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The 2016 Denver Broncos improved their turnover difference

The Denver Broncos were -4 in their turnover difference in 2015, but were able to improve that mark to +2 in 2016. Unfortunately, they still lost three more games than last season.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Defenses that force turnovers tend to do well (the Kansas City Chiefs defense rode their ability to force turnovers all the way to divisional round this year). Offenses that don’t turn the ball over tend to fare well. Teams that are significantly in the positive in terms of turnover difference (one value minus another value is a difference, not a differential) are the teams that win. If you look solely at this season you see that five of the six top teams in turnover difference made the playoffs, with only the Minnesota Vikings missing.

Team Gave up Forced Difference
Kansas City Chiefs 17 33 16
Oakland Raiders 14 30 16
New England Patriots 11 23 12
Atlanta Falcons 11 22 11
Minnesota Vikings 16 27 11
Green Bay Packers 17 25 8
Buffalo Bills 12 18 6
Philadelphia Eagles 20 26 6
Baltimore Ravens 23 28 5
Dallas Cowboys 15 20 5
Pittsburgh Steelers 18 23 5
Cincinnati Bengals 17 20 3
Denver Broncos 25 27 2
Miami Dolphins 23 25 2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 29 2
Seattle Seahawks 18 19 1
Arizona Cardinals 28 28 0
Tennessee Titans 18 18 0
Washington Potatoes 21 21 0
Detroit Lions 15 14 -1
Carolina Panthers 29 27 -2
New York Giants 27 25 -2
New Orleans Saints 24 21 -3
Indianapolis Colts 22 17 -5
San Francisco 49ers 25 20 -5
Houston Texans 24 17 -7
San Diego Chargers 35 28 -7
Los Angeles Rams 29 18 -11
Cleveland Browns 25 13 -12
Jacksonville Jaguars 29 13 -16
Chicago Bears 31 11 -20
New York Jets 34 14 -20

We bucked the trend last season, winning the Super Bowl with a team that was negative in the difference. We were -4 in 2015.

There is a greater trend going here though. There were only 700 turnovers this year during the regular season. That is the lowest ever for a full season since the merger (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season). In fact there were 632 turnovers during the 1982 season (which was 8 games long) which is almost as many as there were this year in more than twice the games (there were only 28 teams in 1982). If you plot this as a function of turnovers per play you get the graph below.

NFL Plays/Turnover 1976-2016

2016 was the best year ever for teams NOT turning the ball over. The Chiefs led the league this past season with 33 forced turnovers. That was down from 39 (CAR) in 2015 and 34 in 2014 (HOU). As recently as 2000, the average NFL defense forced 30 turnovers. This season the average NFL defense forced 21.9 turnovers. That value from this season is almost half of what is what in 1978 when the average NFL defense forced 40.6 turnovers.

The interesting corollary to this is that defenses are more than ever coached to try and rip the ball out when a ball-carrier has been stopped. I noticed this in every single game from this past weekend. Defenses on every team are doing something that was not common place in the league a decade ago. The reason that defenders are almost all being coached to do this is simple: with turnovers being less prevalent, every turnover is that much more critical to winning or losing a game.