Is Super Bowl 50 the Best Defensive Matchup of the Century?

The Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers had the league's top defenses in 2015. Does that make Super Bowl 50 the best defensive matchup of the century?

Once it was clear that the Carolina Panthers would be facing the Denver Broncos in this year's Super Bowl, immediate comparisons came up to Super Bowl XLVIII.

If you've already forgotten what happened then, no worries; it wasn't really worth remembering. That was the shellacking the Seattle Seahawks brought down upon these same Broncos, leading to a 43-8 victory.

Now, Denver's offense isn't anywhere near what it was two years ago, but they'll again face a stout defense in the Panthers. I get the similarities, but there's one significant defense here: Denver's defense is a whole new animal.

In that contest, the Seahawks had the best defense in the league. The Broncos had a phenomenal offense, but the defense couldn't quite pack the same punch.

This year's game will feature the two best defenses in the entire league, according to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.

What sets NEP apart from other metrics is that it tracks the expected points added or subtracted on each play, rather than the average yards gained. After all, a four-yard gain on 3rd and 3 is more valuable to the offense than a four-yard gain on 3rd and 5, and NEP accounts for those discrepancies.

There were no teams better this year in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play than the Broncos and the Panthers. However, there have been other matchups in Super Bowls past that have been just as tasty on the defensive end. Is it fair to bill this one as the best of the century? Let's check it.

Other Great Defensive Super Bowl Matchups

Our NEP metrics date back to 2000, a rather convenient cutoff in our quest for the best defensive matchup of the century. They show that this year's rendition does at least have some competition from years past.

Over the past 16 years, there have been five Super Bowls that featured two defenses that were both in the top 10 in defense, according to NEP. This table shows when those contests occurred, including as recently as last year.

Super BowlTeam 1Def. RankingTeam 2Def. Ranking
49Seattle3New England6
45Pittsburgh1Green Bay2
37Tampa Bay1Oakland5
36St. Louis2New England8

We've had back-to-back years of top-10 matchups after having only one in the previous 11 years. Somewhere, Buddy Ryan is smiling.

Of the first four matchups, the team with the better defense has only won once, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers claiming Super Bowl XXXVII. Bad news, Broncos.

In looking at this list, we can see that this is only the third matchup in which both teams have had top-five defenses. Let's narrow our scope to just those three to see how this year's holds up.

Because of changes in offensive philosophy, the way penalties are called, and numerous other factors, offenses have become more efficient over the past 16 years. This makes comparing the 2015 Broncos to the 2001 St. Louis Rams an apples-to-oranges comparison, necessitating a bit of a scale here.

The easiest way to do this seemed to be seeing how far each team deviated from the mean. By looking at the standard deviation and seeing how many deviations each team's Adjusted Defensive NEP per play was from the mean, we can track how much of an outlier each team was. The greater the number of deviations, the more dominant the defense.

This look is illustrated in the table below for the three games featuring a pair of top five defenses.

Super BowlTeam 1DeviationsTeam 2Deviations
45Pittsburgh1.983Green Bay1.547
37Tampa Bay2.454Oakland1.103

Of the six teams in the chart, this year's Denver team ranks second in relative dominance, while Carolina is fifth. The Tampa Bay and Oakland game featured the first- and sixth-ranked teams, while Pittsburgh and Green Bay were third and fourth. How about that.

If we were to take the sum of the total deviations between the two teams, then Super Bowl XXXVII comes out ahead at 3.557 deviations, followed by Super Bowl XLV at 3.530. This year's game checks in third of the three at 3.459.

Based on this, it's hard to say definitively that this is the best defensive Super Bowl matchup of the century. That honor would likely go to the bout between the Buccaneers and the Raiders, though the separation between these top three is minimal.

Indications of a Great Match?

Perhaps the most important takeaway from looking back at some of the best defensive matchups from Super Bowl history is that we could be setting up for a classic.

Of the previous four Super Bowls to feature a pair of top-10 defenses, three ended up as one-score games. This includes a pair of iconic moments with Adam Vinatieri's game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXXVI and Malcolm Butler's game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX.

There are certainly parallels between the thumping the Seahawks handed the Broncos two years ago and this year's championship game. However, this is a different Denver team because of their stout defense.

Super Bowl 50 may not be the definitive greatest defensive Super Bowl matchup of the century, but it does at least appear as if it should be a fun one.