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Turnovers Can Turn The Tide

   by Jim Feist - 10/07/2013

A few weeks ago the first big marquee matchup of the NFC took place as division rivals San Francisco and Seattle met on national TV. Everyone (including oddsmakers) were expecting a close, defensive duel between these powerhouses. Everyone except Pete Carroll, as the Seahawks rolled, 29-3.
What happened? Seattle won the turnover battle, 5-1. It was reminiscent of late last season when the two teams met in another showdown game. The results were the same, as well, with Seattle winning the game (42-13)…and the turnover battle.
That was similar to a recent 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.
Say what? The difference again was turnovers, with the Jets coughing it up 4 times (3 fumbles, 1 pick). "The best defensive effort I thought I had ever seen or the most amazing defensive performance I thought I'd ever seen was the Pittsburgh game with seven turnovers," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said, referring to Baltimore's season-opening 35-7 rout. "But this topped it. 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. The Chicago Bears famed 46 defense caused havoc around the league during a 1985 Super Bowl season. The Bears that year were 18-1 straight up and 15-3-1 against the spread, led by a devastating, attacking defense. They pitched four shutouts and held 14 of 19 opponents to 10 points or less.
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. Jim Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, and the Ryan brothers have used their teaching talents to upgrade defenses.
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 2010, setting a record for positive turnover margin. Take a close look at the bottom teams in turnover margin from last season:

2012 Worst TO Margin ATS record
Chiefs (-24) 5-11 ATS
Eagles (-24) 4-12 ATS
Lions (-16) 5-10-1 ATS
NY Jets (-14) 7-9 ATS
Bills (-13) 7-9 ATS
Cowboys (-13) 6-10 ATS

Now you see why Andy Reid traded for QB Alex Smith this season. And you can see what helped him get fired in Philly last year! Why do you think the Lions, Jets and Cowboys were such huge underachievers in 2012?
None of the teams on the high turnover list made the postseason . Those teams were also a combined 34-61-1 against the spread; two years ago the worst turnover-margin teams were a combined 55-75 against the spread, a factor to keep in mind when assessing weekly football picks. 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.

2012 Top TO Margin ATS record
Patriots (+25) 10-8 ATS
Bears (+20) 7-9 ATS
Redskins (+17) 11-6 ATS
NY Giants (+14) 7-9 ATS
Falcons (+13) 10-7-1 ATS
Seahawks (+13) 13-5 ATS
Texans (+12) 10-7-1 ATS
Ravens (+9) 10-9-1 ATS
Bengals (+4) 9-7-1 ATS

The tops teams last season in turnover margin had very strong seasons, with three of them meeting in the conference championship games and all but Bears and Giants making the playoffs. The Redskins were the biggest surprise of all, a worst to first turnaround to win the NFC East. The teams above were also a combined 87-67-4 ATS; the top 10 teams in turnover margin in 2011 were a combined 91-63-6 ATS.
Be careful backing teams that are sloppy at taking care of the football when analyzing football picks. Chances are they don’t win or cover the number as regularly as those that play smart, mistake-free ball.

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