Here was something I tweeted a few days before Super Bowl 50:
You will never guess which were the two years this team made the Super Bowl, and which were the two they missed it pic.twitter.com/1QtaQYTUtl
— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) January 30, 2016
The 2012 Broncos were awesome. Peyton Manning, while not having the scorched-earth campaign he would enjoy a year later, still led the NFL in ANY/A and Total QBR, and received 19.5 of 50 votes for Most Valuable Player (Adrian Peterson picked up the other 30.5). The Broncos finished 2nd in points and 4th in yards, while on defense, the team ranked 4th in points and 2nd in yards. Perhaps more impressively, the Broncos defense ranked 1st in Net Yards per Attempt, and in the top three in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per carry.
The Broncos did have an easy schedule, but they were one of four teams that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL, along with the Patriots, Seahawks, and 49ers. Of course, a Joe Flacco pass to Jacoby Jones, combined with a Rahim Moore blunder, wound up ruining the dream season.
The 2013 Broncos became the first and only team in NFL history to score 600 points in a season. The Denver defense was much worse, though, as Elvis Dumervil was now a Raven, while Von Miller and Champ Bailey combined to start just 12 games due to injury. The Broncos ranked 22nd in points allowed, 19th in yards allowed, and 17th in net yards per attempt. This one a one-sided team, and probably a worse one than the 2012 version. Of course, this Denver team made it to the Super Bowl.
In 2014, Manning declined significantly, but his season-long numbers were still pretty darn good: in fact, he ranked 3rd in passing value over average. C.J. Anderson proved to be Denver’s best running back of the Manning era: in the final 8 games of the regular season, he rushed 162 times for 767 yards (4.73) and 8 touchdowns, while also gaining 290 receiving yards and catching two more scores. The defense, with a healthy Miller, DeMarcus Ware to replace Dumervil, was much better, too, and received Pro Bowl seasons in the secondary out of Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward. While Denver did rank 16th in points allowed, much of that was due to the fast pace and high-scoring offense (the Broncos also faced the most passing attempts in the NFL, with 641): Denver ranked 1st in net yards per attempt allowed and 4th in yards per carry allowed. But the pass rush disappeared in the playoff loss to the Colts, while a clearly injured Manning was a disaster.
Then, this year, the Broncos were about as one-sided as the 2013 edition, albeit in a different direction. And, of course, Denver won the Super Bowl, as perhaps an even more extreme version of the 2000 Ravens. Based on DVOA, Denver ranked in the top 5 in both offense and defense in 2012 and 2014, while ranking 15th in defensive DVOA in 2013 and 25th in offensive DVOA th syear.
So what does it all mean? One takeaway, of course, could be that balance be damned: having one dominant unit is the best way to make it to the Super Bowl. That would be an understandable conclusion from analyzing four team seasons of football, but would not hold up under any significant sample. In general, being really good on offense and defense is a much better formula than being excellent on offense or defense, and mediocre on the other side.
Another conclusion? The playoffs are a random mess, and the best way to win a Super Bowl is to have as many lottery tickets as possible. In 2004, the Steelers went 15-1, but they did not win the Super Bowl until a year later. In 2005, the Colts started 13-0, but Indianapolis didn’t win the Super Bowl until a year later, either. In 2011, the Packers went 15-1, but Green Bay won the Super Bowl the prior year; in ’11, the Packers lost to the Giants in the team’s first playoff game. The Patriots had a number of great teams from 2005 to 2013, but none of them won it all; the 2014 version was not the best team New England had during that stretch (and maybe not even the 2nd or 3rd best), but that was the one that won the title.
No team exemplifies this more than Baltimore. The Flacco Ravens made the playoffs year after year — in ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’14 — giving the Ravens a bunch of lottery tickets. The one team that pulled through in 2012 didn’t stand out — during the regular season — as much different than any of the other Baltimore teams.
So perhaps the real lesson from the 2015 Broncos about how to win the Super Bowl isn’t about how to go from very good to great, but rather to be very good for a long enough stretch to finally take home the trophy.