Playoff Trait No. 1: Dominant Defense and Run Game

By Robert Simpson and Peter Engler

This is the first cluster of teams in our study of traits associated with NFL playoff teams. For a look at how we established these clusters, click here.

The old adage that defense wins championships was found to hold weight, as the most successful cluster in producing both playoff teams and Super Bowl winners featured teams with dominant defenses. These stellar defensive units were complemented by punishing run games and the discipline to limit turnovers, resulting in consistent success.

Of the 10 Super Bowl champions in our population, four come from this group: the 2017 Eagles, 2015 Broncos, 2013 Seahawks and 2010 Packers. From 2019, we also see the Super Bowl runner-up 49ers and the top overall seed Ravens in this group.

Of the 31 teams that fit into this group over the last 10 years, over 87% of those teams have made the playoffs, with 45% making a conference championship and the average team winning over 11 regular-season games. The high floor for this cluster is also notable, as only two teams couldn’t manage double-digit wins: the 2012 Steelers (8-8), who saw a record six games decided on the final play, and the infamous 2010 Chargers (9-7), who ranked first in offense and defense but missed the playoffs.

The defensive might of these teams cannot be overstated. Allowing only 18.5 points per game, this cluster boasts a scoring defense that ranks in the top 12% of all teams. They excel against both the run and the pass, allowing an average of 6.3 pass yards per attempt and less than 4 yards per carry while forcing almost two turnovers and three sacks per game.

On offense, these teams are known for their dominant run game, ranking in the top 30% of all teams since 2010. On average, these teams put up 134 rushing yards per game and are frequently producing big runs. These teams also limit interceptions effectively, averaging less than 13 interceptions thrown, in the top 41% of all teams.

Unsurprisingly, Seattle and San Francisco lead the way in appearances in this cluster with four apiece, while Baltimore and Pittsburgh both managed three. Other teams to make multiple appearances include the defensive-powerhouse Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Houston Texans.

Based on their stats through Week 11, the 2020 Saints, Rams and Ravens are projected to belong to this cluster, though their stats could change significantly by the end of the season. The Saints are the clear front-runners in the NFC, while the Rams are in a good position to grab a wildcard spot and the Ravens are still in the hunt.

Defensive performance is what really sets this cluster apart from the rest, and looks to be the most consistent contributor toward making the playoffs and postseason success. The next most successful cluster also has defensive aptitude, but relies more on creating turnovers.

Read all seven clusters:

The First Cluster: Dominant Defense and Run Game

The Second Cluster: Efficient Offense with Opportunistic Defense

The Third Cluster: High-Powered Passing with Solid Defense

The Fourth Cluster: Elite Passing with Mediocre Defense

The Fifth Cluster: Pounding the Rock with Elite Pass Rush

The Sixth Cluster: All Defense

The Final Cluster: Inefficient Passing and Turnovers

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