I did a quick review of a few simple statistics to see what the last 15 Super Bowl champions did well and not so well in their playoff games. There were six statistics I looked at:
- Yards per offensive play. This is a good measure of how well teams move the ball on offense, and it has a high correlation with offensive scoring, so it's a meaningful statistic. In recent seasons, teams have been averaging about 5.4 yards per play.
- Yards given up per defensive play. This is the opposite of the first statistic, and is a good indicator of how well a defense keeps its opponent from moving the ball (and scoring). In recent seasons, this also averages 5.4 yards per play (every yard gained by an offense is also a yard given up by a defense, so the averages have to match).
- Yards per pass play. This is the net yards a team gets on its pass plays, taking into account completions, incompletions, and sacks. It is a good measure of the productivity of the passing game. Over the past few seasons, teams are averaging about 6.2 yards per pass play.
- Yards given up per pass play. The opposite stat which shows how well defenses limit their opponents' productivity in the passing game. It too averages about 6.2 yards per pass play.
- Yards per rush play. Pretty obvious, the average yards gained on a running play. This is roughly 4.2 yards over the past few seasons.
- Yards given up per rush play. The defensive flip side of the previous stat, also averaging 4.2 yards per rush play.
Here are the findings:
- Yards per offensive play. In the playoffs, the past 15 Super Bowl champions have averaged 5.2 yards per play, slightly below the 5.4 yard league average for recent regular seasons.
- Yards given up per offensive play. Here the average is 5.0 yards given up per play, so the champions are just a bit better than their playoff opponents in the yards per play category.
- Yards per rushing play. Surprisingly maybe, in the playoffs, the past 15 Super Bowl champions have averaged only 3.6 yards per running play. This is well below the league's regular season average of 4.2.
- Yards given up per rushing play. Even more surprising, the past 15 Super Bowl champions give up more yards per rush to their opponents than they themselves gain. Their opponents average 3.9 yards per rushing play. That's still below the league's regular season average, but it is closer to the average than the champions get.
- Yards per passing play. Here's where the Super Bowl champions excel. They gain 6.7 yards per pass play, compared with the regular season league average of 6.2. Super Bowl champions are productive in the passing game.
- Yards given up per passing play. And here's what Super Bowl champions do the absolute best. They defend the pass well, giving up just 5.0 yards per pass play compared with the regular season league average of 6.2 yards per play.
The surprising finding is that Super Bowl champions are actually less productive running the ball in the playoffs than their playoff opponents. What they do succeed at, however, is being productive in the passing game and, especially, limiting their opponents' productivity in the passing game.
So what really wins championships? From the stats, the key to winning a championship is, first and foremost, having an effective pass defense and, second, having a productive passing offense.
The numbers may not tell the whole story, but the story they do tell is clear.