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NFL Playoffs: Turnover Margin

   by Bryan Leonard - 01/16/2011

Win the turnover battle, you win the game and probably cover! In theory, it makes a lot of sense. However, it's not easy to gauge beforehand who is going win the turnover battle. And successful handicapping is about predicting and projecting likely occurrences.
Examining the opening week of one recent playoffs: The Bengals led the AFC with an outstanding +25 turnover differential. Whatever defensive shortcomings Cincinnati had, they helped make up for it with an aggressive, ball-hawking defense that forced turnovers. However, in the first playoff game, the Steelers won the TO battle against Cincy 2-0, with a 31-17 win and cover. Then Redskins won the turnover battle 3-0 in their game at Seattle. That's often enough of an edge needed to win. Not only didn't the Redskins win, they couldn't even cover as a +9 dog in Seattle's 20-10 victory.
Turnovers do so much to change the complexion of a game. The Patriots had poor overall defensive numbers this regular season, but went 14-2 with the aid of a sizzling plus-turnover margin differential. During one recent playoff flop, however, it was turnovers that killed the Patriots when they travelled to Denver. The Patriots had a significant edge in total yards, but 5 turnovers killed them. Leading 3-0 inside the two minute warning, the Patriots were driving and had all the momentum. They had lost much of the field position battle, but had won the TO edge (1-0) to that point and were seemingly in command of the game.
In the blink of an eye, RB Kevin Faulk fumbled and Denver scored (with the help of a pass interference penalty in the end zone). The Patriots fumbled the ensuing kickoff and it was suddenly Denver 10-3 at the half. CB Champ Bailey's 100-yard interception return in the third quarter pretty much iced the game, too.
Turnovers were the story in that game, a Denver win and cover. Notice that coming into the game, the Broncos were a stellar +18 in turnover margin for the season. The Patriots had been strong in turnover margin in 2003 and 2004, but the season they lost to Denver in the playoffs they were minus-5, a significant drop in TO production. And that Achilles' heal was a big reason they were watching the rest of the postseason instead of going for another Super Bowl title.
Again, it's not always easy to predict, either. That same postseason, the Colts (+11 TO edge) took on the Steelers (+7 TO edge). Indy won the turnover battle 2-0 at home. On paper, that looks like a significant edge for the Colts, yet they not only failed to cover as a huge favorite, they lost the game, 21-18. Where and when those turnovers took place was just as significant, and impossible to predict. No doubt Jerome Bettis would be the sports goat of the new century had the Colts returned that fumble 99-yards for a TD in the final minute, like they came very close to doing!
Enjoy the games, and don't be surprised if turnovers pop up as the deciding factor in what has thus far been a wild postseason!

819/820 Auburn at Mississippi State

The Auburn Tigers are in their preferred role today as an underdog. They are a perfect 3-0 catching points this year and 20-9 ATS the last three seasons. The Tigers have dropped two straight games including being blown out at Kentucky in their last game. But today they take a big step down in class when the face the struggling Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Why are the Bulldogs installed as a double digit favorite here? Surely they don't deserve it. Mississippi State is 1-5 in the role of favorite and 0-6 ATS on this court. They are coming off their biggest win of the season as they chocked in-state rival Mississippi as a double digit dog on the road on Thursday.

Over the last three seasons Auburn is 3-1 straight up against the Bulldogs with a perfect 3-0 spread mark. We have seen to reason to think that the Bulldogs are a vastly superior team and this line is one hell of a bargain.


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