Playoff turnovers: Hanging on to the football is key in the post-season

The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered an embarrassing first-round playoff loss to their division rival Cleveland Browns last Sunday, a loss that included a 28-0 first quarter deficit and five turnovers. It was the first time that a team had five or more turnovers in an NFL playoff game since the Arizona Cardinals had seven turnovers in a 49-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers on January 24, 2016.

It was also the 79th time in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) that a playoff team had five or more turnovers in a game. Teams have a record of 9-70 (.114 winning percentage) in those games. This was the fourth time in Steelers’ playoff history (since 1966) that they had five-plus turnovers in a post-season game; ironically, however, it was the first time they had lost a playoff game when they had five or more turnovers in a playoff game. They are the only team since 1966 to win more than one playoff game (they won three) when committing five or more turnovers in a contest. That trend did not work for them in this year’s playoffs.

All of that leads to this obvious statement: Turnovers are a key factor when looking at playoff success. To put some numbers to that statement, let’s look at the last 10 years of NFL playoffs, 2010-2019, a total of 110 playoff games.

Here are the records of playoff teams from 2010-2019 when they committed zero, one, two, three or four-plus turnovers in a post-season game:

Turnovers in a playoff game, Record
Zero: 38-20 .655
One: 43-30 .589
Two: 24-28 .462
Three: 3-20 .130
Four or more: 2-12 .143

A couple of interesting stats jump off the page when you look at these numbers:
1. Playoff teams in 2010-2019 were 81-50 (.618) when they committed one or no turnovers; they were 29-60 (.326) if they committed two or more turnovers. That’s a winning percentage difference of .292.
2. Just under 60% of the playoff teams in this timeframe had zero or one turnover in playoff games during this time.
3. Playoff teams that had no turnovers were 38-20 (.655) while those that had one or more turnover were 72-90 (.444). Again, a significant winning percentage difference (.211).

Just look at the first weekend of this year’s playoff games. In the six playoff games played last weekend, the six teams that won all had zero or only one turnover. Ten of the 12 teams last weekend had either zero or one turnover; the other two teams were the Steelers with five turnovers and the Seahawks with two turnovers. When you look at all six of the games, the winning teams had three turnovers, the losing teams had nine.

For Packers fans, the turnover stat in the playoff has some very distinctive numbers. In the Super Bowl era, the Packers have played 48 post-season games. Here is their record in those games based on the number of turnovers:

Packers turnovers in a playoff game Record
Zero: 11-1 .917
One: 10-4 .714
Two: 5-5 .500
Three: 1-3 .250
Four or more: 1-7 .125

If we break it down just one more step, we see that Green Bay was 21-5 (.808) in those playoff games when they committed one or no turnovers and were 7-15 (.318) when they committed two or more turnovers in one of those playoff contests.

Here’s one more stat on the Pack: Green Bay is 28-20 in the 48 playoff games since 1966. In the 28 wins, they had 27 turnovers (.96 per game); in the 20 losses, they had 57 turnovers (2.85 per game).

It’s pretty clear (for the Packers and any NFL playoff team for that matter)… turning the ball over once or not at all gives playoff teams the best chance at winning a post-season game and advancing to the next round.


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