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Patriots didn’t need a perfect balance between offense and defense to win

The Patriots ran up 41 points on the Chargers in the divisional round (above) but needed only 13 to win the Super Bowl.
The Patriots ran up 41 points on the Chargers in the divisional round (above) but needed only 13 to win the Super Bowl. (barry chin/globe staff)

In the press box during the Super Bowl, simple score announcements started to sound like absurdist comedy as the game trudged on.

“That’s the end of the third quarter. Patriots 3, Rams 3.”

What year is it, 1970?

After a year of unprecedented offense, the 13-3 final score marked the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in the game’s history. Some — dare we say mostly outside of New England? — found it dull. Others lamented the Chiefs-Saints game that could have been, as if one blown call and Dee Ford’s offside penalty stood between America and yet another glorious shootout.

That’s one way to look at it, particularly for Saints fans who have a genuine issue with the officiating. That said, there’s one argument that explains both why the Patriots made the Super Bowl and why they won it. It’s not balance per se, but it’s the ability to win games in multiple ways. Most championship teams can do that.

The Patriots won this Super Bowl with one of the game’s best defensive performances, but they did so after putting up 41 points against the Chargers and 37 against the Chiefs (including a touchdown in overtime). Hate to break it to a few of you, but between the divisional round and both conference championship games, football fans looking for those sweet, sweet touchdowns were best to watch Patriots games.

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Last year, the Eagles scored 41 points to win the Super Bowl shootout against the Patriots, but Philadelphia ground out a 15-10 victory in the divisional round against the Falcons without which they wouldn’t have been able to advance. In 2016, the Patriots scored at least 34 points in all three of their playoff games. They had a pretty easy time in the first two rounds, but did hold the Steelers to 17 points and the Texans to 16.

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It’s not about being balanced, per se, but it does seem to be helpful not to be lopsided.

Only two Super Bowl-winning teams in the last 10 years have won with one unit ranked outside the top 20 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. The 2008 Steelers and 2015 Broncos both won with their No. 1-ranked defenses, both historically good units, despite a 21st-ranked offense for the Steelers and 25th-ranked offense for the Broncos.

In 2016, the Patriots won with the No. 2-ranked offense, No. 16-ranked defense, and No. 7-ranked special teams. In 2017, they had the No. 1-ranked offense and No. 3-ranked special teams, but the No. 31-ranked defense — and lost when that defense couldn’t hold up in a shootout.

The Super Bowl-winning Eagles that year had the No. 8-ranked offense, No. 5-ranked defense, and No. 16-ranked special teams.

By that logic, the Chiefs, with their No. 1-ranked offense and No. 26-ranked defense, were a tougher sell to win three games in a row in January and February.

The Patriots’ No. 5 ranking in offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and 16 on defense might not have seemed so impressive (it’s worth noting that DVOA slightly but consistently seems to underestimate the Patriots), but they were in line with past Super Bowl winners.

So, while Dee Ford’s offside penalty certainly cost the Chiefs, perhaps their lack of a run defense was the bigger issue.


Nora Princiotti can be reached at nora.princiotti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @NoraPrinciotti.

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