Protect the ball or go home.
Turnovers are the great equalizer in the NFL. In three of last weekend's four playoff games, the team with a huge turnover margin won: the 49ers, Ravens and Giants. The Patriots didn't need takeaways to take away any chance the Broncos had; the talent differential was more than enough.
"Turnovers. Doesn't that go down to every game, though?" Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. "So, I just don't think it's that specific. What did it boil down to (against Houston)? Turnovers, OK, No. 1 thing, right? Four to none."
Winning the turnover battle is always essential. Three of the top four teams that led the turnover tussle in the AFC and four of the top five in the NFC made the playoffs.
In Sunday's conference championships, San Francisco and New England would seem to have the edge. The 49ers led the league with a plus-28 turnover margin, including an NFL high of 15 fumble recoveries. The Niners also had a miniscule 10 giveaways.
New England topped the AFC at plus-17 and with 34 takeaways.
"We always talk about the turnover margin, and, of course that was huge," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of his team's five takeaways at Lambeau Field. "We were plus-three and we felt very much so, for a team that only had 14 turnovers over the course of the entire season, that was exceptional. They were a team with plus-24 and really had played from the other side of it all year long. ... The opportunity for us to be a plus-3 team, we had one turnover and they had four, was a huge part of the game."
All four teams have players who excel in protecting the ball, and in stealing it.
San Francisco (14-3) ran away with the NFC West, in great part because of its turnover differential; the other three division teams were a collective minus-10. Carlos Rogers, in his best of seven pro seasons, had six interceptions. So did safety Dashon Goldson.
Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions and had one fumble recovery. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Rob Ninkovich each had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries this season.
Ravens All-Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs forced an astounding seven fumbles this season.
On the other side, Ravens' star running back Ray Rice had 291 carries and 76 catches and fumbled twice. New England RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 510 career carries and 22 postseason carries has never fumbled or lost a fumble.
Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw struggled mightily with hanging onto the ball in past years, even being benched by Coughlin at one point in 2010. After losing six fumbles that year, he lost one in 2011; fellow back Brandon Jacobs didn't lose any, although he did drop the ball more than Bradshaw.
"It certainly is (important) because when you do that, you are eliminating the errors that get you beat," Coughlin said. "They certainly made that a top priority and the players bought into it and have done a good job with it."
Added Harbaugh: "That's the difference in football games, especially at this time of year. You have to do the important things right."
Since 1990, when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, the winner of the turnover battle was 49-5-9 in conference championships or Super Bowls, according to STATS LLC. Three AFC champions — Pittsburgh in 1995 and 2010, New England in 2007 — had more giveaways than the opponent, yet won. St. Louis did the same in the AFC in 1999, and the Steelers are the only Super Bowl winner since 1990 to pull off that trick, in the February 2006 game against Seattle, 2-1.
Ten NFC champions and four in the AFC in that span committed zero turnovers in conference title games, the last Chicago in 2006. In both 2005 and 2006, both conference champs had no giveaways.
The only Super Bowls in the last two decades with no turnovers were after the 1990 season, when the Giants beat the Ravens, and after the 1999 season, when St. Louis edged Tennessee.
There have been 22 defensive touchdowns in the postseason since 1990 and, since 1991, 249 turnovers in championship games and the Super Bowls, 120 leading to scores.
"When you make little mistakes, it's hard to fight back from those mistakes," Ravens linebacker and leader Ray Lewis said, "and most of those mistakes become turnovers."
And those turnovers can become a huge spark — or a huge letdown.
Last weekend, San Francisco picked off two of Drew Brees' passes. Brees had been intercepted 14 times in 657 attempts during the season, not at all in the wild-card win over Detroit.
"You have to be aware all the time that they go after the ball and they get the ball," Giants receiver Victor Cruz said. "Our defense, too. And when teams get the ball away from you, they usually win."