We're about three quarters of the way through the 2016 regular season, and that's the time each year when I like to take a closer look at Toxic Differential. As I've written about in the past, this is a synthesis stat that combines a team's turnover differential with its explosive-play differential (explosive plays defined as gains of 20-plus yards). As always, it further underscores the significance of turnovers and big plays in the outcomes of most NFL games, as well as the relationship between turnovers and big plays.
In short: Basic, conservative offenses that protect the ball and try to win the time of possession battle rarely turn the ball over a lot, but they also don't pile up many explosive plays. Meanwhile, high-powered passing offenses that generate lots of explosive plays are also prone to more turnovers. Conversely, gambling defenses that blitz a great deal might generate more turnovers, but they almost always give up more explosive plays. And vice versa.
The teams that can manage their turnover differential while accentuating an advantage in explosive plays -- or, conversely, manage their explosive plays yielded while accentuating an advantage in turnover differential -- usually fare very well. And at the end of most seasons, the best teams typically can be found in the top half of the ToxDiff standings.
There are a few outliers each year, but the Toxic Differential stat is still a worthwhile prism to hold up to light, in separating the contenders from the pretenders, and in identifying exactly where teams need to improve down the stretch.
This year's numbers are no different:
» Minnesota ranks first overall largely because Mike Zimmer's club has given up the fewest explosive plays on defense (31) in the NFL. Combined with being third overall in takeaways, the Vikings wind up at plus-17 in ToxDiff, enough to lead the league -- and cushion the loss of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater on offense.
» Now, the No. 2 team, Atlanta, is notable. The Falcons' re-emergence as a contender has surprised many, given that they haven't posted a winning record since 2012. But the Matt Ryan-led offense has done an amazing job piling up explosive plays (with an NFL-high 56) while simultaneously taking care of the football (only nine giveaways). This is a tough balancing act, but the Falcons have done it brilliantly thus far.
» Why is Dallas, so impressive with a 10-1 record, not ranked higher? Because while Dak Prescott has been remarkably adept at protecting the football, the Cowboys defense ranks just 27th in the league in takeaways. On offense, the Cowboys have been productive, but the steady pounding of Ezekiel Elliott doesn't produce as many explosive plays as, say Washington, with Kirk Cousins and his deep cast of pass catchers (second in the league in explosive plays on offense).
» With a porous offensive line and a banged-up Russell Wilson, Seattle is not nearly as explosive as in past years, currently ranking 22nd in explosive plays made (with 38), even as their defense ranks third (giving up only 34). But with a plus-5 in turnover differential, the Seahawks still find themselves inside the top 10 of ToxDiff.
» Kansas City's conservative offense and big-play defense allow the Chiefs to lead the league in turnover differential at plus-14. But combine Alex Smith's short passing with the loss of game breakers Jamaal Charles and (recently) Jeremy Maclin, and K.C. owns a minus-6 in explosive-play differential. That's still a net Toxic Differential of plus-8, but the Chiefs will need to find a way for more explosive plays on offense to improve that substantially.
» Two teams in the playoff hunt might be destined for a fall. The Giants are minus-5 in turnovers and minus-8 in explosive plays, leaving them tied for 28th in the league in Toxic Differential. If they're still there at the end of the season, they likely won't make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Texans -- leading the subpar AFC South -- are missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, and rank 27th in takeaways. Combined with the poor performance of Brock Osweiler (the Texans are dead last in explosive plays), Houston sits at a lowly 30th in ToxDiff, which should offer some encouragement for AFC South foes Tennessee (18th in ToxDiff) and Indianapolis (22nd).
» Some teams seem to be just treading water. The Colts, who are in the top 10 in explosive plays (with 46), are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to giving up explosive plays (46, as well). This would be OK if they had a big-play defense that generated a lot of turnovers, but they're tied for 29th with just eight takeaways. When you're giving up big plays but not creating takeaways, it's a long season for the defensive coordinator -- and the fans.
» Green Bay, with its season-long defensive struggles, might be well-advised to dial back the fronts and coverages to something a little more conservative. The Packers rank 26th in explosive plays surrendered (47). If they can play a little more soundly on defense -- and they'll have the opportunity with upcoming games against Houston, Chicago and Minnesota -- the Pack might be able to run the table the way Aaron Rodgers envisions.
» One thing that continues to be true: The worst teams in ToxDiff are usually the worst teams, pure and simple. So it is this year, with Cleveland (minus-19) and San Francisco (minus-26) sitting at the bottom of the charts. Hue Jackson and Chip Kelly have their work cut out for them, but what needs fixing isn't going to get fixed this season.