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Sports    |   #nfl

Does defense win football championships?

By Elad De Piccioto
 Photo by Ashton Clark on Unsplash
*Updated 2024

“Offense sells tickets but defense wins championships” is a popular quote and one of the oldest clichés in professional sports in general and in NFL football in particular. Many words have been exchanged on this debate, yet you can still find proponents for both sides: Those who claim that defense wins football championships versus those who believe that it’s no longer defense but, in fact, offense that wins championships.

Here are three arguments for defense and three against it.


3 reasons defense wins football championships


Defense provides consistency

Getting to the Super Bowl means you have to be a consistent performer. A team needs to win three or four playoff matches in a row against the best teams in the league to qualify for the NFC and AFC championship games, let alone reach the Super Bowl (and then win it). That`s difficult to do, to say the least. During playoff games, this is when defense wins. Defense is about hard work, and it allows players to be competitive during games when nothing else works for their team. As the Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones showed in the 2023 AFC championship game, a good defensive play can end the other team’s offensive run before it even begins. The team’s defense again played a key role in their 2nd consecutive Super Bowl victory. Defense has historically given players the consistency they need to win their respective league championship games.


Great defense is the best offense

In football, good strong defense provides a good field position, which allows the offense to start their drive-to-goal in a better position, thus allowing an easier time scoring. Additionally, good defense forces turnovers on the opponents, and turnovers’ impact on football scores cannot be overestimated. A positive turnover differential significantly increases the probability of winning. Moreover, in today’s professional football, interceptions are much more likely to be returned for touchdowns, as was seen in 2022, when an interception by the Cincinnati Bengals’ led to their game-tying touchdown and eventual 2022 AFC championship win over Kansas City. Thus, defense is the best offense.


It’s part of any game’s nature

First-class NFL defenses, with an elite coach, are nearly impossible to beat. No matter the sport, defensive plays can create a huge psychological impact on the opponent`s offense; they put great pressure on opponents and can frustrate them.  A brilliant defensive strategy can change the course of the game, whether football, basketball or soccer. In fact, the importance of a great defense in football is much like its importance in basketball, or the importance of the goalie in hockey and in soccer. A team just can’t win games or championships without defense; it`s part of the nature of any game.

3 reasons defense doesn’t win football championships


Football stats prove differently

Contrary to what might be believed, a deep look into statistics proves defense can’t be relied on to win NFL championships, at least not more than offense does. In 2012, a behavioral economist teamed up with a Sports Illustrated journalist to write “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won,” in which they analyzed data from 45 Super Bowls. A worn claim by the defense advocates is that the top-ranked defense during the regular NFL football season won 15 Super Bowls, whereas the top-ranked offense won only eight. The authors’ deeper look into statistics contradicts this claim. They assert that 38 out of 45 Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 defense and 22 have been won by a top 3 defense. Meanwhile, 38 Super Bowls have been won by a top 10 offense and 20 were won by a top 3 offense. So, if you widen the sample size, the differences are marginal, if they even exist.


The NFL’s changes favor offense

The NFL is always evolving. During the past decade,  there has been a shift in the league that favors the offense. Rules have changed that mostly favor offense. For example, with the Concussion Protocol, the ban on hitting a quarterback helmet-to-helmet, and on the “horse-collar tackle,” offense numbers are high. This trend is reflected in recent NFL seasons, which have been dominated by quarterbacks and passing offenses.  The ball flies more, and apart from Super Bowl 50, recent seasons were dominated by offenses and specifically by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes. Defense might have won football championships decades ago, but it doesn’t anymore.


Defense is glorified because the influence of offense is obvious

Historic NFL teams with great defense, like the 1984 Chicago Bears or the 2015 Denver Broncos, are rare and therefore more memorable than teams with great offense. They demonstrate and validate the virtues of defense, which are often overlooked. This brings many sports figures (from players to commentators) to glorify defense and to believe that it wins NFL championships. While great defense has won championships for certain NFL teams, it doesn’t mean that defense always leads to championship victories. The main difference is that because the importance of offense in football is obvious, it isn’t as glorified as defense. But this doesn’t mean that offense doesn’t win championships or that defense more often wins championships.


The Bottom Line: The fact that good defense leads to more opportunities for offense, and that it gives football players consistency helps determine that defense wins NFL championships. On the other hand, football has recently become a game of offense. Which do you think is more important?

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