In the Super Bowl era, when a team wins the turnover battle, it wins the game 77 percent of the time. The correlation is clear: Turnovers are game-altering events that can create huge swings in win probability. Even when turnovers don’t lead directly to points for the opposition, they can have a cascading negative effect. In addition to any emotional swing they might cause, turnovers can flip leverage in the field position game. Plus, any turnover essentially creates an extra possession for one team and cancels a possession for the other. That discrepancy is hard to overcome over the course of a game.
With the Super Bowl itself, that effect has been magnified. In the history of the league’s championship game, 88 percent of the teams that won the turnover battle also won it all.
Super Bowl LI pits two of the most disciplined, ball-protecting offenses in NFL history against each other. New England and Atlanta finished the regular season tied for best in the league with just 11 turnovers apiece — the third-fewest since the NFL’s 16-game schedule was instituted in 1978. The turnover battle is now more important than ever. In a matchup between two nearly perfect teams, even one mistake by either the Patriots or Falcons could be the difference in the game.
During the regular season, the Falcons relied on ball security from their skill-position players combined with Matt Ryan’s 38-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. As a team, Atlanta finished the season with a near-record 63-to-11 total-touchdowns-to-turnover ratio, only trailing the 2010 Patriots’ 65-to-10 mark.
The Falcons have carried that ball-control identity into the playoffs, where they’ve yet to turn the ball over in victories over the Seahawks and Packers. All told, dating back to Week 15, Atlanta’s gone 281 minutes and six seconds without turning the ball over, a streak spanning 298 offensive plays over 48 offensive drives. Since their last turnover, the Falcons have scored 20 touchdowns and 171 points — if that mistake-free football carries into Sunday’s game and Atlanta comes out on top, it’d be the first Super Bowl–winning team to go an entire postseason without committing a turnover.
The Patriots weren’t as prolific as the Falcons, but they still finished with an impressive 51-to-11 in touchdowns-to-turnovers differential. They accomplished that in large part due to Tom Brady’s ridiculous 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He threw a pick on just 0.5 percent of his throws this year, the third-best rate of all time among qualifying quarterbacks. But New England was also aided by an otherworldly fumble recovery rate — the Patriots fumbled 27 times but lost just nine of them.
New England hasn’t been quite so flawless this postseason; the Pats coughed up three turnovers — a special teams fumble by Dion Lewis and two uncharacteristic interceptions by Brady — against the Texans in the divisional round. Luckily, New England’s defense picked up the slack, grabbing three takeaways of their own to finish even in the turnover battle and win the game.
These two well-oiled offensive machines won’t be matched up with blocking dummies, though. Both defenses have been grabbing takeaways at a high rate during their respective win streaks. New England is in the midst of a nine-game streak, and in that time the Patriots have amassed 19 turnovers that have led to 78 points. That’s an average of 2.1 turnovers a game, which would translate to nearly 34 turnovers across an entire season, one more than Kansas City’s league-leading 33 from this year. During Atlanta’s six-game win streak, the Falcons have created 13 turnovers leading to 59 points, an average of 2.2 per game — a rate that would give them nearly 35 over a full season.
Both teams are taking care of the ball with an incredible amount of discipline, and they’re both frequently taking the ball away from their opponents, too. While it’s unlikely that either offense suddenly plays sloppy football on Sunday, it’s also unlikely that we go a full four quarters without a turnover on either side. (The last time that happened was in 1999, and it’s happened only twice in 50 Super Bowls.) So, with two of the best ball-protection teams in NFL history squaring off — and with their defenses as opportunistic as ever — it seems like something has to give. The first turnover we see on Sunday in Houston might be the last, but it also might be the play that decides the Super Bowl — even if we won’t know it right away.