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Alex Speier

What happens when No. 1 offense meets No. 1 defense in Super Bowl?

Devin McCourty (center) and the Patriots defense led the NFL in fewest points allowed..
Devin McCourty (center) and the Patriots defense led the NFL in fewest points allowed..Jim Davis/Globe staff

Super Bowl LI features a rare clash of strengths, a Patriots team that proved the stingiest in the NFL in terms of points allowed opposing a Falcons team that scored with greater frequency than any other.

On average, Atlanta scored 33.8 points per game — more than twice what the Patriots permitted (15.6) in an average week. This year’s title game marks just the sixth time in 47 seasons since the AFL-NFL merger that the teams that led the NFL in points scored and points allowed will face each other with a championship on the line.

In their eight prior Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots have never experienced such a confrontation. That being the case, it’s worth asking: What happens when a top-scoring offense meets the NFL’s most effective point-suppressing defense?

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And, slightly more broadly, what typically happens to top scoring defenses and offenses in the Super Bowl, regardless of the opponent?

The game has tilted more frequently in favor of defenses in the five instances when a top points-producing machine has met its opposite in the Super Bowl, with four games being won by the top defense. Most recently, the Seahawks demolished the Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII, completely stifling an offense that had set a scoring record in the regular season.

Of the five matchups, one merits particular notice in the context of this year’s Patriots. In Super Bowl XXV, Bill Belichick — then the defensive coordinator of the Giants — served as the mastermind behind a 20-19 New York victory over the Bills that represented one of the greatest games and biggest upsets in NFL championship history. (Buffalo was favored by 6½ points.)

Interestingly, of the five games of top defenses against top offenses, that Bills-Giants game was the only instance when the point total fell short of the pregame over/under. In the other four contests, the winning team put up at least 35 points to help the combined score surpass the Vegas expectation.

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The Giants’ win was one of two in which Belichick worked with the defense that led the NFL in points allowed. The other was in Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Patriots won a 32-29 shootout over the Panthers for New England’s second championship.

That game marked one of 16 occasions in which the NFL’s top scoring defense reached the Super Bowl. The last time came two years ago, when the Patriots overcame a lethargic first 2½ quarters to beat a Seahawks team that had been the defensive class of the NFL.

Yet that Patriots win ran against the typical outcome when a top defense entered the Super Bowl. In the 16 post-merger Super Bowls that featured the regular-season leader in points allowed, those No. 1 defenses own a 12-4 record. Starting with Belichick’s Giants against the Bills, of the last nine teams to reach the Super Bowl after leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, seven have won.

There also has been a clear pattern of games featuring those top defenses featuring surprisingly high point totals, mostly because the teams with the top defense put up significant points. On average, Super Bowls featuring the top team by points allowed has beaten the over/under by more than 8 points.

No. 1 offense vs No. 1 defense in Super Bowl
* - opening over/under
Year Top Offense Avg Points Top Defense Avg Pts Allowed Super Bowl Score SB Total Pts O/U
2016 Falcons 33.8 Patriots 15.6 ? ? 58*
2013 Broncos 37.9 Seahawks 14.4 Seahawks, 43-8 51 47.5
1990 Bills 26.8 Giants 14.2 Giants, 20-19 39 40
1989 49ers 26.8 Broncos 14.1 49ers, 55-10 65 48
1984 Dolphins 32.1 49ers 14.2 49ers, 38-16 54 53.5
1978 Cowboys 24 Steelers 12.2 Steelers, 35-31 66 37
SOURCE: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The regular-season leader in points scored, on the other hand, has more frequently reached the title game but has enjoyed less success there. There have been 20 cases when the points leader has gotten to the Super Bowl. Those teams are 10-10. (One team, the perfect Dolphins of Super Bowl VII, led the NFL in both points scored and points allowed. As they’ve reminded the world many times, they won.)

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Just as there’s not a clear trend related to regular-season points leaders winning or losing, there’s also not a consistent outcome regarding the type of Super Bowl that such teams have played. On 10 occasions, the Super Bowls involving the points-scored leaders have gone over the Vegas expectations for scoring, and on 10 occasions, those games have fallen short of that line.

Overall, the precedents offered by elite offenses and defenses suggest more promise for the Patriots than the Falcons. But, as the Patriots showed just two years ago against the Seahawks, precedent ultimately becomes meaningless once the teams actually take the field.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.