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Turnover differential a big reason for the Eagles' turnaround

Eagles have been strong in taking away ball from opposition, and stingy in giving up fumbles and interceptions.

Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin and safety Kurt Coleman. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin and safety Kurt Coleman. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

SO, HOW exactly do you explain 4-12 to 10-6?

How do you explain how an Eagles team that lost 11 of its final 12 games last season by a combined score of 361-214 will host a first-round playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night?

While myriad factors have contributed to the Eagles' rags-to-riches turnaround, if you're looking for a single number to explain it, try 12.

That's the Eagles' turnover differential, which happens to be the fourth best in the NFL this season. Their 31 takeaways, including three in Sunday night's 24-22 win over the Cowboys, are the league's third most. Their 19 giveaways are the fourth fewest.

That's considerably better than last year, when they had a league-worst minus-24 turnover differential, or the year before that, when they finished tied for 30th with a minus-14 turnover differential. The Eagles missed the playoffs in both two seasons.

"[Turnover differentia] is a huge statistic, whether it's college or the pros," coach Chip Kelly said. "We were very, very good at it when I was at Oregon, and it was the reason we won so many games.

"Our defense has been very opportunistic, and our offense has done a very good job of taking care of the football. They did it again [Sunday] with the exception of the fumble when Nick [Foles] got sacked and lost it.

"But if you look at the numbers, they're really striking. If you look at our 10 wins and what our plus-minus ratio is, and then [look at] our six losses, you can see."

The Eagles are 9-1 this season when they've won the turnover battle, and 1-5 when they've lost it or been even (see chart). They have a plus-18 turnover differential in their 10 wins, and minus-6 in their six losses.

How important is turnover differential? Well, only two of this year's 12 playoff qualifiers - the 8-7-1 Packers (minus-3) and the 9-7 Chargers (minus-4) - have negative turnover differentials.

Last year, the Eagles also were last in the league in net points off turnovers (minus-100), giving up a stunning 140 points off 37 giveaways and scoring only 40 off their league-low 13 takeaways.

This year, they are seventh in net points off turnovers (plus-45), scoring 97 points off their 31 takeaways and allowing 52 off their 19 giveaways.

In Sunday's win over the Cowboys, they scored 10 points off their three takeaways and held Dallas to a field goal after Foles' third-quarter fumble.

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks forced a DeMarco Murray fumble on the Cowboys' first possession that the Eagles turned into an Alex Henery field goal. Foles' 14-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a 17-7 lead was set up by Kendricks' interception of a Kyle Orton pass intended for Jason Witten.

Foles' third-quarter fumble could have been disastrous. It gave the Cowboys, who were trailing by four, 17-13, at the time, the ball at the Philadelphia 20-yard line. But the Eagles defense held them to a field goal.

"That was huge," Kelly said. "That's a positive. That's one of the things we talk about, response after a turnover when we give the ball up in the red zone. If our defense can go on the field and hold them to three instead of seven, we think of that as a victory. And I think how our defense responded in that situation really was the difference in the football game."

The Eagles are 29th in the league in yards allowed per game (394.2), but 17th in points allowed (23.9). A big reason for that has been their 31 takeaways.

Besides Kendricks' forced fumble and interception, cornerback Brandon Boykin saved the game late in the fourth quarter with his sixth interception of the season.

The Eagles were clinging to a shaky, two-point lead when the Cowboys got the ball back at their own 32 with 1:49 left in the game. On first down, Orton tried to hit wide receiver Miles Austin on a slant. But Boykin cut in front of the pass, which was thrown slightly behind Austin.

"I kind of figured by his first couple of steps that it wasn't going to be an out route," Boykin said. "When you get into those types of situations with 2 minutes [left] and you don't have a lot of time, you're going to try to either get to the sideline or run a slant. Something quick.

"I pretty much kind of figured it was going to be a slant after a couple of steps. I saw the quarterback about to release it and tried to undercut it. He threw it a little bit to me."

The Eagles forced at least two turnovers in 11 of their 16 games this season. Last year, they had two or more takeaways in a game only four times the entire year.

"There's just a different attitude on this team this year," Kendricks said. "We want to win, and we know what it takes. We're getting things done. Turnovers win games. We know that. That's one big thing we have to do. We're usually good for at least two turnovers a game. If not, then things don't usually turn out our way."

The Eagles' 19 giveaways are their fewest since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Foles has thrown only two interceptions in 317 attempts this season. The Eagles have lost only five fumbles in the last 13 games.

"That's been the stat forever," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "No. 1, outscore them on the scoreboard. But the second one involved in that is the takeaways. Our guys have done a great job with that all season."

Twitter: @Pdomo