Top stats to know: Giants dominate Pirates

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
The San Francisco Giants seem to be at their best when they’re faced with an elimination scenario.

And they have a pitcher who seems unfazed by any situation or opposing fan base.

The Giants won their seventh straight such game, shutting out the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-0 behind Madison Bumgarner in the National League wild-card game on Wednesday night.

The Giants advance to face the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, which begins Friday in Washington.

Elias Sports Bureau stat of the night
The Giants’ seven straight postseason wins when facing elimination match the Kansas City Royals for the longest streak all-time. Both streaks are active, as the Royals extended their streak on Tuesday.

Bumgarner’s big night
Bumgarner became the third pitcher to notch a shutout with at least 10 strikeouts in a winner-take-all postseason game, joining Sandy Koufax (for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins in the 1965 World Series) and Justin Verlander (for the Detroit Tigers against the Oakland Athletics in the 2012 American League Division Series).

It was the fifth shutout by a Giants pitcher in any postseason game since the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, the first since Tim Lincecum dominated the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS.

He’s one of three Giants pitchers to throw at least seven scoreless innings, with at least eight strikeouts. Bumgarner has two such games (he did it in the 2012 World Series against the Tigers). Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson and Lincecum have one each.

Bumgarner cruised through much of the game against a Pirates team that ranked 27th in the majors in batting average against left-handed pitchers, finishing it in 109 pitches.

He threw only 28 pitches through the first three innings, the fewest he has ever thrown through three complete innings of any game in his career.

Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison, who hit .315 during the regular season, was 2-for-4. The rest of the Pirates were 2-for-28.

Difference-maker: The Brandons
Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt combined for seven RBIs.

Crawford became the first shortstop in postseason history to hit a grand slam. He’s the second Giants player to hit a grand slam in a winner-take-all postseason game, joining Buster Posey, who had one in the 2012 NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds. There have been only three other such grand slams in postseason history (two by the Boston Red Sox and one by the New York Yankees).

Crawford had no home runs in 56 career at-bats against Pirates pitchers prior to Wednesday.

Belt had three career RBIs in 40 regular-season at-bats against the Pirates and matched that total in this game.

The two combined to make some fun history. It’s the third time in postseason history that teammates with the same first name (or at least the name they go by) had at least three RBIs in a postseason game. The others were Jack Barry and Jack Coombs for the 1910 Philadelphia Athletics and Tito Landrum (actual first name, Terry) and Terry Pendleton in the 1985 NLCS for the St. Louis Cardinals.



Points could be scarce in South Bend

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
Two years ago in South Bend, Stanford and Notre Dame matched up in a defensive struggle that ended with the Irish making a goal-line stand in overtime in which they stopped Stepfan Taylor on four consecutive attempts from inside the 4-yard line.

We might see a similar a game Saturday. Stanford and Notre Dame are two of the three FBS teams that have not allowed more than 17 points in a game this season. The other is Ole Miss.

Although both teams rank in the top five of the FBS in scoring defense, they used different methods to get their results. Stanford has conceded almost nothing this season, whereas Notre Dame has taken more of a bend-but-don-t-break approach.

Despite losing several starters from last season, including Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner, Stanford might be better on defense. The Cardinal are allowing the fewest points per game (6.5) in the FBS, including shutouts against their two non-Pac-12 opponents.

They have allowed 0.39 points per drive, second-fewest in the FBS behind TCU (0.31). For some perspective, the fewest points per drive allowed by a defense in the previous 10 seasons was 0.54 by Alabama in 2011.

How good has Stanford’s defense been? Well consider these stats:

• The Cardinal are the only FBS defense allowing less than 200 yards per game and are on pace to allow the fewest passing yards per game (74.0) of any team in the last 15 seasons.

• Opponents have failed to gain a first down or score a touchdown on 55 percent of their drives against Stanford this season. Only TCU (60 percent) and Louisville (59 percent) have been better.

• Stanford has allowed the fewest plays (5) and completions (2) of 20 yards or more in the FBS this season.

• Stanford has allowed a Power Five-low 36 yards after the catch per game and has allowed three receptions of 10 or more yards after the catch, which is three fewer than any other Power Five defense.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame also appears to have reloaded on defense after some key departures. The Irish lost Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson to the NFL Draft and their coordinator, Bob Diaco, to UConn as head coach. Yet, they are allowing 11.5 points per game, fourth fewest in the FBS and became the first team since 1984 to shut out Michigan.

The Irish have bent this season, but rarely broke. They rank 49th in the FBS in yards per play (5.2), but sixth in points per drive (0.8). Opponents have scored on 20 percent of their drives after gaining an initial first down against the Irish, fourth best in the nation and 23 percentage points lower than the FBS average.

What has made the Irish successful?
Forcing turnovers
The Irish have forced 2.5 turnovers per game this season, tied for 16th most in the FBS.

Getting off the field on third down
Notre Dame is holding opponents to a 33 percent third-down conversion rate, down from 42 percent last year.

No penalties
Notre Dame has committed five defensive penalties this season, tied for 10th fewest in the FBS. Of those five penalties, three resulted in a first down, which is seventh-fewest.

How Lane Kiffin improved Bama's offense

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOffensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has brought a new philosophy to Alabama this season.
Monday marked the one-year anniversary of Lane Kiffin’s infamous firing by USC at the Landmark Aviation Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.

Twelve months later, Kiffin is in charge of perhaps the best unit in college football and leading it to unprecedented success.

Alabama's offense has produced 2,377 yards this season, breaking a 41-year-old school record for most yards through four games. This, despite starting a quarterback (Blake Sims) who had attempted 39 passes in the first three years of his career.

There are two ways in which Kiffin has changed the offense for the better: his use of the no-huddle offense and the use of receiver Amari Cooper.

Going no-huddle
Alabama has run 138 plays without a huddle this season, almost as many as in the previous three seasons combined. Nine of Alabama’s touchdowns have come out of no-huddle plays, more than in the previous two seasons combined. Alabama has run 14.5 more plays per game than it did last season.

Increasing tempo, however, is not necessarily the goal of the no-huddle offense. It was implemented largely to make things easier for Sims.

As coach Nick Saban told after Alabama’s Week 1 win over West Virginia: “It's easier to communicate when you're going no-huddle because you just have code words and short words for plays and passes and that kind of stuff. It eliminates the communication in the huddle, it makes it easier for the quarterback, so that's the reason that we went to it to settle Blake [Sims] down in the game.”

Alabama has increased the number of plays run out of the no-huddle every week this season. Over their last two games, the Tide have run more plays without a huddle than with one.

The offense has relied on short passes in the no-huddle, as Sims averages 5.4 air yards per attempt on such plays.

But he has been efficient with those passes, as his 77.8 completion percentage and his 95.3 QBR are both second among Power 5 quarterbacks with at least 20 passes.

Using Amari Cooper
Kiffin has also learned to exploit receiver Amari Cooper. After an injury-plagued start to his 2013 season, Cooper has started 2014 on fire, leading the nation in receiving yards per game (163.8). Cooper averages 14 targets per game this season.

In his first two years, he had one game with more than 11 targets: last season’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Cooper leads FBS receivers with 6.3 first-down targets per game.

Kiffin has varied the target distance. Twelve of Cooper’s 25 first-down targets have come on passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and the other 13 have come on longer throws. On both target distances, quarterbacks average more than 10 yards per attempt when targeting Cooper.

The early-down success has helped the Tide on third downs. Alabama leads the FBS in third-down conversion rate (61.8 percent), due in large part to needing an average of 5.1 yards to convert on third down. That’s the second-shortest average distance in the FBS and 1.4 yards less than last season.

Top stats to know: Royals win an epic one

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
Sal Perez went from potential goat to baseball hero in the span of a couple of at-bats.
Welcome to the baseball postseason.

Welcome to a postseason that begins with one of the sport’s all-time epic games, which ended on Salvador Perez’s 12th-inning walk-off hit for the Kansas City Royals. it went just past the glove of the top-fielding third baseman in baseball this season, Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics (who led major league third basemen with 20 defensive runs saved.

That capped a rally from four runs down in the eighth and a run down in the 12th. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that it made them the first team to come back from four or more runs down in the eighth inning or later to win a winner-take-all postseason game.

This was only the second time a winner-take-all postseason game ended in the 12th inning or later. The other was in 1924 of the World Series when the Washington Senators made Walter Johnson a winner. Legend has it that a ball hit a pebble and bounced over the head of the New York Giants third baseman for the winning hit in the 12th.

It was the first walk-off hit in a postseason winner-take-all game since Nyjer Morgan had one for the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Perez was 0-for-5 in the game prior to that at-bat, with a key strikeout in the eighth inning. He had only one regular-season walk-off hit in his career, against the team the Royals will face next, the Los Angeles Angels. Both the strikeout and hit came against pitches out of the strike zone (as you can see in the image above). Perez chased pitches out of the strike zone more than any hitter in the American League (42 percent of the time).

Welcome to the postseason, Christian Colon, who had the tying hit and scored the winning run. Colon had played in only one of the Royals 24 regular-season games since Sept. 3 due to a broken finger.

Welcome to the postseason, Eric Hosmer, who started the 12th-inning rally with a triple off the left-field fence. Hosmer had only one triple in the 2014 regular season. He became the fourth player to reach base at least five times in his postseason debut, joining Alan Trammell (1984 Tigers), Frank Thomas (1993 White Sox) and Johnny Damon (2001 Athletics).

Welcome to the postseason, Brandon Finnegan, who pitched 2 1/3 innings of relief to extend the game in extra innings. Finnegan was the Royals first-round pick in this year’s draft after pitching in the College World Series for TCU. He was the only first-round pick from the 2014 draft to pitch in the majors this season.

Welcome to the postseason for a different style of baseball, in which speed can overcome power. The Royals tied a postseason single-game record with their seven steals, matching the mark set by the 1907 Cubs and the 1975 Reds.

They overcame a one-man show from Athletics slugger Brandon Moss, who had two home runs and an Athletics record five RBIs. He's only the second player in postseason history to have five RBIs in a loss, joining Milt Thompson of the 1993 Phillies (in a 15-14 loss to the Blue Jays).

Overall, it's a heck of a welcome back to the postseason to the Royals. By our count it was 10,565 days and 42 minutes between postseason wins for them.


Top stats to know: Giants vs. Pirates

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
The Pittsburgh Pirates closed the 2014 season as one of the hottest teams in baseball. The San Francisco Giants ran hot and cold through much of the season but managed to hang on to a wild-card spot. They hope to draw upon their past postseason successes when they visit the Pirates on Wednesday.

Here are some of the key stats our broadcast crew will be talking about, with first pitch scheduled for 8:07 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN Radio.

Volquez among the best the past two months
The Pirates are riding the hot hand (or hot arm) of starting pitcher Edinson Volquez in their biggest game of the season.

In his last 10 starts this season, Volquez was 5-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, with only three home runs allowed in 66 innings pitched.

Volquez has not faced the Giants this season but faced them five times last season with the San Diego Padres, posting a 6.08 ERA. Among those with good career numbers against him are Brandon Belt (8-for-18 with a home run), Pablo Sandoval (6-for-13 with three doubles) and Buster Posey (5-for-9 with two doubles).

Madison Bumgarner multi-talented
Giants starter Madison Bumgarner has a good postseason pedigree. He’s 3-2 with a 3.79 ERA in his career in the postseason, including 15 scoreless innings in the World Series.

Bumgarner pitched very well away from AT&T Park in 2014. He was 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA in road starts this season. The 11 wins tied Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright for the most in the majors. The ERA ranked sixth best.

In addition to being one of the game’s top pitchers, Bumgarner was arguably baseball’s best hitting pitcher this season.

That’s a little odd considering he entered the season with a .138 career batting average and two home runs in 224 at-bats. He hit .258 with four home runs (and 27 strikeouts) in 66 at-bats in 2014 (he’s a more likely threat to get a hit than Volquez, who was 2-for-53 this season).

Bumgarner’s four home runs were the most by a Giants pitcher since the team moved to San Francisco in 1958. He has shown the ability to go deep against pitches on the inner half and outer half of the plate.

Pirates secret weapon: Josh Harrison
The star of stars for the Pirates is center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who followed up his MVP season of 2013 with a similar output in 2014, leading the NL with a .952 OPS.

But one of the players who came out of nowhere to spark the offense in a big way was utility man Josh Harrison, who settled in at third base after Pedro Alvarez struggled.

Harrison finished second in the NL with a .315 batting average (including .345 against left-handed pitching), had 58 extra-base hits, 18 stolen bases and an .837 OPS. He also had 14 defensive runs saved, with eight in 72 games at third base.

Giants secret weapon: Joe Panik
The Giants have gotten really good postseason production in the recent past from their second basemen, so when Marco Scutaro lasted only five games upon his return to the team in July, there was cause for concern.

But the play of second baseman Joe Panik, upon his recall from Triple-A, alleviated that. Panik hit .305 in 73 games and closed the season with 13 hits (and a .333 batting average) in his last nine games.

The Giants played eight other players at second base this season. They combined to hit .180.

History of note: Hot in postseason, hot at home
The Giants have won seven straight postseason games, the longest postseason winning streak in franchise history.

The Pirates were 51-30 at home, tied with the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals for the best such record in the National League.


Patriots offense going downhill

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30

AP Photo/Elise AmendolaTom Brady and Bill Belichick have some work to do to straighten out the Patriots.
The New England Patriots have fallen to No. 16 in the NFL Power Rankings, their lowest ranking since Week 7 of the 2008 season (17th), when Matt Cassel was filling in for an injured Tom Brady.

The Patriots host the Bengals in Week 5, one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL this season (Cardinals) and the team allowing the fewest points per game this season (11.0).

If the Patriots want to avoid a 2-3 start and a further slide in the rankings, they’ll need better play from their offense, specifically their quarterback.

Inefficient offense
Expected points added (or efficiency) measures the impact of every play on each team's potential points, accounting for such factors as down and distance, field position and other situational factors.

This season, the Patriots rank eighth in defensive efficiency and 29th in offensive efficiency.

If this trend continues, it would be the first time since 2006 the Patriots defense outweighed the offense (that offense did rank sixth that season).

Contributing to the low efficiency is the fact the Patriots have converted only 36 percent of their third downs, 27th in the NFL. That would be the lowest of the Brady-Belichick era for the Patriots.

With the offense struggling, Brady’s decline in play becomes the focal point.

Off the mark
Brady is on pace for his lowest completion percentage of his career. He has completed 59.1 percent of his passes (29th) and he has seen a league-leading 25.5 percent of his passes fall incomplete due to an over or underthrown pass.

Brady has also averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt (35th out of 36 qualified QBs), better than only Raiders rookie Derek Carr.

Contributing to the low completions and yards per attempt is the Patriots inability to stretch the field.

Brady has completed only one of 16 attempts thrown 20 or more yards downfield this season (6.3 percent). No other quarterback is below 15.0 percent completions on those passes this season.

Brady not the only one to blame
Brady has completed 73.5 percent of his passes to Julian Edelman this season, but only 47.5 percent of his attempts to the rest of the Patriots wide receivers.

Inconsistency in the receiving corps has likely played a factor in that, as no receiver outside of Edelman has been on field for a bulk of the team’s snaps.

The pre-season trade of guard Logan Mankins may be looking like a big mistake too. Brady has been pressured on 26 percent of his dropbacks, which would be the highest since that data became available in 2009.

He’s also been sacked on 6.2 percent of his dropbacks, which would be his highest since 2001. This had led to three lost fumbles for Brady, same as he had in the previous two seasons combined.

Belichick at fault too?
As one of the key decision makers in personnel, Bill Belichick faces some blame in the Patriots current scenario as well.

In the past five drafts, the Patriots have taken more quarterbacks (two) than offensive linemen (one - Nate Solder) in the first three rounds.

The Patriots have also drafted seven wide receivers total in the last five drafts. One of those receivers was Edelman, who has 200 career receptions. The other six have combined for 99 career receptions, but 25 of those weren’t even for the Patriots.

FPI Risers and Fallers Since Preseason

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
After five weeks there is enough information to dive deeper into which teams have exceeded expectations and which have failed to live up to them.

Football Power Index’s preseason rankings accounted for past performance, returning starters (looks at quarterbacks separately), coaching tenure and recruiting rankings.

Biggest Surprises
Below are the top five risers in FPI rank since the preseason.

We have limited the list below to Power Five teams, but it should be noted Georgia Southern from the Sun Belt had the biggest rise, 53 spots to 71st since the preseason.

• Arkansas has climbed into the FPI top 20 after beginning the season ranked 50th. The Razorbacks are adding 16 expected points per game to their scoring margin on rushing plays, the most of any team in the FBS.

• After losing its final eight games of the 2013 season, NC State began the year 4-0 before losing to Florida State 56-41 on Saturday. The Wolfpack were in control of that game against FSU with an average in-game win probability of 56 percent throughout.

• West Virginia is 2-2 but has played the fourth-hardest schedule in the FBS, including close games against Alabama and Oklahoma. Led by Clint Trickett’s 16th-ranked Total QBR, West Virginia ranks 11th in offensive efficiency after ranking 88th last year.

• Boston College has had an up-and-down year, but its win against USC was the second-most “unlikely” win of the season by an FBS team against another FBS team based on FPI’s pregame predicted win percentage (behind Akron’s win at Pittsburgh). That win caused the Eagles to rise significantly in FPI.

• After losing Johnny Manziel and five other offensive starters, Texas A&M was expected to take a step back offensively. The Aggies rank second in offensive efficiency, and Kenny Hill has the fourth-best Total QBR in the nation. The defense has also improved, resulting in a 5-0 start and the second-best FPI in the nation.

Biggest Disappointments
Below are top five fallers in FPI rank among Power Five teams since our preseason rankings.

• North Carolina was one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, and FPI thought that youth would mature this season. The Tar Heels began the season with the second-best chance to win the ACC behind Florida State, but after an unimpressive start, they now have the 10th-best chance to win the conference.

• We began the season high on Michigan because the Wolverines returned 15 starters (including its QB), brought back its coach and had a top 25 average recruiting ranking in the past four years. The Wolverines have the worst turnover margin in the nation (-12), rank 90th in offensive efficiency and have fallen out of the FPI top 50 after its loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

• Texas Tech has the worst defensive efficiency rating of any Power Five school. The Red Raiders are currently projected to win 4.8 games this season, which is 2.6 less than their preseason projections.

• Despite a 4-1 record, Iowa has struggled to dominate its lesser opponents. The Hawkeyes have played three FBS teams currently ranked outside of the top 75 of FPI and an FCS team. They went 3-1 in those games with an average scoring margin of 5.8 points per game. Iowa’s chance of winning the Big Ten has fallen from 8.4 percent in the preseason (5th in Big Ten) to 0.7 percent (9th in Big Ten).

• Vanderbilt finished 9-4 last season but had to replace its quarterback, 11 other starters and its coach. The Commodores’ biggest issues have been on offense, where they rank 123rd in efficiency and have the most turnovers (14) in the nation.

SEC West: Matchups to watch

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30

Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper will match up against a stingy Ole Miss pass defense.
The SEC West has been dominant in the first month of the season. Consider these stats:
  • The SEC West is 25-0 against teams not in the SEC West and has won those games by an average of 34.1 points.
  • Six of the top 15 teams in The Associated Press poll hail from the SEC West -- more than the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC have in the top 15 combined.
  • All seven teams from the SEC West rank in the top 20 of the Football Power Index, including the top three teams in the rankings: Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn.
  • The SEC West has five undefeated teams, which is two more than any other conference in the FBS (the Pac-12 and Big 12 each has three).

Given the quality of the division, it’s no surprise that six of the 10 toughest remaining schedules belong to teams in the SEC West.

This week will be the first real conference test for many of the SEC West’s top teams. Three of the weekend's best games (and perhaps the three best, period) -- Alabama at Ole Miss, Texas A&M at Mississippi State and LSU at Auburn -- all involve SEC West teams. Below is one matchup to watch in each of these games.

Alabama at Ole Miss
Matchup to Watch: WR Amari Cooper vs. Ole Miss pass defense
Amari Cooper is averaging an FBS-high 163.8 receiving yards per game and has the longest active streak of 100-yard receiving games in the nation (six). Ole Miss, on the other hand, is allowing 133.5 passing yards per game and has not allowed a receiver to crack the 100-yard mark this season.

Cooper has accounted for 49 percent of Alabama’s receiving yards and has 41 more targets than any other Alabama receiver. He has more yards after the catch (320) and more receptions of 20 yards or longer (10) than Ole Miss has allowed this year.

The Rebels must limit Cooper downfield, after the catch and on third down. QB Blake Sims is 9-of-10 with seven first downs when targeting Cooper on third down, which is a big reason Sims leads the nation in third-down QBR.

Ole Miss leads the SEC in most major passing categories on defense and has eight more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed, the highest margin in the country. To continue this success, the Rebels must contain Cooper, who statistically has been the best wide receiver in the nation this season.

Texas A&M at Mississippi State
Matchup to Watch: Texas A&M receivers vs. Mississippi State secondary
Texas A&M is averaging more than 400 passing yards per game and has an FBS-high 27 completions of 20 yards or longer this season. It will face a Mississippi State defense that has allowed the most passing yards per game in the SEC and has had trouble stopping big passing plays.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will need to limit Texas A&M's receivers after the catch. The Aggies have 340 more yards after the catch than any other SEC team and are averaging 8 yards after the catch per reception (fourth in SEC).

Determining which receiver to try to shut down may be a challenge. The Aggies have seven receivers with at least 100 receiving yards this season (tied for second-most in the FBS) and have an FBS-high nine players with a receiving touchdown.

LSU at Auburn
Matchup to Watch: Auburn’s run game vs. LSU run defense
Since Gus Malzahn took over as coach, Auburn has run on 69 percent of its plays and ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards per game, behind two triple-option offenses. Auburn is 13-0 in the last two seasons when it runs for at least 250 yards and 3-2 when it does not.

One of those losses came at LSU last season, when Auburn was limited to 213 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per rush. LSU forced Auburn to pass on 40 percent of its plays, Auburn’s second-highest percentage in a game last season.

Without DT Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, however, LSU has not had the same rushing defense as the one the slowed Auburn in 2013. LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards. LSU did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards in the nation to opposing quarterbacks, which is not a good sign considering Auburn's Nick Marshall ranks third among active quarterbacks with 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season. Nonetheless, if LSU can follow the blueprint that it set in 2013 -- and that Kansas State followed in 2014 -- by limiting Auburn’s run game and forcing Marshall to pass, it might hand Auburn its first loss of the season for a second straight year.

Keys to victory: Chiefs 41, Patriots 14

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
This one was a bit of a surprise.

The Kansas City Chiefs routed the New England Patriots 41-14 on "Monday Night Football," the first time they've beaten the Patriots in a Monday Night game in four tries.

The Chiefs matched the most points scored against the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick, done twice previously, in 2005 against the Chargers and 2012 against the 49ers. It was the second-largest margin of defeat for Belichick as Patriots coach (they lost by 31 to the Bills in 2003).

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid won his 143rd game and tied Hall of Famer (and former Chiefs coach) Marv Levy for 20th all time in career wins.

How did the Chiefs do it? Here are the details.

Impact player: Jamaal Charles
After missing last week's game, Charles returned in a big way, with two touchdown catches and a touchdown run. Charles had 92 yards rushing, a hair fewer than Knile Davis' 96.

Charles has had a game with at least two touchdown receptions and a touchdown run in each of the past two seasons. From 1960 to 2012, only two Chiefs players did that in a game.

Charles has five games with multiple touchdowns in the past two seasons. Only Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints has more in that span, with six.

Smith stars off play action
With Charles excelling, that helped Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith use play fakes effectively.

Smith was 10-for-11 for 120 yards and a touchdown to tight end Travis Kelce on his play-action passes.

Kelce outplaying Gronkowski
Smith went 8-for-9 for 93 yards when throwing to Kelce in this game.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had a touchdown grab as well, but the Patriots were trailing 41-7 when he got it, on only his second catch of the game.

Brady's struggles downfield
Tom Brady was fine when keeping his passes short, but he was dreadful when looking down the field, as has been an issue throughout the season.

Brady went 13-for-16 when throwing the ball 10 yards or fewer downfield, but was 1-for-7 with two interceptions on throws of more than 10 yards in the air. In fact, he was 4-for-14 on throws of longer than 5 yards.

Brady entered the game with a 43 percent completion percentage on throws longer than 5 yards in the air.

Brady also struggled throwing to Julian Edelman. He completed 85 percent of his passes to Edelman in the first three games of the season but went only 3-for-8 in getting him the ball in this game.


Top stats to know: AL wild-card preview

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
It took the Kansas City Royals 29 years to make it back to the postseason after they won the 1985 World Series.

So it figures the guy they have to beat to advance to the ALDS is one who could be considered their ultimate kryptonite.

The Oakland Athletics looked like they would be the top team in baseball a couple months ago, but they’ve since sputtered to the finish. On Tuesday, they’ll try to prove they’re the team that started the season, not the one that finished it. They'll be fighting some history, though -- they're 0-6 in winner-take-all postseason games with Billy Beane as general manager.

Here’s a look at some of the key statistical storylines for this year’s AL Wild Card Game.

Jon Lester owns the Royals … and the postseason
The Athletics traded their cleanup hitter, Yoenis Cespedes, at the trade deadline to get the pitcher they felt was best suited for a game such as this: left-hander Jon Lester.

Lester had a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts with the Athletics. He’s 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA in his career against the Royals (best in MLB), including 3-0 with a 2.61 ERA against Kansas City this season. He no-hit the Royals in 2008.

Lester also has a 1.97 ERA in 11 career postseason starts, and he’s 4-1 with a 2.37 ERA all-time when facing James Shields, the pitcher on the mound for the Royals on Tuesday.

James Shields: Better away from home?
The Royals traded their top prospect, Wil Myers, to get Shields prior to the 2013 season, with the hope he’d pitch in a game such as this.

Interestingly, Shields has not had a lot of success in his home ballpark the past two seasons. He’s 7-12 with a 3.95 ERA at Kauffman Stadium since the start of the past season and 20-5 with a 2.52 ERA elsewhere.

Shields is 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA in six career postseason starts.

He is, however, coming in hot. He has a 2.14 ERA in his past six starts. Opponents are hitting only .199 against him in that span.

He also has a 2.03 ERA in his past four starts against the Athletics.

Royals difference-maker: Outfield defense
The Kansas City offense isn’t one that scores a lot of runs, so the Royals will likely need to keep this game low-scoring. Their outfield defense is capable of making a big impact in that regard.

Royals outfielders led the major leagues this season with 46 Defensive Runs Saved.

Left fielder Alex Gordon accounted for 27 of those, the fourth most DRS of anyone in the major leagues and the most by a left fielder. Lorenzo Cain, who can play center or right field, depending whether the Royals play Jarrod Dyson or Norichika Aoki, ranked just behind Gordon with 24.

The Royals excel at making the great play. They led the majors with 40 Web Gems. Gordon’s 13 were one shy of the major-league lead shared by his teammate, Alcides Escobar, and Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.

Athletics difference-maker: Josh Donaldson
The Athletics lineup features one of the best players in the game in third baseman Josh Donaldson. Donaldson ranked second to Mike Trout in Wins Above Replacement in the American League this season (7.4). He did that on the strength of power-hitting (29 home runs) and defense (20 Defensive Runs Saved).

Donaldson hit 18 home runs in road games this season, a total that ranked fourth in the American League.

X factor: A guy hitting .120?
In infielder Jayson Nix, Royals manager Ned Yost has an interesting player at his disposal, if he chooses to use him.

Nix was 10-for-83 in the regular season, but he is a .308 hitter with three home runs in 26 at-bats against Lester. The home runs all came on fastballs, two of which were 94 mph or faster.

Did you know? Long waits
Each team has a story about a long drought. The Royals haven't been to the playoffs since 1985, when they won the World Series. They had the longest MLB stint without a postseason appearance prior to clinching a spot this past week.

For the Athletics, Adam Dunn will finally make his postseason debut. Dunn has played in 2,001 regular-season games, the most of any active player without a postseason appearance. The Elias Sports Bureau notes the most recent player to play in more before making his postseason debut was Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who played in 2,368 before he played for the Athletics in the 1975 ALCS.


Top stats to know: Patriots at Chiefs

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29

Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesTom Brady is poised to become only the sixth player in NFL history with 50,000 passing yards.
The New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs will meet for the fourth time on "Monday Night Football" (8:30 ET on ESPN) as Week 4 of the NFL season comes to a close. The Patriots have won all three previous MNF meetings.

Overall, New England is 11-3 on "Monday Night Football" since 2005, the second-best record over this span (min. 10 games), behind only the Chicago Bears (12-3).

Tom Terrific
Tom Brady is 219 yards shy of 50,000 for his NFL career.

When he reaches the milestone, he’ll join Brett Favre (71,838), Peyton Manning (65,778), Dan Marino (61,361), Drew Brees (52,284) and John Elway (51,475) as the only players in league history to reach this mark.

Terrible Tom
That milestone might not come as easily as one might think, as Brady has really struggled this season.

He has either overthrown or underthrown his receivers on 27 percent of his pass attempts. That is the highest percent of off-target passes in the NFL this season.

One reason for this might be the losses of guard Logan Mankins (traded to Tampa Bay) and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia (retired before the season).

Brady’s been under pressure (sacked, hit while throwing or under duress) at a higher percentage each season since offensive tackle Matt Light retired before the 2012 season.

Short is better for Smith
Last week against the Dolphins, Alex Smith threw for only 186 yards, but he still had three passing touchdowns with no interceptions. One reason for his success was his ability to keep his throws short.

Over the first two weeks for the season, Smith completed 58 percent of his passes while throwing one touchdown and three interceptions. He averaged 5.9 yards per attempt with his average pass traveling 8.1 yards.

Against Miami, he completed 76 percent of his passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt on his passes that traveled an average of 2.9 yards.

Quick hitters
• Tom Brady has thrown 42 touchdown passes in his career on "Monday Night Football," the most in the NFL since the start of the 2002 season.

• Brady is completing 84.6 percent of his passes to Julian Edelman this season and 51.1 percent to all other players.

• This is the Chiefs' first home game on "Monday Night Football" since Week 8 of the 2011 season, when they beat the Chargers 23-20 in overtime.

• Kansas City has lost four straight home games, the second-longest active streak in the NFL, behind only the Raiders (five).

• Since starting the 2013 season 9-0, the Chiefs are 3-8 in their past 10 games including the playoffs.

Conference power rankings: Big Ten is up

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29

AP Photo/Getty Images/USA Today SportsJ.T. Barrett, Connor Cook and Tanner McEvoy helped lift the Big Ten in the last two weeks.
Entering Week 4, when the Big Ten was 1-10 against opponents from the other Power Five conferences, there seemed to be a clear divide between it and the rest of the most prominent FBS conferences. Many analysts had already excluded the Big Ten champion from the College Football Playoff and dismissed the conference until next year.

The Big Ten, however, has bounced back in the past two weeks. It has won 16 of 17 non-conference games during that time, including seven of eight games against Power Five or American Athletic Conference opponents.

Michigan State has won its last two games by 101 combined points, Ohio State seems to be moving on without Braxton Miller, and Nebraska and Wisconsin have been running all over their opponents.

Big Ten, ACC swap positions
Since Week 3, the Big Ten has risen 7.2 points in the conference power rankings and has jumped ahead of the ACC for the fourth-best conference in the nation.

As the Big Ten climbed, the ACC continued to fall. The conference has gone 7-8 in non-conference games in the last two weeks with losses to Akron (by Pittsburgh), Colorado State (by Boston College) and East Carolina (by North Carolina).

The ACC now has two teams - Florida State and Clemson – ranked in the top 35 in Football Power Index. Every other Power Five conference, including the Big Ten, has at least five teams in the top 35.
Given the weakness of the ACC, and Florida State’s struggles in its first two conference games, will the playoff committee question the defending champs if they do not run the table?

In other conference news, the SEC enters the meat of its conference schedule with a 13-point lead over the other conferences. The SEC has seven teams ranked in the top 15 of the Football Power Index and the AP Poll. Many of those teams will face each other in Week 6 in games with conference title implications.

Behind the SEC
The Pac-12 and Big 12 are in a tight race for the No. 2 conference in the nation. The conferences have nearly identical scores in the part of the conference rankings that account for the AP Poll, but the depth of the Pac-12 is apparent in its lead over the Big 12 in average FPI (+12 for Pac-12 vs +9.5 for Big 12).

Next week there are huge conference matchups with playoff implications. As conference play heats up, we will learn more about the strength of the teams within the conferences rather than the strength of the conferences themselves. Nonetheless, as playoff talk heats up, keep in mind what we have learned about the relative strength of these conferences before conference play.

Kernels: Regular season in review

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
•  Four-strikeout games: Often called the "golden sombrero", the past eight seasons have been the most prolific in history for these games, and the 170 this year shattered last year's mark of 154. Prior to 2007, there had been only one season with over 100, Giancarlo Stanton, George Springer, and Javier Baez led the way with five such games each; the only known player with more in a season was Phillies All-Star Dick Allen who had seven in the famous 1968 "Year of the Pitcher."

• Corey Kluber of the Indians collected 11 strikeouts in his final start on Friday to finish with 269, two shy of David Price for the major-league title. Both pitchers threw 11 games this season with 10 or more whiffs; across the majors there were 209 total this season. That number has increased for nine straight years, and is more than double the 99 from 2005.
•  Our favorite sign of offense being down: This season brought us seven occurrences of a nine-run inning, most recently by the Cardinals on August 30, but no team got to double digits in the entire season (that's over 43,000 innings!).

The last season without a single 10-run frame was 1958.

•  Twenty-two hitters reached on catcher's interference this season. Paul Goldschmidt was this year's champion at getting the call, with four awards. Tim Federowicz, Carlos Corporan, and Jason Castro each committed the error twice. Notice that Castro and Corporan are both Houston Astros, and you find that they took home the team title. It's their most in a season since 1983.

•  Twelve runners this year were hit by batted balls, the most since 2009. At least nobody made the mistake twice, although Matt Holliday of the St. Louis Cardinals was hit on May 27 and then hit the batted ball that struck Matt Carpenter on September 4.

•  Six batters played an entire game with zero at-bats this season, again the most since 2009. Matt Joyce posted the year's only five-walk nine-inning game, while Andrew McCutchen became only the sixth player in the live-ball era with zero at-bats, two walks, and two hit-by-pitches in a game. (And also the first of the six to be thrown out stealing.)

•  Adrian Beltre's bottom-of-the-9th shot on Thursday gave the Texas Rangers a 2-1 victory over the Athletics in the opener of the season's final series. It was the Rangers' first (and only) walk-off homer of 2014. We'd been waiting; since September 2 when the Mariners finally hit one, Texas had been the only team without a walk-off homer. It's the first time that all 30 teams hit at least one since the 2003 season. Overall there were 224 walk-offs this season, 15 less than last year.

•  Samuel Deduno registered his first career hit on Saturday; it was also the first hit by an Astros pitcher all season. Two teams-- Seattle and Oakland-- saw their pitching staff draw an 0-for-the-season; the Mariners haven't had a pitcher hit since June 2012 (Hector Noesi). Hurlers hit just 15 home runs the entire season, with Madison Bumgarner chipping in four including the only two grand slams. That's the fewest pitcher homers in a season since 1994 when there were seven. Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta both tripled on Wednesday, the first day with two pitcher triples since July 26, 2003, when Jason Isringhausen and Elmer Dessens did it.

•  Michael Cuddyer of the Colorado Rockies posted the only cycle of the 2014 season, but this is a shout-out to the 279 players who didn't get one. That's the number of "near-cycles" this season-- three of the four needed hits. As expected, the vast majority of those (204 in this case) needed the triple. Fifty-one players went single-double-triple but didn't homer, 16 needed the double, and eight needed the single-- including Chris Owings of the Diamondbacks who did it twice!

He's the first player to have two missed-by-the-single games in a season since Gregg Jefferies in 1988. The overall leaders in near-cycles were Miguel Cabrera and Anthony Rendon who each had five. Yoenis Cespedes missed once each by the homer, double, and single, but never needed the triple. He's the first player to do that in a season since Alex Gordon's rookie year in 2007.

•  If it seemed like the score 1-0 came up a lot this year, it did. Sixty-nine games were decided by that score, 21 more than last year and the most in a season since 1976. The Rays and Reds both played ten 1-0 games, and the Rays tied the Cardinals for most in the majors by winning six of them.

And the most memorable "first time since" note of the week? The Kansas City Royals are in the postseason for the first time since 1985. See you then.



Rodgers dominant from start to finish

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
How good was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ against the Chicago Bears on Sunday?

On the day in which the Packers got their 700th win and Rodgers became the quarterback with the fewest pass attempts to reach 25,000 passing yards, he was almost perfect.

Consider this:

The lowest that Rodgers’ Total QBR (which goes from 0 to 100) dipped to at any point during the game was 98.8 (after one incompletion on an overthrow in the second quarter and one on an underthrown ball in the third quarter).

Rodgers had a Total QBR of 99 or better after 32 of his 35 action plays in this game. He finished with a career-best 99.0 rating, the third-best by a quarterback in any game this season.

What were the keys to attaining such a number?

One was that Rodgers started strong. On the first drive of the game, Rodgers completed his first four passes, netting the Packers their first 79 yards on offense.

Rodgers was 6-of-6 overall when passing at least 15 yards downfield (quarterbacks get more credit for longer throws). He was 10-of-10 targeting Jordy Nelson in situations in which the Bears rushed four men or fewer at him.

Two of Rodgers’ four touchdown passes were thrown more than 10 yards downfield. He had only one such touchdown pass in his first three games of the season.

He was also perfect on third down. Rodgers was 7 for 7 for 79 yards and four first downs (including two touchdowns) in third-down situations.

It helped that the Bears defense made things relatively easy for him. Rodgers was 18 for 20 when the Bears sent four or fewer pass rushers, with completions on each of his first 11 pass attempts.

Rodgers and the Packers offense scored on 6-of-7 offensive drives (86 percent). Only once since Rodgers became starter have the Packers scored on a higher rate of their drives (88 percent Week 8 last season against Vikings).

The performance continued a pattern of excellence for Rodgers in Chicago. His Total QBR there is 84.0. When he plays the Bears elsewhere, it's 56.4.

Top stats to know: Jeter ends career with hit

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28

AP Photo/Chris O'MearaDerek Jeter's final totals leave him with a lot to smile about.
Derek Jeter’s esteemed major league career came to an end with an infield single in his second at-bat against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday.

After a great deal of celebration, his final statistical totals can be entered into the record books.

The most noteworthy of those are:

• Jeter finishes with 3,465 hits, the sixth-most in major-league history, the most by a player whose primary position was shortstop, and the most for a player on the New York Yankees. His 1,923 runs scored (coincidentally the same number as the year in which Yankee Stadium opened) rank ninth-most all-time.

• The Elias Sports Bureau notes that the 3,465 hits rank fourth-most by a player for one team, trailing only Ty Cobb (3,902 for the Tigers), Stan Musial (3,630 for the Cardinals) and Hank Aaron (3,600 for the Braves).

• Jeter is also the Yankees' all-time leader in games played (2,747), at-bats (11,195), runs, doubles (544), and stolen bases (358). He’s played in more different seasons in pinstripes (20) than any other player, and his 12-year run as Yankees captain is the longest in team history.

• Jeter is also the postseason’s all-time leader in games played, hits and runs scored.

• Jeter finished with 149 hits this season. He had 17 150-hit seasons in his career, tied with Aaron for fourth-most, one shy of the all-time mark, held by Pete Rose, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb.

• The last hit against Clay Buchholz was noteworthy statistically in that it pushed Jeter’s career batting average from .30945 to .30951, which is rounded up to .310

Jeter is one of 13 players to record at least 3,000 hits and hit at least .310 for his career. The others are Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Paul Waner, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Cap Anson, Cobb and Speaker.