The Almighty CHFF Interception Ladder

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Jan 10, 2011

The Cold, Hard Football Facts have long contended that interceptions are the most important play in football, and perhaps in all of sports.
Here's why: it's called the mighty, mighty Cold, Hard Football Facts Interception Ladder. Yes, it's even capitalized.
It measures the record of teams in the playoffs (since 1970) based upon the number of interceptions they throw. Here it is (includes 2010-11 wildcard games): 
0 INT – 196-53 (.787)
1 INT – 146-122 (.545)
2 INT – 54-120 (.310)
3 INT – 17-79 (.177)
4+ INT – 1-41 (.024)

Wow! We find the Almighty Interception Ladder a remarkable little piece of information. If you keep the ball out of the hands of your opponents, you win nearly 80 percent of the time.
But then each pick thereafter has a huge material impact upon your ability to win. In fact, each INT decreases your ability to win by nearly 25 percentage points. One pick, you're just over 50-50 to win. But you can get away with that gaffe.
The second pick is the victory assassin: teams that throw two picks have won just 31 percent of playoff games. Teams that throw two or more picks in a playoff game are just 72-240 (.231). Ouch.
Even the lone exception in this instance – as is so often the case with Cold, Hard Football Facts – proves the rule.
Buffalo's Joe Ferguson is the first and only quarterback to win a playoff game after throwing four or more INTs in a game. He struggled in the 1981 AFC wildcard game (there was just one back then) against the Jets, completing 17 of 34 passes for 268 yards with 2 TD and 4 INT.  
History tells us that he should have lost. But Ferguson and the Bills got a little help that day from New York quarterback Richard Todd, who ruined a big day (28 of 51, 377 yards, 2 TD) with 4 INT of his own.
The Bills won, 31-27.
Here in the 2010 wildcard round, teams that threw more picks actually won two of four games. The Jets (1 INT) beat the Colts (0 INT) and the Seahawks (1 INT) upset the Saints (0 INT).
It's pretty sad when a team like Indy can muster just one touchdown and a puny 16 points at home in a dome, despite not a single turnover. Seattle's upset of New Orleans, meanwhile, is even more remarkable when you realize that turnovers gave the Seahawks no advantage: each team lost the ball once (the Saints lost a fumble).
But those two games represent historic anomalies. Last year, for example, teams that won the INT battle were a perfect 11-0 in the playoffs. And you saw the numbers over time above in the Interception Ladder.
The Baltimore-Kansas City game Sunday was more typical of what we see out of the Almighty Interception Ladder: scores that move in lockstep with interceptions. The Chiefs threw more picks than any team in the wildcard round (three) and suffered the biggest deficit in INTs (-3).
Not coincidentally, the Chiefs suffered the biggest blowout loss of the week, 30-7, at home no less. (It should be noted that Kansas City also lost two fumbles, but so did the Ravens. So the fumble battle was a wash.)
Speaking of fumbles, the one question we always get is "why not do a Turnover Ladder?" 
Well, the theory is this: fumbles are typically random acts. A ball gets knocked loose by a flailing arm or thanks to a player practicing a poor bit of ball control. Now, of course, some ball carriers are more likely to fumble than others. But overall, it's not a commentary on the wider team. And guys who fumble a lot don't usually get many chances to carry the ball.
Interceptions, however, are a function of several relevant factors: quality of quarterback, quality of defense, coaching, schemes and game-planning. These are all factors that can be counted on year after year to have a material impact on the number of interceptions and, not coincidentally, on the outcome of a game.
At least that's the theory. And the Interception Ladder seems to prove that the theory has plenty of merit.

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