Turnovers, early deficits lead to losses

Vince Lombardi, the celebrated coach of the Green Bay Packers whose name adorns the sterling Super Bowl trophy, said that statistics are for losers. Point taken.

Still, culled from the most recent evidence -- the NFL's 2003 and 2004 regular-season statistics -- here are five leading sins of the game that are indisputably (did we mention amazingly?) and undeniably true, more often than not. Upon further review, notice that they are all, like the myriad creatures of the universe, interconnected.

Here, then, is the key to the matrix you never knew existed. The percentage in parenthesis refers to the probability of losing when committing that particular sin.

Sin No. 1: Trailing after the first quarter (75 percent)
While so much emphasis is placed on the fourth quarter and a team's finishing power, it's really how you start the game that matters. Teams that found themselves trailing after the first quarter lost a staggering 75 percent of their games in '03-04.

If you're pressed for time, this will eliminate the need to watch the last three quarters.

Seriously, teams that start slowly invariably lose. The 3-8 Arizona Cardinals have trailed at the end of the first quarter in nine of 11 games. They are 2-7 in those games (22 percent), a figure almost identical with the 23 percent achieved (if that's the word for it) over the course of the 2003 season.

By the same token, teams that set the tone early wind up prevailing -- three times out of four. Take the Indianapolis Colts, for example. The 11-0 Colts have trailed only once after the first quarter. Somehow, they recovered from a 17-0 deficit in spectacular fashion against the St. Louis Rams in Week 7 to win 45-28.

"Is that number right?" asked Insider Rick Spielman, who spent five seasons as the Dolphins' general manager. "That's unbelievable.

"Still, it makes sense. If you're playing with a lead, you can play solid defense and run the ball and control the clock. Your odds of winning will always be better when you can control the clock."

In Week 15 of the 2003 season, all 15 teams that led after one quarter won the game.

Said Green, "I guess that means the old cliché about halftime adjustments isn't true. After the first 15 minutes, the game is essentially over."

Sin No. 2: Losing the turnover battle (81 percent)
This is a tried-and-true truism of the NFL -- what's surprising is the gravity of the number. Lose the turnover battle and you'll lose four games out of five.

Take the Tennessee Titans. While the Titans are 3-2 when they have fewer turnovers than their opponent, they are a dead, solid 0-5 when they have more turnovers. Tennessee committed 13 turnovers in those five games, while opposing teams lost the ball a total of only two times. That kind of hole is difficult to escape.

During the first four weeks of the 2004 season, teams that won the turnover battle went a collective 43-6, a winning 87.8 percent of games.

It's common sense, really. When you lose the ball, you lose a chance to score, while the opposition receives that same opportunity. At worst, it can be a 14-point swing. At best, it's usually a loss of 40 yards in field position. One turnover, quite often, can swing a game.

In Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Chicago Bears scored their only touchdown after Alex Brown hit quarterback Chris Simms and induced him to fumble on his own 1-yard line. The ensuing one-yard scoring pass from Kyle Orton to John Gilmore held up as the difference in the 13-10 victory.

Good teams almost always tend to force more turnovers than they yield.

Of the nine top teams in turnover margin -- Cincinnati has the league's best figure, plus-20 -- only one isn't at least three games over .500. And the 4-7 Buffalo Bills (plus-8) are actually still in playoff contention in the anemic AFC East.

Sin No. 3: Allowing a 100-yard runner (75 percent)
On the five occasions the Rams (5-6) have allowed a 100-yard rusher, they are 1-4.

The season began uneventfully for the Rams, who didn't allow a 100-yard runner in the first three games. Then, all hell broke loose: In three successive games, Tiki Barber (24 carries, 128 yards, 1 TD), Shaun Alexander (25-119, 2 TDs) and Edgerrin James (23-143, 3 TDs) sliced up the Rams' defense. Needless to say, all three games resulted in losses.

Although Fred Taylor ran wild on St. Louis -- carrying 22 times for 165 yards -- the Rams managed to hold off Jacksonville 24-21 in Week 8 to even their record at 4-4. But, after their bye week, the Rams reverted to form in Week 10. Alexander savaged the Rams for 165 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries, and the Seahawks won another game on their way to the NFC's best record so far (9-2).

In 2004, teams that featured a 100-yard rusher had a collective winning record every single week. During Weeks 6-9, the overall record was an astounding 32-1.

Last year, Patriots running back Corey Dillon cleared 100 yards nine times during the regular season. New England won eight of those games; only a four-interception game by Tom Brady (see Sin No. 2) cost them a 29-28 decision at Miami. The Patriots, you might recall, won the Super Bowl and finished with a 17-2 record. This year Dillon has been injured and has produced only one 100-yard game. The Patriots are 6-5 and limping toward the playoffs.

Producing a 100-yard runner usually means that team has actually had the luxury of methodically handing the ball off. And thatsuggests the team is playing with a lead, which, in turn, means that passing is not a necessity.

As former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes used to say, three things can happen when you throw the ball -- and two of them are bad. A turnover (see Sin No. 2) can be deadly and sometimes produce an early hole (see Sin No. 1). A dropped ball counts for nothing and also stops the clock (see Sin. No. 5). And then there is the sack, which leads us to…

Sin No. 4: Allowing more sacks (70 percent)
When legendary Rams defensive end David "Deacon" Jones coined the term "sack" -- as in, sacking and pillaging a rival village -- he saw savage tackling of the quarterback as a means to an end. What he didn't know was that, far more often than not, allowing your quarterback to be sacked more than your opponent's means The End.

Look no further than poor, unfortunate David Carr of the Houston Texans, the poster child of sackitis.

In 54 career starts, Carr has been sacked a ludicrous 190 times (more than 3.5 per game). Houston's record in those games is 15-39 (.278).

In his rookie season, he was decked 76 times -- an NFL record that is being threatened by this year's Texans. After a brutal stretch of three games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tennessee -- when Carr was sacked a total of 22 times -- the dubious record appeared in jeopardy. But now, through 11 games, with Carr suffering a league-high 50 sacks, the projection is 73. Chances are, based on more recent results, the number will wind up in the high 60s.

The correlation between sacks allowed and losing is a powerful one. The Texans are 1-10, and in their only win (19-16 over the Browns) each quarterback was sacked twice.

This statistic, upon reflection, fits into the matrix. The flip side of a 100-yard runner is a team desperate to catch up. When teams are forced to abandon the run, opposing defenses can rush the passer with abandon. This usually results in increased sacks and all the bad things that come with them.

Teams that allowed more sacks in Week 10 in 2003 were 0-11; in Week 9 of 2004 they were 0-12.

Good teams, as you might expect, protect their quarterbacks. Is it a coincidence that the 11-0 Colts have allowed Peyton Manning to be sacked only nine times -- easily the league's lowest total (among full-time starting quarterbacks). Meanwhile, the Patriots' Brady has been decked 12 times in the last five games, two of them losses.

It is worth noting, too, that the Texans won their only game by avoiding Sins. No. 2 and No. 3 and, instructively, Sin No. 5.

Sin No. 5: Losing time of possession (67 percent)
Possession, they say, is nine-tenths of the law. But in today's NFL you'll have to settle for seven-tenths. OK, to split hairs, 6.7-tenths.

The Buccaneers, by today's air-it-out standards, are a conservative team. Watching them, you might think it's still 1950. Head coach Jon Gruden drafted Cadillac Williams in the first round so, along with fullback Mike Alstott, he could keep pounding teams into submission while the defense did its muscular job.

So far, it's worked out pretty well for the Bucs. They have outscored opponents by a paltry 20 points, but at 7-4 they've won three more games than they've lost. Their narrow margin of error can be seen in the time-of-possession statistics. In 11 games, they have held the ball an average of 2 minutes and 40 seconds longer than opponents.

The Bucs are 5-2 when they win time of possession; 2-2 when they don't. Sunday's 13-10 loss to Chicago underlines the fragile dynamic. The Bears possessed the ball for all of six more seconds than the Bucs -- and won.

Scan the 2005 team numbers and you'll find the usual suspects at the top of the list.

Dallas (33:30) leads the NFL with Kansas City (32:26) and Denver (32:21) second and third, respectively. Those teams -- all in playoff contention -- are guided by old-school coaches Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil and Mike Shanahan, who have always employed a run-first, pass-second philosophy.

There's one other thing they all have in common: Super Bowl rings.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.