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Eisenberg: Mystery Solved In Tale Of Two Teams


At first glance, it seems to be a football mystery, a confounding conundrum – something that just doesn't make sense.

Last September, the Ravens blistered the Carolina Panthers in a game at M&T Bank Stadium, winning by four touchdowns. But now, a little over a year later, the team that lost that day is undefeated through eight games in 2015, and the team that won is just 2-6.

Weird, indeed. And to make the trading-places scenario even more bizarre, the Ravens and Panthers have similar statistics in many key categories halfway through the 2015 season.

Baltimore's offense is averaging 357.3 yards per game, while Carolina's is averaging 358.9 yards – a difference of just 1.6 yards.

Baltimore's leading rusher, Justin Forsett, has gained 562 yards on the season, while Carolina's leading rusher, Jonathan Stewart, has gained 571 – a difference of just nine yards.

The Ravens' Joe Flacco has the league's 25th-best quarterback rating. Carolina's Cam Newton is No. 26. The Ravens have lost 11 turnovers. Carolina has lost 12.

Yes, Carolina's acclaimed defense is ranked a bit higher, but it isn't dominating opponents to the degree everyone hoped – just like Baltimore's. Carolina's is giving up 350 yards a game, and Baltimore's is yielding 383 yards per game.

It's almost enough to make you double-check to see whether one team really is having a dream season while the other is experiencing a nightmare on Russell Street.

But just when you think it makes no sense, you come across the one statistic that pretty much explains everything. The Ravens have forced four turnovers, and Carolina has forced 18. Bingo! According to my English-major math, that's more than four times as many turnovers for Carolina, almost five times as many – a staggering disparity.

Consider: Carolina is forcing more than two turnovers per game on average, while the Ravens are forcing just one in every other game.

Talk about a difference-maker. Forget all those similar stats. Turnovers override them. Turnovers are the reason the Panthers are already angling for playoff seeding while the Ravens are just trying to dig out of a hole.

"We have not gotten enough turnovers. If we're getting turnovers, our record is dramatically different. Those games could have turned on one turnover," Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said this week.

Certainly, the Ravens' loss at Oakland in Week 2 turned when safety Will Hill III forced a game-saving turnover in the red zone, intercepting a pass in the final seconds, only to see the pick nullified by a defensive holding call that the Ravens, to this day, believe was incorrect. (If they could change one play in 2015, I think that's it. If Hill's pick stands, they beat Oakland and come home from their season-opening trip at .500. It's a better start, and who knows what happens from there?)

But hey, the Ravens have faltered so severely overall on the turnover front that one play couldn't possibly matter too much. As ESPN pointed out, they haven't forced a turnover in almost 325 minutes, more than five games. Opposing offenses have taken 332 snaps on 62 drives without losing the ball to the Ravens. Crazy.

Naturally, there's been a lot of conversation over the bye-week break about what the Ravens could do to end that trend and start forcing more turnovers. But opportunism isn't an easy thing to coach. Either you're Ed Reed or you're not.

Still, there's no doubt the Ravens can do better – and need to do better if they're going start winning more often. Right now, no team in the league has forced fewer turnovers in 2015. The Dallas Cowboys, another disappointing squad, also have forced just four. After that, the next lowest is the Jacksonville Jaguars with seven, so Sunday's game between the Ravens and Jaguars isn't exactly shaping up as a turnover-fest.

Meanwhile, only three other teams have forced more turnovers than Carolina, and two of the three, the New York Giants and New York Jets, would make the playoffs if the season ended now. (The other team with more is the Philadelphia Eagles.)

Yes, there are other reasons why the Panthers are winning, starting with the play of Newton, an MVP candidate despite his modest numbers. But turnovers tell the story.

This tale of two teams, Baltimore and Carolina, appears to be a mystery at first glance. But it's not.

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