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Who is playoff-bound? 'Toxic differential' tells the tale

Toxic Differential. Ever heard of it? Me neither. Until earlier this season when I learned how much NFL Network analysts Brian Billick and Jim Mora leaned on it.

Both of these former NFL coaches feel it's the best playoff predictor -- stat wise -- that exists. Not team passing yards. Not points allowed. Nope, the ultimate playoff predictor, especially to these coaches who have tasted success at the highest level, is "toxic differential."

So what is it?

It's the measure of how many big plays (20-plus yards) teams create minus how many they give up. It also includes turnovers forced versus those given up. Basically, it's a risk-reward stat. And it's become quite the prognosticator of what is and isn't playoff football.

Billick came up with the name in 1998, while he was offensive coordinator of the Vikings. Keeping track of more criteria to gauge his team was old hat for this self-proclaimed "stat guy." In fact, his players weren't above giving him a hard time for his affinity for numbers, saying, "If the computer's down, we're punting."

Mora also used this combo-platter stat, imploring his teams to get the "double positive," i.e., positive turnover differential and positive big-play differential.

Remember the old adage that running the football and stopping the run were the keys to winning in the NFL? Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss.

The Colts lost Sunday in large part because they couldn't stop the Cowboys' ground game and couldn't run the football themselves. But, the biggest reason they're 6-6 is their toxic differential.

Peyton Manning has thrown 11 interceptions in the last three weeks, pushing Indy's turnover ratio to minus-6 this season. But it's not just Manning. The defense has given up 42 plays of 20-plus yards, which is 11th in the league. That's not awful, but considering they led the league in said category last season, it's relevant. Throw in the fact that the offense is 29th in the NFL at generating big plays, and you have a .500 club.

That's the story with toxic differential. It's like the Terminator... there are no ifs, ands or buts. It kills your football team if you're on the wrong side of it.

When a team is on the right side of the toxic differential, let the good times roll. Last year, eight of the top 10 teams in this quirky but damn accurate category made the playoffs. That's pretty solid. The 11th team, the Jets, made it as well. In 2008, every team in the top 10 made the playoffs. Every... last... one.

"In my experience in coaching, there's not a better indicator or playoff predictor than the toxic differential," Billick said. "You can say, 'You gotta run the football, you gotta stop the run.' But at the end of the day, maybe five out of the top 10 rushing teams will make the playoffs."

Billick is spot on. What's more interesting is where the top rushing teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2009 finished in toxic differential. The Titans ended up 27th at minus-17, with the Dolphins right behind them at 29th (minus-33). How about poor Cleveland? The Browns were dead last with an awful minus-52.

"If you can have a double positive, which means you win both the turnover differential and the explosive plays differential, your percentages of winning the game are in the 90s," Mora said. "Okay, win one or the other (turnover or big plays), and statistics say you'll still win the game. But when you combine them into a double positive, it jumps up exponentially."

Most fans and analysts have been aware of the impact turnovers have on the outcome of a game for quite some time. John Madden used to love circling the turnovers with his CBS Chalkboard marker while Pat Summerall would voiceover the halftime stats, especially if one team was winning handily. Former Giants coach Bill Parcells often emphasized turnover differential and its statistical relevance to winning. According to Mora, when a team is plus-1 in turnover differential they win nearly 80 percent of the time (since 1990).

But what you might not know is how important big plays, or "explosive" gains, are to the success of a team. According to a 19-year study (1990-2008) that Mora used while with the Seahawks, winning the big-play battle won football games almost as much as the turnover battle.

"Teams that win the explosive-gains differential win 65 percent of their games," he said. "That's just a plus-1. Teams that have accomplished both a positive turnover and explosive gains differential win over 92 percent of their games."

Let's look at this new age stat from a different perspective: What franchises have consistently excelled in taking both the turnover and explosive-play battle?

The top 12 teams are a veritable who's who of the NFL over the past decade. Eight of the 10 Super Bowl winners in the 2000s are represented, as well as both teams that won multiple Lombardi Trophies (Patriots and Steelers). The regular-season team of the decade is listed (Colts), as well as the NFC's best club over the same span (Eagles).

Notice the Chargers. They really haven't won the turnover battle by much for being so high up on this list. Why? San Diego has been great at creating big plays, limiting opposing big plays, while not giving the ball away too much. But the franchise didn't force a ton of turnovers in the last decade. Basically, they've gone three-for-four.

According to Billick, being effective at three out of the four categories is the key. He points to the Super Bowl XLIV champs as a prime example.

"The goal is to win all four categories," Billick said. "But you look at what the Saints and Sean Payton did last year. He got Gregg Williams in there as defensive coordinator and basically said, 'Just get me the ball' so he could give his offense a short field. He didn't care how many yards they gave up. He just wanted turnovers."

The Saints were awesome at creating big plays and forcing turnovers last season, with Drew Brees lighting it up, while the Darren Sharper-led defense intercepted passes and sprinted towards the end zone seemingly every week. But with the risks the defense took to force those turnovers came the occasional big plays given up. That's why New Orleans finished second in takeaways and 25th in yards allowed.

This season, the Giants have been winning their toxic differential battle in a different manner. The G-Men get a lot of big plays down the field to Hakeem Nicks and Co., limit explosive plays and force other offenses into making mistakes. But Eli Manning has been a turnover machine, throwing 17 picks and losing five fumbles. Big Blue is meeting three out of four criteria, like the Saints did last year, and other playoff teams typically do. It's no surprise they're sitting pretty at 8-4.

If you ever wonder why so many quarterbacks don't throw the ball down the field, or why a defense plays so much Cover 2 and prevent, it might be wise to consider the toxic differential. Quarterbacks who employ a short passing game turn it over less, while prevent defenses limit big plays.

But even if you're not buying that, there's no question that the turnover and explosive-play differential are huge indicators of success. When combined, nothing has proven to be a better playoff predictor, especially not in Mora's mind.

"Over the course of time," Mora said, "those are the two variables that have stood the test of time."

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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