Nate Silver picks the Super Bowl. He picks the 49ers, based primarily on their defensive superiority over the Ravens. Hard to argue with that. The Ravens defense is aging, still great but no longer as intimidating as it once was.
But this line in Silver’s analysis kinda sticks out.
The reasons that exceptional defenses fare so much better in the Super Bowl are still somewhat murky…
Far be it from me to argue with Nate Silver, who gets a lot of stuff right, but is this really so murky? The reason that elite defenses tend to fare better than elite offenses comes down to human behavior, at least in my read of things.
A few teams, like the early 90s Cowboys, brought both great offense and great defense to the big dance. But most only bring either a great offense or a great defense. The 2000 Ravens had a killer defense, and an offense that was barely competent. It makes sense that the great defense is going to tend to do better than the great offense, maybe not on the statistical level, but on the human level. The Super Bowl is the mother of all big stages in sports. If pressure is ever going to get to a player, it’s in this game. Offenses tend to be driven more by the performance of a single player than defenses. One or two early big defensive plays, especially if they lead to turnovers, can absolutely crack a QB or running back. Or make a receiver start dropping balls.
Not all great QBs are great in big games. Peyton Manning may be, stat for stat, on par with Tom Brady in the regular season. But in the postseason it’s not even close — Brady is the better QB. Eli Manning is not as good, in the regular season, as his older brother. But he has two Super Bowl rings, to Peyton’s one. Once Brady or Manning the Younger get into the postseason, they’re very difficult to beat. Manning the Older tends to fly through the regular season, only to get knocked out in the first round of his postseason play.
Has Ray Lewis ever not shown up for a big game? Or just about any other major defensive player?
The argument about Tony Romo is always, why can’t he win the big one? The argument about Tom Brady, now, is why can’t he win the big one anymore? The former may be answered by Romo’s mental toughness, his ability to handle pressure on the big stage. For Brady, it all may come down to age. He’s 35 and obviously not getting any younger. No one is asking whether Ray Lewis can win the big game again. But some are asking whether either Joe Flacco or Colin Kaepernick can win it. The pressure put on offensive and defensive stars is just different. I’m not sure statistics can tease that difference out, except to note that great defenses tend to win more big games than great offenses.
Take the human factor into the Super Bowl, where you have maximum pressure and exposure and defenses are keyed up to hit hard early to make a statement. Stats can go out the window once the bodies start flying around. I suspect that that’s what’s behind great defenses tending to do better in the Super Bowl than great offenses.
Plus, think about what a great defense does for even a mediocre offense. A great defense pins the opponent back in their own half and keeps them there. A great defense wins the field position battle. A great defense creates turnovers, and in the Ravens’ and Bears’ case at different parts of the past season, scores points. All of these take a lot of pressure off the offense, obviously. Additionally, all of these things can end up hurting the time of possession, yardage and even scoring stats of the team’s offense. Yet the team wins.
Besides all that, I just hate the thought of statistical analysis taking all the fun out of the game. Who wants to live in that world? I don’t really care who wins this Super Bowl. I just don’t want it all to come down to green eyeshades and calculators.