There is no single statistic that determines if a football team will be successful or not, from yards gained to penalties against. But perhaps if one stat highlights the difference between successful teams and struggling ones, it would be turnover differential.
Entering Week 17, the four NFL teams with the best turnover differential were Oakland, Kansas City, Atlanta and New England, all of which were plus-10 or above. Not surprisingly, each of those teams are bound for the playoffs. The four teams at the bottom of the rankings were Los Angeles, Jacksonville, the Bears and the New York Jets, all at minus-10 or below. None of those teams won more than five games this year.
On Sunday, in the 2016 regular season finale, Chicago again showed its issues with protecting the ball. In a 38-10 loss at Minnesota, the Bears threw the ball away, dropped punts and gave up possession on a strip-sack. When it was all over, the Bears turned it over five times against the Vikings, while the team's defense only recorded one takeaway of its own. That put the final season total to 31 giveaways by the Chicago offense and just 11 takeaways on defense, the fewest in the NFL.
Clearly the inability to secure possession and force opponents into mistakes was an issue for the Bears all season long, and the Bears showed on Sunday that this year's team was unable to overcome its own mistakes once again.
Chicago's turnover onslaught began on the opening drive. A strong run game helped the team move the ball downfield, especially a 22-yard scamper by wide receiver Joshua Bellamy on an end-around. The Bears reached the Minnesota 16-yard line, and on second down, quarterback Matt Barkley play-faked a run but then rolled out for a throw toward the end zone for Alshon Jeffery. The ball was not where it needed to be for Jeffery to haul it in, and Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes easily intercepted it. Chicago was already trailing by a touchdown before the pick, and the Vikings turned the interception into three more points.
Barkley opened the second half the same way as the first. After another strong drive into Minnesota territory, the quarterback turned the ball over. Looking for Cameron Meredith over the middle, Barkley threw low when the receiver expected the ball to be up high. Vikings defender Trae Waynes went down to get it, ending another opportunity for points. The two interceptions thrown by Barkley on Sunday gave him 10 over the last three games of the season.
"I know what I am capable of and the plays I am able to make," Barkley said. "I am not going to play fearful, but I definitely want to play smarter and make better decisions."
Along with the interceptions, there were fumbles. Running back Jeremy Langford gave the ball up on a second-quarter run. Punt returner Bralon Addison took his eyes off the ball on a second-quarter kick and muffed it. And then to top them all, Barkley was hit in the fourth quarter by a pair of Vikings defenders, who knocked the ball loose. Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen scooped it up and took it 20 yards for a touchdown, the final points scored either by or against the Bears during the regular season. In total on Sunday, the Bears turned it over five times, which turned into 24 Minnesota points.
"We moved the ball and put points on the board," Barkley said of his performance this season and what he will evaluate heading into the offseason. "I think you will learn more from the mistakes and what we did not do. I think we will be looking at this season as we were so close and could have done a lot better and it is those things that we will be able to correct. I think looking at this loss it will make us hungry for more."
Turnover differential wasn't the only reason the Bears finished 3-13 on the season. Just like no single stat determines the good teams from the downtrodden ones, there isn't a lone reason for a team's complete record. However the combined impact of the turnovers by the offense and the lack of takeaways by the defense led to a series of issues over the course of the season, capped off by the disappointing final chapter in Minneapolis on Sunday.