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Winning turnover differential fuels success in NFL playoffs

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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BALTIMORE -- In a league often defined by statistics, it may be the most important number of them all.

"Especially at playoff time," noted Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb, whose two interceptions in Sunday's victory helped push his team past the Houston Texans in a divisional-round matchup, advanced the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game for a second time in four seasons, and contributed mightily to a plus-four advantage in turnovers. "You want those extra possessions, to make things as easy on your own offense as you can, and to kind of put the other guy in a hole."

As evidenced by the Ravens' 20-13 victory, a game in which 17 of Baltimore's points were scored after takeaways, winning the takeaway/turnover differential is often tantamount to burying the opposition. The Ravens intercepted Houston rookie quarterback T.J. Yates three times and also recovered a Jacoby Jones fumble when the Texans' return specialist made an ill-conceived decision on a punt runback.

"It was obviously the key to the game," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whose team did not suffer a turnover or a penalty. "The four [takeaways] were huge."

They typically are at this time of the season.

In the 20 divisional-round games 2007-2011, the team with the advantage in the takeaway/turnover differential number has won all but three.

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Never in that stretch has there been more than one win in a divisional round by a franchise that did not own an edge in the turnover margin. New England was the lone team in this year's divisional round to advance to the conference championship game despite a minus-takeaway count. The Patriots were minus-one in Saturday night's 45-10 laugher over Denver.

But not many teams overcome such a deficit.

The advantage of earning the turnover edge has carried over into the conference championship games.

Six of the past eight conference title games were won by the club with the turnover advantage. In another game, the differential was even. Everything is magnified, of course, in postseason play. And few components, it seems, are bigger than takeaways.

San Francisco, which hosts the NFC title game next Sunday, tied for the NFL lead in takeaways during the regular season (38) and also tied a league record for the least turnovers (10). New York was a plus-seven in turnover differential. For all its shortcomings on defense, New England led the AFC with 34 takeaways, and had the conference's best mark (plus-17) in differential. Baltimore forced 26 takeaways and was plus-two.

Already late Sunday night, one Patriots assistant coach allowed that the staff was busy studying the coverage patterns of Ravens free safety Ed Reed, who probably has lost a step at age 33, but who had his eighth interception in his 10th playoff appearance in the game against Houston.

"Getting stops is always important, especially the way offenses are playing right now," said San Francisco free safety Dashon Goldson, who had one of two steals against Saints QB Drew Brees on Saturday. "It's like breaking serve in tennis, I guess. You get a 'stop' and you give your offense a golden opportunity to get a good starting point."

In addition to the two INTs, the San Francisco defense also recovered three New Orleans fumbles. The five takeaways resulted in 13 points. Goldson's interception set up a 4-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree.

And therein lies the second half of the takeaway equation: the ability to make turnovers into points.

As noted, the Ravens scored 17 points off takeaways, and two of their four scoring drives originated in Houston territory. In part because of the takeaways, none of the drives was for more than 45 yards. Good thing, too, for a sporadic Baltimore offense that eked out only 227 yards, and was pretty much dominated by the aggressive and youthful Texans' defense over the final three quarters.

Of the weekend's four winning teams, three scored double-digit points off takeaways. Even the Pats, whose defense had one fumble recovery vs. Denver, turned the takeaway into a touchdown.

Said New York Giants' middle linebacker Chase Blackburn, whose fumble recovery and 40-yard return on Sunday was followed one play later by Eli Manning's four-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham in the 37-20 upset of the Packers: "It's kind of like bonus points, right?"

For sure.

The 17 teams that won divisional-round games while having an advantage in the takeaway/turnover differential since 2007 have tallied 165 points as a result of the turnovers. That might not sound like a lot, but it represents 27.5 percent of the points scored by the winning franchises. Nine of the 17 scored 10 or more points as a direct result of takeaways.

In the 2008 playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals scored 23 points in a divisional-round upset of Carolina. The Giants advanced to Super Bowl XLII when cornerback Corey Webster intercepted Brett Favre and then Lawrence Tynes kicked the winning field goal in overtime. There were no interception or fumble returns for touchdowns in the divisional round this weekend, but that doesn't dampen the significance of takeaways or diminish their likely importance in next Sunday's conference title games.

"To take the ball away from the other guy in the playoffs ... it's so big," Webb said.

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