In football, you want seven and not three (or zero). Touchdowns are the goal. Field goals are the consolation prize. And, yeah, this old adage should probably be updated to wanting eight and not three, since two-point conversions are more en vogue than ever before.
But you get the idea.
One would assume that the teams that score the most touchdowns and give up the fewest touchdowns would have the best shot of winning it all, or at least merit strong consideration. Certainly, there are other metrics – like turnover ratio, or differential between passer ratings or number of starters out for the season – that one could turn to as a predictor of success. But net touchdowns seems like a pretty good place to start.
We are always looking for ways to quantify teams or assess how much luck or good fortune or defying the odds has gone into a team's overall record. Are there some teams that probably deserve a better or worse record? I'm not smart enough or mathematically inclined enough to pretend I have an answer to that question, but I did find spending time studying the touchdown differentials to make for interesting fodder, as one ponders the stretch run of the season in trying to sort out a jumbled pile of teams in each conference at a time when results seem more unpredictable than ever.
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For instance, if the playoffs started right now, the Ravens would be the top seed in the AFC. However, they rank just 10th in that conference in net touchdowns. Baltimore (8-3) has actually yielded two more touchdowns than it has scored, while Miami (5-7), which seemed left for dead during a seven-game losing streak, is actually only just behind the Ravens at -3. Oh, and the Dolphins did beat the Ravens just a few weeks back and have strung together four straight wins.
Kinda shows you how close the margins are and how wacky this game can be.
But I also believe it is telling. The Ravens are not an elite team on offense or defense (the team rushing totals look gaudy but they're propelled by off-script runs by the quarterback; the running backs themselves have been largely well below league average). It took an officiating error and the longest field goal in NFL history for the Ravens to beat the winless Lions, they escaped the Browns last week despite four turnovers, and they give up as many big plays as any team in the NFL. It would seem that they are significantly out-performing the Pythagorean landscape with their current seed being nine spots above where they sit in AFC net touchdowns.
Here are the top 10 in AFC TD differential:
1. Buffalo +18
2. New England +13
3. Cincinnati +12
4. Indianapolis +5
5. Kansas City, Tennessee +4
7. Denver +2
8. L.A. Chargers +1
9. Baltimore -2
10. Miami, Cleveland -3
If you are bullish on the Colts – and I am – and believe they are better than their record, this might provide some evidence. Also factor in that Indianapolis has a 5-3 record within the conference, with some weak AFC South foes still to play, and you can build a case for them in the postseason.
In the NFC, there are few interesting things to glean from this metric as well. The Eagles should have won on Sunday – they dominated the Giants but succumbed to drops, turnovers and odd red-zone play calling – and looked like they might have a run in them as well with their dominant run game and improving defense. They do carry a + 2 TD differential on the season, and I believe they are probably better than their 5-7 record.
Despite being ravaged by injuries to so many key positions, the Saints rank a surprising fourth in the NFC with a +7 differential. If they can get a little healthier and get anything more out of the quarterback position, can they make a run despite being 5-6? I wouldn't rule them out. And the fact that two teams in the same division – Atlanta and New Orleans – have the same record (5-6), while one is +7 and the other is -14, strikes me as bizarre.
The only NFC teams with a higher net touchdown score than the Saints are the Cardinals and Bucs (+15) and the Cowboys (+12). I also find it noteworthy that while it appears the Packers (9-3) will run away with the NFC North, the Vikings (5-6) are at +2 and Green Bay is just +3. Minnesota did beat them a few weeks ago, and the Vikings are a team that repeatedly finds ways to somehow lose games, as evidenced here.
The depth overall within the AFC seems fairly staggering. How about 12 teams with a record of .500 or better this late in the season, and four that are a combined 12-34? And pretty soon Miami might also make it up the .500 level as well.
All the AFC North teams are above .500; those teams are a combined 10-4-1 against the NFC. The AFC West also does not have a sub-.500 team; that division is 11-5 against the NFC. And the three bottom teams in the AFC – with a combined seven wins – have a total of four wins over winning teams (the Titans are responsible for two of those losses – to the Jets and Texans).
With the added week of games, the playoff chase could be more bonkers than ever. A New England win on Monday against Buffalo would put the Pats 7-1 within the AFC, far and away the best mark within that conference. The Bengals are next best at 5-2, and a win over the Chargers would put them in great position to nab one of the playoff spots as well.
And with so many divisional games to be played, we are definitely headed for more twists and turns. The Ravens and Chiefs, for instance, have each played just two games within their division, and every team in the AFC has at least two divisional games yet to be played.
Buckle up. It should be nuts.