Top stats to know: Bears 27, Jets 19

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
Both Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith had their share of struggles on Monday night.

But it was Cutler who got a little help and was able to do just enough to win.

Cutler improved to 9-4 on "Monday Night Football" as the Bears won 27-19, improving their record to 2-1 this season.

Play of the game: Start with an interception
The Bears got on the scoreboard quickly, with Smith throwing an interception returned for a touchdown by Ryan Mundy on the game’s first drive.

Since entering the league last season, Smith has 14 interceptions on off-target passes, tied with Eli Manning for the most in the NFL during that span.

Over the past five seasons, the Bears have returned 19 interceptions for touchdowns, six more than the next closest team.

Multi-score Martellus
Martellus Bennett continues to excel in the early parts of seasons, adding two touchdowns to his ledger on Monday.

Since the start of the 2012 season, Bennett has 10 touchdowns in Weeks 1-3. In Weeks 4-17, he has four touchdowns over the past two seasons.

Bennett's second touchdown of the game came on a play in which the Jets blitzed. Cutler handled the blitz well in this game, completing 10 of 16 passes (including eight straight) against it. The 10 completions tied his most such completions in a game in two seasons under Marc Trestman.

The struggles of Smith
Smith threw for more than 300 yards for the second time in his career, but that was a bit misleading.

Smith went 1-for-11 with an interception when under duress from the Bears' defense, including a game-ending throw that was caught but beyond the end zone.

The Jets were able to get in the red zone. They just couldn’t punch in touchdowns, scoring only once in six red zone trips. Smith was 4-for-9 passing from inside the red zone.

The five instances in which the Jets didn’t score a touchdown were the most touchdown-free trips into the red zone by the team since Rex Ryan became head coach in 2009.

Smith’s Total QBR for the game was 20.5, dropping his season rating to 33.2. Smith’s 36.8 Total QBR since the start of last season ranks fifth-worst in the NFL.


Worth the wait: Liriano flourishing

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
The Pittsburgh Pirates were very patient with Francisco Liriano the first three months of the season, holding onto the hope that something positive would emerge from what was looking to be a rather rough season both in terms of his numbers and the health of his arm. The waiting has paid off, big time.

Liriano improved to 4-0 with a 0.35 ERA in September with six scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.

This continued a scoreless streak by Pirates starters spanning 23 innings, their longest such streak since a 24-inning run in 1997.

There were indications this was coming
Though Liriano struggled through much of the first three months of the season, prior to going on the disabled list, there was one stat indicating he may have been pitching in tough luck.

We’re provided with a stat that is based on video review known as “hard-hit rate”, in which each batted ball is ranked as hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit.

It is an indicator of pitching effectiveness (or ineffectiveness). Pitchers with low hard-hit rates generally pitch well; when they don't, it may be an indicator of other factors at work (such as bad luck).

Through June 10, Liriano had a 4.60 ERA, but only a 12 percent hard-hit rate, which ranked 10th-best in the majors in that span.

Better times were ahead.

Since returning from the disabled list, Liriano has a 10.5 percent hard-hit rate. His ERA in that span is 2.22 in 14 starts.

How he’s dominating
Liriano has continued to limit hard-hit balls this month, allowing them at a rate of 10.3 percent. In fact, he and teammate Charlie Morton now share the NL lead for the lowest hard-hit rate allowed this season at 11.2 percent.

That’s translated into only one extra-base hit (and no home runs) allowed for Liriano this month.

Liriano’s slider has typically been the pitch that determines whether he’ll be good or great.

From April to August, that pitch worked well. In September, it’s been basically unhittable, as noted in the chart on the right.

Monday marked the third straight start in which Liriano threw at least 20 sliders and didn’t allow a hit with any of them.

He threw 32 against the Braves, netting seven outs (including five strikeouts) and yielding only one baserunner (via walk).

Braves hitters were 0-for-5 against him with runners in scoring position after going 4-for-6 against him on Aug. 19.

Liriano has not allowed a hit with a runner in scoring position since that start against the Braves. They are 0-for-21 since then.

The one area of concern
The one cause for concern when it comes to Liriano is his wildness. He's walked nine batters in his past two starts, including four Monday.

Liriano has the highest walk rate of any starter qualified for the ERA title (11.4 percent).

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Night
The Pirates are the first team to play three consecutive 1-0 games (on the winning or losing side) since the Brewers in July 1971.



Top stats to know: Bears at Jets

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22

AP Photo/Tony AvelarThe Chicago Bears have provided solid protection for Jay Cutler in 2014.
The Chicago Bears and New York Jets meet for the second time on Monday Night Football (8:30 ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). Here are the statistical angles of note for tonight’s game.

Bearing down
The Bears were staring at an 0-2 start but outscored the San Francisco 49ers 21-0 in the fourth quarter last week in a 28-20 win.

It was the first time they won a game after trailing by at least 17 points since 2006 against the Arizona Cardinals – which is also the game then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green uttered the famous postgame words, “The Bears are who we thought they were.”

Through two games, the Bears have been outscored by 20 points in the first half. They’re plus-25 in the second half.

Protect the quarterback
The Bears’ Jay Cutler has had much better protection to start this season. In two games, he’s been sacked on 3.4 percent of his dropbacks, continuing a positive trend for the past few seasons.

He’s feeling the heat much less overall, facing duress on 12.5 percent of his dropbacks in two games – best in the league entering Week 3. For context, Peyton Manning led the league in this category last season, facing duress on 14.9 percent of his dropbacks.

Cutler will be making his 70th start with the Bears. His record with Chicago is 40-29 (.580).

The Jets enter this game tops in both rushing offense (179.0 YPG) and rushing defense (52.5 YPG). The Jets are the first team to hold that distinction after any week of an NFL season since the Vikings ended 2007 leading in both categories.

That would appear to be bad news for a Bears defense that allowed 193 rush yards in Week 1 and 129 in Week 2. Defending the run has been a major issue for Chicago, ranking at or near the bottom of every defensive rushing category since the start of last season.

Odds and ends
• The Bears are in a stretch that will see them play four of five games on the road. They host the Green Bay Packers next week, then play the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons on the road.

• The Bears are 11-3 on Monday Night Football since 2006. They won both of their appearances last season (Week 9 at Green Bay and Week 14 against Dallas). They appear twice this season with the second game coming in Week 15 (host the Saints).

• Geno Smith is making his second career start on Monday Night Football. In Week 5 last season, he went 16-20 for 199 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-28 win at Atlanta.

Division rankings: SEC West way ahead

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
The top of the conference power rankings remained relatively unchanged with the SEC holding a 12-point lead over the Pac-12, which has an eight-point advantage over the Big 12.

After a dismal start to the season, the Big Ten was the biggest mover of the week, rising four points and leapfrogging the ACC for fourth in the rankings. The Big Ten went 12-1 against non-conference opponents in Week 4, including 4-1 against other Power Five teams. Indiana (at Missouri), Maryland (at Syracuse) and Iowa (at Pittsburgh) all took care of business on the road against solid competition.

Besides the Big Ten’s rise and ACC’s minor fall, there was not a lot of movement in the conference power rankings.

Instead of delving into many of the same storylines as in weeks past, we decided to take another angle: What conference division is the strongest and weakest in the nation?

Using the same methodology for the conference power rankings (equally weighing The Associated Press Poll and FPI), we ran the numbers for our inaugural Power Five divisional power rankings. Since the Big 12 is the only Power Five conference without divisions, we decided to treat it as one large division, as the formula accounts for the number of teams in each.

Not surprisingly, the SEC West dominated the division power rankings. The SEC West recorded a rating of 99.3 on a 0-100 scale, which is 33 points more than any other division.

Consider the stats below on the SEC West:

• The SEC West is 22-0 against teams not in the SEC West and is winning those games by an average margin of 34 points.

• All seven of the SEC West’s teams rank in the top 20 of the Football Power Index, which is more teams than the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC have combined.

• Six of the SEC West’s seven teams are ranked in the top 20 of the AP Poll. Arkansas is the only team that is not ranked, and the Razorbacks have won their last three games by 41.7 points per game.

The two divisions in the Pac-12 are basically neck-and-neck in the divisional rankings. The Pac-12 North has two teams ranked in the AP Top 25 (Oregon and Stanford), while the Pac-12 South has three (UCLA, Arizona State, USC). A team from the Pac-12 North has won the conference in each of the past five seasons, but the Pac-12 South appears to be catching up this season.

The most surprising result might be that the SEC East ranks fifth behind both Pac-12 divisions and the Big 12. The SEC East is the only division from a Power Five conference without an undefeated team. The division is 12-6 against opponents not in the SEC East, including 0-3 against the SEC West.

The ACC Coastal is the weakest of the Power Five conference divisions. The Coastal division is the only Power Five division without a team ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll, and its top team in FPI is Pittsburgh at No. 31. The stark difference between the ACC Coastal and ACC Atlantic is similar to the divide in the Big Ten.

The Big Ten West is 17.4 points below the Big Ten East, as the bottom five Big Ten teams in FPI all come from the Big Ten West. As a reminder, Wisconsin and Nebraska are the favorites in the West, and Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State are the favorites in the East. By virtue of having the easiest path to the Big Ten Championship game because of its division, Wisconsin has the best chance to win the Big Ten (40 percent), according to FPI.

This week there will be plenty of divisional battles with the chance to shape the conference championship races. Texas A&M takes on Arkansas in the SEC West, UCLA travels to Arizona State in the Pac-12 South, Stanford faces Washington in the Pac-12 North, and Missouri tries to bounce back against South Carolina in the SEC East.



Kernels: All or nothing

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
Technically you need only one run to win a game (we're ignoring forfeits here). This week showed us that some teams are quite content to get only one run, whereas some prefer to get, well, a few more.

•  The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays played 8 scoreless innings on Monday before Ben Zobrist hit a bases-loaded single for a 1-0 victory. It was the third 1-0 walk-off in Rays history; one of the others happened in May when Cole Figueroa doubled against the Boston Red Sox. Being an AL East contest, the game still took 3 hours 28 minutes, the longest known nine-inning 1-0 game in major-league history (game times are complete back to the mid-1940s and known for many games before that).
•  That time record lasted all of five days. On Saturday Logan Schafer's pinch-hit sacrifice fly in the ninth gave the Milwaukee Brewers a 1-0 win in Pittsburgh which took 3:32. It was the Brewers' first 1-0 win where the run came in the ninth since Geoff Jenkins' walk-off homer against the Cardinals seven years earlier to the day. They hadn't won a 1-0 road game with a ninth-inning run since April 13, 1976, when Charlie Moore's sac fly scored Sixto Lezcano at Tiger Stadium.

•  Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs, playing his first game in three weeks (back tightness), provided an even more dramatic 1-0 walk-off on Monday with a solo home run into the center-field bleachers. The Cubs hadn't walked off in a 1-0 game in over three years, and hadn't done so on a solo home run since June 8, 1971, when Joe Pepitone hit a 12th-inning longball off then-Pirate Mudcat Grant.

•  Monday marked the first day with two 1-0 walk-offs since September 13, 2010. On that day, Reid Brignac's 11th-inning homer beat the Yankees (that's the other 1-0 walk-off in Rays history), and Nick Evans' 10th-inning single gave the New York Mets a win over the Pirates.

•  The Miami Marlins collected 13 hits, 12 off Bartolo Colon, in Tuesday's game. They lost. They hit into three double plays and stranded 10, losing to the Mets 9-1. It was one shy of the Marlins' record for scoring futility; 10 years ago this week they had 14 hits and just one run in a loss to Atlanta. Colon, meanwhile, was the first pitcher this season to give up 12 hits and win, and the first for the Mets since Kenny Rogers in 1999.

•  The Seattle Mariners got one-hit by C.J. Wilson and the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday, the eighth time this season they've been held to two hits or fewer. That ties the 2010 Rays (who were no-hit twice) for the most in the last quarter-century. The last team with more such games was the California Angels of 1986.

By the end of the week, however, big numbers were the story:

•  The Colorado Rockies erupted for a "snowman" 8 in the first inning Wednesday and ended up with 16 runs on 21 hits, both season highs. It was the team's first time ever scoring eight runs in a first inning, and the first time any team has gotten 11 hits in a first inning since the Royals scored 10 times against the Indians on August 23, 2006. Charlie Blackmon had his third five-hit game of the season, the first player with three since Ichiro Suzuki in 2004. He also scored four runs; the last two players with a pair of five-hit, four-run games in the same season were Kenny Lofton in 1997 and Roberto Clemente in 1961. According to Elias, Carlos Frias became the first pitcher in modern history (1900) to surrender 10 hits without surviving the first inning. The last Dodgers pitcher even to do it in two innings was Johnny Podres, who gave up 12 hits and eight runs while getting five outs in his final start of the 1963 season.

•  The Dodgers, meanwhile, took out their frustration on the Cubs on Friday, dropping 14 at Wrigley Field including their first six-run first inning since May 7, 2009 (vs. Washington). The 14-run total was the Dodgers' most at Wrigley since May 24, 1990, when Don Zimmer was managing the home team. Fernando Valenzuela started (and got the win) for Los Angeles. Mike Scioscia and Juan Samuel homered.

•  The Rockies put up 15 against Arizona on Friday, including a grand slam and 7 RBI by Michael Cuddyer. It was the first 7-RBI game for the Rockies since Jason Giambi's three-homer game in 2011, and Cuddyer was only the second in franchise history with a grand slam and two doubles; Charles Johnson also did it against Arizona on April 7, 2004.

•  Combined with the Texas Rangers' 12 runs on Friday, it was the first time this year that three teams scored 12 or more on the same day. The Detroit Tigers' 10-1 win then made it the first time four teams have won by nine runs or more since May 20, 2011.


How did that happen?: Romo's 99.1 QBR

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
Tony Romo brought the Cowboys back from extremely long odds to beat the Rams.
Tony Romo posted a near-perfect 99.1 Total QBR on Sunday, despite throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter.

You might be wondering how it's possible for a quarterback who threw a pick-six to have a near-perfect rating.

Let's go behind the math to make that clear.

Total QBR takes into account the entire game.

The interception set Romo back significantly (it dropped his Total QBR from 85.6 to 12.3 – a drop of 73.3 points), but he was able to dig himself out of the hole he created with some stellar play in the second half.

And in the end, leading a rally from a 21-point deficit was far more important.

What plays were key to the QBR spike?

A 26-yard pass interference penalty against the Rams in the second quarter essentially served as a completed pass for Romo. It upped his Total QBR from 20.3 to 53.2.

The 68-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant was on a pass thrown 48 yards downfield. Romo receives significant credit for making such a successful throw, one that cut the Cowboys' deficit from 11 points to four points. That increased his Total QBR from 67.7 to 91.0.

With 11:47 left in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys down by four points, Romo scrambled for a 16-yard gain on a third-and-13. That boosted his Total QBR from 93.0 to 98.2. The Cowboys took the lead on that drive and went on to win, 34-31.

Let's provide one more stat to offer some perspective on how unusual this game was:
Over the last three seasons, an NFL quarterback has recorded a Total QBR of 99 or better 11 times. Romo is the only one in that group to throw an interception in that game. But he's also the only one to be the focal point of a remarkable rally.

For 2014 Total QBR rankings, click here


Wild card race stars: Donaldson & Kluber

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
Two teams in the thick of the AL wild-card race got performances from their most valuable hitter and pitcher respectively when they were much needed.

Hitter of the Day: Josh Donaldson, Athletics
The Oakland Athletics needed a big day on offense in the worst way. So did their best hitter.

Josh Donaldson was in a 7-for-40 slump since his five-hit game against the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 9 entering the finale of a series in which he was 0-for-8.

On Sunday, Donaldson was 3-for-5 with the last hit being a 444-foot walk-off home run to center field.

Donaldson is the only player in the major leagues with three walk-off home runs this season. He’s the first Athletics player with three in a season since Matt Stairs hit as many in 1999.

Donaldson is also one of five American Leaguers with at least three 440-foot home runs this season. His three trail co-leaders Mike Trout and Edwin Encarnacion, who have five (Giancarlo Stanton leads the majors with 10).

This was the eighth home run that Donaldson hit against a pitch in the upper-third of the strike zone this season (a 94-mph fastball from Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez), but his first since he hit one on June 6.

In fact, when Donaldson hit his last such home run prior to Sunday, his seven for the season were one shy of Brian Dozier for the major league lead. Now, seven players have more than his total.

Pitcher of the Day: Corey Kluber, Indians
Corey Kluber’s average fastball velocity on Sunday was 92.2 mph, about one mph slower than his season average. But that didn’t stop him from having another big strikeout day.

Kluber struck out 14 hitters for the second straight start to keep the Cleveland Indians within 3½ games of the Kansas City Royals in the wild-card race. The teams meet for four games (one is the conclusion of a suspended game in which the Indians lead by two runs in the 10th inning) to start the week.

Kluber can say he did something that legendary Indians pitcher Bob Feller never did.

Kluber is the first pitcher with at least 14 strikeouts in consecutive games since Randy Johnson in 2004. He’s the first Indians pitcher with consecutive 14-strikeout games since Sam McDowell had two sets of such games in 1968.

Though Kluber didn’t have his fastest fastball, he did have a very good curveball. Twins hitters saw 16 of them; they swung at 14 and missed eight.

The eight strikeouts with his curveball matched the most by any pitcher in the majors this season (Kluber was among those who had done it previously).

Kluber’s 258 strikeouts are the most in a season by an Indians pitcher since McDowell had 304 in 1970.

His 182 strikeouts with breaking pitches lead the majors. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw ranks second with 172. Next after that is Tyson Ross of the Padres with 128.


Top stats to know: Seahawks 26, Broncos 20

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
The Seattle Seahawks won their Super Bowl rematch with the Denver Broncos, but it wasn’t easy.

The Seahawks survived Peyton Manning’s late-game comeback attempt by never letting Manning get possession in overtime.

What are the stats you need to know from this one?

Wilson wins with his legs
Five of Russell Wilson’s six pass attempts during the game-winning drive came from outside the pocket. He completed three of them for first downs. Wilson also rushed four times for 21 yards on the drive, earning two first downs via scrambles.

With the win, Wilson is now 2-0 versus Manning in head-to-head matchups. He’s also 2-0 versus Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, giving him an elite trio of unbeaten marks.

The Elias Sports Bureau also noted that Wilson joined Daryle Lamonica, Danny White and Matt Ryan as the only quarterbacks to win at least 17 of their first 18 home starts.

A first for Lynch
Overtime touchdowns are not common, so perhaps it’s not surprising that this was the first overtime touchdown of Marshawn Lynch’s NFL career.

Lynch has now scored a touchdown in seven straight games.

Seahawks thwart Broncos after the catch
The Broncos could not get anything going with screen passes on Sunday. Not counting his 3-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas in the fourth quarter, Manning completed 5 of 6 screen passes for a total of 2 yards. Broncos receivers had a combined 1 yard after contact on those receptions.

They also thwarted Manning’s deep throws
Manning was 3-of-9 for 85 yards and a touchdown on balls traveling 15 or more yards downfield. He was also 3-of-9 on passes of that length in last year’s Super Bowl against the Seahawks.

Manning has completed 50 percent of such attempts against all other teams since the start of last season.

Keeping Britton Colquitt busy
The Broncos punted eight times Sunday, tied for their most in a game since Manning joined the team in 2012.

The Broncos have punted 18 times in their first three games (6.0 per game) this season after averaging just more than four punts per game last season.

Did you know?
The Seahawks concluded the first Super Bowl rematch to go overtime with a 13-play overtime drive. The last team with an overtime drive for a touchdown lasting 13 plays or more was the 2006 Giants, a 31-yard Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress touchdown pass against the Eagles.

The loss dropped the Broncos to 0-3 in overtime games with Peyton Manning as their quarterback. The year before Manning’s arrival, Tim Tebow went 4-0 in overtime for the Broncos.

Top stats to know: Reds at Cardinals

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
The St. Louis Cardinals try to move a step closer to clinching the NL Central title when they close their series against the Cincinnati Reds on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Here are some of the notable statistical storylines our broadcast crew will be talking about:

Lance Lynn: One of the biggest winners in the game
Since the start of the 2012 season, Cardinals starter Lance Lynn ranks sixth in the NL in win percentage (.649) and third in wins (48). The only NL pitchers with more wins over the last three seasons are Adam Wainwright (52) and Clayton Kershaw (50).

Lynn is one of three pitchers with at least 15 wins in each of the last three seasons, along with Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke.

Lynn is 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA in nine starts against the Reds since the start of last season, and the Cardinals have won seven of those nine starts.

Lynn does not typically come to mind when you're thinking about baseball’s best pitchers. But he’s starting to make a good case. Since the start of July, he has a 1.89 ERA in 90 1/3 innings, with opponents hitting only .133 with runners in scoring position in that span.

One reason for Lynn’s significant improvement: his work against left-handed hitters, as noted in the chart on the right.

Matt Holliday has been clutch
After struggling for almost the entire first half of the season, Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday has turned his season around.

Holliday had only five home runs in his first 90 games, but has 14 home runs in his last 60.

Most of the Cardinals were unable to maintain the success they’ve had with runners in scoring position this season. But Matt Holliday has.

Holliday is hitting .247 with nobody on base and .360 with runners in scoring position this season, which ranks third in the majors.

Rosenthal struggling down stretch
The Cardinals do have something to worry about even as they are headed toward the postseason: the inconsistent performance of closer Trevor Rosenthal.

Rosenthal leads the NL with 44 saves, but they haven’t been easily earned. The most notable issue for him this season is that he’s walking 5.5 batters per nine innings in 2014 after walking only 2.4 per nine a year ago.

In spite of this, Rosenthal still has gotten the job done to an extent. He’s yielded only one run in his last 10 appearances.

Billy Hamilton for Rookie of the Year?
It has been a miserable second half for the Cincinnati Reds, and the lone big storyline left in their season is whether Billy Hamilton can win the Rookie of the Year award.

Hamilton has 56 stolen bases this season (second in the NL) and has played terrific defense in center field (10 defensive runs saved). But the one thing that may hinder him is an on-base percentage of .296. Only two position players have won Rookie of the Year with an on-base percentage below .300: Ken Hubbs for the Chicago Cubs in 1962 (.299) and Ozzie Guillen for the 1985 White Sox (.291)


Keselowski projected to win third straight

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsAccording to projections, Brad Keselowski will grace victory lane for the third straight week

Here are the projections for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire. Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, pre-race on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a 1.058-mile oval) and time of year.

• After his win in the opening round of the Chase, Brad Keselowski is the only driver to have clinched a spot in the Contender Round. Any Chase driver who wins either of the next two races will automatically clinch a berth in the next round, and no driver will be eliminated after New Hampshire since any Chase driver can win at Dover and still advance. Keselowski is looking for his third straight win, something that hasn’t been done in the series in a single season since 2007 when Jimmie Johnson won four straight en route to the championship. Since 1995, it’s only been accomplished four times, twice by Jimmie Johnson and twice by Jeff Gordon. All four times, that driver finished at least top two in the final standings.

• New Hampshire has been very unpredictable lately. The track has seen 13 consecutive different winners, a run that started in 2008. That’s the longest active streak in the series, and it’s tied for the longest in Cup history with Texas Motor Speedway, which also saw 13 straight different winners from 1998 to 2007.

• Joe Gibbs drivers could be the ones to watch Sunday. Kyle Busch has finished second in each of the past three New Hampshire events, while teammate Matt Kenseth is the defending winner here. Kenseth’s five wins in the past four Chases (including this Chase) is also tied for the series lead. Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, has a top-two finish in three of his last five Chase starts at New Hampshire.

• Jimmie Johnson wasn’t much of a contender in Chicago (finished 12th), but that doesn’t mean the defending series champion won’t be strong this weekend. In his past 11 Chase starts, he has nine top 10s, two wins, an average finish of 5.7 and has not finished worse than 13th. A fourth career win at New Hampshire would tie him with Jeff Burton for most all-time.


Top stats on Alabama’s dominant win

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20

AP Photo/Brynn AndersonAmari Cooper's three touchdowns gave him 20 receiving TDs in his career, a school record.

Alabama beat Florida 42-21 Saturday in its SEC opener and did so with an uncharacteristically dominant passing attack. We tell you what you need to know about Alabama’s awesome offense and some ignominious Florida records.

Alabama piles up yards
Alabama had 645 yards of total offense, its second-most under Nick Saban behind last season’s 668 yards against Duke in a 48-7 win. It’s also the most ever allowed by Florida in a single game, topping the 629 allowed to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.

Blake Sims’ rare Tide QB performance
Alabama quarterback Blake Sims threw for 445 yards, the second Alabama quarterback to ever top 400 yards in a game. The school record is held by Scott Hunter, who threw for 484 against Auburn in 1969. It’s also the third-most by an opponent against the Gators and most since Peyton Manning threw for 492 yards in 1996. Sims threw four touchdown passes, the fifth Alabama quarterback to do so.

Amari Cooper sets school record
Amari Cooper’s three receiving touchdowns helped him set the school record for most career touchdown receptions with 20. Cooper became just the fourth Alabama player to have 200 receiving yards in a single game. This leaves him just 532 yards shy of tying DJ Hall’s school record for most receiving yards in a career (2,923). Cooper has 655 yards receiving this season, more than halfway to the school single-season record of 1,133 set by Hall in 2010.

Is Cooper the next Julio Jones?
Cooper has more receptions, receiving yards, 100-yard receiving games and touchdowns through the first 29 games of his career at Alabama than Julio Jones. Jones would finish his Alabama career with 179 catches, 2,653 yards and 15 TD.


Top Stats to Know: Kershaw wins 20th

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19

Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKershaw's day ended early, but he still picked up his 20th win

Clayton Kershaw earned his second career 20-win season in a 14-5 Los Angeles Dodgers win on against the Chicago Cubs on Friday, becoming the first MLB pitcher with 20 wins this season. Kershaw threw five innings, allowing three earned runs (all in the first inning) and striking out nine batters. It was his shortest start since June 8, when he threw five innings in a rain-shortened win over the Colorado Rockies. Here’s what you need to know about Kershaw’s dominant season and some exclusive clubs he’s joined with this win.

Kershaw wins 20 again
Clayton Kershaw’s second career 20-win season makes him the fourth Dodgers pitcher with multiple 20-win seasons since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Sandy Koufax leads all L.A. Dodger pitchers with three 20-win seasons while Claude Osteen and Don Drysdale each have two.

Kershaw gets to 20 quickly
Kershaw got his 20th win in his 26th start of the season, becoming just the sixth pitcher in the expansion era to accomplish that feat according to Elias. Four of the previous five pitchers to do so won the Cy Young Award that season, with Juan Marichal as the lone exception in 1968.

Kershaw limits scoring
Friday marked the 25th time in his 26 starts this year that Kershaw allowed three runs or fewer. Kershaw currently is on pace to finish the season with the highest percentage of starts where he allows three runs or fewer in the last 100 years according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Entering this season, Dwight Gooden’s 94.3 percent of starts in 1985 was the highest percentage, but Kershaw currently sits at 96.1 percent.

Kershaw has big strikeout numbers
Kershaw struck out at least nine batters in a game for the 15th time this season, snapping a tie with David Price for the MLB lead. Kershaw’s 15 games of at least nine strikeouts is the most in a season by a Dodgers pitcher since Koufax had 21 in 1966.


FPI-based must-see TV for Week 4

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Gainesville native Blake Sims leads Alabama into Saturday’s game against Florida.
Matchup quality is a metric that ranks games (on a 0-100 scale) based on how good each team is and how close the game is expected to be.

The games ranked highest in matchup quality will be competitive games between two highly ranked teams in ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). Based on this metric, here are the top four games for Week 4.

Florida at Alabama: 91.6 pregame matchup quality
In a meeting of schools that have won four of the past seven SEC titles, third-ranked Alabama is a 73 percent favorite to beat Florida, according to FPI.

These teams will again play a big role in the conference race, as the Gators have the best chance to win the SEC East at 37 percent.

Alabama has a with a 25 percent chance to win the division and a 16 percent chance to win the conference, both best in the SEC.

This game is the only meeting of units ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's efficiency rankings this week, as Florida's ninth-ranked defense will try to slow Alabama's seventh-ranked offense.

Clemson at Florida State: 90.5 pregame matchup quality
This is the only remaining game between ranked teams this week, and the top-ranked Seminoles are a 77 percent favorite over No. 22 Clemson, according to FPI, even without QB Jameis Winston for the first half.

It's only Week 4, but the ACC title may be on the line, as Florida State (61 percent) and Clemson (14 percent) are FPI's favorites to win the conference.

Strength will battle strength, as Clemson ranks fifth in defensive efficiency and will try to slow a Seminoles offense that gained 565 yards of total offense against the Tigers last year.

Florida State won that game 51-14 after leading 27-7 at halftime, with a 93 percent win probability at the break.

Mississippi State at LSU: 90.1 pregame matchup quality
LSU has dominated the series, winning 14 straight and 21 of the last 22 meetings. Mississippi State last beat the Tigers in 1999, a one-point home win.

LSU's pass defense has been its strength this year. The Tigers have allowed the lowest Total QBR in the nation (11.2) and are one of three teams yet to concede a completion on a pass thrown at least 15 yards downfield.

FPI gives the Tigers a 61 percent chance to beat the Bulldogs.

Oklahoma at West Virginia: 87.2 pregame matchup quality
West Virginia has been one of the biggest surprises in the FBS this season. The Mountaineers have jumped 24 spots from their preseason rankings, the third-largest increase of any Power Five school.

FPI gives Oklahoma 77 percent odds to win, and this is one of three remaining games in which the Sooners have a predicted win percentage below 80 (at TCU and vs. Baylor are the others).

That relatively easy schedule means the Sooners have 18 percent odds to win all their remaining games, behind only BYU's 21 percent chances.

Buy or sell: Is Miami-Nebraska relevant?

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
Is Miami (FL) vs Nebraska still relevant?

Miami (FL) heads to Lincoln to take on No. 24 Nebraska (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2). The two teams have met in five January bowl games, but their most recent meeting was the Hurricanes’ 23-point win in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Are you buying that this game is still relevant?

The winner usually wins it all. In four out of the last five matchups between these teams, the winner won the national championship. The one game in which the winner did not win the national championship was the 1989 Orange Bowl when Miami (FL) finished second to Notre Dame.

Two great running backs. Since the start of last season, Ameer Abdullah ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (130.4), while Duke Johnson ranks second in the ACC (108.8). Johnson has eight runs of 50 yards or longer since his freshman season, tied for the most in the FBS.

The teams cannot even win their conferences. Since Miami (FL) moved to the ACC in 2004 and Nebraska moved to the Big Ten in 2011, neither school has won its conference.

No longer top-tier programs. The last time Miami (FL) finished in the top 10 of the AP poll was the 2003 season. Nebraska has not finished in the top 10 since the 2001 season.

Is Kenny Hill the best QB in the SEC?

Texas A&M's Kenny Hill is 3-0 as a starter and became the first player in school history to throw for 1,000 yards in the first three games of a season. Is Hill already the best quarterback in the SEC?

Total QBR sees all. Total QBR accounts for all of a quarterback’s contributions, and Hill ranks third in the FBS and first in the SEC with a 92.9 Total QBR.

Hill is a TD machine. Hill has thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in 117 passes. Every other SEC quarterback with at least 50 passes has thrown at least one interception. Hill’s plus-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio leads the FBS.

Three games is a small sample. Hill may lead the SEC in Total QBR through three games, but dating back to last October, Nick Marshall leads the nation in Total QBR.

His receivers deserve some credit. Texas A&M has gained 585 yards after the catch, the most of any team in the SEC. On three of Hill’s touchdown passes, Texas A&M’s receiver gained at least 20 yards after the catch.

Will the Big Ten rebound this weekend?

The Big Ten has won 63 percent of its games this season, the lowest winning percentage for any Power Five conference. With one weekend left before we get into the heart of the Big Ten schedule, are you buying that this is the weekend the Big Ten rebounds?

There is a chance. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Big Ten has more than a 50 percent chance to win in three of its five matchups against other Power Five schools this weekend.

Did you see the Big Ten last week?. The Big Ten lost all five of its games against other Power Five schools last week. In fact, since Rutgers defeated Washington State on Thursday, Aug. 28, the Big Ten has lost 10 straight games to other Power Five schools.

They still have not beaten anyone good. The Big Ten is 0-9 against non-conference opponents currently ranked in the top 50 of the Football Power Index.

The only conference with a worse record in non-conference games against Power Five opponents is Conference USA, which is 0-16 in such games.

Should Oklahoma be on upset alert in West Virginia?

Oklahoma is 3-0 and is winning by an average margin of 33.7 points. The Sooners are facing a West Virginia team that put up a good fight against Alabama. Are you buying that West Virginia has a good chance to upset the Sooners?

West Virginia’s done it before. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Sooners have a 77 percent chance to win at West Virginia, its third-lowest likelihood of winning of the season. Last season the Mountaineers pulled a similar upset by defeating No. 11 Oklahoma State at home.

Clint Trickett is a different QB. Clint Trickett may be the most improved quarterback in the nation. He ranks third in the FBS with 1,224 passing yards and has raised his Total QBR rank from 85th in 2013 to 15th in 2014.

Oklahoma has been dominant. The Sooners have had the fifth-highest average in-game win probability in the FBS. They have led by an average of 24 points by halftime.

The Sooners’ defense is for real. Oklahoma ranks third in ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings and has allowed the third-lowest Total QBR in the nation. The Sooners have been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, leading the Big 12 with 40 total pressures (hurries + knockdowns + sacks).

Who will be next to 500 after Manning?

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19

Getty ImagesAre 500 touchdowns in each of their futures?
Peyton Manning is three touchdown passes from joining Brett Favre (508) as the only players in NFL history with 500 in their careers.

However, the club may not be so exceedingly exclusive for long.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that there were 804 total touchdown passes last season, the most in a season in NFL history.

And that was without the newly implemented "points of emphasis." There have been nearly double (120 to 66) the rate of such penalties (defensive holding, illegal use of hands, illegal contact) through three weeks this season, compared with the same span last season.

So who could be next?

Drew Brees (age 35) -- 366 career passing TDs
Brees appears to be a lock to hit 500, barring any major injuries.

In five seasons since turning 30 (age 30 to 34 seasons), he has thrown 195 touchdowns (39 per season). If Brees averages just 35 per season from here on out, he would be at 500 by the end of 2017, at 38 years old.

The Saints also have his favorite target, Jimmy Graham, signed through 2017.

Tom Brady (37) -- 361 career passing TDs
Brady faces more of an uphill climb. He's currently five touchdowns behind Brees, but he’s two years older and fighting history. The most touchdown passes a quarterback has thrown from his age-37 season on was 116 by Warren Moon, closely followed by Favre (112). Even if Brady matched Moon’s total the rest of his career, he still would be short of 500.

Brady managed 25 touchdown passes in 2013, and he’s not working with the best weapons since Randy Moss and Wes Welker left. Brandon LaFell (13 career receiving touchdowns) was the only receiver New England signed in free agency this offseason, and the receivers they’ve selected in the past two drafts (Jeremy Gallon, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce) have yet to produce substantially.

Aaron Rodgers (30) -- 192 career passing TDs
Since his first career start in Week 1 of 2008, Rodgers has exactly the same number of touchdown passes (191) as Peyton Manning. However, Rodgers is already 30, and his three seasons spent behind Favre could cost him a spot in the 500-club.

Rodgers leads the NFL in passes outside the pocket in the past six seasons. His propensity to scramble and subject himself to more hits (such as the one that caused him to miss seven games with a broken collarbone in 2013) make 500 a reach.

Matthew Stafford (26) -- career passing TDs
If anyone can channel his inner Brett Favre, it’s Stafford. He has more pass attempts than any player in the league in the past four seasons, including an NFL-record 727 attempts in 2012.

Stafford can put up big numbers (41 touchdown passes in 2011), and he had only two passing touchdowns fewer than Peyton Manning through his age-25 season, despite missing 13 games in his first two years.

Stafford also gets to throw to Calvin Johnson, one of the most dominant receivers in league history, along with the luxury of playing half his games indoor.

Russell Wilson (25) -- 56 career passing TDs or Andrew Luck (25) -- 51 career passing TDs
Predicting the future for players with only two seasons in the league is dicey, of course, but consider that Wilson had the same number of touchdown passes as Peyton Manning through two seasons (52) with 308 fewer passing attempts. Luck wasn't far behind, with 46 touchdowns through his first two years.