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At a Record-Setting Pace, Turnovers Turn Into TDs

NFL teams are turning turnovers directly into points at a record rate.

So far this season, 13.1 percent of interceptions and fumbles — more than one out of every eight — have been returned for touchdowns, the highest clip since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, according to STATS. That represents another spike in what has been a steadily upward trend over the last five seasons: 8.4 percent in 2009, 8.8 in 2010, 9.5 in 2011, 11.5 in 2012.

In addition to more than two dozen fumbles brought back for TDs, there have been 48 pick-6s through Week 12, the second-most behind only the 50 to this point in 2012.

“Any time you can score on defense, you just feel like you’re giving your team an extra score. That’s a score you’re not counting on. The odds of winning go up that way,” said Herm Edwards, a former NFL head coach and author of one of the most famous fumble return-TDs in league history while a player for the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1970s.

Edwards offered a simple theory for the rise in points that arrive off turnovers.

“Offenses take more chances with the ball in today’s world, with the fact that you’re constantly trying to score by throwing the ball around the yard. With the formation designs now — people spread out all over the field, five guys in pass routes — if you throw an interception, who’s going to tackle the guy, an offensive lineman?” Edwards said with a chuckle. “If the receiver doesn’t tackle him, you’re out of luck. There’s no one in the backfield except the quarterback, and you want him to make the tackle?”

According to data compiled by STATS, NFL games are averaging roughly the same number of turnovers as in recent seasons (about three per game) and quite a bit less than some seasons in the 1970s (about five per game) or the 1950s (about seven per game).

But those turnovers are carrying extra weight this season, points-wise.

Turnover-return TDs are helping fuel a jump in total scoring off turnovers — which also includes drives following an interception or fumble — to more than 10½ points per game. That’s a 4.4 percent increase from last season and the most since 1995.

As it is, one basic truth of the NFL is that turnover differential is a barometer for success: If a team can generate more turnovers than it commits in a particular game, a victory is more likely. That is a far better indicator of a game’s likely outcome than, say, which team gains more yards or is penalized less.

Take a look at this Sunday. Discarding the tie between Green Bay and Minnesota, teams with a positive turnover differential were 9-0, teams gaining more yards were 6-5, and teams with fewer penalty yards were 5-6. That’s in line with what the winning percentages are for this season, according to STATS: .818 for a positive turnover differential, .613 for a positive net yardarge differential, .515 for fewer penalty yards.

The Kansas City Chiefs are 9-2 thanks in part to having 13 more takeaways than giveaways. The Seattle Seahawks are tied for second with a plus-11 differential, and they lead the NFL with a 10-1 record. The Dallas Cowboys are flawed in many ways, but they are tied atop the NFC East at least in part thanks to their plus-11 differential.

All of five minutes into the much-anticipated matchup Sunday night between the Patriots and Broncos, Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard forced a fumble by New England running back Stevan Ridley. Linebacker Von Miller grabbed the ball and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.

It was the start of a rash of turnovers. Three fumbles by the Patriots in the opening 7½ minutes translated into a 17-0 deficit, which the Broncos extended to 24-0 by halftime.

Leave it to Patriots coach Bill Belichick to get to the heart of the matter afterward: “You can’t move the ball when you’re losing it.”

Eventually, the roles reversed. The Broncos started handing the ball over — Montee Ball fumbled, Peyton Manning got picked off, and on and on, right up until a punt bounced off a Denver player late in overtime. New England recovered and soon was kicking a field goal to win 34-31.

OK, so the Broncos are still 9-2; no AFC team owns a better record. That doesn’t mean Denver is not aware that a propensity for turnovers — only the two sub-.500 teams from New York have committed more than the Broncos’ 23 — could be a problem down the road.