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It’s time we modify old adage ‘Defense wins championships’

‘Offense or defense wins championships. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget about special teams.’

There is something about football that creates the perfect conditions for the cliché generation. We have all heard them so much that they are the wallpaper to our sports lives. Like any catchy phrase, the cliché once meant something very specific, but after years of overuse, the meaning of these weathered words has eroded to a dull platitude.

But one remains as pointed as the day it was coined by legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant: “Defense wins championships.” Looking at last season, it would appear that Bryant was right. Last season’s final four teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota, New England, Jacksonville) were four of the five best scoring defenses in the league. And the eventual champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, were No. 1. But they were also third in points scored, and their opponent, the New England Patriots, were first in that category.

So Bryant wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t wholly right. In the 52-year history of the Super Bowl, 17 champions had a top-five scoring defense, 14 had a top-five scoring offense and 15 had both. That leaves only six seasons with a champion that had neither a top-five offense nor top-five defense. Given that track record, let’s see what we can predict about this season.

Current rankings for the top six teams in each conference:

AFC

Rank Team Win-Loss
1 Chiefs 10-2
2 Patriots 9-3
3 Texans 9-3
4 Steelers 7-4
5 Chargers 9-3
6 Ravens 7-5

NFC

Rank Team Win-Loss
1 Rams 11-1
2 Saints 10-2
3 Bears 8-4
4 Cowboys 7-5
5 Seahawks 7-5
6 Vikings 6-5

It would seem that the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Patriots, two AFC powers, are unlikely to go all the way.

The other four teams have a chance, but the Los Angeles Chargers are looking like they are in the best shape in the AFC with the highest combined ranking. Bad news for Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings fans on the NFC side — they’re not top-five on either side. Bears fans might want to start looking at hotel prices in Atlanta, as the Bears have the NFC’s best combined ranking.

If points scored is too crude of a statistic, you could look at expected points added (EPA), which is a more sophisticated play-by-play measurement of a unit’s efficiency that takes into account game situation.

Current offensive and defensive EPA rankings for the top six teams in each conference:

AFC

Team Offensive EPA Defensive EPA
Chiefs 2 27
Patriots 7 7
Texans 5 5
Steelers 15 15
Chargers 10 10
Ravens 2 2

NFC

Team Offensive EPA Defensive EPA
Rams 3 19
Saints 1 20
Bears 11 1
Cowboys 20 8
Seahawks 8 21
Vikings 22 4

Using this metric, the Seahawks get a little hope. But the Bears’ combined average still has them atop the NFC. In the AFC, the Steelers are now in the running. But now the Pats are tied with the Chargers with the best average rank despite not being in the top five for either offense or defense.

But don’t run to the bookmaker just yet. Offense and defense are two phases of the game. The hidden yards and points that come from special teams can swing a game. Returning a punt to midfield is just as effective as a deep pass. Pinning a team deep in its own territory on a punt is a great defensive play. And having a reliable kicker puts points on the board — and if he has a strong leg, your game-winning drive can be 10 to 15 yards shorter.

Current special teams rankings by EPA:

AFC

Team Special Teams EPA
Chiefs 3
Patriots 24
Texans 11
Steelers 22
Chargers 32
Ravens 8

NFC

Team Special Teams EPA
Rams 17
Saints 7
Bears 27
Cowboys 18
Seahawks 4
Vikings 29

With the special teams EPAs factored into the teams’ averages, we are looking at a Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints Super Bowl if these stats hold. With four weeks left, it’s not too late for teams to improve their rankings. But it is too late for Bear Bryant, who died in 1983, to modify the cliché “Defense wins championships.” So I’ll do it for him. “Offense or defense wins championships. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget about special teams.”

I don’t think it’s going to catch on.

Domonique Foxworth is a writer at The Undefeated. He is a recovering pro athlete and superficial intellectual.