We're three-quarters of the way through the regular season, and "toxic differential" -- the synthesis stat that combines a team's turnover differential with its explosive-play differential (defined as gains of 20-plus yards) -- further underscores the significance of turnovers and big plays on the outcome of most NFL games. Just take a look at the numbers:
» If the playoffs began today, eight of the 12 teams that would qualify rank among the top 12 in toxic differential. Buffalo, Houston, Cleveland and San Francisco -- all four are very much in the playoff picture, but they're not currently in the top six teams in their respective conferences -- are interlopers in that top dozen. The Bills rank fourth in each separate differential, which actually slots them at third in the grand measurement. The Texans, playing great defense and using a solid running game to buttress an unspectacular offense, rank second in the NFL in turnover differential, and are at least breaking even by not giving up any more big plays than they are generating. The Browns and 49ers are comfortably in the black in both differentials (turnover and big-play).
» By contrast, the four outliers in toxic differential -- the four teams that are currently in the playoffs but outside of the top 12 in this statistical measurement -- are New England (13th), Miami (16th), Cincinnati (tied for 17th) and Philadelphia (22nd). The Dolphins are among six 7-5 AFC teams, but tiebreakers give them the second wild-card slot. In terms of toxic differential, the 'Fins are hovering right above dead even at plus-3. Meanwhile, New England, Cincy and Philly are all solidly in playoff position, leading their respective divisions, but outside of the top 12 in the toxic rankings. The Pats, of course, barely miss the cut, just one differential point off the No. 12 spot. For the Bengals, it is the Jekyll-and-Hyde act of looking stellar one week and putrid the next; they are just about breaking even on turnovers and actually doing so on big plays, but a closer look reveals extremes from game to game. Case in point is the play of Andy Dalton. Ten of his 13 interceptions this season have come in just four games. Three came in the first half of this past Sunday's narrow 14-13 victory over the two-win Buccaneers. In Philadelphia, for all the impressive numbers the Eagles generate on offense, they are minus-six in turnovers. And while they rank second in the NFL in big plays (60), they are 29th in big plays yielded (57).
» This year, like most years, the teams at the top of the toxic differential scale sit at the top of the standings. Seattle and Denver lead the differential, as they did last season, and are gaining steam as we move toward the playoffs. The Seahawks only rank 17th in the NFL in takeaways with 18, but they come in second in giveaways with just nine. They are average in the NFL when it comes to generating big plays, but they're giving up a league-low number in that category defensively. Denver predictably has generated a bevy of explosive plays, ranking third, but the Broncos have also allowed the eighth-fewest plays of 20-plus yards -- a testament to the changes they've made defensively. The maturation of Denver's running game in the past two weeks bodes well, because this will allow Peyton Manning to make safer throws and further limit the team's turnovers.
» It is also easy to see what teams need to do to improve their standing in the playoff picture. The Colts rank a solid fifth overall on the toxic chart, but they give the ball away too easily (just six teams have coughed the ball up more) and yield too many big plays (just five teams in the league have surrendered more). Their saving grace: Andrew Luck and the offense lead the NFL in explosive plays with 69 (62 passing, seven rushing).
» With Green Bay's dynamic, Aaron Rodgers-led offense, you'd think the Packers would enjoy a healthy advantage over opponents in the big-play category. Not so! They've mustered just six more explosive plays than they've given up. The key for Green Bay is that Rodgers simply doesn't turn the ball over. With just eight giveaways, Green Bay is a whopping plus-15 (tops in the NFL) in turnover differential.
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» Kansas City's defense has improved significantly since its meltdown in the second half of last season; the Chiefs have given up just 36 explosive plays all year (third in the league). But with no deep threat and an anonymous receiving corps behind Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs have accumulated just 39 explosive plays on offense (25th).
» If anybody cares, it is easy to see why Chicago finds itself in its current dilemma: The Bears rank 29th in explosive plays and 28th in explosive plays allowed.
» When you see Oakland at an astounding minus-41 in toxic differential, it gives new meaning to the term "Black Hole." It also speaks to the problem of combining a rookie quarterback with an aging cast of skill players. The Raiders have just 24 explosive plays -- seven fewer than anyone else in football and 45 fewer than Indianapolis (a difference of nearly four explosive plays per game).
There are always anomalies and outliers, but for the most part, toxic differential doesn't lie.