A few weeks ago a key early NFC East matchup took place on national TV between the Redskins and Giants, two teams with something to prove off poor campaigns. In the end, Washington had the edge in total yards 393-363, in rushing yards and held the Giants to just 4-of-12 on third down. A close game? A Redskins’ win? Actually, the Giants led 18-6 after three and 32-14 late on the way to an easy win.
What happened? The Redskins turned it over 3 times, including a pair of picks by Kirk Cousins, while the Giants had no turnovers. Another recent division clash was when the 49ers and Seahawks dueled in the regular season. But it wasn’t close as Seattle rolled, 29-3, winning the turnover battle, 5-1. That was similar to another showdown on national TV between the Ravens and Jets, as the Baltimore offense had just 267 total yards and was a measly 6 of 18 on third down. In addition, they averaged 2.8 yards per rush. What a terrible offensive performance! Oh, and by the way the Ravens won the game, 34-17.
The difference again was turnovers, with the Jets coughing it up 4 times (3 fumbles, 1 pick). Turnovers are one of the most basic fundamentals of winning football, both straight up and against the number when analyzing football picks.
Defensive coaches have been preaching more aggressive, attacking stop units over the last 15 years. Coach Steve Spurrier has spent three decades coaching college and pro football, at Duke, Florida, South Carolina and the Washington Redskins. When asked about what the biggest change he had noticed in the college game, Spurrier spoke not about the wide-open passing attack that he helped popularize, but about defenses. He said that when he first took over at Duke in the 1980s, defenses were basic and reacted to what the offense would try and do.
However, since that time, defenses have become far more aggressive, trying to attack the offense rather than sit back and react. Defensive coaches in both the pro and college ranks have been teaching players to not only tackle properly, but to aggressively strip the ball from opposing players. John Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and Rex Ryan have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses, while former defensive coordinators in Seattle have gotten head coaching jobs with teams that needed defensive help.
A key component of aggressive defenses is to force more turnovers. They are a huge part of any contest. The last team to win the AFC East other than the Patriots was the surprising Miami Dolphins, who came out of nowhere in a stunning one-year turnaround. It’s no coincidence that Dolphins led the NFL (+17 in turnover margin) that season, then were minus-8 in TOs the next year going 7-9. The Patriots went 14-2 SU, 10-5-1 ATS in campaign, setting a record for positive turnover margin. Take a close look at the bottom teams in turnover margin from last season:
2014 Worst TO Margin ATS record
Raiders (-15) 8-8 ATS
Saints (-13) 6-10 ATS
Redskins (-12) 5-11 ATS
NY Jets (-11) 7-9 ATS
Titans (-10) 3-13 ATS
Bucs (-8) 7-9 ATS
How many of those teams came close to making the playoffs? None. How many were busts? All of them. How many got their head coaches fired? 3. Age appeared to creep up quickly on QB Drew Brees and he was uncharacteristically sloppy, while Tennessee was a money-burner with no QB play and too many turnovers.
Rex Ryan got axed in New York with erratic QB play that handed the football over too opponents far too often. Those teams were also a combined 36-60 against the spread; two years ago the top turnover teams were a combined 42-52-2 ATS; three years ago the worst turnover-margin teams were a combined 34-61-1 ATS and four years ago it was 55-75 ATS. A quarterback who throws too many picks can kill the momentum of his offense, and his confidence can get worn down. It can even spill over onto the sidelines.
2014 Top TO Margin ATS record
Packers (+14) 9-8-1 ATS
Patriots (+12) 11-8 ATS
Texans (+12) 9-7 ATS
Seahawks (+9) 11-8 ATS
Cardinals (+7) 11-6 ATS
Bills (+7) 9-7 ATS
The tops teams last season in turnover margin all had strong seasons, either making the playoffs or in it until the final week. The Patriots won the Super Bowl and the Packers would have faced them if it wasn’t for a fluke onside kick in the NFC title game. The teams above were a combined 60-44-1 ATS; two years ago the top TO teams were 80-59-2 ATS; the top 10 teams in turnover margin in 2012 were 87-67-4 ATS and in 2011 were a combined 91-63-6 ATS. You get the idea…
So be careful backing teams that are sloppy at taking care of the football when analyzing football selections. They may not win or cover the number as regularly as those that play smart, mistake-free ball.
Written by Jim Feist of VegasTopDogs.com