What is the Most Significant Variable Handicapping NFL?

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SBR Forum's Handicapper Think Tank Section generated a thought-provoking discussion earlier this football season discussing which variables are most significant for handicapping NFL games.

The discussion inspired a Twitter post which surveyed users on what they considered most important when handicapping. The choices for the poll were as follows:

Point differential won the poll with 45% of votes.

Practical example: The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons are facing off in Super Bowl LI on Sunday in Houston.

Points Differential: Patriots vs. Falcons
The Patriots led the NFL in points differential at plus-191 in the regular season thanks to their No. 1 scoring defense (250 points -- 15.6 per game) and No. 3 scoring offense (441 points -- 27.6 per game).

The Falcons were second in the league at plus-134. They were No. 1 in scoring offense (540 -- 33.8 ppg)  but way down at No. 27 in scoring defense (406 -- 26.4 ppg).

To be fair, the Falcons were involved in a lot of blowouts and thus gave up a fair amount of garbage points. Last year, Carolina led the NFL with a plus-192 points differential in the regular season but was upset by Denver in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos were just plus-59.  Eventual Super Bowl champions average a 146.4-point differential per season.

Turnover Differential: Patriots vs. Falcons
A close second on the poll is turnover differential. Teams that win the turnover battle are 37-4 in the Super Bowl (nine times teams have tied in differential). “Turnovers are like ex-wives. The more you have, the more they cost you,” former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Dave Widell once said. A recent study showed that 44 percent of the variation in a team’s winning percentage can be explained by its turnover differential. The excellent site Football Outsiders estimates that the value of a turnover is about four points.

In 2015, the Panthers led the regular season with a plus-20 turnover differential but coughed it up four times in the 24-10 Super Bowl 50 loss to the Broncos, who were just 19th in differential at minus-4. The Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders led the NFL this season with differentials of plus-16. Both made the playoffs. New England was third at plus-12 and Atlanta fourth at plus-11. The Houston Texans had the worst differential of any 2016 playoff team at minus-7. In the Patriots' past two Super Bowl losses, both to the Giants, they failed to win the turnover differential in either: minus-1 in SB XLVI and even in XLII.

Yards Per Pass Attempt: Patriots vs. Falcons
Yards per pass attempt is third on the SBR variable poll. According to forum poster Jupiter333: "a one yard/play net team advantage in yards passing/play versus their present opponent covers 48% of the time."

The team with the higher yards per passing attempt during the season is 21-27-2 in Super Bowls.

The last five QBs with the better yards per attempt numbers during the season -- Cam Newton vs. Denver, Russell Wilson vs. New England, Peyton Manning vs. Seattle, Colin Kaepernick vs. Baltimore and Tom Brady vs. New York -- lost those Super Bowls. This regular season, Brady's yards per passing attempt in his 12 games was 8.23. Matt Ryan's was an NFL-best 9.26. That's tied for the 13th best in a single season.

Yards Per First Down: Patriots vs. Falcons
Finally, yards per first down got the fewest amount of votes on the poll of the four options. Certainly the more yards gained on first down, the more likely a team is going to convert on third down should the drive even get there. The Falcons led the NFL in yards per first down at 8.10. The Patriots were 12th at 6.24. The Chicago Bears, one of the NFL's worst teams, were second at 7.58 so it's questionable how important that statistic is.

Swing by the NFL Betting Forum to discuss handicapping with SBR Forum members.

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