One 40-point game can do wonders for your scoring average. In one fell swoop Thursday night the Steelers went from 20th in the NFL in scoring up to 13th. It was the long-awaited breakout game for the Steelers, and the players said afterward they hoped it would be the start of a new trend.
But is their 22.7 points-per-game average enough to win a Super Bowl? History suggests it would be difficult, although not impossible, to accomplish. In fact, if the Steelers maintain their current pace (22.7 points per game) and standing in the league (13th) and went on to win the Super Bowl, they would be one of the worst offenses in NFL history to raise the Lombardi trophy.
Coincidentally, the 2008 Steelers are the worst scoring offense to win a Super Bowl. The 2008 Steelers ranked 20th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 21.7 points per game. That Steelers team narrowly beats out the 2015 Denver Broncos, who were 19th in the league in scoring, averaging 22.2 points per game.
Since the 1970 merger, only the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (18th), 1990 N.Y. Giants (15th), 2007 Giants (14th), and 2000 Baltimore Ravens (14th) won the Super Bowl with offenses ranked lower than 13th in the league.
Not so coincidentally, many of those teams are regarded as some of the best defenses of all time, including the 2000 Ravens, the 2008 Steelers and the 2002 Buccaneers. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was a young assistant on the Buccaneers staff and was the head coach of the Steelers six years later.
It certainly helps matters if you’re powered by the No. 1 defense in the league. That’s what the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, 2008 Steelers and 1990 Giants were.
The 2008 Steelers are an interesting comparison for this Steelers team. They endured similar struggles with their offense. They scored 14 points or fewer six times. There was a 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a 21-14 home loss to the Giants and a 31-14 shellacking in Tennessee two weeks before the playoffs began.
They still managed to go 12-4 and earned a first-round playoff bye, mostly because they held nine opponents to 15 points or fewer.
This Steelers team has held eight of the first 10 opponents to 18 points or fewer. Sure, it has endured a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville and a 23-20 overtime loss in Chicago, plus a couple of uninspiring wins over hapless teams such as the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts.
But it’s quite possible in February fans will look back on the losses to the Jaguars and Bears with an inquisitive: ‘What the heck happened there?’ followed by a dismissive: ‘Who cares? When’s the parade?’
It’s true the NFL has veered more toward offense in recent years with the New England Patriots serving as the poster child. But they’ve never won a Super Bowl with the league’s No. 1 scoring offense. They have won twice with the league’s top scoring defense, including last season.
In the first 51 Super Bowls the league’s top defense was victorious 15 times, or 29.4 percent of the time. A top-five scoring defense won it 31 times, or 60.7 percent of the time.
Contrast that to the number of times the No. 1 scoring offense has won the Super Bowl. That’s happened 10 times, most recently in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints did it.
There certainly have been a few outlier teams over the years that defied the odds. The 2007 Giants are probably the most notable because they are the only team to win a Super Bowl without a top-10 offense or defense. They were 14th in points scored and 17th in points allowed.
But for the most part, NFL history suggests teams better have either a dominant offense or a dominant defense to win championships. And unless more 40-point games are in the Steelers’ future, it’s the defense that will be doing all the heavy lifting.