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The proof is in the pudding

Want to know why the Houston Texans are so good? They’re coming up aces in three big categories. Joe Fortenbaugh

November 05, 2012
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It wasn’t even five minutes into Sunday’s Bears-Titans game before I was picking up the cell to begin my weekly NFL text message barrage (God bless the people on the other end of these texts). How could a team with an offense like Chicago’s be 7-1 on the season? The quarterback is erratic, the offensive line is as shaky as they come and the play-calling seems to forget the fact that running back Matt Forte has caught 50 or more passes in each of his previous four NFL campaigns.

It was only a few minutes later that I had my answer. You don’t need the league’s best offense to win games when your defense ball-hawks better than anybody else in the business.

Charles Tillman’s career day (nine tackles, four forced fumbles) reminded me of just how important a team’s turnover differential is when it comes to success in the NFL. So with nine weeks of action pretty much in the books, I decided to take a look at three of our favorite statistics to determine what kind of role each is playing through the first half of the season.

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

A simple calculation that takes a team’s forced turnovers and subtracts said team’s turnovers committed. At a league-leading +16 turnover differential through nine weeks, it’s no shock to see the Chicago Bears sitting at the top of the list with a 7-1 overall record. Here’s how the rest of the top-10 and bottom-10 shake down:

odds chart

Top 10 SU: 58-25 (.699)
Top 10 ATS: 48-34-1 (.585)

Bottom 10 SU: 33-48 (.407)
Bottom 10 ATS: 31-47-3 (.397)

Based on the standard 11:10 odds, the top-10 teams in turnover differential have already delivered a very healthy return on investment in 2012. Assuming you laid $110 to win $100 on every game played by each of these teams, you would currently be in the black $1,060.

Conversely, teams that fail in this category are coming up short for their supporters in Vegas, as well. Laying $110 to win $100 on every contest played by the bottom-10 teams on this list would have you down $2,070 through nine weeks.

On a much smaller scale, take note that four teams who currently rank in the top-10 in turnover differential played four teams who currently rank in the bottom-10 this past weekend. The results?

Chicago Bears 51, Tennessee Titans 20
Houston Texans 21, Buffalo Bills 9
Carolina Panthers 21, Washington Redskins 13
Atlanta Falcons 19, Dallas Cowboys 13

The top-10 teams went 3-1 both straight-up and against the spread in those matchups.

YARDS PER PLAY (YPP) DIFFERENTIAL

Take a team’s yards per play average on offense and subtract the yards per play average given up by the defense. For example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are averaging 6.18 yards per play on offense this season (first in NFL), but their defense is surrendering an average of 6.09 yards per play (28th in NFL). This gives the Bucs a +.09 YPP differential.

odds chart

Top 10 SU: 48-34 (.585)
Top 10 ATS: 43-38-1 (.531)

Bottom 10 SU: 27-55 (.329)
Bottom 10 ATS: 35-45-2 (.438)

While profitable, YPP differential isn’t giving us the same healthy ROI that turnover differential is at the moment. However, when examining the above chart, you’ll notice that three teams who appear in the top-10 went head-to-head against three teams that are listed in the bottom-10 this past weekend. The results?

Baltimore Ravens 25, Cleveland Browns 15
Detroit Lions 31, Jacksonville Jaguars 14
Houston Texans 21, Buffalo Bills 9

Three games, three wins, three point spread victories.

SACK DIFFERENTIAL

One of this writer’s favorite statistics, sack differential works the same way as turnover differential. Take a team’s total number of sacks and subtract the amount of sacks surrendered. I’m a big fan of sack differential because of everything the number encompasses. From offensive line play to the ability to rush the passer to the quarterback’s skills in evading the rush and getting rid of the football, sack differential takes several integral elements of the game and combines them to spit out one nice, clean little number.

odds chart

Top 10 SU: 43-40 (.518)
Top 10 ATS: 45-36-2 (.555)

Bottom 10 SU: 38-43 (.469)
Bottom 10 ATS: 36-43-2 (.456)

Sack differential isn’t producing as favorable of results now as it did when I first started tracking these numbers ten years ago, but it’s still profitable. Laying $110 to win $100 on each of the top-ten teams this season would have you up $540 at the current moment, while backing each of the bottom-ten teams through nine weeks would have you down $1,130.

Four matchups took place this weekend that pitted a top-ten team against a bottom-10 team. The results?

Carolina Panthers 21, Washington Redskins 13
Baltimore Ravens 25, Cleveland Browns 15
Detroit Lions 31, Jacksonville Jaguars 14
Pittsburgh Steelers 24, New York Giants 20

Top-10 teams went 2-2 both straight-up and ATS against bottom-10 teams in Week 9.

CONCLUSION

For every metric that demonstrates why a given team is finding success, there are countless other statistics that can show why that same team is headed for failure. That’s what happens when you have access to such a vast amount of data to analyze each and every week.

But the goal from our perspective still remains the same: Try to identify and crunch the right statistics. It sounds great to hear that a team like the Detroit Lions might be 6-0 against the spread over their last six Monday night home games, but what does that mean if Detroit hasn’t played a home Monday night game since 2004? Does that statistic really matter?

We’ll leave you with this: Teams that rank in the top-10 in at least two of the above categories and do not rank in the bottom-10 in any of our three categories are a combined 27-15 straight-up (.643) and 25-16-1 ATS (.609) this season.

Apply the same rules to teams in the bottom-10 and you get a combined straight-up record of 23-42 (.354) and a 26-37-2 mark against the spread (.413).

That’s got to mean something.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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