In a league as competitive as the NFL, the smallest mistakes can often determine the outcome of a game. It's why coaches constantly preach the importance of protecting the football on offense and creating extra opportunities by taking the ball away on defense.
The Falcons' 2018 season has been a testament to the importance of the turnover margin. In Atlanta's victories, it has also fared well in the turnover differential. In their losses, the Falcons struggled in that area.
That is no secret to coach Dan Quinn, who has long stressed the importance of winning in that particular category. He knows how often success in the turnover battle correlates with a good overall record.
"Two weeks ago, we had talked about the turnover margin and how we hoped to see a jump in the turnover margin over the last month of the season," Quinn said after the Falcons' win against the Cardinals in Week 15. "And we saw that jump come to life last week for our first three-takeaway game of the season and our first without a turnover since Tampa. That's why the margin is so important because it's about all three phases and everybody has their role in that."
Quinn's comments came after the Falcons snapped their five-game losing streak, and, as could be expected, turnovers played a large role in that skid.
During Atlanta's five-straight losses, the Falcons were minus-7 in the turnover margin. The most notable game of that stretch came in New Orleans, where Atlanta fumbled the ball three times deep in Saints territory.
On the season, the Falcons have a minus-5 turnover margin in their nine losses. In their six wins, the Falcons are plus-6. That's not a coincidence.
And while it might seem overly simplistic to say that a team who gets more opportunities with the ball than they give away will have a better chance at success, there is very much truth to that. Consider it football's Occam's Razor.
In games where they've been minus-2 or worse in the turnover margin, the Falcons are 0-2 this season with both losses coming by 14 points. In minus-1 turnover margin games, Atlanta is 1-2, losing by an average of more than a touchdown and its one victory coming by just a field goal.
The Falcons are 2-2 when there is an even turnover margin, but they are 0-2 in games where they earn a plus-1 advantage in that area. Although, those losses came by a combined seven points and winning the turnover battle helped Atlanta keep even with its opponent in those games. The Falcons are a perfect 3-0 when plus-2 or better in turnovers, winning by an average of 15 points.
"Usually we talk about two things as the differential and the first one is the turnover margin and if we can end up in the plus in that way we know our chances are better to keep giving our offense possessions," Quinn said.
Atlanta's final opponent this season knows just how difficult it is to overcome poor ball security. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-10) are 31st in the NFL in turnover differential, sitting at minus-18 for the season.
The Buccaneers have managed to force 16 turnovers in 2018, two fewer than the Falcons, but they've given the ball away an NFL-worst 34 times. Tampa Bay has rotated between Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback this season, but neither is particularly protective of the football.
Despite playing in just 10 games this season, Winston's 13 interceptions are tied for the third-most in the league. Fitzpatrick is just one spot behind Winston, however, with 12 picks on the year. In 2018, Fitzpatrick has averaged an interception every 20.5 pass attempts, which is by far the fastest pace in the league. Winston is fourth on that list, tossing a pick about every 26 passes.
For reference, Matt Ryan has averaged an interception every 94 passes this season.
It doesn't matter how many times a defense can force a turnover when a team's quarterbacks are giving the ball away at such a record clip.
Tampa Bay has won just one game this season when they've lost the turnover margin, but it is 4-2 when finishing even or in the plus in that area.
Notably, the Buccaneers are third in total offense this season, averaging 414.3 yards per game and 13th in scoring offense, averaging 24.3 points per game. Tampa Bay has a very productive offense when it is on the field, but it's a unit that has taken itself off the field far too many times this season.
There are always, of course, exceptions to the turnover margin rule, but it's a pretty good and easy way to predict success. Heading into Week 17, here are the NFL teams with a turnover differential of plus-5 or better:
- Seattle Seahawks (plus-14)
- Houston Texans (plus-12)
- Chicago Bears (plus-12)
- Cleveland Browns (plus-9)
- New Orleans Saints (plus-9)
- Miami Dolphins (plus-8)
- New England Patriots (plus-7)
- Los Angeles Rams (plus-7)
- Denver Broncos (plus-7)
- Washington Redskins (plus-7)
- Kansas City Chiefs (plus-6)
Seven of the 11 teams with a turnover differential of at least plus-5 would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
It's telling that Atlanta's five-game skid this season coincided with its worst stretch in the turnover margin. The Falcons have now won two straight and are plus-5 in that area, though, and will want to continue that trend in their season finale.
When trying to make sense of a game or a season the turnover margin isn't the only thing a fan should look for, but it's a pretty good place to start.