We're 10 weeks into the 2013 season, and besides the six elite teams at the top (Seahawks, Saints, Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos, Patriots), it's hard to get a clear reading on much of the league. Are the Lions for real? Are the Colts and Bengals contenders or pretenders? Which team out of the 4-5 mob is best poised to make a run?
One way to get a sense of these answers is a synthesis of statistics I like to call toxic differential. Though I've been tracking the concept faithfully since my days as an offensive coordinator for the Vikings in the late 1990s, it's been in circulation among coaches for much longer.
Toxic differential essentially combines turnover differential and explosive-play differential. (Explosive plays are those that gain 20-plus yards.) The reason some of us have been drawn to this concept is that it is an interactive statistic. Coaches have been teaching the importance of avoiding turnovers since the football was first inflated, but toxic differential illustrates that it's not enough to merely avoid turning the ball over; you also need to generate big offensive plays. On the flip side, you can't just sit back on defense and play a deep prevent all the time; you must create turnovers, too.
On both sides of the ball, gambling to generate a big play often leaves you open to committing a big error. Toxic differential does a good job of showing how well teams balance risk and reward.
Now that you're familiar with the TD concept, here are this year's numbers through Week 10:
A close study of the data shows some clear trends:
» Sometimes toxic differential simply reaffirms what we already know, which in this case is that the Seahawks are for real. Not only is the defense generating turnovers, but Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch make Seattle potent offensively, despite a handful of stale performances. This team has the profile of a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
» While Philadelphia doesn't have the best offense in the league, it does have the most explosive one. The Eagles have 16 more explosive plays on offense than any other team in the league, and seem to be rounding into form with Nick Foles as quarterback. If the defense can play better, Philadelphia should be favored in the NFC East.
» The 49ers' struggles have been well publicized, and they'll likely have to go on the road during the playoffs, but the TD numbers show this is still an elite team. San Francisco doesn't turn the ball over much and doesn't allow many big plays. While Colin Kaepernick has seemed lost at times -- and hasn't had much help -- the Niners' offense still generates big plays.
» Much has been made of the Steelers' defensive decline. Well, don't blame it on breakdowns -- Pittsburgh has allowed just 24 explosive plays. The real problem is the Steelers' inability to get their hands on the ball, as they've managed a meager seven takeaways. Only the Chargers' defense has been less effective in turning the ball over.
» The Buccaneers have not been as bad as their 1-8 record suggests. Some narrow losses have obscured Tampa Bay's conservative offense (12 giveaways, 29 explosive plays), while the defense has been sounder than most, yielding just 31 explosive plays. Obviously, the Bucs' offense will continue to limp along with Doug Martin out for the year, but this team could be doing much better in the win-loss department.
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» Carolina is an interesting case study. The Panthers, who have ridden a five-game winning streak to within a game of the Saints in the NFC South, currently rank 10th in toxic differential at plus-5. Last year, despite a subpar 7-9 record, they finished second at plus-29. While Carolina's 2013 turnover margin is similar to its 2012 figure, the offense is not as explosive -- but with a defense this good, it hasn't had to be. If the Panthers can improve their offensive performance down the stretch, they'll truly become Super Bowl contenders.
» The two games between Denver and Kansas City over the next three weeks will be fascinating. Both teams have unusual TD profiles. The Broncos are the only elite team in the bottom 10 of the TD rankings, largely because their defense has allowed the most explosive plays in the NFL. Meanwhile, just six teams in football have been worse than Kansas City in explosive-play differential ... but the Chiefs have made up for it by forcing more turnovers than any other team and also protecting the ball better than anyone else (take a bow, Alex Smith). That's allowed them to build a league-best plus-15 turnover differential. (Keep in mind the fact that K.C. was a league-worst minus-45 in TD last season, with a minus-24 differential in turnovers and a minus-21 differential in explosive plays.) The Broncos' defense clearly is vulnerable, but we'll have to see if the Chiefs' safety-first offense (which has just 28 explosive plays in nine games) can capitalize.