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Regular readers know I’m not prone to exaggeration. I’m more of a splits happen kind of guy. But Super Bowl XLVIII will, in my opinion, be the greatest passing showdown ever. This year’s Super Bowl checks in as the greatest offensive/defensive showdown in Super Bowl history (and the greatest of any game, regular or postseason, since 1950). That’s because the passing showdown between Denver and Seattle is arguably the greatest of any game in all of pro football history.

How can we quantify such a statement? I’m glad you asked. If you recall, I labeled the 2013 Seahawks as one of the five greatest pass defenses since 1950. For new readers, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt is calculated as follows:

(Gross Pass Yards + 20 * PTDs – 45 * INTs – Sack Yds)/(Attempts + Sacks)[/math]

In 2013, the Seahawks allowed 3.19 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (Seattle allowed 3,050 gross passing yards and 16 TDs, while forcing 28 interceptions and recording 298 yards lost on sacks, all over 524 pass attempts and 44 sacks.). The other 31 pass defenses allowed an average of 5.98 ANY/A, which means Seattle’s pass defense was 2.79 ANY/A above average. Over the course of the 568 opponent dropbacks, this means the Seahawks provided 1,582 adjusted net yards of value over average. In other words, the Seattle pass defense provided 99 adjusted net yards over average on a per game basis. Let’s be clear: the Legion of Boom is not just a hype machine, and Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and company form the best secondary in the league.

All other passing attacks are pushed aside when Manning is involved.

All other passing attacks are pushed aside when Manning is involved.

Denver’s offense was even more dominant, although that’s to be expected: in general, the spread in offensive ratings is a bit wider than it is on the defensive side of the ball. Denver threw for 5,572 gross passing yards and 55 touchdowns, while throwing just 10 interceptions and losing only 128 yards to sacks. The Broncos had 675 pass attempts and were sacked just 20 times, giving them an 8.77 ANY/A average. The other 31 offenses averaged only 5.79 ANY/A, meaning the Broncos were 2.98 ANY/A better than average. Over the 695 dropbacks the team had, that means Denver provided 2,072 adjusted net yards of value average average. On a per-game basis, that’s 130 yards of value each game!

So, how do we judge the greatest passing showdowns in football history? Denver’s passing offense gets a rating of +130, while Seattle’s pass defense gets a rating of +99. Those two numbers have a Harmonic Mean of 112. That’s easily the most in Super Bowl history. In fact, it’s the third most in any playoff game ever, and those other two games each have asterisks.

In the 1961 AFL, the Houston Oilers behind George Blanda, Bill Groman, and Charley Hennigan possessed an incredible passing offense (rating of +167), while the San Diego Chargers had a dominant pass defense (+129). But in the early days of the AFL, the talent pool was diluted; this would be akin to comparing two teams in non-BCS conferences with out-of-this-world statistics to a matchup between champions in two power conferences. For what it’s worth, Houston won the game — played in San Diego — but with a catch. The Oilers offense was shut down, as Blanda went 18/40 for 160 yards with 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions…. but Houston won 10-3, as Jack Kemp threw four picks for the Chargers.

In 1982, the Chargers had a pass offense rating of +128, and Dan Fouts and Wes Chandler had record-setting years (and Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow were pretty darn good, too). In the playoffs, San Diego faced a familiar foe: the Miami Dolphins (+103 in pass defense), the team the Chargers beat in one of the greatest playoff games ever just a year earlier. This time around, Fouts was intercepted five times, and Miami won, 34-13. But this game gets an asterisk because the ratings of Miami and San Diego are inflated due to the strike-shortened season: over 9 games, it’s much easier to produce absurdly dominant numbers. Given that Denver and Seattle produced nearly identical numbers over 16 games, the accomplishments of the Broncos and Seahawks are undoubtedly more impressive.

The Legion of Boom is more substance than hype, and that's saying something.

The Legion of Boom is more substance than hype, and that's saying something.

In fact, if you include the regular season, just one other set of teams in all NFL history produced a higher harmonic mean using these metrics. And that was in 1943, when Sid Luckman’s Bears (+172) faced the Packers (+84) twice during the regular season, with Chicago winning 21-7 at home and tying twenty-one all in Green Bay. But with team rosters diluted due to World War II, we can comfortably vault this year’s Super Bowl above those games.

And that’s it. Excluding the early years of the AFL, the rate-friendly 1982 season, and the WWII-affected 1943 season, no game in football history — regular or postseason — has produced a passing showdown quite like the 2013 Broncos against the 2013 Seahawks. Since the merger, just three passing attacks — the 1984 Dolphins (+147 per game), 2004 Colts (+138), and 2011 Packers (+136) — have added more value to their teams than this year’s Broncos.1 And on defense, only the ’02 Bucs (+108), ’70 Vikings (+108), and ’82 Dolphins (+103) have added more value per game than the 2013 Seahawks. The fact that two top five attacks were in the same season was a stroke of luck; the odds of them facing each other would be quite low. To see them square off in the Super Bowl is mind-bogglingly good fortune for the viewer.

Remember, Denver and Seattle have a harmonic mean of 112; the highest games last year were in the regular season and clocked in at 61, in the games between Green Bay (+56 pass offense) and Chicago (+67 pass defense). Two years ago it was 70, between New Orleans (+105) and Houston (+53). The last playoff game that comes close to this one was in 2008, when the Chargers (+76) went into Pittsburgh (+97), producing a Harmonic mean of 97.

As for the best passing showdowns in the Super Bowl?

  • Super Bowl III (Harmonic mean of 88): New York Jets (+83 pass offense) vs. Baltimore Colts (+94 pass defense). In the midst of the guarantee, it’s easy to forget a couple of things: Joe Namath and the Jets had a fantastic pass offense, and the ’68 Colts had one of the greatest defenses ever. Baltimore was outstanding in all phases, but probably best against the pass. The Colts forced 29 interceptions and allowed only 9 passing touchdowns. We can chalk this up to a win for the high-powered offense, although running back Matt Snell and the Jets defense were arguably more important than the contributions of Namath.
  • Super Bowl XXXVII (83): Oakland (+67) vs. Tampa Bay (+108). We all know what happened in the Jon Gruden Bowl, and the Bucs pass defense dominated the game. Rich Gannon was forced into five interceptions, and three were returned for touchdowns.
  • Super Bowl I (79; 78): Green Bay (+94) vs. Kansas City (+68) and Kansas City (+76) vs. Green Bay (81). Yes, this game shows up as the #3 and #4 passing showdowns. Bart Starr and the Packers had the best pass offense and best pass defense in the NFL (measured by ANY/A), while Len Dawson and the Chiefs had the best pass offense and best pass defense in the AFL. The Packers won 35-10, although I suppose that doesn’t tell us very much, does it? Both quarterbacks played fairly well: Starr was 16/23 for 250 yards and 2 TDs (with one pick), while Dawson was 16/27 for 211 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
  • Super Bowl II (75): Oakland (+68) vs. Green By (+83). Daryle Lamonica and the ’68 Raiders had an unbelievable offense, averaging over 33 points per game in the AFL. By 1968, the Packers were no longer a great team, but Green Bay still possessed a great pass defense. Lamonica and the Raiders were largely contained, however, and trailed 26-7 before throwing a pick six to Herb Adderley in the fourth quarter.
  • Super Bowl XLI (74): Indianapolis (94) vs. Chicago (62). I don’t think anyone is surprised to see this game on the list. In one sense, the Colts/Bears Super Bowl is even more of a passing showdown than Broncos/Seahawks in one sense. That’s because Chicago was strictly a defensive team and the Colts were there on the back of Peyton Manning‘s offense, while at least these two teams appear more balanced (particularly the NFC representative). If we exclude Super Bowl I, this evens up the record of great passing offenses to 2-2.
  • Super Bowl XLIII (56): Arizona (56) vs. Pittsburgh (97). In the modern era, this game — along with Colts/Bears and Raiders/Bucs — stands out as the best examples of great passing attack vs. great pass defense on the biggest stage. In this game, Arizona lost, but Kurt Warner was not to blame. In fact, Warner threw for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 pass attempts, before Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for the game-winning touchdown. Could you see Russell Wilson doing the same to Golden Tate after a great game by Manning in this year’s Super Bowl? Perhaps. Of course, Warner does get a demerit for a pick six thrown to James Harrison at the end of the first half.

As great as Super Bowl XLIII was, this game could be even better. Studies like this help to remind me how historic of a showdown this game really will be. Let me close with the 110 playoff matches since 1960 that had a harmonic mean of at least 50. As always, the table is fully sortable and searchable. If you type in “Manning” you will discover that this is the seventh time Manning has led an elite offense into battle against an elite defense. So far, he’s 4-3, and 4-1 since 2006.

RkOffDefYrBoxscoreRdQBANY OffANY DefH MeanPFPARes
1HOUSDG1961BoxscoreCGeorge Blanda167129146103W
2SDGMIA1982BoxscoreDDan Fouts1281031141334L
3DENSEA2013BoxscoreSPeyton Manning13099112---
4SFOMIN1970BoxscoreDJohn Brodie991081031714W
5MIASEA1984BoxscoreDDan Marino14770953110W
6CINOAK1975BoxscoreDKen Anderson8797922831L
7NYJBAL1968BoxscoreSJoe Namath839488167W
8SDGPIT2008BoxscoreDPhilip Rivers7697852435L
9TENNWE2003BoxscoreDSteve McNair8684851417L
10NYGCHI1963BoxscoreCY.A. Tittle65120841014L
11NYGGNB1962BoxscoreCY.A. Tittle6811084716L
12OAKTAM2002BoxscoreSRich Gannon67108832148L
13SDGNYJ2009BoxscoreDPhilip Rivers9175831417L
14CLEBAL1968BoxscoreCBill Nelsen739482034L
15INDNWE2003BoxscoreCPeyton Manning8184821424L
16STLTAM1999BoxscoreCKurt Warner1036882116W
17OAKKAN1969BoxscoreCDaryle Lamonica699580717L
18GNBKAN1966BoxscoreSBart Starr9468793510W
19KANGNB1966BoxscoreSLen Dawson7681781035L
20DALGNB1966BoxscoreCDon Meredith7481772734L
21SFOMIN1989BoxscoreDJoe Montana11358774113W
22INDBAL2006BoxscoreDPeyton Manning946476156W
23NWESDG2007BoxscoreCTom Brady12854762112W
24SFODAL1970BoxscoreCJohn Brodie9960751017L
25OAKGNB1967BoxscoreSDaryle Lamonica6883751433L
26INDMIA2000BoxscoreWPeyton Manning7872751723L
27INDCHI2006BoxscoreSPeyton Manning9462742917W
28RAMMIN1969BoxscoreDRoman Gabriel52129742023L
29SFODAL1994BoxscoreCSteve Young9560743828W
30DALMIN1971BoxscoreDRoger Staubach7669722012W
31OAKKAN1968BoxscoreDDaryle Lamonica965772416W
32RAMGNB1967BoxscoreDRoman Gabriel638372728L
33ARIPIT2008BoxscoreSKurt Warner5697712327L
34RAMMIN1988BoxscoreWJim Everett5696711728L
35TENBAL2003BoxscoreWSteve McNair8659702017W
36MINPIT1974BoxscoreSFran Tarkenton716869616L
37NORCHI2006BoxscoreCDrew Brees7962691439L
38SFODEN1989BoxscoreSJoe Montana11350695510W
39NYJOAK1968BoxscoreCJoe Namath8357682723W
40OAKNYJ1968BoxscoreCDaryle Lamonica9652672327L
41NWEBAL2011BoxscoreCTom Brady10049662320W
42BUFWAS1991BoxscoreSJim Kelly6073662437L
43INDNYJ2009BoxscoreCPeyton Manning5875663017W
44GNBSFO1995BoxscoreDBrett Favre6863652717W
45MINRAM1976BoxscoreCFran Tarkenton6170652413W
46BALPIT1976BoxscoreDBert Jones10248651440L
47KANOAK1968BoxscoreDLen Dawson735764641L
48DALCLE1968BoxscoreDDon Meredith5969642031L
49SFOCHI1984BoxscoreCJoe Montana964864230W
50BALGNB1965BoxscoreDTom Matte5089641013L
51PITOAK1975BoxscoreCTerry Bradshaw4797631610W
52DALRAM1976BoxscoreDRoger Staubach5870631214L
53STLGNB2001BoxscoreDKurt Warner8650634517W
54NYJMIA1982BoxscoreCRichard Todd4410362014L
55WASTAM1999BoxscoreDBrad Johnson5668621314L
56CINMIA1973BoxscoreDKen Anderson5373621634L
57OAKPIT1976BoxscoreCKen Stabler874861247W
58CINSFO1981BoxscoreSKen Anderson7452612126L
59BALPIT1975BoxscoreDBert Jones5274611028L
60OAKMIN1976BoxscoreSKen Stabler8747613214W
61BALCLE1968BoxscoreCEarl Morrall546961340W
62MIABAL2008BoxscoreWChad Pennington507660927L
63NYJKAN1969BoxscoreDJoe Namath449560613L
64DENMIA1998BoxscoreDJohn Elway576360383W
65OAKPIT1974BoxscoreCKen Stabler5368591324L
66DENBAL2000BoxscoreWGus Frerotte754959321L
67WASMIA1982BoxscoreSJoe Theismann41103592717W
68OAKMIA2000BoxscoreDRich Gannon497259270W
69MIAPIT1972BoxscoreCEarl Morrall4972582117W
70DTXHOU1962BoxscoreCLen Dawson7050582017W
71MIAPIT1984BoxscoreCDan Marino14736584528W
72NORSFO2011BoxscoreDDrew Brees10540583236L
73SDGBOS1963BoxscoreCTobin Rote6353575110W
74GNBSFO1997BoxscoreCBrett Favre5460572310W
75CLEOAK1980BoxscoreDBrian Sipe7048571214L
76MIABAL1971BoxscoreCBob Griese496757210W
77PHIOAK1980BoxscoreSRon Jaworski6948571027L
78CINNYJ1982BoxscoreWKen Anderson6649571744L
79GNBPIT2010BoxscoreSAaron Rodgers5458563125W
80INDNWE2006BoxscoreCPeyton Manning9440563834W
81BUFDEN1991BoxscoreCJim Kelly605256107W
82INDSDG2007BoxscoreDPeyton Manning5754552428L
83WASMIA1972BoxscoreSBilly Kilmer496455714L
84DETPHI1995BoxscoreWScott Mitchell6747553758L
85BUFNYG1990BoxscoreSJim Kelly5654551920L
86MINMIA1973BoxscoreSFran Tarkenton447355724L
87MINWAS1976BoxscoreDFran Tarkenton6149543520W
88SDGBUF1980BoxscoreDDan Fouts6050542014W
89DALRAM1978BoxscoreCRoger Staubach634754280W
90DALPHI2009BoxscoreWTony Romo7343543414W
91OAKNWE1976BoxscoreDKen Stabler8739542421W
92MINPHI2004BoxscoreDDaunte Culpepper8938531427L
93SDGOAK1980BoxscoreCDan Fouts6048532734L
94BALNYJ1968BoxscoreSEarl Morrall545253716L
95DENGNB1997BoxscoreSJohn Elway4560513124W
96RAMPHI1989BoxscoreWJim Everett644351217W
97MIASFO1984BoxscoreSDan Marino14731511638L
98DALMIN1975BoxscoreDRoger Staubach3876511714W
99SEACAR2005BoxscoreCMatt Hasselbeck5448513414W
100OAKHOU1967BoxscoreCDaryle Lamonica684051407W
101DALPIT1975BoxscoreSRoger Staubach3874511721L
102CLEDEN1987BoxscoreCBernie Kosar6143513338L
103SFONYG1990BoxscoreCJoe Montana4754501315L
104GNBNYG1961BoxscoreCBart Starr416450370W
105SFOGNB2001BoxscoreWJeff Garcia5050501525L
106WASSEA2012BoxscoreWRobert Griffin III4754501424L
107SFONYG1985BoxscoreWJoe Montana485150317L
108PITGNB2010BoxscoreSBen Roethlisberger4262502531L
109DENNYJ1998BoxscoreCJohn Elway5744502310W
110CLEDAL1968BoxscoreDBill Nelsen7337503120W
  1. The rest of the top 10: the 2007 Patriots (+128), ’82 Chargers (+182), ’89 49ers (+113), ’00 Rams (+108), ’11 Saints (+105), ’99 Rams (+103). []
  • AS

    Very interesting. Out of curiosity, where do the regular season games between Washington and Philadelphia in 1991 rank in this metric? That’s the matchup with the largest gap according to DVOA (WAS pass offense = 65.0%, PHI pass defense = -48.6%, gap =113.6%). Denver-Seattle this year is second (60.7% vs. -34.3%, gap of 95.0%). Different metrics obviously, with DVOA accounting for schedule but not for volume, but would be curious to see how much they differ.

    I’ve built a model to project DVOA backwards to 1950, and as best as I can tell those WAS-PHI games are still the best passing clashes in that span. That 1982 SD-MIA matchup does come in second (estimated 49.3% vs. -48.3%, gap of 97.6%), although again that’s subject to the 9 game season caveat. 1961 HOU-SD gap is slightly smaller (est. 56.3% vs. -29.1%, gap of 85.4%).