Much of the focus heading into Super Bowl 50 will be on the quarterbacks, particularly with future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning facing off with likely MVP Cam Newton in what could be the final game of Manning’s career.
While the star quarterbacks will warrant the headlines, the defenses are the main reason the Broncos and Panthers are headed to Santa Clara.
The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers rank first and second in ESPN’s defensive efficiency metric, an all-encompassing statistic that measures a unit’s per-play contribution to its scoring margin.
Because defensive efficiency is built off the framework of expected points added, it accounts for the context of every play (not all yards are created equal), turnovers and a defense’s ability to prevent scoring.
The Broncos and Panthers not only lead the league in defensive efficiency entering the Super Bowl, but they were the top two teams in that statistic for the majority of the regular season. Both defenses have had success keeping opponents out of the end zone, but they have done so in very different ways. Each defense’s strength was on full display Sunday.
Broncos: Pressure the QB
The Broncos led the NFL in sacks (52) and an opponent pressure percentage (35 percent) in the regular season. In the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos pressured Brady on 19 of his 61 dropbacks and hit him a season-high 23 times.
Including the playoffs, the Broncos have added about eight points per game to their net scoring margin just as a result of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, nearly 1.4 more points than any other team.
Panthers: Force turnovers
The Panthers led the NFL with 39 turnovers forced, resulting in 148 points off those takeaways, in the regular season. In the NFC Championship Game, Carolina forced seven turnovers, including six by Carson Palmer, the most by a team in a playoff game since the Rams forced eight against the Packers in 2001.
Including the playoffs, the Panthers have added about 9.5 points per game to their net scoring margin as a result of forcing turnovers, nearly 1.7 more points than any other team. They have returned six of those turnovers for touchdowns, but many of them also set up Newton and Carolina’s offense with a short field.
Do defenses really win championships?
Until the Patriots lost to the Seahawks in last year’s Super Bowl, there was a clear pattern of superior defensive teams prevailing. From 2007 to 2013, only three eventual Super Bowl champions ranked in the top 10 of the NFL in offensive efficiency in the regular season; all but two of those teams ranked in the top 10 of the league in defensive efficiency, including three teams ranked in the top 2.
There has been more detailed analysis of the correlation of Total QBR and opponent QBR and winning that has yielded similar results.
In today’s game, which features high-scoring, record-breaking offenses, most of the headlines deservedly go to those offenses and the star quarterbacks behind them. Yet as we tune into Super Bowl 50, the top two defenses will be on display, serving as a simple reminder that defenses continue to win championships.
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