The Carolina Panthers are one of the NFL’s best when it comes to creating game-breaking plays while preventing their opponents from doing the same, so it is no surprise they led the NFL in toxic differential, a measure of team strength created by Super Bowl-winning coach Brian Billick while he was the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator.
Toxic differential is the summation of how many big plays teams create (10 or more yards on rushing attempts and 25 or more yards on passing plays) minus how many they give up. It also includes turnover differential, making it a stat that can be used to measure a team’s risk-reward ratio.
“It is an interactive dynamic that gives you a sense of what your challenge is to be a top playoff team,” Billick explained in an interview with the Post.
The Panthers have the highest toxic differential this season (plus-54) while Arizona, their opponent in the NFC title game, ranks No. 8 (plus-20). The New England Patriots (plus-13) and Denver Broncos (plus-10) rank No. 10 and No.11, respectively.
Of Carolina’s 95 big plays on the year, 64 have come in the rushing game. Newton has 20 of those while running back Johnathan Stewart leads the team with 24.
“They are running the ball very well,” Billick said. “The one area Carolina can be a little better at is generating big plays. Cam, on all of his throws, has been absolutely brilliant, but he doesn’t have the best touch on the deep ball and they are limited with guys who he can get the ball deep to. And the receivers are dropping them – that’s part of it too — but Cam is showing a lot more judgment in terms of his throws.”
Of the 31 big passing plays, tight end Greg Olsen leads the club with 12, accumulating 381 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Tedd Ginn, Jr. doesn’t have as many (seven) but he has been just as prolific: 330 yards and four touchdowns. Only Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has had more deep passes dropped (nine) than Newton (seven) during the regular season. Newton did set a career low for interceptions (10) in a season, with just one interception over the final eight regular-season games.
Defensively, the Panthers defense has allowed the fourth fewest big plays against with 34. Carolina also had the most interceptions in the league (24). Safety Kurt Coleman had seven — tied for third most in the NFL — and Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis each had four.
Kuechly, however, is more than a ball hawk: opposing quarterbacks were held to a 57.8 passer rating against and he didn’t allow a touchdown pass while in primary coverage all season long.
“There is no one better out of the backfield covering backs or trailing a tight end down the middle of the field,” Billick said of Kuechly. “He and Thomas Davis are clearly the best linebacking corps in the league.”
Since 2009, the first year data was available, the top team in toxic differential has reached the Super Bowl four times while teams in the top 10 have made seven appearances in the championship game.