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What are the key stats to paint the best picture of an NFL game?

If trying to answer why a team had a given result, what stats help tell the story?

NFL: SEP 17 Vikings at Steelers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, special guest Rob “Stats” Guerrera from FFSN’s San Francisco 49ers affiliate The Gold Standard came on to talk various NFL statistics as well as those that could influence the Steelers Week 1 matchup against the 49ers. During the show, Rob and I each gave our key statistics that we feel lead to the ultimate outcome of a game. While ultimately numbers such as “wins” or “points scored versus points surrendered” tell the tail as to who improved their record, what other things within the game can help determine the outcome?

Throughout the discussion, Stats and I had very similar lists with the following items being the top five. We both noted how neither of us are keen on some of the “deep analytics” some dive into as we feel sometimes the more basic stats tell a better story.

Touchdown percentage/offense of red zone efficiency

While Rob took the approach of how many offensive drives end in a touchdown, I had a very similar stat with the same goal in mind when it came to red zone efficiency and finishing drives with touchdowns once a team reaches their opponent’s 20-yard line. With the Steelers settling far too often for field goals instead of touchdowns, Rob pointed out this has been a huge deal for the 49ers offense as well. Across the NFL, the more drives where teams have them end in touchdowns helps lead to more victories.

Manageable third downs/3rd down conversion rate

While I brought up the topic of being successful converting third downs, Rob was more specific about converting third and manageable plays. While the overall conversion rate is important, the shorter the distance needed to gain, the higher the efficiency should go. If a team is constantly facing 3rd & 1 or 3rd & 2, their efficiency rate should be nearly perfect. But when the efficiency rate is brought down due to a 3rd & 14, it is a much more difficult situation to overcome.

Turnover margin

Since this is the first stat I list in my “Numbers” article following every game, whether or not the team comes out on top of the turnover battle goes a long way in winning the game. Yes, there are times when a team can turn the ball over much more than their opponent and can still overcome, but those games are more the exception and not the rule. A team needs to be able to take the football way more often than they turn it over in order to continue to have success.


One of the biggest killers of an offensive drive can be getting behind the chains with a penalty. When a 1st & 10 turns into a 1st & 20, it is much more difficult to keep the drive going. But not only are penalties a key statistic in a game, the difference in penalties between a team and their opponent can tell more of the story. A team could have nine penalties enforced against them but their opponents could have 10 penalties as they simply are being officiated by a crew that is “flag happy.” But where a team could run into a problem is when they have seven penalties in the game while their opponent only has one. Much like with turnovers, the more it is unbalanced the more it impacts the game in favor of one team.

Time of possession

With this statistic, context is very important. Time of possession alone does not dictate the winner of the game. But when there is a significant difference in time of possession, it does tell the story of how the game played out. A team can strive to control the football yet not control it enough and lose the game although winning the time of possession battle. Also, some teams are dynamic and can score quickly therefore not using up much time on the clock. But looking at the context of what type of team is in the game and the style of game they want to dictate, seeing how the time of possession plays out helps to tell part of the story.

So those are the five key statistics Rob and I look at following a game to help paint the picture. What statistics do you tend to use to judge a performance? What else would you add to the list? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.

To check out our explanation of these stats, as well as what stats could be key in the Steelers versus 49ers game in Week 1, check out the entire Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: