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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 9:47 AM

Yesterday in the NOTEBOOK, we talked about the most important stats for handicapping college football as it's being played right now. As promised, we're back today to do the same thing in the NFL. There's a wealth of statistical information available for fans and handicappers in the internet age. It's critical that you know the difference between what's important and what's just hot air.

Hopefully yesterday's discussion is fresh in your mind. If you missed it, check the archives! Let's jump right into the NFL...

YARDS-PER-PLAY
We talked about this yesterday in the colleges, and the same fundamentals apply here in the NFL. If you only had time to review ONE stat in both sports because of your personal schedule, we would have to suggest yards-per-play.

On offense, you can see very clearly who knows how to move the ball and who doesn't. On defense, you can see who's making stop and who isn't. It's probably best to think of this as a "skeleton" stat, and then you flesh out the rest of the body with additional elements. You've got to have the skeleton though, or all that other stuff is a pile of mush.

Look at these numbers in every boxscore. And, once everyone's played at least three regular season games, the total numbers for the season are very descriptive. Even if you prefer something simple like Power Ratings...or looking up old trends and systems from the history books...your performance will be better after studying yards-per-play. You'll make better Power Ratings. You'll fine-tune angles and systems, possibly talking yourself out of bad picks because you don't want to bet on a weak defense no matter what a textbook angle says!

THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
We move this up to second most important in the NFL because it's really the heart and soul of the current game. Whatever style a team is using...smash mouth...no-huddle...no-huddle hurry-up...teams are trying to move the chains and work their way down the field. It's impossible to make a "big play" offense work all the time at this level because opposing defenses are just too good. The Oakland Raiders were a great example of that in the latter years of the Al Davis regime because he kept trying to win with 1980's style offenses. MODERN offenses are trying to move the chains by whatever means their personnel can pull off.

On the defensive side of the ball...this stat is arguably even better than yards-per-play in telling you what kind of impact the stop-unit can have in a particular game. You keep hearing that it's "The Era of the Quarterback" or whatever. Top defenses still have a huge impact in this league. The NY Giants haven't won two recent Super Bowls because Eli Manning is Superman in disguise. Find out who the best defenses are...and look to invest in them at value prices against opposing offenses who are poor at moving the chains.

We want to make a quick aside here regarding the five starting rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. All five struggled last week at moving the chains. It's a defining characteristic of inexperienced quarterbacks that they don't know how to do this consistently. You can chart the maturity growth of young QB's with this stats...finding out quickly who's getting the hang of the NFL and who isn't.

QB PASSER RATING
There have been a lot of jokes over the years about how complicated it is to figure out the league's official "Passer Rating" stat. And, last year, ESPN even tried to come up with their own stat that was even more convoluted. What YOU need to know is that the sum total that's finally printed out is a GREAT indicator stat for quality. It consistently rates the quarterbacks correctly in terms of real quality (or lack thereof). That's all you can ask of a stat.

We think the media has overhyped the "Era of the Quarterback" stuff to a degree. But, we don't mean to suggest that QB's aren't important. Typically the difference between have's and have not's in the NFL involves what's happening at this position. We just want to make sure you're looking at MORE stuff than just the quarterbacks! When evaluating QB's, this is an informative stat that you should be using.

And, the NFL's website has within their stat base a number that reflects what opposing quarterbacks have done against each team's defense. Now, THIS is something that's pretty special in terms of telling you what you need to know. Nobody ever talks about it. Few handicappers bother to look at it. You definitely want to bet on defenses who make opposing quarterbacks look like benchwarmers...and you want to bet against defenses who make opposing quarterbacks look like Pro Bowlers.

RUSHING YARDAGE
You longtime readers of the NOTEBOOK know that we've emphasized rushing yardage in our stat discussions for years at both the college and pro levels. Even as others are telling you that rushing doesn't matter in the modern age...or that you can handicap without worrying too much about who the running backs are...we're here to tell you that the correlations are just as strong as ever between rushing success and ATS success.

Now, in the NFL, you want to look more at per-game averages rather than per-play averages in this stat. In fact, many statheads make the mistake of trusting yards-per-carry too much. There are teams who pad their per-carry stat by mostly running draw plays out of passing formations. This may give them a gaudy per-play number but only 70 rushing yards in a game that they lost big. Successful grinders can have lower per-play numbers but 140 rushing yards in a game. Look at TOTAL rushing yards per game and you'll see the correlation with success.

As always, we should remind you that rushing yardage is more valuable than passing yardage because it comes with lower risk. Moving the ball on the ground is safer. Therefore, teams who are able to do that tend to well in turnover differential in a way that truly matters.

TURNOVERS
We won't repeat everything we said about this yesterday. Just remember that you CAN handicap turnover potential in any game you're studying by looking at the TO tendencies of the quarterbacks involved, and the aggressiveness of the opposing defense. You won't always get it right because this is football and crazy things happen. Over time, mistake-prone QB's will keep making mistakes (we're looking at you Jay Cutler and Michael Vick), and young QB's will make more mistakes than smart veterans (look at the TO marks for the rookies last week).

POINTS ON DRIVES OF 60 YARDS OR MORE
We've used this data off and on over the years here in the NOTEBOOK. We'll probably start to incorporate it into our game previews pretty soon. Nobody officially posts this, so you have to go through each boxscore by hand to tabulate the numbers. This is well worth the effort, we can assure you. It's one of the greatest indicator stats we've seen at the team level.

Good offenses know how to drive the field for points. Bad offenses can't do that. Good defenses prevent opponents from driving the field. Bad defenses just kind of stand there and watch the touchdowns go by. If you have the time to total these yourselves Sunday Nights from the boxscores at nfl.com or the drive charts at ESPN's website...we strongly encourage it. You will have information that's not in the market because oddsmakers and most other statheads are focused on other data. We hope you longtime readers have already been doing this on your own through the first two weeks of pro action.

That wraps up our two-day discussion of key stat here in the NOTEBOOK. We're back to game previews Thursday with the NY Giants at Carolina in the NFL. Are other NFL previews will be Sunday for New England/Baltimore in a playoff rematch in prime time on NBC, and Green Bay/Seattle in the Monday Night game on ESPN.

College showcase previews will run Friday and Saturday. Among the options from an attractive schedule are Clemson/Florida State, LSU/Auburn, Michigan/Notre Dame, and Kansas State/Oklahoma. 

Today's a great day to lock in for full season football since there aren't any NFL games on the schedule to distract you. Make a commitment to handicap smarter using the stat categories we discussed yesterday and today...and make a commitment to get the BEST PLAYS ON THE BOARD from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

Sign up online, or call the office at 1-800-323-4453 for more details. Be sure to ask about pennant race baseball when you call. We won't have space to talk about baseball much during football season here in the NOTEBOOK. But, JIM HURLEY is all over the diamonds to make sure his clients are winning seven days a week.

Make a few clicks now for Wednesday baseball winners. We'll see you again Thursday to preview Giants/Panthers.

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