even go with Claiborne if they feel they can address the offense later. Ryan Tannehill could draw some consideration here as well, though #4 seems mighty early for him.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Morris Claiborne – CB – LSU
The Bucs have been aggressive in free agency, landing some high-priced and big-name players. However, they still have a big need at CB and it would be a real shock if they passed on Claiborne at this spot. Richardson is the only other obvious choice here if he makes it past Cleveland.
6. St. Louis Rams – Justin Blackmon – WR – Oklahoma State
Blackmon has been tied to the Rams forever and getting him at #6 seems to be a solid meeting of need and value. The Rams clearly need help at receiver and Blackmon is the best on the board. However, this is a spot where we might see our first big surprise – with the Rams passing up the WR to bolster either their offensive or defensive line.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars – Quinton Coples – DE – North Carolina
The Jaguars have three places to go at #7 – OL, WR or pass-rusher. Michael Floyd is the best WR on this board but his character might be too suspect for GM Gene Smith. Riley Reiff could be in play here, but Quinton Coples’ upside is tough to pass up. Yes, he’s inconsistent and has a high “bust factor” but the Jags pass rush was pitiful last year outside of recently re-signed Jeremy Mincey. If he can get and stay motivated, Coples has game-changing ability that Jacksonville’s D has missed for awhile.
8. Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill – QB – Texas A&M
They missed out on Manning. They missed out on (or passed on) Matt Flynn. The Dolphins have been searching for a franchise QB for a decade and cannot go another offseason without adding a top talent at the spot. Tannehill has a great upside, though he’s raw and (like the aforementioned Coples) comes with a big risk of busting. However, the drop between Tannehill and the remaining QB’s on the board is steep and other than possibly over-aged Brandon Weeden none look like potential franchise guys. Either David Garrard or Matt Moore can hold the fort for a year or two if Tannehill needs a lot of time to develop.
9. Carolina Panthers – Dontari Poe – DT – Memphis
Offensive tackle (Riley Reiff?) is a possibility here, but the Panthers have needed an impact DT for a long, long time. Poe might seem like a reach in the top 10, but don’t be surprised if he ends up going this early a month from now. He has good athleticism for his massive size and has versatility to play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front – which should intrigue coach Ron Rivera. A different DT (Fletcher Cox?) or WR (Michael Floyd?) could work here as well. Carolina has a lot of options and should be able to land an impact player at a number of positions.
10. Buffalo Bills – Michael Floyd – WR – Notre Dame
The Bills have addressed their DL in a big way – adding Mark Anderson and Mario Williams. Despite re-signing Stevie Johnson, they still badly need an improvement in their WR corps. Floyd is a top talent, with the size and athleticism to give opposing defenses nightmares.
11. Kansas City Chiefs – David DeCastro – OG – Stanford
The Chiefs have options here – Riley Reiff and Luke Kuechly among them. If Dontari Poe is still here at #11, he’s a possibility as well. However, a run-oriented team like Kansas CIty would really benefit from an elite guard like DeCastro – possibly the best prospect at the position in over a decade. He would look pretty good opening holes for Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles and could help make the Chiefs’ running game the best in the league.
12. Seattle Seahawks – Luke Kuechly – ILB – Boston College
Even if David Hawthorne is re-signed, the Seahawks could use help at LB. If he’s not retained, the MLB spot is a huge weakness entering the draft. Pass-rusher (the LEO spot) is another big need but Kuechly has had a tremendous offseason and it’s going to be tough for Seattle to pass on him.
13. Arizona Cardinals – Riley Reiff – OT – Iowa
The Cardinals need a LT badly – a shaky OL isn’t going to help whoever ends up at QB next year. Reiff is a potential top 10 talent who represents a huge upgrade for the Arizona line. A WR or potentially an edge rusher could be in play, but it’s very difficult to see Arizona passing up a top LT prospect like Reiff.
14. Dallas Cowboys – Melvin Ingram – OLB – South Carolina
Despite franchising Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys could use an upgrade opposite DeMarcus Ware. More to the point, they need a playmaker on defense who takes some attention away from Ware. Ingram isn’t the biggest or fastest guy, but he has a knack for coming through with big plays and should help bolster the Dallas front 7. If David DeCastro is available here, he would be a strong consideration for the Cowboys as well.
15. Philadelphia Eagles – Fletcher Cox – DT – Mississippi State
The Eagles’ biggest need – MLB – was addressed by acquiring DeMeco Ryans from Houston. They could take a WR to complement the recently re-signed DeSean Jackson, though there isn’t a great value on the board here. A defensive tackle is also near the top of Philly’s wish list and Fletcher Cox has huge upside. A strong, agile defender, Cox could prove to be the best interior pass rusher in the 2012 draft.
16. New York Jets – Nick Perry – DE – Southern California
Despite having salvaged Aaron Maybin and re-signing Bryan Thomas, the Jets are in need of a pass rusher and Nick Perry is a fantastic value at this spot. His size and explosiveness will make him a force in the AFC East for years to come.
17. Cincinnati Bengals – Cordy Glenn – OG – Georgia
The Bengals have a huge need at OG and Cordy Glenn is a true mauler with the athleticism to be a truly elite player. Solidifying the line will help let 2nd year QB Andy Dalton develop and should improve the Bengals running game which struggled at times last year.
18. San Diego Chargers – Courtney Upshaw – OLB – Alabama
Upshaw has seen his stock take a bit of a nose dive since the end of the college football season. Once projected as a top 10 pick, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if Upshaw drops to the 2nd half of the round. While there are some questions about his size, length and ability to play in space, his pass-rushing potential is still very appealing – especially to a team like San Diego which has lacked a top pass-rusher at the OLB spot for a few years. The Chargers also have a huge hole at WR and could go with Kendall Wright, Rueben Randle or possibly Stephen Hill to replace the departed Vincent Jackson.
19. Chicago Bears – Michael Brockers – DT – LSU
Having addressed their perpetual WR problem by acquiring Brandon Marshall, the Bears have a few options at #19. Having been spurned by free agent DE Jeremy Mincey, the Bears still need an upgrade opposite Julius Peppers so Whitney Merciclus could be in play. A selection at OT also wouldn’t come as a surprise with Jonathan Martin being an option. However, Amobi Okoye is still unsigned and Michael Brockers’ upside at this point is irresistible. The Bears won’t be able to pass up the raw but talented former LSU DT.
20. Tennessee Titans – Whitney Mercilus – DE – Illinois
It’s tough to gauge where the one-year wonder Mercilus will go but if he’s still on the board at #20, the Titans will take a long look at him. Tennessee has a big hole at DE and have been searching for a pass-rusher at that spot for awhile and Mercilus has some of the best pass rushing ability in the draft.
21. Cincinnati Bengals – Kendall Wright – WR – Baylor
Having added a RB in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and bolstering the OL a few selections ago with Cordy Glenn, it’s time for the Bengals to add a dynamic threat to complement A.J. Green at WR. Wright took some flak for running poorly at the combine, but it’s clear that he plays a lot faster than his 4.6 time indicates. He had a great pro day last week and his athleticism and play-making ability will make the Bengals passing attack extremely difficult to contain.
22. Cleveland Browns – Dre Kirkpatrick – CB – Alabama
Dre Kirkpatrick started the 2011-12 offseason as a potential top 15 pick. However, his run in with the law and a mediocre combine (including reportedly lackluster interviews) have dropped him a little. The Browns need a WR to help Colt McCoy, but they can grab one pretty easily in the 2nd round – plus none of the remaining WR’s are great value here. Kirkpatrick is a good fit lining up opposite Joe Haden, and could potentially shift to safety where the Browns are thin.
23. Detroit Lions – Janoris Jenkins – CB – North Alabama
A lot has been made of Janoris Jenkins’ off-field and character issues. However, someone will take a chance on him in the 1st and the Lions seem like a good fit for his skills. Detroit has a fair bit of talent on defense, but lack the DB’s necessary to contain the top NFC passing attacks. Jenkins talent has never been in question, if he had a clean character, he could potentially be a top 10 pick. Taking a gamble on him here makes a lot of sense for the Lions.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Jonathan Martin – OT – Stanford
The Steelers could go in a number of directions at #24. They could use a ILB to replace James Farrior – Dont’a Hightower could be a fit. They could also add a DB, NT or OG. Even a RB isn’t totally out of the question, though probably unlikely until round 2 or 3. However, they will be very hard pressed to pass up Jonathan Martin at this spot. Some questions have come up about Martin since a lackluster pro day which could cause him to slide to this point of the 1st round. If he’s there in the final third of the round, Pittsburgh won’t let him get past them.
25. Denver Broncos – Devon Still – DT – Penn State
The Broncos have made the biggest news of the offseason, adding Peyton Manning and shipping out Tim Tebow. However, they lost Brodrick Bunkley to the Saints and really need to upgrade their interior DL. Devon Still has a nice combo of strength and athleticism for his size and could be a true impact player along Denver’s line.
26. Houston Texans – Rueben Randle – WR – LSU
WR is an obvious need for Texans with the team having few other glaring holes. Finding a quality #2 WR to take some pressure off Andre Johnson is a must for Houston. Randle fits the offensive scheme pretty well and possesses good size and pretty good speed. He would make the already dangerous Texans offense even more potent.
27. New England Patriots – Andre Branch – DE – Clemson
Even before losing Mark Anderson to AFC East rival Buffalo the Patriots needed to upgrade their edge-rusher situation. It looks likely that the Patriots will move back to more 3-4 looks in 2012 and Andre Branch would look very good lined up opposite Rob Ninkovich at OLB. He has the size and length that coach Belichick covets and gives the Pats the OLB/DE they have sorely missed since Willie McGinest left half a decade ago.
28. Green Bay Packers – Kendall Reyes – DT – Connecticut
The Packers struggled to replace Cullen Jenkins last year and Mike Neal is constantly hurt (and now suspended). Kendall Reyes is a late riser who has good feet and strength. He should turn out to be an excellent 5-technique in the NFL and will look great lined up next to B.J. Raji.
29. Baltimore Ravens – Mark Barron – SS – Alabama
Ed Reed can’t play forever and the Ravens’ other options at safety aren’t great. Barron is a tough player who fits what they do defensively and has the right attitude to succeed in Baltimore. Other options could include a ILB like Dont’a Hightower or OL help.
30. San Francisco 49ers – Coby Fleener – TE – Stanford
The 49ers have added some intriguing weapons for Alex Smtih – Randy Moss and Mario Manningham – but they are still lacking a reliable red-zone threat other than Vernon Davis. It’s possible Moss could recapture his 2007-2009 form, but San Francisco could stand to add some over-the-middle options to complement their outside threats. Fleener should be able to fit in quickly, having played under coach Harbaugh in college.
31. New England Patriots – Harrison Smith – SS – Notre Dame
The Patriots have done a nice job filling some holes in free agency but still have a glaring need at safety. Pat Chung is a solid starter but often banged up. Other internal options Sergio Brown and recently signed Steve Gregory are not guys you want starting on a potential playoff team. Harrison Smith has been climbing draft boards after showing off some good skills and interviewing well at the Combine. He’s the smart, tough type player Bill Belichick loves.
32. New York Giants – Dont’a Hightower – ILB – Alabama
The defending Super Bowl champs don’t have a ton of holes to fill, and usually just go with the best player available. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower can fill one of the Giants’ few true needs – MLB – and also represents the best player on the board at this point. A hard nosed, down-hill linebacker, Hightower will solidify the middle of New York’s D.
Last week I wrote briefly on whether or not the idea that “Defense Wins Championships” was a bit outdated. Looking solely at overall rankings in points per game scored/allowed, it seems as if good defenses are still a key element of a Super Bowl winning team. Of the 3 “bad” defenses which have won Super Bowls lately (2006 Colts, 2007 Giants, 2009 Saints), both the Colts and Giants got hot down the stretch to carry their team to a Lombardi trophy.
However, points per game allowed is a pretty simple measure of a defense and doesn’t tell us all that much about the unit in question. Here are some more numbers on the Super Bowl winning defenses:
Yards Per Drive Allowed
Average YPD: 26.2
Average YPD+: 108.8
Best YPD+: 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers (131)
Worst YPD+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (79)
# of teams <100 YPD+: 8
Points Per Drive Allowed:
Average PPD: 1.36
Average PPD+: 121.6
Best PPD+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens (150)
Worst PPD+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (75)
# of teams <100 PPD+: 1
Average TO%: 21.8%
Average TO%+: 114.8
Best TO+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens (165)
Worst TO+: 1976 Oakland Raiders (76)
# of teams <100 TO+: 9
Average TD%: 14.9%
Average TD%+: 123.2
Best TD%+: 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (152)
Worst TD%+: 2006 Indianapolis Colts (74)
# of teams <100 YPD+: 3
As you can see, other than the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl defenses have remained pretty consistently above average in most of these variables. Here are the 41 Super Bowl champion defenses from 1970-2010 ranked by my Defensive Efficiency Scores:
The average DSCORE of a Super Bowl winner is 20.83. Only 2 teams in 2011 had a DSCORE that high: San Francisco and Baltimore. The 2011 Patriots checked in at 5.93 and the Giants at -4.42. However, like the 2006 Colts and 2007 Giants, both current Super Bowl teams are playing better than their regular season numbers indicate. Whichever team wins next Sunday will join the recent trend of teams whose defenses got hot at just the right time.
You’re probably familiar with this old football axiom: “defense wins championships.” Recently though, some have claimed that perhaps we are entering a new era – one where offenses rule. Will today’s younger generation grow up saying “offense wins championships”? Probably not. Take a look at the post-merger Super Bowl winners and their offensive and defensive rankings (points scored/points allowed):
The first thing that stands out is that elite (top 5) scoring offenses have won a Super Bowl just 3 times since 2000. So 8 of the 11 Super Bowl winners had a non top 5 offense. In the 20 years previous, only 6 teams had a non top-5 offense. Between 1970-1999 only two Super Bowl champions had a non top-10 offense. That’s happened 5 times in the last 11 years. Furthermore, 2 of the last 4 Super Bowl winning teams (2007 Giants, 2008 Steelers) had very mediocre offenses. Also weakening the “offense wins championships” is the fact the 2007 Giants’ “bad defense” was (almost single-handedly) responsible for a Super Bowl win and played much better down the stretch than their overall season ranking indicates.
Looking ahead to Super Bowl 46, we see two teams with better offenses than defenses. The Patriots were 3rd in offense, 15th in defense. The Giants were 9th in offense and 25th in defense. However, like in 2007, the Giants (and also the Patriots) are playing much better defense of late. Because both offenses are so good, Super Bowl 46 could possibly be a repeat of Super Bowl 42 where a statistically unimpressive defense is responsible for winning the game.
Lastly, if Kyle Williams doesn’t turn 2 punts over, or if Billy Cundiff hits an easy FG, we are probably looking at at least 1 – if not 2 – elite defense/mediocre offense teams in the Super Bowl. In that case, we might be talking about a totally different type of shift (away from elite offenses winning the Super Bowl) It seems to be more of a case of statistical noise, small sample sizes and some flukey luck (e.g. the 2nd ranked 2006 Patriots defense suffering several illnesses and injuries in the AFC Championship to the Colts) more than a real shift away from “defense wins championships.”
One has to look no further than the 2011 Saints and Packers to see that the NFL is still very much a league where an effective defense trumps an elite offense.