The Buffalo Bills just have not turned the ball over this season. In fact, if they continue on their current pace (6 in 11 games), they will break the record for the fewest turnovers in a season, which is currently held by the 1982 Kansas City Chiefs. That would be remarkable for two reasons—obviously, breaking a 34-year old record is a tremendous accomplishment, but factoring in the fact that the ‘82 Chiefs only played nine games due a work stoppage that season, Buffalo’s accomplishment would be even more impressive.
Obviously, breaking the record will give no solace to Bills’ fans who are starved for a playoff team. Avoiding both turnovers and the NFL playoffs will not be an acceptable outcome to the team or its fans, but it would stand to reason that protecting the football should lead to a great deal of success on the field. Here are the seven modern-era teams (with apologies to the 1943 New York Giants and the 1959 Cleveland Browns) who protected the football the best, and a brief look at how their seasons ended.
1982 Kansas City Chiefs (12 turnovers in 9 games)
The first team on the list doesn’t offer much hope for Buffalo, but it does offer a deep Bills’ connection. The Chiefs finished 3-6 that year, fourth in the five-team AFC West. This led to the firing of their head coach—a 57-year old named Marv Levy. While the Chiefs protected the football, they weren’t very good at much else, finishing 16th in scoring offense and 18th in scoring defense in a 28-team league.
1990 New York Giants (14 turnovers in 16 games)
The team which I feel has the right to call itself the best team in terms of turnover efficiency ever is one Bills’ fans are very familiar with overall. They finished 1st in the NFC East at 13-3, and defeated our beloved Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV. They were one field goal away from making this list one entirely bereft of Super Bowl winners, but I won’t take us all down that rabbit hole. The Giants finished 15th in scoring offense that year, but 1st in scoring defense in a 28-team league.
1998 Dallas Cowboys (15 turnovers in 16 games)
Chan Gailey’s Cowboys were on the back end of a dynasty, but they still had enough left in the tank to pull off a 10-6 season, good for 1st in the NFC East. Although they lost their wild card playoff game 20-7 to the Arizona Cardinals, the season was at least moderately successful. The team finished 9th in scoring offense and 3rd in scoring defense in a 30-team league.
2002 Jacksonville Jaguars (15 turnovers in 16 games)
The ‘02 Jags will serve as yet another bleak comparison for the Bills. Though they tied for the fewest turnovers in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs (next on this list), they only managed a 6-10 record overall. Tom Coughlin’s group was stingy on defense, finishing 9th in points per game, but was only 21st in scoring offense out of 32 teams. They finished 3rd in the 4-team AFC South division, only beating out the expansion Houston Texans.
2002 Kansas City Chiefs (15 turnovers in 16 games)
The second Chiefs squad to make the list, they lit the league on fire offensively, finishing first in scoring offense; however, their 28th-place finish on defense led to an 8-8 record and fourth-place finish in the AFC West.
2006 San Diego Chargers (15 turnovers in 16 games)
The ‘06 Chargers are one of the best football teams not to win a playoff game. According to 538’s ELO rating system, the 2006 Chargers were one of the best teams ever at their high-water mark. Of course, rating systems mean little when teams play actual games, and the Chargers soon fell to the Patriots, squandering a 14-2 regular season and home field advantage, and leading to Marty Schottenheimer’s firing with 47 wins in a five-year span. The Chargers finished 1st in scoring offense and 7th in scoring defense.
2007 New England Patriots (15 turnovers in 16 games)
If the ‘06 Chargers were one of the best teams not to win a playoff game, the ‘07 Patriots are undoubtedly the best NFL team not to win a Super Bowl. We all know the story—the Pats rampaged through their first 18 games, winning all of them, before falling in the Super Bowl to the underdog New York Giants. The Pats finished 1st in scoring offense, and 4th in scoring defense.
What’s the common denominator? Well, of the seven teams on this list, four of them finished in the top-10 in scoring offense. Three of those teams made the playoffs. Five of the seven teams finished in the top-10 in scoring defense. Four of them made the playoffs, and one won the Super Bowl. Of the teams that finished in the top-ten in both categories, all three made the playoffs.
How do the 2016 Bills compare? The team currently sits 8th in scoring offense and 12th in scoring defense. At 6-5 through 11 games, they have a lot of work left to do, and they need a lot of luck to come their way. Through 11 games, the ‘90 Giants were 10-1, the ‘98 Cowboys were 8-3, the ‘02 Jags were 5-6, the ‘02 Chiefs were 5-6, the ‘06 Chargers were 9-2, and the ‘07 Pats were, obviously, 11-0. Even with their fantastic efforts in protecting the ball, history suggests that they might still have a difficult time qualifying for their first playoff tournament in this millennium.
All records and PPG rankings courtesy of profootballreference.com