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Super Bowl 50: The Best Defensive Super Bowl Ever?

Where does Super Bowl 50 rank among the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history?

Von Miller captures the Super Bowl MVP

Von Miller captures the Super Bowl MVP

Super Bowl 50 will go down as one of the bigger upsets in Super Bowl history, but it’s clearly not one of the biggest ever. Even given the recency of the game, it still falls far behind Super Bowl III (Jets/Colts), Super Bowl IV (Chiefs/Vikings), Super Bowl XXXII (Broncos/Packers), Super Bowl XXXVI (Patriots/Rams), or Super Bowl XLII (Giants/Patriots, 2007).  All five of those games had double-digit point spreads, but went to the underdogs.

Super Bowl XXV (Giants/Bills) featured a 6.5-point spread and was one of the more memorable upsets. And two recent underdogs won with 4.5-point spreads — Ravens over 49ers, Saints over Colts.  From a purely point spread look, Super Bowl 50 would slot in right there, at tied for #7, as the line closed at 4.5 points.  From a purely subjective standpoint, I’d probably put this game in the middle of those two:  the Saints game looked like a big upset, but the stats guys were on New Orleans, and the line may have only been in the Colts favor because of the team’s experience edge.  I picked the 49ers to win by six points, which is what I had Carolina winning by yesterday, too.  But with Denver a 12-4 team and the #1 seed, I think this game feels like less of an upset than Ravens/49ers.

But it doesn’t matter that this game isn’t one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. That’s because it has another honor to take home: being one of the best defensive Super Bowls ever.  The teams combined for just 509 yards, the 6th fewest in any Super Bowl.  On a per-play basis, that ranks 4th, passing the ’72 and ’73 Dolphins Super Bowls.

And after adjusting for era, it looks even better. Here’s how to read the table below. This season, teams averaged 488 combined passing yards per game and 218 combined rushing yards. In the Super Bowl, the two teams combined for just 301 passing yards and 208 rushing yards. That’s 187 fewer passing yards than average, and 10 fewer rushing yards than the average NFL game. Combined, the teams produced just 509 yards, which is 196 fewer yards than the average game during the 2015 regular season.

YearTmOppLg Avg PassLg Avg RushPass YdRush YdPass DifRush DifTot ▾Total Diff
2000BALNYG414225219177-195-48396-243
2015DENCAR488218301208-187-10509-196
1985CHINWE409250357174-52-76531-128
1974PITMIN306267186266-120-1452-121
1972MIAWAS304279156325-14846481-102
1995DALPIT442216405159-37-57564-94
1977DALDEN284288217264-67-24481-91
1969KANMIN357244294218-63-26512-89
1973MIAMIN282289229268-53-21497-74
1982WASMIA399236204372-195136576-58
1996GNBNWE4152184221587-60580-53
2013SEADEN47122648516214-64647-50
2007NYGNWE42922247613647-86612-38
1981SFOCIN40926043219923-61631-38
1971DALMIA311260205332-10672537-35
1989SFODEN422231420208-2-23628-24
2002TAMOAK42423246516941-63634-23
1970BALDAL32324137317350-68546-18
1966GNBKAN37123839520224-36597-12
1975PITDAL32629135225726-34609-8
1983RAIWAS409259347321-6262668-1
1967GNBOAK362237348267-143061516
1997DENGNB404226378274-264865222
1993DALBUF40122043122430465534
1988SFOCIN40124346421763-2668137
2008PITARI42323260891185-14169945
2004NWEPHI421233543157122-7670046
2006INDCHI410235393302-176769551
2011NYGNWE45923454819789-3774551
2010GNBPIT443229549176106-5372553
2001NWESTL41222447122359-169459
1979PITRAM361271503191142-8069462
1968NYJBAL344253376285323266164
1978PITDAL318284467220149-6468786
1991WASBUF398215532168134-4770086
1980OAKPHI392255551186159-6973790
2005PITSEA4072254173181093735103
1990NYGBUF39022841933829110757140
2009NORIND437233614150177-8376494
1992DALBUF37522152524515024770174
1986NYGDEN411237583188172-49771123
2014NWESEA47422355421980-477377
1976OAKMIN30430144533714136782177
1998DENATL41022554225213227794159
1999STLTEN425213615188190-25803165
1994SFOSDG427209603206176-3809173
2012BALSFO4632325602759743835141
1984SFOMIA412248615236203-12851191
2003NWECAR401236649219248-17868231
1987WASDEN408248552377144129929273

The Broncos defense was incredible, allowing just 3 net points (the defense scored one touchdown and allowed another) against a team that had scored 480 points in its first 18 games. Denver also tied a Super Bowl record with 7 sacks. But the Carolina defense was also outstanding, and held Denver to a Super Bowl low (among winning teams) 194 yards.

Given the presence of the NFL MVP in Cam Newton and the league’s highest scoring team, one could make the case that this was more impressive than the Ravens/Giants game (or Bears/Patriots game at #3) that had mediocre — or downright poor — quarterbacks by Super Bowl standards. Von Miller was a worthy Super Bowl MVP, and this game will be remembered as one of the great team defensive performances in Super Bowl history. But it should also be remembered as perhaps the greatest combined team defensive performance in Super Bowl history.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Denver’s win was a reminder of how a talented, swarming defense can still dominate a strong offense. Physicality still matters, and Cam Newton’s play was affected big time. It’s difficult to single out an individual Super Bowl as the best ever defensive performance. Yes, the rules favor the offense, but we also have to look at personnel. Newton had a great year, but is along way from the HOF, and no one else on that unit is remotely close to Canton. The Broncos have a tremendous defense, but only one HOF lock on that unit.

    Also keep in mind the garbage yards losing teams gain in Super Bowls once the outcome has been decided. As in the regular season, a team comfortably ahead doesn’t care about shorter completions, and backups play more as well. This affects all the rankings.

    Carolina’s defense played well enough to win, but Denver’s opening FG drive help to prevent the type of early lead the Panthers had enjoyed so often this season.

    • Tom

      I agree, that in hindsight, we could see that that initial drive was pretty damned important. It was the longest drive of the game, and it’s interesting to think that maybe it kind of took the air out of that fast Panthers offense…

      • McGeorge

        The early Von Miller strip that lead to the Denver TD was really big. A 10 point lead put a lot of pressure on Carolina. Without it, they take a 7-3 lead and Manning is under pressure.

        • Richie

          “Without it, they take a 7-3 lead and Manning is under pressure.”

          Carolina had the ball on their own 15 before that play. Denver was the team most likely to score next before that play happened.

          • Tom

            Yeah, depending on what model you use, etc., a 3rd-and-10 on a team’s own 15 is worth -0.90 points for the offense…not sure how we can assume that the Panthers would score a TD on that drive.

          • McGeorge

            They were down 10-0 and scored a TD later. IF the same sequence occurs then they are down just 3, an score a TD later and are leading by 4 rather than trailing by 3.

            Assuming they still score their later TD.

            • Richie

              “IF the Panthers don’t fumble, they can punt. ”

              Yes, but my point was that even if the Panthers punt, the Broncos are still the team most likely to score next.

              At least based on traditional probabilities. Maybe that was less likely due to the poor Broncos offense. But also maybe it was more likely due to the excellent Broncos defense.

              • McGeorge

                My original point was that Von Miller forced fumble was huge.
                It gave Manning a cushion. I also added if the Panthers still scored the TD on their next drive and were up 7-3, Manning would be under a lot more pressure.

                If the Panthers punt, and Denver has the ball, then I’d have to agree with you, they are more likely to score than the Panthers (who don’t have the ball). Also, if Denver has the ball on their 40, it’s not a gimme that they get a field goal. They may stall at the panther 40 and have to punt.

          • McGeorge

            IF the Panthers don’t fumble, they can punt. Denver /Manning wasn’t doing much after his initial drive.
            My point was that Von Miller Strip was huge.
            If the score remained 3-0 instead of 10-0, and the Panthers then scored a TD as they did on their next drive, its a 7-3 Panthers lead, and that may have put pressure on Manning to take a risk and to make a mistake.

  • Mike

    Will Footballperspective run an article on where this Denver ranks all-time in terms of Defense? Or at least an article on the best postseason defenses by fewest adjusted yards allowed relative to opponents.

    • Tom

      Mike – Chase is probably working on something like this as we speak; if I can get going on it, I was going to do a post about Super Bowl defenses, but use points (instead of yards). Anyway, yeah, I’d like to see it as well!

      • I am not, but if someone wants to run it, I’d be interested, too.!

        • Tom

          I’ll crank it out if I can…there’s a couple of different ways to do it using SRS, maybe it could be a 2-parter. Here’s a simple way:

          Take the opponent’s OSRS, calculate how many points you would expect them to score. In the case of Carolina, it would be 28.8 points (6.0 OSRS + 22.8 LgAvg). Then take the difference between that expected score and the actual result: 28.8 – 10 = 18.8. The Broncos D performed 18.8 points better than expected. How would the 1985 Bears do? Not quite as well; even though they dominated the Pats, New England’s offense wasn’t that good anyway, they had an OSRS of 2.0. The Bears would get a score of 13.5, which is still pretty high, though.

          And then you could get tricky, and give the defense “bonus” points for return TD’s, which means Denver would have a score of 25.8, etc. (that gets kind of goofy though I think).

          Anyway, there’s a gazillion ways to rank defenses, but this might be interesting…but as long as SRS has been around, hasn’t something like this already been done? Maybe we could just update that list?

  • Tom

    Awesome game…Kubiak and Manning really had faith in their team’s defense…there were a couple of 3rd-and-longs later in the game where they just ran the ball, knowing they’d be punting. People sitting around me groaned, saying “Why are they running?”, and while I understood the sentiment, I’m sitting their thinking, “Man, Kubiak is putting all his money on the defense, and I think he’s right”. Of course, if things don’t turn out right, then we’re sitting here saying how Kubiak didn’t play to win, he played not to lose, etc.

    Greatest defensive Super Bowl games? Worked up a list where the defense gets credit for not only keeping opponents’ points of the board, but putting up points themselves (I used expected scores based on opponent OSRS, etc…kind of slapped together):

    1. 1983 Raiders (1 defensive TD, held a team that had scored 541 in the regular season to 9 points)
    2. 2013 Seahawks (1 defensive TD and a safety)
    3. 2002 Buccaneers (3 defensive TD’s, but sheesh should we really count the two that came at the end with about a minute left?)
    4. 2006 Colts (1 defensive TD…remember taking out that Devon Hester kick return TD, the Bears only scored 10 points. Peyton had some support in this Super Bowl as well)
    5. 2007 Giants (no defensive TD’s, they just held probably the greatest offense ever to 14 points)
    6. 2015 Broncos (1 defensive TD)
    7. 1974 Steelers (1 safety. The Steelers did not allow any offensive points in this game, including field goals. They even blocked the extra point on the Vikings lone score, a blocked punt return TD)
    8. 2000 Ravens (1 defensive TD)
    9. 2011 Giants (no defensive TD’s)
    10. 2001 Patriots (1 defensive TD)

    Heck, you could flip some of those around, they’re all great defensive games…but I think, based on how good Carolina’s offense was, you could put the 2015 Broncos D in the top 10 at least.

    • Rosdaman

      2000 Ravens D did not yield any points. Sole TD scored by the Gmen was on a kickoff return.

      • Tom

        Yep, you’re right. They were DOMINANT in that game.

    • Rosdaman

      This post should be taken down. 2011 SB did not even feature Giants. They did however play in the 2012 SB, where they yielded two defensive TDs to Marcia Brady and her gang.

    • Will Durham

      Good to see mention of the 83 Raiders, who are largely overlooked yet were an imposing team that would’ve given most SB winners a game.

      • sacramento gold miners

        Agreed, the ’83 Raiders were also dominant in the playoffs, and avenged a tight loss at Washington in the regular season. That Redskins team set a record for points scored, and appeared headed for a repeat. It was shocking to see them beaten so easily, no one saw that kind of outcome.

        • Tom

          When you look back on it, it was pretty remarkable…they set that points record you mentioned and also had that ridiculous +43 (+46?) turnover margin. Yet they were only favored by 2, so maybe they didn’t look as dominant as they appeared on paper…

    • Johhny Ohrl

      “Awesome game…”
      No! It was ugly. Thanks god I got drunk, and had put some money on DEN 🙂

      • Tom

        That was the smart bet. I think a lot of people out there, who probably don’t watch much football, or maybe don’t like Peyton Manning very much, thought the Panthers were going to rip the Broncos apart, 52-7.

        • Johhny Ohrl

          “thought the Panthers were going to rip the Broncos apart, 52-7″…
          Yes there were some 😉

  • Tom

    This game had a lot of possession changes; Carolina had 16 offensive drives, Denver had 14. Probably not a record, but might be up there? The average game this year had 11.7 drives (taken straight from PFR, might include kneels, etc.)

    I find this interesting, look at these numbers:

    Average per drive stats:
    Panthers: 4.8 plays, 2:02 TOP, 18.2 yards
    Broncos: 4.2 plays, 1:56 TOP, 14.4 yards
    2015 League average: 5.7 plays, 2:36 TOP, 30.2 yards

    Rooting for Denver, I was concerned that their defense would get gassed because their offense was so anemic and would have a ton of 3-and-outs; it didn’t occur to me that they were staying fresh by getting off the field quick as well!

    • sacramento gold miners

      I was impressed by how Carolina paid a physical price even when they ran a successful play, the long completion down the middle comes to mind. Newton was blasted, and got off the ground in pain. Later, when Newton failed to dive for his fumble on the great Miller play, I think getting hurt may have caused the split second delay.

  • Will Durham

    I think what we saw was a solid offense that seriously mislead us into thinking it was more than that. Against a serious defense, it came apart, from QB to receivers, unraveling in ways that other offenses didn’t entirely do. When the expectation was that this offense would be more of a challenge. It wasn’t just the defense that did it. Little touched on, the team couldn’t handle the stage, from the beginning; how much do you want to put on the head coach? They weren’t ready to play, and weren’t handling that stage. Which is understandable. They had uncharacteristic problems from the beginning, not just due to the defense, coupled with an in the box offensive coordinator Shula when something more was needed.

  • Johhny Ohrl

    That was … no … BS… meh.. the end of Football as we know it. The worst season since the Pats won in 2001…
    What we got assured now is: Ugly Football wins. Underdogs wins. QBS are overpaid. Defense trumps Offense no matter how many rules are changed in favor of Offenses: It´s enough to load one half of a team to prevail (speak: Give all the money to defensive players).
    The worst nightmares came trough. So here I go in a bitter bitter ending: Shifting to AFL Football for good. A game with the same amount of crazy violence, BUT BUT; The best team wins, fine skilled motor talent trupms over pure reckless dumbness. There (in the AFL) is no way ever to take out great offenses. Never!
    Good night and good luck. 2015/16 was the turning point. Now the negative will take over (CTE, etc), American Footballs dead has rung in…
    WTF, DEN gained less than 200 yards and won. Omg!

    • Richie

      Sorry to see you go.

      • Johhny Ohrl

        Guess some guys are much happy I am gone 😉
        Honestly, I was a pain… to some. I know it.
        Anyway, Football was great as Walter Camp made it. But now it´s time to move on. Hard to swallow still…

    • Tom

      My man, what is going on with you? It was just a football game, and really wasn’t that different from what we’ve seen before. Sometimes the team with the better offense wins, sometimes it’s the other way around. What do you want, every Super Bowl to be like 1989 when the 49ers waxed the Broncos 55-10? That was so awesome to see the offense triumph…(sheesh). Defense does not always trump offense (I know, I’ve wasted a lot of time looking at this stuff). One more thing – although the Broncos were underdogs, they weren’t HUGE underdogs: SRS had Carolina being only about 2.3 points better than them.

      And finally…the game has ALWAYS been like this! Ever heard of Super Bowl III? You know, Joe “even though we’re 18-point dogs I guarantee we’ll win” Namath? It happens…the Raiders in 1983, the Broncos in 1997, etc.

      Anyway, lighten up, it’s not a big deal.

      • Johhny Ohrl

        “it’s not a big deal”…
        For me it is. Not life changing, but the end of Football for me as I said weeks ago…
        In which sport are three half teams (BAL-00, TB-02, DEN-now) winning the most important games? (Other than NHL)… What is that kind of a sport? All those offensive teams winning in the past at least had an average defense, but you can win without offense? It´s a waste of time… and known PED users getting hailed (PM, Von Miller)? What the heck…
        Headbangers ball will continue, but without me in the future. As promised…

        • Tom

          OK Johnny, fair enough. I respect your passion for the game, and enjoyed your posts…didn’t really agree with you that much, but I liked the flavor you brought!

          For the record though,

          • Johhny Ohrl

            The pass offenses had the edge until lately (no matter if going by RS Y/PP or playoffs stats for the (SB) champs). Especially true for the 40s, 50s, 80s (the best decade of Football anyway), the 90s… and the future looked sunny and bright…
            And then came the Ravens, the turning point, then it got one step lower with the gift to the Pats, then TB… In hindsight I should have stopped back then already. Then twice the Giants (not defensive teams in general, but even more absurd than the half teams mentioned: completely lucky with below average teams), Pitt-08, the Ravens again, the Seahawks, and now the Broncos… Too much BS teams that rely on D, swung the edge to defenses. And that is ugly… I prefer beauty in sports. Even in brutal collision sports like NFL of AFL Football.
            The irony of it all: Now that writers and fans talk about the NFL being a passing league, it became true that “defenses wins championships”, while back in the days, it was efficient passing that had the edge… and the experts said you must run until you or your opponent drops, and have a (at least) very good D. They always get it wrong.
            I´d built a team like DEN: Draft and sign reckless pumped up metal heads, and forget about the overpriced QBs. They can´t stand the modern pressure (plus it seems great DL play trumps great OL play nowadays). It´s high variance. If your QB has an off-day the game is over, but you can´t have 11 nervous guys on defense melting all at the same time.
            But then again I´d be bored to watch my own team…

  • Johhny Ohrl

    Call it the feeling of losers, but I will sign that article. 100% 🙂 It says all. A great final word…
    http://deadspin.com/peyton-manning-can-eat-shit-1757781250

  • Richie

    How many passes did Demaryius Thomas drop? He had a horrific post-season. Was he injured?

    • Agreed. It was pretty bad. I haven’t heard anything about an injury, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    • bobrulz

      He really fell of a cliff in the second half of the season, it was hard to see. I hope he turns it around next season, otherwise they’re going to be regretting that contract.