The phrase “Defense wins championships” is so worn out at this point that many NFL fans may have forgotten that it is actually true, most of the time. The 2015 Denver Broncos were a fantastic reminder of that fact. Led by a near-geriatric Peyton Manning and his negative touchdown to interception ratio, the offense was pedestrian at best. But the Denver defense was stifling, propelling the team to a Super Bowl title. So it’s obvious that a good defense helps, but how good does a defense need to be? In other words, how many points can an NFL team allow and still hope to make the playoffs? We explored that question by mining data from the last 5 NFL seasons. Our premise was simple, look at the points allowed for teams that made the playoffs and those that didn’t. To bring things into better focus, we also looked at points scored. After all, the essence of winning football games is scoring more points than you give up.
Over the last 5 seasons, 73% of NFL playoff teams have allowed less than 350 points on the season. For this article we will refer to this number as the “historical defensive cutoff”. As a per game average that comes out to less than 22 points allowed. If a team can consistently hold opponents below 22 points per game they are likely to make the playoffs. Defensive prowess appears to be a pretty good overall predictor of whether a team will make the post-season. However, there have been 27 teams that have surrendered less than 22 points per game and still did not make the playoffs, so it is not a hard and fast rule. The reason those teams missed out on the playoffs was because of poor offensive production or bad luck. Only 1 of those teams scored 400 or more points (the 2012 New York Giants). With even a little more offense, these strong defensive teams would have likely won a couple more games and made the playoffs. Bad luck was certainly a factor as well, many of these teams would have made the playoffs under different circumstances. Many of these teams had good enough defense to win 9 or 10 games, but were edged out by a strong divisional opponent (the 10-6 Chicago Bears from 2012 are a good example).
Assuming this season mimics the past 5 seasons to some extent AND these teams can keep on their current pace, after 6 games we would expect the AFC playoff picture to include The Patriots, Bills, Steelers, Ravens, Broncos, and Chiefs. However, someone from the AFC South will get a playoff spot, likely bumping out what may end up being a more deserving team. Yet it’s tough to predict who that might be based on points allowed at this point in the season. The Texans and Titans have both allowed exactly the same number of points per game which happens to be just below the historical cutoff for points allowed by defensive teams. That division might be a nail biter, or at least an exciting limp to the finish.
In the NFC, the Cowboys, Eagles, Vikings, Seahawks, and Cardinals all have defensive numbers that scream “playoffs”! In the NFC South, there are no teams that are currently on pace to meet the historical defensive cutoff for playoff teams. But somebody will get to go. All things being (terribly) equal on the defensive side, the offensive stats would point to the Falcons earning a playoff bid.
And the offensive numbers to matter too, of course. While the trend is for a team’s defense to punch their playoff ticket, there are a handful of recent examples of great offenses keeping a team with a bad defense afloat. The 2013 Green Bay Packers allowed 428 points that season, the highest of any playoff team in the last 5 years, but still made the playoffs by virtue of scoring 417 points (yes, they had a negative score differential). The 2013 Denver Broncos allowed 399 points, but scored an insane 606 points to propel them to the playoffs.
If you take the historical defensive cutoff for playoff teams and add in an offensive component you can develop a pretty good benchmark for what your team needs to be averaging each week to make the playoffs. Teams that allow less than 22 points per game and score an average of 25 points per game are almost a lock make the playoffs. That margin of difference between points allowed and scored may not seem like much, but that’s all the difference needed. Only 1 team in the last 5 seasons put up those numbers and failed to make the playoffs. That team was the 2012 Giants, who were still 9 and 7 and would have been in the playoffs in a different division or a different year.
So as you watch your team this fall, keep the number 22 in your head. If your squad is keeping teams under that mark consistently (almost regardless of what their offense is doing) you should start thinking about post-season tickets.