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Picking NFL Games Using Turnover Differential

The NFL turnover differential – the difference between the number of times a team turns the ball over, and the number of times they recover a turnover from their opponents – is a very powerful statistic for football handicappers. However, If it is used incorrectly by the sports bettor it can lead to disaster.

First, the powerful part. Between 2003 and 2010 there were 49 football teams that had a turnover differential over the course of a full NFL season that was +9 or better. Just six of those teams were not profitable on the season if you had bet them to cover the spread in every game. Each of those six teams finished the season at .500 ATS, so they weren’t far from profitability. 28 of the 49 – covered 60 percent of their games or more. For NFL handicappers that’s the realm of serious profitability. On the other hand, there were 46 teams over the same stretch that had a season-long turnover differential of -9 or worse. Just four of those 46 teams were profitable on the season against the spread. 31 of the 46 teams covered 43 percent of their games or less. They burned the money of the people who backed them. The evidence is obvious – there is a very strong relationship between turnover differential and performance against the spread. Simply put, a football team that protects the ball very well is very likely to be a profitable bet, and one that is sloppy with the ball is likely to be unprofitable.

Now the note of caution. The easy part is spotting a strong relationship like that. The much tougher part is finding a way as a sports bettor to turn that knowledge into profits. That’s not as easy as it seems. It takes several games before we can tell if a team is going to be a good turnover team or a bad one. The difference between a good turnover football team and a bad one isn’t always that much, either. For example, look at the two extremes we talked about earlier – +9 and -9. The difference between those two levels is 18 turnovers. Teams play 16 games in a season, so the difference between a team that is very likely to be profitable and one that is very likely not to be is just over one turnover per game. That’s not really very much. There’s another problem as well for NFL bettors trying to make picks – turnovers aren’t particularly easy to predict. It’s far easier to make an educated guess about how well a quarterback is going to pass or how effective a running game is going to be than it is to predict how the turnover battle might turn out.

Don’t despair, though – there are definitely ways to use this information for the pursuit of profit. Here are four tips to help in that pursuit:

Pick your spots – Clearly the goal here is to find a NFL game where you have a team that isn’t likely to turn the ball over playing against a team that is likely to do so. In order to do that effectively you need to not only think about how the two teams have performed in this regard over the season, but also how the game is likely to evolve. For example, let’s say that a football team with a strong defense that generates turnovers is playing against an offense that has the tendency to be sloppy. A sloppy offense is going to make more mistakes when they are forced to be more aggressive, and the most obvious thing that could force a team to be aggressive is if they were to fall behind early. Teams that find themselves in a quick hole have to take extra risks to try to get ahead again. If you were to feel, then, that there is a good chance that the defensive team will be able to score first or to have the lead at the half then there is a good chance that the defensive team will win the turnover battle, and that will put them n good shape to cover the point spread.

Take a long term view – If there is a team that sets up well to be a good turnover team on the season – an offense that protects the ball combined with a defense that can generate opportunities – then it could make sense to target them as a team to play repeatedly over the course of the season, or at least to keep a closer than normal eye on them. On the other side, a football team that has a sloppy offense and an uninspiring defense could be one that sports bettors need to have a long term negative view of.

Be patient – Early in the season one football game against a particularly bad team can make a team look like a very good turnover squad, while a contest against a very strong turnover team can make a competent offense look ugly. Making judgments based purely on the performance of the teams before there is a significant sample size established can lead you to back teams that you shouldn’t be backing and vice versa. As a general rule you shouldn’t be acting on a NFL team’s turnover differential stats until you are confident that they are playing at a level that represents their potential reasonably accurately.

Forget the past – It can be a very dangerous habit to assume that the NFL teams that were elite turnover generators one year are going to be able to carry that through the offseason. Since 2000 (and perhaps longer, but that’s where I stopped my research) there has not been a team that has lead the league in turnover differential two years in a row – or one that has even come close. Every leader has seen their differential fall by a lot the next season. In short, assuming that the best turnover teams last year will be the best turnover teams this year is not a good idea for a NFL handicapper looking to beat the point spread.

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