Will An Elite NFL Fefense Prevail In The Playoffs?

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A 43-40 thriller ending in a field goal to win the game as time expires, or a 15-6 defensive game full of turnovers. Which game would you rather watch? Most people would choose the high scoring affair. NFL fans have always loved the shootout between two of the league’s best offense’s, but this season, defensive teams are changing that way of thinking.

Over the past two weeks of the season, we’ve seen incredible defensive performances from a couple of NFC teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. In all my time watching football, I’ve never enjoyed watching defense’s play as much as I have these two defense’s over the last two weeks.

The Dallas Cowboys earned themselves a 13-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 13, while the Chicago Bears earned themselves a 15-6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams last night. Both the Saints and Rams were one loss teams and the number one seed in the NFC at the time they took on these defensive teams.

No only were they two of the best teams in the NFC and NFL, but they are both teams who rank in the top three in points per game. The Saints average 34.4 points per game, while the Rams average 32.7 points. The number for both teams was even higher before being shut down.

With these two defense’s beating two of the league’s best offense’s over the last two weeks, it’s made me wonder how the NFL playoffs will play out this year. Will an elite NFL defense prevail? Let’s take a look at some numbers.

Can an elite NFL defense carry a team in the playoffs?

Before we take a look at if an elite NFL defense can win in the playoffs, we have to look at if an elite NFL defense can carry a team to the playoffs. Below are the current top 10 defensive teams in the NFL in points allowed.

  1. Baltimore Ravens (18.5)
  2. Dallas Cowboys (18.9)
  3. Chicago Bears (19)
  4. Tennessee Titans (19.5)
  5. Houston Texans (19.9)
  6. Los Angeles Chargers (20.8)
  7. Jacksonville Jaguars (21)
  8. Seattle Seahawks (21.6)
  9. Denver Broncos (21.7)
  10. New Orleans Saints (21.8)

Of the top 10 defensive teams in the NFL, seven teams currently hold a playoff spot. Of the other three teams, there are two who are still in the hunt for the playoffs (Titans and Broncos). That leaves us with one top 10 defensive team with no chance to make the playoffs this season. Based on these numbers alone, can an elite NFL defense carry a team to and in the playoffs? Yes, but there’s more we need to look into first.

How many top defensive teams have a top 10 offense?

To get a more clear picture of just how far these top defense’s have taken their teams, we have to look at the offense accompanying them. Below are the current top 10 offensive teams in the league.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs (36.2)
  2. New Orleans Saints (34.3)
  3. Los Angeles Rams (32.7)
  4. Pittsburgh Steelers (28.2)
  5. Los Angeles Chargers (28.2)
  6. New England Patriots (28)
  7. Chicago Bears (27.6)
  8. Indianapolis Colts (26.8)
  9. Seattle Seahawks (26.6)
  10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (25.5)

Four of the teams with an elite NFL defense also have a top 10 offense. Those teams are the Saints, Chargers, Bears and Seahawks. All four of those teams currently hold a playoff spot. That leaves us with three top 10 defensive teams in a current playoff spot who don’t have a top 10 offense.

Those three teams are the Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. Those three offense’s currently rank 13th, 23rd and 12th. Then there’s the other two teams (Titans and Broncos) who are fighting for a playoff spot. Their offense’s rank 27th and 20th. Looking at these numbers, can an elite NFL defense team carry a team in playoffs? Only three teams with a defense in the top 10 and no top 10 offense currently have a playoff spot, so the numbers lean towards no.

Can an offense carry a team to the playoffs?

Now we have to look at the reverse side of things. How many teams with a top 10 offense are in a current playoff position? Eight of the 10 teams currently hold a playoff spot. Another one of those teams is in the hunt for the playoffs.

We already know four top 10 defensive teams have top 10 offense’s, meaning only four of the top 10 offense’s have top 10 defense’s. Again, those four teams are the Saints, Chargers, Bears and Seahawks.

These numbers indicate that an elite offense is more likely to lead a team in the playoffs than an elite NFL defense, as the other four teams in playoff position are the Chiefs, Rams, Steelers, and Patriots. The worst any of those teams rank offensively is sixth. None of them have a top 10 defense.

I talked briefly about the defensive performances by the Bears and Cowboys earlier, but now let’s look at some games in which a top 10 offense bested a top 10 defense. Most recently, Patrick Mahomes and the number one ranked offense overcame the number one ranked defense of the Ravens. The Saints also beat the Ravens earlier in the season.

We’ve also seen games in which the Seahawks’ offense was able to beat the Cowboys’ defense and the Colts’ offense was able to beat the Texans’ defense.

Conclusion: An elite NFL defense won’t prevail on their own

The numbers support an elite offense being able to carry a team farther than an elite NFL defense. However, the best formula looks to be from balanced teams. Those four teams who rank in the top 10 both offensively and defensively. Again, those teams are the Saints, Chargers, Bears and Seahawks.

While it’s good to have a top 10 offense or a top 10 defense, it’s obviously better to have both. All four teams who have a top 10 offense and defense are currently holding playoff spots. The teams who prevail in the playoffs won’t be the teams who are good on just one side of the ball. Instead, they’ll be the teams who are playing their best football on both sides of the ball come playoff time.

Cowboys at Redskins 10/29/17” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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