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Does defense really win championships? For dominant Bears, maybe ... maybe not

December 29, 2018

Barring some kind of defensive collapse on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, the Chicago Bears’ defense will finish the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA rankings.

Far and away, in fact. The Bears so far have registered a DVOA figure of minus-25.4 percent — lower is better — which you’ll see is a shockingly good number when stacked against other defenses in recent seasons.

And for measure, the Bears are sitting at 22nd in offensive DVOA and 25th in special teams. That, of course, matters as well. We like FO’s all-encompassing metric for how it weighs myriad factors but appears to place a premium on the most important statistics, such as points allowed and turnovers.

There’s little question that if the Bears are going to make a run in the upcoming playoffs, this defense, led by the brilliant Khalil Mack, will have to match the performance it has shown for the majority of the season, save for a few clunkers on the road after extended layoffs. Sure, Mitch Trubisky playing his best ball would be a terrific boon, but it would seem that the Bears’ defense also must be in peak form as well for the Bears to do some playoff damage.

That got us thinking a bit. You’ve certainly heard the old “defense wins championships” adage, but it’s one that rarely goes checked. After all, didn’t we just witness a Super Bowl almost 11 months ago that featured very little defense?

We thought going back the past decade and looking at how each season’s top-rated DVOA defense fared in the playoffs (if those teams even made it) would test the viability of the theory that a great unit really can carry a team all the way.

2017 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Jaguars (-16.2 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Eagles (-12.3, fifth best) beat Patriots (10.9, 31st best)

The Jaguars made a terrific run to the AFC title game and had the Patriots on the ropes, with Jacksonville leading 20-10 with 10 minutes remaining. But we know how that ended up. The Jaguars allowed Tom Brady to drive the Patriots for touchdowns in the final 8:44 of the game as New England made yet another Super Bowl.

Interestingly, the Vikings’ No. 2-ranked DVOA defense also lost in the conference title game (to the Eagles, who blew them out), but the Nos. 3 (Ravens) and 4 teams (Cardinals) did not make the playoffs.

2016 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Broncos (-18.3 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Patriots (-1.8, 16th best) over Falcons (7.3, 26th best)

The Broncos started out that season 4-0 and entered their bye at 7-3 but finished the season 9-7 and were on the outside looking in for the playoffs. Normally, teams with those records to start the season make the playoffs more than 80 percent of the time, but it’s hard to place the bulk of the blame on the Broncos’ blame that season on the defense, outside of a few poor performances against the Chiefs down the stretch.

The No. 2 Giants (-14.5) finished 11-5 but were blown out by the Packers in Green Bay in the wild-card round. The Cardinals once again had a stout defense (-13.6) but finished 7-8-1. The Super Bowl matchup clearly featured two teams in the middling-to-below average range.

2015 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Broncos (-25.8 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Broncos over Panthers (-18.4, second)

It’s not shocking that the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in a decade occurred in a season in which the game featured the year’s top two ranked defenses. Peyton Manning did just enough in his final game, but it was more about the Broncos’ truly dominant performance in containing Cam Newton, the league’s MVP.

This season clearly backed the “defense wins championships” corollary and is the strongest recent case for the Bears being set up to do well this year, as the Broncos’ DVOA rating that season is right now just slightly better than what Chicago’s defense has turned in prior to Week 17. Worth noting: The Bears’ Weighted DVOA (which places an increased value on recent performances and less on early-season games) sits at a whopping minus-25.5 percent, while the Broncos entered the playoffs at a minus-22.1.

2014 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Seahawks (-19.8 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Patriots (-3.0, 12th) over Seahawks

Clearly, we had nice balance here, with the Patriots (who were ranked sixth in offensive DVOA and fifth on special teams) barely holding off the Seahawks (fifth on offense, 19th on special teams) in the final minute of a thrilling Super Bowl. And how did they win? With a timely interception on defense — surely you remember Malcolm Butler’s shocking heroics.

Defense still was a league-wide phenomenon, as each of the top eight teams in the DVOA rankings finished at .500 or above, even though only five of those teams made the postseason and among those teams, only the No. 8 Ravens won a playoff game.

2013 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Seahawks (-30.0 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Seahawks over Broncos (-0.2 percent, 15th)

This was the Super Bowl that prompted John Elway to sink as many assets as he could into Denver’s defense after having seen what Seattle’s elite unit could do to Manning and a very good Broncos offense, which by far was the league’s highest-rated that season at 33.5 percent and one of the highest numbers in this generation.

Defense clearly mattered in the 2013 season. Carolina, which had the No. 3 Defensive DVOA, was the NFC’s two-seed. Arizona ranked second and went 10-6 (despite missing the postseason). The Bengals, No. 5 in DVOA, was the three-seed.

Buffalo was the outlier, ranking fourth in DVOA but finishing 6-10; its offense (25th in DVOA) and special teams (31st) clearly didn’t carry enough of the load.

2012 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Bears (-26.7 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Ravens (2.2, 19th) over 49ers (-14.4, third)

Remember Lovie Smith’s final season as Bears coach? The team went 10-6 but narrowly missed the postseason. Smith’s defense was exceptional. The special teams (ranked sixth) also were strong. The offense (ranked 26th) was not so good.

And looking at the Super Bowl, the Ravens were not the same defense-and-run-game outfit they previously had been. In fact, the Ravens’ Weighted DVOA on that side was actually worse at 3.0 percent, which was ranked 22nd. But that unit picked up its play once the postseason began, holding the Colts to three field goals, made life tough on Manning in a win over the Broncos, held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 13 points in Foxboro and shut down the 49ers for the first half of the Super Bowl

2011 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Ravens (-17.1 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Giants (2.4, 19th) over Patriots (13.2, 30th)

This was such a strange season in general, which you would expect following the lockout the previous spring, and the playoffs only emphasized that. Defense really didn’t seem to matter a whole lot, as only six playoff teams landed in the top 16 of DVOA ratings.

Neither the Giants nor the Patriots played anything resembling great defense that year, much less down the stretch of the regular season, although the teams they beat in the conference title games — the Ravens and 49ers — were ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in Defensive DVOA. But however you spin it, this season feels like a strange statistical outlier given the work stoppage during that offseason.

2010 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Steelers (-20.7 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Packers (-13.9, second) over Steelers

There had been small indications down the stretch that season that the Steelers’ defense wasn’t as strong as it had been at earlier points in the season, and it mostly bore out when Aaron Rodgers took apart that unit in building a big Super Bowl lead. But we can’t ignore that the top two defensive teams in DVOA (as well as Weighted DVOA) ended up facing off in the Super Bowl.

In fact, the four teams in the conference title games were ranked first, second, fourth (Bears) and fifth (Jets). Ten of the top 11 Defensive DVOA teams were over .500. It’s clear that defense certainly mattered this season …

2009 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Jets (-25.5 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Saints (-0.4, 17th) over Colts (-0.8, 16th)

… which was a vast departure from 2009, when it was all about the offenses. This was the Manning vs. Drew Brees bowl, although to be fair the Saints’ first and only Super Bowl victory was clinched on a pick-six in the final minutes.

Still, this was a year where Manning dissected the Jets’ brilliant defense that season in the AFC title game and Brees outgunned Brett Favre in an all-time classic NFC championship. We didn’t quite see the nuclear passing totals we would a few years later, which has pretty much remained the standard since then, but it certainly was a season where defense appeared to matter less on the whole.

2008 season

Top-ranked DVOA defense: Steelers (-29.0 percent)

Super Bowl matchup: Steelers over Cardinals (5.1, 21st)

Defense wins championships! So it was said on the night of February 1, 2009, when the Steelers outlasted a feisty Cardinals team that fell behind early but nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback. It was a strip sack on Kurt Warner’s final drive that ended the game for Pittsburgh, which had an exceptional and timely defense all season long.

The Cardinals advanced to their first Super Bowl by beating the No. 3 DVOA defense of the Eagles, which is interesting, but the Steelers out-gutted the Ravens in the AFC championship in one of the most physical games in recent postseason history. With the way the current rules are, watching that Steelers-Ravens game now might give viewers some serious post-traumatic stress syndrome.

This strange every-other-year pattern over the following three or four years clearly indicates that “football trends” — whatever those are, anyway — should be measured in weeks and perhaps months, not in years.

Conclusion

Does defense really win championships? Well, sometimes. It did in the 2015, 2013 and 2008 seasons and, you could argue, in 2010. But having an elite defense doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl title in any way, shape or form, as recent history seems to show.

But in the case of the Bears, who lead this year’s DVOA rankings, they have a rating that’s up there with some of the best units of the previous 10 years. Those teams did appear to have enough dominance on that side — even with their offensive shortcomings — to make big runs and, in some cases, bring home rings.

So what these numbers appear to tell us is that the Bears have been dominant enough to give themselves an excellent chance to have playoff success, and with a little improvement on offense and special teams, they could be embarking on something special. Short of that, however, it could be an uphill battle, especially against a pretty dangerous NFC field.

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