Stats & Info: AFC North

Flacco's short passes go a long way

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12

AP Photo/Nick WassFlacco's eyes (and passes) stayed close to the line of scrimmage against the Steelers.
For just the third time in 13 meetings since 2008, the margin of victory between the Ravens and Steelers was more than three points. A lot more.

Baltimore’s 26-6 win was due in large part to Joe Flacco’s new-found reliance on the short passing game. Possessing one of the strongest arms in the league, Flacco was content to keep his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage on Thursday night.

The Ravens signalcaller threw 29 passes, completing 21. All but one of those successful connections came on attempts of 10 or fewer yards downfield. Breaking it downs even further, Flacco was especially prolific on throws of no more than five yards from scrimmage, completing 16 of his 21 attempts within five yards of the line.

This was just the seventh time in 99 career regular season games that Flacco threw at least 20 passes of five yards or less. Last week he attempted 20 such throws against the Bengals (completing 11) which marks the first time in his career that he’s gone back-to-back games with 20 such short passes within a season.

Aiding greatly in this dramatic change of game plan is the emergence of Owen Daniels and healthy return of Dennis Pitta.

Against Pittsburgh the pair of tight ends were responsible for eight catches on nine targets with two touchdowns, both of which went to the former Texan who managed just three scores in five games last season with Houston.

No Ravens tight end caught two touchdowns in a game last season, and Daniels was just the fifth tight end over the past 10 seasons to catch multiple touchdowns in a game against the Steelers.

And finally, playing the Steelers brings out the best in Flacco. He completed 72.4% of his passes on Thursday, his best completion percentage in a game since the start of 2013. In 18 games during the last two years, Flacco's three best games in terms of completion percentage have now all come against Pittsburgh.

Numbers to know: Steelers at Ravens

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11

AP Photo/Don WrightThe Ravens and Steelers have split the last 12 meetings, with 11 being decided by 4 points or less.
The Ravens and Steelers kick off Week two of the NFL season tonight from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Here's a few numbers to know going into the game.

Clash of equals
Since Baltimore drafted Joe Flacco in 2008, the Ravens and Steelers have played 12 times in the regular season, with 11 of those games being decided by 4 points or less. The series is split 6-6 during that time, and the Ravens have outscored the Steelers 225-202 in those games.

The Ravens have gotten the better of the Steelers in recent meetings. Baltimore is 4-2 in the last 6 meetings, and turnovers have been the story.

From 2008 to 2010, the Ravens were -3 in turnover differential against the Steelers and 2-4 in the regular-season series. Since then, Baltimore is +13 in the turnover battle and 4-2 against the Steelers.

Flacco fluttering down to earth
Following a victory in Super Bowl XLVII, Joe Flacco signed a new contract that included $51M in guaranteed money. But since that Super Bowl win, only Eli Manning (29) has thrown more interceptions than Flacco (23), and his 6.3 yards per attempt rank 37th out of 38 qualifying QBs.

During that four-game playoff run, Flacco excelled on the deep throw, completing 48 percent of the passes he threw 20+ yards down the field, with four touchdowns and no interceptions on those throws.

In 17 games since then, Flacco has completed just 21 percent of those same passes, with two touchdowns and five interceptions. In his last 3 games, he's 1-for-17 on those long throws.

Ground game is key
The outcome of tonight's game could depend on the ability of the Steelers to run the ball.

Since the start of the 2012 season, the Steelers are 10-2 when they rush for at least 100 yards (they had 127 yards on the ground in their Week 1 win against the Browns). That .833 winning percentage is the third-highest in the NFL over that span, trailing only the Patriots (.920) and Broncos (.875).

When the Steelers can't get the running game going, they're a much different team.

When they fail to gain 100 rushing yards over that same span, the Steelers are 7-14 (.333), but they've actually been able to keep it close, being outscored by just 16 total points in those games.

To get it done, they'll lean on Le'Veon Bell, who is trying to become just the second Steelers running back to rush for 100 yards in back-to-back games in the last six seasons (Jonathan Dwyer).

Since Week 4 of last season, Bell has 1,456 yards from scrimmage, the fifth-highest total in the league over that span.

Dalton’s deal: numbers tell two stories

August, 4, 2014
Aug 4

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton agreed to a six-year, $115 million contract with the Bengals on Monday.
Coming off one of the best seasons by a quarterback in Cincinnati Bengals history, Andy Dalton agreed to a six-year, $115 million contract on Monday.

Dalton threw for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns in the 2013 season, breaking Carson Palmer's team records in both categories and tying Palmer's franchise season mark of 586 attempts. But was he worthy of such a massive contract?

Good move?

Volume-wise, Dalton's first three seasons rank among the best in NFL history. His 11,360 passing yards and his 80 touchdowns in his first three seasons are third most in NFL history behind all-time greats Dan Marino and Peyton Manning.

Dalton's overall numbers aren't far off from Manning's first three years either. With 49 more attempts, Manning had five more touchdown passes and almost 1,000 more yards, but Dalton threw nine fewer interceptions and had a much better win percentage (.625 to .542).

Dalton has improved the Bengals' win total while raising his yardage per attempt and touchdown passes each season thus far. He also became the fifth quarterback since the NFL merger to start a playoff game in his first three seasons. Only Joe Flacco has a longer streak to start a career (five straight from 2008 to 2012).

Bad move?
On the down side, Dalton failed to win any of those three playoff games, tying the longest postseason losing streak to start a career by any quarterback since the merger. His playoff numbers have been horrible too, with one touchdown pass, six interceptions and a Total QBR of 18, compared to his slightly above-average QBR of 52 in the regular season.

Dalton's biggest regular-season issues have come against division foes. He has a record of 8-10 with 24 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and a QBR of 35 against the Steelers, Ravens and Browns; and he's 22-8 with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 56-26 and a QBR of 62 against all other teams.

As Bill Barnwell noted on Grantland this morning, Dalton particularly struggles when facing pressure, with a Total QBR of 11 when under duress in his career. That ranks 33rd among 36 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in that span, ahead of only Sam Bradford, Brandon Weeden and Mark Sanchez.

Playoffs aside, Dalton's QBR, completion percentage and win percentage are similar to Flacco's when he signed a contract with $51 million guaranteed last offseason. Flacco then finished 2013 with a QBR of 47, 25th best in the NFL, as the Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time in his career.

With a new contract in hand, will Dalton follow Flacco's lead, or will he continue to track with the game's all-time greats?

By the numbers: Can Manziel succeed?

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
As rookies report to Browns’ camp on July 23, all eyes will be on the most scrutinized rookie in the NFL, Johnny Manziel. Analysts are split on whether Manziel will be able to make the transition to the NFL given his reckless style of play and reliance on his legs. Below are three numbers that suggest that Manziel could succeed in the NFL and three that suggest that he may struggle.

Three numbers that suggest that Manziel could succeed in the NFL:

1: Johnny Manziel’s QBR rank in 2012

Manziel had the highest Total QBR in the FBS in 2012 and ranked seventh in 2013. Every player who led the country in Total QBR from 2008 to 2011 is a current NFL starter, including three players who led their respective teams to the divisional round of the playoffs last season.

Manziel had a 88.2 Total QBR in his two-year career at Texas A&M. No college player in the last 10 seasons has had a higher career QBR than Manziel among players who started at least two seasons.

73.5: Manziel’s completion percentage from inside of the pocket

Manziel had the highest completion percentage from inside of the pocket of any AQ quarterback in 2013.

Seeing over tall linemen was not an issue. Only three of Manziel’s 347 pass attempts from inside of the pocket were batted down at the line (0.9 percent) in 2013, well below the AQ average of 2.1 percent.

97.5: Manziel’s Total QBR on third down in his career

Manziel’s career 97.5 Total QBR on third down is the best of any qualified quarterback in the last 10 years (the start of Stats & Info’s data set).

Third-down performance in college has been shown to translate to NFL success. Among the 25 quarterbacks who were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft from 2009 to 2013, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford had the top third-down QBRs in college.

Those players were a combined 38-17 last year, and Manziel’s third-down QBR was far ahead of theirs in college.

Three numbers that suggest that he could struggle:

76: Percentage of dropbacks Manziel escaped the pocket when under duress

Manziel left the pocket on 76 percent of the plays in which he was under pressure in his career, by far the highest percentage of any AQ quarterback in the past two seasons and more than twice the rate of the NFL average (33 percent).

As Merril Hoge noted in a pre-draft breakdown, “He has an instinct to run, but that’s a bad instinct if you have that in the National Football League.”

73: Percentage of Manziel’s scrambles on which he was hit

There is no denying that Manziel was in a league of his own when it came to scrambling in college – he scrambled for 1,400 yards and 64 first downs in two seasons at Texas A&M, which was 521 more yards and 15 more first downs than any other AQ quarterback during that time.

Yet Manziel rarely ran out of bounds or slid. Overall, he was hit on 73 percent of his scrambles, slightly above the AQ average and a significantly higher percentage than the NFL average last season (56 percent).

Other than Newton, who is the average weight of a linebacker, all of the top scramblers in the NFL have learned to avoid contact.

55: Average temperature of Cleveland’s games the last 5 seasons

Cleveland’s average game-time temperature in the past five seasons has been 55 degrees. It drops to 49 degrees when looking at the 40 regular-season home games. Only Pittsburgh and Green Bay had a colder average game-time temperature during that time.

Manziel played high school and college football in Texas. In two years at Texas A&M, the average temperature of Manziel’s games at kickoff was 71 degrees, and he did not play a single game in freezing temperatures. His coldest game came against Missouri on Nov. 30, 2013, a game that Texas A&M lost 28-21, when it was 45 degrees. Every other game that he played in college was at least 55 degrees.

NFL free agency: Numerical needs (AFC)

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
ESPN Stats & Information’s video analysis data has revealed needs that may not be apparent through traditional statistics.

Here’s a team-by-team look at areas of need for each AFC team heading into free agency.

AFC East
Buffalo Bills: offensive line, linebacker/safety
Bills quarterbacks were sacked a league-high 33 times when facing four or fewer pass rushers last season. When opposing four-man rushes pressured Buffalo quarterbacks, the Bills’ 23.8 completion percentage was worst in the league.

On the other side of the ball, the Bills’ rush defense allowed 1.8 yards after contact per rush last season, fourth worst in the league. The Bills allowed 36 rushes with at least 5 yards after contact. Only the Browns (37) had more.

Miami Dolphins: offensive line, wide receiver/tight end
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-leading 58 times last season, the most of any quarterback since Jon Kitna in 2006.

The Dolphins also rushed for 37 first downs inside the tackles, 12 fewer than any other team.

Tannehill threw four touchdowns and 13 interceptions on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield last season. Tannehill’s minus-nine TD-Int differential on those throws was the worst in the league.

New York Jets: wide receiver, quarterback, pass rush
There have been 116 different 1,000-yard seasons posted by receivers in the past seven seasons. None has been by a Jet. Free agent Jeremy Kerley gained 523 yards last season to lead the Jets, the lowest total of any team leader.

The Jets (59.0 percent) were the only team whose quarterbacks completed fewer than 60 percent of throws 10 yards or fewer downfield. Geno Smith completed 58.9 percent of short throws, worst of any quarterback who appeared in at least nine games.

On defense, the Jets recorded sacks on 4.6 percent of third-down dropbacks, the only team in the league at least than 6.5 percent. One of their best pass-rush specialists, Calvin Pace, (10 sacks last season) is a free agent.

New England Patriots: defensive line/linebacker, cornerback, wide receiver
After losing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo by Week 7, the lack of depth in the Patriots’ front seven was exposed. Undrafted defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano hadn’t played a snap before 2013 but each played more than 600 snaps last season.

Over the last 11 weeks of the season, the Patriots ranked 27th in yards allowed per rush and 29th in yards allowed per game.

In the secondary, Aqib Talib is an unrestricted free agent. Talib tied for a team-high 14.0 disrupted dropbacks (sacks, interceptions or pass breakups) last season. Since Talib’s first game in New England (Week 11 of 2012), no Patriot has more interceptions than his five.

Talib (819 snaps) and Steve Gregory (813) ranked second and third respectively in defensive snaps played among New England’s secondary. Gregory was cut in February.

On offense, Julian Edelman is an unrestricted free agent after posting 105 catches last season (fourth in NFL). Edelman’s 70.5 catch percentage was best in the league among 60 wide receivers with at least 75 targets.

AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals: linebacker, defensive end, offensive line
Bengals defenders had 26 tackles for loss on rushing plays last season, eight fewer than any other team. Sixteen teams had at least twice as many tackles for loss on rushing plays as the Bengals did.

A pair of impact Bengals are free agents, one on each side of the line. Defensive end Michael Johnson had 25 disrupted dropbacks (sacks, interceptions or pass breakups) over the past two seasons, 12th among defensive linemen.

Offensive lineman Anthony Collins played in 15 games last season, with quarterback Andy Dalton’s sack percentage jumping from 3 percent with Collins on the field to 7 percent with Collins off.

Cleveland Browns: wide receiver, running back, defensive back, defensive line
Browns wide receivers had 24 drops last season (6.6 percent of targets), the most of any team in the league. Josh Gordon was excellent, but he didn’t get much help, as the chart on the right shows.

Seven different Browns players led the team in rushing in a game last season. Among that group were Gordon and fellow receiver Travis Benjamin and defensive back Josh Aubrey.

On defense, the Browns forced eight fumbles last season, the only team with less than 10. Cleveland’s secondary and defensive line forced three combined fumbles, half as many any other team.

D’Qwell Jackson (1,105 snaps) and T.J. Ward (1,073) ranked first and second in defensive snaps played last season. From 2010-13, Jackson and Ward posted at least 100 tackles five times (including both last season), something no other Brown did over that span.

Baltimore Ravens: running back, wide receiver
The Ravens averaged 3.1 yards per rush last season, worst in franchise history. Baltimore was one of two teams (Jacksonville) to average fewer than 2.0 yards per rush before contact last season.

Baltimore wide receivers caught 55 percent of targets last season, 27th in the league. Baltimore was one of five teams without a wide receiver recording more than 40 catches on throws 10 yards or fewer downfield.

Pittsburgh Steelers: defensive line/linebacker, offensive line, wide receiver
The Steelers' defense allowed 6.5 yards per rush outside the tackles last season, the second highest average in the league and more than double what it allowed in 2012. Pittsburgh was the fifth team in the past five seasons to allow at least 5.0 yards before contact per rush outside the tackles.

On offense, The Steelers averaged 3.5 yards per rush last season, fourth lowest in the league. Pittsburgh is the only team to have ranked in the bottom four in yards before contact per rush in both 2012 (1.7, last) and 2013 (2.0, 29th).

The Steelers have five wide receivers under contract for next season. Antonio Brown set career highs with 110 catches for 1,499 yards and nine touchdowns.

The other four combined for eight catches for 84 yards last season. Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are both free agents.

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts: wide receiver, defensive line, defensive back
Colts receivers dropped 8 percent of third-down targets last season, the highest drop percentage in the league. Reggie Wayne’s return should help, but even Wayne dropped three of his 18 targets on third downs before being placed on injured reserve.

On defense, Robert Mathis was outstanding for the Colts last season but didn’t have much help. Mathis recorded 13.5 sacks when the Colts sent four or fewer rushers, more than the rest of the Colts combined (9.5).

Mathis forced six fumbles when Indianapolis sent standard pressure, He was the only Colt to force one in those situations.

Two of the three Colts defenders who played at least 900 snaps (Antoine Bethea and Vontae Davis) are free agents, as well as Cassius Vaughn (393 snaps).

Jacksonville Jaguars: quarterback, defensive line, offensive line
Jaguars quarterbacks posted a league-worst 23.8 Total QBR last season, the second time in the past three seasons Jacksonville has had the league’s worst QBR. The Jaguars have a 24.7 Total QBR since drafting Blaine Gabbert (2011), the only team below 30 during that span.

The Jaguars averaged 1.7 yards before contact per rush last season, worst in the league and one of only two teams below 2.0.

On defense, Jacksonville’s 20 sacks when sending four or fewer pass rushers was tied for 10th-fewest in the league last season, despite using standard pressure more often than any other team (82 percent of opponents’ dropbacks).

Houston Texans: quarterback, cornerback, inside linebacker
Texans quarterbacks handled the blitz worse than any team in the league last season. Houston’s Total QBR against at least five pass rushers was 20.9, worst in the NFL.

On defense, the Texans intercepted seven passes last season, fewest in the NFL and less than half of their total in both of Wade Philips’ previous two seasons as defensive coordinator. Houston intercepted three passes intended for wide receivers, less than half of any other team’s total.

Darryl Sharpton and Joe Mays (both free agents) were the only two Texans’ inside linebackers to record at least 500 snaps last season. Brian Cushing (315 snaps) missed nine games with a left leg injury.

Tennessee Titans: cornerback, defensive line
The Titans' defense allowed six receiving touchdowns by wide receivers last season, with only the Dolphins allowing fewer (five). But top cornerback Alterraun Verner is a free agent.

The Titans' rush defense allowed 4.0 yards per rush inside the tackles last season, 11th in the league.

However, Tennessee allowed 1.7 yards after contact on those rushes, 23rd in the league. The Titans allowed the fourth-fewest yards before contact per rush last year, but defensive lineman Antonio Johnson (363 snaps) is an unrestricted free agent.

AFC West
Denver Broncos: defense, running back
Forty-four percent of Denver’s defensive snaps last season were logged by players who are restricted or unrestricted free agents, including five of seven Broncos with at least 650 defensive snaps.

Three of the four secondary snaps leaders are free agents. Shaun Phillips (team-high 10 sacks) and Wesley Woodyard (second on team with 83 tackles) are also unrestricted free agents.

On offense, Broncos free-agent running back Knowshon Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards last season, 12th in the league. Moreno played 671 snaps -- more than fellow running backs Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined.

Kansas City Chiefs: defensive back, wide receiver
The Chiefs allowed 6.4 yards after the catch per reception last season, worst in the league. The Chiefs also share a division with the Broncos (first in yards after the catch) and Chargers (fifth). Defensive snap leader Kendrick Lewis is a free agent.

On offense, Chiefs wide receivers ranked among the league’s least-productive units last season, ranking last in receptions, receiving yards and first downs.

San Diego Chargers: cornerback, defensive line, outside linebacker
The Chargers' defense allowed 9.1 yards per attempt to wide receivers last season, highest in the league. Richard Marshall was one of two cornerbacks to play at least 600 snaps for the Chargers last season and is a free agent.

The Chargers put opposing quarterbacks under pressure on 19 percent of dropbacks with a four-man pass rush last season, the second lowest rate in the league. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 7.9 yards per attempt against San Diego’s standard pass rush, fifth worst in the league.

Oakland Raiders: defensive line, cornerback, offensive line
The Raiders had a league-low 12 sacks with four or fewer pass rushers last season, 21 behind the league-leading Panthers. Fifteen teams had at least twice as many sacks with a standard pass rush as Oakland did.

The Raiders also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete a league-worst 69.1 percent of passes targeting wide receivers last season.

On offense, Raiders quarterbacks were under duress on 32 percent of dropbacks last season, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Tackles Jared Veldheer and Tony Pashos are free agents. Veldheer is the team leader in snaps played over the past four seasons (3,184), but missed the first 11 games of 2013 with a triceps injury.

Manning makes most of limited yards

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning had modest traditional stats Sunday but broke the 90 barrier in Total QBR.
Peyton Manning passed for 230 yards Sunday in the Denver Broncos’ 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the NFL Divisional Playoffs. Manning’s passing yards were his second-fewest of the season. But Manning piled up those yards when it counted the most, leading to a milestone Total QBR for the Broncos quarterback.

Manning’s final statistics (25 of 36 passing, two touchdowns, one interception) might not seem like the high-flying numbers fans got used to during his record-breaking regular season, but the circumstances surrounding his big plays helped him post a career playoff-best 91.1 Total QBR.

In the first quarter, Manning completed 7 of 9 passes for 71 yards and one touchdown, helping the Broncos build their 7-0 lead; his Total QBR was 98.9. By halftime, Manning had thrown for 100 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, completing 11 of 16 throws and leading the Broncos to a 17-0 lead; his Total QBR was 90.4.

The Broncos held a double-digit lead until there was 3:53 left in the fourth quarter, making Manning’s second-half performance less relevant than the plays he made in the first half. His Total QBR did not drop below 85 after his first completion, with 8:41 left in the first quarter.

Manning has the most games (including the postseason) of 90+ QBR since 2006 – and it’s not close. Sunday’s game was his first in the postseason with a QBR that high in the eight seasons for which ESPN has QBR data.

Panthers go nowhere inside the 10
The Carolina Panthers’ offense was locked down inside the San Francisco 49ers’ 10-yard line in the 49ers' 23-10 victory. The Panthers’ offense contributed -9.5 expected points, the Panthers’ worst showing in that part of the field in the eight seasons of ESPN’s data set.

The Panthers rushed the ball four times from the 49ers’ 1-yard line, getting stopped all four times for a combined loss of one yard, including one failed fourth-down attempt in the first quarter. In all, the Panthers ran eight offensive plays inside the 10-yard line and came away with three points.

Expected points reflect strength of Patriots’ rushing game
As if six touchdowns weren’t impressive enough, the New England Patriots on Saturday had the second-greatest expected points of any team’s rushing game in a playoff game since 2006. LeGarrette Blount (four touchdowns) and Stevan Ridley (two) powered the Patriots’ offense against the Indianapolis Colts, combining for 38 rushes and 218 yards. The Patriots’ rushing game added 12.2 expected points, the team’s best rushing EPA in a playoff game since 2006 (their previous best was 4.2).

Brady posts high QBR despite no TD
The Patriots’ win over the Colts on Saturday marked the fourth time in 25 postseason games that Tom Brady did not throw a touchdown pass. Brady posted a 75.1 Total QBR, the greatest mark for any quarterback without a touchdown pass in a playoff game. He completed six of his nine third-down pass attempts, all completions for first downs, including five on touchdown drives.

Compared with Brady’s 66.7 percent conversion rate, the Colts’ Andrew Luck (7 of 14 third-down passing) posted a 42.9 percent conversion rate. The regular-season league average was 39 percent.

Wilson's low QBR doesn't stop Seahawks
Russell Wilson had a 25.9 Total QBR on Saturday against the New Orleans Saints, the second-worst rating in a playoff victory in the last five seasons. Wilson completed nine of 18 passes for a career-low 103 yards. He was sacked three times and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. Wilson also owns the third-worst Total QBR in a playoff victory, posting a 36.0 QBR in a win against the Washington Redskins last year.

The Seahawks’ special teams added 7.6 expected points to their net scoring margin, their highest total in a playoff game since 2006, helping them overcome Wilson’s low QBR. Steven Hauschka hit three field goals, including a 49-yard kick. The Seahawks had an average starting field position of their own 33-yard line and held the Saints to a starting field position of their 25-yard line.

Keys to victory: Chargers 27, Bengals 10

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
What were the keys to victory for the San Diego Chargers in their 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, their first playoff win since the 2008 wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts?

Dalton had a rough day
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked three times.

Dalton is now 0-3 with one touchdown and six interceptions in three career playoff starts.

Dalton was 2-for-his-first-9 with an interception when the Chargers sent at least five pass-rushers at him, (he finished 4-for-11).

The Chargers also thwarted Dalton’s attempts to find his favorite target, A.J. Green. He completed 3 of 9 attempts to Green for only 34 yards. That was his worst completion percentage targeting Green this season.

Dalton completed more passes to the Chargers' defense (two) than Green (one) in the second half.

The Bengals finished with four turnovers, matching their most ever in a playoff game. That was also the most by a Chargers opponent all season. The Chargers' defense had only 17 takeaways during the regular season, third-fewest in the NFL.

Key drive: Chargers' go-ahead score in third quarter
Philip Rivers was 5-for-6 in the first half, matching the fewest attempts in the first half of any game in his career. But he came out throwing in the third quarter.

Rivers was 6-for-6 for 68 yards with a touchdown pass on the Chargers' first possession of the third quarter. Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Eddie Royal all had their first receptions of the game on that drive.

That was the Chargers' second touchdown drive of the game, and both took at least 10 plays. The Chargers had an NFL-high 39 drives of 10 or more plays in the regular season.

Rivers, who led the NFL in completion percentage during the regular season, finished 12-for-16. This was the first time in eight playoff games that Rivers did not throw an interception.

Chargers run the ball
San Diego gained a season-high 196 yards on the ground, which was also the most by any team in a game against the Bengals this season. The Chargers rushed on 68 percent of their plays, their highest rush percentage since Week 15 of the 2007 season (69 percent against the Lions).

The Chargers gained 50 rush yards after contact Sunday. They were held to a season-low 22 rush yards after contact in Week 13 against the Bengals.

Ronnie Brown's 58-yard touchdown run put the game away. It is tied for the second-longest touchdown run in Chargers playoff history. Keith Lincoln had a 67-yard touchdown run and Paul Lowe had a 58-yard touchdown run in a 51-10 win over the Boston Patriots in the 1963 AFL Championship.

Looking ahead
The Chargers will face a Broncos team they've already beaten once this season. They are 2-0 in playoff games in which Peyton Manning has been the opposing quarterback.

Matchup to watch: Rivers vs. Bengals D

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers head on the road to face the Cincinnati Bengals in a rematch of their Week 13 game in San Diego.

Let’s take a look at the key matchup for this Sunday’s AFC Wild Card game.

Rivers and Peyton Manning are the only quarterbacks who rank among the top five in completion percentage, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt and Total QBR this season. Rivers is completing an NFL-best 69.5 percent of his passes, the best completion percentage in his 10-year career.

Rivers will face a Bengals defense that has had success against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a Total QBR of 39.0 against the Bengals this season, third-lowest in the NFL.

Something has to give, as Rivers comes into the game with a Total QBR of 71.7, third-best in the NFL.

The value of home field
Something that cannot be overlooked is that the game is in Cincinnati, where the Bengals went 8-0 during the regular season.

A big reason for that undefeated record is their pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks posted a Total QBR of 18.8 against the Bengals in Cincinnati, lowest in the NFL this season.

In the last two weeks (both at home), the Bengals defense had six interceptions.

Who gets the better of it on 3rd down
This matchup could come down to third down, an area where both Rivers and the Bengals defense have thrived this season.

Rivers’ play on third down has been a driving factor in the Chargers four straight wins since losing to the Bengals in Week 13. He has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions on third down during the winning streak, the most such passing touchdowns since the start of Week 14. For the season, Rivers had the best completion percentage (65 percent) and the third best Total QBR (81.3) on third down.

The Bengals held opposing quarterbacks to a Total QBR of 14.4 on third down this season, lowest in the NFL. They are the only team to pick off Rivers on third down in the Chargers last 11 games. On third down passing attempts against the Bengals, opponents converted 34 percent, fifth-lowest in the NFL. The Chargers on the other hand, converted on third down an NFL-best 49 percent of the time when Rivers attempted a pass.

Completion percentage of high importance
If there is one statistic to keep an eye on, it’s Rivers’ overall completion percentage. When he completes at least two-thirds of his passes, the Chargers are 7-2. In the seven games Rivers completed less than two-thirds of his pass attempts, the Chargers went 2-5, including the Week 13 loss to the Bengals.

Matchups to watch: Patriots at Ravens

December, 20, 2013
Doug Kapustin/MCT/Getty ImagesThe Ravens beat the Patriots in last season's AFC Championship.
Six teams have played the New England Patriots at least five times in the past six years (including the playoffs). Among those six (New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts), only Baltimore (3-3) has a .500 record against the Patriots.

Considering New England’s 70-25 record against the rest of the league over that span, .500 is a success. The Ravens have taken two of the three postseason meetings between the teams, including last season’s AFC Championship.

Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s Week 16 matchup:

As the QB goes...
Simply put, the Ravens have received better quarterback play in recent meetings against the Patriots.

Baltimore has picked off nine of Tom Brady's passes since 2008, tied with the Dolphins for most by any team. Miami has also played twice as many games (12) and allowed 14 more touchdowns vs. the Patriots than Baltimore.

The Ravens are a different defense from the unit that led the league in defensive expected points added from 2008-12 (+434). Baltimore’s +29.8 defensive EPA ranks eighth in the league, not as dominant as year’s past.

Patriots pass rush vs. Ravens offensive line
The Patriots are reliant on a four-man pass rush (they rush four men 75 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL), but their defensive line has struggled this season.

New England has controlled the line of scrimmage on 43 percent of pass plays this season, last in the league (for an explainer on how that is calculated, click here. Even before Vince Wilfork’s Week 4 injury ended his season, the Patriots defensive line only controlled 44 percent of pass plays. That’s well below league average (50 percent), a number New England has not met in its last nine games.

The player whose presence is missed the most isn’t Wilfork, but Tommy Kelly. When New England had Kelly on the field, it controlled the line on slightly more than half of opposing dropbacks. Without Kelly, the number drops to only 41 percent.

Every team wants to pressure the quarterback, but for New England it’s especially important. The Patriots defense has the third-best Total QBR allowed when quarterbacks are under pressure, but the fourth-worst when quarterbacks aren’t pressured. The 26-spot difference in rank is the biggest in the league.

Ravens CB vs. Patriots WR
Baltimore’s secondary has defended or intercepted 50 passes this season, tied for fourth most in the league, with Lardarius Webb’s 18 the second most among players. Only the Ravens and Browns have three defensive backs with at least 10 pass breakups or interceptions.

Baltimore is a top-10 defense in completion percentage and Total QBR allowed against at least three wide receivers, and has excelled defending slot receivers.

Brady’s weapons last week were all slot receivers. Of Brady’s 55 passes against Miami, 43 went to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Josh Boyce or Austin Collie.

Ray Rice vs. Patriots LB
Ray Rice has topped 125 yards from scrimmage in four of his six games against New England, but New England held him to 70 yards from scrimmage and 3.0 yards per opportunity (targets and rushes) in last year’s AFC Championship. Both were the lowest of his six games against the Patriots.

Rice’s recent form has been dismal. His 3.1 yards per rush ranks 46th among qualified rushers, while no qualified running back has averaged fewer yards after contact per rush than Rice (1.1). He’s averaged 4.2 yards per target, 44th in the league among 50 backs with at least 20 targets.

Is facing New England what Rice needs to get back on track? The Patriots defense has allowed 150.4 yards from scrimmage per game by running backs, seventh most in the league. With no Jerod Mayo, look for Dont’a Hightower on early downs and possibly Dane Fletcher in sub packages to be tasked with slowing Rice.

Keys to victory: Justin Tucker 18, Lions 16

December, 17, 2013
What were the keys to the Baltimore Ravens' 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions on "Monday Night Football"?

Tucker’s perfection
Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was 6-for-6, including the 61-yard, game-winning field goal.

Here’s the best of our notes from his amazing game, with help throughout from the Elias Sports Bureau:

• Tucker has now made 33 straight field goal tries. That’s the longest current streak in the NFL.

• Tucker had at least one make from 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something and 60-something yards in this game. Tucker is the first player in history to kick field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in the same game.

• The game-winner set a team record both for record length and for the number of field goals made by a Ravens kicker in a game. Tucker already had a game in which he made five field goals this season. He’s the only kicker in the NFL with multiple games with at least five made in 2013.

• Tucker’s field goal was the second-longest in "Monday Night Football" history. Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski made a 63-yarder in 2011, which at the time tied the NFL record for longest field goal.

• This wasn’t the first time that the Lions lost a game on a late field goal of great distance. New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey beat them with a 63-yarder with no time remaining on Nov. 8, 1970. That kick still stands as the longest go-ahead field goal in the final minute of a game in NFL history.

• Tucker has six field goals of at least 50 yards this season, tied for the most in the NFL with Graham Gano and Dan Bailey.

• Lastly, Tucker mentioned that he hoped fantasy football owners appreciated the benefit of owning him on their teams. That was said for good reason. Tucker’s 150 fantasy points (in standard scoring) are now the most in the NFL for a kicker this season.

A multitude of mishaps
The Lions had a late lead, but missed out on many opportunities earlier in the game that could have given them a comfortable advantage.

The Lions have committed at least three turnovers in five straight games. The only team with a longer streak this season is the Giants (Week 1 -6)

The Lions had three dropped passes. Calvin Johnson had two of them, giving him a career-high nine for the season.

The Lions committed five defensive penalties. They’ve now committed 48 this season, tied for the most in the NFL.

The Lions gave up a 27-yard pass on a third-and-15 on the Ravens' final drive. Over the past 13 seasons, NFL teams have converted on only 10 percent of third-and-15 or longer situations.

But this would be a day in which longshots would pay off. Fans of Tucker know that.

Matchups to watch: Ravens at Lions

December, 16, 2013
The winner of tonight’s game can solidify their grasp on a playoff spot, and the loser could potentially be on the outside looking in. Here are the key matchups to watch entering the Week 15 edition of Monday Night Football between the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions.

Matthew Stafford vs Joe Flacco in red zone
Joe Flacco completed 4-of-5 red zone passes last week for three touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown pass with the perfect touch to Marlon Brown. Getting Dennis Pitta back gives Flacco another red zone weapon.

Pitta caught a touchdown on fourth-and-goal last week, and has caught 75.0 percent of his red zone targets dating back to last season, including the playoffs. Overall, Flacco ranks in the top 10 in touchdown passes (16) and Total QBR (78.8) inside the 20 yard line this year.

On the other side, Matthew Stafford is tied for second in the NFL with 19 red zone touchdowns and tied for the fifth-best Total QBR (88.9). Stafford has thrown 16 of those 19 touchdowns to the collection of Kris Durham (6’6”), Joseph Fauria (6’7”), Brandon Pettigrew (6’5”) and Calvin Johnson (6’5”).

Both quarterbacks will be challenged by stingy red zone defenses. The Ravens defense has allowed 13 red zone touchdowns in 33 drives this season (39.4 percent), tied for the best efficiency in the NFL with the Panthers. The Lions are tied for third in red zone efficiency.

Calvin Johnson vs Ravens secondary
Calvin Johnson has seven red zone touchdowns this season (tied for fifth in the NFL), but he will be the Ravens biggest concern all over the field.

Megatron ranks second in the NFL with 1,348 receiving yards this season, and 1,100 of those yards (roughly 82 percent) have come inside the painted field numbers.

The league average for percentage of receiving yardage inside the field numbers is roughly 60. Besides Johnson, no receiver has more than 737 yards inside the numbers.

A defense that has moved on this season without future hall-of-famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed roaming the middle will have a tall order stopping Johnson. He leads the NFL in yards after contact on receptions (208 yards) and we have seen him make highlight reel catches on jump balls in the middle of several defenders against the Bengals and Cowboys this season.

Which team makes fewer mistakes?
Joe Flacco is tied for fourth in the NFL with 19 turnovers this season, including 17 interceptions, 11 of which have come on the road. The Ravens haven’t been able make up for those, they rank 25th in the NFL with a -5 turnover margin, including -6 on the road (Ravens 1-5 on road this season).

The Lions have beat themselves during the last 4 games by committing 15 turnovers, most in the NFL (13 turnovers in first 9 games). Eight of the 15 turnovers have come within their opponent’s 30 yard-line, costing the team 26.4 expected points. Matthew Stafford leads the team and NFL with nine turnovers during that span (Lions 1-3 in last four games)

Ravens, Vikings put on historic finish

December, 9, 2013
The Ravens and Vikings combined to score 5 touchdowns in the final 2 minutes, 1 second of their game. All 5 touchdowns caused the lead to change hands. The score went from a defensive-looking 12-7 to 29-26 in a blink.

Here is a win probability breakdown after each touchdown in the final 2:05:

𔅖:01: 1-yd Pass TD Flacco-Pitta - 26.9% win probability change, to Ravens 74.3%
𔅕:27: 41-yd Rush TD Gerhart - 40.8% win probability change, to Vikings 88.8%
𔅕:16: 77-yd KO ret TD Jones - 69.1% win probability change, to Ravens 84.0%
𔅔:45: 79-yd Pass TD Cassel-Patterson - 75.4% win probability change, to Vikings 96.4%
𔅔:04: 9-yd Pass TD Flacco-Brown - 59.4% win probability change, to Ravens 98.4%

According to Elias, the five touchdowns in 2:01 were the fastest that five touchdowns have been scored in the last 50 seasons -- by more than 3 minutes.

Patriots Defying Probability
In the past 3 weeks, the Patriots have rallied after facing deficits of 24 points (against the Broncos), 10 points (Texans) and 16 points (Browns). In all 3 games, the Patriots’ win probability reached below 15%.

The small likelihood of victory seems to have inspired Tom Brady. In the second halves and overtime of those games, Brady has completed 75% of his passes (67-of-89) for 6 touchdowns and no interceptions.

After Jason Campbell's touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron gave the Browns a 26-14 lead with 2:39 left, the Patriots’ win probability dropped to 2.0%. After Brady's touchdown pass to Julian Edelman, it was only 2.5%, but it really swung after the onside kick recovery, increasing the Patriots’ likelihood of winning by 21%.

According to Elias, the Patriots are the first team to win 3 consecutive games (all in one season) in which it trailed by double digits in the second half since the 1993 Eagles (weeks 2-5), who had Randall Cunningham at QB.

Pats Offense Below Average Before Gronk
Based on expected points added -- which takes into account everything an offense does to move the ball and score points -- the Patriots’ offense contributed -1.9 expected points per game to the team’s net scoring margin in 6 games without Rob Gronkowski (19th in the NFL). In 7 games since Gronkowski’s return, the Patriots’ offensive EPA is +8.7 per game, 4th in the NFL.

In the past seven games, the Patriots’ red zone touchdown percentage improved to 68.8% from 40.9% in the first six games. And Brady's Total QBR is 68.1 in the past seven games, compared with 52.7 without Gronkowski (50 is average).

RG III, Redskins in Tailspin
Robert Griffin's 6.7 Total QBR against the Chiefs was the worst of his career. His Total QBR this season is 40.1, down from 73.2 last season (fifth in NFL). That is a decrease of 33.1 points, the worst differential of any qualified QB in the NFL this season.

The Redskins allowed two special teams touchdowns to the Chiefs and have allowed an NFL-high five special teams touchdowns this season (one kickoff return, three punt returns and one blocked punt return). They are allowing the most yards per punt return this season (18.0), all reasons they have the worst special teams EPA in the NFL.

Their special teams expected points is -47.0, nearly a point a game worse than the Falcons’ -35.1.

On the flip side, the Chiefs have an NFL-high five special teams touchdowns this season, and they lead the NFL with 41.3 expected points added on special teams (next closest team: Patriots – 31.7).

Under the radar NFL stars: WR, TE, defense

November, 29, 2013
These under the radar stars have played as well as anyone at their respective positions this season. Let's take a closer look at how these emerging stars have found success.

Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' fourth-year wide receiver entered Week 13 with the NFL lead in receptions while trailing only Calvin Johnson in receiving yards. Brown's 51 receiving first downs accounted for 35 percent of the Steelers' team total in that category, the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL.
Antonio Brown

Brown added five receptions and 59 yards to his impressive 2013 season totals on Thanksgiving. That makes 12 straight games with at least five receptions and fifty receiving yards for Brown. The last player with a streak that long in a single season was Laveranues Coles in 2002 (13 games).

Tight end: Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Julius Thomas has 10 receiving touchdowns in 10 games, tying Shannon Sharpe's franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a season by a tight end. The all-time record for touchdowns by a tight end was set in 2011 by Rob Gronkowski with 17. Two are tied for second with 13.
Julius Thomas

Thomas' impact on the Broncos' offense is not limited to his work down near the goal line. Peyton Manning is having an historic season but isn't the same without his star tight end on the field.

Manning has a Total QBR of just 32 in the 90 action plays that Thomas hasn't been on the field this season.

For the sake of comparison, Manning has a Total QBR of 93 in 71 action plays without his favorite slot receiver, Wes Welker.

Defense: Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have drafted defense with their last two first round picks and the strategy appears to have paid off. After allowing more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in 2011, the Panthers are on pace to allow around 1,300 yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2013.
Star Lotulelei

Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has played a huge role in that turnaround. The Panthers are allowing 3.4 yards per rush and 1.6 yards before contact with Lotulelei on the field. Carolina’s defense has allowed 4.6 yards per rush and 3.0 yards before contact per rush with Lotulelei off the field.

Manning, Broncos undress Chiefs' defense

November, 18, 2013
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyDespite an ankle injury, Peyton Manning completed 24 of 40 passes and wasn’t sacked.
Compared with its average entering the game, the Chiefs’ defense was 16 points worse against the Broncos than it had been in the first 10 weeks of the season. The defense’s average contribution to the Chiefs’ net scoring margin had been 11.0 points, but against Peyton Manning and the Broncos it was -5.0 points. Defensive EPA measures the contributions of a defense to its team’s net scoring margin by controlling field position, forcing turnovers and keeping the opponent from scoring.

The Chiefs had 0 sacks for the second straight game, and they have not recorded a sack in their opponents’ last 90 dropbacks.

Manning's standard of excellence
Manning had a 66.5 Total QBR against the Chiefs, his 16th straight game with a Total QBR above 50.0. The next longest active streak in the NFL is Matthew Stafford with 5.

The Broncos are 15-1 during that span, and Manning has led the NFL in, among other categories, three significant quarterback measures.

Wilson has another outstanding game
Russell Wilson had a 98.5 Total QBR against the Vikings, his highest Total QBR in a game this season, and his second-straight game over 90.0. He has eight games in his career with a Total QBR above 90.0. Only Peyton Manning has more in the last 2 seasons.

Eagles put it away early, again
The Eagles jumped to a big halftime lead against Washington for the second time this season, averaging 9.3 yards per play, more efficient than their 53-play first half in the season opener. In both games, the Eagles’ halftime win probability was over 95 percent, and they held off a late comeback attempt. Both wins were decided by 8 points or fewer, but the Eagles’ second-half win probability never dropped below 87.8 percent in either game.

Foles, RG-3 go their separate ways
Nick Foles posted a 71.1 Total QBR, compared with Robert Griffin III’s 35.6 Total QBR Sunday. Foles’ Total QBR has climbed 35.2 points this season to 78.2, the largest improvement in the league. Griffin’s has gone down 28 points, the third-largest decline of any quarterback this season.

Bengals' defense and special teams headline comeback
The Bengals scored a franchise-record 31 points in the second quarter of their 41-20 win over the Browns. The specials teams and defense combined to add 41.4 expected points to the Bengals’ net margin, the second-greatest combination of any team’s defense and special teams units in the last eight seasons. The offense contributed -21.2 expected points, the Bengals’ worst in a win in the last eight seasons.

The Bengals have two of the four highest defensive EPA games of any NFL team this season. In addition to the 24.1 points Sunday, they had 22.6 expected points added in Week 8 against the Jets.

Hard times for Kaepernick
The 49ers lost their second consecutive game against a team with a winning record, dropping them to 2-4 this year against teams currently at or above .500. Colin Kaepernick has a 38.8 Total QBR in such games, compared with a 96.9 Total QBR against below .500 teams, the best in the NFL.

Dalton continues roller coaster
Andy Dalton posted a 3.7 Total QBR Sunday, the lowest Total QBR of his career, and the lowest by any quarterback in a win since Jake Delhomme (2.2) in 2008 in Carolina's win over the Raiders (min. 30 action plays). Dalton’s play has taken a nose dive in his last three games, after a three-game stretch capped by the highest Total QBR game in his career against the Jets in Week 8 (98.9).

Jason Campbell finished with a 7.3 Total QBR. Dalton and Campbell combined for the lowest Total QBR (11.0) by any quarterbacks facing each other in a game this season.

Kansas City: Where defense takes priority

November, 1, 2013

David Eulitt/Getty ImagesKansas City has gotten off to an 8-0 start thanks in large part to a strong defense.
The Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL's only unbeaten team at 8-0, having already quadrupled their win total from last season.

On the heels of a 2-14 record last year, the Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to start 8-0 the season after having the league’s worst record.

With a win Sunday in Buffalo, Kansas City would match the best start in franchise history, accomplished in 2003.

Defensive Domination
In contrast to the high-flying offense of that 2003 squad, this year’s Kansas City team is built on defense.

The Chiefs are allowing 12.3 points per game, fewest in the NFL, and they’re the first team in 36 years that did not allow more than 17 points in any of its first eight games.

Since 1950, only the 1977 Atlanta Falcons have a longer such streak to start a season.

Kansas City’s dominance begins with a pass rush that leads the NFL with 36 sacks, nine more than any other team. The Chiefs sack rate is also tops in the league at 12.6 percent.

Kansas City also leads the league by allowing third downs to be converted at only a 25 percent clip.

Kansas City’s sack success is not simply a product of a superior pass rush. The Chiefs are allowing the third-most time in the pocket this season at 2.83 seconds.

But the secondary has covered well enough to allow only 5.76 net yards per attempt, third-best in the NFL.

Those numbers are a big reason why the defense has allowed an NFL-low 25.2 Total QBR to opposing quarterbacks.

Something In The Kansas City Fountains?
The Chiefs defensive dominance continues a year-long trend in Kansas City sports.

For the first time in a decade, the Kansas City Royals were in the playoff hunt until the final week this season.

They finished 86-76, their best record since 1989, largely because they allowed only 3.7 runs per game, the fewest in the American League and the team's fewest in a full season since 1972.

The Royals won a team-record three Gold Gloves and led the majors in a sabermetric stat, Defensive Runs Saved (which you can learn more about by clicking here), rating among the best in baseball a year after finishing 13th in that stat.

And in MLS, Sporting Kansas City finished the regular season last weekend with the league's second-best record on the strength of a shutdown defense.

Sporting KC allowed an MLS-low 0.88 goals per game in 2013 (30 goals in 34 games), posting the league's stingiest defense for the second straight year.

False Start?
One caveat to the Chiefs undefeated start is that they’ve played the league’s easiest schedule through eight weeks, with a combined opponents’ win percentage of .328 (20-41).

Over the remainder of the season, only two teams will play a tougher schedule than the Chiefs, whose remaining opponents have a win percentage of .593 (35-24).